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Archive for October, 2015

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This week I was able to follow up being present at (if not part of) the recent #mindfulnation report launch at Parliament by attending a meeting to promote the work of one of the four areas of research and practice highlighted in the report – mindfulness in the workplace.

The venue for this event was Shoreditch, an area of East London adjacent to the City, at a place called Second Home, a place for young and small businesses to interact. It was to be an evening meeting, so I took the coach from Oxford into London in the late afternoon. It got stuck in traffic coming in. Really stuck. As we crawled along, the girl next to me on the bus, a drama student, eventually worked out that she was going to miss her 6:30 appointment to collect her complimentary theatre tickets for a 7 pm performance. She was very stressed, poor thing, and made repeated calls to friends and family to see what they would say; but none of that could change the speed of the bus in the syrupy traffic. I, too, was going to be late. But then I remembered that I was heading to a meeting about being mindful, and that this was a great opportunity to choose to notice all that was going on in the present It was annoying, yes, but not permanent. I decided to let the annoyance be what it was. The rest of the crawl felt a lot easier, and the observant feeling remained with me all the way onto the Central Line and out from Liverpool Street station through the fascinating side streets to reach Second Home (how vibrant the City and East End were at 7:30 in the evening!!).

I arrived as Jamie Bristow, who alongside Tessa Watt and Sarah Post was one of the leads in the research behind the report, was introducing things in more detail. There were a number of different speakers who gave a fairly broad range of commentary on the possible benefits of introducing programmes of guided mindfulness in the workplace. It was a full room, so I sat at the back and took in the interesting set of speakers.

Some had an external perspective as business practitioners, others were living and breathing (no pun intended) mindfulness as trainers, consultants or coaches. Everyone was at pains to point out the danger of “McMindfulness“, or the commodification of the concept to the point of watering-down practice to homeopathic levels of awareness. By contrast, others wanted to declare a distance from any, and I quote, “woo-woo” associations of Zen meditation and navel gazing. Clearly, there are already several versions of “it”, when it comes to the it of what mindfulness is. Or isn’t.

Though the interest in mindfulness for mental health and well-being that is the primary colour of its application and study in hospitals is present in the workplace stream, too, here that was just a hue. The background colour here is that organisations should  employ mindfulness as a tool to deliver a very specific set of benefits – in other words, measurable results in terms of productivity, profitability and cost control.

Having completed the main report, presumably the next steps for Mindful Nation UK will involve following up on its main recommendations which, as stated in the report, are aimed at policy initiatives sponsored by government departments and ministries. This is, of course, a good thing but I wonder whether commercial enterprises can be influenced by government health messages in quite the same way as for the NHS or the criminal justice system. Workplaces are diverse, independent and widespread and difficult to herd. On the other hand, they are also interdependent when it come to looking out for ‘the next big thing’ in profit boosting or development to bring competitive advantage (even though, by definition, competitive advantage cannot be achieved with something everyone has access to). There is no doubt that mindfulness is on an upward trajectory and momentum right now; it’s seriously sexy. This is partly because awareness is intrinsically a good and beneficial thing for learning and living, but increasingly (at least for a while) also because many companies will want to adopt programmes for training (i.e. productivity) purposes because it’s what everyone else is doing.  This will make it very big business.

This energy was evident in the short break-out discussions in the room after the main presentations. I sat in on the group discussing “how to make the business case for mindfulness” but as I listened to the various answers and responses to this (and the inherent worry that if you can’t show hard, bottom-line evidence of its efficacy) three questions occurred to me:

1. Is mindfulness an “it” that can be packaged up and sold in this way? Isn’t the nature one of being, not doing? It’s precisely this benefit of not needing to be taught (the phrase ‘mindfulness practice’ is often used as a signal or trigger for practitioner groups to sit and think in a certain way. A lovely, peaceful and connected way, but surely awareness is not only this).

2. When we ask about the business case for mindfulness, haven’t we got the question the wrong way round? We seem to be trying to work out how mindfulness can contribute to the success of the organisation, making whatever criteria you have for measuring success in the organisation the aim. What if, instead, it were those criteria that ought to be in service of a greater awareness (or mindfulness, if you prefer) of the way the world is? I think this would enable many companies to rethink what they do in terms of, for example, sustainability.

3. How could an organisation “be” mindful? What would that look like?

It’s going to be an interesting process following this movement. The people are great, and inevitably interested in following their curiosity. Right now, before it has got to being its own brand, Mindful Nation UK should resist the temptation to have all the answers. The time for real discussion was too short in Shoreditch, so I hope there will be a chance to contribute over a longer period.

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Autumn in mind at Henley

Autumn in mind at Henley

Yesterday I was pleased to take up an invitation, facilitated by Will Moore (one of our Exec MBAs) to attend the official launch of a report by The Mindfulness Initiative called Mindful Nation UK. So came my first ever visit to the Houses of Parliament, albeit not the Palace of Westminster, as the launch was actually in the adjacent Portcullis House.

The report is the product of an all-party group and it has drawn much from the work of a number of practitioners of secular meditation as it is used in mental health care in the US and the UK (in particular professors Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams). There are conclusions and proposals for further work in four areas:

  • Health
  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Criminal Justice System

Overall, it was an interesting experience. Aside from the novelty of slipping inside the architecture of government and power for an hour or so, and getting to meet some of the many interesting people from all four areas listed above who were in attendance, there was also the chance to see at close range some prominent politicians (three government ministers were in attendance, which is apparently quite a feat for a launch event – even more so on a day when the Chinese Premier is in town).

Here are four fairly random impressions that I’ve been reflecting on since:

  1. It was great to meet that community. These are people with (richly) varied interests in the subject of mindfulness. Within about five seconds of taking to the microphone, Mark Williams had managed to tune a room of about 70 people into a half-minute of awareness. It’s the voice….
  2. The fact that mindfulness, or awareness (my preferred word) is making inroads to a level of policy formation, dissemination and implementation is actually quite exciting. Having got this far, there may now be a place to begin to advocate for some subtle changes to how we think about how we think. Maybe.
  3. Those who spoke about their experience with mindfulness courses (including those held for the Parliamentarians) had a visibly and audibly more grounded feel to their words. I was struck by the integrity shown by the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, as she addressed the room, having first removed her shoes to get in touch with the floor beneath her feet to do so. She spoke plainly and without notes of her personal reasons for getting involved as well as the benefits accrued from practicing mindfulness.
  4. As a lay-person, it was fascinating to contrast the three ministers. As mentioned, the Minister of Sport and the Olympics, Tracey Crouch, clearly had an inside view of, and belief in, mindfulness. Next, the Minister of State for Community and Social CareAlistair Burt, showed a solid appreciation of the benefits of the use of mindfulness techniques in the treatment of mental health, and since most of the evidence so far gathered about its benefits relates to clinical treatments such as MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), which everyone likes the sound of, and since all parties agree that the NHS is a splendid thing, he was on quite safe ground. He had quite a few statistics to hand, too. Finally, Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education showed a solid appreciation for, well, Nicky Morgan, frankly. I’m sure it must be hectic being the secretary of State (of STATE!) for anything, and she was ushered in late, so this is merely an observation of what I observed, but her speech stood out from the others for the wrong reasons. It was 1) all about her and her achievements, and 2) it assumed that even in education mindfulness is about mental health provision – that it’s just  matter of correction of the pathology of not focusing properly on one’s exams (honestly, she did sound a lot like the Head Girl in a posh school).

Perhaps I’m being unkind, but if anyone needed to develop their awareness skills, it was our Secretary of State for Education. I think when kids start school, they’re in a natural state of mindfulness, which the constant testing crushes out of them…

So, now I’m really looking forward to taking part in the next meeting – which will focus on Mindfulness in the Workplace. There are so many great initiatives already out there, and it will be great if we can bring some of this to Henley.

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View from the lounge at Heathrow

View from the lounge at Heathrow

Air travel is a drudge. A first-world problem and a privileged drudge, to be sure, but ignore the context of being lucky enough to travel within the same day to many different parts of the world and with repetition the routine starts to drag.

What is there to sweeten the pill? Airlines know where the big money is, and it’s not with the occasional traveller. The high margins come from business bums on business seats, and those business hot-shots need to be kept amused enough to keep coming back. Hence the reward programmes, fast-tracks and choices of free wines and spirits on offer. BA’s Executive Club, which issues its own currency called Avios (a kind of 21st century Green Shield Stamps) is perhaps the world’s favourite reward and loyalty membership scheme. Being British, it also operates on a sort of class system of Blue, Bronze, Silver, and Gold tier levels. But being British, you’re not supposed to talk about the class system too much, especially if you’re up in the Gold tier; you just slip invisibly past everyone else as you are whisked through to your First Class lounge. Ah yes, the lounge. You can get into the lesser BA lounges, regardless of your seating on the plane, if you have a Silver card. I do just about enough each year to quality for a Silver card and I admit I usually make a bee-line for the relative peace and quiet to be found there after check-in. Where else can you stock up on free bags of Kettle chips?

I suspect I do a fair amount of long-haul, particularly considering I’m not working for a corporate multinational. But letters after your name do not get you to the front of the plane – no matter how top your top business school is  – so the groovy flat bed (I’m rather like Derek Zoolander on a plane; I can’t turn left…) remains tantalisingly hidden behind a curtain a few meters away, while I recoil from the early recline of the seat-shaped domino piece in front of me.  There’s an etiquette needed at the back of a large plane about when it is allowable to push your seat back –  which is a kind of mid-air ballet – so that no-one’s thechickenorthebeef ends up on their lap.

BA annihilate your annual, accrued tier points balance each year, which is different from the Avios points that you might redeem against a free flight or an Avis car hire, etc.. (actually, this is a pretty good offer). So if you go over the number needed to keep you in a tier, you lose the excess and the clock is set back at zero. Excitingly, I’ve just discovered that they keep a track of the tier points overall and, if you reach 35,000, they give you Gold tier status – for life!

This is the airline reward scheme equivalent of buying yourself into a peerage in the House of Lords. Champagne and cheese and onion crisps… for life!! The catch?

35,000 tier points.

Now, I’ve been in their scheme for about 10 years and I’ve only got to 10% of that. Assuming that somehow I stick around as a customer on my current annual rate, I estimate that it will only take me another 45 years to reach this significant social milestone. By then I’ll be closing in on 100 years old. Which will I treasure more, the telegram from the King (ah-ha, you see, even the monarchy will have moved on by then) or the permanent Gold card?

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