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  • Writer's pictureOwen Bubbers-Jones

Mediation and Mindfulness: Thy Sea So Great, My Boat So Small

How and Why Mindfulness and Mediation Work So Well Together

So read a brass engraving President Kennedy kept on his desk in the Oval Office, to provide perspective and a reminder in good times and bad. Especially the bad. Think Cuban Missile Crisis bad.

It's not an exaggeration to say that this sense of smallness or feeling cast adrift is similar to what many participants of mediation experience as they walk through the door. Whilst all may seem calm, beneath the waves they might feel they've somehow become un-anchored, caught up in a conflict they didn't seek. Or perhaps they're being tossed around atop a nauseous swell of doubt or trapped in a full blown storm of rage with someone or a situation.

We often assume that people are fully aware of their emotional reactions and the motivations underlying these. This is something, after all, our society teaches us: humans are fundamentally rational beings who know best their own minds. I disagree, especially when it comes to conflict. Because when someone is riding that wave of strong, negative emotion (and that pesky Amygdale is going full pelt, churning up unhelpful emotional memories), they are often incapable of discerning what they need in order to resolve the situation. As a wise colleague of mine once put it: you can't logic someone into feeling better.

So where and how do mediation and mindfulness fit into all this?

The principles and language of mediation and mindfulness are increasingly being heard and used in the workplace to remarkable effect, both in terms of human capital as well as supporting the bottom line.

Mediation offers someone the opportunity to literally step away from the daily grind, in a safe, facilitated space. They can reflect on what has brought them to this point, before going on to meet with the person they are in conflict with. Honest and open discussion are intrinsic to the prospect of developing an agreement that is needed for resolution to their conflict.

Mindfulness is rooted in that pause for reflection, or put another way, taking note of one's own thoughts and feelings more objectively. To illustrate how we usually interact with our emotions, the creators of Headspace, a mindfulness app, use the metaphor of a person standing beside a busy road of traffic: as this person observes the many cars (representing emotions) whizzing past, they are tempted to run head first into the chaos and try to grab hold of them without letting go. That is, to engage with their emotions instinctively and unconsciously.

The practice of mindfulness is about resisting that often overpowering urge so that one may instead remain on the curb and calmly observe the multitude of emotions that run through our minds each second. On that basis, we are better placed to make decisions about whether to engage with a particular emotion and understand the reasons why.

This is not to say that 'feeling' emotion is bad. Not at all. It does mean, however, that we can make conscious and more informed choices in order to better support ourselves when experiencing difficult situations, in particular conflict.  

This is where mediation and mindfulness come into full bloom together.

The mediator's tools of asking open questions, summarising and holding silence encourage the participants, who are tempted to run out into the proverbial traffic, to pause and take note. They may still decide in the end to engage with a particular emotion, only now they are aware they are doing so.

Also, to be conscious of one's own emotions raises the likelihood that we will also be more aware of the other person's feelings. It is this understanding and acknowledgment that forms the doorway through which people trapped in conflict can walk through together in order to find resolution.      

And with mindful resolution, that sea may not seem quite as great as it once did, nor their boat so small.

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