Written in our stars?
At the start of our 8-week mindfulness course we explore how we are born with certain tendencies and predispositions to behave and act in certain ways. For example we inherit paternal and maternal stress and we are born with personality types. These tendencies and personality types can harden over time. The brain wants to fall into patterns of thinking, feeling, expressing and acting or autopilot thinking.
As the neuroscientist Heb noted in the 1940’s “Neurons that fire together wire together”. The more we think, feel and act in certain habitual ways, the more our patterns become engrained. That’s why it’s so important to keep trying new things and walk the road less travelled.
Our autopilot thinking often serves us well. It helps us navigate a busy world full of distraction. However in an increasingly complex world we can overly revert to autopilot thinking. This is particularly true when we feel that we don’t have enough time. When our experience goes unexamined and we take life for granted we fall into the following thinking traps:
- Assuming life is permanent and forgetting the joy to be had from simple things
- We miss opportunities for personal development and creativity
- We find it hard to listen to our gut instinct
- We develop one-dimensional relationships
- We can feel like the spotlight is always on us and forget that we are also part of someone else’s very unique life experience
- We act and react in habitual patterns and fail to examine whether those patterns continue to enable us to thrive
A world of distraction and overly attending to threats
In addition to becoming overly embedded in our habits and routines there are also a number of other factors, which can get in the way of optimal health and wellbeing:
Increasing distraction and choice may lead to an elevation in our stress levels – the average person now absorbs five times as much visual stimulation compared to 1986. The phrase continuous partial attention has arisen over the last few years. We can often feel like we are in a partly switched on anxious state of being. We often face increasing demands on our time as we advance in our careers and build families.
We are hard wired to focus on threats and deficits rather than celebrating successes and abundance – from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense for us to focus on the things that threaten us but this can lead us to overly attending to our deficits. As we noted above neurons that fire together wire together. The more we get into the habit of focusing upon threats the more dark and dangerous the world can feel.
As we age we may start to transition towards looking for more meaning in our lives – this self reflection can be both empowering but also creates uncertainty and upheaval.
These types of pressures can make us feel time poor. A lack of abundance thinking can make us focus more on what we don’t have rather than what we do and overly fixate on our work and our problems rather than the things which bring us meaning and fun.
How much brain hard wiring have you had in your life?
If you are 40 now and haven’t practiced much mindfulness before then that’s 40 x 365 x 24 hours of conditioning or 350,000 hours. In truth we are all naturally mindful at times. Great acts of courage or sporting endevour or love or being in awe of nature all bring us to the moment and help us see the world afresh. The challenge of overly using auto pilot thinking is perhaps greater now because of the level of distraction we face.
We know the hard wiring is their in all of us BUT the research shows that attending an 8 week mindfulness course (which includes single pointed meditation) and practicing some techniques every day makes lasting changes to our outlook and behaviors.
Mindfulness helps us to examine life. Leonardo da Vinci was described as the disciple of experience. In order to grow and thrive we need to keep examining each precious moment of life and not taking any of it for granted. By observing life as it emerges we foster gratitude and a sense of awe. But what are the tools that mindfulness provides us?
A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something” or “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”. Another way of being mindful is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focusing our attention on? Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:
- Our thoughts & feelings;
- Each of the five commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
- Our breath;
- Our posture
And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses. The here and now that we attend to can be our inner world or the outer world and to a great extent what we attend to is not within our control. Society, culture, our parents, our peers expect us to attend to certain things more than others. And we often go along with these expectations without truly questioning whether they make us thrive.
What we attend to will determine everything about our lives. It will determine success, wealth, relationships and our spiritual and emotional development. It is the most important tool that we have. For example we may have great emotional intelligence, social intelligence and analytical abilities but if we are so mired in habitual routines and drowning in a sea of distraction we will find it difficult to deploy our skills.
Whether there is truly free will to direct our attention is a mute point but as the great philosopher William James proclaimed in the 1880s
“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life..….At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that free will is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Up until that point James had suffered a string of failures and suffered depression but at that point he took some personal responsibility. From that point on his life became a glorious success. And the starting point was that he believed that he could change. He decided that he could overcome his hard wiring and the shackles of conditioning.
Learning to sharpen our attention
Lack of attention can rob of us our humanity. It stops us tapping into our wealth of talents. It can take us away from connecting with people and make us feel sad, isolated and lonely. Proclaiming free will and embarking on a course of mindfulness is liberating. It enables us to connect fully with ourselves and with our environment. A mindfulness course not only teaches us to focus but also provides the psychological framework to enable us to thrive.
A framework for mindfulness
My Vipassana meditation teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques, to sharpen the attention, are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be merely creating “bare attention”. It feels relaxing but may merely be a stress management Band-Aid. It’s like sowing seeds on barren ground. When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. A holistic personal development framework complements attention-focusing techniques and enables brain change. Mindfulness provides us with powerful thriving tools:
- Developing kindness and compassion for others
- Learning techniques to overcome our inbuilt negativity bias i.e. developing self love
- Understanding the relationship between posture and how we physically move and mental resilience
- Learning how to regulate our breath in order to reduce base stress levels so that we are better able to see the bigger picture
- Learning techniques to help us focus on one thing – this builds new synaptic connections and more grey matter
- Having tools to observe our inner world of thoughts and emotions. And understanding that thoughts and emotions come and go and do not define who we are for all time
- Finding a teacher
I hope you found this useful. When you are looking for a mindfulness teacher it’s important to understand what their training has been:
- Do they have many years of a personal mindfulness practice either in a Buddhist school or as part of a Yoga tradition?
- Do they have a mental health background and training in evidenced based psychology – this is particularly important if working with vulnerable people.
- Are they continuing a daily personal practice of developing attention (single pointed meditation), continuing professional development to raise their self-awareness and developing kindness and compassion for others ?
How to build mental resilience
- How can we stay engaged and busy at work but not overly stressed?
- When is the right time to push ourselves and when is the right time to sit back?
- How much pressure is good for us?
These are tricky questions and there is no definitive right and wrong answer. That’s because people are complex. If you run or manage a team the relationships you have to each team member and to the group will be rich and varied.
As managers we need to change the way we think of “staff “ and think of them more as our internal customers. Like external customers they need to be listened to and deserve to have high expectations from the organisation. Like our customers the relationship we have with each team member will be nuanced, rich and varied.
We need to remember that people come to a place of work for financial reasons but also because it provides (or should provide) meaning, fun, positive relationships, a degree of autonomy and a sense of shared purpose and structure.
The Gallup organisation, through their Q12 survey, have found the most financially successful organisations have employees who tend to tick those employee engagement boxes.
When we work in a culture like that a heavy workload and tight timetables feel more like a fun challenge than an onerous one. Creating an engaged workplace enables a more resilient culture to flourish and the benefits will flow throughout the team and outwards to your customers and your suppliers.
In such an engaged place of work people develop trust and warm friendships. They feel able to communicate ideas. They are also more likely to put their hands in the air when they feel under prepared or over worked. Stress builds when we are unable or feel unable to express our feelings and motivations. This happens in a culture of distrust when the development of positive relationships are not prioritised.
The starting point for building an engaged, resilient organisation is to build a culture of positive regard for colleagues. It also means changing the idea that people are overheads to one where people are our greatest assets and a source of learning, fun and meaning.
Our next resilience workshop is Townsville, North Queensland
How can we build better mental resilience? How can we feel stretched at work whilst remaining calm, balanced and physically healthy? Find out more at our one day resilience workshop on Friday 27th November
Imagine a world of things that can be sub divided into two separate worlds; the world of clocks and the world of clouds. Within the world of clocks are neat orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated. We can take these things apart and see how they fit together. In the world of clouds are things, which are irregular and dynamic. They are hard to study and change from second to second.
The uncertain nature of clouds makes them beautiful but some how ghostly and not quite there. They are constantly being formed and being destroyed. They emerge and withdraw. They are nature’s great example of the constant wash of creation and destruction. They remind us of our own impermanence. “I wandered lonely as a cloud….”
Does this explain our desire to live in the world of clocks? Things that can be divided and explained provide comfort and protection from the flow and flux. The rational subdivision and explanation of experience pacifies the mind wracked with existential angst. Things can be ordered and kept safe… I can be ordered and I can be kept safe.
From Descartes to Darwin to Freud and on through the 20th century the world of clocks has come to dominate our politics, wellbeing and wealth.
My own background is in the world of clocks. I trained in old-fashioned economics. Pareto, Keynes and the ideas of Milton Friedman were drummed into me. After that I studied to become a chartered accountant. Here I learnt to freeze time at a balance sheet date and talk wisely to people who would pay me to explain how things were, how things are and how things maybe in the future.
I spent most of my childhood and working life understanding how to divide things up and “explain” to other people how things worked and I used information to prophesise how things may be in the future.
My left hemisphere thinking was finely honed. I lived in a world of clocks; of dissected finite time, a world of mine and yours, a world of success and failure. Around about the time of the new millennium this desire to explain and understand the world through dissection started to feel a little hollow. I craved connection to something bigger than me.
The Greeks describe this as Thumos; the desire for union and recognition through the development of a higher self. This is the feeling we have when we recognise, celebrate and unify with one another through the development of the great human strengths of kindness, compassion, bravery and love.
After twelve years in finance I studied to become a massage therapist and found a connection to a higher self through human touch. I felt that I was a good therapist. I felt I was kind and compassionate and provided a nurturing touch, which helped both my healing and my clients.
There were moments when I worked as a therapist that I felt that the world stopped. I would stare at a back and become absorbed in an area of the persons body. It felt like my being was part of the being I was massaging. I experienced euphoric feelings of oneness. There were times where I felt that I could see my molecules and the client’s molecules coming together and merging. In those moments I could see and feel the truth that humans and everything in the universe are emerging systems. We are constantly forming and un forming. We are connected to and of our environment and each other. Dissection of mind and body cannot explain our essence and can only have limited potential in helping us grow.
My years as a massage therapist helped me to develop a holistic view. I started to live and enjoy the world of clouds. I no longer felt lonely as a cloud and fearful of uncertainty but started to enjoy and embrace that uncertainty.
With my imagined or real observation at the molecular level of the floating and fleeting nature of reality I began to experience more freedom in my life. I became grounded in uncertainty and abstraction. The very fleeting and precious nature of life enabled me to grow. I began to gently kiss and caress life as it flowed around me rather trying to hold onto things.
However I still live in a world of clocks. Each time I float as a cloud I feel drawn back to the world of mine and yours. I feel the neediness of my left hemisphere thinking. The desire for comfort, the desire to be liked, the desire for material reward, the desire to hold and grab this precious life and not let this moment go. And the desire to shackle and control my thoughts and feelings and those of the people around me.
I take steps forward and then many steps back. I feel sometimes I have “it’.
It’s just there. It’s there when I see a sunrise or a rainbow. It’s there when I run into the sea or see the light refraction on the bottom of a pool. It’s in the smiles of my family and it’s in the air that brushes my skin.
And then it’s gone again.
After my years of bodywork I became a yoga teacher and this provided me with amazing new tools enabling me to embrace flow and connection.
And after my yoga training I was drawn once more to the world of clocks. I took a masters in psychology and learnt how psychologists like to count like accountants. I was suddenly back in the world of numbers and systems and control. I studied system after system that attempted to explain our inner workings.
But the more time I spent with evidenced based psychologists and exploring their models I began to have the same strange clock like disconnected uncertain and unhappy outlook on life. I felt many of the practitioners I met were not trying to develop Thumos. They didn’t seem kind are altruistic or compassionate or uncertain. There was something about the lack of humility and the lack of positive intention that I found disturbing.
As I studied economics I read more and more work by behavioural economics by people like Daniel Kahneman. I became interested in their ideas that people are more like clouds in their composition and outlook and behaviours.
I learnt how psychology studies were weird ie based on sample populations who were mainly white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. I also learnt that more 64% of psychology studies could not be replicated. I became concerned at the lack of real evidence behind much of “evidenced based psychology” and disappointed at the way many health practitioners use the evidence based badge of psychology to maximise their wealth.
From my studies of neuroscience I learnt that we are infinite selves within this self. Our 80 billion neurones with 10,000 (plus) possible synaptic connections enable us to perceive the world and ourselves in an infinite number of ways. We can try and explain human behaviour through dissection, correlation and extrapolation but this can only be of limited use in helping us develop Thumos.
We behave in ways depending upon context. Our inner systems of like and dislike can not un see or un experience what we have seen or have experienced. We cannot see or un see what our forebears have seen or experienced. We are guided by inner systems of like and dislike and we are intimately and intricately connected to all that is and all that has ever been.
There seems to be one huge mind which has no barriers and no limits and is filled with knowledge. I learnt through my body work, meditations and yoga that I can tap into this universal sea. When I behave cloud like I can use my intuition. I can tap into a source of knowledge and energy that is infinite. It is always there but my yoga teaching explains to me how it is often obscured by koshas or layers of ignorance that bind me to duality.
With my business background and body work and yoga training I chose to retreat from the world of psychology. In the last 10 years I’ve dipped my toe back into the areas of emotional intelligence coaching and positive psychology but I spend little time with people with similar qualifications to me. Accept some….In my travels I’ve been blessed to meet some people from the world of psychology who are filled with love and positive intention. They are also filled with confidence and humility. I’m blessed that they are my friends and colleagues and if you find a coach or counsellor or clinical psychologist who manage to combine the world of clouds and clocks stick with them!!
And now I’m at a crossroads. I feel love and connection in the world of clouds but mainly earn my living working with clocks. I’m uncertain how to proceed. I’m not sure if I’m on the right track but I can take comfort from the growth, fun and love that I’ve experienced since I first started to explore my cloud like self.
This blog will continue but we have a new way of connecting – please check out www.breathe-magazine.com
This weeks blog is about our likes and dislikes. How they define us and can control us. And what we can learn from them….It takes five minutes to read……
Why do we like things? Is it because…
- the thing stimulates our senses – we like beautiful things, taste etc
- it feeds our basic need for love and to be nurtured
- it validates our sense of self
- it enables us to fit in with others
Why do we dislike things? Is it to avoid pain? Is it to avoid the things we have learnt to dislike? Is it to protect our physical essence? Is it to protect our sense of self?
Some of our likes and dislikes are needed to keep us feeling warmed and loved and to protect us from pain. But some of likes and dislikes are learnt. And where do we learn this information from? And is it to be trusted?
Attract and repel
Our basic mechanism of attract or repel is often submerged. Some of it is a hard wired reaction, which helps us move towards things that nurture and away from things that cause us pain. Some of our likes or dislikes may be learnt from parents, peers, society, social norms etc. Quite often these likes/ dislikes are also submerged and can go unexamined.
When they remain unexamined we often find it hard to understand our reaction to people and events. We may also have a gut instinct view about situations and we simply don’t know the basis for that view. That unexamined interpretation of the world around us can sometimes lead us into conflict. We may find it difficult to appreciate that another persons likes and dislikes may be very different to our own. We may find it difficult to understand and explain other people’s actions and we may form hardened and judgmental views.
A core element of a mindfulness course is to start to examine our own likes and dislikes. We begin to explore whether they serve us or are merely conditioned behaviours. Our hedonic (pleasure seeking and fleeting) “likes” may mask our need for deeper more sustainable things which bring us meaning – such as working for our community, developing close bonds with family and friends, enjoying a connection to nature, fully honouring our body through health and fitness etc
The power of submerged likes and dislikes has the power to make us less mindful – certainly less mindful of difference and less mindful of the impact of our behaviour on others. Submerged likes and dislikes have a powerful ally these days – instant gratification.
I want it now
The improvement in the delivery of services and the democratisation of information means that these likes can be satiated in seconds. This re enforces our reward networks and makes us less tolerant of delay. We may become upset easily by a minor disruption in the flow of good service. A small disruption, such as a delayed tube, can make us feel frustrated and angry (our reward network has not been satiated instantly). Technology, distraction and the non-examination of submerged likes and dislikes may be making us more fragile and less resilient than previous generations. We want it now and we usually get it now. But what is it? Merely fleeting flickers of dopamine as we excite the same reward networks again and again?
Mindfulness is not about completely unravelling our likes and dislikes but through mindful practices we become more aware of our habitual ways of being. In order to become less judgmental and rigid in our thinking we need to appreciate that other people’s learnt likes and dislikes lead them to a world view that may be very different to our own. This appreciation and celebration of difference allows us to be live more harmoniously and cohesively with the people around us. We may also become more resilient as we learn to focus our attention on exploring new things and investing in activities which deliver long term meaning rather than merely satiating instant desire.
The key to this examination is to take it slowly. We are not trying to dismantle our personality! Our friends like us and love us for who we are and who we are becoming. As we investigate the way we are in the world we need to do it with fun, curiosity and a light heart. Taking mindfulness too seriously takes us away from mindfulness rather than towards it. We are trying to uncover some simple truths – the things that enrich our lives and bring it meaning are often the simplest and are usually right in front of us already. We just need to be still and observe them a little more.
Our next mindfulness course is in London on Sept 11th Mindfulness at work
After 15 very happy months living in Townsville, North Queensland I’m returning to London for three months. Being surrounded by great natural beauty has had a transformational affect on my mind and body. At 46 I feel the healthiest and happiest that I have ever felt and I feel that much of that is down to the simple, slow paced life in the tropics and the sheer beauty of the place. Being in awe of nature seems to stop me dwelling on the small stuff.
Just before I returned to Australia, in March 2014, my mum died very unexpectedly. One minute she was baking cakes, playing tennis and looking forward to the arrival of more grand children. The next day she was just gone and I was reading a poem at her funeral.
For many months I was confused. I couldn’t quite believe that gone meant gone. It seemed an impossibility. There have been so many times in the last 15 months where I have just sat and watched the sunrise or a rainbow or a bird and thought “I wish mum could see this”. Moving to a beautiful place, combined with mums passing, has woken me up. I feel really blessed to be healthy and fit. My priorities have changed. My commitment is to make the most of this beautiful life and enjoy my friends and family
Thank you Townsville for a very special 15 months
Last year I reflected on why being in nature might have a transformational impact on our minds
I’ve just spent three magical weeks in Australia and for four days of the holiday we hiked and camped on a tropical island called Hinchinbrook. The island is a few kilometres off the coast of northern Queensland. It’s about 40km long by 3km wide and unlike most of Australia has a sharp backbone of granite mountain peaks rising to over a thousand metres. The island is a national park set within the Great Barrier Reef marine park. Most of the island is covered in thick rainforest and there are dozens of remote, beautiful palm-fringed beaches, waterfalls and freshwater lagoons. The rainforest is some of the oldest in the world and home to many species unique to the island. As you approach the island you get the feeling you’re coming to Jurassic Park
Hinchinbrook is uninhabited and a maximum of 43 people are allowed to visit and camp on the island at any one time. You have to bring your own food and camping equipment and are required to take all your rubbish away with you when you leave. The suggested track to walk along is on the eastern side of the island facing out to the blue Pacific. The Western side faces the mainland of Australia, is full of mangrove swamps, and swarming with crocodiles. You are therefore cut off from the mainland by the steep mountain peaks behind you. At night the only lights are the stars and the only sounds, the animals.
Each day consisted of a seven hour hike through dense tropical rainforest and over beaches carrying heavy backpacks. We woke before the sun came up at 5am and slept at 6.30pm as the sun set.
As we left the island for the hour long trip back to the mainland I thought about why I felt so amazingly healthy. I felt as though every molecule in my body had been replaced with something better. Physically there are lots of reasons for this transformation:
Clean fresh air
Lots of exercise
No light and noise pollution
But I was also interested in the transformation of my mind. By about day three of our adventure I realised that if I walked in front, along the track, there was nothing in my field of vision which was man made. All I could see was rainforest, beach, sky or sea. There was nothing on the island made by man. Throughout our journey all we had to consider was where to get water from and to be alert to dangers such as snakes and crocodiles – we met several snakes on the path and saw crocodile tracks near our tent!
I’m interested in what happens to your mind when all you see is nature. I think we reflect what we see and fall into harmony with it. Man-made things are usually other people’s attempts to satisfy our existing needs and desires, or to entice us to manufacture new needs and desires. Occasionally man-made things are simply produced to be beautiful. Man-made things force us to make decisions. They play to our senses, they make us compare what we have to what others have, and what we could have. Even things made by man for beauty force a decision from us about whether we think it is a beautiful thing or ugly.
Nature is different. The plants and animals around us have come into existence through evolutionary efficiency. They evolved to become the form they are because nature has no choice. Things flow into a new form in order to thrive. Nature is not on display for our satisfaction. It is arranged to be the best it can be. The plants and animals fight and co-operate with each other in perfect harmony to create perfection. Man’s creations are based on opinions and thoughts. Man-made objects attempt to freeze time and create a false idea of the permanence of beauty, or usefulness. When we surround ourselves with nature we reflect its non-thinking state and become engrained in the moment. We become part of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. As you walk along the path and observe rainforest you start to feel that the boundary between you and the forest is illusory. You detach from your thoughts and realise you are part of a whole and not separate.
As we become more connected and use technology to do great things with our lives we also need to spend time immersed in nature. If we fail to do this we move away from our true essence. The more time we spend away from nature, the more we turn inwards and inflate our egos. Our thoughts are fanned and we become isolated people. Nature reflects our true essence of belonging to the earth and the elements.
In the photograph below you can see the rubbish that two of us created in four days – about the size of two or three Pret a Manger sandwich wrappings. Optimising our wellbeing and having great experiences does not equate to ever-increasing levels of production, consumption and material acquisition. Our weak politicians fail to understand this. Growth is still the mantra.
While we were on the island a report came out that half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been destroyed in 27 years. Experts argue over the causes of the destruction, however, most of the blame for the massive reduction in biodiversity that follows the death of coral reefs can be placed squarely on the growth of the use of man-made chemicals in farming and mining along the Queensland coast leaching into the Pacific.
I hope you found this useful and thought provoking.
As I started to write this article I wanted to call it the Mindful Leader but this brought to mind images of North Korean leaders. So its an article about leadership and what leaders should focus upon.
Ask yourself two questions. Who is the leader in my organisation and who is the most influential person? It’s quite common that the answers to these two questions may be very different. The person that stimulates, encourages, connects, motivates, listens too, energises may not be the leader. The leader may have become aloof and removed
Since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and in the decade before that there has been a growth in command and control style of leadership. The call went out for leaders who could cut costs and extract value. And this has come at a heavy price.
Daniel Goleman, the Emotional Intelligence guru has said, “the common cold of leadership is poor listening”. With ever shortening deadlines, increased customer expectations, a heightened competitive environment and increased a huge increase in data, a leader can be left not knowing where to turn. In such an environment the safest place for a command and control leader is back to the security of goal focus and ridged top down management.
Successful leaders need to be able to focus on four critical areas:
- Exploitation – extracting the maximum value from current products and services
- Exploration – awareness of the competitive environment, so that they can prepare for challenges and take advantage of opportunities
- Focusing on the culture and vibe of the organisation to ensure that they are listening to their team – picking up concerns and being able to harness great ideas
- Self awareness – understanding their impact upon others
Each of these skills is essential to good leadership but require very different neural pathways. A great leader can move seamlessly between one style of working and another. The leader who spends too much time on any one area, at the expense of the others, will have difficulty engaging and harnessing the collective energy and focus of the organisation. This balancing act requires great mindfulness.
A leader needs to be able to see what others cannot see. When a leader focuses upon a something she gives it meaning. But is it the right thing to attend to? Will it bring value to the organisation and pull the team together. And once the collective attention of the organisation has been placed in the subject, the challenge of a leader is to retain that attention through powerful, uplifting and engaging stories.
The great balancing act requires a leader to have a wide range of emotional intelligence skills including being empathetic, sensing their affect on others, good team work, heightened listening skills and cooperation.
A recent Accenture study of CEOs came up with one over arching factor that was an essential part of the successful leaders tool kit – self awareness.
Just think back to the performance of ex CEO of BP, Tony Hayward . After a long delay in responding in person to the Gulf of Mexico tragedy he turned up on a local beach and said to the gathered press group, “Nobody wants this over more than I do. I want my life back” . No mention of the deaths of BP staff and the suffering of their families, no mention of the environmental catastrophe, no mention of the economic hardship for local fishermen…”I want my life back”….
A leader must be authentic. A leader must listen. A leader must be humble and know that he serves his employees, shareholders and the wider community.
In recent weeks there have been a number of articles about whether Mindfulness is being taught in “the right way” and some commentators have voiced concern that such courses may be doing more harm than good. Many organisations now pay for trainers to teach their staff how to be Mindful. But what does Mindful mean? A HR director at a company recently asked me this question. The question made me reappraise my whole approach to Mindfulness and led me to conclude that Mindfulness should be at the heart of Coaching, Education, Politics, Business Training, Mind Therapies and Physical Therapies. In fact it is the essence of all we do.
A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”
Another common definition is, “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”.
Another way of saying Mindfulness is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focussing our attention on? This blog explores how established frameworks such as “Yoga” and “Buddhism” teach Mindfulness, how it fits into a personal and societal development framework and how these teachings can inform the methods taught within organisations.
Mindfulness in organisations
Many training companies follow an approach similar to Jon Kabat Zinns Mindful Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). They do this because it is a highly effective, evidenced based program. People who adhere to the program handle stress well, are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions effectively, have a higher tolerance to pain as well as enjoying many other positive physiological and psychological effects. In general it is an excellent program. The MBSR program focuses on teaching:
- How to observe the breath (to sharpen our ability to focus on the present),
- Relaxation tools
- How to observe the world through the five senses and
- How to observe fleeting thoughts and feelings.
All of these are invaluable tools. Organisations and their staff look to such programs to help manage their stress. They also produce wonderful by-products for the organisation. Employees who feel calm and balanced have improved levels of emotional and cognitive regulation. They tend to be more creative, productive and share information more readily with their colleagues.
Mindfulness taught in a vacuum
My only criticism of such programs is that they cherry pick bits of Buddhist and Yoga teachings in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Looking at the very words of MBSR – Mindful Based Stress Reduction. Stress reduction is a goal. A destination. It is not a program with a holistic approach to personal development.
Since my preliminary attempts to introduce Mindfulness into organisations back in 2007 there has been an exponential increase in Mindfulness consultancy firms. Many are excellent. However I have seen awful examples of trainers with little personal Mindfulness experience going into organisations to run short, one off training sessions for staff. These are merely stress Band-Aids. These poorly managed courses do not go to the heart of what it means to be Mindful. They teach techniques to alleviate stress without exploring underlying causes of stress. They merely encourage the practitioner to identify strongly with ego and use the techniques as temporary measures to deal with life.
My Vipassana teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques to sharpen the attention are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be “bare attention”. Its like sowing seeds on barren ground. When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. Without a holistic personal development framework, attention-focussing techniques merely embed the ego.
The Buddhist and Yoga approaches
In both Buddhist and Yoga traditions learning to focus attention is a vital part of a persons development and is one of the tools enabling the conditions for good physical and mental health to develop. Both traditions instruct that Mindfulness is taught in conjunction with:
- Learning to contribute to a more ethical, harmonious environment.
- Being sensitive to the needs of other people and the environment
- Training ourselves to be kind, compassionate and empathetic
- Learning to positively detach from wants, craving and desires
- Understanding that life is constantly changing and learning to detach from a rigid view of our selves and environment
Mindfulness is complex
Both traditions also teach that Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:
- Our thoughts & feelings;
- Each of the 5 commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
- Our breath;
- Our posture
And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses.
Is it merely about being in the moment?
If we look at common descriptions of Mindfulness we see “being in the moment”, or “observing whatever arises without judgement”. By learning to focus attention on whatever arises, the act of observation quietens the mind and helps me observe recurring patterns of thought and feelings. This practice also sharpens the ability to attend to what ever I choose to attend to. Many Mindfulness courses teach people to attend to the present moment by using a point of focus such as the breath. As discussed earlier these techniques have tremendous positive physiological and psychological benefits but they fail to address underlying causes. This approach to Mindfulness is useful but it is just part of the story of what it means to choose to attend to something.
For example as part of my Positive Psychology studies I looked at the Zimbardo Time perspective research. This area of research describes a framework for our thoughts and chunks up our thought (“time spent” or “mental capacity”) into the following areas (I’ve simplified this a good deal):
- Past positive – looking back at the past and reflecting on prior experience in a positive way
- Past negative – re examining the past an reflecting negatively on events
- Living in the moment experiencing and observing whatever arises in the moment
- Future positive – planning for and envisaging a positive future
- Future negative – worrying about the future and focussing on what can go wrong
The way I have described the time perspective research is simplified and there are other dimensions but it enables us to explore what it means to attend to something in greater detail. The research suggests that the happiest people tend to be able to use each of these thought dimensions in a fluid manner. For example “future negative” thinking can be extremely useful when we need to understand worst-case scenarios to adequately assess risk, without becoming obsessed or overly stressed about a possible future.
Many Mindfulness courses simply teach practices to observe the present but in Yoga and Buddhist practices we learn to sharpen the attention so that we can deliberately choose to attend to potential realities. For example some Tibetan Buddhist practices teach students to visualise desirable beautiful bodies as rotting and decaying. With heightened awareness, students are able to do this without experiencing an adverse physiological effect and to reflect impartially on death and impermanence. This is a useful technique to learn detachment from ego and permanence. It enables us to grow and prepare for the future. It allows Mindfulness to be a tool for personal development and not merely a stress management tool.
Similarly there are marvellous Tibetan Buddhist practices which teach us to deliberately attend to the problems and perceived ‘mistakes’ we have made in the past. By calm deliberate non judgmental reflection on these things we can change our negative tendencies and create new healthy patterns of living.
Sequential mindful observation
The Buddhist and Yoga traditions teach sequential Mindful observation. We can’t be Mindful of everything internally and externally all at the same time so we practice focussing on different things at different times. This does not mean that one stage leads to another but we train our attention to attend to different things at different times in order to grow and learn. In this way it becomes an engrained habit to observe the world in a fluid and calm manner. The more we practice Mindfulness the better able we are to make positive healthy choices. We can pick our way gently through the noisy stimulation that surrounds us. We are better able to choose to attend to positive stimulus and thoughts
Yoga – an example of structured mindful development
Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga provide structure. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, encourage us to attend to developing kindness and compassion and living within an ethical, harmonious framework. The third limb, Asana, teaches us to attend to the relationship between our mind and the physical sensations in the body as we practice the postures. The fourth limb, Pranayama, teaches us to be mindful of our breathing. We use this as a tool for both physiological and psychological benefit and in order to sharpen the attention. Pratyahara is the fifth limb. Students begin the process of withdrawing from observation using the senses. This leads to the final stages of single pointed concentration leading to a state of Mindful awareness without judgement.
I need to emphasise again that although there is clear structure for developing Mindfulness in the Yoga system documented by Patanjali, one state does not lead to another. For example we do not attain mastery in attending to the development of kindness and compassion and then move on to mindful awareness of posture or breath. As part of our training we attend to one aspect at a time and build up our skills in each area
Through this process we learn to detach from negative influences and cultivate an optimistic and realistic mindset which is open to growth and development.
Challenges and negative stimulation
This is not to say that we ignore the challenges or negative influences around us. They are as much a part of life as positive influences. However by learning Mindfulness within a Buddhist or Yoga holistic framework we observe the world with kindness and compassion and we develop an understanding that all things arise and pass away. “Good” things arise and pass away as do “bad” things. By learning how to detach from fleeting thoughts and feelings we can minimise many of the harmful physiological effects of observing our pain and suffering or that of others. Detachment does not mean that we become isolated and aloof from our emotions. As part of the Buddhist and Yoga traditions we train ourselves to be mindful of being kind, loving and compassionate.
Students of Yoga and Buddhism train their minds to feel the pain and suffering of others but learn to allow those fleeting emotions to flow through them without negatively affecting their physiology. In this way they are better able to observe emotions, empathise with others, use both their emotional signals and their deeper values to choose better actions, then allow thoughts, emotions and decisions to flow through them – they learn to positively detach from suffering and move on.
Allowing the good times to flow
In the same way that students train their minds to allow “negative” emotions and experiences to flow through them, they also appreciate that the good times come and go. By not overly attaching to the good times we allow new experiences to come to us. We are taught that liking an experience can lead to attachment, which can lead to craving. When craving cannot be fulfilled it can lead to “negative” emotions which may have a strong physiological impact – for example loss, jealousy, anger etc. That does not mean we can’t enjoy the good times and the positive emotions that arise from them. It just means we allow them to come and go in the knowledge that trying to hold on to a fleeting thought and feeling inevitably leads to suffering
“He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.“
I remain a big advocate of Mindfulness courses for individuals and for staff within organisations. My only note of caution would be that when trainers are putting courses together they should have the necessary practical personal experience of having learnt Mindfulness within an established tradition. Patanjali and the Buddha taught complex psychological tools 2,500 years ago. These have been observed, practiced and developed since then. A coach or trainer’s ability to teach Mindfulness depends upon their experience of what it means to be mindful.
Without understanding that Mindfulness goes hand in hand with developing positive intention, understanding impermanence and detachment, many of the benefits of practice may not accrue. Indeed simply teaching Mindfulness as a stress management tool deepens attachment to ego and may be a barrier to personal to growth and raised self awareness.
For more information about courses Positive Psychology and Mindfulness go to www.breathe-australia.com
Like many Mindfulness coaches my training has come from many different sources including :
- Mindfulness of body awareness and breath from my Yoga and Chi Kung training (Sivananda and Iyengar Yoga)
- Mindfulness of the relationship between cause and effect (Tibetan Buddhism)
- Mindfulness of physical sensations arising in my own body (Vipassana meditation, Goenka centres)
- Mindfulness of cultivating kindness, empathy and compassion (Buddhism, Vipassana and Positive Psychology)
- Mindfulness of emotions (The Mayers Salovey Caruso model of emotional intelligence)
- Study of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR)
- Various research areas from Positive Psychology including Flow and Philip Zimbardo’s research on Time perspective
I started practicing physical Yoga (the Asanas) in 1999 and subsequently trained with the Sivananda organisation to become a Yoga teacher. They provided an excellent grounding in the philosophy of Yoga.
In 2007, as part of my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, I studied the Jon Kabat Zinn Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and my dissertation was “introducing Meditation and Mindfulness into organisations”. Since 2008 I have practiced Vipassana Buddhist meditation techniques at the Goenka centres around the world. In 2008 I studied the MSCEIT model of Emotional Intelligence. This model teaches a systematic approach to recognising, understanding, using and managing your own and other people’s emotions.
For the last 6 months I have been writing regular newsletters about the courses and teachers that have most influenced me. In the next few newsletters I take a look at different forms of meditation. This week I’m looking at the effects of meditation on our style of thinking, and given the huge health benefits, what are some of the barriers to starting a meditation practice.
What is meditation?
William James described meditation as “voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again”.
It can be categorized into three types; concentrative, opening up and mindfulness.
- In concentrative meditation, attention is paid to an object (perhaps for example your breath or the light from a candle). When the meditation practitioner notices awareness shifting away, they return to the focus of concentration.
- Opening up meditation attempts to expand awareness to feelings, thoughts and emotions as they arise, without offering judgement. Concentrative and opening up meditation offer insights on the inner world,
- Whereas mindfulness is the attempt to focus on a stream of experience, both internal and external.
Wilber stated that meditation is a gradual turning in of consciousness from outward focused thoughts. He notes the slowness of this transition, because of the vibrancy of the gross outer world and the more subtle nature of the inner. This shift he translated as “awareness becoming capable of clear, accurate perceptions”. In my Vipassana meditation training the constant instruction was to see the world as it is – don’t take the world for granted, its changing all the time.
In the Vedic tradition, it is emphasised that the outer, gross world is constantly changing and therefore its shifting nature is fundamentally unreal; the energetic and conceptual boundaries of all things being temporary and therefore indefinable. Sustained focus on the unchanging nature of “true” reality is a source of great comfort at times of chaotic change.
By focusing your attention internally you become more practised at observing what is directly in your presence in this moment. By being less distracted by the past and the future you increase your opportunities for experiencing new events.
Why it may be good for you
In their studies Baumeister & Heatherton consider attention to be key in weakening the potency of impulses and other physiological reactions that result in “undesired” responses.
Given that attention is considered to be the first stage of processing information, responding to situations in a manner which optimises your wellbeing is difficult if problematic thoughts and feelings arrive and go unnoticed (ie you’re not aware of what you’re thinking and feeling and what the events that led up to that state was).
According to Baumeister & Heatherton, learning follows three stages.
- In stage 1, individuals rely on others to help regulate new behaviours (ie we follow the tribe – friends, families and colleagues).
- Thereafter learned behaviours become controlled by the individual.
- The final stage is where the behaviour becomes familiar, requiring little effort, freeing the mind for the acquisition of new processes.
Whilst habitual thinking frees the mind for advancement, it can lock the individual in negative patterns of behaviour and can place a veil over the link between cause and effect (we pay little attention to our thoughts, feelings and actions and don’t investigate whether they are useful for us). Increasing demands placed upon our attention would seem to dictate that we learn ever more habitual patterns simply to allow space for our minds to continue to explore the world.
If an increase in habitual behaviour is a prerequisite of being able to function in an increasingly complex world, what strategies do individuals have to ensure patterns are constructive and serve purpose? Habitual behaviour can be examined by bringing attention to it through meditation. Meditation raises wellbeing through a number of different pathways including the following:
– Liberation of attentional resources (away from anxiety stimulating events – you become more aware of what your thinking about);
– Disruption of non serving habitual thought patterns; and
– Clarification of values (you get to examine which thoughts, emotions and actions are useful for you).
The barriers to a meditation practice
Most people are aware of the benefits of meditation for a healthy mind and a healthy body. In this letter I’ve given some examples of how meditation helps us change the way we learn, think and perceive our environment.
So it seems like no brainer – practice training your mind as hard as you train your muscles during exercise. Being aware of the barriers to meditation is the first stage in understanding how to use your brain so that it becomes your greatest ally rather than an annoying distraction. Some of the barriers include the following:
– We get excited by new experiences and quickly become addicted to the joy they bring
– It can be physically uncomfortable to sit still for long periods
– We can be scared by emptying our mind of thoughts. Without distraction deep troubling thoughts can arise
– We don’t trust that it will be of benefit
– In a secular world the spiritual aspects can seem uncomfortable for some people
You can be assured by the following:
– Practicing being in the moment does not reduce experience it heightens experience. You can see, smell, touch much more and absorb far more information. Refer to previous newsletters – the more joyful emotions you experience the more accurate your perception of the world
– With time the practice becomes easier and you begin to look forward to it – its a virtuous circle of positive experiences. The more you do it the more it becomes magical, mystical and joyful
– The medical benefits are irrefutable – 1,000s of studies in mainstream academic journals
– With time the joyous feelings multiply which squeeze out negative emotions as they arise. You start to view the world through a prism of positivity. Suffering and hardship are ever present but by practicing meditation you sow the seeds for a harvest that you can reap in the future . This harvest will sustain you when times are hard
– It doesn’t need to be a spiritual practice. It may well become that but meditation training is a wonderful wellbeing tool without the spiritual aspect as well
Being mindful of this moment puts the world into perspective. It stops you from getting out of kilter with reality and allows you to experience the fine detail of life as it emerges. We can experience life in a more brilliant way and with heightened experiences by never taking the present for granted.
“The quality of experience of people who play with and transform the opportunities in their surroundings is clearly more developed as well as more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they can not alter.” Csikszentmihalyi, from his book FLOW