Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True. I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the Sounds True Foundation. The goal of the Sounds True Foundation is to provide access and eliminate financial barriers to transformational education and resources, such as teachings and trainings on mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion. If you’d like to learn more and join with us in our efforts, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is George Mumford. George is a globally recognized speaker, teacher, and coach since 1989. He’s been honing his gentle, but groundbreaking mindfulness techniques with people from locker rooms to boardrooms.
A former basketball player at the University of Massachusetts. Injuries forced George out of basketball, and eventually into an addiction to pain medication and drugs. With the help of meditation and the practice of mindfulness, George got clean, and he made it his mission to teach and work with others. He’s the author of the book The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance.
With Sounds True, George Mumford is the commencement speaker for the second cohort of the Inner MBA, a nine-month online learning program that helps you develop the inner skills and capacities you need for better outer performance at work. The third cohort of the Inner MBA begins in September, and you can learn more at InnerMBAProgram.com.
Now, my conversation with George Mumford, where he talks about the essentials of what is pure performance, and how we can see clearly and love greatly right where we are. Here’s my conversation with George Mumford.
I’m excited, George, for this chance to get to know you a bit and for our listeners to get to know you. Right here at the beginning, can you share with us a bit about your background, your early background, your early life? Here’s the key—how did you discover mindfulness?
George Mumford: Yes. My early life, I don’t know, because I’m an old—what they call an OG. I’ve been around for a minute. I don’t know how far back I need to go. I know I used to engage in sports up into college and then I got hurt. My career ended and I got addicted to pain meds, then generally to drugs and alcohol. Just fast forwarding to 1984, I was what they call a functional substance abuser. I was still working and everything.
Then I got into recovery, 1984. Then, when I got clean, I discovered I had chronic pain and migraine headaches, and I had to learn how to deal with that. The HMO that I was in, one of the few that were around in 1984. I got into a stress management program that was being taught by Joan Borysenko, which was an extension of Herbert Benson’s Mind Body Clinic at Beth, Israel.
That’s when I got introduced to mindfulness and a whole lifestyle change in terms of me taking more responsibility for my healthcare and understanding the connection between the mind and the body, and how we could really control involuntary systems in the nervous system, indirectly by how we directed attention and how we develop the mind and heart.
TS: I remember that word, “onliest.” I’m curious what that experience was like for you.
GM: Yes. Well, my parents are from Alabama. That’s been my experience from the eighth grade on, that I went from predominantly people of color or a black neighborhood and school system to one where there were only a few of us. There were very few people of color.
From the eighth grade throughout my career, it’s been that way. On some level, yes, just being the only person, I just noticed I was the only person. But because of that warrior spirit I have, and because my sense was, “Well, I don’t have a problem with that, too. I have no problem.” Even though I was the onliest, but there were just not many people that looked like me around.
Instead of being isolating, I just noticed that and because I was relating on a soul level or on a spirit level, it didn’t deter me, because I was determined to be engaged in this practice. Actually, if you really think about it, the Buddha looks more like me than he looks like other folks. What’s that?
But I didn’t get into that. I just related to people on that spirit level. I had the courage, I had the faith to just push through, but it was challenging. I know for students I work with now, that is really challenging to be on a retreat and see so few people that look like themselves.
TS: It’s interesting to me you identified this warrior spirit inside of you. Tell me more about that.
GM: Yes. I’ve always been an athlete and being the type A personality. I understand now. That was the first thing that I understood in that stress management class, that I was a type A, but not with hostility, but with kindness, with love. I don’t want to say that that’s how I competed. I competed like a warrior, that force energy, that energy that said, “No. That I’m going to meet this situation with force, with effort. I’m not going to withdraw effort or fade into the background. I’m going to step up.”
That energy got me to a certain place, but then at some point, even in my experience, it got to a place where it took away—it just didn’t work. But it worked for a certain period of time. It took me decades to figure out that I didn’t need to have that warrior energy I could use. I discovered this phrase: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”
Slow motion gets you there quicker, or the best way to get there is to be in a moment, and just to be with the flow, be like water, and you get there quicker. That means I can be warrior spirit in intention. But in actual process, I had to be more yielding, more open, and flexible.
TS: There’s a lot I want to talk to you about, George, about this phrase that you use: “pure performance,” and “athletic performance, business performance.” But before we get there, I want to share with our listeners that during the pandemic, you recorded a series of videos that you called “At Home with George.”
You started each one of these videos in a way that I found to be such a powerful teaching. I want to bring it forward right here at the beginning of our conversation. I’m going to hear it in your words, because it’s almost become like a slogan or something from George Mumford. Go ahead.
GM: Yes. The idea is to embrace whatever comes up and say “yes” to it. By embracing it, and then generating the hope. It’s another way of saying yes to life. I remember listening to Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, and he talked about the Zen master that he talked to. Basically, the Zen master said, “We have to say yes to life. We have to just say yes.”
I know there’s a book by Viktor Frankl’s—I don’t know if it’s his estate or whatever. It’s called Yes to Life, and that’s it. I talk about it. It’s important that we embrace that, yes, this is what’s happening. What is happening is happening because the conditions, right for what is happening to be happening. We can deny it or we can embrace it, and then work with it.
Because once we embrace it, then we can do something about it. I refer to it as the four A’s. There’s the awareness of it; and that’s the mindfulness, uncritical mirror mind or the river, or the mountain lake just reflecting the snowy mountains with nothing in between, just the awareness. Then once we can be aware of it and see it clearly, it’s about clear seeing and knowing, but seeing it.
Then the second thing is the acceptance of it. Because the nervous system is not personal. If it’s pleasant, we approach. If it’s unpleasant, we have aversion or avoid it. If it’s neither, we’re not interested, we space out. Now, I’m going to distinguish the indifference from the equanimity where we’re not moving forward or away. We’re just holding our center.
But there’s a presence there, and there’s an interest there—versus indifference, when there’s nothing that we’re interested in, then we kind of space out. That’s what it comes down to, is realizing that we had to be able to be the eye of the hurricane I talked about and just accept what’s happening.
Once we accept it, we can do something about it. I’ll give you an example. Once I accepted that I had a substance abuse issue or problem then I could deal with it. But as long as I’m in denial about it, which is part of the unease or dis-ease is being in denial, or blaming others, instead of just saying, “OK. I accept that this is what’s happening. I don’t like it. But I’m going to embrace it. By embracing it, now I can have a compassionate action.”
That’s the third A, is action, compassionate action. Then the fourth A is the assessment. What we call post-performance, or reflective phase is after we reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, how did we get what didn’t work to work. It’s the awareness, the acceptance, the compassionate action, it’s always about compassion. It’s all always about not just doing it with that warrior spirit where I’m pushing through, but moving through with that compassion, with that sensitivity, and not getting imbalanced because I’m trying too hard; but to have the right effort, where it’s the balance—continuous effort or energy that leads to that persistence, that ability to have at least a little enthusiasm to get over the lethargy or low energy, and then to get to the point where we’re persistent. When we are persistent, and we continue, slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
When you continue even if it’s at a small modicum of little incremental thing, then you develop a flow or momentum, or rhythm, and then it becomes fast. That’s how I interpret that saying “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Now, John Wooden, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, used to talk to his play about “Be quick, but don’t be in a hurry.”
TS: Every time at the beginning of these “At Home with George” videos, when you would say, “Whatever’s going on, whatever is happening for you right now, we’re embracing it.” You’d begin with that. We’re going to hold the possibility of embracing right now what’s happening.
GM: Yes. Right.
TS: Right there, at that point, there would be a comma in the sentence. I noticed I would have a big exhale. I’d be like, “Oh, thank goodness. Thank goodness, we can embrace whatever’s happening. Thank goodness, George. God bless you. Thank you. I feel your heart. I feel your love. I feel the embrace.”
Then you’d go on and you would say, “At the same time, we can generate hope for what we want to create.” I noticed that that moment, I had a question inside. The question was like, “Can I? Can I generate hope? I don’t know. Is George going to help me generate hope? I’m embracing what’s happening.” But how do I generate hope?
GM: Yes. This is interesting, took my first foray into cross-steps and whatnot—or let me just quote Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein said that—besides saying “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge”—he said that “one question we have to answer is whether or not we believe the universe is friendly or unfriendly.” I can go into it. But let me just cut to the chase.
If it’s friendly and there’s a lawfulness to it, then we will use our resources to align ourselves with how things work. We align ourselves to the fact that you don’t have to believe in gravity, but gravity exists. Once you embrace gravity, then you can use it to your advantage. That’s where that came from.
It’s the proverbial glass—is it half empty, half full? Oh, full, right. But if you observe it from half empty, then you’re starting off in fight, flight, freeze survival mode, rather than seeing it as half full, which is love, which is growth mode, which is moving forward. Which is that “Oh, the universe, there’s a lawfulness to it. If I align myself with the law, I’m going to be having an amazing experience.”
That’s the thing. Generating hope is how do you think, feel, and behave in ways where you feel like the glass is half full.
TS: Mm-hmm. How do you do that?
GM: How do I do that? Prayer, meditation. But the main thing is the teachings of the Buddha, and science, even neuroscience is understanding how things work. Understanding how my mind works. When I talked about generating hope, that’s really right effort. Right effort is to cultivate wholesome mind states, wholesome thoughts, wholesome feelings and behaviors.
If I realized that, yes, I say yes to life, and I embrace it, once again, is the interpretation that something happens from interpreting it as an opportunity to learn something or opportunity to know myself better. That’s one of the most amazing journeys we can be on is to get to know ourselves better. I don’t mean like the ego stuff. I mean, the spiritual self, whether we call it the Buddha nature, the Christ consciousness, or the divine spark, or I call it the masterpiece.
We start off from basic goodness with the masterpiece. The real question is, can you access it? You can access it. How do you access it? Through how you think, how you feel, how you behave. But really it’s about prayer, meditation, and service. That’s how we access it. We access it. That was a big part of 12-step recovery. For me, is the best way to stay clean is to help somebody else stay clean.
I call it “forget yourself to find yourself.” You help somebody else to get out of yourself, help somebody else. You’re also helping yourself, because we get beyond this illusion of separateness. Now, in the Buddhist texts, they talk about denying self. I prefer seeing it as the illusion of separateness, that we’re all connected.
You can see it during times of crisis like 9/11 and in the bombing, the Boston Marathon bombing, where you had people running towards the explosion instead of away from it. Every once in a while, we get beyond that illusion of separateness. We feel like, “Oh, I have to do something.” There’s a movement of the heart.
GM: That’s why the compassion is really important. If it’s self-compassion, as well as compassion for others or love and kindness—I mean, when we talk about love and kindness and joy and compassion, practice, as well as equanimity, those divine abode, those mindsets. They said that the antidote to greed and hatred, and jealousy, if you’ve will, and there’s nothing being in joy, where we can handle depression and anxiety, it goes down, happiness is the antidote to those things.
TS: OK. Now, I’m going to ask some questions here, George, to tease a few things out, because this quote from Albert Einstein, which I’ve heard before this decision we make, is the universe a friendly place or not? I have a friend who says, “How could I say? I don’t know enough to say. I’m neutral on that question. Damn you and your do-gooder inside. You’re going to go into this friendly thing? I’m just going to stay neutral on it because I don’t know.” What do you think about that?
GM: Well, what did the Buddha say? The Buddha said, “Don’t believe me. See if it’s true.” This is one of the awakening factors: investigation. The idea is not to take my word for it but see if it’s true. We’re talking about verified faith. You can have faith and then you can have insight and your friend sounds like he has more insight than faith.
It makes us a little cynical. With the five superpowers I talk about, we have to generate more trust, more faith to balance that. Then we would verify it. I’m not asking you to do it. Just see if it’s true. I can tell you from my experience, that what I’m teaching is when I’m being and what I’ve experienced.
TS: How have you verified that the universe is a friendly place, George?
GM: Because when I started focusing on what I held in mind, and noticing that if I had a right view, if I see things as the proverbial glass, or this is from the universe, and this is what was happening, and this is what 12-step programs do—is they let you develop your own concept of higher power or how the universe works. That’s the foundation. You have to have a spiritual foundation.
In a Buddhist context, you take refuge the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. What does that mean? That means you take refuge in the fact that you have Buddha nature. You are wired for success. Only you can do it. It’s an inside job, but you have to do it; you have to figure it out. These teachings are a way of aligning yourself with things which gives you an amazing experience of being fully alive and living more fully and more creatively.
That’s been my experience. Then there’s a Sangha, or there’s a community of like-minded folks you can talk to. We call teachers, good friends—or you and I have been good friends. We’re not talking about how to tear somebody apart, or how to criticize. We’re talking about how to do this thing called life in a way that we can live more fully and more creatively. That’s what you’re about, just my opinion. That’s why you have me on here.
The suitable conversation we’re talking about, we’re talking about how we can embrace everything and at the same time generate the hope. You generate the hope by thinking about things in ways that allows you to feel that there’s opportunities here, that these difficulties, these obstacles are just steppingstones. That’s an interpretation. You can interpret it any way.
This is the whole positive psychology thing of interpretive styles. You can interpret things in a way that empowers us, that allows us to say, “Oh, there’s a lesson here. This is going to be great. Let’s move with it.” That’s what I’m saying. You generate that by your attitude. If it’s that positive, this is scientifically, Barbara Fredrickson calls it the broaden-and-build theory.
When we’re at positive, our cognitive functioning, our ability to see and think and feel is enhanced. We’re not tunnel visioned. We actually open up. By the panoramic view, the solution is there, rather than being stuck on one channel, or just looking at the same thing. We have to understand that this is what right view is all about. Right view is seeing things rightly. Seeing things, instead of greed, hate, and delusion, we’re looking at generosity.
I don’t like the word “sacrifice.” I rather prefer to call it generosity, lovingkindness, or love, compassion, and then wisdom, understanding, seeking to understand, and the insights. There’s a lawfulness. If we understand how things work, then we can align with that. Then we can achieve, or we can have a life that’s more full and more creative because we understand the rules.
TS: I noticed, George, when you talk about this notion of each of us having a masterpiece, using that word, a “masterpiece” inside, everything in me lights up. I just love it. I’m just like, “Write down the word ‘masterpiece.’ This is such an important idea.” How did you come up with using that word to talk about our inner nature?
GM: I just took my warrior energy, or that type A, just going after it. I used to chase drugs and alcohol. I just took it to chase the spirit. I was using John Barleycorn instead of the real spirit. When I was thinking about reflecting on it, and then I remember this idea that Michelangelo was asked how he created these masterpieces out of these chunks of marble. He said, “All I do is chip away to get to the masterpiece that’s already there.” It reminds me, I actually had the privilege of meeting and spending time with Matthew Fox, and he wrote a book called Original Blessing. He was a Dominican priest. I feel that that’s it. We were born with Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, a divine spark, you can call it whatever you want.
But it’s a masterpiece within this whole, perfect and complete. We just have to figure out how to access it and how to align ourselves with it, how to be it, how to claim it. I don’t say “Own it.” But just be it. How do we access it? The caterpillar goes into a chrysalis, and it has to struggle to get out of that chrysalis. But it’s the struggle that gives it the strength to fly.
I had all of these metaphors. The one that stuck was a masterpiece, that once you come from that, once you understand that, then you realize we’re wired for success. We just have to understand how we work. We have to know ourselves. We have to know how the mind and body is connected. That’s what my experience was.
I thought the mind and body were separate. Then I realized that they were connected, that the way through sometimes being still is through movement. Sometimes we get to movement through stillness. My teacher, Paulsen Mark, used to talk about this movement and stillness and stillness and movement. That’s the idea of understanding that the mind and body are connected. There are different ways to access it.
Depending on our conditioning, depending on our tendencies, we have to work out for ourselves. We have to work out for ourselves. How do we need to do it? How do we need to access that masterpiece? But I have some ideas. I have some teachings. I think the Buddhist teaching, there’s a lot of teachings out there. I study Hasidic teachings.
All of those wisdom cultures talk about it in some form, or fashion, but it really does come down to be still and know.
TS: Tell me, when you were just referencing teachings that are personally very relevant to you, about accessing this masterpiece that’s already there, but is being uncovered. What are those teachings that are so personally meaningful to you?
GM: Yes. I grew up Southern Baptist. Obviously, some of the … I stopped going to Sunday school at 14. But Sunday school didn’t leave me. I think about the Christ consciousness. There’s stuff there that I can refer to. But then there’s the Buddhist teachings. Then there’s just the wisdom literature. It doesn’t matter what it is. But I was very drawn to Martin Buber.
The study of existentialism, that was one of the main things when I went to graduate school. That was the first time I really got a sense for why I felt the way that I felt. I started to have this concept of understanding how I needed to do that. It’s really more about what touches my heart. What touches my heart is folks that are focusing on (I can do both) the light and moving into the light or talking about freedom, talking about how it’s as simple as—excuse my expression, but when I was in college, Parliament or Funkadelic, Parliament became Funkadelic; they had a song; they said, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”
TS: I like it. I like it.
GM: There’s all of these references to this idea of the inner journey, the inside-out. I call it the inner game. That how important it was to get a direct experience of it. But there’s an intuition that knows. It’s like, how many times have we had this still, small voice to say, “No. Don’t go there.” And we go there. Then we say, “I should have listened to myself.”
We can cultivate that. We can understand that. But you got to be still. And we have to figure out how to dwell in that silence, how to get with ourselves, be with ourselves so we’re not in the world, we’re out there. We’re letting the environment dictate who we are or what we want to do versus us realizing that we have a unique individual self. That’s what we have to allow to express itself, not what somebody else thinks.
It’s an inside job. We have to feel our way through. We have to get a sense for that masterpiece. That idea of masterpiece and that idea how do you connect with it by being in the moment and being honest. Integrity is really important, this idea of being honest. That’s the biggest thing is the self-honesty. That’s where the confidence, that’s where our courage, that’s where our confidence comes from when we know how things work.
We know that we have this amazing ability that we can access. If we figure out how to relate in lives in ways where we can embrace whatever comes up and generate the hope, because they’re lessons. They’re steppingstones for our development. They’re also opportunities for our latent abilities to express themselves.
If I look at my substance abuse as a waste of time, and “I was awful, and I’m still awful,” that’s looking at the glass is half empty. Instead of looking at it half full. I had to go through that to get to where I am. My latent abilities, my real self was able to express itself because of those obstacles and challenges.
TS: First of all, George, I’ve been hosting this Insights at the Edge podcast for more than a decade. One of my favorite moments that will go down is when you said, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” That’s just one of my favorite moments. I think that’s because I like to dance. I know what you’re saying is true.
What I’m curious about is, here you work so much with athletes, with people who move, and you’re trying to help them understand this principle in terms of athletic performance. You’ve worked with some of the top athletes in the world, top basketball players in the world. How have you helped top athletes free their mind so their game will follow, their top performance will follow?
GM: Yes. It’s interesting. [It’s] not notoriety because it’s not necessarily negative, but my fame came from working with athletes, but that’s a small percentage of the people I work with. I’ve taught a lot in meditation centers and normal people, people that are not athletes. Most of my work has been with females; a lot of people don’t understand female athletes and female executives and just females in general. They’re the ones that would buy the books back 20, 30 years ago. Those are the ones that came to my workshops and my retreats. I’d say 90 percent, 80 percent of them were female.
When I talk with athletes, they know what being in the zone or being in flow is like. When I talk about how this makes them flow-ready, it’s also how to do things in ways where you’re not using too much effort, or you’re not too self-absorbed, that you actually perform better when you forget yourself, when there’s no self-consciousness, when you’re just in the activity. You’re focused on what you’re doing, not on how you’re doing. [I’m] able to talk to them about how to access—number one, get to know what their strengths and what their weaknesses are. Encourage them to leverage their strengths, and to figure out how to live in a way where you’re not driven by fear or essential desire.
But yes, there is a desire. There’s a need to succeed. But at the same time, how you approach that is very different, where it’s a lot about letting go or allowing things to happen instead of trying to make things happen. Does that make sense? It’s the same.
TS: It makes sense. At the same time, it’s like, “OK, I’m going to forget myself. Here I am, and me, and myself, and I’m trying to forget myself.” How do I get out of that double thing happening, the weakness and the person I’m trying to forget, and all of that?
GM: Yes. The first thing we have to understand is we have this amazing ability to observe ourselves, to step back and observe ourselves. That’s the first thing, is self-awareness, or the ability to set self aside just with education. We’re talking about set self aside and observe things. That’s how we learn. We have to be able to see ourselves.
But here’s the interesting thing. I believe William James said this, but it was attributed to somebody else: “You are not what you think you are; but what you think, you are.”
TS: I think I got it. I think.
GM: You will have the idea of who they are. But if they do uncritical observation of their reactions in life, or how they’re behaving, they will realize there’s a hidden self that they’re not capped into. They have an idea about who they are, but that’s not who they are. I’m fond of quoting the philosopher—but there’s two of them because they did it together—Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog. The line is “I have my mind on money, money on my mind.” That’s meditation. The whole key is what is your mind on? What are you holding in mind? Because as human beings, we manifest that. There’s a book called The Strangest Secret. You know what the strangest secret is? (By Earl Nightingale.) We become what we think about.
Well, just think about that for a minute. We become what we think about. If we’re thinking on the down low unconsciously, and we have an image of who we are, that’s what’s determining what we’d select it do and what we decide we can’t do. This self-image is like a self-image we create inside. It’s like a virtual map that we’re relating to. We have to change that map. We have to be able to change it.
That’s why you see people who have the phantom limb syndrome. What’s that about? Well, because even though the arm is gone, the virtual map hasn’t been changed. They actually have pain there. Think about ways somebody tells us, “We’re not smiling enough. We’re not tall enough. We don’t look right.” Then we have that virtual map. We have that image of who we are.
Any image or anything we do that conflicts with that we’re going to go back to the image we created. We have to understand how we can think, feel and behave. For me, to become clean, I had to behave my way into proper thinking. I forgot myself by not doing what I would normally do, and just do what I know do and then that my thinking catch up with me. You understand what I’m saying? Because who I think I am is not who I am.
TS: You led with the behavior change. But let’s try to make this specific to an athletic performance challenge. Somebody comes to you, and they have some—let’s take an example. I know our engineer likes golf. I’m going to bring a golf example forward. I’m not saying that our engineer has a problem where he slices the ball instead of getting a nice arc to it. I don’t really know.
But let’s just pretend that there’s this ongoing slicing problem. This is mapped in this fear. “I’m going to get up there. I’m going to—”
GM: Yes. Yes.
TS: How do you help people make the shift?
GM: Yes. Let’s go to the extreme one, that point. I’ve worked with softball pitchers, a female softball pitcher. She had the yips. The yips is, say she goes a throw to first base and the ball goes ten feet.
GM: The more you tried to change it, the worse it gets. Pitchers, the same thing. The way that I get them out of that is to get them to just focus on [doing something] instead of trying not to do something; because when you say, “Don’t throw the ball ten feet,” you’re going to throw the ball ten feet.
The best way to change it is to rewire yourself. This change, rewire your neural net by just focusing on the basic fundamentals and just focus on the fundamentals of throwing. Planting your feet and using the basic fundamentals of throwing a ball. When it comes to golf, if you slice the ball, the more you try not to slice it, the more you slice it.
But if you just focus on the basic essentials, the fundamentals of golf, and that’s what you focus on, then it’s helpful if you visualize yourself; because the nervous system, the brain, doesn’t know the difference between what we experience and what we think and imagine. If I say to you, “This is an old-fashioned blackboard, and I take my hand and I do this,” you can feel as if it’s there.
If you are focusing on failing, then you’re creating a neural net, and you’re programming yourself to fail. But if you can understand how to reprogram yourself, and you mentally see yourself doing it, and then you go out and physically do it, then you just get back to basic fundamentals and stop trying to do anything other than just focus on just making a nice play, just doing the proper technique. And you get many repetitions of that.
That’s how you’re able to get out of that slicing thing. I play golf and I used to hit ball in the water the more I tried not to hit it in the water—and I work with professional golfers. I know that it’s the mind, body, heart, and soul. There’s a whole person, but you have to start seeing yourself in new in different ways and start thinking about yourself, instead of focusing on your failures or what you can’t do.
You never focus on what you want to do, who you want to be, and then do the process that gets you there, to get into the basic fundamentals. It’s always about basic fundamentals and just mastering the fundamentals. Then you can make the correction and it’s a lot easier. But when you put pressure on yourself, “I got to stop doing what I’m doing,” you continue to do that. The more you try not to, the more you do it. But if you can just let it go and just start to rebuild or reset your whole physical, your whole movement, your skill set, and the mindset that goes with the skill set, the attitude, the emotions that go with it, then you can change it.
TS: Is part of your coaching with people to have them visualize the success that they want, to see the stroke and see the ball coming, is that part of what you teach people?
GM: Well, that’s part. To me, people always want a formula. It’s not a formula. The formula is to be with what’s there and meet them where they are and where they are. Then the mindfulness and the wisdom will determine what’s the next step. Yes. I asked people, what do they want and then who do they need to be, to do what they want to do?
It’s different for different people. For some people, it’s just getting back to the fundamentals and just remembering that you can have fun. The whole thing is to be yourself and to have fun. You have to acknowledge who you are, acknowledge your tendencies, or the things that resonate with you and play to that.
But you got to know what you do well, what you don’t do well, because you can know what your weaknesses are. You can spend your time trying to get your weaknesses to a mediocre state, or you can focus on your strengths, and have them get to an elite level. Especially if you’re on a team, you have teammates that will fill in, do what you don’t do so well so that you just have to focus on what you do well. That’s helpful.
It just really depends on the situation and the person. But it always comes down to them knowing themselves so they can be themselves, so they can express themselves, so they can share themselves. It’s an inside job about how you are managing the present moment so that you can see things clearly. You want to love greatly, but you want to see things clearly. Then, seeing things clearly, the potential, the appropriate action will be obvious.
Does that make sense? It’s really simple. I like to say, “Good actions need good images, great actions need great images.” Yes. We do talk. The unconscious images and feelings, emotions, they’re very important. We can see it. We can hit it. We can visualize it. Because the whole role of thinking, if you think about it, that’s an interesting way of thinking about thinking.
But if you think about it—what is the purpose of thinking? Thinking helps us to develop scenarios on how things will turn out or how things might turn out. You get to the point where I help teach them with the inner dialogue and a body language to really get clear about what’s happening and to be able to change the language so that it’s consistent or in alignment with what they say they want to do.
For me, if I’m going to work with a client, and when I work with a client, it’s not like, “OK. I’m just working with them when I’m with them for an hour or whatever it is.” I’m thinking about it and then reflecting on it, and I’m playing out scenarios on how certain things would work if I’m going to give a presentation. I’m playing out scenarios on how it’s going to work.
Whereas before, most of my time was focused on what mistakes not to make, what am I trying to avoid? I don’t want to repeat bad stuff. You started training yourself to understand that when you transform your mind so that your mind is just seeing what’s there and is an ability to be creative and to be excited about it and understand how you’re going to do things, you have an image of how you need to do it.
You might give me a game plan. But then I have to understand how do I take those instructions you give me and express them in my own way, and do it in a way that makes sense for my conditioning and my tendencies, and my abilities really, my strengths?
TS: George, in your own experience, has there been some mental patterning that you’ve really needed to shift, wanted to shift in your life? How did that go for you?
GM: Yes. There are multiple. But I think the first thing started when I learned about meditation. My first meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg—and I was living at the Insight Meditation, Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. I lived there for six years. In those days we used to have a one-hour meeting.
I remember I was in recovery. I used to say, “I’m alcoholic and a drug addict,” or whatever. This is what good teachers do, a good friend—whatever you’re attached to, they take it away from you. He told me to stop seeing myself as an addict and alcoholic and to see myself as a person. I started to change and started to look at myself different ways.
I will say, “I’m in recovery,” or “I’m doing this or that.” But I really started thinking about myself being a spiritual being having a human experience or whatever, or I have a masterpiece inside. When I started seeing myself as this masterpiece, this unfolding, this becoming, and this learning—and we learn through mistakes—I realized that I can learn anything I want to learn and I just have to be able to be alone and learn from my mistakes and just see if I can have a direct experience of any of these teachings that I teach, or that I feel it’s important, like the idea, I get to create my reality, I become what I think about. If I have my mind on a certain thing, then that’s what’s going to happen.
I have to understand, “Well, what am I thinking? How am I thinking? How am I feeling? How am I behaving?” If I want to be a champion or if I want to be an elite performer, then I have to think, feel, and behave like a champion. I have to become it before I can be it. That makes any sense?
TS: Yes. You go to this “think, feel, and behave.” It’s very powerful, all three of those dimensions. Now, one thing I wanted to ask you, George. You mentioned that actually working with athletes is a part of what you do, but that you work with different kinds of people at different populations.
I know that you work a lot with business professionals, and you’re actually going to be the commencement speaker at Sounds True’s upcoming Inner MBA graduation ceremony coming up for our second cohort. Our third cohort starts in September. Here you are helping our second cohort humans graduate.
How would you say the lessons around pure performance in athletics apply or don’t apply in the business arena?
GM: Yes. I’ve got this idea of pure performance. What people don’t probably realize is that I study a lot. Maybe they do realize that. I study a lot. I’ve been averaging over a book a week for the last coming up on 38 years, and as well as reading other things.
When the Buddha talks about the foundations of mindfulness, he calls it the path of purification of beings. Pure performance is performance, just not that where you’re just behaving, you’re acting out of coming from that generosity, compassion, understanding. But it’s pure in the sense that it’s not filtered by self-reference, or associative thinking, active thinking.
It’s pure, because there’s nothing in between you and the experience and you want to purify the mind and heart. You can see clearly and love greatly, if I just use those two things. The path of pure performance is about this performing for no reason just to be fully engaged in a moment, and fully deploy, and able to express yourself, honestly. That’s really what it comes down to.
You’re not doing it in order for this or that. You’re doing it because in and of the thing itself is the moment and being fully engaged in a moment, fully deployed in a moment, and fully self-expressive in a moment; that’s the most important thing—not the thing that we’re doing. That’s why, whether you’re an athlete, or a businessperson—now we’re talking about getting beyond the illusion of separateness.
Can I relate to other people as whole beings, not a body, but someone with a body, mind, heart, and soul or spirit? If I leave out any one of those aspects, then I’m relating to that person as a thing, including myself. As a business leader, it’s how do I bring value, everything can be for the greatest good. Sometimes the greatest good is just sharing profits with what the work is just giving it to some of the stakeholders and then not having fair exchange.
It’s this idea of fairness, this idea of getting beyond you losing the separateness. I’m not being pollyannish, because I worked as a financial analyst for 16 years. I worked in a corporate structure. I worked at the medical center, where I was elite, where I was a program director, and I had people that reported to me. It’s this idea of learning how to lead but more a radical inclusion, just seeing the whole person, and just understanding how things work.
What is meaningful work? If you think about “How do I get people to join me and feel like this is their company or their organization instead of the organization and they make me do things and I’m going to do things, but I’m going to hope it doesn’t work,” rather than me being fully engaged and fully deployed, because I know that one is all of us; we’re all in this together.
We’re working for each other and we’re supporting each other. We start off with the fully integrated self. And then the fully integrated whatever the organization is. Everything begins with the self. No matter who you are, you have a self. If you can be your real self and if you can relate to others as if you wanted to be related to the golden rules, the things we learned in kindergarten.
Then we can have a fantastic learning, growing, evolving competitive environment where we’re competing, but we’re competing, out of compassion, out of focusing on a greatest good. That makes sense?
GM: It’s really important. The question is what do you want and who you need to be, but do what you want. It has to have something to do with seeing things clearly, loving fully, or loving greatly. Also means just being, just think about self and other, or thinking about the community, thinking about something bigger.
But it’s a balance I talked about in sports, because they’re in teams. You got to develop the “me,” but the “we” has to take precedent. How do you have that dynamic tension between the “me” and the “we”? You’ve got to take care of both. The only way you can do that is if you’re willing to be vulnerable and create a trusting environment where you’re able to resolve conflict.
When you resolve conflict, you have more commitment. If you have more commitment, then you hold each other accountable. If you hold each other accountable, now you have a group or team rather than a group of individuals or a team of individuals. It all comes back to trust. Once again, that trust is really important.
Because without the ability to be vulnerable, and then be willing to take risks, commit to each other in a way where you’re interested in the whole person, not just what the person can give you. I know this sounds pollyannish, but this is what Phil Jackson has been able to do with his teams.
I work with organizations and there are organizations out there that are committed to the whole person, committed to not just their company but all of the stakeholders, the people in there, and the environment that they’re working in.
TS: Let me ask you a specifically a question that I think applies in the business arena, at least in my experience. It’s kind of like the athlete that has this nemesis that keeps coming at them. What if someone just is an entrepreneur or a business leader, and the truth is they have a certain amount of fear, financial fear, fear that they’re not going to have the financial success that will translate for their staff and the well-being of everyone?
They can’t talk themselves out of it or something, because it’s just real. It’s what’s there. How would you coach them successfully with that?
GM: Yes. Well, it’s the mindset, not the thing. If they’re in survival mode, they see it as half empty, you can’t be in survival mode and growth mode at the same time. You got to get them out of survival mode. They understand that the fear is false evidence appearing real. If you’re afraid of something, it’s good to have healthy fear. But we have to distinguish between healthy fear—fear that’s there—and imagined fear.
But the main thing is the glasses you have: if I have fear glasses, I could say and do everything, but it’s going to be perceived in the same way; you’re in survival mode. You can’t be in survival mode and growth mode. I have to get them out of fear, and into a mode of not fear. Yes. You can be afraid of something, but then that’s what courage is for. You got to do it and see if it’s true.
But if you are doing the four A’s, and you’re aware, you’re embracing it, and generating hope, and seeking to understand, then once you understand that, then everything changes. It’s OK to have that fear. You need to move beyond it and get in growth mode. This is right effort. You have to abandon fear. It’s not helpful. You have to see the fear.
Instead of having the broaden-and-build theory, you have tunnel vision and you’re locked in, and you feel trapped, and you’re not going to be able to see that the solution is right in front of you, because you’re choked off of life and your vision. You can’t see clearly. Fear is one of those mindsets that prevents us from seeing clearly and from being fully present.
Does that make sense? That’s the thing. It depends. We can get into the object of fear—but it’s always the mindset. If we do it in mindset, the mind changes, everything else changes.
TS: All right. There’s one last—what do I call it? Mumfordism?—That I heard in your “At Home with George” that I just loved that I want you to introduce to our listeners. You said, “No struggle, no swag.” I was like, “That’s so cool, George.” Go ahead. Talk about how you came up with that. “No struggle, no swag.”
GM: Yes. I forget. Where are you physically?
TS: I’m in Boulder, Colorado.
GM: Oh, you’re in Colorado. You’re in amazing place. I have a friend that I been working with for probably 20 years or so. She’s a volleyball coach. She’s coaching at—she probably doesn’t mind, because I put her on social media—Cal State University. She has a volleyball team. I was working with the volleyball team.
I’m working with the young ladies. They’re like, “OK. We’ll do it, George. But this is too hard. We don’t want to struggle. We want the soft, the easier way.” I found myself saying, “Listen, no struggle, no swag.” They loved it. They put it up on their banner on their locker room. That was it. It’s a real deal. It comes back to the chrysalis, where the story of this young man, young boy saw a chrysalis. He saw that little being digging his way out.
He decided to help it and he took some scissors, and he created the opening. When the being got out, it was ill-formed, it was fat, and it fell. What’s the lesson there? The lesson is you have to struggle. The struggle is where you get the strength to fly. If you’re not struggling, you’re not out of your comfort zone, you’re not growing. But it’s the struggle that gets us there.
Because when we struggle it gets you, and if you embrace it, once again, embracing it and say, “This is going to get me there. This is a steppingstone, not a roadblock.” Then all things are possible. Then you get access to this latent ability. You go through it. I got swag. How did I get swag? I struggled.
It’s through the struggle that I built the strength, and so I got swag. I’m walking. I got swag. I earned that. No one can give it to you. You have to earn that. You earn it by overcoming obstacles and difficulties by realizing, as Erich Fromm said, anytime we change any behavior, whether it’s the time we brush our teeth or whatever, we immobilize anxieties. The idea is, yes, they’re there. But if you move through the anxiety, you will have strength, you will have swag.
TS: I’ve been speaking with George Mumford. He’s the author of the book The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance. He brings his insights on pure performance into many different arenas, including Sounds True’s Inner MBA program. He’s the commencement speaker for our second cohort. This is a nine-month online program, where you learn the inner skills that help connect you to greater outer success and expansion.
Our third cohort begins in September of this year. You can learn more at InnerMBAProgram.com. I just want to thank you, George, for being with us here on Insights at the Edge. You have given us all more swag. Thank you.
GM: Yes. I appreciate that. Your questions were amazing. Thank you.
TS: Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at Resources.Soundstrue.com/Podcast. That’s Resources.Soundstrue.com/Podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. If you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.