The Mindfulness Solution with Dr. Ron Siegel
Podcast #60 — Aired May 7, 2015

What if a few simple practices could help improve your well-being? This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re discussing The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. Our guest is author Dr. Ronald Siegel. Siegel will explain how mindfulness can help improve lives and will walk listeners through several meditations to help them get started.

 

 

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Dr. Ronald Siegel
Author, The Mindfulness Solution

Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Part Time, at Harvard Medical School, where he has taught for over 30 years. He is a long-time student of mindfulness meditation and serves on the board of directors and faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Dr. Siegel teaches internationally about mindfulness and psychotherapy and mind–body treatment, has worked for many years in community mental health with inner-city children and families, and maintains a private practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He is the coauthor of Back Sense: A Revolutionary Approach to Halting the Cycle of Chronic Back Pain, coeditor of the acclaimed books for professionals, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy and Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy: Deepening Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, and coauthor of the new professional text, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
This week on BetterWorldians Radio we're talking with Dr. Ronald Siegel about his book The Mindfulness Solution. Dr. Siegel is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, where he has taught for over 30 years. He is a long-time student of mindfulness meditation and serves on the board of directors and faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Dr. Siegel teaches internationally about mindfulness and psychotherapy as well as mind-body treatment and he has worked for many years in community mental health. Dr. Siegel maintains a private practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Hi, Dr. Siegel. Welcome to BetterWorldians Radio.

Ron Siegel
Hi. It's great to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Raymond Hansell
Oh, you're very welcome. I would like to start off for our listeners with the obvious first question, so tell us a little bit about mindfulness.

Ron Siegel
Well, mindfulness is actually a word for a certain kind of attitude toward our experience. And phrased most simply, it's about having an attitude of being aware of what's happening in the present moment and being able to accept whatever is happening in the present moment. And that actually probably sounds very easy when I say it initially. Like, oh yeah, I can be aware of my present experience and accept it. But what we find when we start doing mindfulness practices, which are exercises that are designed to help us cultivate this kind of present, focused awareness, is that it's actually somewhat more challenging than it seems at first even though all of us in our ordinary lives have moments of mindfulness in which we're quite present and quite focused and quite accepting of what's occurring.

Raymond Hansell
Now how did you first become interested in this mindfulness?

Ron Siegel
Well, mindfulness practices have shown up cross-culturally in many, many forms, and virtually all of the world's religious traditions as well as philosophic traditions have practices or aspects of them that are designed to cultivate mindfulness, and I first got involved in these as really a kid. It was in high school and then in college where I started becoming interested in psychology and started becoming interested in various technologies that were designed to change our states of consciousness, particularly to change how we related to everyday ups and downs of life, and hit upon certain meditation practices. The ones that my door in was through practices that came from Buddhist meditation tradition, but there's nothing about mindfulness practice that means you have to become a Buddhist per se. It's rather an attitude toward our experience that can help us to be happier, more fulfilled, more engaged in whatever activity we happen to be doing from whatever philosophical or religious vantage point we might be approaching that activity. What I learned as a young person and carries through to this day is that these practices allow us to actually taste our food when we eat, to notice trees and flowers, to do the proverbial smelling of the coffee, or tasting of the coffee and smelling of the roses, and make life just much richer. What we've learned subsequently, which I didn't really know about when I was a kid taking these up and actually has only gotten investigated and elucidated more in recent years, is that these mindfulness practices turn out to be extraordinarily useful for a wide range of things that ail us psychologically - for dealing with anxiety, for dealing with depression, for dealing with interpersonal challenges, even for dealing with the challenges of aging and illness that are inevitable for all of us.

Raymond Hansell
Now you began this practice in the 1980s and at that time it didn't seem like the mental health professionals were that interested. How has that changed over time?

Ron Siegel
Well that's been a really fascinating voyage. I remember - and I've actually been doing the mindfulness practice, I'm a little bit of an old guy so I was doing them in the '70s, but then I did my professional training and I became a clinical psychologist in the late '70s and the early '80s - and I remember in those early days, I actually had found other people who had been involved in these kinds of meditative pursuits who were - there was a group of us that started meeting back then in and around Harvard Medical School. Most of us were either trainees or some people were on faculty. And back in those days, we stayed very much under the radar. We didn't talk about it in supervisory meetings, we didn't talk about it at conferences, because in those days, in the bus in air (ph)07:36 in particular, the psychological community was very psychoanalytic in orientation and none of us wanted to be accused of having unresolved infantile longings to return to a state of oceanic oneness which was really how Freud and the whole psychoanalytic community back in those days viewed meditation practices.

Raymond Hansell
M-hmm.

Ron Siegel
And then times changed and actually the mental health field became less psychoanalytic and much more interested in either biological psychiatry or empirically supported treatments, meaning psychotherapies that have been shown through research to be effective, and then we didn't talk about our mindfulness practices because we didn't want to be seen as religious mystics in the age of science. Starting in the mid-1990s, a real sea change occurred and it occurred on a few different fronts. It occurred with the development of something called dialectical behavior therapy, which was one of the first therapies to be shown experimentally to really help people who are very emotionally disregulated, folks who would have - it's not the same as bipolar disorder exactly but who would have very strong emotional responses interpersonally, would get themselves in trouble with that. And somebody by the name of Marsha Linehan discovered that by combining techniques from cognitive behavior therapy, which helps people to observe and notice their thought patterns, along with mindfulness practices, people could learn to tolerate much more intensive feeling states without feeling compelled to act upon them. This started opening the doors within the mental health professions to mindfulness practices. The other thing that happened was somebody named Jon Kabat-Zinn, who some of your listeners may know because he's done so much to integrate mindfulness practice into medicine, he developed something that became mindfulness-based stress reduction which was a series of programs to help individuals to deal with what we call psycho-physiological or stress-related medical disorders; basically the vast array of disorders that are either caused by or are made worse by being chronically tense. And as those became doorways into this, increasingly, mental health practitioners started to become interested in it. And if you were to go nowadays the last couple of years to the ABCT, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, which is the annual meeting in which the - it's mostly people who are professors or students in clinical psychology graduate programs who are really focused on developing psychotherapeutic interventions that work, psychotherapeutic interventions that are science-based, the majority of presentations are now on mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. This has gone from being quite peripheral to being quite mainstream in modern mental health.

Raymond Hansell
How about that? How about that? Now you write in your book The Mindfulness Solution that your kids, your children, sometimes point out that you don't always live in the moment. But you say that if you don't actively practice mindfulness, you spend your life a lot more distressed. Please tell us a little bit more about that.

Ron Siegel
Well, two of my greatest meditation teachers - and again, I've been at this since I was a kid myself - but two of my greatest meditation teachers have been my twin daughters who are now adults. But when they were kids, particularly when they were adolescents, indeed we would be in a situation like running late for the dentist and I would start to talk to them in what they came to affectionately call that voice and one of them would invariably pipe up and say, hey Dad, haven't you written whole books about basically being in the moment? You know, don't you go around the world in essence teaching people how to let go of things you can't control and focus on those that you can or go with the flow? I'm proud to say that I never once responded in a way that got me reported to the Department of Protective Services. Now they are much older, you know, they're adults, and they are actually both involved in the sciences, one in the natural sciences and one in the social sciences, and we can have very sophisticated conversations about this because I can point out to them that their critique about my parenting is accurate but we don't have a control group. We have no idea what kind of parenting they would have been subjected to had it not been for that. I'm convinced it would have been a whole lot worse than that. I'm being playful here. I don't actually think I'm a bad parent or have been a bad parent. But the number of moments in life in which we have the option to either respond wisely, which really means being in the present, having a sense of the consequences of our actions in the near term and the distant term, and the consequences of our actions for those near and far from us, and have the capacity to not be acting out of some kind of self-focused desire. I don't want to feel humiliated by my kids, I don't want to look badly in the eyes of others, I don't want to feel impotent; all of the different things that cause us so often to act impulsively and unskilfully. Mindfulness practice really helps us to do that less. There is data for this. And I have also clearly seen it in my own life that when I am doing more mindfulness practice, when I'm doing some of the meditation practices that help us to learn this, I act more wisely. I am less likely to act impulsively. I am less likely to act out of some kind of self esteem concerns, and more likely to do what the situation calls for.

Raymond Hansell
Well we have twin daughters ourselves and they frequently have pointed out some of the issues that you pointed out, that your twins have pointed out to you, so I can really relate. They are now grown. And of course one of the nice things I can say to them is well, now you have kids, let's talk about that now.

Ron Siegel
Well maybe our kids could form a support group.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah. That would be something. We'll have them get in touch with one another. Now you have a colleague who refers to mindfulness as single tasking. Now that's going against the culture. What does that mean?

Ron Siegel
Well, you know, a lot of people pride themselves on their ability to multitask. They say - I remember when my kids were young they were big into this - oh, I have no problem at all doing my homework while simultaneously - back in those days it was called instant messaging but basically texting - while simultaneously texting, listening to music and watching a YouTube video out of the corner of my eye. But what cognitive scientists tell us is that actually none of us have that capacity. That attention is like a pie and if I divide my attention between two different endeavors, each one is going to get 50% of my attention; four endeavors, each one is going to get 25%. This is why it was somewhat horrifying - I remember the state of Massachusetts where I live was one of the earliest states to enact a law saying no texting while driving as though it could conceivably be a sensible thing to text while driving. So one way to think of mindfulness is being aware of our present experience is to drop the pretence of multitasking and to do one thing at a time. Indeed, when we're doing mindfulness practices which are either formal or informal meditation practices, what we're doing is repeatedly bringing our attention to something in particular. Over and over when our mind wanders to other things, coming back to the original object of attention and training the mind to single task.

Raymond Hansell
Single task.

Ron Siegel
This is important because if we step back and we think of the moments in our lives that are meaningful, we realize that the moments in our life that are meaningful are typically those in which we show up for the experience.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah.

Ron Siegel
I ask you or your audience members to think of some event or experience that you think that mattered. I was really glad that I was there at that moment. Go ahead.

Raymond Hansell
I was just going to say that one of the famous lines from one of the Woody Allen movies, I think it was Annie Hall, is when he is quoted as saying 80% of life is just showing up.

Ron Siegel
Yeah. It's quite true.

Raymond Hansell
I think when you are cognizant of really what's going on at the moment, I think you're more likely to be there in that moment and to really experience the richness of that as opposed to, gee, I just walked past that and it's over.

Ron Siegel
Right. Absolutely. When people reflect on this, on the meaningful moments, it's often things like the birth of a child or a wedding or even watching a particular sunset or maybe tasting some food. And when those moments are meaningful, they are almost always times when we've brought our attention to them fully, when we're actually present for the experience. There's a wonderful - I know that you do programs on positive psychology and wellbeing and your listeners may have heard this from others - but there's a wonderful study done by a graduate student named Matthew Killingsworth who was here at Harvard at Dan Gilbert's lab - Dan Gilbert's the guy who wrote Stumbling on Happiness - and he's written a lot about the fallacies, the sort of things we do foolishly that we think are going to bring happiness that don't actually work out that way. In his study, what Killingsworth did was he created a Smartphone app that would page people periodically throughout the day. It would ask them three things - what are you doing, where is your attention at the moment, and how are you feeling?

Raymond Hansell
Right.

Ron Siegel
It turned out that the best predictor of wellbeing had nothing to do with what people were doing; it was where their attention was.

Raymond Hansell
Where their attention was.

Ron Siegel
And if their attention was on the task of the present moment, they felt fulfilled. If it was elsewhere, they didn't.

Raymond Hansell
We appreciate that but unfortunately we have to turn our attention just for now to a short break. But I can't wait to come back because we really want to hear more and more about this. This is very exciting work. So just a thought for our listeners - beginning in June, you can also go to BetterWorldiansRadio.com to hear the new episodes. You can also browse our dozens of past shows featuring many inspiring BetterWorldians. MarySue will be back to talk more with Ronald Siegel in just a moment.

Mr. Rogers
Hi, neighbor.

Raymond Hansell
You're listening to BetterWorldians Radio. We're speaking right now with Dr. Ronald Siegel, author of The Mindfulness Solution. I'm going to pick up where we left off on a conversation about a Smartphone application study that was done and I'll have MarySue take it from here. So let's welcome back Ron and MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Hi, Ron.

Ron Siegel
Thanks.

MarySue Hansell
I'm very anxious to hear about the Smartphone study, hear a little bit more about that.

Ron Siegel
Okay. So they paged people at random intervals throughout the day and asked them what are you feeling, what are you doing, and where was your attention at the moment that the pager went off? The finding was that - well first they said that peoples' attention was wandering about 47% of the time. I think that's a very low estimate because one of the things that happens is when we take up mindfulness, people who have done more mindfulness practice rate their minds as wandering far more than people who have done less mindfulness practice. In other words, practicing being aware of present experience with attention helps you to notice when you're not being aware of present experience with acceptance - sorry, I meant with acceptance before. The upshot of the study though was that if they paged somebody and they would say eating a gourmet meal, or for that matter making love, and their attention was somewhere else, they tended to be far less satisfied than if they were say washing the dishes but really present for washing the dishes. So this idea of single tasking which comes down to having our attention be on the thing we're doing here and now in the present turns out to be a tremendous predictor of wellbeing.

MarySue Hansell
Well that's very interesting. I think people want to know how they can get started with the mindfulness practice. Can you tell us? What would you recommend?

Ron Siegel
Well there are different avenues in.

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Ron Siegel
They are basically what we call formal and informal practices. The formal practices are known generally as meditation practices, and there are literally thousands of different kinds of meditation practices that do this and they tend to have two different components to it. The first component is something that involves developing concentration, and that means picking an object of awareness. Let's use an example that's often used, the sensations of the breath, and simply bringing one's attention to the sensations of the breath, and every time the mind wanders elsewhere, bringing our attention back again. I don't know the format of your show but we could even do a few minutes of this together.

MarySue Hansell
Yes. I would love to have people know how to do that.

Ron Siegel
Okay. And then I can give you resources for learning it more deeply. And that develops a bit of concentration. And then once a sufficient amount of concentration develops, then we kind of open up the field of awareness to whatever may be coming up or predominating in consciousness. But for getting started, most people are going to get started by doing some kind of formal practice where you pay attention to something, and when the mind wanders, you bring it back. Shall we do a few moments right now?

MarySue Hansell
Sure. Why not?

Ron Siegel
Okay. So this can be done with the eyes open or the eyes closed. If you're listening to this in a car, please don't do it with your eyes closed. If you're listening to this and you're in a place where you can close your eyes, we can start with that, we can try it that way, and try to find a comfortable posture in which your spine is more or less straight up and down, it doesn't have to be rigid. You just want to be alert and dignified so that you can - as though you're sitting up to pay attention. And allow the eyes to close and just feel what's happening in the body. And you'll notice that the breath is already happening by itself. We don't have to with an active will make the breath happen. It's just happening automatically. And what we're going to do is bring our attention to the sensations of the breath as a way to anchor our attention in the present moment. And you can pay attention to the breath wherever it's easiest to feel. That might be the rising and falling sensations in the belly with each inhalation and exhalation or maybe even the sensation at the tip of the nose where the air enters a little bit cool, leaves a little warmer. Wherever you notice it, just bring your attention to that. Again, if you're driving, perhaps bring your attention instead to the sights and sounds of the road.

MarySue Hansell
Very relaxing.

Ron Siegel
Yeah. It often is relaxing. And all we're going to do is continue doing this for a few moments. We won't do it too long right now but I'll give you resources for this.

MarySue Hansell
Sure.

Ron Siegel
You may notice, because it's what the mind does, that thoughts will enter the mind. That's okay. They are our friends. We're just going to allow the thoughts to come and go like clouds passing through the sky. We're not going to follow them or solve any problems. We're going to let them be in the background while the foreground is the sensations of the breath. So I'll be silent for a moment just so you can practice this.

MarySue Hansell
Well that feels lovely. How long would you recommend people do this when they're not listening?

Ron Siegel
Well it depends on how much time you've got frankly. One place to - we'll mention this again - but one place to get some guided meditations that you can listen to in recorded fashion is www.mindfulness-solution.com. So mindfulness and the dash sign solution dot com. And there, this one is called the breath awareness practice, and I would say the recorded version there is about 25 minutes long.

MarySue Hansell
Yes.

Ron Siegel
But you wouldn't have to do it for 25 minutes. You can try it for five minutes.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah. Whatever time you have I guess.

Ron Siegel
But as one develops experience with this, you learn how to do it for longer and longer periods. And the other thing that you learn is that different objects of awareness tend to have different effects so that you could do this following the breath as we just did, or you can do it just listening to the sounds of the room or the sounds of nature, or you could do it paying attention to the sensations of contact with the chair and the floor. There are many different objects of awareness and there are other forms like walking meditation in which we're pretty much doing the same thing only bringing our attention to the sensations of the feet touching the ground and moving through space. Each of these has different uses for it. One of the things that is detailed throughout The Mindfulness Solution book is when you would use which practices for what kind of problems, because if somebody's really keyed up and anxious for example, sitting and following the breath might be tough. That could be difficult. We know this. When somebody's anxious, oh let's say they're waiting outside the operating room to hear about what happened to a loved one, people tend to pace. That helps us to be a little less keyed up in the moment, so walking meditation might be easier. Or if we're sleepy, walking or standing meditation might be easier. Whereas, at other times, sitting meditation or being with the breath might be more appropriate. There are literally thousands of these different practices. Each one has a slightly different effect on the heart and on the mind.

MarySue Hansell
It's very interesting. I don't think a lot of people realize that walking can be a meditation. People have the vision of a guru sitting there breathing, but actually the walking meditation can be very relaxing looking, as you mentioned, at trees and listening to sounds and things like that.

Ron Siegel
And that brings us really to the distinction between formal and informal practice.

MarySue Hansell
Uh-huh.

Ron Siegel
Formal practice - it's easiest to understand this if we think of an analogy with physical fitness.

MarySue Hansell
Yes.

Ron Siegel
If I wanted to become physically fit but I didn't have a lot of free time or resources to put into it, I could develop some fitness by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, by walking somewhere instead of moving my car, and indeed I would develop some fitness doing that. If I wanted to move it to the next level, I would have to take some time out of my day and go to the gym or perhaps go deliberately for a vigorous bike ride or vigorous walk or go jogging. And if I really wanted to get good at this, I might want to take some time out and go have my next vacation be dedicated toward a fitness oriented activity.

MarySue Hansell
M-hmm.

Ron Siegel
You know, hiking from hut to hut, going to an exercise-oriented spa, something like that. And in the same way, there are informal mindfulness practices that we can do during the course of daily activity, and these are things like walking and simply bringing our attention when we're walking from the car to the house or anyplace else to simply bring our attention to the sensations of the feet touching the ground step by step or pay attention to the sights and sounds of nature. There are things like shower meditation.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, that's a good one.

Ron Siegel
Yeah. Showers are potentially a very rich, sensual experience, right?

MarySue Hansell
Oh, yeah.

Ron Siegel
Many of your listeners probably live in the developed world where you've got hot and cold water and you can mix it. I like to think of it as the Goldilocks experience. Oh, that's a little too cold or that's a little too hot. Ah, that's just right.

MarySue Hansell
Right.

Ron Siegel
You know? And we're naked, our body is being caressed by thousands of droplets of the water that's at just the right temperature, and we are using often some kind of fragrant soap, and we're massaging everywhere including sensitive private parts of the body, and this is potentially a very rich, sensual experience and a real opportunity to be aware of present experience with acceptance, to step out of the relentless kind of thought stream about life and to be sensually present. But without deliberately deciding to be mindful in the shower, I find I'm perfectly capable of getting to the end of a shower and thinking did I wash my hair or was that yesterday?

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ron Siegel
Because my mind was actually completely lost in some kind of narrative thought stream. And this narrative thought stream that's going on all the time is basically either fantasies of the past, which we call memories, or fantasies of the future, which we might call planning or fantasizing. We may have different names for it but it's all about thinking, thinking, thinking about an imaginary world of the past or the future. And what mindfulness practices train us to do is to live in the actual world which is what's happening here and now. And something as simple as a shower can be a wonderful training opportunity and it doesn't take any extra time. It won't take you any longer to take a shower mindfully than it will to take a shower being lost in the thought stream, but you begin to train the mind to be a little bit more present, to live a little bit more richly and a little bit more fully.

MarySue Hansell
Wonderful. In reading your book, one thing I was surprised about is that you don't recommend people try to avoid experiences that upset them. I know there are some different theories on that, but I was very interested and I thought the listeners would be interested in hearing why you say you shouldn't avoid the sadness. Actually, you have meditations on your website about feeling sadness.

Ron Siegel
Well this is part of a general principle of how we get ourselves into trouble psychologically and what causes psychological distress. I'm trained as a clinical psychologist and there are many, many models for different kinds of psychological and psychiatric difficulties, but one thing that they all have in common - anxiety, depression, even things like substance abuse, even things like psychotic episodes - have in common this kind of automatic attempt to avoid uncomfortable experience.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ron Siegel
Let me walk you through this because I think this will be helpful because it's an excellent point that you bring up.

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Ron Siegel
Let's assume that many of the people listening drink alcohol. Many of you drink alcohol, at least occasionally or socially.

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Ron Siegel
Now why do we do that? Now some of us say, well, I do it exclusively for the taste. And, indeed, when I'm teaching in Mendocino County in California, everybody says I do it for the taste. But most of us do it because we like the way that alcohol helps to change one state of mind into another.

MarySue Hansell
Right.

Ron Siegel
We've had a hard day at work and we're feeling kind of tense and we think, oh, a glass of wine now or a beer would feel kind of nice, maybe before or with dinner. Or we're going to a party and there are going to be some people there we don't know, or perhaps worse, there are going to be people there who we do know and we have trouble with and we think, oh, you know, a drink would make this go more easily. And what we're really trying to do is avoid something uncomfortable, something painful. And while doing that occasionally is no harm done; people who do that habitually and who must have alcohol or another substance to get rid of painful feelings in order to get through life, well they have substance problems. Let's look at another area. Let's look at anxiety problems. If I get anxious before public speaking or before flying on airplanes but I speak publically and I fly on airplanes, I don't have an anxiety disorder. I'm just a nervous guy. If, however, I start avoiding airplanes because I don't want to feel the anxiety or avoiding public speaking because I don't want to feel the anxiety, then I'm on my way to an anxiety disorder. We all know this. We know this in ourselves and others, that once you start avoiding things in order not to feel anxious, your life narrows and it becomes more and more constricted. Most of us don't develop what's called full-blown agoraphobia where we're afraid to leave the house, but many of us limit our lives this way. If, on the other hand - one of the things that happens in mindfulness practice is let's say we're doing a sitting meditation and some discomfort arises, let's say it's an itch or an ache, what we do is we practice staying with the itch and the ache and actually turning our attention toward it rather than scratching the itch to get rid of it or getting up to make the ache go away. What we find is that these things come and go, that they have a natural wavelike form to them, and that not always but very often discomfort is a time limited thing. Once we learn that when we're doing our mindfulness practice, then we can start to extend it to the rest of our life. Let's say we start to feel anxious. Well we learn that we can actually turn our attention to the sensation of anxiety and ride the wave of anxiety. Or let's say we're having trouble after work and we feel the stress, we can turn our attention to the feeling of being stressed, not necessarily having the drink. I'm not going to advocate that nobody ever drink alcohol but it gives us some options here. Even in the case of something like depression we see this operating. I can ask you and your listeners to contemplate for a moment the difference in how it feels to be sad or to be depressed. Most of us have felt both to some degree.

MarySue Hansell
Sure.

Ron Siegel
And when I ask audiences about that, people will usually say, well, sadness feels like a feeling, there's something that feels kind of right about it, it feels kind of alive. We know what Shakespeare meant when he said parting is such sweet sorrow. In fact, folks sing the blues. Whereas depression feels kind of dead, kind of shut down, kind of hopeless, nothing tastes anymore, there's no joy in life. It's a kind of deadening of experience. So we find here that when people can learn to turn their attention - let's say something's happened and we're sad - when we can use mindfulness practice to pay attention to and simply feel the waves of sadness, we don't get depressed so much. We don't tend to shut down in the same way. I'm not saying here that some people don't have genetic predispositions toward depression - they do. There are biological factors of all sorts that can be involved here - that's true. So I'm not arguing with the rest of what we know in psychology and psychiatry, but simply pointing out that one aspect of the experience of depression is this kind of turning away from experience.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, we'd love to hear more about that. I know Ray is wanting us to go to a break now.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah. Unfortunately, we have to take another short break, but we'll be back to talk more with Dr. Siegel and Greg in just a moment. If you're a fan of BetterWorldians Radio, then you may want to check out our social enterprise, A Better World, whose mission is to make uplifting games and apps to brighten the world. Our goal there is of course everything we do is about having fun, doing good, and changing the world. So we're committed to creating awesome digital products designed with a purpose of making a difference in the world. So far, over 25 million good deeds have been done in that special social gaming world by more than 2.7 million people. You can join in and find out more at ABetterWorld.com. We'll be right back.

Oral Lee Brown
People said Miss Brown, you can't do everything. I said, no, but we need to do more.

Mr. Rogers
Hi, neighbor.

Raymond Hansell
We're back now with Dr. Ronald Siegel, author of The Mindfulness Solution.

Gregory Hansell
Hi, Dr. Siegel. This is Greg.

Ron Siegel
Hi.

Gregory Hansell
Well just before the break we were talking about the almost paradoxical seeming situation where paying attention to pain can actually help alleviate it. I was hoping you could speak more about that.

Ron Siegel
Yeah. We were just talking about how so many of our psychological problems, I had mentioned three of them - one was problems with substance abuse, problems with anxiety, and problems with depression - all involve this instinctual pulling away from what's uncomfortable. And what we wind up doing when we pull away from what's uncomfortable is we wind up multiplying our misery. We wind up actually with disorders or problems rather than in an uncomfortable state but an uncomfortable state that comes and goes. Because what gets things stuck in the mind and stuck in our spirits is when we start to fight against some kind of experience and then it is no longer so fluid. This is actually at the heart of why mindfulness practices are proving to be useful for treating such a wide range of disorders and why they are becoming part of mainstream scientifically supported psychotherapies. It's because this resisting of pain is such a central mechanism in how we get into trouble, mindfulness practice is really about turning our attention to whatever is happening in the moment. And if that's a joyous event or a pleasurable experience, we turn our attention to that and feel that fully. If it's a sad feeling, a frightened feeling, an angry feeling, we turn our attention to that fully. And when we allow ourselves to feel or experience richly and fully this way, it tends not to get stuck. The other way that mindfulness practice helps us not to get stuck is in the simple practice that we did earlier, of simply bringing our attention to the breath or another object of awareness, and when it drifts off into thought, we bring it back to some kind of sensory anchors, a sensory experience. What happens is we start to learn not to just live in our thoughts.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ron Siegel
Most of the time when we're walking around we're living in what we might think of as the thought stream. It's this narrative. It's these words passing through our minds narrated by and starring me - of course yours star you, mine star me - and we're living in these streams of thought and they are what are determining our reality. And, indeed, when we're distressed, we are not that often distressed about the here and now present moment. Yes, if you're in a war zone, you are. Yes, if you're starving, you are. But if you're not being threatened, you're distressed about your thoughts about the past and your thoughts about the future. Mindfulness practices, by gradually training the mind to be able to be with the reality of moment-to-moment sensory experience, help us not to believe in our thoughts so much and they turn out to be very therapeutic for that reason as well.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah. You know, I think it's so fascinating because it's so counterintuitive and it's so different than how most people live their everyday life.

Ron Siegel
Right.

Gregory Hansell
I mean, you're talking about multitasking, that's something that you see, you know, for example in your Facebook feed, a million articles about how you should do that all the time and then how to do a million things to be a good employer, employee, that kind of thing. And then also this idea that people have to kind of fully inhabit their experience rather than to dwell - rather than to push negative thoughts away, to really sort of let that pass through you. Even in my own life, I know when I've experienced grief over like a passing of a loved one, letting that flow through me rather than trying to push it out actually helped me recover from the grief.

Ron Siegel
Exactly.

Gregory Hansell
And it was an interesting lesson.

Ron Siegel
And in this sense, mindfulness practices are a little countercultural in that you turn on the TV and it says is anything at all uncomfortable? Well you should take a medicine to make it go away. You should buy this new consumer product to feel better. You should do something to fix it rather than learning that we can ride these things out. So many of these things that cause us - that are difficult for us, they transform by themselves if we don't run from them. But if we run from them, we can be stuck running forever.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah. Yeah. By the way, you reminded me when you were talking earlier about single tasking about one of my favorite books I've read, about Zen actually. There's a book called One Bird, One Stone. I don't know if you've read it.

Ron Siegel
I don't know that one in particular.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah. It's about when Zen came to America and how it took a long time to catch on because it's so counterintuitive to our lifestyle here. An American says something to a Zen master about killing two birds with one stone. He thinks for a second and he says, actually, in Zen, it is one bird and one stone.

Ron Siegel
Yeah. That's great. I like that very much.

Gregory Hansell
So thank you for reminding me of that. So I wanted to talk a little bit about mindfulness and parenting because I'm a parent myself, I have a newborn that's only about five months old and a 4-year-old, and I know how difficult it can be to be mindful as a parent. So tell us a little bit about that.

Ron Siegel
Well, you know, most of us know the basics of what works well for parenting. I spent a quarter of a century in child community mental health basically working with kids and families, and we mental health professionals always give variations on the same advice. Kids need firm and clear limits and they need love and support. You've got to try to balance those two. That is much easier to say in theory than to actually do because what happens is we as parents make millions of parenting mistakes. I have a friend, Trudy Goodman, who is a meditation teacher in the L.A. area who calls these parenting crimes. These are all the things that we've done as parents, and I'm not talking about the things that are actually abusive, but the things we've done that we think I can't believe I did that. Why was I screaming at my kid then? Why did I give my kid that lollipop then when I knew this is absolutely not the right time to do this and I was in essence positively reinforcing the bad behavior? And on and on and on. And almost always when we make these mistakes it's because we are acting impulsively and where there is some feeling that we're having difficulty tolerating. So I'm having difficulty seeing my kid distressed about not having a lollipop so I give my kid a lollipop even though I know that this is not wise. Or I'm having difficulty feeling humiliated that - let's pick a situation maybe you've encountered - that here I am, a grown adult, and I cannot get a 4-year-old child to do what everybody would agree this 4-year-old child really should be doing. And these moments of humiliation, these moments of powerlessness, these moments of shame that we have can be quite, quite strong as parents and very often our response to it isn't the most skilful. Sometimes we run away from the confrontation entirely and we become a relatively passive parent or one who gives in all the time or we overdo it and we start yelling at our kid or doing something like that.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah. Exactly.

Ron Siegel
Mindfulness practices allow us to take a breath. They allow there to be a little bit of a gap between feeling and action. And actually what we see through mindfulness practice is that all of our human reactions are part of a chain of events. It starts with a stimulus. Let's say, in the case of parenting, we've just seen our kid spill the cookie jar that our kid wasn't supposed to be in to begin with. So we have the visual sensory experience and then there's the feeling that arises of maybe shame or disappointment or thinking I'm not doing a very good job parenting because my kid is stealing cookies or whatever our particular interpretation is of this along with some kind of unpleasant feeling. And then immediately after the unpleasant feeling, we do something to try to make the unpleasant feeling go away. I'll yell at my kid or I'll grab the cookies or I'll do something. These things happen almost instantaneously. It goes from the cookie jar to the reaction. What we see when we slow things down with mindfulness practice, because we've spent time just being with an object of awareness like the breath and noticing thoughts and feelings coming, is we actually notice all of the different links in this chain and it gives us much more flexibility to decide what would the optimal response be to my kid right now. Why did my kid do this right now? Maybe my kid is upset because I was just paying all this attention to his baby brother or sister. I'm not voting here for when to use love and when to use limits. That's a complicated algorithm every parent has to try to solve moment by moment by moment. But at least if we don't do it impulsively and if we're not doing it because we can't bear the discomfort of whatever is going on, we are more likely to make skilful decisions.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah. I think that's great advice. I remember a month or so ago I was putting my daughter to sleep and it was story time right before bedtime and I asked her to pick out a book. She asked me to help her pick out a book and at first I got aggravated because sometimes the kids will want to just kind of delay the bedtime as much as possible and so I said, no, go ahead, pick out your own book. Then I said why can't I go help her? And I sat down with her and she turned around and she was surprised to find me kneeling there by her bookshelf and she turned and she kissed me. It was a really special moment. I'm like, you know, she just really wanted to spend that time with me to do this with me. I was glad I was mindful of what she was doing at that time. Now I know you also write that mindfulness can help break bad habits. How does that work?

Ron Siegel
Well we can loop back to that discussion of alcohol we were having a little bit before. Most of our bad habits are kind of like that. If let's say I'm headed for the fridge for too much chocolate cake, or I'm headed for the internet to buy yet another thing that I don't really need, or much more destructively, I'm tempted to have that affair because it would boost my self esteem, or on and on and on, or I'm tempted to gamble so that I could get that high of gambling, almost always what's happening is there is some state happening in the mind and body that we're experiencing as unpleasant, that we're trying to turn into a state that will be more pleasant. We feel compelled to do it. Of course the thing that we do may bring short-term pleasure, ooh, for that brief moment that I'm eating that chocolate cake I don't feel the least bit anxious or depressed.

Gregory Hansell
M-hmm.

Ron Siegel
But of course as soon as the plate is down to a few crumbs, there comes the old feeling rushing back in.

Gregory Hansell
Right.

Ron Siegel
Same with the alcohol, same with the gambling. Pick your poison. We all have our habits and our difficulties. What we learn through mindfulness practice is we learn to see what we are fixing through the bad habit. What we can learn how to do is the fellow who, sadly he passed away, but who developed a system for treating addictions based on mindfulness, and he calls this urge surfing, which is when the urge for the chocolate cake or the drink or the gambling or making the phone call that I shouldn't have or driving by the old girlfriend's house, there are so many variations on this.

Gregory Hansell
Right. Right.

Ron Siegel
When the urge comes up, we can actually feel the urge as a bodily event, a set of sensations happening right now, turn our attention to them, breath with them and ride them out the same way we would ride out an itch or an ache, to really develop this capacity to be with both pleasant and unpleasant experience. This isn't about, oh, let's make life miserable. It's about let's open to the totality of life through joys and the sorrows of life and learn that we can actually train the heart and the mind in the process for training the brain to be able to be fully open to all this experience. Because when we do that, then we don't feel compelled to do the habit behavior which is actually designed to get rid of some kind of discomfort.

Gregory Hansell
Now I hate to interrupt you. Unfortunately, I have to be mindful of this giant ticking clock that we actually have on the TV in the studio. But we have only one minute left, it's about 45 seconds actually, I wanted to ask you one question we ask every guest every week, which is how do you hope, in your case, your book The Mindfulness Solution can help make the world a better place? We have about 30 seconds.

Ron Siegel
Well I think that if people try on these principles themselves, and you've got to try it in the laboratory of your own mind, and you can find that you can be a better parent, be less prone toward indulging in habits that you know aren't very helpful, can appreciate the little things in life, and we didn't even talk about how this works interpersonally, but it helps us to really develop more wisdom and more compassion in dealing with other people, what each of us does in the laboratory of his own heart and mind is quite contagious and it tends to make us act in ways that are wiser and more compassionate. And if we could all do that, we would certainly all be living in a better world.

Raymond Hansell
That's a fantastic summary, and we fit it into 30 seconds, so thank you very much. You can find out more about Dr. Siegel's wonderful work by going to mindfulness-solution.com. Dr. Siegel, once again thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Ron Siegel
Thank you so much for having me.

Raymond Hansell
You're very, very welcome. I want to remind our listeners that beginning in June you can hear new episodes of BetterWorldians Radio by going to BetterWorldiansRadio.com. As we end our show each week, we would like to share our BetterWorldians mission here. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone by focusing on positive thinking, positive values, and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the very best and make everyone in the world a BetterWorldian so that we can all make it a better world. And so until next time, everybody, please be a BetterWorldian.