Grad School Mama Spotlight: Shannon Demko, MA in Communication

Our latest Grad School Mama spotlight features Shannon Demko, the founder of MindfulMBA, a site designed to make mindfulness and stress management resources accessible and applicable to the MBA lifestyle. She is a coach, blogger, editor and certified mindfulness meditation instructor through the Center for Koru Mindfulness. In addition, Shannon has spent over a decade working with business students, applicants, and alumni in the university and non-profit settings. She is currently an MBA Prep Coach with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a diversity non-profit dedicated to equipping minority professionals for senior business leadership. In that role, she coaches talented prospective students through the rigorous MBA application process.

Prior to MLT, Shannon served as Director of Admissions at American University’s Kogod School of Business, and prior to that, as Associate Director of Admissions at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Georgetown University, a Masters degree from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and a graduate certificate in Health Promotion Management from American University. When asked about the biggest mistake she saw MBA hopefuls make during the application process when she worked in admissions at Emory and American,

I saw applicants who applied without doing their research. Either they didn’t understand or couldn’t articulate the strengths of the school, the viability of their post-MBA goals, the value of the MBA in pursuing them, or some combination thereof. These are all important parts of an applicant’s argument that a particular business school should accept them, and each can be built with research. Spending time and money on submitting an application without doing that research is an avoidable mistake.

Shannon runs the Blog, Mindful MBA, and shared with us her thoughts about mindfulness. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and four year-old daughter, from whom she learns most of her mindfulness lessons. You can connect with Mindful MBA via email shannon@themindfulmba.com or on Twitter.

What motivated you to start Mindful MBA?

I had been practicing mindfulness in my own life for years when I became an admissions coach. Within just a few months, I began to see the impact it could have for the applicants I was coaching, since the MBA application process is stressful in so many ways. I started by teaching simple yoga-based breathing exercises to those I was coaching, but soon realized they needed more, which motivated me to become a certified mindfulness meditation instructor. As I began to see the benefits of the practice for applicants, the potential implications for MBA students, and even MBA alumni, became very clear to me.

The MBA lifestyle is full of critical decision points and experiences that require you to push the limits of your comfort zone. Mindfulness provides a skillset for managing the uncertainty and anxiety that many students feel during their MBA program. What really makes me excited is thinking about mindful MBA students taking these skills into their future careers, evolving into more present, intentional and compassionate business leaders.

For people who might not be familiar, can you explain what mindfulness means?

The most often-cited definition was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and founder of the Center for Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts. He says:

“Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

The part of this definition that surprises most people is “paying attention,” because stereotypically, many people think of meditation and related activities as “checking out.” But really, mindfulness is about “checking in.” It’s about cultivating the ability to actively be present in whatever experience you are currently having, whether being a better listener in a conversation, a better decision-maker in a stressful moment, or a more grateful participant in a celebration. It’s about being able to act intentionally, instead of reflexively, to the daily events of our lives.

We use techniques like meditation, mindful movement or breathwork to provide a focal point for a mindfulness practice, which like any workout, is time you set aside to practice a skill. The point is not to get “perfect” at it, though, but rather just to keep coming back and doing the work to strengthen your “mindfulness muscle” and make it more accessible to you when you need it. I always tell my meditation students that you will begin to see the benefits of mindfulness in your everyday life before your meditation practice feels “easy,” though (which may never happen!). You will notice that you are more aware of how you respond to people and situations, and more able to make those responses clear and intentional.

What is your vision for Mindful MBA?

I want the site to be a space that makes mindfulness interesting, accessible and available to MBA applicants, students and alumni across schools and industries, and throughout their career life cycle. I think this can be done through the blog, which highlights opportunities for mindfulness in everyday MBA life, as well as through resource sharing and potentially, more robust offerings on the topics of mindfulness, meditation, and personal development.

How does mindfulness help alleviate stress?

Mindfulness helps alleviate stress in two ways: it calms the body, and stills the mind. Physically, meditation and mindful breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system — in other words, shifting you from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” mode. Mentally, mindfulness provides a break from the constant stream of thoughts, ideas, and plans that consume our focus most of the time by giving us an opportunity to connect with our breath or other focal point of meditation. When your mind begins to drift back to your thoughts during meditation, you simply bring your attention back to your breath. It trains the mind to be more capable of paying attention to what is actually happening in a given situation, instead of getting lost in thinking about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow. That’s where most of us spend our mental energy, which leaves us missing what’s happening today!

Shannon and her daughter, Natasha.

How can busy parents incorporate mindfulness into their daily routines?

It’s not easy! I know because I am one. The short answer is any way you can.

You often hear a recommendation to try to find five minutes first thing in the morning, but many of us wake up to a little face looking at ours, asking for breakfast or a hundred other things.

Right before bed, all you want to do is collapse. If either end of the day works for you, then schedule it in and make it part of your routine. For me personally, I find that taking five, or even two, minutes for some mindful breathing at the point in my day when I’m about to transition from work to picking my daughter up at school works well. It’s on my calendar, like any other appointment, and it helps me center and shift gears to be present for her. Of course, there are days when that just doesn’t happen, and I may shoot for five or ten deep breaths before I start the car.

One of the best things about mindfulness is that it encourages us to not be judgmental with ourselves. It’s not about being perfect. If you miss a day — or more — come back. Just like when your mind wanders during a meditation, and you catch yourself and return your focus to your breath. The coming back is the meditation.

Do you have any advice for how parents can incorporate their toddlers or school-age children into their practice of mindfulness?

Make it a game. Mindfulness is SO great for kids, but you have to hold their attention. I mean, if you’re struggling to sit still for two straight minutes in meditation, how are they supposed to? Even just a few deep breaths can be both fun and relaxing for a kid, and will simultaneously reduce their heartrate and help calm them down. I recommend practicing this for fun when they’re in a playful mood, so they are familiar with it and it’s easier to encourage them to do it when they’re about to pitch a fit. Also, harness their natural interest in moving! Mindfulness doesn’t have to be about sitting still. Take a walk and encourage them to really notice their surroundings — flowers, clouds, cracks in the sidewalk — even the most simple things can bring their focus into the present moment. Finally, body scans are often helpful for kids who can’t sleep. Help your child think about how their toes feel, then their feet, then their legs, all the way up to their forehead (if they’re still awake!). After a little practice, they might even be able to do it on their own as they doze off!

We’ve heard about apps that help people meditate. Do you use any of these apps? What resources does Mindful MBA offer to help beginners explore this topic further?

We’re so lucky these days, because there are so many great resources out there to get started with mindfulness meditation. Apps are great because we all walk around with our phones constantly attached to us. A few popular ones right now are Headspace, Calm, Chopra Center (with Oprah!) and my personal favorite, Buddhify. Each of these gives you the chance to customize your meditation experience based on how much time you have, and with Buddhify, what you’re currently doing (trying to fall asleep, waiting in line, etc).

There are also tons of guided meditations online, such as those offered by Koru, where I was trained, as well as Tara Brach or a place like the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. If you want to dive a little deeper into online courses, I think Shamash Alidina and “Yeah Dave” Romanelli both have pretty laid-back and accessible approaches to the subject. I could go on and on! There are so many great options out there.

As a professional in the admissions industry, what advice do you have for millennial moms considering a full-time MBA program?

The Demko family

Know that there will be sacrifices. Don’t fight that by trying to be everything to everyone. Align your priorities, both in your role as a student and your life outside of school, and do your best to live by them. Your choices throughout your MBA may seem different than those some of your classmates may make, and that’s okay. But you can and you will have a full, rewarding and fun MBA experience. Best of all, you’ll have a little cheerleader (or a squad!) reminding you why you will choose to fully show up and be present for the experience every single day.

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