Research Paper By Annie Yi-Ju Huang
(Spiritual Coach, AUSTRALIA)
Mindfulness is a hot topic now in psychology and increasingly in coaching, but this is not the reason I have chosen to write about it. I chose this topic because I have been fascinated by mindfulness and I was hoping that I could learn more about it in the process of researching and writing this paper. The writing process, however, turned out to be rather painful at first because somehow I got into my head that I needed to really ‘get’ mindfulness before I could write about it. Then I became aware that I could take the authentic approach instead and write about it from the perspective of someone who has been trying to practice mindfulness in her daily life, with varying degrees of success.
I will be exploring the principles and some of the practices of mindfulness – primarily meditation – as I experience them. This is a personal list to help you live in the present as much as possible and achieve everyday mindfulness for you or your client. I have tried all of them and while I am good at some and still working hard on others, I am offering them so you can pick and choose the ones that resonant with you. It is my hope that by sharing my personal experience and lessons learned that you will be able to take something away for yourself or your client, and to know that you are not alone in struggling to stay mindful with all the stresses, demands and distractions of our daily life.
What is Mindfulness?
Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present. – Bil Keane
Jon Kabat-‐Zinn, a world authority on mindfulness, defines it as:
Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-‐judgmentally.
I really like this definition. It’s simple but includes all the essential elements. Instead of being distracted, constantly revisiting the past or worrying about the future and wanting things to be different, we focus on the here and now and accept things as they are. We have already arrived and there is no more striving. Indeed, Kabat-‐Zinn calls mindfulness
the art of conscious living.
Mindfulness & Coaching
Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. What could be more futile than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you. – Eckhart Tolle
Many books and articles have been written about the benefits of mindfulness in general and of meditation in particular, so I will not elaborate on them in this paper. Suffice to say, mindfulness offers many benefits to our clients, including the ability to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, rise above self-limiting beliefs, improve focus and performance, develop leadership skills, enhance emotional intelligence, handle painful thoughts and feelings and increase overall life satisfaction.
According to Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, mindfulness also offers many benefits to coaches:
- Allows you to stay focused and present, even when your client is not;
- Helps you stay grounded, centred and composed, even in the midst of clients’ emotional turmoil;
- Enables a healthy attitude to outcomes: neither complacent nor attached;
- Helps you maintain direction and focus;
- Increases your skills at observing your clients’ responses;
- Facilitates empathy, compassion, and unconditional positive regard.
Now that we have established the many benefits of mindfulness, both for our clients and for ourselves as coaches, let us look at some of the mindfulness practices that have been recommended by the experts in this field:
Meditation in its simplest form is a practice that trains the mind or induces a state of consciousness. Just as you would train your physical body through sports, meditation trains your mind, specifically where you place your attention. Like sports, meditation also involves a broad variety of methods or techniques. Some meditation methods just have you be mindful of whatever goes on within your mind without judging or reacting. This self-awareness in itself tends to quiet the mind. By contrast, other meditation methods are concentrative -you continually bring your mind back to one point of focus like your breath or counting or a mantra (a simple sound you repeat mentally or aloud). According to Daniel Goleman, the well-known author of Emotional Intelligence stresses that
the need for the meditator to retrain his attention, whether through mindfulness or concentration, is the single invariant ingredient in every meditation system.
I have been practising meditation on and off for years but I have only managed to start practising it on a daily basis since the beginning of this year. My love-‐hate relationship with meditation started when I became a Buddhist about 10 years ago. I was brought up an atheist and in my eagerness to embrace my new religion, I took it upon myself to learn meditation straight away. However, I turned it into another goal to be achieved rather than a means to a more mindful state of being. Also, I had high expectations: I should be more mindful, I should meditate everyday and so on. Needless to say, it was not a very helpful attitude and it resulted in a lot of needless angst and not much progress.
After meditating on and off for the last few years, I came to realise that there is no ‘secret’ to meditation, you just have to sit through your agitation and observe your mind as it is. Every time you notice your mind wandering off – and it will – you gently bring it back, without judgment. With practice, your mind will wander off less and less and you will also be able to notice it more quickly to gently brings it back. Daniel Goleman, a big proponent of meditation, likens the process to
the basic rep in our mental gym, quite akin to lifting free weights.
He found that the simple process of noticing and bringing back your attention to where you want it to be strengthens connections among the brain’s circuits for concentrating. The more you practice, the stronger the connections. The point is not to stop our mind from wandering; it is to be mindful of its wandering and shift to where you want it to be.
Other Mindfulness Practices
For me, this is probably the easiest and quickest way to bring me back to the present moment from wherever I was. By simply taking a few deep breaths and/or observing our breaths, we bring our attention to something physical rather than letting it run away with our thoughts and feelings. The path back to the present moment lies in paying attention to physical, concrete details. Other things work too – our bodily sensations, sounds, smells or our immediate surroundings. We simply observe them without judgement.
Avoiding Distractions We live in the Age of Distraction, constantly bombarded by distractions from all sides from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed at night. They come in the form of mobile phone calls and messages, emails, social media updates, instant news updates, and many other forms of interruptions. If not managed well, distractions can turn into addictions and we lose control of our life. Indeed, research has shown that information feels intrinsically rewarding to people. We get a jolt of dopamine when someone ‘likes’ our Facebook post or retweets our Twitter link.
I would suggest setting boundaries – turning off your phone, email, social media and anything else that will be a distraction when you are working. Personally I find that turning off my internet in the morning and setting aside one day a week to ‘unplug’ allow me to be more mindful, as well as productive. After I have unplugged, I focus my attention on the present moment and just do the work I need to do.
Removing the non-‐essential physical possessions that clutter up our home helps get rid of our mental declutter and attachment to the past memories associated with these possessions. This gives us more inner space and peace, opening us up to living more fully in the present moment. Also, decluttering forces us to decide what is truly important to us, which will then allow us to shape our lives according to our most important values, rather than being tied down physically, mentally and emotionally to our past or any lesser values that no longer serve us.
Personally I find it easier to set aside a couple of hours or half a day every month to declutter my home office and the rest of my apartment. Also, to avoid accumulating more clutter, I think twice now before buying anything other than groceries! By being mindful of the possessions we already have, we can see that we have more than enough and thereby resist the temptations to consume more.
Just as you become more mindful by decluttering your physical possessions, you can also become more mindful by reducing your tasks and commitments. Think of it as decluttering your to-do list. Doing less involves finding your focus for the present moment and saying no to the rest. It is not easy, especially if you find it hard to say no to othes or to what you believe to be great opportunities. This fear of missing out (FOMO), a form of social anxiety made worse by the modern technologies that provide a constant source for comparison with others, keeps us forever busy. As a result, we rush through our days which leads to more stress and less mindfulness.
So how to overcome our tendency to say no? I think it is really important to remember that sometimes we have to say no to many good things in order to say yes to one great thing. Once you have found that one great thing, give it all you have and don’t lose sight by all the ‘noise’ – both in terms of your own internal chatter as well as the external expectations. The truth is, we are not superhumans and we only have limited time and energy. We need to stay focused, set clear boundaries and to take good care of ourselves before we can take care of others.
A related practice to doing less is the practice of doing one thing at a time, or single-tasking. While women have been told time and again that we are better at multi-tasking than men, research has shown that it is actually more productive to single- task than to multi-task.
So, instead of tackling 3 or 4 things at the same time and feeling scattered and overwhelmed, it is far better to simply focus on one task at a time. Give it all your attention and do it to completion before moving on to the next task. You will be more mindful, have greater focus and achieve better results.
Savouring each moment
As we become adults we learn to live less and less in the world, and more in our thoughts about the world. By doing less and doing one thing at a time, we can slow down sufficiently to get us out of our heads and into the world. When we become mindful, we realise that we are not our thoughts; we become an observer of our thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Instead of rushing, we notice what is happening in the moment. We can start to appreciate the peace and beauty all around us. Fully take in all the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and all the highs and lows of the day. We can live and savour in the present moment. After all, all we have is this moment right now, not tomorrow or yesterday.
The truth is, life is comprised of mostly mundane, routine moments and if we rush through them in order to get to the ‘good part’, we will never be happy. Better still, from time to time we could stop doing altogether and just be. By stop doing and focusing on just being, we are able to take a pause and rest in stillness.
Enjoying the Journey
As coaches, we understand very well that our goals and dreams about the future give us a sense of purpose and direction, but they are no substitute for actions. Specific, purposeful actions – rather than big, lofty goals – are what take us from where we are now to where we want to be. Instead of daydreaming about the future, it is more mindful and effective to take steps every day towards our envisioned future while still have fun along the way.
Why? Because things don’t always turn out as we predict. Worrying too much about the future, possible problems, or what others think prevents us from fully engaging in the moment and appreciating things as they are. By contrast, if we focus on the moment and do our best, it doesn’t really matter what happens ultimately. We still learn a lot and we may end up in places where we never thought we would if we had just followed our plans strictly. It is the journey not the destination that makes our lives interesting and worth living.
If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present. – Lao Tzu
It is possible to live happily in the here and now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Despite all the ups and downs I have experienced with meditation, it has been an invaluable tool in bringing more calmness and reducing stress in my life. It also improved my ability to concentrate as well as to persist with difficult tasks. Over time, I have slowly learned to enjoy my daily meditation practice instead of seeing it as a chore or another item on my to-‐do list.
Don’t beat yourself up if you find it to difficult to meditate or to incorporate it into your life on a regular basis. Most people find it challenging too. However, meditation is only one practice amongst hundreds of mindfulness practices, so experiment with other practices and you will find the ones that work for you.
At the end of the day, mindfulness is about putting our attention where we want it to be. It is not a task to do or and outcome to have, but a state to be. It sounds simple but don’t let its simplicity fool you into thinking that it is easy. Our restless, “monkey mind” keeps us constantly jumping from one thought to another, never staying long enough in the present moment. In addition to our naturally restless mind are the growing demands and distractions at work and at home. We become increasingly mindless instead of being mindful. This where the mindfulness practices come in. By intentionally practising mindfulness in its many forms, we could enjoy the many benefits of mindfulness and savour every moment of our beautiful lives.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
Jon Kabat-‐Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
Daniel Goleman, The meditative mind: The varieties of meditative experience.
Daniel Goleman, “What Mindfulness Is -‐-‐ And Isn't” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-‐goleman/mindfulness_b_4859364.html
Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap