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Suggested Practices

The Evidence-Based Behaviors Found to Improve Wellbeing

In the book, I have referenced hundreds of epidemiological studies as well as the research from the fields of positive psychology, neuropsychology, mindfulness, psychooncology, and psychoneuroimmunology demonstrating the efficacy of the following practices. The references take up the last fifty-eight pages of the book.

Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness practice is about how to live fully in the changing time and space we occupy from moment to moment. Practice mindfulness to cultivate the skill of letting go of negative self-talk and other unhealthy thought patterns. Mindfulness is an incredibly simple, yet difficult practice. It is simple in that the practice can consist of:

  • Following the sensations of breathing
  • Noticing when your mind had just been wandering
  • Returning your full attention to the sensations of breathing
  • Noticing where your mind wanders off to and then returning your attention to the breathing without any analyzing of the wandering thoughts

As simple as the above instructions are, the practice is challenging for various reasons. For one thing, it is hard to remember to practice. Even when we find ways to remember, it is extremely easy to get kidnapped by our thoughts. This is where we get caught up in thinking about something with no conscious awareness that we are no longer mindful of our thoughts.

One way to develop a mindfulness practice is to register for a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, most often referred to as MBSR. These courses are offered throughout the world. I describe the MBSR research in my book. Another way is to take introductory workshops at a Buddhist meditation center.

Why is Mindfulness So Important?

Mindfulness allows you to recognize thoughts as nothing more than mental constructs or passing brain phenomena. Without it, F.E.A.R. commonly sets in. F.E.A.R. stands for false evidence appearing real. F.E.A.R. is the most common cause of prejudice, bigotry, conflict and wars.

The beauty of living a mindfulness-based life is that we are better able to remain fully present during the normal trials and tribulations of life. When we are fully present, we are most capable of responding to life’s challenges as they happen. This is usually preferable to reacting after the event. Mindfulness also allows us to more fully appreciate the simplest pleasures in life, which otherwise often go unnoticed.

Recommended reading in the book: Read Part II The Fundamental Mastery and Wellbeing Practice: Mindfulness. Those three chapters address both the science and the practice along with all the various aspects of mindfulness.

Self-Empowerment Walking

At some point in each Mind-Body Empowerment class, I teach Self-Empowerment Walking, which is a way of walking, standing, moving, and living fully in your body, which evolved out of my nearly forty years of experience with tai chi chuan and aikido. This is a way of walking wherein you breathe diaphragmatically, maintain a low center of gravity, move from your center, and carry no excess tension anywhere in your body. The simple act of letting go of all unnecessary bodily tension is health-inducing, in and of itself. Furthermore, it allows you to optimize your body mechanics and economy of motion.

Social Connections and Belonging

Among the various behaviors and attributes most strongly associated with health and wellbeing, after controlling for all possible variables, the evidence is most robust in the area of social support. Consistently, the studies reveal that the people with the most social connections and the healthiest social connections have much greater odds of living with exceptional health and wellbeing.

Social Connections and Stress

Loving self-care and being in a reciprocal mind-body relationship includes providing nourishment for the mind, which then is better able to nourish the body. When we are in the presence of people with whom we feel a healthy, mutually supportive connection, it is not just the mind that benefits; the sense of warmth experienced reduces bodily stress and catalyzes a cascade of healthy biochemical processes.

Social Connections and Being Part of Something Larger than Ourselves

Being a member of a supportive group helps us to get the sense of being part of something larger than our individual lives. In addition, this sense of belonging commonly adds meaning and purpose to our lives. This is especially true when we find a way to view ourselves as contributing, valued members of a community.

The College of Marin course is facilitated in such a way as to provide a healing experience of being in community. Other paths available include joining a support group, group therapy group, or doing volunteer work with a group of other people.

In addition, I recommend making an effort to schedule a minimum of a few minutes of contact with someone everyday. Living a reclusive lifestyle correlates with a poor level of wellbeing and even with poorer health.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 18 Practice connection and Service to Others and chapter 19 Practice Building Relationships.

Relationships

Relationship with the body may seem unrelated to relationships with other people. However, in both cases, wellbeing and health are enhanced through a strong sense of gratitude, connection, and mutual dependence; this is true for both your relationship with your body as well as in your relationships with other individuals. We cannot survive in isolation; community is essential to life.

An Up-Down, Down-Up Relationship

The reality is that a healthy, high-functioning mind improves physiological functioning and the reverse is also true; a healthy, high-functioning body improves functioning of the mind. Because the mind is a product of the brain, the health of the brain is strongly associated with the health of the mind. Every thought and every feeling are both caused by the brain and simultaneously effect changes in the brain; these relationships are referred to as up/down and down/up processes. An up/down process refers to the mind affecting the body (including brain), whereas a down/up process refers to the body (including brain) affecting the mind.

The Physiology of the Mind-Body

Our mind-body relationship is more complex than can be fully understood. Yet, it is important to simply appreciate that moment-to-moment changes in mentation, emotion, and physical sensation correlate with moment-to-moment changes in extremely complex and subtle biochemical changes. It may be sufficient to simply be in awe of this complexity, the vast majority of which is beyond our awareness and beyond our control. Appreciation for the complex relationship between mind and body can certainly be had without understanding any of the physiology or psychophysiology.

That said, learning very basic physiology, including the relationship between negative feedback loops, can help create a deep feeling of awe, which can catalyze a deep and loving relationship that we can have with the body. That loving relationship is likely to enhance interpersonal relationships. This is because people respond or react to us based on how we respond or react to them. This is similar to the up/down and down/up mind-body processes previously described.

The Poetry of the Mind-Body

By learning about basic, general physiological principles, we are much more likely to be able to cultivate a loving relationship with the body. In the words of my colleague Dr. Will Meecham: “Much like strolling through a virgin forest or along a wave swept shore, exploring our inner landscape in an informed way reveals the peace and beauty of nature resonating within.”

He goes on to say: “There has turned out to be a way I can feel profoundly connected with another being, not just on occasion, but all the time. Who is that being?  My own body.”

Meaning and Purpose

 The hundreds of epidemiological studies and positive psychology studies that I reviewed revealed very strong associations between meaning & purpose and health & wellbeing. In other words, people who find meaning in their lives are both happier and healthier.

In the College of Marin class, we explore, as a group, what has provided meaning and purpose for us in the past, at the present time, and what we can do to add deeper meaning and purpose to our lives. The ideal is to be able to awake every morning, excited to get on with the day. Our wellbeing (happiness) depends on having something or someone to live for, whether it be work, recreation, or people we serve in some way.

Finding meaning and purpose can actually make a difference in health outcomes. In the book, I site case studies of people with advanced metastatic cancers who were able to disprove the dire prognosis after finding new meaning and purpose in their lives.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 17 Practice Cultivating Meaning and Purpose.

Your Personal Values and Values-Based Behaviors

In the College of Marin class we explore what matters most to each of us in life, identifying personal values and goals. Part III of the book has exercises designed to help you do the same. With that new clarity, it becomes easier to make conscious choices that are most in harmony with how we want to live our lives. The exercises in the book can support this learning. Being unaware of your personal values or unable to live by them is  like being in a boat that has lost its rudder. Learn how to distinguish your values from your goals. Both are essential to living a full life. Goals are end products that you want to achieve or acquire. Values are how you want to live your life, such as how you want to treat people.

Recommended reading in the book: Read Part III Valued Action Practice. Those three chapters provide detailed guides that can serve as daily practices.

Openheartedness Toward Others and Oneself

Openheartedness, especially toward oneself, is very challenging, requires great courage, and is best achieved in a supportive community where such behavior is appreciated and valued. The College of Marin class provides opportunities to explore how we can become a little more open and vulnerable in a supportive environment. Other possibilities are support groups, group therapy groups, volunteer work where you are part of a team effort, or any supportive community wherein you feel seen and valued.

The more open and vulnerable, non-defensive, and self-accepting we become, the easier and more natural it becomes to act and feel openhearted toward others. The book has suggestions.

My Interpretation of the Data Presented in the Book

After spending a lot of time interpreting the data from epidemiological studies and the research from the field of positive psychology, I concluded that certain behaviors, such as altruism (explored in depth in the book), are surrogates for openheartedness. After controlling for potential confounding variables, study results are unequivocal that people who do the most volunteer work are the happiest and healthiest people. Looking at the data, one could easily conclude that volunteer work makes the volunteers more openhearted toward others. However, it is my conclusion that openhearted people are the ones who most readily volunteer to help others. It is certainly also true that helping others and seeing the results can often be very heartwarming and likely to contribute to increased openheartedness.

Openheartedness and Social Connections

This feeling of openheartedness and the expression of it toward others, serves to improve social connections. The reverse is also true; social connections, especially if they consist of healthy relationships, build openheartedness.

Fear Blocks Openheartedness

Fear is what gets in the way of openheartedness—fear of being judged, criticized, put down, humiliated, shamed, overwhelmed, lost, and worst of all—fear of rejection. It is difficult to be openhearted toward others or oneself when in a state of fear. These fears are part of the human condition, but by being part of a community, such as the class, a support group, or any community that helps you feel openhearted, the fears begin to weaken and no longer affect our wellbeing. It is fear that leads to most of the violence in the world. By breaking down the fear, openheartedness blossoms.

Openheartedness Toward Oneself

Most of us find that it is easier to be openhearted toward others than to ourselves. Openheartedness toward oneself can be cultivated by meditating on the extraordinary job the body does to maintain homeostasis, despite all the ways we sabotage those efforts by the body.

Practicing openheartedness is one of the many forms of loving self-care. This is because openheartedness, that heartwarming feeling, reduces emotional distress, which then reduces physiological stress. The reduction in physiological stress serves to improve immune function, cardiovascular function, and the functioning of the digestive and other systems. Beyond that, it can catalyze oxytocin and a variety of health-inducing substances.

Do Thoughts Cause Suffering?

Excluding traumatic losses such as death of a loved one, being diagnosed with a terrible disease, or other traumatic events, most of our day-to-day suffering is the result of fusion or entanglement with disempowering thought processes. Examples of disempowering ways of thinking that cause suffering are:

  • I can’t do it.
  • I’ll fail.
  • I have to…
  • I should…
  • I don’t have a choice.
  • I’m flawed.
  • I don’t measure up.
  • I’m unlovable.

Some suffering is part of life and is unavoidable. However, disempowering ways of thinking cause needless suffering. Furthermore, those types of thoughts commonly prevent us from succeeding in reaching our goals in life.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 3 Theories of Suffering.

Learning to Work with Disempowering Ways of Thinking

There are two evidence-based methods of working with such disempowering thoughts.

  1. Find evidence to disprove the disempowering thought or belief or find a lack of evidence to support the belief.
  2. Step back and observe the thought without buying in to it. This second method requires considerable practice. However, once the skill is developed, it is transferrable to virtually all troubling thoughts. This second method, known as mindfulness practice, has proven to dramatically improve wellbeing.

Whether through participation in the College of Marin class or through working with the book, you can learn both of those methods.

Warning: Many people have unsuccessfully tried affirmations and positive thinking. However, trying to replace negative thinking with positive thinking has never proven to be an efficacious practice.

More than anything, objective observation of thought processes can provide enough emotional distance from disempowering thought processes to allow us to no longer be negatively impacted by them. Mindfulness practice leads to the ability to practice mind-watching.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 4 Cognitive Fusion, and chapter 5 Experiential Avoidance.

Mindful Breathing

In addition to the two methods previously described for gaining distance from disempowering ways of thinking, mindful, diaphragmatic breathing has proven very effective. However, unlike the two previous methods, this one is best used to augment one of the other two methods. Most of the class and book exercises provide mindfulness-based breathing and other techniques to bring about greater balance in the autonomic nervous system, which allows us to be less negatively impacted by negative, disempowering ways of thinking. For example, simply engaging in slow, diaphragmatic breathing, while making the out-breaths roughly twice as long as the in-breaths has proven to create healthier, more empowered thinking.

Recommended reading in the book: Read Appendix B, Conscious Breathing and Heart Rate Variability.

Practice Conscious Choice

One of the most disempowering things we all do is to fail to recognize our endless opportunities for conscious choice in every moment of the day. Consciously choose everything you do. Every time you find yourself using terms like have to, should, or shouldn’t, change your language to choose to or choose not to. The mindfulness practice of taking action all day that is aligned with conscious choice builds self-empowerment, self-efficacy, self-mastery, and wellbeing. Much of the class, the book, and various pages on this website is devoted specifically to learning to identify all the daily, moment-by-moment conscious choice opportunities.

Here are four recommendations:

  • Think of your schedule every night for the next day and in your mind, preface each activity with I look forward to…
  • Find ways to experience choice when engaged in unpleasant obligations.
  • Every morning, think of your schedule for the day and in your mind, preface each activity with I look forward to…
  • Remind yourself that you always have a choice in every moment in how you want to respond to the experience of the moment. Appreciate “choice.” Appreciate that you don’t “have to” get up in the morning; you always have a choice. Only get out of bed because you choose to do so.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 11 What Are Your Choosing? and chapter 12 What Are You Practicing?

Self-Compassion and Self-Forgiveness

Learn to treat yourself with the same compassion and forgiveness that you would normally extend to someone else. This can also be extended to bodily processes that are functioning suboptimally. Those of us living with various chronic medical conditions often get angry and frustrated over our symptoms, especially when those symptoms negatively impact our social life and quality of life in general. A wonderful antidote is the cultivation of gratitude for the fact that our bodies are doing the best they can. This new, healthier relationship with the body reduces stress,  improves wellbeing, and is much more conducive to health.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 15 Practice Self-Acceptance. Also, visit my colleague’s site: http://www.mindfulbiology.org/

Practice Gratitude

Consciously practice feeling gratitude for the people in your life. Research indicates that it’s not necessary to express it to them—all you need to do is feel it. Adopt the practice of going through the day looking for reasons to feel grateful. Most of us focus on what’s going wrong; the reverse is much healthier. Giving more attention to people and situations that we value and appreciate warms the heart, catalyzing additional openheartedness. It is possible and very helpful to learn to feel gratitude for everything that is functioning well in the body. Even when a part of the body is not functioning well, you can learn to appreciate that the body part is doing the best it can, and that it is still working to keep you alive, despite not working perfectly.

Recommended reading in the book: Read chapter 13 Practice Gratitude.

Practice Curiosity and Life-Long Learning

Cultivate new interests and learn new things. Register for an online or in-person class in a subject about which you’ve had some curiosity. The health of your mind and body are enhanced through the cultivation of curiosity.

Food, Exercise, Sleep, and Healthcare

Eat a nutrient-dense diet such as a modified Mediterranean diet, but make it heavily (not exclusively) plant-based. Get lots of exercise everyday and keep moving throughout the day. Stay well rested through nightly sleep and a daily nap to make up for any loss of sleep. Quality self-care is inversely correlated with the need for medical healthcare. Be an empowered patient; see the Empowered Patient page of this website.

Practice Is Everything

The practices I have recommended, like athletic or artistic endeavors, require practice in order to appreciate any benefit. Unfortunately, most of us do not like to practice anything. The concept of self-discipline is limited. A better approach may be that of living with loving self-care and deep appreciation for the way the body relentlessly does everything in its power to maintain homeostasis. The above practices can be thought of as a way of giving back to the body, of giving thanks to it for keeping us alive.

In addition to the above, my hope is that what follows will also provide support for your practice.

This poem by Mary Oliver has inspired and motivated many of us who struggle to commit ourselves more deeply to live a life of practice.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~ Mary Oliver ~

The following are relevant excerpts from my weekly Q&A column that address the challenges of practice.

QUESTION:  What do you mean when you say that we’re practicing all the time?
ANSWER:  The word practice is usually associated with practicing of a sport, a musical instrument, the learning of a foreign language, or any other endeavor that we wish to master. The same principle applies to literally every behavior we engage in repeatedly. In other words, repeating any behavior is the same as practicing that behavior. And the more we repeat that behavior, the more likely we are to continue repeating it with greater ease, skill, and self-efficacy. Every time we engage in a certain behavior, we reinforce the neural circuits for that specific behavior, making it more likely we’ll behave that same way in the future. This is true for all healthy as well as unhealthy behaviors.

One way to make use of this phenomenon is to think of all behaviors as practices. Learning to recognize and observe our behaviors is a type of mindfulness practice. Labeling those behaviors as practices is also a mindfulness practice.

Although formal sitting meditation as practiced in vipassana or Zen is extremely helpful, it is not the only path. There are many practices that require one to be fully present while practicing. Zen archery (Kyudo) is one of many martial arts where the goal is not to win or to achieve an award. Rather, the goal is to be fully present while practicing. See the Tai Chi Chuan drop-down page under the Resources button. Any practice that is approached with the goal of being fully present can serve as an excellent mindfulness practice. Aikido master George Leonard referred to this as mastery of practice.

These Zen archers practice for self-mastery rather than to master the art of archery.

These Zen archers practice for self-mastery rather than to master the art of archery.

QUESTION: Several people have requested more of an explanation for my injunction to fight for your life.
ANSWER: The reason I use that phrase is because I want to impress upon you that in order to have a positive impact on your health and especially your wellbeing, you must practice with intentionality and commitment of a level that is sometimes referred to as fighting spirit.

At the time when I was diagnosed with two forms of arthritis, a primary immunodeficiency condition, and other chronic medical conditions, I had already been doing everything right in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and other daily self-care practices. Yet, my health was slowly deteriorating and despite my excellent health habits, I was living with increasing pain and physical limitations. For me, good diet, exercise, and sleep habits were simply not enough. At a certain point, I began to adopt the attitude of fighting for my life, which to me, meant being more awake or present from moment-to-moment. Another expression that works for many people is to live every day as if your hair was on fire.

One of the ways I fight for my life is to consciously, and with great resolve, practice slow, diaphragmatic breathing throughout the day; this has dramatically improved my heart rate variability and made a significant difference in my health.

QUESTION: I’ve tried the mindful breathing you recommend but can’t seem to remember to do it. I have had enough yoga to know how to do it, but how do you remember to keep practicing throughout the day?
ANSWER: Here is one of the things that works for me. Because I have had a mindfulness practice for a very long time, I am aware of numerous times throughout the day—probably more than 150 times each day—when I feel some type of physical or emotional discomfort, usually mild, but I use that awareness to trigger conscious diaphragmatic breathing.  This practice has resulted not only in improved health and wellbeing, but also in appreciation of greater self-efficacy and mastery.

The health benefits of slow, diaphragmatic breathing have been proven by psychophysiology researchers and known by yogis for centuries.

The big challenge in the beginning is in being able to remember to breathe that way.

Here are four suggestions to help you remember:

  • Set random alarms on you mobile device, to serve as reminders.
  • Every time you change activities, even something as simple as sitting in a chair or getting up from the chair can be used as reminders.
  • Post notes all over your house and work space with the word: Breathe
  • Do what I do: Every time you experience a troubling thought, or an uncomfortable emotion or sensation, use that to remind yourself to breathe.
  • Meditate on the beauty of the countless physiological processes being performed by your body round the clock.

QUESTION:  I have tried your recommendation of becoming aware of my thoughts and feelings, but I have not had any luck in changing my unwanted and obsessive thoughts and feelings. What can I do to replace my unwanted thoughts and feelings with happier and healthier ones?
ANSWER: In the last ten years, research psychologists have found that thought substitution often serves to paradoxically reinforce and concretize the very unhealthy thoughts we wish to eliminate.

Acceptance and mindfulness are more efficacious. They are explored in depth in my book: In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions.

There are other practices also explored in that book. An incredibly simple and effective one is the following: Instead of trying to replace unwanted thoughts and feelings with happier, healthier ones, practice putting attention on slow diaphragmatic breathing and good posture.

This combined practice of slow diaphragmatic breathing and good posture obviates the need to struggle to change your thoughts and feelings. In fact, for all the people who are not interested in taking on a daily mindfulness meditation, this simple behavioral practice is very powerful and life enhancing.

Good demonstrations of this simple behavioral practice can be seen on the TV show called The Dog Whisperer. People hire dog whisperer Cesar Millan to train their dogs, but he actually trains the dog owners to practice calm assertive behavior. As the dog owners learn to slow and deepen their breathing and practice good posture, their dogs as well as other people begin to respond to them more positively and they feel better about themselves.

QUESTION: Please say more about how to be more positive.
ANSWER: The simplest and most reliable way is through slow diaphragmatic breathing, combined with practicing good posture; enhance this process by consciously calling up an image of your desired results.  Slow diaphragmatic breathing reduces emotional distress and calms the autonomic nervous system. Practicing good posture throughout the day improves self-esteem and enhances internal organ functioning. The intentional practice throughout the day of conjuring up mental images of desired results serves to reduce the incidence of negative thinking.

QUESTION: What is the best way to improve self-acceptance?
ANSWER: Many experts have written about self-acceptance. However, different things work for different people. What appears below is what I have personally found to be most effective and it is how I live my life.

Whenever I start to engage in self-criticism, I remind myself that my goal is not perfection, but rather to simply practice living by my personal life values. When I notice that my behavior is contrary to my values, I acknowledge to myself that mistakes make me human and that I’m practicing living on a path that is about moment-to-moment experience rather than perfection or the striving for some mythical end goal. For me, being on the path, which could also be expressed as living a life of practice, is what matters most.

I highly recommend reading two life-changing little books: Mastery by George Leonard and The Practicing Mind by Thomas Sterner. These two little books reinforced for me the view that daily life itself is practice. Instead of expecting to master a certain skill or achieve a specific goal, these books will help you to accept practice for the sake of practice.

In practicing something just for the sake of practicing, the pressure to excel or to achieve a certain goal is off, which will paradoxically make it more likely to achieve that goal. When the goal is self-acceptance, the act of viewing all our behavior as practice leads to the ability to accept our mistakes and flaws as simply part of the game of life.

As I go through my day, whenever I notice an unpleasant thought or emotion, I remind myself that life practice itself is all that matters. I don’t live to meet goals—I live to practice, which commonly results in meeting goals.

The actual achievement of a goal is best accomplished by devoting oneself to practice without any emotional attachment to achieving the goal.

QUESTION: Please say more about what you refer to as Connectivity.
ANSWER: Connectivity refers to two things:

  1. Self-awareness of thoughts, feelings and behavior can collectively be referred to as self-connection.
  2. Connectivity also refers to behaviors to increase and improve interpersonal connections, such as reaching out to friends and getting together with them. Whatever actions you take to help you feel connected and to feel a sense of belonging will serve you well. Join a group therapy group or support group; they afford great opportunities for authentic self-expression. However, even a book club or other gathering of people sharing discussion of common interests enhances connectivity. A committee where you work on a team, volunteer work involving serving others, or any other activities to help you feel self- and interpersonally connected will contribute to connectivity and greater wellbeing.

QUESTION: What is Receptivity?
ANSWER: Receptivity means being open to the reality of the moment rather than interpretations of it. It leads to greater self and interpersonal connectivity in that the quality of being receptive to people with divergent beliefs allows us to open our hearts to strangers, thereby making healthy new relationships of all types more likely. Receptivity is the opposite of strict adherence to dogma. Wars and daily hostility to which we are all exposed are the result of adherence to dogmatic beliefs that cause extreme suffering; this is especially true with religious and political dogma.

Receptivity involves openhearted curiosity to new ideas and new experiences, which then confers greater psychological flexibility and reduced emotional distress. Receptivity is not an end goal; it is a practice or way of life.

QUESTION: What do you mean by the cultivation of Open-Heartedness?
ANSWER: Openheartedness, for obvious reasons, improves connectivity. It engenders self-acceptance and acceptance of others. Receptivity, curiosity, and openheartedness are three ways of describing very similar behavior, all of which are conducive to health. Openheartedness correlates with healthy cardiovascular structure and function. When I lecture, I often have my audience imagine the last time they were extremely angry or extremely stressed-out. Then I have them imagine the last time they felt a deep sense of love for someone. When asked, they usually describe feeling tightness in the chest when imagining the last time they felt anger or stress. When they imagine the last time they felt deep love, they describe a warmth and opening in their chest—this is much healthier than the tightness.

What I have found most effective in the cultivation of openheartedness is the recognition to ourselves that we are committed to a life of practice rather than to perfection. It is important to forgive ourselves whenever we notice that our behavior fell short of what we value.

QUESTION: What do you mean by the cultivation of Curiosity?
ANSWER: Curiosity means setting aside beliefs and being completely open to your immediate experience—not your interpretation of that experience, but rather, the experience itself, based on self-awareness of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Throughout history, whenever events have occurred that couldn’t be explained by science, people have latched on to supernatural explanations, which is the opposite of curiosity and science. The cultivation of curiosity leads to openheartedness and open-mindedness.

Curiosity about others who seem different from us creates an environment conducive to the formation of healthy new relationships of all types. Curiosity about our inner subjective experience creates a rich learning environment, which contributes to self-mastery.

Openhearted curiosity cannot be maintained in every interpersonal interaction. Whenever we notice that we are judging or holding rigid beliefs about someone, the idea is to accept that judging others as well as ourselves is part of being human, and that the goal is not to be perfect, but to simply commit ourselves to the practice of openhearted curiosity as best as we can.

QUESTION:  Last week you mentioned cultivation of curiosity, but wouldn’t the cultivation of curiosity bring more attention to all the things I’m already worried about?
ANSWER: Worry is the result of preconceived ideas—the opposite of curiosity.

Curiosity is different from analysis. Spending endless time analyzing our thoughts has not been found to be nearly as effective as holding our thoughts lightly and letting them go.

The curiosity I’m advocating is the curiosity of a young child, for whom everything is a new experience. Prejudice, stereotyping, and judging people are orthogonal to curiosity, receptivity, openheartedness, connectivity, and wellbeing.

The Need for Support

The practice recommendations described above require intention and commitment. The real challenge lies in practicing them daily. To maintain your intention you need support for these practices. Ideally, you can find someone who is equally committed to maintaining these same practices, and the two of you can act as each other’s cheerleaders and coaches. This is one of the reasons people take our class continuously over a long period of time.

Whatever avenue you choose to make sure you engage in these practices daily, rest assured that the rewards are great. You will see positive results, some of which you will experience almost immediately and some that will build over time. The research is conclusive, and it places your wellbeing and happiness squarely in your own hands.

Self-Empowerment Practice Provides Immediate Reward

If you play a musical instrument, a sport, or any type of art form, then you know that practice is necessary in order to be able to compete or to perform. However, it is very easy to fall into the common trap of focusing on winning or playing at a certain level, in other words, the final product, rather than on the process.

The beauty of the self-empowerment practice I teach is that the only rewards are those found in the practice itself. In other words, you can enjoy the product of the practice whenever you are in the process of practicing because the practice is both the process and the product. Therefore, you achieve your goals every moment that you practice. A sense of confidence and mastery is achieved while you are practicing rather than at some later date. In fact, because the sense of self-empowerment is achieved every time you practice, it is impossible to fail to achieve your goal of self-empowerment. I know of no other endeavor that guarantees success just by practicing.

The challenge is simply in remembering to practice. In fact, the practice itself is so simple you cannot fail at it. You can fail to practice but you cannot fail at practice.

The term practice is most often used as a verb. Martial artists and meditators use it as both a verb and as a noun. I also intend it as both. For example, I have a self-empowerment practice and I experience the benefits whenever I practice.

The self-empowerment practice I teach provides rewards that are experienced immediately and provide no rewards or awards to be achieved at a later date. In every moment you practice, you get rewarded with enhanced wellbeing and health.

The foundation of this method encompasses a particular breathing technique, walking tall and from your center, standing tall and grounded, sitting tall, full attunement to your immediate environment, conscious letting go of all unnecessary bodily tension, and objective observation of thoughts and feelings.

Being centered or grounded refers to maintaining bodily awareness in the area known as hara in Japanese or tan tien in Chinese. It is your center of gravity and is located just below the navel. In the West, most of us were taught to center our attention in our head, neck, shoulders, and chest. When you observe Asians walking, you will notice that they carry far less tension in the upper body. See the Tai Chi Chuan page in the drop down menu of the Resources button.

This method also includes objective examination of troubling thought processes, which allows us to be free of the suffering that results from mistaking those thoughts for reality. The ability to recognize those particular thought processes that cause suffering leads to the ability to disentangle from those otherwise harmful thoughts. This is a lifelong process and practice. Daily commitment to practice will result in gradual skill acquisition along with a natural and organic integration of those skills into daily life, leading to gradual increases in wellbeing. The seven-week class that I teach provides a beginning foundation, which can be greatly enhanced through repeating the course over a period of time.

Most of us have admired certain individuals who exemplify certain characteristics that we value. For example, I used to greatly admire people who were able to maintain their cool in the face of adversity. I am pleased to be able to report that I have acquired those cool under pressure attributes that I previously so valued in other individuals. But sometimes I’m tired and get cranky. When that happens, I am now able to recognize it and immediately soften. Previously, I lacked the ability to recognize and objectively observe, and then alter my behavior. As soon as I realize that I am behaving in a way that is not in harmony with my values, I remind myself that perfection is not an option, that staying on the path of practice is all that matters. This results in a realignment with my valued behaviors and by reminding myself that my goal is not perfection, but rather practice, I experience self-compassion.

Acquiring the cool under pressure skill starts with small things, such as remaining cool as someone in front of me is driving below the speed limit when I’m late for an appointment. It further develops into situations where I am able to remain cool even when someone is pushing my particular buttons. I want to be clear that the coolness is not about suppression of my annoyance, frustration, or anger. Rather, the coolness is the result of my ability to see my thoughts for what they are—just thoughts—rather than as reality.

Part of the practice includes a level of introspection that allows us to learn how to identify and then courageously and fully own our fear, shame, rage, frustration, and other emotions, which are terribly disempowering when we fail to recognize and own them. The practice includes cultivation of the skills of introspection along with the mindfulness skills that help us to remain present when those awful feelings appear.

Although it does require great intentionality and commitment to practice these skills, the satisfaction of being able to objectively self-observe our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and to then be able to practice living in harmony with what we value does make it much easier to stay motivated to practice long-term.

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