Team Mindfulness: a craft, not a panacea: Chris Nichols reflects on an online conversation with Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson

It was wonderful to be back working with Megan after many years, and to do so with this group who brought huge experience and shared their questions and reflections on their practice so richly.

I’m not going to try to summarise the whole conversation, the video of that is available. What I’m going to do here is set out some of my reflections and take-aways.

I thought the event was timely and necessary. Times are challenging and teams and their wider organisations are under great pressure. Mindfulness is of course well established, mostly as a personal practice.  But in some areas, it has also become a fad and a fashion, and in the way of such things there can be misuse. Mindfulness has sometimes been used as a sticking plaster, to paper over the defects in organisations and leadership by making individuals more able to shoulder the burdens caused. Whilst easing suffering in this way is valuable to people, surely we should be aiming to address the deeper issues. This is where team mindfulness has something to offer.

A word of definition is useful here. Team mindfulness involves more than simply the members of a team having an individual mindfulness practice. Team mindfulness is more a quality of the team itself, collectively. I came away with a working sense of team mindfulness as “a team becoming the focus of its mindful attention”, with the members becoming aware of their team dynamics and their role in it, and of their connection to the wider systems within which the team works. For more on the definition of team mindfulness you can read our recent article here. The AIM model developed by Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson is a really practical framework for developing this capacity and I recommend it highly.

This mindful capacity for shared attention to a team matters because when we think of the challenges we face, in organisations and in society more widely, it is through better teams that we have most hope of effective action. This is a time when our societal systems are under great strain, and it is our view that mindful team practice significantly enhances our capacity to recognise issues in systems and create ways of working with the challenges. You can find more about our thinking on applying AIM to organisational life and to a more flourishing earth by clicking the links to access our recent writing on these themes.

But this doesn’t mean team mindfulness has to be cosmic to be useful. The practice works at all levels of social interaction and making progress at any stage improves things and builds a foundation to work on other phases.  When you work on making your team meetings more mindful you are doing the groundwork to be more mindful on all other scales.

Like all shared endeavour, team mindfulness must have personal practice at its heart. Our individual attention is the rock on which shared work rests. Far from diminishing the need for personal mindful work, my reflection is that the more the outer work becomes far reaching and ambitious, the more vital the inner work become. It reminds me of the great Meister Eckhart quote, “the outward work will never be puny if the inner work is great”.

Part of this involves looking after ourselves in the work. It is so easy to lose sight of our own wellbeing, and suffer harm, including burnout. When we are part of a team going about significant work in the world it is important to make sure we take care of ourselves.  It reminds me of the wisdom of the “bamboo acrobat” sutta from Buddhist scripture..

An acrobat climbs on his assistant’s shoulders while both are balanced on a bamboo pole. He asks her to take care of him, he’ll take care of her, and all will be well. She replies, “No, you take care of yourself, I’ll take care of myself, and in that way all will be well.”

Reflecting on this, the Buddha agreed with both: “Looking after oneself, one looks after others; while looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

Ultimately we are responsible for our own wellbeing. It is unhelpful to direct our attention to others while completely neglecting ourselves. At the same time, others are directly affected by how well we take care of ourselves. Mindfulness practice is not a selfish undertaking, because the quality of our interaction with all those around us depends on our own self-awareness, our own degree of kindness – to ourselves and others.

The final message I took from the conversation is that none of this is about striving for perfection. It’s more about a moment-by-moment exploration, where every intervention, every gesture offers the chance to practice. No one is going to be 100% mindful all the time.

The goal is to practice the craft of attention and inquiry, compassion and wisdom. The AIM approach provides a powerful and practical way to guide the development of the craft. When we do that, we find that every step on the path has its own value and makes its own contribution.

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