Archive for September, 2013

Do Smartphones Kill Happiness?

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

There have been a lot of headlines lately about the 6-minute clip of comedian Louis C.K. telling Conan O’Brien why he doesn’t give his kids Smartphones. He thinks they’re toxic, “especially for kids.” He says kids can say “you’re fat” to another kid via text and then don’t see their reaction, they don’t get to build empathy. While this is a worthwhile point for every parent to consider at this time in our culture, his next point was even more impactful and it gets to the heart of what holds us back from experiencing more joy and happiness.

Here’s the clip:

The debate about whether to give kids Smartphones or not and what impact that has on them will be a debate for quite a while. But when Louis C.K. talked about noticing that pit of sadness and aloneness inside and the knee-jerk reaction to “get the phone and write ‘hi’ to like 50 people” he touched upon a universal experience – the innate fear of being alone.

It makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective; the people that survived were those that had a clan or a tribe so they could defend themselves in times of attack. Feeling alone is uncomfortable to the brain.

But Louis, can I call him Louis? He did something different, something mindful.

He said that when he started to get that sad feeling he noticed an inclination to reach for the phone and then said:

“You know what don’t, just be sad. Just let the sadness hit you like a truck. I let it come and then I pulled over and cried so much and it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic, you’re lucky to live sad moments. And when I let myself feel sad I felt happy moments come in, because your body has like antibodies that bring like happiness to meet the sadness. I was grateful to be sad and I met it with profound happiness. I was grateful.”

Yes!

There are so many ways our brain makes the decision to check out from the uncomfortable feelings we have; perhaps the most feared is our aloneness. But the problem is as we avoid what’s uncomfortable we also close off the possibility of truly being comfortable. We enter into a state of just surviving.

But what happens when we practice “allowing” the sadness, the aloneness to be there just as it is? What happens when we start accepting the reality of it as something we fear and at the same time knowing it’s just a feeling, just a sensation?

What might come up is a natural feeling of personal control, self-compassion and even happiness. This is maybe what Louis C.K. experienced as his “happiness antibodies.” They arise when we become mindful of our emotions, the difficult and the more joyous.

Today, be on the lookout for that alone feeling, notice any urge to check out from it and then see what happens when you pay attention to it with a kind awareness, just letting it be. You might just trigger some emotional antibodies that trigger happiness.

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

Mindfulness is Useless, Unless…

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Throughout the last number of years mindfulness, the practice of cultivating awareness, has gone mainstream into all kinds of sectors and ages of life. Researchers have a seemingly unending amount of data at this point to its efficacy for health and well-being. For many it’s a kind of feel-good aspirational practice to be connected to or identified with. However, the reality is, it’s completely useless unless it’s actually practiced in daily life.

We can all write and read blog after blog, book after book or go hear speaker after speaker, but until we actually implement this into our lives, it’s fairly useless. Not much changes unless we put something into practice.

Take gratitude for example.

It’s become such a cliché to say, “be grateful” that many people roll their eyes when they hear this. But when’s the last time those same people practiced a gratitude ritual in their lives? Does the science behind having a daily gratitude practice having statistically significant results on our happiness not mean anything either?

Mindfulness can go the same way.

The term can eventually get lost into a Pollyanna feel good term that people get bored and tired of. But if this comes up in our minds we have to ask ourselves, “When is the last time I consistently practiced this in my daily life?”

Because if there was a daily practice a whole lot of learning is likely to take place. We learn about how our minds automatically tell stories that affect our emotions and how our bodies feel. We learn that coming home to our bodies is a way to interrupt the stress response and respond with greater perspective and composure. We begin to interrupt the automatic negativity bias of the brain and prime the mind for what’s good in life (See The Now Effect).

But we have to practice. So I’m going to invite you right now to get in of this. Settle in and take the next 2 minutes to just do a brief mindful check-in.

Wherever you are in this moment, take this time to reconnect your life and allow your experience to guide the rest of the day.

Warmly,

Elisha Goldstein, PhD

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

Mindful Eating for Vibrant Living

Monday, September 16th, 2013

Eating – Some of us enjoy it looking for the greatest combination of ingredients to tantalize our taste buds, while others wish there was a food pill to just get it over with. Sometimes we can eat too much food out of stress or habit and at other times we have periods of eating well, being mindful of our food habits and caring about the body. No matter what your relationship to food, everyone has to eat.  The question I continue to come back to again and again is how can we develop a more mindful relationship to food in order to cultivate better eating habits? My friend and mindful colleague Beth Mulligan who is founder of The Mindful Way has been working on this for years and enlightens us with an answer today.

Beth is also teaching an 8-week series on Mindful Eating for Vibrant Living at InsightLA in Los Angeles starting September 23rd.

Elisha: How does Mindful Eating help us create better eating habits?

Beth: Mindful Eating helps us make better choices on several levels, physical, emotional and mental. First I’ll address this on the physical level; Like all mindfulness based interventions, there is a foundational practice of awareness of the body- which we practice in a friendly, curious, non-judgmental way. We practice noticing how our body feels in the present moment with something that seems basic, like, “Am I hungry?” and “Am I full?” You’d be surprised how difficult it is for many people to answer that question. However this information is crucial in making decisions about eating.

Another physical aspect is we slow the process of eating down, trying to include some moments when we are eating and not doing anything else. We look at the shapes and colors, smell the food, taste it, and practice the fine lost art of chewing (an important part of digestion that we do very little of when we are eating in front of the television or computer.) We might reflect on where the food came from what went into growing it, and how many labors of other human beings went into bringing it before us. Participants are invited to pause occasionally before, during and after a meal or snack. One participant came back to class after one week and said “Doritos only taste good if you eat them really fast.”

When you pause after you’ve eaten something unhealthy, you might notice how your body actually feels; perhaps bloated, tired, or nauseated. Emotionally, you might notice regret, guilt, and even sadness that you’ve let yourself down again. After a while of practicing slowing the process down, people are able to ask themselves before they make the unhealthy choice; “How am I going to feel afterwards?” and then often make a different choice. The same process works when you make a healthy choice, you pause and notice, “Wow this really feels good in my body!” Which means you will be more likely to make that choice again. 

So much of our eating behavior is habitual and automatic, that many people are surprised to discover – when they bring awareness to eating and slow it down -they aren’t even enjoying the foods that they were convinced gave them comfort and relief from stress.

Another way mindfulness helps us make better choices is on the emotional level. I know you often quote Victor Frankl “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. “ Mindfulness practices help us put in that space. This is extremely helpful in making food choices. We get a space between the thought; “I want that bag of cookies” and the actual behavior of eating it. We get a chance to consider what would really serve our physical and emotional health best in that moment.

What we know from the neuroscience on mindfulness meditation is; regular practice literally strengthens the part of the brain that sees options and makes decisions that are from the higher functions of the brain rather than the reactive parts.

Mindful Eating gives people new tools to deal with difficult emotions and stress, so they are less likely to turn to unhealthy foods and more likely to take care of themselves in a deeper more satisfying and skillful way. Then food becomes what is meant to be, a pleasurable way to fuel and nourish the amazing vehicle of the body we live in.

Elisha: Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us Beth.

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

Jack Kornfield on the Marriage of East and West Psychology

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

It is my profound honor to bring to you one of the true leaders of our time in respect to the marriage of Eastern and Western Psychology, Jack Kornfield. He stands alongside an esteemed group of elders such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron, and Joseph Goldstein in bringing mindfulness to the west. Not only that, he also holds his PhD in clinical Psychology which makes him so relevant to the connection between mindfulness and psychotherapy.

He co-founded Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachussets and is a founding teacher of the well known retreat center Spirit Rock, in Woodacre, Ca. He has taught in Centers and University settings worldwide with teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. He is also author of many widely popular books translated in over 20 languages, including The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, among others.

Today he talks with us about the connection between East and West psychology, his work with Dr. Dan Siegel, and how his own trauma in life has influenced his work with himself and others. He will be speaking with Dan Siegel at the LifeSpan Learning Conference on The Neuroscience of Well-Being, Mindfulness and Love October 5-6th at UCLA

Elisha: You are a well known as a leader in the continuing dialogue of Eastern and Western psychology and are very skillful in how you marry the two. With all of the suffering that many of our readers experience, how do you see each supporting the other and where do you see this dialogue heading in our culture?

Jack: The suffering that is experienced by people is described in the Buddhist tradition as the first noble truth of the Buddha. The Buddha says that life entails a certain measure of suffering and no one is exempt from that. There is pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. Human happiness and mental well-being doesn’t come from avoiding these changing circumstances, they happen to all of us. True happiness comes from the openness of heart, compassion, resiliency and mindfulness, the wisdom that we bring to it, that gives perspective and meaning. In eastern and Buddhist psychology there are many kinds of trainings in compassion, in mindfulness and a balanced perspective that make it possible to hold our suffering in a wise way. We can also learn how to release suffering from the body and emotions and transform its energy.

In Western psychotherapy, much of the same is true. The biggest complementary difference between east and west is that most of western psychotherapy is done together with another person. At best we can call it a kind of paired attention or paired mindfulness in which another person is helping to direct your attention and encourage your capacities to be with your experience with greater wisdom, greater balance, greater understanding, and greater compassion.

With Eastern practice you can have the same paired experience working with a teacher to a certain extent, but then much more emphasis is put on continued trainings and practices that you do regularly and frequently on your own. These capacities develop strongly through practice over and over again. East and West complement one another in this way.

Elisha: Speaking of marrying East and West, can you tell us a bit about your work with Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation and the upcoming book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. 

Jack: The beautiful work that I’m able to share with Dan Siegel describes this same wedding of East and West and particularly of modern neuroscience and the neurological basis for the capacity for resilience, authentic presence, and for interpersonal attunement, demonstrated in a lot of the neuroscience research. The capacities for wisdom and compassion that I teach about can also be understood from Interpersonal Neurobiology how all this happens and how it fits both in eastern and western perspective. Dan too teaches how it can be developed and learned, changing us and changing our lives.

Elisha: Like many of the readers of the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog, in your book, The Wise Heart you mention that you had your own confused, painful and lonely family history. How has that history influenced your work on yourself and with others?

Jack: It’s influenced me a great deal. When I shifted from studying science at Dartmouth, from studying organic chemistry and mathematics to Buddhist and Asian studies, it was partly because I was looking for way to deal with my inner suffering and trauma. I had the pain of living in a family with a violent and abusive father and the underlying fear I carried. Much of my training in the Buddhist monasteries was in lovingkindness and equanimity and mindfulness. But first I had to learn how to deal with fear, hurt and trauma. Also anger, which I didn’t know I carried, which I suppressed a lot. My father was so full of rage I didn’t want to be like him. Lo and behold I discovered that it was not just in him, but was in me as well.

So over the years of training and practice, I began to explore the trauma I carried and the ways to release trauma out of the body, out of the stories, out of the emotions. This healing is built into the practices of mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, and forgiveness. I began to explore them in the east and then after the monastic training I began working on my doctorate and clinical work and training in western psychology

Now when I work with people on meditation retreat or individually and they bring their trauma or their painful history or their unfinished business I am able to sit with them and know it from my own experience. There are many ways to transform and release trauma and my dual training gives me a good sense of what is going on in them, and a good way of marrying the skills from the east and west. I have gotten trainings from being in the presence of a skilled therapist who would call my attention to movements or emotions that were unconscious to me that really made a difference. In trauma work someone would encourage a bodily release and there weren’t even words for it when it would start to come out. I now have those experiences and skills to marry East and West, to intuitively listen to what is most helpful to the person in front of me.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from a person who was experiencing deep emotional suffering in their life right now, what advice or suggestions would you give them.

Jack: Very little advice to start with. I believe the most important thing I can do is to be fully present as I sit with them and not to try and advise them. To sit and be present, even to hold their hand or if they were not open to it, hold them in my heart and let my own experience resonate with theirs. To bring myself to their experience with as much compassion and care and perspective and deep breath and love as I could. To start with words I’d be curious, what is your suffering, and what are your tears and anguish and trauma? I’d want to know and not impose any advice, without first clearly hearing what they knew and where they were and what they were looking for.

And then perhaps from this shared capacity to be present I’d want to communicate a deep trust that we can open to it all and move through the experience of suffering. I’d want them to know that their experience is part of their humanity, part of the difficulty and the gift of human incarnation and we are all called upon to bear our sorrows as well as our joys, and that we can bear them and they’re not the end of the story. That our sufferings don’t define us and we don’t have to be so loyal to our suffering that we don’t see that there is a greater mysterious majestic dance that we’re a part of so that the communication of trust as well as the capacity to be present is there.

Because it is as William Blake says that in the minute particulars that goodness is transmitted, not in the general or the ideological, but actually in the presence itself.

Elisha: So much gratitude for all your work and from me in this moment. I’m really grateful for your life and the work you put out, for touching me and so many others.

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

How to Wake Up! An Interview with Toni Bernhard

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Everyone has ups and downs in life, sometimes they’re more extreme than others. Today I am thrilled to bring you an interview with Toni Berhard, someone I deeply respect and a longtime practitioner and leader in mindfulness. She is author of her newest book How to Wake Up helping us navigate these ups and downs with greater ease and also the past award winning book How to Be Sick which speaks of how to live with greater peace with chronic illness.  Toni was dean of students at the University of California Davis School of Law and the writings and practices in these books have been inspired by over 20 years of personal practice.

Today, Toni talks to us about why it’s so hard to be present to our lives, practices that Toni finds to be personally impactful, why we have to navigate joy, and some personal advice for the rest of us.

Elisha: You say that the key to peace and well-being is to be present for your life as it is. Why is that so hard to do?

Toni: It’s hard because the present moment is not necessarily a pleasant moment! Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We’ll experience success but also disappointment, joy but also sorrow. There’s a tendency to turn away in aversion from any unpleasantness, instead of being willing to stay in the moment with it and acknowledge whatever we’re feeling. This turning away from experience that’s not to our liking serves only to make an already unpleasant situation worse, because it adds a layer of suffering in the form of painful emotions, such as resentment or frustration.

We have much less control over our experience than we’d wish, meaning that life doesn’t always conform to our desires. Uncertainty and unpredictability—two corollaries of the universal law of impermanence—are always by our side. It’s only when we’re able to accept this reality of the human condition that we can be mindfully present for each moment, even if it’s unpleasant, without being lost in fantasies and desires for it to be different.

My understanding of the Buddha’s awakening is that he realized that the key to peace and well-being is to accept life as it is—unpleasantness included—and then to be as present for it as we can, without turning away in aversion if it’s not to our liking. When we’re present in this way, compassion naturally arises for any suffering we might be experiencing.

Elisha: The book has many exercises and practices. Is there one that you rely on most heavily? Is there one that stands out as the biggest challenge for you?

Toni: I rely most heavily on the many self-compassion practices in the book, particularly learning to transform the inner critic. Most of us are conditioned from childhood to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. As a result, we habitually judge ourselves negatively for the slightest imperfection.

The good news is that we can reverse that conditioning. Minds can change. The Buddha said the mind is a soft and pliant as the balsam tree. Neuroscientists are confirming this today—that the mind is constantly rewiring and reconditioning itself. The book has several exercises to help us turn our inner critic into an ally. Other exercises focus on learning to treat ourselves as kindly and compassionately as we’d treat a loved one in need.

The practice that’s the biggest challenge for me is the one that gives rise to true peace of mind—equanimity. A mind that is equanimous understands that life is a mixture of joys and sorrows and responds to both those circumstances with an even temper and a peaceful heart. In those moments when I’m able to let go of the desire for the world to conform to my liking, I can feel the peace and well-being of equanimity arise.

Equanimity is a challenge to sustain because it requires accepting that life won’t always go the way we want it to. Whenever I feel stuck in this practice, the first thing I do is to try and remember to be kind and compassionate to myself. Why shouldn’t I treat myself well? It’s not easy to navigate life’s ups and downs with equanimity! Being understanding about how hard it can be softens my heart enough to take a deep breath and then…try again.

Elisha: The subtitle of your book is: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Why do we have to navigate joy?

Toni: At first glance, it would seem that there’s no need to navigate joy. We all prefer joy over sorrow, so why not grasp at joy when it comes? The reason is that, like everything else, joy is subject to the law of impermanence and so it cannot last. Until I understood this, there was always an undercurrent of unease and even anxiety whenever I was in the midst of a joyful experience.

With the Buddha’s help, I came to see that it was because I was grasping and clinging to it, wanting it to last forever even though I knew, at a gut level, that could not happen. And so, by navigating joy, I’m referring to the skill of enjoying it fully, even passionately, but also having the wisdom not to cling to it because that clinging has that undercurrent of unease, maybe even fear.

One example I use in the book is of my experience watching a spectacular sunset on the island of Molokai and how I felt unease in the midst of its beauty. This unease spoiled my ability to simply enjoy the unfolding display of colors. Then, compounding my suffering, I started adding distracting commentary to what was happening in the moment: “How much longer will it look like this? Ten minutes? Five minutes? Two minutes?” Then I topped it off with a stressful story about the future: “Maybe tomorrow night, after we’ve left the island, it will be even more spectacular and we’ll miss out on it.”

I’d be surprised if everyone hasn’t engaged in distracting mental chatter that’s interfered with the ability to enjoy something pleasurable that’s going on in the moment—a beautiful sunset like the one I described or perhaps a fabulous concert. This chatter reflects a desire to control our experience.

We could cling to this desire as long as we wanted, but it wouldn’t affect the fleeting nature of the sunset or how long the concert will last. These are circumstances in our lives over which we have no control. Seeing this clearly, we could bow to the law of impermanence and enjoy the pleasant experience while it lasts, without dissatisfied longing creeping in to pollute our joy. This would be navigating joy skillfully.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was struggling emotionally, what words of wisdom would you like them to leave with? 

Toni: Of course, if this were an ongoing struggle of several month’s duration, I’d encourage the person to seek counseling. That said, all of us struggle emotionally at times. We can’t control what thoughts and emotions pop into the mind, but we can learn to respond to them so as not to make matters worse for us. I would encourage the person to use mindful investigation to see if he or she can pinpoint what triggers the stressful emotion (perhaps fatigue or feeling disappointed by someone or stress about an upcoming obligation). Investigation is the third in a four-part approach I set out in the book for working skillfully with stressful emotions. Understanding all we can about a stressful emotion can begin to loosen its grip on us.

Then I’d encourage the person to let it be. Trying to force a stressful emotion out of the mind can leave us feeling like failures if we’re unsuccessful in our efforts. Instead, gently and with self-compassion for whatever suffering the emotion is causing, just let it be until it yields to the law of impermanence and passes out of the mind.

Elisha: Thank you so much Toni for sharing your wisdom. As always, if you have any thoughts, stories and questions, please comment below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from. 

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