Wilderness Wisdom: A Leopard Teaches Mindfulness Leadership Class
Updated: Nov 8
Lutz Otto, March 2021
It was early. To be exact, in the beginning of the 3:00 to 4:00 night watch on one of our self-development wilderness safaris in the Greater Kruger National Park and Mark Joseph was attentively watching over the group sleeping, without tents, under a beautiful blanket of the southern stars.
Then it started. A rasping call slightly north of our camp and moving towards us. Turning on his torch, Mark purposefully shone into the dark night towards the distinctive sawing sound.
The call of a leopard, made whilst exhaling and inhaling, is made up of somewhere between 12 and 17 deep saws. It is repeated every few minutes, whilst patrolling in the early hours of the evening or morning.
It was coming closer. Hrrrrrrghhrrrrgg, Hrrrrrrghhrrrrgg, Hrrrrrrghhrrrrgg, ....
Fully Present To The Powerful Presence Of A Leopard
Mark, fully present, owning his space, calmly and vigilantly listened, whilst undertaking frequent light sweeps. He was deeply aware and respectful of the big cat’s powerful presence. Mark is an incredibly skilled mindfulness teacher and master of his craft, he deeply understands the importance, and consequential power, of regulating his own breath and attention.
A few of the group, participants on this “inner and outer adventure”, looked up from their sleeping mats. They could sense the night-watchmen’s calm, clear and accountable actions, and felt a sense of deep trust. Although very aware of the passing cat, they lay listening in awe and amazement before drifting back into slumber.
The leopard walked past our sleeping site and continued on south. Hrrrrrrghhrrrrgg, Hrrrrrrghhrrrrgg, ....
Feeling humbled and exhilarated, whilst still paying attention to his responsibility, Mark spent the remainder of his shift reflecting on what had unfolded, what he had learned and this incredible privilege. He then handed over to the next watch and too feel into a deep sleep.
It is difficult to capture the magic of a sleep out in true Big 5 wilderness. Imagine yourself sitting your night watch, on your own, listening to the night sounds and with the responsibility of watching over the group. Imagine the time to think and reflect. Imagine the combination of big star lit night skies. Imagine no infrastructure around you. Imagine the trust you build within yourself and the group. Imagine doing something few people have. Night watch can have a profoundly positive impact.
Mindfulness And Life Lessons
People often ask me how learning the “soft-skill” of mindfulness will help them in their day-to-day lives, when working through a difficult conversation, in challenging leadership situations or when faced with a corporate bully?
Mindfulness, as per Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, is defined as “awareness that arises by paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose and in the present moment”. Upfront, if you are expecting a swift-silver-bullet-solution, it will produce the same poor results of most of the "quick-fix-self-help" fads. However, if you practice it with discipline, self-accountability and over a length of time, it will not only rewire the neural pathways of your brain, it will change your life.
Let’s transport ourselves back to night-watch.
If you have spent time in the sacredness of true wilderness you will know the feeling of deep grounding and connection to something bigger that arises. Add to this BIG OPEN SPACE, the ENVELOPING DARKNESS of night and a passing LEOPARD, and we begin to feel emotions of calm or panic, trust or distrust, love or fear … we begin to encounter our rawest, most vulnerable and authentic selves.
If a leopard chooses to make us supper, it can. A leopard has neither vindictive traits nor an alternative agenda, it will make us supper not because of who we are or what we do, but because she/ he is hungry and a suitable meal on two legs happened to present itself. We have every reason to be careful or and deeply respect a leopard.
After Mark’s encounter with the leopard, and all else that we learn on our retreats, he re-entered his day-to-day-world re-energized and with an evolved perspective of how to live. His inner-strength and self-worth had sustainably deepened. When faced with uncomfortable conversations, challenging leadership situations or a corporate bully, he can draw on his memory of his leopard encounter, his life experience and mindfulness practices, to purposefully respond, versus reacting to that before him.
Keeping in mind what you have read in the above paragraphs, what if I were to tell you that when Mark came to practicing meditation some 30 years ago, he suffered from debilitating panic attacks, sometimes a couple a day. Fast forward to today, and Mark is a partner at Mindful Revolution, a company doing incredible healing work and growing people across the country. Mark, since those early days, has through focused effort, completely embedded mindfulness into his life and walks-the-talk.
Bringing It Full Circle
So here is the wrap. When our minds are shrouded with emotional drama, we disconnect from the present and stop being the best version of ourselves. Contextually the quote “he who dies before he dies, does not die when he dies” comes to mind. Mindfulness:
When practiced effectively offers us the ability to create a few seconds of SPACE before reacting. In these few seconds we can collect our thoughts and chose our response to whatever we might be facing or thinking.
Teaches us that our emotions are information, although we feel them, and sometimes painfully so, we can choose to move through them without their defining who we are or the direction we take. It allows us to objectively observe our emotions and choose to decide whether we will be hooked.
Affords us mental clarity. It engages with reality or realism, whilst allowing for a healthy sprinkling of optimism.
Allows us to manage a self-doubting inner-voice and helps grow self-worth that is not defined by the opinions of others.
Anyone who has worked through a psychological change process, knows that once the transformation has occurred, we never see the world with the same pair of eyes. In working through the above, mindfulness allows us, me, to start becoming truly effective and contributing human beings, that can change ourselves, and ultimately the world, one day at a time.
Our self-development retreats see our participants intentionally step out of their comfort zones, going beyond the shallow, and focusing on depth not breadth. We have fun without entertaining "forced-toxic-positivity", "quick-fix-self-help", dogma or unsupported philosophy. We aim to catalyze change that goes beyond the experience. We operate in the space of meaning and purpose, and it is an absolute privilege to share this with the brave humans on a journey of being-their-best-self.
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