A Review: Into the Magic Shop by James R. Doty

“One thing every human has in common is the first sound we hear. It’s the heartbeat of our mother.” James R. Doty

Although as a child I was often told how unique we are all as humans, with our own DNA and individual fingerprints being clear examples, the older I become the more I see myself as being connected and similar to everybody else. We are not alone; indeed, we weren’t designed to be alone. Humans are a co-operative species, and we were designed to rely on others. In fact we need others. We need our parents, for at least the first decade of life (for me, I needed about two and half decades). Then we need the care and support from others, whether that is from friends, siblings, classmates, teachers, mentors, or in our romantic relationships. We simply need others. And what is the water that helps nourish the connectedness between people? Compassion. That for me is one of the many take home messages from Dr James Doty’s upcoming book, Into the Magic Shop.

To write one’s own life story can be a Pandora’s box. If I sit back and consider undertaking such a task myself, the following questions come to mind: where to start, what to put in, how much detail, the list goes on. The other thought that crosses my mind, don’t make it too honest because if people really know who I am they won’t like me.” Yet Doty’s reflections are beautifully, heart-wrenchingly, and refreshingly honest. And I think that is the brilliance behind the book, and maybe to an extent, the man as well. Learning to develop an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment towards himself was a struggle for Doty. And often the overarching themes of am I good enough, am I worthy enough shine through in the book.

In this ever increasing competitive world, the sense I get is we can’t share too much of ourselves with others, otherwise they will know our weaknesses, they could be exploited, and we could lose. Yet failure is part of being human; and how we handle failure is something all of us can really struggle with. As Doty puts it, “Events themselves have no power. It is your response to the events that determines their power.” Although our brains are magical things, and Doty conveys some of the hard science and complexities behind how the brain operates with great simplicity, unfortunately our brains can also get caught up in loops of worry, rumination, and fear.

Doty’s new book, Into the Magic Shop, takes us on a journey through many periods of Jim’s life where he has come face-to-face with failure. The sense I had at the beginning of the book was, here is a guy who is afraid. He is afraid people will find out he was poor, he had a father who was an alcoholic, and he had a mother who was depressed. His family relied on government assistance. If people found out about these things what will they do? Well if the fear part of Doty was running the show it would jump straight to judgment, and the judgment would be people will think he is a failure, and not worth investing time and energy into, his fate has already been determined, and that fate was one of unimportance. There are many times in the book where this judgment is being conveyed, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Doty takes us on a remarkable journey. Starting in his hometown in California as a 12-year-old, through his years as a struggling student, and to eventually becoming a Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University. He weaves his own personal story, with science and teaching examples, to create a book that leaves a lasting impression.

On completion of the book all I was left with the impression that Doty is somebody who has plenty of courage. Not because he doesn’t care what others think or if he fails, but because he does care, and that is being human. We all care. This book is a very personal account of the failings, struggles, and times of deep suffering in Doty’s life. As you read the book you can’t help but feel Doty’spresence. It is as if he were beside you, reading it to you himself. Magic.

The compassionate grandparent

We often hear the old adage, “it takes a village to raise a child”, yet with increasing independence, geographical movement, and isolation how true is this? Interesting data out of the US shows that we are indeed more isolated than ever before, with up to 40 percent or more of all households containing a single occupant in cities such as San Francisco, Denver and Seattle.

What is surprising about this is that as humans we know we are “co-operative breeders”, meaning that we have evolved as a species to work in groups, where a broad range of individuals helps support the mother and father in raising offspring. And you can see this not only in humans, but clearly in other mammalian species, particularly with our closest relatives the chimpanzees and apes where we share up to 97-99 per cent of our DNA.

Gorillas are actually my all-time favourite animal. I fell absolutely in love with them when I watched David Attenborough’s documentary Life on Earth where he comes face-to-face with the mighty silverback and his family. The episode left a lasting impression on me. And in 2013 I was able to go on a trip of lifetime and realise my dream of going gorilla trekking in Rwanda with my wife.

Visiting the gorillas involved a mighty trek through the Virunga Mountains, one of the last remaining places on earth you can see these incredible animals. When I came face to face with the silverback and his family the thing that immediately struck me is how similar we are. Our toenails, thumbs, and most amazingly our eyes – there is no doubt we share a common ancestor. The very next thing I noticed is how the gorilla family or “troop” is so similar to ours. They need a family in order to both survive and thrive. There was dad – the silverback, a number of females (the mothers), and of course the very cute baby gorillas. But where was grandma?

Why Grandma is important

Indeed, this is a defining aspect of the human species: As adults we live much longer after our ability to reproduce finishes, whereas when other species reach the end of reproduction they very shortly pass on. This means, as humans, we have a very long post-reproductive period – indeed we can live for up to 40-50 years longer. And this is where grandma becomes very important.

The grandmother hypothesis suggests that grandma involvement in family life helps increase her daughter’s fertility and chance of the grandchildren surviving. Indeed, data shows that if the grandmother is present in the family, in some cases it doubles the chances of more children being born. Why? Well, all of a sudden mum has somebody at home to help provide childcare to her other children, whilst she looks after her newborn.

In Australia, more than one million children receive regular child care from their grandparents. That’s one in every four children. On average grandparents provide 12 hours of care per week to their grandkids aged between 0-12 years.

Grandparent involvement in childcare is a very altruistic and compassionate act. Indeed, grandparents often give up some of their working hours, social events, and hobbies to help look after their grandchildren. Grandparent involvement also helps mothers re-enter the workforce, increase family income, and help stimulate economic growth. However, providing regular child care can come at cost.

When grandparents provide regular child care it is not uncommon for tension, conflict, and disagreement to occur between grandparents and parents, which can negatively impact child development.

For example, researchers have consistently found that parents dislike unsolicited parenting advice from grandparents, and that it contributes to poorer grandparent-parent relationship quality.

Despite grandparents being aware of this, they find it difficult to refrain from providing parenting advice, and can struggle with accepting parenting decisions. This of course can lead to family conflict, which in turn, can adversely impact the psychological adjustment, and parenting practices, of both grandparents and parents. Family conflict and tension can also negatively impact children’s social, emotional and behavioural development.

Of course this is not true for all grandparents and parents, as many get along just great, but when tension and family conflict exist between grandparents and parents it can become very difficult for all parties involved.

So how can we help grandparents and parents in this critical and important role of co-parenting?

Evidence-based parenting programs are one of the best ways to help, with meta-analyses showing that parenting programs positively influence child, parent and family outcomes. However, until recently there was no specific evidence-based parenting program yet modified for grandparents.

The Triple P-Positive Parenting Program, in a world’s first, designed and developed a program specifically for grandparents providing regular child care called Grandparent Triple P. And to point out any potential conflict of interest, I must advise that I am a co-author of the program along with Triple P founder, Professor Matt Sanders.

Grandparent Triple P

Grandparent Triple P is a nine-week group program and has three aims: 1) provide a refresher course on parenting strategies, 2) provide communication strategies to enhance the parent-grandparent relationship, and 3) provide coping skills for grandparents to manage the stress of providing regular child care.

The program has been evaluated in two randomised controlled trials, one in Australia with 54 grandparents, and one in Hong Kong with 56 grandparents.

Based on both evaluations the program was found to help improve grandparent confidence, reduce stress, and most importantly, improve childhood behavioural outcomes. Importantly, the Australian trial also found it helped improve parent-grandparent relationship satisfaction.

Researchers are now looking at making a shorter version of the program.

So as humans we are lucky to have grandparents. Unfortunately the beautiful gorilla troop didn’t have a grandma around to help with the upbringing of their offspring. We have been giving evolutionary advantage, which we often do not recognise and acknowledge.

Note. For original source with links please go to the Triple P Blog 

Radio Interviews about Compassion

I did a couple of radio interviews as a result of the piece I wrote in the Conversation about my anxiety when flying and how I used compassion focused therapy techniques to help.

The first interview was with David Curnow on 612ABC Brisbane Radio. You can listen to it here. David asked me a number of different questions relating to what compassion focused therapy is, as well what I did specifically on the plane. It was the first radio interview I had done in quite some time, and it was a little scary being in the studio behind all the boom microphones and buttons. I must admit I was quite nervous doing the radio interview, and I had to use my imagery techniques from Compassion Focused Therapy to help.

The second interview was with Michael Mackenzie on Radio National. You can also listen to that interview here. I was also anxious for this radio interview as this was broadcasted nationally. I kept thinking to myself, “you better not make a mistake”, and of course this is a very unhelpful thought. So I went back to my rhythm soothing breathing (a compassion focused therapy technique) and did some mindfulness. This is a very important point, because often we can think all we only need to do the technique once and then my anxiety will be sorted. That is not at all the case. Often you ned to return to your skill set over and over again. With time the anxiety does indeed become less.

I think both the interviews went quite well. It was great to spread the news about compassion to a wider audience.

Note. That is me in the studio with David Curnow.


Managing my threat system when flying home from Bali

I love to travel, in fact my wife (Cassie) and I try to get overseas twice a year. We love experiencing new cultures, food, and experiences. I also find when I am in a new place I am really living in the present moment, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. I sometimes think when I am back home I should live each day like I am a tourist, as it helps me connect with what is around me, as opposed to being on automatic pilot during the day.

We returned home yesterday from Bali and Lombok in Indonesia, places we had not been before, and it was a relaxing and lovely holiday. However, this blog isn’t about the holiday itself, it is about the flight back home, and that was a bumpy ride, to put it mildly. My first overseas trip was when I was 15, I went to Japan, and on that trip I had no problems with turbulence. It has only been in the last 4-5 years where I have really started to become quite anxious when we experience turbulence on a flight. Let me give you an example, the flight will be going smoothly, I’ll be watching a movie maybe even enjoying a drink (scotch), and then ‘bump’ there will be some turbulence. What do I do? Well I grasp the armrests of my chair, in an automatic response, I guess thinking this will somehow help stabilise me. I take my headphones off, as I want to be alert, and I wait, monitoring, until I think it is safe again. And only when it is smooth flying again do I go back to watching my show. Not the greatest way to manage my anxiety when turbulence hits.

Cassie (my wife) has never had a problem with turbulence but now that we have been on so many flights together she has ‘caught’ my anxiety. The magic of conditioning. So we are now about as bad as each other and I feel very guilty about this. As we are both clinical psychologists we should be able to manage this anxiety and fear of turbulence when flying, right? Well it has been a bit of a struggle. I know about the anxiety cycle, I do controlled breathing, and I try to use some cognitive restructuring around the turbulence to help me. Sometimes these things do work, however, I still ‘feel’ on edge during the turbulence and sometimes the ‘rationalising’ doesn’t really work for me. Despite my anxiety around turbulence I have never not flown, and I always will fly. I value travelling far too much, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been useful in helping me to continue to fly while still having my ‘struggle with anxiety’ as opposed to not flying at all, see Steve Hayes book “Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life”.

However, it has been Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) that has really helped me calm down much more. CFT says that we, that is, humans, are all part of the ‘flow of life’ and as a result we have a ‘tricky’ brain. Our brains are not something that we have created or designed, rather something we have been given through years of evolution. The human brain has fantastic capabilities such as being able to imagine, create, plan, anticipate, reflect, ruminate, and have self-awareness, all of which help us to do incredible things like communicate through language and build and fly in planes. However, they can also come at an emotional cost, as this little example of a zebra will illustrate. Imagine a zebra in an African savannah eating grass. There is nothing a zebra likes to do more than eat grass. However, it then spots some rustling in the bushes, the zebra becomes alert and then runs to safety. Now 9 times out of 10 the rustling is just wind or maybe a small animal, but that one time it could be a lion, and it is better to be safe than sorry. When the zebra has found a safe spot in the savannah what does it do again? Well it goes back to eating grass, the thing it loves to do (read “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky). Now if you put a human brain in the zebra, what does it do when it is safe – well it thinks “Oh my goodness that was a near thing, could you imagine if it was a lion, what if it ate me? That would be awful, being eaten alive would be the worst!” Yes, as humans we tend to ruminate or ask the ‘what if’ questions over and over, which leads to more anxiety, fear and distress. And indeed that is what happens with me and my relationship with turbulence.

Paul Gilbert who developed CFT describes three key emotion systems in the human brain:

  • Threat and self-protect system – helps us keep a look out for danger and to be better safe than sorry, with emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, disgust.
  • Drive and resource seeking system – helps us seek out important resources, such as find food, sexual partners, friends, with emotions like excitement, joy, happiness.
  • Soothing/affiliative system – helps us soothe ourselves and feel content, calm, and safe.

All of these systems are very important, however, our threat system is overly developed, and rightfully so, it keeps us alive. Remember the zebra example, we want the threat system to come online and override the other systems so it has our attention so we can be safe. We don’t need much help developing our threat system, it works pretty darn well, but we do need help developing our soothing system, something I used on my recent flight home. What’s important here is that although the emotions of fear, anxiety and anger can be very difficult, it’s not our fault for having them, it is our brain doing what it has evolved to do, and that is to see a threat and self-protect. And although it is not our fault for having these painful emotions, we do have a responsibility to learn how to help soothe them. Paul Gilbert writes about this brilliantly in his book “Mindful Compassion”.

Now going back to that flight, when the turbulence hit me I was in my threat system, I was alert. Initially it was anxiety that took hold – I was thinking “oh goodness what is wrong” (replace goodness with a profanity, your choice). I looked at Cassie, she was anxious as well, she said “Oh why is this happening?” This increased my anxiety but also made me angry I was thinking “this is ridiculous we shouldn’t be having turbulence, and this bloody turbulence is upsetting my wife”. A little bit later sadness came on board and I was thinking “poor Cassie she has never had anxiety like this before when flying, this is my fault”.

At that point my sadness made me think of CFT (this is important as sadness can be quite a helpful emotion – the movie Inside Out is a good example of this). One of the key components in CFT is to help develop our soothing system, it helps us feel safe, calm, and content. Something I needed on that flight home. Immediately I did an imagery exercise, so in my “minds eye” I imagined a safe place, a place where I feel ‘free’ and ‘comfortable’, a place that would welcome me, make me feel at home. That safe place for me is at the beach down at Burleigh Heads. I imagined the smell of the ocean, the feel of the sun on my skin, and the sights of the golden sand. That helped direct my attention away from anxiety to a place of feeling more comfortable, welcomed, and it slowed things down for me. Slowing is important. I then thought to myself “OK thanks anxiety, I know you are here to warn me, and its not my fault you are here, just my brain doing what is has evolved to do, but right now I don’t want you to run the show.”

So I then thought about my ideal compassionate image – another CFT exercise. My ideal compassionate image is someone (I don’t know the gender, for me that isn’t clear – that’s important with imagery it doesn’t have to be picture perfect, a felt sense is fine) who has a soft voice, has a welcoming embracing attitude towards me, and this compassionate image has the strength, wisdom and commitment to support me (Paul Gilbert identifies strength, wisdom and commitment as fundamental elements of compassion). I spent a few minutes imagining what it felt like to be in the presence of this compassionate image and what it felt liked to be cared for in this way. After spending a few minutes doing this I let the image fade away, and what did I notice, well I was a lot more calm, my attention had broadened to other things beyond the turbulence, like I needed a drink of water and also needed to go the toilet. I also felt comfortable to reach out to Cassie and tell her ‘hey things are going to be ok, turbulence is normal’. All of a sudden I had a calm courage, and I was focused on things that mattered, like my wife. I was no longer grasping the arm chair, I was sat back in the chair, not relaxed – like muscles all floppy, but in a state of calmness and stillness. This remained for the rest of the flight, and at differing times I went back to my safe place.

We then arrived back home, and later that night after dinner Cassie said to me “thank you for today in the plane, you really helped”. And at that point we both had the startling realisation that it was I – the one with the fear of turbulence that calmed Cassie down, and not the other way round. I mean none of this would have been a problem if I wasn’t anxious in the first place, but that was just my tricky brain at play, and that’s not my fault, but I am now learning on how to take responsibility for it.

One final important part of this story is that when I first started to engage in the calming exercises on the plane I found it very difficult and wanted to abandoned them almost straight away thinking to myself “don’t bother with this, focus on the turbulence like you usually do, otherwise how will you know it has finished” – (my threat system coming online again). This helped me deepen my empathy for what many of my anxious clients are struggling with on a daily basis. Engaging with suffering is difficult and takes courage, and that is why we all need encouragement when dealing with our fears.

Note. That photo is of Cassie and me at the airport waiting to fly

Following a dream……my passion for compassion

Following a dream……my passion for compassion

I am a recent PhD graduate, having completed my PhD in Clinical Psychology in 2013. My research was focused on the family environment, where I looked specifically at the grandparent-parent relationship and how this impacted child outcomes. I found the research very rewarding, I loved working with my supervisor (Professor Matt Sanders), and we developed a program called Grandparent Triple P, which has now also been translated into Mandarin and used with grandparents in Hong Kong – pretty exciting, and something I did not anticipate prior to starting my PhD.

During the course of my PhD I aimed to submit as many papers as I could, as it has been drummed into me that if you want to pursue an academic career you need to publish, publish, publish, and this mantra dominated my thoughts and actions for the first 5-6 months after submitting my PhD. But now that it has been 18 months since I graduated – where am I?

Well after I submitted all the papers that I could from my PhD, I was left in a position of not really knowing what I wanted to do. One thing I did know was I wanted to start to explore other areas beyond parenting. One of the main reasons for this is that I’m also trained as a Clinical Psychologist, so I have always had a passion for mental health and psychotherapies. However, I had no idea what I really wanted to focus on. There are so many things that I’m interested in, emotion regulation – what we do to manage our positive and negative emotions, adjustment disorder, helping young adults, depression, stigma, acceptance and commitment therapy, and motivational interviewing. But I couldn’t do all of them, and I didn’t know what area I was ‘passionate’ enough about to devote my entire academic career towards. So I was in a bit of a conundrum, very confused, and a little worried. There I was a fresh PhD graduate and I didn’t know what my next move would be.

The academic world is extremely competitive, with not nearly enough positions available for PhD graduates. As a result typically most PhD graduates work for a professor or a team of researchers as a project manager. This is a good opportunity to learn about different areas, be exposed to new ideas, but it also comes at a cost because you are not advancing your ‘independence’ as a researcher. You also need to apply for grant funding, and this is particularly difficult. For national funding you are up against at least 2,000 plus early career researchers all with great project ideas, with only between 10-15% of applications being successful. And even if you are successful, these grants have short-term lives, only lasting 3-4 years. So what do you do after that? Well you keep applying, constantly having to ‘prove’ that what you are doing is important and ‘worthy’.

After spending approximately 12 months reading about all my different areas of interest I finally stumbled across mindfulness and compassion. I was always aware of these topics, but have never read enough about these areas to fully understand and appreciate their importance. I think the light bulb moment for me was when I attended the inaugural UQ Compassion Symposium in September of 2014. Dr Stan Steindl organised the symposium, and he is one of the leaders of compassionate action in Australia. Listening to the keynote speaker at the Compassion Symposium completely captivated me. Dr James Doty delivered the keynote address; he is the director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University. His presentation was very moving, he spent time talking about his difficult upbringing, and mentioned a couple of key moments in his life where he had been the recipient of compassionate actions by others. It was hard not to be moved by what he was saying. Today Dr Doty is a neurosurgeon, essentially he saves lives for a living, and his research explores the science and impacts of compassion. It was at this Symposium where I realised, ‘this is it, this is what I want to make my research career about.’

So now I am in a position where I could not be more passionate about my research. I honestly believe compassion is something we need to cultivate more in order to develop more kind and supportive family environments, relationships with others, and societies as a whole. So now I am doing everything I can to link the areas of mindfulness and compassion to my expertise in parenting and family relationships. However (and this is the tricky bit), as much as I want to research this important area, I don’t have a job where somebody is willing to pay me to do this research. So what can I do?

Well I spoke to my wife about this problem. And after some discussions we came to the conclusion that for the first 6 months of 2015 I will work as hard as I can to put together competitive applications for national funding and postdoctoral positions, and start my research on mindfulness and compassion within families. As a result it would mean I had to withdraw from working full-time to part-time (2 days a week) so I could pursue this area.

This has been a big sacrifice, our family income dropped significantly, and in many ways I felt unemployed and a little isolated. But my passion for compassion was so strong I just had to pursue this endeavour. Unfortunately in Australia there are very few people studying the area of compassion, and virtually nobody in Brisbane. So at the moment all the research I am doing is unpaid. And my wife is being so kind and caring, in many ways showing deep compassion towards me, for allowing me to pursue this dream.

I emailed a number of international experts and brilliant minds in the field of compassion, and I was touched by their generosity with their time and feedback. Two people in particular blew me away, Dr Anthony Biglan and Dr Steven Hayes. Dr Biglan has recently released an insightful book called “The Nurture Effect”. The Nurture Effect discusses how the science of human behaviour can improve our lives and the word, and his ideas have been been very influential on my research (check out Dr Biglan’s website here: http://www.nurtureeffect.com). Dr Steven Hayes has written a great blog describing the book as well: (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-c-hayes-phd/the-hope-of-science-and-t_b_7277988.html). Dr Hayes is the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a true pioneer and leader in psychology, and he gave me some wise words in response to one of my emails, “A door will open. It’s just how it works when you push on a vision.” I am extremely grateful to both of these incredibly brilliant individuals who I look up to and admire. It also helped restore some of my hope and optimism for the field of academia, one that is so competitive. As these researchers, who are at the peak of their careers, had the time to provide feedback, help, and support to the struggling early career researcher starting at the bottom of the pack.

So here I am, it is May, I have put together what I think is a very good compassion based grant application that is currently under review for national funding. I have also applied for a range of other grants, and I started writing for another grant application today. I am supervising two honours students at UQ where we are examining compassion within families. And I have two projects on the go at the moment. And all of this is completely unpaid. At the moment I am working harder than I ever have, earning the least I ever have, and I couldn’t be happier. Let’s hope a door opens soon…….

Note. The photo is of me and my wife (Cassie) on the day we graduated with our PhDs together

Mindfulness Presentation

I recently gave a free mindfulness workshop at UQ. Even though we gave very late notice, we still had about 25 to 30 people attend. It was organised by the University of Queensland’s Red Cross Society with the help of the Psychology Student Association.

I was very happy to be asked to present on mindfulness. The workshop was a very basic introduction to the topic, with three guided exercises. I wanted to make the presentation available for people to download and review at their pleasure. I hope it helps.

I am going to look at holding another free mindfulness workshop in the next month or so at UQ. Next time I promise to give much more notice.

Please click on the below link to access the presentation.

Mindfulness Presentation

Day 5 Take Home Message from the Workshop

My Day 5 Take Home Message from the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop

Well it was the final day of the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop and I was very sad it ended. It really was a very special week, and more rewarding than what I had expected. Today we had an opportunity to reflect on some of the key moments of the workshop, and we were also introduced to some new topics around positive psychology. The one that grabbed my interest the most was gratitude. Before we did the exercise I was in a bit of a ‘down mood’. It was raining awfully hard, it was cold, I was really missing my wife – Cassie, and I didn’t want the workshop to end. Nevertheless I applied myself to the exercise. The idea was we just had to bring to mind and write to paper the things we were grateful for. So I started the exercise not wanting to ‘think’ about it too much, I kind of just wanted the things I was grateful for to naturally come to mind. So here is my list:

  1. Cassie
  2. Hot water
  3. My family
  4. My friends
  5. Kenya – my dog that my parents gave me for my birthday
  6. The ocean
  7. The sun
  8. The broncos (rugby league team)
  9. Travel
  10. Chocolate
  11. Coffee
  12. Forests
  13. Gorillas
  14. Ice-cream
  15. Books

My list is by no means perfect. It was just what came to my mind at that point in time, and I am grateful for it. There are some things on the list I am proud of having on the list (my wife and my family), and others I am like “why did I put that on my list” (for example chocolate). And I could have easily kept going, adding more and more and more to that list, for example, music, mangos, and photos.

We then had to pick one thing out of our list to share with the group. The participants at the workshop shared some gorgeous things they were grateful for, and the one I decided to share was ‘ice-cream’. Pretty ridiculous I know. Out of all the things I could have said, I chose ice-cream. I think the reason why was because I do love it, but also because it reminds me of my childhood, which was so much fun. I also remembered that I had an assignment I had to complete when I was in grade 3, and the assignment question was, “what do you think Heaven is?” I didn’t know how to answer this question, so I asked my father. He replied “I don’t know what Heaven is, but when I am there I will be playing golf and eating ice-cream”. So when I think of ice-cream I think of my father, and although I don’t say it enough I am very grateful for him. It was a really emotional moment for me, a positive emotional moment.

Before the exercise I was in a down mood, but immediately after the exercise – and it only took 5 minutes, I was smiling. I was smiling as I was writing my list. The exercise changed my perspective. And that was my take home message. Whenever you are upset, angry, sad, miserable, or just bored, I suggest taking a moment for yourself and think of 10 things you are grateful for. It was a beautiful experience for me, and it well could be for you. Transformative is the word that comes to mind.

As we finished up the retreat I couldn’t help but feel a real sense of loss. I had just spent the whole week with complete strangers, not knowing anybody before it started, and now I didn’t want to leave their company. We all shared this journey, this experience together, and it was special. It reminded me of a Seinfeld episode where Jerry makes the observation that when we say good-bye to people we often say, “good-bye, see you soon”. It is the see you soon part that gets to me. Even though we know that most likely we will never see that person again we will still say it. For some reason, as humans, we don’t like the finality of saying good-bye. And that is certainly the feeling that overcame me at the end of the retreat. It also brought a smile to my face, as I am grateful for Jerry Seinfeld.

As a final note I’d like to thank James Bennett-Levy. He organised the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop, over the course of the Workshop he was so generous of his time, and he is so passionate about this area of compassion that it was contagious. So I am ask grateful to him. If you are interested in his work please visit the CBT Training Program Website.

When I started this blog about the workshop I didn’t think it would be much of a big deal. But for me it has been an incredibly rewarding exercise. By taking the time to reflect on what I had just been exposed to during each day of the workshop really enhanced my overall experience. It was a real pleasure to take a moment and reflect on what I had learnt and noticed. It made me really appreciate the experience at a greater depth than what I otherwise would. And my aim is to continue this practice for future workshops.

I am now back home in Brisbane. I am sitting on the couch with my beautiful wife who has fallen asleep by my side and I couldn’t be more happy. I am savoring this moment. As moments like this are precious.

Extra note: the photo is of a rock beach Cassie and I were walking on together when we were up at Airlie Beach. We used rocks during the workshop to bring us into contact with the present moment.

Extra extra note: I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank my Aunty Margaret and Uncle Peter who let me stay at their house for the week whilst down at Byron. I am very grateful for them!

Day 4 Take Home Message from Workshop

My Day 4 Take Home Messages from the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop

Today was the retreat day for the mindful self-compassion workshop, meaning we were in silence all day. I was quite apprehensive about this, as I have never done a day of silence in my life. I was unsure on how I would cope during the day, but I was willing to embrace it and see what would happen. Other aspects which I was not expecting on the day of silence was that we were encouraged not to make eye contact with others at the workshop or touch (e.g., hug or handshake) other participants. So we started at 9am and finished up at 4pm, and had a 5-minute discussion at the end about our experience.

Our day was full of formal meditations, but we also had a number of informal meditations, for example mindful walking and mindful eating. At the beginning of the day I was doing great with the silence, but after about an hour I really wanted to look around the room and make eye-contact with others and smile with them. But of course I had to refrain from this action. Mindfulness of the breath was very helpful at these times, as I was able to focus my awareness on my breath, recognise my thought – my desire, and was able to sit with the urge until it passed. Typically I would attempt to distract my mind or suppress the thought, however this time I allowed it to just sit there, I made ‘room’ for it, was able to accept it, finding comfort in my breath. That was a very insightful experience, and gave me confidence I could do it again at other times in my day-to-day living.

My take home message for the day though was the mindful awareness of a sense and savor walk. The idea being you really take in what you are observing whilst walking, with open curiosity, being mindful of the things around you. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. When I was walking down the main street of Byron Bay I stumbled across a beautifully hedged tree. When I looked at the tree I was able to notice patterns in the bark, the slightly differing colours of the leaves, and the ants crawling all over it. But what I also noticed when looking at the hedged tree was the ‘non-hedged tree elements’. Stay with me here, I know that sounds a little weird. But when looking at the tree I noticed that for the tree to be in existence in the middle of the sidewalk on this main street of Byron it needed the dirt in the ground, the rain from the clouds, and the rays from the sun for that tree to grow. It also needed the skillful hands of a gardener, it needed the teacher of that gardener, and the parents of the gardener for the tree to be hedged so beautifully. It also would have needed hedging clippers or secateurs to be able to shape the tree with that hedged look, which would have meant iron ore from the earth. And there are countless other things necessary for that tree to be in existence on that sidewalk. By being able to see the tree and the non-tree elements in that sense and savor meditation walk gave me a much greater appreciation for the interconnectedness between all things. That was somewhat of a revelation for me. And now I find it hard not to apply this type of contemplation to all the things that I see. See if you can do the same in your walks.

In terms of the rest of the day of silence – well I found that relatively easy. There were no real times where I was like “I just have to speak to somebody right now”. That was quite a comforting thing to recognise about myself. However, if the workshop had been a full week of silence, well I don’t think it would have been so easy. In fact I know I would have really struggled. When it came time to talk, it also made me really appreciate the miracle of speech. We had to do an exercise at the end of the day where we spoke for 5 minutes about our experience. The previous day we had to do a similar exercise and I found I didn’t have enough time to finish what I wanted to say, but today, I found I was much more efficient with my words. This wasn’t a conscious decision, I just naturally came to my conclusion and there was still about 2 minutes left to speak. I was speechless with this outcome, sorry for the pun. I always find it remarkably easy to speak. It made me realise that sometimes less is more, and despite the natural urge to try and fill the remaining minutes with words I decided to refrain from doing so, and just sat in silence with my partner for the remainder of the exercise.

Well tomorrow is the final day of our workshop, and I am sad it has gone by so quickly.

Extra note: the photo is of the building where we have been doing the workshop all week

Extra extra note: I found it quite difficult to order a coffee at the cafe not using my words, but the waiter was extremely accommodating, and gave me a free biscuit with my order.

Day 3 Take Home Message from Workshop

My Day 3 Take Home Messages from the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop

So today I woke up feeling very tired, and I wanted to keep sleeping rather than wake up and drive to the workshop. I also started to contemplate, “I wonder if there is a limit to the amount of self-compassion I can have, am I reaching my limits?” When I had that thought I immediately realised I never question whether I have enough resources available to be self-critical – that comes naturally and seems never ending. Anyway, I didn’t have enough time to ‘think’ about that thought any longer as I had to get ready and rush through my morning routine so that I wouldn’t be too late for the workshop, and that annoyed me slighting. I ended up being 5-10 minutes late. This elevated my annoyance further and made me frustrated, fortunately for me though we did a meditation as soon as I arrived; indeed, this is how we start all our mornings. However, this was the first meditation I had done in the morning where I had started off frustrated. At this stage I don’t think I should be surprised, but the meditation went great, and I was able to return to my breathing, and this brought calmness and contentment. And to be honest that is exactly what I needed to do at that point.

Thinking back now, I don’t know what I was overly worried about in regards to being late, I mean I was at a mindful self-compassion workshop, it was highly unlikely the others at the workshop or the facilitators would get angry at me for being late. Then I realised it wasn’t really about that for me, it was more about the fact I am often told, “you are always late for everything”. It makes me feel like perhaps I have failed some basic life skill, or that I am unreliable, not trustworthy. As a result, when I am late for meetings, appointments, dinners, or work I immediately go to that thinking mind of “I have failed, again”. Not a great way to start a meeting or your day for that matter. Taking the time to do a short meditation offering myself some self-compassion, such as, May I be forgiving of myself and May I accept myself for who I am, really helped bring me back to the present moment instead of being caught up in my mind.

Today we focused on a number of things, such as acceptance, tolerance, building our mindfulness skills, but the key take home message for me was about listening. Today I was able to complete an exercise where my one job was just to listen for 5 minutes to another person speaking about a minor struggle they had faced in the past, and then the role would be reciprocated. Initially I thought to myself there is no way I would be able to speak for 5 minutes about a past minor struggle. Some of my friends and family would laugh at that previous sentence, but today in the workshop I truly believed there was no way I could speak for 5 minutes about a past minor struggle. My minor struggle was about breaking my wrist in my senior year of high school, which meant I couldn’t play rugby or row in the final regatta of the year. When it was my turn to speak I didn’t even finish what I wanted to say – and that surprised me. The thing that I really noticed about the exercise was when the other person was ‘just listening’ to me it gave me the freedom and space to explore the issue I was talking about. It was quite a powerful experience. Then it was my turn to listen, I didn’t expect to have any ‘light bulb’ moments during this part, but I was shocked. When listening my only job was to listen, not ask questions, provide suggestions or advice to resolve the persons problem. And when I took on that listening role I found that the most powerful moment of the day. To be able to listen without having to ‘solve’ the person’s problem really took the pressure off, and allowed me to actually stay with what the person was saying and really listen to their struggle. And I realised that by doing so I gave the other person the freedom and space they needed to talk openly. I am looking at doing more of this with my friends and family. Something so simple, but powerful.

Looking forward to day 4.

Extra note: the photo is one I took today at Byron Bay beach.

Day Two Take Home Message from Workshop

My Day 2 Take Home Messages from the Mindful Self-Compassion Workshop

I entered the second day of the Mindful Self-Compassion workshop feeling pretty fresh and eager to learn more, which I think is a good indication that the program is going well. Today was focused on introducing to us the difference between expressing loving-kindness and compassion. The former being focused on expressing good will (to ourselves and others), and the latter focused on wishing a removal of suffering (to ourselves and others). I found the compassionate focus quite moving, and it really dawned on me how every person has their unique struggles in life. This was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment for me actually – and as a result was my key take home message from day two. I guess it just really struck me that I often don’t consider how little I know about the people around me. I mean I know my family very well and the same goes for my friends, but in terms of my colleagues at work, and the people I meet doing day-to-day things (for example when shopping), well I know very little about them and sometimes nothing at all. Yet I just assume they must be going along all OK.

When I take a moment and realise that every human has their own internal struggles they are facing (clearly on a continuum and ever changing), I start to notice my attitude towards people ‘softens’. I am in a less of a rush, time doesn’t seem to be as important, and I am very keen to say ‘thank you’ or ask that person I am with in that moment ‘how has your day been?’ I am also more motivated to give that person my full attention. For example, during our break I went and grabbed a coffee from one of the local café’s. Whilst at the café I was much more aware (mindful) of just how busy the staff were having to work to make sure everyone was getting their order and receiving their meals and drinks in an efficient manner. Typically I am focused on getting my coffee and getting out, often implicitly judging whether the café is good or bad based on how quickly they get my coffee to me. This time when ordering my coffee I took a moment to make eye-contact with the waiter, I made my order, and found myself offering this person – who I don’t know – a silent mantra of “I wish you a day of ease”. By doing so I noticed I was smiling, and this evoked a smile back from the waiter. I thanked the waiter and offered a final, “hope the rest of the day goes smoothly for you”. Now I don’t know if that will make a huge difference in the day of that waiter, who knows they may have thought I was a little weird for smiling at them. But for me the interaction between us was calm, pleasant, and easy. And one of my real values in life is to try and adopt a more calm and relaxing attitude in my interactions with others. And this interaction was evidence of me leading in alignment with that value, which resulted in me feeling a genuine moment of happiness.

I often find my ‘inner critic’ can give me a real beating when I have a ‘bad’ interaction – so when I have a disagreement or argument with somebody. After one of these ‘bad’ interactions I find I spend quite a bit of time and energy analysing what I said and how I said it – how was the tone of my voice, what were my non-verbals, were my arms crossed, did I get angry. All of these thoughts are quite draining, and even hours after the interaction when I am doing something completely different, the thought will just pop back in my head, “oh yeah you were rude today”, and than that sinking feeling enters my body, and I start to feel like a bit of a failure. So after today’s session my aim is to be more mindful of when this happens, and realise that this is a moment of suffering for myself. And rather than continue to beat myself up about it, try to adopt a more self-compassionate mindset. So perhaps something like “May I be forgiving of myself. May I be more accepting.. May I be warm in my interactions..” I have a feeling that his shift in perspective might help ease some of the suffering I experience, and also help motivate me to be more calm, open, and warm in my next interactions.

Bring on day three.