Here’s a poster for you to print out and hang above your desk.
Sometimes we need to remember to slow down so that we can go faster.
Your boss wants your brilliance, not your action.
And you want your brilliance, too.
Listen to yourself when you speak.
Nothing is more certain to demonstrate how close you are to being in the moment than the words you use. If you are paying attention to yourself and the people who are listening to you, your humanity will shine through. You’ll find that you will use incredibly natural language. You will be having a genuine conversation.
On the other hand, if you’re merely filling time, you will notice jargon and buzzwords creeping out of your mouth. If you notice any “innovative”s, or, heaven help you, “paradigm”s and “omni-channel”s, then you can be certain that your mind is drifting. Use buzzwords as a trigger to interrupt yourself.
You’ll notice that your vocabulary improves. The words will seem to select themselves. And the jargon will wither on the tongue.
As a footnote, it’s worth noting that the idea of “genuine conversations” became the clarion call for all sorts of social web charlatans and new media chancers, who wrapped it up in the worst sorts of buzz and nonsense. We stopped talking to our customers about the charms of Twitter and Facebook as a result. Of course, we realise that these technologies are incredibly important to many businesses. A conversation doesn’t start with a tweet, though. It starts by being engaged in the moment.
Image from x-ray delta one.
The simple act of sitting and breathing can put you in a very powerful position.
Everybody’s minds will wander during the day. This is how the mind works and it is necessary. All of the sensations and feelings we experience need to be assembled and stored away for future use. These experiences are usually short bursts of fresh information that are overlaid against stored data. For instance, our eyes can only focus on a very small area at any given time; the rest of what we see is mostly remembered. When we walk into a room, we might look around and notice the chairs, windows and doors. If we sit on one of the chairs by the window and start reading a book, we will still know where the door is without having to check every moment. These memories of where things are are constantly replayed into our consciousness.
But when we sit and breath, we are effectively interrupting ourselves. We can stop and examine events around us and by paying close attention can look at how they make us feel. Once we start to consider these feelings, we can look at whether they stand up to scrutiny.
For instance, you may be in a meeting where a colleague appears to be deliberately ignoring you and passing over you as you try to interject with your ideas. It is very easy to allow frustration to build up. A little narrative can quickly form – you may tell yourself that they feel threatened by you, or that they feel that because the ideas are yours they are not worth hearing. Your brain may quickly throw in other instances of when this has happened before and so the story grows. You remember that time at university when your entire class seemed to be laughing at your controversial summary of the plays of Samuel Beckett, or when your physics teacher at school scoffed at your understanding of the flow of electrons through a wire. The brain loves to find patterns regardless of whether they have positive or negative implications for you. It will root through all of your memories until it has assembled a story. But it is your decision whether you listen to the story or not.
So, you’re back in the meeting. You clearly have something to say. The person running the meeting has their focus elsewhere. Breathe. Interrupt yourself. Don’t let the story build. Accept that your brain wants to tell you a story. Let the thoughts go. Bring yourself back into the moment. Concentrate on what is being said around you. Use that to refine the idea that you want to share. At any moment something could come up that may blow your idea out of the water. If you’re indulging in self-critical reveries, there’s a good chance you won’t notice. If it doesn’t, the time will come when you can impart your thoughts. And because you’ve been paying full attention it will be great.
One of the biggest difficulties with mindfulness practice is deliberately doing and thinking nothing. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Nothing is a concept that is infuriatingly hard to grasp.
Philosophers have struggled with nothing. Early Greek philosophers struggled to answer the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” In other words, why is there “stuff” in the world when there could just as easily be “not stuff”. Later, Aristotle gave us the idea that “nature abhors a vacuum”, building on Plato’s notion that “nothing cannot rightly be said to exist.” This might lead us to believe that “nothing is impossible”; a phrase that flips meanings with each repetition.
Mathematicians have, historically at least, been quite averse to the concept of nothing. Almost every early number system eschewed the zero. That said, the Romans and the Babylonians seem to have got on just fine without them. In fact, the early Christian church was positively against them. There could be no such thing as nothing, they argued, because that would exclude the presence of God. Nothing is a heresy, you might say.
The zero first appeared thanks to Leonardo Fibonacci (although it’s doubtful he ever actually used them in the way we do today), who introduced the Hindu-Arabic number system to the west. Eastern philosophers had never had the same abhorrence of nothing as an idea, so their number systems evolved to include a figure for zero. It could be argued that Eastern cultures gained immeasurably from the inclusion of this extra digit – just compare the complex geometry of an oriental palace to the simple lines of a Roman temple, for example. Also, it could be argued that the ability to perform abstract calculations brought with it the ability to explain and predict the motion of the stars and planets. According to the Bible, the Magi came from the East having spotted a new star in the sky. This kind of zero-based calculation led to all sorts of lavish celebrations.
Nowadays, zeros are sprinkled liberally throughout the world - Google “googol”, for instance (an accidental misspelling of one gave the name of the other), or consider the zeros which with their accompanying ones speed around the world at light-speed to be processed into this page.
Roaming widely through the middle east at around the same time Fibonacci introduced the zero to the West was Hassan-i Sabbah. A philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, architect and ferocious theologian, this was a man who must surely have been comfortable with the concept of nothing. He led a mission converting all he met to Islam, often at the point of a sword. His followers were known as Hashashins (from where we get the word ‘assassin’) and were known for their fervour. His teaching would lead to a lot of ruffled feathers among the great and the good and he effectively spent the last thirty five years of his life under house arrest living entirely by himself. It is believed he wrote one of the first autobiographies, which hasn’t survived. His last words have. The were this:
[bra_blockquote align=""]Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.[/bra_blockquote]
On first reading, this sounds like an invitation to create mayhem and bloody havoc. However, when contrasted with the quotes from Aristotle and Plato above, it reads quite differently. Rather than taking the view that ‘nothing cannot exist’, we now have the opposite view. Nothing can exist. And more than this, because nothing can exist, everything is possible.
Nothing is positive. It needn’t be a synonym for oblivion or emptiness, loss or loneliness. In fact, embracing “nothing” leads to a wealth of possibility.
We’re told almost every day that our lives are busy and that to be successful we need to multi-task. But if we are to live our lives in the moment this is patently impossible. By its very nature, each moment can only contain one thing – one task, one thought or one action. The very idea of multi-tasking is therefore a nonsense.
So how do we go about living a busy life without becoming distracted from the moment?
There are four elements to this – planning, concentration, flexibility and having the confidence to say no.
Take stock of what must be done. Make a list if it helps, but treat the list as notes rather than a hard and fast schedule for the day. Break down the list into smaller tasks and think about how they might be interleaved. For example,
Give yourself entirely to tackling each small task. Decide whether it is appropriate to close your email client and turn off your phone to avoid interruptions. As you breathe, you might tell yourself what you are doing to maintain your focus. As I’m writing this, for instance, I’m telling myself that I’m writing about multi-tasking – my mind is exploring around the theme of concentration.
If your mind is focused in the moment, you will be prepared for whatever that moment brings. It may be that there is something new that requires your attention. Perhaps one of the things on your list takes on a higher priority. Take the time to breathe. Go back to the planning stage. Break the new task down and slot the smaller tasks into your list. If you keep yourself in the moment, this change of order is simply part of one continuous process.
Keep yourself open to new ways of taking on the tasks at hand. Maybe use a pen and piece of paper to sketch out some ideas before you start writing that email.
If you hit a mental block, park the task. Do something else that is completely different and come back to it later. If you’re still not making progress, try completing one of the other smaller parts of the task and work on it in a slightly different order. Maybe even consider leaving out the part you are struggling with – would it really have a hugely detrimental effect on the task as a whole if one small part is incomplete?
There may be times when you can take on no more. You have planned out everything you need to achieve and there simply is no time left.
Explain the situation courteously, but be firm. Saying ‘no’ need not be negative.
Ok, so actually there are no rules. My point is that once you start talking about mindfulness, you inevitably move away from the moment.
You may have the very best of intentions. After all, wouldn’t the world be a great place if only everyone did the whole mindfulness thing?*
Although you may want to tell the world about how great this thing is that you do, you should try really hard not to. As well as drifting away from the moment, you’re putting your own value judgements on to your practice. These judgements come from your past experiences and your expectations of the future. These things are very definitely outside the present moment.
So try not to do it.
*maybe; maybe not.
If you’re new to mindfulness practice, one of the things you’ll have to embrace is the idea of meditation. I choose not to meditate. I prefer to sit.
Meditation is a concept that is weighed down with extraneous meaning. It suggests a search for something – enlightenment, meaning, happiness. It can be daunting. It is also something that we need to find time for, like cookery or bassoon practice. This in itself can lead to failure. Our days are busy enough without finding the time for something new. Who has time to meditate?
All of our days are different. We have to travel. Perhaps we have to attend meetings. Maybe we need to deal with colleagues and customers. We could have children to look after. Some of us spend a large part of the day on our feet. But I can guarantee that we all get to sit down at some time during the day.
When I notice myself sitting down, I take it as a cue to start to clear my mind. It’s surprising how often I find myself sitting, and so I get to meditate more than I would if I had to purposefully set aside the time.
More daunting than finding the time to meditate, we might have to explain to others that we would like to have the time to meditate. We may need to get permission to spend ten or twenty minutes by ourselves; from spouse or partner, colleagues or children. To paraphrase the movie, the first rule of mindfulness club is that no-one talks about mindfulness. This puts us in an intractable situation, a paradox. How do we ask for time to meditate if we also want to avoid talking about meditation?
Sitting is neutral. Sitting won’t upset anybody. I doubt anyone would object if you said, “You go ahead and start watching the movie – I just want to sit for ten minutes”, or “Kids, go and get on with your homework – I just want to sit for a little while”. Or how about, “Hold my calls for ten minutes – I just need to sit.”
On the whole, people will understand your desire for a few moments of silence. In my experience, they will go further and do what they can to protect your sitting from unnecessary interruptions.
So take your cues from your day. When you find yourself sitting, breathe. Listen to your breath and come into the moment.
Sid was a skilled machine operator, able to work as quickly as any man who could see. But, you see, the thing about Sid was that he had been blind since birth. Not just visually impaired, but totally blind.
In 1974, when Sid was in his fifties, he was offered a corneal graft which would, it was hoped, give him the gift of sight. With no little trepidation, he underwent the surgery. When he woke and opened his eyes, he was amazed to find that he could see quite clearly. It was completely overwhelming. The world had opened up to him, but he had no idea what any of it was or why it was there.
As his brain struggled to take everything in, he realised that he knew what time it was. He could recognise the clock on the wall AND work out what time it was showing, even though he had never seen a clock in his life. Psychologists intervened. They were intrigued. They probed and poked and questioned. What the heck was going on?
It turns out that, like the rest of us, Sid had learned to tell the time at school using clock faces and moveable hands. Unlike the rest of us, Sid had worked out what the position of the hands meant purely by using his sense of touch. His brain had then assembled the touch information into a picture that built up gradually in his visual cortex. When he woke after his surgery, this picture was so clear in his mind’s eye that he was able to recognise the clock and tell the time without even thinking about it.
The psychologists determined that the brain is programmed to construct images. It can turn the most abstract information into a useful picture. And it can do it even if we have never seen anything before.
Brains crave pictures. If you’re feeding your audience words on the screen, they will create their own images. And if they’re creating their own images, you lose control. If instead you keep text to a minimum and use bold imagery to support what you are saying, your audience’s brains can take the visual cues and store them alongside a general impression of what you are saying. This means that when it comes to them spreading your story inside their own organisation or networks they are more likely to accurately recreate what they have heard.
There’s a huge amount of psychology at work when you stand up in front of a crowd of people and start speaking. You should use it to your advantage.
image by moonlightbulb