Elisha Goldstein spoke with Patricia Karpas on the Untangle podcast. Below is an abbreviated transcription of their conversation.
1) Why is it so difficult to keep a meditation practice going?
Elisha Goldstein: That’s a perennial question that has to do with all of the things, whether it’s exercise, eating right, or not being a rage-aholic on the freeway, or a meditation practice, or any of this. The thing is, years ago, we all lived in clans—some cultures still do in some areas. We live in this delusional space a bit where we think we’re separate from our environments, and we walk around thinking, “If I just pull myself up by my bootstraps and really dig deep, I’m going to be able to create this new habit,” which some people might be able to, but the way it works is we’re actually quite in relationship all the time with our environment, and our environment, the environment around us, for most of us, doesn’t support sticking to a certain habit for your own health and well-being.
In fact, it’s in some ways the opposite. Most of the messages we get around us is, “What’s wrong with us?” and what we need more of to be happy. That keeps our economy growing. We don’t have a community of people around us for the most part, because they’re also in this trance of needing more and more to be happy. We need community like in the olden days of people that are saying, “I”m doing this thing,” which cues us to do that thing as well. That’s really hard right now.
[…] Really what we need is, we need community. We need connection. We need cues around us in our environment that lend us implicitly and automatically towards these new types of behaviors that we want for ourselves. People are the best cues we can possibly get. In other words, I always say to people, “If you’re standing in the middle of a circle and everyone around you cares about you and understands you and is supporting you to doing the things that you want to do in this world, how does that make you feel?” A lot of people say, “I feel safe. I feel accepted. I feel more motivated to do these types of things.”
When we’re having a difficult moment in time, we’re more likely to access those memories of stability that we’ve been practicing.
That’s our biggest crux in our culture right now. To me it’s our biggest growth area is recreating an opportunity to allow more accessibility to mentorship for people to do the things they want to do. For example, I have a practice in therapy and teach people meditation, and everyone’s always able to make their appointments for the most part, but to do it in their daily life is really tough, so more accessible mentorship, more friends and community around you that are doing similar things that you’re doing, so automatically cue you to be accountable for these new changes you want to do in your world. I think that would make a gigantic difference, unparalleled.
Patricia Karpas: I feel like a lot of people think they do have communities around them. They have their families. They have their friends, but I think what you’re saying is you’re not always getting the cues that you need to really grow.
EG: I’m saying if you want to create a meditation practice, let’s say, mindfulness, let’s say, is a huge thing in our culture right now, yoga first and then mindfulness. All this new science that’s come out in the past fifteen years saying it changes your brain for the better and it leads to reducing your blood pressure and a variety of different ways of feeling healthy, reduction and relapse prevention for depression, anxiety, stress, these different things, but without continuity of practice, here’s the part that we also miss out on, the media doesn’t really catch this either because everyone wants just snippets, and without continuity of some form of practice, it doesn’t have to be some major long thirty minute a day practice, just some continuity of practice, those changes aren’t going to happen. We might have family around us or we might have friends around us, but those family and friends aren’t necessarily into this type of stuff.
They might just be people we’ve had in our lives forever who are supportive to us, but if we want to say, “I really want to take this meditation thing to the next level and create a regular practice,” that’s not necessarily something that your family and friends are going to cue you to do. If you want to be cued to do that, if you want the optimal opportunity, then I would suggest taking the Alcoholics Anonymous model in some way and saying, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The wisdom to know the difference is, I can create this practice of exercise, or of meditation, or these different things in my life, but I also have to understand that habitually in my life I have this habit of starting something and stopping something or not continuing with it regularly, and that’s just part of my constitution. I can change that, but it’s going to be a whole lot more supportive if I have people around me that I know that are doing the same thing, and I’m connecting with those people, I’m going to be automatically and implicitly cued to move in that direction. It’s just noticing what is helpful to us and accepting that we don’t have to just do it all on our own and to optimize our environment, and that will help.
PK: Really, if we’re really narrowing it down, it’s you really should have like-minded people around you to support the changes that you choose to make in your life, and that will make it so much easier.
EG: And the mentorship—like-minded people. I think mentorship is important because like-minded people can be enough. That would be a huge cue, just to have that alone. If you have someone to ask questions to that’s been around the block before, I guess, they’ll be able to provide you with some insight that may arouse you to go to that next level or move past that obstacle that’s inevitable. One of the teachers or people that I really love her work is this woman, Carol Dweck, out of Stanford. Maybe we’ll get her on this podcast. She’s written and done a lot of research around different mindsets. One of the things that I love about her is she said, “Some people have a fixed mindset, and some people have something called a growth mindset.” A fixed mindset is something that says, “I have certain abilities and that’s about it. Every time I fail at a certain task, it’s just a reinforcement of what I can’t really do.”
That’s associated with people who have high anxiety and depression, and I mean more like recurrent depression. This isn’t a mindset that just sticks with you always, but it can come in and out. There’s the growth mindset, which says this, and this is really important because this speaks to exactly what we’re talking about around making changes, which is that obstacles in life are inevitable. We’re always going to have something that’s going to run up against us and say, “Okay, you can’t do this right,” or, “This is too hard,” or something like that. The learning mindset, or what she calls the growth mindset, says, “Obstacles are things to continue to try and learn from, and engage from, or create insight from,” and then you can begin again from this place of understanding what this obstacle was and how to move around it more the next time or continue to experiment with it.
You continue to grow and grow and grow that way. I think these types of things that we’re talking about around having people around us, these like-minded people as you said, and then also mentors who have been around the block before or maybe been trained in this particular thing that you want to change, is going to be incredibly impactful towards actually making the changes we want to make and sustaining a practice in whatever you want to do, whether it’s engineering, or whether it’s exercise, or whether it’s meditation, or any of that type of stuff. Those two things, that like-minded people and that mentorship, is something that our culture needs to really learn to get better and better at.
2) What does it take to train our minds to do new things? How can we really make big transformative changes?
EG: If I was to say the simplest thing to do that can be a shift in mindset that’s quicker than taking a selfie maybe is adopting a really curious mindset towards things, because when we want to … Novelty, by the way, trying new things is associated with positive brain change, and it’s also associated with various aspects of well-being. In order to even open up our mind to try new things, which I think is the first part of your question, we have to adopt a beginner’s mind. You’ve heard this term before, maybe many listeners have as well, but Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind, the possibilities are endless, and in the expert’s mind, the possibilities are few.”
We want to adopt a curious mindset towards things. We might say, “I know this is how this is going to go,” or, “Meditation, that’s not for me,” or, “Exercise in this way, that’s not for me.” We might want to say, “Okay, let me try this again from this point in my life, and be curious about when I do engage this stuff, what do I notice in my experience.” I think that’s one part about it of how we train our minds. We first have to break open our mind to be open to trying new things, and that’s adopting a beginner’s mind. In order to make really big transformative changes, we need that and we need a bit of grit, I would say.
PK: What do you mean by that? I was thinking you were going to say practice, so you need the curiosity and then you need to practice, so you need to repeat something over and over again, but what do you mean by grit?
EG: Grit says that, “I understand that some things are going to be hard, and I also know that I’m in this for the long haul and that I’m going to move through these difficulties, and there’s different ways to move through them.” There’s a way that a lot of people do, which is they grit their teeth to get through it, which is not the kind of grit I’m talking about. There’s a way of bringing a bit more self-compassion into the process, seeing the whole journey of how there’s going to be ups and downs to it, and when there’s downs and fear is there or discomfort is there, difficulty is there, I can name that. That’s that moment of mindfulness. When I name it, I get a little bit of space from it.
I can also recognize that wow, this is a really difficult moment. I anticipated that there’s going to be difficult moments. Everyone has difficult moments when they’re trying to make the big changes in their lives. It’s just a part of being human. There’s a common humanity to it. What do I need right now in order to support myself in moving through this? That type of self-compassion practice builds into having grit and continuity of practice is, to me, a recipe for setting yourself up for success, for making big transformative changes.
3) How do you find a good teacher or mentor?
EG: I feel like back in the day, certainly before my lifetime and yours, way back when, there were mentors that were really accessible. You were part of a community, and there was mentors in that community. When it comes to meditation in particular … This course is called A Course in Mindful Living, and what I’ve noticed in the past fifteen, twenty years with this real rise in science around mindfulness and all these programs coming out, six to eight week programs coming out, and me having taught these programs for the past ten years or more, I’ve found that people often come out having felt like they got something out of this program, whether it’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), or a variety of different programs. They say, “Okay, now what,” or, “Where do I go now?”
The science showed that then their practice falls away because the community is gone, the mentorship is gone. What I thought would be really fantastic was to give people a longer period of time to actually integrate this work. For example, in traditional mindfulness-based programs that are out there, there’s not really the time and space to learn some of the fundamentals that really help you sustain your practice, which is learning how to be more relaxed, learning how to train your nervous system to untangle from the frenetic-ness that’s been conditioned from the culture that we live in right now. When we have a more relaxed nervous system, our brain is more receptive to learning and then to how to create stability of mind.
You and I know, and everyone who’s listening to this, or for most of us who’s listening to it, we’ve been trained, as Linda Stone’s talked about, in this continuous partial attention. It’s hard for a lot of people to really get through books nowadays because we’re more conditioned, just we practiced and repeated over time reading more small snippets of things, and that’s the kind of brain that we’ve been conditioning. To be able to have a more relaxed mind and train more of a stability of attention will help us in anything that we’re doing, again, whether it’s surfing, or learning about mountain biking, or exercise, or meditation, or anything. These kind of things, we really begin to train. That’s just some of the content that’s important, but the biggest part is creating a worldwide faculty of people that are accessible, trained teachers that are certified to be mentors to people all over the world.
4) We talked a little bit about creating stability in difficult. It’s one thing to learn it, but when you’re in that moment of grief or a work crisis, or you’ve just broken up in a relationship, how do you find your ground, your stability?
EG: There’s only a couple things we can really do in life. The main thing is really preparing. The learning aspect is this aspect of preparing for, in some ways, those difficult moments. That’s really quite an important piece. When we’re having a difficult moment in time, we’re more likely to access those memories of stability that we’ve been practicing. As an example, whether that’s settling into your body with, let’s say, a mountain meditation, like we have a meditation studio, and practicing that regularly so you really have a sense in your body of this stability. During a difficult moment, if you’re practicing something like that regularly, you’re more likely to access it even during that time of grief and come into your body.
The body’s the first place that I always tell people to go to, as far as creating stability, because what you’re doing is as you’re sensing in your body, and there’s plenty of science that backs this up, you’re creating a neuro-shift in your brain that’s moving from the mind that’s thinking and self-referencing all the time to the part that’s accessing your body and your emotions. You’re turning the volume down in your thinking and coming to be with what’s here. Even in the first part of A Course of Mindful Living, one of the very first practices that we learn is noticing when your body is bracing because then your mind is really thinking and moving around, and learning how to be aware of that and softening that again and again and again. Your brain gets more used to that, and it becomes more of implicit memory, which means it happens automatically.
5) How can meditation help us in the world? How do we truly come to understand and accept our differences and radically accept them?
EG: Rick Hansen and I were giving a talk at UCLA, and we were talking about what it’s going to take to move the needle with world peace and get people to come together more. I’ll just say this without trying to get too grandiose. I think that Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite teachers said, “Peace in oneself, peace in the world.” Obviously it starts with us. What I know is that when we do create more sense of ease and peace and grounding within ourselves individually, there’s a reality around emotional contagion, which means that the emotions that we cultivate within ourselves, the sense that we cultivate in ourselves, seem to have ripple effects across people at least, the science shows, up to three degrees.
This is science by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, that have found that obesity is contagious up to three degrees, loneliness and happiness. All those three things are contagious up to three degrees. We know this in our own lives because when we’re feeling really angry or people around us are feeling that way, you feel it in your body, and you start to hold that energy. It starts with us doing this, and so that’s why I’m trying to create this worldwide network of mentorship and communities, surrounding and support each other within these types of practices so that they can really integrate this in a more enduring way, and that then has ripple effects across the people in the communities around them. Now, that’s the first thing, doing with ourselves and understanding how emotional contagion works.
I think the other piece is … Walking around here, just a quick experiment to try out, and I integrate this in a number of the writings that I’ve done over time, is to walk around and notice people who you do feel different from, or if you’re reading something and you feel really different from … For me, and I’ll out myself, I’m not a huge Donald Trump supporter. It’s really tough for me to see the way that … He’s a role model for my children, being someone that’s such a high political figure and the things that he says. People have their differences, who are listening to this call, and that’s okay. I’m going to connect with you without losing my identity. I can look at him and I can say to myself as an experiment, “Just like me. Donald Trump, just like me,” and see what comes up.
Here’s a human being that wants the same things fundamentally as I do. He wants to feel cared about. He wants to feel understood. He wants to feel a sense of belonging. He may go about it in different ways than I do, but fundamentally, this is what this man wants, and so, “Just like me.” I feel into that as I say that, and so it creates a certain level of connection underneath all the turbulent waters, that I would say are happening when I think about him, is this sense of connection that’s there. Here’s a human being. There is a common humanity in our relationship. I say to people, “Start that practice as an experiment with people who you don’t feel tremendous energy around but who you feel slightly different from, and then move it down, move it down, move it down, little by little, to people who you feel more and more different from. Just see what you notice.”
I think that’s really one way of creating connection where there’s more implicit disconnection or explicit disconnection, is just by playing with that practice. The one thing is starting with you, digging down to communities, mentorship, creating a people-changing around the world, and then emotional contagion, allowing the ripple effects to move. I know that’s going to take time and maybe take five hundred years or more to happen, who knows, but then there’s also the simple practice that we can do day to day, which is just walking around and just saying, “Just like me,” or making a list of people you feel different from, and everyone who’s really from least activating to most activating, start with the least activating person, and just play with that. Experiment, and just see what you notice.