Archive for March, 2011

Nothing That is Human is Alien: Maya Angelou and Terence

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Terentius Lucanus was a Roman Senator who brought Terence to Rome as a slave. He took him under his wing and educated him and soon freed him out of his amazement of his abilities. Terence went onto become a famous playwright around 170 BCE. One of his famous quotes was:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

How can a man who was once enslaved by other human beings transcend his anger and come up with a quote implying forgiveness and linking the common ground between all people?

It’s not the first time and it certainly hasn’t been the last.

Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , among 30 other books, was ridiculed as a child for being a selective mute for 6 years. Her mother would put her arm around her and say, “I know you’re not stupid or a moron like all the kids say you are. I know that one day you’ll be a great teacher. You’ll travel the world imparting wisdom.”

If you don’t know Maya Angelou, she is an African American woman who is a legend in her own time, a global renaissance woman teaching all around the world. She is also a religious person and in an interview she said that she takes it up as a difficult practice to see that we are children of God no matter what is coming out of our mouths or our actions. She has to see that even the members of the Ku Klux Klan are children of God too.

Note: If the word God triggers you, consider that we are all children of the earth or that we all inherently, deep down want the same thing.

What’s that?  To be safe, secure, loved and feel like we belong.

When we take a moment to think about it, it’s really quite amazing how trapped we become in our fears and perceptions that others are alien to us and dangerous based upon a different color of skin, race, religion, class or sexual preference. What’s more amazing is that there is some justification for a right to harm others based on differences.

If we think about it, we want to hit people and make them suffer because they look different, talk different or believe something different. Really? That’s definitely not what we learned in kindergarten.

Actually, this isn’t really all that amazing. It’s automatic and what’s truly unfortunate is how trapped we are in our minds and how controlled we can be based on erroneous or mistaken beliefs we learn from parents, media or culture.

It’s time to recognize that while our differences make us unique as human beings and are worth honoring, fundamentally we are all woven from the same cloth and are all vulnerable as human beings.

If you want to engage in a practice that will help you move through your automatic bias when you see people that are different than you, practice saying what psychologist Philippe Goldin says, “Just like me.”

So if you notice a judgment or subtle tensing in your body when you see someone of different color, class, religion, or sexual preference or maybe a celebrity, your boss or your neighbor, take a breath and say, “just like me.” Remember that this is a person with vulnerabilities, dreams, and aspirations who also wants to be cared about, understood and belong.

Go ahead bring it into your day.

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

Opening to Trust, Love and Intimacy: An Interview with David Richo Ph.D.

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

trust and loveMost of us have issues with either trusting ourselves or another person and yet trust remains the cornerstone of a loving intimate relationship either with ourselves or another. Today it’s my pleasure to bring to you David Richo, Ph.D., M.F.T. who gives us insight in his latest book Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love and Intimacy about how to open ourselves to real love and intimacy. David is a psychotherapist, teacher, workshop leader, and writer. He is also author of the consistently popular book The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them among many other books.

Today David talk to us about how our earliest relationships impact our ability to trust, what is naive trust, how mindfulness can help and some advice on what to do when trust breaks down.

Elisha: How do our earliest relationships impact our ability to trust?

David: The more our parents attuned to us and validated our emotions, the more we gained a capacity to trust ourselves and the world around us. Attunement is a communing; hence, it is reassuring and confirming. Authentic attunement provides us with a holding environment in which we can feel secure and can trust those who love us. Our trust grows not only from being held when we needed it but also from being let go of when we needed that. The parent who truly attunes to us will hold us but only for as long as we want to be held. Later in life that balance will be the hallmark of successful intimacy.

Elisha: In your book you mention that there’s a difference between naïve trust and healthy trust, can you give us some examples?

David: Healthy trust is directed toward someone who:

¨            Shows integrity and lives in accord with standards of fairness and honesty in all his or her dealings.

¨            May operate on the basis of self-interest but never at my expense or the expense of others.

¨            Supports me when I need him or her.

¨            Keeps agreements.

¨            Remains faithful.

¨            Does not lie or have a secret life.

¨            Genuinely cares about me.

¨            Stands by me and up for me.

¨            Is what he or she appears to be; wants to appear just as he or she is, no matter if at times that is unflattering.

¨            Respects boundaries

Trust is naïve when it is directed toward those who have shown themselves to be unreliable, offer a quick fix or profit if we invest, do not keep agreements, seduce us in and then withhold, do not honor our “No” but keep pushing, do not follow through on what they say they will do.

Elisha: What role does mindfulness play in learning to trust?

David: Mindfulness, a central Buddhist practice in meditation and in daily life, means that we keep coming back to the here and now, to pure experience uncluttered by mental chatter. Attention to our breath helps us to focus in that way. Mindfulness is a spiritual practice that liberates us into the authentic present by awakening us to how our mind distracts us with fear, desire, judgment, attachment, comparison, bias, and attempts to control what happens around us.

As we live more fully in the present, we begin to trust ourselves more and become more discerning about how trustworthy others are. Mindfulness focuses us on the moment and on our own presence in it. This is how trust grows.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was struggling in their relationship due to issues with trust, what might you tell them?

David: Mourning is our practice when we experience a loss of trust. We let ourselves feel sadness that our trust is lost, anger at the one taking it away, and fear that we will never find it again. We stay with the feelings of grief for as long as they are up for us. This automatically leads to a letting go of our pain, and we stop blaming ourselves or anyone else.

It is important to pay particular attention to our anger, defined as displeasure at an injustice. This means that anger is appropriate when it is based on the breaking of an agreement, a hurt at the heart level. Alternatively, an expectation is held by only one person. We are hurt at the ego level because our sense of entitlement was not honored. That anger is a frustration that can become aggressive and unhealthy. When we are committed to personal integrity, we look within ourselves to explore our anger. If it is appropriate, based on the breaking of a bilateral agreement, we express our anger directly to our partner, always nonviolently. When our anger is the indignation of our disappointed ego, we call ourselves on our projections and expectations. Then we bring our whole experience—and our unsatisfactory partner—to our loving-kindness practice.

Elisha: Thank you so much David!

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

Are You a Part of The Mindfulness Revolution?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

the mindfulness revolutionBarry Boyce, Editor for Shambhala Sun Magazine has finally coined exactly what is happening in our culture today with his newest book The Mindfulness Revolution. Since Jon Kabat-Zinn appeared on Bill Moyers in 1993, research on the applications of mindfulness has soared exponentially.His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program has been splintered off into Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)  for depressive relapse, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) for addiction, MB-EAT for eating disorders and many more.

There is absolutely a revolution happening right now and there likely couldn’t be a more perfect time.

Corporations across the country are becoming increasingly interested in the applications of mindfulness to the workplace. In March 2011, Google, Facebook, Intel, Twitter and many more took part in the Wisdom 2.0 conference curious about how to integrate this into their work environments.

If you have an IPhone, you can get a Free 21 Day Mindfulness for the Workplace Pilot Program, available for a limited time to people who want to test it out.

In one chapter of The Mindfulness Revolution Norman Fischer, principal meditation teacher at Google’s mindfulness program gives us some practices to maintain mindfulness throughout the day:

Taking three conscious breaths – just three! – from time to time to interrupt your busy activity with a moment or two of calm awareness.

Keeping mindfulness slogan cards around your office or home to remind you to “Breathe” or “Pay Attention” or “Think Again.”

Training yourself through repetition to apply a phrase like “Is that really true?” to develop the habit of questioning your assumptions before you run with them.

Whenever you get up to walk somewhere during the day, practiced mindful walking—noticing your weight as it touches the ground with each swing of your leg and footfall.

Instituting the habit of starting your day by returning to your best intention, what you aspire to for yourself and others when you have a benevolent frame of mind.

Mindfulness is now being talked about as a catalyst for emotional intelligence which has applications in politics, business, sports, education, healthcare and so many other places.

Go ahead; try one of these suggestions today, what would happen if you actually brought a bit more mindfulness into your life?

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

Photo by mindfulness, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

Want to Relax? Mindfulness May Not Be for You

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

mindfulness and relaxingNowadays most people who come in to see my for private therapy come to see me because of my background with mindfulness and psychotherapy. Whether the issue has to do with stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, or addiction, there is a sense of wanting to come home, to come back into their life, to gain emotional intelligence, to get back in touch with what really matters.

However, there is also a hidden or not-so-hidden agenda that mindfulness will be used as a relaxation exercise of some kind. While this may be a nice side effect of mindfulness practice, mindfulness is not relaxation.

It’s legitimate to ask, what is the difference between mindfulness and relaxation? After all, the most mainstreamed and popular program out there is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Right in the title is the implication that we’re using this for stress reduction. However, it’s just a clever title to get people in the door; the program is so much more than that.

In A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook we answer this question:

How is meditation different from relaxation?

“While meditation can certainly bring on feelings of relaxation, it also may not. Your intention is what makes the difference. When you want to relax, you can engage in a wide variety of activities, from watching TV, reading a book, lying in a hammock, soaking in a bubble bath, doing breathing exercises…the list goes on and on. In mindfulness meditation, the intention is simply to place nonjudgmental attention on whatever object of awareness you’ve chosen.

So if you’re practicing mindfulness with eating a raisin, you’re tuning in to all of your senses, not for the purpose of relaxation, but for the purpose of truly and deeply experiencing the present moment. Practicing meditation for the purpose of relaxation can actually be a trap; if you meditate and don’t feel relaxed, your mind might start racing with thoughts about how it isn’t working. This could lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and disappointment, which may send you on a downward spiral toward becoming anxious or depressed.”

So mindfulness isn’t about just relaxing, it’s as Derek Walcott says, “Introducing the stranger who was yourself.”

It’s learning how to be present for your life so we don’t get so swept up in the tides of conditioned reactions that don’t serve us. It’s come back in touch with ability to choose new responses, open up the lens of life and see so much more than the same movie we’ve been seeing before.

While many programs suggest taking out large chunks of times to practice meditation, you are welcome to start just with 1 minute or 30 seconds right now.

Close your eyes and open up to what’s here physically and emotionally. Pause just to check in and allow whatever is here to be as it is. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “This is it!”

For this moment, feast on your life.

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

Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

A Mindful Response to Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Radiation

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

response to Japan disasterWhile there have been many things that may have gone through your mind the minute you heard of Japan’s recent 8.9 earthquake, all the subsequent aftershocks, the Tsunami and threat of radiation from their impacted nuclear plants, one thing we begin to realize is how connected we really are.

A short time after the Tsunami hit the coast of Japan, large waves rolled into the Harbor of Santa Cruz, Ca thrashing the marina around. It’s become clearer to me that we’re all responsible for one another and I think that’s a huge driving force in the growing interest in compassion.

Compassion is defined as being able to put yourself in the shoes of another and inclining your heart toward wanting to help in some way.

Compassion practices have been shown to reduce stress and increase well-being.

A year ago I created the EBook A Mindful Dialogue to raise money for the people of Haiti. This book has now been expanded to include interviews with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Daniel Siegel, Sharon Salzberg, Christopher Germer, Sylvia Boorstein, Tara Brach, Zindel Segal, among so many more.

100% of the proceeds of A Mindful Dialogue go to Save the Children ( which has been operating in Japan for the last 25 years.

You can get A Mindful Dialogue on your Kindle, IPad or Ebook Reader or directly as a download to your computer.

I think the reason so many people are now interested in compassion is not only because it has been linked to feeling better, but because the world has become so much smaller with the advent of technology and we can actually see the suffering of the world more clearly.

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.

There has never been a more important time to cultivate compassion and it happens through practice.

Right now in this moment many people need our help, but the future of this world depends on the children.

If there are other organizations that you know of that are helping the children of the world, in particular associated with Japan’s relief, please share with us below.

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

Photo by Nasa Goddard Photo & Video, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

Mindfulness and a Path of Lifelong Sobriety: An Interview with Bill Alexander

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

mindfulness and recoveryToday I bring you a topic that is close to many of our hearts and minds as most of us have been affected by addiction in one way or another. William Alexander is on staff at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota and is also author of many books including his latest release of Ordinary Recovery. Bill leads workshops on the process of Ordinary Recovery.

Without further ado…

Elisha: I’m going to start out with a very direct question, one that is on everyone’s minds when it comes to addiction. What is the key to breaking free from alcoholism or really any addiction?

Bill: In 12 step groups the answer is “the gift of desperation.”

I’d say that it is a matter of getting to the point of deeply questioning what in the world is going on in your life. But I think the answer is better approached with a story; in this case, my own. The strongest pillar of 12 step recovery is, after all, in the stories we tell.

My last drink was well over 26 years ago.  Apparently it was an epic one.  I barely remember it, except that it began in the member’s dining room of the Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) and ended on the couch of my tiny apartment on E. 77th street in New York. I found that I had bought the Sunday New York times, in my blackout and, further, had left the magazine section open to a story about one of my favorite writers, Raymond Carver.  I poured a cup of coffee, opened a beer and got out the brandy to lace the coffee.  I never drank that beer and I drank the coffee straight.  In the story Carver was very open about his own drinking history and the staggering results he got from simply quitting.  “If he can do it, so can I.”  And I did. I have not had a drink or a drug since that day; nor wanted one.

One way to see that event, of course, is divine providence or grace; my preference is to see that in the darkness of that night, there was one small part of me that could see the way out.  And that part of me, the “daimon” that James Hillman writes about so persuasively in The Soul’s Code, made sure that I got a look at who I had become and who I could become.

In Buddhism, we say that “the lotus blooms best from the mud.” That muddy night led, finally, to a state of clarity and insight that had been hidden for 30 years of drunkenness. There, in my opinion, was the “spiritual awakening” that members of AA refer to; the first one, to be sure, but all the rest have rolled out from that one. So the bumper sticker answer to your question is “karma.”

A Zen master once pointed out to me that I can’t “possibly understand all the millions of vectors of cause and effect that are impinging on (my) current situation.” But that I can use what happens to me in service of my urge toward awakening and freedom. If there was one simple answer to your question, and either of us knew it, we’d be hailed as geniuses. As to other addictions:  there are as many addictions as there are possible distractions from our personal angst and fears; addictions themselves, by the way.

The gift of that first awakening is that I’ve been able to identify many others, in myself.  The ultimate ones, of course, are the addictions to my closely held beliefs; those beliefs which are themselves distractions; a separate self, for example.  Or a separate creator God who makes everything OK so long as I’m nice. That’s not for me. I believe that one mark of a mature person is freedom from his or her own beliefs.

Elisha: In a past column in Tricycle Magazine you talked about how “We are all Addicts.” Give us some insight into this. 

Bill: OK.  That little page on Tricycle has been a forum that has run for well over a year now. It’s been quite a gift. I think my answer to this question is embedded in the final few words of the answer to the first.  But then the question becomes – “does this mean that everything we do is an addiction?”  No.  But everything we do or believe can become an addiction the moment that we move from such action or belief being part of what we do and becoming all that we do.

That action or belief, work, sex, religious fundamentalism, “good works,” endless “self” improvement becomes the shadow that surrounds us, you might say, keeping out joy, art, love, music, simple kindness; in a word, keeping out connection. And the final addiction is that pervasive belief in a separate self.

Elisha: Are you aware of any recent research or some that is underway that is looking into the intersection between mindfulness and preventing relapse?

Bill: There is a great deal of research, yes, and it is finding its way into the community of recovery.  And I must be honest here; your question has created for me a little soapbox that I think I will mount for a sentence or so. So – a story again.

I first studied mindfulness many years ago, at least 15, in a place called Plum Village, the home, in the Dordogne area of France, of the Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  I spent an entire summer immersed in this brilliant spiritual practice of mindfulness with Thay, as he is called. Here is what I have found, since then.

Mindfulness is a spiritual practice embedded in an entire spiritual way of life and, in my opinion; it is a spiritual practice that loses its true punch when separated from spiritual practice. Mindfulness, in my experience, is not about stress relief or relapse prevention.  Those can be side benefits, for sure and powerful ones.  However, it is part of a spiritual path which, when undertaken in a wholehearted way, led very directly into the very heart of stress and, eventually, into the folly which guided my life for many years.

I practice mindfulness in the context of my Zen practice.  It is part of a practice, but not all of it. And, selfishly, I will add, that I have had the experience of people taking workshops where I teach and saying, of both mindfulness and meditation that they finally came to understand what they “really” are.

I hasten to mention that a very skillful teacher named Elene Loecher also teaches mindfulness at Hazelden, in its spiritual context and has had the same experience I have. It’s not about us; it’s about the power and beauty of the practice, divorced from “the data game.” But to be fair – in skillful hands, I emphasize skillful, the practice can be quite useful, in its severed form.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone motivated to make a change, what would you tell them?

Bill: I don’t know. Probably nothing, unless they asked.  Then I’d tell them what I have done. And I would also counsel them to find the path that works for them; once they have seen the folly of the path they’re on. I often wear a t-shirt that says, “Take My Advice:  I’m Not Using It.”  One final anecdote. Years ago, I attended a weekend seminar with one of the big time ballroom gurus.  His specialty was “family issues.”  I remember him, but I remember precious little of what he said.  And I noticed, waiting for the train to NYC that a number of people who were at the seminar were going over this guy’s schedule, planning where they would spend time with him next.  Addiction, it seemed to me.

A week later, I was with a Zen master in Oregon.  I spent time in face to face teaching with her (it’s called Dokusan). When we were finished and I had moved on from the small room where we had talked, I left her there – and I took her teachings with me. That is a skillful and loving teacher at work. In my opinion, anyway.  I may be wrong.

Elisha: Thank you so much Bill for your wisdom, we’ll take it!

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

Photo by Dennis Wong, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

A Funny UnMindful Thing Happened to Me on the Way to Work…

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

A funny thing happened to me on the way to work the other day. No really. I was driving and stopped at a red light. The light just turned green and as I was about to step on the gas pedal the driver behind me honked. The immediate thought was, “What the heck is wrong with this guy, the light just turned green, people are so impatient.” My shoulders tensed and I was getting upset. “Let it go, let it go, he could be having a bad day already,” I tried to say to myself. As I started moving forward he pulled up to the lane next to me as if to pass me, but then slowed down next to my window. That’s where things got interesting.

Keep in mind that I grew up in Los Angeles where there used to be threats of people pulling up to drivers on the road of freeway and shooting into the windows. I don’t expect this to happen, but it clearly left a mark where it’s a quick thought when someone pulls up next to you. The next thought was he was driving by to give me the finger.

So I ignored him for a moment, but then turned my head and saw that as he was about to turn left he was trying to flash a “peace” sign at me, in a gesture to apologize. I laughed for a moment realizing that the honking was an accident probably and the entire story in my mind was bogus.

Even reflecting on it right now makes me laugh at how my mind just took off.

And so it is, we all get caught up with the stories of our minds, most of the time without any or much awareness that it’s actually happening.

That is why the term auto-pilot is so appropriate for how we conduct most of our attention.

One way to influence this is to keep the idea of auto-pilot and your mind’s storytelling in your short term memory. The best way to do that is to ground it with your own experience.

Practice: Take a moment to reflect on a recent memory or a moment in your life where your mind took off into a state of auto-pilot, perhaps weaving a story that turned out not to be true.

Really get a sense for how you felt, what thoughts were going through your mind, how did your body feel?

If you feel up to it, share your story below. Your interactions create a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

Enslaved to the Gadget? Take Back Control of Your Life

Monday, March 7th, 2011

A few days ago while waking up in the morning I found myself automatically drawn to making my morning coffee and checking the email on my phone. There was my 2 year old little boy playing beside me as I sipped my warm drink. A thought popped in my mind, “Why are you checking your email when you could be enjoying your coffee and this sweet moment with your little boy next to you?” “Good question,” I replied to myself as I put down the phone and tuned into the morning.

But something interesting followed.

Because of my practice in mindfulness, my mind immediately tuned into my body and found tension in my shoulders moving down my back. I have no doubt in my mind that was a result of trying “to do” all of these things at once. As I tuned into my drink and began playing with my little boy, lightness came over me as I realized I had space to enjoy this time.

We all have these choices in life, but more often than not; most of us are turning to filling the spaces of our lives.

One client of mine came in the other day and told me that whenever he walks into a restaurant nowadays he sees people on their phones or their gaming devices, at times talking to one another, at times talking to one another and fiddling with their electronics and at times just fiddling with their electronics.

What effect is this new era of social interaction or inaction having on us? In my case, it was starting the morning with tension in my neck and down my shoulders.

There are better ways to start the day.

Of course our gadgets and social media are not bad, but let this serve as a wake-up call to all of us that at the very least allow your mornings to be your mornings. Perhaps allow your time eating with another person to be just that, eating and sharing the company of another person.

It’s almost as if many of us have gotten to a point where this is so out of the norm that we need to treat this like an experiment to see what happens. We don’t even know what it’s like “to just be” with an activity without our gadgets.

There is a time and place for everything it seems and perhaps there are time and places in our daily life without our phones, IPads, computers or gaming devices.

These are strong habits we’ve developed at this point and I’ve seen even the seemingly “most mindful” of people hooked on it.

It’s just something that would be beneficial to start playing with. This technology is here, it’s exciting, fast, and fun to be around. It’s also very depleting in ways we haven’t even explored yet. It’s as if we haven’t quite matured yet with how to really use these devices for the betterment of our health and well-being.

That’s ok, now it’s time to begin experimenting where the time and place is for the gadgets. We don’t need to be held hostage to the “Ring” of every email, text, phone call, Facebook message, and tweet.

Take back control of your life today!

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

What Really Helps? An Interview with Karen Kissel Wegela

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Last year I had the honor of interviewing Karen Kissel Wegela around The Courage to Be Present.  Karen has been a core faculty member at Naropa University for more than 29 years focusing on “Contemplative Psychotherapy” – bringing together Buddhism and traditional psychotherapy. She has a private practice in Boulder, Colorado and gives workshops and lectures nationally and internationally. Karen has recently released What Really Helps and I think the message she conveys can be extraordinarily helpful to so many of us.

It is my honor to interview her here so we can all glean some of her wisdom.

Elisha: I’m struck by the title of your book, What Really Helps as it is such an important basic question that we all want the answer to. So let me pose it to you. What really helps?

Karen: Elisha, that’s such a good question. As I wrote in the book, what really helps most when we are aspiring to help others is our presence.  We won’t have any idea what will actually help until we connect with others and have a good sense of what their experiences are.  In order to be fully present and connected with another person, we have to be willing to feel whatever comes up in our own experience.

For example, if we’re with a friend, a man who is going through a painful divorce, we might find that as we sit with him that we begin to feel a lot of intense feelings ourselves.  We might feel sadness, anger, or bewilderment.  We could be “exchanging” with what he is feeling in that moment.  Or we could also have our own personal reactions to what he is telling us.  Maybe we’ve been through a divorce ourselves or maybe our parents divorced when we were young, and listening to our friend brings up painful feelings of our own.

Even more commonly, when we want to be helpful, we don’t have a clue what will help.  As I said in the book, as a psychotherapist, more often than not, I don’t know what to do next.  The ability to stay present with not knowing, with uncertainty, or even with feeling stupid is enormously valuable.  It can be hard to stay present with those experiences of pain or not knowing.  Sometimes we jump in prematurely with suggestions or stories of our own just to get away from the discomfort we’re feeling ourselves.  Often when we do that the other person doesn’t feel heard or feels put off.  They may even shut down and stop talking to us.

This ability to be present without pulling away from discomfort is mindfulness.  It’s easy to say, “Stay present,” but it’s actually quite difficult.  We can learn how to do that by engaging in a mindfulness practice like meditation, yoga, or tai chi.  Or we can practice bringing nonjudgmental awareness to other kinds of activities like sports, playing a musical instrument, or cooking.  Anything that trains us to keep coming back to the present moment without judging what we find will help us become people who can be there for others.   And, that’s what really helps.

Elisha: There has been a lot of attention recently given to the concept and practice of compassion. Can you tell us a bit about how you bring awareness to it with your clients and how it helps?

Karen: Compassion can mean being willing to suffer with another.  In my work with clients, I often bring attention to a closely related idea: gentleness.  Gentleness is a way of being kind to ourselves and others.  It means letting go of the self-aggression and self-judgment that we in the West are so good at.  We are often quite self-critical.  So, I work with myself and my clients with the question, “Is there any way to be gentler with yourself about this?”

Recently one of my clients shared that she was having a hard time with “Just being with the feeling,” a suggestion she’d been given by a friend.  We talked about how sometimes just being with something is more than one is able to do at a particular moment.  Instead, learning to be kind to oneself—not just indulging any old whim, but being genuinely caring of one’s own welfare—is even more important than being mindful.

We can train our ability to be gentle when we do our mindfulness practice.  When we realize we’ve been caught up in thoughts, for example, we can gently return to the present moment or to our breath without adding any extra self-criticism or harshness.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now, how would you approach them and what would you tell them?

Karen: It’s always tricky to say what I would do in a hypothetical situation.  As I’ve said, the first thing is to actually connect and be present with a particular person.  That said, though, I would do my best to let people know that I was willing to be with them as they began to explore what was going on with them.

Also, I would help them to titrate the intensity of their suffering by paying attention to those places in their bodies and areas in their lives where they were not suffering.  I would try to help them have a bigger perspective.  As some current trauma work is showing us, and as Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers have taught, paying attention only to what is painful tends to plant the seeds of the recurrence of that pain.  So I am always interested in helping people tune into their health and strength as well.

Mainly, though, I am offering to accompany my clients as they go wherever they need to go.  It is pretty scary to go into one’s suffering alone.  So I offer to do my best to be good company and go along on the journey.

Thank you so much Karen!

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

Trouble Making Change Stick? You Can Always Begin Again

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

starting over with your goalsWe all have aspirations in life to improve in some way. Perhaps is learning how to manage our anxiety, climb out of a depression, break free from our addictions, or improve at some skill at work. At the end of the day, what will always happen is at some point or another we’ll find ourselves in the undesirable place that we were trying to get away from.

Thoughts of failure rain down, “Great, I’m back as square one.” The beauty of mindfulness is it teaches us that no matter what the problem is, it can be worked with and as Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness said, “We can always begin again.”

There is a misconception around mindfulness practice that the purpose of it is to sustain some kind of laser beam concentration on a particular object, let’s say the breath. In my experience, the purpose of the practice is to train our minds to be here in a particular way. So, when the mind wanders from the breath and we notice it that is perhaps the most important part of the practice.

Learning how to notice when we wander and how to bring our attention back is a critical skill in life.

If we’re at work and we’re constantly getting distracted, we can spend more attention damning ourselves for it and wishing we were different, or notice that we wandered, where we wandered to and choose exercise our power in that moment and gently guide our attention back to the task at hand. The latter is simply far more effective, but it takes practice.

Just focusing on our breath can provide us with that practice as it trains the mind to pay attention to the present moment and gives us practice with what to do when we notice it wandering.

It sends that implicit message that we can always begin again.

What would the following hours, days, weeks, months and years look like if our minds began reacting with the message, “we can always begin again” after we strayed. How is that different than the barrage of self criticism and judgment?

But, easier said than done and that’s the reason for training the mind.

We can do this in 1 minute, 5 minutes or 50 minutes. The breath is portable, so there are many options. If not the breath, use hearing or feeling into your body with a body scan.

The other message that gets sent is that we care enough about ourselves to pay attention to our experience. In other words, we feed ourselves self-love. This is wonderful nutrition for our minds and psyches.

The fact is, as long as you’re alive, there is more right with you than wrong with you and when you stray you can always begin again.

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

Photo by PD Breen, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on