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Can I Be Mindful at Work?

A friend asked me recently if it was really possible to be fully present and mindful in a busy, stressful workplace.  As someone who teaches Coping with Stress and Building Personal Resilience my answer was of course a resounding “yes.” Before blurting, “even if you work in a shipyard”.  This answer was the inspiration behind my new blog page Zen and The Art of Shipbuilding.

Dry docks on the River Clyde
Govan Graving Docks

Shipyards are not normally associated with presence and quiet inner peace I agree. However, at the time, I happened to be reading an article on Govan Graving Dock, a derelict 150 year old industrial site on the south bank of the River Clyde that has been in the news.  After years of decay and neglect, this abandoned monument to a lost way of life came back to me. You see, as a boy, this is where I started my working life and also where I grew up. So distant, like a fading sepia toned memory, I can scarcely believe I lived that life and its return was at once stirring, jolting and poignant.

As a Mental Health Nurse, Therapist and Trainer, reflecting on this place and experience, I now appreciate its importance.  In its traditional, heavy industrial environment, I absorbed lessons, such as the value of a commitment to a common purpose.  Less apparent were teachings in presence, patience and being mindful.

As I look back, I see their influence and significance and regard also how these same ideas connect with my every day work in helping people cope with stress and build personal resilience.

My life in the shipyard started at The Training Centre.  In this outer yard building of what was then Govan Shipbuilders, an unlikely band of pent up, frustrated, rebellious, anarchic, testosterone filled lads were corralled out of harm’s way.  In the training centre, we were streamed into trades.  Welders, caulker-burners, platers, joiners, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and engineers or fitters as they were sometimes known.  By way of selection, you spent a week at each trade for assessment. How a person is judged to be a natural caulker-burner I don’t know, but I was to be an engineer and so began my 4 year apprenticeship.

I spent a year in training before being allowed anywhere near so much as a rowing boat and although I didn’t know it at the time, it wasn’t long before I first encountered Zen and the Art of Shipbuilding.  A lesson in the appreciation of time, space and detail.

It was a subtle, discreet, silent lesson that I like to think was intentionally covert, and designed, from the outset, to lure feral street boys onto a path to enlightenment. As apprentice fitters, we were each allocated a bench about 3 feet by 3 feet mounted on top of a steel pedestal, the base of which was bolted to a concrete floor. 

Fixed to the bench was an engineer’s vice and for the next 12 months this was my workspace.  Every now and then I’d be given a drawing and tasked with crafting a shape or design from a piece of steel plate.  Using a hacksaw and a file I fashioned increasingly intricate objects. Triangles inserted into rectangles. Round holes filed square, into which I fitted hand-made pegs or keys. An insertion so exact you couldn’t see light through the joins. 

A dust coated instructor would take the finished piece and check every dimension using a micro-meter or vernier gauge and score it on accuracy and quality of the finish. 

My original certificate of appreticeship
My certificate of apprenticeship

Making these objects using hand tools took weeks of intricate filing and sawing and I did nothing else for a year. As time went by without realising it, I was gradually absorbed into a micro world where a 5000ths of an inch is a mountain and 5 seconds of filing  is an earthquake. 

In this world you learn patience, presence, focus and detail and if it takes weeks to make a light-tight fit between two bits of steel then that’s just as long as it takes.

Not that I was conscious of this learning.  The idea of being anchored in a moment in time was as remote, distant and unreachable as a Tibetan mountain top.   Now, “dropping anchor”, being present and doing what matters forms a central plank of the work and training that I do with people when we are looking at Stress, Building Personal Resilience and boosting performance. 

These ideas are universal, we can all connect to them because it taps into what it is to be human. They can be applied to any part of life, at home, at play and at work – even if work is a shipyard.

If you’re curious, and want to learn more, have a look at my courses on

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