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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?

Send in the gowns 

Last Friday was MBA graduation day at Henley; the best day of the whole programme for every particpant.  These days it’s also become one of the best days of my Henley year, too, as I now recognise so many of the names and faces of those at the ceremony (my early years at Henley were spent seeing a previous generation get to the end). Plus, there was the bonus of meeting, even if only briefly, their family and friends.

This year’s event even had perfect English autumn sunshine to add to the procession of gowns and mortar boards (gloriously and hat-hazardly thrown in the air afterwards). As in previous years, Frempong Acheampong won the best-dressed academic competition and the Dean deserves praise for having done some sincere and detailed homework on the pronunciation of graduand names. No small feat, given their geographic diversity. 

It was generous of those who, on the day, also took the effort and trouble to come and say hello, and affirm that the Personal Development elements of the programme had made such a difference to what they were getting out of the degree. 🙂

Mindset in stone?

the unpunctuated flow of events

How well do you know your own mind as you apply it to the world around you? You might think that would be pretty easy to answer. Knowing what a mindset is, however, is one of those things that you know if no-one asks you, but will struggle to define if you are asked to explain it.

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to close a day-long meeting organised by the Henley Forum (… for Organisational Learning and Knowledge Strategies, to give it its full name). The audience of about 60 was diverse and practical, drawn from member organisations. The theme of the whole day was “Changing mindsets and behaviours” and my segment was the last hour. I had the title “So why would anyone want to change their mindset?”

Good question, but I realised that I wasn’t going to get far in answering it without knowing what a mindset is. Not just ‘my’ mindset, but ‘a’ mindset.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition:

“Mindset, (n)… the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.”

– Collins English dictionary online

This says first that a mindset is personal, and knowingly or unknowingly it affects how you see, notice and react to the events in the world around you. But notice, too, the tantalising confusion in this definition. Is it your ideas and attitudes that are difficult to alter, or the situation you bring these to? Were it the situation that doesn’t easily budge, a change in your approach would indeed be called for. As such, a change in mindset would be no more than a change in tactics, amounting to pragmatism.

Yet I doubt this is what is meant. I suspect they are saying that it is our ideas and attitudes that are immobile. And that the main reason this is so is because we invest a huge amount of our own individual identity in our outlook. A shift in mindset ought to be a big deal, not tailoring.

In the Henley Forum session I wanted to explore this territory. I started by wondering, aloud, whether there aren’t actually three orientations to the whole question of mindset:

1. Your mindset is a question of perception, interpretation and intent.

I think this covers just about everything people write and read on this topic, and is the closest to the dictionary definition above. In fact, it’s a common sense description of how we characterise and categorise. A modern and very popular case in point is Carol Dweck’s ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset (the idea being that these are the choices – either you believe your worldview is the result of fixed traits (perhaps ones you are born with, or ones that don’t change because you believe they don’t), or you think that things can and do change through hard work and belief (faith?). Compare this with the famous  saying attributed somewhat erroneously attributed to Henry Ford in 1947 –  “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t… you’re probably right.” Actually, this sentiment or a variation of it has been in circulation since Virgil’s the Aenid (or even tucked away in Plato’s cave), and has been a resource for poets, scholars and politicians ever since.

So your mindset is part of you and how you meet the world, and you can choose to slice this in any way you please – that part of it is arbitrary. But does this help? Does getting only into detail of the gubbins in your mindset mean much unless you know what sort of a world enables you to have a mindset in the first place?

2. A mindset is possible through aspects of the world that are not dependent (only) on an individual’s perception. A mindset requires time, biology and a system that can form meaning (i.e. a coherent definition of mind). Without the combination of these three elements there would simply be no possibility for a mindset to mean anything. If there can be no differentiation between worldview at point A to worldview at point B, then there is no system of learning. This is a pre-requisite to the imposition of choices as to typology of mindset (the stuff of popular psychology).

As Gregory Bateson (1973) wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”. The wrong mindset could be toxic.

3. Therefore, mindset change must be a matter of a broader and more abstract awareness of the factors that give mindset stability. This third orientation is what draws the first two together. What might such an awareness be of? With awareness at both of the levels mentioned above, and with some input here from Siegel (2007), I think we might find the following useful:

a. Non-reaction to inner thoughts. Entering the world of your thoughts is one thing – standing back and observing one’s own internal language as if hearing them as another person might is another matter

b. Acuity of our observation of sensations available to us, plus the absence of pre-judgement of that experience

c. Aware action, preferably spontaneous action (by spontaneous I mean the paradox of managing to surprise even yourself, as the master archer who releases the arrow without saying ‘now’)

d. Our own eloquence and literacy in both 1 and 2 above.  This is one of the functions, I believe, of personal development and the reason I think it important that it is the job of education to be rigorous and precise rather than clear and simple.

My own starting point for this is a presupposition: that the world/universe/life etc. is going on all around (and consciousness that this is so) of its own accord and in and of itself it contains no punctuation. For humans, this presents a problem – we cannot make sense this way, so we punctuate this flow. More about this in a future post…

References:

Bateson, G., (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago University Press

Siegel, D., (2007), The Mindful Brain in Human Development: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-being (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, Norton

The Six Diseases

Chalk fall St Margaret's 2013

I’ve been an occasional reader of a second-hand book I purchased some time ago. It seems that these days all my reading is occasional, nearly always of second-hand books (thanks to Amazon 1 penny offers and Oxfam Books), but anyway…

This one is “Bruce Lee: Artist of Life” about martial artist, actor and philosopher Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973). It is is a compilation of writings and notes by Lee put together by his biographer, John Little. A voracious reader as well as tireless athlete, Bruce Lee had a remarkable eye for the simple essence of living.

This is an extract, from a section entitled “The Six Diseases”:

“1. The desire for victory.

2. The desire to resort to technical cunning.

3. The desire to display all that you have learned.

4. The desire to overawe the enemy.

5. The desire to play a passive role.

6. The desire to get rid of whatever disease you are likely to be infected with.

“To desire” is an attachment. “To desire not to desire” is also an attachment. To be unattached, then , means to be free at once from both statements, positive and negative. In other words, this is to be simultaneously both “yes” and “no”, which is intellectually absurd. However, not so in Zen!

The undifferentiated center of a circle that has no circumference: the jeet kune do man should be on the alert to meet the interchangeability of the opposites. But as soon as his mind “stops” with either of them, it loses its own fluidity. A jeet kune do man should keep his mind always in a state of emptiness so that his freedom in action will never be obstructed.”

This reminds me of the image used by Alan Watts to illustrate the spontaneity sought by those wishing to be in tune with the Tao, that of the archer releasing the arrow without first saying ‘now’.

How tricky it is for a manager to act in their own field of practice in this way!

Reference:

Little, J, (1999), Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, Tuttle publishing (p. 196)

Jeet kune do was Lee’s term for the martial art process and philosophical approach (he did not call it a style) that he developed

Lion fountain in Vörösmarty tér, Budapest

Lion fountain in Vörösmarty tér, Budapest

Keleti (Eastern) railway station in Budapest has been much in the news lately thanks to the Hungarian government’s flip-flop position on the passage of refugees (who, having fled homes made unsafe by war, paid smugglers and risked drowning, have lost nearly everything) seeking to find asylum in the European Union. As a portion of the total population of the countries they come from, these crowds are small (most of Syria’s refugees are in other part of Syria or in camps in neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan), but there has been no co-ordinated attempt to process those who have travelled to Europe.

Keleti station was also where I found myself arriving to in 1987 on a train from Vienna Westbahnhof, at the start of what turned out to be an 18 year separation from my country of origin. In my own head, I fancied myself something like the like the narrator in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, and I don’t think flying in to Hungary would have had the same impact. Trains are less generic than planes, and terminus stations inject you in to the heart of the city. On the way they give you sneak previews of back gardens, back bedrooms (and the lives that must go on in them) and the state of people’s fences and side streets forces you to contrast with how they look on the other side of the border.

On a train you inhale the country from behind glass before you step down onto the platform and into the crowd. For me, it was simply exotic to see people going about their daily business. Many in uniform (nearly all Hungarian conscripts, a few Russian officers), others dragging many heavy bags with bags taking “goods” to sell in one of the city’s markets, and a few tourists and visitors, like me. The atmosphere further enhanced by the (to me) by the odd-smelling tobacco smoke and even odder smelling fumes from some of the cheaper motor cars in the streets outside. Plus, of course, the exotic further destinations on offer…. Moscow, Bucharest, Berlin, Athens.

You didn’t have to be in Hungary too long for it to be impressed upon you, with both pride and worry, that Hungary is just one of those countries on transit routes in and out of Europe. Whether Hungary itself was in or out of Europe was never answerable, not completely. The rhetoric from the Hungarian authorities in English toward the EU may fairly be paraphrased as “this is just us imposing the EU’s own regulations on the registration of refugees”. But the script in-country appears to be darker; the language and tone is more about exclusion and the protection of ‘heritage’.

Here are a few recent Orban quotes, just on the topic of immigration (taken from this blog posting on The Orange Files):

 

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“Economic immigration is a bad thing in Europe. It shouldn’t be seen as something that is of any use at all, because it just brings difficulty and danger to the European person. This is why immigration must be stopped. This is the Hungarian viewpoint.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“At the same time, one must make it very definitely clear that we will not permit—at least as long as I am the prime minister and as long is this government exists—it will not happen that Hungary becomes the target of immigrants.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“We do not want to see among us significant minorities that possess different cultural characteristics and background than us. We would like to preserve Hungary as Hungary.” January 11, 2015, speaking to Hungarian Television reporter while in Paris to attend the Republican Marches against terrorism (source in Hungarian).

“We do not want a multicultural society.” February 5, 2015, during interview with the German dailyFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (source in Hungarian).

“We want no more people to come. Those who are here, go home!” May 8, 2015, speaking about the refugee camp in Debrecen, the largest in Hungary (source in Hungarian).

“This camp must not be developed, but closed and those who live in it sent home!” May 8, 2015, speaking about the refugee camp in Debrecen, the largest in Hungary (source in Hungarian). 

“We would like it if Europe would continue to belong to the Europeans.” May 19, 2015, speaking during a European Parliament plenary-session debate regarding the Orbán government’s stance on immigration and the death penalty (source in Hungarian).

“Now they are calling us to account because we don’t argue in the questionnaires that you have to like immigrants. After all of this, why should we like them?”  June 5, 2015, speaking with regard to the government’s National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism on pro-government state-run Kossuth Radio (source in Hungarian).

“There is no political persecution in either Serbia, Macedonia or Greece. Thus those who arrive here have come from countries where they don’t qualify as refugees. They don’t have to flee from there, thus I would like to make it clear that everybody, regardless of why they left their homeland, is a subsistence immigrant (megélhetési bevándorló) once they arrive in Hungary, because they could have stayed in Serbia as well.” June 5, 2015, speaking with regard to the government’s National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism on pro-government state-run Kossuth Radio (source in Hungarian).

“There is no chance, we are going to send you back. This continent will not be your homeland, you have your own homeland, this is our homeland, we built it. We will gladly work together with you, we have our laws, respect them if you want to come here, which also has its own regulations. But it is impossible that you run across our fences and our borders in a way that violates the law.” July 3, 2015, on what to say to migrants who intend to enter Hungary illegally (source in Hungarian).

******

Today even the Pope spoke out on this issue (Orban makes much of his immigration policy on defending Christian values). The BBC reported Pope Francis urging “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe” to take in a family. The absurdity of the FIDESZ position is brought further into focus by the fact that many Hungarians have themselves had to flee as refugees in the last 100 years, and that the key event in the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall was the presence in makeshift camps in Hungary of thousands of East Germans, who also wanted only to cross the border.

IMG_0166

Back in 1987 on my own journey, I was being met by the manager of the language school I had been brought in to teach at, so I spent all of 10 minutes at Keleti, and not down to the huge subterranean concourse area of newspaper sellers, fast-food and pastry shops, and people warily selling all sorts of cheap goods. The type of welcome that the Syrian and Afghan refugees have encountered in recent months and, in particular, days in Budapest has veered from levels of volunteer warmth and empathy on a par with what we are seeing in many German and Austrian cities (locals offering food, water, shelter and care, and government agencies acting compassionately to offer aid) down to rather low, state-condoned purgatory and authoritarian and heavy-handed marshalling.

All the while Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, seems have been using the opportunity to make himself politically popular at home by adopting Donald Trumpian levels of political incorrectness abroad.

The test of democracy is not whether you can vote someone like this in, but whether you can vote them out. If not, then plenty of normal and decent Hungarians may also start voting with their feet.

 

the statue in the Peace Park. one hand poioignantly pointing to the sky, the other spread in calming peaceful gesture

  

a lone visitor in thought

  

Ground zero, a day after the attack

   We are in Nagasaki. You cannot visit this city and not go to the hypocentre,  the place where  the plutonium weapon dropped by the United States was exploded 500 meters above the ground. The place is roughly 3km north of the city centre and they have built a moving and well thought-through museum nearby. There is also a still, calm and solemn memorial hall with underground vault, and a peace park, both dedicated to the memory of those who died in the first terrible seconds (75,000) or soon after (another 75,000) from fire, injury, radiation and so on. In the hall of remembrance, over 166,000 names are now stored in an elegant glass column.

I suspect there are a number of places in the world synonymous with human tragedy and foolishness. It is part of our being a member of the human race that we make  the effort and take the time, if we can, to visit and understand at close proximity what went on, and why. Yad Vashem, NYC Ground Zero, the WW1 battlefields, Auschwitz, I guess there are are other such names and places around the world. 

What hit home for me here in Nagasaki were two aspects:

  1. The cold, hard timeline of American military planning. They had decided to use the atom bomb on Japan in the summer of 1944, and had drawn up many shortlisted targets, including Kyoto and Tokyo. Nagasaki had made it on to their list because it had been relatively unscathed in bombing raids. This meant that they could gather more data on the effects of an atomic device on a civilian population. That is how brutal the war had become. Nagasaki had not been the primary target of this second device (which indicates that the aim was to use it come what may), but cloud cover meant that Kokura was spared. 
  2. The other thing was personal testimonies of the survivors (Japanese, mainly, but also Koreans and Allied POWs) and the personal possessions of those who persished.  You have to stand right under where the detonation was, and look up, to imagine…
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