Guest blog by Stephen Burt – executive coach, speaker, teacher and facilitator
The words “vegan mindfulness retreat” sent a chill through my heart: summoning images of cold, Spartan cells, raw tofu and severe gurus. I owned up to this to my host and guide, Sally-Anne Airey of Alps Retreats when I spent five fabulous days in the French Alps recently, adding that I had found the experience in no way justified my fears.
This retreat was my first ‘formal’ foray into mindfulness. I’d been interested for a while and had a broad understanding (I thought) of what it entailed but I did not really have the time (and yes, I appreciate the irony here.)
My first realisation was that mindfulness is not a thing. There are techniques and practices, and the guidance of skilled practitioners matter, but how one chooses to use it is individual. That’s one reason why this retreat was right for me: I don’t do hair shirts and for me good food is spiritual, so I was never going to sign up to an austere offer. It’s also one reason why I have waited to blog about this: I wanted to see what I actually applied and how it helped rather than knocking something out quickly while still infused by the warm glow of peace and quiet in stunning scenery.
Following the retreat, three things have stayed with me. First, a simple morning meditation: just 10 minutes of stillness, focused on my breathing, shifting to hearing all the sounds around me, then back to my breathing. I have found this both calming and energising – a great preparation for a busy day. The calm I expected, but the energy surprised me. This 10 minute meditation manages to be both a rock – a foundation – for the day and a springboard.
The second impact is how I am (at least some of the time) taking that calm and energy into the tasks and activities that make up my day. I was hoping that mindfulness would help me with focus and application. Like lots of busy people with more ideas than time, I can flit and dabble, drawn by the new and shiny. This can be a problem with longer tasks for which I am my own customer (like a book on listening and articles on coaching mastery). And what I got from the retreat was some insights, and better than that, some experience and practices to support wholeheartedness – doing one thing at a time, with intention, choice and full attention.
Getting a feel for wholeheartedness involved me reflecting on how, at my best, I engage fully with tasks. It seemed like, when I did it well, I followed a bell-curve of attention – starting softly, gently then building through deep engagement, sometimes getting into flow, then reaching some sort of completion or plateau before rounding off, leaving the task as I wanted to find it, disengaging with care and attention. This brought to mind a story that Mick Jagger tells of Charlie Watts: how Mick notices that sometimes, as they finish a gig, Charlie looks over his shoulder as he leaves the stage and notices that his drum-sticks are slightly awry, so he returns and moves them a few millimetres so they are perfectly aligned. That’s completion. That is mindful finishing. And it’s just as important as mindful beginning and mindful absorption.
The third thing that has stayed with me is the power of silence that goes hand in hand with stillness. The meditations that we did on the retreat were conducted in silence with Sally-Anne or her colleague Carroll Macey guiding us. After one period of silence – perhaps 15 mins, I don’t really know – our guide spoke. Her words were the aural equivalent of “POW” by Roy Lichtenstein – edged in black against the silence, bursting through the background. It showed how the silence we held was deeper than a normal silence and so the words were more starkly etched. I had thought previously that silence was silence and stillness was stillness. But now I have a sense that there are layers, and the deeper the stillness and silence I can find, the better my listening. And for a coach, that sounds pretty important.
One accidental test of my listening came when we did a whole day walk, much of it in silence. At one point I sat by a river that tumbled down the valley. I could hear the soft roar. And as I became still I could hear separate parts of the river – the different sounds as it flowed across boulders, fell from ledges and enveloped smaller rocks. I thought my listening was usually pretty good but this was different.
Stillness and silence. Listening and attention. Powerful in themselves. But also crucial for action and effectiveness. My day has no less in it. But on a good day, it feels full rather than busy. And I am going to do my best to hang on to that.