Thuan Nguyen of Mountainside: “Stop multi-tasking”

Stop multi-tasking. Albert Einstein once said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” I used to be a huge proponent of multitasking and envied anyone who could juggle several things at the same time. I constantly found myself jumping from project […]

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Stop multi-tasking. Albert Einstein once said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” I used to be a huge proponent of multitasking and envied anyone who could juggle several things at the same time. I constantly found myself jumping from project to project, seemingly on a whim, and thought that this was evidence of my intellectual acumen. I also found myself forgetting tasks and allowing important things to elude my attention. If a project folder was not on my desk and an email didn’t prompt me to think about it, I forgot about it. Out of sight, out of mind was never truer. Today, I’m a list-maker and I prioritize deadlines. I block out segments of my calendar for certain projects and adjust my schedule as needed.

As a part of my series about “How to Slow Down To Do More” I had the pleasure to interview Thuan Nguyen.

Thuan Nguyen is a Wellness Coach at Mountainside alcohol and drug addiction treatment center in Canaan, CT. He is a certified Reiki teacher with nearly a decade of experience in the field of addiction treatment. At Mountainside, Thuan combines the tenets of the 12 Steps, Buddhism, quantum mechanics, Shamanism, and other traditions to empower clients to get out of their comfort zone and move forward in their recovery. By placing spiritual ideas into the context of traditional therapeutic tools and 12 Step work, Thuan helps clients gain essential coping skills, allowing them to achieve peace of mind and regain their sense of self.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I didn’t pick my career path. My career path picked me. Had I continued on the first path I set out to create for myself, I’d be an IT executive in New York City, working for a Fortune 500 company today. My career path in the 90’s showed great potential. I learned from the best and found myself climbing the corporate ladder. I was the first one in the office and the last one to leave. I was on call and volunteered to work weekends. I thought that this was the way to be noticed and to stand out. I would make my mark by proving to everyone that I was the smartest person in the room with the best work ethic.

Then it happened. On a random Friday night while hanging out with friends, I was offered, what I would find out later, was crystal meth. Thus began my spiral to rock bottom. But before rock bottom, there were raises, promotions, and adulation that fed my addiction. Crystal meth turned me into Superman and fed my ego, allowing me to work around the clock and become the kind of worker that all companies wanted. I once joked with a friend that my company should give me a drug stipend because it helped me do so much work for them. I was working hard and meeting expectations, but in hindsight, I realize I was battling internal conflicts, like my fear of letting others down. I remember one period when I averaged three nights of sleep a workweek, working around the clock and partying on other nights. Nobody needed to know, as long as I kept this a secret and kept my professional life together. But as quickly as the accolades came, they were taken even more quickly from me because of my addiction. In December of 2010, I found myself in an inpatient treatment center, fighting my addiction, and fighting for my life.

The spiritual path offered by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) saved my life and showed me a way of living that I never knew existed. I was introduced to this thing called a higher power (which doesn’t necessarily have to mean God), was taught about prayer and meditation, and was set on a spiritual journey that I am so grateful for. I went back to work at the inpatient treatment center that got me sober and thus started my path in the addiction recovery field, jumpstarting my spiritual life.

Today, I am a Wellness Coach at Mountainside treatment center. As a certified Yoga instructor with training in Qigong, I facilitate spirituality and personal empowerment workshops. Thanks to my experiences in treatment, the spiritual program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and mindfulness practices, I have finally found peace and fulfillment.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

The way I see it, feeling rushed is a part of human nature. It is the human ego reacting to something external. When I’m personally feeling rushed, I ask myself, “What is triggering my ego?” Then I mentally list my concerns: If I don’t make this deadline, my boss will think I can’t handle this job. He’ll have me replaced with someone who can. My low sense of self-worth will also be triggered. If I don’t do a good job, it will validate how little I think of myself. I do good work to prove my worth to my boss. If I don’t do good work, then I am worthless.

When I was pursuing a career in IT, I wound up working sixty- to seventy-five-hour weeks. I made sure I was the first person in the office and the last person out. I smashed deadlines and multi-tasking. These were my professional badges of honor that I adorned myself with in my early twenties and thirties. I felt an external push to work long hours and to not complain, and then convinced myself that this was just my own internal drive to be the best. Though I didn’t know it at the time, fear was the driver and I was just a passenger on this rollercoaster. What was the cause of this fear? Fear of being replaced, fear of my unworthiness unless I was the smartest, fastest, and most efficient worker in the office. I had to do it better and be better than everyone else. With this drive, I manifested great apartments, jobs, and a promising career in IT. I also cultivated stress, experienced my first panic attack, and found solace in alcohol and drugs. Alcohol helped me to destress from tough workdays and methamphetamines helped me to keep up with the pack, exceeding their efforts and my own lofty expectations.

I used to derive so much self-esteem from the work that I did and based my sense of worthiness on that. Through my interactions with others, I suspect there are many who have the same reasons for feeling rushed. Someone once told me that, “We are human beings, not human doings.” We are worthy because we are alive. We do not have to prove our worthiness to ourselves or to others. We need to just let others know when we need help and offer to gladly pitch in when they need it as well. Humility and the ability to know my limits have come with age.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

I once thought that my will and intelligence could get me through anything because it had gotten me out of so many tough situations in my life. What I didn’t know was the powerful force the mind can be in cultivating either stress or peace. As Robin Sharma observed, “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” When we feel rushed or get lost in thought, the body doesn’t know whether or not we’re thinking about a situation or actually going through it. That’s why when we think about the future, our bodies feel anxious and stressed out. When we think too much about the past, we tend to feel guilty and depressed about the things we’ve done. I once read somewhere that we can’t suffer from the past because it doesn’t exist. We can’t suffer from the future because the future doesn’t exist. What we think we’re suffering from are our memories of the past and our speculations about what the future can bring. So, in essence, we’re suffering from our thoughts.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

If our thoughts are creating our suffering, then they can also be the source of our greatest healing. So how do we train this incorrigible monkey mind? Through meditation. It allows me to work more efficiently and develops pathways for my intuition, which is very helpful when thinking on my feet. Meditation is like a reboot for my mind. Now, a lot of people probably think that they can’t meditate, though it would be a worthwhile skill to have if they could. I used to be one of them. I used to ruminate on problems of the past and let my imagination run wild about what the future could bring.

After years of practice, what I’ve found is that the mind will think on its own without my permission. That’s just what it does. Just like the lungs breathe, the mind thinks. My only job was to notice the thinking mind and try not to get lost in thought. Deadlines and worries about how I would be judged if my work wasn’t perfect were thoughts that constantly plagued me. Meditation has taught me to witness my thoughts and allow them to pass like clouds in the sky. When I get lost in thought, I am convinced that these stressful thoughts are real, I validate them, and my body responds to these thoughts as if they are happening in the present. This is why people may get anxious and stressed out when they’re meditating. They’re watching a movie reel of their negative thoughts and they’ve forgotten it’s just a movie.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Here are my six strategies to slow down and do more:

1. Meditate to connect with the voice of my intuition. Meditation is probably the only activity that I’ve experienced that refunds me back the time that I spend doing it. After meditation, my thoughts become more organized and my concentration becomes more focused. I remember when I was first practicing meditation years ago and experienced a moment of clarity. I had closed the door to my meditation room and I was about 15 minutes into the session. I heard my roommate walking in the hall and crossing into the kitchen. I heard water running from the faucet into a kettle. He was going to boil water in a kettle! How dare he! My meditation room door is closed. He knows I’m in here! (Insert your own crude combination of choice four letter words here; I probably used them!) How can he be so inconsiderate! When that kettle whistle blows, I’m going to blow!

I was livid. I had created an entire story in my head, a verbal battle describing his deficiencies as a roommate, and my qualifications as a deserving victim. I was getting worked up while meditating and my body responded to that story. I finally caught myself yelling at him in my mind and a wise thought finally bubbled to the surface. He has every right to boil water. This is his apartment, too. I am going to come across plenty of situations when people are not thinking about me and my own needs and expectations. So, I needed to change my expectations of the world. I realized that acceptance was the answer. That annoying Serenity Prayer that I kept on hearing in 12 Step meetings was the answer. Accept the things I cannot change. When I meditate, when I slow down the constant chatter of my mind, the voice of my intuition comes through.

2. Give the ego a voice. During moments of anger, such as in the example above with my roommate, I now ask myself, “What is actually triggering me when I feel rushed and stressed out?” Some of my most profound self-realizations have come to me during meditation. Meditation grounds us in the moment and allows us to see things as they are without attaching a story to what’s happening. I remember meditating a couple years ago. It was right before work and I was completely in the zone. Out of nowhere, my phone beeped. It was a text message. Since I’ve been conditioned to check my texts before work just in case I’m being asked to come in early, I glanced over at it. It wasn’t work. It was my landlord. He just dropped me a random text, expressing gratitude to me for being such a good tenant and paying rent on time. I put the phone down and tried getting back into my meditation. After about five minutes, I realized I could not get back to that peaceful state I had achieved, and I started blaming my landlord. I was agitated. Then, I calmly asked my ego what was wrong…

Me: So, what are you really mad at?

Ego: Our landlord! He interrupted us while we were meditating and now we can’t get back into it! It was going so well before his text. Geeze!

Me: You know, we had to check the phone in case it was work.

Ego: Yeah.

Me: Should we ignore the phone next time?

Ego: No, we have responsibilities.

Me: Okay. And that text message was actually pretty nice.

Ego: Yeah, it was. But did he have to do it while we were meditating?

Me: He didn’t know we were meditating.

Ego: True.

Me: Should we stop meditating in the middle of the day?

Ego: No.

Me: Or text everybody in our contact list? Tell them that we’re meditating and shouldn’t be bothered for the next 30 minutes?

Ego: No.

Me: Then, the next time that phone beeps, you know we’re going to answer it, right?

Ego: Yeah.

Me: Are you going to get mad?

Ego: Probably.

Me: Yeah, probably.

Ego: But can we have this conversation again?

Me: Of course. Let’s try again.

Sometimes, my ego just wants to be heard. When I give it a voice and listen to its reasoning, I realize that it’s just a petulant child with absurd explanations for being angry. If I just listen to it, I can objectively see how ridiculous its arguments are and not be swayed by them.

3. Change the narrative. One year into my sobriety, I got a job back at the inpatient treatment center I had gone through. I was hired as a breakfast cook even though I had had no experience in the field. The executive chef liked my attitude and work ethic and decided to give me a chance. When I first started, I was the only cook on duty for the 7:00–7:45 AM breakfast shift. Anywhere between 20 to 45 orders would have to be cooked within that 45-minute window with an inevitable rush right at the end. I used to get so stressed out over it. My anxiety kicked into a gear I didn’t even know was possible. This was part of my job and I knew I had to figure out a way to manage the anxiety.

About two weeks into this job, I realized that I could do it as long as I prepared my station well and organized the incoming orders, but the anxiety was still there. What I later realized was the body experiences anxiety and excitement the same way; whether or not we can call it “anxiety” or “excitement” is our brain’s interpretation of the bodily sensations. So instead of being worried and anxious at 7:00 AM when the orders started coming in, I convinced myself that this feeling I was experiencing was actually excitement and I was going to have fun while cooking.

4. Utilize the life hack “This is it.” I remember watching a YouTube video a couple years back and the videographer said that he had three words that could transport a person back into the present moment every time: This. Is. It. When we’re stuck in traffic? This. Is. It. When we’re late for work and we’re waiting on the subway platform? This. Is. It. What is happening right now? This. Is. It. This is what we’re experiencing right now. When we argue with reality — being stuck in traffic, for instance — we suffer. We are powerless over traffic. But we are not powerless over our reaction toward traffic. We can turn the radio on and have a dance party. We can call our best friend and chat.

I remember brushing my teeth one night and for some reason, I was full of anxiety. I didn’t understand why, so I asked myself a question. “Self, what’s the deal? Why are you so anxious? What would you rather be doing right now than brushing your teeth?” I responded, “I want to watch another episode of Lost.” Truth be told, I was in the middle of an all-day, all-night binge-watch of the wonderfully critically acclaimed TV show, Lost, and didn’t want to be brushing my teeth at that moment. I thought to myself, “This. Is. It. I’m brushing my teeth. For the next 90 seconds, I am brushing my teeth. I have Netflix! Lost is on-demand! I can watch it whenever I want.” All of sudden, the anxiety went away, and all I did was brush my teeth.

5. Stop multi-tasking. Albert Einstein once said, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” I used to be a huge proponent of multitasking and envied anyone who could juggle several things at the same time. I constantly found myself jumping from project to project, seemingly on a whim, and thought that this was evidence of my intellectual acumen. I also found myself forgetting tasks and allowing important things to elude my attention. If a project folder was not on my desk and an email didn’t prompt me to think about it, I forgot about it. Out of sight, out of mind was never truer. Today, I’m a list-maker and I prioritize deadlines. I block out segments of my calendar for certain projects and adjust my schedule as needed.

When the mind is juggling so many things at once, it forces the brain to work harder. It has been scientifically proven that when the mind thinks, the neurons on the brain fire at such a rate that it causes a frequency within the brain; the faster the thinking, the faster the frequency. When we think cognitively, the brain fires at a beta frequency, which is really good for problem solving, but this frequency also attracts worry and stressful thoughts. When we slow our thoughts down, the neurons fire slower, and we can enter a theta frequency, where the voice of our intention can be heard more clearly. Albert Einstein invoked this rationale when he also famously said, “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”

6. Repeat the mantra, “And I love it.” Kyle Cease, comedian and motivational speaker, says that when you’re anxious, ask yourself why you’re anxious and list all the reasons why. Then at the end, say, “And I love it.” If you can learn to love the fear instead of resisting it, the body will respond differently to it. When I was a cook, for example, I asked myself why I was so anxious about cooking breakfast for 20 to 45 people. The response: “I have no cooking experience. If I’m slow, people will be hungry and angry. If they don’t like my food, they’ll let everyone know, including my boss… And I love it.” The first time I tried it, I smiled wildly. It was like saying, “Bring it on!” I became lighter and looked at the job as a challenge to overcome fear and insecurity. When we embrace the fear, we acknowledge it and open up to it. When we resist it, the fear becomes more powerful and closes us down, sometimes preventing us from achievement. As Jim Carrey says, “Fear will be a player in your life but you get to choose how much.”

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

I define mindfulness as seeing everything as it is without adding a story to it. We tend to overlay our beliefs and expectations onto what we see, and we often suffer because of these thoughts. Mindfulness helps us to completely check into life. When we get lost in thought, we lose our mindfulness and our free will because our subconscious minds take over. Our subconscious minds are full of old movies of the past that we keep on playing over and over in our heads, and when we lose our mindfulness, this subconscious mind guides our actions.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

Meditation helps us to get out of the subconscious mind and allows us to make wise decisions in the present moment. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen on the meditation cushion, when we’re focused on our breathing and the sensations of our bodies. During those times, we are preparing ourselves for our regular lives. It is when we are out of the meditation room and we are triggered by everyday happenings that meditation will allow us to pause before reacting with our old thought patterns, and in that space, we have a choice to act differently. The greater the space to reflect, the greater chance we have to act differently, and thus change.

Simple tasks like brushing my teeth, washing the dishes, and driving are all forms of moving meditation that I employ daily. Each of these tasks allow us to integrate mindfulness into our everyday lives. When we throw ourselves completely into a task and allow our minds to follow our movements, we can check out of the mindless chatter that’s creating our suffering. When washing the dishes, I feel the soap against my hands, the temperature of the water, and the surface of the dishes. When I’m driving, I’m just driving. I feel the steering wheel against my hands. I turn the wheel along the contours of the road. I feel my foot against the gas or the brake pedal. I am completely present.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

I have an app on my phone called MindBell that is based on a tradition at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat center, Blue Cliff Monastery. Every hour, a bell tolls at the center and when everyone hears the bell, they all stop what they’re doing; everyone checks in with their body and the state of their minds. After about a minute of silence, they return to their tasks. I have programmed my MindBell to ring a meditation bell every 30 minutes. I’ve done this to remind myself of my connection to my higher power. I know that my connection to my higher power is always there. The problem is that my awareness of that connection isn’t always there. When I feel connected, I feel grounded and balanced, reminding myself that I’m going to be okay. When I forget about this connection, I tend to feel stressed out and anxious. Once the bell goes off, I’m reminded that whatever is happening right now, I’m supposed to be experiencing it. I should lean into the present and know that I’m going to be okay. The universe has always provided me with everything that I’ve needed. It won’t let me down now.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices?

I’m actually not a big fan of reading or listening to podcasts on mindfulness. I am a fan of doing mindfulness practices, so I much prefer going on retreats. There are 13 retreat centers in the United States that offer silent retreats, and my favorites are the Kripalu and the Dhamma Vipassana retreat centers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is by Jack Kornfield, who stated that, “In the end, only three things in life matter: How deeply you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” I think the hardest part in life is that third tenant, and I try to live my life based on it every day. I’ve come to realize that I can only control three things in my life: my thoughts, words, and actions. I am powerless over everything else. So when I work hard toward something, I’ve been taught to let go of my attachment to the outcome. I can’t control outcomes, I can only control the process: doing the next right thing. Doing it to the best of my ability and then letting the proverbial cards fall where they may. If I am so focused on the outcome, I have been known to lie, cheat, and steal to get to that outcome. When I do that, I’m manipulating the universe. I believe that everything happens for a reason. When things work out well, it’s the universe telling me to keep going down this path. When things don’t go well, the universe is redirecting me to something else.

Looking back on my life, I can see so many points where I thought things were going badly — I got fired from my last job in Seattle, my condo was in foreclosure, I couldn’t find a job for 1 ½ years, I lost all of my savings and 401K, and was forced into rehab. None of those things were on my bucket list! And while I went through them, they sucked! But now, because of where I am in life and the difference I’ve been able to make in others’ lives, I realize that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. So, all of those things that happened to me, had to happen to get me right here, where I am today. They have since become blessings in disguise in my story. So, when things don’t go my way now, I try to remind myself, “Hey, why can’t this be a blessing in disguise too? Remember, the universe is always right.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Just kindness. There are so many things that separate us — religions, politics, cultures. Nobody is going to change my beliefs, and no one is going to change yours. We are all walking on our own journeys. So when we meet each other on the street, can we just be kind to each other?

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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