One beautiful morning late last week I was in the company of six courageous leaders on a journey into the unknown.
I was meeting the group for the first time and knew nothing about them. Our encounter on a mountaintop was also a surprise to them – like all the other unexpected experiences of their extraordinary programme. In their journey of self-discovery they had walked and ridden mountain trails and pastures and taken part in a range of challenging activities. With each new experience, they were able to see and feel more deeply, to let go of the fear that was holding them back, and to trust their own instincts that they were in the right place, at the right time. They were living a dream.
My role was to guide their reflection on their 4-day experience, to help them express their personal learning about what they wanted to change in their lives.
Not so long ago I’d have found this rather daunting, but my own journey is marked by a transformative experience ten years ago that helped me see things more clearly.
In my early days as an executive coach, I became interested in mindfulness and how it might enrich my life. During my first retreat I was in discussion with one of our teachers about one of the many ‘what if?’ questions that used to flood my mind. He listened patiently to my anxious voice, paused, smiled and asked “this scenario you’ve just described, are you experiencing it now?” “Well no” I replied, “not now, but if it does happen I want to know what to do.” Another pause, and then my teacher replied “keep practising mindfulness. If what you’re describing ever happens, you’ll know what to do.” Absorbing this simple wisdom felt like the lifting of a huge weight. I had been seeking safety in the wrong places. Safety was not in my over-thinking mind, nor in my self-protection, it was in my practice and trust in the power of the present moment.
Don’t get me wrong. I still plan activities, think things through, create schedules and to-do lists. I have a vision and strategy for my life and business and I’m naturally pretty organized. But these days I trust far more in my ability to “know what to do” in the moment. And this is wonderfully liberating.
So I had no real plan for my hour with this group. I had a broad concept and a strong intention – to be fully present, listen deeply and allow whatever happened to happen.
We met, introduced ourselves and started walking slowly towards a point overlooking the valley below, where we naturally paused, fell into silence and contemplated the spectacular view. Without realizing it perhaps, the group was practising mindfulness. They were, in the words of Joel and Michelle Levey cultivating “a receptive, choiceless quality of mindful attention toward whatever arises in the sphere of [their] experience.”
The sense of interconnectedness that this generates – of being with what ‘is’ – helps release us from self-judgement and expectation. It opens up our capacity for appreciation, joy, clear thinking – and the elusive quality we call happiness.
After a while Steve gently broke the silence and I suggested that we might gather round. We naturally formed a circle and I asked them to share their personal highlights of the past 4 days. “So many…”, they said. I asked them to pick just one and encouraged them to describe the quality of the moment they were remembering, recalling the feeling as if they were living it now. We each focused our awareness inwardly on this and practised quiet breathing for several minutes in silence. Afterwards some shared their feelings, each authentically expressing a deeply personal meaning. This was a powerful, very moving moment of group mindfulness.
They had each brought with them a stone from the UK, which they now placed on the earth in front of them to form a small cairn. In a moment of grounded solidarity, the group all voiced aloud the change they wanted to be in their lives.
Mastering mindfulness, and the qualities that emerge from it, is a journey of patient practice. Patience is not one of my natural qualities – but the journey’s so worth the effort. For me the joy of listening, understanding and connecting is surpassed only by the joy of supporting the people I work with to do the same. The more deeply I listen, the more I can trust myself to ask the powerful questions which open new pathways in the minds of others, and help them get to where they want to be.