130: Introduction to mindfulness and meditation with Diana Winston


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"When she was younger, she wasn't that into reading and that was like a huge deal for me. I thought: "I'm such a reader. My daughter doesn't love to read." She's still not a big reader, but it's not hampering her in any way. She's blossoming in fifty other ways, but when I get caught in that story, "She's not like me. She's not..." - that's when I'm suffering. So I settle back into trusting, and think: "Oh, she's becoming who she is. Let her be that."

-Diana Winston

Meditation is touted as being a cure-all for everything from anxiety to depression to addictions. But is it possible that all this is too good to be true?

In this episode, meditation teacher - and former Buddhist nun! - Diana Winston guides us through what we know of the research on meditation that's relevant to parents. It turns out that the quality of much of this research isn't amazing, but this may not matter to you if you're thinking of starting a meditation practice because the opportunity cost (a few minutes a day) is so low and the potential benefits are so high.

We walk through a basic meditation that you can do anywhere, and no - it doesn't involve sitting cross-legged with your thumb and first finger held in a circle and saying 'ommmmmm....'.

I was skeptical about meditation too - until I tried it. Perhaps it might help you as well?

Jump to highlights:

  • (02:36) Introducing Diana Winston
  • (03:39) Defining Mindfulness
  • (05:25) Distinguishing between mindfulness and meditation
  • (06:26) How can mindfulness benefit me?
  • (08:05) Self-hatred as a Western concept
  • (12:27) The practice of mindfulness rooted in religion and cultural appropriation
  • (13:57) The research on mindfulness
  • (17:27) Why is it so hard to study mindfulness?
  • (19:33) Mindfulness vs science as tools of observation
  • (21:26) The benefits of mindfulness to parents and children
  • (28:04) Improving parent-child relationships through mindfulness
  • (30:27) Working in mindfulness practices in the context of communities
  • (35:52) Practice mindfulness now with this quick walkthrough
  • (42:46) Sit Still and It Will Hurt Eventually

Useful links:

Books and other resources:

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[accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"]

Jen 00:02

Hi, I'm Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you'd like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a FREE Guide called 13 Reasons Why Your Child Won't Listen To You and What To Do About Each One, just head over to YourParentingMojo.com/SUBSCRIBE. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners and the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you'll join us.

Jen 01:00

Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we're going to continue our exploration of topics related to mindfulness as we start to do some episodes looking at the connection between our brains and our bodies, and how we can learn to pay more attention to the signals our bodies are sending us. We talked with Dr. Susan Pollak a few months ago about mindful self-compassion. And now we're going to dig more into the mindfulness aspect to learn what it really is, and does it always involve sitting on a cushion cross-legged four hours a day, what the research says about its benefits, and how we can bring it into our lives if we decide that we might want to try it.

Jen 01:35

And I also just wanted to add a brief reminder that the Taming Your Triggers workshop is currently open for enrollment through midnight Pacific on February 28th. Over the course of 10 weeks at a relaxed pace of one module per week, you'll learn the real sources of your triggers, which aren't really about your child's behavior. Using tools like mindfulness, you'll begin to be able to create space between your child's behavior and your reaction to it, where it might seem like right now there's just no space at all. And then instead of yelling or walking away, either mentally or emotionally, or just shutting down, you'll be able to choose an effective response to your child. And then on the far fewer occasions when you are still triggered, you'll be able to repair your relationship with your child, so it doesn't become something that's triggering for them when they have their own children. We'll have community interactions on a platform that isn't Facebook and lots of support to help you achieve the changes that you want to see when you sign up. Sliding scale pricing is available. Learn more about the workshop and sign up at YourParentingMojo.com/TamingYourTriggers.

Jen 02:36

And so our guide for today's episode is Diana Winston, who is Director of Mindfulness Education at the Semel Institute's Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles. She's the author or co-author of three books related to mindfulness, most recently, The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness. Diana has taught mindfulness since 1999, in a variety of settings, including hospitals, universities, corporations, nonprofits and schools in the US and Asia, and has developed teacher trainings on this topic. She's a founding board member of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association and she spent a year as a Buddhist nun in Burma in her youth. Welcome, Diana.

Diana Winston 03:17

Thanks for inviting me.

Jen 03:19

So I wonder if we can maybe start at kind of a high level and then get into the research. And then from there, we can learn about some mindfulness practices that we can actually do ourselves. So maybe we can start with a definition of what mindfulness is, and where did this come from? Because as far as I know, they're not rooted in the Anglo-Saxon white culture that I grew up in.

Diana Winston 03:39

Okay, so I like to define mindfulness as paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is or to be with that experience. So it's really about learning to live in the present moment. Most of the time our minds are lost in the past, lost in the future, worrying, obsessing, planning, ruminating, replaying. Right? It's hard for us to come into the moment but the anxiety, depression, fears, worries concerned at all sort of lives in thoughts of the past or future. So mindfulness is this invitation into the present moment. And the concept comes from... So mindfulness is part of what it means to be human. It doesn't... there's no like, I mean, we all have this capacity to be present, awake, alert at home, inside ourselves. But the practice of mindfulness comes to us out of the Buddhist world where 2500-year tradition of training people - people who are mentoring in monasteries - but people in monasteries and also lay people and in this art of training your mind to pay attention. And so this has been passed down for thousands and thousands of years and somewhere in the well in the seventies... fifties, sixties, seventies, people went over and practiced and brought it back to the US or people came from different parts of Asia and brought it to the US. And then it slowly became secularized. So there's a big Buddhist movement, of course, but it's also been secularized as mindfulness in the last, you know, 20-30 years.

Jen 05:12

Hmm, yeah. And I would like to delve into that a little bit more, because I've been thinking about that a lot. But I wonder if, firstly, we can distinguish maybe between mindfulness and meditation? How do you draw that boundary? Where does that lie?

Diana Winston 05:25

So meditation, you can think of like sports. Sports is a big category, there's hundreds of types of sports. Meditation is a big category with many, many types of meditations. And then mindfulness is a type of meditation. So mindfulness is interesting because it's both cultivated through meditation. And that way, it's a meditation practice and it's also a quality of attention that you can have at any time, so you don't have to be meditating, to be mindful. And we can talk about, you know, the different ways that we could do that.

Jen 05:55

Yeah. Okay. That'd be awesome. So why should I even bother being mindful? You say it's an inherent part of the human experience and to some extent it is, but until I started deliberately and purposefully exploring this for myself, 18 months or so ago, nobody had ever really talked to me about this, you know, nobody, not my parents, my teachers, nobody, that I was growing up with talked about this. And so if we're just hearing about this for the first time, and maybe life isn't so bad, why not just keep doing what we've been doing all along? What can this add?

Diana Winston 06:26

Well, there's many, many different reasons why we might be interested in mindfulness. And, you know, a lot of people come to mindfulness because of suffering in some way, like anxiety, depression, mindfulness. I mean, the research is very robust around how mindfulness can help anxiety and depression and physical pain, chronic pain. And there's a whole host of physical related health conditions, mental health conditions. So there's that level of reducing suffering that might be attractive to people. And especially these days, where our minds, you know, it's just such a scary time, and our minds are all over the place. And there's so much uncertainty, mindfulness, I found that people are gravitating towards mindfulness more than ever in this last year. And aside from that, it's kind of like a deep dive into yourself, it's a way to... we are so externally focused, like our lives of taking ourselves out of ourselves all the time, you know, input, input, input, and we rarely go inward. So when we start to go inward, there's often insights that come understanding, self-understanding, and people talk about their lives being transformed over doing it over a long period of time. And I also want to say it's not for everybody. So it's, you know, just like no medication works for everybody, meditation isn't everybody's particular thing. And so just to say, like, I encourage people who are interested to give it a try, but don't assume that it's going to be like, a thing for you. It doesn't have to be.

Jen 07:54

Yeah, when I was reading your book, a couple of other ideas stuck out as well. The idea that our judgments of ourselves leave to self-hatred. And you told a lovely story about the Dalai Lama, can you tell us that story?

Diana Winston 08:05

There's the famous story about the Dalai Lama, where he was in a conference with many teachers, he was with teachers, and they were asking questions about how they should be teaching these Buddhists and mindfulness practices to the Western mind. And they said, "Well, one of the things we struggle with is self-hatred." And it got translated apparently, back and forth several times before. And the Dalai Lama just couldn't get it. He's like, "Self-hatred, self hatred." And then finally, he got it. And he's like, "Oh, I don't even know." Like, it's not even part of his... I think in the cultural background, it's just it's so much stronger in the US culture and in white Western culture, not only white, but all sorts of in the dominant culture, we see a tremendous amount of self-hatred. And I think in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan practice, we weren't seeing a lot of that during that period of time.

Jen 08:55

Hmm, yeah. And I think that that really just illustrates, one of the huge benefits of this is, is that it can change the way that you see yourself and the way that you interact with yourself. And I've talked to a number of times on the show about like the body-brain connection, and actually learned something from your book that I hadn't seen elsewhere, the gut being the second brain and being known as the second brain that tells us information about our experience. And that's a fascinating topic that I hope to dig into in a future episode as well. I mean, who knew that our gut was telling us so much about our experience?

Diana Winston 09:32

Yeah, there's some interesting work being done at UCLA related to that I can point you to the people. If you're interested.

Jen 09:39

Okay, and so and but before we leave this particular aspect of it, are we trying to be mindful all the time?

Diana Winston 09:44

So mindfulness can enhance one's life in a lot of ways. And so if we're not mindful, what are we doing? We're kind of checked out, we're missing our lives. That's a lot of people report that just like, you know, the days go by and they're barely connected to themselves or connecting to their families. And so I've had lots and lots of students who practice mindfulness and say, "Oh, I'm seeing my life in a whole new way. I'm having more gratitude, more appreciation, more connection." I had this doctor taking a course with me and it was the beginning course. And after six weeks, he said, "You know, I've lived on my street for 15 years, and I never noticed that there were mountains at the end of the street." And that's the kind of I mean, it's not unusual, and maybe that's an extreme case, but people tend to be checked out. So mindfulness can enhance our way of being it can help us to regulate emotions. And so in that way, it's so helpful to have mindfulness. But do we have to be mindful every single second? Probably not. And there's lots of reasons why you wouldn't want to be mindful. So you're watching a movie or reading a book, or you don't want to be like, so in the present moment that you're missing the story, or there's a lot of times that we need to have critical thinking of the future and the past and analysis, and daydreaming and imagination, all of those things are not the same. faculty is mindfulness. And we want to encourage that. But we can do it with awareness, right? So we can bring awareness to imagining and analyzing and critical thinking. So it's, it's sort of, it's an interesting thing that, you know, each of us has to explore for ourselves.

Jen 11:23

Okay. All right. And then I want to touch briefly on the Buddhism aspect of it. And I first discovered mindfulness and meditation at the same time when a friend recommended Sam Harris's app waking up, which was interesting, I found interesting, although ultimately frustrating for a number of reasons. And the reason that I bring him up is that he's sort of famous for disentangling mindfulness practices from religion and saying, you don't have to be Buddhist to practice mindfulness. And in fact that there is nothing inherently Buddhist in mindfulness. And I think that's a position that Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has taken to0, who was another one of these early people who brought this practice to the US and has done a lot of research on its effectiveness in treating a variety of ailments. And I think it's no secret to listeners that I identify as an atheist, but the idea that I might be taking these practices that have existed for thousands of years, in countries that were colonized by the country that I came from, and have been brought to the Western world, essentially by well-educated, middle-class white men, really kind of did give me pause. And so I wonder what your take is on that place?

Diana Winston 12:27

Yeah, it's an interesting question. And it's something that I think about a lot. And when I train teachers, we talk about it quite a bit like is this cultural appropriation? And I think there's, first of all, there's a lot of nuances to it but these practices shouldn't be divorced from their roots. I think there are contexts where we want to bring them in where we don't want to share that they're Buddhists, because it might be problematic. For instance, bringing them into the public schools, right? Because they've been pulled out of those religious roots, all the dogma, all of the religiosity, it's all been removed. And it's just this practice. It's not Buddhist, it's not like a Buddhist religious practice. And in that way, we can in good faith, say, "Yeah, we're teaching kids tools that can help them with their mind to be more present to work with attention to regulate emotions like that." So in that case, I think it's appropriate that they're a little bit removed from the roots. But I think it's really important that we honor the roots and that it's not like somebody gets the idea that Jon Kabat-Zinn invented mindfulness in 1979, or something we really don't want that to happen too. So for me, it's about keeping the dialogue alive, especially as I train teachers and helping them think about what's their relationship to it and how they want to talk about it. And these days, also, I think there's more acceptance, like, "Oh, yeah, this comes from the Buddhist world. And it can be done by anyone of any background of any religion and any culture at any moment." So that's how I kind of frame it and like to think about it.

Jen 13:57

Okay, cool. Thanks for helping us to understand that a little bit. So, okay, so let's go into the research. So, you published a book in 2019, The Little Book of Being and I'm going to quote it says, "Classical mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve health outcomes for stress-related conditions, reduce pain symptoms, improve emotional regulation, help with anxiety and depression, increase the ability to pay attention, cultivate states of wellbeing." I mean, it sounds like a magic pill. You also go on to say that "Many of the

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