Whether stressed out at work, or sitting on Venice Beach sipping an aromatic coffee, the ability to be mindful and live in the moment can have profound effects on one’s life.

As a kid I wasn’t big on television.

I forsook cartoons, Blue Peter, and the Australian soap-opera Neighbours for a show I never believed I’d be interested in. Even today, looking back, I’m amazed I passed up Colt Seevers in The Fall Guy (a very big deal for me, aspiring as I was to be a stuntman, like Colt) for a show where an aging gent swivelled around in his chair to ask members of the public a series of random questions.

Mastermind ran for 25 years on British TV, and as that menacing theme tune kicked in I could hardly wait for Magnus Magnusson to look down his nose and ask the first question.

As humans, we’re addicted to questions. Our minds love to work. Look around you on the bus, train or plane – how many passengers are locked into crosswords, Sudoku, word-searches, Tetris or Candy Crush?

David Adam, talking in his memoir on his own obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is remarkably erudite: “The mind is a thought factory. Every day it processes a conveyor belt of thousands of thoughts, good and bad, happy and sad, useful and intrusive. The factory must decide how to act on them and then issue instructions to respond.

“We each do this differently, based on our unique combinations of early experience, environment and biology; our biases, preconceptions and knowledge. The conveyor belt always rolls and new thoughts arrive in a constant stream. Something always comes in and something always goes out.”

MASTERING OUR MINDS

The actor Anthony Hopkins, without his nasty Hannibal Lecter mask, reckons: “We are dying from overthinking. We are slowly killing ourselves by thinking about everything. Think. Think. Think. You can never trust the human mind anyway; it’s a death trap.” He may not be far wrong.

In the United Kingdom (UK), the cost of work-related stress to society is now around £4 billion (R70,83 billion) per year. Over in the United States (US), more than one million workers call in sick every day, complaining of stress, generating a cost to employers of over US$ 200 billion (R2,7 trillion). Even this number pales when compared to the total amount spent on healthcare – a whopping US$ 2,7 trillion (R36,4 trillion) in the US each year.

Mental health issues such as stress and depression are on the rise in every developed nation around the world. One in every six adults now experiences a common mental health problem every week, with the most common diagnosis being a mix of anxiety and depression.

I’VE STARTED SO I’LL FINISH

Here’s a thought: mental pain may be less dramatic than physical pain, but it’s much more common and also harder for most of us to bear. In the words of C.S Lewis, “It’s far easier for most of us to say: ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say: ‘My heart is broken’.”

MIND FULL, OR MINDFUL?

A recent study of 15 000 people revealed that most people spend 46,9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.

According to a superb article from Harvard by Matt Killingsworth: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

We’ve got to focus

The practice of “mindfulness” is about training the brain to block out the myriad distractions and worries that invade our thoughts, to allow us, instead, to live in the moment. Practitioners of mindfulness find it has a positive impact on their mental health, aiding them in effectively managing stress and negative thoughts. 

Mindfulness is now becoming more popular in the corporate world. These days, many occupations require multitasking. This often means that our thoughts become scattered and jump from place to place, which tends to negatively affect productivity and exhausts the mind.

Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon warned us about this back in 1969 when he said: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that the information consumes.

“What information consumes is rather obvious – it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Simon was writing in a different age of course, but his words are perfectly relevant today with the flood of information on social media, news feeds, and so on. When we’re overwhelmed, we become stressed – and, in these situations, we need to take a moment to ourselves and focus on something positive.

During a busy day, taking time out might sound counterintuitive – but, if we don’t, our brains won’t refresh, and, consequently, we fail to manage stress and opportunities to reflect and gain new insight are lost.

Research by the National Institute of Health in the UK has determined that practising mindfulness can enhance mental well-being, aid concentration, improve the ability to learn new things and increase personal efficiency.

So, let’s see how we can master our minds.

But first, coffee

I had a great coffee this morning. I mean really great. In fact, it was amazing. It was at this little place I know in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. As I stood there in line, waiting my turn, an old record player scratched and scuffed its way through the track Hocus Pocus by the Dutch band Focus. A blast from the past of 1970, one hell of a track – search it out, I guarantee it’ll make your ears tickle!

With Dutch yodelling (I know!) in my ears and the smell of fresh coffee in my nostrils I was off to a good start. As I nod in time, the barista catches me on a roll and starts to tell me about where he found the tune. He describes the flea market stall in such a way that allows me to smell the musty vinyl, feel the jostling at my elbow, and the excitement in my breast as I struck gold as I unearth a classic from the past in one of the rows of records. I was there!

With beaming smiles on our faces, it’s my turn to order, except he already knows what I’m having, so rather than asking he starts to tell me about the beans: Ethiopian, from the Yirgacheffe region in southern Ethiopia, which has been growing coffee forever. It’s from a traditional Arabica variety and features pronounced floral notes with a dry, but massive, finish. He says it’s like Hocus Pocus for the mouth.

As he describes the coffee, I’m transported back to a moment in Addis Ababa, last year, sitting cross-legged in front of burning embers as a beautiful woman in a golden-coloured habesha kemi – the traditional dress – entrances me with her coffee ceremony.

First, I watch her roast green coffee beans in a pan over the fire then grind the deeply coloured beans with an ancient wooden pestle and mortar, before they are brewed with hot water in a jebena pot set directly in the flickering flames.

This coffee is brewed three times: first for the flavour, second to mature, and third (called “baraka”) to be blessed by the Gods. Incense is burned to give thanks before we can drink. She finally lifts the jebena as though it’s made of the most delicate silk and I notice the handmade straw lid and rounded base. From miles above, she pours the liquid with pin-point accuracy into tiny handle-less cups on an ornate tray. I am more than ready.

Cup in hand I sit on a bench in the street and the 07:00 Californian sunshine washes over me. I’m alive.

“Mindfulness is like that – it is the miracle that can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each moment of life.”

The words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh are relevant today more than ever. When we find ourselves in a familiar place – stumbling to the shower, driving to work on autopilot, hunched over our laptops, drifting through meetings – it can be difficult to be present, can’t it?

This is because our brains are in a routine, to which we’ve become accustomed, and our central processor has made it easy for us, taking us from A to B to C, without us having to compute – but that’s not living, it’s surviving.

Only when we step out of our routine can we begin to notice the way it feels to really hear the music, appreciate the taste of the toasty goodness in our coffee cup, and how the warmth of the sunlight penetrates our clothes. We notice we’re here. It’s an experience our brains need to stop for and to process.

Instead of just doing, how about just being in the moment for once? We live our lives the way we choose to live them. Don’t wait for a break in your routine in order to do something meaningful; start today; start small. Take this moment as a brand-new moment in your life. You’ll never get this moment back again, so, whatever you’re doing, get curious! Get ready to be amazed.

How does your coffee taste? Is it simply fuel for a tired mind, or does it create some kind of Hocus Pocus in your brain? Where are the moments for you to be truly mindful in your life today? Choose one, focus in, and get ready to be amazed.

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman is Chief Executive of RMS - consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organizations globally. He’s an international member of SAIOSH; Vice President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health; and Chairman of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

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