Archive for January, 2011

Want Better Relationships? Get Curious

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Not too long ago I was standing with a friend who recently separated from his wife. As he was telling me about his current struggles my body started to get tense and unsolicited advice followed. I noticed something didn’t feel right in the interaction, but I felt stuck between not saying anything and giving advice. At one point he responded, “You know, it would just have been better if you were a little more curious about my experience instead of giving me advice.” In that moment, a light bulb went off in my mind and I found the third way.  Now I try to bring curiosity more often to our relationship and it has been enormously helpful.

Adopting the intention and attitude of curiosity is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice and is also a wonderful thing to bring to our relationships.

As human beings we all want to feel understood and cared about, this is what gives us a sense of acceptance that we belong. Curiosity enables this because it says, “I’m interested in you, I’m paying attention, I care about you.” This often allows people’s guards to come down creating opportunity for connection.

If we practiced curiosity we’d be less likely to fall into the mind trap of Mindreading. This is when we just assume what another person is thinking. When the boss walks by without smiling we know it’s because we did something wrong, or she was stressed, or she must have information about company layoffs. Or when we get home and someone in our family is irritable, we know it’s because they had a bad day, are mad at us, or are depressed. We all know what assuming gets us.

So today, practice being a bit more curious in your relationships. Intentionally check your automatic judgments at the door and dig a little deeper. Instead of jumping to conclusions you might ask “What do you mean by that,” or “How was that for you,” or “I’m not sure I understand, could you say more?”

We can all try and be a bit more curious with our husbands, wives, children, partners, colleagues, employees, bosses or whoever.

Try it out, you may just like it.

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 Psychcentral.com

Parenting: Are We Relying Too Much on Experts?

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Whether we’re parents, educators, therapists, scientists, or whomever, we are a culture that has been brought up from infancy with a belief that we are to trust experts over our own experience and intuition. It’s the classic scene from Seinfeld where Costanza and Kramer are driving their car with a navigation system and in front of them is a lake. They opt to drive into the lake because the navigation system is telling them that is the way. They have no trust in their own navigation system.

I recently attended a private talk with a man many would consider to be a legend in his own time in the field of early childhood development and parenting, T. Berry Brazelton and his co-author Joshua Sparrow.

Brazelton is 92 years old and author of over 200 papers on early child development and 24 books, including his highly acclaimed book Touchpoints. Those of us in this small audience were mainly professionals in mental health and educators eager to learn. At one point during the talk, many people from this small group were asking questions around what to do when an infant does this or how to respond when a toddler does that.

As we continued on, the thought began to unfold that there’s a danger in this set up. We lose the ability to trust our own experience.

I think that is one of the major components that always attract me to mindfulness. There is a core emphasis of not relying on any teacher (although it gets set up that way sometimes), but instead to go out and practice yourself and trust your own experience.

In a way, this simply makes the most sense. When it comes to being motivated to make a change, an expert’s enthusiasm or credibility may create that initial spark, but it’s not long lasting. There needs to be something else. There needs to be an intrinsic motivation created by experience. The mind says, “Aha, I know this to be true because I’ve experienced it,” leaving doubt behind (or much of doubt anyway).

When this got brought up in the room, Brazelton was the first to say, “I see this same danger in me being put up as an expert, but I’m hoping that it’s done more good than harm.”

We can take information from experts, but we can never take their experience, that is only for us to garner.

When it comes to parenting there is the famous saying, “well, there’s no handbook on how to parent.” There are many handbooks; but, the best handbook, navigation system, or wise voice is the one inside. We just need the tools and support to access it sometimes.

I believe mindfulness is one way to access that wise voice. To be able to stop, take a breath and tune into the experience as it is allows the space for a more reliable intuition to arise.

We can listen to the experts, but remember there is a danger in relying too heavily on advice.

Our greatest teacher is just inside.

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 Psychcentral.com

Top 5 Metaphors for Mindfulness: Interview with Arnie Kozak Ph.D.

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

When it comes to trying to understand almost anything, I have found metaphors to be extremely useful. In mindfulness we use them all the time, we say, “Paying attention to your thoughts is like lying down on a field of grass looking at the clouds go on by or like lying down by a riverbed see the variety of debris come and go.”

I am very pleased to bring you Arnie Kozak, PhD, who is a master at using metaphors to help us understand mindfulness. Dr. Kozak is a licensed Psychologist and founder of Exquisite Mind, a place where people can come to learn more about mindfulness and psychotherapy. He is author of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, The Everything Buddhism Book, and the blog Mindfulness Matters.

If you want to catch him live, Arnie is teaching Metaphors, Meaning, and Change: Finding Our Way to Mindfulness at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, 25-27 February 2011.

Today Arnie talks with us about mindfulness, metaphors and how we can find relief from our own minds.

Without further ado:

Elisha: In your book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants, you mention that even mindfulness is itself metaphorical. Can you unpack that for us a bit?

Arnie: Well what we call mind is an abstract thing. You can’t touch the mind or even point to it, unless we’re just talking about the brain. So, we have to turn to metaphorical images to get a sense of what it might be and what it does. When we use the term mindfulness that suggests the mind can be full – or empty – of something we consider to be mind. Therefore we understand mind by analogy to a container – something that can hold something. Or we tend to think of the mind as a thing but it’s really a dynamic, unfolding, and ever-changing process.

Elisha: What are your Top 5 Metaphors that you have found most helpful for mindfulness?

Arnie: To pick only five out of the 108 in the book is hard! And there are many more that I’ve developed since the publication of the book. My favorite metaphors are probably the ones I use the most, and they are the most practical.

Storytelling Mind & DVD Commentary: (OK, I’ve cheated here by combining two closely related metaphors). The first is the Storytelling Mind. Our minds generate stories; it’s the minds chief export. We tell (and believe) stories about the future, the past, or the present, and these stories determine how we feel. And let’s face it, we are constantly telling stories.

It’s like the Director’s Commentary on your DVD. The director and some of the actors “talk over” the movie. That’s what we are doing all the time – we talk over the movie of our life by adding commentary, opinions, judgments. When we are mindful we stop the commentary and give our full attention to what is actually happening and get to experience the fullness and richness of that moment.

Agenda Metaphor: In any given moment we have a primary agenda. This is whatever we are doing in the moment, including meditation if that’s what we are doing. However, our mind doesn’t usually allow us to just have this primary agenda (if it did we would be perfectly mindful).

Instead, we add things – expectations, rules, conditions, and so forth that interfere with our satisfaction in the moment. If we can relinquish the secondary agendas we can be less stressed and happier in each moment. Mindfulness practice helps us to recognize the activity of these secondary agendas and to dwell in the primary agenda of the moment instead.

Bad Wheel: This is the Buddha’s metaphor and the foundation of his teachings. It’s the translation of the Pali term dukkha. It attempts to describe the ongoing dissatisfaction that characterizes life. Dukkha is often translated as suffering but this is a generalization.

The image the Buddha used was a bad or broken wheel on an oxcart. If the wheel is warped then it will influence your ride on the cart in a pervasive way – there’s no escaping it. Dukkha is also translated as anguish and that gets a little closer; so, too, does dukkha as pervasive dissatisfaction. Without mindfulness in our lives we are beholden to the bad wheel. With mindfulness we can enjoy a smoother ride.

Wild Chickens: The title metaphor from my book is all about acceptance. Wild chickens are all the things and situations in our lives that are unexpected and unwanted.

It would be great if life always went swimmingly but we know that’s rarely the case. This metaphor comes from the meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg and his experience meditating in the forests of Thailand that were strewn with screeching wild chickens. Not what one would expect for a meditation retreat!

Initially, his secondary agenda was not open to wild chickens; and that’s our basic challenge—to accept what is happening or to resist it (and thereby generate suffering). Fortunately he chose to accept the wild chickens, that is, let go of his secondary agendas. And we are challenged to accept the wild chickens in our life in the same way. Can we relax our secondary agendas? Can we include the wild chickens in the landscape of what is happening now? If we can do this, we’ll find peace and equanimity in the moment. If not, well, then we’ll be miserable. It’s as simple as that (simple, but not necessarily easy to pull off!).

Office Hours: I work with a lot people who have anxiety and worry a lot. I use this metaphor quite a bit. Professors hold office hours once or twice a week. They don’t give students 24-7 access because if they did they couldn’t get their other work done. Likewise, if we give worry 24-7 access to attention it will be highly disruptive.

I therefore encourage people to set up office hours for their worrying, setting aside a brief time period every day to do some focused worrying and problem solving. When worrisome thoughts arise outside of “office hours” they can remind the worry that it was dealt with earlier and there will be a chance to deal with it again tomorrow. This tends to quiet the urgency of the worry and helps people to be more productive and to suffer less. Mindfulness practice gets us in the habit of setting aside worry to come back to the present and support our efforts to keep office hours.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now and they were open to using metaphor as a source of healing. What might you tell them?

Arnie: We construct our suffering. It’s not just what happens to us but our perception of what happens to us that determines our experience. This is perennial wisdom. That is we build suffering out of ideas, stories, expectations, judgments, etc. The fearless Indian social innovator Kiran Bedi suggests that suffering is 90% constructed; only 10% given by circumstances.

I’d share the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths that point directly to how we construct our misery. The Buddha offered the Four Noble Truths in the form of a medical metaphor. (The Buddha, by the way, was a master of metaphors and used them in his teachings as a tool to reach people at many different levels and circumstances.).

The first truth is the diagnosis of the illness – we suffer a lot in life or we feel the effects of that bad wheel discussed earlier (dukkha). This includes the inevitable factors of life – sickness, old age, and death but it’s more inclusive than this. Life is permeated by dissatisfaction—even when things are going well.

The second truth seeks the cause (etiology) of the illness. We suffer because we construct our perceptions of the world and ourselves in an inaccurate and painful way. We try to hold onto things that are constantly changing (not recognizing the fundamental truth of impermanence) and we put a lot of energy into pushing away things we don’t like (not accepting what is happening). All this pushing and pulling takes up energy and generates stories of lack, want, and frustration.

The third truth is the prognosis. Good news here! Since we construct most of our suffering we can deconstruct it – there is a way out of this mess. There exists the distinct possibility that we can blow out this suffering, like blowing out a candle flame. This blowing out is actually the translation of the term nirvana – the blowing out or cessation of suffering, anguish, misery, and dissatisfaction.

The fourth truth is the treatment and the prescription – the Noble Eight Fold path that provides practical guidance on how to view the world, how to conduct ourselves in a way that will maximize our opportunities for joy, and, of course, includes ample doses of mindfulness and meditation. We can grasp this set of truths each time we sit down to do mindfulness meditation. We can see how we construct misery out of stories and how we can relieve this anguish by coming back to this moment.

Thank you so much Arnie!

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 Psychcentral.com

Aetna, Emindful and a Step Closer to a Dream

Monday, January 17th, 2011

In a recent press release, Aetna announced the launch of a 12-week online mindfulness program created by Emindful.com for stress reduction that has been backed up by a randomized control pilot study:

Hartford, Conn., January 13, 2011 — Aetna (NYSE: AET) today announced that early results from randomized controlled pilot studies of two stress-reduction programs showed significant reductions in stress as compared to the control group. Aetna’s review of medical claims’ data showed a positive correlation between costs and study participants’ stress levels, suggesting potential health care costs savings could be realized by reducing stress. Additionally, health improvements were suggested in the treatment groups over controls, leading to further studies.

The American Psychological Association says that 43% of US adults suffer from adverse effects of stress.

When I first led an online mindfulness course, I had my reservations as there was something wonderful about being in person with people. But I was really surprised by what I found. In the online classroom people really felt able to open up about their experience and continued to experience a qualitative improvement in not only their stress, but their sense of meaning and purpose in the work they were doing. Now with this research, we know there’s a statistically significant improvement as well.

Not everyone in the world has access to these programs and bringing it online gives them this access. What Emindful is doing is very progressive and it’s wonderful to see such a large Healthcare provider like Aetna embracing and leading the way in offering this to their clients.

Right now they say it is being offered to a “Select” group of people, but people under Aetna’s plan should start inquiring about this as soon as possible.

If Martin Luther King had a dream that inspired millions, I can say that I have a dream:

“I have a dream that one day all people will have access to programs that can support them in becoming active participants in their own health and well-being. To know the causes of their suffering and to gain access to their hearts and minds to change the cycles of destructive habitual patterns into habits of compassion and healing.”

Thank you Emindful and Aetna for getting us a step closer to this dream.

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 Psychcentral.com

Mindful Parenting Can Help Your Marriage

Friday, January 14th, 2011

mindful parentingIn a past blog, A Child’s ADHD Can Stress Your Marriage, John Grohol, Ph.D. cites a Washington Post article stating an increase in divorce rates among people who have children with ADHD.

One person aptly comments that it also could be because one or more of the parents have ADHD and it’s not diagnosed making the marriage more difficult. Having children with ADHD or special needs is challenging and requires extra responsibility that taxes the family system. There is simply more effort and time required on the parent and child’s part which makes people more tired and when people get tired they tend to get irritable. When irritability is not taken care of, people get hurt, put their walls up and close down.

When partners are closed down and aren’t able to feel or detect one another’s feelings anymore, empathy flies out the window, and connection is right on its tails. Without connection, there is no relationship and so this leads to higher rates of separation.

The quote from the Washington post that highlights this says:

Regardless of whether they had children with ADHD, […] the parents asked to work with difficult children were four times as likely to exchange negative criticism and questions, or to ignore each other and trade nonverbal barbs, than the parents in the other group.

And regardless of whether they were dealing with easy or difficult children, parents who had ADHD children at home were three times as likely to be negative toward each other as parents who did not. Put another way, the parents of children with ADHD simply had less ability to respond to challenges with equanimity; they appeared to be psychologically worn thin.

How can we cultivate the ability to respond to challenges from a more grounded place instead of reacting from a state of imbalance? Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl noted:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

As parents, there is so much to do and so much responsibility, it’s easy to get worn thin. Part of the problem is that when we’re feeling stressed or irritable, we get kicked into auto-pilot and become reactive with negativity to the child or the partner by being short, shouting, or calling names.

Unfortunately, this reactivity causes more harm than good. So what can we do?

Sometimes we can use our bodies as physical barometers to let us know when we’re imbalanced. We may feel tension in the shoulders, tightness in the face, a knot in the stomach, or even our hands clinching into fists. We can learn to use this as a signal that there is a feeling there.

When we notice this, we are present. We can now take a moment to just acknowledge how we’re feeling. You may notice irritability or sadness about feeling overwhelmed or maybe a judgment screaming in your mind “I’m a bad parent.”

When we’re able to be more present, even for moments, to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, we become more grounded and lift the walls within ourselves, we soften and create the space for openness and compassion to emerge. We also lengthen our perception of the space between the stimulus and the response so we can respond more skillfully instead of react. We may choose in this state to communicate with our partners about how we’re doing. So much battle occurs between couples because of lack of communication and disconnection.

When we are present to ourselves, we make space for the ability to convey how we are doing, which then opens the door for communication, connection, and the potential for empathy which is what is most needed. Having children alone can be stressful, but having a child with special needs can be particularly taxing and it is a good practice to remind yourself of this and take some moments to care for yourself and even appreciate your partner.

When we can be more mindful of how we are doing moment-to-moment, we can also begin to become more attuned with the child who in turn will be able to sense that. The child can sense if the parent is overstressed and disconnected which makes the environment feel turbulent. When the child senses the parent is more grounded and open this is calming and makes space for stronger attachment to the parent and this is critical.

Please share your thoughts and questions below, your additions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Photo by E Cohen, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on Psychcentral.com

Debbie Friedman: A Woman Whose Life Blessed Us All

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Debbie Friedman was a Jewish American Folk Singer who made more than 20 albums and performed at Carnegie Hall and around the world. Her inspirational songs span the ages as they are sung by 4 year children to 90 year women and men. She passed away just recently on January 9th, 2011, but the songs she created will surely living in thousands of people’s hearts forever.

One of my favorite songs of hers came out of Psalm 126. She took a verse and made it into a song of healing.

Here is the verse:

“Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.”

This verse echoes a very basic truth that we must be able to touch our sorrows in order to really reach our joys. It’s echoes Rumi’s advice “Don’t look away from the bandaged place, that’s where the light enters.” When we close ourselves to the difficult feelings in life, we encase our hearts and disable them from opening to love and joy too. This has been relayed by the world’s wisdom traditions for centuries, it seems like it’s worth paying attention to.

For many of us, music accesses a different part of our brain and at times can make it more meaningful.

Most of the time in her performances, the entire crowd would be singing along with her, but usually toward the end, she would quiet down and say, “Ok, now, this one is for you.” The crowd would quiet down and she would sing them a blessing. Here it is (She would sing the Hebrew and then follow with the English translation):

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor habracha l’imoteinu

May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen.

Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M’kor habracha l’avoteinu

Bless those in need of healing with refuah sh’leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit
And let us say: Amen.

Here it is live:

Debbie Friedman Sings Live

While Debbie has past, her songs continue to bless us with renewal of the body and renewal of the spirit. See if you can take a little of this into your day.

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 Psychcentral.com

Compassion: An Increasing Global Movement

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

I recently attended a talk with Joseph Goldstein, one of the leaders in the field who have introduced mindfulness to the West. One of the key themes of his talk surrounded to topic of compassion. Compassion arises when someone brushes up against suffering and is a combination of empathy, feeling what another is feeling, and also an opening of the heart where there is a wanting to help in some way. As science reveals the benefits of cultivating compassion, it is starting to gain more prominence as something that could have a positive impact not just in our personal lives, but around the globe.

Here is a short list of the mainstream work being done with compassion and self-compassion:

  • In 2008 Dr. Richie Davidson received a $2.5 million grant from the Fetzer Institute to look into the neuroscience of compassion. One study has already shown that experienced meditators show more activity in the Insula in response to stimuli that were meant to generate compassion. The Insula is part of the brain that is responsible for the awareness of our embodied emotions. This suggests that we can take advantage of the brain’s plasticity and by generating compassion, we can change our brain.
  • Tan Chade-Meng, One of the earliest engineers at Google, also known as the Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny) has cofounded the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) at Stanford University.  This group has a number of research projects under way.
  • The Compassionate Action Network (CAN) is a large site of self-organizing groups meant to spread compassion around the world.
  • Self-Compassion – Kristin Neff is coming out with a book on Self-Compassion in 2011 and Christopher Germer has already published The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Kristin and Christopher both lead workshops around the world spreading practical ways to cultivate compassion.

There are so many other compassion heroes out there like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Father Thomas Keating, feel free to enter in some people in the comment section below so we can all know more, even anonymous acts.

It seems that a continued and intentional practice of compassion can not only change our lives individually, but the ripple effect can be significant. People do this every day by giving donations, making sandwiches for people on the street, helping someone across the street, visiting those who are dying, or even just offering a smile to someone who seems to be having a tough day.

Is there someone in your life who is suffering, maybe yourself? Can you sense what the feeling is? Is there an authentic wanting or pulling to help? What is one small thing you can do today to help out? Perhaps even just wishing the person or yourself well, safe from harm, free from whatever this suffering is. This intentional attention not only primes your mind to be more compassionate, but apparently can take advantage of your brain’s plasticity and change your brain.

It only takes intention and a few moments.

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 Psychcentral.com

A Mindful Strategy for a Resilient New Year

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

As this New Year dawns on us, how about we don’t set rigid New Year’s resolutions, but instead see this year as a practice. There is some implied rule within resolutions that we’ll actually stick to them and when we don’t, we set ourselves up for the same old habitual mind traps that have kept us stuck in the past. “I’ve failed once again,” arises leading to a sense of sluggishness and the next thought, “What’s the point.” There’s another way.

It’s important to set goals for ourselves and create plans to reach those goals; this is the underpinning of cultivating hope. Hope is our greatest antidepressant.

There are a few steps we can take to make a resilient New Year:

  1. Expect to stray – This is just a fact of life that sometimes we refuse to own up to. We’ll almost always wander with the goals we make. Maybe we commit to exercise and then we get sick or we set a path for meditation and our minds get caught up in daily busy-ness while days go by without practice. One scenario or another of your behavior wandering is going to happen, so now step #2.
  2. Don’t Judge – Your behavior wandering is not a good or bad thing, it’s just the natural course of someone trying to make a change. Simply notice that you’ve wandered and where you wandered to so you can burn it into your memory and notice it sooner the next time. If judgments do arise, “I can never do this or what was I thinking,” simply note them just like you noted your wandering behavior and move to step #3.
  3. Refocus – Gently bring yourself back to the plan you had created or see if it needs revisions.

It’s important to keep an open heart toward yourself as you practice; it’s not going to be perfect so the question is can we accept the reality of our imperfections? If you’re perfect, you’re not human; unless we reframe it by saying we’re perfect with our imperfections.

There’s no need to wish you good luck, because making change is not about luck, it’s about having a good strategy of being kind and compassionate with yourself as you continue to wander off and gently guide yourself back to the object of focus.

So I’ll wish you a good heart during this year!

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 Psychcentral.com