Mindfulness as a practice isn’t new; it’s something that people have been doing for more than two and a half thousand years which has clearly stood the test of time.
Today many of the most forward thinking companies in the world have some form of mindfulness training program in place. We live in a world of noise, pressure and ever increasing demands on our time and attention which is driving an insatiable appetite for change. For many of us that change is quite simply what we have come to know as a ‘work life balance’.
Many of us have tried the pills, the potions, food and alcohol; we have tried to numb the pain and distract ourselves from the noise but the pressure increases at a merciless pace. Some would argue that those of us alive today are enjoying the best time in history to be alive and the reasons for that perspective are ample and clear. The world has truly changed and continues to do so at a remarkable pace.
More people have access to clean water than ever before
Advances in sanitation are something our ancestors would have probably had at the top of their wish list.
Medicine has changed the face of the world we live in and people are living twice as long as they were 100 years ago.
Less people are hungry.
Fewer people live in poverty.
We can travel to the moon in a matter of days.
Technology, travel, transport, education and just about everything you can look at is better in some way.
We even have Facebook…
We really are very lucky to be living in the 21st Century.
So what’s the problem?
According to the International Stress Management Association, ‘In 2015/16, stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.’
Last week I travelled 250 miles by train from my home to lead a presentation skills workshop. I caught the 6.03am train from my home to London to allow me to then jump on the underground and then make my connection to head north. At 6.03am on a Wednesday morning the train arrived so crowded that it took great courage and persistence for me to squeeze myself on it and then had to stand practically on tip-toes for 30 minutes as we travelled to London.
Initially, I felt extremely thankful that I didn’t have to suffer the commute myself every day. It didn’t however take long for me to feel a great deal of empathy and distress for each of those souls holding on to each other who did have to suffer the stress and indignity each day. I started to wonder.
When we arrived at our destination how many of those same people would be:
Sitting at the same desk they sit at for up to 12 hours every day looking at the same screen, dealing with the same problems and having the same conversations.
Rushing through their lunch if they were lucky enough to have time for a break yet would be so preoccupied that they probably wouldn’t taste a single mouthful of their food.
Acquiescing to their boss busy dumping another project onto their desk; this one with a deadline gazumping the myriad of others already causing them sleepless nights.
Wondering if their boss or the company ever saw them as someone’s mother, father, son or daughter; a person with hopes and dreams, fears, worries and feelings.
Role playing the corporate person they were being paid to be rather than being encouraged to be their authentic selves.
Thinking about how it was still only Wednesday and they had no idea how they will survive until the weekend arrives.
Finally leaving work for the day to once again stand tip-toed, dishevelled and exhausted from another day on the treadmill.
Desperately waiting to get back home to pour a glass of wine as they slump in front of the television to distract themselves from the thought that in a few short hours they will have to go through the same thing all over again.
That of course is an exaggerated picture of a normal day for many people; or is it?
In her article, ‘Beyond Blue – How to Deal with Stress at Work’ Helen Sanders offers some advice you may want to read for yourself.
What it doesn’t include is of course the reality that outside of work we still have a life to enjoy and manage.
The bills have to be paid on time.
The food doesn’t just magically appear on its own in the fridge.
The dog won’t walk himself and bring himself safely home.
The kids need some of our time too.
The house is such a mess.
The car needs servicing.
How about planning that holiday.
It’s been a while since we’ve since our parents.
I think I have a sore throat coming on.
Why is everyone else so happy on Facebook?
Mindfulness is the solution
For many people it doesn’t really sound like much of a solution to anything because so much of what they have read about mindfulness sounds either boring or impossible.
The boring perception
For many of those unsuspecting souls tip-toeing on the train as they hold on tightly to their fellow commuters mindfulness is the last thing they have time for because:
Life doesn’t feel quite like the ‘ball’ I imagined it to be when I was so desperate to grow up so how is sitting in a chair for twenty minutes twice each day going to turn it into one now?
I’d rather be doing something interesting and entertaining rather than just sitting still.
Most meditators I know look, act and sound boring.
Life is for enjoying, for growing, for creating so how do I do that by sitting still focusing on my breath?
Many mindfulness champions spend so much time being ‘present’ they become obsessed with it and all they care about is themselves and making sure they are ‘in the moment’.
For some it feels like a cult or simply a fad.
Surely life is too short already to sit still for 40 minutes each day focusing on breathing when I already spend up to 12 hours sitting behind a desk and another 7 sleeping.
I attended a full day mindfulness conference yesterday which cost me a few hundred pounds for the privilege yet it was so boring I left after the first two hours.
The gentleman who opened the conference and introduced the day read from a script and did nothing at all to capture his audience’s attention, interest or curiosity. The first speaker to be introduced then presented PowerPoint slides of the human brain together with complex charts and graphs. She presented them each to us in the most tedious and monotone way that was barely audible even with a microphone.
She was clearly mindless as to the impact she was having on her audience or how she wanted us to feel. As a significant figurehead and ambassador for mindfulness her presentation felt the complete opposite of mindful to me.
The next speaker was full of zest and energy who charged into getting the audience to do two exercises which felt far too rushed and of little significance, value and meaning to those of us who had paid hundreds of pounds to indulge her.
In the two hours I sat there realising why so many people were still avoiding the practice of mindfulness someone asked a question which he said he felt he was posing on behalf of most people in the audience. He asked what the absolute minimum amount of time was that people could practice a mindfulness meditation but still feel the benefits.
Was he bored already too?
The impossible perception
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Such a wonderful definition makes it incredibly hard to argue that it’s not something we should all be striving to do. As sensible and yet as romantic as it sounds though how achievable is it in the world that most of us live in today?
How easy is it for us to be non-judgmental?
It was only a few years ago that researchers at Princeton University told us that we judge each other within a tenth of a second. If that is the case then it doesn’t sound as though there is much of a conscious process taking place. Whilst I believe the research related to the link focused on facial features and character isn’t it highly likely that our judging ‘trigger’ extends way beyond our appearance?
Personally, I welcome and encourage the challenge for each of us to be far less judgmental although I also understand how difficult a challenge it actually is given our human conditioning and the way our brains seem to have become ‘hard wired’.
How easy is it for us to be in the present moment?
It seems to me from everything I have read, understood and experienced for myself so far about the human mind is that we each have a vast number of thoughts every day, many of which are repetitive, recycled thoughts that recur each day. As if that’s not a challenge enough to live with far too many of our thoughts are often negative or unhelpful ones.
Being in the present moment is a mammoth challenge for most of us.
Once again, despite its difficulty I remain a strong proponent of the idea, practice and intent of mindfulness. I meditate each day and I aspire to being as non-judgmental and as purposeful as I can. Each time I find myself on the treadmill of life I make a conscious effort to leap off as quickly as I can although I realise that it won’t be too long before I’m back on it again; it’s a lifelong challenge.
I even wrote my own book about it almost 10 years ago, Hamster to harmony.
I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who was once quoted as saying, “Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.”
Most of us would insist on placing ourselves within the first five percent of thinkers but the point is that thinking is hard; it’s certainly not as easy as most people think it is.
I believe that the principle of mindfulness is far from boring or impossible, in fact it seems to me that is exactly why we are all here. Once we begin to entertain the idea that it’s not a fad, cult, religion or some form of complex brain changing quest many would have us believe it becomes liberating and exciting.
The moment we relate to the idea that the greatest gift we each have is our mind which allows us to be mindful rather than mindless everything begins to change.
Should we meditate?
Absolutely, the research is overwhelming that the benefits of a regular practice of mindful meditation or indeed any meditation practice is invaluable to our mind, body and spirit.
Should we be non-judgemental?
Of course; as difficult as a concept that may be we owe it to ourselves and everyone around us to stop labelling and judging others and the world around us to make it fit our idea of utopia. Meditation is one route to living more non-judgmentally and another is just pausing for a few moments ach day to really think about the way we are thinking. We can’t stop the thoughts and it’s a significant challenge to even slow them down but we can take some time to examine them a little more closely even without meditating.
For me mindfulness is a great deal more than meditating or working so hard to stay in the present.
It’s also about thinking about the way we think.
As a presentation skills training and development company we received an enquiry yesterday from an extremely large and successful company about running a presentation skills workshop for their sales team. Our path to a mindful approach in helping our clients to connect emotionally as well as intellectually with their audience is through helping them to really think about the way they speak and connect with others long before we even meet them in the training room.
To achieve that goal we send out online questionnaires to each of our delegates to find out as much as we can about the way they see things and we then pick up the telephone to talk it through further. During the course of the enquiry yesterday we were told that the people who would attend the training would be far too busy to speak on the phone beforehand or even complete the questionnaires. It didn’t stop there as the HR Manager went on to explain that the company knew exactly what they wanted their people to do and they didn’t need them to think about it just for us to show them how to do it.
Imagine how many of those poor souls had tip-toed on a train journey designed for sardines to arrive at work in a culture where they are only expected to do as they are told and not to think for themselves.
Sadly, such a mind-set and culture is far from isolated, its epidemic.
It won’t be addressed and resolved simply by meditating; it will take leadership, courage and mindfulness to think about how everything we think, say and do impacts on ourselves and more importantly those around us.
Perhaps we just need to join the 2% club that George Bernard Shaw referred to.
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