Reflections on 20 Hours Doing ‘Nothing’

April 4th, 2024

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal, Philosopher and Mathematician

I came across this quote many years ago. It’s stuck because, for me, it highlights the potential ‘dark side’ of action. Whilst I consider it valid, it’s also challenging for someone like me who considers that ‘what we do is who we are’. I hasten to add though that why we do something, who we do it with/for, how we do it and where and when we do it are also crucial.

Having discussed this quote with others, an assumption often emerges, namely that if we sit quietly in a room alone, we’re effectively doing nothing. If you subscribe to the premise of ‘what we do is who we are’, the arresting conclusion is that if we do nothing, we are nothing.

I was keen to explore this further, but rather than sit alone in a room, I sat (and lay in a hammock) in woodland for 20 hours. During this time, I stayed within the same 15 square metres of woodland. I heard and saw no one else. I had no watch, no phone and no reading materials. I chose not to write or draw anything. I simply sat/lay and experienced day turn to night and then night turn to day. In the days leading up to it, I was apprehensive. I was worried I’d get really bored, to the point that it would be unpleasant.

Did I get bored? No.

Was it unpleasant? No. In fact, I would have been content to have stayed longer.

Did I do nothing? No. At times, I was taking care of basic needs such as eating and sleeping. At other times, I was intentional and meditated. For the most part though I simply absorbed what my senses perceived:

The smells of the forest and how they varied over the course of 20 hours.

The sensation of flies around my face (a free test of self-regulation if ever there was one).

The sound of bird song, deer movement and foxes communicating (very unexpectedly, very loudly and very early in the morning).

The differing shapes and colours of the trees.

Intermingled with this were a multitude of thoughts and feelings concerning people, places and things. Some were unsurprising, as they involved very current events in my life. However, many were far more obscure and left me wondering; ‘Why on earth did that pop into my mind?’

Was there enlightenment? Most certainly not! However, despite not sleeping very well, I felt energised and upbeat leaving the forest and for the remainder of the day.

Would I recommend it? / Would I do it again? Yes and Yes. If you do give it a go, I hope you find it insightful to explore what thoughts and feelings emerge when you allow yourself that amount of time in such an environment. Also, and without meaning to be clichéd, I hope you perceive it not as a case of getting away from it all, but instead getting back to it all.

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A Week in a Buddhist Monastery: An Exercise in Patience and Forbearance

November 21st, 2023

I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties. Surprisingly perhaps, it was while working at the international management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company. I was part of a project which was analysing how the performance of executives was impacted by how they spent their time. With the key caveat that correlation does not always equate to causation, the most striking finding for me was that almost all the top performing executives meditated. Furthermore, they didn’t just meditate before/after work, or at weekends, it was incorporated into their working day.

Work at McKinsey is largely project based, so there is a continual cycle of working with one team, and then moving on to work with another. A year or so into my time at the company, I joined a team which seemed ‘different’. It was calmer. Although work was still conducted at a fast pace, it was more relaxed. Deadlines were still set and met, but the atmosphere was ‘loose’ rather than ‘tight’. It turned out that everyone on the team (apart from me) meditated regularly.

Up until this point, I’d had a very narrow/biased view of meditation. To me it belonged in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, or to the counter culturalists who wanted to ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’. Now I was seeing it in the ‘mainstream’, and it appeared a useful aid to performance. So, for the last 20 years or so, I’ve ‘dabbled’ with meditation. In a good week, I may meditate five or six times for around 10 minutes each time. More typically, I manage three to four 10-minute sessions and a smattering of ‘micro-meditations’, where I pay attention to the inhale and exhale of 10 breaths.

I’ve persisted though; in part, because my experience at McKinsey established a belief that mediation aids performance. Given my desire to perform well in various areas of life, I therefore felt it was something I should do. It’s also piqued my curiosity. I find it intriguing that something that appears to be so simple;

‘Just focus on your breath’

can be so difficult to achieve, on account of distractions by thoughts, feelings and other sensations.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meditation. The very thoughts and feelings that prevent me focusing on my breath are often ones that I’ve been unaware of or have tried to dismiss too soon. Creating the time to meditate allows me to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings and either accept them more fully, or attend to them more constructively. On the rare occasions when prolonged focus on the breath is achieved, I perceive that I’m subsequently calmer and able to think more clearly.

So, with this ‘amateur’ interest in meditation, how did I end up at an intensive, week-long meditation retreat at the Samye Ling Centre (the largest Buddhist monastery in Western Europe, situated in the rural lowlands of Scotland)? Well, old friends will tell you that a personal motto of mine is;

‘If you don’t have a go, you’ll never know.’

Having just gotten over a potentially life changing illness, my (often naïve) enthusiasm for new experiences has been reenergised. Added to this was a growing interest in Buddhism. My perception that it advocates universal compassion on the one hand and emotional non-attachment on the other, interests me in relation to both intimate and professional relationships. I’m also a great believer in the inherent value of immersing yourself in a completely different way of life (even if just for a few days). Doing so invariably broadens my perspective and helps me appreciate what I truly value. If I’m lucky, it can also make me aware of, and then question, truths I’ve (often unconsciously) developed in my ordinary life with respect to ‘how life is’. In terms of the retreat, each day was structured around six 60-90 minute sessions, so 42 sessions in total. The first session on each day started at 5.30am and the last finished at 8.30pm.

The first session felt quite auspicious, around 140 people were assembled in what to me was a very elaborately decorated temple: lots of gold and hundreds of statues of the Buddha. Then our teacher for the week, a purple- and orange-robed lama, who had flown in from Nepal, entered the temple with his translator. Gongs sounded, chants were made and the more ‘serious and knowledgeable’ attendees (of which I was not one) performed a series of prostrations and genuflections. An overview of the week and some very basic rudiments of meditation were then outlined.

Of the remaining 41 sessions, 40 of them basically involved non-directed meditation, or the lama sitting at the front of the temple and (via a translator) telling the assembled that we could NOT learn ‘real’ meditation because;

“you are fixated with happiness and most of you have mental health problems.”

Instead of teaching meditation, he gave what, to me, were very different perspectives on some fundamental human characteristics. For example, in his view;

“Kindness is understanding your stupidity and then showing continual endeavour to reduce it. The general Western approach to kindness is spoiling the individual.”

From my perspective, time was also given over to publicly criticising the monks and nuns of the monastery and hours were spent talking about a yearlong retreat which only a handful of people seemed remotely interested in. Questions could be asked, but they had to be submitted in written form. There was also some sporadic, but very in-depth analysis of (what seemed to me) an obscure Buddhist text.

In short, it was bizarre. People were leaving early and many (including myself) were asking why a meditation retreat had been organised, if it was not considered possible for us to meditate. The need for a translator compounded the frustration, as there could be over 20 minutes of incomprehension before the lama stopped speaking and the translation began.

And then came the 42nd and final session and the lama’s answer to the final question; ‘Can you give some insights into how to meditate?’.

The lama proceeded to introduce the six Buddhist perfections:

  1. Generosity.
  2. Morality.
  3. Patience.
  4. Energy.
  5. Meditation.
  6. Wisdom.

He stated that the order of the perfections was very important. He then proposed that many of us may well have found the week frustrating, because it was uncomfortable sitting for hours and not understanding what was required to meditate. If so, this was good, as this was developing the third perfection of patience. By sticking at it, and returning to the temple, session after session, we had also been developing the fourth perfection, energy, grit, forbearance and perseverance. These are the key precursors for meditation: you can’t hope to meditate without patience and energy. Finally, at the very end, he gave a 10 minute insight into how to meditate and then it was all over! As a trainer and facilitator, I had deep admiration. On the basis that the lama’s approach was intentional, in my view it takes real resolve to try and frustrate 140 people for almost an entire week, in order to illustrate a point.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Ultimately, it gave me some valuable insights for meditation, which was my primary aim for the week. Like with so many memorable experiences though, the most valuable insights were unexpected. Firstly, it was a privilege to gain a completely different perspective on fundamental issues such as kindness, happiness and suffering. It highlighted that certain ‘truths’ I have are WEIRD: they are based on experiences and research from largely Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic countries. Alternatives exist.

Secondly, it provided a valuable reminder that cognitive understanding is not the same as knowledge. Experience and the emotions that come with experience are crucial too. For example, before the retreat, I understood and agreed with the value Buddhism places on accepting unpleasantness. I cognitively accepted that it is often my response to the event (rather than the event itself) that creates the most suffering. When I suffer the most, it’s due to the effort I’m making to resist the way things are, because I want things to be different. However, experiencing almost a week of persistent frustration made me really know this to be true. For me, the author Arnold Bennett summarises it well;

‘There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.’

Finally, I valued experiencing a series of dichotomies in relation to my emotions. During the week, I felt: • Pride, hubris and humility • Frustration, boredom and the energy/motivation that comes from gaining insight • Loneliness and connection • Confusion and clarity • Dread and excitement • Resentment and admiration • Sadness and happiness • Guilt and compassion In short, by the end of the week I felt a fuller, more authentic human being. Going forward, it will be interesting to discover the extent to which this fullness can be retained, back in my ordinary, WIERD world.

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Making Business Better with Formality and Quirkiness

November 21st, 2023

mch has always tried to operate a four-fold approach to business. We believe sustainable success lies in resonance and harmony between:

  1. Providing a great service to clients
  2. Treating people well: those who work for and with us
  3. Having a positive impact on wider society
  4. Minimising mch’s negative environmental impact

How we formalise this approach is detailed in the Corporate Social Responsibility reports we publish every year. mch is committed to sharing the steps it is taking to develop its four-fold approach further. In keeping with its culture, these steps can be both formal and quirky. Here is an example of each:

The Formal

mch has recently become part of the Better Business Act Coalition. This coalition aims to change the law that governs how businesses act. Specifically, the aim is to amend part of the current Companies Act to ensure businesses are legally responsible for benefiting workers, customers, communities and the environment, while delivering profit.

In signing up to the coalition, mch has voluntarily changed its governing documents, so it now has the legal responsibilities the coalition wants all businesses to have.

Ideally, all businesses would voluntarily choose to do the same. Realistically though, change will require a collective effort, which is why mch is supporting this campaign for government to make change mandatory.

The Quirky

The proposed Better Business Act aims to empower directors to exercise their judgement in weighing up and advancing the interests of all stakeholders. To help with this process, mch has (informally) enlisted the help of two new Directors:

(i) My recently seeded wildflower meadow

To help biodiversity, I recently converted a part of my garden into a wildflower meadow.

(ii) The Garibaldi fish

For various reasons, this is one of my favourite animals.

By bringing the meadow and the Garibaldi fish onto the Board, mch hopes to make better decisions, particularly in relation to the environment. When faced with both strategic and operational issues, it is hoped that better decisions will be made, simply by asking ourselves;

“What would be in the best interests of the wildflower meadow?” Or “What would the Garibaldi fish prefer?”

If this proves successful, more Board members may be added, to help broaden our perspectives further, particularly in relation to social issues. If you can see the value of such a thought experiment, who or what would you add to your Board to better represent the environment and broader society?

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When Values Create Tension

July 18th, 2023

I have written previously about the importance of values: both personal and organisational. Clarifying and prioritising values forms a key part of mch’s advanced leadership programmes such as its Source of Leadership. Their inclusion stems from the finding that clarity of values helps with decision making. The relevance to leadership becomes apparent if you subscribe to the following definition;

‘Leadership is about deciding what to do and then articulating the decision well to those who matter.’

Another key advocate of values is Brené Brown. In her book, Dare to Lead, she sets the challenge of not only identifying your values, but prioritising them, so that one value trumps all others. In my view, the importance of this exercise stems from the reality that life is messy. It’s uncertain, complex and often ambiguous. Consequently, situations can arise where upholding one value comes at the cost of not upholding another.

I’ve found prioritising my values a very difficult exercise: I started doing so in early 2021 and have yet to reach a consistent answer. Earlier this year, I was reminded of the exercise and why it’s important. In early March, I was practicing my usual routine of yoga, exercises and a walk every morning, together with running three to four times a week and cycling once a week. By the end of March, I could barely walk 200m. My balance, strength and suppleness had disappeared. My fine motor skills were compromised, such that I could barely write or type. I had constant pins and needles in my hands and feet, which made sleep difficult. Furthermore, I didn’t know why any of this was happening.

To cut a long story short, towards the end of April, I was sitting across the table from a couple neurologists at my local hospital. To try and diagnose the problem and thus (hopefully) develop a treatment plan, three tests were scheduled. The test with the longest wait could be done (quicker) privately, or through the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS). Done privately, the test would still be done in a public hospital and performed by a doctor who also worked for the NHS. Fortuitously, I had sufficient savings to afford a private test.

Cue a tension between two of my core values: health and equality. Going private was the obvious decision if I was to prioritise health. Being seen in weeks, rather than months would enable a quicker diagnosis, ending the uncertainty and allowing treatment to start sooner. However, if the specialist did not test me privately, it’s very unlikely that they would spend that time twiddling their thumbs. Instead, they would have more capacity for their NHS work. Thus, in my view, prioritising equality would mean choosing to wait along with most other patients. Given the limited number of specialists, it was hard not to conclude that accessing provision privately comes at the cost of increased waiting times for NHS patients.

In the end, I waited and was seen on the NHS. I was comfortable living my value of equality, at the expense of health, by waiting a couple of months, rather than a couple of weeks. However, would I have been comfortable if the wait had been four months, or six months, or a year? My best guess is that I would have prioritised my value of health if I’d had to wait too much longer. Health has not previously reached number one spot in Brené Brown’s prioritisation exercise. However, the experience has raised its importance. I’ve been guilty of taking it for granted: there’s nothing like realising how important something is, until it’s no longer there.

I hope you do not have to go through a similar experience to get clear on your values. Do you know your values though? Can you prioritise them? The following links can help identify your values:

The above link asks you to consider times when you were happiest, proudest and most fulfilled. It also features a list of common values that you may find helpful to select from.

This link allows you to take a free questionnaire designed to identify your values.

Having identified your values, I would encourage you to embark on Brene Brown’s challenge to identify your number one value. Considering scenarios that test one value against another is often an effective (albeit challenging) way to do so.

All the best with your journey.

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Book Week 2023

July 18th, 2023

I will shortly be embarking on my annual book week. Above are the main books I’ll be reading this year.

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Are you ready to increase your positive impact?