[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.6] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind and what makes peak performers tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we examine how mindfulness practices developed independently in cultures across the globe, discuss how evolution shaped our brains to focus on survival, instead of happiness and fulfillment. We ask what is success, how do we define it, and what is the failure of success? We go deep into how to practice self-compassion, and much more with Dr. Ronald Siegel.
The Science of Success continues to grow with more than 800,000 downloads, listeners in over 100 countries, hitting number one in New and Noteworthy, and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all this incredible information?” A lot of our listeners are curious about how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge I get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to awesome podcast, and more.
Because of that, we’ve created an epic resource just for you; a detailed guide called How to Organize and Remember Everything. You can get it completely free by texting the word “smarter” to the number 44222. Again, it’s a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. All you have to do to get it is to text the word “smarter” to the number 44222 or go to scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
In our previous episode, we discussed learning how to learn meta-learning, how Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison practice the art of sleeping without sleeping to hack their neural systems, the concept of chunking, what neuroscience says about it, and how you can use it to become a learning machine, why following your passion is not the right thing to focus on, and much more, with our guest, Barbara Oakley. If you want to become a learning master, listen to that episode.
[00:02:14.6] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest to the show, Dr. Ronald D. Siegel. Ronald is the Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School where he’s taught for over 30 years. He also currently serves on the board of directors and faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. He’s a long-time student of Mindfulness Meditation, having authored and co-authored several books on the topic including the Mindfulness Solution, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, and several more.
Ron, welcome to The Science of Success.
[00:02:43.3] RS: Thanks for having me.
[00:02:44.6] MB: We’re very excited to have you on here. For listeners who may not be familiar with you and some of your work, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[00:02:51.1] RS: I’m a clinical psychologist by training and I happen to have been interested in mindfulness practices ever since I was a kid and that I’m now in my 60s, so that was quite some time ago. I was doing them personally, and then about 35 years ago, I became involved with a group of people who were either training in or teaching in the Harvard Medical School system. All of whom were mental health professionals who all were also doing personal mindfulness practices.
Back 35 years ago, we pretty much stayed under the radar and kept to ourselves because the mental health field is very heavily psychoanalytic at the time, and none of us wanted to be accused of having unresolved infantile longings to return to a state of oceanic oneness, which was how Freud understood meditation practices.
We stayed under the radar and we talked among ourselves. Then, interestingly overtime through the ground-breaking work of a number of innovators who brought mindfulness practices first into medicine and then into education and then into the mainstream more broadly, people became interested in what we knew about how mindfulness practices could help people with both every day psychological difficulties as well as more serious states of depression, anxiety, and alike.
Then, we started writing and teaching for our colleagues, other professionals who were interested in this. This has now mushrooms so that if you were to now go to, say, the annual meeting of what’s called the ABCT, which is the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, which is really where the scientifically-minded people in the mental health field, not on the drug side but the ones developing psychotherapies, get together. The majority of presentations are now online from this and acceptance-based treatments.
We now have this huge database showing that, “Gee! Mindfulness practices are enormously helpful for transforming people’s lives.” What I do nowadays is I still have a clinical practice. I’m still a practicing psychologist, but I also go around the world training mostly mental health professionals in how to use this with their clients or patients but also sharing this information with the general public.
[00:05:03.6] MB: Before we dig too deep into mindfulness itself, I’d love to start our conversation with the idea that you’ve talked about in the past that we didn’t evolve to be happy.
[00:05:13.8] RS: It’s interesting that mindfulness practices have been developed in virtually all the cultures of the world. We wonder, “How come? How did this happen?” Nowadays, modern psychology is very interested in what structures of the brain were originally evolved through Darwinian processes to be adaptive; in other words, to help us to survive and help us to reproduce and pass on our DNA, but perhaps, we’re not well-equipped or perhaps don’t incline us toward happiness. I can just rattle of a few.
One of them is our capacity to think. If you imagine our ancestor out there in the African Savannah, hanging around with lions and other kinds of predators around; what did our ancestor — Let’s say Lucy, who is Australopithecus, one of our ancestors of whom we have the bones. What were her options for survival? If she came face-to-face with a lion, she could bare and show her claws, but, “Argh!”, that wouldn’t be terribly effective. She might try to run, but that wouldn’t work.
One of the first things you learn if you go on a walking safari in Africa is that everything out there that’s scary is faster than you are. The first thing the guide says is, “No matter what you encounter, please don’t run.” They say, “You see that lumbering hippopotamus over in the mud puddle? 42 miles an hour when he gets pissed. You see that half-blind rhino behind the tree? 38 miles an hour.” In fact, if you run, they’re just going to think that you’re their predator. They’re just going to think you’re a prey and they’ll go after you all the more.
She wasn’t going to be able to fight back. She wasn’t going to be able to run away. She had a reasonable sense of hearing, a very limited sense of smell, just ask your dog, eyesight that was okay and not as good as an eagle or a giraffe but better than a half-blind rhino. Somehow, she survived. We know she had several things going for her. One was a prehensile thumb, and that’s the ability to grasp things and pick up things to make tools. If you just compare your dexterity to, say, your dog’s dexterity, it’s clear that that helps a lot.
The other thing we had was the fight or flight response, which allows to mobilize a lot of energy in an emergency situation. The third thing we had was this capacity to think. Now, the prehensile thumb doesn’t cause us a lot of trouble as humans. Boy, oh, boy, does this fight or flight system, especially tie to this capacity to think, make us miserable.
We know the activation of the fight or flight system because we experience it most often as ether excitement or anxiety, and very often, it’s tied to worry. Thinking gets us into trouble in large part because our thinking capacity is not some neutral computer. Lucy was able to survive out there in the savannah because she was able to remember past events and anticipate future ones and strategize as to how to survive the future challenge, but her mind wasn’t some neutral computer as I said. It was —
I have a friend, Rick Hanson, who wrote a wonderful book called the Buddhist Brain in which she says that our mind evolved with a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for bad events and Teflon for good ones. When bad events happen, they stick. When good ones happen, they slide right off the pan. This makes perfect sense.
If you could imagine Lucy out there in the savannah, she could have made one of two types of errors. We can call it a type one error and a type two error. Roughly, if any viewers trained in science the way we use those terms in scientific research. She could have been looking at, let’s say, a set of bushes that had a vague shape behind it. She could have thought, “Oh, my God! It’s a lion,” when it was really just a beige rock. That would have been a type one error. Or she could have thought, “It’s probably a beige rock,” when it was really a lion. That would be a type two error.
If you think about it, Lucy could have made countless type one errors and still live for another day and passed on her DNA and the like. If she made even one type to error even one time thinking that the lion were just a rock, that’s the end of her DNA line.
We developed brains that are exquisitely sensitive to danger that remember every bad thing that happened. We see this in every day worries, we see this in everyday occupations. We might imagine that back in Lucy’s day, there were some happy Hominids hanging around, holding hands, singing Kumbaya, remembering the last dynamite sexual experience or luscious piece of fruit; they typically, however, were not our ancestors. Why? Because they died before they got to reproduce. Our ancestors were the ones who were going around saying, “Oh, my God. It looks like a lion.” “Damn, it could be a snake.” “Shit, is that a cliff,” et cetera.
We developed this brain that has constantly anticipating danger and remembering bad things that happened that is tied to this fight or flight system where we feel are palm sweating or our heart racing, all the different things that happened to us. Whether it’s asking somebody out on a date that we’re afraid, won’t like us, going to the job interview, thinking about what’s going to happen to my finances, worrying about our health, and worrying about what other people think of us, and on, and on, and on. We actually evolved to be tormented in this way.
Interestingly, some people, when they hear this, they say, “Well, well, well. I’ve heard that stress is really bad for your health, so that doesn’t really make sense that we would have evolved to be such stressed-out beings.” If you think about it, must this stress-related disorders, everything from chronic headaches and stomach aches and the like to things like heart attacks; they typically don’t kill us till after we’ve reproduced. The fact that we live a life stressed out and tormented in one way or another actually had very little negative effect on our capacity to reproduce. Natural selection didn’t really care about it so much. That, in a nutshell, is what we mean by we didn’t evolve to be happy.
[00:11:24.2] MB: It’s such an important concept for people to understand that our brains were literally sculpted by evolution to focus on the negative, to focus on fears and threats and anything that might bring us perceived harm.
[00:11:39.2] RS: Exactly. Just to add one other thing; the other thing we’d say they were the other form of harm that causes tremendous suffering for us today is our concern with social ranking. Humans hung out in primate troops of 25 to 50 and you’re with the same group of 25 to 50 from birth until death. New members were being born and dying, but it was a pretty small club. If we look at other primates that are organize that way, chimpanzees and others, we see that they spend a lot of their energy jacking for dominance; trying to figure out who’s the alpha male, who’s friends with the alpha male, who’s supported by the alpha male, which females are going to be sexual partners to the more dominant males and the like.
There’s actually a fair amount of tension that goes into this. It doesn’t take a lot of observation looking at human beings to notice that, “Oh, my. We spend a lot of our energies jacking for position.” The way that shows up in most of us in terms of our subjective experience is concerns about self-esteem. “What do people think about me? How am I doing compared to the other guys or the other women?”
We get hooked on an extraordinary variety and different dimensions or domains. For one person, it’s — Well, in our society who has more money? For someone else, it’s who has the higher position in the organization? For somebody else, it’s who has more friends? For someone else, it’s who’s morally purer or more righteous. For somebody else, who’s more artistically creative? For lots of people, it’s who’s better-looking, who’s more buff, who has the better body, who has the sexier spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend? For older folks; who has the better behavior or higher achieving kids? This goes on and on and on in ways in which we’re constantly comparing ourselves to one another.
If our listeners would reflect on this for a moment, on the comparisons that you make and we all make even though we tend to be embarrassed in making them and we tend to keep our thoughts to ourselves; who among us always wins? We’re always going up and down in these comparisons. I remember once, I asked a group of therapists about them. A guy raised his hand when I said, “Who among you always wins?” I thought, avoid him at lunch because, the people who think they’re all who’s winning are inseparable.
We have this other guy mention of social comparison and worrying about whether we’re good enough which is also quite hard-wired. The way that that got hard-wired is because it turns out that the higher ranking males got to reproduce more with the more reproductively-promising or fertile females. Translate; the guys who were on top in the pack got the hot babes. That’s more or less how this translates and they actually got to pass their DNA down more.
Here, too, we could imagine that there might have been happy Hominids hanging around, not caring about that, being egalitarian, just connecting out of love. By and large, they didn’t get to reproduce as much, so we didn’t get so many of their genes. It’s not that we don’t have some of those genes but we’ve got an awfully strong genetic loading to worry about who we are, how we compared to others.
This stuff causes — It runs the whole advertising business, it drives most people’s achievement motivation, and it really does a lot of running the world if we step back and reflect on it, and it doesn’t do it happily because we can never win consistently. Unless you live and we’ll be gone where all of the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all of the children are above average; you’re always going to be above average and below average some of the time.
Also, we change our comparison groups, so that if you’re an Olympic athlete, your comparison group is the other guys going for the bronze, the silver, and the gold. You’re not thinking anymore, “Well, I’m the better athlete than the other kids in high school.” That’s no longer relevant, so we continue to recalibrate, and that adds to our difficulties as well.
[00:15:51.8] MB: That speaks to something you’ve talked about in the past or just the concept of the pain of I, me, my, mine. Is that the same concept or are those interrelated?
[00:16:01.5] RS: Yeah, absolutely. There are a number of dimensions to this. One of the ways in which constant preoccupation with ourselves causes a lot of pain is simply this social comparison and the utter impossibility of winning or staying on top consistently. Another in which that plays out is when we’re preoccupied with trying to prove ourselves in some way, it tends to disconnect us from other people.
One of the other things that we are actually hard-wired for is to feel connected to the rest of the primate troop. If you can imagine again going back to the African savannah, if somebody were kicked out of a troop and were there on their own, their chance of survival would be quite minimal. We have this really hard-wired instinct to want to be accepted by and connected with the group.
In fact, when we feel connected to a group of friends or family, it feels really good to us. This runs counter to this other impulse toward becoming the winner which tends to cut us off from people and cause a lot of suffering. Unfortunately, most cultural forces, particularly in western premarket economies, nowadays, you don’t get a lot of messages of, “How can we support one another?” You get a lot of messages, “How can you achieve and come out on top?”
I might even say, for the title to your series, which deals with success, it’s a very — I don’t know how many of your speakers have been expressing this, but what do we mean by success? Do we mean by success coming out on top? Having the most in terms of the social comparisons; or we mean by success no longer feeling like we need to pursue that. Either way, and I would argue the latter way, you’re going to wind up a good deal happier than if you put all your eggs in the basket of beating the other guy or the other woman.
[00:18:00.9] MB: That ties into another concept you’ve talked about, which is the failure of success and how we constantly recalibrate. I’d be curious to hear you explain that.
[00:18:11.8] RS: That’s what I was mentioning, vis-à-vis the Olympic athletes, but we don’t even need to look at them. We can look at just our own lives and think of how many moments we had in our lives in which we thought, “Wow! When I reach that threshold, when I reach that milestone, I’m going to feel good about myself and I’m going to feel like I had arrived.”
This starts very early in the kid feeling like, “Oh, I really want to stand up and walk.” They do feel good when they stand up and walk for a while; or when I can ride a bicycle; or when I can go to the store by myself; or when I graduate elementary school or junior high or high school; or get my first girlfriend or boyfriend; or get a driver’s license; or get a car; or get a house; or get a well-paying job; or whatever it is.
I train a lot of mental health professionals, and most of us work very hard to get a professional degree at some point. For many of us, it was a six-year or so post-baccalaureate process. After college, another six years or so for most people to get, say, a doctorate in psychology, or roughly similar to become a psychiatrist, for example.
While we were going through those processes, the thought of, “Wow! When I finally get there, when I’m finally degreed and licensed, that’s going to feel good.” Indeed, when we reach the milestone, it does feel good. I’ll often ask the audience of mental health professionals, many of whom are quite senior, “How many of you woke up this morning feeling, “I feel so fulfilled because I have my professional degree and license?”
Everybody cracks up laughing because everybody’s habituated to it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, that. Of course, that, but I feel good or bad depending on what happens to me today. Are more people interested in my work? Am I getting praise from the people I’m working with? Am I being invited to be part of this or that professional organization?” We constantly recalibrate and then need more and more and more if we’re predicating our sense of well-being on achievement.
[00:20:15.8] MB: How does that tie into some of the common misconceptions that people have about what they think will make them happy?
[00:20:24.4] RS: The misconceptions we have about happiness are very similar to addictions, generally, what happens when we’re addicted to something. Let’s take addictions that don’t have a particularly strong wholesome aspect to them like addiction to alcohol or eating too much chocolate cake. Addiction to anger is a little complicated, but some kind of unwholesome habit that we find ourselves doing.
In the short run, it feels very good. To go from not drinking to drinking; if you’re feeling anxious, or upset or stressed out, it feels really good. Of course, and I’m not knocking alcohol. If you do that occasionally and in moderation, it’s fine. If you do it too much and you always go for it to get rid of some pain and to feel better, we know that in the long run, it feels quite bad. We do not get happy doing that. The same is true for almost all of the unhealthy things that we do because they feel good in the short run but bad in the long run.
When we have a self-esteem victory, when we beat the other guy or the other woman or we were the chosen one, or we got to feel, “Hey, I’m really good at this.” In the short run, it feels very good. We have that uplifting feeling in our chest, the sense of buoyancy, feeling taller, feeling bigger, thinking, “Oh! People will respect me now or like me now.” There’s all this good feeling that goes with that.
The problem is if we attach to it, we become addicted to that feeling and then, trying to reproduce it makes us quite unhappy in the long run. As it turns out, what makes people far happier in the long run is finding ways to connect safely to others and to engage more fully in whatever they’re doing in this moment, whether the thing we’re doing in this moment seems something grand or special or seems quite ordinary. That’s actually where mindfulness practices come in as an antidote to these hard-wired propensities towards suffering.
[00:22:35.8] MB: Let’s transition the conversation now and really dig into the concept of mindfulness. People use that word a lot and they sometimes use t interchangeably with phrases like meditation and they sometimes use it incorrectly. Really simply, what is mindfulness and how do you define it?
[00:22:35.8] RS: Mindfulness is actually an attitude that we can have toward whatever we’re experiencing in a particular moment. It’s not exactly a state of mind. It’s not about being calm, but it is about being aware of your present experience, whatever happening right now and being able to accept or embrace whatever’s happening right now.
Because mindfulness practices are now being used so widely in psychotherapy, there have been a number of scales developed to measure mindfulness. It turns out that if you ask people, “Are you aware of your present experience with acceptance,” you run into this problem. It’s actually called the Dunning-Kruger effect, a couple of psychologists at Cornell. I think they won the Nobel Prize for discovering this.
This has to do with the fact that across all human activities, our actual confidence is inversely proportional to our perceived confidence. Actual confidence is inversely proportional to perceived confidence. What that means is we can think of this as the Homer Simpson effect. Homer’s supremely confident when we goes out on his misadventures. It’s just us and the audience thinking, “It doesn’t look good.”
People who think they’re great at stuff typically aren’t. People who have doubts typically are more skilled. What we see in terms of mindfulness is people who have spent years doing mindfulness practices, which have designed to cultivate mindfulness. If you ask them, “Are you aware of your present experience with acceptance?” They say, “Well, it’s a rare event. Sometimes, I’m really present.” If you ask people who haven’t been practicing, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I’m aware all the time.”
One of the things that happens as we develop mindfulness is we develop where at Google they’re now calling higher resolution consciousness. Think of it as more pixels per square centimeter, if you will. You develop the capacity to really notice what’s going on in the mind moment by moment. What we find when we develop that capacity, is we find that most of the time, our minds are lost in the thought stream. We’re thinking about the future, thinking about the past, and trying to strategize or angle how to get more pleasure, more pleasure, more pleasure in the future and avoid pain and discomfort in the future.
What we start to realize when take mindfulness practices is that there is an alternative that instead of being lost in the thought stream, we can actually bring our attention moment to moment to what’s happening in the mind or the body. As a result, most mindfulness practices, things that are designed to develop mindfulness, to develop this attitude toward experience involve picking a sensory object, something in the present moment, a sensation, like the sensation of the breath and the body, or like sounds, or like colors, or like taste, but something that’s a sensory experience and following that as closely as possible with our attention. Every time the mind leaves it and leaps off into the thought stream, gently bringing it back to this object of awareness.
When we do this enough, what happens is we actually begin to disconnect somewhat from our thoughts. Thoughts still arise and pass the way they normally do, but instead of believing in each thought as being reality, like if I’m thinking, “Hey, I’m doing a good job on this interview,” and thinking, “Okay, it’s real,” or “I’m doing a terrible job on this interview,” and think of that as reality. Instead, I just start to notice, “Oh, there’s another self-evaluated thought popping up.”
We start to see thoughts much more like clouds passing through a sky. We simply don’t identify with them or believe in them as much. That starts to become enormously useful, because that starts to disconnect us or free us from this hard-wired negativity bias around thinking that I spoke about earlier.
Just to pursue mindfulness and thought here for a moment, and then I’ll get back to your question about meditation. I invite you and people in the audience to think about something that’s upsetting. Just bring that to mind. Then, reflect for a moment, “Would I be upset about this of it weren’t for, simply, my thought about it?”
When we think about things that are upsetting, they’re typically not what I’m tasting now, what I’m touching now, what I’m feeling in my body now. They’re typically anticipations of what might happen or what is happening somewhere else. We start to notice that a huge amount of our psychological suffering has to do with our thinking. If we can begin to get perspective on our thinking by doing mindfulness practices in which we simply notice thoughts as arising and passing as mental contents rather than realities, that can be enormously freeing to us.
Now, there is a wonderful study that was done actually at Harvard by a graduate student here named Matthew Killingsworth. He developed a smartphone app, which page people at random intervals during the day and asked them to report on three things; what they were doing, where their attention was at that moment, and how they were feeling.
First of all, he discovered that people’s minds, he said were wondering 47 odd percent of the time. I think that’s a grossly low estimate. If you take up mindfulness practices, you’ll begin to notice your mind is wandering 95 plus percent of the time. There was that. The next thing he discovered was what predicted whether people felt a sense of well-being or not, had little to do with what they’re actually doing.
The main variable was whether they were paying attention to what they were doing while they were doing it. To use an extreme example, participants who were making love or eating a gourmet meal, but whose minds are wandering, felt less well-being than people who were washing the dishes but were fully present to the experience of washing the dishes; feeling the soap, feeling the water, noticing the colors, looking at the bubbles, like that.
It turns out that, as human beings, when we can be engaged in the present moment, that almost always brings a sense of well-being. When we’re fantasizing about the future, thinking about the past, and trying to angle for how to rack up more pleasure, more status, more of stuff that we think will make happy; we actually have, a great deal, less well-being.
Just to circle around to something I neglected that you mentioned. You said, “How is mindfulness related to meditation?” These are overlapping ideas. Meditation describes a whole set of different kinds of practices that we might do to cultivate certain states of mind. There’s Christian contemplate of meditation, I guess, is an example, where people meditate on passages of the bible to see what relevance they might have or what teaching they might have to offer for how to live a life well. That’s one form of meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is a different form of meditation. Mindfulness meditation has two components. Not to get too technical about this, but one of them is developing concentration, developing the ability to have this higher resolution consciousness which we develop by simply practicing again and again, bringing our attention back to a sensory object in the present and really attending to it carefully.
The other component that it — Other components that it has is now called by a neurobiologist, open monitoring, which is once we develop a certain amount of attention, then we kind of open the field of awareness to notice wherever the mind goes in each moment, but we’re aware that the mind is jumping around to different objects.
In open monitoring, I might be starting to pay attention to my breath, but then I hear the birds sing and then I notice the itch on my left thigh, and then I noticed a thought coming about what I’m going to do next. We sort of follow these different things out. It may be a little technical for people who are just beginning, but the upshot of this is we learn how to train the mind to be aware of what’s happening and to be able to accepting of it to not to be pushing away the unpleasant experiences and grasping the pleasant ones. It is that skill when we learn to actually accept what’s going on moment to moment that really shifts us away from all of the hardwired propensities to its suffering to living a life that feels much fuller, much richer, in which we’re really engaged moment to moment in what’s happening, but we’re not striving so much.
[0:31:23.8] MB: One of the things — And I practice meditation regularly for about three years. One of the things that it’s helped me with tremendously is cultivating that awareness of my thoughts. I’ve struggled more with the acceptance component. How can you really cultivate and train and build that acceptance muscle?
[0:31:42.8] RS: There are a number of exercises that are actually explicitly designed to do this, that various mindfulness traditions have their practices that are called love and kindness practices, for example, that come out of Buddhist traditions in which a person first visualizes somebody who is naturally loving and kind and then begins to try to generate in the heart. This is sometimes actually done with a hand over the heart or two hands over the heart and try to generate loving and kind wishes for that person as you might for a puppy, or a child you love, and alike.
Then, once you got a little bit of that going and beginning to feel those feelings, actually generate the love and kindness feeling towards oneself, because a lot of times, if the thing that’s arising in the mind — The mental content is painful. Let’s say it’s a feeling of shame, or a feeling of failure, or a concern about rejection, or worry about our health, or on and on and on, the different things that are painful to us.
One of the ways that we can learn to accept it is by developing the capacity to soothe ourselves. Just as if a kid gets hurt and a caring adult comes and scoops them up in their arms and says, “Oh, it will be okay, sweetheart.” Simply being held in that way makes it much easier for the child to bear the pain. in a similar kind of way, we can make it easier for us to bear the pain by learning how to be loving toward ourselves this way.
There’s a whole array of what are called love and kindness practices or self-compassion practices which fall under the umbrella of mindfulness practices which help us to self-soothe and help us with the acceptance part. Basically, human beings can accept and awful lot if we feel loved, if we feel save. We have difficulty accepting things when we feel like we’re going to be rejected for it and we feel all alone with it.
This applies to — Let’s take something — It happens all the time, where we feel rejected or slighted in some way in a relationships. Maybe it’s a love relationship that isn’t working out as we want to, or a relationship that work where our peers or our superior isn’t looking at us with shining eyes. It’s always very painful to us.
If we can feel loved and held by a good friend, or a parent, or a lover, and be able to feel that feeling of disappointment, we find that it’s much easier to bear it and that if we open to it, it passes and transforms by itself. In fact, sometimes we learn things from it. Those kinds of practices can help with the acceptance I mentioned of mindfulness.
[0:34:29.2] MB: We also talked about — And you did a great job explaining how social rankings and how we get caught in these cycles of comparison. How does mindfulness help us break out of those cycles?
[0:34:40.3] RS: It helps in a number of ways. One way is simply to notice how often it occurs. We can all do an exercise together right now that I’ve been experimenting with. Think for a moment of something or some attribute that you’ve got. Some quality that you kind of rely on for your self-esteem. Maybe it’s that you’re smart, or you’re athletic, or you have friends, or you’re well-liked, or you’re creative, or you’re a good writer, or could be anything. We all have them, but just think of something that kind of makes you feel good about yourself.
Then, remember the last time that you got some feedback, whether from others or from yourself, that validated it, that made you think, “Yeah, I really am smart.” “Yeah, I really am a cool dude.” “Yeah, I really am lovable,” or “Yeah, I really do a good job at my work,” or whatever it might be.
Just tune in for a moment of how it feels in your body to remember, or if you can’t remember at the time, just imagine it happening now, this feeling of success, or validation. If you don’t mind me asking Matt, can you describe how you feel it? Where this is a bodily sensation?
[0:35:52.0] MB: I would say it’s like a calmness in my upper body and maybe like a sort of a tingling energy in kind of my lower torso.
[0:36:00.4] RS: Okay. Cool. For me, it’s a kind of uplifting of the chest a little bit. I feel a little kind of taller, or so, when it happens. Now, imagine for a moment or recall a time where the opposite happened, where either you got rejected, or you felt you failed, or you got feedback that you weren’t so good at something, or you tried something and you gave yourself feedback that you weren’t so good at it and it felt like a dejected moment. Can you describe how that feels in the body?
[0:36:29.3] MB: I’d say it’s like a tightness in my chest and sort of a racing feeling up my back and bottom of my spine kind of.
[0:36:38.0] RS: Okay. Cool. For me, it’s a little bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach and my shoulders kind of roll forward, and it may be different for our listeners. Everybody is different around this.
Just identifying those feeling states in the body. One of the things you can do with mindfulness practice is as we’re staying as much as possible, moment by moment, with noticing what’s happening in the mind and in the body during the day, notice each time that we get one of the inflation feelings and each time we get one of the deflation feelings. Now, this can be a little horrifying, because many of us start to notice, “Oh my God, it’s happening all day long. Virtually, every conversation, either comparing with somebody or thinking, “Oh, this is going well, and they like me,” or “This isn’t going so well.” There’s a lot of these ups and downs that are happening.
Not to put you the spot, but I had some technical difficulties getting started. I’m imagining that during those few minutes where you are trying to get the computer to work, there’s a lot of those both anxious and not feeling so good about myself feelings going on. It gets rolling and you start saying, “That’s okay.” I’m in the saddle again. I’m doing all right. I’m just using that as an example, because it just happened between the two of us, but these things are happening all day long for all of us.
As we become more mindful, we start to notice, “Oh, gosh! The ups and downs, the ups and downs, the ups and downs. Look at this.” The more we see it, the less seriously we start to take it. Instead of putting all of our energy into how can I arrange it so I always come out a winner, we start to, instead, put our energy into just watching these cycles of winning and losing so that we learn to not take them so seriously.
The other thing that we do with mindfulness practice is this is more the self-compassion part of it, or the love and kindness part of it. When we are hurting, when we notice that we’ve had a disappointment, we’ve had a failure, something hasn’t turned out well, which should inevitably will. Inevitably, we’ll have these moment of defeat, that we can just kind of be nice to ourselves and give ourselves a hug, feel the feeling of vulnerability, feel the feeling of failure, and trust that that’s okay too, that it’s just part of the cycle and we don’t have to identify with that or believe in it. Because as it turns out, none of us are so great and none of us are so terrible. I know a lot of your audience is on the younger side, so you may not think too much about this, but the life cycle is a pretty brief trip.
A friend of mine gave me this example and tried this on. You know who the king of England was in 1361? Do you happen to know?
[0:39:21.3] MB: No idea.
[0:39:22.7] RS: Yeah, I don’t either, but I can promise you, in 1361, he was a big deal in England and a lot of people knew. Whatever all of our success and failures are, they’re all going to be pretty relevant not too long from now. I maybe more acutely aware of that than your younger listeners because I’m in my 60s, but it doesn’t take long before we start to notice that it is really all a passing show and all of these energy that we put into trying win at the game winds up seemingly a little silly to a certain point.
This is not to say — By the way, let me just make it really clear, that it’s not a good idea to put your heart and energy into some project that you’re interested in or some achievement you want to make, have, or getting an advanced degree or the like. This is only to say that doing those things with the fantasy that they’re going to allow us to them always feel like a winner, that’s the mistaken one, because that’s what doesn’t work out.
If we’re engaged in it in a wholehearted way and we’re using our talents, our energies and alike, that’s wonderful. That’s not subject to narcissistic recalibration of what’s called the Hedonic treadmill, these things in which we need more and more of them just to stay in the same place, because engagement like that, that can sustain us throughout a life, but the social comparison stuff we can’t win at in any kind of sustained way.
[0:40:49.1] MB: It’s a great example, and I smile to myself when you kind of use that example, the king of England in 1361. It just shows that it helps us in some ways sort of untether our self-worth and our daily experience from these achievements that seems so important and so relevant in the moment, but in reality it’s all kind of — Everything is going to pass away eventually.
[0:41:12.0] RS: That is one of the other insights that comes from mindfulness practice. When we take up these practices, we start to notice that all consciousness is this stream of experience and that whatever our experience was, even your and my experience and the listeners’ experience from five minutes ago, that’s already gone. That’s gone over the waterfall of experience.
[0:41:39.3] MB: I know you have to go shortly. What is one kind of small piece of homework or a starting place that you could give listeners who want to really dive into mindfulness?
[0:41:49.2] RS: There are a number of resources. One, it’s usually best to take up a mindfulness practice with a guided meditation. I happen to have some that are available for free on the web if anybody wants to check them out. They’re at a website which is called mindfulness-solution.com. If you go to the download meditations, you can stream them or download them and you can take up the practices.
There’s also a book that I wrote for general audiences called The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. That gives you kind of detailed instructions, and it’s actually linked to the downloadable meditations. That’s an inexpensive paperback that’s easy to get. That’s one way to start. There are my other people who have done this as well. You don’t have to start with my resources.
It’s usually best to start doing mindfulness practices which are times where we take some time out of our day to deliberately cultivate this awareness of present experience with acceptance. Then, once we’ve taken some times out to do it, at the same way, if you wanted to become physically fit, you could go to the gym for a little bit every day or every other day and you develop some physical fitness. Then, during the intervening times, you might decide to take the stairs instead of the elevator or perhaps walk somewhere instead of getting on the bus or going in the car.
In the same way, there are informal mindfulness practices that we can do in between our meditation sessions that help to bring us our mind into the present. Help us to attune to sensory reality and help us to become less caught in believing in our thoughts. Those are all outlined in the mindfulness solution book.
[0:43:30.0] MB: Where can people find you in the book online?
[0:43:32.4] RS: Mindfulness-solution.com.
[0:43:36.2] MB: We’ll make sure to include that in the show notes. Just go to scienceofsuccess.co and click the show notes button at the top. You can get all of that stuff.
Ron, thank you so much for being on the show. This was an amazing conversation. I know I learned a tremendous amount, and it’s been an honor to have you as a guest.
[0:43:51.5] RS: Thanks so much for having me.
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