Creating mindful cadences between the phrases of life

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Lander & Rogers's Practice Group Leader - Consulting, Anthony Kearns, explores mindfulness and applying this practice to delineating different life domains.

As I finished a short meditation on the train the other day I sat and observed my fellow commuters for a while. They rock back and forth while expertly maintaining the optimum focal length to the 8-point font on their favourite devices as they listen to digitally perfect music through noise cancelling headphones. I wondered whether we are really making the most of these transitions from one domain of life to another.

One of my favourite leadership thinkers is Frank J. Barrett. I first found his work in the early nineties and recently discovered his book (Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz). He is a Professor of Business, accomplished jazz musician and his research draws parallels between leadership in this post-industrial, post-modern, post-Kotter age and the behaviours and mindsets of the great jazz improvisors. It is a brilliant analogy, full of psychological flexibility, inclusive behaviours, creativity, compassion and forgiveness. He also quotes Mike Tyson in the first chapter of a book about music and leadership: “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth”. I am not such a fan of Mike in general but that is an awesome quote.

This got me thinking.

When people learn music for the first time they are taught that notes, bars and beats are the basic units of music. To experienced musicians the most important unit is the phrase. Phrases give music its sense of beginning, flow and ending. They invite the musician to build or relieve tension, to introduce or remind us of themes, to connect themes. They allow the music to breathe and live. They are the sentences of the musical story and as such allow the musician to create a higher, emotional rhythm. Importantly, phrases enable the musician to interpret the music and make it their own.

Just as the phrases are the sentences of musical stories, cadences are the punctuation. Just to be clear, I am talking here about the combination of two or three chords that bring one phrase to an end and suggest what may be to come (not the tempo of the music nor how fast a cyclist is pedalling). Imperfect cadences suggest a breath, a pause, a tension to be resolved later. The Plagal cadence (or “Amen cadence”) creates a solemnity and peacefulness that is instantly recognisable to anyone who has sung hymns in a Christian church. Perfect cadences suggest finality, an ending.

For me, one of the most useful applications of mindfulness practice is to create cadences between the phrases of life. To enable me to punctuate one period of focus from another, one theme from another, one experience from another. Like the palette cleanser between courses in a high-end restaurant it enables me to prepare for the next flavour; to mindfully finish one course and prepare to mindfully taste the next. It is a deliberate practice that I employ many times a day and the more I do it the more I see the benefits in the way that I experience life.

So, what do mindful cadences look like? They may be as short as three breaths or as long as my morning train ride.

  • My journey to work is an opportunity for a mindful cadence between home and work. It is an opportunity for me to notice the feelings and thoughts I have carried from my morning so far and those I am carrying into my work day before gently and compassionately bringing my attention to the sound of the train and my breath.
  • When preparing for a meeting where I may experience strong emotions in others or in myself I spend a couple of minutes in my office with my eyes closed, simply notice my feelings and thoughts before gently and compassionately bringing my attention back to my body and my breath. (Tip for young players: if you are going to do this in the lift on the way to a client meeting, best let the other attendees know what you are doing)
  • When facilitating a leadership program or strategy workshop and we are about to change direction I will close my eyes, simply notice my thoughts and feelings before gently and compassionately bringing my attention to my body and my breath. (Tip for young players: when working with co-facilitators in a room full of really important people, best tell them about this practice before you do it)
  • As I arrive home at the end of my working day I pause before opening the door, turn around to the world I am leaving behind. I notice my feelings and thoughts before gently and compassionately bringing my attention back to my body and my breath.

“I need to find more balance in my life” is a constant refrain in today's world of “endless busyness” where “busy” has become an acceptable answer to the question “how are you?”. I am not sure that a sense of balance comes from just dividing our lives into complete movements of work and “not work”. I am not sure that this is even possible any more. Rather, I find it emerges from the regular and deliberate choices we make to attend to what is important when it is important. The sense of balance resides in the exercise of choice itself.

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Key contacts

Anthony Kearns

Practice Group Leader, Consulting