Jim, age 32 and recently promoted to his first managerial position, has just finished his first one-on-one meeting with Anita – a long time employee, age 56, and the team leader on an important marketing project.
Walking back to his office, Jim’s thoughts flash back to the meeting with Anita and how badly he responded to some of her questions. Although aware of the way he handled himself, the more attention he gives to his behavior – defensive, condescending and interrupting – the deeper his feelings of regret and guilt. He cannot stop the judgments and self-incrimination. He knows that his behavior represents a trait – that it’s not the first time he’s acted this way.
How can Jim use mindfulness practice to overcome these traits and eliminate the unproductive consequences? Just being aware of his behavior is not mindfulness. Mindful awareness is more than just being aware.
What is mindfulness and how can we use it to create choice and change?
Mindfulness is a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present moment. When we’re mindful, we observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them right or wrong, good or bad.
By becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, from moment to moment, we give ourselves the possibility of greater freedom and choice. It also provides the space for releasing “emotional baggage” in an environment of self-caring. .
Mindfulness is an act of self-attunement. This idea then raises the question of what is the self. Without going into the deep waters of metaphysics or philosophy… for now, let’s think of the self as the part of us that witnesses our thoughts. For example, recently while meditating my mind wandered and many thoughts emerged. I suddenly had the experience of experiencing myself thinking. It is this awareness of being aware that emerges during this process.
In other words when we become mindful, we realize that we are not our thoughts; we become an observer of our thoughts, in the moment, without judging them. We become aware that our mind’s activities are not the totality of who we are. It’s from this meta-position that we can decrease the gap between emotional impulse and action. As Jon Kabat Zinn observes, “Ordinary thoughts course through our mind like a deafening waterfall.”
The mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts. All too often these thoughts are about the past or future. The past no longer exists, except in our imagination. The future is imaginary until it happens. We worry about the future and ruminate about the past. The one moment we actually can experience — the present moment — is the one that seems most elusive and we most avoid. Life unfolds in the present. According to Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard and author of Mindfulness. “When people are not in the moment, they’re not there to know that they’re not there.”
I know that I’ve taken some liberties here and moved slightly away from mindfulness practice as meditation. As Jon-Kabat Zinn explains, “Mindfulness is the only intentional, systematic activity that is not about trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else.” Mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are, not trying to change what is already going on.
I’m looking at mindfulness not so much from a meditative perspective—which is invaluable and beneficial – as from an attentional, neuroscience perspective, using bodily dynamics inherent in mindfulness mediation as a pathway to choice and change.
At the risk of being reductionist and oversimplifying a rather complex operation; information from the outside is internalized through the brainstem and transmitted to the upper regions of our brain (cortex and prefrontal cortex) via the insular and sub-cortical operations. Executive functions are then activated and meaning assigned to our internal affective experience.
Back to Jim
So, how does all this translate to Jim’s situation? The problem with Jim is that he’s not aware of his behavior in the moment. He’s not aware of what he’s doing as he’s doing it.
The first step in the process of helping Jim achieve greater emotional self-regulation is to start with the breath – the essential mindfulness meditation technique – as a means for Jim to connect with his body. This connection with his body can then become a physiological trigger alerting Jim, in the moment, that he has the opportunity to act differently.
To manage his self-talk and internal narrative that has been one of critical self-judgment, self-incrimination and regret – Jim could engage the COAL process developed by Dr. Daniel Siegel. This process makes a clear distinction between being aware and mindful awareness. COAL stands for: Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance and Love.
So, here’s how it would apply to Jim. Instead of judging himself for how he responded to Anita, he could in effect, have this narrative:
- (C) “ hmm, look at how I just responded… now I’m mindful of my response”
- (O) “okay… that’s not the first time I behaved this way, it happens too often
- (A) “ it happened again, but this time I’m mindful of my behavior”
- (L) “ while I don’t approve of my behavior, I know that I care about people and in my heart, I’m a good person.”
Once a mindfulness practice is established, the resulting new level of awareness can help Jim begin to recognize new opportunities and choices that previously eluded his awareness. The more he recognizes opportunities to make different choices throughout his day, the greater his ability to make responsible behavioral choices.
Being in a mindful state means we need an unrelenting curiosity about anything that might surface in our experience affecting our intention of becoming more present, aware and living life intentionally.
Making a commitment to mindful self-awareness isn’t easy, it takes diligent practice and the application of a range of our most resourceful emotions to carry it through. The effort will produce tangible benefits in your life – it’s a powerful choice for change.
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George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants