Dawn Williams speaks with Caroline Welch, co-founder and CEO of the Mindsight Institute, and author of The Gift Of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women. Caroline shares techniques for cultivating presence, a new way to frame our thinking about stress, and other strategies for living mindfully. A longtime friend of Blue School, Caroline’s research and recommendations are especially helpful now.
Visit Blue School's new website to learn more about our education philosophy and Fall 2020 offerings. BlueSchoolConnected.org
DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents, while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you are finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous, and compassionate. I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together we will find our way.
Today I have the great pleasure of speaking with Caroline Welch. Caroline is the CEO and co-founder along with Dr. Dan Siegel, Blue School’s advisory board member, and Caroline’s work and life partner, of the Mindsight Institute in Santa Monica, California. Caroline is a longtime friend of Blue School, and also author of the book, The Gift Of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women. Caroline, welcome to On Balance.
CAROLINE WELCH: Thanks Dawn. I’m so happy to be here.
DAWN: Caroline, I found this to be such a powerful book to read right now. Full of practices and suggestions that felt immediately useful to me. It asked me to look at myself and care for myself in ways that felt like a dear friend was asking those things of me. So thank you for those words. I’m so excited to talk to you today. I wanted to start by talking with you about balance. As you know at Blue School we talk so often about balance. We talk about a dynamic balance between academic mastery and self and social learning and creative thinking. And then even in this podcast about finding equilibrium as parents and as educators. And so I was so interested to read you questioning the need for balance. You talk about juggling, about life being messy and flexible. Can you share some of your thinking about balance as a goal or outcome?
CAROLINE: Yes, absolutely. And it’s funny that the name of the podcast is On Balance as you mentioned. And actually the two words that really kind of jumpstarted my writing this book are forget balance, which was the name of an article that I saw as I was rushing through the airport. And what I loved about entertaining the thought of forgetting balance is it was immediately freeing because it feels sometimes like we aspire to balance, but in fact maybe the balance that we aspire to is too narrow of a definition. So if we could just expand our sense of it, it would be of benefit to us.
DAWN: So that feels like the starting point of your book in a way when I was reading it, is this idea of presence. I wonder if you could share what you mean when you talk about presence.
CAROLINE: Sure. I use one of the traditional definitions that Jon Kabat-Zinn presents, and it’s the paying of attention to what’s going on on purpose without judgment. And I like to add a little more to that just to make it clearer, because in that definition a few things are implicit. Such as — not that we would ever get to the point of not having any judgments, but that we could be not carried away by our judgments. And also implicit in this is being kind to ourselves. Because trying to stay in the moment sounds simple, but it’s actually challenging.
DAWN: Yeah. Reading your book during these COVID-19 days, some of the things you raise resonated with me in large ways. You talk about the things our brains do. Where you talk about catastrophizing, and negativity bias, and our preference for answers over ambiguity. And I’m wondering if you can share some of the techniques that you see bringing us back to this state of presence, especially during — maybe always, but it feels like especially during these days.
CAROLINE: Yes, exactly. And I think — we started with your mentioning that the book seems especially appropriate now. And it’s not that I’m clairvoyant by any means, but I think that the challenges that we have now, whether it’s from the distraction and the uncertainty and the chaos from the pandemic, the unrest from protests against systematic racism, the fact that we’re in an election year, or perhaps just to turn to a personal life, there’s been a family emergency, a death in the family, a serious illness.
These are all challenges that are parts of our lives. But right now we’re really in the midst of a crash course on mindfulness if you will. And so I have actually three techniques I’d like to share, which I’m using now myself, but also when I interviewed over 100 women for my book, some of these are things that they too were using in their lives to meet day to day as well as more extraordinary challenges. And the first one is to select your own go to sensory experience when you’re feeling rattled and not calm. Whatever that might be. Whatever works for you. Whether it’s stepping outside and getting fresh air, taking a breath, just getting more in touch with your hands. Just that split second that can bring you back. That technique is often quite useful for getting us back into the present moment. And the more we live in these states of presence, the more they can become traits, and become our default way of being if you will.
So another thing we can do, another technique is just keeping in mind that we treat ourselves as we would our best friend. So what would, for example, your best friend say to you when you need support? What would that be? And how would you keep that front of mind? And that might be by something as simple as post-its. I don’t underestimate the power of post-its. And that we put a few things out for our easy viewing. Whatever it is. Self care isn’t selfish, or it’s okay to say no even in a pandemic. Some of these useful things that can keep us very present with what is, and keep us caring for ourselves. And finally, another thing we can do, and this is especially useful when it comes to the uncertainty that of course prevails in life, but clearly prevails now, is creating a routine that we can keep. And this has the benefit of adding a sense of agency. So we’re actually taking charge and building some certainty into our days.
DAWN: Oh, that’s so useful. Thank you. You write about good stress. You write about stress, and you write about good stress. And you discuss a study, I think it was a 1998 study, and I found the results so fascinating. Can you share some of your understanding of this study, and how we can use those takeaways to see some stress, I think you say it’s — that stress is an inherent part of our engaged lives as part of living with purpose.
CAROLINE: Yes, absolutely. We all play so many roles in our lives. Educator, parent, parents/TA at this time, breadwinner, caregiver. Any number of roles. And integrating all of these roles is stressful, and it is however also part of being human, and part of having very engaged lives that bring us lots of opportunities. So the study I referred to in my book covered 30,000 people. And the question was, what level of stress did they have, and whether they thought the stress was harmful to their health. So among the 30,000, high levels of stress correlated with a 43% risk of dying. The surprising thing was that that only applied to those folks who believed their stress was harming their health.
So those who had high levels of stress but didn’t view it as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, the lowest risk of death was in that group even lower than those reporting low stress. And that actually makes a lot of sense if you think about having purpose in your life and having days that are full of activities that hopefully often, if not largely, have meaning to you. That gets you up in the morning and that keeps you motivated. And you can look around in your life, and it’s not the people who have a great deal of free time and can’t find enough things to do that actually may have the least stressful lives, as contradictory as that might sound.
DAWN: Yeah, that’s so interesting. It feels like one of those, a-ha. It makes so much sense but it feels like a reframing of how we think about stress. I found that very — personally very helpful. Also you talk about pivoting, you use the word pivoting to talk about the fact that we are empowered to make other choices, right? That we can make changes in our lives, and proactively pivot as a tool for resilience, or as a tool for wellbeing. There’s a way that you talk about presence as not a complacent state, an active state. I wonder if you can share some of your thinking about pivoting, and how it relates to the bigger ideas of presence.
CAROLINE: Sure. And this actually might be a good time for me to just lay out the — quickly the structure of the book. Because it is about mindfulness or presence, and I use those words synonymously in the book. Mindful awareness is another synonym. But purpose, pivoting, and pacing are three P’s that I chose after interviewing the 100 persons for the book. And after looking at some of the research, just to try to bring alive in our ordinary lives what presence or mindfulness can look like. So when it comes to pivoting, the connection is that once we have a good look at what’s going on in our lives, we might determine that it’s time for a change.
But then, humans don’t like change. We like things familiar. And so it becomes very hard to make what I call a proactive change. You could say that right now we’re in the midst of crisis pivoting, and that’s usually when we make changes, is when we have to. When our company leaves town, or when something changes that is no longer — becomes no longer possible for us to continue the way that we have. One other thing I’d like to add here is that presence and mindfulness is a very active practice. I think sometimes we confuse what can be a wonderful benefit of mindfulness, that is to be relaxed, or become more calm. But in fact, complacency or passivity are not part of presence in the sense that perhaps it is often commonly mistakenly if that makes sense.
DAWN: Totally, yes. Going back to your three P’s, can you talk a little more about pacing? You share that pacing is both how we move through our day to day, but also how we can take a long view of our lives. And I heard you say that we may think we’re in the busiest times of our lives, and that we’ll have more time later when our kids get older or when this project is over. But that doesn’t seem to be so. We have to do something to change the pace. Can you share some of your thinking about how we can get unstuck, about how we can give ourselves permission?
CAROLINE: Yes. And I’m sorry to dispel the more time later hope —
DAWN: I wish. I know. I found it disheartening, I have to say.
CAROLINE: I know. I really — I’m sorry about that. And I remember when I was — when our kids were young, and I was talking to my mother in law, and she had just retired actually. She was a school principal. And I was telling her how much I had going on, and my work, and the family, and the household, and volunteering, and the different things I was doing. And she said, “Well believe it or not, I’m actually overwhelmed and double booked right now.” And she had just retired, and her kids were grown. So I really listened to that, and now that I’ve moved ahead in my own life, I realized that we all have this — get into this potential trap of an imagined future when we’re going to have time. But it doesn’t really work out that way.
And to answer your question about how we actually get a hold of this, and how we do finally change the pace, it really requires getting unstuck by choosing to neglect certain things. Just a selective neglect. Otherwise, we can never win in the rat race. And part of this is identifying what’s meaningful to us. What’s our purpose with respect to a given role, and what are the priorities. Because there will never be enough time to do everything, and certainly not everything all at once, which is — gets into the second — one of the second features of the pacing, which is, you know, to look at the longer trajectory of our lives.
And hopefully we all now, more than in any other time in our human history, have a longer health span. So hopefully we will have time to do more of the things that we wish to do. But it’s important to recognize, what is it I have to do in this particular chapter that I may not be able to do later.
DAWN: It’s so helpful. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for you spending time with us today. Your book is a gift, and I will read it again and again. It feels like one of those books. It’s full of poetry, it’s full of meditations, and techniques that you can try as you’re reading it, and then also pull into the daily rituals of your life. And I feel like there are words of wisdom for how to mindfully go through the moments of your life. I will take showers differently now. But I thank you. I thank you for your words, and your book, and then for sharing with them us on this podcast today.
CAROLINE: You’re very welcome. It was my pleasure to be here.
DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.