In the 1960s, the advent of the hippie counter-culture led many people to turn to mind altering drugs to discover the meaning of life. Many segued from there into eastern religions, all of which had seemed foreign and closed for those steeped in Anglican or Catholic Christian traditions.
Today there is move to learn about Mindfulness. It’s not a new idea, but a deeply old one with its roots in the old religions – all of them.
People are discovering, as the generation before them did during the Summer of Love in San Francisco and then later at Woodstock, that the search for significance through their position at work or their acquisition of wealth and substance has removed their ability to think more profoundly than waiting for the next pay cheque or meeting the looming sale target. Instead we have been left profoundly empty.
The mystics; the sages, the gurus and the monks, all look at us aghast, bewildered.
They have every right to. We are a mess, many of us in debt, trapped on a treadmill from birth to death, unable to escape. We’ve skewed ourselves to become obsessed with our analytics, enslaved by our technologies, but technology is essentially a neutral force. How we use it depends on our state of mind, our consciousness. We can allow ourselves to be caught up in a very materialistic, power driven competitive environment or we can focus on the quality of our lives.
More and more people are burning out and when they do, they ask desperately, what the value of their lives is.
Many are turning to mindfulness as a possible solution. It’s not about powering up your mind even more and crunching the numbers to find answers, but rather the total opposite;
quietening the mind of the incessant chatter, the obsession with banal irrelevance and the narcissism of the digital age. It is instead to focus on the now; breathing, listening properly, observing your surroundings.
The ironic truth is that to find out what matters, we have to learn to switch off our conscious mind to give our sub conscious thought a chance to permeate to the surface.
When we do, when we start to observe our fears, we become enlightened. As we become rooted in the present, we develop compassion and, most of all, we start to doubt the validity of the existential props that we are using all the time to make ourselves seem important.
It’s a frightening process. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes sublime. As you start getting off the treadmill, you come face to face with all your own angers, your own limitations. Our obsessions limit us.
Practising mindfulness reduces the filters we impose on ourselves. As we notice the world around us in a much richer and deeper way we start to notice consequences.
So, what’s the relevance for us, over and above hopefully becoming better people?
We don’t have to look any further than state capture. Let’s look at audit firm KPMG signing off on its report into the SARS ‘rogue unit’.
Why did somebody sign off on something that’s so obviously wrong in every fundamental way – that they knew it was too? The answer is that they were unmindful. They were able to rationalise it in terms of the immediate good for the company in terms of service fees and profit. A mindful person would have allowed themselves to see the consequences of their actions, the causality.
It’s rather like having a pilot on autopilot. An autopilot does what you tell it to do, it can fly the airplane, but it’s not aware of the context of what it’s doing. You don’t want your pilot on autopilot, you want your pilot to be observant, scanning their instruments, understanding the rich picture – like the storm up ahead. The auto-pilot will in all probability fly you straight into the eye of the storm with catastrophic consequences. The mindful pilot will see the storm, will monitor their own state of mind and consider their responsibility to their passengers when they make decisions.
It’s the same when you see a doctor. An unmindful doctor going through the motions may just prescribe you a handful of pills and some cough mixture for your cough; a mindful doctor will be her own sceptic – she will run a battery of tests, from looking at your age to your family history and your immediate circumstances to check if there isn’t an underlying cause, like cancer, that’s causing these symptoms.
Mindfulness helps you make better decisions and be a better strategist. It also reduces your stress levels and is a great antidote to the delusion of modern life.
Its practice is very important. It’s like golf, you can’t be determined to be good at mindfulness just as hitting the ball harder won’t make it fly further down the fairway. People say they don’t practice mindfulness, but actually we do; any dangerous sport is an immediate conduit to mindfulness, living in the now, concentrating on the immediate, but so too is running, sex or listening to music.
When you do it properly and consistently, it’s like rebooting your mind. You emerge with clarity of thought and purpose – but most of all, you strip away your self-delusion. Is Donald Trump, the president of the US mindful? Is he globally aware? Or is he self-obsessed and pursuing his own narrow self- interest?
Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean that you become all soft and start singing kumbaya. On the contrary you will emerge resolute because you will come face-to-face with more daunting dilemmas that you might have been avoiding and accept challenges you might otherwise have run away from.
Mindfulness helps strip away the filters we have put up around us in a structured way, focusing the mind in a gradual disciplined way unlike the altered consciousness of the 60s where psychedelic drugs ripped off all the filters with often devastating effects on the person tripping.
We need to see though the illusions in our lives, we need to find ourselves and in doing so let the deep sense making sub conscious emerge allowing us to become more creative, more compassionate, better citizens – and profoundly successful human beings.
by Jon Foster-Pedley – Dean and Director of Henley Business School – Africa
Henley Business School Africa is hosting a day long master class on Mindfulness on September 12 and an evening master class on September 13 with Monk Gelong Thubten, ‘the monk who taught Google to search”.
If you would like to attend these fascinating events, click here for ticket information.