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Heart-Mindfulness for Millenials

This week, I was asked to speak on Mindfulness for Millennials at the Forbes Africa ‘Leading Women Summit’ (#LWS2016), to celebrate International Women’s Day. Female millennials are driven, early adopters, co-creators, ambitions individuals, born between the 1980s and 2000s. They are the digitally-savvy generation who want to squeeze the juice out of life by working in fields they are passionate about, moving fast, and engaging with world issues – from the comfort of their sofa! They are innovative and entrepreneurial, particularly in the technology fields, and are likely to change career many times during their lives. I sneaked an extra word into the presentation title – Heart – because many of us have noticed that the faster we move, the less happy we seem to be. There is always a feeling of waiting for that perfect moment to take photos for Facebook, or a sense of striving towards an idealised future, and we lose touch with the authenticity of the present moment. We push away feelings we don’t like and grasp onto experiences that we enjoy, never stopping to notice that we can be content with what is actually here.

My mindfulness journey began when I was in a very challenging leadership role, as deputy principal of a large secondary school. I wanted to care for the staff, but also had to clamp down on divisive and inappropriate behaviour. Most of the staff members were older than me and some resented that I had been given the position. I was stressed – my stripes were falling off, my back ached, I had headaches and woke with a pounding heart. My phone became a source of fear, as each time it rang, I anticipated that there would be a problem that needed my attention. I was internally torn and realised that I needed to find inner strength in order to cope with the projections and discontent from those around me. This is when I started practicing with Rob Nairn, at the Tara Rokpa Centre. Over time, by changing the way I attended to the external world, I was slowly able to find a sense of equanimity, no matter what the circumstances. After 3 years, when the school was a happy and successful place, I handed in my resignation and moved to South Africa to study for my PhD, to study mindfulness further.

As human beings, we are complex. An evolutionary model shows how are brains incorporate aspects of the reptile, mammal and human – and these do not always works skilfully together. The reptilian brain is responsible for our survival. When we are under threat, the blood moves to our extremities and away from our digestive system, ready to fight or flee. Over extended periods of time, with too much of the hormone cortisol released in the body, we find we are not able to get back into balance. The mammalian brain evolved so that we could care for our young. This is our innate capacity to connect with others, to nurture and to feel safe. When we relax into either caring, or being cared for, our system can find balance. But on top of that, we have our enormous neocortex that thinks and analyses and plans. An imagined threat has exactly the same physical manifestations as a real threat from the external environment. This means that if we believe all the anxious or fearful thoughts that rush through our mind, we can be in a constant state of stress. An untrained mind results in a great deal of physical and emotional suffering.

So what is mindfulness? Is it the person thinking about all the things she has to do and shouldn’t have said or done, or the dog who is simply aware of the trees and the warmth of the sun? By filling our minds with concepts and information, we are losing touch with the experience of the present moment. And it is in the present moment that we find contentment, connectedness and feelings of safety and happiness. Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention to our inner and outer experience, in the present moment, and without judgment, while I would define heart-mindfulness as including the dimension of feelings and emotions, with a specific focus on compassion. Compassion means to experience suffering of ourselves or others, with the wish to try and relieve it. It invites us to engage with the world around us. So let’s sit quietly for a minute and see what happens inside our body, heart and mind. Feel your feet on the floor, your seat on the chair and see if you can relax your face and your shoulders. Breathe a little more deeply than normal, maybe down into your belly. Now become watchful of your inner experience. What is happening now? We may find that future plans come up, with associated anxiety, or past regrets emerge in the silence, or we may start to analyse the present moment. Can we simply experience the physical sensations, feelings, sounds and thoughts, without becoming engaged. Can we notice that we have a capacity that allows us to watch this flow of activity? This is awareness. Instead of criticising ourselves for the constant flow of thoughts, can we make friends with this monkey mind of ours – the mind that jumps from branch to branch, and never finds stillness. There are many practices we can use to develop our capacity for attention, and move away from getting involved with our thoughts. You can find recordings of some of these on my SoundCloud account. My doctoral study was with student teachers, and I offered them a 6-week course in mindfulness to help them cope with the stress of transitioning in their role from student to teacher. Although many international studies have shown this to be a stressful time, I was shocked at how stressed they were. 11 of the 14 scored in the range for clinical care. Yet these are the people that teach our children. If they are so stressed – and we all know how we behave when we are stressed – then how can they provide the safe and caring environment that we hope our children will experience in school? What emerged after interviewing the students and analysing the data was a model, showing that we can use mindfulness in different ways: restorative, dynamic and transformative.

  1. Restorative: Many people begin a mindfulness practice after a time of difficulty, when they want to re-establish their status quo. Practices like mindful breathing or moving meditation (yoga, qigong etc) help to soothe the body and mind and provide a wonderful antidote for modern life, which is always demanding our attention – out there – rather than in here.

  2. Dynamic: This is a more challenging aspect of our practice, as we begin to take responsibility for the difficulties in our life, and we notice our unskilful habit patterns, or conditioning, that may be responsible for these situations. We start to get to know, what Jung called, our shadow, the parts of ourselves that we repress or deny. We learn to make friends with ourselves, just as we are, and in that very acceptance, we begin to see change happening.

  3. Transformative: This is the stage that is particularly relevant for us as leaders, especially women leaders, in this complex and divided South African society. We need to move beyond the sense of self, where we see ‘us and them’, ‘black and white’, ‘male and female’ and move to an understanding of the interdependence of us all as human beings, on this planet that has been plundered. As we develop wisdom and compassion, we also become courageous. We can speak truth without fear. We can work on behalf of others, and not just for our own self-interest.

As we start to understand the archetypal energies that are within each of us, we can combine the skilful aspects of each – the masculine and the feminine. We do not need to become like stereotypical men to be leaders, we need to bring the heart back into our engagement with the world around us. If we continue on our current trajectory, in a hundred years the human race could be extinct as the planet becomes unliveable. We talk of the planet as Mother Earth – it nurtures and cares for us. It is now time for us to take care of her. Heart-mindfulness invites us to get to know our inner world in order to act more skilfully, with greater wisdom and compassion. The more we understand the thoughts and feelings that move through our own heart and mind, the more we can understand others. This allows us to develop meaningful and compassionate relationships with the people in our care, and with the world around us.

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