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This is the first article in a new Civil Engineering Source series called “Mindful Engineering” by Elyssa Dixon, P.E., M.ASCE, founder of fleeceandforests LLC.

Elyssa is that rare ASCE multi-hyphenate: a registered professional engineer slash mindfulness and meditation teacher. The incoming president-elect for the Seattle Section and incoming chair of ASCE’s Committee on Younger Members, Elyssa worked as a civil engineer in consulting for almost eight years and realized that her passion lies in helping others succeed. So she trained as a meditation and mindfulness teacher and applies her unique background and skillset to teaching others how to use mindfulness practices to improve their personal well-being and create more resilient teams and leaders.

I can still feel the crisp upstate New York air that engulfed me as I left the local bagel shop with my favorite sandwich in hand and walked to the engineering computer lab for our regular evening environmental engineering homework gathering.

Multiple rows of computers and multiple rows of students with the hours passing until the library closed at midnight. Conversations bounced around the room. Occasionally, a friend would laugh from behind his screen, letting us know he was deep into a Reddit break. Group projects, problem sets to trouble-shoot – even if it was individual homework assignments, we were all in it together.

It’s been 10 years since I spent my evenings at Cornell University with my peers studying. I could not tell you how that time passed so quickly. But I now look back on those conversations and group projects as the foundation of the teamwork and communication skills I needed to be an engineer, project manager, and leader.

I entered the “real world” and encountered more diverse teams and more challenging interpersonal situations. I attended leadership trainings through my alumni association and ASCE and was provided tools for active listening, bias reduction, technical writing, public speaking, and more.

But, from my experience, actual application of these tools is always more challenging than it seems. It is not easy to change the way you communicate or your expectations or judgments of others.

Then, I found mindfulness: a tool commonly for self-care.

And it changed my life.

My mindfulness practice ultimately helped my mental health and expanded and deepened my understanding of interpersonal relationships, leadership, and collaboration.

Sure, mindfulness can feel like a buzzword, especially in the past few years when stress and uncertainty seem to be everywhere.

We hear phrases that include “mindful” associated with our actions on a regular basis: “Be mindful of the curb” or “Don’t forget to be mindful when you speak with her.” So we associate mindfulness with observation and awareness in a particular moment – also known as being present.

But mindfulness is more than simply being present.

Over the next few months in this series, we’ll explore mindfulness in relation to civil engineering. We’ll begin with an introduction, followed by the science of mindfulness, and then look at the benefits of a practice for students, technical professionals, and leaders.

What is mindfulness?

Although the definition of mindfulness varies, I like to reference Jon Kabat- Zinn, who said, “Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.” He identifies three main tenets of mindfulness:

  • Being present
  • Awareness
  • Suspending judgment

Being present is probably the most understood element of mindfulness. The concept of staying present is straightforward but implementing this practice in your daily life can be challenging. We are constantly bombarded with distractions, and our minds are easily drawn in multiple directions. Remaining present is a skill that we can grow through mindfulness practices and one that ultimately improves our ability to focus, reduces spiraling thoughts, and allows us to enjoy each moment.

Awareness is the second main tenet of mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our bodies and our emotions; we slow down when we meditate and notice feelings or thoughts. Building this skill translates directly into how we treat ourselves and others – we learn how to extend more compassion and empathy with ourselves and ultimately to those around us. We are also better able to pause before we react to a situation; examine and understand our initial inclinations; and determine how we want to move forward rather than simply reacting.

Finally, suspending judgment is maybe one of the hardest of the three elements of mindfulness to recognize and implement. This component of mindfulness involves letting go of judgments of yourself and others. Through our mindfulness practice, we learn to simply notice with curiosity and an open mind. In the same way that self-awareness helps us with our interactions with others, letting go of judgment of ourselves means that we reduce judgment of others and recognize our biases. We are better able to accept the differences of our family, friends, and co-workers and see how these differences make our relationships and teams stronger.

Mindfulness practice

Growing a mindfulness practice is like learning any new skill – you have to find what works best for you and practice over time. These practices can include meditation, gratitude, mindful eating, or inviting mindful awareness into your daily routine (mindfully brushing your teeth, washing your dishes, walking your dog, etc.). Through a mindfulness practice, you create new neural pathways and rewire your brain to be more present, more aware, and more suspending of judgment. We will explore this practice in more detail in a future article.

You can learn more about mindfulness and how it might help you manage stress or develop leadership skills by emailing Elyssa at [email protected], or find resources for engineers at www.fleeceandforests.com/engineers.

Upcoming fleeceandforests events include:

Elyssa will be taking part in an ASCE Thursdays@3 discussion about prioritizing mental health, Nov. 18. Sign up today.