A Doorway In A Moment: 3 Reasons Mindfulness Is So Impactful In Coaching
We live in an exciting age at the intersection of new knowledge and ancient wisdom. The findings of the emerging disciplines of Neuroscience and Embodied Cognition are changing the way we think about human potential and personal change. Even more interestingly, these new findings are converging with the age old principles of the Wisdom traditions from the East.
Mindfulness, of course, has taken the Western world by storm. It has become somewhat ubiquitous as a recommended tool and technique for bringing increased peace and presence into our lives; a balm against the agents of the attention economy who seek to pull us into our mobile phones and a life buoy for the tidal waves of information that sweep towards us on a daily basis.
And yet, despite this quiet fanfare, it is curious that very little has been said about how it can become an essential tool in the coaching process.
Why is this case?
Perhaps it is that coaching has been associated with “big” results, while mindfulness itself is seen as subtle and nuanced. At The Somatic School, we would say that this is an error!
Our experience in Body-oriented Coaching is that the reality is actually entirely paradoxical: the more clients are able to pay quiet and subtle attention to their present moment experience, the more they can create the magnitude of results that they want in their lives.
From the perspective of the Wisdom traditions, this knowledge is nothing new. As the founder of Hakomi, Ron Kurtz said:
“Buddhism and Taoism both teach us that the only reality is in the present. The past is a dream. The future is a dream. Only in the present moment can we experience what is real. This realisation is wisdom.”
While this idea has now been significantly popularised in the West - thanks to the likes of Eckhart Tolle and his brand of spiritual self-help set out in such books as The Power Of Now - it is one thing to reach this understanding, and it is quite another to be able to routinely use it as the very stepping stone to impactful coaching results.
In Body-oriented Coaching, we “operationalise” this wisdom by embedding mindfulness in the coaching process as a matter of course. Most of a session may be spent in this state.
As coaches train in this approach, they realise that mindfulness is very often the “secret sauce” which enables clients to break through existing loops, embody new behaviours and to move forward towards their goals.
And, while the Wisdom traditions have asserted for a many centuries that cultivating our ability to stay in the present moment is essential to change, neuroscience is now offering a series of very compelling answers as to why this is the case.
1. Change arises through awareness
How does mindfulness enable change in the coaching encounter?
At the heart of this is the scientific understanding that our consciousness is a limited capacity system. As humans, we can only hold a small amount of information in our awareness. This happens for reasons of efficiency. Our unconscious is a set of “pervasive, adaptive, sophisticated mental processes that occur largely out of view” (Stephen Wilson). This includes many higher-order psychological processes and states.
However, from the perspective of creating change, it is precisely the more unconscious sophisticated mental processes in which we are interested as coaches. These automatic processes and the beliefs associated to them are often the very material keeping clients stuck in certain loops and patterns. In order for these processes to be revised, we need to bring awareness to them first. It transpires that mindfulness is one of the most effective ways to achieve this!
“We are only now beginning to grasp what the contemplative and meditative traditions have always known: we are largely automatic and unaware. Without meditation and mindfulness practice, the truth of our automaticity is difficult to realise.” (Ron Kurtz)
Mindfulness brings what was previously unconscious and otherwise unknown into conscious awareness. Specifically, what neuroscience has now revealed is that mindfulness facilitates a “bottom-up” process. When we are in a mindful state, information is able to flow upwards from our unconscious and our bodies, in order to be filtered and processed by our conscious mind.
By using certain modalities such as Focusing, Hakomi or certain mindful embodiments, clients are able to become aware of core organising beliefs. They can track the way in which these immediately take expression in their sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories, attitudes, relational ways of being, posture, breathing, or movements.
In this state, what Kurtz describes as “the truth of our automaticity” becomes evident. Our automatic unconscious processes and beliefs are laid bare. This awareness is the first, essential step to change.
2. Embodied self-awareness is as important as conceptual self-awareness
While we now have the evidence that mindfulness is the key tool for increasing our awareness of what’s really going on for us and which memories and beliefs are really driving us, the fields of Interpersonal Neurobiology and Embodied Cognition are now adding a further piece to the jigsaw.
They indicate that the critical aspect in facilitating personal change requires developing embodied self-awareness in addition to conceptual self-awareness (for more on this, see Alan Fogel’s book Body Sense).
Conceptual self-awareness is the ‘idea’ of who we are. It is the answer to the question “Who am I?”. Embodied self-awareness, on the other hand, is the direct felt experience of what is happening in our bodies. It is the answer to the question “What is arising in me right now?”. From this perspective, it is not as abstract as conceptual self-awareness.…in fact it is not an abstraction at all.
By bringing attention to our sensorial experience in the present moment, we may discover something different to what we imagined we might find: something that is perhaps more ‘true’, something rooted in the here-and-now.
The science indicates that embodied self-awareness offers greater access to the “subjective emotional present”, in which one is able to feel one’s sadness, pain or joy without judgment and without trying to escape it. This means we are less beholden to our emotions and sensations, and more able to attend to them and let them pass naturally. In this state of present-moment awareness the body is more spontaneous, creative, and open to change.
This is an important new understanding to integrate into the field of coaching, which has
long focused on conceptual self-awareness, digging into the stories that clients hold about themselves. This approach has only been half the story.
In many ways, these new sciences indicate that what we need to support our clients to cultivate is perhaps better described as “bodyfulness” - a term used by Christine Caldwell to refer to deep mindfulness of the body. This is what we focus on in Body-oriented Coaching.
3. Mindfulness increases neuroplasticity, and with it, our range of options
One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself. This is neuroplasticity. It confirms the inspiring outlook that we are able to change and rewire ourselves through the power of our own focus.
In the coaching context, we can support our clients to practise and strengthen this ability to direct their attention by guiding our clients to remain, mindfully, with their present moment experience.
Over time, practice in turning the volume up or down on particular channels of our awareness - including our bottom-up stream which is available to us through our bodily sensations, as well as our top-down stream of thought and mental chatter - increases the capacity for us to choose how to respond to what is arising in our experience.
This is very important, as it sets the stage for far greater freedom in the lives of clients. As the Existentialist Rollo May said, “Freedom is the capacity to pause between stimulus and response.”
Just as powerfully, the very act of directing attention through mindfulness amplifies neuroplasticity by stimulating the release of neurochemicals in the brain. As coaches, we can support clients to build new neural pathways for new behaviours while they are in the state of mindfulness.
In this way, resourceful states can be hardwired and become long-term traits. Rick Hanson has written a very compelling book on this called Hardwiring Happiness and it offers very practical techniques that coaches can start to use straight away.
In summary, mindfulness is a powerful addition to the coach’s toolkit. It facilitates clients accessing bottom-up information that is outside their awareness. It develops embodied self-awareness. It shines a light on core beliefs and on automatic processes. It increases the range of options between stimulus and response. It ensures the release of neurochemicals so that behaviours can be changed, new neural pathways developed, and resourceful states be turned into enduring neural traits.
What is not to like? The Wisdom traditions had it right from the beginning, and the new fields of Neuroscience and Embodied Cognition are explaining why. From this perspective it is really not an overstatement to say: the more we develop mindfulness, the more options we have in life! The Power of Now is here, in operational form, for the coaching encounter.