From IBM to the OMC. A story of partnership, teaching, redundancy and new beginnings

From IBM to the OMC. A story of partnership, teaching, redundancy and new beginnings

Steve Ware writes about how redundancy offered a new beginning with the OMC and Mindfulness. Having been made redundant after many years with IBM, Steve chose to focus on the positives and how this ending was also a new beginning.

Before I finally got around to trying mindfulness eight or so years ago, I was very unsure about the whole thing. Meditation, me? Isn’t that something for new age people, for navel gazers? It’s strange looking back because in conversation I would regularly nod and agree vociferously that without a mind that has even some semblance of stillness, of downtime, of peace it would probably be a life barely worth living. I’d concur with the sentiment that you only really have your mind, that it is the basis of everything you experience, that it is ‘you’ in each moment, and that understanding it more deeply (not as a matter of theory but experientially) might possibly be the most important thing you could ever do. Yet I was doing nothing.

I was looking after my physical health, but my ‘unexamined life’ as Socrates put it became needlessly painful. Despite having everything I needed, the contentment, joy peace and freedom that I felt fairly consistently as a child seemed to be slipping through my fingers more and more, and was often exclusively reserved for big events like a visit to my favorite beach or a major celebration. In essence, I felt like I had a mind that would rarely settle, let alone ever switch off and leave me alone. This impacted my sleep, my mood, my life. I wanted to get back to the ‘old me’, the question was how?

Browsing through a bookstore in the town centre, I started looking at books on meditation. I soon found myself at home reading Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s “Mindfulness : a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World”.

Little did I know this was to be the start of something that would change my entire life.

As I read the book on a sun lounger in the garden, I remember suddenly stopping, resting the book in my lap, looking around me and with the hairs on the back of my neck standing up thinking “not only is this describing me and my unruly mind, it’s claiming that there’s a scientifically proven way that I can do something about it… and find more peace, feel more at ease, less wired, less anxious”. I still had this notion that mental growth stopped in adulthood. Neuroplasticity? What’s that? I knew that we could learn new things, naturally, but still thought that our brains themselves couldn’t fundamentally change. I was of course, completely wrong, and I can’t think of many other things I’ve been more happy to be wrong about.

And so began my mindfulness journey. Slowly to begin with, just a ten minute guided meditation for ten days. Then there was some reflection, was this doing anything? Was it worth my time? There were no bolts of lightening in those first ten days nor were there any great insights or revelations, but there was a little more peace. I had started sleeping a little better and when I looked back on it the everyday stresses had started to bother me just a fraction less. This piqued my interest. Whilst still not convinced, I started to wonder if there might actually be something to this.

It wasn’t until I had meditated every day for another couple of years and read and listened to a whole host of other great mindfulness teachers that I felt compelled (and brave enough) to start sharing this with my colleagues at IBM who’d expressed an interest. Despite not shouting this stuff from the rooftops, people had noticed a change in me and I was regularly being asked to talk about what mindfulness is and how it might be helpful for others too. They wanted a bit of the peace I was re-discovering.

In parallel I started to research the best places in the UK to train to teach mindfulness. Quite quickly I’d narrowed my selection down to a list of one, the University of Oxford’s Mindfulness Centre.

Recognised globally as a centre of competence for its teaching of various mindfulness programmes, I made it my intention to immerse myself in what they had to offer and to learn from some of the very best teachers in the world. It would also fulfil a lifelong dream of being able to tell people the deliberately vague white lie that I had indeed ‘studied at the University of Oxford’.

Along with a few colleagues, I was already regularly holding Monday morning mindfulness sessions at work, a 15min Webex that anyone could join (anonymously if they liked). These sessions were very popular and involved a short meditation practice to start your week. Alongside this, my presentations on mindfulness continued – at different department meetings initially, then onto main stage events and European growth days for IBM’s various business units. Every presentation went down well, and I sensed more and more that people didn’t just want this, they were ready for it.

In 2017 I created, organised and hosted IBM’s first ever ‘Mindfulness@IBM’ global summit. With no advertising other than word of mouth, this online event attracted an audience of hundreds of people a day from over 30 countries. I interviewed IBM executives as well as mindfulness authors, teachers and leaders from around the world. It was a great success, forging a stronger bond between the community as well as reaching a wider audience of interested colleagues. In 2018 when I hosted our second global summit attendees increased to over 1,000 people a day from over 40 countries. IBM now had a thriving mindfulness community that had been built from the bottom up, and there were many great things happening. Yet I still felt there was one major thing missing.

It wasn’t just me that felt that. After presentations people would ask ‘That was really interesting…. but what next? Where do I go from here?’. Of course I could recommend books, apps, and other forms of self-study. I could recommend regular practice groups or drop-in sessions.

But what I really wanted to say to them was ‘Oh I’m so glad you asked. We have this fantastic mindfulness course from the University of Oxford. It’s been taught in our Houses of Parliament, to students at the University and throughout workplaces in the UK and beyond.

It’s deeply rooted in science but beautifully secular and mainstream, we offer it to IBMers, would you like to know more?’. So offering this became my mission, I emailed Sharon Hadley, CEO at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

Within a few months, IBM and the OMC had partnered to deliver the Finding Peace in a Frantic World curriculum as well as introductory mindfulness courses for young people (https://www.oxfordmindfulness.org/news/the-university-of-oxford-mindfulness-centre-partners-with-ibm), and in May 2020 I invited a group of interested colleagues to enroll in IBM’s first ever Finding Peace in a Frantic World course. Piloting this in the midst of a global pandemic and unprecedented global stress was not what I had planned, but maybe a backdrop of COVID-19 would provide us with a wonderful opportunity?

The results of 8 weeks of mindfulness training were nothing short of incredible, the feedback was heartfelt and profound. Examples included:

  • “I would have to say this is the best course I’ve done in my 10 years at IBM.”
  • “I am happier and healthier, physically and mentally.”
  • “I’m sleeping so much better.”
  • “I had been off work sick for a number of months but felt able to return early as a direct result of this course”
  • “I cannot overstate the positive impact you and your teachings have made to my approach to life. Thank you so much.”
  • “This course had a life changing impact for me and my family.”

Enjoying teaching a very smiley bunch of IBMers!

It’s funny what life throws at you. In the 6th week of teaching the course to my first intake I received the shock news that along with half of my team and manager I was being made redundant in September of this year.

Shortly after hearing the news a colleague asked me what my mindfulness practice meant to me at a time like this. “Everything” was my simple reply.

I sat in meditation with strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger and frustration. However I also felt a deep sense of excitement. A part of me felt that this might just be the opportunity of a lifetime, the shove I needed to focus exclusively on not just what I really wanted to do, but had been training to do for years – teach mindfulness in the workplace.

Sharon and I were in regular contact and when she learned of my redundancy she asked if I would like to join her team as a Mindfulness in the Workplace advisor. Flattered and excited in equal measure I told her that there’d be nothing I’d like more. The exciting new adventure had begun!

Being part of such a warm, welcoming team at the OMC has been wonderful. My passion for helping people to suffer less, enjoy their lives more and ‘find more peace in a frantic world’ feels well placed here. As I collaborate more with an organisation full of like-minded people my hope is that together we can broaden the reach of the people I help.

Steve Ware is a Workplace Advisor and teacher for the OMC

If you would like to talk to Steve or the OMC about Mindfulness in your workplace and how you can collaborate with the OMC please email us as admin@oxfordmindfulness.org