ALA Live Webinars: Mindfulness for Librarians

Panel: Dr. Richard Moniz, Martin House, and Kenley Newfeld

This post provides describes the panel discussion held in the latest ALA Live Webinar entitled “Mindfulness for Librarians”. The latest issue of American Libraries contains an article on this subject. I have tried to capture as much of the panelists’ discussion as possible, but the full recording will be available through ALA to members.

What is mindfulness?

Kenley: It really is just being aware of each present moment regardless of what you’re doing, whether it’s commuting to work, drinking coffee, or meeting with students. Being present in the moment without judgment. Be present for the activity in the moment.

Richard: Being aware and focused. Yes, you could be reflective of the past. A lot of times we are sort of worried about the future and think about how we could have done things differently. Being focused in the moment is a way of getting away from this anxiety-inducing type of thinking and not beating yourself up over what you could have done differently.

Martin: The mindfulness and meditation helps me in those moments when I’m at my wit’s end. It is a way to stop and think about what I’m doing. As managers we often don’t have time to think about where we are and what we’re doing. This offers the opportunity to do that when we need to. You aren’t going to be mindful every moment of every day, you’re not going to be mindful every day, but you can take the moment to slow down. Being a mindfulness person won’t make you a Zen master, but can help.

What are the practical benefits of mindfulness?

Martin: Mindfulness gives me permission to take a break, to find a moment and take a deep breath. Mindfulness helps us to recognize that we aren’t perfect and we don’t need to beat ourselves up over it.

Richard: I think I’m a little bit kinder to myself. I think that it isn’t a cure-all. If you take this up as a way of approaching things it isn’t going to eliminate stress, but it is going to help you deal with stress better. The more we take this up the better we are going to interact with patrons and appreciate our role as librarians.

Kenley: The first practical benefit is that we are more attentive to our own needs and our own care. This is an important first step that people miss. From there the benefits bloom, because when I have more understanding and care for myself I can have more understanding and care for other people in my life. In each of these instances of interaction I can have a little more understanding, patience, and desire to serve. We are in a service industry, so this is very important. Through mindfulness practice I’ve been able to become a better listener to my library users as well as my staff. When someone comes in to talk to me they don’t care about all of the other projects that I have to do. All they care about is me listening to them in that moment. Through mindfulness I’m able to know how to bring myself to be present. This comes with practice and training my mind. For me the greatest outcome has been this capacity to be a deeper and more empathetic listener which makes me a better manager.

Can mindfulness help you focus and reduce distractions?

Richard: Having objects near you that are meaningful in some way or remind you to be mindful can help. Because I teach to undergraduate and graduate students, one of the things that I do when I enter a classroom is to stop and take a breath and remind myself that I want to go and be present with students. If you have a few minutes to sit quietly and breathe before interactions, whether in your office or car, this can help.

Martin: Once you develop a mindfulness practice where you begin very quickly to center your breath, it can help you focus very quickly. Anxiety can be ramped down after just two or three minutes of breathing practice. If you can go to meetings and breath and focus on why you are there and what you are doing, this can focus you on what you are trying to accomplish. This helps you to get through the day in a productive way.

Kenley: Listen and don’t wait to respond. As soon as you take a conscious breath, you can’t help but calm yourself down. If we put all of our attention on breathing in or out we don’t have to have any other prop with us, because our breath is always with us. The only way we are able to do this consistently is by creating the conditions around us that remind us to be present and to engage in mindful breathing. You can train yourself by practicing meditation, for example at the beginning of the day or a lunch. If you train yourself on how to use your breath, you can use this tool in stressful moments. I keep my desk clear between me and where someone would sit across from me so that there aren’t any distractions. This helps me to be more present to the person.

Can mindfulness help combat compassion fatigue?

Martin: In terms of compassion fatigue I think back to my time in a public library when I spent a lot of time helping people who were difficult to interact with. You may start with “I feel sorry for them, I want to help them” and then end up feeling burned out and feel that you have compassion fatigue. Today I understand that it is burn out and emotional exhaustion that leads to low personal accomplishment and motivation. This reduces your performance efficacy and your sense of self-worth. You can combat this by trying to create a social network within the workplace to help you deal with this. Have someone you can talk to about your stress. Also do things that you love doing that help to re-energize and re-motivate you. For me it was gaming in the library.

Richard: We did a survey through ALA on emotional intelligence and one of the strengths that we had as librarians was that we are high in empathy. This can backfire when we internalize the stress that we experience when helping people in the library. We also find that librarians tend to rate themselves low in social interaction skills. One of the things that mindfulness can help you do is allow you to process your thoughts about interactions with patrons. This is where mindfulness can really help you if you are experiencing emotional exhaustion.

Kenley: Mindfulness can help you to take care of yourself and find things that help to nourish you and bring you joy. Having a “doing nothing” day helps you to rest or work if we want. When we work hard during the week we need to make sure that we take some time to rest so that we have more capacity to serve others. Many librarians are in this field because they want to take care of others, but we have to remember to take care of ourselves.

How is mindfulness currently being used in the work/business environment?

Kenley: The simplest way to do this in a work environment is to set aside time to do this with other people. This helps you to identify other people in the library who are interested in mindfulness. We have a small meditation group in our library. People come once a week and have this intentional practice time. The other thing that we can do is have people come and offer instruction or practice where employees can learn what it means to be mindful, how to do it, and how it can be brought into the work setting.

Martin: I’ve been a doctoral student doing research on mindfulness and burnout and have found several cases where mindfulness has been used successfully to combat burnout. They looked at conservation of resources and found that the more employees meditate, the more they replenish their emotional energy. It is extremely effective in the workplace and I wish that my workplace would do this, but this is a step forward that we haven’t’ taken yet. I would encourage anyone who is a manager to try implementing this in the workplace.

Richard: You have companies like Google that are out there doing this and they are great examples. You look at management theories and there is such a focus on efficiency. People are encouraged to just plug away at things for 8 hours. The value of taking some space isn’t recognized. We have a weekly designated meditation time on our campus. We’ve done this in dormitories in the evening. We had a room that was actually dedicated to meditation in our library. Taking these moments to step back and recharge is really important. It is a mistaken belief that we need to plough ahead and do a million things at once.

How can we use mindfulness in libraries? Can it help staff? Can it help patrons?

Richard: Some of it isn’t dissimilar from how you would use it in a retail environment, but one environment I talk about a lot is at the reference desk. Reference services emphasizes listening to patrons and being present with patrons. In collection management it takes some effort to be focused to do detail-oriented work. If you are going to do something it makes sense to be present with what you’re doing. Sometimes we need to focus on tasks or records or objects and at other times we need to focus on patrons. There has been a lot written about library anxiety, especially about the process of research, so having a mindful attitude can help these patrons.

Kenley: Libraries can run meditation training as part of student success seminars. We can create spaces for our patrons and expose them to the topic through our material selection and featured items in our newsletters. We can offer seminars for staff and patrons on mindfulness and why it might be of interest to them. I think that creating a space is always a challenge for a lot of libraries because space is at a premium, but we can create spaces by changing the way that we organize furniture or use lighting.

Martin: I think if you’re a manager on this webinar giving your employees the time to take this space is critical. We are all inundated with media and the idea that we should be happy and smiling all the time. This isn’t what life is like. Mindfulness can help you go through the ups and downs in life and find actual happiness which is understanding what is going on in your head and accepting it. The more that we can be aware that we aren’t going to be happy in every moment, the better we can deal with our emotions and help others. If you can’t do it in the current moment, don’t beat yourself up. There is another moment coming.

How do I get management buy-in for a mindfulness program?

Richard: You can certainly point to some of the research studies on mindfulness as a way of combating skepticism. Seeing that the science and the research backs up the benefits of mindfulness and meditation is powerful. It was a slow adoption process here that started with a small group of staff who were deeply committed to the process. You are going to have different levels of buy-in from different administrators. You might not get everyone on board, but start with the people who are interested. Some administrators worried that this would be pushed on staff, so you need to be clear that this should be a personal choice for staff. You can’t force mindfulness on anyone. Other than just get started and do what you can there isn’t an easy answer.

Kenley: I’m of the just do it school and you’ll find others who are interested. You are going to attract people who are interested and there are opportunities where management or HR might be willing to put on a seminar or workshop. The current issue of American Libraries has an article on mindful leadership that has some examples of research showing the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace.

Moderator: Even if you can’t get buy in from management there is nothing to stop you from practicing mindfulness yourself.

How do we teach mindfulness? How do you self-train? How important are formal qualifications/training?

Martin: I think that the problem is that there are a lot of different ways to meditate and people need to find the one that works for them. This can actually serve as an entry barrier. Today there are a lot of resources available online. Anything that you can do to delve into the areas of breathing and clearing your mind will be helpful. I would encourage folks to seek out someone who has some understanding of how this works so that you can have a good grounding in this.

Richard: I did do an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course that introduced mindfulness practices. I took a Tai-chi course. I’ve done a lot of reading on this. It helps you to understand what different authors and studies are coming from. Conversations, even in small settings, are very powerful. You hear tons of great ideas from other people. There’s a lot of places, especially if you are looking at something like yoga as a mindfulness practices, and a lot of different ways to be mindful. Formal training helps. Just take it with you and do what works with you.

Kenley: When I started a meditation practice I started by reading some books and visiting a Zen center. It didn’t fit for what I needed at the time. I established a daily rhythm for meditating for 5 minutes a day. After a few years I needed more and started sitting with others. I would encourage people to find others who are interested in mindfulness and practice with them. There doesn’t have to be formal instruction in these sessions. Key elements are breathing practices, sitting in a comfortable supported position, being aware of our thoughts as they time and go, and being non-judgmental are key elements. We aren’t going to clear our minds. We might realize that we ended up planning our vacation during our meditation. We just need to recognize that this is happening without judgement and refocus on our breathing. There are some groups to check like MBSR and “Search Inside Yourself”. They offer training. There are lots of places to look and books to read. You can do a certain level of self-training, but for long-term sustainability and going into deeper practices you will need to look for some formal training.

Featured image by star5112

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