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Monday, February 1, 2010

Mindfulness Meditation, TriYoga, and Orchestrating a Fulfilling Life

About once a week, I'm trying to post interviews with amazing and insightful people who inspire me! This week's focus is Lisa.

Lisa is a friend and mentor of mine from grad school, who is now a professor and researcher in language and literacy. She is one of the best, most creative speech therapists I’ve ever seen in action. She’s also just a genuinely kind person who takes the time to connect with people around her regardless of how busy she is. And right now, I’m super-excited for her, because she and her husband Jon just started the process of getting ready to adopt! I can’t wait until they get the chance to be parents, because I can just imagine what an intuitive and thoughtful mom Lisa will be.

Anyway, here are her answers to my happiness interview questions:

1. How do you cheer yourself up when you're feeling blue?
I think there are two levels of feeling blue - there are the short term times when I feel blue - the days when things just don't go right or I feel overwhelmed or sad for some reason. I know they are short lived but they are still unpleasant. In those times, there are lots of things that I can do to cheer myself up - baking cookies and singing to music I love, going for a walk and noticing all the wonderful things in nature - to look deeply outside of myself instead of inside at my own negative feelings, exercising, reading an inspiring book, praying - just telling God all about what's making me sad and letting God feel that with me. I also meditate but I think that gets into the longer term response to feeling blue...

Then I think there are the times in our lives when "blue" is sort of a pervading feeling - something that spans more than a few days and seems to be related to bigger issues in our lives - it could be a family member with a serious illness, a blow to some aspect of our professional or personal life or dreams, problems that are not solvable perhaps for a long time, hurts that will take months and years to truly be felt, experienced, and moved beyond. And I don't necessarily mean clinical depression here - although that certainly counts - if we've lived enough years, we've had times like these whether we needed therapy and meds to deal with them or not!

I think those bigger periods of feeling blue are something we can prepare for by taking a proactive stance toward the short term blues we experience - having ways to respond to small hurts and sad days. But we also need to have some overarching way of orchestrating our life to handle the bigger difficulties. For me a huge part of that has been mindfulness meditation, yoga, and looking to build my life in ways that allow me to pursue my dreams. And those things seem to innoculate me so that when I DO experience a big setback or hurt, my life already has the things in it that help me cope. I've been knocked down before b/c those things were not in place and I've coped much better since I got them in place. Mindfulness meditation was something that changed my life - I learned how to be IN the moment, to not always be thinking about the past or what I needed to do next week, but to be in the moment with whatever I had in front of me at that moment - whether it was my cookies, my dinner, a student having a meltdown, a parent struggling with their child's disability, my husband, a friend on the phone, whatever. It took a lot of practice, and I find times when I forget to practice and something reminds me to get back into the habit. Yoga goes hand in hand with this - and I'll say I've done yoga for 15 or more years now but TriYoga has changed my life. It is a very mindful yoga and based in flows of movement - a lot of yoga I've done involved getting into a posture and holding the posture - but TriYoga has taught me to be mindful throughout ALL movement - and that has helped me find the subtle ways my body works and to focus on expanding my body's abilities in ways that other yoga practices never did.

Finally, I've changed my life in ways that fit my spirit and my dreams much better. I think mindfulness meditation helped me be present in the moment - rather than being disappointed with what life was presenting at that moment, just accepting that this is what the moment held and to experience that rather than to fight against it (this is why mindfulness meditation is so useful for pain patients and heart patients). But mindfulness meditation also taught me that I don't have to stay in situations that are unhealthy for me - I can be mindful in the moment AND I can plan to make bigger changes in my life that help me to reach my dreams and provide a better place for my spirit to grow. I think that was the whole reason WHY I was able to take the chance and leave a REALLY GOOD JOB at Chapel Hill and come to a place that offered much less in terms of prestige and glamour - but where I certainly FIT better - a job that feeds my soul instead of draining it - a place where I am able to truly use my talents in ways that help students learn to be good with children with special needs and help parents and children reach their potential. I have never felt this energized and fulfilled by the various roles I get to play - as teacher, supervisor, mentor, model, collaborator, researcher. But that would not have come if I had not been able to notice my spirit in the moment and consider what it needed to be whole. And of course, I also believe that God had a whole lot to do with it. It was a divine plan; however, I don't think a few years earlier I would have listened to that. I think we have to be intentional about the big choices we make in life, and that can set us up to be happier. And we have to be able to listen to ourselves and to God to know what choices to make.

2. What have been the happiest experiences of your life so far?
Wow, so many... recently it's been getting married to a wonderful man, the kind of man that I did not know could exist. He has helped me see myself in different ways, and shown me a different way to live - to value what's really important and to seek the best in myself and others (and "best" does not have to mean "achievement" which had been my focus all my life). He is just fun to be with and I am so happy that we can pursue life together.

My career brings me a great deal of happiness - I love showing students how to work with children, teaching them the principles of interacting in trustworthy ways to help kids be successful. I love watching them "get it" and watching the children respond to that. I love teaching in ways that make students enjoy the topic even if they thought they'd hate it. I love being able to figure a kid out with the help of their parents and then helping them achieve the skills to communicate in ways that make life a lot easier for the whole family. My career brings me a lot of joy.

My gramma has brought me a lot of happiness - to have a gramma close by is wonderful and a first for me. She sometimes feels like a burden b/c she needs people to take care of her, and I wish that I could somehow impress upon her how much joy she brings me -- how much she has taught me about family in the last 6 months and about what is important in life.

I think it's interesting that you ask for what our happiest experiences have been so far. I immediately started to think of some of the saddest experiences in my life and how those also helped me to find happiness - like my mother's illness and death which was so hard - but out of that came some real blessings, things I learned that have been instrumental in helping me move forward in my life. Our inability to have children - which has also taught me so much about accepting loss and pursuing dreams and building a family. That story still has more chapters, and I don't know what they will look like yet - but although it has been very painful and difficult, it has also taught me so much. In big ways but also in very small and practical ways - it helped me understand one of my clients much better and his family and my work with them looked much different b/c of my growing knowledge about the difficulties adopted kids have. Some of the training we are doing is helping me understand some of my own childhood traumas and how to "parent" in ways that can make a difference for the child. I also think my childhood traumas put me in a position of being able to understand an adopted child much better - so although those experiences were not "happy" to say the least, they have given me such a gift to be able to offer a child we bring into our home - knowledge and understanding that I would not have otherwise had. So, the experiences we have that are not happy can also provide us with the tools to build happiness.

3. What is something small that you do regularly that makes you happier?
I guess I've already said this - spend time with my husband and family, meditate, yoga, read, cook, go for walks, work with kids, teach my students, looking for the very small things in life (snowflakes, my gramma's face on Christmas) that are the building blocks of happiness if you notice them, rather than looking for something big to come to me and make me happy.

I guess you can probably see why Lisa was such an exceptional mentor to me when I was in grad school. I think I could write 35 blog entries on this interview alone.

I definitely agree with her that the little things we do to make us happier are like strategies we can have in our happiness toolbox when something big and scary comes along in life. And she’s right-- sad and painful experiences can sometimes reveal insights to us and open us up in a way that happy ones never could. To know ourselves well, and to know what makes us happy, is not a small thing.

By the way, here’s a link to a really cool video about the cognitive neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. It’s SO interesting!

And, a friend of mine told me about an article in the Wall Street Journal about Happiness Coaching in the Workplace. Check it out if you're interested!


What hard times have ultimately led you toward a happier life?


  1. TJ, thanks for your posts. I am reading. I'm looking into attempting to meditate. :)

  2. Hah, It's a little intimidating to think about learning to meditate, huh? I've been trying it a little bit, too. At least focusing on breathing and just noticing thoughts without judging myself over them has been helpful. And calming! Miss you!

  3. Hi,

    You've got a really wonderful blog. Many people don't realize what mind power can do to one's good results.

  4. Hi,

    You've an incredibly wonderful weblog. To turn into a profitable person the simple issue is usually to have positive thinking.