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.”

Mondayphobia is no irrational fear

My journey to work today was delayed by half an hour due to someone becoming seriously ill on the Jubilee underground line. I’ve no idea what happened to this unfortunate person  (in spite of my delayed journey, I genuinely wish them well!) but I found myself reflecting how often this happens on a Monday.

There is scientific evidence that we are at a 20% higher  risk of a heart attack on a Monday morning than any other day of the week.  Not only are mornings generally a bad time, due to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but also, as researchers at Tokyo Women’s Medical University discovered, our blood pressure and heart rate rises due to the stress of returning to work. This syndrome, similar to jet lag, has recently been termed as ‘social lag’ – the readjustment to early starts that we subject our bodies to every Monday after a weekend of late nights and lie-ins.

It’s no perhaps no surprise therefore that Monday is also the most popular day for employees to pull a sickie. According to research by Mercers, an astonishing 35% of all sick leave is taken on a Monday, compared to only 3% on a Friday.

In a separate  study by Mind, the UK mental health charity, researchers found that 25% of people say that their weekends are ruined by the thought of having to return to work on a Monday – a sobering thought for any employer or manager.

As someone who officially ‘likes Mondays’, I’m aware that I’m championing a counter-trend. Following the theme of my most recent blog post on health & safety, employee engagement professionals have a crucial role to play in helping people combat their mondayphobia. By helping create a great place to work for employees, we’re not only promoting the general happiness of mankind, we’re also saving lives into the bargain. Inspired by such a noble cause such, is it any wonder that I regularly skip off to work on a Monday morning?