Your Mindful Journey

You can try to build a practice of mindfulness using the 10-minute guided meditations on my website. However, they’re probably not enough in themselves. They’re definitely here to support you—that’s why I made them—but establishing a practice tailored to your own life experience takes reflection. That’s why we put on workshops throughout the year.

The workshops bring your life into it. What are the situations that trigger automaticity? Why are mental patterns so hard to break? We discuss and demonstrate mindful thinking and attitudes that nudge you towards a mindful lifestyle. In today’s multi-tasking, consumer world, this is no small thing. In that uphill battle you need all the help you can get.

The workshops teach, demonstrate and encourage that process. The technique of mindfulness is simplicity itself—much easier than learning a new musical instrument for example. However, it can be elusive. Making it a lifelong practice takes a steady shift in perspective and repeated recollection. It’s something you gradually get better at.

Everyone has the occasional mindful moment. What enables mindfulness to change your life is daily commitment and recollection.

Best of all, you’ll meet and share your mindful experience with like-minded people. You will be inspired.

We begin a self-compassion Workshop in the Montreal area on September 26. More info HERE.

What’s Best For Celia?

Celia couldn’t stop. She was the administrator of a retirement home, busy from dawn to night. Everyone depended on her and, as she always said, “The only way to get something right is to do it yourself.”

She loved the home. She knew each of the residents by name, as well as their history and their family visitors. She loved to see the old folks relax and settle in, and especially to see the young folks feeling less guilty. It didn’t always work out that way, of course, but that was her measure of success, and on the whole she was pretty successful.

However, the time finally came when she could no longer hide her exhaustion. It was profound. She went to the doctor, who told her to rest.

She tried, but the calls poured in from staff. They needed decisions. The realization that she couldn’t escape her work suddenly scared her. She felt confined by her own creation—almost imprisoned.

The doctor was right. She should rest. But just being told that wasn’t enough. Resting meant a 180° turn-around in her work ethic. That much change intimidated the hell out of her.

When a friend told her how she’s managed a huge transition from a 20-year marriage with the help of a life coach, she decided to see if that person could help her too.

The coach listened to Celia’s story, interjecting questions to make sure she didn’t gloss over anything. Before, she’d always thought of her life story as a series of anecdotes. Gradually she came to see it as a continuous narrative, with all its connections of cause and effect. She began to regard her exhaustion not as something that had happened to her, but something she’d done to herself. That was Step #1.

Next, Celia’s coach suggested she practice some self-compassion. Celia didn’t see the point. “That’s indulgent,” she said. “I was taught to put others first.” Still, she agreed to give it a try.

Things started to change. As Celia began to take care of her own needs, she noticed that she had more to offer. She let go of control and began to delegate.

It turned out that some staff did as good a job as her, if not better. Instead of telling them what to do she listened to what they had to say. She allowed them to explore, and they began to flourish. The spirit in the workplace changed. There was more cooperation. Everything improved.

As for Celia, she felt free in a way she thought she’d forgotten. For the first time in years she booked a holiday. She didn’t receive a single call during her week away from the home. She returned to find everything just fine. In her absence, problems had arisen and been resolved. Instead of putting out fires, she heard all about her staff’s innovative ideas.

On their last meeting, her coach narrated Celia’s journey back to her, from the first session till now, in the very words that Celia had used at the outset when describing her frustration and resentment. It all sounded so foreign to her. She hardly recognized that person and realized that the intimidating journey she’d envisaged was indeed huge, but that she’d made it, and it felt entirely natural.

All because she chose to be compassionate towards herself.

What I Wish I Could Tell My Father

It always shocked me to see Dad helpless. It didn’t happen a lot. Mostly, he was larger than life, unafraid, defiant.

I have a memory of him standing in the hallway of his restaurant, staring at me blankly. I’d asked him for my birthright, his legacy to me. Irritatingly, I had to clarify that I wasn’t talking about money. Then it happened: he squirmed.

In my mind’s eye I reached out to him with my arms wide open, but some memories aren’t trustworthy. I doubt I’d have opened up like that. I was emotionally stunted in those years. In any case, it was his look of helplessness that made the scene indelible.

The son reached out to the father, and the father knew not what to do. It sounds biblical doesn’t it? It certainly the sort of primal story you might find in the big book: about the paradox of having to love, and about the gulfs that exist between fathers and sons.

These days men are increasingly judged by maternal standards, as if we should be as cooperative and empathetic as mothers. It doesn’t help. We operate differently. We’re less cooperative and more self-protective, One big no-no is to appear at a loss.

Which brings us back to the day that Dad was at a loss. I witnessed it as directly as can be, from a distance of about five feet.

Right there and then something fell out of me. I’d always imagined that one day my father would bless me with the secret of life’s purpose, or at least of manhood. He spent a lot of time in prayer with his god, or in confession with his priest. I’d always assumed that he was pondering the infinite and his place in it.

What I began to realize that day was that what prompted him was not the wonders of creation, but guilt. He’d done wrong by some people in his life and was no saint, and he hung on to that judgment so tightly and harshly that he felt unworthy to give me—his own son—his benediction.

Today, what do I wish he’d said? That in time I’d be able to accept and even celebrate myself. That I would do good for others by doing good for myself. I wish he’d told me that there was a way to befriend myself. Because like him I always expected more of myself. I was never good enough.

I always saw dad as unhappy, and I mostly remember him that way. I would have loved to share some joy with him. Still, he role-modeled courage and determination. That’s a part of him I picked up young and am happy to carry. It’s served me well.

On that day, inadvertently but quite decisively, he also spurred me to go out and seek life’s purpose for myself. That’s what I’ve done. Not just for me but for him too. It’s been a journey, and it gets better every day. That’s what I’d love to tell him.

What to Look for in a Mindfulness Teacher

Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.” —Albert Einstein

Mindfulness is easy: all you have to do is be there and pay attention. However, weaving mindfulness into your life is hard. It takes practice, motivation and the courage to keep going even when it seems pointless—even when your loved ones think you’re nuts.

The mindfulness teacher inspires by demonstrating what is possible and how you can discover it for yourself. In short, how to deconstruct the flow of experience that is your life.

It starts with raw information delivered by the five senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch, but it’s not raw for long. Almost immediately, it’s colored by the feelings that accompany every experience, and then it’s overrun by a torrent of thoughts that want to know what’s going on and how it all relates to you.

The role of mindfulness is to gradually reveal all those layers of interpretation, judgment and planning with which you lay claim to the experience—to bring them from unconsciousness into your conscious purview. This sounds nice, but in fact it’s chaotic. You advance by fits and starts. Sometimes it’s unpleasant, but it’s always enlightening.

The teacher’s skill lies in helping you slow down all that automated mentality so you can see for yourself how consciousness takes shape. What “slowing down” actually means depends on you as well as the teacher. You must be temperamentally suited to each other. There’s more to mindfulness than sitting in peace, and you may have to challenge the teacher.

This could not be more different from the teaching and learning that goes on in school. That is all about information. Mindfulness is about unlearning old, automated patterns and reminding your self of its natural freedom.

Forget about emptying all thoughts. As long as you’re conscious, there’s always mentality in some shape or form. The skill is to be aware of it, whether it makes sense or not. This is what it means to accept what is. It doesn’t mean you condone everything but that you see what’s before you without sentiment or judgment. A skilful teacher helps you accept paradox by holding views loosely, and is always content to admit, “I don’t know,” for this is the root of integrity.

Lama Thubten Yeshe, circa 1975

I learned all this from my teacher Lama Yeshe, who I thought the funniest man I’d ever met. He made me want to teach like he taught and care like he cared. I too wanted to be a storyteller, a stand-up artist with an eye for human foibles. Every aspect of my teaching style is colored by his example. He was the perfect teacher for me and although he died 34 years ago, and although I didn’t actually spend that much time with him, I’m grateful for him every day.

Most importantly, a mindfulness teacher helps you become self-reliant, guided not by rules and regulations but by the intelligence that grows from attending your own experience. The very essence of mindfulness practice lies in the determination to figure life out for yourself.

That doesn’t mean you’re on your own. On the contrary, the teacher’s job is to keep nudging you back to that observational space, to lay bare the preconceptions, expectations and judgements that overwhelm your attention. You let go of views not because they’re wrong but because they’ve served their purpose and no longer need to occupy your mind.

Once views have been formed however, they do not go quietly. They protest their importance and claim your attention. The great and indispensable skill of the teacher is to show you that you can let go and be yourself without any props.

All this takes practice. Lama Yeshe’s confidence in me when I was unsure of my abilities was his great gift to me. Since then, all I’ve ever wanted to do is to pass it on down.

Three Reasons Doctors Should Practice Mindfulness

I’ve had a large number of psychologists in my workshops. They heard about mindfulness years ago and took to the practice as a natural extension of their training. Now I’m being sought out by physicians, but their interest is more personal.

What a career choice! Doctors work unnaturally long hours and have high rates of burnout, divorce and substance abuse, as well as the highest suicide rate of any profession. Physicians are more likely to suffer from mental illness but much less likely to be treated for it. A 2012 study on physician suicide begins with the lament that there have been so few studies.

1. Equanimity

Although you must be highly ambitious to become an MD, it often starts with the simple motivation to relieve suffering and help others. Simple on the surface, at any rate. This is a huge moral commitment, and since it’s impossible to take on the emotional load of every suffering patient young doctors are taught emotional detachment that is reinforced by the fierce competitiveness of the profession and the tendency towards obsessive-compulsive perfectionism. Over a lifetime this often boils down to plain insensitivity. Emotional detachment has been described by one professional as, “an unnatural skill in which you must suppress your innate sympathy.”

Suppressing your innate sympathy is clearly at odds with your fundamental motives and renders your practice of medicine inherently stressful.

There are other ways to manage emotional overload. The resolute practice of mindful noting cools your emotional reactivity by building equanimity without sacrificing your sensitivity to others.

2. Care

Central to the whole notion of mindfulness is care. You care about life and what you do with it. You care for yourself and others by seeking physical, mental and emotional balance.

You express care most tangibly by managing your reactivity. While mindfulness is known to be calming, it also has a more profound purpose: to recognize and let go of reactivity. This happens not by force of will but by understanding yourself from the inside. As you master this reflective skill you exude presence and become a powerful role model. You express the full potential of your healing sensibilities.

3. Resilience

You’re not only under pressure from patients. You also have to function within systems that can be bureaucratic, discriminatory, heavy-handed and sometimes just plain irrational. You can become hardened, or you can become resilient.

Resilience is a flexible inner strength that enables you to consistently bounce back from adversity. By training you to accept what-is with equanimity, Mindful Reflection™ keeps you firmly in touch with your convictions so you can pursue your highest goals with poise and presence.

With resilience arises the recognition that human ignorance, like human mortality, is inevitable. Both summon your desire to heal, and both at times are beyond your power. Resilience enables you to accept your limitations without being defeated by them. You honor life by always seeking new pathways and by exploring life without preconceptions.

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These three qualities of Equanimity, Care and Resilience are intimately connected and overlap naturally. They arise together from a committed training in Mindful Reflection™.

Mindful Reflection™ combines the well-known practices of mindfulness with the less well-known reflections that corral your thoughts and bring mindful attention to all you do. For more information contact the author.

Five Ways to Stop Being Emotionally Reactive

How many times have you promised yourself you’ll never behave like that again, only to find yourself reacting the same old way?

—Excuse me, why are you doing it that way?

—Jeez. Just because I’m not doing it your way doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

—That’s not what I said. No need to get all defensive.

—Me defensive? What about you.

And so on.

Even the most intelligent, educated people can get like this. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to acknowledge that you’re not quite the person you like to think. It seems childish. It upsets the self-image you like to maintain. You lose face, you feel bad and in an effort to avoid this unpleasant reality you look for somewhere else to pin the blame. Needless to say, no good comes of any of this.

Eventually you calm down, admit your mistake, apologize—and make new promises. No matter how contrite you may be however, you’ve done nothing yet to trigger real change. Defensiveness is an instinctive impulse towards a perceived threat. Your reaction’s unlikely to change until you see why it feels that way. What’s the threat exactly?

This is what mindfulness is for. I’m not speaking of mindfulness as a movement or a technique or an ancient teaching. I’m talking about the mental factor of mindfulness—the self-reflective way of seeing that gives you choices and opportunities other animals lack, that makes it possible to stop reactivity and be the person you want to be.

You don’t need to learn mindfulness; you already have it. It’s a natural mental factor. However, it can’t do much by itself. Only when it’s trained along with other mental factors such as effort, discernment and open-mindedness does it become an effective tool for long-term change.

And then you put it to work. Let’s revisit that conversation:

1) Pause, take a breath and get centered.

This first step is the hardest. You can’t just expect to be mindful when you need it, but with as little as ten minutes a day of meditation it becomes second nature. It leads you to a natural go-to place within yourself where you feel centered and see clearly. That sense of peace colors your day and guards you against reactivity.

—I like the way you’re doing that.

—Oh really? I learned from my dad. He taught me to do things right.

2) Don’t be surprised if your partner is defensive too. Use mindful listening. Try to clarify the situation rather than avoid, ignore or reject it.

—My dad was like that too. Only one way to do it!

—Well, I wouldn’t say that.

3) Show personal interest. Mindful watching helps you understand what the other person feels and needs at that moment.

—Really? You think there’s something to learn from other ways?

—Absolutely!

4) Spell it out. Come to an agreement that reactive emotions are not the way to communicate. Ask the other person to point out when you do it.

—How about this way, how I’ve always done it?

—Well that’s interesting too.

5) As you explain your own needs, watch out for any tendency to invalidate those of your partner. Remember, she or he is just as vulnerable as you.

—Thanks for your help.

—Well, thanks to you I’ve just learned something new.

The difference between these two conversations has nothing to do with being right or wrong. It’s about letting go of defensiveness and exploring the conversation open-heartedly.