Mindful Mentoring & Experiential Learning

The wild-eyed, 30-something guy at the bookstore was practically breathless:  “I want a book on Mindfulness.” he said, “Not philosophy and theory, but how to actually do it.”

Sound familiar? Along with peaking interest in mindfulness is a building fever  for “how to” instruction – how to actively integrate ancient contemplative practices into daily living.  Whether you view Mindfulness as “the key to performing at your peak” or“the essential resource we’re all wasting”, by now you know it’s a good thing and you want it.

What you need now is a teacher,  and here’s why.

Mindfulness is an experiential skill – you learn about the experience of mindful presence by feeling it in your own mind and body. An experience-based skill-set is most effectively transferred from teacher to student through shared experience – whether learning piano or learning mindfulness. If you’re looking to successfully apply mindfulness in your life, connecting with an experienced mindfulness mentor is extremely helpful.

The most effective mindfulness instructors will not only provide a visceral experience for students, but also bridge the gap between developing skills and real life.  More than just a talking head leading a formal practice, truly effective teachers are mindfulness mentors that help students apply the principles of mindful living real time, on the ground, in a way that is uniquely their own.

Working with a mindfulness mentor means access to your own personal subject matter expert, someone with a lifetime of language to describe the essence of the practice and personal arsenal of tools, techniques and strategies accrued over years of contemplative practice, often with a good dose of personal hardship along the way.

And these folks aren’t just the big names holding online trainings for hundreds, either.  Some of the best mentors are embedded in local community programs, yoga studios, and mental health clinics,  doing small group work or 1:1 training. It’s this access to interactive discussion and transparent sharing about the challenge of being human that brings invaluable perspective to the learning.

Don’t get caught by the frenzied search for a quick fix. Reading about mindfulness isn’t nearly the same as experiencing it in your own mind and body, and starting with a good teacher is paramount for success.

Making a personal experiential connection with a teacher is key;  even better if that teacher offerings mentoring in individual daily application.   If you really want to grokthe practice, check out the 10 step plan below:

8 Steps to Mindful Mentoring:

  1. Determine Outcome. Get specific about exactly what want to gain from mindfulness training.  Are you looking for leadership presence, spiritual connection, physical wellness or emotional resilience? Mindfulness training impacts  a variety of  factors from stress hormone levels and habitual reactivity to short term working memory, but it’s not a cure all.  Avoid “pie in the sky thinking”; knowing exactly what you want from your training experience will get your journey off on the right foot.
  2. Choose your Filter. Before committing to any training or individual teacher, consider messaging.  Who will best translate the skills of attention, awareness and intention for your greatest learning? A secular business coach will position the skills differently than the non-dualist yoga professional, who will language the practice differently than the RN working at the hospital.  Look for language and framework that resonates with your personal style.  Also consider group size and venue – do you enjoy learning as part of a group or does the accountability and scheduling flexibility of individual coaching appeal?  Are you more drawn to something through a local church or an informal meet up group? Like finding the perfect pair of shoes, finding the perfect channel for learning deserves some consideration.
  3. Pick a Pony.  Commit to a specific teacher and a particular course of action.  You might choose an exposure activity (one day workshop or  introductory webinar) or a more extended formal training of several weeks. It doesn’t so much matter what you choose, as long as you make an intentional start and follow through.  Find something that appeals and go for it!
  4. Stay the course. As you explore the practice, you will be better served as a serial learner than a simultaneous sampler of services.   Although I recommend trying out several teachers and various modes of teaching over time, your learning will evolve most efficiently with a series of discrete trainings over time rather than a book and an app and an online class all at once.  When you do commit to a teacher, stay the course by participating fully in all the practice and follow up, then evaluate next steps for continued learning.  One step at at time, over time.
  5. Time takes time.  Stick with the journey. Current research shows that successfully re-patterning neural habit is the result of repetition over time and duration.  They call it a practice because it takes practice, but you can choose how.  Determine your own “minimum dosage” for mindfulness practice, based on what you’re ready for, and then stick with it.  An informal practice of quiet focused breathing over morning tea provides real neural benefit, as does a formal seated practice of 30 minutes a day.  Determine your own personal dosage and stick with it.  And remember that a variety of reflective practice (yoga, fly fishing, Ikebana, journaling) support mindful connection of mind and body.
  6. Convenience Counts. Just like finding a good therapist or a great dentist, finding a good fit for mindfulness training is a highly personal decision.  What do you like for location, availability, format and personal style.  Do you prefer small group or individual coaching?  Where, what time, how long? Better to be patiently selective than take a training that doesn’t feel right and turns you off for years.
  7. Let yourself off the hook.  Start where you are and consider an attitude of compassionate curiosity. Being an adult learner isn’t easy, especially on top of whatever mental and emotional challenges are driving the desire to learn in the first place.  Current research is revealing the key role of compassion in rewiring the brain.  Intentionally fostering a self compassionate mindset paves the way for smoother sailing.
  8. Look out for at the long haul.  BKS Iyengar’s final book, “Light on Life”, includes deep wisdom on the changing nature of contemplative practice over a lifetime.  The fact is, the nature of mindfulness practice when you are a school age child is different than that of a college student, which is different again when life moves towards parenting, growing a professional career, or retirement.   Stopping, starting and modifying the practice over a course of years is a natural part of true mindful living.  Take it easy and enjoy the ride.

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