In Practice

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How to Wake Up – Toni Bernhard – Interview

Interview about using Buddhist principles in life.

The following is an interview containing awesome mindfulness tips with Toni Bernhard, a former law professor who was forced to retire by sudden onset chronic illness. If you have a history of anxiety, depression, or just a general sense that life feels like you’re always swimming upstream, I think you’ll benefit from reading the interview.

Toni found herself using her knowledge of Buddhism to deal with her own illness and forced retirement. This led to her writing “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers,” which won two 2011 Nautilus Book Awards and garnered her over 10,000 Facebook fans. Toni’s work is popular for a reason. Reading her stuff will help you feel more of a sense of peace about your life. Her brand new book “How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow” is a fantastic guide to waking up to your life and using Buddhist-inspired principles and practices for dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life.

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1. Do you have to be Buddhist to benefit from How to Wake Up?

No. I purposefully write my books so that you don’t have to know anything about Buddhism to benefit from them. The tools and practices in them are designed to help people regardless of their background or circumstances.

2. What do you mean by “waking up?”

The phrase waking up, refers to my understanding of the Buddha’s awakening. I don’t believe there was anything supernatural about it. As the story goes, one day, he sat down under a tree and began to carefully observe his experience. After a time, he woke up to what it means to be human—both its stark realities and the potential it holds for us to find peace and contentment.

Those realities can be boiled down into two experiences that all of us share: impermanence and the inevitability of some tough times.

Impermanence, of course, refers to the ever-changing nature of experience. One of my first Buddhist teachers, Joseph Goldstein described impermanence this way: “Anything can happen at any time.” I like his characterization because it points to two corollaries of impermanence that I focus on in the book: uncertainty and unpredictability. We spend a lot of time working to attain their opposites—certainty and predictability. They’re appealing because they’d provide a sense of security and safety. The truth is, though, we control much less of our lives than we’d like—whether we’re in a third-world country or living in the most advanced scientific and technological environment. Denying, or even resisting, that life is uncertain and unpredictable can be a great source of stress and unhappiness for us.

The other experience common to all humans is that, although life has its share of joys (thank goodness!), it’s also tough and stressful at times. Bodies get sick and injured and old. Sadness arises when we’re separated from those we love. Grief arises over losses, big and small—from the loss of a treasured memento, to the loss of the honeymoon period in a new relationship, to the loss of a loved one in death.

Do not despair, however! The Buddha also woke up to our potential to find peace in this very life. When we’re no longer deluded or confused about what to expect from life, the possibility for peace arises—the peace and the sense of well-being that come from freeing ourselves from the futile desire to make what’s uncertain certain, to make pleasant and joyful experiences permanent, and to never feel sadness or sorrow again. These desires cannot be fulfilled because they’re not in accord with the human condition. Once we truly see and accept this, we’re free to be fully present for each moment, however it unfolds, without the painful futility of needing it to be different.

In June, a close friend of mine died and it hit me hard, even though I’d been expecting it for months. How do you wake up when you’re feeling such sorrow? By being wholly and genuinely present for it. For me, this means not turning away from the sorrow, but acknowledging how painful the loss is. It means treating myself kindly and with compassion. And it means finding my way to equanimity—the calmness of mind and peacefulness of heart that come from accepting that, along with life’s joys, come sorrows, and that I cannot control the length of anyone’s life.

Learning to be at peace with our lives takes practice and How to Wake Up is full of practice. I recently counted 58! They are simple but, I hope, life-changing.

3. What’s your recommendation for people who don’t want to commit to daily mindfulness practice on a forever basis? For example, for people who know it would be good for them if they did it but who are already struggling to take all the other recommended advice about diet, exercise, sleep, not spending too much time sitting at a stretch etc etc. and who feels like they’re self-care failures, or like they just don’t have any willpower available for mindfulness practice.

My recommendation is not to think of it as a major undertaking. You don’t even need to use the word “mindfulness.” Take baby steps by setting the intention each morning to become more aware of what you’re doing moment-to-moment during the day. After a month or so, reflect on any changes you notice as a result of staying in the moment. Are you less caught up in stressful thoughts about the past and the future? Are you feeling more relaxed? Are you enjoying your moment-to-moment experience more?

You can also choose one or two mindfulness practices from How to Wake Up—or another source—and add them to your daily routine. There are over 15 mindfulness practices to choose from in How to Wake Up. Try a couple that resonate with you. All of them are simple. One practice is to cut back on multitasking; another is to perform tasks more slowly. Simply adding one or two mindfulness practices to your day will help you reap the benefits of becoming more present for your moment-to-moment experience.

There’s never a good reason to take on the identity “self-care failure” or “person without willpower.” All of us are capable of changing. Neuroscientists are finding that our brains are constantly rewiring themselves, so no personality trait is set in stone. This means that a lack of willpower today can turn into a baby step of mindful attention tomorrow.

When those inner critic labels, such as “self-care failure” pop into your mind, I encourage you to respond by evoking compassion for yourself. Those critical assessments arise because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to be our own harshest critics and to expect perfection from ourselves. But “perfection” is a just a set-up for suffering and unhappiness. Try speaking to yourself softly or silently, using compassionate phrases, such as, “It’s hard to be so busy and overextended that I can’t fit in a regular mindfulness practice. I’m doing the best I can.”

4. Do you have any particular practices you use on an as needed basis for particular problems e.g., a practice for when you feel frustrated with someone else. What are your thoughts on using mindfulness practices as needed vs. needing to be consistent.

I’m very much in favor of using mindfulness or any other practices “as needed”! When I’m feeling frustrated with someone else, I work on cultivating equanimity. The book is full of equanimity practices. They help us accept that we can’t control other people’s actions, including how they respond to us. All we can do is speak and act with the best of intentions—with kindness, compassion, and generosity. Having done that, we just have to let things take their course, knowing that some people will be difficult to deal with and some will disappoint us. The essence of equanimity is being able to acknowledge and gracefully accept this fact of life with an evenness of temper and a peaceful heart.

In addition to cultivating equanimity, I also evoke compassion for myself over any suffering I’m experiencing as a result of feeling frustrated. Then I try to cultivate compassion for the person who is frustrating me. I think about the suffering that he or she is experiencing, and then do my best to open my heart to that suffering. When we’re able to see clearly that all humans struggle in life—even those who let us down—we can taste the freedom that comes from accepting our life as it is, disappointments included.

5. If someone only wants to do 3-5 minutes a day of daily practice, what would you suggest they choose? Do you think it’s a waste of time to do this little?

It’s definitely not a waste of time. For one thing, if that 3-5 minutes has beneficial effects, you may find yourself naturally expanding it to 5-10 minutes. I don’t see “waking up” as a one-time deal. Every moment of being present for your life as it is—pleasant or unpleasant, joyful or sorrowful—is a moment of awakening. It’s that simple. Several practices in the book are especially for people who are very busy. One of the chapters is devoted to what I call Five-Minute Mindfulness. It’s a practice that can be done in a few minutes, in almost any setting.

6. What was the inspiration for writing How to Wake Up?

When How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers was published three years ago, I didn’t plan to write a second book. Then I began to get emails from people around the world who’d read it and were asking me about all of life’s difficulties—tension of the job, stress in relationships, anxiety over children or parents…and sometimes just the challenge of getting through the day.

This led me to return to the Buddha’s core insights to see what he had to say about why we’re dissatisfied and unhappy so much of the time and whether we can find a measure of peace in a life that’s so unpredictable and difficult at times. I re-discovered just how grounded in everyday life his teachings were. Out of this investigation came How to Wake Up, but those emails were the original inspiration for writing the book.

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Alice Boyes, Ph.D. translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives.

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