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Challenging emotions could lead to healthier mindset

Admittedly, when Julia Piwek first introduced herself as a Zen therapist and mindset coach, my kneejerk reaction was to roll my eyes.  


After all, we were standing in the holistic medicine aisle at Community Natural Foods in the Beltline on a Wednesday afternoon.  I’d been abandoned by the friend I’d come with, as he left in search of some herbal organic muscle rub, and I ended up striking up a casual conversation with Piwek.


When the urge to emit a placating smile had passed – and it didn’t take long as I looked her in the eye and read the sincerity and the passion for her profession there – I went for a different angle: I wanted to know more.


*  *  *


A week later, Piwek perches on a stool in the Vendome Café while she sips a rooibos latte, and breaks down the hippy-dippy stereotypes that come with being in the holistic healing business.


To start: Piwek has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Calgary, which created the backbone of her current work.  The undergrad degree made way for several counselling jobs at shelters and crisis call centres, but those all had high turnover rates.  


Without pursuing a master’s degree, Piwek was unable to find work outside of these roles.


But, she made a startling observation.  


She discovered that during the intake process for new patients, the interviews conducted would almost always cause clients extreme distress.


“They were re-traumatizing themselves, reaffirming their story every time they had to retell it,” she recalls.


“When I was doing sessions with them I would notice the stories that were causing them suffering were five, 10 years old. But people couldn’t let go of these stories.” 


Piwek was frustrated, and at a loss as to how to proceed.  She saw a need for a different approach for dealing with those types of situations but “I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it.”


It was during her time as a counsellor that Piwek contracted a long-term illness. 


“I got so sick I had to take almost three years off of work.  During that time I said, ‘I’m going to try and learn as much self-care as possible’.” 


That, in turn, sparked her interest in mindfulness and Zen therapy, among other 

practices.  With these new tools she began carving the vocabulary she had so desperately needed during her time as a counsellor.


She was familiar with both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), both of which have a main goal of relieving suffering, by utilizing approaches such as emotional regulation, acceptance, and mindful awareness.


Piwek describes the aim of Zen therapy as “teach[ing] Zen Buddhism to westerners in a way that they can understand [in order] to relieve stress,” the same principles as CBT and DBT.


“When I saw that they were the same thing, essentially, I felt the need to smoosh these things together.”


As a mindset coach, one of Piwek’s goals is to combine tools from Zen therapy, and CBT and DBT to excavate through suffering to an individual’s core beliefs, and how to change those core beliefs by understanding one’s socialization.


Tightly crossing her index and middle finger together, Piwek demonstrates: 


“Socialization and core beliefs are like this.”  


She adds that core beliefs develop and change at different stages of life: early 

childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle age, and so on.  If left to develop naturally, there could be positive and negative outcomes to that process.


She emphasizes that an individual’s knowledge of this ability to change is invaluable, and there are several people who rely on the adages of, ‘this is the way I am; there’s nothing I can do; this is the way I think.’ 


Piwek maintains none of that is true, and that those excuses are often used as 

defense mechanisms.


“The very first thing I tell clients always is ‘you are not your thoughts, and you are not your emotions.’ I get them to repeat that, as a mantra, in the morning, throughout the day if they can, and at night.”


With that mantra, Piwek in turn teaches her clients active mediation, something they can utilize when they feel emotions flaring.


“[By] taking that mantra, and using it in a meditative state, they are actively thinking where their thoughts are, where their emotions are, and determine whether they are useful to the situation, or are they projecting their core beliefs onto that situation.”


Separating one’s thoughts from their emotions gives an individual a conscious 

perspective, Piwek explains.  With that perspective in place, an individual can change anything about thoughts or emotions.


“By change, I mean you can either accept these thoughts or emotions, or you can 

challenge them.”


The concept of mindfulness is one that is readily seen in media today.  There are entire magazines dedicated to it, numerous self-help books, websites (including Piwek’s), and even smartphone apps.  


So, while the information is readily accessible, there are still those who seek out Piwek’s guidance and education in person.  


The question is -- what sorts of clients does she see? 


Grass-fed nouveaux hipsters, and granola eating, crystal-gazing hippies?


“When I first started, I expected [clients] my age,” she confesses with a resigned smile. 


“My clients that have shown the most interest and have done the most genuine work are between the age of 60 and late 70s, and they’re almost all men.”  


While she can’t think of one specific reason as to why that is so, Piwek suspects it’s how she’s worded her practice to present it to an audience.


“I provide holistic therapy in a way that, I think, allows men to feel safe to explore that part of themselves.”  


Determining a client base for mindset coaching and Zen therapy has tested Piwek’s 

marketing skills, and her own mindset.  While friends and family are supportive, when she first started promoting herself as a mindset coach she was met with more than a few laughs. 


“It used to affect me because it was new for me, too, and I wanted to share it with 

everyone.  To have other people tell me that it’s ‘stupid’ was discouraging.”


While she still encounters doubtful expressions in reaction to her vocation, she practices what she preaches: she is not her thoughts, and she is not her emotions.  


The feedback she receives from her clients, and even from friends and family whom she has helped, outweighs any criticism.


“Clients get stoked. They call to tell me they feel better, or to say ‘thank you’, or 

‘you taught me that’.  


“The first time someone told me, ‘You inspired me,’ I almost cried.”

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