On a sunny Thursday in October, I got on my bike towards Berg en Terblijt where Aimée Coenen welcomed me in her large farmhouse. After an extensive tour during which Aimée shared with me her renovation plans and the big wish of organizing group classes and mindfulness mid-weeks retreats where participants can stay in large lofts, it quickly became clear to me again what a special and inspiring woman she is. Actually, the "building block" is central to what mindfulness really is; "it's about enjoying the process, in the here and now, in which the trick is not to fixate too much on the end goal, that gives you the flexibility to adjust your course along the way.
Having followed a mindfulness course myself last year, I still apply this mindset on a daily basis and therefore I would like to introduce you to Aimée Coenen:
Aimée is mother to Kée and Fló and married to Ron and together they bought an authentic farm last year, a place where they share their passion for mindfulness and consciousness development with others. Having completed psychology with a specialization in cognitive psychology and having had the opportunity to coach and mentor students for many years, Aimée is currently a certified mindfulness trainer and positive psychology coach and owner of her own coaching practice: aimeecoenen.nu.
‘How did you came in touch with mindfulness yourself?’
‘Sometime in 2009, the mindfulness seed was planted. After the premature births of both our daughters, meditation brought me support in this rather difficult period. So when I was proposed to participate as a test subject in the research called 'mindfulness extended', an evidence-based mindfulness program, my interest was immediately piqued. Mindfulness is so beautiful and valuable, I immediately started passing it on to the students I supervised during my job as a student advisor. However, practicing mindfulness at home I kept finding that difficult.... I was too busy and I didn't have the time for it. At least this is what I thought to myself. Until my body hit the brakes in 2015. Wanting to meet everyone's expectations, the two premature births of our daughters, too much work and on top of that in my private life many intense emotional issues led me into a burnout. During that time I let that mindfulness seed grow. Mindfulness became my salvation, my guide.’
'What exactly does mindfulness mean to you and what has it brought you?'
'Mindfulness is about attention, and learning to focus your attention. It teaches you to be more conscious in life, to do things with more attention. You are also able to make more conscious choices, while you develop more awareness. For example, you become aware of the fact that you are thinking. We have thoughts but we are not what we think. That makes you stop getting so stuck in thoughts and that brings peace. Being more in the here and now has taught me an enormous amount about myself. Thoughts and thought patterns became clear and I began to recognize them. Then space is created, space within which you have a choice. Do I still want this? Or do I want it differently now?
It takes some practice however. You can see it as an attention muscle that you have to train. The more you train, the bigger and stronger that muscle becomes, the more easily you can recognize that you are back on that train of thought and then you experience the space in which you can choose, you want to get off and stop for a moment to feel if you are still going in the right direction.’
"Many students will recognize this feeling; you have chosen an education and you are on a thunderous train toward a particular job. It's important to dare to get off every now and then, to listen to your feelings and stand still. Did you get on the right train? Mindfulness brings you moments like these, so you can better feel if you are still heading in the right direction. AND it gives you the strength to take that leap into the deep end in case you're not."
'With the word Mindfulness, many people associate it with something floaty, is there actually still such a stigma on it in our current society?'
'Yes and no. Some people still see it as something spiritual, which of course it partly is. But there has been a lot of research on mindfulness since the 1970s. And that has grown exponentially in the years since. It's evidence-based. The results don't lie. It did help me that it's evidence-based and, of course, I also speak from my own experience that Mindfulness contributes to the quality of my life. So you can wonder if this experience is not enough in itself and if we should want to explain and prove it in black and white.’
'As we students are often very scientifically trained anyway 😉 , wouldn't you like to talk a little more about the background of mindfulness?'
'John Kabat Zinn is the founder of the 8-week mindfulness training, and he incorporated meditation techniques from the East into this program. Then he immediately started researching this, where he was able to demonstrate its effects in people with chronic pain. This program was called "the Mindfulness-based stress reduction" which also incorporated a lot of bodywork such as yoga. In the 1990s, clinical psychologists picked up on these positive results. They further developed this program into "Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy," in which you become aware that your thoughts are not facts. These psychologists in fact showed that this caused significant reductions in the dark thoughts that patients with recurrent depressive episodes had and furthermore improved their ability to cope with these particular thoughts.
'How should mindfulness ideally be integrated within our current society?’
'For this we have to start with the children, because if we give them this at an early age, it can ensure that they learn to take care of themselves, others and the world. Our current school system is naturally very focused on cognition and performance. Cito tests (tests used in Dutch primary schools which give a numerical indication of which level of secondary school the children are able to attend) are administered very early, in kindergarten. Our achievement society leads us to be in "do mode" a lot and a lot and busy in our heads. Mindfulness teaches us to switch to "being mode" more often. And from that being mode, you can also do. Surely it would be nice if we could teach children from an early age how to find a balance in that. As far as I am concerned, it really deserves more attention in all schools. From kindergarten to college.'
"It's much better to set your goal from "being mode," which gives you a much better sense of what suits you. It also allows you to enjoy the journey toward it much more and to adjust your goal when necessary."
'You mentioned briefly that practicing Mindfulness yourself at home is not easy and I think many readers will recognize themselves in this. How have you still managed to train this attention muscle and build it into your daily life?'
'In the phase after my burnout, this remained difficult, because at times when things were going well again, the feeling of exercising ebbed away. But deep down, I knew it could bring me a lot and I kept pushing it on myself for a while. At some point a button flipped. I can't recall very well when and how, but that button flipped and it became a habit.
And it's so valuable, it really adds to the quality of life. I am convinced that this could not only be the case for me, and that's why I want to pass it on so much!
"The clouds are your thoughts, above it the sun always shines. Mindfulness teaches me to fly through this cloud cover and look down on it."
'I notice this affects you, how do you try to do this with your own children?'
'A great question. I've found that, above all, I shouldn't tell them to do it, because that doesn't work. I live it and I see that they take pieces with them. When I see that they run into something, I naturally try to guide them in that and then the mindfulness lessons come naturally. Sometimes they wave it away, sometimes they pick something up. And I myself keep discovering and learning. While I was still in the mode that you have to make the most of it, my oldest daughter Kée felt unerringly that her place was not at pre-university education. She wanted to make the switch to senior general secondary education. In the end, that took some time; it was quite a process. But I am happy and grateful that I dared to let go of my deep-rooted belief that you have to make the most of it. Only then did I realize that this was the right decision to be made for her. I still really like that decision because what is more important in life, well-being or achievement? As far as I'm concerned, the latter, and that's exactly where mindfulness has offered a supporting role, namely by moving away from that drive for achievement at the expense of your mental well-being.'
'This month is in the theme of anxiety in its broadest sense. You mentioned that during your burnout you also often suffered from panic attacks. How has mindfulness helped you in this to get rid of these fear thoughts?'
'By realizing that thoughts are just thoughts and thoughts are not facts. This has allowed me to get more in touch with my feelings and to notice earlier when I am experiencing stress. I like to use the metaphor of the thermometer to explain this. You have a green phase in which you are completely relaxed, you have a yellow phase, an orange phase and a red phase in which the stress you experience gets bigger and bigger each time. The stress can also shoot through toward a purple almost black error. Mindfulness has helped me feel where I am on this thermometer and so I can avoid ending up in that purple panic state again. I am only human and am nowhere near always in the green, but I can notice more quickly when I am in the yellow or orange area and act to get back into green. This way I know when it's time to shift back.'
'How do you do this, this switching back?'
'The moment I find myself in the yellow area, I make time to practice more short meditations. I'm still a busy bee, so going outside for a walk and getting some fresh air also fits in with this. My biggest pitfall is an overly full schedule, but mindfulness has really brought me to feel much more clearly when my thermometer and thus stress is rising again. At times like these I go on that walk, even though it may feel as if it does not fits into my schedule and I do not have the time for it. However, mindfulness shows me that these are thus thoughts. Going on that walk brings much more focus and concentration instead of just running on and on. In this way you act preventively to avoid falling into that purple top of panic.'
"Sometimes when you're actually still in the yellow area on the thermometer, it's just valuable to shift back anyway in advance to avoid actually being in the red area constantly trying to be on top of your games."
'People who start the mindfulness process at your practice, do they also experience these fear thoughts?'
'Many people have fear thoughts indeed. These often stem from a sense of loss of control. Experiencing high pressure coupled with having a certain set of expectations of themselves and feeling it imposed by their environment is a universal theme. Many people long for more peace and quiet and then they have come to the right place when they contact me.'
“What we do within mindfulness is first navigate to safety and from there you can explore stress; what triggers you and where on the thermometer do I find myself?”
‘How come we actually have these fear thoughts and how do we learn to be kinder to ourselves?’
'Evolution has programmed us to dwell more on danger rather than reward, as this was important for survival. 70% of all our thoughts are negatively colored. I think Mindfulness first of all made me realize that I have thoughts. Previously, I identified with what I was thinking. And many thoughts come from critical voices, we all have those. Through mindfulness I have become much more aware of these, and they are still there, but I don't always listen to them anymore. That makes me softer and milder towards myself. That's why I always say, mindfulness leads to heartfulness, where you learn to live much more from your heart. And I am very grateful to my children because they remind me every day to want to take good care of myself, because that is what I want them to do most: to take good care of themselves, and to stay close to themselves. The best way to pass this on is of course to live it!
After our conversation, it was time to get back on my bike towards the university. However, I was perhaps a little too "mindful" on the bike, causing me to lose my way and be late for my class. Secretly, I couldn't care less about all that at that moment, as I was still enjoying the feeling of having this inspiring conversation 😉.
If you are interested in how mindfulness exactly works in the brain, than you could check out the following articles on our website:
Author: Joyce Burger