Even monks get distracted

by | Jun 19, 2023 | Leadership

A while back, I watched the film Walk with me about life at Plum Village, the monastery set up in France by the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

An integral part of the Plum Village routine is the sounding of a bell every 15 minutes, which can be heard everywhere in the monastery. The purpose of this is to invite residents to pause, notice where their attention is and return to the present, in particular to their body and breath.

Here and now

This practice is grounded in the teaching of the Buddha, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

In other words, if we allow our attention to drift to the past or future, we lose the capacity to be present, to be fully engaged with the only thing that we have right now : the present moment.

I love the fact that, even for those who have chosen a life dedicated to Buddhism, they still need reminders to come back to the present because their mind has wandered to what they’re having for dinner or a conversation they had with a friend earlier.

Living on autopilot

Of course, whilst monks practise mindfulness to a far greater extent than we will ever likely do, they are still human and subject to the legacy of our evolution. Habit experts estimate that 45% of our behaviour is habitual. In other words, nearly half of what we do is on autopilot.

The reason is that our brains evolved to automate repeated processes that freed up space for us to be open to other opportunities to thrive as a species.

Which means plenty of time for mind-wandering. Author and productivity expert Chris Bailey shares research that our mind wanders 47% of the time, whether ruminating about what’s happened in the past or thinking about future events.

The classic example is driving on the motorway. It’s only when a car brakes ahead that you come back to the present with a jolt and realise that you’ve been in another world for the last 5 miles of the road.

Why being present matters

There are so many costs to not being present. Here are just three :

  • Being in a conversation with someone and not hearing a word they’re saying, which at best means you may have to ask them to repeat what they said and at worst impacts connection and trust.
  • Getting carried away with things that aren’t the best use of your time – losing yourself in email, for example – which get in the way of you honouring what’s important in your life and work.
  • Becoming stressed and agitated without realising it which, as well as being energy-sapping, reduces your capacity to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure.

Your version of the bell

Whether it’s a new habit you want to put in place, or a desire to create greater connection with colleagues or family, there is value in considering your own version of the Plum Village bell.

One of my clients is experimenting with an Outlook reminder every hour to check in as to how he’s feeling – calm? stressed? hangry? The awareness allows him to make the choice to take action to shift his state whether focussing on his breathing, engaging in some movement or just having a snack.

Another client finds himself distracted from priorities by interesting rabbit holes. He has aircon in his study that turns off periodically and he uses the noise as a trigger to check where his attention is and whether he needs to refocus.

Many leaders I work with use the humble post-it note, sticking it somewhere obvious with key words like “Breathe” or “Posture” or “Feet on the ground”.

One thing is for certain, returning to the present moment requires a prompt. We can’t rely on remembering something, especially when it’s new.

I started with Thich Nhat Hahn and I will end with one of his many wise sayings, “If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.”


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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps new Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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