This post comes with a caveat: I hate conferences. For the most part, conferences are corporate sales events masquerading as friendly, collaborative learning spaces. Of course having an audience of like-minded individuals is an amazing opportunity for businesses to promote their services and products, but their rather stilted version of friendliness, often foisted upon you often right as you stumble in from the daylight and try to navigate your unfamiliar surroundings, leaves a somewhat bitter taste. Then there's the hired events staff, usually authoritarian stepford wives dressed in smiles and branded white t-shirts who seemingly manage to walk the line perfectly between helping you and telling you off. On top of all that is the 'networking' opportunities which, even as a confident and outgoing person, make me feel like running for cover. Essentially, conferences are the antithesis of my preferred habitat.
So with all that in mind, last Friday I headed to The Mindful Living Show with a mix of reservation and excitement. Things seemed a little different... for a start, this stumble from the bright, gorgeous sunshine (yes - in Manchester!) was into a Grade II listed former railway station. Only the exhibitors who I approached spoke to me about their products, and none (other than the Woodland Trust who - let's be frank - are seeking to 'protect, restore and create the woods and trees' in the UK so the gentle suggestion of £3 a month with no insistence at all felt ok) tried to sell me anything. I should probably add that I didn't speak to very many exhibitors at all as I try to avoid them like the plague... but nobody was hanging out of their miniature canopies with fixed smiles beckoning me for 'just one minute' as is so often the case.
Where the Mindful Living Show really came into it's own was in its' interactive workshops. The thing I was most looking forward to taking part in was Manchester Art Gallery's 'mindful marks' which usually takes place in the gallery space. Facilitated by artist Naomi Kendrick, I was encouraged to sit, close my eyes and pay attention to the music. (Here, headphones were introduced to mitigate the noise of the surrounding conference - more on that later). The instructions follow: 'with your eyes still closed, gently begin to move your hands on the paper with the music'. The mindfulness part? 'When your mind drifts away to other things, notice where it goes and then gently but firmly escort your attention back to the sounds and your mark-making.' Bliss. I discovered that instruments and voices had different shapes, textures and pressures. Guitars were loopy, strings were linear and harsh, vocals were like the rhythm strip on a heart rate monitor - you can see my scrawl in the photos above. I could probably have sat here all day, eyes closed to the world, reducing any motion to the music to simply my hands... however, a momentary pause to readjust my position on the bean bag revealed that I was staring down the barrel of a BBC camera and it was a little difficult to go back to my prior inward status.
Next came the 'Experience Zone', where I was afforded the opportunity to take part in a series of interactive workshops. The first came from The Owl and The Coconut - a community interest company run by Gemma Bowden and Karen Welsh -who create 'safe, preventative Mindful Art tools, events and resources' to support mental and emotional wellbeing. For the workshop, we were given a pebble and asked to hold it, consider it's weight, it's shape, it's texture. We were then asked to decorate our pebbles based on their shape and what they represented to us using a variety of pens, paint and craft materials. It was interesting to see a bit of ourselves reflected back in our piece, and to find yourself completely immersed in the task despite the initially distracting background conversations.
A short workshop with Vari McLuskie entitled 'Stop to Advance - Power Pauses for Peaceful Productivity' used a lovely analogy of glitter in a jar of water to demonstrate how mindfulness can stop the busyness of our thoughts racing through our brains and allow us them to 'settle' and gave food for thought with the idea of using a three breath technique to send well wishes to another person (particularly if you think the call / meeting with them might be difficult). David Pearl gave a rousing talk about Street Wisdom (you can read about my own experience here) and the ideas of synchronisity and giving your work away for free which I think deserve further discussion and I'm going to save for future posts.
The real star of the show for me was Mick Timpson from beanddo. Mick's workshop involved drawing exercises to 'open up your creative flow' and introduced the notion of using art as a form of yoga practice. Amongst drawing a series of sketches in circles, I had to draw a portrait of the person opposite me without looking at the page and a self portrait from tracing my face with my eyes closed - using both my dominant right hand and my novice left. Aside from Mick's infectiously optimistic facilitation and the chance to create, the thing that really left me thinking was that a microphone and headphones had been introduced for this session due to the 'Experience Zone's close proximity to the exhibitor's stalls and their accompanying brouhaha. There was something about wearing headphones that really allowed me to concentrate on what I was being asked to do and ignore the actions of my neighbours in a way that I would usually struggle with. During the pebble workshop my eyes wandered to see what everyone else was doing - what paints had they chosen, what colours were they combining. Here, I was able to completely focus on the task - it was like Mick was talking directly to me despite the crowd of other participants. This idea of isolation through headphones is something I will look to develop and incorporate into some of my own future workshops.
To finish the day, I went to a really interesting talk from the charismatic Ewen Sim, a policeman from my hometown of Bury who works as a mindfulness teacher (amongst other things) within Greater Manchester Police. Despite two minor distractions (the graphic on the screen behind him bore an uncanny resemblance to Larry David and I realised that I had, rather unmindfully, left my cardigan in a previous workshop) Ewen's talk about the difficulties of positioning mindfulness within the police force, the sense of it being something that's 'done' to you rather than something that people, at least initially, actively seek out, but also of the real need for it, the impact it was having for his colleagues, the emergence of people asking for help in that context really resonated with me as an OD practitioner within the NHS.
Overall, the Mindful Living Show offered a variety of creative, innovative opportunities to learn about mindfulness in both its professional and personal applications. The show will be in London on 1st and 2nd June 2018 and although the timetable has yet to be announced, there will hopefully be some similar opportunities for creative expression. I have discussed previously how my own mindful practice needs a task to accompany my body such as yoga or tending to my allotment, using art and creativity is an another way where I have felt able to allow meditation and mindfulness to manifest that fits perfectly with my own professional development plans. Watch this space...