Most of us store tension, anger, and fear in our bodies and mindfulness meditation helps us settle the physical self and release tension from the body. Through this softening and relaxing of the body, we often feel a greater sense of emotional calm and wellbeing.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Lipkowitz.
Jeremy is a mindful leadership coach and meditation teacher, and founder of Untangling the Mind. With over 8 years of teaching experience, Jeremy has facilitated workshops, led retreats, and offered trainings throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis, and a Master’s degree from Duke University, and combines his science-based expertise with ancient wisdom practices to help others lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Idon’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of working your butt off for years to get somewhere, achieve some goal, and when you arrive, you realize you really don’t want to be there. That pretty much sums it up. At the point at which I discovered mindfulness, I had my whole life planned out: I was finishing my bachelor’s degree and had been admitted to a prestigious PhD program. I expected to finish my PhD, probably do a postdoc somewhere, then become a professor, get married, have kids, all of that. What I hadn’t counted on was that I really hated my life. And that put me in a bit of a difficult position.
Around then, my mom had a sabbatical year from her job as a professor, and invited me to join her for a month in India. Her treat. Of course, I said yes. I ended up staying in India for three months, and spent much of the last two months in a meditation retreat in the Himalayas. That’s when it clicked. A lot of things that I hadn’t understood about my motivations and why I was so unhappy despite everything looking so perfect on the outside, it all fell into place.
It took me a few more years to actually change my course. I began work on my PhD, working in a developmental genetics lab, but it was like flogging a dead horse. I didn’t realize it on a conscious level, but part of me was already walking away, ignoring all the plans and career aspirations.
During the years between that first retreat in India and when I told my advisor that I’d decided to leave my PhD program and complete a master’s degree instead, I read a thousand books (that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much), attended silent meditation retreats, and immersed myself in the world of mindfulness. I finally understood that I no longer wanted to be a professor. What I wanted to be, well, that was harder to answer. But I knew that I wanted to help others find the kind of real inner fulfillment that I was finding through mindfulness.
Since then I’ve had a number of different jobs — working as a mindfulness specialist in a school, teaching meditation at a recovery center in Thailand, working at a tech company in the Bay Area, and leading corporate workshops on emotional intelligence — but all of these have centered around one thing: helping people understand what’s going on in their minds, so they can live with a little more ease and find deeper fulfillment in their lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2017, I had a job teaching at the American School of Bangkok, offering mindfulness training to the students, as well as to the teachers, staff, and administration. The Vice Principal, Annie, and her husband, Ed, were new to meditation, but soaked it up. Ed was retired, but periodically visited the school to support his wife. When he did, he sat in on the mindfulness sessions.
One day word started spreading through the school that Ed was sick and in the hospital. Then it got concrete: stage IV pancreatic cancer. The chances of surviving more than a few months are close to zero. It’s hard to know how you’ll react to someone close to you having a fatal illness, and some people can’t handle it. But for me, there was no question: I wanted to be there, to offer support, even if it was clumsy. One afternoon, when I visited them at the hospital, they asked me if I would guide them in a meditation session. The three of us sat in that hospital room, using some of the Buddhist meditation practices I’d learned from my studies in India, in Myanmar, Thailand, California, and elsewhere. It might sound corny, but we entered a kind of sacred space together. It’s hard to put it into words, but it was one of the most meaningful moments in my life. You see, Annie and Ed were not just two ordinary human beings. These were two of the kindest, and most compassionate and joyous people I had ever known. They were a beacon of light in a world that was mostly screwy. To think that I had something to offer them, especially in such dire circumstances… it was deeply moving, and it is a memory I will never forget.
This is when I knew that my values had changed. Instead of me caring primarily about myself, about my career, about my prestige and status, I cared about making a difference for people, whether they were suffering, as Annie and Ed were, or because they were simply stuck in a way of living that was taking them farther away from themselves and from happiness.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
In 2012, Google became interested in the question of what leads to the best performing teams. What they found is that the most important factor was not about an expert combination of the necessary skill sets or personality types, or the kinds of office snacks that Silicon Valley has become known for. It’s actually much more subtle, and while simple to put into words, is far more challenging, especially in corporate America, to put into practice. What’s really essential is creating an environment of “psychological safety.” It’s about giving people the space to take risks, to share opinions, to not live in fear — and it’s what leads to high performance.
The key to psychological safety? Empathy. If you want to create a fantastic working environment, and one that is also high performing, it begins with tuning in to how people are feeling. Just think about it; if you’re not aware of how your actions are affecting others, it’s likely you won’t be tuned in to whether you are creating a psychologically safe working environment.
What does mindfulness at the workplace mean, in practice? For people in leadership positions, it means being able to put yourself in your employee’s shoes, to consider their needs, to make sure that they have the resources they need to deliver on the objectives and tasks you give them. It means protecting them from burnout. It means standing up for them. It means listening to them, with respect. But wherever you are in the hierarchy, whether you’re at the top or further down, you need to practice empathy for yourself, as well. Being mindful means having an awareness of your own needs. You are not just a leader of your group: you are a human being. Consider the message that Japan’s Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi gave the world when he decided to take paternity leave. That was almost unthinkable in Japanese society. If you show that you prioritize wellbeing, you will earn their respect and trust, and you will create an environment that people want to come to each day.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Some questions are hard to answer, but this one is easy. When I packed for the trip to India, I took a bunch of books, but one changed my life: Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard. Ricard had been working on a PhD in molecular biology when he discovered mindfulness. His scientific perspective spoke to me in a way that many other books hadn’t. The fundamental teaching in this book is that mindfulness is a pragmatic method for transforming your life by changing the way your mind functions. More than just giving me a deeper understanding of the scientific basis of meditation, this book taught me to look at the hidden values that were driving most of my behavior. It helped me see that much of what I was doing in the name of happiness was actually moving me farther and farther away from it. By taking a step back, and assessing my life more holistically and objectively, I was able to understand which activities were providing me more genuine inner fulfillment and satisfaction, and which were causing suffering in my life. To this day, this book has had the most profound and lasting impact on my life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Mindfulness is about waking up to your life. Most of the time we are so lost in thought, stuck in our minds, and consumed by our worries, fears, and judgements, that we can actually miss what’s happening all around us. We’re either stuck in the past — filled with regret for things we’d done, or wished we’d done — or anxious and fearful about the future. It’s not always negative, of course. We can think about the past with nostalgia or look forward to the achievement of life goals. But all of this in a fundamental way makes us absent from the present. We spend so little time actually being present with ourselves and the world around us. Being mindful is about opening your eyes, and seeing the world, and your life, more clearly.
Looking a little more closely, we can see that we can be aware of a range of different types of experiences. Sometimes mindfulness is referred to as a 6 sense door awareness. Mindfulness is about being aware of all five senses of the body: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and physical touch sensations, as well as the “6th sense”: all your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Most often, we practice mindfulness of the breath, noticing the sensations of breathing in the body, but in reality, mindfulness is not about the breath. It’s about being aware of whatever is arising in your consciousness in the present moment.
I would add an important point that is often missed in discussions about mindfulness, and that is that the quality of our attention is more important than what we’re paying attention to. If we’re really being mindful, there should be some hint of the qualities of curiosity, kindness, and a sense of openness. Mindfulness is more about the quality of our attention, than it is about what we’re paying attention to.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Mindfulness practices first of all operate on a gut level, literally. Most of us store tension, anger, and fear in our bodies, and mindfulness meditation helps us settle the physical self and release tension from the body. Through this softening and relaxing of the body, we often feel a greater sense of emotional calm and wellbeing.
The real benefit of mindfulness, however, goes beyond just the sense of calm and ease that can be generated when we sit in meditation. In fact, from my experience, it is the perspective and the wisdom that mindfulness provides that is arguably even more important. Mindfulness gives us insight into where we’re stuck and the mental ruts we’ve allowed to deepen. By cultivating mindful awareness, we can see, for example, how our expectations might be ruining our ability to feel joy, or how self-judgement might be holding us back from fulfillment. Mindfulness helps us cultivate greater emotional resilience and equanimity, particularly in the face of adversity. The undeniable truth of human existence is that Shit Happens. When we practice sitting with whatever arises, without reacting, we strengthen our neural pathways of calm, stability, and resilience. It helps us deal with the inevitable setbacks and failures.
The practice of mindfulness is fundamental to improving relationships, both our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others. It starts by giving us tools to understand and extend compassion towards ourselves, but goes far beyond that. The related practice of metta, or loving-kindness, enables the practitioner to have a deep care and compassion for others, including those who may have harmed or abused us. One person I know told me metta enabled her to forgive her father, a man who had terrorized and alienated his family. Her father had died by that point, but practicing the compassion meditation helped her to let go of the anger, and healed a very deep wound inside of her.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Dedicate a period of time, every day, to some kind of mindfulness or meditation practice. This can be as simple as watching your breath for a few minutes to practicing a variety of visualization techniques. For some people, visualization, such as imagining yourself breathing in the suffering of the world and breathing out a healing light, can be very effective at calming the mind and bringing a feeling of peace. For others, the most effective form will be to simply sit and observe the breath. Find what works best for you. And when you feel overwhelmed, take a 1-minute meditation break. Even pausing for a few seconds can be enough to recenter yourself. My recommendation is to do one minute of deep belly breathing. When you breath through the belly, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and helps to calm you down. This will get you out of the panicked, flight or flight mode, and bring you back down to a more grounded place.
- Dedicate another period of time, every day, to a gratitude practice. Be thankful, especially, for the people who care for you. Happiness research consistently points to one thing above all others that contributes to wellbeing, and that’s having strong social connections. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But just because we’re practicing physical distancing doesn’t mean we can’t connect. You can reach out to friends and loved ones (by phone, Skype, FB Messenger, email) and see how they’re doing. Send these people your wishes for their happiness, health, and well-being. And then give thanks for everything else you can think of, even if you think it might fall apart tomorrow. Today, at least, you’re not dead. Be grateful for that, too.
- Be prudent about media consumption, particularly social media. Find time to disconnect from your devices and the internet. Often, our worries and anxieties are fueled by the steady stream of “breaking news” headlines that deliberately exploit our built-in negativity bias and fear. It’s important to stay informed, but it’s too easy to let this constant stream of disastrous news dominate our mental space. You may find it helpful to delete news platforms or social media apps from your phone, and only have them on your computer, so that they’re less accessible. Treat yourself to a mini-digital detox as often as you can. Use that time instead as an opportunity to read, everything from short stories and novels to books and articles about mindfulness. These can range from the classics of Buddhist literature, such as the Dhammapada, to books specifically oriented towards dealing with difficult times, such as When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron.
- Take care of your body. Sleep well, eat healthy foods, and don’t forget to move! Aerobic exercise has been shown to be at least as effective as psychotherapy at reducing depression and anxiety, so this is not the time to be locked to your chair. Even under Covid restrictions, most areas allow people to leave their homes for one form of exercise a day, so whether you like to run or walk or bicycle, get out. When you do, be present with yourself and with the world around you. Notice the buildings, the people, the dogs on their daily walks, birds flying overhead, flowers blooming in pots and growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. Feel the muscles in your legs. Enjoy the ability to breathe deeply. For people under strict quarantine at home, there are many free online yoga and exercise videos, and you can always crank up the volume of your favorite music and dance around the living room.
- Finally, laughter is one of the best antidotes to all sorts of stress and anxiety. First, you have to give yourself permission to be joyful, to laugh. This might seem improper, at a time when so many are suffering so terribly. But being able to laugh and be joyful is not a sign of being shallow. As the writer Colette said, “Be happy; it’s a way of being wise.” For this, online media is our friend, from comedies on Netflix to Youtube cat videos. The point is: being joyful doesn’t mean we stop caring about the suffering in the world. It means that even in dire circumstances, we make a radical decision to not give in to despair. Despair comes from the French, desespoir, the absence of hope. We do not give up hope, and we do not give up joy.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- One of the best things you can do to support others is to continue to support yourself, mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. At a time like this, self-care is not just important, it’s essential. These are the same directions that we’re given on airplanes: if the oxygen masks fall, put your own mask on first before you help others put on theirs. So, be aware of your own anxiety. Name it. Understand it. Be compassionate with yourself.
- Offer to listen to others. And when you listen, really listen. Practicing mindful listening is a great aid for helping people get through uncertainty and anxiety. This is the practice of giving your full attention to someone when they’re speaking. Letting go of thinking about how to respond, or what to say when it’s “your turn” and simply tuning in, and getting curious about what’s going on for this other person. Just think about the last time you felt really listened to. I’m guessing it felt good. See if you can offer that to someone today.
- Express your gratitude. To people working at the front lines in various ways, to friends and family who have helped you. While gratitude necessarily starts as an internal practice, when we thank someone for all they have done, it makes them know they are valued, and that can go a long way to alleviating all sorts of stress.
- To the extent that you’re able, find practical ways to help. Many anxieties are rooted in concrete and very real risks, not only of illness and mortality, but of economic disaster. If a friend or relative is anxious about being exposed to Covid if they go shopping for groceries, you can offer to do the shopping for them (if you’re in a low-risk group). Find ways to support your local creative community and small businesses, especially those whose ability to support themselves has been cut off due to Covid shutdowns.
- Finally, practice random acts of kindness. Earlier today, I heard a knock on my door. When I opened it, I found a small goodie bag filled with nuts, chocolates, and a bottle of wine — and a note from a neighbor who wanted to brighten my day. It brought a smile to my face and a warmth to my heart. You may not be able to leave gifts for strangers at this time, but there are many ways we can practice random acts of kindness. Letting people go first on the sidewalk, holding the door for others, or donating to good causes. All of these things will not only lift the spirits of others, but they will lift yours as well.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
I would start by checking out one of the books that present the main teachings and techniques of mindfulness. In addition to Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard, which I mentioned earlier, I’d recommend any of the following: Awakening Joy, by James Baraz; Wherever You Go There You Are, by Jon Kabat Zinn; Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and The Art of Happiness, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Live your life. Do the dishes. Do the laundry. Take your kids to kindergarten. Raise your children or your grandchildren. Take care of the community in which you live. Make all of that your path, and follow your path with heart”. — Dipa Ma.
Dipa Ma was a world renowned meditation master and spiritual teacher, and yet, she didn’t go floating off into clouds or talk about universal cosmic consciousness. She kept it real. For Dipa Ma, spirituality was not about how long you could meditate, or some other accomplishment, it was simply about being a good person and taking care of those around you. In my own life, I have tried my best to follow her example. Instead of trying to prove myself, I can get out of my own way, and be of service to others.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
One of the major sources of unhappiness — perhaps the greatest — is a persistent sense of not being “enough.” We feel that we don’t meet the mark. Whatever the source — whether our childhood experiences, societal messages, or the evolutionary origins of negativity biases — internalizing the message that one isn’t “enough” can turn into self-hatred, and that makes it impossible to be present with oneself or others. The person who is tormented in this way is robbed of the simple joy of living.
The solution, paradoxically, is not to try to bolster one’s self-esteem, whether by self-affirmation or by accomplishments, proofs of one’s value. That self-absorption is often part of the problem. Instead, the metta practice, as mentioned earlier, provides a very effective tool. Metta is an ancient Buddhist technique that begins with giving compassion and care to the self, and proceeds in steps to people further from you, and finally to those with whom you may have significant conflicts. It’s a practice intended to open the heart to the world, and it’s closely associated with happiness. Those who practice metta regularly have the highest scores on happiness, evaluated through fMRI imaging experiments.
We can use metta, combined with mindfulness, to approach these feelings of unworthiness. First, when you begin to recognize the voice that says you’re not enough, or that you’re a failure, approach that suffering part of yourself with compassion. Hold it with tenderness, with metta. There is a teaching from Tibetan Buddhism for people who are suffering. The sufferer is asked to remember that all over the world, millions of people are suffering the same pain. You are not alone. The truly pernicious part of feeling not “enough”, or unworthy, is the shame that is attached. Mindful self-awareness can help remind us that when we feel this way, that it’s just a feeling, it’s not the Truth. If there is a grain of truth, mindfulness can allow us to see and accept that element, but we don’t have to let it become a global condemnation of who we are. It certainly doesn’t mean that we are worthless. It just means that we are human.
The second technique to transform this kind of suffering also comes from metta. In the first step we use metta to approach our suffering self and comfort it. Here, we turn that care to the world around us and ask what we can do to make it a better place. When we begin to care deeply about something beyond the narrow borders of our individual self, the true transformation can begin. In addition to caring about other people, Metta practice can also extend to the natural world, to try to slow down climate change, to save national parks, to protect other forms of life from human destructiveness. Metta reminds us that we are not alone; we are part of a community, and all of us are in it together.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I send out a weekly newsletter via my website, Untangling the Mind. You can also follow me on all the social platforms: Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!