Let people know you’re thinking about them. Offer a kind word of encouragement. Share a funny story. Smiling releases endorphins and those create good vibes. The more smiles the better and kindness is where that magic starts!
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cole Baker Bagwell.
Cole is a long time yogi and mindfulness practitioner who loves big, juicy business. She spent over two decades as a Sales Executive and Strategist solving complex business puzzles with the world’s smartest companies from Silicon Valley to Wall Street.
As the Founder and Kindness Director of Cool Audrey™, Cole partners with companies to cultivate kindness first cultures by seeding practices that elevate mindfulness to a strategic, must-have business imperative. She’s unconventional in her language, in her approach to business, and in the way she sees the world.
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?
Thanks for asking me to join you Beau! The backstory goes a little something like this. I’m one of those people, who if you’d asked me in my 20’s, would never have imagined myself in the corporate world. I thought I’d wind up simply and happily working for a non-profit, living in a yurt on a farm raising horses. One twist led to another. When I was 24, I took my first corporate job. The thing I remember most, was how sad and disconnected everyone seemed. The absence of humanity and kindness was overwhelming. I felt like those were things I could share that would make my business different and better. So, I made a choice to authentically show up as myself- a kind, smart, free spirit shaking the proverbial hand of business with total optimism and intention. Looking back now, that one choice is what defined the way I’ve done business for the last 25+ years. It’s the root of the experience my clients and teams have when we work together and the success we share.
A few short years later, I didn’t recognize my life. I’d let myself get caught in the furiously spinning corporate loop. I was working long hours and I was super stressed. I started practicing yoga and mindfulness as a way to release the pressure valve. That choice changed my whole world. Mindfulness not only reduced my stress but I was more balanced and as a result, more successful at work.
That experience led me to make another brave choice three years ago when I was leading a client meeting on Wall Street. I was working as a software strategist. Twenty or so technologists filed into the room with their multiple phones, mousepads and laptops. They were “ready”. Their screens came up, their heads went down and as they did, I took a deep breath, drew from my mindfulness practice and made an unusual request. I asked them to close down everything they had just powered up. I asked them to close their eyes and start breathing. For the sixty seconds that followed, I led them through what I call “guided stillness”. In that minute when we all paused, I asked them to set an intention for our time together. When they opened their eyes, some had tears streaming down their faces. They did not open their laptops or their phones. They engaged with one another. The meeting was unlike any we’d had previously. We filled two whiteboards with ideas and we parted with a clear plan. That day, I learned when people are given the choice to pause and lead with kindness, most say, “yes please”. That’s when I knew I was onto something that could completely change the landscape of business. That’s when I first felt the pull to build Cool Audrey™.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Oh gosh. There are so many interesting things that have happened! I’ll share one that happened B.C. (before Covid)
I was meeting with a new client team in Atlanta- a group of about (30) people. One of the attendees was visually impaired. He had his guide dog with him- a gorgeous German Shepherd. Over the course of our three-hour workshop, his Shepherd sat dutifully by his side, working. Toward the end of the day, I asked everyone to close everything down and settle in. Some people laid on the floor, others nestled into their chairs or rested with their legs up against the wall as I guided them through several minutes of deep guided stillness. In the end, when I asked everyone to open their eyes, we noticed the Shepherd was still by his owner’s side BUT he was sprawled out, eyes closed, breathing, and resting too. He picked up on the collective vibe of calm that we created together and it was beautiful to experience.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I love this question. Fantastic cultures encourage and amplify the best in every single person. They are cultures that insist on kindness first and make every choice from that foundation. Cultures like these foster trust, respect, loyalty, collaboration, innovation and growth because every single person is valued and they understand why.
These cultures don’t happen by chance. They require intention and attention. They are seeded by leaders who understand culture is the soil of business so they have redefined the way they think about culture. They approach it as a responsibility shared by everyone.
Fantastic (healthy, high functioning) cultures begin with leaders tilling the earth, alongside everyone else in the company. That’s where mindfulness comes into the picture. The “tilling” literally creates the landscape for humanity and kindness to enter business. Tilling creates the conditions for people to think differently, reevaluate what they hold dear and build something together. It positions leaders to step back and consider their whole ecosystem of choices; how they are hiring and onboarding people, the experiences they are sharing from Day 1, the leaders they are choosing to support those people and the environments they will be working in, etc. All of these choices influence culture.
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?
I love to read. One of my all time favorites is a book of poetry called “Thirst” by Mary Oliver. It’s based on the years of her life that she spent in nature and the lessons she learned from the plants, animals, natural elements and the silence she took in. Every word is a reminder of the beauty and sheer wonder we can experience when we simply slow down, hang out a little in nature and look around us. One of my favorite lines is from a poem called “When I Am Among the Trees”, “…and you too have come here to do this, to move slowly, to bow often, to be filled with light and to shine.” Those are words I repeat to myself every morning. They stir the very best in me, even on dreary days.
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?
That’s a great question, Beau. I’ll share a lesson I learned in a yoga class 26 years ago that has guided my understanding and practice of mindfulness ever since. As we settled onto our mats, my teacher opened with this simple statement: “Yoga is great but mindfulness will change your life”. She said being mindful was very simply experiencing every moment with full awareness, one moment at a time. Over the years, I’ve read scores of research and books by brilliant researchers, neuroscientists, and practitioners on this one topic. My teacher’s simple summary was spot on.
Somehow, our Western world has misled a lot of people. They have either over complicated it or they’ve landed mindfulness in the “woo-woo” hippie category. It’s not about reaching a destination or emptying the mind until there is nothingness by sitting silently for hours. “Mindful” is a cultivated internal state of being that requires three simple things: attention, intention and practice. A mindful set point puts us squarely in the moments of our lives as they are unfolding, one beautiful moment at a time. It allows us to meet every moment with greater clarity, objectivity and with a kinder, more measured response. It’s one of the most valuable and powerful skills we can adopt because it literally changes our moment to moment experience of whatever is happening. A mindful set point also brings enormous benefits to our bodies, to our minds and to our collective consciousness, when we come together, as in business.
My mindful practice is continual. It begins the same way with breathing, on purpose. That act of breathing slows down my body and brain. That helps me check in with myself, understand where I am and what I’m showing up with when I engage with other people. It’s like hitting the pause button on a movie. You don’t miss a single thing.
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?
There is some really amazing and intelligent research conducted by scholars, doctors and the like on this very topic. There is even more in the works. I’ll share a few highlights that resonated with me as I thought about the possibilities for mindfulness in business. They are, in part, what led me to launch Cool Audrey.
Quite simply, the body and mind are connected. What we take in through our body will affect our minds and what we take in through our mind will affect our body. Our brain is like mission control sending messages to our bodies all day long by way of our nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. It controls things like our breathing, respiration, heart rate, pupil dilation, and digestion. When we race around on autopilot, lose sleep because our minds are racing or we get super stressed, our nervous system becomes imbalanced. The sympathetic side (fight or flight) kicks into high gear and it releases all sorts of chemicals that cause things we experience in our mind and physical body. Things like anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, digestive issues and other conditions that cause the body and mind to be in a state of dis-ease.
Deep breathing is one of the things we can do to slow things down, calm that chemical response and create more balance. That type of deep, focused breathing not only slows our respiration but it increases harmony between our either major systems. This type of intentional (or mindful) breathing slows down our thinking, allowing us to become more mindful of what we are experiencing. The mindful state of being allows us to navigate whatever is happening more successfully. When our bodies are calm, our minds follow suit and vice versa.
When we think about our physical body and our emotional stability, it’s easy to understand where being mindful in every moment becomes so beneficial and valuable. Here’s what I mean. When we’re angry, frustrated, unheard, disrespected or in the midst of any situation where there is conflict, there are physical signs that show up in our bodies. Some of us get headaches or feel nauseous. Some of us get hot, cold, shaky or our minds spin. Some of us clench our jaws. These are all signs of imbalance and clues that we need to switch gears and slow down. When we feel these things and react from that place, our thoughts, words and actions are typically unkind, hurtful- damaging in some way. If we can become mindful (aware) of our physical clues, we can make a choice to slow down and breathe. We can create a little space and clarity that will position us to cultivate a kinder response, enabling us to do less emotional harm to ourselves and to others.
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.
- Create the pause. Breathing is one of those amazing things that we take for granted or maybe never think much about at all. We have this idea that breathing is trite and that slowing down means doing less. Not so. There is powerful research that shows the value and necessity of slowing down, as we consider overall health. Breathing literally calms the brain, allowing us to check in with ourselves, on purpose, with full awareness. Creating the pause throughout the day is most effective and it’s easy. Tip: Set an alarm for the top of every hour. Be still and take six deep breaths. Repeat every waking hour. This is especially important first thing in the morning and as the last thing you do before you settle in for sleep. Story: A few days after 911, I felt devastated. My son was two at the time and the world I knew was in total upheaval. I was worried. I shook with nervous energy. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I made a choice to go to my yoga class that night. I unrolled my mat and began breathing mindfully, eyes closed, tears streaming. I made a choice to slow everything down and I began to feel the effects of my breathing on my brain and nervous system. During class, we did a balancing shape called “tree”. I did not waiver. I stood strong and steady. In those moments of slowing down, I connected with myself and realized I was okay, even in the midst of the craziness of the world outside. That realization has helped me mindfully navigate every moment that has followed. Creating the pause has become one of my primary teachings and the mantra in our family too.
- Choose wisely. Everything we take in through our senses matters and we are free to choose. We can choose to be with positive people, negative people and all those in between. We can choose how much time we spend with them and how we engage. We can choose to exercise, be sedentary, or create something. We can choose the foods we eat, what we drink and everything else we put in our bodies. We can choose fresh air, music, podcasts that teach us something, language lessons, audio books, conversations with people we enjoy, the sounds of nature or even silence. It’s up to us to make sure that what we choose, serves us well. I agree that it’s important to understand what’s happening in the world, but there are ways to stay informed without becoming inundated, anxious, overwrought with fear and helplessness. Choose wisely and be mindful of what you are taking in throughout the day. Story: A dear friend of mine began experiencing high levels of anxiety. He’s a brilliant artist who started having a hard time getting to work on time, concentrating and engaging. We began to talk about what he was taking in. He realized the first thing he did every morning was look at his phone. From there, he scrolled and swiped until he was drowning in a sea of news and Twitter feeds. Because he was tired, he started drinking too much coffee and then crashing when it wore off. He wasn’t exercising. His focus waned and his patience grew thin. He began to isolate himself, repeating the same patterns throughout the day. He was miserable. He knew he needed to change something. He made the simple choice to meditate for 15 minutes every morning, with the Headspace app, when he first woke up. That one simple choice calmed his brain and his nervous system. He was able to make more positive choices, one after another, about what he was taking in. Over the months that followed, he became healthier and more engaged in his life. His focus and creativity increased and so did his happiness. That one simple choice he made created a foundation that he draws from today.
- Perspective is everything. Perspective is a choice that determines how we navigate the world around us. The experiences we’ve had during COVID, have been different from one person to another. All conditions being equal, perspective has caused some of us to curse this time and focus on the very worst parts while allowing others of us to embrace it with gratitude. Perspective has caused some of us to shut down and others of us to realize possibilities we never knew existed. So how do you shift perspective? Start with bullets 1–3. We have to slow down to realize what’s happening in our minds before we can make the changes we need to shift our perspective. Story: B.C., I would fly two to three times a week to work with my clients. One morning, I was on an early 7AM flight to NYC. For those of you familiar with the boarding process, you’ll know that we boarded around 6:30AM- that’s early! We hustled onto the plane, wrestled luggage into bins overhead, buckled in and then…we sat totally still on the runway. After 30 minutes, people were beginning to get impatient and uneasy. They started ringing the attendant bell. A few minutes later, the pilot let us know we would be delayed two hours due to “ground delays” at LGA. Here’s where perspective comes in. As others grumbled, cursed and made themselves generally miserable, I remember thinking, “What a great chance for me to finish some writing.” Our conditions were exactly the same. We were all on the same plane, with places to be and stuck. None of it was permanent. It was just a window in time. Our perspectives determined the experiences each of us had.
- Heads up, eyes up. Being connected socially with one another is a basic human need. Scientific research from the late ’80s found a lack of social interaction can have as many negative impacts on our health as smoking and obesity. A 2018 Nielsen study reported that American adults spend about 11 hours every day interacting with some form of media. That’s 11 almost half the hours we have in a full day and we are spending them disconnected from one another in real life. (By the way, most of that time was spent swiping.) The technology we have at our fingertips is a necessity BUT the habits we’ve created have caused us to become more disconnected, anxious, isolated and depressed than ever before. When we put our heads down in our laptops, our phones, iPads and the like, we’re immersing ourselves in the digital world and those choices are causing us to disappear and disconnect from the people and real life experiences around us. So, unplug, get your head up and engage in your life as it’s happening! That engagement fulfills our human need to connect and decreases damaging things like isolation and loneliness. Story: COVID has reminded us about the importance of connecting with one another. Not only that, but we are mindfully moving through the world with our heads up and eyes wide open- connecting with more intention and focus than ever before. We’re doing human things like making signs, waving and saying hello when we pass one another. As we maintain safe distance while wearing our masks, we’ve been reminded just how much eye contact matters. It allows us to connect and understand one another differently. It allows us to make a human connection that reminds us we are all part of a bigger world.
- Practice the self you want to be. Whether it’s a language, instrument or learning a new skill like chopping veggies with precision, we become fluent when we practice. Every choice is cumulative. Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel? Start there. Consider writing it down. Then, pause. Slow down and consider the choices you’re making. Which ones are helping you be and feel the way you want? What do you need to shift or abandon to get there? Practice the things that serve you well, with intention.Post sticky notes prominently throughout your home to remind you. Story: My Dad was always a nice man. He always took care of his family but he was not especially loving, warm or kind. He grew up in a family of stoic Catholics and he used that as his excuse for turning out the way he did. He had a major life event two years ago that shook him. As he was recovering, he told me he wanted to be “ a different and better man”. I asked him what he wanted most. He said, “I want to be kind.” He began practicing kindness in every thought, word and choice he made. Two years later, I can honestly say he is the kindest and most grateful man I have ever known. He realized the self he wanted to be and he practiced the things he needed to practice to help him get there.
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?
- Check-in with yourself before you connect. We all have system capacity. If you’re feeling anxious, stressed, exhausted or frustrated, overwhelmed, it’s very likely you need a break before you connect with anyone else. Take a few minutes to mindfully check in with your “inside self”. That simple choice will enable you to choose words and actions that will prevent you from creating an avalanche of negativity.
- Offer a kind word and a smile. This one is self-explanatory right? Let people know you’re thinking about them. Offer a kind word of encouragement. Share a funny story. Smiling releases endorphins and those create good vibes. The more smiles the better and kindness is where that magic starts!
- Ask them what they need Sometimes, we can help by sharing money, ordering groceries, arranging delivery of essentials. Sometimes, we just need to vent. In either case, the best way we can support one another is by asking what the other person needs and then offering a patient ear. No rush. No judgement. One of the questions we offer in our home is, “Do you need my advice, do you need something else or do you just need for me to listen?”
- Connect and make eye contact. Science has proven positive the benefits of making eye contact. Specifically, it increases connection, focus, understanding and most importantly, compassion. Video calls give us a chance to actually look into the face of the person on the phone and get information about how they are really feeling. If possible, invite the person to join you for a properly socially distanced walk or to visit you in your yard. Human contact is a key ingredient to overall health. If in person is not possible, grab your technology that allows you to see the other person’s face and connect in real-time. (*Note: COVID and remote working is causing some people to feel video weary. Being sensitive to the length of the call will serve everyone well.)
- Encourage each other to play. It’s super easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the world around us. We cannot control the outside BUT we can make choices to control how we feel on the inside. Sharing the simple reminder to play (an instrument, a board game, cards, toss a ball to a dog, let your child take you for a walk, a game of hide and seek, golf, tennis, ride a bike, play I Spy in your yard…) can be super helpful in getting our minds off the busyness and creating a calmer, internal response.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Mindful living goes back to the simple concept that everything we take in matters. It’s about the choices we make. Local (now virtual) classes like yoga or tai-chi that offer the basics of mindfulness are super. They are also a great way to create a supportive, mindful community. For digital people, apps like Headspace or Calm are great guides for developing a personal practice. For people who like to read, books are wonderful ways to calm the mind or escape to far away places. Three of my favorite go-to books are “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Thirst” (or really anything) by Mary Oliver and “Peace Is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. For people who connect with music, look for playlists that spark good vibes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My very favorite quote is one I learned maybe twenty years ago. It’s by Kobi Yamada: “Sometimes you have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.”
It reminds me to live courageously and to believe in myself, even when I don’t have the answers about how things will turn out. Over the years, this has become my personal mantra. I remember it whenever I am faced with a major decision. It’s helped me cultivate a perspective that is brave, resilient and forgiving.
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. 🙂
Well, Beau. I’m working to start a kindness revolution in business. We spend most of our waking hours working. The lion’s share of those hours are spent in places that have an absence of humanity and kindness, just like my first corporate job. Further, business doesn’t always exist for the right reasons and the profits generated, especially in big companies, are benefitting a precious few.
I’d so love to hold a Kindness Summit for business and world leaders. I would get them all in the same room, sans devices (and distractions). I’d give them a chance to slow down, hit pause and consider the ecosystem of business choices they are making, one at a time. I’d like for that conversation to lead us to a discussion that would help them realize how their series of choices are affecting humanity and our planet.
Then, I’d offer them a picture of the world that is possible if they simply rooted every choice in kindness. I’d ask them to consider the way the world could be if they led their business and countries with a mutual agreement of kindness first. There are countless dimensions too lengthy to detail but it’s safe to say, the opportunities are massive! The government will follow the lead of big business. That’s just the way things work.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I’m not a big user or consumer of social media. I am on LinkedIn and that’s about it. My website: www.coolaudrey.com is the single best place to follow me. That’s where people can find information about me, my work and my musings: writings, podcasts, and Cool Audrey™ sound!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Thank you for such mindful questions. I absolutely loved it. BIG gratitude to you Beau!