The benefits of one-to-one mindfulness

At the Mindfulness Network we have been talking for some time about how one-to-one mentoring and coaching could expand the options for people to learn and deepen their practice of mindfulness. The main focus for teaching mindfulness in recent years has been on the group experience, and for really good reasons. Lots of people can learn together in a group, and it can really facilitate the learning process to discover that we share many common challenges, as well as the insights and possibilities that come when we start practising meditation. The group experience helps many of us move out of isolation and into a sense of community.

However, groups may not always be the optimum way of sharing mindfulness. The primary focus on common human processes rather than tailoring to personal circumstances means people are often left to decipher for themselves how the learning is relevant to their own situation. Sometimes they are left with questions they don’t find the answer to – for example, how can mindfulness help with my relationship challenge, or my lack of fulfilment at work, or my specific medical condition? The general principles and processes of mindfulness are offered to the group and teachers must trust that people will find ways to implement these in their lives. But everyone is at their own stage of development, with unique circumstances, and even though many commonalities apply, I’ve noticed that for some the teaching doesn’t quite land in a group context, and there isn’t the space and time to go into this with the individual in depth. People sometimes say: “It took me a really long time to realise that I was still striving to attain a state of calm in meditation despite the whole course being about letting go of that.” It’s amazing what we can miss because of our blind spots, biases, and misconceptions.

There are also people who feel uncomfortable working in a group, or whose life circumstances make regular weekly times difficult to commit to. For some, the group itself leads them to feel stressed and depleted, which won’t make an optimum learning environment for them, whereas they might feel safer in a one-to-one context. There’s also the cliff edge issue at the end of a course. We create a learning container for two months and then suddenly it’s taken away and the individual is often left to find their own way forwards. Even though many resources are available these days to help people sustain a connection to mindfulness, people often lose the sense of structure and accountability that their course group gave them. More than eight weeks is usually needed to embed and sustain a mindfulness practice for deep transformation.

In one-to-one mindfulness coaching and mentoring, the time and dates are agreed individually and are open-ended so the individual can decide when they are ready to let go of the learning container. In sessions, we can zoom in on a person’s particular situation, process or challenge in its specific presentation, looking at the content, patterns or processes that may be blocking them from deepening their practice, as well as uncovering the unique strengths they can bring to this work.

We can also tailor meditation practices to suit someone’s life circumstances in the moment. At a particular point someone might benefit from a focus on grounding so we might drop into mindfulness of breathing or attending to the feet or hands. In a different moment, they might benefit from a wider perspective best facilitated by an open awareness practice. If someone’s life is chaotic, we can work on cultivating structure, whereas if rigidity is an issue we can work on letting go. Someone may or may not need a ‘working with difficulty’ practice at a point in time– in a group that can’t be easily catered for, whereas in one-to-one work it can. A wide range of practices can be introduced to meet a person’s needs and stage of development, offering appropriate support in that moment to help them come to balance and wholeness.

There’s also flexibility in terms of curriculum and content. Sometimes it might be most valuable in a mentoring session to focus on kindness or soothing practices from, let’s say, the Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living (MBCL) programme, while at other times it might be appropriate to focus on working with feeling tone as practised in the Mindfulness Frame-By-Frame course. Sometimes mindful communication through Insight Dialogue practice might be emphasised. Mindfulness means offering an appropriate response to what’s happening now, and in mentoring we can turn towards that need precisely, being completely focused on the mentee and the options most suitable for them at this point in time. There something very mindful about the spontaneity that’s possible in a one-to-one session that can draw from all sorts of different possible frameworks to decide on how we might work together right now. Some people also are more willing to share their circumstances in a one-to-one session - offering full attention to one person can create an environment of trust and healing for people who may feel vulnerable or isolated in groups.

A working definition of mindfulness coaching and mentoring for me is as follows – “a one-to-one approach to understanding the mechanisms of our minds, bodies and environment through paying attention to how they are presenting in our current direct experience, and learning from this how to live in service of the greatest possible fulfilment, agency, meaning and kindness.” Our ability to pay attention and relate to our minds, bodies and environment is cultivated by meditation practice, so this is a key element in most mentoring sessions, though inquiry through dialogue is also an important way to discovering and stabilising insight.

Like it’s group counterpart, mindfulness mentoring is a phenomenological approach, recognising our inner and outer world, along with the evidence from scientific inquiries into these worlds, as a source of wisdom that reveals the principles of practice that can support flourishing. Inquiring experientially into a person’s life situation as it presents session-by-session offers a highly targeted way for the mentee to test the hypothesis that much dissatisfaction is created by the futile attempt to keep things solid and steady in an inevitably changing world, and that this leads to struggle and frustration especially when we try to hold onto fleeting pleasure and resist inevitable discomfort. The mentor may observe and reflect back these patterns of drivenness and aversion, pointing out when they seem to be fuelled by identifying with habits of conceptual and perceptual processing that may in some circumstances be protective of survival but which are proving ineffective at creating wellbeing now.

Through tailored meditation and inquiry during and in-between sessions, a mentee can deepen their practice of recognising and decentring from unhelpful and inaccurate conceptual narratives, acknowledging and unhooking from reactive habit patterns, and learn to come back over and over again to a heart-felt connection with sensory experience. The focus on repeatedly attending to someone’s unique present-moment life experience as the source material for this practice and inquiry also offers a container for practice that is uniquely relevant for them. This strongly supports the motivation for them to discover whether understanding and being with reality in this way, learning to respond mindfully in the midst of difficulty and challenge, as well as practising the art of non-grasping appreciation, leads to a deeper equanimity, peace and contentment in life.

It seems to me that we have a very rich background to draw on in mindfulness mentoring work. This includes not only thousands of years of Buddhist psychology and phenomenology, and the frameworks and practices from foundational mindfulness programmes such as MBSR and MBCT, supported by half a century of scientific research that inform how we run groups, but also many aligned approaches that can really enhance one-to-one mentoring sessions. Some that I draw from include ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), Dan Siegel’s Mindsight approach, Ellen Langer’s different but complementary slant on mindfulness, and Ken Wilber’s mapping of stages of development. I have also learnt from writers such as John Teasdale, Pema Chodron, Jeremy Lent, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Iain McGilchrist and Chris Niebauer, from a wide range of poets (such as Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Blake and Danna Faulds), and from mindfulness curricula for graduates of an 8-week course (eg Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living, The Frame By Frame programme, Mindfulness - Taking It Further), and mindfulness programmes for specific contexts such as those working with OCD, pain or fatigue conditions, for parents, and in organisations. This is supported by my own experience and practice of mindfulness, which started in 2001 towards the end of a long period of anxiety and depression that was sustained by mental and behavioural habits that meditation helped me to see, understand and begin to unhook from, in work that continues day by day.

Of course, each mindfulness mentor will have their own life learning as a resource to share, and there are philosophers, seekers and teachers from a range of wisdom traditions who have spoken to the realities of the human condition over the ages. Our understanding of how the human mind operates, and how we can experience deepening joy, peace and awakening is developing all the time. Mindfulness mentoring offers an opportunity for any of this to be drawn on to support people as appropriate in a given moment. Teaching mindfulness in this flexible way requires the mentor to keep exposing themselves to new and existing approaches, insights and reflections and to continue deepening their own contemplative experience and understanding in a way that perhaps demands more of them than if they were sticking to a set curriculum. However, the investment can be worth it, leading to great creativity and aliveness in the session, and in the mentee’s deepening of mindfulness. It’s more like playing jazz than following sheet music.

To book a taster one-to-one mindfulness coaching and mentoring session, please contact Ed.

Back to the top