Mindfulness – a simple yet effective form of meditation that enables you to gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviours.
Is it really as straightforward as that? This type of description of mindfulness is very much in vogue at the moment, however I believe this is actually quite a limiting definition for a practice that can really open up and support your career change journey.
It has become very popular to think of mindfulness as simply a form of meditation, or being in the present moment, however if you look back to its Buddhist roots (without getting into any dogma or religious thinking) you will see that mindfulness is actually about paying attention to what is happening inside and around you. When you see that sign on the Tube saying ‘Mind the gap’ or the low roof with the notice ‘Mind your head’, you are not being invited to go into a quick meditation, you are being asked to pay attention, to observe what is happening, and to take notice of potential risks (or opportunities) in your environment that could have an impact on you.
Paying attention is about noticing and being with something without trying to change it. It is a neutral state, without judgement. It is also about taking the time to really explore the thing you are paying attention to – whether that is feelings, a state of mind, or something going on around us. Essentially, we need to get curious! Often when we are feeling something that is a bit uncomfortable, our first instinct is to stop feeling it, distracting ourselves with an activity, or rushing to find an answer or a solution to whatever is creating that feeling. Yet if we take the time to just sit with it for a while, without judging or criticising it, we frequently find that insights come. We can use those insights to help us make decisions.
If we take this wider and more useful definition of mindfulness, essentially focusing on what it really means to pay attention, what are the key benefits that you can take advantage of when going through career change? I’d like to focus on three in particular:
Often when we are going through a career change, it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed by what is happening, or by all the decisions you have to make and the tasks you have to complete to move you along your journey. Just thinking about this can put us in a spin, making it even harder to think clearly and this in itself can raise stress levels. Mindfulness has been shown to be incredibly useful as a stress reliever, as the very act of being calm and paying attention to what is happening to you right now, and how you are feeling right now, takes you out of fight or flight mode, and brings you into a relaxed state of mental clarity and calm. This helps you to focus more on what you actually need to get done, in a calm and thoughtful way, and helps you stop ruminating on negative or unhelpful thoughts.
Better decision making
When you are in a mindful state, paying close attention, you have access to heightened awareness. This allows you to more clearly feel, label and understand your emotions – but critically it also enables you to see them more objectively, so that you don’t get caught up in them (a potentially big trap that can lead us astray when making decisions). Increased self-awareness has been shown to be related to better emotional intelligence – the somewhat intangible ‘something’ that affects how we manage behaviour, react to situations, navigate social complexities, and make the personal decisions that achieve positive results. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise and understand your own emotions, and those of others, and to use that awareness to help you navigate life more easily.
Increased creativity and performance
Mindfulness can also significantly increase your creativity – a huge advantage when you are tackling new challenges, and needing new insights and ideas to help you make your career change. Practising mindfulness can shift your brain to a state where it is generating alpha brain waves. When creative people are solving complex problems, their brains show huge bursts of alpha wave activity, indicating that their brains are calm, present, relaxed and aware. In these states we are fully absorbed in the moment, able to perform at our optimum and show ourselves at our most innovative.
Practical ways to be more mindful
On a practical basis how can you build your capacity to be mindful, so that it becomes a genuinely useful tool in your career change journey? I recommend a few things:
1. Breathe deeply
This one is for stress reduction. The key here is actually getting out of your mind, but in a mindful way! Instead, focus on your body. This could be whilst you are meditating if that is something you already practice and find helpful, but if not, a simple and easy way to do this is to just lay your hands on your belly and focus on your breathing. Bringing your full attention to the exercise, take a few deep breaths, making sure you are using a diaphragmatic breath (if you are doing a diaphragmatic breath your belly will rise as you breathe in, and drop as you breathe out), counting to 8 on the inhale, and then 8 on the exhale. This will slow your breathing right down, helping to lower your heart rate, increasing the flow of oxygen to the body’s cells, and relaxing your muscles. Endorphins will also be released, making you feel better and more able to cope with whatever situation you are in. At the very least, it will give you a bit of space before making an instant decision.
2. Listen to what your body is telling you
By learning to really listen to your body, you have access to insight and information that can help you make decisions and feel comfortable that you are moving in the right direction. When you have an important career change decision to make, take the time to settle down somewhere quiet and do a body scan. It may sound weird, but so often we make decisions based on lists of pros and cons, trying to weigh up all the positives and negatives. Whilst this approach definitely has its uses, it is also important to take account of what our body is telling us – as paying attention to the feelings that come up when we think about our decision can give us a real indication of whether something really resonates with our hearts. This approach can take some time and practice, especially if you have always been someone who makes decisions based on their head, but as you learn how your body responds in different situations, you will find that it gives you perspective and choices that you did not have access to previously.
If you do decide to start a regular meditation practice it can be as simple as focusing on your breath, or using a simple one-word/phrase chant (sometimes easier than what we are often told to do in meditation which is to relax the mind, and let thoughts float in and out without focusing on them). The more you practice the more automatic, natural and easy it will become. As it becomes easier, you will also find it is easier to enter that state of mind at will, when you need an extra boost of creativity.
Some studies also show that as well as the benefits of meditation in increasing mindfulness, there also appears to be a link between the ability to pay attention and exercise – both physical and mental. So staying in shape, whether through a regular gym session, swimming or walking; or teaching the brain to stay more focused through mental exercise, can be really helpful in building our capacity to be more mindful.
If you think of mindfulness in this wider definition, you will soon see it opening up many windows of opportunity to you. It gives you the chance to focus on what you are really feeling, to identify what really resonates with you, to come up with fresh ideas and insights, as well as a means to calm yourself down at stressful moments, so that you can actually take advantage of those fresh insights. Importantly, the more you practice being mindful, the easier it becomes, as you are building muscle memory, and giving yourself a ready-to-use, always-on resource that you can tap into at will.
©Allison Lindsay, 7th October 2017