In the zone

Comfort zone, time zone, twilight zone, euro zone, green zone, in the zone? As we traverse in and out of various kinds of zones, how can we keep as balanced and true to ourselves as possible?

I just came back from a trip to three different countries in 11 days. While this trip sets no kind of record for whirlwind travel, it still demanded an expenditure of energy in both mind and body to find some kind of equilibrium each day. Stepping into another country takes me to the borders of my comfort zone, at least at first. Then I add crossing time zones, and life definitely takes on a twilight zone feel!

While the body can be helped by following good travel advice like refraining from caffeine and alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and exposing oneself to sunlight every day, how do we handle the mental stress?

I love having new experiences, seeing unfamiliar places, learning new things – but such growth doesn’t happen in my comfort zone. So I had to think about how best to navigate the challenges of meeting a lot of new people, learning my way around strange cities and communicating in places where I don’t speak the language.

On my trip, I happened to be reading Search Inside Yourself, a new book by Chade-Meng Tan about the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum he started at Google. In the book, Meng describes the emotional competencies that (according to Daniel Goleman) make up self-awareness: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Meng, who describes himself as a shy person, discussed how he prepared for a speech to a large audience by using these competencies of self-awareness. He made his ego “small enough that my ‘self’ did not matter,” and big enough that he “felt perfectly comfortable speaking alongside” the luminaries at the event. He also kept in mind his strengths and limitations so that he could focus “on adding value where [he] could contribute most.”

I realized that by bringing mindfulness and self-awareness to my experiences on my trip, I was better able to deal with the challenges and turn them into positive events. I’m not the bravest or most out-going person in the world, but by staying present and paying attention to people and situations, I was able to increase my self-confidence and to use my strengths to my advantage. For instance, as a spouse at a dinner with people in an industry in which I do not work, sometimes I might feel inadequate or not “high-powered” enough. But by focusing on my strengths in my own field of stress management, and being mindfully engaged with each person I met, I found that I had plenty to contribute to conversations.

In a similar way, as I navigated streets and neighborhoods, I relied on my strong sense of direction, my curiosity and my desire to see everything to give me the confidence to explore on my own. But I tried to stay emotionally aware so that I would know when I needed a break in the “comfort” zone of my hotel room.

The British writer Lawrence Durrell once said, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” In that spirit, I’m still tapping into Search Inside Yourself at home now. I plan to use some of the book’s tools, such as journaling and body scanning, to build even greater self-awareness. After all, we never know when the next trip outside our comfort zone will happen.

Have you played today?

“Health begins where we live, learn, work and play.”

That statement came out of a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commission on building a healthier America. It means that all of the social environments in which we spend time help determine our overall health outcomes.

Play (def.): to occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation.

But how much do adults play? Is having fun the lowest priority item on your to-do list when obligations at work and at home have to be met? The truth is that, like exercise, we will never have enough extra time for play until we make the time for it and schedule it in our day.

There’s a good case to be made for playing – doing something that’s fun just for the sake of having fun, in a noncompetitive and unpressured way. It helps us regain some of the unqualified joy and spontaneity we had as children, and, possibly, to experience what Buddhists refer to as “beginner’s mind”. Beginner’s mind means looking at something without the lens of prior knowledge, experience, or, especially, judgment. It means simply experiencing something as it is, in the moment, instead of how we want or expect it to be.

Beginner’s mind can more easily be accessed if we regularly try new “play” activities. Being a little bit adventurous, perhaps even taking a risk (whether it is physical, social or psychological) could create an opportunity for a beginner’s mind experience.  A few years ago, I decided that birthdays are a good time of year to try something new. That’s a bit challenging with a birthday at Thanksgiving time, but it was easier on my sister’s summertime birthday, when we tried a 7-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. We challenged ourselves, took a wrong turn or two, laughed a lot and thought about nothing else for those few hours.

While it’s pretty widely recognized that play is important for children’s development, we sometimes forget that adults have a need for play too. Any type of play, whether it is something we’ve always enjoyed or something new, can give us perspective on other areas of our lives. It can foster creative thinking and problem-solving. Play can stimulate and refresh both brain and body.  Playing with other people helps us make and nurture social connections. Play teaches us to be flexible and cooperative, and to work as a team.

In some workplaces, play is integrated into the workday. Google is probably the most famous for supplying games such as Foosball, ping pong and volleyball on site. At Zappos, one of the company’s core values is to “create fun and a little weirdness”. Other companies provide climbing walls, swimming pools and monthly parties. Some would say that these perks are designed to keep people working longer hours. That may be true, but at least they have the opportunity to take a play break.

What are your ideas for fun at work or at home? Have you played today?