Leadership / 05.04.22
Perceiving Possibilities: Finding Inner Peace Amidst Strife and Chaos
After spending 30 years in the entertainment industry, starting out as a part-time employee answering a customer service information line and retiring in a senior leadership role as Vice President of Guest Services for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Kay Burnham knows the ticketing business inside out. To her, it can best be summed up with an acronym.
“We work in what I would consider to be a VUCA environment,” she says. “VUCA [is an acronym that] was coined in the late ‘80s and it stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I think it describes the entertainment ticketing world pretty well … This can be a stressful career.”
Having to deal with industrywide COVID-19 complications, truly a time of “strife and chaos” to quote INTIX President Maureen Andersen, has not helped. And while the worst of the pandemic may be behind us, its impact continues to be felt across the spectrum of live entertainment. “I do not think it is over for any of us,” Andersen, who has known Burnham for many years and counts her as a “dear friend and colleague,” says. (Kay has been a member of INTIX for more than 20 years and is a former Board Chair.)
Dealing with stress — even at the best of times — can be difficult, as Burnham found out herself when she faced a series of personal crises a few years ago.
“I thought I was managing my stress well until 2017 when a series of very significant events shook my world to the ground,” she says. “In the first six months of that year, my father was diagnosed with stage four cancer and suddenly and unexpectedly passed away as a side effect of the treatment. My late husband, at the age of 43, was diagnosed with aggressive stage four prostate cancer. My company reorganized, and that is when I became a full vice president. Exciting? Yes. Happy? Yes. Stressful? Definitely. And finally, a co-worker and longtime friend in her early 30s collapsed at an outside rehearsal and never rejoined us. It sent me into a crisis, and I started having panic attacks. The day I jumped out of a moving car (it had slowed down to park) was the day I realized I needed to do something about it. So, I reached out to a mental health professional and in our second session she looked at me and said, ‘Have you ever tried meditation?’”
That question gave Burnham serious pause for thought. First introduced to meditation by her parents at 5 years old, she had practiced it regularly until her adult years when life became busy. With her therapist’s encouragement, she downloaded every meditation app she could find and dove right back in. Burnham’s deep dive went well beyond practicing meditation as she researched, attended webinars, seminars, retreats and classes. She even went back to school and got a second master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology looking at mindfulness and leadership, how they function together and how they can improve our working environments.
“At the end of it, I found calm,” Burnham says. “I found a whole slew of tools that allowed me to not only relieve my stress in the moment but build long-term resiliency and, in the process, absolutely elevate and change my leadership.”
Burnham took another leap when she retired from her ticketing career at the end of 2021 to become a full-time leadership and wellness coach. Her business, Perceiving Possibilities, helps others “turn outside [of themselves] to find some inner peace.”
Using the principles of positive psychology coupled with mindfulness practices, she helps people recognize and activate their unique strengths, develop their emotional intelligence and create the life-work balance they desire. Ultimately, Burnham believes that self-awareness is the key to being a great leader in any situation.
It is a message that Kay is eager to share with ticketing professionals. Recently, she gave an eye-opening presentation on an INTIX webinar sponsored by Tessitura, a nonprofit tech company whose mission it is to create positive, lasting change in the world by helping cultural organizations thrive.
With her signature pink hair and pink glasses, surrounded by signs that read “Zen Den” and “Today is a good day for a good day,” Burnham began by clearing up some common misconceptions about mindfulness and meditation.
It Is Not a ‘Religion’
“One of the things I often hear is, ‘Oh, mindfulness and meditation is not for me because that is a different religion than what I experience,’” Burnham says. “While it is important to acknowledge that mindfulness and a lot of meditation practices have their roots in a Buddhist tradition, what I talk about, and [what] a lot of the leading experts are talking about, is a secularized version that is really about creating an experience of awareness, simply going within to learn how to get rid of some of the chatter … and become aware of what is going on in our inner and outer world.”
It Is Not About Making Your Mind Go Blank
Burnham says, “I also hear, ‘I tried it. I just do not think it is for me. I do not think I can do it because my mind just kept going off on tangents and talking and I could not get it quiet.’ Well, there is no way to do that. We basically have monkey minds. They are designed to jump around from topic to topic and engage with things, so you are never really looking for an absence of thought. What you are trying to do is build awareness of your thoughts so that when you are in situations, you have the ability to recognize what you are thinking and not just react, but actually create a pause that allows you to respond instead.”
It Is Not a Momentary Diversion
Burnham has been asked, “How long do I have to do it before I can say I am mindful?” She says, “The minute you start to think about it, the minute you start to bring yourself into the present moment, you are mindful. That is it. You have done it, but it is not an achievement. It is really a lifelong practice.”
It Does Not ‘Eliminate’ Stress But…
Lastly, Burnham hears, “Oh yes, I should really try that because I have heard it takes your stress away.” In reality, she says, “There is no way to rid your life of stress because life can be challenging and there are moments that are incredibly hard. Mindfulness and meditation are parts of a toolkit you can use to help relieve that stress. Because, you see, while stress is inevitable, the suffering that can come along with it can be completely optional.”
It Is the Stories We Tell Ourselves
One critical step toward reducing stress in our lives is becoming aware of the “stories we tell ourselves.” Burnham says, “Believe me, I was and still can be an A+ storyteller in my own brain.” What does she mean by that? Well, she came prepared with plenty of descriptive examples, some from her own career.
“For example,” Burnham says, “I had a boss who liked to send me one question emails. That question was almost always, ‘What are these holds doing in this event?’ I am sure you have all received some similar form of question. Now, that's a simple question [at face value], but in my head that became, ‘Does he think I do not know my job? Does he think I do not know why they are there or is he going to tell me what to do now?’ … I would get really defensive because I made up a story that there was some anger or mistrust behind the question. When I was able to see it for what it was, which was a simple question that was asking for information, regardless of what was in my boss's head, I was able to approach it with a lot less body tension and stress.”
Burnham says there are some really good signs that you may be stuck in a story. They include:
- “I am too old (or young) for that.”
- “I am not smart enough.”
- “This is happening because I am…”
Thankfully, Burnham says, we all have a “parachute” to get ourselves out of storytelling and back to problem-solving. Burnham then took attendees through a selection of tips and practices, which she also shares in her mindfulness training:
- Using Our ‘Common’ Senses
When you need to find a way to stop yourself and get back to problem-solving mode, you can run through these steps to find some inner peace. These steps can be done anywhere that you find yourself at the time.
- Count five things you can see and name them. Do this out loud. For example, “One, my webcam; two, my laptop; three, my microphone; four, my ring light; five, my desk,” Burnham says.
- Find four things you can touch, and physically touch them as you count. They can be different or the same thing(s) repeated.
- Identify three things that you can hear. Again, you can find distinct sounds or count the same sound three times.
- Find two things that you can smell. If you cannot smell two different things, just count the same thing twice.
- Finally, name and count one thing you can taste. It can be anything, even if it is just your mouth.
Burnham says this practice interrupts your thought process because you are asking your brain to count, which breaks the cycle of storytelling. “The other thing you are doing is connecting to your senses and you are connecting to them in the present moment,” she says. "So you are grounding yourself back into the present.”
- Expressing Gratitude
“When we are in the present moment, one of the ways that we can direct our attention outside of ourselves and create some calm is with a gratitude practice,” Burnham says, admitting that some may roll their eyes as they read or hear these words. Asking for everyone to keep an open mind, she recognizes that some have tried it before, and it did not work or that it felt awkward. As well, Burnham notes that others have actually felt guilt, resentment or another negative emotion. “Our brains as humans are not wired for gratitude,” she says. “In fact, they are wired for the opposite. Our negativity bias is what kept our ancestors alive. It's designed to help us remember what can harm us, kill us, threaten us, cause us pain, whether that's emotional or physical. So, we have to learn what gratitude feels like and we have to start practicing it in order to train our brain to be comfortable with it.”
There are several ways that you can do this:
- Write a letter of gratitude — you do not have to send it.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Practice “Awakening Gratitude,” a visualization meditation that helps you feel truly grateful for someone or something. (Burnham takes participants through this reflection and meditation technique in the Tessitura-sponsored INTIX webinar and through training via her Perceiving Possibilities practice.)
Burnham says, “Gratitude is a renewable resource, unlike our energy throughout the day where, as we use it and expend it, we have to do something to give it back. We give our energy away to the tasks at hand and then we have to eat or take a nap or something to get more energy. As you give gratitude, it actually replenishes you, so giving it away fills you up and that allows you to fill your cup until it is overflowing and, as I have heard now, serve others from the saucer.”
By this point, some webinar participants were already feeling the effects of this simple, yet powerful, exercise. One wrote in the chat that she was feeling “accepted and loved.” This is exactly how Burnham wants us to feel, both in our personal and professional lives. As Burnham says on her website, her intent is to use her professional experience, education and practice to support leaders in up-leveling both their well-being and their leadership. This helps to create working environments where employees feel valued, engaged and that they belong.
“Imagine expressing that kind of gratitude to your staff for simply doing their job,” she says. “They will feel not only seen by you but by the organization because that is who you represent as well.”
- Practice Loving Kindness
Metta meditation, also referred to as loving kindness meditation, is something Burnham found particularly useful during the isolation of the pandemic. It helped her continue to feel connected to others. As well, it reduces physical symptoms of pain, anxiety and depression, as shown in research from multiple scientific disciplines.
Loving kindness helps you find your happy place, the place where you feel the safest and most comfortable. As you practice, “You notice a glow of white light in your heart center. This is your loving kindness, and it is glowing bright within you,” Burnham says, as she reveals it can be difficult for some to do this continuously without pulling back to more simple breaths for a bit before reengaging. This, she says, is advised. Then, as the loving kindness and sense of warmth spread through you, Burnham shares a phrase to silently repeat:
May I be happy.
May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be at peace.
Burnham goes on to take participants through this same exercise to send loving kindness to others, including those who make you smile the most, people you have neutral feelings for, those who you have difficult feelings toward and then for all living beings.
“This practice can be difficult at first, which is why I [caution] against continuing if you felt it difficult,” Burnham says. “It is hard and it is not something that most people are used to, but the benefits of practicing this and getting comfortable with it are enormous. In a time where so much is going on with this world and we can feel so helpless to help so many, this can be a way that we can feel like we are at least contributing to the positive, good energy in the world.”
Does It Work?
Can we really become more at peace — and more effective leaders — by practicing the techniques Burnham shared with INTIX members? In a word, absolutely.
According to Mindful.org, scientific research into the benefits of mindfulness is extremely promising. There is also an abundance of anecdotal evidence, including from Burnham’s own personal journey along the path to inner peace.
“There were times in my career where I absolutely 100% did not manage myself. I yelled at employees. I said some horrible things, all because of the emotional state that I was in. Mindfulness and some therapy helped me really connect and become aware of what was going on inside of me. When I got to the point where I could manage myself and manage what was going on internally, everything started to click a little bit better in my leadership. I started to see better results in what I was doing, and I had a better connection to my staff and my colleagues.”
Editor’s Note: INTIX is grateful to webinar-presenting partner Tessitura. To start your journey, connect with Burnham through her Perceiving Possibilities practice, which provides one-to-one and group coaching, leadership development and mindfulness training. Burnham also recommends the apps Calm, Insight Timer and Headspace, which offer great resources for beginning your mindfulness and gratitude practice. Further, Burnham recommends the books “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach and “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is considered the father of the secular mindfulness movement. Website resources Burnham recommends include Mindful.org and Mindful Leader.
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Tags: Leadership , Mindfulness , Meditation , Balance