The Mindful Self-Express

The mind-body experiment.

Spiritual Tools for Life Challenge With Author Toni Bernhard

Buddhist-inspired wisdom on coping with adversity.

It is my pleasure this week to share an interview with Buddhist-inspired author and felllow Psychology Today blogger Toni Bernhard. Toni has written two bestselling books on coping with life's uncontrollable challenges using Buddhist-inspired and mindfulness tools.Toni's first book, How to Be Sick teaches you how to treat yourself with compassion and live a meaningful life despite chronic pain or illness. Winner of the Nautilus Gold Medal in Self-Help/Psychology, How to Be Sick has helped transform attitudes to pain and suffering. Toni's recent book How to Wake Up sets forth the Buddha's path to peace and well-being in the midst of life's ups and downs. It is designed for a general audience facing a variety of life challenges.

Below are excerpts from my interview with Toni:

Why should people want to “wake up” to the pain in their lives? Isn’t not being awake easier and more comfortable?

In my experience, not being awake is a source of unease and discomfort! In other words, it’s a form of mental suffering. When the Buddha had his great awakening under the Bodhi tree, he saw clearly two things: the realities of the human condition and the potential we all have to find peace and well-being.

Waking up to the realities of the human condition is crucial so that we know what to expect in life. If we’re deluded about what to expect, we suffer mentally when things don’t go our way. And so, I want to be awake to the fact that life can be hard at times and that many of my desires and wishes will go unfulfilled. Understanding this helps me accept and be content with my life as it is, because I know that I simply cannot always get what I want—no one can. It’s a reality of the human condition.

I also want to be awake to another reality: the universal law of impermanence—how everything is in constant flux. Yes, it brings uncertainty with it, but it also helps me get through those rough patches, because I know that a moment of joy may be waiting just around the corner.

Do you see commonalities between different types of events that your readers face (e.g. illness vs. financial stress vs. rejection)

Yes. In fact, this is a major theme of How to Wake Up: everybody will face difficulties in life. It comes with the territory. The commonality among these difficulties is that people tend to make things worse for themselves by resisting the presence of whatever challenges they’re facing. This resistance takes the form of getting caught up in an intense desire for their lives to be different, even when they have no control over their circumstances.

The alternative to being stuck in desire (what I like to call “want/don’t want mind”) is to treat the present moment—difficulties included—as your starting point. In other words, this is the “given” in your life. Then, from there, begin to take constructive steps to alleviate the stress and unhappiness you’re experiencing. With illness, this means accepting your limitations and being willing to build a new life around them. With financial stress, it might mean committing to more careful budgeting and investigating where you might be able to cut back.

With rejection, starting where you are means first accepting, without aversion, that this is what you’re feeling at the moment. It’s not your fault. Painful as it is, everyone faces rejection in at some time in his or her life. Constructive action would include treating yourself with kindness and compassion for any suffering it’s causing you. It can also help to connect with people in your life who you know care about you. And it helps to be patient; with time, the feeling of rejection will fade because everything is impermanent in this life. 

The book has many exercises and practices. Which ones do you rely on most?

My “go to” practices are self-compassion and equanimity.

I cultivate self-compassion to soothe the difficulties of everyday life and to transform my inner critic. Most of us have been conditioned from childhood to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. As a result, we habitually judge ourselves negatively for the slightest imperfection. But we can reverse that conditioning. Minds can change. The Buddha said that the mind is as soft and pliant as the balsam tree. Neuroscientists are confirming this today—how the mind is constantly rewiring and reconditioning itself. How to Wake Up has several exercises to help us learn to quiet the inner critic. Other exercises focus on learning to treat ourselves as kindly and compassionately as we’d treat a loved one in need.

I cultivate equanimity because I see it as the key to “waking up”—waking up to that same peace and contentment that the Buddha attained over 2,500 years ago. A mind that is equanimous understands that life is a mixture of joys and sorrows and responds to both those circumstances with an even temper and a peaceful heart. In those moments when I'm able to let go of the desire for the world to conform to my liking, I can feel the peace and well-being of equanimity arise.

You say that being present for your life as it is at the moment holds the promise for finding peace and well-being. Why is it so hard to be present?

It’s hard because life is inevitably a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. This means that there’s no way around it: the present moment is not necessarily a pleasant moment!

There’s a tendency to turn away in aversion from any unpleasantness, instead of being willing to stay in the moment with it and acknowledge whatever we’re feeling. This turning away from experiences that are not to our liking serves only to make an already unpleasant situation worse, because it adds a layer of suffering in the form of painful emotions, such as resentment, fear, or frustration.

My understanding of the Buddha’s awakening is that he realized that the key to peace and well-being is to accept life as it is—unpleasantness included—and then to be as present for it as we can. When we’re present in this way, compassion naturally arises for any suffering we might be experiencing.

Meditation, MIndfulness, and acceptance of suffering take practice.  How do you stay motivated through the initial stages?

My recommendation is not to think of meditation, accepting suffering, or mindfulness as major undertakings. Be content to take “baby steps.” For example, with mindfulness, try setting the intention each morning to become more aware of your moment-to-moment experience during a particular time period of the day. You could start with 10 minutes and slowly increase it to 20 or 30.

The subtitle to the book refers to “navigating joy.” Why do we need to do that? Why not just enjoy it? 

A few people have asked me why we need to navigate joy. We all prefer joy over sorrow, so why not grasp at joy when it comes? The reason is that, like everything else, joy is subject to the law of impermanence and so cannot last. Until I understood this, there was always an undercurrent of unease and even anxiety whenever I was in the midst of a joyful experience. And so, by navigating joy, I’m referring to the skill of enjoying it fully, even passionately, but also having the wisdom not to cling to it because clinging has that undercurrent of unease.

One example I use in the book is of my experience watching a spectacular sunset on the island of Molokai and how I felt uneasy and dissatisfied in the midst of its beauty. This spoiled my ability to simply enjoy the unfolding display of colors. Then I intensified that unease by adding distracting commentary to what was happening in the moment: “How much longer will it look like this? Ten minutes? Five minutes? Two minutes?” Then I topped it off with a stressful story about the future: “Maybe tomorrow night, after we’ve left the island, it will be even more spectacular and we’ll miss out on it.”

All of this interfered with my ability to enjoy the sunset while it lasted. I’d be surprised if everyone hasn’t engaged in distracting mental chatter that’s interfered with the ability to enjoy something pleasurable that’s going on in the moment. That chatter reflects a desire to control our experience, but no amount of desire can affect the fleeting nature of a sunset. Had I understood this, I could have bowed to the law of impermanence and enjoyed the sunset while it lasted, without dissatisfied longing creeping in to pollute my joy. This would have been navigating joy skillfully.

How did you first become interested in Buddhism?

In 1991, I was reading the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzŭ, translated by Stephen Mitchell. I flipped to the back of the book to check out the footnotes and found several references to a Korean Zen teacher named Master Seung Sahn. Mitchell had asked him to comment on several of Lao Tzŭ’s verses. One comment read in part:

Our mind is like a clear glass of water. If we put salt into the water, it becomes salt water; sugar, it becomes sugar water; mud, it becomes mud water. But originally the water is clear.

When I read this, I thought: “Whoa. Does this mean that my cluttered, confused, and stress-filled mind can be like a clear glass of water? Who is this Master Seung Sahn?” Today, of course, I’d just enter his name into Google. But this was 1991, so I went to the library at University of California—Davis (where I was teaching) and found a book by him called Dropping Ashes on the Buddha.

Soon I was reading every Buddhist book I could get my hands on. They challenged me on the deepest level to think about my life and to examine, among other things, why I felt a sense of dissatisfied longing so much of the time. After several months, I began to meditate and attend retreats in the Theravadin tradition with teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Sylvia Boorstein.

Do you have to be a Buddhist to benefit from this book?

No. In fact, I like to joke that it’s a Buddhist book for non-Buddhists. I write my books for people of any religious persuasion—or of no religious persuasion. We’re in the same boat as the Buddha was: we’re human beings. This is why I start the book with this quotation from the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

It is exactly because the Buddha was a human being that countless buddhas are possible.

The word “Buddha” means “awakened one.” As a fellow human being—albeit an extraordinary one—the Buddha saw the potential for all of us to become buddhas—to “wake up” to the simple joy of being alive. I don’t look upon awakening as a transcendent, otherworldly one-time deal. I see it as a potential that arises over and over again, every moment.

To find out more about Toni’s books, visit her website:

http://www.tonibernhard.com/

Read Toni’s Psychology Today blog:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold

About The Author:

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Managing Anxiety, and Depression, Succeeding at Work, and Mind-Body Health. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for your organization and coaching and psychotherapy for individuals and couples.

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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., studies the health effects of expressive writing, cognitive adaptation to trauma, the genesis and treatment of chronic pain, among other coping issues.

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