None of us is broken

shocked woman

There are so many ways to freak out in response to life’s challenges, disappointments, and frustrations.

We can become anxious, and worried, and imagine catastrophic things happening — worst-case scenarios that make our hearts pound.

We can lose our tempers, yell, storm off, or simmer in resentment.

We can find someone else to blame, however indirectly they may have been involved in whatever it is that’s bothering us.

We can find ways to avoid the difficult feelings around the problem, by drinking, or binge-watching Netflix, or immersing ourselves in work, or comfort-eating.

We can make sure we don’t cross paths with someone we have problems with, or try to ignore mail that may contain bad news, or put off calling the doctor about some symptom we have in case we learn something unpleasant.

We can shut down and retreat into depression, blaming ourselves, telling ourselves how we’re useless and how things always go wrong and how nobody likes us.

We can go numb, and cut off from our feelings.

There are all these ways we can freak out in response to difficulties (and there are probably more) but they all have two things in common:

First, they create more difficulties for us. The mind can act as an amplifier system for problems. Often our reactions create greater difficulties than the original problem that gave rise to them.

Second, they’re all unnecessary. We don’t have to do these things. It may be hard to change, or scary to think about changing, but it’s possible to do so.

We all have the ability to become mindfully aware of how our minds act and the ways in which they can cause us suffering. We all have the capacity to let go of the thoughts and actions that constitute freaking out. We all have the potential to courageously turn toward the difficult feelings that arise in life. We are all capable of meeting challenges with a mind that’s calm and creative — a mind in which we spontaneously respond to difficulties in a wise and balanced way.

We all have that potential.

None of us is broken, in the sense of being unable to move to a way of being that’s more balanced and creates less suffering. All that’s happened in our lives is that we’ve learned and practiced habits that take problems and multiply them. Those habits have been inherited as part of the way our minds work, or have been picked up from our family, friends, or culture. And we can learn new habits.

Accepting this gets much easier when we recognize that habits depend on circuits in the brain, and when we recognize that the brain’s circuitry is not fixed, but is in a constant state of flux. Yes, if we keep exercising habits of freaking out, we’ll keep reinforcing those pathways in the brain. But if we learn to activate parts of the brain associated with habits such as keeping things in a wider perspective, regulating our emotional responses, maintaining positive emotion, etc., then those positive habits will get stronger, and the underlying circuitry for them will become etched more and more deeply in the brain.

With every thought that passes through our mind, every word we speak, every action we take, we are literally rewiring our brains.

This can end up with us becoming radically different — and happier — people than we once were. We just have to take the first step, and accept that we create who we are.

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Self-compassion is not self-indulgent

grey wolf

One common concern about self-compassion is that it’ll make us lazy and self-indulgent — that if we become more self-compassionate we’ll lack motivation. Self-indulgence means avoiding difficulties, which may benefit us in the short term, but which is detrimental in the long term. Self-indulgence is when we cop out. So we might imagine that when faced with doing something difficult, being “kind” to ourselves means that we’ll let ourselves off the hook. But that’s the opposite of what actually happens.

Self-compassion means giving yourself support, understanding, and encouragement when you face difficult experiences. It helps you to face your difficulties.

Self-compassion recognizes that your long-term happiness is served not by avoiding challenges, but in offering yourself support as you go through them. Self-compassion gives us courage.

Let’s say you’ve had to give a presentation, and it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. A typical non-compassionate response might be, “What an idiot I am! I’m always messing up. I made a complete fool of myself. I was stupid even to try!” The next time you’re asked to do a presentation you’ll probably be even more nervous, which will make it even harder for you to do well. Or perhaps you’ll find a way to avoid doing the next presentation altogether. That avoidance is self-indulgence. It’s a protective response to stop you from having to face the discomfort involved in doing something challenging.

What would be a self-compassionate response to the same situation? Perhaps you’d take a breath, acknowledge your pain, and say something like, “I know this hurts, but I’m here for you.”

Perhaps you’d remind yourself that you’re not perfect and that since giving presentations is something you’re still learning, it’s natural that you’re not going to do it perfectly. Maybe you’d reflect on the ways you could have been better prepared, to improve your performance the next time.

Or maybe you would ask a colleague what they thought of your presentation, since sometimes our “failures” are largely or even entirely in our own minds. You could ask for feedback about specific things you could have done differently in order to make your presentations more effective.

It’s almost impossible to do those very helpful things when we lack self-compassion. When we’re hard on ourselves we don’t want even to think about our failures, because to do so just gives us one more opportunity to beat ourselves up. We certainly don’t want to reflect on our failures in order to learn. All we want to do is to forget they ever happened.

At the same time, when we lack self-compassion we often can’t forget our failures! Our mind keeps reminding us of the thing we did imperfectly, and so we get recurring, and very painful eruptions of shame and humiliation.

Self-compassion gives us the emotional resilience to be able to bounce back from failure. It helps us to have the courage to pick ourselves up and try again. Self-compassion is what allows us to turn toward the painful feelings of fear, frustration, and shame that arise when we face challenges, and it’s what allows us to keep going through difficulties. Self-compassion is not indulgent. Self-compassion and self-indulgence are, in fact, opposites.

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Mindful leaders are effective leaders

walking buddha

In June, the Director of the National Centre for Strategic Leadership, Nigel Girling, will be running a free webinar raising awareness about and talking through some approaches to mindful leadership. The following post was provided by the organizers of the webinar.

We live in a world of unprecedented pressure to be productive, complete tasks and stay in constant contact. For leaders, this can lead to a working environment that is fragmented by thousands of distractions and disparate demands. Attention spans are, unsurprisingly, becoming shorter as leaders struggle to find their way through this minefield.

It might all sound a bit hippy and New Age, but mindfulness might be just what leaders need at this point.

Many cultures have embraced this kind of thinking for centuries, but applying it to leadership and business, especially in the West, is rather more recent. There are five major aspects of effective leadership than can be developed through mindfulness.


In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, it’s essential that leaders remain aware of how they are perceived by others. Being conscious of your own emotional and mental state, and of your behavior, is key to ensuring that you are the leader you want and need to be at all times.

The ability to see and experience yourself as others will is crucial in understanding the impact you have. It begins by being alert, listening to yourself, and observing the way you think, feel, speak and behave.

Presence in the moment

The modern leader needs to be able to experience situations clearly and without prejudice or emotional baggage. With so much complexity in every context, the ability to remain focused on the reality of a situation and the core purpose of any action is of significant benefit.
This is part of the wider topic of ‘critical thinking’. It could be as simple as paying attention to what is actually happening. People who multi-task often spend much of their time thinking about the thing they need to do next, or worrying about problems… mindfulness asks that you think about what is happening right now.


Leaders are starting to recognize that their ability to withstand major trauma, bounce back from setbacks, and cope with pressure, all without becoming stressed, is a key factor influencing their capacity for providing engaging and confident leadership.

Stress is often the natural enemy of rational and considered behavior, and mindfulness can help a leader to treat setbacks and failures as learning experiences that can be analyzed to guide future action.


Some traditional management thinking would have you believe that it is necessary to be tough and hard, demanding results and driving performance. In the 21st century, talented staff want a leader who is human and who understands that work-life balance is not just some wishy-washy fad, but a source of renewed commitment, engagement and enthusiasm.

The effective modern leader knows that their job is to enable their people to bring the best version of themselves to work, not just to squeeze them dry and discard them when they fall apart.

Gordon Gekko was a fictional character, just like Sir Alan Sugar or the Dragons. Leaders who really behaved that way would almost certainly find their best people jumping ship, and those that stayed being stressed, unwell and underperforming.

Calmness and rational thinking

In recent years, some excellent work has been done on developing our understanding of neuroscience, and the role of emotion in thinking patterns. Organizations like HeartMath have demonstrated the way emotional responses affect the ability to remain rational, and have shown just how important calmness is in sending out the right messages through deliberate, conscious behavior and unbiased decision-making.

In summary, mindfulness isn’t about finger-cymbals and chanting (not that there’s anything wrong with either of these), nor do you have to sit cross-legged in front of your guru… it’s just a hefty dollop of common-sense, applied to an area that is often rather short of it.

To find out how to harness the power of mindfulness to achieve these essential features of effective leadership, join the webinar.

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Mindfulness training may assuage early-life trauma

wildmind meditation newsThaddeus Pace, Scientific American:

We live in an increasingly stressful world. There’s an aspirational sense things should improve with time, witness the U.S. War on Poverty or the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. But in the last 50 years, many risks, perceived and real, have grown worse: extreme weather, violent conflict, economic dislocation, poverty (especially for children), abuse and domestic violence. Traumatic and chronic stress affects millions. Many become sick and marginalized because of it; others manage to survive and thrive. What explains the difference?

“Resilience” is a popular answer these days. But it’s a buzzword in danger of losing its meaning through overuse. As the need for resilience grows, it’s important to be specific about the term. A new white paper, “The Human Dimensions of Resilience,” of which I’m a co-author, reviews relevant research and proposes evidence-based ways of defining and building resilience. Published by the Garrison Institute, a non-profit that promotes “contemplative” solutions to social and environmental concerns, the paper is intended to advance conversations about our wellbeing.

Science views resilience as part of the response to stress. Not all stress is bad; short stressors can inspire outstanding performance. But extreme or acute stress can be traumatizing and damaging. When physiological responses to stress like cortisol, adrenaline and inflammation persist even after a stressor has ended, they can undermine mental and physical health. Unchecked behavioral responses to stress can lead to sleep and diet problems. Besides PTSD, exposure to chronic and/or traumatic stress can also lead to other serious conditions including heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression and cognitive problems – maybe even DNA damage.

Traumatic stress can undermine and shorten peoples’ lives, especially if they’re exposed before age 18. They’re more likely to have lower achievement and wellness, and experience more illness. “Early life adversity”–experiencing abuse or household dysfunction during childhood–correlates not only with more psychological problems, but also with elevated inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein or higher insulin levels that persist into adulthood. Studies show a strong, graded relationship between early life adversity and risk factors for the leading causes of death in adults.

Resilience can mitigate those effects. Extraordinarily resilient people can thrive in adversity and use difficult experiences as opportunities for growth. But resilience isn’t an inscrutable, innate personality trait you’re either born with or not. It’s likely a spectrum of qualities that people possess in varying degrees that help them survive challenges, shut off aspects of stress response when they’re no longer needed, and return to a pre-stressor, baseline state. As such, resilience is something we should be able to analyze and teach, and anyone should be able to learn.

Studies show contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation, compassion training, yoga, etc. can reduce harmful impacts of stress, and they can be helpful in building resilience. However, recent media coverage gushing over how contemplative practices like mindfulness make you happier, healthier, sharper and richer spreads confusion about how those practices work.

Contemplative practices weren’t invented to fight cancer or boost performance, but rather to tackle big issues like living purposefully and facing death with equanimity. One fundamental skill they build is attention, the simple act of consciously choosing what to focus on instead of letting the mind wander. Having strong attention is an important component of resilience, because it develops a sense of agency and choice in directing one’s thoughts and influencing one’s inner landscape – a powerful counterweight to the sense of helplessness or passivity that traumatic stress can produce.

Colleagues and I recently studied teenagers in foster care in Georgia who were exposed to early life adversity. They were taught a form of meditation called Cognitively Based Compassion Training. After six weeks, the kids who really practiced not only reported feeling better and coping better with anger and stress (“At school, someone threw M&M’s at me and I ignored him. Normally I would have thrown things back and been negative.”). Pre- and post- saliva testing also showed their C-reactive protein levels dropped, which means they actually had less inflammation in their bodies. That suggests increased resilience, because it shows some better functioning and movement back toward baseline.

We recently launched a similar Cognitively Based Compassion Training program in Arizona. The next horizon for research is determining whether kids in such programs perform better in school and generally thrive. Failure to thrive–not taking advantage of the opportunities that arise in life and work–is a symptom of traumatization. Effective resilience building should be able to ameliorate it.

If contemplative practice can help accomplish that for these kids, imagine what it might do for people working in fields with high trauma exposure and burnout risk, like first responders or humanitarian aid and relief workers. For example the Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program designs trainings for aid workers that incorporate meditation, yoga and other contemplative techniques to help them cope with stress, avoid burnout, and thrive in their work. It hypothesizes that more resilient individuals make for more resilient communities, but how and why that’s the case is a subject for another blog.

Read the original article »

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Cocooned in lovingkindness (Day 13)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We’re almost two weeks into this 100 Days of Lovingkindness, but even after just five or six days the quality of my experience was radically different from usual.

I’ve felt considerably happier than I normally do. Blissfully happy, often. I’ve been much more patient with my children. I’ve been buffered from things that would normally press my buttons. I’ve been cocooned in lovingkindness.

To give you an example, last week I dropped my beloved iPad mini as I was putting it into my bag to head to work. I didn’t notice until I actually arrived at the office, but there was a huge crack right across the screen. Normally I’d feel sick about something like this, partly because the device is something I enjoy using and I’d hate to see it marred, and partly because the repair bill on something like that is very high. But when I saw that the screen was cracked I just thought, “Oh, well” and continued with my day. I had no sense of being upset by it at all.

Another example: last night I came down with a migraine, having had a headache building all day. I’d just been spending too much time on the computer — all these 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts! — and hadn’t been taking enough breaks or being careful enough about my posture. So I had a horrible headache and waves of nausea flooding my body. And my wife was away for the evening so I had to put the kids to bed. After they were asleep I went to lie down in bed and started to turn toward the pain. I noticed these pulses of pain and waves of nausea, and sent them lovingkindness. And then to my surprise I found that I was experiencing a powerful sense of joy, and even had waves of pleasurable energy (pīti) flowing up and down my back. That’s not something I’ve ever experienced with a migraine before, although I have had them diminish or vanish entirely when I’ve meditated with them.

And the surprising thing is that it’s not like I’ve been doing anything like retreat-level amounts of meditation. I’ve been doing perhaps a bit more than 90 minutes of meditation (including some walking metta bhavana) on a good day, and only 30 minutes on my busier days.

My life hasn’t been 100% positive. I felt a bit irritable yesterday as the migraine was building, although by the time it was a full-blown attack I was no longer feeling that way. Early in the day the irritability flared up a little when one person online responded to me with what I saw as passive-aggressive communication, and when another couple of people seemed to be taking pleasure in seeing a child being humiliated, but I decided just to extricate myself from those conversations and not look back. It was easy to let go of my irritable thoughts.

On the whole it’s been one of the most joyful periods I’ve had in my life, outside of some retreat experiences.

Partly this is due, no doubt, to consistency of practice. By the time you read this I’ll have done 199 continuous days of meditation, and just before 100 Days of Lovingkindness began we’d finished the 100 Day Meditation Challenge. I think that really “primed the pumps” emotionally.

What’s really surprised me, though, is that I normally make an effort to be mindful in daily life. Mindfulness has a buffering effect on us, too. And I’ve been putting no more effort into practicing and developing lovingkindness than I usually put into practicing and developing mindfulness. So I can only conclude that lovingkindness practice brings about a much greater degree of emotional resiliency than mindfulness practice alone. Although it’s not a very fitting analogy, you get more “bang for your buck.”

I’m guessing that the reason for this is that mindfulness is like hoeing your garden and keeping it weed free, while lovingkindness is like planting seeds and growing flowers. It’s not enough simply to prevent negative states from arising, you need to cultivate the positive. I know this, of course. I’ve known it for a long time. But it’s very rewarding to see this truth illustrated in my own life.

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The tao of happy kids

Araina Bond (Ottawa Citizen): Want your children to be happy? Help them develop their spiritual side, researchers say

When Kayleigh Brown began to suffer severe, unexplained knee pain that kept her from doing yoga and the sports she loved, at first she was upset.

Each time her knee flared up, she visited countless experts, from doctors to physiotherapists to naturopaths, but no one could pinpoint the cause. It was a frustrating, discouraging experience — especially for a 12-year-old — but young Kayleigh found strength and resilience in a daily ritual: her evening aspiration.

“Each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, we take some time to be thankful for the world around us and think about the other people we’re sharing it with,” Kayleigh says of her ritual. “Realizing there are lots of other children out there in the world who may be going through the same thing and wishing they wouldn’t feel pain helped me feel better.”

A new study shows that the positive effect Kayleigh felt by focusing on something bigger than herself may be one of the keys to happiness.

“Until recently, there has been very little research done on happiness in children and almost nothing on spirituality in children,” says Mark Holder, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and co-author of a recent study on spirituality in children aged nine to 12.

One of the findings that surprised the researchers, Holder says, is that spirituality – having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life as well as a connection to something larger than your personal experience – has a big influence on children’s happiness.

“In our other studies we have shown that family income and the marital status of parents accounts for less than one per cent of children’s happiness,” he explains. “But a child’s spirituality accounts for up to 26 per cent.”
Another compelling finding was that there are striking differences between the paths by which adults and children find happiness. For example, spirituality can account for only four to five per cent of adults’ happiness, though being religious — which doesn’t give children a boost – does raise adults’ contentedness levels.

Holder believes that one of the reasons being religious – defined as attending services of worship – may not affect a child’s mood is because many children don’t attend voluntarily; their parents make them go. Spirituality, however, comes from within.

Kayleigh’s mother Sheila Craig believes connecting with that spirituality can be fun for children.

A Buddhist, Craig teaches the children’s group at the Ottawa Shambhala Meditation Centre, where one of her students’ favourite practices, called Candy Meditation, involves eating two candies either really slowly or really quickly and noticing the difference in taste, texture, enjoyment. The children then eat a third candy whichever way they like.

“This helps the kids slow down and focus on the moment, instead of having their minds go in 10 directions,” Craig says, adding that feeling connected to the moment you’re in is a big component of being spiritual. “It’s amazing to see the transformation kids can go through when they get in touch with their spiritual sides.”

Craig also owns and operated Windhorse Yoga in Wellington Village and teaches children’s yoga in schools.

“Even the toughest kids, who start off goofing around, usually end up connecting with a calmer, more contented part of themselves.”

Believing in something greater than yourself affects happiness because it gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, explains Dr. Sonja Lyumbomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Lyumbomirsky also believes that the benefits of spirituality are much larger than just one child’s personal happiness.

Happy people, she has found, are not only healthier, but also “more creative, helpful, charitable and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities.”

That means that by helping your child enjoy the advantages of being spiritual, you’re also making the world a better place. Now who can argue with that?

Original article no longer available…

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