AIM: The Heart of the Mindfulness Approach

In our research into Mindful Leadership and in our experience working on mindfulness with leaders, teams and others, we’ve found that there are 3 key capacities that lie at the heart of the change that people are looking for when they invite us to work with them around mindfulness. We call these AIM: Allowing, Inquiry and Meta-awareness. What are these capacities? Why are they so important and how do you develop them?

Allowing is ability to let each present-moment be what it actually is – as opposed to what you’d like it to be. The is not about being passive. Rather, it’s about being strongly reality-oriented.

Many of us spend much of our time not letting what is the case to be the case.

“If only it weren’t like this everything would be OK.”

“If I had a… bigger house, if I had a different partner, or a different job… If I had a different boss… If only I’d made a different decision two-weeks ago – then everything would be OK.”

This is all just wishfully chasing delusions.

Things are as they are.

But here’s the good news. If we turn to things as they are with an allowing, open-hearted attitude, if we let them be as they actually are, then choice opens up for us.

“It’s like this. Now what?”

You can carry that same allowing attitude into the next step in the process by asking “What would be best? Best for me, best for others, best for the situation?”

In that way we can see that ‘allowing’ has a kind of wisdom dimension to it – deeply focussed on what is actually going on in each moment – and it has a compassion dimension – actively looking for what is best for yourself, for others, for the whole context you find yourself in.

As one participant on our Mindful Leader course put it: “So I think, ‘Ooh, this is all a bit uncertain, and I’m quite unsure…’ and I see that’s actually an okay place to be. From there you can explore.”

Choice begins to open out when you allow.

Inquiry stands for an attitude of curiosity and open-hearted engagement with whatever shows up in each moment. It’s about being actively interested in your changing experience. Interested in your surroundings, in your own thoughts and feelings; interested in other people and what they are saying (or not saying). Just plain interested. It is the opposite of the kind of numb blankness that can come over us when we feel bored.

It is easy to maintain that interest when things are going well – when they are pleasant. But you can also very helpfully do it when things feel more difficult. By turning towards a difficulty with an attitude of openness and curiosity the whole framework changes. When you feel simply aversive, the difficulty can feel insoluble – something you just want to go away. But difficulties don’t go away just because we want them to. When you switch on interest and curiosity, the situation can take on a new complexion and new possibilities can emerge.

As a participant on the Mindful Leader course put it: “I think that bit of stepping back and just asking, ‘“What actually is the problem here? What is it that’s getting at me?”’ I find really helpful, actually.”

Meta-awareness it is the ability to step slightly aside from the stream of thinking, feeling, sensing and the various impulses to act that come along with these and see them as objects rather than as the subject of experience.

“Thoughts are not facts”, as it is often put in mindfulness contexts. Or “I am not my thoughts.” The same applies to feelings, senses and impulses – all the various components of the experiencing mind.

As one participant on our Mindful Leader programme put it “… it gave me a way to take back, to own some of that control if you like, over my own thinking. So, recognizing that I’m choosing my thoughts, and they’re not me, they’re just the noise of what’s going on.”


“The program has allowed me to to see these things—thoughts, feelings, sensations—separately from me, view them, explore them …”

Taken together, the components of AIM open up a vital, conscious space in the otherwise often automated and semi-unconscious flow of experience.

That move from unconscious reactivity to conscious responsiveness is one of those tiny shifts that changes everything.

Worlds pivot on such changes.

One of the leaders we have worked with told us about a member of her team who had what she called ‘just that way’ of getting her to react. It was all very subtle. Just a particular tone of voice and inclination of the head which, when it occurred in meetings felt like a powerful signal to the others in the group and whenever it emerged the whole tone of the meeting shifted. What had felt open and participative descended into a kind of sludgy and unspoken uncooperativeness.

What changed was that the leader we were working with began to ask herself what it was she was bringing to this configuration. She paid closer, more mindful attention. She noticed that whenever that tone of voice emerged, when that team member’s head tilted in just that particular way, she herself grew edgy. That edginess led her to begin to react: she felt herself wanting to bring the meeting to a close as fast as possible. That led her to rush everything and to stop listening.

Looking out for that, the next time the team met she made a conscious decision to respond differently. When that head tilted and that tone of voice emerged, she decided in the moment to ease back and to allow a space. She let that space hang there just for a beat or two. And then she enquired – “So what would be most helpful right now?” A genuinely open, unstructured question, not expecting anything in particular.

That, she told us, changed everything. The team began to rally, ideas flowed, they moved forward.

The ability to AIM opens a space where can respond instead of react. It can change everything.

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