More than Relaxation: Mindfulness as a Means for Change

Author : Emily Johnston

31st March 2020

‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.’

Viktor Frankl in 'Man’s Search for Meaning'

While mindfulness might seem like the latest thing, the buzz word, it is actually a concept that has been around since humans first became sentient, and more recently (the last 5000 years) within both Eastern and Western traditions. 

It is a symptom of how crowded our minds have become that we look to a ‘practice’ to unwind, or even just to ‘be’ rather than it being part of our everyday experience to meet the world consciously, without judgement in the moment. We have lost the art of just observing, of being mindful in our actions and words, and in that space of noticing being aware or our thoughts and feelings. 

Ultimately we have lost the natural art of being able to choose what we cultivate within ourselves and what we choose to let go of. We are pulled and pushed by distractions almost every moment of the day. 

Mindfulness is about being aware, and with awareness making conscious choices. Rudyard Kipling refers to this in his epic poem, ‘If’: 

‘If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you’

It’s this awareness of thoughts, emotions, habitual reactions and then the choice to go with them or to choose a different way, a way that invariably embodies our humanity and compassion more fully.

Thirty years ago, the scientific world would have laughed at the possibility of creating changes in one’s brain.

The old saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ was supported by the science of the time. The thinking was that once a human had reached maturity (roughly 25 years old) the brain was fixed. In other words no amount of input could change that brain. 

In more recent years the science of the brain, neuroscience, which is still in its infancy, has shown that although the brain’s size and number of neurons is more or less fixed by our mid 20s our capacity for brain use and changing the architecture of the brain is almost limitless. 

Habits and ways of thinking that had been deemed fixed for life are actually flexible and constantly evolving. We can, just like the ancient eastern and western traditions say, notice, observe and choose our way of being in any given moment. 

brain-synapses-emily-blog-2

Our brains are amazing biological computers. 

At this moment writing this article at my dining table a hundred thoughts come into mind. The brain can think at up to 500wpm unlike our verbal speech which only works at 250wpm. So, where my brain is working at 500wpm as I create this article, my verbal cognition as I write is at 250wpm and my fingers sadly lagging behind at only about 30wpm (I was never top of the class for speed typing) my brain is left impatient and considering other options to think about as my words and fingers try to catch up. 

It’s this thinking space that used to be just that, space, an opportunity to observe, to allow for flow or just ‘be’ but which often now gets filled with lists of things to do, or social media to catch up on, or conversations to overthink. This is the space where the mind can run away with anxiety or depression leading to its own train of thought and actions. 

Working in a school I see this frequently where children are so busy with work or activities that there is no space for contemplation or consideration. Where in between moments on the way to school on the train, or waiting for a friend or even eating lunch have to be filled with watching a show on a phone or checking newsfeeds on various social media platforms, every moment filled with busy thoughts and reactions.

I think I’m starting to sound like an old fuddy-duddy but our children are losing the art of just being, staring out of a window, watching the clouds go by, resting thought, and because of this, their experience of life every day, the mind racing permanently, they often experience a dire lack of restful sleep, anxiety and depression are rife, attention spans are shortened, and silence is a frightening experience put off with the plugging in of headphones at any spare moment. 

Is mindfulness the answer? Maybe, but mindfulness is currently often equated with relaxation and this is not what it is all about. Sure, our experience of the practice may induce relaxation but it is not the point of mindfulness.

As someone who was brought up in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, literally ‘non-duality’, and a belief in the universal essence within us all, my experience of mindfulness and meditation as a child and adult has been one of a journey of self-exploration to understand and reconnect with our true undying nature and to manifest that through speech and action in life. 

emily-self-inquiry-image

My journey through life, like everyone else’s, has been full of ups and downs but a practice of mindfulness in life and in meditation, following this inner journey to sit with a larger sense of Self, universal essence, and the experience of non-duality, has steadied my course, allowed me to choose my attitude to my external experiences in many (not all!) situations and given me a bigger perspective to work from. 

As I grew up and moved into many different areas I noticed that this sense of something greater than us as individuals, this sense of universal essence, was wonderfully, surprisingly common and not necessarily influenced by religion, faith, creed or tradition. It seems innate to the human condition but is easily forgotten in our day to day. 

As I moved careers to become a coach I also started to explore this new field of neuroscience and with growing excitement I saw how this new field supported my understanding of myself and the human condition. It was at this time that I created a two day course in the practice of Mindfulness in Coaching seeing the huge benefits the practice can bring to both coach and client. 

Many studies have been done on mindfulness and meditation, I recently met a lovely gentleman who did much scientific research on the effects of meditation in the 60’s (one of his most notable subjects was George Harrison who unfortunately fell asleep during his tests!), and scientific research has been ongoing for the last 60 years. Whilst much of the research is not sound, the research that is, shows definitive benefits from the practice of mindfulness meditation. 

In his book Mindsight, Dr Dan Seigel promotes the practice as bringing congruence and authenticity to our lives, describing it as:

“a ‘tuning in’ to oneself that enables people to become ‘their own best friend’. And just as our attunement to our children promotes a healthy, secure attachment, tuning in to the self also promotes a foundation for resilience and flexibility.”

Key principles in facilitating change in a coaching conversation! 

Recently I undertook a course for coaches in the Neuroscience of Change and in every one of the 22 sessions mindfulness practices were highlighted by multiple sources as being significant tools for creating change. Alan Watkins in his book 4D Leadership talks about the Performance Grid model and how focussing awareness on emotions and being coherent in our own experience of them allows us more control. 

By using mindfulness we raise our awareness, raise our kindness to self and others, and begin to have the capacity to change our emotional state to a positive one and directly influence our ability to change ourselves, our environment and the lives of those around us. 

My own experiences of the practice of mindfulness both as a way to live and as an inward meditation gives me coherence and control over my emotional world (most of the time!) and strengthens my faith in myself and the humanity within us all. 

Faith is something we need more of, not for its religious connotations but for the confidence it gives us in moving forward. You could cultivate faith in the divine, in your strengths or the power of connection – the key is to cultivate it. This is the antidote to the fears of today’s world, the anxieties, the pressures of daily life, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. 

Mindfulness isn’t about relaxation, filling quotas, and pleasing policy makers. It’s about cultivating an attitude of unconditional positive regard for ourselves and others, an inward journey of self discovery, connecting to our true undying nature that connects us all and most of all cultivating faith in ourselves and this wider consciousness and hope for our future. 

As coaches our goals are entwined with our client’s needs and wants but our purpose is the same: To help the client raise their awareness of themselves and cultivate faith in the innate essence that is within us all, and hope for the future.

Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston

One of the original Animas training team, Emily is a highly experienced trainer, Mindfulness and Wellbeing Practitioner, and an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) with the ICF.

Emily's Website

Certificate in Mindfulness for Coaching with Emily Johnston (4th & 5th April)

We are facing challenging times right now, but at times like this, coaches can bring mindfulness not only to their own practice, but to that of their clients too, enabling us all to better manage the stress brought on by challenging times like the present.

If you're interested in bringing mindfulness into your coaching practice, you can find out more about the Certificate in Mindfulness for Coaching by clicking the button below.
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Categories: Life as a coach  

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