MF 48 – Mindful communications with Gregory Heffron
Gregory Heffron MFA owns and manages Green Zone Conversations Retreats. He is the only certified teacher of Mindful Communication authorized by author and Buddhist teacher Susan Chapman MA.
He has been teaching Mindful Communication workshops with Susan since 2009, and has been a mindfulness meditation teacher in the Shambhala Lineage since 2005.
In 2005, he apprenticed with senior Mudra Space Awareness teacher Craig Smith, and became authorized to teach this unique mind-body meditation technique. In 2007, Smith and Heffron taught this practice in a workshop for fourth-year students in the Dance Division at The Juilliard School in New York City.
His background is in creative writing, having earned an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the University of Iowa in 2003. He is a student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and lives in Santa Monica, California.
What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
How did your path to meditation start?
When I was in my 20’s and had just broken up with my girlfriend. It hit me in just that way that shook my world. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t have any tools to work with that, I was into art and literature, done therapy. I just couldn’t quite hold it all together. I came to meditation like many people through struggle and pain and challenge. Luckily I knew some people in meditation groups. Shambala Buddhist meditation group.
It struck me as being a sensible thing to experiment with. They were kind enough to bring me along. It’s been 17 years since then.
When you got attracted to that particular tradition and practice, was there anything in particular that stood out to you in that tradition that helped you with your breakup?
I found there was something about just resting with my emotional experience, without having to resolve it. Without having to come up with the big solution. I think that was the most powerful part of the practice for me, even though it was quite difficult. Quite challenging. At that time I was going through a tumultuous time.
The more I did it, I gradually gained confidence, that it could be done. That I could sit in chaos and confusion, complexity, and the richness of my emotional experience. And that it was OK to do that. Instead of finding it to be something that violated the rules of reality. It was reality, and it was OK to feel really tumultuous. There is something calming and soothing and sensible about that, that I could handle complexity and chaos and not freak out about it.
And I imagine with most meditation practices, that is a big part, to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, not knowing, not having the answers and like you said to be OK with chaos. Not something that most of us can just learn in a few periods of meditation sitting.
Yeah, the length of practice, and repetition of practice is crucial. Otherwise it is sort of like picking up an exercise regiment and doing it for a couple of days, you just feel kind of sore. And you don’t get very far. But if you keep it up, something happens.
How did your practice evolve from there. Did you find it was helping you in other situations, or areas of life?
Sure..I found greater ease entering uncertain situations. Situations that were unclear, where I felt anxious. That was really encouraging.
I can think of particular situations, walking in somewhere, where I thought, “Oh boy, I’m really nervous”, and then feeling that bubbling energy, that anxiety. And then enter anyways, with a certain kind of equanimity. That was ground-braking for me. There was always that sense before that, of trying to stuff down my anxiety. Trying to suppress it, which of course only makes it worse.
Suddenly I had a different way to relate. That actually allowed me to at least feel a little bit calmer. So then I was inspired as I saw those results. So within a year I did a week retreat, and then as time went on, a month retreats, and longer and complex retreats as time went on. Until that whole process became more of a passion project. I was really interested to see where this would go. And I still feel that way now.
So your continued practice is in part led by curiosity about what else there is to learn about this practice?
Yeah, which is what else there is to learn about myself. To some degree there is more to learn about the practice itself, but really. In a way it is just applying what I’ve learned so far. Relaxing into the practice….and seeing what I can see.
Since you talking about bringing your meditation practice into your daily life. You got into mindfulness and mindful communications. Maybe you can elaborate on how you moved into that direction..
In 2009, I met Susan Gillis Chapman, who’s a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She was teaching mindfulness communications. She conceived that type of teaching from being a marriage and family therapist, as well as a Buddhist teacher who in the Shambhala tradition was in charge of one of the longest and most sophisticated retreats in our tradition, the 3 year retreat at Gampo Abbey. Pema Chodron put her in charge of that retreat. I met her after that period.
I met her when she was starting to teach seminars on this materials. And she invited me in to teach a mind-body meditation that I have a background in, called Mudra Space Awareness that comes out of the Tibetan tradition. I was going to teach the mind-body component, and then she was going to teach mindful communications.
We did that for a few years, and in that process I began to learn what she was teaching. I wasn’t even sure at first. It was startling to me, the material she was teaching. It was based on the one hand on some of the highest Buddhist teachings, but it was also very pragmatic, very useful. You just felt like you had a way to understand very simple interactions and situations, that before had been completely confusion.
Maybe you can give a couple of examples, and elaborate on what you mean with Mudra Space Awareness….
It’s essentially an acute direct practice of experiencing your mind and body together. That comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Rooted in Tibetan monastic dance training. That the monks would do in the monasteries in Tibet.
In terms of mindful communications. The easiest way to understand it is, that we’re already born with innate sensitivity to understand what is happening with our communication with others. That is the primary point of view. Not so much that mindful communication is building up a set of skills that you have to try to remember and get better. But actually in some ways it is the opposite process. That we are stripping down the kinds of habits that cover over our innate sensitivity to communication. That actually could allow us to steer very naturally, spontaneously, and accurately in our interactions with others.
So do you have examples of habits or habit patterns that cover up what we already innately have available to us.
One of the ones that causes the most trouble for most of us, is not recognizing certain primary states in communication. Like for example, failing to recognize when communication has shut down between ourselves and someone else. For whatever someone has broken off communication. They might still be in the room, or even speaking with us. But we can feel that something has broken down in the communications. Up until that point, there was a kind of natural interchange. We have this natural open kind of communications that we naturally carry out with others. Like over the counter in the post office or grocery line. Very simple, nothing elaborate.
And yet, there comes a moment where that can break down, and we feel it. We feel it almost immediately. We said one thing, someone thought we said something else, and they’re offended.
Or we said something, and someone didn’t hear it, so they don’t respond to us. There are a variety of ways that communication breaks down. Maybe they are overwhelmed. And whatever we said makes them even more overwhelmed. So they just tuned us out. That is a good fundamental example to go with.
You’ve spoken and someone is not responding, and there is that gap, where we don’t understand what is going on. Usually in that moment, we feel anxious. There is a subtle, a feeling of being socked in the gut. A vacuum in the room emerges, where that happens…”Now what should I do…not sure what’s going on.. is the sense. ”
What most of us do out of habit that causes trouble, is that we plow forward, as though it wasn’t happening. If what we said overwhelms that person, we might say it again, or saying it louder or elaborating more. Which of course makes this other person feel even more overwhelmed. So communication shuts down even further.
Or could be defense. Or we could cut it off. Because they didn’t respond, we feel like I’m not going to speak to this person again, now they’ve offended me. There is a variety of things, we could try to seduce them into being more friendly, or tune them out, or become angry.
All of this misses the point. The reality is very simple, there was a communication breakdown, and we felt it. No-one is telling us what is going on. We can actually feel it. It doesn’t mean we know what is going on at some deeper level per se. But we’re pretty good at knowing what is going on.
Just being willing to be mindful at such a moment is incredibly powerful. To stop the forward momentum, and just be curious. Just explore…like looking at this person’s face. If they are speaking, listening to the tone of their voice. Paying close attention to our self, to our own emotions that are rising up. Maybe we do start to feel anxious, and then feeling that. Being willing to let those feelings come through, because they are information. They are our own sensitivity.
In many ways, and in our many interactions with others, we have this sensitivity, that could allow us to slow down, and become a little more careful. And steer more accurately. But we have to remember to let go of our patterns, our habits that we build up over time.
I think it’s good you elaborated on the various things that can happen in those few moments. When you pause enough, those things can happen, but if you don’t know how to pause, that can bring problems. The ability to pause is a huge component of that.
It’s very radical to pause. In our retreats we do a pause practice. Where randomly we ring a chime. When people are in small groups, and talking, and the instruction is to just stop for 3 breaths….nothing. Getting used to being interrupted by something unexpected..and then you resume. It’s just life interrupts us. Instead of that being a bad thing, often the idea of being interrupted in communications is upsetting. Instead, if we can reverse that tendency.
And feel that being interrupted could allow us to restart fresh. And tune in a little bit more.
And a big part is too that a lot of us forget to breathe deeply. Just that mindfulness bell is a wonderful opportunity to get back to your breath, the here and now, your body, everything….
Absolutely, I think it’s originally adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh. Susan calls that a positive interruption. In communication we could have positive interruptions.
Interestingly enough, when we get really fixated, stuck and trapped in our habits, sometimes the best thing possible is a positive interruption.
Suddenly a hummingbird flies by your head..You’re in the midst of something, like being shut down, angry or whatever, and suddenly something just breaks you out of it. It’s not something you can organize or plan for, but you can go with it when it happens. It could just be the taste of your coffee. While you’re upset or trying to be upset, and you get interrupted. You realize suddenly your coffee just tastes so good! For an instant you forget to be furious. We can take these opportunities and go with them. Start fresh.
In terms of mindful communication. You’ve already mentioned curiosity, listening with full attention, giving full attention. Which is also a good skill to learn. A lot of people have a hard time listening to someone else, without having agendas, maybe preparing a counter argument at the same time while the other person is speaking.
Right..The fundamental material that is in The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, covers this somewhat systematically. But essentially, just being present is one whole set of skills. And then listening is one whole set of skills.
There’s 2 ways of listening. There’s listening at a level of accuracy and information, the content of the conversation. And then there is listening at a heart level, to the emotional truth of the conversation. Which includes things that are maybe not spoken, but that you can feel them as they change.
And then there is skills around speaking, and being able to be truthful, without neither exaggerating, nor suppressing. How can we say true things without being either harsh or coy about them. So there is training around all these different elements.
Is this training that someone would do over the course of a period of time, or.. what does that look like?
We offer courses, from just a talk, or for that matter reading the book on your own, to longer retreats, like weekend retreats, or 5 day retreats. These are all on our web site Green Zone Talk.
But they do need to be worked with, and trained with. It’s easy to think about all this stuff, but much harder to get it down into your bones so to speak. So that when you’re in a challenging situation, you can apply them.
Making it part of a natural response or muscle memory that you’ve trained yourself in..
And I’ll add that one of our fundamental trainings is mindfulness meditation. If we can’t connect with the present moment, and what is arising in our senses, in our emotional faculties, what’s arising in terms of our thoughts. Then there is nothing to work with. We have to connect first and foremost with the present moment.
Anyone of us who’s done mindfulness training knows, we have to train! If you don’t train, you lose the acuity. You lose the richness of that connection, that has tremendous potential if we develop it. And then if we do develop that, then we can aim that awareness in various directions, including towards communication.
Since we’ve had such a contentious election. Maybe you can walk the listener through this example. You’ve got two groups, one on the right, and one on the political left, and they start discussing politics. And within no time at all, people part ways in anger. Walk us through how someone might approach this using your mindfulness communication techniques.
That’s a great topic right now. So many people are deeply distraught over the level of discord in this election, and it’s historic. I think we’re living through a historic event. A lot of us are really challenged by that.
First and foremost is to just acknowledge that we are living through this unusual historic moment that is pushing these buttons even more than usual. But I would use one of our fundamental metaphors in mindful communication, which is the traffic light. We use the traffic light because it is so simple, very basic, easy, and helpful. You can teach this to children. The traffic light is good, because when we get upset, we get a bit simplistic. The more upset we get, the more childlike we actually are, not necessarily in a positive direction. We lose our intelligence and sophistication. I bring this up because it is so useful and simple.
What happens in say talking about this election, if you run into people who have different views than oneself. We already carry around with us anxiety about the state of the world, the state of the nation, and our place in that, our future security, our freedom, and sense of connected-ness to the culture in the US say. So there is already a bit of anxiety.
Which in the traffic light metaphor, when we’re open and connected with ourselves, which automatically connects us with others. As soon as we’re really connected with ourselves, we’re already in the room. We already realize that we are interacting with our environment. Even when we’re alone. Not to mention that when we’re with others.
But as our anxiety level rises, it takes us out of the green light state of openness, into the yellow light state. The yellow light state is very much connected to fear, uncertainty and confusion. Like I don’t know what’s happening, what is going on, I don’t understand! That kind of feeling.
And when we enter the yellow light state, we’re suddenly living in a different world, than we were just a minute before. When we were feeling very connected. We’ve entered a situation where we can’t handle as much as we could just a few minutes ago. A different state. We become in some ways weakened. And our sophistication, and all of our big theories about the world, the way we want to be as a human being in the world, they get scaled way back. We get into a kind of fight or flight sensibility.
We need to recognize this when this happens. Politics triggers this in us. Because the stakes are high, and we have these big concerns. There are moral issues, that really touch us at a deep heart level. Maybe they have a different morality that we don’t understand, that we don’t share. So we’re in the yellow light. Usually already, just to find out that someone has a different view from us is already threatening to a lot of us.
Now when we’re in the yellow light, we’re already feeling quite overwhelmed. We don’t want to absorb far more information than we already have. Since we’re already overwhelmed, we don’t want to take on an even bigger task at that moment. Because we already got disconnected a bit from our self, we start to lose touch with our heart, lose touch with our senses. It’s when we go into our head, and stop paying attention to the room and the feeling in our body. Basic truths. We stop seeing what our eyes are actually seeing in the room, because we’re in our minds. We’re starting to worry and go off into the future. What if this political situation happens, that could be tragic, etc…
So because we’re disconnected, due to our anxiety, we have to realize we’re a little limited on that moment. Our top priority at that moment is to reconnect. Our top priority is not at that point to continue the discussion or get an opinion down someone else’s throat. Or to sit through a discussion that for whatever reason we don’t feel like we can tolerate at that moment.
We need to protect our-self a little bit at that point. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s not the fault of the other person, or the other political party. We have become disconnected from our own mind and heart a little bit. Not even our fault, it just is.
So the question is what do we do?.. And what we need to do is get a little protective, and perhaps get ourselves to a safer space. Whatever that means. This may mean literally opting out. “Please continue without me!” or it could mean, just saying, “I’m not doing very well with this, and I don’t know if I can continue talking about this at this time.” Whatever it is, we need to reconnect.
Once we can get or are able to get back to the present moment, reconnect to our senses, to our heart, to the intelligence that we carry as human beings…Then we can have any kind of sophisticated political conversation.
We need to recognize that we go in and out of this. Anxiety may bring us to a certain state were we are not going to make a lot of progress..Until we soothe our-self, and calm down, and reconnect. That is the important part. And that others are going through this as well. Driving someone into a state of anxiety, while maybe no-one’s fault. But if they are in a higher and higher state of anxiety, the conversation is not going to be that fruitful.
Yeah, it’s only going to escalate, get more reactive and reactionary…
What we don’t want, is for the situation to progress to what we call the, “red light”. The red light is when we fully shut down. The yellow light we’re sort of in-between, we’re fearful, getting disconnected, but we haven’t really gone for it. But the red light is where we tip into fully shut down. That’s when we lash out, or go silent. Give someone the silent treatment. Or could take different forms. Could be arrogance, or hyper competitiveness. I don’t care what is true anymore, I just want to win, no matter what. That kind of thing.
These are habits, no-one’s fault, but we carry them out because we’re afraid essentially. And we’ve run away from our own fear, into this shut down state. That is where more harm can happen. Both to ourselves and others. And we don’t want to do that. We want to find our way back out. Instead of pushing ourselves so hard to where we shut down, we just need to naturally recognize our limits. And pull back a bit. We might even be able to continue the conversation if we pull back a little bit. Maybe a few minutes break, get some more snacks for example at a holiday party. Allows us to reconnect a little bit, and we can actually say what we really mean, instead of having things come out of our mouth that we don’t mean.
And continuing to see each other’s humanity, seeing a common ground. Some of these conversations, people end up completely alienated from each other. That’s sad!
Absolutely. The worst part about that, from my point of view, is that we then don’t understand what is going on with this other person. If we’d been able to slow down, step back a bit, and allow the conversation to progress on a more human level, instead of trying to win, or trying to prove that this person is morally bankrupt, or something. We could then ask them to, “tell me more about your world, what do you believe.”
That’s how we do break down those barriers. Instead of the world progressing into a kind of red light state, where suddenly there’s whole groups of people who are considered as inhuman. “Those people” on the other side. “I don’t even think of them as human beings anymore. ” Instead we realize that shared humanity, like you were saying.
And then we go, OK, well I don’t really agree with them, but I understand what they’re thinking. I talk to this person, and they told me their view of the world. Even if you think they are wrong. Even if you want your candidate to win, and theirs to lose, That’s fine. But even then you need to understand who you’re up against, and what they’re into. How they see things.
So it’s effective, it’s not just ideological, not just being compassionate in a moral way. If you want to get things done, you need to know the world in which you are trying to get things done in.
Even in congress, the complete failure of communication across the isles and how it’s turned into a stand still. In a lot of different situations, to learn to be more mindful and communicate better would have a lot of fruit and benefit.
I saw an article recently on that, that charted it across decades, and how fractured it has become now. That is in terms of the democrats and republicans, no longer being able to work with each other. You look back 50 years, and it was a different world.
That is where you see that our own troubles and habits around communication breaking down, they turn into world history. It’s exactly the same as what is going on within us, but it is a bunch of people who happen to be in congress, or whatever other government body, or military body for that matter in the world, that they have the same trouble that we do.
And that when they shut down into the red light, suddenly if that is the wrong person shutting down, you’ve got a war, and a 100.000 people die. Because of that one moment of shut-down. It’s that simple in a way. It comes down to one moment where someone said, I’m not going to connect with my experience. I’m going to turn this other person into an object, I’m going to objectify this other country, or another. And now we can attack them. But it’s now different than our own experience.
Yeah it’s an important practice. I imagine you also work with marriages in your practice..
That’s an interesting one, because here’s someone we’re so close to in intimate relationships to. We’re so close is that the irony is that we feel every grain of disagreement. As if there were little bits of sand, that if you weren’t absolutely pressed up against each other, you wouldn’t feel a little grain of sand. But because you are, every little bit can become some huge drama. Some huge disagreement. It’s only because we’re so invested, and we’re so close, that that’s the case. Which is a bit unfair way to judge our relationships. We’re doing our best, they are doing their best. And yet we’re judging it by this very extreme standard.
Do your retreats emphasize couples, or do you have a variety of emphasize different aspects of life, different situations?
Yeah, we have a number of retreats. The one that is focused on relationships is called, “the four seasons of relationship”. This looks at the cycles that relationships go through. In terms of every relationship is like a year. In the sense that, we start out alone, and then we go through a kind of spring time, where a courtship that happens. You meet someone, and you start to assess whether there is a connection. And if there is a connection, you continue into the summer. And summer is this sense of deepening the connection, and committing to the connection. And even to the point of making vows to each other, in whatever sense. Whether literal or coming to understandings, of what the nature of the connection is.
And then at some point, even if it is just over the course of a human life, where of course we’re going to die at the end of our lives. There is a coming apart. Or could be breakup. There is a natural point where the connection has to come apart, and this is true even for ongoing relationships. That we could recognize that even walking into a room with someone in the morning we go through these seasons. We were alone, and we walk in to have breakfast or something, and there is that meeting point where we come together, and begin a conversation, or whatever that is. And then there is the full breakfast time, where we’re really deeply engaging. And then we split of into different directions for the day.
So this 4 season cycle happens in a lot of different ways. Not just in romantic relationships. It could be someone you meet on the bus and have a conversation with.. So that retreat covers that material.
We have a whole retreat about conflict, and the 4 stages of escalation into conflict, and how to undo each of those 4 those stages. We have a whole retreat on the chemistry of emotions. How the emotions manifest in the 3 different traffic lights. Open emotions (green), the yellow light emotions of fear and anxiety, and then finally the shut down emotions of the red light.
And we have a retreat (called the stories of our lives) that is all about looking back at our life story, and re-configuring our life story. Telling it in different ways, in order to cut through the complaint a lot of us have about our lives. “My life should have gone a certain way, instead it went a different way.” And to actually look at our lives, and say, “ah, this is a hero’s journey.” In which there are tragic moments, and disappointments.
It’s a bit like an opera, but it’s a spiritual journey in some sense. We’re going through a lot of experiences, some of which are quite painful. In order to live a heroic life.
So the retreat helps you to learn to appreciate things that you formally didn’t really appreciate about your life.
Yes, that’s it, recognizing that our lives are rich. They’re not necessarily a vacation. They’re not for sissies so to speak! Life can be quite intense, and yet we could really view it as a powerful experience. Including all the troubles that we’ve had. Those could all be crucial parts of the story.
Could you mention the book one more time, so folks who are interested can follow up and learn more about this practice.
Yeah, it’s,The Five Keys to Mindful Communication from Shambhala publications by Susan Gillis Chapman. And there is going to be another book, a workbook, hopefully in the next year.
Great..so people can do some homework, and implement it.
Exactly, because a lot of people are interested in doing that, and this will make that more explicit and give you more of a path to travel through the material.
That’s great, that’s what we’re all about, applied meditation.
MF 46 – Reconnecting with Nature through Eco-Therapy with Laurel Vogel
Laurel Vogel, M.A. received her degree in contemplative ecopsychology (A Psychology of Writing) in 2006, and is an ecotherapist, writer, Zen practitioner, and Nature Immersion group facilitator. She founded and runs the Holding Earth Sangha on Whidbey Island, and conducts Nature Immersion camps on the West Coast. Her writing is anthologized in Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled (ed. C. Chalquist), and her articles have appeared in Ecotherapy News, and Restoration Earth Journal.
Interview with Laurel Vogel
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What brought you to a contemplative practice?
I’ve been a spiritual seeker for a long time, from a young age. Vacation bible school busses would haul us off to church, and this opened up my seeking personality. I had a seeking personality, but couldn’t find a home in the traditional traditions. I couldn’t reconcile myself in those traditions. There was this God father that would punish people into eternal damnation. So I left that kind of church, and continued seeking. As a young adult, I went through many things.
In my 30’s I started Yoga, and had a strong Yoga practice for a long time. And in my 40’s I started meditating with Vipassana. Eventually came to Zen practice 11 years ago. I found that Zen was the one place where I could have all my doubts, and be exactly who I am, but still have a really strong containing kind of a practice.
Even though I came with all of my questions, and my sometimes contentious relationship with spirituality, it can hold that, and it can stand up to that. I find the non-exclusive nature of that, to be as close to a home in a practice as I could find.
Interesting that you mention the judgement of the old testament religion, and then the non-judgement and inclusivity of Zen.
Yeah, I don’t really belief anymore that all Christian religions are like that, but I’ve come to find that, maybe even not all Buddhist sects aren’t as inclusive as I would like. But for the most part, the one that I found seems to really embrace… it doesn’t tell me what to think, what to feel, and how to be.
So I had to go away from practices that were too prescriptive..
And the preconceived notions, and conditioning that they come with..
And of course there are precepts which we follow, but nothing like you have to believe, and have to think this way.
But there’s also a faith element in Zen as well. How do you relate to that as opposed to accepting something on blind faith?
The faith is to keep practicing. To keep going, to keep sitting, to keep doing the meditation practice I think. That’s really where the faith comes in. The process will take us toward wherever it is that we’re going. I see that as different than being told what I need to have faith in.
Through the culture, certain churches, not all of them, have really come to try to tell people a lot on how to live, and what to do. The particular church I was in for a while, they got into your life, from telling what length the sleeves of your shirt should be, to whether or not you should go bowling or swimming. It’s that kind of a context that I was reacting to when I was looking for a spirituality that was more open and inclusive.
Would you say you’re still seeking, or is some of that now dropping away, now that you’re feeling more at home in your practice?
In a way I think I feel at home seeking. I do feel like, no matter what I do, I’ll find a way to be seeking. Not sure if that’s a good/bad thing. I think it’s just part of my nature, and i’m finally coming to a place where I’m accepting that more. That I just maybe one of those people who needs to question everything. Maybe that’s just part of my path.
..You’re accepting it, whatever state of mind you are, you’re accepting that. That’s a very liberating feeling right?
Yes, it is, it’s very liberating to realize that no matter where i’m at, i’m accepted in this practice..As I am with all my questions and doubts. It doesn’t mean that I’m not practicing right, or doing the right thing.
Yeah, I think it was Shunryu Suzuki who said (Correction: Suzuki was actually quoting Dogen), life’s one big mistake…that meditation and the whole process of finding your own true nature are one continuous mistake.
..One continuous mistake, that’s right (laughing). That would describe my experience of practice.
How does this practice affected your relationship with the world. We’re going into Eco-therapy, which seems very similar to changing your view or relationship with everything.
Yes, the more I go into Zen practice, and the more I go into Eco-therapy, the more they seem to dovetail with each other. Especially with the ways I practice Eco-therapy. I actually defined what I was doing during my degree, as contemplative Eco-therapy. Which was very much about bringing people in a contemplative open state in their practices out in nature.
Has the sense of self/other changed over your practice?
Definitely..explain more what you mean by solid self and other?
I guess our culture and conditioning is about believing in a separate identity, I’m here, and that person is out there. I end at the ends of my skin..or skin bag.
Yes, that’s a good point to bring up. Both Zen and Eco-therapy are really congruent in a way. They give me a sense that I am interconnected and not separate from the natural world. There really is a mutuality, and inter-relatedness. The more that i practice contemplative practice, the more that I dissolve in my sense of nature and the natural world. And that happens when I walk in the woods. If I’m engaging my senses, pretty soon it feels like…I am my senses. And I’m not only sensing the world, the world is also sensing me. So there’s an inter-being.
When you started your Zen meditation practice, was there a moment that you can remember that you realize that you wanted to deepen your practice?
Probably…It’s been a sort of slow dissolving into practice, that I’ve gotten into. I’m doing a combination of Soto and now started studying the Aitken tradition, the Diamond Sangha. And I was doing Vipassana meditation, with a group sangha, but there was no teacher, no guidance. But I needed someone who i could ask questions of, and explore things more deeply with in terms of my practice. I just needed help basically to understand some things.
I happen to see a flyer at the local Dharma hall, in Bellingham, and Norman Fisher was coming to town. I remember attending my first Zen weekend retreat with him. I got a very strong sense that, here’s this person who didn’t have big charisma, which would scare me away. I felt like I could connect with him. And I pretty much jumped in at that point, became his student, and have practiced with him almost 11 years now.
How do you practice with him?
He’s in Marin County, Ca, but at the time he was coming up to Bellingham and Vancouver, BC about 6 times a year, so I would catch those retreats. I would go to those retreats, and sometimes I would go down to Ca as well. He has decreased the retreats up here, so that was part of the reason I started looking around for other Zen practice places.
Could you elaborate on what retreats do or give you, that you wouldn’t get from just joining a group and/or sitting on your own?
The experience of Sesshin, the extended 6-8 day retreats, are really immersions in the practice where you come together with different members of the Sangha/community. You live with them, cook with them, you do everything together, as one body. For me, it increases my sense of belonging, and the sense of being supported. And supporting others, because there are always many, many opportunities for service in those practices.
Some of those people I’ve barely spoken a sentence to, but I feel very close to them. So that’s part of it, why it’s important. But it’s also the structure of the schedule. Having all of the constraints of your life removed for a time. Or all of the things that are calling you, or pulling you out of yourself, and really just getting a chance to not have to make decisions and not have to have to do the usual life that you do. You just get to be contemplative. That in itself is a real possibility for opening.
Do you recall getting an example of getting an insight that you would likely not have gotten if you hadn’t gone to an immersive retreat?
I would say almost every retreat i have something like that. There’s just something about being away from my life, that is just really conducive towards that kind of thing. At one point I went to a practice period at Green Gulch down in Marin County, and that was really conducive to some openings, because not only are you relating to yourself in a practice place, but a lot of other people, a lot of different personalities. So there’s a lot of opportunity to look at your habits and patterns.
For me one of my biggest patterns is resistance. And so I almost always get a chance I can look at the ways that I’m resisting, like following a schedule, or whether I like people wearing robes, and things like that.
Do you have a funny example of that?
I don’t know if it’s funny…It’s just part of my contentious nature.
There’s times when it’s really serious and annoying, like you say, and then there are other times when it almost becomes comical.
Yeah, I guess that is pretty much it. It became funny to me, that I do spend so much time resisting and not just allowing myself to just follow the schedule. Obviously I’m there for a reason, and I’m putting myself in that position for a reason. Putting myself in that pressure cooker of a Sesshin for a reason. So it’s funny that I come up against this part of my personality…I have authoritarian issues, so I’m going to map authority onto everybody. So it could be funny sometimes, if we know how to laugh at ourselves.
Robert Aitken, who is our teacher’s teacher, has a story where his entire Sesshin retreats revolved around as he called it, “his damn mother”. Some issues that he had with his mother in the past was just brewing and dominating during his retreat. It can happen like that, a whole retreat where you have one issue that is taking the dominant form.
Yeah, I’ve had many Sesshin like that. It can happen even as you walk into a retreat. That I decide I need to obsess about something for a while. Now after 11 years of doing these, I’ve just started to get much better about dropping these stories. Where I can go, “OK there’s another one, I can let that go now.”
I think most of us, have some habits that are easy to let go, slide of, and some that are much harder to let go of. And we may look at another and see us struggle with a habit that for us would be very easy to let go of, but then they might look at us and see something we struggle with that they could let go off very easily.
All depending on our inheritance from our particular upbringing or culture that we were brought up in.
Then when you come back into the busyness of life, how does a retreat then affect the way you attend to your regular life? How does that affect your regular life?
At first I used to be bothered, because regardless of how many perceived openings I may have had, I was disappointed in myself. Because I was “supposed to be all peace and love now right?” years ago I would think that. Eventually that wore off, and I stopped trying to be something…once I left retreat.
Particularly work practice, and certain moving mindfulness practices, are helpful with this. All of a sudden, you find yourself becoming mindful, coming back to your mindfulness when washing dishes, getting to your car and driving to work, or walking through the woods, etc. It’s not something that I was able to bring consciously from Sesshin, into my daily life. It’s just something that happened as a result from consistently going.
We keep doing the practice, and at some point the practice does us. And carries you wherever you go.
That sounds right yeah..
Do you have an example where you notice that in your daily life, maybe in traffic, or cooking, or.. How do you become aware of that?
I’m not sure how it happens, maybe it was Jack (her teacher) who said using those experiences as mindfulness bells. Like when something difficult or alarming happens, like my neighbor’s leaf blower. That’s one of my favorite ones. I can use that experience as a mindfulness bell, and bring myself back, when I remember. And I do think as a result of pretty intense practice, I’ve come to where I can do that more often, and remember to do that more often.
And when you come back, that changes your relationship to the leaf blower?
Sometimes (laughing), sometimes I can drop the story that I have about that. I guess it does, because if I don’t do that, I can be agitated for a long time. And if I do that, I go can go somewhere else and focus on something different.
That’s nice, I bet a lot of people want to understand how that works better (laughing).
I wish I understood it better, but i really do think practice makes that happen. I don’t know how else to explain that, I don’t think we can try. It’s like you said, the practice practices us eventually.
That’s great, something de-escalates, becomes less tight, constricted, it sounds like from what you’re saying.
Yeah, and the heart opens up a little more to the other person. This happens all the time in human relationships. You get this email with a tone that you’re uncertain about, and at first you feel like, oh, that person is saying such and such. And instead of reacting, you take a break, there’s another mindfulness bell. And then come back to it, you can kind of let go of the story that you have about that person. Maybe it’s someone you’ve had conflict in the past. And maybe you, or I can see it as my trigger. That was my own personal psychology at work there, I can now let go of that. And deal with this person who has their own particular way of seeing the world also.
That’s great, and that then has the ability to create a new opening in that relationship too. And the de-escalation, and then maybe a new appreciation.
Yeah, so often we encounter others except through the lens of our own stories. The more we can discern between what is my story, and what is your story, the more potential there is for an authentic meeting.
How did you come about to explore Eco-Therapy?
I grew up as a barefoot kid, running around, and climbing trees. At some point that got closed of, and shut down, probably age 13-14-15. Whenever that happens. And I kind of moved indoors, probably a lot of stuff going on in my personal, and family life. Then when I was about 24/25, and married at that time, and he decided we needed to go to the Grand Canyon. And I didn’t want to go. I had pulled away from nature in a way that I was unaware of. But we went..
So we went down into this canyon, and I’d been afraid of everything in nature. Like some young women are. I was fragile around it. I was taken into the Grand Canyon, and it was this process of stripping away culture for me.
We entered in at Lees Ferry (part of Glen Canyon), as most people do..and we had these oarsmen who were wild men. It was cold and rainy, I hated it, and thought it was the worst thing in the world. We had to hike out of Bright Angel, due to half of a trip pass. And by the time we hiked out, I was begging to stay and go on with the rest of the guides. Something happened to me in that canyon.
I think it was just the awakening of the senses. I was touching rock, seeing wildlife, feeling the river, the sky, the sun. We were open and in nature. I had not seen or felt what I had been missing. And so that experience stayed with me. I started camping much more. We continued to go back to the canyon. I became much more the person I was supposed to be.
Eventually that relationship ended, I went back to school, where I got a degree in Eco-Psychology. I was interested in the field of psychology, but not so much interested in working in a confined room/office. Which I tried to do for 3 years, but eventually taking my practice back to eco-therapy and eco-psychology. Practicing in context with the world.
So what is the main difference between eco-therapy and eco-psychology?
Eco-psychology is the academic field that i’m in, and Eco-therapy is the way that it’s practiced. Applied eco-psychology. There are some other nuanced difference, but I like the term Eco-therapy because it’s readily understandable and gets away from the world psychology.
(Below a short video from the Eco Belonging web site)
How does that work in practice, do people have some eco or nature deficiency, and then get referred to you, how does that work?
I do have some referrals with therapists in the area, who think it would be beneficial for their clients. A lot of work is coming out in hospitals now, that this is a good adjunct to certain illnesses that people have. You know that is one of the biggest challenges in this field is, how to help people see the difference between doing eco-therapy, or going to a therapists office.
We have found that working with other groups, or with other types of things is the best way to go. One of the things I do, is write a lot about the topic. I used to write to eco-therapy news and I’ve written for restoration earth journal and an anthology for the topic. And so that’s one area where it’s a big educational piece, to try to join it to other things.
The other thing i started doing is when I started our Zen practice group here, we are moving it towards becoming a green Sangha. Introducing a little bit of Thich Naht Hahn’s materials, he has the “holding earth” idea.
We’re also taking people camping. My husband is a psychotherapist, he works with couples. So one of the things we’ll do is taking couples out. This is a great way to work with couples, combining his marriage counseling with the eco-therapy. It gives it a context, and gives them something to hang what they know about therapy, and yet we can do it outside in nature. And so they like that piece of that. They’re getting something that they know about, and they also get to go kayaking, or whatever it is that we’ve concocted to help them experience nature.
You mentioned taking folks outside. What else do you do with your clients to change their relationship with themselves, those around them, and nature?
Sure, I have a 6 part series that I do with people. So there are 6 sessions. I’ve extracted some Buddhist ideas, which has to do with the senses. And I’ve also combined it with Shinrin-Yoku. A Japanese forest immersion practice or forest bathing”. It is a way of using the sense roots, in Buddhism, which is part of the Abhidharma. So the sense roots would be the eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and smell, taste, touch, and mind.
I’ve taken each of these senses, and made a practice that they can do out while we’re outside, partly when we’re together, and part at home on their own. So they can do their own micro quest with that particular practice. And really help themselves open that particular sense up.
And then these build on each other. And eventually we get to the 6th, which is the mind. It’s domain is thinking. So mind and thinking. That would culminate this initial series with.
The mind in the west is pretty much the primary organ that is paid attention to. Which is why it’s so dominant, so how do you treat that in your eco-therapy session?
First of all we distract from the mind, by taking people out. One good way is getting people out of their shoes. Just getting them sensing, touching, and feeling. And in that process dropping stories. Just coming to direct visceral contact.
And eventually when you get to seeing the mind as yet another sense-root, you can also see thinking as something that is like a sense, you can drop it.
What are seeing people reaction to that, do you see people have reactions to that? Do they resist?
Some people are resistant to that, just like me. And very often..can’t talk about individuals, but I can talk about folks I’ve paid attention to outside my practice. I find that they experience a sense of joy in the connection. When they have a contact with something wild, or something that’s not in their normal domain. And when they feel their mutuality/relationship with that other being, that more than human being. And this really sparks in us both what’s missing from our lives, and our need to reconnect.
It instills a desire hopefully to continue these re-connection practices.
Do you give them assignments to go out every day to reconnect with those senses?
Ideally that’s how it works. One person I can talk about, she passed up her porch swing everyday for the last 3 years. They put in this beautiful porch swing. And after this retreat she was adamant, she was no longer going to do that. She was going to enjoy her porch swing.
Other people have different experiences. We had a couple kayaking, and it brought up their relationship difficulties. And they were able to sort through some of those things. One person needs to steer on the rudder in the back, and another needs to paddle. They need to paddle in unison with each other for it to work! They’re metaphors that can happen in the process of taking people out on adventures.
So it gives them insight where they’re stuck in their relationship…
Yes, it did. Actually my own husband and I we got some insight into our relationship on that trip too (laughing).
What kinds of mental illnesses are particularly benefited by taking part in eco-therapy?
There is a lot of research coming out, for those who are inclined to the western way of thinking. Mostly from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Finland. And they are showing actual quantifiable effects. Decreases in anxiety and depression, increased immune function. They’re finding that people who exercise outdoors, what they call Green Exercise. It helps people to have better stamina, when they’re outside, working out. they found a reduction in ADD symptoms, that focus is improved from increased contact with nature. And even improvements in self-esteem.
That’s great, you can’t go wrong with that. I saw one (2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K), which found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. (The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.)
So the challenge is that not everyone is aware that this is solution they can use right now, they can go outside…
Yeah, it’s a challenge because I think people can get kind of bored after a while, if they don’t really understand how to connect outside..Because we’re of of practice, and we’ve also been conditioned by a culture that needs us to be dependent on what it gives us. A constant stream of entertainment, media, maybe sugar…. (laughing)..I struggle with that…things like that.
So I think this dependence on this culture detracts from our ability to go out and fully experience the subtleties that nature has to offer. Also I don’t think we understand how much reciprocity there is in nature. That it’s actually giving to us, as well as us giving to it, her/him…There’s so much to this.
Like you said, I don’t see Facebook anytime soon asking people to go outdoors. They do not want people to leave their platform, and their sugar, and whatever else..
Right, and that is where I think mindfulness helps. And having a little bit of stamina to sit and stay with something..You know there’s a good story by Eve Ensler. She wrote the vagina monologues, and in her more recent book, In the Body of the World, she talks about her experience with cancer.
The only salvation is kindness.
Eve Ensler ended up in a hospital being treated for her cancer. And after treatment was so debilitated. She didn’t have the strength to watch TV, or check her text messages, or do any of the things that we’d ordinarily do to distract ourselves from the pain that we’re in. And in her hospital room out her window, she could see a tree. And this is a person who left a rural area for New York City, and said she hated trees. She wasn’t going back. So here she is, stuck in her own situation with no other outlet, and here is this tree.
There’s a beautiful distillation of this story on brainpickings about what happens to her as she interacts from her hospital room with this tree. Staring at the bark day after day, and getting to know the bark. Then staring at the shiny leaves. Then near the end of her stay the tree blooms. It had a profound impact on her. She found a lot of healing both emotionally and metaphorically she was able to understand her relationship to the tree and all that had happened. And also as she was fighting cancer to her own body. So it’s a great story and example.
You see these stories in the literature. Like Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older than Words. His own story of childhood sexual abuse by his father. And the ways that his relationship to his father, and a mirror of what we’re doing to the culture plays out in the book and his own personal healing.
And a more recent book, H is for Hawk, by Helen McDonald, about grieving, the death of her father. Beautiful stories about the ways people interact with nature, and find the deep spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.
Ideally we’d teach this ability to recognize this at an earlier age then when someone gets cancer right? How do you think that’s going to happen in the future?
Little kids already have this, and humans in general already have this knowledge. To me it seems that what we’re doing is we’re training them out of it. And so it’s a good question. I do believe that we’re seeing more, my ears are attuned to hearing stories about nature. And I was at a writing retreat last weekend. And many of the stories that people were compelled to tell each other, had to do with like, “well there was a squirrel dragging a giant mushroom around.” This is at a retreat center in the woods, so there was a lot of nature around there. They were able to go around and walk.
Another story i heard was, “Well a deer chasing a coyote!” And you know one story after another about their interactions with nature. So it gave me some hope that people are interested in nature. When you hear people tell stories like that, and you’re listen to them, you’re hearing something about their longing for what is wild. And what is not so domesticated.
So I think if somehow we can speak to this longing that they have, we can help turn people toward…yes.. this is our desire to be back in relationship with the natural world. I’m trying to do this on all the fronts that I can think of to do. I think people know it, they don’t really know how to do it. If I can get someone in the door, then we can work from there. But we have to write, blog, and talk about it. I love taking people out, and immersing them in it. And that’s what happened for me, and I think that is a really good way to support somebody to sort of peel off those layers that they’ve gathered from the culture.
And the wall that’s build up between them and nature. To take down that wall.
Yeah, take it down or play with it. There are many things we can do to interact with it, in a way to help it come down.
Do you have any remaining thoughts on how someone can benefit from nature. Maybe some remaining ideas they can explore to reconnect…
Pay attention to those moments when you encounter wildness and pay attention to what that feels like.
I was walking around the arboretum in Seattle the other day, and encountered a young couple who had just got really close to a great blue heron. They didn’t even know what it was. They came out of it, and had this delight on their faces. And I questioned them a little bit about this. It was clear that they didn’t have a lot of contact with nature, but they were sooo happy! That they got to see this bird up close.
I would say, really attend to and pay attention to those moments. It’s really important that we all recover and bring rich non-human environments into our lives. To learn as much as we can about it. Whether this is gardening, or photography…This is an activity, that gets you to put your shoes on, and get out the door. And we need something like that in our lives. That not only gets us out into the woods and enjoying it, but go out and do something that will really motivate you, whether it’s gardening or kayaking, something that makes you want to do it.
Because that is going to give you the long sustained contact with nature that will get you thinking in a different way. And to experience your own wild nature, and to also experience the domesticity. How domesticity is affecting your life. Because if you do that, you won’t tolerate animals that are caged or in factory farms. It’s going to wake up the heart. Because there’s a lot in the natural world, that wants to speak to us. If we can develop these ears to hear.
MF 33 – Simple and Highly Effective Ways to Reduce Destructive Behaviors like Gun Violence and Bullying in Schools using Mindfulness with Laura Bakosh
About Laura Bakosh
Laura obtained a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology from Sofia University and has spent more than five years researching the academic and behavioral effects of mindful-awareness practices on children in k-12 schools. She has a Bachelors Degree in Business fromp Boston College and worked for 20 years in large, multinational companies, including Northern Telecom, EMC and GE. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and co-developed the audio-guided Inner Explorer Programs. She has had a personal mindful awareness practice for more than 21 years.
Laura discovered the benefits of mindful awareness more than 20 years ago when she was trying to manage the stress of travel and long workdays. While working at GE, Laura had the insight to share her mindful awareness practice with hundreds of fellow employees. Upon seeing the many positive results the daily practice had on performance, creativity, and wellbeing, she realized it would be the perfect fit for education.
The practices can help children navigate the ups and downs of life with resilience, alleviating stress and anxiety, and can help them focus, allowing them to be ‘ready to learn’. — all with compassion, openness, and love. She can hardly wait for the first generation of kids going through this program to reach adulthood! Laura received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Boston College and a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from Sofia University. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
When not working, Laura loves to spend time with family and friends, especially with her husband Rick and son Will. She loves being outside, which is much easier now that she moved from Illinois to Florida, going for a bike ride, running with her dog Scout, kayaking, or playing tennis.
About Inner Explorer
Janice L. Houlihan
Laura Co-Founded Inner Explorer with Janice L. Houlihan. Inner Explorer’s Vision is to inspire people to develop a daily mindful awareness practice, leading to a more compassionate, joyful, healthful, loving and peaceful world. They accomplish this by providing programs and tools, for children and their families worldwide, that inspire a daily mindful awareness practice. This practice will help lead the children and teens towards their highest potential by bolstering academic performance, creativity, social & emotional aptitude and well-being.
Laura Bakosh Interview Transcript
What follows is a summarized partial transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
How did you get started with Meditation and Mindfulness?
Laura came to it in 1994 to manage the stress of long hours and travel when working for GE. She felt stressed out very often, not eating and sleeping well, unraveling and reactive.
She started reading about stress reduction, and one of the books was from John Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. She found this incredibly eye opening. So then went to a retreat, and became very committed to practicing everyday. Started to notice lots of positive changes. She started feeling better, sleeping better, a lot more calm and level.
She continued to practice, and went to several training classes and retreats. As her colleagues began noticing changes in her, she realized it might help them too. She introduced MBSR to GE in 2001. Lisa Grady, an MBSR instructor created a program called the “Corporate Athlete”. Lisa conducted several retreats for the team and helped them develop a personal practice through audio-guided tapes, and weekly call-in’s. Over time, more and more GE employees asked to be included in the retreat sessions, to the point where they got 100 people to come in on their weekend retreat. The business outcomes were fantastic, higher orders, less employee turnover, and improved culture and collaboration. It transformed the entire team, from 2001-2004.
At the same time, Dr. Richard Davidson and his team at UW-Madison were conducting exciting mindfulness research using functional MRI (fMRI) equipment on the Buddhist monks. The results showed that the brain changes as a result of these practices. In general, the researchers found that there is less reactivity in limbic (fight/flight) system and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning). GE made the fMRI equipment, so there was a tie-in.
Through her own personal practice and the interactions with the team, she realized the biggest challenge is that it’s hard to practice every day. If you go to a seminar, it may be interesting, yet it’s hard to integrate that into your daily life. The practice is simple in that you are just sitting, but it’s not easy because most of us are not used to just “being”. Also, if your work environment doesn’t integrate mindfulness, it is difficult to find the time on your own.
So if the employees that came to these sessions didn’t have that support when they returned to their divisions/departments/teams, they ended up losing the practice.
Laura realized that regular practice is critical to integrating these skills and to realizing the health and well-being benefits. So if you teach them while their young, it’s going to be extremely useful to them when their young, but also for the rest of their lives. So then she decided to leave GE at that time.
She went to the U-Mass teacher training program in MBSR. And went to grad school to further study and evaluate the impact in education. She then began to translate these mindfulness practices designed for adults into language that would be applicable to kids.
In 2011 she co-founded Inner Explorer with Janice Houlihan, to bring daily mindfulness practices into K-12 schools.
I’m curious about the struggles you experienced integrating the mindfulness practice into the GE workplace?
Yes, the key thing is some learning you can get from a seminar, but with mindfulness it is very critical that you practice every day. If you don’t practice it every day, or at least most days, the benefits will be more fleeting and won’t last. It’s similar to brushing your teeth every day, which leads to dental health. Practicing mindfulness every day leads to cognitive health (and physical health)
Your team has to be supported in your practice efforts. In her team, the practice was front and center in people’s mind. We encouraged them to dig in as they felt comfortable. As they did that, they found that it was very useful in their lives, so they embraced it. If you don’t have that kind of structure in your life, it is very hard to fit it in.
Most workplaces didn’t have acceptable policies or ways to do this mindfulness practice every day.
So many people have a hard time fitting this practice in. This is one of the reasons Laura and Janice started this company. Each of the tracks is just 10 minutes, the teacher simply presses play, and participates with the students.
So this program that you created with Inner Explorer, how does this work?
Each series (Pre-K- Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School) are audio guided, where the first thing the recording (audio stream) says is “closing your eyes”, because we want them going inward. Each series has 90 separate tracks, 10 minutes for most of them, 5 minutes for the youngest kids. Students listen every school day.
We ask the teachers to consider when is the best time during the day is to re-engage the kids. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, sometimes after lunch, sometimes after recess. It depends on the class and the teacher, it’s flexible. The program is streamed into the classroom. The teacher just logs in and plays the program.
We encourage the teachers to participate with the students, so they get a chance for 10 minutes a day to reground themselves. The teachers consistently report to us that it’s their favorite time a day. Because they get a chance to settle.
Teachers are under a lot of challenges. Students report higher and higher levels of stress. We know also that the majority of US students are living in poverty (51% ). Teachers have to meet this stress, anxiety and trauma every day with multiple students. These practices teachers the chance to develop resilience in the face of these challenges.
And do you find in some cases where the class is particularly riled up that the teachers decide to use the meditation audio during those occasions?
Yes, definitely. It’s generally a time when it is difficult to get the student re-engaged. Like coming in from lunch for example. Sometimes it takes students a little longer to get settled. It depends on the student. Once a routine is established, students settle quickly, and over time, (within a few weeks) they will begin reminding the teacher to run the program.
Students are already pretty mindful in the moment. But they don’t operate in an inward sense. They’re not usually digging in to understand what’s going on in their inner world. Once they do, they realize that it feels good. To notice thoughts and emotions coming and going. They start to disconnect from the sense that they are their anger and frustration.
They see anger and frustration coming and going. It’s really healthy for them to separate the thought and the thinker.
Do the students learn this distinction from the audio meditations, in other words, are these narrated instructions in the audio?
Yes, the program follows the MBSR protocol, which has been well studied for the last 25-35 years or so. It’s been very well researched and received very well. We’ve taken that protocol and have created out of that these 90 bite-sized pieces. So yes, the program is guided. Each day different instructions.
The Inner Explorer program then builds. Starts with awareness of breathing, relaxation, moves to physical senses, then thoughts, then emotions, then connection and compassion.
As kids build more and more attention and focus, they can then do it longer and longer. And they can handle more complicated ideas, like noticing emotions come up.
What’s remarkable, is that children start to practice what it feels like to be angry. They for example notice a time that they were angry. They notice the bodily sensations of that emotions. They become familiar with how anger comes up for them. We’re used to reacting in those circumstances.
But in this case they have that momentary awareness, that, “Oh that’s anger, I recognize that sensation”. Giving them that little bit of pause, is giving them a chance to respond. To bring that pre-frontal cortex part of the brain back online.
And that de-escalates it..
Exactly. We’ve done a bunch of research and others have replicated it. Students have a 50% reduction in their behavior problems. Fewer principal office visits, fewer suspensions, fewer incidences of bullying, higher grades higher test scores.
Amazing improvements with a 10 minute a day intervention, very cost-effective too.
So how did you do the research?
There were 3 different research studies conducted with about 1000 children. There was an 8 week study, 10 week study. And then a 27 week study. The first quarter grades were the pre-condition. And then for the next 3 quarters the student went through the intervention. And then the 4th quarter grades were the post-condition. The first study was controlled, meaning some children participated, some didn’t.
The second and third study were randomized controlled. Some of the volunteers (teachers) were randomized into either the control or the intervention condition.
Randomization is considered the gold standard in research, you have more faith in those results, because the teachers didn’t pick to do it, or not do it. They all picked that they wanted to do it, and were then randomized. It avoids self selection bias.
You had an interesting article in Mindful magazine, about the programs that were created to combat bullying in schools. But you explain that these programs were intellectual understanding of bullying. There was a gap between knowing and doing with regards to bullying.
Yes, that’s the thing about listening to a lecture, going to the seminar, or reading the book. We all want to “know” to “check the box”, but with mindfulness, you don’t know it or embody it, until you practice it.
Many studies have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness have greater sense of self of self awareness, greater sense of resilience, and greater sense of compassion. Those are all well documented outcomes.
If you consider
The bullying triad: the Bully, the victim, and bystander, or witness.
If all children practice mindful awareness, here’s what happens to these three parties.
The victim (suffer in silence, they don’t feel they deserve help)
Mindfulness helps these children become more resilient.
Which means, they’re more likely ask for help
Less likely to become a target.
These things alone will shift the dynamic.
They start to become aware from a deep and profound level who they are, and understand their gift.
They start acting differently, no longer the easy target, they are not their story anymore
90% think bullying think it’s wrong and that they would intervene.
Only 11% actually do intervene.
So it’s a fight flight response, they don’t want to get bullied, they get nervous, they don’t know what to do in that situation. When push comes to shove, they don’t know what to do.
But with mindfulness there is tons of research that people/kids become more compassionate. This part of the brain becomes more active.
They start to act more compassionately, even with people they don’t know. You end up with bystanders that are much more inclined to engage to help, they have this growing sense of compassion.
They’re more wiling to touch base with the victim, if anything give a word of support to the victim or report it, or get someone else to help.
An enlargement of self idea is going on here too right, with the bystander not just thinking of themselves any longer?
When kids practice mindfulness on a regular basis, they shift. You can see it. The kids become more engaged with each other.
All of the people in the triad, are developing all these skills. The bystanders are also becoming more resilient, more willing to not let situations put them down.
Bully’s have all kinds of complicated situations in their backgrounds, that propel them into this role to begin with.
The practice foundation is awareness.
The bully’s are so disconnected from the actions they’re causing, especially with online cyber bullying.
A developing sense of awareness of their own actions are bound to connect them at a different level with their victim.
They’ll be able to understand, my actions have a consequence, they can tune into that more.
As a result of the mindfulness practice, we’ve seen the number of bullying incidences go down.
When I was at GE, the team of adults had bullying going on as well. This cat fighting and backstabbing. Not unusual in a corporate environment.
However, what ended up happening after this mindful practice, it all changed, cohesive, highly loyal team. The team became loyal, the “dream team”. The team was so much changed after the mindfulness practice.
And we see that in the classrooms, the teams become this connected, cohesive unit.
Wonderful. Especially now, this is so relevant, with these school shootings. I can see how mindfulness programs in school would also have a beneficial effect on school shootings. School shootings, the perpetrators feel alienated and disconnected, and so they seek attention in a very negative way. I can see how mindful programs would de-escalate would make them feel more connected, rather than less connected.
Yeah, I have a story about that. Here in Florida, we have an after school program for girls at-risk, Girls Inc. They inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through enrichment programming like finance, business, leadership. The idea is to give these girls a chance at a better life.
There was one girl who’d been going for some 5 years, a girl who was so difficult. She was violent, mean, she stole, was angry, and unhelpful. Literally the antithesis of what they were trying to promote as an organization. But they wouldn’t give up on a child. So the staff had meetings every 2/3 weeks for 5 years, to figure out a new plan to try to reach this girl. They’d been trying everything to help her. This girl has a traumatic life, both parents in jail, lives with aunt in a chaotic household, health issues, diabetic, a challenged girl in many ways.
One morning after 8 weeks of the running a daily mindfulness program, this girl was voted unanimously “Girl of the month”. And the Executive Director read through the comments, from the students and staff, she couldn’t believe what she was reading. They said this girl was “helpful, kind, goes out of her way, caring, team player” etc. It’s as if she found herself for the first time, at just 12 years old.
Children from really challenging environments don’t know how to process what is happening to them. They don’t have the tools, and don’t know where to turn. Sometimes, the people who are supposed to be taking care of them are not able. The result is mental and physical health disorders, destructive and bullying behaviors, poor academic performance and often, engagement in the juvenile justice system.
So when you give them the chance to dig deeply, into whatever their essence is. Most often what’s there is really good. They just have to tap into that, and start to trust what’s there.
They then emerge from this beautiful amazing place, and they’re unstoppable. These former bully’s become these forces of good, positive momentum. We see this all the time.
That’s amazing, the transformation of a bully into a force for good!
Yes, it’s the regular practice that’s so important. Once they get that habit, it’s fantastic, and they love it. But it takes a little time to develop this practice.
How much time is involved?
We have a sense. Broadly, the littler kids the pre-KK, elementary. Within a week, week-and-a-half the kids are used to it. Teacher just hits the button and go. It’s also easier to fit it in those age-ranges, because the kids are in the same room usually throughout the day. The teacher can fit it in easier.
In the older grades, middle and high school, it’s a bit more challenging, because the courses are typically 45 minutes, so harder to fit in 10 minutes. But it can be fit into the study hour or home room type thing. The other thing is that with those ages, it takes a little longer before the pre teens and teens get the sense that this is helping them. They don’t immediately feel a difference, so they question it. So it might take 3 weeks or so.
So we guide the teachers to not give up, even if there’s push back initially.
Most students who get deeply engaged in it, do so because they really can feel a profound difference.
And if they did it in earlier grades, then the transition must be even smoother? Yes.
Do they continue to practice mindfulness once they leave school?
Yes, we know that 40-50% of the students bring their mindfulness practices home and teach someone in their household. They can see the stress that their families are under, not just families in poverty. All families have lots of stress. So they bring it home to teach their siblings and parents. So they have lots of students ask Laura and Janice if they could make an at-home program for the people in the households.
Ideally, we try to give them the skills and the tools through the Inner Explorer program. Our program is nice and easy, it’s guided. But they also mention in the program that, “Hey you can do this at home!” Try this at home. Because not everyone needs or wants the guidance, or guided meditation. They don’t need the guidance once they’re experienced with mindfulness. Some just want to sit at home, and do some of the practices at home. We’d love for every child to do these practices at home. The world would change.
Where do you see this mindfulness in schools development 5-10 years from now? With all the recent gun violence and other violence, folks talk all about controlling violence, and mental institutions, however, I think what your doing is much better, taking care of the root problem, rather than treating the symptoms.
What would be fantastic for us, would be to have the awareness, educators and parents need to be aware. Programs like ours and others are very cost effective, easy to implement, and can literally transform classrooms and schools today! We ought to be doing this everywhere.
There’s no reason why every school shouldn’t run a program like this.
It’s not just the academic and behavioral improvements. But there’s also health and well-being improvements. They reduce depression, anxiety, all kinds of mental health issues. This has been documented.
1 in 5 kids has a mental health disorder that inhibits their ability to succeed in school. Kids today report so much stress, which is linked to other disease states and immune system dysfunctions. This stuff is simple, and yet, I don’t know what we’re all waiting for.
We’re trying to reach 1 million children by 2019. There’s 55 million kids in this country. We’ve served close to 15.000 children so far that are practicing mindfulness every day. We’re not doing it fast enough. It’s all about funding and all. But we’re working on it.
I think it just needs to hit critical mass, and it will go quickly.
Exactly, we’re working on our systems, to make them easy to scale and robust. Streaming, and that the price point per classroom is low enough that it’s a strong value proposition for schools (The cost of the Inner Explorer program is now $100 per classroom for a one year license.* International rates differ). And that we’re ready when they’re ready.
Yes, it comes back to employers, saving sick leave and other costs by investing in a mindfulness program.
Yes, it is hard to get people to do this in the workplace as initiatives. So if we get these children to do mindfulness through school, we’ve improved the likelihood, that the habit will be developed and will be solid by the time they’re adults. And we wouldn’t even need a mindfulness workplace program for adults. Because it will already be done.
Yes, one generation should be able to do it.
Yes, that’s what we believe as well. It’s exciting work!