Mindfulness and me

| May 20, 2015

Mindfulness is effective in managing stress and improving our attention span. Executive coach Leah Sparkes sees the benefits in her professional and personal life.

I have just finished an eight week course called mindfulness based stress reduction, or MBSR as it is known. The impacts of this experience have been both profound and subtle. As mindfulness seems to be a bit of a hot topic I thought I would share my own experience.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was the creator of the MBSR course over 25 years ago, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

Many corporations are investing in mindfulness training programs as a way to improve the performance and stress management for executives and leaders.

I decided to take the course for both professional and personal reasons.

I became interested in further delving into mindfulness as a way to support me in my work as an executive coach. The quality of my presence while sitting with clients is paramount. The better I am able to attune to their state the better able I am able to coach and support them.

Another reason I decided to explore this practice was because of the lauded benefit for improving attention and focus. I undertake never ending research as a result of my son’s diagnosis of ADD (and amusingly my own subsequent diagnosis with the exact same thing), and the practice of mindfulness holds great promise.

The key challenge for my son is distractibility. Personally I think he is a bit of a daydreamer (like his mother) but apparently these days it is recommended you take prescription drugs to stamp that type of thing out immediately.

Well, I was not happy with that option, so I set off looking for alternative methods that could help improve our attention spans.

During the MBSR course we met every week for a couple of hours. We practiced a variety of guided mediations including body scans, moving meditation and breath awareness meditations. We did a lot of sharing of our weekly experience. We also learned some basics of neuroscience and how mindfulness changes the brain in significant ways. We had weekly homework assignments, which included readings and the very important home practices. We also had one-day silent retreat toward the end of the course.

As I said, the effects have been both profound and subtle. The first week of practice had me feeling very grumpy – not the bliss I was looking for at all. But by the end of week two I began to notice some subtle changes. I was having a wonderful quality of sleep every night, waking feeling really refreshed.

Even though two 20-30 minute practices daily seemed like a big time commitment in a busy schedule, my sense of ‘business’ seemed to retreat as I settled into the daily practice.

Somehow I was creating a greater sense of space and time by being more centered and paying attention to the present moment.

As the course proceeded the benefits became more noticeable. One very important one was that I was less impulsive. For example when ordering a coffee I often have an impulse to order some treat to go with it (particularly with the cold weather), but now I found myself having the impulse but not acting on it.

The lack of impulsiveness has contributed to an increased sense of attentiveness and focus. I frequently have impulses for distraction from whatever I am working on: get up from my chair, click to a news or social media site, go to the fridge. The impulses are still there but there is now a space where I can make a choice not to follow that impulse and stay on task (a major bonus for someone with ADD).

This has helped me feel more productive and more satisfied by whatever I am doing. I also feel I have a greater sense of clarity on what is most important for me to focus on at any given time.

Interestingly, anger – an emotion I have mostly suppressed all of my life – seems to come charging in freely (not frequently), but I move thorough this emotional state very quickly.  I’m not sure if that will be a good thing for my husband or not, but it is what it is.

Also I am experiencing strong joy surges over really simple stuff: a warm cappuccino on a cold morning or going for a bush walk with my family. Food tastes better and music sounds better and no, I am not smoking anything!

Possibly one of the most wonderful effects of my mindfulness practice is that I feel freer and happier. And even when the uncomfortable or challenging moments arise I seem to be able to move through them more smoothly with less reactivity.

The body of research on the mental and physical health benefits is growing substantially. I watched a lecture last week by Dr. Craig Hassed who is a GP and senior lecturer from Monash University. He teaches, researches and writes about the health benefits of mindfulness, and the evidence he presented is compelling. The healing effect on the body of mindfulness works right down to the cellular level. It is also a powerful antidote to depression. Apparently there is significant evidence to show that the practice of mindfulness even slows the aging process. I am very hopeful about that benefit.

So my husband has already signed up for the next course without much encouragement from me. I think that is solid proof of the positive effects he has observed in me. My next little research project is mindfulness for kids. A mindful family life sounds pretty good to me!

If you are interested in hearing more get in touch with Kate Mathers at the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership (IECL) in Sydney. Kate is an absolutely delightful human being and a wonderful mindfulness teacher.

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Leah Sparkes

Leah Sparkes is head of Candeo Consulting. She has always been fascinated by what makes people tick and helps them flourish. Leah has a BA in Business and studied Psychology at the University of Technology in Sydney. She has also studied with the Institute of Executive Coaching & Leadership and the NeuroLeadership Institute. Over the last eight years Leah has worked with many executives, coaching them on and in their career, supporting them in areas of leadership development and personal growth. She is active on LinkedIn. Leah@candeo.com.au