Mindfulness is a relatively newer trend in the psychology and mental wellness fields, but it is quickly gaining popularity as an effective treatment for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. However, even those who do not have a mental illness can also achieve significant benefits from practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. Of course, the challenge for many individuals is understanding what mindfulness is and how to get started.
With this in mind, here is a compilation guide for beginners on understanding mindfulness and for those who are starting to practice it.
What Is Mindfulness?
The first thought many have when they hear the term ‘mindfulness’ is to ask what it is. Though there are countless explanations, at its core mindfulness is paying attention to what is currently happening exactly as it is. Mindfulness connects with the present in such a way that it allows individuals to discover habitual thought patterns, automatic behaviors, and similar, particularly if they did not realize these things were happening before. Mindfulness is, then, living in the present, rather than regretting the past or worrying about the future, as the vast majority of individuals do.
Why do most individuals live in the past or worry about the future? It all has to do with being on autopilot and believing life is black and white.
One of the major tenets of mindfulness is no longer operating on autopilot. Traditionally, individuals immediately go from the situation to their reaction. With any mindfulness practice, the idea is to insert mindfulness, or awareness, between the situation and the reaction. For many individuals, automatic thoughts and actions often mean unhealthy habits and negative frames of mind, as it seems the majority of people are pessimists and tend to believe the worst options before anything else. Mindfulness seeks to train the brain to avoid the automatic response, the autopilot, and create a place in which the individual can make an alternate and more conscious choice from a new perspective.
Whether it is deciding between two choices or even simply classifying a thought or feeling, many individuals believe one is the ‘right’ choice or thought to have, and the other is ‘wrong.’ Mindfulness takes the position there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thought, choice, and similar. Instead, particularly concerning treating depression and anxiety, mindfulness wants individuals to recognize their thoughts as thoughts without passing any judgment on the contents of the thought. The judgment is often what brings on feelings of anxiety or depression, as well as pressure.
So how would an individual go about starting to practice mindfulness? There are many ways, but the vast majority will recommend meditation to start.
Meditation is a key component of mindfulness, particularly formal meditation for someone new to the idea. Start by sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor or a chair, both with a straight back. Many find it helpful to take a deep breath and close their eyes as they begin. From there, simply breathe in and out slowly, keeping your attention completely on your breath. Notice how the air fills your lungs and exits the lungs. When distractions or distracting thoughts come, and they will, briefly acknowledge the thought and then turn your attention back to your breath. Most individuals find silently counting while they breathe quite helpful for maintaining their focus. In any case, do not feel guilty or like you have failed if you become distracted. It happens to everyone, and the point of mindfulness meditation is to acknowledge the distraction rather than ignore it and to refocus back on your breathing.
Can’t sit still that long, can’t get the mind to quiet down. You can meditate while doing anything. Have you ever driven your car and not realized how you got to your destination. You were in a trance or meditative state without even trying to get there. During this trace like state you were probably very calm and centered. Movement based meditation, like walking and trying to come back to focus on your breath. You can try tai chi, another movement based meditative exercise. The goal is to learn to clear away thoughts and emotions that are based on the past or future and come back to the present moment, like enjoying a walk and fresh air.
Mindfulness meditation becomes easier the more often you practice it. Beginners should try meditating for ten minutes a day for two weeks and observe from there what works for them, even if it is to merely continue practicing ten minutes a day. Also consider meditating at the same time each day, such as before bed, to maximize the beneficial effects of the practice.
Mindfulness meditation, as mentioned, is about focusing on your breath and bringing your attention back to it when it wanders. Broadly, this practice enhances an individual’s attention span and ability to focus, which can be applied to many different areas of life. For instance, it can help students study for longer or maintain focus during an exam. Mindfulness meditation and deep mindful breathing have also been shown to greatly reduce the body’s production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Many studies go into specific benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, increased immune system functionality, increased self-awareness, and lessened pain sensitivity
Of course, the overarching benefit of mindfulness is the ability to live in the present without worrying about the past or future, which can significantly alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and similar issues with mental health.
Mindful coaches perfect a form of conscious and comfortable simultaneous attention to themselves, their coache, the relationship between them, and the mental, emotional, and relational dynamics occurring in the moment. There are three aspects of mindfulness that have particular pertinence to leadership coaching:
1) an empty mind
3) permissive attention
An empty mind.
For the coach, mindfulness is characterized by an empty mind, a stilling of the persistent chatter and the cognitive ticker-tape of commentary. This is a challenge for most Westerners because of our devotion to activity and terror of being alone with ourselves. An empty mind is key to letting something happen in someone else. It is the essence of coaching. Like falling in love or falling asleep, it can’t be achieved through greater effort or more action. As coaches, a busy mind sabotages our efforts to let others express themselves. Think about your conversations with co-workers or with family. How often have you had the feeling that someone was not really hearing you, not really attending to you? You may have told someone about the challenge you were facing, only to find that they couldn’t keep themselves from telling you how you should think about it, or that it shouldn’t bother you so much, or how they have had similar experiences.
Alternatively, when someone hears us with an open, empty mind, we sense our own substance and value. No matter how ‘helpful’ someone wants to be, advice or correction always implies that we lack something. We have to persuade ourselves that someone cares when they give us the impression that they think we can’t figure it out for ourselves.
Meditation and quiet thoughtfulness help coaches sense that, as they work, they are operating in a vast mental and emotional space with clients. No reaction is required, no matter what the provocation. Instead, coaches are free to perceive the needs of their clients and respond – without escalating the emotional content or misinterpreting any intent. Still, fostering a non-judgmental attitude as a coach does not mean surrendering judgment. Mindfulness in fact leads to wiser judgment about what’s important and what is not. A coach who practices mindfulness doesn’t make things worse Non-reactivity on the part of the coach gives the person being coached room to roam from perspective to perspective, from one incomplete thought to another until they begin to become whole thoughts and the basis for growth.
Oddly, non-reactivity is often experienced quite positively by people who are being coached. I say, “oddly” because so much energy is expended in our culture in empty encouragement that does not actually encourage. Coachees often find that space to think and feel and explore while staying in relationship is invigorating. In addition, this dynamic makes true collaboration possible. The mindful coach creates an emotional space without land mines, where the coachee isn’t worried about being manipulated or controlled.
A mindful coach can draw a person into a moment of connection in which all distractions disappear. It doesn’t matter whether the distractions are in the room or in the street outside or in unbidden thoughts or feelings from within the coach. The ultimate challenge for most leaders is staying focused for more than a moment on any serious line of thinking, perceiving, judging or acting. The coach is repeatedly able to draw the attention of the coach to those things of importance to him and return the attention to it without coercion.
Modern brain research has shown that we move in and out of various states of focused or unfocused attention throughout our day. Coaching allows someone to stay on a line of thought until it yields new perspectives and answers. It proves especially powerful when these are questions that might have stymied us for a long time.