Yesterday’s lessons

On the ground in the light by Isthinking

Every day, life hands us lessons.

They’re laying there, like leaves on the ground – slowly rotting. And for the most part, we carry on, trampling all over them, oblivious to their presence.

We’re not always paying attention.

We’re not always ready to learn.

We’re not always ready to hear that there is more to learn.

This is true at every level: individuals, organisations, groups, teams, countries. Even groups of countries.

We don’t tune ourselves to see the lessons – in fact sometimes we wilfully block them out.

So then we pay for consultants, coaches and therapists to come and point out the blindingly obvious.

They enforce the discipline of the end of day summary, the project wash-up, the post-game analysis.

The force us to see the lessons – so we have a better chance of learning them.

But we shouldn’t let the lack of a coach, consultant or therapist stop us from looking for ourselves.

The lessons we need to learn are littered around us. We just need train ourselves to see them and be mindful enough to pick them up before they rot.

Don’t get hijacked

lego-by-randen-pederson

It’s amazing how often we get hijacked and pulled away from the reality of a situation.

It’s hard to describe this without it sounding like an abstract problem, but it’s real. It’s just difficult for us to notice.

Our emotions and thoughts get snagged on something that we’ve seen, heard or felt. Once caught they start to extrapolate and iterate that thought or feeling.

The problem is that our brains focus on what our thoughts are saying instead of what is actually happening around us. We miss out on actual experience.

Let’s ground this in an all-too-painful reality.

Imagine that you’re tiptoeing through from your bedroom to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a drink. You don’t want to wake anyone up, so you don’t turn the lights on and you try to move quietly.

As you creep to the kitchen, you’re completely engaged in the situation. You’re aware of the space, the noise, the light, the objective. You’re fully present and engaged with the reality of the moment.

Unfortunately for you, someone has left a half-constructed lego model on the floor. You bring your bare foot down to the floor, putting all your weight on a jagged wreck of sharp plastic.

Pain shoots up your leg, and as it does, you are immediately hijacked by your thoughts. Your sensory awareness of your surroundings contracts as your brain instantly reallocates resources.

Firstly, you focus on the pain. But that quickly becomes an investigation into who left the lego on the floor. Then an exploration of what kind of punishments they deserve, a curse on the evils of geometry and a longing for the Danes to make their plastic bricks out of something more forgiving.

This process of thought and feeling has whisked you off on a flight of fancy so compelling, you fail to notice the second half of the model on the floor which you quickly find with your other foot.

Rinse and repeat.

This is an overly-physical example to exaggerate how the process occurs, but it works just the same for mental or emotional triggers. Something sets us off, we disengage from our surroundings and follow a chain of thoughts and feelings down the rabbit hole, away from reality.

Now here’s the kicker.

While it sounds like something that only happens when we step on lego, or get triggered by something shocking- it’s actually more frequent than that.

It’s actually happening more often than not. That is, we spend more time engaging with our thoughts about what’s happening, than we do with what’s actually happening.

It sounds ridiculous and you might not believe that you spend so much of your life disengaged, but you only have to pay attention to your thoughts to understand how true it is.

Pay attention to how often you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing, and how often you’re often you’ve been hijacked. How often your attention is focused and in command or all your resources, and how often it’s elsewhere.

That’s not to say that we’re not doing things in the real world while this is happening. All too often we are doing something else, and that’s the scary thing. We’re driving, talking, cooking or eating. We’re in a meeting or we’re talking to our partners or children. We’re there, but we’re not really experiencing the moment. We’re not actively aware.

Our autopilot is keeping us from crashing while our thoughts and feelings run away.

This is the heart of mindfulness. It’s not about sitting cross legged on the floor chanting some mystical mumbo jumbo, it’s about being aware and engaged in what you’re doing.

It’s about not following thoughts down the rabbit hole.

It’s about experiencing what’s actually happening, instead of just thinking about it.

It’s also about remembering to get your kids to pick up their lego.

Noticing the end

the-end-by-alice-popcorn

“I’m getting hungry.”

“I’m getting bored.”

“I’m getting angry.”

We do a pretty good job of being aware when difficult or unpleasant feelings start, but we’re often less skilful at noticing when they end.

By not calling out the end of something which we perceive to be tough or negative, we become blind to how fleeting these feelings actually are.

If we feel ourselves becoming angry often, we can begin to believe that we’re always angry. From there it’s easy for us to assume that it’s a fixed trait and not a fleeting experience.

It’s easier to notice in others than ourselves.

When we notice other people acting like arseholes, it’s often because they’re carrying around feelings from one context and applying them to the next. They’re assuming that their old feelings still exist and still apply.

It’s an insidious problem with a simple remedy.

To regain the perspective on how fleeting and ephemeral these feelings actually are, we just need to pay a little more attention to them.

By taking the time to step back from a feeling and call it out objectively we then get a sense of how short it’s life cycle actually is.

And this might be by literally saying to yourself “Woah, there is some real anger there”.

The feeling rises. We notice it. And by stepping back to look at it, we rob it of the fuel it needs to sustain itself, so it then begins to subside. If we watch it for long enough (often just a matter of seconds), we can observe it diminish and then disappearing completely.

We can avoid the trap of being miserable ourselves and of being arseholes to others. By noticing the fleeting nature of the bad vibes we experience, we allow ourselves to approach each new situation with the freshest mind possible.

Bravery and sincerity

Someone in the office started a weekly, drop-in, mindfulness session.

She booked a room for 20 minutes, and once a week, anyone who is interested can go over and listen to a simple, guided meditation.

It’s a great idea, was well framed and perfectly executed. Most of the people who turned up to the first session hadn’t done any meditation before, and the group seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience.

One of the things which I liked most about her idea, is that it was offered with compete sincerity – which means that she left herself vulnerable to social ridicule for backing an idea which might not work.

You might read that and think “social ridicule? What kind of work place is that?”

As it happens, it’s a great workplace, with lots of genuine, caring people. But there is still vulnerability in presenting an offer like this sincerely. When you first suggest it to a group of people, you do so not knowing if it will be accepted and you open the door especially to the very English dismissal/ridicule/discrediting arriving in the form of “banter”.

This kind of dismissal doesn’t have to be malicious in order to be effective or painful to receive. It’s often not even intended to actually discredit the idea, but is just a sniping observation, played for laughs.

This is especially true if the idea presented is more like “let’s meditate together” as opposed to something socially safer like “let’s get a burrito.”

The fact that I find this sincerity brave, probably says more about my own sensitivity to being undercut socially than being any great comment on how we interact with each other. I’ve been burned by comments like this in the past and I’ve certainly been responsible for dishing out my fair share. But I still think there is something powerful in this sincerity and worth calling out.

Brene Brown has spoken and written about the power and value of making ourselves vulnerable and Seth Godin stands firmly behind putting things out there which might not work.

Elsewhere, Godin had said that bravery is over-rated, because we tend to elevate it to a status which means that we tend to make it unattainable for most people on a daily basis. But I think that the opposite is true. I don’t think that it’s given enough emphasis, but we need to show where it exists in the small gestures, not just the large ones. We need to celebrate and promote the acts of everyday bravery in everyday situations, as they potentially open up a whole spectrum of choices which might not otherwise be available to us.

This might just be a case of calling out and supporting sincere offers when we see them. Probably more helpful is to ensure that we defend sincere offers when they are at risk of being undercut socially by someone who pokes the vulnerability for laughs.

It might not be the easiest position to take in the world, but if it were easy, then the stoics wouldn’t have bothered to make courage one of their core virtues.

Either way, I’m all for a little more sincerity and social vulnerability. They might be occasionally painful, but I suspect they contain a lot of value that we ignore on a daily basis.

In the meantime, if you need me between 11.40 & 12.00 on a Wednesday, I’ll in chilling out in Christine’s mindfulness session.