Mindfulness is a popular topic with ancient roots, addressing the timeless desire to be more awake, more resourceful and more effective in daily life. It can be defined as the nonjudgmental, compassionate, intentional awareness of what is – thoughts, emotions, communication and actions.
Realistically speaking, of course, everyday thoughts are frequently judgmental. Mindfulness is being aware of how everything shows up. That awareness itself is nonjudgmental. With it, we can observe all things without getting caught up in them, without getting hooked. Professor William Ury uses the metaphor of “going to the balcony” to take an objective, bigger perspective.
Compassion balances objectivity with care. It includes empathy but goes deeper by recognizing the confusion and pain that learners might have. Mindful trainers care enough to seek ways to be with that confusion and perhaps help to alleviate its source. Compassion helps you stand in the other person’s shoes – or the organization’s shoes, so to speak – so that you can better understand their experiences and the challenges they face. Compassion is open, not closed, and inclusive, not exclusive. Compassion implies taking a risk and reaching out to another, which enables teaching and learning.
If you only emphasize doing, if you fail to incorporate being here and now, you may end up not being helpful. People are human beings, after all. Trainers are hired to do something, to offer knowledge and skills, but can you begin from a place of “full presence,” as Peter Senge puts it? How does “how you show up” influence what you do and how others participate with you?
Mindfulness sets the stage for being at choice. The experience of being on autopilot is simply stimulus-reaction – there is no choice. But as psychiatrist Victor Frankl suggested, between stimulus and reaction is a gap, an opportunity to choose a response. The gap may not have inherent utility, so intentional awareness or mindfulness gives you the opportunity to take advantage of it. Awareness acknowledges all that is happening, recognizes the opportunity to choose and uses the gap to explore skillful actions.
Using Mindfulness in Training
Teach from what you know and do in your own life; nurture your own mindfulness practice. For example, start the first few minutes of your day by sitting quietly with your breath, letting thoughts simply be, neither clinging to them nor pushing them away. Whatever you’re thinking or feeling, just sit and breathe regularly.
Daily Breath is an example of an informal practice, which you can do anywhere in three simple steps:
- Pausing allows you to take advantage of the gap between stimulus and response. You can widen the experience of the gap and interrupt the unconscious, reactive mind. Simply pause and notice what you’re doing.
- Focus on where you feel your breath in your body. You don’t have to change anything; just pay attention to a few breaths.
- Starting with the place where you feel the breath, gradually expand your field of awareness to include the whole body; what is beside you; and, eventually, your entire surroundings.
At first, Daily Breath may take a couple of minutes, but eventually, you can develop enough proficiency that you can do it anywhere, anytime – which is the point. Try it the next time you stop at a traffic light or just before starting a class. No one will know you’re practicing.
Exploring the gap between stimulus and response calls for curiosity and reflection, so you can explicitly suggest curiosity and reflection as classroom guidelines. You can also encourage mutual respect – even when people disagree – as a way of bringing the compassionate side of mindfulness into the room.
Listen by pausing, relaxing and opening to the participants’ perspectives so that they feel truly heard. Recognize the urge to prepare your rebuttal while another person is talking.
Experiment with the rhythm of your program, finding a pace that keeps the participants engaged and alert yet relaxed. Someone described mindfulness as “relaxed vigilance.” Mix talking, doing and reflecting in a way that mimics the rhythm of breathing – inhaling and exhaling. That might include taking frequent breaks every 60 to 90 minutes to refresh everyone’s mental energy. Retention starts to drop off after about an hour or so; if you have something important to say, you want fresh minds to take it in.
The more you incorporate mindfulness into a variety of experiences, the more mindfulness becomes a way of being, not just a useful tool.