A few years ago I mentioned to a friend that I used mindfulness techniques in my leadership coaching and I was surprised when she chuckled. I queried her on why she thought it was funny, and she described to me her confusion at how an ancient Buddhist practice could in any way be applied within a corporate context. I got defensive and said something to the effect of, “Surely it’s better to have mindful leaders than mindLESS ones?” Meanwhile she continued to laugh.
And so I merrily continued on using mindfulness techniques - both for myself and for my coachees - comfortable in the knowledge that I was only using evidence-based approaches, which included a long list of reported benefits including (deep breath!) improved memory, motivation, and creativity (Langer, 1997), improvement in work-related metrics, such as job satisfaction (Kriger and Hanson, 1999), emotional awareness (Shefy and Sadler-Smith, 2006), social capital and workplace learning (Adams, 2007), improved workplace problem identification and coping skills (Walach et al., 2007), depression prevention and improved personal effectiveness (Williams et al., 2010), improved resilience and psychosocial functioning in the workplace (Burton et al., 2010), improved capacity to make new meanings of familiar situations, think more clearly, and feel calmer, more empowered, and empathetic (Marrs, 2007). And breathe out …
Despite all of these seemingly positive reasons for using mindfulness techniques, early on in my career as a coach I had a client report that he didn’t like what he experienced when he sat with his thoughts. He even labelled the practice as “dangerous”. I was curious and perplexed. How could being mindful be dangerous or negative in any way?
Never-the-less, I continued to use various mindfulness-based approaches in my work with clients, and even at times felt the need to “sell” the benefits of incorporating some sort of mindfulness practice to my corporate clients, because I often got the impression it was still considered a bit “soft” and “fluffy”. Certainly not dangerous.
Fast forward to our podcast interview with Dr Alex Norman and my previous comfort with using mindfulness techniques was called into question. In fact, I suddenly realised why my friend found it so funny and why my coachee found it dangerous. In part one of our podcast, Alex describes the rich history and praxis of meditation and mindfulness as a central part of the Buddhist faith. A key part of this is that it is highly contextual - that is to say that it exists in a very particular social and political structure, and is founded upon core tenets that are supported by those structures. Alex describes how western culture has, in effect, clawed out the juiciest bits of this approach and tried to squeeze it into a very different context.
So what does mindfulness become when placed in this context? Some suggest it becomes McMindfulness or a fast track to more egoic and self-absorbed behaviour. I think as a coach it is certainly important to be aware that Mindfulness (with a capital M) is perhaps not as benign as it seems, as well as conscious of how approaches to mindfulness can and are being misused. One of the biggest concerns is how mindfulness programs are sold as a panacea to what is now considered “normal” workplace stress, as a way for the individual to manage this stress. This often comes with a lack of any examination of what system elements might be causing the stress in the first place.
“Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.” Purser (2013)
Where does this leave me with my use of mindfulness, both in my own personal life as well as in sessions with clients? My answer (for now) is to be guided by Cavanagh and Spence’s (2012) approach to mindfulness, which they define as “a motivated state of decentred awareness brought about by receptive attending to present moment experience” (p.117). They suggest that being in this receptive state offers a multitude of proposed benefits, including increased awareness of behavioural choice points. I describe this to clients as pausing and essentially “zooming out” in order to become aware of the choices available in any given moment. I have found this a useful approach to being more mindful of my decisions and/or reactions both in my personal life as well as during coaching sessions. My clients have found this an approachable way of cultivating more mindful moments, without needing to bring about huge shifts to current behaviour.
And so, for now, I will continue to pause and zoom out on my own thinking and approach to this construct - both for my clients and myself - being ever mindful of both its levity and dangers.
Cavanagh, M. & Spence, G. (2012). Mindfulness in coaching: philosophy, psychology or just a useful skill? In Passmore, J, Peterson, D & Freire, T.(Eds.) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Psychology of Coaching and MentoringLondon: Wiley Blackwell (pp. 112-134).
Purser, R., & Loy, D. (2013). Beyond McMindfulness. Huffington post, 1(7), 13.