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DCE Magazine

From Tibet to the Boardroom

The ancient practice of mindfulness provides myriad science-backed benefits for today’s stressed professionals.

Summer 2021

Back in the year 2000, Shannon Jordan was a hard-driving professional with a relentless, insatiable focus on advancing her career. She had always been a high achiever – she graduated college early, earned a graduate degree while working full-time, and was determined to race up the career ladder at full speed.

“My life up to that point had been singular in focus and very future-oriented,” she said. “My professional work has always revolved around counseling, coaching, organizational development and training. Like so many other professionals, I was always in my head, planning or strategizing what was next, and it sounds cliché, but I wouldn’t have known a present moment if it hit me over the head.”

Then life intervened. She suddenly found herself divorced and exhausted, at a crossroads that created an existential crisis, a reevaluation of life’s meaning at the tender age of 30. That’s when she decided to take a six-month break to clear her head, travel the world and explore South America, Nepal, Tibet and Indonesia.

During her time in Tibet, she discovered meditation, or mindfulness, the ancient practice of quieting the mind to gain clarity and focus. It was a profound experience that set Jordan, instructor for the DCE course, Mindfulness-Based Strategies in Business, on a journey of self-discovery that eventually led to a new career path, teaching the benefits of mindfulness to busy professionals.

“I got an up-close view of the daily life of Tibetan monks. They seemed extraordinarily content despite the most adverse of circumstances – desolate inhospitable terrain, economic scarcity, political oppression. Their smiles, kindness and calm demeanors were moving. My curiosity was piqued.”

There was a deep sense of coming home, she said, “an admiration for the discipline the monks had mastered to manage their minds and their fears, their anxieties and discomforts. I wanted to find that same peace of mind.”

Jordan began exploring meditation methods and studying a variety of traditions, but she never connected it to her work until a colleague invited her to join a lunchtime meditation group. It was a revelation; she saw firsthand how mindfulness improved her coworkers’ performance on the job.

“I began to observe the positive impact it could have in the workplace,” she said. “People felt better equipped to navigate difficult conversations, challenging deadlines, and the distractedness of the workday. As the neuroscience on mindfulness began to emerge, I started integrating it into my work. The neuroscience behind mindfulness is very exciting and elevating the conversation.”

It led her to study mindfulness at UCSD’s School of Medicine and train in various corporate-based programs. Today, Jordan is Product Lead for the Potential Project, bringing mindfulness training to organizations worldwide.

Mindfulness in the workplace

Backed by a growing body of scientific study, the practice of mindfulness has been embraced by a number of corporate giants including Apple, Google and Target. Steve Jobs claimed that his meditation practice was a major factor in reimagining the design of Apple devices in intuitive, innovative ways that changed the world.

A landmark Harvard study by Sarah Lazar, among the first to connect meditation with positive and tangible changes in brain function, found that experienced meditators had developed greater cortical thickness in areas related to attention and emotional awareness.

“This increased thickness or ‘gray matter’ is a bit akin to increased muscle mass and enables that area of the brain to be more efficient and effective,” Jordan said. “Lazar’s landmark findings have since been corroborated by more than 20 studies, several of which involved participants who practiced just a few minutes a day.”

An elective course in the HR Management certificate program, Mindfulness-Based Strategies in Business allows participants to explore science-based mindfulness practices that can lead to increased well-being, performance, and leadership effectiveness. But regardless of industry or occupation, the course is ideal for anyone interested in using mindfulness techniques to help bring clarity and focus to their own lives and workspaces.

Stress on the job is a common burden, but COVID anxiety and work-from-home mentality has amped it up considerably, Jordan said. A recent Forbes report found 89% of employees experienced decreased well-being during the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that her course has experienced record enrollment.

“Our students, like most business professionals, reported feeling higher levels of anxiety and isolation. The COVID restrictions have led to remote work for most, which has completely blurred the lines between work and home, with employees working more hours while juggling children’s schooling and other responsibilities. Many are on the edge of exhaustion and burnout.”

A calming breath

Focusing on the act of breathing, the “default mode network,” is a key to mindfulness meditation, re-directing attention from the area of the brain that is constantly on alert and scanning for threats. As a result, people experience a calmer and quieter mind, a refreshed focus that can be expanded with regular practice.

“Mindfully coming back to the breath allows us to get out of our worrisome, fearful minds and back to the present moment, which is really the only place where we can perform, problem-solve, innovate or make decisions,” Jordan said. “While it’s impossible to stop worrisome thoughts completely, mindfulness helps us relate to them in a different way.”

Mindfulness allows us to cope with stressful or frustrating situations in a more detached way. It recently helped Jordan deal with a major disappointment – a once-in-a-lifetime trip derailed by COVID.

“Last March I had a plane ticket to go meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” she said. “The Dalai Lama had agreed to host the CEO of Potential Project, a handful of mindfulness facilitators, and a group of corporate executives for a discussion on what it means to bring compassion to leadership.”

She was devastated when her trip was cancelled. It represented a rare opportunity to return to the Tibetan roots that inspired her. “And then it dawned on me that life lessons can show up in unexpected ways. I still smile when I think that this was a mindful lesson on ‘letting go,’ and that I didn’t need to actually meet the Dalai Lama to learn it.”

A Mindful Exercise to STOP Negative Thoughts

Troublesome thoughts and anxiety are major factors in workplace fatigue – especially in the age of COVID. DCE instructor Shannon Jordon shares a simple four-step S.T.O.P. technique that can calm the mind and refocus attention whenever you find yourself triggered by negative thoughts:

  • STOP. Pause whatever you are doing.
  • TAKE A BREATH. Take a slow deep inhale followed by a slow deep exhale.
  • OBSERVE. Notice your experience. If you find yourself focused on worrisome thoughts or uncomfortable emotions, see if you can “unhook” instead of feeding them further. To do this, notice where you feel the uncomfortable emotion in your body. This helps you create a bit of space by shifting into an observer role.
  • PROCEED. From this more neutral, observer role ask yourself: “What would be the best action I can take right now for the benefit of myself and others?” You might decide to get some fresh air, take a break, or call a friend, for example.
Shannon Jordan
Shannon Jordan, DCE Instructor