The power of mindfulness

Last year, I completed a coaching foundation course with Third Space Coaching, an experience I would recommend to anyone who wants to improve their ability to connect with people, as a communicator, a counsellor or simply as a human being. For me the most profound learning from the course was to experience how powerful it is to be truly listened to by another human being. Whether at work or in our personal lives, attention deficit syndrome has become the new normality for social interaction. Instead of listening to each other with full attention, we are increasingly distracted by our mobile devices, our personal agendas, our increasing disconnection from humanity.

During the course, we practiced mindfulness, the act of ‘being present’ for each other. When we listened to someone’s story, we did so with full concentration and attentiveness, our feet firmly planted on the floor facing the speaker, our vision focused on their non-verbal signals, are minds emptied of all thoughts except those inspired by the  unfolding narrative.

Since the course, I have tried to apply my learning to my working life, not always with success, but in a conscious effort to improve listening as a core communication skill.

I was reminded of my experience while taking part in the PurpleBeach launch experience last week. Listening to Tara Sheahan, co-founder of the Conscious Global Leadership Programme, was an inspirational experience. Here is the text of an article that I wrote for the PurpleBeach website that describes Tara’s story, how a tick bite set her on the path to discover the power of mindfulness:

“Tara Sheahan considered herself to be gifted with good genes. As well as being a wife and mother, she was an high level athlete, runner, and skier. But when at age 35, she contracted Lyme’s disease from a tick bite, she suddenly found herself at risk of losing her whole sense of identity. When she tried to run, every joint of her body screamed. When she tried to cook, the smallest pan was painful to hold.

What didn’t help was Tara’s sense of needing to be perfect. Being sick felt like being broken, useless. She hated asking anyone for help, found it painful to admit she couldn’t do something. Looking back, Tara likens the state to being like a caterpilllar in chrysalis. As Tara describes it, “there’s a stage when it becomes goo, loses all identity, becomes non-identifiable – that’s how I felt.”

Eventually, Tara realised that her negative thoughts were affecting her immune system. She learned that becoming a butterfly was about letting go and asking for help. That meant shedding the concept that her self worth derived from being an athlete. Instead, Tara set herself a new goal – to become great at loving her kids.

The experience of loving and feeling loved was like suddenly feeling free, even though she was still completely exhausted from her illness.

As she began to heal herself with positive thinking, Tara studied the relationship between mind and body. Inspired by John Sarno’s book ‘Mind Body Prescription’, Tara learned that the body has its own ecology; how negative thoughts secrete cortisol and positive thoughts secrete dopamine. She became fascinated with how, even when you are having a great time outdoors in the sunshine, your mind will suddenly ask you, “oh no did I lock the car?”.  She concluded that because the mind wants to keep us safe and so it constantly worries. Yet the effect of that is damaging to our wellbeing.

With these insights, Tara began a new journey to learn how to change her thoughts. On a 21 day ‘silent trek’ in India, she discovered how easy it is to become overcome by worry and self-criticism, constantly comparing oneself to others because we think they are more beautiful, more talented, more intelligent that we are. It’s so easy to always think, “I’m never good enough.”

Tara discovered that through ‘mindfulness’, it is possible to become at ease with ourselves. For example, simply by learning how to control our breathing, we can control feelings of stress and anxiety in our lives. Through daily practice of simple exercises to connect mind and body, we can all cultivate a sense of wellbeing and joy.”

Multi-tasking or just bad manners?

Call me old fashioned but I was taught at school that it was polite, when someone is talking, at least to look as though you’re paying attention. Recently I attended an external breakfast event where I could barely hear the speaker because of the person next to me loudly tapping on her Blackberry. And no, she wasn’t tweeting the speaker’s smart ideas, she was dealing with work e-mail (I confess I had a  crafty peep – lack of data security being one good reason not to e-mail in public).

My neighbour on the other side, meanwhile, was distracting me visually with his astounding ipad dexterity, surely destined to be an Olympic support for the couch surfing generation. He was locked in digital warp drive, hypersurfing profile searches on the speaker, checking out her company website, twitter feed, facebook account. Everything short of actually listening to what she was saying.

I know that our digital economy supposedly makes us all more productive. But really, much of this so-called multi-tasking is simply bad manners. You could call it making a virtue out of attention deficit syndrome. While I recognise that many people now use their tablet devices for note taking, there’s a crucial difference when compared with a traditional  notepad and pencil. Touchpad typing for most people means that you’ve lost eye contact with your speaker. And when that happens, you’re not really listening.

When  I started my career, (not that long ago I hasten to add), going on a business trip often meant being out of contact with the office for days on end. Meanwhile back at the ranch, correspondence stacked up in your office intray. I remember returning to my hotel room at night to find handwritten notes slipped under the door by the hotel concierge, asking me to call my boss in the morning. Seems like a lifetime ago now. But just because we have the ability to  be always contactable does that mean we have to use it?

I believe that digital technology has  damaged our ability to be accountable for how we use our time. No one can criticise you for spending a day taking part in an external meeting, if you use technology to do exactly what you would have done at your home base. How many readers have experienced the craziness of travelling to somewhere in a different timezone, only to find yourself spending half your day in conference calls with your home base and half the night catching up with email? Oh, for the old note under the door from the concierge.

While the principle that no-one is indispensable is as true today as it ever was, some managers try to create a cult of indispensability by being virtually present even when physically absent. Yet how do other members of the team learn how to deputise if the boss is ‘always on’?  In reality, digitally omnipresent bosses disempower their teams.

So do all our digital aids promote increased productivity or do they encourage poor decision making and a fast track to burnout? Only time will tell for the always on generation. My final message for my frenetic friends from the breakfast meeting: ‘stop tapping and listen, you might actually learn something.’