On Mindfulness

I recently participated in the Mindfulness Summit, a 31-day online event hosted by mrsmindfulness.com. Each day in October, a new interview and/or meditation was posted and featured  some of the most important minds in mindfulness, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Russ Harris, Tara Brach, and Rick Hanson. Needless to say, I did a lot of nerding out at the chance to learn more about mindfulness from these experts. The grand finale was a live, online guided meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn and thousands of other people from all over the world. There was something very powerful about being part of that collective experience.


Throughout the month of the summit, I was struck by how personalized mindfulness is for each person. Though the most commonly used or accepted description of mindfulness, as put forth by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” how that happens and the effects of it vary from person to person. Some people place more emphasis on formal practices while others note that informal practice also can be very effective. Some people describe a sudden awakening or “a-ha moment” as a result of their practice whereas others experience a more gradual change. For myself, when I first learned of mindfulness and began a practice, there was a marked change in how I approached stressful situations (and life in general) because I suddenly had a new and different perspective or skill. Over the years I plateaued, until last month when I noticed a subtle change in how I noticed things, like a scene slowly coming into focus or the sun beginning to rise and break through the clouds, slowly noticing more, feeling simultaneously calm and more alert, having more gratitude for the small things.


I think the flexibility of how one can approach mindfulness broadens its appeal. It also poses several problems. First, some have expressed concern that the essence of mindfulness can be diluted without a formal practice and trained teachers. Second, something that is of particular interest to clinicians and researchers attempting to better understand the mechanisms of mindfulness, an unstandardized practice is difficult to quantify and study. The American Psychologist recently published a special issue on challenges to the basic and clinical science of mindfulness in which Richard Davidson, a leading figure in mindfulness neuroscience research, and Alfred Kaszniak outline the particular issues with mindfulness research, from agreeing on a single definition of mindfulness to determining exactly what we should be measuring when we study it.


Also in the American Psychologist special issue is a reflection on a point with which I have struggled- namely that mindfulness was not intended to be a therapeutic technique. Anne Harrington and  John Dunne provide a historical perspective on how the medical and psychological communities (as well as popular culture) became enamored of mindfulness. I incorporate mindfulness-based practices into my clinical and educational work and feel a twinge of conflict each time I introduce it to someone, attempting to explain why practicing can be beneficial without promising it as a panacea.  I have found an interview with Jack Kornfield in Spirituality & Health to help ease my mind. In it, he notes the rising popularity of yoga and mindfulness practices and embraces them, noting that what may begin as something trendy can be transformative for some individuals. Quite the mindful way to view it!


I can say that mindfulness, when I make a conscious effort to practice, has made a noticeable difference in my life, and I have seen it make a difference in the lives of others, as well. I also have seen it do nothing, particularly when people are not able to commit to a practice, whether formal or informal. My own participation in the Mindfulness Summit was variable, and I was able to accept that and re-commit to a practice when I needed to. I have been using informal practices more regularly since the summit and plan to continue with them, adding formal practices when I am able to commit the time and attention. Flexible or flaky? Either way, it is working for me in the moment, and I can change course at any time.


Random Acts of Consideration

As a psychologist, I often find myself noticing how the behavior of one person can  affect the behavior of another. For example, over the past few weeks while driving to work in the morning, I have noticed that if I leave a space open at an intersection, the car in the lane next to me often will do the same. I tested my theory by sometimes blocking the intersection and sometimes leaving an opening and, without fail, the other driver followed suit. This isn’t ground-breaking science, but it got me thinking about how important is can be for each us to model prosocial behavior. I’m not talking about pay-it-forward, random acts of kindness gestures (though those certainly are nice, too) but rather modeling an awareness that there are other people around us to consider. Huffington Post recently published an article about the habits of considerate people which supposedly include, among other things, anticipating the needs of other people, having good manners, and being empathetic. These are not behaviors that necessarily take a lot of time or other resources; these are things we can be mindful of in daily activities. Perhaps letting someone in in traffic won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it does signal respect and may decrease another person’s frustration by a margin. What could be bad about that?



Playlist: 5 Mindshifting talks on happiness

TED Blog

(TED is on its annual two-week vacation. During the break, we’re posting playlists from the TEDTalks archive. We’ll be back with new talks on August 29th.)

Happiness seems simple, yet the more we look into it, the more layers and complexities we find. Here are five TEDTalks that will transform how you view happiness, and how to achieve it.

1) Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.


2) Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness.


3) Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life…

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Stop and smell the roses for longer life?

Apparently Americans are just not that into vacation days. This probably comes as no surprise to many people who have looked forward to a vacation only to be bombarded by work e-mails upon arrival (and/or during their time off). Many of us struggle to take a lunch break, let alone an actual vacation. A hardy work ethic is part of the American tradition, right? But have we gone overboard? In the nation of supersizing everything, why have we minimized self-care, and what does it cost us? The chronic stress of overworking can be associated with burnout, heart disease, and decreased productivity. It’s not a great long-term strategy for professional and personal fulfillment. Compare this with other cultures, in which the norm is to take a break for a healthy lunch and a glass of wine, go for a walk, perhaps have an afternoon nap, go on holiday for a few weeks, regularly engage in meaningful social activities- in short, do things that do not revolve around work, and they actually live longer and healthier lives. That sounds heavenly to me. So how do we carve out time for lunches and vacations in a demanding work environment that values results over personal wellness? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that, at least not today. Likely it will take a major cultural shift. But perhaps we can start that shift by communicating to others through our actions the importance of self-care. Block some time in your schedule for lunch and step away from your desk to enjoy it. Make an appointment with yourself for exercise or socializing. Go away for a weekend, maybe even a long weekend if you’re feeling adventurous! Clearly there is more to the formula for longevity than this, involving a lifestyle change. But as one of my favorite sayings goes, you can only start from where you are, not from where you want to be.


 Have you made these changes in your life? What did you notice? What have you found that works?

Sticking With It, Part II: Techie Tricks and Tools

Yesterday I posted about environmental tweaks that may help with sticking with a plan for reaching healthy goals. Today I present a list of apps and other services that may add some convenience to engaging in valued activities. Vowed to eat healthier and get in shape? Want to learn a new language or increase your brain power? Just trying to find a little calm in your day? There’s an app for all of that! This certainly is not an exhaustive list (and not an endorsement) – just some I have tried out or read about and found to be interesting/ helpful. Feedback on any of them or other suggestions are welcome!


Diet/ Exercise Apps

Fooducate – track your food and learn what’s really in what you’re eating

MyFitnessPal – enter your daily food intake and exercise to calculate net calories

RunKeeper, MapMyRun, Garmin Fit – use GPS to track your runs

Couch-to-5K – offers a training schedule to ease you into running                                                                                                                




Brainy Apps

Lumosity – give your brain a workout with the rest of your body using challenging games

DuoLingo – offers language courses in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and English

Vocabology – learn a new vocabulary word each day and seriously impress (or confuse) your friends and co-workers





Wellness Apps

Breathe2Relax – helps you time inhalations and exhalations to practice diaphragmatic breathing

The Mindfulness App – set reminders to practice mindfulness meditation and get guided meditations

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Other Services

BlueApron.com – make it easier to cook meals at home by having fresh ingredients and recipes delivered right to your door

RockMyRun.com – download running mixes from all different genres to keep you moving

Naturebox.com – for healthier snacking, with options for special dietary needs

Sticking With It

Apparently yesterday was Ditch Your Resolution Day. If you haven’t ditched a resolution or are just working on some type of behavior change and could use a little boost, there are some ways to set up your environment to facilitate your hard work. Some of these may seem obvious (and maybe they are), but sometimes it helps to revisit things you already know.

  • Give yourself smarter options. If you’re working toward healthier eating, your behavior change starts in the grocery store. Shop the produce section first, then move on to other sections, and be choosy about what you put in your cart. If you take home fruits and veggies instead of chips and ice cream, you’ve already set yourself up for a healthier snack. Likewise with lunches and snacks during the week. Packing healthy options to take to work makes it easier to reach for them when you need an afternoon snack. I have a much harder time justifying a trip to the vending machine for a sweet treat if I have yogurt and fruit ready at my desk.
  • Make a deal with yourself. At one of the offices I work, there are always tempting treats. I don’t know what is so magnetic about a piece of cake, but I can’t seem to resist. However, after checking in with myself, I realized I don’t actually like all cake. In fact, I really could do without the white stuff with sugary icing. It just isn’t satisfying for me. So, I made a deal with myself that I would turn down any treats that weren’t chocolate. Having this rule in place makes it much easier for me to ignore treats that aren’t chocolatey. You also could make a rule about taking the stairs instead of the elevator (for example, you’ll only use the elevator if you have to go up more than two floors) to sneak in extra physical activity.
  • Plan ahead. It can be so easy to talk yourself out of going to the gym. I find that packing my gym bag or setting out workout clothes the night before takes away one of the steps I would need to make things happen in the morning and also serves as a visual cue of my commitment. Planning ahead is also helpful for staying on track with a diet in social situations. If you’re meeting friends for dinner/drinks or going to an event where healthy food options may be limited, have a healthy snack before you head out so you won’t be as hungry and will be less likely to indulge later.
  • Schedule it. Sometimes life just gets busy, and it becomes difficult to find time for things that we don’t “have” to do. Putting these “non-essential” but vitally important activities in a calendar, as we would with meetings or other obligations, ensures time will be protected in our day for pursuit of our goals. Some gyms allow you to sign up for fitness classes ahead of time. Take advantage of that options that you’ve already committed and scheduled it.It’s also important to schedule time off. Allowing yourself breaks from pursuit of all those worthy goals is a more sustainable option than striving toward something 24/7.
  • Find someone to hold you accountable. If you find that you do better with tasks when someone else is counting on you, find a buddy to check in with about your progress toward your goal. Knowing that someone else will be asking you about how you’ve been doing can guilt motivate you to stick with it. Meeting up with that person for a fun outing also can be a nice reward for sticking with your plan. Accountability also can be helpful in terms of working out. I know I don’t push myself as much left to my own devices as I do when there’s an instructor or trainer watching over my shoulder. If possible, sign up for fitness classes or personal training sessions to give you a boost toward your fitness goals.

What other strategies do you use to reach your goals?

Resolutions, Goals, and Values

It’s that time of year again. The time when we examine our lives for all of the things we’re not doing or think we should be doing to make proclamations about how next year we’ll do things differently. And then we promptly forget about said resolutions. One statistic estimates that only about 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. So why do we repeatedly set ourselves up for inevitable failure? And what are those people in the 8% doing differently? I have a few ideas…

First, resolutions usually aren’t the most helpful way to get started. While it’s great to identify areas for personal growth, it seems that resolutions often take the form of vague, broad ideas of things we’d like to accomplish. “I want to lose weight” (the most common resolution) is a starting point, but it can be difficult to progress past the goal identification. Without concrete plans for achieving the things we have resolved to do, we are unlikely to reach our aims.

I think the first step in successful self-improvement is identifying our values, the things that are really important to us, what we want our lives to be about. Values often underlie the things we set as goals. According to Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap, values are directions in which we move, things we can engage in daily, whereas goals are stops along the way on our values journey. So if weight loss is the goal, perhaps health is the value underlying it. And if health or physical well-being is the value, maybe there are other goals or valued activities that could be pursued in the service of that value. Values can be particularly helpful, as they allow us to constantly pursue or engage in something that is important to us.

Goals, then, can help us to identify the steps we take in pursuing a value. When used in this way, they can be fulfilling and ongoing. (I should note that I don’t love the idea of “bucket-list” type goals – checking items off a list can quickly lose its motivational factor.) When setting goals, it can be helpful to use the SMART format. Using physical fitness as the value, I might identify the following steps to reaching my goal:

S: Specific – state exactly what you hope to achieve (e.g., I want to go to the gym 4 days per week for 1 hour each time)

M: Measurable – identify how you will know when you’ve reached your goal (e.g., I might mark on my calendar the days I go to the gym)

A: Attainable – the goal should be something you can actually achieve, but isn’t so easy that you don’t get a sense of accomplishment from it (so going to the gym once per week may not be challenging enough and vowing to swim from Cuba to Florida may be overreaching, but some gym time a few days per week is just right)

R: Realistic – choose something that is sustainable (e.g., I probably can’t commit to two hours at the gym every single day, but 1 hour 4 days per week is feasible)

T: Timed – when do I want to check in on my progress? (Maybe after two months, I can reward myself with new workout clothes if I have stuck with my planned gym schedule.) Timing also can be key in setting short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term goals (points along the way of your journey).

I’ll write another post soon with additional ideas for reaching your goals.

Mindful Eating

‘Tis the season to overindulge. It seemed as though everywhere I turned this week, I was faced with tempting sweets. Toffee & sea salt chocolate bars, red velvet cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese frosting, four-layer chocolate cake with peppermint frosting, trays of Christmas cookies. It was like I had traveled to the Land of the Sweets a la The Nutcracker (which, actually, would be my dream world). I was more than halfway through a slice of the aforementioned mint chocolate cake (to be fair, I had cut a piece that was only 2 layers), when I realized I had long ago passed my satiation point for sweet, chocolatey satisfaction. Had I taken time to really savor what I was eating, I probably would have needed only a few bites of rich cake to be satisfied.


Enter mindful eating.

Mindful eating is offered as one way to practice mindfulness. First, a word about mindfulness. At a very basic level, mindfulness is a state of present-moment awareness. As taught in Full Catastrophe Livingit involves cultivating several basic attitudes, including non-judging, non-striving, beginner’s mind, and present-moment focus. One exercise that many people practice when learning about mindfulness is the raisin exercise. It’s really amazing the things I never noticed about raisins before I did this exercise for the first time. In fact, we all probably have missed a lot about foods because we so seldom take time to sit and really enjoy them. Whether it’s eating lunch quickly at our desks (often while we continue to work on other things) or hastily inhaling some decadent food before we can feel too guilty about eating it, we are depriving ourselves of a chance to truly appreciate the experience of eating. When applied to mealtimes, mindfulness encourages us to slow down and be open to the entire experience, paying attention to the sights, smells, texture, and taste of food, as well as our bodies as we eat. Thus, it is eating mindfully rather than mindlessly.

This approach sometimes is used as a tool for weight loss, as it allows people to be more attuned to their feelings of hunger vs. satiation. However, it is not a dieting strategy. It is an approach to something we do every day and often take for granted. Eating mindfully allows for a much richer interaction with the food we eat. For many people, it can be another way to find pleasure in the small things in life. The next time you sit down for a meal or even just a cup of coffee, allow yourself to enjoy the experience for the first few bites or sips. Really take time to notice what you are putting into your body. Notice the complexity of aroma, texture, and taste. Maybe you’ll find it’s something you want to practice more often.


My best friend sent me a text this week about appreciating the small things in life, and it reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to write. A few months ago, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I figured if I recommend it as part of therapy homework sometimes, I should give it a try, too. So, I started taking note of things I enjoyed throughout the day. Over the course of about a week and a half (which is as long as I managed to keep the journal), I came up with a list of 14 things that made my soul smile, ranging from nice weather to a good workout to the smell of garlic butter. Though I no longer physically keep track of these small daily pleasures, I have noticed myself noticing more, and it’s had a real impact on my sense of well-being. Now, on my drive to work, rather than getting frustrated with the person driving slowly in the left lane (ok, at least not as frustrated), I look forward to the moment when I cross over the bridge and can look at the sun rising over the river. As I leave work, I take a moment to notice all the colors in the sunset and how they fade into one another, letting the stresses of the day evaporate before I’ve even gotten into my car. Rainy fall days weren’t gloomy but an opportunity to enjoy how brightly the yellow leaves stood out against the gray sky. This kind of awareness isn’t about finding the silver lining or trying to force a positive attitude, it’s about taking a time out from my internal world, just for a moment, simply to notice the beauty that exists all around me.

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A few of my most memorable sunsets.