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In Case of Emergency…. Just Breathe

How mindfulness became a life-saving oxygen mask

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At the young age of 7, I remember my dad telling anyone that would listen that I was going to grow up to be a combat pilot or a submarine warfare commander. Now, this was the 1980’s and those jobs weren’t even open to women, but it didn’t matter because his ultimate goal was to inspire me to do or be anything I wanted – all I had to do was work hard to be my best and achieve my dreams. When you remove societal barriers it’s amazing what you can imagine for yourself – and that was extremely powerful for a young girl. 

His guidance gave me the drive to seek out challenges and think I could be a pilot, a leader, a commander, a mother, an academic, and an educator.  I didn’t have to choose. However, my first attempt at integrating the person I wanted to be and the person I could be in reality…was a total failure. My drive took me to a point where I embodied servant leadership and was trying to be the perfect role model in every facet of my life… and that almost destroyed me. While my husband was deployed for a year to the Middle East, I juggled leadership of a 75-person flying unit, the pressure to be the best chief pilot, the best mother for my two year old, while navigating a whole host of life stressors. I had drive, and plenty of judgment about how I wasn’t achieving perfection, but I had no compassion or love for myself. I forgot how to laugh. I forgot that there was so much to learn from not being perfect. My endless search for perfection resulted in a complete and utter burnout – it put my health and my relationships at risk. I was emotionally and physically exhausted because I lost sight of the most important part – taking care of myself first.

This experience became the motivation for my doctoral work and recent academic focus – how can we all perform better under stress? How can we do life better? 

I discovered it’s about putting on your oxygen mask first. As a pilot, who has briefed the purpose of the emergency oxygen system numerous times, I actually couldn’t believe I had never extended the advice into my own life. My ultimate goal was to serve and lead others, to the best of my ability, both at work and at home. How could I do that if I didn’t take care of myself along the way?

Putting on my oxygen mask is about being grounded and centered. It’s about living in the moment instead of succumbing to the mind wandering and distractions, and ultimately the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves with the inner chatter in our heads. 

At this low point in my life, I realized my vulnerability. My burnout shined a spotlight on the side effect of my internal drive toward success: my chattering mind – the kryptonite to my personal performance mastery. My experienced, educated and trained mind was actually my own worst enemy. It was driving me toward an unrealistic end state – where my well-being was not a priority.

But there is a solution. I’m going to share with you a tool that can build the mental qualities for being in the present moment. Just as today’s technology allows us to be virtually present from anywhere in the world, the practice of mindfulness offers the opportunity for us to be mentally present anytime, anywhere. 

Once I found mindfulness, I was able to accelerate my professional success while also cultivating the skills of self compassion so that I could take better care of myself in the process. 

It was a solution for me. Maybe it’s a solution for you? 

It’s as simple as simple as taking a few deep breaths each day. You can silence the detrimental chatter in your head – the chatter that prevents you from achieving personal and professional success and prevents you from putting on your own oxygen mask – by focusing on the present moment sensations of your breathing.  The end goal is not to get better at breathing or focusing on your breath in a meditative way. The goal is changing your state of mind.

Mindfulness is not meant to reduce your situational stress. We are highly stressed in this world. It just alters our reaction to it. I still lead a very stressful life, but I don’t allow myself to get carried away by my circumstances. So I can perform at my best across the spectrum of my responsibilities. 

I still have a drive to be my best, but now it’s coupled with compassion for myself, and an awareness of others…Mindfulness helps me be a better educator, a better pilot, a better leader, and a better mom…because when I put on my oxygen mask first, I am my best self and that’s where I can better serve and lead others.

My challenge to you? Slow down. Be courageous. Mindfulness is your oxygen mask. Try it on – you just might be surprised how successful you can become both in your workspace and your lifespace. 

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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