Mindfulness-in-Action: Leaving The Zafu At Home!

As a martial artist, mindfulness has been an integral part of my training, and coaching for many years — way before it became popular. Today, mindfulness is everywhere, and seems to be the panacea for all kinds of ills, from helping with stress, pain, or just to be happier.

In many ways I share the sentiments of Tony Robbin’s in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, that, I simply never got into meditation. In fact, for most of my executive clients who come to me for Full Contact Living training, trying to get them to sit still is virtually impossible. Because of this, I started practicing and teaching what I termed mindfulness-in-action. It turns out, I am not alone in the call for this approach.

Tony Schwartz CEO and founder of The Energy Project, and bestselling author, writing in the New York Times, notes that what is needed is mindfulness in action, not what a person can do with their eyes closed. Further Deepak Sethi, CEO of Organic Leadership, while recognising the possible potential application of mindfulness to the work environment, notes that the challenge is to be mindful in the crucible of work, and not just in the meditation chair.

Personally I have always found it difficult being asked to meditate in a candle lit room, with the calming effect of sandalwood incense wafting in the air, whilst sitting on a Zafu — and then having to apply that to real life. Sitting on a Zafu seemed somewhat alien to the real world we all have to live and work in. Life isn’t a monastery, its fast paced, unpredictable, and will Judo throw you if given a chance.

It’s Not Easy Taking It Off The Zafu Into The World

Nowhere was this more evident when a psychologist client, who was trained in Mindful Based Cognitive Therapy, came to me for training. After a few sessions of teaching him the basics, and discussing being mindful in action (something he fervently claimed he didn’t need), I got him to move around and throw some punches on a mitt, while defending some attacks from me. The pace wasn’t hard, and there was no way he could get injured, yet he immediately lost all his focus, and fell apart. As he noted to me later, “I teach this all the time to my clients, yet, I saw today I couldn’t do it under some pressure”.
The realisation for my client, and I suspect for many people plunging themselves full throttle into the mindfulness revolution, is that, taking it off the Zafu into the world is harder than they thought it would be (I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting meditation has no benefit, just in my experience it is not enough).

As Tony Schwartz has noted, a long time meditator himself, what we need is mindfulness in action. The problem then is, how do you train mindfulness in action?

Martial Arts Based Mindfulness Action

My personal approach and likely because of my background, has been to use martial arts. Not martial arts in the sense of learning to ‘fight’ but rather to use it as a somatic approach, a tool, to help my executive clients embody mindfulness in action. As I work with many people in leadership roles, I recognise that for most of them, the only opportunity to practise skills pertaining to their leadership performance is in the crucible of work, where often their actions could have real substantial consequences.

Due to this, it would be less likely that a leader would use his or her actual work environment in the first instance to practice mindfulness without prior training and practice. Using martial arts then as an embodied practice vehicle allows leaders to both train in and experience mindfulness in action in a safe environment, thus allowing them to pause, ask questions, troubleshoot or reset where needed, before being asked to apply these techniques in their professional lives.

Here the martial art experience acts as an original learning component, with the objective then to transfer that knowledge from training to the actual work environment. Many of the embodied experiences a leader will encounter on the training mat in martial arts will be similar in nature either implicitly or conceptually to the experiences they face in their professional lives. For example, quick decision-making, especially in organisational crisis is often prized in leaders. The outcome of these decisions may impact organisational strategy, change, and workforce structure. In a similar vein, quick decisions need to be made in martial arts training, especially in light of recognising an open target, and engaging it with accuracy. Both in martial arts and leadership, a person’s attitude, subjective norms, and perceived control in the moment of decision-making itself, may hinder the intention of making such a decision.

Combining mindfulness in action training, along with the embodied practice of martial arts — therefore offers participants the opportunity to engage in an embodied experience where quick decisions are required — but in doing so, have the opportunity to engage in mindful practice in the moment of making those decisions. This embodied, action oriented experience, requires executives who train with me, to be attentive and aware of what is taking place in the present, to work on poise, awareness of emotions, and to recognise discrepancies between their current state of embodied functioning, thoughts, feelings and emotions, thereby prompting them to engage in alternative behaviour that is seen to reduce these discrepancies. In this case that alternative behaviour is training mindfulness in action.

The outcome, is a person who hasn’t merely practiced mindfulness on a Zafu (while beneficial to a point) but actually got it right in an experience not to dissimilar to the kind of internal obstacles they face daily in real life and work. What emerges is a person who embodies a new kind of “MBA”—a high degree of Mind-Body integration achieved through a decisive shift in Attitude, designed to enhance excellence in their career and life. In other words, what they never taught you in business school.


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