Back to Basics

This is our first post in several months – we consciously decided to let the blog go for a bit while we focused our energies into the weekly sangha, our private practices, and unexpected family obligations. Accepting our limits has been an important part of self-care, and we hope you all have been doing the same!

Now that we’re back at it, we’re looking forward to sharing research with you, discussing all the incredible benefits and applications of mindful awareness, and informing you of upcoming offerings. With all that’s happened (and is happening) in this unprecedented year, it’s tough to know where to begin. So to keep things simple, we’ll start where we are – in the midst of change and uncertainty. Of course, as human beings, our preference is always stability and predictability. Yet, here we are.

For many, these are stressful times. And the pending holiday season, while holding the possibility for celebration and gratitude, brings the potential for more stress – particularly in a year when certain traditions and gatherings might not be possible. As the stress mounts, we invite you to keep it simple, and return to the basics.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the MBSR program, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” Diana Winston of UCLA offers “mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is”. The Greater Good Science Center states “mindfulness means maintaining a moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” All of these definitions point us towards the same path: awareness and acceptance of the present moment. The present moment includes what is happening around us, as well as what is occurring internally (emotions, sensations, and thoughts). When the present moment is pleasant, safe, and hopeful – mindful awareness might arise naturally without much effort. But when the present moment is unpleasant or painful, the human reflex is to avoid. Unfortunately, this avoidance reflex – especially in times of stress – has the potential to turn a painful situation into a chronic stressor. When we bring mindful awareness to stressful situations, we are present with the situation without making it worse for ourselves.

When times are hard, we might be vulnerable to dropping our practice – exactly when we need it most. As a support, we offer you a short practice. Remember, 3-minutes of practice is three minutes of practice. It counts! It helps! Three minutes might be all it takes to break automatic pilot and reconnect with the present. We hope you find this short practice to be a support during a challenging time.

Three Minute Mindfulness Practice

Mindful Action: Turning Inward

We’re moved this month to discuss mindfulness in action.

Mindfulness is an effective approach to looking within and seeing what work we need to do on ourselves. When talking about our thought processes, I have heard a few mindfulness teachers quoting Krishnamurti who stated, “You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.” In other words, we humans find it extremely difficult to truly know the influences of society on our own minds. It is kind of like a fish trying to understand what the concept of wet feels like if it has never left the water.

You may have heard about implicit bias, the unconscious attitudes that the majority of people have. We might have implicit bias against people who do not look like us, speak like us, believe like us, or vote like us. However, we would not know about such unconscious attitudes directly without close examination. Most people will readily state that they are not racist, and it would likely be true that they are not consciously racist. However, there have been several studies by psychologists and anthropologists showing that our behavior does not often match our conscious proclamations.

Ongoing psychological studies by Harvard researchers using the Implicit Association Test have shown that about 75% of Americans have an easier time making rapid associations between positive attributes and the faces of White people and negative attributes and the faces of Black people. Though it was a lower rate, this finding was even true for the majority of Black Americans. This goes to show that these are learned habits of thought that distort how we perceive situations and influence our behaviors. These learned thought habits likely stem from several factors in our society, many of which we may have little conscious awareness. These learned unconscious biases are deeply rooted and have implications for disparities in our society, such as healthcare, education, and of course the criminal justice system.

How can mindfulness help? For one, it can help us to gain conscious awareness of our unconscious biases. For example, through repeated mindfulness practices, one can learn to sense subtle changes in body sensations when in interacting with someone the brain registers as different from them. We might notice a slight contraction in the body letting us know that an implicit attitude has been activated. We also might become aware of any immediate self-judgment or shame reactions and remind ourselves that society has conditioned us to have biases. With awareness of our biases, we have more of a choice in how we respond to social situations with people different from ourselves.

Furthermore, scientists have shown evidence that some forms of mindfulness meditation training, such as loving kindness and compassion meditations, can significantly reduce implicit biases. For instance, a study out of Yale and Michigan State Universities in 2014 showed a significant reduction in implicit bias toward African American and homeless people after a 6-week course in Loving Kindness Meditation (Kang, Y. et al., 2014). The researchers did not find the same effect with a group of participants who only discussed loving kindness, but did not practice it in formal meditation.

So, let’s sit quietly, acknowledge our reactions to others without shaming ourselves, and work to be the change we want to see in the world.

Mindfulness Resources in the time of COVID-19

It is incredible to think how the world and our lives have changed since our previous blog post. Our February post “Mindfulness and Community” rather ironically focused on the benefits of practicing with others. Never would we have imagined that sitting together a few short weeks later would not be possible. A timely reminder that the uncertainty and change truly is the only certainty.

We are not abandoning our emphasis on community, and in many ways, community is more important than ever before. While the logistics have changed, our commitment to creating community is unwavering. For that reason, we will continue to host our biweekly community sits for the unforeseeable future. Additionally, we are very excited to offer our first Unwinding Anxiety group – more information on this timely group can be found on our webpage.

The outpouring of generosity from the mindfulness community is humbling. Free and low cost offerings are abundant. In many ways, this is what we have been practicing for. There are no preconditions for mindful awareness. In the words of Joseph Goldstein, “anything can happen at any time”. While we might be feeling into this reality more than ever at the moment…it has always been, and always will be true. We hope your mindfulness practice can be a source of support, compassion, and steadfastness during this uncertain time. We are attaching some resources below. Of course, we would love to see you at our weekly sits on Monday 8:30 am, and Friday 12:30 pm. In addition to that offering, you might consider checking out the following:

  • Daily, at 12:00pm, the Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative offers a Facebook live mindfulness meditation. Meditations are recorded and available if you are unable to make the live sit. Just search for Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative on Facebook.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn (the founder of the MBSR program) is offering free, live meditations at 2:00pm. Incredible opportunity to meditate daily with a senior teacher, with practitioners around the globe! Find out more here:
  • The 10% Happier App is offering a “COVID-19 Sanity Guide” free to all. You can find meditations, podcasts, talks, and interviews with senior mindfulness teachers – it’s a treasure trove. Access it here:
  • The New York Insight Meditation Society is offering weekly dharma talks and sits, as well as several online programs.
  • Daily, free, live meditations by senior self-compassion teachers are available from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. More information and sign up here:

This is nowhere close to an exhaustive list – we don’t want to bombard you, and we are familiar and very comfortable with the quality of the resources above. If you have stumbled upon other resources that have been supporting you during this time, please share in the comment section below!

Mindfulness and Community

As we make the transition to a new office and chapter, we’ve got community on our minds. As many who have taken a course and meditated with others might tell you – the experience of practicing alone versus with others can feel quite different. Why might this be? While this answer might be different for everyone, here are some of our observations from our own practice experience:

First, shared practice connects us to a group of people with a common sense of purpose and path. Left alone to practice, we can be especially vulnerable to the experience of doubt. In our minds, doubt might sound like “this is a waste of time”, “I have more important things I need to be doing” – or some similarly sounding stream of thoughts. In our bodies, doubt might feel like conflict, strong hesitation, or reluctance – as though we’re dragging ourselves through mud to get to the cushion. And in behavior, doubt might look like not practicing, or practicing with a lot of resentment. In contrast, when we practice with community, we might be less vulnerable to doubt. We have the opportunity to be with other people practicing, and we witness their journey. We might draw inspiration from the reasons why everyone is in the room, and we are invited to support each other in walking the walk. In the context of community, doubt can give way to shared purpose and practice.

Similarly, when we practice with a community we create a sense of shared practice, which is larger than our own individual practice. During moments of aversion or pain in our practice, we can sense that experience being held in the context of the larger practice that has been cultivated. On a recent retreat I (Erin) felt particularly agitated during one sit. The urge to stand up and walk away was quite strong. Interestingly, when I sensed the meditators sitting with me in the room, that urge subsided a bit. While my aversion didn’t fully dissipate, I had the sense that I could expand around it rather than constrict towards it. With that expansion, I felt a lot less lonely in my personal suffering, and much more connected to something much larger and steadier. By connecting with the larger practice, I was able to find some distance from my thoughts and stories about my practice.

Another basic but important benefit of sharing practices is pure connection. We are social creatures, and research in happiness and wellness consistently points to the importance of connection as a foundation for mental health. Simply put, connecting with others is a really good idea. The more we connect with other people (especially in a meaningful way), the more likely we are to be happy and well. Practicing with others without all the bings and dings of modern life, creates the opportunity for authentic, undistracted connection. In the age of texting and instagram, that quality of connection matters more than ever.

For most of us, the vast majority of our practice sessions will be alone. This is not to say that practicing with a group is better than practicing alone – both hold value and build our capacity for mindfulness. As we evolve in our offerings, we hope to place an emphasis on creating opportunities for shared practices, beginning with monthly community sits and regular alumni events. We’d love to see you soon!

New Year’s Resolutions

The new year is around the corner. So, We dedicate this blog for anyone who has made it a New Year’s resolution to bring more mindfulness into their daily life in 2020. 
As we all know, New Years resolutions have a low probability of sticking throughout the year. We often aim a little too high, or life just gets in the way of us solidifying the habit.  Certainly, the same can happen with mindfulness practices.  We might tell ourselves, “I’m going to meditate for 20 minutes every morning,” but the habit gets lost to the daily grind.
The following are a few suggestions for how to make a habit of mindfulness stick.

  1. Set the target a little closer in range. Instead of 20 minutes when you first wake up, set the intention for 3 mindful minutes. It often helps to make it part of your routine. For instance, you could brush your teeth and then immediately sit, focusing on your breath or body sensations for 3 minutes.  Eventually, that 3 minutes may naturally creep up to 20 as you get curious over time about what adding one more minute occasionally feels like. 
  2. Another alternative to the formal longer sit is to pepper mindful moments throughout your day. For example, eating the first 5 bites of any meal while bringing awareness to every flavor and texture can go a long way to “reset” our mind in the present.  Likewise, directing our attention to each footstep and being aware of the sensations in our feet as we walk to our car after work can be a helpful habit to raise awareness of where our mind is as we transition from work to home.
  3. Another way to pepper the day with mindfulness is to set a chime on our phones to sound a few times per day. Every time the chime goes off we can bring awareness to the sights, sounds, and bodily sensations in that moment, in whatever act we may find ourselves. For example, if the chime rings and I find myself emptying the dishwasher, I can take a pause from whatever habitual thoughts happen to be looping in my head at that moment, bring awareness to the way the light reflects off the surfaces of the dishes, or the sounds of glasses being placed in the cupboard, or the feel of my body in motion while I perform he task. 
  4. Make resolutions about the process, not the outcome.  If I make myself the resolution to be more relaxed in daily life through mindfulness meditation, I am likely to fail several times and get discouraged.  There will be days that I am uptight or anxious, even though I’ve meditated. However, if I focus on the process of a consistent simple mindful practice, that act is more in my control. My attention being on the process and not the outcome puts the ball more in my court. I will “fail” less.
  5. Don’t make a resolution at all, make it an intention. I (Josh) might be playing with semantics here, but resolutions feel rigid and when they are broken, frequently feel a little too broken to be fixed. An intention feels more flexible. It bends and then can simply return to the original form. For example, I might not meditate for several days, but be aware of having had the intention.  With that awareness, I can always come back to the practice of meditation without judging myself. Despite what I wrote in tip #4, sometimes the process is not in our control due to an over packed schedule or unexpected events of the day, but the internal intention is there and will guide us back home to the practice over time. 
  6. Maybe we want 2020 to be filled with more kindness, but we don’t have (or make) the time to cultivate it through a formal loving kindness meditation for 20 minutes on a regular basis.  Just as with the other mindfulness practices, we can pepper some loving kindness throughout the day in small doses. You might try silently wishing a couple strangers in traffic or acquaintances at the office some warm wishes.  You can use some of the common phrases to loving kindness meditations, such as, “May you be happy. May you be safe. May you live with ease,” or make up your own. Sending warm wishes to others throughout the day may feel contrived at first, but like any of the other practices, the impact comes from being consistent, and doing it in small doses makes being consistent easier.
  7. If you want to a massive jump start to mindfulness in 2020, joining a an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the start of the year will go a long way to forming mindful habits.  Many people find quite helpful to learn from a qualified teacher and a supportive group of other participants all on a similar path. Of course, I highly recommend taking the MBSR class with my good friend and wise, highly qualified colleague, Dr. Erin Mendoza (I couldn’t help myself Erin).  The course starts on January 7th. For more information, click here.

If you have any other tips for how to turn mindfulness practice into habit in 2020, please feel free to reply to this blog with your ideas.  Enjoy the holidays!

Rule-Governed Behavior

This month we’re continuing our theme on habit and behavior change with a brief discussion about “rule-governed behavior”. Rule-governed behavior is pretty much just what it sounds like: things we do because there is some sort of rule that says we should do it that way. This can certainly be helpful – especially on a systemic level. Businesses, schools, corporations and governments all create codes of conduct regarding how things are expected to go, which brings a sense of stability and predictability necessary to functioning.

While this process can at times be helpful, other times it can really get in the way of meaningful action – especially when we apply it on an individual level. For one, rule-based behavior tends to be rigid (after all, we’re talking about rules). When establishing a new habit, such as a meditation practice, flexibility is critical. When I first began my practice, without even realizing it, my mind set down all sorts of rules about how my practice should go. “I should meditate every morning for 30 minutes” “I should meditate when the house is quiet, in a very peaceful corner” “I should read one book about mindfulness per month”….and so forth and so on. What these rules robbed me of, was my ability to flexibly adjust my practice based on the ever-changing circumstances of my moments. So what happened when I missed my 30-minute morning meditation session? I wouldn’t meditate that day! What happened when my house wasn’t quiet? No meditation! Before I knew it, I had pretty much abandoned my practice entirely because I just couldn’t get it “right”, according to my rules.

Not only did these rules ultimately sabotage my consistency, but they created a sense of burden around my practice. Rather than really noticing the impact my practice was having on my life, and allowing myself to really connect with all the joy that my practice was creating, I was bogged down by a bunch of rigid rules. This is another big downfall of rule-based behavior; we lose touch with the actual rewards of what we’re doing. Instead of allowing the rewards that my practice was bringing to my life fuel my motivation to keep practicing (like yelling less at my kids), I was only focused on this sense that practicing was something “I should do”. Which made it a drag!

Can you sense the difference between doing something because you should, versus doing something because it really matters to you? This is where we can pivot away from rule-based behavior, and towards values-based behavior. This pivot brings with it sticking power, and the ability to pick up habits that really, actually matter.

Mindful Habit Change – Part 2

This month, our blog will continue with the theme of how mindfulness can help to change a habit. We thought it might be useful to take a closer look at one of the main components involved in habits, the brain.

First, let’s take a look at what’s going on with this powerful organ when at rest in our skulls. A study done at Harvard in 2010 showed that people tend to think about the future, past, or some place other than where they are, about 50 percent of the time. Our minds wander. During such moments, an identifiable network of neurons becomes activated in the brain. Neurologist Marcus E. Raichle coined the term the Default Mode Network (DMN for short) in 2001 after observing the same network lighting up on functional neuroimaging of people asked to do nothing. The functional neuroimaging, which measures brain activity as it happens, revealed that the brains of people doing nothing were, in fact, doing quite a lot.

Later research showed that the DMN is activated when our minds wander (when we’re caught up in the past or future). Furthermore, neuroscientists have shown that DMN activation is associated with various feelings of discontent. For example, it activates when we ruminate on the past or become anxious about what the future holds. It also activates when we crave something. By contrast, several studies have demonstrated that the DMN becomes less active when a person focuses attention on certain tasks, or when focusing attention on one or more of the senses.

So, it seems that the default settings of our brain route our attention to go to self-referential thoughts of the past or future, including searching for that thing we crave. It might go something like this: I finish a task that took my focused attention. I have some downtime. With my mind focused on nothing in particular, I may think of past situations that made me angry or regretful. Alternatively, my brain may start searching for the next problem that may arise in the future, which quickly results in worrying about future problems I cannot solve yet, or even threats to my future safety. Then my brain searches for something that will make me feel better, something I crave, like a cookie or a beer.

Dr. Jud Brewer, the neuroscientist at Brown University we had mentioned in our last blog post, has studied a specific hub in the DMN called the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The work of Dr. Brewer and his colleagues has shown that the PCC activates when people addicted to substances are shown triggers of the addictive behavior, such as a smoker seeing a cigarette or a gambler seeing a roulette table. Basically, the PCC lights up when we’re caught up in craving. After finding this link between craving and the PCC, Dr. Brewer’s lab set the intention of seeing what happens in the craving brain when involving mindfulness. Since mindfulness practices often aim to bolster the practitioners ability to not get swept away by their own thoughts, feelings, and cravings, the researchers hypothesized that mindfulness practices would deactivate the PCC. They compared experienced meditators to non-meditators and found differences in PCC activation, with meditators having “quieter” PCC’s. If you’re interested, you can watch this brief video of Dr. Brewer measuring Anderson Cooper’s PCC activation and deactivation when switching from self-referential, stressful thoughts to mindful meditation.

Later, the research of Dr. Brewer and his colleagues showed that meditation naive people could be trained in mindfulness techniques to reduce the frequency of smoking cigarettes and that this reduction was strongly correlated with a reduction in PCC activity. This finding was not present with an active treatment control group. Subsequently, Dr. Brewer developed a treatment for addiction that teaches people through mindfulness practices to become aware of the actual sensations of the addictive behavior, as well as the cravings in the body prior to the behavior. The mindfulness practices aimed to bring a curious awareness to such sensations with the intention of seeing how the unwanted behavior makes a person feel in real time.

As Dr. Brewer says, mindfulness helps us to not take ourselves too personally. In contrast, the DMN activates when we take things personally (I need chocolate now or I will lose it). Mindful awareness provides us with the opportunity to observe the sensations of craving, being curious about the experience in our bodies and minds (What are the various sensations of “needing” chocolate right now? ), rather than getting caught up the craving itself.

Yet another example of how cultivating mindfulness harnesses this mind/body connection to help us create more meaningful, less reactive lives.

Mindful Habit Change – Part 1

We don’t know a single person who isn’t trying to either establish a new habit that they know would be good for them, or break a habit that they know isn’t serving them. It’s really not easy! Changing our behaviors, even in small ways, can seem completely out of reach much of the time. We’ll be spending a few blog posts looking at behavior change and mindfulness. This month, we’ll take a look at why it’s so darn tough, and strategies that really just don’t work well (even though the majority of people believe that they do!). The majority of these posts will be inspired by Dr. Jud Brewer’s work, and we’ll provide more resources at the end.

First, let’s look at how habits get established in the first place. From a behavioral perspective, it basically goes like this….trigger –> behavior –> reward. At some point, all habitual behaviors (even the ones we know aren’t good for us) resulted in some type of payoff. The reward might be relief from an unpleasant experience, or the introduction of a very pleasurable experience. For example, let’s say I receive an unexpected medical bill that I don’t have the savings to pay. I open the bill, and am flooded by anxiety, helplessness and dread. As I think about what this all means (how did i let this happen?! i’m going to have to borrow money…) the feelings grow and grow. Now, let’s say, I happen to be close to the kitchen, which just happens to have a bag of cookies in the cupboard. I eat one, and experience an immediate hit of satisfaction and relief from all those painful experiences. So I eat another (more relief) and another. My brain declares victory “we solved the problem!!!”, and a powerful lesson is learned. The next time I feel that same sense of anxiety, helplessness, or dread….cookies! Of course, my brain is a bit of a one-trick pony. We all know that my actual problem went nowhere, and that my cookie habit could easily spiral into a full fledged sugar addiction. But from an evolutionary perspective, my brain has done its job. Immediate relief from unpleasant experiences equals increased chances of survival. Ahhhhh. This learning pathway is incredibly powerful, and these connections are made very quickly. From that point on, every time I reach for a sweet in times of anxiety – the pathway is strengthened. It can become so engrained and automatic, that it doesn’t even feel like a choice anymore.

Let’s take a moment and observe two strategies that research has shown do NOT work to break this vicious cycle. The first bum strategy is willpower. We have to realize that the conditioning that established these habits in the first place is incredibly powerful. It is responsible for no less than the survival of our entire species. Willpower can’t hold a candle to this process! And what’s worse, when willpower fails, it fails big. Maybe I can power through on shear willpower for a week or two with no sweets. But willpower runs out; it can’t be sustained at a high level for a prolonged time. And when it runs out – there’s an entire empty cookie bag as evidence.

The second no-good strategy is obtaining more information about all the reasons why my cookie habit is unhealthy. My cookie habit feels awful – it makes me physically sluggish, results in weight gain, increases feelings of shame, and costs a lot of money. Having all the reasons why I should stop binging on cookies, is highly unlikely to result in real changes – and this is supported in research. The lack of effectiveness of this strategy has frustrated countless well meaning concerned friends, family members, and healthcare providers for centuries. It is a rather intellectual strategy, with little impact on changing behaviors perpetuated by powerful brain rewards (sweets!).

And now for some good news. Mindfulness offers us another way. And what’s most compelling is that applying mindfulness to behavior change can actually help to change some of these patterns, instead of attempting to work against them. As a start, mindfulness skills allow us to bring curiosity to our unhelpful patterns, allowing us to consider what our triggers and rewards actually are. For example, maybe I come to realize that financial stress and related feelings of anxiety (trigger) leads to eating sweets (behavior), which leads to temporary relief from anxiety and a short-term hit of pleasure (reward). We know that one of the many benefits of a consistent mindfulness practice is increased awareness of emotions as they arise in real time. Armed with the knowledge that anxiety related to financial stress is a trigger for my unwanted behavior, and bolstered by a stronger ability to know what I’m feeling as I’m feeling it (thanks to my mindfulness practice), I now have the option of pausing and breathing before I automatically reach for a cookie – thereby slowing the cycle down considerably. Maybe the next time I notice myself worrying about finances and feeling anxiety, I’ll recognize my feelings early on, and take 5 minutes to breathe and observe with curiosity instead of automatically heading for the kitchen.

So, mindfulness skills can help us to understand triggers to unwanted behavior, and offer us the option of noticing when triggers are present. Mindful awareness can also help to break the cycle on the level of reward. For behaviors that are habits, our brains go into short-hand mode. Meaning, its not so much the actual cookie that’s providing the relief from anxiety, but the idea of the cookie. What would happen if, when triggered, I actually mindfully and purposefully ate a cookie? Really slowing it down, and bringing real curiosity to the experience of eating the cookie in a triggered state. Eating the cookie this way puts me in touch with the actual rewards of eating a cookie. Maybe, I’ll find that eating one cookie slowly provides me all the relief I need, and I stop there. Or, maybe I find that eating the cookie provides me no actual relief at all, and quickly leads to feeling of shame. This is important information! And it starts to corrode the reward value of the cookie. If my brain receives the message that the cookie actually isn’t so rewarding after all, the entire cycle loses its power.

We’ll have more to say on this topic – but for now, consider that all (yes, all) behavior that has become habitual, begins with a trigger, and ends with a reward. We’d like to invite you to bring curiosity to ways this cycle plays out in your life over the coming month.

Curiosity Saved the Cat

Children naturally tend towards curiosity.  Do you remember being a kid watching ants crawling in and out of that ant hill wondering what they were up to? Such a question, filled with genuine curiosity, might have led you to watching the ants for longer than you ever would today as they carried things in and out of a little mound of dirt. Children frequently have a curiosity about themselves and their surroundings that makes them naturally mindful to the world. 

We tend to lose such curiosity as we enter adulthood. When was the last time we, as adults, curiously watched the clouds to see what we might find?  As we grow older, in place of curiosity, our brains lay down short-hand information for us. Instead of actually experiencing moments, we experience the idea of a moment, based on concepts and memories rather than direct contact with sensory experience.  Additionally, we become increasingly invested in not paying attention to information deemed as unimportant, or neutral, as our attention turns more and more towards chasing “the good stuff” and solving perceived problems in our minds.  The clouds and ants go unnoticed, along with upwards of 90% of our daily experiences. They are filtered out as irrelevant, and therefore not worth noticing. 

With formal mindfulness practices, we have an opportunity to bring curiosity to our inner and outer experiences once again. We might ask ourselves, “ what does this breath feel like?”, “ what body sensations are here?” or, “what am I believing right now?” These formal practices lay the groundwork for bringing curiosity to the rest of life. Indeed, in daily life, curiosity can be the gateway to living in the present moment, with less judgement and reactivity. What does this cup of coffee actually taste like? What are the layered sounds of traffic? What bodily sensations are here when I see my child smile, hear good news, or am running late for a meeting?  Being with these questions guides us directly into the present moment. Bringing curiosity to these inquiries immediately moves us out of automatic pilot and reactivity and into a conscious, awake state in which we actually experience the “little moments” of our days.  And, in the wise words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” They are, in fact, the vast majority of our lives.

Over the next few months, we will be reviewing some interesting research related to mindfulness and behavior change, with a particular focus on cultivating curiosity.  

Till then – stay curious!

Begin again….and again…..and again…..

When we practice mindfulness, we are sharpening several necessary and frequently underdeveloped skills – flexible attention, knowing what we’re feeling, and observing our own thoughts – to name just a few. This month on the blog, we’d like to discuss the critical skill of beginning again.

Whether we’re sitting in meditation, or practicing informally, it is inevitable that we will become lost in thought – many, many times. This isn’t anyone’s fault, but we do need a strategy to work with it. The instruction is rather simple for working with the moment when we realize we’ve become lost in thought. The instruction is: begin again. This simple instruction has real transformative power. To truly begin again, means to abandon the analysis of where our mind went, why it went there, or what it means about us that the mind continues to just think so much.

When we practice beginning again, we learn what it truly means to return to the object of mindful awareness without any drama. In doing so, we learn to quickly drop the stories about ourselves and other people, and experience the moment with fresh eyes and an open heart. As a result, we create opportunities for connection, joy, forgiveness, and compassion that would otherwise be lost. How many times does the present moment become so contaminated by regrets, fears or resentments that we are no longer truly here? And how do we tend to react in those times?

Beginning again allows us to step out of the scripts that can easily dictate our behaviors, and engage with what’s actually happening. Just this evening I (Erin) announced to my kids that it was time to get ready for bed. Immediately there was the standard pushback, and instananeously I felt that familiar tension in reaction. “Here we go again”. Of course I raised my voice, and began playing out the script “if you’re not in bed in five minutes there’s no story”, to which I received the standard and predictable “you can’t tell us what to do all the time!”

Thankfully, through my mindfulness practice, I now have the option to step out of the old script and begin again. As a result of practicing in meditation, I am familiar with what the pivot towards starting over actually feels like (of course remembering to use the skill is always the hard part). My body and my mind soften, and I connect with a faint whisper of a reminder to ‘begin again’. Without judgement, self-criticism, or needing anything to be any different than how it is, I completely let myself off the hook. No longer did I need to be the mom that was “in control”. I could just be there, without needing anything to be different at all.

Of course this is a small example, but the skill of beginning again can lead to profound shifts. And learning to begin again is a skill that is cultivated and practiced whenever we meditate. By beginning again, we can give ourselves permission to gain freedom from self-defeating habits and patterns, and learn to experience ourselves, our lives, and the people around us exactly as they are.

Warning: Mindfulness may not be relaxing.

This month we thought it would be helpful to discuss the differences between relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation practices. Both have benefits. However, we (Erin and Josh) often find that people talking about mindfulness meditation, mistake it for another way to relax. The mistake is more than understandable since there is a lot of overlap between relaxation exercises and mindfulness meditation practices.

First, let’s take a look at relaxation techniques. Such techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and others. These techniques can be powerful tools for reducing anxiety and tension when they are practiced. Additionally, regular practice of them has been shown to have health benefits. While practicing a relaxation technique, one actively engages in the technique in order to obtain a specific body response, such as slowing the breath, heart rate, and loosening the muscles – the opposite of the fight or flight stress response.

In mindfulness meditation practices, we may also focus on the breath and body, as well as thoughts/images in the mind, but from a perspective of curiously observing them in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and with kindness. While relaxation techniques seek to gain control over the body’s reactions, mindfulness meditation aims to increase awareness of physical, emotional, and thought reactions in daily life. Stress reduction often comes in the form of mindfulness practitioners gaining awareness of how their bodies, emotions, and minds influence each other and create stress reactions or perpetuate them beyond the stressful event itself. Mindfulness practitioners also increase awareness of reflexive thought and behavior patterns that may contribute to long term stress, thereby enhancing their ability to have a choice in how best to respond.

Sometimes, mindfulness meditation is relaxing. Many times, as people practice mindful meditation and increase their awareness of the present moment in their daily life, they find peace in the present moment. For instance, they may become aware of thoughts about something stressful of the past or worries about the future that are creating stress reactions in the body. With redirecting awareness to the present, people often find that there is nothing threatening in that very moment and a sense of peace may follow. One may also find some peace while meditating by holding the worries in an accepting awareness with compassion. Furthermore, mindfulness and relaxation can be combined. For instance, once a person has awareness of muscle tension and shortness of breath while meditating, they may choose to take a few deep breaths to calm the body and then return to simply observing the breath.

Nevertheless, people often find that mindfulness meditation is not relaxing. This is helpful! During meditation, as we quietly direct awareness toward the present moment, we are confronted by much of what we may want to avoid or “fix,” such as regrets, fears, and pain. However, some of the value of mindfulness meditation comes from practicing the skill of holding these experiences in our awareness with compassion rather than avoiding them or trying to immediately fix them. With practice in returning to the present, we can learn to bring mindfulness to any aspect of daily life. Thus, one can not only mindfully observe a beautiful sunset or taste a piece of chocolate, but also mindfully rush to work or address a child’s misbehavior. Bringing mindful awareness to such events as they unfold helps us to stay present with what is actually going on in life rather than reacting solely to the story line playing in our mind.

Myths about Self-Compassion

For many reasons, people often reject self-compassion as “not for me”.  This month on the blog, we’d like to look at several common myths about self-compassion, and provide some clarity around what self-compassion actually is (and what it is not). 

Myth #1:  Self-compassion is weak.  If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll never get anything done.

In our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture, there is a pervasive belief that being tough on yourself is the best way to remain productive and engaged. Research, however, shows that this is not actually true. Motivating oneself with self-criticism tends to lead to fear of failure, and giving up early when things don’t go as planned. Additionally, people who attempt to motivate themselves with self-criticism tend to avoid taking risks. On the contrary, people high in self-compassion are more likely to take risks, persevere in the face of challenge, and learn from their mistakes rather than give up. People high in self-compassion are able to accept critical feedback without personalizing it. All in all, people who are high in self-compassion also possess the skills necessary to improve performance, rather than diminish it.

Myth #2:  Self-compassion is selfish. 

It’s common to hear people express concern that if they practice self-compassion, they will become less compassionate towards other people, and obsessed with their own needs. Remember, one of the components of self-compassion is common humanity – the understanding that no matter your circumstances, struggling and hurting is a shared human experience, and not personal. People with high self-compassion actually show increased ability to lean in to others’ suffering, rather than avoid it. Additionally, people with high self-compassion are more willing to compromise in relationship conflicts, and forgive other people rather than hold a grudge. In short, the way we treat ourselves is indicative of the way we treat other people – self-compassionate people treat others with compassion.

Myth #3: Self-compassion will make me lazy.

Some people might make the mistake of equating self-compassion with self-indulgence, leading to a fear that if they practice self-compassion, they’ll sit around all day eating cookies and watching Netflix. This is indicative of a misunderstanding of what self-compassion actually is. Self-compassion enables people to honor their long-term values and goals, rather than indulge short-term urges. Fierce self-compassion includes caring enough about yourself to take steps towards bigger goals, and to tolerate the necessary discomfort along the way. Research actually shows that people with high levels of self-compassion engage in more, not less, health behaviors, including exercising, eating well, and drinking less.

For more information about self-compassion, we highly recommend Dr. Kristin Neff’s work.  Our main resource for this article was the self-help manual The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.  And some research related to self-compassion includes the following:

Neff, K.D., & Pommier, E. (2013).  The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160-176.

Sbarra, D.A., Smith, H.L. & Mehl, M.R. (2012). When leaving your ex, love yourself: Observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psychological Science, 23, 261-269.

Magnus, C.R., Kowalski, K.C. & McHugh, T.F. (2010). The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise-related outcomes. Self and Identity, 9, 363-382.

Zhang, J.W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 244-258.

Self-Compassion Versus Self-Esteem

This month we’ll continue our talk on the topic of self-compassion, and explore some of the differences between self-esteem and self-compassion.  Self-esteem refers to the degree to which we evaluate ourselves positively.  Self-compassion, by contrast, refers to how we relate to ourselves when we’re hurting – with kindness and understanding (see the previous blog post for a full discussion on components of self-compassion).  While the two might seem similar at first, there are crucial differences between them to understand.

Self-compassion is a way we relate to ourselves.  It emphasizes common humanity, and includes the expectation that we will inevitably make mistakes, betray our values at times, and occasionally disappoint ourselves and people around us.  In other words, when we are self-compassionate, we let go of the expectation of perfection.  When we bring self-compassion to painful and disappointing moments, we are free to let go of the question “what is wrong with me?”, and focus instead on soothing ourselves while learning from our mistakes.  In this way, self-compassion actually builds resilience.

By contrast, self-esteem is more focused on how we are “doing” – instead of emphasizing common humanity, it emphasizes personal performance.  High self-esteem leads to feeling really good, because we perceive ourselves to be “knocking it out of the park”.  The preconditions for self-esteem are many – first of all, we have to perform well, or look really good, or in some kind of way possess some really wonderful quality.  Of course, while our performance is strong and our sense of possessing whatever that wonderful quality is, is high, we feel great!  But….when our performance slips, or that wonderful quality wanes, self-esteem tends to wane with it.  In this way, self-esteem can truly be a fair-weather friend.  It’s there when things are going great, and abandons us when we most need support.

Second, self-esteem can encourage social comparison, as opposed to common humanity.  By judging ourselves as “better than”, self-esteem increases.  The trouble with this reliance on social comparison are clear.  Social comparison isn’t so good for relationships, and doesn’t allow us to truly celebrate and enjoy another’s success. And – it falls apart!  There will always be someone smarter, stronger, harder-working (add any other quality or possession here).  Finally, because high self-esteem feels great while it lasts, people have a tendency to seek it out.  Unfortunately, this can lead to tendencies like devaluing people around us, over-preparing for tasks, perfectionism, and avoidance of risks that could threaten self-esteem. 

When you find yourself just feeling great about yourself, by all means, enjoy the moment!  Savior the feeling and let it sink in.  But – thanks to self-compassion, we don’t need to rely on that feeling, or try to create more of it, or equate it with self-worth.  By cultivating self-compassion, we build a resilience and resource that is there for us when self-esteem simply cannot be.  Mindfulness practitioners endorse higher levels of self-compassion than non-meditators – yet another way that mindfulness increases wellbeing and stress resilience.

Mindful Self-Compassion

This month on the blog, we’d like to introduce you to self-compassion – a topic we’re sure to return to frequently. To boil it down to its essence, self-compassion is the stance of turning towards oneself as an inner ally, rather than an inner enemy – particularly in times of suffering and pain.

Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer break mindful self-compassion into three components: mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness. Mindfulness brings a balanced and accepting awareness to moments of suffering. In order to practice self-compassion during painful times, we must first know that we’re hurting – this is where mindfulness comes in. Common humanity refers to the understanding that all humans suffer and struggle – that your pain is not personal or a sign of badness/weakness. No human is perfect, and we all make mistakes and experience regret at times. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition, not a sign of personal failing. And finally, self-kindness involves turning to ourselves in moments of pain with care and compassion; the same way we would turn to a loved one who is hurting. It’s very common to kick ourselves when we’re down. To offer ourselves messages of “what’s wrong with me?!” and other forms of criticism.

We will be exploring mindful self-compassion frequently in future blog posts and discussions. To summarize research findings thus far: people who are more self-compassionate endorse higher levels of life satisfaction, better relationships, stress resilience, and general wellness – as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression. And some great news: self-compassion can be cultivated, so don’t fret if you tend more towards self-criticism. Participants in a standard MBSR course endorse significantly higher levels of self-compassion at the end of the course than when they began. And the mindful self-compassion program, which we’ll describe in future posts, is an eight week program explicitly designed to increase self-compassion through a series of formal and informal mindfulness-based practices.

Until next time, wishing you a self-compassionate month as you navigate the inevitable ups and downs.

Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation

This month, we’ll look at the connection between mindfulness and emotion regulation.  Several studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation training results in an increase in emotion regulation.  Emotion regulation, in general, refers to a person’s ability to effectively experience emotions.  Skills related to emotion regulation include: knowing when an emotion is present, accurately identifying emotions, nonjudgmental acceptance of emotions, and effectively soothing and down-regulating painful emotions.  People with low emotion regulation skills might find themselves swept away and hijacked by their emotions, or on the flip side, excessively avoiding emotions leading to a sense of emotional numbness.

The study we’re looking at today looks at neural mechanisms (aka what’s going on in your brain!) that might explain why mindfulness meditation leads to better emotion regulation.  Brain areas of interest in this study include the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC).  In general, when the amygdala is activated, emotions like anger and fear are generated.  When the VMPFC is activated, emotions are regulated, leading to less emotional reactivity and a quicker return to baseline.

This study found that long-term meditators demonstrated less amygdala activation than short-term meditators or non-meditators.  So, in response to situations that might trigger an emotion like fear or anger, long-term meditators were less likely to experience those reactions at all.  This was especially true for long-term meditators with a lot of meditation retreat hours.

Short-term meditators in this study were defined as people who recently completed an MBSR course.  The study found that short-term meditators showed higher levels of amygdala-VMPFC connectivity than non-meditators.  Meaning, when short-term meditators become emotionally triggered, those emotions are more quickly regulated when the VMPFC comes online.  Which leads to thinking more clearly, responding more effectively, and stepping off the emotionally reactive treadmill early and often.  Yet another example of how mindfulness meditation training, truly is brain training.

The link for the article we discussed today is:

Kral, T .R. A., Schuyler, B. S., Mumford, J. A., Rosenkranz, M. A., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2018). Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli. NeuroImage, 181, 301-13. https://doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.07.013

And a few other studies related to mindfulness and emotion regulation:

Goldin, P.R, Gross, J.J., 2010.  Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion 10, 83-91.

Ortner, C.N.M., Kilner, S.J., Zelazo, P.D., 2007. Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional influence on a cognitive task. Motiv. Emot. 31, 271-283.

Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A.A., Oh, D., 2010.  The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 78, 169-183.

Mindfulness Meditation and Hypertension

This month on the blog, we’ll be looking at the results of a very recent RCT (randomized controlled trial) published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, looking at the impacts of mindfulness meditation training on adults with hypertension.  In sum, the results of the study suggest that mindfulness meditation may offer adults with hypertension a host of benefits, including not only lowering blood pressure and related health risks, but psychological benefits as well.

A bit more about this particular study….

For future reference, an RCT is considered to be the “gold standard” of research design.  While no study is perfect, RCTs aim to minimize bias by randomly assigning participants to one of two conditions:  treatment as usual (control group), or the treatment being studied, while holding all other factors constant.

Considering the prevalence of high blood pressure (AKA hypertension) in adults in America, there is high interest in cost effective, non-invasive strategies to help people lower their blood pressure safely and effectively.  High blood pressure (hypertension) is a risk factor for several serious health complications, including heart attack and stroke.

In this study, 42 adults with normal-high blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension were randomly assigned to one of two conditions:  health education intervention (control group), or a mindfulness meditation condition.  Both conditions were administered in eight two-hour sessions.  The mindfulness meditation condition was very similar to a standard MBSR course, with a few modifications specific to treating hypertension.

Following the completion of the interventions, participants in the mindfulness meditation condition had significantly lower systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number- also thought to possibly be the more important measure of health risk) than the health education condition.  At 20 weeks post-intervention, the mindfulness meditation completers’ systolic blood pressure dropped 13 mmHg from baseline, while those in the control condition dropped 1 mmHg.  Additionally,  at 8 weeks mindfulness meditation completers also reported lower levels of anxiety, stress and depression.  At 20 weeks, mindfulness meditation completers reported lower perceived stress scores.

The citation for the article we discussed today is:

Márquez, P. H., Feliu-Soler, A., Solé-Villa, M. J.,…Arroyo-Díaz, J. A. (2018). Benefits of mindfulness meditation in reducing blood pressure and stress in patients with arterial hypertension. J Human Hypertension.

Let us know if you have questions about the study!  We hope to see you soon.  We’ll be back next month to discuss another recent research study related to mindfulness-based interventions.

Hello! And Welcome!

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We are honored, humbled, and very excited to introduce ourselves and our services to the Monmouth County area!  We are two local psychologists with a passion for bringing responsible and heartfelt mindfulness-based programs and training to our local community.  As psychologists and people in the world, we have seen and felt how suffering (of all shapes and sizes) can be transformed by cultivating the qualities of mindfulness.

All of our upcoming groups will be listed on our website, and we will be sure to let you know about them in monthly emails.  Additionally, we will be publishing a monthly blog summarizing a few recent research findings related to mindfulness, and the implications for personal practice.  We encourage you to peruse our website to learn more about us and our services.

Please be in touch with any curiosities or questions about who we are, what we do, or how we might be a resource for you.  We are really looking forward to getting to know our community.

With gratitude,

Erin and Josh