Wherever you place your attention becomes your center. When you locate your attention outside of yourself, be it in the constant news of the pandemic, your Smartphone, social media, or another person, you lose connection with yourself and the source of your power. Thus, you can easily lose your inner balance and become reactive. However, if you locate your attention inside yourself and then expand your field of attention to include the other person, your presence and ability to respond calmly and effectively in the moment is enhanced.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aimee Bernstein.
Aimee Bernstein, President of Open Mind Adventures,is a psychotherapist and change accelerator specializing in breakthrough coaching, collaborative teams and cultures, and mindfulness-in-action training. Her book, Stress Less Achieve More: Simple Ways to Turn Pressure into a Positive Force in Your Life (AMACOM), teaches busy leaders and their teams to use pressure — the energy of change — in developing self-mastery, powerful partnerships, well-being, and high performance while raising states of consciousness. Aimee has brought her mindfulness-in-action training to leaders in such companies as Colgate Palmolive Company, MasterCard, Chanel USA, Novartis Latin America, and many other companies and nonprofit organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Mycareer has been a continuing unfolding and reflection of my inner journey to discover the More of who I am and to offer what I have learned to others. Thus, I have spent forty years helping individuals and teams move beyond limiting beliefs, behaviors and energy habits in order for them to Stress Less, Achieve More and Be MORE.
I started my career as a semi-professional singer and junior high school music teacher in a disadvantaged Bronx neighborhood. Although I loved creating rock and roll operas with the kids and introducing them to Beethoven and Bach, I realized I was more interested in their personal development. Therefore, I enrolled in Boston University’s master’s degree program in counseling education and interned at Massachusetts General Hospital’s substance abuse and mental health clinic, which was under the auspices of Harvard Medical School. While there, I had the good fortune to study with Dr. Matt Dumont, then Commissioner of Mental Health for the state of Massachusetts, who introduced me to Zen. This opened my mind to alternative mental health approaches and led me to study hypnosis, gestalt therapy, meditation and biofeedback.
For the next few years I worked as a substance abuse counselor in Marin County, California and then became the clinical director of an Employee Assistance Program. This was my first experience in working with major corporations providing coaching, consulting and training. During this time, I began studying aikido with Robert Nadeau, an 8th dan master and pioneer in the field of consciousness. Unlike other aikido teachers, Bob taught how to use pressure, the energy of change, to enhance well-being, performance, relationships and creativity, while raising consciousness. His work inspired me to co-found The Living Arts School , which was the first stress education school in the S.F. Bay area.
Although stress reduction would later become my specialty, I was not yet empowered enough to share this work with a large audience. Luckily during this time, the women’s movement emerged. This movement not only helped me personally, it inspired me to start The Women’s Development Company, which provided mentoring and training for women. I soon recognized however, that although companies hired me to provide women’s leadership training, they were more interested in being politically correct than in creating more equitable workplaces. Thus, I incorporated and changed my company name to Aimee Bernstein & Associates, and a few years later created my dba Open Mind Adventures, which enabled me to work with decision makers and make change that mattered.
For the last 30 years, I have provided executive breakthrough coaching, collaborative team building, training and consulting to leaders of major corporations and nonprofit organizations. During this time I co-developed Partners-in-Change, an edutainment model and process designed to generate a large group’s ownership and commitment to an organization’s strategic change initiative. This model allowed me to bring my love of music together with my passion for individual and organizational development.
In 2007 a client referred me to a world class beauty company and I spent the next six years coaching the SRVP of R&D, his senior team, and his division. As part of my engagement, I introduced them to the energy awareness training of aikido, which I later renamed mindfulness-in-action.
In 2015 my book, Stress Less Achieve More : Simple Ways to Turn Pressure into a Positive Force in Your Life, was published by AMACOM. It. has been translated into Mandarin and Arabic and was voted one of seventeen inspiring books to read this past summer by Thrive Journal. For the last few years, I’ve been teaching this work to leaders in major corporations and nonprofit organizations who have needed to learn how to maintain their well-being and productivity in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Now in the midst of the pandemic, this work is needed more than ever.
These days, beyond my corporate work, I’ve been providing virtual coaching to the public, keynote speaking and am producing an online training program in mindfulness-in-action.
In looking back on my career, I recognize that it has unfolded with a divine order that I did not comprehend at the time. Although the pieces did not emerge linearly, each career development built on another to bring me to where I am today. Life works.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There have been many interesting moments in my career. The one I’d like to share created the foundation for how I show up when doing business.
I was thirty-one when the San Francisco Chronicle featured me and my Women’s’ Development Mentoring Program in their business section. After reading the article, the SRVP of HR at a major corporation, invited me to lunch to discuss my program. He asked me to meet him at a men’s club, which only two weeks before began allowing women through its doors. I was a bit intimidated by the formality of the club with its heavy wooden furniture, white linen table-cloths, and waiters in starched white shirts and black bow ties. However, as the SRVP and his second in command were friendly, I relaxed.
Once lunch was served, both men began firing questions at me. Initially I was fine, but after awhile, I lost my confidence and went into my head to figure out what to say. I felt rattled, tense and scared that I was blowing my big opportunity. Then my aikido training kicked in. While still looking at them, I shifted my attention into my hands, which were under the table-cloth. With palms facing each other, I began slowly moving them apart and then towards each other without touching. As I did this, I sensed my energy settle down into my mind/body and felt relaxed, spacious and present. I was able to listen deeply without reacting, and respond with an under-standing that was not possible when my attention was in my head.
When lunch was over and we were saying our goodbyes, the SRVP paused, smiled and then commented, “There’s something different about you. You have a lot of confidence kid.”
That experience taught me the importance of remaining centered, grounded and open, particularly when under pressure. I’ve never forgotten this lesson. I’ve made it a habit to connect deeply with myself before I meet with or coach a client, provide a training, speech or any high energy service.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
A fantastic work culture is one that inspires and uplifts people to step into the next best version of who they are, which in turn enhances their capacity to evolve the organization. It is one that supports the meaning and purpose of each associate’s work by clarifying how it contributes to the greater good. And, it is one in which team and systemic collaboration flourish. Here are some tips for creating such a work culture.
1.One of the biggest stressors occurs when busy associates do not know the organization’s strategy and can’t determine which assignments are crucial and how their work contributes to the organization’s success. To change this, bring your division together, and share the organization’s strategic plan and discuss how your division’s plan fits with it. Let them know what is important in your plan, the major goals you need to get done, and why it is critical to the organizations’ strategy. Then give your team a chance to respond. Discuss how each person job contributes to the organization’s success.
2.The foundation of a fantastic workplace is trust. To develop trust you need to address three elements: control, inclusion and openness.
In organizations of the past, control was totally in the hands of the Boss or the C-Suite . Although the top still has ultimate decision-making power, successful leaders realize that if they are to create a bridge to the future, they can’t do it alone. Paying for people’s involvement helps, but money and perks alone don’t necessarily buy people’s passion, commitment, honest feedback, accountability, and innovative suggestions for improvement. What is needed is a shared ownership mentality for change.
Shared ownerships starts with a shared understanding of what ownership, accountability and commitment mean. It honors that everyone has a voice and that authentic dissent (not dysfunctional. dissent) is welcomed.. As citizens of the workplace community, members may not get their way when they dissent, but they do not get banished.. By developing shared ownership, associates have a true stake in the game and the old “It’s not my job” mentality becomes a thing of the past.
Inclusion not only refers to gender, race, culture, religion, age, sexual orientation and disabilities. It honors differences in perspective and worldviews, as well as job titles To develop tolerance and compassion for different ways of thinking and behaving, I recommend:
* The Enneagram, which is the most profound and practical personality tool I have discovered in my years of coaching and consulting.
* Teaching associates the difference between discussion and true dialogue. Whereas in discussion people are more invested in selling their point of view than in considering that of others, dialogue fosters true inquiry and deep listening.
* Ask your associates what gifts/talents and contributions they want to make to the greater good and whether they have felt invited in the past to do so. Then, with an eye on the positive, go out of your way to include and support the gifts and contributions of those who are often excluded because of “bad behavior”. In my experience, when people feel accepted and valued, they become less defensive. They are more apt to drop dysfunctional behavior that may have led to their exclusion from the group in the past.
If you want to develop trust, leaders need to be authentic. They need to let go of their egos and admit when they don’t know. I also suggest they become more accessible to those who work for them. One way of doing this is by having a monthly breakfast of champions meeting with top talent. In this meeting everyone is encouraged to ask questions in order to get to know each other and learn.
Transparency is also encouraged. I recognize that it is not wise to share all information all of the time . However, savvy leaders are sensitive to their employees’ need for information. If leaders do not attend to this, employees will feel excluded. Their trust in leadership, ownership of the workplace community, and commitment to the greater good will dissipate.
Beyond these tips, millennials appreciate the ability to work from home, to receive performance feedback after each major assignment, and have access to training,
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? Not really. There have been many books I have learned from
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?
Mindfulness is usually thought of as being in the moment on purpose and without judgment. That, however, is just the starting place. Mindfulness is the portal that leads to the numerous dimensions of yourself. Thus, mindfulness is actually a process which keeps revealing itself.
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?
1. When you are mindful of your thoughts, you begin to recognize that your conditioned mind is like a software program that runs over and over again and that your thoughts are not necessarily true. This recognition empowers you to cancel and /or shift away from thoughts that are not in service of your higher good.
2. Mindfulness helps you shift your attention from your cognitive mind into your mind/body/energy field. The embodiment provides access to your emotions, sensations and intuition so you can navigate life more effectively.
3. By bringing your attention into the mind/body/energy field you become more spacious and your presence, confidence and capacity are enhanced.
4. Mindfulness shifts emotional states. It can ease fear, lift depression and calm anger. By bringing your attention and breath to where the emotion is located within your body, the emotion begins to lessen. After awhile you recognize that you are not the emotion. This insight enhances self-mastery and inner freedom
5. Mindfulness reduces stress and reactivity. When practiced over time, it imprints a new way of responding onto the nervous system. And when practiced in meditation and under the pressures of daily life, a calm and centered state becomes more accessible.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. 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.
1. Don’t believe everything you think.
The conditioned mind is like a software program that plays over and over again. Because we hear its messages so often, we believe that what we think is true. Yet, most of the time it is fake news. And even if, for example, your worry regarding your ability to pay your bills during this pandemic is real, worrying is not going to make your situation any better, All it does is create a double negative that causes your energy and muscles to contract and your mind to spin out of control, so you end up feeling worse.
There’ s an old AA story that exemplifies this. Joseph wakes up one morning twenty minutes later than usual. When he realizes the time, he becomes agitated thinking that he will be late for work. He tells himself, “The boss is going to be really mad. I was late three months ago. There goes my promotion. I worked so hard for that promotion. He could fire me. He hates when people are late. No question about it, I’m going to lose my job. If I lose my job, the bank will foreclose on the house. We’ll have nowhere to live. My wife is going to be furious with me. She’ll leave me. She’ll take the kids and move to her mother’s. I’ll only get the kids a couple of weeks a year.” In less than five minutes, Joseph has gone from being twenty minutes late for work to having his whole life crash down on him.
Although the pattern may not be as severe as Joseph’s, all of us have been held captive by a limited and/or negative thought. When this happens, cut the flow of the thought pattern by shifting your attention. Say to yourself, “ Cancel” and imagine you are changing channels. Distract yourself with a pleasant thought or memory. Then come back to the here and now by putting your attention on your breath and sense/feel (ot just observe) your breathing.
2. Call your attention back
I am on the mat with my 8th dan aikido teacher, Robert Nadeau. He throws a strike to my head. I counter and he is down. And then for a split second I shift my attention outside of myself to check how well I did. In that moment, he counters and I am down. “Do you get it?” he asked. Yup, I got it.
Wherever you place your attention becomes your center. When you locate your attention outside of yourself, be it in the constant news of the pandemic, your Smartphone, social media or another person, you lose connection with yourself and the source of your power. Thus, you can easily lose your inner balance and become reactive. However, if you locate your attention inside yourself and then expand your field of attention to include the other person, your presence and ability to respond calmly and effectively in the moment is enhanced. To learn to do this, you first need to recognize when your attention is out there or within you. Here’s a simple practice from my book, Stress Less Achieve MORE.
While sitting, take a moment to focus your attention outside of yourself on an object (not a person) in the room. Choose something that is not too far away. Let’s call this location “there.”
After you’ve stared at it for a few minutes, you’ll probably feel as if there is little or no distance between you and it. Now reverse the direction of your attention and slowly frame-by-frame bring your attention back inside yourself: The first place it goes into is your eyes. It’s similar to fishing. You send your line out, or in this case the beam of your attention, it connects with something, and you slowly reel your line or attention back.
Now close your eyes and let them rest in their sockets. You may see the object in your mind’s eye. Let your attention, and if you see it, the picture of the object, go into the back of your head, Slowly allow your attention to settle down through your body. When it does, the picture will disappear. As your attention moves into your chest, notice your breathing. Allow your attention to continue to settle deeper until you are aware of your breath in your lower body. Now sense/feel your lower belly fill up with air; then slowly let go of the breath. Relax into your chair. Then trusting your own sense of timing, slowly open your eyes and look again at the object.
Repeat this practice two more times, Each time you finish, describe the difference in your experience between being “here” and being ‘there.’ Did your relationship and sense of distance with the object change? Which location felt more familiar to you?
During the day, remember to ask yourself whether you are here or there. If your attention is out there, call it back. The more your practice, like a well trained dog, it will come.
3.Settle your energy
When stressed, the body goes into the fight, flight or freeze response. Adrenalin and cortisol are released and energy moves up through the body. Your heart starts beating faster, breathing gets shallow, muscles tighten and you lose a sense of the ground. Yet, as Newton advised us, what goes up must go down. It is through moving with gravity and allowing your energy to settle into the ground, that like a deeply rooted tree, you are able to withstand the hurricane force winds. Furthermore, when you are deeply grounded, you are able to truly under-stand others and embody your values, rather than just talk about them. So how do you settle your energy?.
Deep breathing and embodied meditation are tried and true methods. Here’s another way.
A few years ago I coached the CEO of an international construction company who was dealing with the pressures of his job. Jack, as I’ll call him, would rush from meeting to meeting and in the process would sense a buzz of agitation within his body that pushed him out of alignment with himself. As the energy pulsated upwards though his body, his shoulders would raise, and he would lean forward slightly. Without realizing it, he would locate his attention outside of himself. Usually, he didn’t have time within his fast paced day to meditate, therefore I suggested he walk with elephant feet.
First, I had him sense/feel the width and heaviness of his elephant feet. Then I asked him to sense/feel the energy moving out of his toes into the field, which made them seem longer. Next, I guided him to sense/feel the soles of his feet. When he was able to experience this, I asked him to allow his heavy elephant feet to sink into the ground, and then below the ground as if he was standing in mud. Finally, I asked him to walk with elephant feet, which slowed his gait down.
As it was a fast, fun and simple way to become embodied, this became his practice. When he got out of his car to go to a meeting he would take a moment to re-connect with the ground and then walked to the meeting with elephant feet. To his surprise, this didn’t make him late; instead, he arrived at the meetings with more presence and ability to calmly and effectively handle the pressure of whatever came his way.
4. Become spacious
Members of the team I was coaching were waiting for the meeting to begin, Some were looking at their phones, others were talking to each other, while a couple were staring into space. Sarah, the new team member, appeared at the door. This was her first time meeting the team, and I knew she was nervous. However, as she stood there, her large presence seemed to glow with a friendly optimism that was appealing. One by one, as people were touched by her presence, they turned their attention towards her. Many smiled. She then walked over to each one of them to introduce herself. By the time she was done, I knew she was welcomed into the team.
Whenever there is a job or task to do, energy in the amount needed accomplish the job, floods through your mind/body system. That’s true no matter what the job is — -giving a speech, running a race, or dealing with the pressure of the pandemic.
If you close down to this incoming energy, you will feel tense, small. depleted and stressed. You may become anxious, impatient and/or judgmental as nothing seems to be working well, no matter how hard you try. You are now operating from a smaller version of yourself..
However, if you open and align to the incoming energy as Sarah did, you will feel alive, empowered, and experience high performance, as your capacity to do the job is increased. Your confidence, presence, and creativity will also be enhanced. Now you are operating from a larger version of yourself.
To move through these challenging times with ease, It’s important to remain spacious by keeping your energy outflow strong and taking care of replenishing it regularly. Try it out now.
Tense your muscles and contract your energy. This is the stance that breeds fear, anxiety, and emotional disconnection. Now reverse the flow of your energy into the field around you. From the center of your being, radiate 360 degrees around you like the sun. Let yourself open and expand, .sensing the energetic circle around you. Now extend your energy outflow by shifting your attention beyond the boundaries of the circle, and sense the larger circle around you, Let your attention merge with the energy field.. Now how do you feel?
5. Honor downtime
Most of us want to be up, happy and high. And when we are not, we seek something outside of ourselves, in another person, a substance, social media etc. to make us so. We seek the light and run from the darkness, which we fear. We cling to the idea of things rather than the deeper body or experience of them. Yet as Joseph Campbell said, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.”
After my beloved mother died I became unsure of who I was and the meaning of my life. I had taken care of her for five years before her death, running her errands, taking her to the doctor, handing her finances, calling her once or twice a day, and staying with her on weekends when her aide was off. My life was identified with hers.
A few months later I had a myofascial release massage. While on the table I sensed myself as an infant whose mother was not there. I couldn’t move. An energy then entered my upper chest which said “I AM”. Slowly, I regained movement.
This was the beginning of my rebirth. Although I still miss her dearly, I have stepped into a finer identify which is more empowered, more loving and more at peace with myself.
Now, in this pandemic, we can fight what is and suffer because reality does not match our idea of what should be, or we can use this time to find the opportunities — the deep treasures of life and of our finer Self.
So here’s my mindfulness tip. Dive into the downtime and allow your identity (not your physical body) to die. If you move with the downward flow of gravity rather than fighting it, a rebirth will occur . Who you will emerge as will be a finer version of yourself. Here’s an awareness and an experiential practice to start you on your way.
Quiet your mind chatter and listen more to your inner voice as you live in the questions of who am I, who do I want to be, and how can I be of service? Start journaling your answers but don’t try to make anything happen. Approach your answers with cautious optimism as some of your answers will not have enough energy to fully manifest. Trust what emerges over time as you integrate your new identity.
Once your energy has settled into your body when meditating, ask what is deeper? The universe is responsive and if you are open, you may begin to sense under the ground. Trust what you sense. Keep settling deeper while maintaining an energetic spaciousness. Allow yourself to soften and surrender. Like good fertilizer, the deep and dark will nourish and support your emergence.
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?
1. Instead of trying to fix them, listen deeply and say “oh honey.” Sometimes people just need to voice their fears out loud and need a soft place to land, so to speak.
2. Ask them what they need. If they don’t know or are uncomfortable asking for help, just do it. For example, a neighbor of mine recently recovered from cancer but her immune system is weak. She was afraid to go to the store for groceries but didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone for help. So I knocked on her door, told her I was going to the store, and insisted she create her shopping list so I could get what she needed. She told me later how much she appreciated this.
3. Stay in contact with those you care about. Your loving presence tells them they matter and they are not alone. That helps in dealing with uncertainty.
4.If they are open to it, introduce them to the myriad of virtual meditation and mindfulness offerings, many of which are free.
5. Help them shift their mood by sending them funny emails and videos. Sometimes comedy is the perfect remedy for what ails us.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
There are many great books, including my own Stress Less Achieve More, which can help. However, I think the best way for people to learn to become mindful is not through collecting information but through continuous practice. As the Greek poet Archilochos said, ‘Under duress we do not rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of training.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Lao Tzu wrote, “Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” This has been the essential life lesson that has significantly changed my life for the better. Here’s an example.
I am at the annual aikido retreat getting ready to sing “The Rose” during talent night. I’ve practiced this song many times and truly love it. As I wait for the MC to call my name, I feel so juiced my heart is racing. This is a good thing. tThe increased energy will enhance my performance. I breathe, open to center/ground, and surrender to the energy. The music starts and I begin to sing. My concentration is deep and focused, but it is not located in my thinking mind. Instead, every cell in my body is alert and activated.
Almost immediately, I realize the song sounds different from when I practiced it. I have the words, rhythm, and melody right, but the nuances, the phrasing, the feeling, are all new. I recognize that I am out of control and I’m a bit scared. I can’t call for a do over, so I let go and surrender to it. When the song ends, my teacher Robert Nadeau, runs onto the stage, picks me up and hugs me. The energy feels so big I am elated. Later, I realize I had entered a flow state and that Bob, a master of energy, had witnessed it and was delighted for me.
I apply this life lesson to my personal life and career, and have stopped being seduced by modern life’s call to do, do, do. Instead of racing to countless networking meetings, spending hours cold calling or engaged in social media,, I follow my intuition and the clues life presents. To my delight, the most surprising opportunities have presented themselves. Like a ship in the water that moves with the wind rather than against it, I have learned to join with the flow of life. Thank you Lao Tzu.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
As evolutionary change disrupts every aspect of our world, we need to come together to find a more conscious, united and peaceful way to relate. This means that the human heart must keep advancing as rapidly as our technology, so the choices we make as a civilization protects what makes us most human. We need to go beyond our conventional narratives and discussions in which we try to prove we are right. Instead, we need to listen deeply and engage in dialogue. Through the inquiry of dialogue, we will find the third point — the higher vision — that unites us.
In the 1980s, I dreamt that just as there were terrorist cells throughout the world, there were peace cells. Although most of them did not know of each other, these cells were strung together like the finest of pearls.
If I could start a movement I would unite these peace cells, and create a Band of Peace Pearls. Together they would leverage their individual power to create a larger collective voice in the world, which is in service of the greater good. This would be a people’s movement, which those in power would be wise to consider in their decision-making.
There would be a website with contributions from the greatest thinkers, heart leaders, action takers, and spiritual warriors from around the world, as well as those unknown folks who have something exceptional to contribute. The different magazines and peace websites would unite to create a monthly theme that exponentially would expand the focus on the topic. We’d encourage national and local television stations to join in. Together we’d focus on such areas as compassion, community building, sustainability, energy mastery, mental health, inquiry, the difference between power and force, resolving conflicts harmoniously, etc . Beyond enhancing awareness, we would offer simple practices that would expand people’s experience and knowledge of the topic.
We’d bring these topics deeply into the schools, the workplaces, and other arenas of our lives. These topics would be included in political science courses so future politicians have a broader understanding of how to serve.
In addition, we’d create a list of peace cells and their specialties so they can learn from each other. We’d bring their messages into society’s consciousness through the established media, social media, musical gatherings like We Are the World, and through movies and television spearheaded by the Tyler Perrys and Steven Spielbergs of our time.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!