Archive for September, 2009

Happiness is an Inside Job: An Interview with Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D.

Friday, September 25th, 2009

I am thrilled to bring to you someone who has been an inspiration to me. Sylvia Boorstein is a wife, mother, grandmother, psychotherapist, author and founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the Bay Area.  Her books include It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness; Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat with Sylvia Boorstein; That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist;Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake: The Buddhist Path of Kindness; and her most recent book, Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.

Today, Sylvia is going to tell us a bit about the intersection of Mindfulness and Happiness. What is mindfulness?

Sylvia: One way of defining mindfulness is as the steady and full balanced recognition of the present moment (a recognition arrived at through curiosity and benevolence) that both maintains clarity and ease in the mind as it reveals and mandates the wisest response. Paying attention leads to wise choices which are the choices that mitigate suffering and create joy.

Question: Sylvia, what makes us happy?

Sylvia: I feel happy when I feel in warm and cordial connection with my self, my kin, my associates, with what I am doing, with the world. I think happiness is the mind not in contention with anything. I think happiness is not contingent on external events (which are anyway always changing and anyway often sad) but on the minds ability to meet all situations with affection or compassion, knowing that even though things cannot be different now, they will change, and my care could be part of the change.

Question: If you were to give practical advice on what we can do in our daily lives to cultivate happiness, what would that be?

Sylvia: The Buddha told his disciple Ananda, “Noble friends are the whole of the holy life.” I try to keep my mind in …


A Mindful Proposal: Can You Handle 5 Minutes of Solitude?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

In a recent article, Andrea Chalupa calls out for a Mindful Proposal that everyone take out 24 hours in solitude. She quotes her father, Dr. Leo Chalupa, saying that “A national day of absolute solitude would do more to improve the brains of all Americans than any other one-day program.” This might sound scary to some and intriguing to others, but have no fear, this is not going to happen. But what can happen?

What if we scaled this back a bit? How about starting with five minutes of solitude per day? Maybe we can even scale it to two sessions of five minutes a day at some point? Why even do this?

I conducted a national research study in 2006 that found that taking this time out even once a day had significant effects on well-being and stress. I wrote the steps to cultivate these moments in an earlier blog post.

Realistically, 24 hours of solitude sounds overwhelming to most, so what is overwhelming doesn’t get done. If we both sat at the bottom of Mount Everest and I said, “Ok, let’s do it,” most people would not even begin. However, if we sat at the bottom of a 5 minute hike up and you knew that 5 minutes hike in that moment would be good for your stress and well-being, you might have a bit more motivation to do it. There are many free 5 minute guided practices on the web. I have posted a free Vblog for a guided practice here. There is about 1:30 of commentary which you are welcome to listen or skip before the guided practice begins.

Here’s the other issue with actually getting started in a few minutes of solitude. Because it’s a bit of a foreign concept for most of us, there needs to be some instruction. That is why many people find a CD or MP3 so helpful. They just put it on and follow the instruction toward being with themselves in that moment. The other option is simply to just be in solitude for 5 minutes.

So here is my Mindful Proposal: Can You Handle 5 …


Living Without Joy? Thich Nhat Hanh Shares a Secret

Monday, September 21st, 2009

There is a tradition on the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog where every Monday I cite a quote or a poem that is related to mindfulness and psychotherapy in some way and then explore it a bit and how it is relevant to our lives. For me, quotes and poetry can often sink me into a state of greater understanding.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Now, this isn’t meant to be hokey, but real. Plenty of therapies advocate working through our bodies and behaviors as a source of bringing joy and happiness into our lives.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) there is a piece called the “Half-Smile Experiment.” Here’s the idea:

Take a moment to notice how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Notice if you’re feeling calm, happy, sad, frustrated, guilty, shameful, or excited, etc… Also notice if your body is feeling loose or tense, just taking stock of yourself in this moment.

Now, get a pen and put it in between your teeth horizontally (please don’t try to put it in vertically). Now just breathe in and out and notice the sensations of muscles in your face and also notice any shift emotionally. When thoughts arise, “this is silly” or “why am I doing this”, just notice them as thoughts and come back to paying attention to how you are feeling.

You may want to try this with a friend, then see what happens. Remember, this is just an experiment!

Thich Nhat Hanh often recommends another way to bring smiling into our lives to bring us a great sense of peace and happiness during the day.

He says that when you’re walking, sitting or lying down try saying to yourself,

“Breathing in I calm my body, breathing out, I smile.”

You can shorten it so when you breathin you just say “calm” to yourself and when you breath out, you just say “smile.” Now, if you don’t actually feel like physically smiling you can cast a kind and gently smile inwardly at yourself …


Kindness and Mental Health: An Interview with Sharon Salzberg

Friday, September 18th, 2009

For those of you who don’t know Sharon Salzberg, she one of America’s leading mindfulness teachers and authors and has played a significant role in bringing mindfulness and the practice of lovingkindness to all of us in the Western world.  She is co-founder of one of America’s premier meditation centers, Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre Massachusetts and is the author of many books and CDs, including her classic Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and her newest work, The Kindness Handbook: A Practical Companion.

I am so happy to interview her at The Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog.

Question: Sharon, in your classic book Lovingkindness you begin by saying, “Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and to feel connected with others. Instead, we often contract, fear intimacy, and suffer a bewildering sense of separation. We crave love, and yet we are lonely. Our delusion of being separate from one another, of being apart from all that is around us, gives rise to all of this pain. What is the way out of this?” Sharon, can you give us a glimpse into how you guide people out of their loneliness?

Sharon: Often we begin by generating some compassion for ourselves in the face of our feeling of loneliness. It is not something bad, or weak to feel. It is however very painful, and so instead of disliking ourselves for it, we can have some tenderness and kindness for ourselves. Then we use the base of that self-understanding and compassion to look at others. We know all of us at times act to automatically avoid feelings like loneliness, sometimes in quite destructive ways. We know that it takes some skill to hang in there with a feeling like loneliness, and to develop greater kindness from it. We do reflections like, “All beings want to be happy,” to reinforce the understanding that there are many things we all share – we want to be happy, we very often don’t know where genuine happiness is to be …


Lessons from Therese Borchard about Working with Difficult Emotions

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Therese Borchard, author of multiple books and the popular blog Beyond Blue, describes just the costs of depression and anxiety when avoiding feelings and shows us how unplugging from technology from time to time can give us the experience of allowing feelings to arise instead of keeping them walled up inside.  

She says:

Find out how much time you gain when you stop checking your emails every half-second. And wait for the uncomfortable feelings … of loneliness, fear, insecurity … to surface once you stop running from event A to event B. You’ll be surprised to find so many emotions that have been tucked inside, waiting for an opportunity to emerge when you slow down (which, of course, you don’t).

She goes on to explain the cost of not doing this:

However, I’m finding that if I don’t quiet down every now and then to hear what my feelings have to say, that my inner life will eventually erupt in an ugly mess of depression and anxiety. So this little hiatus from the world isn’t just a nice thing to do if you can afford it. It’s essential to staying well.

I would say that Therese was practicing being kind to herself in this process and this elicited these feelings of well-being.

We might be able to think of our feelings as little parts of ourselves. When we avoid, neglect, or repress them then we are only avoiding, neglecting, or repressing ourselves. As human beings, we don’t do well when we’re treated this way. However, we’re so conditioned to avoid discomfort at all costs that we’ve lost the ability to embrace our feelings (sometimes even the joyful ones). It is a practice to re-integrate all these parts of ourselves. When we do integrate them, we can reap great benefits.

I was sitting across from a couple in therapy recently and as the wife was explaining to her husband the various  insights she was having about how his behavior could improve you could see his body stiffening up, his arms crossing and his mouth moving saying the words, “uh-huh, yup, you’re right…” There was something not fitting in this picture …


Mondays Mindful Quote: Viktor Frankl on Our Freedom to Change

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I guess we can now say there is a new-ish tradition on the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog. Every Monday I will cite a quote or a poem that is related to mindfulness and psychotherapy in some way and then explore it a bit and how it is relevant to our lives. For me, quotes and poetry can often sink me into a state of greater understanding.

Here is a Quote by Viktor Frankl, M.D.:

“Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”

In real life, this quote doesn’t always appear to be true. When you’re struggling with depression or intense anxiety or you’re already half way down with that bottle of vodka, it may not seem like there was any choice there.

However, in order to fully get the gist of this quote, let me lay out another quote that I’ve said before by the same Psychiatrist, Neurologist and Holocaust survivor.

“In between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I quote this one often because it is so true and so powerful. While there are genetic factors to our mental, emotional and physical challenges in life, there is often a moment in between when we get triggered by something and how we react. In that moment lies the opportunity to choose how we are going to best support ourselves.

The reason it seems like there is no choice in falling into a very deep depression, a panic attack, or using a substance, is because we are not aware of that space.

Mindfulness supports us in slowing time down a bit to cultivate a nonjudgmental awareness of this space and we become able to turn a kind attention toward this difficulty, acknowledging it and then choosing what will be the most effective action in that moment. In time we can identify with Frankl’s quote of having “the freedom to change at any instant.”

This may not mean that depression or anxiety is cured, but it may mean that it doesn’t have to fall to the depths it has in the past.

You can cultivate mindfulness …


Working for Good: An Interview with Jeff Klein

Friday, September 11th, 2009

The majority of us spend most of our time at work and our experience of work definitely affects or mental health and vice versa. So it seemed to be a really good idea to get support around how we can relate to our jobs in way with a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction. Jeff Klein, CEO of Cause Alliance Marketing, writes in his new book Working for Good: Making a Difference While Making a Living, “We live in a time of great change, significant challenges, and tremendous opportunity.” He encourages us to integrate work with positive social change and to bring mindfulness to the workplace. 

It is my pleasure today to interview Jeff so we can all glean some of his wisdom around a topic that is so relevant to all of us.

Question: What is Working for Good and why should people aspire to engage in it?

Jeff:  Working for Good is a way of showing up for work in which we cultivate and express our full humanity. In my pursuit and practice of Working for Good over the past three decades, I’ve found that how we work is as, if not more, important than what we do. We can work in a green business, a social service organization, or some other endeavor focused on making the world a better place, but if we treat others and ourselves with disregard or disrespect in the process, we end up creating something far short of our intention. The process is the product.

If people want to become more fully human, to pursue a path of self-actualization through their work (considering that work is an essential and substantial aspect of life, and if they want to fulfill their potential at all, they probably want to focus on it in the context of their work), connect with others more deeply and establish a deep foundation for collaboration, then they will probably want to cultivate the skills of Working for Good!

Question: One of the key points that you mention is how “awareness is essential, but if it isn’t embodied in actions, …


Mondays Mindful Quote: Pema Chodron on Being Fully Alive

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

There is a new tradition starting today on the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog. Every Monday (or Tuesday in todays case) I’m going to cite a quote or a poem that is related to mindfulness and psychotherapy in some way and then explore it a bit and how it is relevant to our lives. For me, quotes and poetry can often sink me into a state of greater understanding.

Here is today’s quote from the blog post 10 Quotes for a Mindful Day:

It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now… with its aches and it pleasures… is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.

Ok, maybe it’s also important to have food, clothing, and a roof over our heads for many of us to be fully human, fully awake, and fully alive. Let’s not let that small point take us away from the brilliance of this quote.

What’s so brilliant about it? For reason particularly driven by subtle messages from the media driven into our forming minds, we are a culture driven by a need for “more” in order to feel alive or happy. For other reasons we are also a culture driven to try and eradicate discomfort. Both of these messages are partly driven by business trying to make a buck and spending billions of dollars are marketing to drive this into our minds.

The price?

A constant feeling of dis-ease within us. We’re can’t be content with where we are in any particular moment because our minds are either trying to flee away from some discomfort or toward some comfort.

Pema Chodron is simply trying to remind us that aches and pleasures are part of the human experience. There may not be a catastrophe when a pain is there, it may just be part of being “fully alive.” There may not be a need to get the wheels anxiety or distress to be set in motion. Ofcourse, if you are under extreme distress or have an inkling that something is off physically, it’s important to get it checked out …


Radical Acceptance: An Interview with Tara Brach

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I have really been looking forward to today’s interview. Tara Brach is a clinical Psychologist who has been integrating mindfulness and psychotherapy for many years. She is author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam, 2003), the upcoming CD Meditations for Emotional Healing: Finding Freedom in the Face of Difficulty and weekly podcasts from her Wednesday night sitting groups that address forgiveness and compassion.  She is also senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.  She really embodies and emphasizes the importance of acknowledging our aversions in life and cultivating compassion for ourselves and others as a means toward mental health.

Question: You are open about struggling in the past with depression and anxiety in your own life. What has helped you and what words of wisdom could you impart to The Mindfulness and Psychotherapy readers?

Tara: We suffer because we have forgotten who we are and our identity has become confined to the sense of a separate, usually deficient self. All difficult emotions-fear and anger, shame and depression-arise out of this trance of what I call false self.

I’ve found that whenever I am really suffering, on some level I am believing and feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Over the years I’ve been drawn to three primary gateways for awakening from this trance. In the Buddhist tradition they are referred to as the three refuges:

One (called “sangha”) is loving relationship-both live contact with loved ones and also meditation on the love that’s in my life.  In the moments of remembering love, there is an opening out of the sense of separate self.  For me, reflecting on love has included prayer to the beloved, to what I experience as the loving awareness that is my source.  When I feel separate and stuck, that loving presence might seem like it’s apart from me and “out there.”  But by reaching out in longing and prayer, I’m carried home to the loving presence that is intrinsic to my Being.

A second …


What Everyone Should Know About How Stress Affects the Brain

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

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 …


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