I get asked all the time, what exactly do I do for a living? My wife has a tough time answering this question too.
To answer this question I often reply, it depends on my audience. If I am working with Special Force Operators, then I am coaching them a combination of empty hand fighting techniques, along with mental game strategies they can apply on the battlefield. If I am working with my martial art students, then I am helping them get in to amazing physical shape, helping them learn how to protect themselves and those they love, while showing them how they can apply the lessons from the mat, positively into their daily lives. If I am working within the corporate sector, or with entrepreneurs, typically I am teaching them how to show up with more poise, focus, and presence at work.
Needless to say, I am somewhat of a paradox. On the one end of the spectrum I am teaching people how to fight back in what could be considered the worst experience of their life if it happened — yet on the other side of spectrum I am helping people show up at work, and matter. What is common in everything I do, is how I teach my students, and my clients what I view as hacking their embodied interface to achieve excellence in situations, and or environments that demand peak performance! If I had to choose a single way of describing what the ultimate aim is of what I coach, it is to enable my students and clients to be mindful-in-action.
Mindfulness itself has become somewhat of a buzz word lately, especially in the world of celebrities, and organisations. Unlike most mindfulness based approaches, that use various forms of meditation to achieve results, I use what I refer to as an Action oriented approach. In other words, through using the experience of boxing that I teach, I get people who I coach to experience being mindful while punches are being thrown at them. For a mindfulness teacher who is more inclined to connect mindfulness to spiritual practice, my approach may seem the antithesis of what mindfulness is intended for — specifically as mindfulness relates to the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.
There has been a lot of debate over the recent years about the secular versus the non-secular approaches to mindfulness. For myself, taking a secular approach to mindfulness, is not to denounce it’s rich history in spiritual traditions (i.e., Buddhism for example), but rather I view it for what it is when looked upon as a state of mind. In this sense, to be mindful, is to be present on purpose, while being aware of everything both internally within myself, and in the environment outside of me, without judgement. Said another way, mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
The reason I chose to teach mindfulness in the way I do, is because while I have had a formal practice in meditation for many years, I found personally, that nowhere was I able to grasp what it felt to be mindful (or not) than when I was in the midst of sparring someone. In fact, it is no coincidence, that in the warrior traditions, specifically the Samurai, that they wrote so much about this mental state. As a martial artist, when faced with an opponent who is out to beat you, you quickly realise that if your thinking mind (and your whole body), is anywhere else but here, in the present moment — you stand the very strong risk of getting hit, or ultimately loosing. Mindfulness-in-Action then, really started as a way for me to be more present in my sparring. It allowed me to both create a system, and cultivate a practice that made being mindful in the moments of pure chaos of a fight more regular. I ended up developing this into a teachable system, and even wrote a book about it, entitled Full Contact Living.
While I had spent countless hours practicing various forms of meditation, and mindfulness techniques (like mindful eating, mindful walking etc), nothing brought me closer to being mindful than on the mat, and in sparring. What began to occur organically out of this experience is what made me the most excited. Overtime, I began to see, that the more regularly I was mindful in sparring, the more I was able to be mindful in life. As my mindful muscle in my brain and body got stronger, that strength carried over into areas of my life that often, I had a real hard time being mindful in. This was the main catalyst for me continuing the development of the EmbodiedMBA, and also why it became my topic of research for my PhD.
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.
The reality of living in this world, with the hustle, bustle, unpredictability and chaos — is a far cry from the candle lit room, with soothing music, wafts of incense and sitting on a zafu, As I talked to many people who had tried this way of learning to become more mindful in their life, I found many people, outside of some benefits that lowered their stress levels, were finding it virtually impossible to take the mindfulness they achieved on the cushion into their hectic life. The reason is obvious. Sitting on a zaffu is not the world we all need to, and have to live in. In fact, I first attempted to try and teach seated meditation to my ‘A type’ personality clients, and they all gave up. However, once I introduced it to them through my boxing program, the uptake, and levels of success took me by surprise.
“The undisturbed mind is like the calm body water reflecting the brilliance of the moon. Empty the mind and you will realize the undisturbed mind.” -Yagyu Jubei, Samurai
Boxing in many ways resembles life. Its tough, uncompromising, challenging, frustrating, chaotic, and gets your stress levels up — almost as quickly as your boss does. But, and here is the big takeaway, what if I taught you in boxing how to be mindful, to be so present, that even someone punching you in the face no longer bothers you? This is why I think an embodied, action oriented approach to learning mindfulness is so unique, and so important. In action, in an experience that has all the ingredients we all experience in everyday life, when you are able to be mindful there, you can then be mindful anywhere.