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Case Study: Silence is Golden

Glenn Watkins is Chair of Academy 88 and Academy 08 which cover North and West Central London, Watford and Harrow. In May, he sat on the panel of London’s first ever Mindfulness Summit for business leaders in London.

Last autumn Glenn decided to sign up for an intensive meditation retreat in early June as one of his personal goals for 2015. The programme took place in a 22-acre property in deepest Herefordshire, set in beautiful wooded grounds.

The meditation technique used is called Vipassana and dates back 2,500 years ago. It is agnostic, non-religious and non-dogmatic, a pure form of meditation. And there was no talking for the 10-day duration of the course. We had to find out more.

When did you first become interested in meditation?

Discovering and practising meditation 15 years ago has enabled me to more fully experience and enjoy the varied aspects of my life, including business. I love the feeling of calm energy, deep creativity and “connectedness” that kicks in when I choose to practice regularly and live a more mindful existence.

Why did you decide to invest in the retreat?

As Academy Chairs, we are always thinking about how to stretch ourselves. If I can model that for myself then I can model and share my learning with members and other Chairs. One of the wonderful things about the Academy is that we have always embraced the softer skills as part of a holistic approach. As an Academy Chair, you have to be a model member.

Glenn Watkins

Glenn Watkins
Chair of Academy 88 and Academy 08

This means always being open and ever receptive to new learning and different ways of doing things. I call this AOA or Always on Awareness. We are about healthy leader/healthy business, growing leader/growing business, more mindful leader/more mindful team. Whilst I have embraced mindfulness, I am also a very KPI-focused, hard number-crunchy type businessman. So for me it’s all about achieving a balance.

Why was no talking allowed on the retreat?

Actually there was no speaking, reading, writing or even eye contact nor any other kind of communication or interaction. It was explained that this was to help with focusing one’s mind. This also helped to create an environment where there was never a reason to hurry.

As an example, after two hours of meditation every morning I would walk into the dining room and immerse myself in the experience of eating breakfast in quiet contemplation. By fully placing my attention on the bowl of porridge, toast and herbal tea for a good half hour, it took the experience of breakfast to a whole new level. This was an opportunity for pure mindfulness and I really enjoyed this part of the day. All too often if I had been at home I would have bolted down breakfast or grabbed a banana to eat on the way out.

Ten days sounds like a long time – how did it feel when you were there?

By the third day I realised that it was time to really let go and embrace the process as I was in it for the long haul. Going with the flow is another way of describing it, being open to the best possible outcome without trying to control what happens.

So how does all of this apply in a business context?                            

Mindful practice can really help to set you up for the day. If things are not going your way or you have unexpected news to deal with, it enables you to draw a breath before a reaction and respond more calmly than you might otherwise have done. As leaders we are programmed to try to ‘fix’ people and problems. But when we pause, take a breath and stop and think, a more considered, constructive and more creative approach often emerges.

It’s also about how you want to show up every day and how you want to be seen by your colleagues and team. I want to be the best that I can be and continuous improvement is an important part of this process. As a leader I have a thirst for learning and appetite for sharing this insight and knowledge with others.

If we as leaders are having a bad day, it may give permission for others to do the same. However, if our minds are calm we can be fully present and in the moment and enjoy the interactions for what they are, whether that’s a board meeting, a sales meeting or a family meal.

What did you learn from all of this?

One of the key learnings for me was the importance of breath which is a pathway into the unconscious mind. Breathing is one of the things we that we take for granted, yet breath is about the only critical body function that unlike the heart of the liver, we can control if we choose to do so.

By placing attention on the breath, it is possible to sharpen the mind to access a sub-atomic cellular level within the body. It’s at this level that can change deeply engrained patterns by accessing the unconscious mind. This is done through an increased awareness of sensations and feeling in the body, be it pain, heat, a tingling feeling or an itch. But rather than react to that sensation, you sit with it, observe it and release it.

The teaching here is the law of nature; nothing stays the same, everything changes. It’s just all a moment in time. When you recognise this you can react differently and choose what to do next. If you train and sharpen the mind to be more aware of what’s happening at an unconscious level, it is possible to alter a lifetime of habits and patterns.

It can be quite technical to master this process and take great discipline and patience to continuously scan the body – with a clear mind – and observe the sensations for hours at a time.  However, the rewards more than made up for the investment of time and energy. All in all it’s quite a phenomenal space to experience.

One of the most rewarding insights was the deep feeling of gratitude that I felt about life and those around me. The whole experience gave me the opportunity to take stock of my life and to really appreciate and feel grateful for all that I have; family, business, friends, my Academy Group members. This gratitude has also inspired me to share my learning from the retreat. It has also motivated me increase my own personal meditation practice to an hour every day.

The combination of the quiet and reflective environment and the intensive focus on the Vipassana technique also acted as a catalyst for deep emotional memories to surface. There are many things that we suppress over the period of our lives often because they are too painful to deal with at the time. During the retreat I found situations and/or people I had suppressed for one reason or other surfacing in thoughts, emotions, pain or other sensations.

This was a great opportunity to resolve and release issues that had the potential to prevent me fully expressing my full authentic self. It’s hard to explain how profound the release of deep-rooted issues and engrained patterns is to experience. It really was a very deep and heart-felt release straight from the depths of my core beingness. As a result of this release, there was a wonderful sense of being more centred, more authentic than ever before.

Another key theme that emerged around day three or four was forgiveness. This was an intense opportunity to let go of baggage I had been carrying around and to forgive people (including family members) who had created a situation where I chose to feel angst in my life at some level.

Would you do it all again?

Yes! Next time I might go back for a shorter period to serve as a volunteer. This means that you get the opportunity to help the other students in a practical way by working in the kitchens, helping to clean or serving the food others. In this way, there is the opportunity to share the experience of those around you on the journey, whilst at the same time having access to the meditation sessions for one’s own self development.

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