A Coaching Power Tool By Michaela Calhoun, Career Coach, UNITED STATES
The term mindlessness carries a negative connotation and creates a vision of someone stuck in their patterns and routines. Mindlessness, however, has evolved as a way to help us process all of the stimuli around us and effectively move through life. There is nothing inherently wrong with mindlessness, but mindlessness can be problematic when we become too reliant on it. We can become stuck in our patterns and routines, even when they no longer serve us. We can also become rigid in our thinking or processing that we do not see other possibilities or opportunities that may be present.
Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment (Germer, 2004: 26). The key to mindfulness is observing the present moment without judgment. We often attach judgment to all of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas, and values immediately upon sensing them, instead of observing them for what they are – only thoughts, feelings, ideas, and values. Maintaining a state of non-judgmental mindfulness can be challenging, but being strategically mindful has several benefits that will be explored in this paper. Mindfulness is especially helpful when someone is going through a career transition.
“Most people experience the transition to a new working life as a time of confusion, loss, insecurity, and uncertainty(Ibarra, 2003; 52). Usually, this time, and more specifically these emotions, “lasts much longer than anyone imagines at the outset”(Ibarra, 2003; 52). Clients can be so focused on their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas around this transition that they cannot see the forest through the trees. Mindfulness frees our minds from the constraints of the mental constructs we create for ourselves to see a situation for what it truly is. As a coach in the career transition space, I want clients to develop an awareness of their current thoughts, feelings, and beliefs through mindfulness, and then use this awareness to find alternatives that better serve them and facilitate a successful career transition.
The Key to Mindlessness vs. Mindfulness:
Mindlessness has been “characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective” (Passmore, 2017; 27). We are surrounded by millions and millions of stimuli at any given moment in time (Passmore, 2007: 131).On average, we can process 5 to 9 of them(Passmore, 2007: 131). This creates a very limited picture of our world that we often mistake for reality (Passmore, 2007; 131). When we think of “reality,” we think about the world as we view it, construct it, and interpret it (Brown et al., 2007: 213). As such, we are often caught up in our own interpretations or opinions about what is happening around us at the moment (Germer, 2004: 24). “This is mindlessness” (Germer, 2004: 24).
Below are a few examples of mindlessness we have all experienced:
- Rushing through activities without being attentive to them.
- Breaking or spilling things because of carelessness, inattention, or thinking of something else.
- Failing to notice subtle feelings or physical tension or discomfort.
- Forgetting a person’s name almost as soon as we’ve heard it.
- Finding ourselves preoccupied with the future or the past.
- Snacking without being aware of eating” (Germer, 2004: 25).
There are three types of mindlessness: entrapment by category, automatic behavior, and acting from a single perspective. Entrapment by category relates to the idea that “we experience the world by creating categories and making distinctions among them” (O’Brien, 2011: 83). Therefore, we construct our own picture of the world as well as ourselves (O’Brien, 2011: 83). These categories help us manage phenomena (O’Brien, 2011: 83). Without these categories, we may feel as though the world is escaping us (O’Brien, 2011: 83). Mindlessness occurs, however, when “we rely too rigidly on categories and distinctions created in the past” (O’Brien, 2011: 83).“The categories we make gather momentum and are very hard to overthrow” (O’Brien, 2011: 84).“We build our own and our shared realities and then we become victims of the – blind to the fact that they are constructs, ideas” (O’Brien, 2011: 84). “To be mindless is to be trapped in a rigid world” (O’Brien, 2011: 84).
The second type of mindlessness is automatic behavior. “When in this mode, we take in and use limited signals from the world around us without letting other signals penetrate as well” (O’Brien, 2011: 84). People “engage in a great deal of complex behavior without consciously paying attention to it” (O’Brien, 2011: 84). There is “a general tendency on the part of normal people, to act, without any express desire or conscious volition, in a manner in general accord with the previous habits of the person” (O’Brien, 2011: 84). This type of automatic behavior “has much in common with habit” (O’Brien, 2011: 85). “Habit, or the tendency to keep on with behavior that has been repeated over time, naturally implies mindlessness” (O’Brien, 2011: 85). This type of mindless behavior does not require a regular repetition and can arise almost instantaneously in some situations (O’Brien, 2011: 85).
The third type of mindlessness is acting from a single perspective. We frequently act as if there is only one set of rules(O’Brien, 2011: 86). “For instance, in cooking, we tend to follow recipes with dutiful precision” (O’Brien, 2011: 85).“Thinking of a recipe only as a rule, we often do not consider how people’s tastes vary, or what fun it might be to make up a new dish” (O’Brien, 2011: 86). If we think of life as a recipe, it can be easy for us to move through life following the instructions exactly. However, highly specific instructions encourage mindfulness, because “once we let them in, our minds snap shut…and do not let in new signals” (O’Brien, 2011: 86).
It is important to understand the types of mindlessness as they relate to the millions of stimuli that are always present. These stimuli “are held in focal attention only briefly, if at all, before some cognitive and emotional reaction to them is made” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). These rapid-fire reactions are relevant as they relate to our subjective experiences as well as our functioning (Brown et al., 2007: 212). First, they are discriminatory in nature, “in which a primary appraisal of the object is made as, most basically, good, bad, or neutral, usually about the self” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). Second, they are typically “conditioned by the experience of the sensory object or other objects of sufficient similarity to evoke an association in memory” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). Third, and finally, “perceptual experience is easily assimilated or, through further cognitive operations upon the object, made to assimilate into existing cognitive schemas” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). The result of this type of processing is that “concepts, labels, ideas, and judgments are often imposed, often automatically, on everything that is encountered” (Brown et al., 2007: 212).
“Such processing has certain adaptive benefits, including the establishment and maintenance of order upon events and experience of relevance to the self, and the facilitation of goal pursuit and attainment” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). This is a conceptual model of processing (Brown et al., 2007: 212). Mindlessness is also beneficial when we think, again, about the sheer volume of stimuli around us all of the time. We cannot begin to process the millions of stimuli that are always present. We create our own constructs, systems, and interpretations to help us move through daily life. In addition, the mind is also skilled at “time-traveling,” thinking about memories, future fantasies, and, in general, “away from the immediacy of experience in the present(Brown et al., 2007: 214). This ability of our mind “serves the important regulatory purpose of protecting, maintaining, and enhancing the self in, for example, the pursuit of goals” (Brown et al., 2007: 214).
When we are mindless, however, individuals tend to treat information as though it were context-free, meaning that it is true regardless of the circumstances (O’Brien, 2011: 82). While that may be beneficial at times, that cannot be how we experience and approach life at all times. “When we blindly follow routines or unwittingly carry out senseless orders, we are acting like automatons, with potentially grave consequences for ourselves and others” (O’Brien, 2011: 83). Therefore, there are circumstances where we want and need to be mindful
Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness (Germer, 2004: 26). While mindlessness includes the idea of following the mental constructs and systems we create for ourselves, mindfulness “provides a break from the limitations of our mental models and promotes a form of pure exploration, a way of investigating reality that challenges our sense of safety derived by the illusion and the safety of ‘knowing’” (Passmore, 2007: 131).
The idea of mindfulness has been around for several years and is strongly rooted in Buddhist psychology (Brown et al., 2007: 212). There is also a “conceptual kindship with ideas advanced by a variety of philosophical and psychological traditions, including ancient Greek philosophy; phenomenology, existentialism, and naturalism in later Western European thought; and the transcendentalism and humanism in America” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). The concept of mindfulness has been commonly described across cultures and schools of thought, which suggests it is foundational to the human experience (Brown et al., 2007: 212). It has even been said to be an innate capacity of one’s mind (Brown et al., 2007: 215).
Mindfulness, as a term, is derived from the Pali language word sati meaning ‘to remember” (Brown et al., 2007: 212). Mindfulness is“a deceptively simple way of relating to experience” (Germer, 200 4: 24). It connotes a mode of consciousness and conveys the idea of a presence of mind (Brown et al., 2007: 212). Mindfulness has been defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment (Germer, 2004: 26). “By not judging our experience, we are more likely to see it as it is” (Germer, 2004: 26). When we are mindful, we accept or are willing to be with what is, instead of avoiding, controlling, or dwelling on what could have been as examples (Brown et al., 2007: 227). Mindfulness encourages perceiving what is happening within and around us without judgment while also discouraging “automatic, habitual thought patterns” (Brown et al, 2007: 226).
Based on this definition, one could think that mindfulness equates to being aloof or some type of detached spectatorship, but it is not(Brown et al., 2007: 214). Instead, studies have shown that mindfulness actually promotes greater interest in life, as reflected in increased levels of compassion, empathy, and ecological stewardship (Brown et al, 2007: 214). Mindfulness is also not a form of escape or disconnection from life; “rather, it is thought to bring one into closer contact with life by helping to circumvent the self-generated accounts about life that act to pull one away from it” (Brown et al., 2007: 227).
Research has demonstrated that mindfulness is comprised of at least four elements: awareness, attention, time, and acceptance(Passmore, 2007: 131).“Awareness is the brain’s ability to constantly monitor and recognize internal and external systems and stimuli” (Passmore, 2007: 131). “Attention is the brain’s ability to focus the awareness to a specific phenomenon and so increasing the sensitivity to it” (Passmore, 2007: 131). “Time refers to ‘the now;’ the only place where we exist, experience and act” (Passmore, 2007: 131). “Acceptance represents our ability to let go and to be non-judgmental; our ability to observe and absorb reality ‘as is,’ without embarrassment, satisfaction or disappointment” (Passmore, 2007: 131).
Another way to think of mindfulness is one’s mind naturally reflecting what passes before it without the filter of our conceptual thoughts, emotions, and judgments regarding the experience (Brown, et al., 2007: 213). Being unbiased in this way has been found to create insight into reality highlighting things that are otherwise obscured or allowing for greater understanding or clarity (Brown, et al., 2007: 213). There are several reasons various experiences can be hidden from our conscious awareness, including those items that treating one’s self-concept (Brown et al., 2007: 213). Mindfulness encourages us to recognize “all consciously perceived phenomena, including thoughts and feelings,” are just that (Brown et al., 2007: 226). Thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings (Brown et al., 2007: 226). Further, they do not always reflect reality accurately (Brown et al., 2007: 226).
“Mindfulness thus involves the capacity to be aware of internal and external events and occurrences as phenomena, rather than as the objects of a conceptually constructed world” (Brown et al., 2007: 212).“Because mindfulness permits and immediacy of direct contact with events as they occur, without the overlay of discriminative, categorical, and habitual thought, consciousness takes on a clarity and freshness that permits more flexible, more objectively informed psychological and behavioral responses” (Brown et al., 2007: 212).
As such, mindfulness fosters a different relationship to thought (Brown et al., 2007: 213). Processing information mindfully requires a receptive mind where one’s attention is focused only on registering the facts observed (Brown et al. et al., 2007: 212). Then, the inherent power of awareness and attention allows the individual to be present in reality as it is instead of reacting to it or automatically processing it through predefined filters (Brown et al., 2007: 212). The mindful mode of processing “does not compare, categorize, or evaluate, nor does it contemplate, introspect, reflect, or ruminate upon events or experiences based on memory” (Brown et al., 2007: 213). Mindfulness focuses on the simple act of noticing what is taking place, internally, and externally, at a given moment (Brown, et al., 2007: 213).
“When mindful, the activity of conceptual thought can be engaged and disengaged more choice-fully, and because one can be aware of thoughts as thoughts, and their accompanying emotions as simply reactions to them, thoughts are less likely to be colored by beliefs, prejudices, and other biases that are not supported by objective or experiential evidence” (Brown et al., 2007: 213). Therefore, “the mindful state of being is inherently empirical, in that it seeks possession of the full facts like that of the objective scientist seeking accurate knowledge of some phenomenon” (Brown et al., 2007: 213-214). “This stance encourages a deferral of judgment until a careful examination of facts has been made” (Brown et al., 2007: 214). “Mindfulness, then, is noticing what is present, including noticing that one is no longer present” (Brown et al., 2007: 214). “Recognizing that one is not being attentive and aware is itself an instance of mindfulness” (Brown et al., 2007: 214).
Mindfulness is not the answer to life’s problems, but it does allow us to see life’s problems more clearly by creating a clear mind (Passmore, 2007; 131). When in a mindful state of being, our attention is focused on the present moment; we are not thinking about the past or future or judging or refusing to accept what is (Germer, 2004: 25). “This kind of attention generates energy, clear-headedness, and joy” (Germer, 2004: 25). “Mindfulness can help us to step out of our conditioning and see things freshly” (Germer, 2004: 25).In fact, research has shown that mindfulness can improve our well-being (Brown et al., 2007: 220). An individual can achieve a higher sense of well-being just by being in a mindful state (Brown et al., 2007: 220). Furthermore, mindfulness encourages nonjudgmentally and acceptance, both of which can facilitate “direct contact with uncomfortable realities or experiences” (Brown et al., 2007: 213).
The benefits are mindfulness are vast. Mindfulness directly affects our ability to assess what is happening and view those events for what they are (Passmore, 2007: 133). This allows us to see these events more objectively, which, in turn, allows us to maintain greater control over our response (Passmore, 2007: 133). This can occur because mindfulness allows us to observe internal and external information at the moment without judgment and facilitates our ability to make choices informed by our beliefs, needs, values, and feelings that realistically fit with the options available to us (Brown, et al., 2007: 223). More simply, “the fuller awareness afforded by mindfulness facilitates more flexible, adaptive responses to events, and helps to minimize automatic, habitual, or impulsive reactions” that may not be serving us (Brown, et al., 2007: 223).
Furthermore, “contentment, job satisfaction, and communication significantly increased after mindfulness training, while tension, anxiety, nervousness, and physical symptoms of stress significantly decreased” (Passmore, 2007: 133). Mindfulness has also been found to positively influence “control, creativity, burnout, productivity, attentional processes, and learning” (Passmore, 2007: 134). Also, mindfulness “has been demonstrated to positively affect brain faculties and other physiological and psychological functions; blood pressure, cortisol levels, and IgA levels are among some of them” (Passmore, 2007: 134). Mindfulness can also be “an effective stress management intervention” (Passmore, 2007: 134).
The nonjudgmental acceptance created through mindfulness can facilitate a state of calmness and ease, which then can create a stable sense of well-being that is not contingent on any circumstances (Brown et al., 2007: 227).“The fact that mindfulness is associated with enhanced executive functioning, better self-regulation, greater autonomy, and enhanced relationship capacities, all attests to the fact that when individuals are more mindful they are more capable of acting in ways that are more choiceful and more openly attentive to and aware of themselves and the situations in which they find themselves, all things considered” (Brown et al, 2007: 227). Therefore, “mindfulness and its cultivation support healthy, adaptive human functioning” (Brown et al., 2007: 227).
Research published to date demonstrates that mindfulness has beneficial “psychological, somatic, behavioral, and interpersonal effects” (Brown et al., 2007: 229).“Mindfulness facilitates a loosening of attachments to notions of self, others, and the world, so that life events can be approached with greater equanimity” (Brown et al., 2007: 230).
To summarize, “mindful moments are:
- Non-conceptual. Mindfulness is awareness without absorption in our thought processes.
- Present-centered. Mindfulness is always in the present moment. Thoughts about our experience are removed from the present moment.
- Non-judgmental. Awareness cannot occur freely if we would like our experience to be other than it is.
- Mindfulness always includes an intention to direct attention somewhere. Returning attention to the present moment gives mindfulness continuity over time.
- Participant observation. Mindfulness is not detached witnessing. It is experiencing the mind and body more intimately.
- Non-verbal. The experience of mindfulness cannot be captured in words because awareness occurs before words arise in the mind.
- Mindful awareness is always investigating subtler levels of perception.
- Every moment of mindful awareness provides freedom from conditioned [thoughts, behaviors, or responses]” (Germer, 2004: 27).
It can be easy for clients to feel stuck in mindlessness, especially when going through a career transition. When a client is in a mindless state, it can be hard to recognize and even harder to break free from. The coach needs to help the client bring awareness to their mindless state and help to create the shift towards mindfulness through curiosity, acceptance, and non-judgment. As a coach, we accept our clients as they are and trust they know what is best for themselves. By shifting from mindlessness to mindfulness, clients will be able to assess what is going on around them and understand it for what it is, without judgment. By removing a client’s self-imposed constructs and judgment, they can begin to explore new possibilities and opportunities.
To shift a client from mindlessness to mindfulness, a coach must start by understanding the client’s existing thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, ideas, and values. During that exploration, the coach can work towards helping the client to understand how those existing constructs may be serving the client or not. Next, the coach can work with the client to explore what else may be possible. From there, the coach and client partner together for the client to determine how best to move forward to achieve his/her goals. All of this exploration must occur without judgment from the client or coach.
On this journey, a coach can ask questions in the following areas to support the client in shifting from mindlessness to mindfulness:
- What does your current career give you?
- How is your current job serving you?
- What do you want from your career?
- What is getting in the way of you taking the next step?
- What are the core values that will inform and guide you through this career transition?
- What information can you use from your previous and current jobs to help you move forward?
- What attitude can best serve you as you think about the tasks you need to complete?
- What else may be possible?
- What would it look like to remove judgment?
- What do you need to do to look at this transition without judgment?
Career transitions, like any transition, are challenging. There are so many thoughts and emotions, both positive and negative, in play that it can be difficult to see the forest through the trees and figure out the best way to move forward. Wherever an individual is on the spectrum of going through a career transition, engaging in coaching and practicing mindfulness will aid them in gaining clarity, understanding, and direction. Coaching allows clients to discover and explore new opportunities while mindfulness will help them achieve them.
Ibarra, H. Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career[Kindle edition]. Harvard Business School Publishing.
Germer, C. What is Mindfulness? Insight Journal, Fall 2004, 24-29.
O’Brien, J. Mindfulness and Mindlessness. Ellen Langer. The Production of Reality: Essays and readings on social interaction (pp.82-86). Pine Forge Press.
Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211-237.
Passmore, J., &Marianetti, O. The role of mindfulness in coaching. The Coaching Psychologist, 3(3), 131-137.
Passmore, J. Mindfulness in coaching: a model for coaching practice. The Coaching Psychologist, 13(1), 27-30.