So I have a confession- no new ideas…nothing new… as I have been in a much more reflective space where I have been valuing other people’s voices rather than my own. Shock! I hear you cry- but I have been writing a research paper recently and suddenly a lot of things are making much more sense than before. When I first started thinking about why I decided to go part freelance last year, I realised that some of it was about needing to have a wider voice. I really related to Perry Timms Article when I read it recently about commitment to specialisms rather than job titles #belonging. I’ve heard — and used — this word a few… | by Perry Timms | Jul, 2020 and being connected to a purpose.
Then I reflected and thought that in order to give more…I really needed to listen more and build trust through that connection.
So this essentially became the subject of a research paper I compiled with Garry Turner and Mike Vacanti – some really really amazing connections who write some amazing stuff (look them up – tip one). It has been a wild journey where I sometimes (being honest) felt challenged by other people’s perceptions. I read ‘The Memo’ by Minda Harts and it took a lot of courage to lean into that discussion and understand that perspective on diversity and inclusion and I am so glad I did (tip two- read it).
So I’ve talked to and read some work by some really amazing people and thought finally ‘I get it’ . What if voices within organisations were better heard? Would all these wonderfully talented people who go it alone, have done so if their organisations had listened more? You know..having leaders who demonstrate that ‘vulnerability’ in their decision making (useful stuff that Mike Vacanti talks about) or being treated as human beings rather than doings that we have learnt from the works of Mark LeBusque. I wonder if some of this writing came from their own sources of frustration when they were part of the organisation machine. I quote these powerful lyrics and liken it to our need for expression:
‘Gotta have some faith in the sound
It’s the one good thing that I’ve got
George Michael, Freedom ’90
Experience often drives our purpose and as some of you will see in my recent interviews I am really interested in the compassionate and active listening skills that Dr Amy Bradley talked to me about in our interview https://hresque.co.uk/interviews and how belonging and connectedness strengthened her commitment to her organisation because her voice was being heard. Finally I had the most amazing conversation with Nilofer Merchant who really helped me understand how language and inclusivity plays a role and how many voices aren’t heard (tip three- Nilofer Merchant’s @work project is amazing and so generous in sharing ideas subscribe). What is needed is a push for that real call to action to change that.
So the research I did was not new but was essentially a ‘mash up’ of all of this wonderful work but how I feel I can contribute is to bring all this meaningful stuff together and ensure it is not wasted.
So the key learning for me? …. I want to hear the voices in my organisation that are not heard – I figure they may be actually more interesting and insightful. They may bring a new perspective; a new idea or a way forward that I had not thought of. That is the challenge I bring to you today.
Want to add to my ‘mash up’ – ( tip four : have a look on my website https://hresque.co.uk to see how you can contribute as I believe it takes collaborativeness, kindness and belonging to make our organisations better.
The ‘Who am I?’ series is all about trust, because I believe it’s not one-sided and building a resilient team at work is as much about how we treat others as it is about how we behave ourselves: the old proverb, ‘treat others how you’d like to be treated’ springs to mind. This sounds common sense, but part of being able to do this is to bring to work our authentic selves and to be able to say, ‘ this is how I am feeling right now’ and for that to be okay. I love where I work at the moment, because my team demonstrate they care every single day about each other and that makes it such a great place to work. I think I have a rare and beautiful thing as in my 20 or so years at work , it is the first time I have found that sense of belonging across a whole team rather than a few people-centric individuals. I don’t think it is down to leadership that this has happened either (although that is important component) , it is more about a colleague camaraderie or a unified language where we all feel like we are in it together and can be open and honest.
Chapter 3 : Who am I? – the trusting series
I have a great book to review today which encapsulates the essence of this togetherness much more beautifully than I ever could. I will go on to talk about Dr Amy Bradley’s The Human Moment in a minute, but those that follow me will know I always have a song that I reference in my blogs. I was lost when trying to think of a song that resonated with this chapter. So true to the theme, I opened up to a trusted friend who used to be my Manager who has helped me through some really difficult times. She said instantly ‘oh that’s easy: you’ll never walk alone.’
I can’t think of a more pertinent song for right now, as we need to feel a sense of belonging more than ever since the onset of this pandemic. The optimist in me feels something good must come out of something so profoundly life changing. The opportunity to capture the learning is immense and we need to grab it with both hands. So, onto Dr Amy Bradley’s book which I think provides some answers about the future of work and great food for thought. The consistent theme of the book is around compassionate leadership and Dr Amy comes from a place of raw experience following a bereavement. She writes about how a ‘human moment’ -a letter from her manager at the time of a personal tragedy she experienced meant everything to her and how she went on to turn a desperately difficult life experience into a vocation through researching personal trauma and professional growth.
Amy’s book is so fitting for today as she states ‘never have we needed our colleagues so much, yet never have we felt so isolated with one in six of us feeling we have no one to talk to at work about the things that worry us’. Despite the wonderful technology that we have been able to master to connect us during this tough time (and it is truly phenomenal the advances) it hasn’t and can’t replace real human connection. I think this pandemic has taught us how much we have all missed being able to feel that sense of connectedness as community comes in so many forms and it is not just visual.
How much did we take that for granted in the busyness that preceded the onset of this virus? We mustn’t do that again!
The book also demonstrates some really powerful illustrations of doing things well but also when both managers and colleagues really got it wrong. It struck a chord with me as I experienced a bereavement of a close family member a very long time ago, but I still remember how it felt when no one had been told in the office that he had died and a colleague asked me how he was. I really felt for her at that moment because she wasn’t to know but I was so angry. I’d not been in the office for three weeks – busyness had overtaken human compassion, and no one thought to mention it before I returned… I never really forgot it. However looking back I can see it with a more objective lens that it was not really anyone’s fault, it was the human condition of how we have come to associate at work as ‘professionals’ – that was at fault, where compassion can be very much secondary. As Dr Amy points out compassionate behaviour’ comes from a place of readiness’ and some people have just become not available to listen, too busy etc, not realising that it is that behaviour …i.e.… the ability to not hear and respond to the pain –that can change how we perceive work in a long-standing way. As Dr Amy describes it is a ‘sliding doors’ moment. You’ll never get that moment back.
So following COVID19 why don’t we invest more at work in the importance of empathy and compassion and hearing the true voices in our organisations rather than what we often want to hear –i.e. that which feels most comfortable?
I believe people in the main are well intentioned, most people want structure when they fall on hard times and will strive hard to seek normality when nothing around them feels normal and they can feel themselves losing their grip. I also know that others can see that pain is there but also that determination that people want to get past it. Often however we have lost the ability to find the right words to say or actually to just listen and support. This is true of both colleagues and managers alike:
Cue the lines from Gerry and the Pacemakers:
‘Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone’
I feel our colleagues shouldn’t walk alone but know they have our support. Personal trauma and breakdowns can lead to absolute breakthroughs, or suffering as- Dr Amy describes- can actually lead to ‘greater self- insight’. People who have been through really tough times often become more ‘in tune with themselves ‘ to use Dr Amy’s words so, rather than something to be feared, they are often the very people who have come to realise what is important in life and these are wonderful gifts for an organisation to tap into.
So, what does this mean for organisational culture? Well there are some great takeaways at the end of Dr Amy’s book (8 lessons in total) that organisations can do to demonstrate compassionate leadership. This in turn should drive and embed a supportive culture. What’s great is they are simple things and therefore not difficult things to do. I encourage and highly recommend that you read the book and put into practice its teachings. By adopting these practices, it is argued compellingly that we can get better loyalty and engagement through making our people in our organisations feel they don’t need to be:
‘afraid of the dark’ and see that ‘at the end of the storm there’s a golden sky,’. Words from Gerry and the Pacemakers but something Dr Amy has experienced herself through finding her purpose.
It would also be really remiss of me not to mention two other colleagues who have also inspired me this week with their energy for the human cause – Mike Vacanti, Garry Turner and I had a really insightful conversation about their #humansfirst journey which I am sure they will correct me on to say ‘our ‘ humans first journey. They too are definitely wonderfully compassionate colleagues also looking to bring out the best’ self’ in others. Do look at this work too it is really ground-breaking and a powerful network to be part of.
So, who am I? you may ask? I have discovered I am a work colleague, but also a friend who can be called on any time.
The current lockdown has taken me back to the 1990’s I can’t remember which year, (1997 maybe?). I’d be about 20, I was at university and I had discovered the clubbing scene. It was a place that time had forgotten, until the birth of virtual parties online satisfying the extroversion I thrive on here in 2020. Like many of you, finding meaning has been difficult during this time and to fill the void of being around people, I’ve been listening to a virtual DJ and thinking back to 1997 where I would have been spellbound by the flashing lights and crowds of people in a dingy dark building somewhere, naïve but happy feeling a sense of belonging relating to a ‘tune. Fast forward to 2020 and I am dancing in the living room (a wife and a mother) sipping cranberry juice – no longer vodka- and feeling in my twenties. Tip number one google word of mouth (Stuart Ojelay) if you need some ‘Ibiza’.
Stuart has been playing a universally epic tune from that era mixing Tori Amos ‘Professional Widow’ and Lisa Stansfield ‘People Hold On.’ I started thinking about the lyrics and our response to the current crisis organisationally both now and beyond COVID. In particular the lines:
‘Givin’ into life, givin’ into love
Maybe there’s enough for everyone
Givin’ into hope, givin into trust
Maybe there’s enough for everyone.’
Lisa Stansfield ‘People Hold On’
I’ve also been reading a wonderful book by Mike Vacanti ‘Believership the Superpower Beyond Leadership’. Mike is a really humble guy who is achieving great things. I feel like I have known him my entire life and importantly that connection comes in part from the fact he shares the view I have (and others) that vulnerability is the key to leadership. I am lucky to have him in my network and his book poses many questions for me about wondering how businesses are responding to our crisis and what their forward plan might look like – has it been command and control or have leaders avoided some of its traps ? Have default behaviours risen to respond to crisis( both reacting to or feeling the effects of?).
Some of these ponderings/fears Mike sums up wonderfully in his book:
‘In pursuit of control and mechanization of human behaviour , we’ve restricted our capacity to meet today’s significant challenges. Yet this is at a time when we need to expand our human capacity. Creativity and ingenuity. What I have experienced and learned to be true is, given the opportunity people will amaze us’
I’ve been fortunate to remain in work through this time and in a team responding to the internal wellbeing issues related to COVID 19. Not front-line but nonetheless a challenging and creative time for the team who have been given freedom to respond to work towards what ultimately matters- the people we work with and supporting them to be able to help our community.
I think we have done some great things. However I know I can do more and I will take a beautiful excerpt from chapter 8 of this book to demonstrate how. Entitled ‘Lift Others’, Mike reveals that he starts each day with a ‘morning meditation focused on two words: ‘lift others [and he ends] each day with a reflection: is it better?’. In my self-absorbed moments I am sure this will help to ensure that I remember the purpose and help others to achieve theirs. We all want the same thing.
So back to the song
‘so who’s gonna give us the answer? Sister and brother!’
Lisa Stansfield ‘People Hold On’
My clubbing days may be drawing to a close as I hobble around my living room today from too much exuberance but I think both the book and the song have really reenergised my weekend and when I return next week I want to share that positive energy, despite the challenges we face.
Thank you Tori Amos, Lisa Stansfield and Mike Vacanti and ‘People…. hold on.’ Avoid the traps, practice self care and above all be kind to one another. This too shall pass.
I was midway through my ‘What am I? series when COVID19 began to really affect the UK and it has taken me a while to find the words to say to this crisis we are facing. I feel so terribly sad for the people who have lost loved ones; lost jobs; struggling to get work as self employed or struggling as health workers to cope with the increasing demands on the health service we are so blessed to have. I have friends and family all in these situations.
I am also sad that on mother’s day many of you (like me) are separated from our loved ones, because we love them but I am so thankful that I can still see my mother through the digital technology we have. I know that is not the case for some. I also am grateful to be a mum and to know that love. I also know that isn’t the case for some too. So many mixed emotions, running through my head. As a spiritual person , I am really counting my blessings right now for the things I have , rather than what I don’t have. That is survival.
So here is what I am grateful for (not to boast) but I hope you too can create your own list to remind yourselves all is not lost:
a) Ok I can’t go to the gym that I love but I am grateful that I am healthy and can still go into my garden;
b) Ok I have to stay indoors but I am grateful to have that roof over my head;
c) I can’t see my friends and family but I can whatsapp video them to see how they are;
d) I can’t see my work colleagues but I can connect through MS teams and email;
e) Some of my ambitions are put on hold but I can still learn to be better at my craft and at least I have my skills;
f) Sometimes I feel lonely but I still have food , clothes, my husband and my son close by;
g) I can’t go to church but I can tune in online , it is also a good time to read , meditate and be at peace
To those with anxiety or depression…my plea don’t focus on the news it will only distress further, know the basics from Government, focus on the fact that spring continues outside, look at the birds, the trees (life). Recall the good times, the good memories and build strategies to get you through whatever works for you. Eat well and sleep well above all else.
The final verse of the ‘Rose’ -the title of my piece sums up my message today:
‘When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.
For those self employed who have resources they want me to share, contact me on my contact page- happy to help
Had a great time interviewing Rick and seeing how much he had grown as a business person during the last 15 years. In part 2 he tells me all about his influencers – I have learnt so much for my own journey… thank you so much for your time Rick.
The ‘What am I?’ series is all about being the ‘authentic you’ because I don’t know about you but I LIKE ME and I don’t want to be anyone else. I admit I can be like marmite, however what I have found is that I am mainly marmite when I am trying to be something that isn’t authentic. I do wonder in some organisations where there is a huge pressure to be something ‘singular and corporate’ that the high sickness levels- that appear to go hand in hand with this- are around the pressure to be something we are not. Just a hunch at this stage…..I’m all for a set of values and behaviours to work towards by the way but this should never be to the extent that our individuality gets compromised- personality is important and if you don’t believe that …well I wouldn’t be a people manager.
Act I- The Belonging Series – ‘What am I?’
This really came to the surface this week when I did the spectoral management type inventory personality questionnaire and discovered that the colour that best described my personality (very accurately might I add) was one of the rarest in management and not the colours that most of the people in the room had. My colours pointed to creativity, dreaminess etc… all the things that I had become synonymous with but also on the negative side it meant I could be self- destructive (also true). Rather than get worried about this and throw myself on the nearest resilience course, I realised that whilst this is excellent fodder for me to chew over, it was so great that also my leadership team were here to hear this. It also made me think what could they do with this information rather than just me. So I continue to embrace my ‘violet’ like a badge of honour. I also now understand that people who are yellow and blue may struggle with my violet and I can make it more pale at times and that’s ok to me but sometimes there is an absolute need for their blue to be a bit paler too as I bring something to the table too. Collectively we can make something special happen!
This month, i’ve also been holding engagement workshops with literally hundreds of people across my current workplace where one of my other colours ‘orange’ has really come in handy. Orange is about warmth and my ‘warmth’ has meant people have felt they can be themselves and tell me exactly what is going on in the organisation warts and all (their shared vision, not the corporate one) – this is such useful stuff for us to work on as an organisation and again it is because I have an absolute passion to hear from people that pays dividends… if I had been a different colour on the chart , I may have not learnt so much.
So in this chapter , I am going
to interview some great people who are not afraid to be who they are and have
found success through using their own identity (and I have some absolute
corkers for you). If you are still with
me and want to know your colours and wear them like a badge then good for you –
I’d love to know the results …because there really is only one you….why be
It has been a busy and soul searching few weeks. I came across an organisation recently who used the acronym ‘love’ to mean living our values everyday. I also this week, heard Bon jovi’s anthem (cited above) again; discovered clear is kind, unclear is unkind (thank you Brené Brown), read a bit of Minda Harts’ ‘The memo’ . At the end of all that, I have realised there is a lot to this leadership stuff. I am quite exhausted!
I think it is easy to make excuses but in the midst of all the modern day pressure, the world has changed…it is not so much about whether you are intentionally putting a foot wrong with people who work with you as it would have been in the past; my thoughts are that leadership has evolved into a complex road to navigate for all the right reasons as people with different circumstances who have previously been much more marginalised begin to find (and use powerfully) their voice. This goes across all genders including transgender, race, sex and many more.
Act IV- The Community Series- How are you?
It strikes me that there is absolutely no possibility of future success for a leader who doesn’t seek to truly engage everyone in their team on a personal level and tries to educate themselves through appreciating that sometimes people by their experiences may not want to fully engage with them. We owe it to our colleagues to also be clear with our intentions as well as understanding more about how we can educate ourselves in what the world is like for others- ignorance is definitely not an excuse.
I think I have been giving ‘LOVE’ a bad name, by not understanding the experiences of others through taking time to understand and read a bit more rather than being reliant on others to tell me what’s on their mind – it is time to confess… have you?
I also appreciate better that people can take time to warm to you (if at all) and may need to build trust with you (if ever). I’ll be genuinely honest it has been a little one way traffic with me up until now. I know I have to build trust with others but I never have really looked at it that much the other way. I’ve absolutely no idea why and I am grateful for the writers above and their insight.
As a self confessed novice with a curious brain (some would say over curious) , I am fascinated by people and their experiences and recently I have been reading books that deliberately stretch my levels of understanding to new heights. I can only advocate this as it has been a real experience.
Over the next few weeks I will share more of my experiences but it is rare that I take the opportunity to be quite so humbled and say thank you for the tremendous writers who have braved it to make us all better people. I’ll conclude the how are you series with an interview with Steve Browne (another fabulous people person) but in the meantime, hope you stay with me and if not already done so read some hard but necessary business books that will change the world I am sure one page at a time.
If someone saw you at the beginning of your typical work day, what would they see?
Are you looking forward to the day ahead, or is there a sense of dread that something will inevitably go sideways?
If people were honest, I think they face some sense of dread because they envision an inevitable conversation with a co-worker. Isn’t it ironic that as HR professionals, whose entire existence is connected to people, that we get sinking feelings about interacting with others? To be honest, this sinking feeling captures the majority of people as they enter their work day regardless of their role, their level within the company or the department where they work.
Why is that? Are we destined to start each day at the bottom of an emotional hill just anticipating a barrage of boulders to rain down upon us? I think we have a negative approach going into the day because we are not sure how to “handle” conversations when people want to share about their lives.
Act III The Community Series- How are you?
We echo the sentiments of the incredible new wave giants, Depeche Mode, and their epic song People Are People in the lyrics –
“People are people, so why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully”
We assume the worst is going to happen even before a single word is uttered. In fact, we bristle even when we greet each other. We hope and pray that the interaction happens quickly and in a passing by manner. Most greetings go like this . . .
“Good Morning, Steve !! How are you?”
“Hi Michelle, I’m fine. You?”
And then we quickly pass each other thankful that we got that out of the way so we can get on to more “important” things like work, email, or anything not involving any personal sharing. I think this is a HUGE miss !! People want to be seen, heard and connect. This isn’t a matter of introversion or extroversion, it’s a fact of being a human. When organizations consistently say that people are their number one asset, value, etc., but don’t encourage genuine interactions between folks, it’s a giant corporate catchphrase of hypocrisy.
When we keep cloaking our interactions under the veil of only talking about work or the tasks at hand, we honestly get less then ideal results and production. It’s true. The more we are formal, aloof and only converse about “things” we miss the intelligence, creativity and imagination of the people we’re talking to.
The value of taking the time to talk about personal happenings in the lives of those around us is the best time investment you can make in any day.
The reason it’s so valuable is that the few minutes it takes to check in and see what’s going on in the life of the person you’re talking to gives you a deeper connection. You’re filling the emotional bucket of each other and your conversations will be more open, candid and forthright. I understand that you need to be respectful, appropriate and professional. Those are given foundational blocks of any interaction. Again, come at this from a positive aspect to start.
Remember – people are people. So, let’s start making our interactions intentional, meaningful and valued !!
For more information about Steve Browne click here
In part 1 of this post, I introduced you to the two modes of mind, doing and being. We also looked at an example of how we can get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking, revisiting an experience we have had and allowing this to dominate our thinking, and how this can affect our mood and our lives. When we get stuck like this, we are in the doing mode of mind, dominated by judging, analysing, etc. and this usually very helpful mode of mind has, instead, turned an unpleasant situation into something that is causing us stress, anxiety, irritability, etc. long after the event has passed.
Act II- The Community Series – How are you ?
Having a mindfulness practice can be beneficial to us in situations like this for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we practice mindfulness and become more aware of how we have been conditioned over time to react in certain ways to certain types of situations, we can notice when our minds enter these unhelpful thought patterns. Secondly, mindfulness provides us with the approaches that can help us to let go of these thought patterns.
Well, if we return to our situation above, we can see we are stuck in the past, ruminating over an event that occurred hours or days earlier. When we approach this experience mindfully, we bring a warm, open, curious, awareness to our present moment experience, which includes these thought patterns. We experience them in the wider context of what is going on for us right now.
Bringing an awareness imbued with these qualities to our present moment experience helps in the following ways: First, cultivating the qualities of warmth, openness, and curiosity helps us to move towards our present moment experience in its entirety, into being with it. Secondly, our experience cannot be dominated by thinking about the past at the same time as we are paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. We stop ‘feeding’ the thinking process and our minds begin to settle down. If anyone has ever played ‘SwingBall’ on your own, it’s a little bit like that. When we are stuck in a particular pattern of thinking, returning to the same event over and over, it is like hitting the ball each time it comes back around to us. We are giving the ball (our thinking) energy to carry on. When we turn to the present moment we are, by default, letting go of the thoughts and so we are no longer maintaining them and, like the ‘SwingBall’, they begin to lose momentum and eventually don’t bother us. It is important to note, though, that mindfulness is not a ‘distraction’ technique. When we enter the being mode of mind we are not pushing out the thoughts and replacing them with sensory experience. We are just acknowledging their presence in the wider context of all that is going on for us in the present moment, so that they do not dominate our attention, and our energy.
So, to the chorus of our song. The first line is
“May your mind set you free (be opened by the wonderful)”
This line from the chorus reminds us that just as our minds can get us into trouble, they can also get us out of this trouble. As our brains learn this process of acknowledging the presence of these unhelpful thought patterns, and then letting them go, this becomes a learned behaviour, and it becomes something we are able to do more easily over time. We are learning to move from doing mode to being mode and learning to appreciate the wonder that can be found in the present moment. Now this is something that people can have a hard time understanding, the wonderful experience that being in the present moment can bring. The only way to experience it is to try it for yourselves. As you practice being in the present moment, really noticing the detail of what is going on moment to moment, we find a richness that we overlook and ignore most of the time, and this can bring a sense of vitality to our lives that is difficult to articulate in words alone. And so to our final line which is also from the chorus of the song
“May your mind let you be through all disasters”
We have taken a look at a particular scenario above, but our lives are full of challenges and difficulties. The key message here is that trying to avoid these difficulties and challenges is what leads to many of our problems in the first place. We are trying to think our way out of something that cannot be resolved; the unpleasant feelings we experience in our lives. They are as much a part of our lives as the pleasant experiences. Living more mindfully can help us learn how to be more comfortable with the uncomfortable, learn how to ‘be’ (in the sense of entering the being mode of mind) through all the disasters of life. In this mode of mind we find that the unpleasant experiences and the associated feelings and emotions will pass if we don’t maintain them by getting stuck in trying to think our way through them. Thinking has its place, and reflecting on our experience is a great way to learn, but when that thinking becomes something that is not helpful, that is maintaining the difficult emotions and feelings well beyond the initiating event, then it is time to take a different type of action.
So, to recap, living more mindfully can help us to become better at self-monitoring and self-regulating our psychological processes (it brings far more than this to the lives of those that practice it, in my experience, but I wanted to focus on one area for the sake of simplicity). Just as we may learn how to best maintain our physical health by monitoring and regulating what we eat and how we exercise, then why shouldn’t we learn how to do the same for our psychological health? However, I think it is important for me to make it clear that practicing mindfulness does not stop you experiencing difficult and unpleasant feelings. We are learning how to minimise the effect they have on us, to recover from their impact more quickly.
Well, that’s me done. If you have made it this far without falling asleep then I have either done a half decent job or you are still waiting for the interesting bit! If it is the latter, then I am sorry to disappoint you. However, there is some really interesting content to be found if you follow the links that I have placed below, where you will be able to find out more about mindfulness and the role it can play in your own life, in the organisation in which you work, and in the community in which you live. I will also leave my contact details if you wish to contact me to discuss anything in this blog, or about mindfulness training in general.
Waltzing Along – The full lyrics from the song used in this post. James have produced some truly wonderful songs, but this is my favourite; go have a listen and decide for yourself.
The Mindful Nation Report – Published on behalf of the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group in October 2015, the Mindful Nation UK report was the first policy document of its kind, seeking to address mental and physical health concerns in the areas of education, health, the workplace and the criminal justice system through the application of mindfulness-based interventions. The website also contains other useful information about the Mindfulness Initiative and their work.
Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) – A project whose aim is to introduce training in mindfulness to young people in our schools to help them to develop the skills to navigate through the difficulties in life and flourish.
Mindful.org – As the name suggests, a website that contains information about all things mindfulness, including practical tips on how to practice mindfulness and information about the latest research.
Centre for Healthy Minds – If you are interested in neuroscience, this site provides lots of interesting research and information. It illustrates how a better understanding of how the brain works is informing our approaches to improving our health and wellbeing through practices such as mindfulness.
If I asked you the question “What is mindfulness?”, what would your answer be? When I ask this question at the start of courses that I run the answers I get are usually variations around a theme, and that theme is paying attention to what is going on in the present moment. This is something that we are all capable of doing, this is an innate human capability, and if someone asked you what you are doing right now, you would be able to say you are reading this blog, right? But what else is going on? What is going on in your environment? Is it noisy, quiet, dark, light, peaceful, chaotic? How do you feel? Relaxed, uptight, tired, hungry? And what is going on in your mind? The chances are, as you read this, your mind will be evaluating and judging these words, creating meaning from them and comparing them against your beliefs, values, attitudes, and most of it is probably occurring outside of your awareness. You may even have wandered off, your mind taking you to a past event or an imagined future one.
These activities of the mind relate to what is known as the doing mode of mind in modern psychology. This is very often the mode of mind we are in as we go about our daily lives, busy planning, analysing, judging, etc. Now these are all wonderful capabilities and help us to run our busy lives. Nobody is saying we should be giving them up. However, this mode of mind tends to dominate our experience to the detriment of the other mode of mind which is the being mode. The mind is capable of thought, we all understand that, but it is also capable of being aware, and these two capabilities of mind roughly relate to the two modes of mind just mentioned: Doing is when we are thinking, Being is when we are resting in awareness. Now we can be aware and thinking at the same time, but the key thing is that when we are in the being mode of mind we are aware of what we are thinking and awareness is the primary activity of our attention, not thinking. We just see thinking as another aspect of our experience, arising into our awareness as do sensations in the body or sounds arriving at our ears – we acknowledge the presence of our thoughts but we don’t react to them.
How are you? The Community Series – Act II
So, mindfulness is, at a high level, a way of practicing how to enter this other mode of mind, the being mode.
Why would we bother to do this?
Well, there has been a lot of research on mindfulness training and it’s benefits over the last forty years, and particularly since the 1990’s when research that utilised the newly developed technology of neuroimaging discovered that the brains of people who practiced mindfulness, even those who had only been practicing for a few short weeks, had changed structurally in ways that it is thought help with regulating emotions and promoting wellbeing and resilience. Why does this happen? To understand this a little bit more I am going to introduce you to a neuroscience term, which is attention dependent neuroplasticity. A bit of a mouthful, yes, but what this term refers to, in layman’s terms, is the brains ability to learn and to develop based on that learning. The brain’s ability to learn is well known, that is why we have an education system, but what we are beginning to understand now is that we can go beyond our traditional ideas around learning, those related to the external world, the sciences, mathematics, the arts etc. We know now we can influence our internal world, our emotions and wellbeing, through training our brains. Our brains develop based on our experience, so we go to school and learn about subjects by being exposed to them over and over. We learn to play musical instruments by playing them over and over. But we can also learn to relate to the world around us in unhelpful ways if we are exposed to the same types of experience over and over, and this includes our internal experience, such as moods and thinking.
Our attention is the vehicle through which our brains learn and develop. Whatever we place our attention on can, potentially, influence our brain development. The more we are exposed to something, the more likely our brain will change because of this experience. This is great for learning how to do things, like driving cars or learning how to play a sport, etc., but there is a darker, less welcome side to this. Remember our doing mode of mind, well if we develop certain patterns of thinking and these get activated regularly enough then our brains will start to change. Let’s look at an example of how this might work. It’s a little contrived, but please note how day-to-day this is, we are not looking at big traumatic events.
To help me take you through this I am going to get a bit of help from a fantastic 90’s tune called “Waltzing Along” by the equally fantastic band, James. The first verse of the song contains these two lines:
“Mood swings, not sure I can cope,
My life’s in plaster”
So, we miss a deadline at work and our boss lets us know his/her displeasure over this at a team meeting. Imagine yourself in this scenario, or something similar, how would you be feeling and what kind of thoughts would be going around in your head? Some reflective thoughts can be a good way to learn, “what could I have done better?”, “did I take on too much?”, “was this outside of my control?” However, there can be times when we get ‘stuck’ in these types of event. We carry on thinking about it hours, or even days, after it has occurred. Thoughts about what we should/could have said in the meeting to defend ourselves, about how unfair it was, going over the scenario over and over again, blaming ourselves, or maybe others. We may feel angry, hurt, humiliated, resentful. We may begin imagining similar scenarios in the future and how we would be more assertive and not be spoken to like that. We may lay awake at night thinking about what has happened, leading to tiredness and irritability. This could, in turn, lead to us snapping at people around us which leads to more conflict, anger, resentment, then perhaps guilt and sadness. We get stuck in this cycle of changing emotions and thought patterns, and maybe a feeling of helplessness, that we have little control.
All the while this is going on, our brain is learning. It doesn’t matter whether the experience is real or imagined, the brain is developing based on where our attention is being placed. So, our real and imaginary reactions to events, from a brains perspective, help it to learn how it should react in future. From our example above, only a relatively short period of time elapsed during the real world experience, the rest was going on our imagination long after the event had occurred. When similar events occur in the future, where we have similar feelings about a situation the same kind of thought patterns, and behaviour, can occur as the brain has ‘learned’ that this is how it reacted last time. The brain learns from repetition so the more times we react in this way the stronger the relationship between these types of situations and the resulting behaviour/thinking will become. We experience a similar situation and anger, resentment, helplessness, etc. arise as we react instinctively. This is how habits are formed, and bad habits form when we allow unhelpful thoughts and behaviours to go unchecked over time. So this is where our thoughts can lead us, to a situation like the first two lines in our song.
But all is not lost, the good news is that, just as our brains learned these unhelpful thought/behaviour patterns we can also teach the brain more helpful approaches to dealing with these types of scenarios. Returning to our song, our next two lines are from verse two
“These wounds are all self-imposed,
Life’s no disaster”
The first line alludes to the kind of situation discussed above, habitual thought patterns that keep us ‘stuck’ in a situation long after that situation has passed. This is self-imposed, in the sense that it is our own minds that keep us stuck, by reliving situations over and over. The second line offers us hope that life is not the disaster that we think it is when we find ourselves in these types of thought patterns, where our own state of mind affects our perception to the point where we can feel the world is conspiring against us. We can free our minds of these types of situations, but the question is, how?