05/31 – Mindfulness Plus: Practices for Developing Street Smart Awareness and Inquiry-in-Action

Jane Allen and Heidi Gutekunst

Jane Allen & Heidi Gutekunst

Heidi Gutekunst

Jane Allen

“We experience a world with great beauty and potential yet with too much stumbling and misuse of power, a world dominated by dysfunctional structures, fear and foregone potential.” 

(Allen and Gutekunst 12)


We need new ways of thinking, being and acting to deal with the opportunities and challenges we face in 2018 and beyond from the recurring mass-shootings in the USA, gender power dynamics, climate change, the development of Artificial Intelligence to the stress and disengagement of people at work. We are bombarded by messages about the challenges we face and also by seductively presented solutions that are grasped easily without confronting the more difficult issues and the discomfort of not being sure of the answers.

What are the steps we can take in better facing this complexity and uncertainty? The stance of the newly launched book Street Smart Awareness and Inquiry-in-Action, by Jane Allen and Heidi Gutekunst, with Bill Torbert, begins with the recognition that there is a need for more awareness, of self, of the dynamics in relationships and awareness of the systems we function in – especially in leadership. However, awareness alone doesn’t do it!

Mindfulness has taken a position as THE awareness practice, and yet, in itself it can be a bit like a drug and the new ‘opium of the people’ if it isn’t taken into action and the messy world of diversity, conflict, and power relationships. Mindfulness Plus goes beyond meditation introducing the discipline of Inquiry-in-Action in order to develop Street Smart Awareness, which Allen and Gutekunst advocate. This is the capacity to be mindful and aware in the moment and then to take powerful action steps in the ‘real’ world.

Inquiry-in-Action captures the need to be both reflective AND practical. Reflection requires us to be realistic and objective about what is actually going on in the world outside us and at the same time becoming more aware of our own internal bias and patterns based on the perspectives we typically take. Next, we connect up with our actions to be more timely and accurately focused thus achieving maximum impact.

Gutekunst and Allen propose taking things deeper and wider by developing a juggling ability to notice what’s happening with me, whilst being consciously aware of others with whom we are in relationship, and at the same time sensing into a wider circle in our environment. The stretch, however, is to be aware of all three at the same time and then to act on the basis of these multiple perspectives. Mindfulness is an essential foundational piece but in itself may not help us impact more powerfully to transform the world around us for the better unless we shift focus by several degrees.

In order to develop more Street Smart Awareness, the book introduces a number of tested methods to encourage and develop the ‘muscles’ needed to inquire in the midst of action. We have modified four practices for this article (from the 45 practices in the book, by 18 people from 8 countries) that can be done by yourself, with your team and within your company, if you wish to develop more Street Smart Awareness.

Practice: Evening Gratitude Circle                              

By Heidi Gutekunst

The Evening Circle allows us to be appreciative and grateful with the important people in our life. It is a practice for building trust, more loving relationships, and bringing a sense of calm to our everyday lives. When it is practiced regularly, over time it has the potential to transform the atmosphere and behaviours within a family, circle of friends, or work community.

My family, consisting of my three sons and me, practiced the Evening Circle almost every day we spent together for more than 2 years after a divorce. The impulse to start it came from a realisation that we could be less attached to materialistic things and appreciate what we already have.

Here is how we do it: We use a candle and matches, a beautiful or tactile object to be held when speaking, and enough room to sit in a circle, either on the floor or on chairs.

Preparation: All necessities should be done prior to starting the circle, so that everyone can be fully present. All electronic devices are switched to silent mode and placed outside the circle. Light a candle and place the object in the middle of the room.

Agree on the Following Principles: Only the person holding the object is allowed to speak. The others listen with their full presence, no matter what is being said.

Starting the Circle: Sit down in a circle around the candle and the object. Stay silent and look around: Who is here? How do they look? How do they feel today? How am I? How am I with these people? One by one, when ready, each person picks up the object and says out loud what they are grateful for today. The others listen fully.

Follow with a second round, to express love and appreciation for the people in the circle. Close the circle, perhaps by holding hands and blowing out the candle together. Silence is okay.

Postscript: Within a month after we started this practice, my family’s dynamics and behaviour had changed towards being more present, loving, and caring for each other. My sons started to hug each other before going to school, there was less craving for material things, and the routine led to calmer evenings and better sleep. Try it as well with family, friends and colleagues – it takes no more than 30 minutes and creates a more powerful appreciation of others and of life.

Practice: The Juice of Life

By Jane Allen

This is a practice of intentionally stopping and noticing with a new lens of appreciation that deepens and enriches the quality and texture of our inquiries and actions. The “juice” comes from creative moments triggered by something we find amazing and moving.

Create a free space—anything from five minutes to a full day. Commit to doing something creative such as listening to a piece of music, going to a gallery or an art exhibition. Choose what to do by listening to your inner wishes from all those “must do/would love to do sometime” messages you give yourself from time to time.

If it helps look at recommendations online or in the newspapers for the best-reviewed films/ theatre/ ballet / opera / exhibitions /gardens / sculpture parks/ record releases. Take a walk by the sea or browse in the poetry section of a bookshop. Then choose what you want (not ought) to do on the basis of gut instinct.

Then do it!

When you’re in it or soon after notice what you were drawn to:

  • What thoughts did you have?
  • What stories did you tell yourself?
  • What did you feel in your body?
  • What emotions did you experience?

If you’re in the middle of the event and you draw a blank, try diving back in and opening up to the experience with fresh eyes or a more receptive mind. Look, feel, notice—notice, perhaps, what repels you as well as what draws you in. After 24 hours, check in with yourself again.

What next?

Try this at least five more times. It can be the same activity, or something completely different. There may be times when little stirs us and at other times our thinking and assumptions about things are provoked—and every once in a while, you may be moved to tears or touched in a silent and invisible but profound way.

Variations: Don’t go anywhere—just open the window and feel the air on your skin, listen carefully for five minutes, look up at the sky and then down at the ground. Something moves, a little hidden creature makes a noise, and the spectacular experience of dead silence or a dark night sky might be the prize.

Practice: Reclaiming Your Projections 

By Jason Harrison

This practice helps to unblock the shadows that might be in play and interfering with our relationships—both at work and at home. Terri O’Fallon introduced Jason to this practice during his participation in one of her programmes. One of the elements involved noticing and reclaiming those aspects of the self that we have stopped exploring or even disowned—and that we then project onto others. Projection occurs when we defend ourselves against our own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in ourselves while attributing them to others.

Identify: Start by thinking about a person with whom you have a difficult relationship—this could be a client, colleague, friend or a member of your family.

Express fully: Write “Dear XXX” at the top of a piece of paper and then write them a short letter freely expressing exactly how you feel when you’re around them. You will never send this to them so don’t worry about censoring yourself. Bring the fullness of your emotion into your words.

Clear: Pause for a minute or two, breathing in and out to clear your mind and feelings.

Reverse: Take your letter, cross out the name of the other person and write your own name after the “Dear…”

Contemplate: Read the letter you have written to XXX that is now written to yourself, noticing what impact it has on you—what are you shocked by? What doesn’t make sense? What fits like a glove?

Some elements of our “reverse letter” create confusion in us, but be encouraged to keep sitting with whatever has arisen for you.

Projections are aspects of our self that have been removed from our awareness so when we are finally confronted with them we may have great difficulty accepting them. Note that the contents in the letter may well contain projections about which we’ve been unaware, it may not be possible to accept them just yet. Or, they may not even belong to us. Just sit with them and revisit them at a later time.

Street Smart Application: This is a great exercise to do to help clean up the important relationships in our lives. The work can be done in advance of an interaction with someone, or also after the interaction. It can be an incredibly liberating way of reframing a difficult encounter with someone. Doing this while you’re still caught up in the fallout from a recent interaction can help you to let go of difficult emotions.

Practice: Bum Deal

By Tricia King

As the child of Irish immigrants I was taught never to use “rude” words and for years used “BTM” instead of “bottom” or “bum”. Right into adulthood I couldn’t say either word without extreme internal wincing. Now they have taken on real resonance for me in my daily work. Caroline Goyder talks about a practice she calls FOFBOC in her book Gravitas. It stands for “Feet on the floor. Bum on the Chair”. It’s something I do a least once a week, especially when I feel overwhelmed by the challenges of my job.

Feet on the Floor. Bum on the Chair: FOFBOC kicks in when there are just too many urgent things to do and all of them feel like they need to be done RIGHT NOW. It takes just five minutes and—unless you are a fire captain at a major incident—there is always five minutes.

Sit in a chair with both feet rooted firmly on the floor and your ‘bum’ positioned evenly and comfortably on the chair. Close your eyes, relax, slow your breathing and clear your mind from all of its racing, competing thoughts. Time five minutes on your phone.

This practice has a remarkable, transforming effect – it calms and focuses our thinking. It allows panic to subside and clarity to emerge. After five minutes in this state you will feel grounded and see priorities clearly.

Clench your bum before public speaking: An important new “bum” practice has recently joined my repertoire. Actor Robin Kermode, communications coach and author of Speak So Your Audience Will Listen, talks about the role of the bum clench in powerful public speaking. When you stand up to speak you slowly count to three and firmly clench your buttocks before you start. If your hands shake, this practice will stop them.

The emotion of public speaking generates an adrenaline surge that has blood rushing to your limbs to deliver the primeval “fight-or-flight” response. The bum clench sends the blood right back where it’s needed and gives you a calm stance and a steady demeanour.

If you’re anything like me it will also provide you with an entertaining internal narrative as you wonder whether your audience has any idea what you’re up to. That sort of lightness adds a sparkle to your voice. I do a lot of public speaking and this new practice is a keeper!

Re-imagining, subverting and rehabilitating the once taboo bottom word has brought important new meaning into my work life


“Some may think that to affirm dialogue—the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world—is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans.” (Paulo Freire)

Allen and Gutekunst advocate the need for people to develop Street Smart Awareness; to grow up, work for more inclusion and equality, caring connections to ourselves and others both in everyday life and within organisations – for the well-being of all of us as inhabitants of this planet.

  • What does that mean for you?
  • What practices do you already? What do you want to develop and add?
  • What impact do you want to make?
  • How will you know if it is making a difference?

A suggestion for making inquiring practices more effective and integral in your everyday lives is to form pairs/ trios or small groups of 4-6 people and introduce Street Smart Awareness followed by a practice group. A bit like a ‘book group’ but a practice group and to each session someone brings a practice they’ve chosen to work with and invites the others to try it out and then discuss and critique.

Street Smart Awareness at Amazon

About The Authors

Jane Allen, co-founder and Chair of Amara Collaboration has over 20 years of experience in transformational leadership as a coach and confidante for leaders responsible for courageous work and to support them to reach their highest aspirations. She has published on coaching and mentoring; and champions the practices of mindfulness and authentic leadership.

Heidi Gutekunst, co-founder and CEO of Amara Collaboration is a transformational catalyst for individuals, teams, and organisations. She has a track record of leading transformations as a senior executive in creative agencies. She is a regular speaker at international Business Forums interested in her personal entrepreneurship and transforming ability.

William R. Torbert is Leadership Professor Emeritus at Boston College. Bill’s leadership article “Seven Transformations of Leadership” was selected as the “10 best ever” by Harvard Business Review. He is also the father of the Global Leadership Profile (GLP).

Jason Harrison, is an Amara Associate and is a systemic coach, consultant, and supervisor who is passionately curious about how people and systems can transform into healthier versions of themselves. A previous career in the private sector Jason models a paradoxically gentle and fierce development of himself and for others.

Tricia King is a Fellow of Birkbeck and VP Global Engagement for CASE, a global NGO whose business is advancing education to transform lives and society. As a child of immigrant parents and the first in her family to attend university, Tricia understands first-hand the transformational power of education. Her purpose in life is to ensure that future generations experience the same opportunities she did.


  1. Rwth Hunt on July 5, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Excellent and creative work. Long may it continue.

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