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  • [APPLAUSE]

  • >> If, in rush hour traffic, you can remain perfectly calm,

  • if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without

  • a twinge of jealousy, if you can love everyone around you unconditionally,

  • and if you can always find contentment just where you are,

  • then you're probably a dog. >> [LAUGHTER] >> Right?

  • We hold ourselves to these unrealistic standards of perfection, and

  • then we judge ourselves when we don't live up to them. The thing is,

  • we're not supposed to be perfect. Perfection isn't possible, but

  • transformation is. All of us have the capacity to change,

  • to learn, and to grow, no matter what our circumstances. As a professor and

  • scientist, I study how people change, how people transform. And

  • one of the most effective vehicles I've found is mindfulness.

  • My own journey into mindfulness was unexpected. When I was 17,

  • I had spinal fusion surgery, a metal rod put in my spine.

  • I went from a healthy, active teenager to lying in a hospital bed unable to walk.

  • And during the many months of rehabilitation, I tried to figure out

  • how to live in this body that could no longer do what it used to.

  • The physical pain was difficult, but worse was the fear and

  • the loneliness, and I simply didn't have the tools to cope, so

  • I began searching for something that could help. And eventually the search led me

  • to a monastery in Thailand for my first meditation retreat.

  • At the monastery, the monks didn't speak much English and I didn't speak any Thai,

  • but I understood mindfulness had something to do with paying attention in the present

  • moment. My only instruction was to feel the breath going in and

  • out of my nose. So I began, one breath, two breaths, my mind wandered off...

  • I brought it back. One breath, two breaths, it wandered again,

  • sucked into the past or lost in the future, and no matter how hard I tried, I

  • just couldn't stay present. Now, this was frustrating because I thought meditation

  • was supposed to feel like this... And instead it felt more like this.

  • >> [LAUGHTER] >> Right? Being present isn't so easy.

  • In fact, check it out for yourself. I've been speaking for about three minutes.

  • Have you noticed your mind has wandered? All of our minds wander.

  • Research from Harvard shows the mind wanders, on average, 47% of the time.

  • 47%, that's almost half of our lives that we're missing, that we're not here.

  • So part of mindfulness is simply learning to train the mind in how to be here,

  • where we already are. Like right now, let's practice together.

  • Allow your eyes to close, and just feel your feet on the floor,

  • wiggle your toes, and sense your whole body sitting here,

  • softening the face, softening the jaw,

  • and notice that you're breathing.

  • Feeling the breath as it naturally flows in and out of the body,

  • just being here. And as you're ready, taking a deeper breath in and

  • out, allowing your eyes to open... So,

  • back at the monastery, I was trying hard to do just this, to just be present.

  • But no matter how hard I tried, my mind kept wandering off. And at this point,

  • I really started to judge myself. What is wrong with you? You're terrible at this.

  • Why are you even here? You're a fake. And then not only was I judging myself,

  • I started judging everyone. Even the monks... Why are they just sitting here?

  • Shouldn't they be doing something?

  • >> [LAUGHTER] >> Thankfully, a monk from London arrived who spoke English.

  • And as I shared with him my struggles, he looked at me and said, Oh dear,

  • you're not practicing mindfulness, you're practicing judgment, impatience,

  • frustration... And then he said five words that have never left me:

  • What you practice grows stronger. What you practice grows stronger.

  • We know this now with neuroplasticity. Our repeated experiences shape our brain.

  • We can actually sculpt and strengthen our synaptic connections, based on repeated

  • practice. For example, in the famous study of London taxi drivers,

  • the visual-spatial mapping part of the brain is bigger,

  • stronger. They've been practicing navigating the 25,000 streets of London

  • all day long. When you look at the brains of meditators,

  • the areas related to attention, learning, compassion,

  • grow bigger and stronger. It's called cortical thickening,

  • the growth of new neurons in response to repeated practice. What we practice grows

  • stronger. The monk explained to me that if I was meditating with judgment,

  • I was just growing judgment. Meditating with frustration, I'm growing frustration.

  • He helped me understand that mindfulness isn't just about paying attention,

  • it's about how we pay attention with kindness. He said it's like these

  • loving arms that welcome everything, even the messy imperfect parts of ourselves.

  • He also pointed out that we're practicing all the time, moment by moment,

  • not just when we're meditating, but in every moment. We're growing something in

  • every moment. So the question really becomes, what do you want to grow?

  • What do you want to practice? When I left Thailand,

  • I wanted to keep practicing mindfulness. And, I wanted to understand it

  • scientifically, so I began a PhD program, eventually became a professor. And

  • I've spent the past 20 years investigating the effects of mindfulness across a wide

  • range of populations, including veterans with PTSD, patients with insomnia,

  • women with breast cancer, stressed-out college students,

  • high-level business executives... And over and over the data showed two key things.

  • First, mindfulness works, it's good for you.

  • It strengthens our immune functioning, it decreases stress, decreases cortisol,

  • helps us sleep better. When we published our first research back in '98,

  • there were only a handful of studies.

  • Now there are thousands of studies showing the beneficial effects of mindfulness,

  • it's good for us. The second thing we learned was quite unexpected.

  • Almost all of the people we were working with, regardless of their age,

  • their gender, their background,

  • were talking about the same thing--this underlying sense of I'm not good enough,

  • I'm not okay, I'm not living this life right, this tremendous self-judgment and

  • shame. And we all know what they were talking about,

  • because shame is universal, all of us feel it. And worse,

  • we have this mistaken belief that if we shame ourselves, if we beat ourselves up,

  • we'll somehow improve. And yet, shame doesn't work, shame never works,

  • it can't work. Literally, physiologically, it can't work because, when we feel shame,

  • the centers of the brain that have to do with growth and learning shut down.

  • This fMRI shows the brain on shame.

  • What happens is the amygdala triggers a cascade of norepinephrine and

  • cortisol to flood our system, shutting down the learning centers and

  • shuttling our resources to survival pathways. Shame literally

  • robs the brain of the energy it needs to do the work of changing.

  • And worse, when we feel shame, we want to avoid it. So, we hide from those

  • parts of ourselves that we're ashamed of, the parts that most need our attention.

  • It's just too painful to look at them. So what's the alternative?

  • Kind attention... First, kindness gives us the courage to

  • look at those parts of ourselves we don't want to see. And second,

  • kindness bathes us with dopamine, turning on the learning centers of the brain and

  • giving us the resources we need to change. True and

  • lasting transformation requires kind attention. And

  • the monk's words echoed in my ears. Mindfulness isn't just about attention,

  • it's about kind attention. This attitude of kindness wasn't just a footnote or

  • something nice to have, it was an essential part of the practice,

  • a part of mindfulness that's so often overlooked. So my colleagues and

  • I developed a model of mindfulness that explicitly includes our attitude,

  • and our intention, as well as our attention.

  • All three parts working together synergistically. Put simply,

  • mindfulness is intentionally paying attention with kindness.

  • We used this model while working at the Veterans Hospital for

  • a group of men with PTSD. I was shocked to learn that we lose more veterans

  • to suicide each year than to combat. Our soldiers carry so

  • much pain and shame. So the intention of the mindfulness group

  • was to cultivate this kind attention, even for the seemingly unforgivable parts

  • of ourselves. There was one man in the group who never said a word,

  • never looked up. Two months passed, he seemed unreachable. And

  • then one day, he raised his hand and he said, I don't want to get better.

  • What I saw in the war, what I did, I don't deserve to get better.

  • He then looked down at the floor and

  • proceeded to tell us in great detail what he had seen and what he had done.

  • And I can still feel the horror of what he shared, and how his shame filled the room.

  • I looked up to see how the other men were responding, and there was no judgment,

  • only compassion on their faces. I invited him to look up and

  • to witness this compassion and this kindness. And

  • as he slowly looked around the room, his face began to soften. And

  • in his eyes there was hope. The possibility that he wasn't just his

  • past actions... That he could choose differently now, that he could change.

  • And this may be one of the most important things I've learned,

  • it's that transformation is possible for all of us no matter what,

  • and it requires kind attention, not shame. And

  • this kind attention takes practice, it takes lots of practice.

  • I want to share with you a simple practice that continues to help me.

  • Some years ago, I was going through a difficult divorce, and

  • I'd wake up every morning with this pit of shame in my stomach.

  • My meditation teacher suggested an explicit practice of kind attention.

  • She said, How about saying, I love you, Shauna, every day? I thought to myself,

  • no way. It felt so contrived. She saw my hesitation and suggested,

  • How about just saying, Good morning, Shauna? Oh, and try putting your hand on

  • your heart when you say it--it releases oxytocin, it's good for you, you know.

  • >> [LAUGHTER] >> She knew that science would win me over, so the next day,

  • I put my hand on my heart, took a breath, and said, Good morning, Shauna.

  • And it was kind of nice. I continued to practice, and a month later,

  • when I saw her, I admitted how helpful it had been. Wonderful, you've graduated,

  • she said. Now, the advanced practice... Good morning,

  • I love you, Shauna. So the next day,

  • I put my hand on my heart, anchored myself, and said, Good morning,

  • I love you, Shauna. I felt nothing, except maybe a little ridiculous, but

  • definitely not love. But I kept practicing, because,

  • as we know, what we practice grows stronger. And then one day,

  • I put my hand on my heart, took a breath, Good morning,

  • I love you, Shauna. And I felt it. I felt my grandmother's love,

  • I felt my mother's love, I felt my own self-love.

  • And I wish I could tell you that every day since then there's been this bubble of

  • self-love and I've never felt shame or judgment again, and that's not true. But

  • what is true is this pathway of kind attention has been established, and

  • it's growing stronger every day. So,