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Mindfulness & The Process of Change

written byDr Janet Baldwin Andersonon 05/09/2015

This is an article from the ICF Coaching World , August 2013. It was written by Dr. Janet Baldwin Anderson, ACC, who's details can be found at the end. A huge thank-you to both Janet and the ICF for this amazing piece of work! 

A couple of years ago, I learned a powerful lesson in mindfulness from a horse. Major, a large, chestnut-brown animal, was my “teacher” during part of a weeklong Leadership Coaching retreat in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. The task was to walk around the ring of the barn, focus on where you wanted to go and see if your horse “followed” you. I began to walk slowly around the large, oval-shaped ring, looking at the ground along the path just ahead, trying to focus only on where I wanted to “lead.” As I rounded the bend, I could see out of the corner of my eye that Major was, in fact, following me. I was thrilled! But, the very moment I felt that emotion, I also became aware of the impulse to turn around and look at Major.

As soon as these thoughts and feelings arose in my mind, Major wheeled around and walked away. My heart sank as I saw the utter indifference this great beast displayed toward me. But then I resettled myself, refocused my attention on the path ahead, and continued to walk. Once again, Major moved in behind me and followed along.  

Herd animals are known to be highly sensitive to even subtle shifts in the energetic rhythms and emotional patterns of other animals. Thus, they are excellent teachers of mind-body congruence in human beings. Major’s reactions to me in the barn illuminated externally what can be seen internally through the lens of mindfulness: the subtle changes in thoughts, feelings, and behavior that often are outside conscious awareness. Increasing our awareness of these subtle changes enlarges our field of vision, expands the possibility for action and thereby helps foster desirable change in ourselves and in our clients.  

Practicing Mindfulness

Defining mindfulness is, to borrow a famous Zen saying, like “a finger pointing at the moon.” If you focus only on the finger, you will miss the moon. And if you focus on the definition, you might get tangled up in the concepts and miss the experience of the present moment: The moon is beautiful! The concepts described here are just that—concepts. You will not “become” mindful by simply reading about mindfulness. Nevertheless, the following definition, from mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, is helpful as we consider the role of mindfulness in the process of change: “Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, non- judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as openheartedly as possible. ... For mindfulness is none other than the capacity we all already have to know what is actually happening as it is happening.” This awareness extends to the mind itself: Being aware of the mind’s tendencies and habits strengthens our ability to choose how to respond in the moment. This ability to choose is what makes change possible.  

As with any skill, developing mindfulness requires sustained practice as we pay repeated attention to bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and—eventually—habits of the mind. Becoming conscious of the mental habits that shape our behavior is the first step to changing, replacing or maintaining them so that they serve us well.   How can mindfulness be cultivated? Many kinds of activities require awareness of the present moment and can strengthen mindfulness if entered into with openheartedness, curiosity, and non-judgment. Meditation and contemplative prayer, appreciating nature, yoga, tai chi, dance, sports, photography, and the arts are just a few examples of mind-body practices that can build mindfulness. As Kabat-Zinn has pointed out, the simple exercise of meditating on the breath teaches us some important truths—the mind is at the mercy of whatever crosses its field of vision, hearing, smelling, thought. This truth is not bad or wrong but it can be humbling to try to focus on one thing—like the breath—for five minutes. The more we practice mindfulness, the greater our capacity for awareness and sustained attention.

Moving Toward Change

At its most basic level, coaching is about facilitating positive change for the client. There are many coaching-related theories about the process of change, including stages of readiness to change, inner experience of adult transitions, steps for motivating client change and processes for developing insight into why some change efforts fail. What these theories have in common is an underlying purpose—to expand the client’s awareness of previously unseen aspects of her experience. When we’re aware of something, we can observe, reflect on and act upon it. However, if an aspect of our experience is outside our awareness, we cannot see it and therefore cannot change it. This is why expanding awareness—bringing more of one’s experience into consciousness—is an inherent part of any process of authentic change.  

Recent evidence from the brain sciences indicates that the mind and the brain are intimately interrelated. It is now known that the brain can change itself in response to experience throughout life—a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Mindfulness encourages behavioral change by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity to create new neural connections and pathways, laying the groundwork for new habits that lead to changes in behavior. Moreover, recent insights from the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology describe the mind as an embodied and interpersonal process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Thus, how we focus our attention matters, as it directly shapes not only our own minds and brains but also the minds and brains of others.  

Mindful awareness helps us cut through our habitual behavior—the automatic-pilot experience of everyday life—to open up mental space for choice and presence in action. Many coaching moves are designed to do just that—slow down the action and create space for choice. For example, a coach might gently interrupt a client’s narrative to inquire, “Where do you feel that in your body right now?” The question, if timed well, evokes immediacy and creates awareness. Journaling can cultivate self-reflection. Asking the client to keep a log of a specific behavior (“Just notice it,” we might say) creates space and time to observe the behavior and choose whether to do it or not. Such activities interrupt the automatic quality of habitual response, creating possibilities for change.  

Mindfulness benefits our clients by increasing awareness of not only their conscious behavior, such as setting a goal and taking steps to achieve it, but also less-conscious behaviors, such as subtle shifts in emotions, impulses, and intentions. This kind of awareness is invaluable for a leader whose presence and behavior are scrutinized and interpreted by colleagues, subordinates, and supervisors. It also is beneficial to anyone seeking to harness the deep wisdom of the body and live life from a place of integrity of body, mind, and heart. We often are unaware when we are having a thought. We just propel ourselves into action, on impulse. With mindfulness, we begin to notice the feeling of the impulse that precedes the action. This noticing, the fruit of mindfulness practice, creates the space for choice and the opportunity for change.  

To learn more about mindfulness and its proven techniques, check out our course page – The Art and Science of Mindfulness.

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