Andy Spragg Can change your life (if you want)
I MET ANDY ON ONE OF HIS BUDHIST RETREATS IN THE WEST OF SCOTLAND. ONE WEEK LATER I WAS REINVENTING MY LIFE!
Just to clarify for this interview Andy, our readers at ICEONLINE are Corporate Event Professionals, a career that has been measured as the third most stressful job you can do. So any guidance on how to handle that stress is obviously pretty useful. I’ll ask you more about that later, but I think it would be interesting to talk, initially, about you and how you have arrived where you are today.
Q1 First off tell us a bit about your working life history.
My ‘traditional’ Career has been Information technology. Graduating with a degree in computer science back in 1989 I followed a classic route though. Software Developer, Analysis and design, Consultant, Project Manager and then Programme manager. My career finally took me through to heading up the Software development for the Travel group, TUI UK and Ireland.
However, a far more important sideline emerged early on. At the age of 21, I developed a tumor in the head of the left hip bone. This wasn’t malignant but it was spreading, with 7 tumors present in the bone. This was a very large shock to me. After recovering from a major operation to cut them all out, suffice to say I felt a little adrift. After a lot of reading I came to the twin practices of Tai Chi and Buddhism. Both helped me recover from the experience and set me off on a very different path. After 15 years of practice I became a teacher and set up a retreats business in addition to my day job. I ran this for 10 years and it is still running today. However, 2 years ago, my wife and I decided to turn our backs on our traditional careers. We have now set up the Sangha House, a Buddhist and mindfulness based business specializing in Holistic Health in Taunton. Here, I teach Tai Chi and buddhist practice (mainly meditation) and run the business.
Q2 What aspect of your previous work environment did you find most stressful and how did you handle it?
In my traditional career of IT, two key things come to mind. 1. The constant time pressure to deliver against deadlines. 2. The lack of honesty that is emerging in the business. As a practicing Buddhist, this one in particular gave me challenges.
Q3 Was there an apocryphal moment when you discovered the need to be more mindful in your work and life?
It rather happened the other way around for me. Mindfulness practice is adopted by many for the mental health benefits and for the change in perspective it gives you on life. For me, because the shock of discovering I had a tumor at that young age, scared and shocked me to such an extent, I started reaching out for spiritual meaning in life. I explored many spiritual approaches but it wasn’t until I discovered a second hand book on Buddhism that I knew I’d found what I was looking for. So for me, mindfulness came packaged with the spiritual practice. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be spiritual, but for me it was.
Q4 What was going through your mind whilst you were considering your big work/life change?
I think for this I should focus on stepping back from the traditional career and setting up the Sangha House 2 years ago. Here we not only gave up the day job but we also moved to a completely different county. There was a fair amount of fear involved. We didn’t know for a fact that the Sangha House would work. It did feel like jumping in to an abyss. We both had to just trust ourselves and our chosen new path and go for it.
Q5 How did you go about creating your life change plan and how did you go about doing it?
The vision for the Sangha House came about 5 years ago, when we were deciding which way to go. We always knew that the Sangha House couldn’t be just about us. It had to be about a whole team of practitioners all delivering on top of a mindfulness based approach. What we did next was to write a story. So we didn’t write a traditional ‘powerpoint business plan’. We literally wrote a story. Called “A good day in the Sangha House”. When you write a story you also bring in the emotional side. Both the first person and also the imagined customers of the Sangha House and how they were feeling. This worked wonderfully. We really felt we had a clear direction on what we were looking to achieve both for ourselves and for our business and its customers. I would recommend everyone, setting up a new business, to do this.
Q6 So now onto how your experiences and your expertise can help our ICEONLINE readers. Is it possible to adopt a sort of Dummies’ Guide to mindfulness and wellbeing or is it more complicated than that?
Certainly a simple introduction can be done. I have to do this all the time. Every week, I sit down with new beginners and have to explain how mindfulness works and why it works. It’s the ’why’ that is most important. In this modern science based world of ours people, understandably, want to understand why they are doing something. So a beginners guide literally goes through the why, what, the how, the when and the what for of mindfulness practice.
Q7 Imagine you work in the events team in a big corporate. You have multiple events all over the world, you have numerous in-house clients (business units), you are juggling a lot of stuff both within your organisation and with external partners...it’s 9am you’ve just walked through the door of your workplace! How do you stay calm and focused?
First, just before you walk through the door, become aware of your breath coming and going in your body and be aware of your feet on the floor. You honestly do not know what is going to hit you once you get through that door, but what you do know is that you must respond appropriately and with skillful emotion. The breath, with practice, becomes a great ally. It allows us to take notice of how we are responding, to stay calm and to not let the powerful emotions that get stirred up in stressful situations take control. When we get in touch with our breath before we walk through that door we are already monitoring ourselves. We are already noticing. Now we can pass through the door and at least pay attention to how the mayhem around us can affect us and avoid getting drawn in to it inappropriately with anger, frustration or fear.
Q8 Tell us a bit about your re-vitalise and Sangha House initiatives.
Re-Vitalise has been running for 12 years. We run retreats. These are weekend or week long residential retreats. During the retreat you study Mindfulness through the practice of Tai Chi, Yoga and meditation. A retreat is deeply immersive. We run the retreats in locations which allow the customer to step away from their busy lives and just concentrate on these practices.
The Sangha House is our mindfulness based health and well-being centre in Taunton. 35 practitioners on board covering Tai Chi, meditation, Buddhist teaching, Yoga, Pilates, physical training, Qi Gong, Massage, Reflexology, Reiki, Acupuncture, hypnotherapy and counselling. We truly believe that for health and happiness, we must all pay equal attention to the physical, mental, social and the spiritual sides and balance them. We have 140 members of the house now and we teach these disciplines to them and encourage them to bring mindfulness into their lives.
Q9 Do you have a single piece of guidance you can share with us on mindfulness and wellbeing at work and in life?
Yes. Thinking can be overrated.
The more I practice mindfulness the more I understand how much importance we place on our thoughts. We think they provide the direction in our lives, we think they control us. But when we practice mindfulness we discover that this largely isn’t true. Actually, life rather happens to us. As humans, we constantly construct views of how the world should behave, around us. How we believe people should behave and how they should treat us. How the systems of the world should work for us and support us. But the world doesn’t generally work like this. The world carries on in its own sweet way despite what we may think. If you pause for a moment and take a look at the world, you will see an incredibly complex picture. The people in it are all infinitely different. The systems and processes running in the world both natural and manmade are vastly complex. There is no way they are all working to support me. When I learn to just accept this, contentment arises. I no longer strive continuously to push the world back in its box. I look out on it with contented compassion. The thoughts are still there, but I just let them come and go and watch the world with interest.