“Ben has the potential to go far, if only he weren’t so absent minded.”

This comment, written on my school report from 1986, has somehow been forever etched into my brain.  I don’t particularly remember why I locked onto this specific piece of criticism more than anything else – positive or negative – that was said about me at school.  Perhaps the fact that I can’t remember is really just further proof of the exceptional level of absent mindedness I was able to deliver at such a young age!

Whatever the reason, I definitely can’t argue with the statement itself.  I was always a natural day dreamer at school.  Sit me by a window and you could guarantee nothing of genuine value would pass through my brain all day – which may now be worrying Steph and Kaye a little as that is precisely where I now sit in the SK Chase office!

However, by the time I entered the world of work I no longer had time for day dreaming and so my distractibility had to evolve in new directions.  Working front of house in hotels, where my focus could be broken at any time by guest requests or general emergencies, provided a perfect environment for me to do this.  For the first time ever, being at ease with being distracted became a distinct advantage and I was seen as adaptable and quick thinking, as opposed to absent minded.  And when I did inevitably forget things, I could always point at the general chaos of an exceptionally busy day to explain it away.

So, while I no longer had any time for day dreaming, my brain became conditioned to never be completely focused on anything, constantly on the lookout for something going on, and immediately latching onto it – for at least as long as it took for something else to come bouncing along and divert my attention away from the initial distraction etc.  It became so deeply ingrained that even now I’ve been out of hotels for 2 years I still find it difficult to stop myself to be drawn into situations that arise around me, whether or not they are my responsibility to deal with, or can wait until a more appropriate time when I’m not trying to focus on something else.

At SK Chase we describe this as reacting rather than responding.  Reacting is a knee jerk quick fix which only looks at solving (or getting rid of) the immediate problem in front of us, and is almost always a negative action – with emotional baggage attached – whereas responding requires space to think, remove any initial negative emotions around the situation, before taking positive action at an appropriate time.

I’ve recently been reading, ‘The Unfettered Mind,’ which is a short series of letters written in the 17th Century, from an Zen buddhist master to a Samurai master, in which the author draws parallels between his spirituality and mindfulness, and the art of combat.

I thought it would be an interesting companion to several practical taekwondo books I’m reading, by providing me with an insight to the philosophical side of martial arts and the history and culture that inspired them.  I hadn’t expected it to be of any real use to my life today, but almost immediately I felt like the first letter could had been written directly to me as it resonates so clearly with my tendency to react instead of respond.

The Zen master writes about a man attacked by ten sword-wielding opponents, suggesting that if the mind is ‘detained’ by any one of these assailants, the lone samurai will lose his flow and be cut down by the other 9.  However, if he goes into battle with a mind that sees all but is not distracted by any one thing, his action will flow allowing him to defeat each opponent after the other.

In my role in hotels, when ‘attacked’ by ten guests at the same time, I got away with allowing myself to be detained by each of them, and usually came out on top. (I often thought a sword would have been a useful tool to keep about me in these instances though)  And most of the time they were quite content to wait at least a little while for my attention so I could finish with the previous guest – which despite what choreographed Hollywood fights look like, doesn’t often happen in genuine combat.  The reason this approach worked then was because I never really needed to think any further ahead than what’s happening at that moment, and I just kept going until either I’d sorted them all out, or someone else came on shift to take it off me.

In my role at SK Chase this is a luxury I no longer have, and I do need to focus most of my time on specific tasks which contribute to achieving my vision for my functions, as well as the overall vision for the business.  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet managed to consistently expand my mindset beyond the here and now and all too often I find myself reacting immediately to what’s happening around me rather than maintaining my focus and then responding (if it even needs a response) at a more appropriate time.

The Zen master describes the same idea from a slightly different angle. “when facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

By reacting to everything happening around me, I don’t give myself the opportunity to see the bigger picture, which means that too often I find myself working very hard without seeing any real achievement.

While I understand this in a thinking space, changing this behaviour isn’t something I find as easy because it requires a conscious decision to intervene before I react – and often my conscious mind is several steps behind my subconscious and so doesn’t kick in until after I’ve finished reacting in the first place.  What is most frustrating is that the more my awareness around this increases, the more often I notice that I’ve make the wrong choice. So being more aware can make it feel like the situation is actually getting worse!

This connects with something I have noticed in my taekwondo, where I often feel that every step forward is preceeded by three of four steps backwards.

Helpfully, our Zen master also talks about this, reasoning that the beginner student of martial arts knows nothing about body posture, sword handling or technique, and as such he defends and attacks far more naturally – as his mind is not detained trying to maintain the correct stance or performing a set move, and therefore he meets a challenge with nothing in mind.

As the student progresses and becomes aware of the importance of stances, correct technique, breathing etc. his mind is naturally ‘detained’ by all of them and the act of defending or attacking becomes more uncomfortable and awkward, until they are expert enough to do them without thinking.  At this stage his mind ‘simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.’

Our business coach Fergus talks about conscious and unconscious competency.  Before I recognised my reactivity as an issue, I was ‘unconsciously incompetent‘ – i.e. I was in blissful ignorance that there was even a problem at all, and in fact in hotels it was something of an advantage.  Once I had recognised it was causing a problem, I then became consciously incompetent.  This is the worst stage to be at, as I would be uncomfortably aware of every time I’d fallen into my old traps.

Given time and practice (and I give myself plenty of opportunities for that!), I am becoming consciously competent – i.e. I have sufficient awareness to stop myself reacting, but its still a conscious decision I have to make.  Ultimately, once I’ve stuck with it for long enough I can become unconsciously competent – where I don’t have to think about it at all, I’m just able to do the right thing automatically.

The thing I need most to allow this shift to occur, is to give myself the space to encourage my mind to respond rather than react.  The more I react, the less space I give myself to think which if left unchecked spirals out of control as I work less effectively and so more issues arise which I now have even less space to respond to.

So I realise that, much like the expert martial artist returning to the mindset of the beginner, I need to look back and become a little more like the 6-year old me.  Gazing out of the window all day long won’t support me to achieve my vision, but allowing myself to have space when I need it most certainly will.