Archive for September, 2010

What Distracts You from Your Goodness?

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Is it possible that we hold more good within us than we think? Is it possible that our brains are inclined toward looking for negativity in life and breezing over those aspects that are positive? Most importantly, is it possible that with an awareness of how we are wired, we can transcend these conditionings and recognize more choice in life?

Walt Whitman said:

“I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness.”

What distracts us from this goodness?

I like talking about this in the form of nutrition. The question is what nutrition are you feeding your mind?

  • News – Many of us spend lots of time watching the news which feeds us a disproportionate amount of stressful and negative information. What often happens is our nervous system perceives this stress as a threat and acts to avoid it and so we fall into zones of distraction or wasted attention in order to avoid these uncomfortable feelings. It’s good to be informed, but the way the news does this is often not healthy for our nervous systems and the amount we digest can also be unhealthy.
  • Popular Media – Popular media can also be bad nutrition.  From the time we are young we are fed the message that unless we look a certain way, act a certain way, and even eat a certain way we don’t belong.  We learn that what is most important is power and money, these two things lead to acceptance and security. What they often lead to for the majority of us is a sense of unworthiness that clouds over our natural goodness as human beings. There is a place for entertainment and learning in the popular media and these are good things, but we need to look at the subtle messages and see how much we’re digesting.
  • Friends and Family – You may or may not find this to make the list. The people we surround ourselves with can also be healthy or unhealthy. With people I work with I’ll sometimes have them draw a social map where they mark themselves and then note people who they spend most time with closest to them and fan those in their lives out from there. I then ask them to mark who in their life are most supportive to them. What often happens is the most supportive people are on the outskirts of the map and sometimes the unhealthiest people are close to them, meaning they’re spending most of their time with them. We work on changing the map so they’re spending more time with those that support their goodness.

Actual food, exercise and sleep play a role in the nutrition of our lives in lighting up the parts of our brain that get us in touch with our natural goodness. You know this because often they make us feel good.

What are things that get you in touch with your innate goodness in life?

Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction really does create a living wisdom that we all benefit from.

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The Single Candle

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Just as a single lit candle dispels darkness in the moonless night, mindfulness and love dispels fear, anger and the broken heart. This is a short talk and meditation on mindfulness and loving kindness.

Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: An Interview with Jack Kornfield

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Some things are worth reposting…enjoy!

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 HanhSharon SalzbergPema 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 theDalai Lama. He is also author of many widely popular books translated in over 20 languages, some of which are, A Path with Heart, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry and his newest book The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.

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.

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 The Mindful Brain and upcoming book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. I heard you were running a new online 6-week online course on Mindfulness and the Brain through Sounds True.

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 new 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.

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

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What are We Missing with Our Kids Today?

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Maybe it’s because we live in the information age or that media has become more sensational than ever. It seems like for a while now kids have been getting labeled with one diagnosis to another with an overemphasis on their negative traits and less emphasis on the hope and possibility that there is something inside that is quite beautiful.

Buckminster Fuller said:

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

Perhaps it’s because our minds are geared toward fear and so anything that resembles ADHD, Autism, Aspergers, Depression, Anxiety or any other number of disorders are quickly attached to the child by friends, family, teachers, and even health professionals.

Now, let me be clear. I absolutely believe that labels can be helpful; they provide a common language for us to communicate as well as point us to interventions that have worked for others with similar symptoms. But, like anything we can get swept away with them leaving us blind to what is outside of the box.  Or even if the shoe does fit, we can miss out on the wonders of the children who are correctly diagnosed. For example, people with Autism/Aspergers are often highly trustworthy without any manipulative agenda. They have unique perspectives, little filtering for prejudice and can be highly intelligent.

In his book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson explains that our brains are built with an automatic negativity bias to help keep us safe. When two roads diverge in the wood and one has bear tracks, the brain is going to be geared toward noticing the tracks more in order that we notice them and not go down that path.

This seems to too often be the case when we view our children as well.

We can almost laugh at ourselves, because we do this same thing with ourselves.  We spend much of our time in self judgment so it’s as if we are pros at it. So ofcourse, we turn that same rock hard muscle on our children rapidly judging and categorizing them as this or that.

Perhaps we should make it a practice for ourselves and for our kids in noticing that initial perception and seeing if we can stop, take a breath, open our eyes and intentionally incline our minds toward what is good about them.

We can make this a daily practice not in the attempt to put on rose colored glasses and ignore any warning signs that are important to pay attention to. But more in an attempt to begin balancing the mind and modeling that for our kids.

What are some traits that you appreciate in the kids in your life? These can be friends’ kids, nieces, nephews, your own, just the children of today?

Even just writing it below begins the process of inclining your mind. It’s a worthwhile practice, go ahead and let us know.

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Mindfulness for Dummies: Shamash Alidina

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Today, it’s my pleasure to bring to you the author of Mindfulness For DummiesShamash Alidina. Shamash is a lecturer, educator and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive (MBCT) teacher in London. He also runs the Learn Mindfulness Community.

Today Shamash gives us mindfulness tips for beginners and long time practitioners, the intersection with positive psychology, how to regain the wonder of life and how to balance work and life.

So without further ado…

Elisha: What tips do you have for those just starting the mindfulness adventure and for those who have at it for a while?

Shamash: For those who are just starting the mindfulness adventure there are five key points I think are helpful to remember:

  1. Mindfulness is a long term way of living, not just a short term fix of a current issue.
    You can use mindfulness to help overcome a particular problem in your life, like depression, anxiety or chronic pain for example, but without fully continuing to integrate mindfulness into your day to day life, you may find it difficult to sustain the initial benefits you reaped through the mindfulness practice. Just as it takes time for a seed to eventually turn into a beautiful plant with gorgeous flowers, so mindfulness takes time and care to flower within your own being. Be patient.
  2. Mindfulness is about cultivating certain attitudes rather than achieving relaxation or focusing well in one particular meditation.
    When you practice a mindfulness exercise, like awareness of the breath, or mindfulness of sounds, you will find your mind drifting off into other worries, concerns or dreams. Sometimes your whole meditation will be dominated by such thoughts and challenging emotions and you may feel far from relaxed. To be able to stick with the practice requires certain attitudes. By cultivating attitudes of self-compassion, curiosity of your experience even if it is unpleasant, and an acknowledgment of your moment to moment experience, you’ll be less disheartened. Usually mindfulness feels like it makes no difference at all – that’s okay, just stick with the practice and you are sure to reap the rewards.
  3. Mindfulness is not a special state of mind that you’ve never experienced before.
    Everyone practices mindfulness from time to time. Whenever you are paying attention to your experience, whatever that may be, is a moment of mindfulness. However our experience is often overly dominated by a lack of acceptance, judgment and self-criticism – through the practice of mindfulness exercises and meditations on a regular basis, you become better at acknowledging and being with your present moment experience as it is, rather than just being lost in thoughts or overwhelmed by emotions.
  4. Keep weaving the parachute every day; don’t wait for the day when you need to jump out of the plane.
    Make some time everyday to practice mindfulness, even if it’s only 5 minutes. A little bit of daily mindfulness is far better than once a week or month. If you wait for the time when you are very stressed, anxious or in a challenging life situation, mindfulness will be able to help you there too, but a daily practice will make the difficulty more tolerable and perhaps even seen as a beneficial learning opportunity.
  5. Beware of the thought ‘I can’t do mindfulness.’
    Everyone can be mindful. The very fact that you are alive and are able to read this interview means you are already practicing mindfulness to some extent. Usually my students who say they can’t do mindfulness have an idea of what mindfulness is – and that idea is an absence of thoughts, a feeling of peace and calm or an ability to relax. These are possible long term outcomes of daily mindfulness practice, but the key point is long term. In any one mindfulness practice any kind of challenging thought/emotion/bodily sensation can come up. And that’s perfectly normal and part of mindfulness. The mind wandering off into heaps of different thoughts again and again, and for long periods of time is also very much a part of mindfulness.

For more experienced practitioners, I would say the main danger is being too comfortable, getting habitual in your practice and thinking you’re an expert! As Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.’

I would encourage seasoned mindfulness enthusiasts to challenge themselves with different practices. Perhaps you could go on a different type of retreat, practice mindfulness meditation that you normally avoid or feel uncomfortable with and try practicing with your eyes open if you normally just meditate with eyes closed. Anything to shift a habitual pattern is helpful and makes the whole process exciting and challenging rather than just a comfortable escape from the difficulties of daily living.

The other danger is becoming too obsessed with mindfulness. Mindfulness is about keeping things in balance and perspective, including mindfulness. Take time to have some fun and let yourself go from time to time – especially mindfulness ‘experts’! Sometimes I think experienced mindfulness practitioners just need to chill out…in the nicest possible sense of course.

Elisha: Why did you blend mindfulness with positive psychology and what’s the benefit?

Shamash: In my research I was surprised to find that very few books on mindfulness bridge the gap between mindfulness and positive psychology so I thought it was very important for me to include a chapter to address this.

There is a lot of excitement in the relatively new field of positive psychology, which is essentially the psychology of well being. Ultimately everyone wants to be happy and well, but what are the factors that help us to achieve this? Research has found that excessive money is not the answer, nor is a big house, fast cars or the latest fashionable clothes.

What does boost your inner sense of well being is the quality and quantity of your personal relationships, and combining your daily activities or work with your values, so that what you do gives you a sense of meaning.

Helping others and remembering to be grateful for what you do have are useful. In my opinion all these ways of boosting your sense of wellbeing are enhanced through mindfulness. In fact, positive psychologists have found mindfulness to be a powerful way towards greater wellbeing. People who practice mindfulness regularly have brains that have rewired themselves to be more resilient and resourceful when facing life’s difficulties, and are more open to seeing things in a positive light.

Mindfulness has also been shown to enhance personal relationships, which goes hand in hand with greater wellbeing as humans are social animals and benefit tremendously from positive contact with others.

Flow is another state of mind studied in positive psychology, which is where your mind is totally focused on whatever you are doing, like when you are doing your favorite sport, reading a fascinating interview (!), or engaging in a hobby. This state of mind is associated with a great feeling of well being. Mindfulness is partly about training your mind to pay attention with warmth and kindness, and this ability leads to greater instances of flow and therefore well being in your life. Mindfulness is a powerful way of living in the positive psychologist’s repertoire of recommendations.

Elisha: Why is it that when we grow up we lose our sense of wonder?

Shamash: That’s a great question because the sense of wonder is a beautiful emotion – it’s a feeling of awe, reverence and fascination that are so powerful they intrinsically give you inspiration and make life worth living.

Why do we lose our sense of wonder? As we grow up we are encouraged to move from the world of our senses and vivid imagination, to the world of words and thoughts, goals and ambitions, future and past. In mindfulness this is often referred to as ‘doing mode’ leading to ‘automatic pilot.’

Most schools do a great job in bringing up children and I was a teacher myself for 10 years, but the emphasis in my experience was heavily on passing on a body of knowledge and achieving the highest grades possible. This obviously has its advantages but there are problems with it too.

If you train a child year after year to focus on the future and on achieving certain goals, that is what they are going to do. Some teachers and parents are aware of the imbalance in society and take time to encourage children to look at that tree, to enjoy a stroll in the local woods or discuss the value of seeing beauty in the present moment rather than only rewarding material success. If this doesn’t happen, it’s easy for the child to become an adult and keep looking for satisfaction in the next job, the next relationship, the next child, the next paycheck or the next holiday – never stopping to enjoy the here and now.

I would guess that for some people this sense of wonder is briefly experienced on holiday. They may be fortunate enough to find a few moments of peace and see the sun setting or the full moon on a cool summer’s evening. Suddenly they are filled with a sense of awe – they remember that the world can be a mysterious and stunning place, beyond their own inner problems and issues.

The very fact that they are alive, here and now, is a miracle in itself. But these moments come when we’re not focusing on where we’ll find the money for this month’s rent, or how to get out of this current bout of depression – which is totally understandable. We need to be fortunate enough that our lives are relatively safe and secure – and if we are lucky in that sense, it’s important to find space and time to reflect on the miracle and mystery of our own existence and the universe around us. Actually I have sprinkled the importance of embracing the mystery of being alive throughout my Mindfulness For Dummies book as I feel it’s such a key aspect of mindful living.

Elisha: How can you be more mindful in balancing work and life?

Shamash: In my book, I include a story of a lumberjack, which I can summarize for you now. Out in a wild forest lived a busy lumberjack who had to chop trees to earn a living. One day as the lumberjack was busily chopping trees down and looking more frustrated than ever a wise person happened to be passing by. He looked at the lumberjack’s axe and noticed that it was blunt. ‘Why don’t you stop and sharpen you axe?’ said the wise man calmly. ‘In this way, you’ll be able to chop the trees more efficiently and have time to rest with your family and friends.’ The lumberjack retorted ‘I don’t have time to stop! Can’t you see how busy I am! I have too many trees to chop!’

Sometimes our attitude is the same without realizing it. We are feeling tired and need a rest, some space, some silence for mindfulness and meditation, but we think we’re just too busy or too tired. However without sharpening the axe of your own mind with mindfulness, you can end up trying to work even harder, putting more pressure on your relationships at home and increasing the likelihood of illness, inefficiency and frustration. So, make some time in your life for yourself and be still and quiet and rest – you’re not doing nothing, you’re recharging your batteries, and all batteries need recharging if they are to continue to work.

Here are some of my tips for bringing space and therefore more mindfulness into the workplace:

  • Set an alarm or reminder to stop and feel your breathing for 1 minute every hour
  • Try meditating at the end of your work day. This helps clarify the boundary between home and work. Many of my students love to do this.
  • Spend some time every month to reflect on how you can work smarter rather than just harder. Think of creative ways of integrating more mindfulness into your daily schedule.
  • Go for a short mindful walk at lunchtime. Feel your feet on the ground as you walk, or enjoy looking at the sky for a few minutes.
  • Use the time you spend in the washroom as an opportunity to center yourself using your favorite mindful practice. This is one of the few times in the day where you have some privacy and space – make use of the opportunity. Going to the washroom will never be the same again!

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was truly suffering, what advice would you give them?

Shamash: First of all I would do my best to listen to them, not just with my ears and not just listen to their words, but listen to their emotions, their inner attitudes, their bodies and their facial expression. I would try and recall times in my life when I have suffered and be as compassionate as I can manage.

There’s no one solution for all of life’s struggles, and the right thing to do depends on each particular situation and the character of the person that is facing the difficulty – I would avoid giving too much advice and encourage them to consider what they think may be the best thing for them to do through asking specific and open questions. I believe in trusting one’s own inner intuition – this has been shown to be immensely quick, intelligent and wise. They know themselves far better than I do.

However, I would remind them of the importance of physical exercise, socializing with good friends or family, eating healthily, and practicing mindfulness help look after themselves at this difficult time – these methods have been well proven to be immensely beneficial for mental and physical well being.

Finally, if appropriate, I would remind them that the nature of life means there will be suffering. It doesn’t mean that there life is going wrong – it’s part and parcel of being alive. You are not a failure at life because you are suffering. Just as the sky is not a failure if it’s filled with clouds, so you are not a failure if you’re filled with suffering. Everyone suffers in one way or another. Suffering does present a challenge and although it may seem intolerable at the moment, this is the time where a huge amount of growth and learning is taking place. This is the time to be as kind and gentle with yourself as you can.

Thank you so much for your wisdom Shamash.

To the readers: Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

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What Everyone Should Know About How Stress Affects the Brain

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

I posted this a while back and it received a lot of attention, so I’ve adapted it a bit and added to it. Worth the re-post. Enjoy!

In a recent NY Times article, Natalie Angier wrote about new research showing that heightened stress actually rewires the brain to promote self perpetuating habitual cycles of continued stress.

Just to give you a summary, research Eduardo Dias-Ferreira and colleagues titled their research Chronic Stress Causes FrontoStriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision Making. To put it simply, they found that in rats, chronic stress caused atrophy in the area of the brain associated with decision making and goal directed behaviors and an increase in the areas associated with habit.

Are you a stress case? Hope is not lost and we can thank the Neuroscientists for their discovery of neuroplasticity.

If you haven’t heard the term neuroplasticity before, basically it means that throughout our lives we have the ability to rewire our brains.

So we might say that how and where we place our attention is very important in respect to our brains.

There has been a growing amount of research showing that practicing mindfulness meditation in our daily life can rewire things in a positive direction.

In 2005, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School, published research finding a measurable difference in the brains of people who routinely meditate compared to those who do not. She reported,

“Meditation can have a serious impact on your brain long beyond the time when you’re actually sitting and meditating, and this may have a positive impact on your day-to-day living.”

Using MRI brain scans, she found thicker regions of frontal cortex, regions responsible for reasoning and decision making, in those who had a consistent mindfulness practice compared to those who did not. Additionally, she found a thicker insula, considered to be the central switchboard of the brain that helps us coordinate our thoughts and emotions. She suggested that because our cortex and insula normally start deteriorating after age twenty, mindfulness meditation might help us make up for some losses as we age.

This all makes sense because rather than just falling into an old habitual way of reacting to something, when we are present, we are more likely to be aware of all the options and possibilities and actually make better decisions. When we are present, we are more likely to regulate our emotions and act from a great place of calm and balance. As we practice this, we are more likely to remember to do it and as we remember to do it, brain lays the tracks for that to happen again and again.

How can you bring a bit more mindfulness into your life for the health of your brain?

There are so many ways. There are multiple CDsEBooks and programs to support people in cultivating more mindfulness in their daily lives. I have also mentioned many other teachers in various blog posts or you can Google “mindfulness” and see what comes up.

For Psychotherapy Professionals: Trudy Goodman, Steve Hickman and Myself are hosting a 5 Day Retreat in Joshua Tree, Ca November 7th – 12th Incorporating Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (IMP). There is nothing like a retreat experience to deepen your connection to mindfulness.

As the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

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Reprogramming Your Mind Toward a Better Life: Mary Oliver

Monday, September 13th, 2010

What if you could put the past behind you and start fresh today? Ok, now take a moment to allow all the judgments and naysayers in the mind a moment to pass through and NOW, allow your mind to consider this for a second.

What if you could leave your past programming and step into being in this world the way you want to be?

What would that look like?

Would you be kinder, more compassionate, go after your interests more, pay more attention to your family, wake up earlier, run after sunsets, volunteer, more politically active? What would it be?

Acclaimed poet Mary Oliver tells us:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Oh, alas, life does not work this way. We can’t just drop our past with the snap of our fingers and walk into a new life leaving it all behind.

All the experiences we have in life make up the automatic way we perceive things moment-to-moment.

However, the question is still paramount to setting the longer intention of how we want to be in this world. Some people call this setting an aspiration or making a vow. After doing this, then the work begins toward guiding our minds and behaviors in sync with this aspiration.

Make no mistake, because of our past conditionings our mind and behaviors will wander and our work is to become aware of it when it happens and gently guide our attention back to acting in line with these longer aspirations.

So today, what is one way you want to be in this world that you can pay attention to and bring your mind back to when it wanders? Allow this to be short space in your day to sit back, close your eyes and consider this question for 30 seconds or a minute. Don’t let it just pass by and on to the next web page.

Breathe and consider this vastly important opportunity to engage with living the life you want.

As always, please share your aspirations, thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom we can all benefit from.

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The Key to Playing the Right Notes in the Musical of Life

Friday, September 10th, 2010

In a past blog I wrote about how more often than not when any of us are asked how we are in the response somewhere will be a reference to how busy things are (even if just in our own minds). We just want more space to breathe. Recently I came across a metaphor that I wanted to share about finding the spaces in our lives and what we can do about it.

The metaphor has to do with music.

If you look at a sheet of music you’ll see notes and in between notes there are spaces. When you learn a musical instrument your body acts to play these notes. At first we have to go slowly to play one note correctly, stop in the space before the next note as we consider how we need to position our bodies to play the next note.

If we intentionally pay attention without being too harsh on ourselves, eventually the spaces become shorter and the sound of the music starts to come together beautifully (over time ofcourse).

However, if we lose our patience and just begin to start playing, eventually the spaces become shorter and the sound of the music sounds sloppy and not attractive to the ears. Eventually we may even just give up the instrument as the voices in our heads tell us how bad we are and how we’ll never be any good.

It’s our job to recognize the spaces in life where we can stop and intentionally choose to pay attention differently and perhaps even choose a different and more careful response. Over time, the spaces may get shorter as we become more effective at naturally playing the notes well.

This may be in a moment before reacting to our children where we notice the reaction and choose to consider their needs in that moment. Or perhaps it’s in the express checkout line when the person in front of us has 12 items and in that space we choose to practice mindful breathing. Or maybe it’s the space between lying down to bed and falling asleep where we consider what good things occurred in the day.

At the end of the day, we are the instrument in this orchestra called life. How we choose to engage and relate to ourselves and others through the process is the difference between hearing harmony or noise.

It all starts with the spaces and with an awareness of these spaces we can over time naturally and more automatically live a life that is music to our ears. This is the basis for The Now Effect (Atria Books, 2011)…stay tuned.

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

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Blaming: The Ineffective Art of Scrambling for Comfort

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

It can be as blatant as a sledge hammer hitting us in the face or as subtle as supreme ninja. The art of blaming is rampant and goes on to help absolutely nobody.

Pema Chodron writes:

“We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things that we don’t like about our associates or our society. It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others. Blaming is a way to protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.”

And why not protect our hearts when there have been so many experiences showing us that it so easily bleeds?

Blaming isn’t a conscious act really, it happens quite automatically and habitually. We learn it from our parents, teachers, cultures and religions. As children when we feel we are in trouble, our sense of belonging or love from others feels threatened and so we practice and repeat this art of blaming so it deflects any threat from us.

After enough practice and repetition, this becomes quite automatic and we no longer consciously think about it, it’s just the way we’re programmed now. Half the time or more we don’t even notice we’re doing it.

I see it all the time in couple’s therapy from hearing proclamations as blatant as “It’s all your fault, all our problems are because of you,” to “You make me nuts when you don’t put the toilet seat down.” This also happens individually as we play the intrapersonal blame game. We say, “There’s just something wrong with me.” This self blame is sometimes the most insidious and needs to called out. I also see it in the workplace, “The reason I didn’t get my work done is because my coworker keeps distracting me.” Or with addictive behaviors, “If I didn’t have so many friends around that drank, I woudn’t be drinking as much.”  Of course, this goes well beyond intimate couples and the workplace and into politics and beyond.

Whether it’s self-blame or blaming others, the way I like to think of blaming is as an unhealthy thought process that arises from time to time in my mind. Unhealthy because although it may give me short term relief, it always comes back to bite me and makes me feel worse.

Calling it a thought process allows me to name it…I say blaming and as they say if I can name it, I can tame it.

So the next time blaming arises in your mind, label it and see if there is a feeling associated with it. Is there fear, anger or sadness there? Perhaps a deeper emotional freedom lies in coming down from the blaming and into an intimate dance with our very own feelings we’re trying to avoid.

My Dad wrote a book a while back called Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain and the lesson here is that our wounds in life are what may very well be our greatest teachers. So what we want to do is learn how to approach what is there instead of falling into routine habits that don’t serve our greatest good.

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

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How to Be Sick: An Interview with Toni Bernhard

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

When Toni Berhnard bell ill in Paris on a trip in 2001, doctors told her she had an acute viral infection, but Toni never recovered. It is my great pleasure to bring to you a woman who truly walks the talk and has gives great wisdom and insight in her new book How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Her deep experience with applying mindfulness to her chronic illness has led her to writing this book for all who suffer and their caregivers. But truly, what has been written here can be applied to anybody. 

In this interview, Toni talks to us about how she learned to live with chronic illness, how developing equanimity can help, and her favorite quote. She also shares some advice for those who are suffering.  

Elisha: There are so many forms of chronic illness that come in the form of physical and emotional manifestations. How did you learn “How to be Sick?”

Toni: To a large extent, the Buddha taught me “how to be sick.” He’s often called the great psychologist because he had such a keen understanding of how the mind works. Everyone’s life has its unique mixture of joy and suffering. The Buddha focused on suffering because it’s a truth about life that we tend to turn away from. For me, it has included this illness. For others it could be difficulties at work, tension in a relationship, even not being able to find your car keys!

We can’t always fix our physical suffering – the Buddha experienced great bodily pain at times – but he said that we can relieve our mental suffering. Mental suffering includes both painful emotions (worry, anger, resentment) and stressful thoughts (thoughts that, when left unquestioned, can lead us spin elaborate stories about our life and our future that have little basis in fact).

The book contains many practices that help loosen the grip of painful emotions. We can bring them into awareness (sometimes called mindfulness). This allows us to see them for what they are – impermanent for one thing (thank goodness!). We can also loosen their grip by learning to cultivate calm and gentle mind states such as kindness, compassion (for ourselves first), and equanimity. (And, since emotions manifest in the body, this can even lessen our physical symptoms.)

The book also contains practices to help us question whether our stressful thoughts – the stories we spin about our lives – have any basis in reality. There’s a chapter in the book devoted to Byron Katie’s remarkable technique for questioning the validity of our thoughts. Some Zen practices are helpful here too . “Am I Sure?” I’m always asking myself (thanks to Thich Naht Hanh). Am I sure the doctor I saw doesn’t care about me? Maybe she’s terribly overbooked today. Am I sure my friend has lost interest in me? Maybe she has family problems of her own. Being sick or otherwise disabled is hard enough without adding mental suffering to it. Learning to work with painful emotions and stressful thoughts is the principal way I’ve learned “how to be sick.”

Elisha: In your book you say that “Dwelling in equanimity, we are able to face life’s difficulties with a mind that is at peace.” This is easier said than done. Tell us a bit how you’ve worked through this.

Toni:  In Buddhism, equanimity is one of four sublime emotional states. The dictionary defines it as “mental calmness and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Some Buddhist teachers even equate equanimity with enlightenment. No wonder it’s easier said than done! Here are some of the ways I cultivate equanimity.

First, the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence (anicca) help me maintain “mental calmness and evenness of temper” when the going gets rough. If my symptoms are in a bad flare, I take up what I call “weather practice,” recognizing that my physical symptoms and my mental suffering are as changeable and unpredictable as the weather; they blow in and blow out like the wind. Just knowing this is a big relief, partly because it helps me not to follow that tendency to identify with a particular physical symptom or negative emotion as all that I am. When I see that I am not just pain, I am not just sick, I am not just frustration, I am not just sadness, it helps me calmly wait for things to change.

Second, I fall back on the Buddha’s teachings on suffering. By suffering, he was referring to dissatisfaction with the circumstances of our life. We’re familiar with this dissatisfaction whether we’re sick or not. It’s our constant longing for things to be other than they are. I like to consciously drop, just for a moment, the desire for my life to be other than it is. When I do this, I instantly feel a great sense of relief. I’m at peace. These “wants/don’t wants” (a phrase I use to refer to desire) may almost immediately pop back into my mind, but that taste of peacefulness lingers and inspires me to keep working to attain calm acceptance of my life just as it is.

Third, I’m content to take baby steps in the direction of equanimity. In the book, I draw inspiration from those who have tread this path before me – from Thai forest monks to a Christian theologian to the actress Susan Saint James who talked in a television interview about finding peace with having lost her teenaged son in an airplane crash. There’s a quotation on equanimity from the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah, that I’d committed to memory before I got sick:

If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.

Little did I know that these words would become essential to me as I face the difficulties of chronic illness. If I can’t “let go” a lot, I let go a little. I can almost always nudge my mind a bit toward letting go of the desire for my life to be other than it is. Each baby step makes it a bit easier to take the next one. My personal definition of enlightenment is to not be dissatisfied in any way with the circumstances of my life. I’m certain that if this were the case, my “struggles with the world will have come to an end.” (I assume it’s obvious that, on this score, I’m a work in progress!)

Elisha: You have many good quotes at the beginning of each chapter. What is your favorite quote in there and let us in on what meaning it has for you?


One, seven, three, five –

Nothing to rely on in this or any world;

Nighttime falls and the water is flooded with moonlight.

Here in the Dragon’s jaws:

Many exquisite jewels.

—Setcho Juken

I don’t remember where or when I found it this 1000 year-old poem but sometime in the middle 1990s, I copied it by hand onto a slip of paper and stuck it on the wall in front of my desk at work. At that time, it served as a gratitude reminder. Even in the dark of night, the moonlight lit my way, giving me much to be thankful for. Even when I was having a tough time, my life was full of exquisite jewels if I just took the time to look. Moonlight and jewels.

Then, in 2001, I got sick. For six months, I didn’t see my little poem. But, unwilling to accept that I wasn’t regaining my health, I returned to work on a part-time basis. There on the wall were Setcho Juken’s words again. However, now all I could see was the nighttime falling and the Dragon’s jaws clenched tightly around my body and my mind. When illness forced me to trade my office for my bedroom, I stuffed the little slip of paper into a drawer by my bed where it stayed for six years.

When I thought about writing a book, the title, How to Be Sick, came first. But when I began to write the text, my Setcho Juken poem was the first thing I put on the page. The moonlight was starting to light my way again. I was once again noticing the sparkling jewels in my life: the birds and trees outside my bedroom window; a newfound love for classical music; heightened compassion for those with chronic illnesses and conditions; and overwhelming gratitude for my husband who suddenly and without warning had become the most conscientious and loving of caregivers.

My guess is that my journey with this poem is not at an end yet!

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone suffering with a chronic condition right now, what advice would you give them?

First, I’d say: Try as best you can to find a doctor who sees your relationship as a partnership, meaning a doctor who listens to you; is willing to do research and consult with others if necessary; and is flexible about treatment options (that is, he or she doesn’t take the position, “This and only this is what you must do”).

Second, I’d say: Remember that suffering from a chronic illness or condition is not a personal failing on your part. Despite the barrage of advertising claims to the contrary, everyone is going to face health problems at some point in his or her life. This is just the way it’s happened to you. With the right tools, you can learn to live gracefully and purposefully with this unexpected change in your circumstances.

Thank you so much Toni for the wisdom you share.

To the readers: Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

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