In my experience, mindfulness is learning to consistently pay attention to what’s happening around you AND inside you, for the purpose of bringing your mind-body system into balance.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kali Patrick.
Kali Patrick is a sleep wellness coach, therapeutic yoga teacher, and public speaker based in the Boston area. As a sleep wellness coach, she helps stressed-out, busy professionals around the country learn to sleep better and restore their energy. Kali also works with individuals to explore the practices of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in ways that are practical, beginner-friendly, and do-able in the context of hectic modern life. She regularly presents on these topics both in person and online.
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?
It’s my pleasure!
The first phase of my career was in high-tech. I was working as a user-experience design manager at a Boston area software company. I was under tremendous stress at work, which led to anxiety and many sleepless nights. I suffered from what is now diagnosed as “burnout”. Since college I had dabbled with yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, but this health crisis encouraged me to explore these modalities more deeply and find ways to help myself. Up to that point, a lot of the recommendations I’d been given just weren’t do-able with what I had going on. So, I gathered certifications in yoga teaching and therapeutic applications of yoga (yoga therapy), mind-body health coaching, and energy healing.
As I learned more about these techniques and recovered my health, I returned to work. But I saw my colleagues in a different light — many of them were suffering too. I wanted to share what I learned with them, but in a way that was practical and worked with their busy lives. Now I especially have success coaching people who describe themselves as type-A, high-achievers, perfectionists, and care-givers. Helping people increase their stress resilience and calm their hyperactive nervous system is a HUGE part of what I do as a Sleep Wellness Coach. As readers may know, stress can present a huge challenge to getting refreshing sleep, to having consistent energy, and to keeping the immune system functioning optimally.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
A few years after I suffered from burnout and felt like I was finally putting myself back together, I began to experience extreme, yet random pain and fatigue. It took 2 very frustrating years of visiting multiple doctors and specialists, but I eventually was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. At 40 years old, some days I couldn’t walk the ¼ mile to our mailbox. Other days I had to lay down and rest for 15 minutes after every hour of work (even if I was simply replying to emails). It was difficult not to be stressed, anxious, and depressed.
In addition to the education I had received, I’m grateful to have had this personal experience because it gave me a better understanding of more complex challenges with sleep and energy. I know what it’s like to have serious sleep issues AND how much better I feel and function on all levels now that I’ve figured out how to sleep well.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I would advise other leaders to create a fantastic work culture by keeping in mind that each of their employees is in fact a human being.
Back in 2011 when I was on the verge of burnout, I had 4 meetings at the same time, scheduled over my lunch hour because that’s when “people had time to meet.” I was tasked with dual roles, more work than I could handle, and was in non-stop meetings that prevented me from getting any of that work done. Some days I had no time to eat and couldn’t even get in a restroom break! Most days, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally depleted, which affected my nights and my sleep, compounding the problem.
It’s somewhat counter to the popular culture, but I don’t think we need more nap pods and stress management techniques; at the core, what employees need is more reasonable assignments, deadlines, expectations, etc. We don’t work the way a computer does. We humans need breaks. We need to be able to rest, to unplug, to nourish ourselves. We need to give ourselves and our workers permission to respect the limitations of our human minds and bodies.
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?
I love Byron Katie’s book called “Loving What Is”, and what she calls “The Work.” For those unfamiliar, The Work is a method of self-inquiry that helps people challenge the validity of their thoughts. I find it to be an especially useful tool for dealing with anxiety and automatic negative thinking.
It resonated with me because it was practical. Instead of me wondering “how on earth do I actually do that?!”, I could sit down, open my journal, write down my thought, and go through the questions step-by-step. I have used this process on countless occasions with myself, my friends, and have even purchased Katie’s book for some of my clients if I think it’s appropriate for them.
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?
Many define mindfulness as increasing one’s ability to pay attention — cultivating curious, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness. I don’t disagree with definitions like those. But I’d like to elaborate on that to clarify WHAT one is paying attention to and WHY one should do it.
In my experience, mindfulness is learning to consistently pay attention to what’s happening around you AND inside you, for the purpose of bringing your mind-body system into balance.
Let me give some examples to further explain.
When I ask a client, “how do you feel about that?” they’ll often respond with, “I feel like . . .” followed by a thought. Or, they’ll talk more about a situation, or what other people are doing. Many people don’t know what they feel; they’re no longer tuned into what’s happening inside. Mindfulness is not just about paying attention to what’s happening to you or around you. It’s also about re-connecting with and observing your own emotions.
What do I mean by bringing the mind-body system into balance? First, “balance” means a person is equally alert and calm. By paying attention to what’s happening both around you and inside you, you gather important information about what’s helpful and harmful.
For example, you might discover that whenever you watch or read too much of the news, your neck and shoulders get tense, or you hold your breath. These are (physical and energetic) signals indicating your system is out of balance. As such, doing more of this activity will likely increase dis-ease. Here’s another (converse) example: you might observe that drinking a warm cup of tea helps relax the muscles in your jaw and has a soothing quality. Food and drink give us subtle cues all the time, but like our feelings, we’re often not paying close enough attention to do anything with these signals. If a person can identify how they feel emotionally, these are also important clues to the functioning of the mind-body system.
When you notice what’s pulling you out of balance, you can reduce those activities. When you notice what’s bringing you into a more equanimous state, you can do more of it. So, in my experience, there’s a practical purpose to mindfulness. In deeper study, you discover triggers and uncover patterns where you’re reacting automatically rather than choosing the best response. While it might seem like an abstract practice, mindfulness is super useful in day-to-day life.
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?
There are so many! Here are a few:
- Readers may experience an increase in their ability to focus, ignore distractions, and get what needs to be done finished with more ease. This is partly because mindfulness re-trains the mind to be attentive.
- Next, mindfulness improves our mind-body connection such that we receive clearer signals from our body about what it needs. These signals may be about the need for rest, sleep, hydration, nourishment, exercise, a hug from a loved one, and so on. When we treat our bodies well, they will treat us better too!
- People who practice mindfulness (as well as meditation or yoga) may notice that important changes they previously struggled to make come more easily. Such changes can include anything from reducing impulsivity, to losing weight, to saying “no” to people or situations they had a hard time with before.
- Mindfulness also helps build stress resilience. It becomes easier to live with unanswered questions and uncertainty. We become aware of possibilities, options, and opportunities we couldn’t see before. Therefore, we can apply more of our energy toward what we truly value and where we can have the most impact.
- The last benefit I’ll illustrate with a story. I traveled to Belize on vacation in 2016. One of the day trips we took was to the Belize Zoo, and we went with another couple. The woman — who I’ll call Natalie — had a curious, almost childlike quality to her. As she explored the environment, she seemed to get excited by everything. I soon realized just how present she was, and how joyful, happy, and grateful she was for every experience. I tell this story for those who feel that a good portion of their life has gone by in a blur. Practicing mindfulness can help us be more fully awake to the wonder of life all around us!
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.
Absolutely — as you can probably tell I appreciate practical advice. In fact, several years ago I created an online course titled: “5 Steps to Becoming More Mindful”. The 5 steps are based on a core philosophical component of Kripalu yoga — where I did my first yoga teacher training. The acronym for the process is “BRFWA”, which stands for:
- Breathe — our breath is an “always available” guide to bring us back to the present moment. So, the very first step would be to stop everything and start to notice how you’re breathing without changing anything. When we pay attention to the breath, there’s inhale, and exhale — maybe with some pauses between. Nothing else.
- Relax — our bodies are often tense in one or more places but since it’s “normal” to us, we’re oblivious to it. I have a great story about this from when I used to dance West Coast Swing: I was working with a private instructor, and he pointed out that my arm and shoulder were tense. This meant that as the leader, it was more difficult for him to guide me and as the follower, it was more difficult for me to understand what it is he wanted me to do. I looked at him quizzically and insisted I was relaxed, but as an outsider he kept feeling the internal tension I could not. There are ways to progressively relax the body, such as body scans, that can help people become more aware of the tension in their body and help them to release it.
- Feel — as I mentioned before, many people are disconnected from their feelings. Part of this stems from the fact that anytime we do feel something, we tend to take fast action to change it. For example, if a person notices she feels sad, she might be inclined to busy herself with cleaning up the house. If a person feels lonely, he might eat something to fill the void. This can happen even when we’re feeling joyful — for example, we might drink too much in celebration (to intensify the happiness). We rarely stay with our feelings as they are, especially the ones we label as “negative” or “bad”. This is usually more challenging than staying with the breath or relaxing the body.
- Watch — as a person becomes more comfortable using this process: noticing their breath, relaxing parts of their body, and staying with their feelings, they can begin to ask, “WHO is observing this?” It’s a wonderful question to ask! It is a practical step that can take us to a higher level of consciousness and connection. The ability to watch is at the core of mindfulness practice. The previous steps help us prepare for this.
- Allow — this is a key component of being mindful. In the allow state, everything we experience has permission to exist. It’s accepted because it is what’s happening. Byron Katie (mentioned above) might call this “reality.” And as she implies in her work, when you fight reality, it’s predictable that you’ll suffer. By accepting (and even welcoming) reality, we thereby reduce our suffering.
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?
- Practice self-care. I put this as number one on purpose. Many people forget this, but if you’re going to offer support to anyone else, you ABSOLUTELY MUST take care of yourself first. What self-care looks like is different for everybody, so I won’t go into details (except see #5, below).
- Actively listen. Repeat back what you think you heard. When you first start doing this, it can feel odd, even a little ridiculous. But we all want to feel listened to and understood. This technique also helps keep focus on the person in need. We don’t have to “add our own stuff” (which effectively makes the conversation about us)!
- Resist the urge to give advice. Usually a person who is anxious has thought through a lot of “worst case” scenarios and options — they don’t typically benefit from more discussion. Recognize that you can never truly fix another person’s anxiety. So, what should you do instead? Get them moving — for example, do a cell phone “walk and talk” sharing what you see along the way; or do an online Zumba class together. The quickest way for someone to get out of their head is often to get them into their body.
- Reach out regularly. I like to suggest the 50/50 rule: be the person who reaches out about half the time. Make sure the person feeling anxious knows they can rely on you if needed, and proactively contact them.
- Set good boundaries. This is an example of #1. If you’re feeling like you don’t have the capacity to offer your support, that’s perfectly OK! You don’t have to be available 24/7, and it’s nothing you need to apologize for or feel guilty about. Help the person connect with others who can help them when you’re not able to.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
In addition to Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is”, I would suggest reading Michael Singer’s book called “The Untethered Soul” — specifically the second chapter. It provides interesting ways to improve your ability to “Watch”, which I mentioned earlier.
I’d also highly recommend studying the Yoga Sutras with a qualified teacher, such as Chase Bossart from Yoga Well Institute. He’s a mentor of mine who’s been doing online classes for years; he brings the sutras to life with real-world examples that modern students can relate to. There are so many useful pieces of advice in the Yoga Sutras that can help us navigate today’s challenges, which aren’t widely known. People don’t need to be practicing yoga (postures) or even meditating to benefit from these teachings.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I used to have the Buddha’s words “with our thoughts we make our world” stenciled in a flowing script on my wall.
I don’t have one, specific story about how this quote is relevant in my life because it was something I internalized over time. When I added it to the wall of my first home office, it just felt like a nice saying. I wanted to believe it, but the truth is, I didn’t.
As I practiced yoga, meditation, and mindfulness more consistently (and under the guidance of a mentor), I started to observe my thoughts and see my patterns more clearly. I also came to realize that:
- there were more things in my life that I had a choice about than I originally thought
- where I truly had no choice, how I thought about these situations was still a choice
- therefore, I always have a choice!
After many years of practice, I developed more clarity and could feel the truth in this quote. My world was always colored by my thoughts. And if I paid close enough attention, I could even create a world with less suffering for myself. I think we can all get behind suffering less!
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. 🙂
That’s really a toss-up for me, so please allow me to mention two.
The first would be a “better sleep movement”. Studies keep showing that as a culture, we need to re-prioritize slowing down enough to rest and get better sleep. The effects of poor sleep are numerous: there are physical medical conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure; mental and emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s; safety concerns (studies have shown driving while tired is akin to driving while intoxicated!); immune system deficiencies, and so on. These can all be attributed to people not getting the restorative rest the human system needs to function optimally.
The second would be for everyone to have a practice of mindfulness, meditation, and/or yoga. I define yoga differently than most teachers, because of my Yoga Therapy background. I don’t mean trying to replicate what people on Instagram are doing (such as photos and videos of putting one’s legs behind one’s head). I mean a practice designed by a knowledgeable mentor, designed specifically to help each individual grow and evolve. As we’re seeing around the world these days, the best way we can bring about good to the most amount of people is for us to care for ourselves!
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
My website at https://kalisleepcoach.com is the best way for readers to follow me online. There is information on the site about Sleep Wellness Coaching, therapeutic yoga, and my speaking engagements. There are also many more upcoming virtual events, some free resources, as well as links to all my social media profiles.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Thank you. I appreciate you interviewing me!