The “present” of “being present”

You don’t have to be wearing saffron robes and sitting on a mountain to utilise mindfulness in daily life. There are clear advantages for leaders building the concept of “being present” into leadership practice.

As Sylvia Boorstein, a great mindfulness teacher said: “Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without clinging to it or rejecting it.”

To solve a leadership problem you need skills and knowledge but also there is a requirement to be ‘in the moment’ so that a situation has your full attention and you can use timing and awareness. In doing this there is a ‘best chance’ of selecting the ‘best possible’ situation available.

No longer an activity reserved for the new age set, many of us now are looking to mindfulness as an antidote to stress and burnout, technology addiction and digital distractions. Mindfulness can currently be seen as a trendy concept and has even been dubbed ‘McMindfulness’.  It can be found on many magazine covers. However, it can also be seen as an ancient wisdom for a modern world and certainly helpful in business settings.  Definitions vary but broadly it is a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment. This is a simple concept but incredibly difficult to achieve and sustain.

The intrinsic nature of the mind is to dwell on the past or worry about the future. Both of these help us to learn and prepare. This is essential for stepping away to allow creativity, and innovation. Mindfulness allows us to quieten the mind and watch ourselves from the outside in. Being mindful helps counter the cognitive dissonance that comes from the living in the last or constant future.

Simply, being in the present not only makes us think more clearly but it actually makes us happier.

Meditation, the quintessential mindfulness practice, has been shown to be a highly effective intervention for managing emotional challenges including anxiety, depression and stress. A 2013 study also found that people with mindful personalities enjoy greater emotional stability and improved sleep quality.

In the daily workplace we witness a range of emotion both good and bad. We see anger, envy, worry and doubt. We see our colleagues hanging onto these emotions long after the moment has passed. They may have been real to us at the time but sometimes they begin to get in the way of the present feelings and present moment – and therefore, present decisions.

There is an old Zen saying ‘before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.’ There have been thousands of words written about this quote but for me it comes to two simple learning points: The carrying and chopping are independent actions that cannot happen at the same time and nor should we try. Secondly, regardless of what we think about chopping or carrying, that is to say whatever emotional state we bring to the activity, the task will remain the same.

Practice helps us to become better at what we do. Of course, we’ll make mistakes — we’ll lose our tempers, harbour grudges, have irrational dislikes, fail to be compassionate even when our friends are suffering — but making mistakes is just a part of the process of learning any skill. The important thing is that we try to learn from our experience.

What does it really mean to be a mindful person — and what do they do differently every day to live more mindfully? Mindfulness, the practice of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment, is both a daily habit and a lifelong process. It’s most commonly practiced and cultivated through meditation, although being mindful does not necessarily require a meditation practice.

So how do I do it?

My approach can often be a Solvitur ambulando, which is Latin for “it is solved by walking.” Mindful people know that simply going for a walk can be excellent way to calm the mind, gain new perspective and facilitate greater awareness.

Mindfulness isn’t just something you practice during a 10-minute morning meditation session. It can be incorporated throughout your everyday life by simply paying a little more attention to your daily activities as you’re performing them. My second preferred mindful space ahead of sitting on a cushion is paying attention to my cup of tea….and we know that all life is made better paying attention to a fresh cup of Yorkshire Tea! Acceptance in that moment can feel blissful and often solutions to problems just arise.

As Mother Teresa put it, “Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” (and yes I did just quote Mother T!)

For many, especially in daily leadership, the idea of simple acceptance is heresy. I don’t suggest ducking the hard decisions, or being detached or giving up on difficult to solve problems. In mindfulness embracing acceptance is actually taking hold and intentionally grasping; seeking to understand what is really going on.

In mindfulness we do not have to try to switch off our minds but the opposite. The more fully aware then the more skilful we become in working in the space between stimulus and response. Victor Frankl said; “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies growth and our freedom” The more we can practice to operate in this space the more improved our decision making as  leaders.

Meditation master Thich Nhat Hahn described the most foundational and most effective mindfulness practice, mindful breathing, in Shambhala Sun:

“So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don’t think anymore. You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.”

It’s mindfulness over automation that will win the day.  So, what can we do to help be more present in our leadership?

  1. Take a breath; being more present starts with our breath. A slow breath for a couple of minutes brings you back to the  now
  2. Set an intention to be present; our intentions drive our focus. What are you doing now? By being a witness to what you are doing and deliberately feeling more aware, it will help us become more connected with the present
  3. Proactively start a mindfulness practice. There are lots of resources to help such as the app ‘Headspace’ or at The Oxford Mindfulness Centre has plenty of free resources. Visit
  4. Notice the reoccurring negative thought patterns or situations at work where you always worry and counter them by being present with intention.
  5. As a leader begin by shifting your attention to the person in front of you, practice listening intently, don’t just wait for your ‘air time’. Quickly you will find there is a better personal connection and decisions feel quicker and more colligate.
  6. In team meetings, check in with yourself- are you present? Engaged? Or just checking your phone and answering emails?. Taking time to pause and re-engage will be well spent.

Stuart Rimmer is Founder of Inner Mountain Coaching and Director of Strategy and Knowledge Transfer at Open Banking Excellence