Mindfulness and a Calmer Approach to Life

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Ned Hallowell discusses mindfulness and resources for a calmer approach to life.

Episode 4: 25 Minutes to a Calmer Approach to Life

DR. HALLOWELL: Welcome to this episode of Distraction. Hi, I’m Dr. Ned Hallowell, your host of the show that explores our crazy, busy, distracted world and remedies, what to do about it. We’re lucky in that we have one of the world’s experts available to us today, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been at this for longer than I care to think, and really has brought mindfulness and mindfulness training to the United States and to the world. To physicians, to college students, to people of all ages and genders, and has proven the tremendous health benefits that go along with it. We’ll hear from Dr. Herbert Benson. Dr. Benson founded Harvard’s Mind-Body Medical Institute. His book, The Relaxation Response, triggered interest not only in mindfulness training, but in transcendental meditation, which was a huge movement back in the 60s and 70s.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn: Ever since I was a little kid, because of this family I grew up in, I was interested in why the arts spoke in a particular language and medium, and why the sciences spoke in a different language and medium.

DR. HALLOWELL: That was Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has pioneered mindfulness training in the United States. He’s based at the Center for Mindfulness and Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, but his real home is the world at large.


Dr. Kabat-Zinn: My working definition of mindfulness is that it’s awareness and it’s the awareness that arises systematically through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness, in some way, is really like a way of being, more than a series of techniques that you operationalize. We’re a ADD and an ADHD society and an ADD world, so to speak. I think we’re all suffering from it in some ways that are obvious and other ways that are not so obvious.

DR. HALLOWELL: How did you get started?

Dr. Kabat-Zinn: My father was a very accomplished scientist and my mother was a completely unknown, but extremely prolific painter. I could see, even as a small child, that these were different ways of knowing the world, but they didn’t really intersect very much. It was when I was a graduate student at MIT and went into science to try to understand, in my own mind, the nature of consciousness. I was studying molecular biology, what would now be called neuroscience.

That is the nature of the brain and the mind and consciousness. While I was at MIT, I heard this talk by an American zen master who had spent a lot of time in Japan and it just struck me in such a way that it changed the direction of my life. He was talking about meditative practices, that awareness, or whatever you want to call it. That’s how I got started.

Be Who You Already Are

DR. HALLOWELL: What would you say to the listeners to change the trajectory of their lives?

Dr. Kabat-Zinn: The core essence of it all is to be who you already are rather than get lost in who you are afraid you are or think you might be and want to be in the only moment we ever get, which is just this one. That’s easy to say, but it’s a non-trivial thing to actually engage in.

DR. HALLOWELL: If a listener’s saying, yes, I want to do that, what are the practices that he or she should learn?

Dr. Kabat-Zinn: First of all, just the fact that you’ve tuned into this podcast means that there’s something in you that’s resonating with the whole umbrella of distraction and self-distraction and the downsides of that. To trust those deep impulses, to want to reconnect with the essence of who we are, not turning it into an idea or a philosophy, but through exercises the muscles, so to speak, of wakefulness or of mindfulness or of heartfulness. There are thousands of different ways to do that, but they all really boil down to awareness.

DR. HALLOWELL: We’ll hear more from Jon Kabat-Zinn later. Following up on mindfulness, I was lucky enough to speak with an author by the name of Tzivia Gover. She has a wonderful book called Joy in Every Moment. She’s full ideas that can help us all in bringing us into an ability to cherish what we have. As a rabbi said, “Happiness is not having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.” Tzivia is quite an expert at doing that.


Conversation about Mindfulness with Tzivia Gover

Tzivia: We have this illusion that we’ll feel better if we’re distracted from our day to day life or our experience, but the truth of the matter is just the opposite. We need to find ways to, whether it be through taking a conscious breath or two or tuning into our five senses, to become mindful, to become present in our experience. When we do, I find, and the people I work with find, that there is literally joy and goodness all around.

DR. HALLOWELL: I don’t think anyone would disagree with what you’ve said, that we’re allowing ourselves to be rushed past what really matters in life. If someone says, “Okay, Tzivia, you’re right.” How do I do it?

Tzivia: What I would say to them is that it’s actually a matter of retraining our thinking so that all we’re doing, ultimately, is making subtle shifts, one moment at a time. For example, anywhere, anytime, one of the easiest ways to come back into the present moment is to just close your eyes for the length of time it takes to take one conscious breath in and one conscious breath out, and then open your eyes again. My book, Joy in Every Moment, is jam-packed with little tips and techniques. If you’re sitting around and you open up the book, there’ll be an idea for how you can do this, how you can come into the moment.

Four Smiles Exercise

This exercise I love, it’s called the four smiles exercise. Basically all you do is take a moment, let your mouth soften into a smile, then expand that smile for each of the next three breaths. First, expanding it so you feel your whole mouth, not just your lips, but your whole inner mouth soften and rise into a smile. Your forehead, your throat, and you keep feeling that smile expand until you feel it in your heart. That literally takes four breaths and you’re feeling a lot more buoyant.

Ten Wonderful Things

One of my favorites is the ten wonderful things, which basically is each day you end the day by making a list of ten wonderful things about the day that just passed. What that does is it helps you, once you get into this habit of doing it each day, is it helps you to tune in during the day to look for those ten things. They can be as simple as a color, a sound, a taste, and all these things can make it to your list at the end of the day.

This is a quote by Victor Frankl, it says, “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.”

We have to allow happiness to unfold in our lives. We need reminders all day long because there’s so much in our world that pushes us the other way, that pushes us into pessimism and hopelessness.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yes, yes. Let me just once again state the name of your book, Joy in Every Moment: Mindful Exercises for Waking to the Wonders of Ordinary Life. I can’t thank you enough for joining me on our podcast.

Tzivia: Thank you. It’s truly my pleasure.

A Chat with Dr. Herbert Benson about Mindfulness Training

DR. HALLOWELL: Maybe the grand master in the field, the one who really introduced orthodox medicine to the power of the mind-body relationship and mindfulness training is Dr. Herbert Benson. He doesn’t know it, but I knew him many years ago before I even went to medical school, when he was doing his pioneering work and upsetting people by talking about the relaxation response, which proved to be the single most pioneering book in the entire field. We’re really lucky to have Dr. Benson join us today.

Dr. Benson: People thought I was absolutely crazy. Went back to my reading of William James in college at Wesleyan. That people might be experiencing something that was universal. I was writing a paper, Does God Exist? and I settled for James.

Then I went to Harvard Medical School and learned about Canon’s fight or flight response. That was fundamental, too. Then I noticed in my patients, I went into hypertension after graduation, and noticed that they were having higher blood pressures when measured. Then I said, “What’s going on?” I went back to the school.

DR. HALLOWELL: You mean their blood pressure went up when their blood pressure was taken?

Dr. Benson: Yes. I could influence it by saying, “Uh oh,” or things like that. Then I went back to the medical school and set up an animal model of stress induced hypertension in monkeys using B.F. Skinner’s reward system. Some young people came to me and said, “Why are you fooling around with monkeys? Study us, we practice TM.” I said, “No way. That’d be the end of my career.” That’s how bad it was. Then I said, “Wait a minute, what’s going on?” These were days before human studies committees. and I didn’t have to worry, so I just did it, and there were the dramatic changes. I said, “Oh, there’s your life.”

DR. HALLOWELL: We’ll hear more from Dr. Benson in a moment. These days there are many, many people out there like Dr. Benson. When Dr. Benson started he was almost alone, but now there are many, many people doing incredibly creative, innovative work in the mind-body relationship in the relaxation response, helping us to practice the art of mindfulness and being calm.

One of my absolute favorites, I’m so glad we were able to reach him, is a man by the name of Alex Tew, who created this amazing app called Calm.

meditation app

Practice the Art of Mindfulness and Being Calm

Alex: I got into meditation when I was a teenager. I was going through a tough time at school with my exams, getting stressed out and was trying to find a way to really relax my mind and be able to focus better, so I could study more effectively. I had tried all sorts of different techniques, but mindfulness meditation really stood head and shoulders above the rest. It started my interest in it then and thought wouldn’t it be a great idea to actually put meditation content online, onto a website, so that people could access it really easily. Present it in a way that was more accessible for a mainstream audience, separated from perhaps the mysticism and religious aspects that is typically associated with it.

DR. HALLOWELL: Alex told us about his main reasons for creating the Calm app.

Alex: Bringing meditation to a mainstream audience, something that would bring positive value to the world, but also the science behind meditation has got really strong in the last five years. There’s an exponential increase in the number of studies concerning that on the whole, it’s a good thing to do. It helps people in many ways, whether it’s reducing anxiety or stress or increasing focus and creativity and general happiness. Secondly, the mobile revolution has happened and this is an ideal venue for bringing meditation to people because we have our phones with us at all times and we can do a meditation on the go.

DR. HALLOWELL: Alex said he’s gotten a lot of positive feedback from people using the app.

Alex: The response has been just tremendous really. We often hear the phrase that it’s changing lives. It’s not so much that the app is changing lives or Calm is changing lives, but it’s meditation, it’s opening a door to self-help that really works. The changing lives component is actually individuals changing their own lives and we’re just there to help them do that.

DR. HALLOWELL: Thanks to Alex for taking the time to speak with us. When my patients tell me they can’t meditate, I say, “Take your iPhone. Let’s download Calm,” and I meditate with them, right there on the spot. I love this app. It’s so important to take time to slow down in life.

What is the Relaxation Response?

Years ago, Dr. Benson coined a term for a person’s ability to get into the moment, slow down, and focus. He called it the “relaxation response”. His book by that name was a breakthrough best seller, really introducing the general public to the world of relaxation. What is the relaxation response, for the lay listener?

Dr. Benson: We all know what happens to us when we’re under stress. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, you get anxious. That’s called the stress response or the fight or flight response. We have within us an exactly opposite response where your blood pressure goes down, your heart rate goes down, and you feel at peace. That’s called the relaxation response. There are scores of ways to bring it about. They’ve been going on for many thousands of years, whether it be yoga or meditation, tai chi, repetitive prayer that have a repetition and you disregard the other thoughts when they come to mind. Then what happens is an opposite bodily reaction opposite to the stress response, which is the relaxation response.

DR. HALLOWELL: Would you say those are the two key elements, repetition and disregarding intrusive thoughts?

Dr. Benson: Other thoughts when they come to mind. The essence of those two steps is to break the train of everyday thinking.

DR. HALLOWELL: Okay, so now we’ve learned what mindfulness is and the many benefits that it can confer upon us. How do you actually do it? What’s the nuts and bolts? Coming up after the break we’ll explore some other ways people are becoming more mindful, more adept at the ancient practice of meditation and mindfulness. We’ll be back in a moment.

Dr. Hallowell Recommends Resources for People with Attention Deficit Disorder

There’s this wonderful new show, Attention Talk Radio, and it’s basically your ADHD information station. They have weekly interviews with ADHD experts like my friend, Dr. John Ratey and a host of others. Jeff Copper is the regular host of the show, but my friend, Caroline Maguire, wonderful coach and expert, guest hosts from time to time. I was on it myself way back in 2014 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of John Ratey’s and my book, Driven to Distraction, which was published in 1994. If you want to catch the latest episode, just go to attentiontalkradio.com, or search for Attention Talk Radio in iTunes.

Adult Coloring Books are a New Trend in Mindfulness

adult coloring book

We’re back. How do you become more aware and more mindful? Aside from breathing techniques and meditation, which we’ve been talking about, there is a new trend in mindfulness that has caught our attention that you could spend all afternoon and never think of. Adult coloring books, can you believe that?

Roxanne: We could not keep them in stock. We sold hundreds, if not thousands.

DR. HALLOWELL: That was Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers.

Roxanne: The biggest ones are the ones by a woman by the name of Johanna Basford, B-A-S-F-O-R-D. They’re The Enchanted Forest, The Secret Garden, and The Lost Ocean. I think she had self-published them and they went berserk. There seems to be no stopping it. Here’s what I think the coloring books do, and when I look at them I can even see it. Meditation is about clearing your brain and my guess is that the coloring books are both playful and meditative. Because what you’re focusing on is are you staying in the lines and what color should you use, so I get it. We see it in our sales of mindful books or meditation books or Eastern thought books. I think what it represents is what people are searching for.

DR. HALLOWELL: Roxanne definitely has her finger on the pulse of the book world. It turns out the designs that are in those coloring book actually help you enter into a meditative state as you are working on them. Imagine that. Remember when you were a little kid coloring? Remember how you’d really get into it? I can see kids right now on my floor in my living room coloring and they’re so into it. The same thing can happen to you as an adult, the same kind of concentrated, mindful, meditative state. Once again, the coloring book can draw you in. Let’s hear once again on this from Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn: There are lots of different ways to cultivate this kind of practice. Reading books and getting a hold of guided meditation CDs, iPhone apps, and so forth. There are thousands of ways to access this kind of stuff now that didn’t exist 30, 40 years ago. You learn how to be aware without being completely and continually caught up in thought. To find this equanimity in oneself, is to be the sky rather than the turbulence that goes on in the weather patterns of the sky. It’s not like you have to get someplace else. You’re already free of some of the most difficult and painful aspects of your own experience.

Getting Caught Up in Yarnbombing

DR. HALLOWELL: Just like coloring, knitting can draw you into a meditative state. Rather than going and interviewing knitters, we found something totally unique. It’s called yarnbombing. Now, people are not bombing cities with yarn. It wouldn’t be very explosive. Instead, they’re wrapping yarn around just about everything. Bike racks, light poles, cars, buses, totally covered with designs of yarn. We actually found one yarn bomber to talk about the why’s and the how’s of this unique meditative practice.

Jessie: My name is Jessie Hemmons. I actually learned how to crochet when I was a juvenile delinquent, I guess to call it. I was in a juvenile boot camp and found a book called Yarnbombing. The next day I put out my first yarn bomb. I was so scared to put it out. It was really an exhilarating moment. I was prepared with excuses if anybody stopped me. Then the local paper picked it up and started to investigate and found out who I was.

DR. HALLOWELL: One of Jessie’s targets was the famous Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Jessie: The Rocky statue’s a bit of a contentious statue in Philadelphia for the residents. People will be waiting in line for blocks to get their picture with Rocky. I noticed that, so I thought it’d be funny to just put a sweater on him that said go see the art.

DR. HALLOWELL: She said she wants to help people pay more attention to what’s around them. Instead of just taking for granted and thinking they see it, to really stop and see it.

Jessie: I think that’s the most important thing is that I think especially in heavily populated areas like this, and in the Northeast in particular, where everybody’s in a rush to get somewhere, really take advantage of the environment. We don’t pay attention to it. We’re mindlessly going through the motions. A lot of the reason why I use really bright knitting in particular is they jolt people out of that and get them to just be present for a moment.

DR. HALLOWELL: My thanks to Jessie Hemmons. You can find her work at ishknits.com. We’ll also put her link on our Facebook page, Yarnbombing. Can you believe that? It’s just a testament to the human imagination.

Closing Statements

I hope you’ve been intrigued by our show on mindfulness. It’s such a wonderfully diverse topic and one that really deserves the widest possible application. Can you believe yarnbombing? Or adult coloring books? Not to mention the wisdom of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Herbert Benson. This world of mindfulness is so readily accessible. It’s free and it’s tapping into a capacity that we all have if we’ll only use it. Please, as usual, if you have a question, a comment, or a show idea, call us at 844-55-connect. Or email us directly at [email protected]. Please also subscribe to our show on iTunes and leave a review. It helps us with ratings, which as you know, we have to achieve in order to continue the show. Distraction is produced by Collisions, the podcast division of CRN International. Collisions, podcasts for curious people.

Earlier in the show we spoke with the inventor of the Calm app, Alex Tew, so we thought we’d leave you with some sounds from that app to close out the show. As we fade out, you’ll hear the sound that you can download on your iPhone. It’s a marvelous way of drifting into mindful wandering.

Speaker 8: Allow your eyes to close and bring your palms to rest on your thighs. Begin to consciously notice your back. Sense where you feel contact between your back and the chair or cushion. Let your shoulders relax. Focus now on your chest and heart area, noticing any sensations there. Letting any tension begin to melt away.

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “25 Minutes to a Calmer Approach to Life”. Distraction is available on iTunes.


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