Our blog features breaking program and event updates from each of our initiatives. This year, the Garrison Institute celebrates 10 years of bringing together leading contemplative teachers, great scientific minds, and people working in the field for positive social change.
Please join us in our work to build a more compassionate, resilient future.
During the recent Mind & Life Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute, neuroscientist Richard Davidson presented on the neuroscience of fear and anxiety. He discussed new findings that suggest that mindfulness and other contemplative practices can make a great impact on the recovery from fearful stimuli. Before Davidson’s presentation, we spoke with him about his recent research.
Can you tell us a little about your work on resilience and the brain?
To paraphrase a famous bumper sticker, we all know that “stuff happens.” We all are subject to adversity. And one of the keys to resilience, if not the most important key, is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. So we’re particularly interested in ways of measuring that ability to recover in the brain, by looking at specific neurocircuits.
From there we ask whether different kinds of meditation practices may actually modulate that very specific neural mechanism. I'm going to show some data in my presentation today, which is not yet published, which shows that particular forms of meditation may speed the recovery with which we respond to adverse events, and that that rapidity of recovery also predicts how we respond to pain. Also, it predicts certain negative emotional traits. When you recover more quickly, you are less anxious and less neurotic.
When you talk about the rapidity of recovery, what kind of timeframes are you talking about?
One of the cool things is that the timescale we measure is on the order of seconds. However, it turns out that that timescale predicts recovery on the order of minutes and hours. Later today I'll present data from another study where we look at the relation between time on the order of seconds in the MRI scanner, and we have participants use smartphones and we do experience sampling, where we’re looking at the time course of emotional changes in real life. And it turns out that the short timescale that we measure in the laboratory actually predicts the longer timescale that we measure.
Are you measuring recovery from major traumatic experiences—for example, the loss of a loved one—or minor traumatic experience like, “Oh, I spilled hot coffee on my lap”?
Well, in the lab, we can’t create a major traumatic experience, so we do use pain. We have found that how long-term meditation practitioners respond differently to physical pain is that they recover from that pain more quickly in specific neurocircuits. They actually show, in particular parts of the pain matrix, a greater response. So it’s not that their response is attenuated. However, it’s in the recovery period, after the pain goes off, that they come right back down to baseline. Whereas untrained people perseverate in their responses, almost as if they’re ruminating about how bad this is. That’s something that the long-term practitioners don't show at all.
Is there evidence that meditation helps with traumatic events from your deep past? Or are you only able to study recent trauma that occurs in the lab?
That’s a whole other question. I wouldn’t want to claim that the data we’re gathering on resilience, in terms of rapidity of recovery, is necessarily going to be relevant to early traumatic experience. We’ve been doing some work with post-traumatic stress disorder with returning veterans. That’s just really a different kettle of fish and requires different concepts.
What types of meditation are these long-term practitioners doing?
We’re mostly looking at mindfulness and compassion practices. And in terms of the specific measure of recovery from a negative emotional stimulus, mindfulness practice shows the strongest relationship. We also see some effects of compassion practice. And we have a third kind of practice, a concentration practice, that we’re always comparing.
Are there other contemplative practices that might be studied in the future?
Yes, there are many different kinds of practices that are designed for different kinds of people. I often tell people that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports—there are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. This is also true with meditation.
By Tish Jennings
“How’s it going?” I asked Susan, a second-grade teacher participating in the federally funded research project being conducted by the University of Virginia. Susan had completed the first session of the CARE for Teachers mindfulness-based teacher professional development program, and I had called her for a phone coaching session to see how she was doing as she practiced bringing a more mindful approach to her teaching.
“Wow!” she said, “I was amazed this week. Instead of raising my voice, I tried taking a deep breath and calming myself down. I can’t believe how well this worked. The kids actually began to calm down too.” For the past eight years since we developed CARE, we’ve heard similar stories of teachers successfully applying skills they learned in CARE to their interactions with their students.
With budget cuts and the increasing demands of high-stake testing, teachers’ stress is at an all time high. When you add growing numbers of students with emotion and behavior problems, you can see why teachers are having a rough time. A mindfulness-based approach may be exactly what we need to help us manage the emotional stress and to be better teachers. Research has shown that increased levels of mindfulness are associated with improvements in psychological functioning across many domains. Mindfulness enhances self-regulatory processes that buffer against psychological distress and promote general well being and compassion for self and others. Teaching is an extremely emotionally demanding profession, and mindfulness-based interventions can promote resilience and reduce the emotional exhaustion that precedes burnout. This may promote enjoyment of teaching that may help us maintain our commitment to the profession and our care and compassion for our students.
The CARE NYC federally funded study involving 224 teachers work in 38 schools in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan is showing that CARE not only improves teachers’ well being, but also improves teaching. Teachers reported that CARE improved their awareness and acceptance of emotional states while teaching. This helped reduce work stress and helped them respond, rather than react to challenging student behavior improving classroom climate. Many reported improvements in the relationships with their students, parents, and co-workers.
This summer we are presenting the 9th Annual CARE for Teachers Retreat at the Garrison Institute. Several past participants have called it “summer camp for teachers” because of how much fun it was. Teachers learn and practice a variety of mindfulness-based and compassion practices and learn how to apply them to their teaching through a variety of activities including reflection, discussion and role plays. Teachers learn important information about their emotions and the role they play in teaching and learning. There is plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful grounds of the Garrison Institute and to socialize with others.
Patricia (Tish) Jennings will be presenting CARE for Teachers at the Garrison Institute August 3-7. Tish led the team that developed the CARE program and is leading the CARE NYC study. She is an associate professor Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia where she teaches a mindfulness-based approach to classroom management in the elementary education program. She has over 22 years of experience as a classroom teacher and is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, part of the Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education.
Journalist Daniel Goleman is the author of many books, including the international bestseller Emotional Intelligence and Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. His latest book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, is another collaboration with His Holiness, in which Goleman outlines the Dalai Lama’s theory of change and his vision for the future.
What are the broad strokes of the future that the Dalai Lama is imagining?
In order to make a better world, the Dalai Lama encourages us to first manage our own destructive emotions better. That way we don't operate from anger or rage or frustration or fear, but rather we can be calmer and clearer, and therefore more skillful.
Then, he says, adopt a moral rudder of compassion—genuine concern for everyone—and then act. It’s not enough just to espouse compassion and to meditate on it. You have to act on it for it to be real. He outlines a number of ways each of us could act: in terms of honesty in the public sphere; cleaning up corruption and collusion; having a more humane economic system; helping those in need, but not just by charity, but, wherever possible helping them live better and take care of themselves with dignity; heal the earth. He says our earth is our only home, and our home is on fire, and we have to really analyze the links between human activity and the degradation of the systems that support life.
It helps, he says, to take a long view. When we take the long view we realize that, over the centuries, things are actually getting better. We need to keep this in mind as we act.
Yes, in the book you describe the Dalai Lama as a “futurist,” which I thought was an interesting description for an 80-year-old, Tibetan religious leader.
He just thinks over centuries, and he thinks far into the future. It really has expanded my sense of the future that I can have any impact on. He’s more and more interested, he told me, in reaching Millennials and younger generations. He’s less interested in spending time giving, say, Buddhist teachings to the same faces, the same older faces, and more and more interested in meeting with students wherever he goes. Because, he says, these are the people of the 21st century. These are the people in whose hands the future will be shaped. He thinks like a futurist, and he acts that way, too. His whole message is about what can happen in the centuries ahead.
So the first step in that big vision is working with our own destructive emotions. What are the primary strategies or methods that he recommends for doing this?
He doesn’t dictate how we should do this. In all parts of the vision, he only tells us what the goal is. But, like a good parent or a good boss, he doesn’t micromanage. He is not prescribing, for example, meditation. A Force For Good is not a Buddhist book or a Buddhist vision. This is a vision for all of humanity. And he says each of us can find our own methods. It might be psychotherapy for someone. It might be mindfulness for someone else. It might be a very positive, parenting kind of remedial relationship. It could be any number of things. But the metric for progress is how often we find ourselves in the grip of our most disturbing emotions, versus how well we manage them and can put them aside or recover from them.
Paul Ekman, the psychologist, once told me that the definition of maturity is widening the gap between impulse and action. And I think that’s another good measure.
Something we do at the Garrison Institute is explore the relationship between personal transformation and systems transformation. After your conversations with the Dalai Lama, what insights do you have on that?
Well, I think this is implicit in the Dalai Lama’s vision, because he starts at the personal level. He says, transform yourself so that you’re a better tool for transforming the system. His vision of compassion and action is very much the individual acting to change the system in surprisingly assertive ways. For example, when he talks about cleaning up the public sphere, he’s saying, we need to be transparent. Bringing transparency and accountability to business, to politics, to religion, to science. You could say sports, given the recent FIFA scandals. Otherwise, he says, these systems just are not fair. Some people are gaming other people, and we have to stop that. Corruption and collusion is like a cancer. And so he sees that operating at the systems level but from an inner space that is as clear and calm and energized and effective as we can be.
But what about all the ways in which systems make individual change really difficult? Is it even possible to always transcend the system in which you find yourself embedded?
I think our Dalai Lama is pretty much a pragmatist. He says, do whatever you can do, given your constraints and given your possibilities. You might be someone who can talk to other people, who can put a message out on social media, who can mobilize a smaller or a larger group in order to raise awareness by changing a policy or law. You might have access to someone in Congress, and you might be able to persuade them to change a law.
So although we might easily get discouraged, thinking, well, what difference does it make what I do? The growing importance of big data analytics, which looks at each one of us as an aggregate, makes whatever each one of us does quite important.
There’s also the point, for example, when it comes to sustainability, that if any one of us changes a habit over the rest of our lives, particularly when we’re young, for the better, for sustainability, it actually adds up to large, large numbers. So those are two dimensions in which an individual change, which you might dismiss as irrelevant, actually has big impact.
This post was originally published on the Mind & Life Institute blog.
Since 2004, one of the cornerstones of Mind and Life’s programming has been the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI), which was designed to support the growing field of contemplative studies. This unique event is a week-long conference that incorporates academic presentations, informal breakout groups, poster sessions, and periods of meditation, yoga, and tai chi each day, as well as a one-day silent retreat. The hybrid academic/retreat format offers opportunities for deep dialogue across disciplines, as well as inquiry through meditative practices, underscoring the challenges of honoring and learning from ￼first-person experience. One of the broad goals of contemplative studies is to create an integrated way of knowing by combining standard third-person methodologies from the sciences and humanities with first-person modes of introspection that have been developed by diverse contemplative and philosophical traditions. The MLSRI has been instrumental in supporting this community through shared knowledge, fostering relationships among participants, and also through our Varela Awards program, which funds contemplative research projects that often emerge from collaborations formed at the event.
The 12th annual MLSRI once again took place at the beautiful Garrison Institute in upstate New York, perched on the banks of the Hudson River, which year in and year out has provided a nurturing and generative container for attendees. Themed on Fear and Trust in Self and Society, presentations and discussions drew on research in both the sciences and the humanities, including neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, religion, and contemplative studies. Plenary lectures ranged from an overview of attachment theory and its connection to Buddhist conceptions of “selflessness,” to an exploration of the role that social relationships play in neurophysiological threat processing, to examinations of fear and trust from Buddhist and contemplative Christian perspectives. In addition to these kinds of stimulating presentations, as well as the generative faculty-led breakout sessions that followed, we explored the challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary dialogue through a panel discussion and small group work. Small groups also provided an opportunity to further cultivate the sense of community that naturally forms over the week.
This year, the MLSRI was infused with a new freshness, as the majority of attendees were joining us for the first time. We are heartened to see that word of this interdisciplinary approach is spreading, as students from both established and emerging labs, universities, and research centers across the world brought enthusiasm, new ideas, and an overall eagerness to be part of this work. Additionally, thepresentations and dynamic conversations that ensued seemed to herald a maturation of the discourse at large, as the overarching issue of “context” became an important thread interweaving many of the discussions. Historically, the brain—and by extension, the mind—has been treated as an isolated object of study explored only through third-person scientific and academic means (such as through neuroimaging research, or scholarly textual analysis). Stemming from the vision of Francisco Varela, one of Mind and Life’s founders, it has been a goal of this field to expand the investigation of the mind beyond the brain and into the body and environment by integrating diverse first, second, and third person perspectives. This movement has gained momentum thanks to the ongoing diligent work of our numerous individual and organizational partners, both near and far.
It is an honor to be able to support the field of contemplative studies through this program. We look forward to continuing the conversation at next year’s MLSRI, which will once again take place at the Garrison Institute (June 11-17, 2016).
Above: Karma Lekshe Tsomo gives a keynote speech at the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women.
By Teri Sivilli
June 23, 2015
The iPhone has failed me. It doesn't update the date and time on wireless networks, only on cellular. And so my phone was still on Tokyo time when I went to bed in Yogyakarta on the night of the solstice. Which means two things: it wasn't 1 am when I went to sleep last night, merely 11 pm, and it is now 5:30 am, not 7:30 am, and I am 90 minutes early for breakfast. But I am happy to see the soft shadow play of dawn.
I have come to Yogyakarta for the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women to present a paper on the Garrison Institute's CBR Project. It has taken two days of mostly hassle-free travel from the U.S. to get here. I haven't attended this conference before, and this is the first time the Institute will be represented. The other U.S. participants know of the Institute, and I answer questions about programs and retreats during meals.
It's not just the mix of monastics and lay people that makes this conference unique, but also that it is not strictly academic and yet still adheres to a high level of rigor in the presentations. It's a delicate balance to strike, between process and outcome, inclusion and rigor. Oh, and that this is a conference about women, produced by women, attended mostly by women. In contrast to many similar events, almost every presenter and participant is female. The multiplicity of traditions is expressed most vividly in the robes of the nuns: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Indonesian. A few men attend the conference, often accompanying their partners, and a few will present. They look adorable carrying the pandan bag that the conference provided: it's tied with a batik bow.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect, coming here. While I myself practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I work at the intersection of secularized practices and science in the United States. I am only one of a handful of presenters at this conference working in this area, rather than in Buddhist studies. As a group, we are educating the others about the spread of secularized meditation practices in the west. In return, I am taking a deep dive into Buddhist scholarship and the ways that the dharma is applied in a variety of settings, including health care, education and prisons, in countries where the Buddhist origin of the teachings is appreciated.
This is a gathering of scholars and practitioners, seeking to learn from each other. That women are struggling for full equality within Buddhist traditions is a given. There's no point in debating the reality of history. We're here celebrating the role of women in Buddhism.
Yesterday I sat with a professor from the U.S. who said she had avoided this event for many years, fearing it would be too "woo-woo." It's anything but "woo-woo." And in contrast to many conferences, where people tend to stick to the tribe they came with, people are genuinely interested in reaching out, being welcoming. No one sits alone for long.
The conference days are long: presentations begin at 9 am, and the bus back to my hotel won't leave until 8:30 pm. Thoughtfully, a rest area has been provided.
At the opening ceremonies, in the Governor's Residence, Karma Lekshe Tsomo noted that 1,000 people have gathered from 40 countries for the conference, representing all of the Buddhist traditions, working together in harmony. "Never in the world have we been more in need of the qualities of compassion and social justice, as intolerance, violence, and cruelty increase."
"All spiritual paths help us curb the darkness inside, and to cultivate the good," she continued. "No spiritual tradition does not inculcate goodness. When we adopt the form of spiritual practice without working for inner transformation, the essence is lost."
"When we have 1,000 women together, let the voice of sanity and compassion be heard. In this century, finally, the voice of women is being heard."
In her keynote address, she explored what we mean by compassion, what we mean by social justice, and how these two are related.
Buddhism defines compassion as the wish for others to be free from suffering, while love is the wish for other beings to be happy. The first step in generating compassion, clearly, is to be aware of the suffering of living being. This is the first connection to social justice: understanding that a great deal of the suffering in the world comes from the simple fact that we don't all have equal resources and opportunities. According to the UN, 60% of the work in the world is done by women, but they only hold 20% of the world's wealth, and 1% of its land.
Economic justice is an aspect of social justice. We will need just governments, just processes, and to have women's voices represented equally in governments.
Many Buddhists are compassionate and generous, but social justice isn't about giving rice to the poor. It's about changing the structures that keep people poor. No one knows exactly how many people in the world practice Buddhism; the estimate is 600 million, which means there are 300 million female Buddhists. That's a huge potential force for good.
Photo by Oliver Adam
Vidyamala Burch is the founder of Breathworks, an organization offering mindfulness and compassion-based approaches to living well with pain, stress, and illness. Living with a chronic back condition due to spinal injuries and partial paraplegia, Vidyamala knows how distressing it can be to live with ongoing pain. She also knows that it’s possible to manage pain, and to flourish while doing so.
Her most recent book is You Are Not Your Pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being—An Eight-Week Program. We recently spoke with Vidyamala about her personal path and Breathworks' programs during her recent retreat at the Garrison Institute.
What is your personal experience with chronic pain?
I was a very fit, healthy girl in New Zealand in the 60’s. It was a very outdoorsy culture. I was very athletic, but one day, when I was lifting someone out of the swimming pool during lifesaving practice, my back started to hurt.
It wasn’t a big dramatic collapse, but it was more an insidious onset of quite debilitating pain. So I had all the tests, and it turned out that I had a condition called spondylolisthesis, which is basically when you get a fracture within a vertebrae and then your spinal column moves forward on the one below. It’s actually quite common. About ten percent of the population has it and doesn't even know they’ve got it. But I had it quite severely.
The following year I had a fusion surgery when I was 17, which is young to have that kind of surgery because I hadn’t finished growing completely. So that’s been problematic. And then after that operation, my leg became paralyzed.
So then I had a further operation, and they removed the whole back of the vertebrae. So really by the time I was at the end of my 17th year, I was living with chronic pain. Then when I was 23, I was in a car accident. The guy who was driving went asleep at the wheel, crashed into a telegraph pole, and I crushed another vertebrae in the middle of my back.
I’m 55 now, so that’s 39 years that I’ve had chronic pain.
What kinds of methods for working with chronic pain were available to you in the 70s? How did you discover mindfulness?
My initial approach to my situation was frank denial. I just tried to pretend it wasn’t happening—and that’s very, very common. When something catastrophic happens, you think, “I’m just going to try and get on with life as normal.” I managed to keep that up for about ten years, and then I had a big crisis when I was 25 and I was in the hospital. I was in an intensive care ward—we don’t need to go into all the details—and I went to the edge of madness. The pain was really, really intense.
Then I had these two voices in my head, one voice was saying, “I can’t bare this. I’m going to go mad. I can’t get through ‘til the morning.” It was a dark night of the soul. But another voice was saying, “You have to make it through the night.” There was a back and forth between these voices. And then a third voice came in that said, “You don't have to get through ‘til the morning. You just have to live this moment. You just have to live this moment—and this one, and this one.”
It came from nowhere. I’d never read about Buddhism. I didn’t know about anything spiritual. But my experience radically changed. I went from being tortured to being relatively relaxed and confident. I can do this. I can live this moment.
It reminds me of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment moment under the Bodhi tree.
I often say that that night was the axis upon which my life has turned, because it made me reframe everything. I started to think that life is all about living in the moment.
And up until that point, I’d not really even considered that I had a mind, let alone that my mind could be a tool to help me manage my circumstances. My circumstances were desperate. I had to give up my job at 25; I was disabled, and in loads of pain. It was horrible. I came out of the hospital knowing that I needed to take responsibility for myself. There wasn’t anyone out in the world who was going to make me better. It was down to me. I had a mind and my mind could be a tool; and I wanted to learn how to live in the present moment.
A very good social worker gave me loads of meditation cassette tapes. This was 1995 in New Zealand, and I didn’t know a single person who worked with their mind. Meditation was considered quite strange and weird. But I had this long period of rehabilitation during which I had the gift of time, and many, many people, they never get time to just lie on their back and contemplate the nature of their own mind. I had that opportunity for months on end, and I really learned how to think. I’d give myself a topic and think it through until the end.
That sounds sort of terrifying.
Yeah, it was really devastating because I’m an active person. But it was also thrilling that I was developing this relationship with my inner world and beginning to see my mind as a tool for transforming my life.
So there was this initial insight that you could have this moment to moment awareness as a way to deal with pain and a growing awareness of the richness of your inner life. How did that turn into the eight-week program that you outline in You Are Not Your Pain?
Well, in 1997, I had another big crisis with my back. I think it was just degeneration with age. I overdid it a bit. I ended up back in the hospital, and this is when my bowel became paralyzed, my bladder became paralyzed, and I started using a wheelchair more.
There was another dark night of the soul. I’d been meditating for ten years, and yet here I was again. I hadn’t seemed to really transform my relationship with my suffering. I was asking myself, “What is it that I’m missing?” And then I came across Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, and another book by Stephen Levine called Who Dies? What I learned from those two books is that you really need to turn towards your experience, even if it’s painful.
Up until then I’d been using my meditation in an escapist way. I was trying to use my mind and my heart to escape my situation and experience higher states. I think it’s a really common mistake, but I’d been basically perfecting escapism for a decade.
So when I came across this idea of turning towards your experience, I thought, “That is the missing link. I need to learn to do that.”
Additionally, I did a lot of reading around pain management and came across this idea of pacing, which is where you learn how to really manage your activities in daily life. So I did that, and I gradually rehabilitated myself again. Then in 2002, I went on a course with Jon Kabat-Zinn and I knew that that his approach was really important for me, the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But I couldn’t come to America—because I wasn’t well enough and didn't have the money—so I thought, “Well, I’ll have to develop my own program.”
What’s the essence of the program that you’ve developed?
Well, the essence, it’s very simple. Really it’s about being aware, being kind, noticing what’s happening, don’t push away the unpleasant sensations, don’t cling onto the pleasant sensations. Rest back and let everything arise and pass. And make choices about what you do with your mind.
Outside of that, the core essence in terms of the model is to divide one’s experience of pain into two components: primary and secondary suffering. In the case of back pain, the primary suffering is the unpleasant sensations in the body. The secondary suffering is what arises when we resist that. Mentally we get involved with the drama about the pain: the anxiety, fear, depression, and, of course, secondary physical tension.
People learn to accept their basic unpleasant sensations and reduce or overcome the secondary suffering that arises because we resist what is already here. And people get that. It’s very simple.
By Teri Sivilli
In a widely shared article in The Guardian on April 29, 2015, Secret Aid Worker (S.A.W.) wrote of fears that the work “is affecting the aspect of my personality that made me want to become an aid worker in the first place: my compassion.”
While not downplaying the personal benefits of a satisfying career, the anonymous writer nevertheless voiced a fear that is all too common in this sector, though rarely discussed openly, in my experience: that we cannot be constantly exposed to the suffering of others and remain unaffected by it.
In more than one hundred comments on the essay, readers – many of them aid workers themselves – discussed their own experiences of working in humanitarian settings, both similar to and different from S.A.W.’s experience.
Few touched on the topic that I think deserves deeper investigation: the interconnected relationships among suffering, empathy and compassion.
First, for transparency, you should know that I manage a training program designed to build resilience among aid workers through the use of contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga. From that perspective, I’d like to offer a framework for understanding S.A.W.’s experiences that may be helpful for him/her, and for others.
S.A.W. talks about being desensitized to pain and suffering, and also notes that “You obviously cannot do your job if you just break down and cry all the time.” Very true. But what we’re learning now is there’s a middle way between those two responses.
Aid workers responding to short- or long-term humanitarian emergencies will experience some degree of stress. How much depends on the situation and their own coping resources.
From the essay, S.A.W. sounds like an empathic and self-reflective person. Emotions such as empathy are part of our make-up as humans; they connect us with others and provide valuable information about the world around us. The ability to recognize nuances in our emotions, and to name them correctly, empowers us to respond to the world appropriately.
As humans, we have the ability to mirror the emotions of others. This can give rise to true empathy, an ability to feel the distress of another person. But it can also lead to emotional contagion, in which we experience the suffering of another – both physiologically and psychologically – as if it were happening to us. This experience can lead us to become overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
I can only speculate here, because I don’t know S.A.W. But I wonder if, after many years of field work, this person has become worn down and overwhelmed, and if his or her natural and important empathy has turned to empathic distress. Distancing ourselves from suffering, as S.A.W. reports doing, is a natural response to empathic distress: overwhelmed by the pain of others, we want (and need) to protect ourselves.
For that reason, what is often called “compassion fatigue” is more rightly named “empathy fatigue.” Ironically, compassion is the solution, not the problem. Compassion is the wish for others to be free from their suffering, combined with the motivation to do what we can to relieve that suffering. Compassion must be enacted with wisdom, which gives us the discernment to understand and accept our own abilities and limitations in any situation.
Inherent to compassion is a move towards suffering, rather than away from it. You see, we can’t selectively shut out some emotions and remain open to others. When we shut down and cut off our ability to feel suffering, in an attempt to protect ourselves from feeling too much pain, we also diminish our ability to feel joy and happiness, and rob ourselves of connection to others.
While working in the field decades ago, one of our CBR training graduates had witnessed a horrific massacre. In an attempt to wall off the memory and cope with the trauma, he had become both physically and emotionally rigid. Ultimately, he was unable to continue working in the field and transferred to headquarters.
At the training, within the safe space created by the faculty, touched by the lovingkindness practices, this aid worker was able to release the deep grief he had carried these many years. With the pain came ease, and the first shaky steps towards genuine connection to others, along with greater trust in his abilities to handle the range of his emotional experiences. When we build and enhance our inherent compassion, we open our hearts to all of our experience, all of our shared humanity. It becomes possible for us to transform suffering, rather than be depleted by it.
In the CBR program, we emphasize compassion training for aid workers not just to help them cope with the inherent stress of their work, but also because it can improve their own health, well-being and happiness.
No one benefits when the sector loses an experienced, skilled person like S.A.W. for preventable reasons. The CBR faculty, many of them aid workers themselves, teach how to manage the challenges of aid work in a healthier and more constructive way. Aid workers who work effectively within their organizations and contribute their expertise working alongside those who confront tragedy in this world should not be defeated by burnout, overwhelm and exhaustion. They can learn how to cope with suffering, avoid burnout and thrive in their work.
The next CBR Training will be held August 3 – 7 at the Garrison Institute, in New York State, USA. I hope that S.A.W., and any readers who want to reconnect to the compassion that inspired their career, will join us.
Teri Sivilli is the program manager for the Garrison Institute’s CBR Project. After observing the persistent effects of the conflicts in Kosovo and Sri Lanka on the mental health of national staff and the affected populations, she became interested in the potential for contemplative-based interventions to heal chronic stress and trauma.
Last week, during “Mindful Lawyering: A Meditation Retreat for Law Professionals and Students” at the Garrison Institute, we caught up with retreat leader, poet, and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer. Earlier this week, Fischer participated in our event “Mindfulness and the Art of Aging,” as part of the “Garrison Talks at the JCC” series in Manhattan.
We spoke about mindfulness, Zen, and the relationship between personal and systems change.
This week it’s mindfulness for lawyers, next week it’s mindfulness for aging. What is it about mindfulness as a practice or idea that allows it to be useful in so many different contexts?
To be perfectly honest with you, I think the word is overused. For me, it’s not so much the mindfulness of being a lawyer or aging, but rather: Can you look more deeply and clearly at what you’re doing?
Can you do it in a way that is more thoughtful, more inclusive, and more interesting in the end? I do find that when you practice meditation—and when meditation is part of your way of accessing your experience—it gives you a different point of view.
Zen is often described as a goalless practice. Are there meaningful differences between practicing meditation with or without a goal?
Fundamentally, I think it’s the same, but semantic and stylistic differences can matter a lot. In part, I think, it’s more a matter of skillfully asking: Who’s the person who’s practicing this? And if I explain it to them this way, what will happen? If I explain it to them that way, what will happen? Sometimes a difference in semantics can make an enormous difference in the way a person practices or understands their practice.
You’ve been doing these retreats for a few years now. If I had to guess, I’d guess that lawyers are more likely to fall into the “goal” camp. Am I right?
Well, every lawyer is different. But, in general, yes. Legal education does train lawyers to master a set of techniques, skills and ideas. There is a strong element of performance in professional education in general. So, lawyers will be trained to look at something as a problem to be solved, and they’ll apply their analytical capacities to solve that problem.
But I think probably lawyers who are drawn to a retreat like this, see limitations in that perspective. There are advantages in it, clearly, and it’s not something that you need to abandon completely. You need that for your work. But if lawyers reflect on what they’re doing, they realize that there are other, softer skills that are really important. For example, emotional stability subtlety, steadfastness are really important for lawyers, because every legal issue involves interactions with people. Even if it’s one corporation suing another corporation, there are people involved. Your ability to understand where people are coming from and connect with people, is really important.
And then, as a lawyer, you have an emotional life. Sometimes the things that happen in legal matters cause the emotions to go reeling. There could be a great deal of stress or pressure, and it’s important to know how to manage that. I think lawyers recognize that beyond knowing the law, there are other, softer skills that are fundamental to be effective and sustaining a life as a lawyer.
I agree that these soft skills, such as emotional stability, are important. But at what point do you start to ask about the causes of the stress in the first place? Are there aspects of being a lawyer that are stressful because of the way the profession is set up? How does personal work tie into systems change?
We’ve always had aspirations to change the legal education system, to ensure these skills were taught in law schools, which they aren’t now. They barely even exist in law schools. Because of our work and this movement, some law schools are starting to teach these skills. We hope it continues.
But, for me, certainly in our legal work and other kinds of mindfulness work that I do, it’s really a both/and. We have to sustain this work. We have to take care of ourselves. We can’t burn ourselves out and do ourselves in. But, at the same time, you’re right, it’s not just about just taking care of ourselves. Taking care of ourselves is not enough. We really have to figure out how to make the world a better place.
And, for lawyers, let’s make the law a better place. Law is important. Let’s make better laws. Let’s make law schools better. Let’s make the profession better. Let’s change the ethos of the profession.
What does a both/and approach to personal and social change look like?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. How does change happen? When change happens in a way that isn’t organic—in a violent way, in a forceful way, in a disrespectful way—history shows that there is almost always backlash. So you end up having this euphoria for five minutes, and then whatever it was you opposed or defeated comes back. Except this time, it’s even stronger because of all the residual resentment that has been built up because it was just defeated.
That’s what happened in the ‘60s, in my view. We were very successful in the ‘60s in doing all kinds of things, but we’ve been paying for it ever since.
Well, because the right-wing movements felt left out in the ‘60s and were disrespected and unseen, when they had their opportunity, they reasserted themselves even more strongly. So the question is: How do you effect social change in such a way that you bring people along sufficiently and you minimize backlash? Or you marginalize backlash; you don't empower it.
How can you do that—especially if you truly believe that the other perspective, say the right-wing movements, is dangerous?
Well, you include the perspective. You don't act on it. You don't set a policy based on that perspective. But you bring the person to the table and you have a conversation that’s large enough to include that point of view.
I'm not suggesting that that’s the answer to everything, but when you bring a contemplative perspective to social change, you might come up with a different road map than one that’s only political. A political perspective only sees power. I think that leaves out a great deal of what’s important. A religious or spiritual perspective is much deeper and more holistic. It includes more and brings a different kind of emotional balance and understanding to social change.
We’re thrilled and honored to let you know that The Huffington Post is shining a spotlight on our work this month as part of their 10th anniversary.
The Huffington Post Next Ten campaign will help incredible causes that will shape the next decade. The Garrison Institute has been selected for “bringing mindfulness and meditation to the masses.” By tapping the power of contemplation, you can become a force for social change.
What is the Next Ten Campaign?
The Next Ten campaign celebrates the 10th year anniversary of The Huffington Post. To commemorate the anniversary, they are turning their focus toward the next 10 years, and looking at 10 areas they feel will be important in the next decade. In each of those areas, the Huffington Post has selected nonprofits that they believe are making real impact.
How can I help?
It would be very helpful if you could like and share the Garrison Institute’s posts on Facebook, share blog posts, or become a fundraiser through CrowdRise. By sharing and liking our posts you’re helping ensure that more people see them, and this will help tremendously.
If you have friends that might be willing to donate, you may want to become a fundraiser for the campaign. In order to be a fundraiser, you can set up a profile on our CrowdRise page and direct your friends, family, and network to it. Any gift amount is helpful, and appreciated!
To sweeten the deal, if you become a fundraiser and your team raises $1,000 or more we’ll welcome you as a guest for a personal retreat at the Garrison Institute!
Where can I do this?
You can find our Next Ten presence at the following:
Follow and use the hashtag #TheNextTen
"In the Spirit" recently interviewed Garrison Institute Executive Director, Robyn Brentano. During this in-depth discussion, Brentano explained how the Garrison Institute has been a pioneering force in spreading contemplative wisdom and practices throughout society. She highlighted the Institute's various programs that are helping to catalyze a seismic shift in society, as recognition of the benefits of contemplation continues to grow.
Want to learn more on mindfulness and other contemplative practices? Sign up for the Garrison Institute newsletter.
10 Steps to Mindfulness Meditation by The Garrison Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/about-us/the-garrison-institute-blog/1999-10-steps-to-mindfulness-meditation.
Humanitarian aid is crucial and rewarding work often performed under highly stressful conditions. There is growing recognition of aid workers’ need for psychosocial support and skills to strengthen their resilience. Like the aid agencies working with us, the Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) Project addresses the realities of the field with a humanitarian spirit, caring for aid workers just as they care for crisis-affected populations.
Aid workers not only work with trauma, they also live with it. Immersion in disrupted, difficult and dangerous environments exposes them to traumatic stress, along with their clients. In Syria, West Africa, Haiti and countless other conflict and disaster zones around the world, chronic stress, threat of harm, and constant exposure to others’ suffering take their toll on aid workers. Up to 30% report symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Exhaustion and burnout are occupational hazards. Aid organizations increasingly recognize their workers’ need for psychosocial support to help them cope and manage stress.
To address this need, the Garrison Institute created the Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) Project. Grounded in cutting-edge research on human resilience and the humanitarian aid field, CBR training is an experiential skill-building program that teaches the “ABCs” of building resilience: awareness, balance and connection. It educates aid workers about the effects of chronic stress, gives them the cognitive tools to alleviate it. It draws on secular, non-religious contemplative techniques like meditation and yoga, which research shows have positive effects on brain activity, stress response, gene regulation and post-traumatic growth.
The CBR Project is demonstrating the efficacy of its trainings for workers in diverse settings and its potential to influence the culture of the aid field. As we work to extend the reach of the trainings, we’re also working to support the emergence of a new reality where fostering aid workers’ resilience and self-compassion is mission-critical to aid work. As the CBR Project Director Diana Rose said, "We are committed to creating a space where humanitarian aid workers can draw on the compassion that brought them to this work in first place."
For more information about The Contemplative-Based Resilience Project, Please contact:
Image: Courtesty of U.S. Department of Defense on Flickr
In 2014, the CBR Project held four resilience trainings on three continents, reaching humanitarian and emergency international aid workers deployed all over the world. After completing the trainings, participants told us the tools and theories they learned were of practical use for them, and would help them survive and thrive in their work.
In Rwanda, we provided CBR training for two teams of aid workers from the major aid agency, Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps is active in 40 countries, and 93% of its workers are nationals of the countries where they work. Working and living permanently in disrupted areas exposes them to unique stresses and risks. The Mercy Corps selected aid workers from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to take the resilience training.
“Some participants arrived rigid and troubled by things they had experienced in the field,” said CBR Faculty Member Carla Uriarte, who taught the psychosocial education component of the training. “The transformation that took place during the training was impressive.”
Most had never practiced meditation or yoga before, but they experienced their value in the training. Almost all left with enthusiasm and energy to bring these practices into their lives and their work.
“This training made sense, deep in my being,” a participant told us. “For a while I lost motivation in my work because of the stress I was exposed to. But I now understand how this training was useful for me. It permits me to breathe anew and take care of myself while doing humanitarian work.”
During a coffee break on the morning of the final day of the training, CBR Project Manager Teri Sivilli sat with a man who had recently had a traumatic experience in the field, and asked him how he was feeling. "I am better," he said. “And I will continue to feel better and better.”
A CBR Project training at the Garrison Institute in New York attracted international aid workers from ten countries. They had all been deployed in the field at least once and intended to re-deploy in the near future, and they were a highly diverse group representing very different cultures, belief systems and parts of the world. CBR’s integrative approach is designed to be effective for aid workers of all backgrounds and beliefs.
“The tools presented are very practical and will support my ability to respond to my environment,” said one participant. “I think I wanted to know that my experiences weren’t unique,” said another, “and I now definitely understand what happens [to me] during times of extreme stress and [how to take] preventative measures.”
In West Cork, Ireland, we trained European-based aid workers in a program that was organized to be effective for them while they were at home between deployments abroad. The training was held in Denchen Shying on the Beara Peninsula, one of the beauty spots of Ireland, and participants found it restorative in ways that surprised them.
“I feel nurtured on every level,” said one. “I am sure I will take a lot of this with me when I next go into the field.” After the training, another participant emailed us saying, “I started a new job …and I have been drowning in documents, meetings and all the little stresses of a new workplace….I actually credit the course with being one of the significant milestones on my journey back to full time work in the development sector.”
We also held a “train the trainers” program in New York for future CBR faculty who will help us scale up the CBR Project and extend the reach of CBR training to more aid workers. “I see so much potential and need for this type of training/work,” one trainee told us. “The work you do is amazing,” said another. “The love you put into this mission it is evident.”
For more information about The Contemplative-Based Resilience Project, Please contact:
The Garrison Institute's Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) Project recently held a four-day training from November 8 - 11 in the eastern province of Rwanda. Thirty-three national and international humanitarian aid workers from Mercy Corps attended the training, primarily those on the front lines of major conflicts in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.
“Some participants arrived rigid and troubled by things they had experienced in the field,” CBR Faculty Member Carla Uriarte said. “The transformation that took place during the training was impressive.”
While most humanitarian aid workers enter the field for altruistic reasons, the suffering they encounter on a daily basis often leads to stress and burnout. This has a negative impact on the workers themselves, the organizations they represent, and the populations they serve. The CBR Project grew out of the need to provide support for humanitarian aid workers, by helping them develop coping strategies that they can use to continue performing their important work.
"We are committed to creating a space where humanitarian aid workers can draw on the compassion that brought them to this work in the first place," said Diana Rose, Project Director.
The CBR Project draws on the insight from aid practitioners and experts in psychology, trauma, meditation, and movement to create programs that support humanitarian aid professionals to build resilience. The training empowers individuals through teaching them contemplative-based mind, breath, and body practices.
Most of the participants at the Rwanda training had not practiced meditation or yoga before but almost all left with enthusiasm and energy to bring these practices into their lives and their work.
"What is most important for me is that I truly believe that they left the training with more tools to not only cope but thrive in the field and their life in general," Uriarte said.
The Rwanda training was conducted in French and English, and had faculty from the U.S., Spain, and Switzerland. Our faculty included Hugh Byrne, Stephanie Kohler, Teri Sivilli, Carla Uriarte, and Maximilien Zimmermann.
During a coffee break on the morning of the final day, Sivilli sat with a man who had recently experienced a traumatic experience while in the field. She asked him how he was feeling.
"I am better," he said. “And I will continue to feel better and better.”
Robert Chodo Campbell, Koshin Paley Ellison, and Robyn Brentano speaking at the Buddhist Contemplative Care Symposium (Photo by Marc Weiss)
Earlier this month, the Garrison Institute and New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC) presented the second semi-annual Buddhist Contemplative Care Symposium, an event designed to give practitioners tools to provide the most effective palliative and end-of-life care. The gathering encourages leading researchers, physicians, spiritual care providers, and patient advocates to learn from each other and grow as caregivers.
During a break at the symposium we sat down with Zen Buddhist priests and chaplains Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison, founders of NYZCCC, to discuss the increasing interest in end-of-life care, the importance of teaching contemplative care to physicians, and their partnership with the Garrison Institute.
At our 2014 Climate, Buildings and Behavior symposium, resilience expert Andrew Zolli gave this keynote talk on the accelerating pace of disruptions in this century, and how the shocks with which we’re increasingly confronted, don’t fit into our normal planning horizons — so we’re constantly surprised. But that doesn’t lock us into a dystopian future; with disruption also comes opportunity for positive change. “How do we help people and systems recover, persist or even thrive amid disruption?” he asks. “This would be a design brief for the 21st century.”
As our population ages, the increasing demand for palliative and end-of-life care takes a huge toll on doctors, patients and families. How can we bring contemplative care to both the patient and caregiver?
Along with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, we’re hosting our second biennial Buddhist Contemplative Care Symposium on palliative and end-of-life care from November 6 - 9, 2014. Physicians, nurses, social workers and caregivers will learn how to improve their well–being and deepen the "healing encounter".
This short video features some of the leading presenters and major themes of the 2014 symposium. You can also read about our 2012 symposium here.
On July 3rd, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the Garrison Institute’s three spiritual advisers passed away, at home and in peace at the age of 89.
Rabbi Zalman Schechter had a voracious mind and an enormous heart. He was the ultimate integrator, deeply grounded in the Jewish Tradition that he was raised in, but endlessly weaving connections between all spiritual traditions. He was welcomed at Father Keating’s Snowmass Monastery, was an active member of the Sufi community, and for many years held the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University. He was a scholar, a Rabbi and a Rebbe, a beatnik and a hippie, a prolific author and wonderful teacher.
Zalman was a living model of compassion, radiating kindness. Yet he also had discerning wisdom, and deeply perceived the economic, social and environmental issues of the times that he lived in. He taught "Tikkum Olam", that it was our responsibility to repair the fabric of the world.
Zalman was acutely aware of the aging process, and in his sixties, began talking about moving from “age-ing to sage-ing” (It was typical of Zalman to invent a new word like “sage-ing” in express his thoughts). His most recent book, The December Project, published just a few months ago, is about how to fully live the end of ones life, and to make peace with dying.
As one of the Garrison Institute’s three founding spiritual directors, along with Father Thomas Keating and Gelek Rimpoche, Zalman taught deep contemplative practices, developing a method of prayer he called “Davenology”, the art of davening. In his book with Joel Segel, Davening--A Guide for Meaningful Jewish Prayer he wrote: "We strive to make our prayers a vessel for our own experience — and yet, at the same time, to transcend all that heart and mind can grasp. We aim to be most truly ourselves, to stand in our fullness before the living God.”
But, as expressed in the Institute’s mission, he deeply believed that the fruit of that contemplative life should be connected to creating a compassionate society. We celebrate Zalman’s life, and work, and look forward to the continued growth of the seeds that he planted.
— Jonathan F. P. Rose
Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, born in Poland in 1924, fled Nazi genocide and came to the United States when he was 17. Already learned in traditional Judaism, he had become a disciple of the leading Chabad rabbi and was sent as an emissary to bring Jewish mystical wisdom and orthodox practice to small town congregations and college campuses across America and Canada. He soon came to feel constrained by the limits of Orthodoxy and sought a new paradigm for Judaism that would speak to liberal Jews starved for meaning in their religious lives. He introduced radical changes: lively music, equal voices for women, integration of body, mind and spirit, joyful prayer services with changed and contemporary words, meditation and chanting. He valued progressive causes, and created a new system of kashrut that was based on ecological values rather than traditional religious laws. And above all he reached out to leaders of other faiths. He became deeply knowledgeable of Eastern religions and their practices as well as the teachings and practices of Sufi masters, and visited Father Thomas Merton at his monastery. He believed that in today's world, no religion can claim universal truth. Each depends on the others to evoke the wisdom necessary for the survival of the human species - each human created equally in the image of God.
He delighted in and treasured his relationship with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In the above photograph of their meeting in Dharamsala, India you can see their intimacy. You can see Reb Zalman's essence: his joy, his intensity, his deep roots in traditional Judaism and his love of the Holy One whose light shone with such brightness through the eyes of the Dalai Lama.
In his last few years he devoted himself to passing on his wisdom and human legacy to his students, and to what he called The December Project, the spiritual preparation for dying with acceptance, blessing and joy. He left blessings for his family, his circle of friends and supporters and for those he saw as his spiritual heirs - the leaders of the next generation of religious teachers and guides.
Reb Zalman was a spiritual genius, a giant who walked ten steps in front of the rest of us. The Garrison Institute has been blessed by his counsel, and is blessed to carry on his work - bringing the wisdom of ancient traditions to bear in evolving, creative ways - on issues that have challenged humanity since our origins and are now more important than ever.
— Rabbi Rachel B. Cowan, Trustee, Garrison Institute
There has been a spate of mainstream media coverage of mindfulness over the past year, including a recent Time magazine cover story entitled “The Mindful Revolution.” It featured colleagues and collaborators of ours like Janice Marturano, a leader of the mindfulness-at-work trend, who teaches many retreats at the Garrison Institute and presented at our Mindfulness at Work forum last month; Richard Davidson, who is on the board of the Mind and Life Institute and attends its annual meeting here; Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program informs our contemplative education work, and Congressman Tim Ryan, whose Mindful Nation Foundation we recently hosted.
Prominent media coverage of the mindfulness trend is a great development, and a sign of the times. It focuses mostly on the idea that meditation offers practical, secular benefits for the health and well-being of individuals, and helps reduce stress and enhance performance at work. It’s well established in research and practice (MBSR dates back to the late 1970s, and by now has over 1000 instructors in 30 countries).