Spread loving, kind thoughts both online and in person. This can take some doing as tensions mount. By being mindful of how we’re feeling and checking in with others, we can step back, offering words of support and encouragement, even lighthearted banter when appropriate. This is not to suggest that we should take the pandemic less seriously, rather we need to find ways to express the full band of our human emotions. And in that vein, deeds go a long way towards how we can support others.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Long.
Nathan Long has been serving as president of Saybrook University since August 2014. A non-profit, regionally accredited, private institution of higher learning, Saybrook offers a wide-array of graduate-level programs focused on positive individual and social transformation. The university offers degrees in humanistic psychology, counseling, leadership and management, transformative social change, and integrative medicine and health sciences.
Prior to Saybrook University, Dr. Long served for ten years as an associate professor, dean, chief academic officer and then president of The Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he helped build the non-profit institution from a diploma-granting institution to what is now a four-year degree-granting institution with over 1,000 students. He has also held academic and student affairs positions at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, University of Cincinnati, and Arizona State University. His academic credentials include a Bachelor of Music in Music Performance; a Master of Education in
Educational Studies with emphases in educational psychology and sociology; and a Doctor of Education in Educational Studies, with concentrations in history, sociology, peace studies and urban education.
Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Myjourney leading to my current career path is a tad bit unusual. I began my undergraduate work studying music performance with a focus in trombone and conducting, eventually pursuing a Master’s degree in music performance at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. During that time, I worked in residential life and housing as part of a graduate assistantship, serving across a broad range of areas: from educational programming, student affairs work, judicial affairs (now referred to as behavioral education), to supervision and leadership development. What emerged for me during this time was how much I loved the transformational aspect of higher education in positively affecting students’ lives, specifically their academic and career aspirations. After two years, I decided to shift paths from music to academia, moving into a full-time role as a residential housing coordinator, while pursuing my Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Educational Studies. During those formative years, I immersed myself in sociology, psychology, history, philosophy and political science each focused on educational and organizational contexts. I realized that through my academic study and subsequent scholarship, I could leverage my work with students and in higher education for the greater good.
Eventually, after a stint at Arizona State University, I went back to the Queen City to help build a new college — a non-profit, private college of nursing and health sciences. Serving as a professor, dean, and chief academic officer, I learned a great deal about the regulatory efforts needed to birth an institution, to assure quality for student learning, and the power of the liberal arts as a vital part of an allied health curriculum. Upon the retirement of the school’s then president, I was asked to step in as interim president, which turned to a permanent four-year appointment. In 2014, I was approached by a recruiter who encouraged me to consider a unique opportunity, that being Saybrook University. From the moment I read the mission, I was enamored. After a series of in-depth interviews, our relationship was formalized and I have now been serving as president at Saybrook for nearly six years.
Suffice to say, I never expected to be a college president. But here I am.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I am not certain that this is the “most interesting” story of my career, but I will share that the most pivotal professional moment for me occurred in 2003 at Arizona State University. Faculty and university administrators were called to the University’s unveiling of President Crow’s new strategic framework for the institution: A New American University. As he went through the presentation, he reiterated over-and-over that higher education’s purpose had to ultimately shift, that institutions would need to rise up in a new way to serve more students, to serve our country harnessing the power of learning through things like being “entrepreneurial” and building online education in such a way that would create expansive access to more students. I readily admit I was a doubter at the time. However, as I evolved professionally and became a leader in higher education, President Crow’s message was particularly apt in retrospect and is as relevant now as it was in 2003, nearly 20 years ago. In reflecting back on that moment, it was clear to me that we were witnessing a game-changing moment in higher education!
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
For me, it’s about creating openness: openness to feedback, openness to new ideas, openness to opportunities and engagement. As importantly, co-creating culture together is key and finding exceptional leaders who support such initiatives and approaches. I wish I could say I was always great at this but in point of fact, it’s been part of my own journey as a leader.
Ultimately, when a leader actively works with others to co-create and to develop that spirit of openness throughout the organization coupled with vibrant transparency, I believe an organization thrives. Moreover, what rises up is a sense of greater empowerment from all levels of staff to find their voice and take the lead in myriad scenarios. These then lead to an esprit de corps among the collective.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Great question. Perhaps one of the most significant books I have read is “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald Heifetz. This book was recommended to me during a particularly difficult period in which a number of tough decisions had to be made that would, in the end, lead to stronger outcomes, though at the time, I was on unsure footing.
What became clear from my reading of Dr. Heifetz’s book was one key bit of wisdom: leaders who fail, fail because they do not realize the difference between technical and adaptive challenges. While technical challenges can be tackled with know-how and authorities respond by applying a certain set of “fixes”, adaptive challenges are those that can best be described as culture-shifting moments that test every individuals’ mettle. Such adaptive challenges necessitate a questioning of the status quo, of the culture that was and evolving to the culture that could be, all leading to existential considerations about identity, beliefs, and even sense of competence. Moreover, these adaptive challenges require leaders to be more engaged, more communicative, more transparent and clear, none of which is easy even in the best of times.
The book resonated for me because it showed me where my growth edge was as a leader in the midst of rapid, ongoing change specifically in higher education. I had to confront my own assumptions about who I was as a person, a leader; my own assertions about what higher education was and what it was to look like in the new reality, and ultimately how these would translate into a new way of being for a phenomenal institution like Saybrook that was uniquely positioned for a vibrant future yet needed to come forward in a new way that could spread its humanistic mission in a sea of other institutions also striving to get their voices out into the marketplace.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
I am going to use non-standard terms, terms that I have found useful in my own mindfulness journey. From my perspective, being mindful is all about being aware: being aware of your surroundings, of one’s current state of mind and being, of where you are in the moment, of the people around you. Allow me to elaborate…
Being aware, say of your surroundings for instance, is all about realizing where you are in a particular moment. So, you say, big deal, right? But think of how as humans we drift from one thing or place to the next without thinking about the reality of it, the beauty of the place, the smells, the sounds, etc. By taking stock of your surroundings, by being mindful in the moment, you are causing your brain and your whole self to be more “present”.
Just reflect with me on a couple of scenarios for a moment: Consider the various activities and interactions you have in your life. Consider moments like being in meetings, or spending time with your family or loved ones or going to the gym or a museum or a concert. Think about a few of these activities deeply for a few moments and ask yourself: was I fully present? Was I thinking about what I had to do next? Perhaps I was worrying about something I said or did a few days ago or thinking about that post on Facebook now generating a ton of likes or feedback? Perhaps I was thinking about work I needed to finish or about something not related at all to the activity I was engaged in.
My guess is that if you reflected on these questions seriously, you would realize that in one or more of these moments, you would find that you were likely not present for the whole time; you were not “in the moment”. Indeed, most people find that this lack of focus or “monkey brain” as it is sometimes referred, is a ubiquitous trait among human beings.
Calling this out is not about shaming people but bringing our attention to the idea that mindfulness is all about a state of increased awareness of one’s thoughts and ability to be present, which has potential benefits for many.
For me, I engage in mindfulness meditation each day. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, other times 20–30. On really busy days, it might just be 5 minutes. Whatever it is, it’s a chance for me to pause, to be present in the moment. How? Sometimes, I use a guided meditation on my phone; other times, I use a timer for 10 minutes focusing solely on my breath.
Additionally, I use the STOP method (Stop-Take a Breath-Observe What’s Going through Your Mind-Put the Thought(s) Aside). I have found this method incredibly helpful during times of high anxiety of pressure at work or at home.
Both approaches — a regular mindful meditation practice and STOP method — are two palpable ways that aid me in being more mindful, more present.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
I am going to speak from a largely personal perspective on those benefits I have seen in my own life.
A Clearer Head and Greater Focus: Taking just a few minutes each day to practice being more mindful bleeds into work and family life. What seems minor becomes a major benefit. I find myself more alert, more connected, more engaged, more focused whether I am in meetings, playing games with my family or writing in my journal.
Being More Present: Connected to greater focus and a clearer head, I have found that over these last few years, I have become more present in my interactions and activities, enjoying life more fully and getting more out of interactions.
Lower Anxiety…Eventually: I freely admit that I have suffered from minor to severe bouts of anxiety. As a college president, such anxieties are exacerbated given the various pressures that exist. Over the last few years, my anxiety levels have plummeted. Now, from a research perspective, I can’t say with 100% certainty that mindfulness is the direct cause; however, I do know how I feel day-in-and-day-out. I feel much less anxiety and am in greater control of my stress-response. I know I have fallen off the mindfulness path when I am responding or reacting in ways that present as elevated levels of anxiety. Getting to this point took time and patience. Moreover, the work is ongoing.
Physical Health: This may seem minor, but for someone like me who has struggled with weight for most of my life, engaging in a mindful practice has enabled me to focus more on what I put into my mouth, whether food or drink, reducing in greater quantities over these last few years. Through mindful eating/drinking and consistent exercise, I have gained more energy and decreased my penchant for emotional overeating.
Stronger Relationships: My relationships at home and at work, I believe, have improved immensely since adopting a mindfulness practice. By being more present, more engaged in my conversations, my experiences, what I am contributing is far richer than in the past.
Putting things in Perspective: By reducing the effects of “monkey-brain”, one is able to slow down, to take stock, and to put things in a better perspective. For me, this has been key to much of what I discussed above, especially in reducing anxiety and improving relationships.
The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Expand Relationships: Make the time to spend with family and friends. Most importantly, be present with them, for them, and for yourself. Listen deeply to the conversations going on in the moment, experience each conversation, each moment fully. And, tell them you appreciate them, that you love them.
- Significantly Decrease Media Consumption: It’s tempting to follow each article, to watch the numerous virus trackers that have proliferated, to get lost on social media for hours at a time. Indeed, it’s important to stay connected using these outlets. Still, I would also recommend employing mindfulness here and periodically check in with yourself: how much time have you been online or watching the news? Is this benefitting you or others? If so, in what ways? Are you feeling more anxious as a result of the time? Each person has to know what is best for them, but periodic check-ins and reducing one’s media consumption can have a positive, long-term effect.
- Take Time for Yourself — Develop Rituals: One of the main parts of my mindfulness practice has been the development of rituals. For example, I have a set of morning rituals where I walk my dog 3 miles, meditate, and write in my journal. There are times I have to adjust but generally, I stick to these rituals as they bring a sense of constancy to my life. I also have a professional ritual I do each weekday, an evening ritual, and a set of weekend rituals (and several of the items are pretty mundane like doing laundry, cleaning the house, and finances). Why can rituals be effective in times of uncertainty? Rituals serve as anchor points, giving us the ability to establish knowledge that we hold on to for the sake of consistency, even for relief. For me, rituals have served as an important tool in my self-care toolbox.
- Create: Significant compelling research has shown that being creative can increase endorphins in our brains. This in turn can lead to reduced anxiety and an improved sense of well-being. Given how stressful these times are, being creative has the potential for being a positive outlet for pent-up energy, even serving as a positive distraction. Creative endeavors for me include writing, working on my podcast, and practicing music. For others it might be drawing or creating software or singing. Still others might find their creative energies bolstered through landscaping. Whatever it is, find one or two things you can do each week that sparks that creative side. And, just to beat this drum again: being creative contributes to increased mindfulness through presence of mind and self during the creative process.
- Meditate: For those not used to it, there’s nothing easier and it’s free of charge. Find a chair in a quiet place (if you can’t find a quiet place, use headphones with a your phone with soothing sounds or music or a dedicated meditation app if you have one — many are free). Take just five minutes, close your eyes and breathe in and out…slowly…focusing on your breath and nothing else to the extent you’re able. Just take that time to be in the moment, to breathe. As thoughts pass into your brain, let them pass on out the other side, focusing on the breath. Five minutes of this can reduce anxiety, improve perspective, and get you feeling better.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Be present — listen and show compassion: Be present with colleagues, family and friends. In that time, listen and show empathy. Many of us, myself included, often act on the impulse to take action. Try to resist that and just be there for your loved ones and colleagues.
Get and Stay connected: Make the effort to get, and stay connected, with your broader community in addition to those you are close to. I have been amazed, for example, at the incredible kindness of strangers and neighbors. I chose to join two local Facebook groups in addition to increasing my calling/video connections with loved ones. What I have observed has been nothing short of inspirational; a reminder of the goodness of human beings, especially during this unprecedented crisis.
Be loving in word and deed: Spread loving, kind thoughts both online and in person. This can take some doing as tensions mount. By being mindful of how we’re feeling and checking in with others, we can step back, offering words of support and encouragement, even lighthearted banter when appropriate. This is not to suggest that we should take the pandemic less seriously, rather we need to find ways to express the full band of our human emotions. And in that vein, deeds go a long way towards how we can support others. Consider the thousands of people making facemasks, or doing meal drop-offs for the elderly, or even those narrating books for those who can’t access their library. These deeds express love in ways that are powerful, connecting us with our wider community.
Engage in Self-Care: It may sound counter-intuitive, but taking care of you is one of the most important ways you can help others. When flying in an airplane, the emergency protocols require passengers to put on their own oxygen first before helping others. In short, this is what you’re doing by meditating, creating personal time for writing, exercising, reading or whatever else brings you peace. By taking care of you, you create the space for being more present, staying connected, and more loving.
Be a part of the solution: Such advice sounds like a broken record, but these are important guidelines to follow:
- Wash your hands frequently
- Wear face coverings and gloves when doing essential tasks
- Maintain social distancing guidelines
- Stay informed on local developments such that you can remain compliant with public health guidelines and protocols
- Remain vigilant both for your own health and the health of others
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Saybrook University is proud to be providing resources to our university and our global community. Specifically, we are now offering a virtual Daily Mindful Moment, weekdays beginning at 12:15 PM Eastern/9:15 AM Pacific. For fifteen minutes, participants from around the country and globe take part in a guided group meditation designed to bring greater peace to each individual’s daily life. We have also begun recording these so anyone may access at any time.
Mindful Moments Live every weekday through April 30, 2020:
- GoToMeeting: https://www.gotomeet.me/LuannFortune/mindfulness-meditation-moments OR
- Dial in using your phone: 1 866 899 4679 | Access Code: 195–157–605 — Note: Please mute your line when joining
- Mindful Moments Recorded Sessions: Download for free at https://saybrookinsights.buzzsprout.com/
- The Mindfulness Project (http://www.freemindfulness.org/): A free site with an incredible list of resources. The site is easy to navigate and an great way to access mindfulness concepts. Definitely worth the time to investigate.
- Calm (Paid App on the Apple Store and Google Play Store, also online): My favorite app, Calm (www.calm.com) provide a host of guided and non-guided meditations, soothing music, and even bedtime stories to help individuals fall asleep. The material is well-produced and grounded in accessible language for any individual of nearly every age.
- Meditation Music (a free app with the option to upgrade): Filled with music selections, an individual can use a timer to just take a planned break or meditate. The music sounds add an element of calm or serenity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I am a fan of Pema Chodron. This quote has always resonated with me, so I guess it is one of my favorite “life lesson quotes”: The present moment is our doorway to liberation.
Given my own mindfulness journey, this particular insight of hers — especially early on in my practice — was and continues to be an important reminder that being present, being in the moment itself led to greater self-awareness, healing, and hope.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would love to advocate for a Daily Time Out for Health movement. Taking 5–10 minutes for a “time out” from the rigors of daily life to reset our brains and re-position ourselves to be more present, more mindful, more at peace in my view would be a powerful antidote to many of the ills we face. Certainly not the only thing, but an important practice nevertheless.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Generally, I am very active on Facebook and LinkedIn. With the advent of my podcast, one can follow me there as well, downloading episodes that interest them: