Over twenty years ago, my friend Kay Shamte and I decided to put together an event on stress management. We were far from confident that Kenyans would feel comfortable talking about the subject, but to our great relief it turned out that the groups we assembled were extremely pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the symptoms and sources of their stress, along with what they could do to cope with it better.
A few months later, encouraged by the earlier positive reception, I conducted such a session at a coastal hotel with the board and senior management of a major parastatal. Towards the end, in the late afternoon, I was leading them in deep breathing exercises, their spectacles on the tables in front of them and the lights switched off. While they were in this blissful state their Permanent Secretary entered the silent gloom to close the event – you can just imagine his confusion!
After another such session, for a collection of senior managers gathered by the Kenya Institute of Management, two of the participants expressed outrage when evaluating my performance, insisting I should never be allowed to run any event for KIM again as for some strange reason I had offended their religious beliefs.
Religious beliefs? Well yes, it turns out that even the innocent activity of deep, calm breathing, without even a whisper of a thought in the direction of meditation, is enough to arouse feelings of serious unease in some people. To such folk it smacks of spirituality, of New Age mysticism, with all the negative connotations of… er, I’m not quite sure what. The fact that deep breathing and meditation are (rightly) associated with Buddhism can merely add fuel to this spurious fire.
No wonder, therefore, that a less threatening word for relaxing, de-stressing, focusing, being “present”, and all such good things has come into increasingly common use: “Mindfulness”. For those who can’t handle terms they feel clash with their sense of what is proper, mindfulness puts them more at ease. It’s far away from the world of self-help gurus, swamis with long hair and strange clothes, and is adequately palatable for your average executive in a suit.
I was led to reflect on my earlier experiences while watching a video of down-to-earth American television anchor Dan Harris telling an audience of Silicon Valley techies how he had embarked on a skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help… and through it discovered a way to become happier. (Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBcWY2866So) It also led him to write a book about his journey, 10% Happier.
After having a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America, Harris knew he had to make some changes. A lifelong non-believer, he found himself on a bizarre adventure, as a result of which he eventually realised that the source of his problems was the very thing he always thought was his greatest asset: the incessant, insatiable voice in his head, which had both propelled him through the ranks of a highly competitive business and also led him to make the bad decisions that provoked his on-air freeze.
We all have a voice in our head, explained Harris. It’s what makes us lose our temper unnecessarily, check our e-mails compulsively, eat when we’re not hungry, and fixate on the past and the future at the expense of the present. Most of us assume we’re stuck with this voice and that there is nothing we can do to rein it in. But Harris stumbled on a way.
It was a far cry from the miracle cures peddled by the self-help swamis he met, something he always assumed to be either impossible or useless: it was meditation. After learning about research that suggests meditation can do everything from lower your blood pressure to rewire your brain, Harris started exploring how CEOs, scientists, and even marines are now using it to reach increased calmness, focus and happiness. But why should we be surprised? I’ve also heard of prisoners in jails benefitting greatly from practicing meditation.
For many (not excluding me), when we are being taught to meditate our minds simply refuse to empty as instructed. The best we can manage is contemplation, despite being guided to focus on our breath as it emerges from our nose, or in other ways to ban our mental clutter. Like Harris, we feel like failures, frustrated by our inability to not think, to not keep processing issues and to-do lists.
My advice? Don’t be too ambitious, and certainly not as you start. I recently attended a musical function at my grandsons’ primary school, and guess what: to settle the children down, to have them be fully present, the teacher running the show got us all to indulge in a mindfulness exercise – some deep breathing, which worked like a charm. Well, you might say, this was California. But also this year, during a programme hosted by the World Bank I attended for consultants like myself (the subject of an earlier column), I was delighted to see that at the end of one of the days a slot was reserved for mindfulness. Yes, the World Bank, promoting mindfulness.
So now, emboldened by these two experiences, these days when I am running a workshop and I want an unruly group to pay attention, or a flagging one to re-energise, I lead them in deep breathing exercises. It works like a charm, and needless to say I don’t mention any “M” words.
My advice to the sober readers of this column is therefore to put aside the distracting myths that accompany meditation and mindfulness. Just think of them as Mark Williams and Danny Penman describe in their book, Mindfulness – a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, as “mental training” that can readily exist within anyone’s religious beliefs, or in their absence. And don’t think in terms of failure or success. Just breathe deeply!