In Focus: Mindfulness Part 1

Former NBA basketball player John Amaechi on how mindfulness helped him accomplish his life and career goals

In 2007, after retiring from basketball, John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out publicly

I’m interested in mindfulness as an interpersonal and introspective tool. I’m not much into — no offence is meant by this — the woo woo. I’m not much into the finger symbols, the crossed-leggedness. This part, I recognise, for some people is a good ritual part of this, but I’m not into that. I like it because I know what it does. I trained as a marriage and family therapist, which is terrifying, I’m sure, to many of you, before I became an organisational psychologist.

It’s just fascinating to see that the entire basis of what we do — psychologists are often hesitant to say this, but — is the fact that we are here, present, with you, and this [period of time] is yours. It comes with the additional benefit that unlike most conversations with friends who are confidantes, it isn’t a tennis match, it’s just this stream where you have to stay completely focused without often saying very much, but letting people know that you are there only for them.

I’m very fortunate in that I had an excellent education in this. My mother was a GP in Cheadle and I used to go on visits with her when I was seven years old. She did a lot of work with palliative care, so she would go into the homes of families where the sick person was probably not going to get any better. I would watch as she walked into this room and would be immediately whisked upstairs to whoever was sick, and then I would be ushered into the front room and there would be either one person — a spouse or a loved one — or an entire clan, an entire extended family.

I was seven years old when this first happened, and I would sit there, and that was back in the day when the doctor visited, you brought out your best china. There I would be, and I started to associate this noise with these visits. There they would be, holding a china saucer with a china cup on top, and they were so nervous, they were so tense, they were so tense, that this noise was associated for me.

Their hands were shaking, and so the china cup on the china saucer would make this tinkling noise. Then they’d hand me a cup, and I was seven, so then my hands would shake because I didn’t want to break it. That’s all I could hear, and I associated it with the stress. I remember leaving one of these homes and saying, ‘It’s like it’s hard to breathe in there’.

My mother would finish [after] one or two minutes upstairs with whoever was sick, and she’d come down to the door, and before she walked in the door she would just do this thing where she took a breath — not like a sigh, not even a larger breath than normal — and in that moment she is scooping up the room in her attention, making it clear that although she may have been at something really important beforehand, and maybe she had to go to another visit after this, for this moment, ‘I am only here with you’.

From the silence and the tinkling noise, they would hand her a cup and the noise would stop. Then they would start talking to her and saying, ‘I can’t cope, what am I going to do?’, and she would let them talk a little bit, and listen, and then she would intervene, she would just raise a hand and say, ‘No, no, no, you can do this. You’re going to do this, this and this, and I’ll be back in two weeks and we’ll talk about it again’. This thing happened in the room where suddenly there was a collective breath, and they said, ‘Do you know what? You’re right’. Even at seven years old I was like, ‘This is amazing, you’re doing stuff here’.

“I like mindfulness because if we can make people operate as more than just vending machines, businesses have an opportunity to be more than just a sum of its parts.”

Mindfulness is one of those things that has to be a part of the craft and practice of a company, because many of our workplaces have people who are truly devastated by their experience in work, they have no choice but to work, but they’re devastated on a daily basis by that experience because they exist in these workplaces where people are not present most of the time, and for good reason. Being mindful is energy-expensive. It is harder work to pay attention.

I like it because it’s functional and just improves the way people feel in their workplaces, it improves the way they operate, make them more resilient, creative, all that other stuff. But I think everyone should be practising it and in situ — every conversation, when you walk through the hallway, when you’re in the lift.

I work in a lot of different workplaces from the intelligence sector across to professional services and manufacturing, and ‘people as vending machines’ is a common thread. I’m not big on this nice, ‘Let’s sit round the fire and be nice to each other’, that’s not why I like mindfulness. I like it because if we can make people operate as more than just vending machines, our business has an opportunity to be gestalts — more than just a sum of our parts — more than just the sum of the job descriptions of the people we have there. That’s what I think is vital about this work.

I am worried about McMindfulness; there’s too much out there of people lauding companies for putting beds in their office when they should be chastising them for it. Send them home to sleep in their houses. This is not mindfulness to make up for terrible leaders, terrible managers, this is mindfulness to augment to the next level leaders and managers and to make our workplaces a place where we can be colleagues and not just co-workers. Where we can be on teams and not just in groups.

In the workplace, people use the word team — it rarely applies. They are not synonyms. Mindfulness is one of the prerequisites for being on a team vs being in a group — mindfulness is a prerequisite and a precursor for being a colleague and not just a co-worker. We do amazing, powerful things if we can standardise the levels of people delivering the programming, and also make it so it’s not just, ‘Oh, you look stressed, head off into a room over there’, but rather, ‘This is an everyday part of our practice’. If we do that we transform workplaces, improve productivity and give lots of people who felt invisible an opportunity to really deliver.

Further Reading

In Focus: Mindfulness Part 2 with Nancy Hey can be read here 
In Focus: Mindfulness Part 3 with Unilever’s Tim Munden can be read
In Focus: Mindfulness Part 4 with Kate Unsworth can be read

This talk took place at Second Home, a creative workspace and cultural venue which brings together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses. Find out more about joining us here: