I spent several years as a social scientist researching the role mindfulness plays in the moment of leadership performance. Mindfulness has now become the ‘in thing’ with it being touted as aiding in everything from enhancing relationships, improving attention, helping a person manage their stress, aiding people in dealing with physical pain, to improving mental health, and the list goes on. The truth is, that at times both journalists and even scientists (who we could argue should know better) have overstated the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness. As such there has been a growing skepticism with scientific data on mindfulness being woefully lacking.
Undeniably there is some solid evidence to show that the practice of mindfulness does in fact have positive benefits for the overall health of the human animal, and my own personal experience, and my research speaks to this. But, early on in my research I began to recognize that while it was one thing practicing being present on a mediation cushion in a quiet room, filled with candles, and the sweet scent of incense — that this experience was very far removed from being present in the chaos we call life. It is for this reason that I focused my research on two important aspects of being present. Firstly the ability to be present while in the action of living (i.e., in everyday experiences that we typically found ourselves engaged in), and in turn that it was done in such a way that one brought one’s entire self to the experience (i.e., embodiment).
For my leaders in my study this meant that they were intentionally at least in the beginning activating a sense of presence in their everyday work environment. The way I got them to understand how to achieve this was through a workshop I designed where through martial arts and other embodied movement experiences they discovered in real time how it felt to not be present, and in turn I then showed them ways to bring themselves back to the moment at hand.
My personal takeaway from this is that the real world benefits of being able to be present comes about by actively doing so, and practicing it as such in the crucible of life and not in some kind of artificially created environment first. Secondly, the success of being present comes from bringing all of yourself to the experience you find yourself in. In other words, its not just about getting your head straight. Drawing from this I have found a few ways to intentionally practice being present that has real world positive effects. One of the most profound is what I call, ‘Walking with Stillness’.
Practicing Walking with Stillness
For half the year I live on the Isle of Man. We have beautiful glens here, which is the ideal place to walk with stillness (if you don’t have a glen, a forest or something similar near by, even a park will suffice). The goal is to go for a walk, but to intentionally slow down. While you slow down, you try to walk as softly as you can, making as little noise as possible.
While you do so, you want to not only be fully aware of your body as it moves from one step to the next, quietly, and softly making your way through the woods, but at the same time be fully aware of what surrounds you. While you do so, you want to focus on your breath. Breathing in bring your attention to your body as it moves, breathing out bring your attention to the outside world. After a while, and with practice breathing in and out begins to merge, and you recognise that there is no longer a separation between inner and outer.
Crucially while all this is going on your are doing so from a place of curiosity and non judgemental awareness. The step you make is the step you make. The bird you hear in the distance is a bird you hear. If you feel your mind wandering off to some other place, you gently remind yourself to come back to walking slow and soft, while connecting to your breath.
Whenever I have practiced this, 20-minutes in a sense of stillness falls over my entire body, even though all around me the sounds of nature are anything but still.
When I was walking in the mountains with the Japanese man and began to hear the water, he said, 'What is the sound of the waterfall?' 'Silence,' he finally told me.
- Jack Gilbert
It is this sense of embodied stillness you want to incorporate into your everyday life. The world can be moving a million miles around you, but you are not sped up by it, instead you feel calm, centered and focused.
After numerous practicing sessions of 'Walking with Stillness' I began to apply in all other journeys in my life, from walking to the store, or going into town. And that’s the thing, rather than it simply being a walk to somewhere, my walks became a journey. Each time a journey of self discovery to that place of inner stillness, even though life’s chaos continued as it always has and always will.
Try it out this week. I would love to hear what you found.
You ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with certainty. They come unsummoned, directly, indirectly - I could seize them with my hands - out in the open air, in the woods, while walking, in the silence of the nights, at dawn, excited by moods which are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones that sound and roar and storm about me till I have set them down in notes.
— Ludwig Van Beethoven