Mindfulness is paying attention to your experience while maintaining a kind and non-judgmental disposition. It’s expressed in the ongoing connection that you have toward yourself, others, and what you are doing. Mindfulness can be sought in any situation or activity. Being mindful feels right to me, and it helps me dial back when I fall out of mindfulness and get frazzled.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leide Porcu, a psychotherapist based in New York.
Leide is a member of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, where she graduated from the Adult program in 2007. She is a graduate of the Beck Institute’s extramural program in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and a member of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. She also earned a Laurea in languages and foreign literature from the University of Cagliari, Italy, where she graduated Magna cum Laude in 1993. She earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in 2002. Subsequently, she was a scholar at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University in 2002–2003. Leide Porcu was an adjunct professor at Columbia and Fordham University in anthropology from 2001 to 2006. She worked as a therapist at the Mental Health Providers of Western Queens before moving to full-time private practice in 2010.
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?
Twenty-five years ago, I received a letter of admission to study anthropology at Columbia University. I was excited and proud. But my initial joy was soon overtaken by an extremely unsettling experience. I felt that my body and mind were failing me and that whatever the reason was, it was very serious. I was rushed to the emergency room. I thought I was about to die, but the reality was less dramatic: I had experienced a panic attack. At that time, I was psychologically unsophisticated, and so was my family. I did not see any connection between my malaise and my incoming move. I was an ambitious young woman, the daughter of a fish seller from provincial Italy. Even though I graduated with honors, I was emotionally and academically unprepared for the transition. It took me a while to acknowledge my own feelings of fear about leaving the sense of safety, my family, my routines. Once in the U.S., I buried my fears in intense work, which is my way of handling stress, but I also started psychotherapy. Patients in therapy often fall in love with their therapists. I fell in love with the whole field of psychology, including opposing warring factions within it. I finished my PhD in anthropology, and that informs my worldview, but I also trained to become a psychoanalyst. The psychoanalytic approach became too tight so I trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Then I discovered mindfulness and meditation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There is no single story to tell. I’m also bound by HIPAA privacy rules. What is most amazing about my job is the ongoing chorus of stories; the very unique bonds I build with my patients. An added bonus is how much I learn from them. The therapeutic relationship is very structured; we call it “the frame”. It takes shape in the details — the set fee, the recurring, scheduled time, and the commitment to help and keep the relationship strictly professional. This frame protects the dyad against the emotional push-and-pull of a regular relationship. Not that strong emotional currents do not occur in therapy; to the contrary, they are the focus of therapy. They are used for insight and healing, as they illuminate a patient’s difficulties and strengths. Because of the boundaries and built-in safety measures of the frame, patients can let you into places that sometimes not even they dare to look when alone. The experience of participating in their journey, of going to stuck, dark, and confusing places together and coming out the other side more aware and stronger, or simply helping someone who is already in a good place become even happier, stronger and more successful, is very satisfying and meaningful for a therapist.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I would encourage leaders to look inside and analyze what moves them to lead. Leaders need to keep in check the selfish reasons that naturally hide behind their more conscious, pro-social motivation. Many leaders self-sabotage and end up ensnared in scandals and disgrace. That is unfortunate. It is precisely when all goes well that people need to prepare for the ups and downs of life, and explore the complexities of the human mind. To preserve themselves, their honor, and their work in the long run, self-awareness and balance are key. Celebrating one’s strengths should go hand-in-hand with recognizing one’s vulnerabilities. When people are successful, powerful, and admired, it becomes harder for them to remember that they are not omnipotent and above the law. For this reason, I believe that psychotherapy (such as psychodynamic psychotherapy) should be mandatory for leaders. If therapy is mandatory for people who are on probation or parole because they could bring some damage to society, it should be even more mandatory for leaders who are under tremendous pressure and carrying the responsibility of large groups. Since they need to balance power, foresight, and charisma with empathy, self-reflection, patience, and groundedness, meditation should also be prescribed.
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?
In different phases of my life, I gravitated to different stories. Growing up, I was an avid reader of French literature. I particularly enjoyed the 18th century classics, which offered comfort and escape. When studying anthropology, I was drawn to academic literature about language and power. Knowledge is power, so I was interested in empowering myself by looking below the surface and unveiling social dynamics. In psychology, I have a “salad” of interests, from clinical essays to simple how-to books.
Okay, 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 paying attention to your experience while maintaining a kind and non-judgmental disposition. It’s expressed in the ongoing connection that you have toward yourself, others, and what you are doing. Mindfulness can be sought in any situation or activity. Being mindful feels right to me, and it helps me dial back when I fall out of mindfulness and get frazzled. I try out diverse mindful/meditation practices by various traditions but do not belong to any particular school, and I do not have a guru. I take home the practices that I find beneficial. Eventually, they make it into my therapeutic toolbox. Since I take things out of context and mix and match, my approach may be considered a bit heretical. For example, I recently added verses from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese to my Lovingkindness meditation. It works for me. I like my freedom.
People can find mindful practices that suit their personality and energy. Any activity such as yoga, qigong, walking, writing, gardening, playing music, chanting, or singing — even cleaning and filing — can be done in a mindful way. Indeed, just about any practice that is low adrenaline and familiar enough that it only takes bits of attention can be done mindfully, as long as it leaves enough space to notice and experience just being.
Masha Linehan, a therapist that put mindfulness at the center of her approach, talks about “mindfulness in threes.” It consists of adding incrementally, one-by-one, three channels of attention, like focusing on one’s breath, then adding the feeling in one’s hands, and then adding attention to sounds. This practice allows one to do three things while being centered. It is a paradoxical exercise, which, by both opening and closing attention, helps the practitioner become wiser and more flexible. Of course, these are ideals. Distraction and single focus inevitably kick in. That’s why a non-judgmental component is built into the practice. Though psychoanalysis is not generally categorized in the mindfulness umbrella, I consider my (somewhat classical) training in psychoanalysis as a particular expression of mindfulness.
Perhaps we could extend the idea of mindfulness to psychodynamic psychotherapy and call it “mindfulness of the dyad.” Patients pay attention to their feelings, thoughts, and bodies from moment to moment, and communicate with their therapist or analyst. The analyst/therapist receives the communication and brings it into their own experience and the co-created resonance box. In this mindful/mentalizing space, emotional conflicts and unprocessed experiences are elaborated upon.
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 and meditation help us become aware of who we are and how we act in the world; they chip away our blind spots. They help decrease impulsiveness and increase patience; they help develop strength and acceptance and manage unhelpful feelings. The more we are able to monitor our thoughts, the more we can challenge unhelpful ways of thinking. The more we become aware or our disruptive patterns, the less we repeat them. The more we become aware and process our experiences, the less these experiences weigh on our bodies or get acted out in ways that harm us.
Mindfulness also helps with concentration and memory. The more we are embodied, content, loving, and centered, the more we feel we belong, and the more we can love others. I am reciting the benefits of mindfulness, but would use the same words to describe the benefits of therapy. In every historical period, the same universal aspiration to feel happy, peaceful, and at ease are responded to by taking some material from the past and rebranding it in a way that is suitable for the cultural moment.
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.
1 . Practice self-care.
When our routines are thrown off balance, as is happening now with the Pandemic, it becomes harder to maintain structure and self-care. We are used to being propelled by outward directives. Our lifestyle and identities are dependent on the people we meet, the stories we exchange, and the places and situations we find ourselves in. When we’re stranded at home, our flow may be disrupted, either into a swirl or into total inactivity. But it is especially in times of crisis that we need to keep the basics in place. Observing a routine helps maintain some order when the world around us is confusing. It keeps us centered, healthier, and stronger. We need to eat well, exercise, soak up a bit of sunlight, have a good morning and sleep routine, and a varied and satisfying schedule. We need to make sure our bodies are okay. When our bodies are taken care of, they will not drag us down, depleting all our attention and energy. We can then use our energy to manage stress and keep a sharp mind.
2 . Make sure you are practicing mental hygiene.
Monitor the amount of news or violent and upsetting shows you are watching. Keep informed, but do not obsess about things you can’t change and that make you feel helpless, angry, or depressed. Minimize your exposure to toxic people. What you take in with your eyes and ears is as important as what you eat, so please keep toxins of all sorts out of your system as much as you can. Guard your thoughts and challenge unhelpful, negative thinking — whether anxious or depressive.
3 . Consider distraction and creative endeavors.
Find ways to distract yourself instead of falling into catastrophic loops; and eventually find something meaningful to focus on, be it personal or social. Maybe you could contribute in some small ways to some positive change, after all? Make your free time even more cherished and valuable.
4 . Maintain or create spiritual or other self-reflective practices.
If that works for you, pray. Otherwise, create a gratitude journal and/or a simple, plain journal. Sing out loud or chant. Practice meditation and mindfulness (or go to therapy, if that fits).
5 . Love and communion.
Practice lovingkindness meditation and cultivate loving relationships. Connection with loving people is the most healing practice we have.
From your experience or research, what are five steps each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
1 . Take care of yourself so you can be centered.
Yes, this is my number one. If you are okay, the people around you will have one less stressor.
2 . Don’t be pushy by offering unsolicited support and opinions.
Be available but low-key. People may need to come to you in their own time.
3 . Listen with curiosity and concern. Offer kindness and empathy.
Remain calm, grounded, and balanced. When someone is freaking out, they need someone who can keep their cool and possibly contain their anxieties. Don’t minimize or maximize the experience of the other person. If someone around you is anxious, you may mean well by saying, “It’s not so bad! Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” But you do not know how that advice will be received. In any event, your point of view is too far removed from their state of mind to be helpful. Do not maximize their point of view, either, by putting more wood in their catastrophic fire.
4 . Offer concrete help.
Sometimes acts of kindness speak louder than words. Ask the person suffering with anxiety what they would need to have in place to feel even 5% less anxious or worried. Maybe there is some small, concrete adjustment that could bring some relief, and you can help them think it through, or even provide it.
5 . Stretch a bit, but know your limits.
Being helpful provides comfort — to them and to you. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to help. You can stretch a bit beyond your comfort zone, but know your limits. Monitor yourself for signs of distress or impending exhaustion. You do not want to feel vicariously traumatized or burned out. Remember: self-care is your #1 priority.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Our peacefulness would greatly increase if we could improve our internal resources of acceptance and flexibility. Some of the things that life throws at us are inevitable, and others are unchangeable. We have such a hard time accepting that bad things happened, and ruminating on their unfairness. It is only natural to resist a painful reality — it is a mourning process — but we need to practice easing into it. Our fight against what cannot be changed keeps us stuck, unhappy and frustrated. Some people may shake their heads. For them, this is a cop-out and a surrender to a status quo which is unjust or unfavorable. They may equate acceptance with becoming complacent, mediocre, average, and weak. But I mean none of that. This flexibility allows us to adjust, recalibrate, gather resources and energy, and find other ways to grow and find meaning. It also helps us to eventually fight for justice and for our rights. If the injuries were done by other humans, the blow is even harder to bear. But eventually, we need to find a way to process the hate. Forgiveness may or may not come as a possibility for you. Mindfulness meditation and therapy can help us bear the pains of life. Also, the experience and wisdom that comes with age allows us more and more to withstand the injuries and humiliations of being alive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“May we all be happy, peaceful, and at ease.”
This is the ending line of the lovingkindness meditation. Even if “love conquers all” may be an outdated plot in modern stories, I am still drawn to it. I do believe that love and connection in life are the best cure for all ills. A mother’s love is a determinant for her baby to thrive. Love and connections keep us healthy. One of the reasons therapy works is because, despite the variety of orientations, it is a loving and affirming relationship. Meditation and mindfulness, with their gentle look toward oneself, are acts of self-care. Among the guided meditations I practice and share with my patients, lovingkindness meditation is one of my favorites.
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. 🙂
This particular moment may be ripe for change. The pandemic, with its way of affecting the life and death of people by zip code, has put in everybody’s face how privilege can save some and kill others, even in progressive NYC. I worry about how many families of undocumented immigrants and uninsured poor will not be able to acknowledge their dead. I am not that privileged in the big scheme of things, but can work remotely and have my groceries delivered. I have had enough money to eat healthy all of my life, so I do not have those obvious preexisting conditions that affect the American poor. I have medical insurance. I earned my citizenship. Obviously, I am not talking about private planes and houses in the Hamptons. But in this day and age, even this amount of basic comfort is privilege. Obviously, this level of basic comfort should be the standard of any working person, and not a privilege. We cherish the idea that we are all interconnected, that there is no distinction between us, and that we are all in this together. But this language forecloses the relationships of exploitation and subordination in which we participate. We all knew that hard-working people with humble jobs are living in suboptimal conditions. These conditions now affect their sickness and death. When I place an order for groceries online through my app, I know there is some poor fellow out there risking his life in a possibly infected supermarket to bring me my kale. There is something terribly uncomfortable about this, and yet I still do it.
In my work, I do not move crowds. I influence one person at the time. But I am writing a simple self-help book to help immigrants and other people in transition. I am an immigrant myself; I work with a lot of immigrants, temporary residents, and second generations, and I am a big fan of the underdog. I would be very happy if my book helped people feel more secure, strong, courageous, and successful. I would like to see more leaders who are women, gender non-conforming, and minorities. In my work, I have a soft spot for immigrants and for second-generation women who are very motivated and struggle against the tide. To them, I would like to say: Believe in yourself. You are a trailblazer in society and we need you. If you feel a calling to lead, I will be honored to hold your banner.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
My website www.leideporcu.com
My twitter https://twitter.com/LeidePorcu
My youtube channel youtube.com/channel/UCBB6dJTxWAtxsex31j8hVtw
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!