Author S.A. Snyder: How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times
Treat others the way you want to be treated. The Golden Rule still applies and always should. Have you ever noticed that when you smile at someone, they usually smile back? Like attracts like, so if you spread kindness, joy, compassion, and love to others, you will sow those seeds that others may reap and likewise be inspired to imitate.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing S. A. Snyder.
S.A. Snyder is a writer, oral storyteller, and environmentalist. She blogs about self-care, retreats, and random topics that she hopes will inspire readers to be their better selves and spread joy. Her new book, The Value of Your Soul, releases this September from Luna River Publishing.
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?
Primarily I’m a writer. I’ve written in all kinds of industries but my biggest passion is the natural world. I started my career in wildlife biology and forestry back in the 1980s with the US Forest Service. At that time a lot of landowners that I encountered while doing my field work wanted to know more about what I was doing and why the federal government was spending money on these projects. I would stop to explain the importance of gathering data about the natural world and the benefits of conservation. I had a knack for explaining technical concepts to laypersons, but that in general, public land managers were not good at communicating.
I pursued a master’s in journalism and became an environmental reporter. I also wrote a biweekly outdoor and nature column, educating people about conservation and science topics, and encouraging readers to spend more time outside as a sort of wellness practice. I understood how important being and working outside was for my mental and physical well-being. Not only does spending time in nature reduce stress, but it helps us become more mindful.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Not surprisingly, after hanging up my work boots to become a journalist, I was spending much more time sitting inside in front of a computer than I did outside. Within a few years, I became depressed and felt out of touch with life and the world. I craved working outside again as well. As I mentioned, my background is in forestry and wildlife biology, and so I wanted to work with trees and animals again. But job opportunities in the biology field where I was living at the time were as rare as hen’s teeth and highly competitive. So, I started searching elsewhere.
With a bit of grit and creativity, I landed a volunteer job in Scotland planting trees and looking after livestock on this two-hundred acre private estate. It was a spiritual retreat center, where a large part of their focus was on developing mindfulness and finding peace within yourself. It was great at first, but funnily enough, I ended up getting even more stressed out living communally with people from all over the world. Gradually I came to find my peace, which was made possible by the exposure to so many others, their quirks and habits and personalities. The physical labor was demanding, and the weather was incredibly damp, cold, and depressing at times, but I started to find little inklings of light in my being. The whole experience was so unique and life-changing, that I wrote a memoir about it. Who knew that mucking out chicken coops could lead to mindfulness?
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the concept of psychological safety in the workplace. In addition to my creative writing, I work full time as a technical writer for a global company that is really good about ensuring psychological safety — requiring us to do regular training in the topic. So for me a fantastic work culture is like a three-legged stool: one leg is engendering trust; allowing people to make “mistakes” and using them as learning opportunities rather than punishing opportunities. This means not blaming anyone and instead looking at possible problems with systems — not people. The second leg is accepting everyone for who they are, free of criticism, ridicule, and other forms of harassment. People need to know they are accepted for themselves. The third leg is having empathy and compassion for those you work with, including coworkers, managers, subordinates, and customers.
Erratic or other behavior that may seem unfit for the workplace has a backstory and should never be brushed off as someone being a jerk or overly emotional. Within the bounds of privacy laws, make an effort to understand what that person might be suffering and let them know you care. Whether you express that care outright or demonstrate it in other ways, making people feel heard, acknowledged, and respected will go a long way to creating psychological safety — which I would define as the seat of that stool. Managers also need to know when situations should be addressed and do so immediately before they fester.
I once worked for a company where the manager failed to address serious personnel issues, which led to a huge turnover of employees and a lot of unhappy folk. None of it had to happen if the manager had just dealt with the problem, which could be traced to two bad actors, from the beginning.
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?
“A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold, one of the granddaddys of conservation in the United States. It was required reading in my college profession, even though it was published in 1949. The collection of essays about Leopold’s encounters in nature in his home of Sauk County, WI, is the Bible on how to develop a land ethic; that is, how to be a good steward of the land around us. Another book is Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” written in 1962 and a strong warning about how our broad use of pesticides was killing the very creatures we depend on for our survival, such as pollinators — without which we wouldn’t have food! Of course, pesticides were killing birds, too, which is why bald eagles, among other birds, became endangered in the 1970s.
Both books really left me with a sense of duty to this planet and to my fellow people, not to mention demonstrated the intricate web of life — pull one strand and see others collapse. These books are wake-up calls even today about the importance of taking care of our environment and how we cannot be well ourselves in mind, body, or spirit without nature. How we treat our environment is indicative of how we treat ourselves and others. Strongly compassionate people know the importance of caring for all living things, which includes community ecosystems as well as nature ecosystems.
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?
Being mindful is the ability to observe what is happening in your immediate environment, being aware of your current state of being, and, if needed, responding accordingly. It doesn’t mean you need to respond at all. The key is knowing the difference, and I would argue that 99% of the time, you don’t need to respond.
Being mindful is about being fully present in the moment, without being reactive (defensive), without letting your mind race with chatter, judgment, or criticism — whether toward yourself, others, or situations. When you are mindful, you are aware of what is happening and accept it for what it is. For example, when I lived at the spiritual retreat in Scotland, we were encouraged to pay attention to the little things whatever we were doing. If we were washing dishes, we focused on washing dishes, not on how much we hated it or what we were going to do after dishwashing was done or what someone said to us earlier that made us angry. Laser focus on the activity helps you avoid unrelated negative feelings and non-productive mind chatter, which in turn calms the mind and helps you practice accepting what is (more about the “what is” later). Mindfulness requires constant vigilance, constant reining in of chatter.
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?
The evidence is pretty clear. Studies have shown that mindfulness improves chronic, preventable illness such as heart disease and high blood pressure, reduces stress, improves our ability to make decisions as well as make better decisions and choices that promote well-being and happiness, and helps us to be more calm. When individuals lead happier, healthier lives, it inspires others to do the same, creating a domino effect that infuses wellness into our very communities. Personal relationships improve, children of mindful adults grow into better citizens and have better outcomes, businesses thrive, and we become a community of people who genuinely care about others and the world.
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.
People tend to dislike change, yet change is the only constant in life. Anxiety is resistance to what is and to change. In some cases we have no control over what is, such as weather events or the behavior of others. However, persons of sound mind and body have every bit of control over themselves. Armed with this knowledge, here is how we can cope:
- Clearly understand what you can and can’t control. Let go of what you can’t control (the fact that covid-19 is here to stay) and manage what you can control (physical distancing, handwashing, and wearing a mask to protect yourself and others). Denying covid-19 isn’t going to make it go away. Wishing that it didn’t exist and that everything would go back to the “before-times” also isn’t going to help you emotionally. Letting go of resistance to what is is your fastest ticket to finding serenity. When I stop trying to control what isn’t mine to control and focus on what I can control (my behavior and attitude), I’m a lot less anxious.
- Watch for signs of personal stress and have a plan to keep it at bay. Even if you’re fortunate in work, home, and health, the stress of our times is still going to affect you. This is confirmation of our connectedness. My husband and I are fortunate, yet we seem to bicker more frequently these days, a sure sign that the stress of not being able to be with family and friends is taking its toll. My go-to stress busters are daily walks in my neighborhood and long bike rides on the weekend with my husband. Find an activity that brings you joy and that you can do safely.
- Understand that everyone is suffering in some way, so dish up an extra serving of empathy. Whether someone cuts you off in traffic or snatches the last roll of t.p. off the shelf just as you were going for it, don’t let it eat you alive. By not reacting in kind (honking your horn or yelling at someone) and instead responding in kindness (avoiding angry gestures and epithets or assuming the t.p. snatcher needs it more than you do), you are choosing to be the peace that you were born to be.
- Meditate regularly, and by that I mean find at least ten minutes a day where you sit quietly and try to clear your mind with no distractions. This isn’t free time for flipping through social media, watching television, or listening to the news. It means shutting off except for what is right here and right now. It can involve centering prayer, chanting, or listening to soothing music, but there are many ways to meditate. Here are a few activities for developing mindfulness:
- Sit outside and just observe nature. Pick a spot on the ground in front of you and contemplate the little lifeforms moving in and out of that space. Or look up into the trees.
- Close your eyes and take deliberate deep breaths in and out, long and slow, and focus on the sound of your breath.
- Try thinking of nothing at all — it’s hard! Every time a thought comes into your mind, just envision it like a scene out a train window and let it go by. Don’t judge it or grab it.
- Go for a walk and focus on your feet touching the ground and what you see around you. The walk doesn’t have to be in a natural setting, but nature does ease the soul. You can also walk in your neighborhood or city street. Wherever you choose, make sure the surrounding environment doesn’t cause stress. You have to feel safe. Then just observe what you see; notice without judgement.
5. Treat others the way you want to be treated. The Golden Rule still applies and always should. Have you ever noticed that when you smile at someone, they usually smile back? Like attracts like, so if you spread kindness, joy, compassion, and love to others, you will sow those seeds that others may reap and likewise be inspired to imitate. Likewise, if someone yells at you and you yell back, the situation just feeds off the anger. You can’t control others’ behavior, but you can control how you respond and behave. But here’s a twist, treat yourself the way you would want others to treat you. In other words, be kind to you.
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?
- Know the signs of stress so that you can spot it in those who are close to you but who may be unaware or uncomfortable talking about it. This goes for family and friends as well as coworkers. According to your desires, abilities, and responsibilities, offer the appropriate support. This will differ from person to person and situation to situation.
- Listen without feeling like you need to offer advice. Sometimes people just want to be heard and acknowledged, not “fixed.” Having an active listener who responds with such phrases as “I understand,” or “that must be tough, I’m so sorry,” can reduce the person’s stress on the spot, even if you haven’t “solved” their “problem.”
- Practice acts of thoughtfulness. Offer to do a grocery run or other errands. Mow the lawn for someone or weed their garden. Send a card, flowers, or a gift basket of gourmet treats. Invite someone on a walk or other activity they might enjoy, keeping in mind physical distancing and safe activities.
- Share some of your tips for self-care, such as meditation, mindfulness walks, inspiring books or poems, or crafts. Offer to teach them something.
- Lastly, take care of yourself. There’s a reason why we have to fit our own oxygen masks on planes before we help others. That’s because we can’t help others when we ourselves are unhealthy or feel unsafe.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
- The classic book is Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” even though it was published more than a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s about what he called deliberate living, which encompasses mindfulness, even though people didn’t call it that back then.
- The website www.mindful.org has some great resources.
- “The Little Book of Mindfulness,” by Patricia Collard has guidance for spending just ten minutes a day in practice.
- Any books by His Holiness The Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Even though they have a spiritual vibe, their writings can appeal to those less spiritually inclined as well.
- You can also search for “mindfulness meditations” on YouTube for video lectures and practices.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
That would be a snippet from the thirteenth-century poet Rumi: Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come? This speaks to that fear of change I mentioned and how much we resist getting out of our comfort zone. How do you know that something better isn’t down the road if you won’t even take that first step outside your self-imposed bubble? How will you grow and strengthen if you don’t explore the rough edges?
Americans, I believe, have come to expect perfection and perpetual happiness. We run from adversity and challenge and “bad” feelings and emotions. We run from what’s uncomfortable rather than sitting with discomfort and learning to navigate what it brings. There are gifts in these experiences. They push us to be better, they teach us coping skills, and they ultimately make us stronger. We have such an unrealistic idea of what “success” looks like. And we’ve set the bar for “achievement” quite high. We strive for bigger, better, more, but we tend to define those words from the standpoint of money and material things rather than personal wellness — emotional, physical, and spiritual. There are a few books out there now that talk about how changing your mind can change your life. Literally, the authors mean that we need to change the way we think about things if we want to improve our life.
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. :-)
There’s this pervasive and insidious belief in our culture that we get what we deserve. In other words, if you work hard enough, you can achieve the so-called American Dream of a nice house, a good job, and a happy life. While I believe we are co-creators of our experience, both internal and external, the belief about deserving what we get assumes that everyone starts out with the same amount of poker chips. We don’t, and in fact, many folk start out with negative chips, having to work harder just to get to the same starting point that others were born to. I’m talking about privilege. Those of us who have it find it hard to understand what life is like for those who don’t. America was founded on this belief that if you work hard, you can have a good life. Of course, that principle was established by white male European settlers of privilege and it was meant for white privileged males. But American is so far from looking like that anymore — if it ever really did — which is why our system isn’t working. We must restructure how we live and reset our systems, laws, and policies to value people over money and love and compassion over power. We need to shift our values from a focus on economics to a focus on people. What good is a healthy economy without a healthy populace? A truly healthy economy cannot exist inside an unhealthy populace.
Among the many things I believe we can do to improve life for all Americans here are two we can implement now:
- Foster compassion and understanding by instituting national volunteer service. People serve at least one year and can choose from options such as working for a nonprofit that supports a humanitarian or environmental cause or working in a local, state, or federal government capacity that supports underprivileged people and communities. Such service could also be substituted for a teenager’s senior year in high school. For those in the privileged classes, their exposure to the difficulties of others’ lives will be an eye-opener. (I know this first-hand from having served briefly in the Peace Corps.) For the underprivileged, it can encourage a deeper personal investment in their community. For all volunteers, it allows for an exchange of stories and ideas that can lead to better lives for everyone.
- Create local networks of what I’d like to call Gift Banks to trade services. Everyone has gifts, something they’re good at and can share with others. Participants in gift banking would offer their services to someone in need and in turn could redeem their service for a service they need. Or they could simply rest in the satisfaction of having been of service to another. This concept of trading, called time banking, isn’t new; however, in gift banking, people donate any number of hours they want without accruing a specific number of redeemable hours. For example, fixing a drain pipe for a neighbor who couldn’t afford it otherwise is an investment in our community. It’s like microloans except that you aren’t loaning, you’re giving; and you pay it back by paying it forward
- We don’t lack the power to change how we live and support one another; we lack the will. It’s a matter of shifting priorities and therefore the resources to support those priorities. We must hold our elected officials accountable to act on the good of the greater community rather than on the selfish desires of the monied and powerful few. We must elect political representatives who know that upholding one person is to uphold the community; to value one person is to value the community; that when one person suffers, the community suffers; when all needs are met, we are all better for it.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
You can read my blog at www.lunarivervoices.com.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!