Vishvapani is the Director of Mindfulness in Action, which he founded in 2010 in Cardiff to offer training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction in the region and nationally. It runs courses for the general public, 1:1 mindfulness coaching in person and by telephone and bespoke training courses for organisations and workplaces. Vishvapani has practiced mindfulness and meditation since he was a teenager and is known as an author and broadcaster on connected themes. In our latest exclusive interview we discuss with Vishvapani the value that Mindfulness can have in the workplace and some of the world’s largest companies that are fully utilising the technique.
How would explain mindfulness to someone who has never come across the concept before?
Mindfulness is the capacity to stand back and notice what’s going on in our experience calmly and without judging if it’s good or bad. It means being focused on what is happening right now and letting go of the thoughts that crowd in with regrets about the past and worries about the future.
So mindfulness is a faculty, not a technique. You can cultivate it in lots of ways, but simple meditation practices that calm and focus the mind are particularly effective. Buddhist meditators have used these for thousands of years, but now they’re being subjected to extensive research and taught through tailored courses in secular settings such as the workplace.
Mindfulness is helpful in many situations: it’s a way of managing stress at work and also working more effectively with serious conditions like chronic stress, anxiety an depression. It really helps to notice thoughts connected with stress (“I have to do this; without me it will all go wrong!); with anxiety (“I’m doing what I can, but I think something bad is going to happen); or with depression (“I’ve got it wrong … again! What’s wrong with me and my life?”). That’s why mindfulness is being taken up wholesale by cognitive therapists and used as a frontline treatment within the NHS
|Mindfulness is helpful in many situations: it’s a way of managing stress at work and also working more effectively with serious conditions like chronic stress, anxiety an depression|
But there’s much more: mindfulness can help you focus more effectively and live with greater appreciation and satisfaction. I am currently working with someone who’s improving his golf game by learning to be fully present when he takes a shot. And I once worked with a top heart surgeon who learned to pause rather than leaping into action when a crisis happened during surgery, so he could make the best decision.
What is it that makes Mindfulness in Action unique?
Mindfulness training is a distinctive approach and it’s different from most approaches to ‘self-help’ and stress management techniques. It isn’t about teaching relaxation or even meditation; it’s about exploring what it means to more aware and alive in this moment. It includes turning towards the challenges and difficulties we face, rather than finding ways to avoid them or distract ourselves. It isn’t a clever technique; it’s a different way to live.
At Mindfulness in Action we aren’t trying to be different from other mindfulness trainers, but we are trying to offer mindfulness with a high level of skill and authenticity. I strongly believe that mindfulness trainers must practice what they teach, bringing mindfulness into their life and work. Personally, I’ve been practising mindfulness for almost 35 years, and my colleagues are also very experienced practitioners. Mindfulness is caught as much as it is taught.
What does your typical day at Mindfulness in Action involve?
In the mornings I’m usually either writing or offering one-to-one mindfulness training sessions with people either in person in Cardiff or by phone or Skype. Sometimes I take people through the standard eight-week course, and sometimes we work more informally, depending on what is right for them. On the writing front I am an author and I’ve being doing Thought for the Day on Radio 4 since 2006.
In the afternoons, when I am not engaging with admin, I might be teaching a session for workplace and public sector clients. Right now, on two afternoons a week I am teaching a mindfulness course for Probation Wales with serious offenders. That has been very different, but very rewarding. A couple of evenings a week I teach mindfulness courses for the general public here in Cardiff.
It’s important to me to weave a thread of mindfulness through all this activity: starting the day with meditation, taking mindful breaks in the day, bringing awareness to how I listen to others, being as fully present as I can and noticing my reactions.
What part of your role gives you the most satisfaction?
I love working closely with others and exploring what mindfulness can mean in their life, in relation to their character, problems and habits. I love listening deeply, and working with what is most important and most challenging. This is especially satisfying when people change. Mindfulness is a gentle approach, but often the people make big changes in their lives, letting go of powerful habits, like the ones that accompany stress or depression and cause so much suffering.
What direction or increased specialisation do you see Mindfulness in Action taking in the future?
We are particularly interested in working with public and service sector organisations in a variety of ways: working with staff to increase their resilience and skills, and also working with the service users. For example, we are hoping to develop our work with offenders and also to work with probation officers, both to help them manage work-related stress and to work with clients more mindfully. In time, we may offer mindfulness in educational settings and healthcare, for example working with people with chronic pain and depression.
How effective can mindfulness be in helping employees deal with stress?
Mindfulness can make all the difference at work. If you have work deadlines piling up and are getting increasingly stressed, it helps to take a breath, notice that and make a wise choice about what to do next: prioritise, take a break, or just keep going, but letting go of some of the excess worry. There’s more to this than crisis management. It’s possible to find new ways of working that are inherently less stressful, even when you have many demands: learning to pace yourself, manage priorities, handle conflict better and to more aware of your colleagues and their needs.
Mindfulness is also a key to making decisions that are less driven by anxiety, habit or getting over-excited. Taking a balanced perspective and making better decisions is crucial for anyone in a management role.
Do you think the stress levels employees face have increased over time and if so, why do you think this is?
I don’t think people need me to speculate about what’s happening in the workplaces: just look around you! Better still, take a pause in reading this, take a breath, feel your feet on the floor and take stock of what’s going on in your mind and your body right now. The statistics are there to show how workplace stress, mental problems and absenteeism are rising, but we can also see the causes of stress in our direct experience, right now, in this moment!
What do you think is preventing some companies and organisations from utilising Mindfulness techniques?
Mindfulness is new. The practices have been around for thousands of years, but mindfulness techniques have only been used in secular settings such as workplaces over the last thirty years or so, and widespread awareness of them is more recent still. Many companies are held back from exploring mindfulness training because they don’t know about it or because the images and ideas they have are wrong. So let me say, it’s not about zoning out; it’s not religious; and it’s not just for hippies and people in yoga pants!
Perceptions of mindfulness are changing with the take-up of mindfulness training in companies like Apple and Google as well as in blue-chip management teams and even the US Marines (they love mindfulness). Scientific research is also helping. In the 1990s that meant a few research papers here and there, but now there are hundreds of papers every year and the US National Institute for Health is putting tens of millions of dollars into mindfulness research. Some studies show people feeling better after a mindfulness course and proving more robust and emotionally aware, others are mapping the effects of mindfulness on the brain, showing that even a relatively short mindfulness course produces measurable effects on the parts of the brain associated with emotional regulation, calm and balance.
Mindfulness is actually flavour of the month in some quarters, like Silicon Valley, cognitive psychology and counselling, but it isn’t just a fad. My own view is that we are only starting to explore how to use mindfulness in secular settings.
For more information visit www.mindfulnessinaction.co.uk