Archive for May, 2010

Finding the Nectar of Compassion: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Monday, May 10th, 2010

There is a tradition on the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog. Every Monday, I cite a quote or a poem that is related to mindfulness and psychotherapy in some way and then explore it a bit and how it is relevant to our lives. For me, quotes and poetry can often sink me into a state of greater understanding. So for today, here is a quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each [person’s] life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.”

I thought this was a good one to start the week off with. We enter this week, as we do every week, with the unknowable in front of us. One thing we are likely to come in touch with is difficulty with others. If you’ve ever come in touch with other human beings before you know they can be pushy, demanding, inconsiderate, unapologetic and more. Of course, there are many moments that go the other way too.

However, what would it be like this week to practice seeing the history of sorrow and suffering in the life of someone you are having difficulty with? This isn’t meant to bum you out, but more to cut through your own reactivity that may keep the feud going on and perhaps, cultivate some compassion. Compassion creates healing within and can also help facilitate cutting the habitual interactivity of feuding, creating interpersonal healing.

Mindfulness teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“The nectar of compassion is so wonderful. If you are committed to keeping it alive, then you are protected. What the other person says will not touch off the anger and irritation in you, because compassion is the real antidote for anger.”

This isn’t a new concept, but one that is worthwhile in reflecting and putting into action this week.

Is there an example of someone in your life who you can offer putting intention into this week? Perhaps even writing it below will help set the intention to pave the road to practicing this interpersonal mindfulness.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

The Mindfulness Solution for Everyday Problems: An Interview with Ronald Siegel, Psy.D.

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Today I have the honor of bringing to you the author of the new book, The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D. is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School where he has taught for the past 25 years, a Board and Faculty member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and a long-term student of mindfulness meditation.

Dr. Siegel is also co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy and coauthor of Back Sense: A Revolutionary Approach to Halting the Cycle of Chronic Back Pain. He maintains a private clinical practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts and teaches internationally about mindfulness and psychotherapy and mind-body treatment.

Today, Dr. Siegel talks to us about how we can work with mindfulness to support us with stress, anxiety, and depression. 

Elisha: Ron, in your book you talk about working with mindfulness as a path toward befriending fear and even seeing our sadness or depression in a new light. Can you tell us how this works?

Ron: Mindfulness practices are turning out to be useful for dealing with a remarkably wide range of psychological difficulties, including both anxiety and depression. This raises an interesting question: What might these problems have in common? Might mindfulness practices be addressing this common factor?

A bit of a war broke out among the researchers and clinicians writing the latest version of the DSM—the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals. It was a war between the lumpers and the splitters.  The splitters said that the major limitation in our current diagnostic system is that we’re mixing apples and oranges — we need more diagnostic categories to more accurately identify psychological problems. The lumpers said, “that’s crazy, you’re missing the forest for the trees.  You’re ignoring what so many problems have in common.” So the splitters said, “oh yeah? What do they have in common?” And the lumpers said, “experiential avoidance.”

What do they mean by “experiential avoidance?” It’s the natural tendency we all have to pull away from painful experiences. And it turns out that indeed this is something that both anxiety and depression have in common.

While many people struggling with anxiety see their worried thoughts, rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, and other signs of  physiological arousal as the problem, most mental health professionals realize that it is actually our maneuvers to try to get rid of anxiety that are at the core of most anxiety disorders. For example, if someone has a fear of public speaking, flying in airplanes, or catching germs from public restrooms; it’s not the fact that these situations provoke anxiety that’s the problem, it’s the fact that the person starts to avoid speaking in public, flying, and using the restroom that’s the problem.

I once heard an astronaut being interviewed by an actor who was going to play him in a movie. The actor wanted to get inside the astronaut’s head so he could play him faithfully. He said, “how were you able to get the courage to fly in those untested aircrafts—I would’ve been scared shitless.” The astronaut said, “of course, I was scared shitless every time I went up. Courage isn’t about not feeling fear, it’s about doing what makes sense anyway.”

Mindfulness practices train us to develop this kind of courage, to approach difficult experiences instead of trying to avoid them. By practicing being in the present moment, whether that moment is pleasant or unpleasant, calm or threatening, we develop the ability to bear feelings of greater and greater intensity. As we develop this skill, we become able to face a wider range of life challenges with confidence— knowing that we can bear the anxiety that may arise. Since so much of problematic anxiety involves fear of fear — worrying that a given situation will make us anxious — paradoxically, this approach in the long run makes us much less anxious. So instead of trying to “calm down,” mindfulness practices give us the courage to be with our anxiety when it arises, allowing us ultimately to be much less afraid.

I outline a number of specific exercises that we can use to develop this sort of courage in the chapter on worry and anxiety in The Mindfulness Solution. You can also learn many of these online at

Interestingly, depression has a lot in common with anxiety. I often ask psychotherapists what they think is the difference between sadness and depression, and they come up with a variety of answers. Sometimes they suggest that depression lasts longer than sadness. But I point out that it’s perfectly possible to feel sad for days in a row and yet be quite depressed for just a few hours. Then they suggest that sadness arises in response to external events, while depression comes from the inside and has a life of its own. But I remind them that we can get very depressed after a misfortune such as the loss of a job or relationship and yet can feel sad without apparent cause.

Finally, after some discussion, they come to the conclusion that sadness feels alive and fluid and is an essential part of living a full life, while depression feels dead and stuck and gets in the way of living. This realization leads to another surprise: by helping us really be with sadness (and other emotions), mindfulness practice can keep us from getting stuck in depression.

We see here again how a psychological problem involves experiential avoidance. As long as we’re trying to not feel sad, angry, or some other emotion, we tend to shut down and not feel much of anything at all. And our body is in a constant state of stress as we tense up trying to keep these feelings at bay. This stress contributes to the difficulties with sleep, appetite, concentration, and interest that are so often a part of being depressed.

Mindfulness practices, by training us to open to our full range of emotions in the present moment, work against this depressive pattern. They help us to come alive in each moment.

Another way that mindfulness helps us to work with both anxiety and depression is by loosening our belief in our thoughts. Both difficulties involve a lot of painful thinking. In anxiety we worry about the future, in depression we may regret the past, or be full of negative, self-critical thoughts. Since mindfulness practices involve bringing our attention back to sensations in the present over and over, stepping out of the thought stream, they help to loosen our preoccupation with negative thoughts, making it easier not to believe in them so much.

The Mindfulness Solution and also contain a variety of exercises that can help you to experience difficult thoughts in a new light, thereby loosening the grip of either anxiety or depression.

Thank you so much for your insight Ron! Stay tuned for Ron’s upcoming interview on Friday, May 28th exploring mindfulness as a means to working with procrastination and how he uses it in his own psychotherapy practice.

To the readers: As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

Two Steps to Simply Living a Better Life

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

More often than not when I come in contact with people and ask, “How are you?” the answer comes out, “Things are good, just really busy.” The first part of that answer is often just a reflex most of the time or a socially acceptable response which may or may not be true, but the second part is true.

The question isn’t so much, how busy are you, it’s more; what are you busy with?

In other words, what and who are we spending our invaluable resources of attention on?

Here are steps to take stock of your life right now and shift to living a better life:

  1. People – We all have a variety of people in our lives, some of them nourishing, some of them depleting. Let’s take a moment to take stock of who we are busy with and if we need to rearrange this at all.
    • Make a list of the top 10 people you spend most of your time, list them in order.
    • Next to that person’s name, rank them on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being nourishing ad 1 being depleting.
  2. Activities – Every day we engage in a multitude of activities, some nourishing, some depleting.
    • Make a list of all the activities you go through during the day. Be specific: waking up, eating breakfast, getting dressed, taking a shower, walking to the car, driving, walking into work, sitting at my computer, etc.
    • Next to each activity, put an “N” for nourishing or a “P” for depleting next to it.

Now, look at these lists and see if there are any ways to spend more of your attention on the “N’s” than the “P’s.” If your mind pops up and says, “Nope, this is just the way my life is,” allow that thought to come and go and really look at this again.

Sometimes, we have no choice but to engage with people or activities that are depleting. The question then becomes, what are ways we might relate to these people or activities differently to make them less depleting?

For example, when dealing with a difficult person, rather than spending your mental energy hating this person, could it be possible to engage in a lovingkindness practice?  In other words, wishing them well. Why would you ever do that? Good question. This practice is not only for them, but also for you, to see how it transforms the difficulty you are experiencing. Plus, if they were feeling well or at ease, odds are they would not be so difficult.

With a difficult activity, is there a way to turn it into a mindfulness practice? For example, when waiting on the phone, which might normally be a source of frustration, can you use it as an opportunity to practice STOP or perhaps just mindfully check-in with how you’re doing? Can red lights be a reminder to breathe, rather than a source of irritation?

These are all ideas that have helped many people. If any judgments arise such as, “I’ve tried everything, this will never work for me,” as best as you can, see that as just another thought, a mental event asserting itself in the moment that will eventually pass. That was then.  Try this with fresh eyes, a beginner’s mind, as if this was the first time engaging in this practice before.

As always, please share your experiences and questions below, your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

How to Make Today Matter: Byron Katie and Joan Halifax

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Usually today is Monday’s Mindful Quote, however, I was struck this morning and wanted to get this point across and hopefully it may give you something to work with throughout the day.

Today I had a rare opportunity on this warm and sunny day to just take a walk. As I walked onto a main street I noticed it buzzing with people getting their coffees, walking their dogs, or just taking walks with friends. As I walked by a couple I said “good morning,” but wasn’t very intentional about it.  I said it more out of habit.

I noticed this and my mind immediately wandered to a recent radio interview with Lou Castaldi in Portland Maine, where I was talking about being more intentional in our lives. I said, “How many times have you given a mindless hug or got caught in the habitual behavior of giving your loved ones a kiss on the cheek, saying ‘love ya,’ or walking past someone saying ‘How you doing’ without waiting for an answer?”

Lou and I continued to go back and forth about stories of mindless hugs by friends and family and mindless interactions with physicians, not really feeling like they are caring about us.

In her book Being with Dying, longtime Zen teacher, Joan Halifax asks us to get it touch with being more intentional in life by practicing dying.  She writes,

“How many people who will die today even know that this will be the last days of their lives? I think of friends who have died without completing projects, without having had the opportunity to say words of goodbye to a spouse or a child, without having forgiven a friend. Again, we still don’t believe it can happen to us.”

This talk about dying is meant to be a source of hopelessness, it’s just a fact.

Byron Katie says,

“When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

(It looks like I couldn’t get away from the quotes today).

We lose out on the preciousness of life if we don’t see the impermanence of it.

Question: So what will we do with this reality now? Today, how can you (and I) be more intentional with our interactions with others today? How about giving an intentional mindful hug? Or maybe when walking by people and saying “Hello” or “How are you,” really meaning it. Or when you get home today, if you have roommates, friends, or family at home, stopping to really see how their days was before turning on the TV, engaging in bills, or whatever the usual pattern is.

What is one intentional thing today you plan on doing today?

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

Important Aspects of Mindfulness Practice

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

The difference between acknowledgment and acceptance. The metaphor of the sky as non-judgmental awareness that allows all storms to dissipate. The importance of self-compassion.