Research Paper By Joni Holub
(Life Coach, USA)
My favorite way to begin a Life Coaching session is with a short, guided grounding meditation. The technique brings both my client and me into a relaxed but alert space, free of the baggage of the day and focused on the task ahead. This is not however the only way to use meditation or mindfulness techniques in the coaching session. These techniques can also be used as tools to, for instance, diffuse strong emotions during a session in order to move into action, or reframe a limiting perspective.
Meditation and Mindfulness techniques have increasingly been making their way into the mainstream society. Many studies have been done on the favorable effects of mindfulness techniques on health, both physical and emotional, and life coaches would do well to listen. A major impetus for bringing mindfulness techniques into mainstream therapies was the development of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) by John Kabat-Zinn. Techniques like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have surfaced combining cognitive therapies with mindfulness techniques, achieving new levels of success with clients.
I wrote this paper with the intention of further expanding upon knowledge gained in previous classes on mindfulness techniques and how they might combine with life coaching sessions. My goal is to open a holistic, blended life coaching practice which encompasses the various alternative healing methods that I have studied, including the practice of mindfulness. My intention is to offer my clients various mindfulness techniques that will help them to foster a sense of peaceful centeredness and insight, and also, the basic mechanics behind the practices. In order to do this, I feel that I will also need to continue to foster mindfulness within myself in order to practice loving kindness, compassion and non-reactivity towards my clients.
Courses on mindfulness techniques that I have studied have focused on the benefits of the techniques as they apply to me personally and, the importance of them for future clients as well. In this paper, I expanded upon my previous experience of a personal Vipassana meditation practice, and knowledge of its potential and applications for both me and my clients, to include the benefits of mindfulness practices on the client/coach relationship as well. Included in this course of study was the exploration of how mindfulness can interrelate with neuropsychology to promote a healthier state of mind.
What sparked my interest in putting together this paper were some pieces of research that I had come across which focused specifically on mindfulness as it applies to the client/therapist relationship and, I believe that it is equally as relevant in the client/coach relationship as well. There is increasing interest in this topic in the research community. Although, as Roshi Joan Halifax has pointed out, much more large scale research still needs to be done, the results so far definitely support the validity of the effectiveness of mindfulness on the therapeutic process. I have included a few of the examples that I found intriguing:
- Research done by Bruce, Manber, Shapiro & Constantino (2010) on the importance of mindfulness practice for psychotherapists, show that clients are not the only ones who can benefit from the practice of mindfulness. “We propose that a psychotherapist’s ability to be mindful, positively impacts his or her ability to relate to patients. Mindfulness is a means of self-attunement that increases one’s ability to attune to others and that this interpersonal attunement ultimately helps patients achieve greater self-attunement that, in turn, fosters decreased symptom severity, greater well-being, and better interpersonal relationships. We posit that mindfulness may be a method for developing and optimizing clinically beneficial relational qualities in a psychotherapist such as empathy, openness, acceptance, and compassion (p. 83)”
- The topic of empathy/compassion is of significance within the community that is promoting mindfulness in therapeutic relationships. I cover this topic later on in this paper as it was a focus in all of the resources that I used for this class. In a study on mindfulness based stress reduction intervention done by Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner (1998) with medical and premedical students, they showed that empathy increased significantly in the group learning the techniques as compared to the control group. Further, graduate students in a four week Zen meditation program were found to exhibit increased empathy when viewing patients on video.
- In another study done in Germany, Grepmair, Mitterlehner, Loew, Bachler, Rother, & Nickel, (2001), found that the patients of psychotherapists who took part in a meditation instruction as opposed to the control group that did not, “…showed significantly greater symptom reduction, reported greater satisfaction, and rated their therapies as more helpful”.
Armed with these bits of information, I vowed to learn more about this application of mindfulness as well as the importance of both teaching the techniques to client and, practicing for the self.
The materials I used for this paper were “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom” a book by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, a three C.D. set, “Meditations to Change Your Brain” also by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius which contained lectures, exercises and guided meditations along with various noted research papers. I also used the materials and notes for a three day “Faces Conference” in Santa Fe, New Mexico which was entitled “The Arts of Mindfulness & Counseling”. The speakers at the conference were: Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Sharon Salzburg, John Briere, Ph.D, Karen Wegela, Ph.D., Larry Camarata, Ph.D., and Roshi Joan Halifax. I was struck by the variety of the different types of people at this workshop. Coming to get their CEU’s for the year, there were people in this group who had never experienced any form of meditation or mindfulness practices, alongside of seasoned meditators and all of those in between. I reveled in the knowledge that there were people there who were experiencing a “crack in the door” that could potentially lead to a new perception of the limits of their field. The side by side discussion of neuropsychology and compassionate/loving-kindness was thrilling as it demonstrates that “mainstream” and “alternative” are beginning to meld and speak the same language.
As I am working through the process of incorporating all of the knowledge and insight that I have gained from these materials, I find it necessary to also include my personal experiences and the wisdom gained from them. My desire to be of service in the field of coaching comes from my involvement in a long journey that includes an alternative healing practice in Massage/Polarity Therapy and Bach Flower Remedies. The majority of my clients (probably 85 – 90 percent) had physical pain and discomfort due to emotionally based issues. I found myself needing to “be with” people going through major life changes and, growth around their “life issues”. Even though they were accessing such issues on my table, and finding great comfort and healing in my office, I had to refer them to licensed professionals to process the information that was surfacing for them. At that point, I truly wished that I had the additional skills needed to help them process what was unfolding on my massage table.
My practice would come to a halt however, as over a period of years I experienced a number of major traumas of my own and could no longer properly facilitate the healing process of others. I needed instead to turn inward to my own needs for healing. Although at the time this was devastating to me, what I have learned from the process is the importance of the age old lesson of “experience is the best teacher”. While going through periods of intense grief and despair, and not wanting to consider allopathic medications, I turned to the practice of meditation, yoga and various herbs and supplements, as well as the guidance of a professional counselor. What I personally discovered was a cycle of inner evolution as I gained insights, emotional refuge and forward movement through my mindfulness practices that I then brought to the therapy session to evaluate and process, and then, returned to the mindfulness practice for additional refuge, insights and forward movement!
I was able to prevent the onset of major states of depression and/or anxiety by engaging in Vipassana meditation practice. While I believe that it is true that we need others to help us in our process, I also believe that we must “go within” and access our own healing. In my experience, healing must be approached holistically. The body/mind/soul must be healed together in loving consciousness. This paper allows me to bring the self-knowledge that I have acquired, into the realm of evidence based information from experts in the field, therefore grounding my practice in scientific research. Although I have since moved beyond my massage/polarity therapy practice and into my new chosen profession of life coaching, this information and practice is just as relevant and important.
Overwhelmingly, the most talked about topic that I have encountered is the topic of “compassion, empathy, and loving kindness”, both for self as coach, and for the client. Traditional therapeutic models have taught that it is necessary, so as not to produce countertransference (emotional entanglement with client), to remain emotionally distant from one’s client. This, however, creates a barrier to both compassion and empathy.
John Briere asked the question “Think about a time in your life when you were the happiest”. He went on to say that it probably had nothing to do with where you were or what you had, it was probably when you were in some sort of connected relationship. Connectedness is our way of truly relating to one another. Sharon Salzburg put it this way, “Cultivation of loving-kindness means our lives are intertwined. What happens there happens here”. Compassion is the ability to recognize the suffering in someone else without putting pity or blame on them. In order to effectively exhibit compassion for another, one must foster compassion for the self.
Within the various meditation lineages, there are techniques specifically targeting the fostering of compassionate loving-kindness. I had experience with this subject in the beginning of the semester while doing one of Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius’ guided meditations. The exercise was to think of a difficult situation in your life, and to spend time “overlaying” it with a positive thought and feeling in order to transform your pain around the subject. I just could not achieve it. I could not get past my self-judgment and self-criticism to begin to heal my emotions, in other words, I could not find any self-compassion. The next guided meditation however, started with the identification of a positive, loving, caring association. The instructions were to fully absorb and saturate yourself with this feeling. I sat with this for a few minutes, basking in the love, warmth and caring that it evoked. After truly allowing myself to totally resonate with this experience, I went on to the next step, which was to then bring up a difficult association and overlay it with this feeling. This I was able to do. I allowed the positive, loving feelings that I had been “being with” to wash over and infuse the old, painful memory. What a fabulous tool this is for helping clients to reframe perspectives and limiting belief systems! Not only was I able to feel a softening of my past experience, I was then able to send metta (loving-kindness) and compassion to the perpetrator of my former bad experience. This then unfolded into being able to send metta and compassion to others whom I had perceived as harming me. This is very powerful healing. I am not claiming to have overcome all of those issues in that one sitting, but it was an amazing beginning to my process. Not only is this important on an individual level, but being able to develop this presence of loving-kindness and compassion is necessary in order to develop a connected relationship with clients.
I have had experiences with health professionals who have “kept their professional distance” from me and I ended up feeling uncared for and unimportant. To me the seeds of healing must contain the feeling that one is honored and of value. A cold, detached demeanor shows no concern for another person’s situation or state of being. Compassionate, loving-kindness however brings us into relationship with our therapist/client and the beginnings of healing are in place. Compassion needs to be extended to all who are suffering, even if we can’t agree with what someone has done or is doing. Showing compassion doesn’t mean that we condone bad behavior, just that we show loving-kindness towards someone who is suffering. John Briere shared the potential effects of a counselor’s decreased mindfulness on their clients:
- Reduced communication of safety and acceptance to client
- “Bad”, “demanding”, or “unlikeable” clients may not receive the care or treatment that they deserve
- Risk of vicarious traumatization
He goes on to state that formal contemplation and skill development, specifically in the arena of developing mindfulness skills and cultivating Metta/Loving-kindness can help with these issues.
There is a potential pit fall to having compassion for those who suffer. This is an important piece for the coach. According to Roshi Joan Halifax, “The therapist (or coach) must be grounded in order to not be swept away”. Roshi Joan goes on to identify possible issues that can inflict suffering on therapists not grounded and protected from constant exposure to other’s suffering. They can experience: “…burnout, secondary trauma dysfunction, moral distress (knowing what is right and not being able to act on it), horizontal/vertical hostility (behavior that controls, devalues, disrespects, and diminishes another), and structural violence (discrimination and prejudism)”. She further states that to avoid perpetuating the cycle of suffering, therapists (or coaches) should consider the grounding, centering, and compassion producing effects of meditation and mindfulness practice.
Meditation is a process whereby one attempts to focus ones attention on just one thing, for instance the breath or a mantra, in order to still the mind and be “in the moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). “In contemporary Western psychology, mindfulness is often defined as the awareness that arises through intentionally attending to one’s moment-to-moment experience in a nonjudgmental and accepting way (Shapiro, Oman, Thoresen & Flinders, 2008, p. 842).” With practice one learns to observe the thoughts and sensations that surface during meditation instead of reacting to them. Again, with practice, this skill can be applied to all of our thoughts throughout the day, leading to a more consciously intentional and less reactive life.
Sharon Salzburg states that there are three habituated states that cause suffering: grasping (to ‘things’ or a feeling of security), aversion (to our emotions), and delusion (fundamental ignorance of what will make us happy). She concludes that mindfulness is the anecdote. One of the very important aspects of meditation is the eventual ability to be able to see when we are about to react to a stimuli and make a conscious decision on how we will respond to it. Both Rick Hanson and John Briere spoke of what they call “second arrows” (Sharon Salzburg calls them “add-ons”). These are reactions to a thought or situation in which we overlay it with a past emotion or scenario. For instance, if we make a mistake (which in itself might not cause suffering), we then go into “self- talk” about how stupid, or inadequate we are. By doing this we actually create our own suffering in the process by creating a “story” about who we perceive ourselves to be and what the reality of the situation is at that time (limiting belief system). Because we are dealing with the “second arrows” that we are inflicting upon the event, our perception is actually delusion.
With the practice of meditation we can interrupt these reactions and hence, prevent the suffering before it happens. This is of great importance as; with this practice we can stop our negative reactivity in life and, instead, become more balanced and calm in our dealings with others. This concept is often referred to in the statement “Pain in inevitable, suffering is optional”. We will always, as humans, be subject to pain, physical and emotional; it is our reaction to our pain that can cause or prevent our suffering.
There are various techniques of meditation including, but not limited to Zen, Vipassana (Insight meditation), Transcendental meditation and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Meditation (MBSR). Meditation can be practiced sitting or also in moving meditations such as walking, yoga or tai chi. I practice mainly Vipassana meditation; however, I have also been doing the exercises and guided meditations in Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius’s book “Buddha’s Brain” and on their C.D. set “Meditations to Change Your Brain”. These are based on basic Vipassana practice, but expanded upon in the guided meditations to include practice relevant to new knowledge gained in the area of Neuropsychology.
The concept behind these guided meditations is that we can “change our mind, to change our brain, to change our mind”. Electrical and chemical impulses carrying information fire across the synapses between neurons in our brains creating large networks or “super highways” of information. The information creates connections between situations, feelings and thoughts. The more we think a thought, or feel a feeling, the more neurons fire together making more and more connections between that event and the feelings and thoughts around it. So, let’s go back to the previous situation where we make a mistake, let’s say at work, and maybe an unconscious boss yells at us, or tells us that we are incompetent, the two things, event and response, get stored together in our brain. Next time we make a mistake, the thought that “I am incompetent or stupid” surfaces (remember those “second arrows”?). Then, as we confirm that thought and emotion from it, we cause more neurons to wire together “programming” the brain to believe that we are stupid, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In the process, we are changing the brain with our minds.
The meditations presented by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius are exercises in “changing our minds to change our brains”. Hanson and Mendius use techniques whereby they instruct the listener to elicit positive feelings, stay with those feelings for twenty to thirty seconds, and then recall a previously painful situation and associate it with the warm positive feeling that you have elicited, creating a new positive neural pathway. With frequent practice, you can rewire your brain to be more positive.
I found the fact that we can “rewire” our brain to produce a more positive emotional base and thought process to be tremendously self-empowering and believe that it could be so for my future clients as well. It can be depressing and confusing, in and of itself, to perceive that there is “something wrong” with the way that we relate to our environment. In the midst of our traumas, as well as the “second arrows” that are causing our suffering, we can go “round and round” with our “delusions” about our situation, never understanding how to break free of it. Knowing that there are very real, concrete reasons why we can’t just “shake things off”, and that there is a way to actually work toward achieving a more positive outlook on life is, in my perspective, a life line. This technique is a powerful tool to present as an option to willing clients to assist them in reframing perspectives and limiting belief systems.
In conclusion, I believe that I these are powerful insights and techniques for the coaching process, and I, personally, have experienced the benefits of a practical, take where ever you are, tool for the benefit of both myself and my future clients should they be open to it. I like the idea of being able to present clients with techniques that they can consider utilizing immediately which can begin to bring some movement to their process and eliminate limiting belief systems and perspectives. Although I have not yet designed the full scope of my blended coaching practice, I do know that along with teaching mindfulness techniques to clients individually, I would like to have a sangha (a meditation community) for my local clients where they can find community with others who are also working to achieve balanced lives.
It was important for me to be able to hear experts in the field, not only echoing back my feelings about the ability of meditation and mindfulness techniques to help attain balance and heal lives, but also relating that they now have the scientific knowledge about the “how’s and why’s” behind the practice. I am grateful for their enthusiasm and willingness to pass this information on to those of us who are coming up behind them.
Bruce, N., Manber, R., & Constantino, M. (2010). Psychotherapist mindfulness and the Psychotherapy process, Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(1), 83-97. doi: 10.1037/a0018842
Grepmair, L., Mitterlehner, F., Loew, T., Bachler, E., Rother, W., & Nickel, M. (2001).
Promoting mindfulness in psychotherapists influences the treatment results of their patients: A randomized, double blind, controlled study. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 76(6), 332-338.
Hanson, R., Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam Dell.
Shapiro, S. (2009). The integration of mindfulness and psychology, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 555-560. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20602
Shapiro, S., Oman, D., Thoresen, C., & Flinders, T. (2008). Cultivating mindfulness: Effects on well-being. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64(7), 840-862. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20491