Harriet Stein

Only in the last couple years was Harriet Stein able to trace her interest in mindfulness to her mother, a single mom who worked in finance. “From the time I was a child and to this day, I sometimes find myself frozen when I have 30 different tasks to do,” she says. When that happened to her as a child, her mother would tell her, “Take one thing at a time; go up one rung of the ladder at a time, and you’ll get where you need to go.”

“Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment,” she explains. “Sometimes we get overwhelmed with so many things we have to get done — projects to complete, shopping for a holiday meal, gifts to buy, children to take care of. Mindfulness is encouraging people to just notice what is going on in their heads, and asking what can I do right now? What needs to be done right now?”

Today she is working in her ideal job, as a freelance mindfulness trainer at Big Toe in the Water, and she will be sharing that expertise, speaking on “Mind Full or Mindful? Decluttering the Busy Leader’s Mind.” The dinner meeting is on Monday, December 9, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Hyatt Regency Princeton, 102 Carnegie Center, and is sponsored by the Human Resources Management Association Princeton. Cost: $55, members; $65, nonmembers; students and qualified in-transition, $20. To preregister or for more information, go to hrma-nj.shrm.org.

Increases productivity and ability to focus: Stein created a postcard she likes to hand out that captures what is going on during a business meeting. One person is presenting a graph to colleagues. One attendee is thinking about a sick child at home, vacation plans, and other personal issues.

“Your body is present for the meeting but your brain is not present for the meeting,” Stein says. She explains that mindfulness is “living our lives moment by moment in nonjudgment.” So rather than judging oneself, she says, “When you notice your mind has wandered, you say to yourself, ‘That’s me thinking about vacation. I guess I should pay attention to what is happening at this meeting.’”

Deal better with stress: Stress develops from getting stuck thinking about the past or planning for the future. For example, Stein says, “I should have only had two kids,” “I can’t believe I moved to New Jersey,” “I have to go food shopping,” “I need to figure out how to pay for my kids’ college,” “I need to prepare for retirement.”

“It all causes churn when you’re not in the present moment; that causes stress in the body, which results in tension,” she says. “Tension is a multibillion dollar industry because tension leads to migraine, back pain, stomach aches.” So she teaches people how their minds and body work together and asks them to start paying attention to what is going on in their heads. They will notice they are thinking about the past or planning about the future. When you are in the present moment, it stops that churn.”

Considered choice over reactivity: Stein shared a story while working for Rhone-Poulenc Rorer where a woman handed her a menu for the big global meeting that was entirely in French. She immediately wrote an email that said she didn’t speak French and suggested an English version would be helpful, then she pressed send. “As soon as I sent it, a woman came over and said, ‘I forgot to give you the English version.’”

“Even though it was 25 years ago, I still kind of cringe that I did that.”

In mindfulness, she suggests, there is choice. “When we pause, it gives us that ability to think first, then we can respond rather than being reactive. Pausing is critical. Whatever job it is you do, you need to slow it down and notice what you are doing.”

Stein has always let her life experiences be her teachers, starting when she was a small child. One breakfast she had with her grandfather as a five-year-old had an unexpected outcome that had a lasting positive impact. Every day Stein, a Philadelphia native, would beg her grandfather to let her pour the hot water for the tea she drank with her Tastykake. The day he said yes, Stein reports, “I poured all the boiling water down the front of me and ended up with second and third degree burns at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.”

Parents were not allowed to stay over, so she was totally dependent on the male nurses for daily care (and also her doctor, a woman). “I’m alone in a hospital room, pretty much naked because I had these burns over a third of my body,” she recalls. “The male nurse would carry me in his strong arms to a Hubbard tank, and they had to scrub my burns. He would hand me a washcloth and say, okay, you clean your private area.”

“It was painful, but all I remember is the kindness, caring, and generosity of those nurses and the female doctor I had,” she says.

So at age 15 of course she became a Candy Striper. She recalls one experience that made her decide to pursue a career in medicine. She was wheeling a man in his 40s who may have had a heart attack to the cardiac intensive care unit. “I could see he was so wary and so scared. We passed a doorway, and I said, ‘Do you want to just jump off and take the stairs,’” she says. “He looked at me and laughed, and I knew in that moment I could easily work with patients and decrease their stress through humor.

But organic chemistry got in the way of her dreams of being a doctor, and that’s when a professor told her that if she wanted to work with patients, which she did — “that’s not the role of a doctor, that’s the role of a nurse.” Telling him she couldn’t envision herself emptying bedpans, he suggested she try it as a summer nursing assistant. “I did it, and it changed my life forever,” Stein says.

After earning a bachelor of science in nursing from Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania (she also has a master of science in health administration from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia), Stein was a floor nurse at Frankford Hospital in Philadelphia for almost five years.

Then she moved into patient advocacy, first at Frankford, then at Chestnut Hill Hospital, because she was good at solving problems — from cold food to someone screaming at the CEO.

When Stein had been a patient advocate for seven-and-a-half years, her mother died at age 58 of a rare cancer linked to the autoimmune system, and stress was thought to be a big component. While her mother was in the hospital, Stein received an offer from the pharmaceutical Rhone-Poulenc Rorer to do clinical research in cardiology, and her mother suggested she go for it. And when her mother died, she says, “I was too grief-stricken to work in a hospital.”

It wasn’t the perfect job, but she persisted in it for five years. “Picture me sitting in a room by myself for five years — obviously it was not for my personality type,” she says.

When the company was going through a merger, Stein switched to a position at Johnson & Johnson as a global trainer, largely in the ins and outs of conducting clinical research and compliance.

Having been interested in psychology since she chose psychobiology as a major at age 17, Stein says, “Almost my entire life I was totally in alignment with this concept of how mind and body work together.” In 2000 she went to a daylong mindfulness class with John Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with bringing mindfulness to the western hemisphere. A weeklong retreat with him followed in 2004, then professional certification to teach mindfulness.

What happened next was that her colleagues asked her to start teaching mindfulness to their employees. A program for the boss of the Employee Assistance Program and her team morphed into more than 70 one-hour programs. During the last nine years of a 15-year stint at Johnson & Johnson, she reached more than 5,000 colleagues. Eventually she transferred from training to the global health department, becoming the manager responsible for thousands of work-life programs in North America.

What caused her to go out on her own and set up Big Toe in the Water was that the mindfulness training she did was on the side — it was never part of her job description. So two-and-a-half years ago, she realized, “If I don’t do it now fulltime, I am never going to do it. I have to take a leap of faith and follow my intuition.”

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