Take charge of when you will take the news. Pacing yourself is important. Life is full of marathons, and a pandemic is one of them. We need to give ourselves the best chance of remaining healthy, and that includes not allowing news alerts to inundate and overwhelm us.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Welch.
Caroline Welch is an author, attorney, and CEO and Co-founder with Dr. Dan Siegel of the Mindsight Institute in Santa Monica, California. The Mindsight Institute offers a scientifically based, integrated view of human development to promote well-being. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School with a master’s degree from the University of Southern California, Caroline started her career in law as a corporate litigator. She began her mindfulness practice forty years ago while working in Japan, and has just come out with her first book, The Gift of Presence: A Mindfulness Guide for Women.
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?
I’ve arrived at my current career as an author and CEO of the Mindsight Institute by following my instincts which only in hindsight can be characterized as a path, since as my life unfolded it certainly did not feel that I was on a specific career course. I took my life one step at a time, asking before the next step, “What do I need to do now that I may not be able to do later?” In brief, a few of the formative experiences were: (a) taking my first trip off of my family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin to Shiraz, Iran, as part of a high school exchange program; (b) being one of four white students at the historically black college, Grambling University; and © teaching English in Hiroshima, Japan for three years where I first learned about meditation.
What do all of these experiences have in common? They all took me out of my comfort zone and provided opportunities for me to be more present for many more moments than I had previously experienced. Years later, as a corporate litigator, mediator for the Los Angeles courts, and in-house counsel at two different studios, I came to have a deep appreciation for the power of mindfulness and saw how it was grounding me in both my professional and personal life. Fast forward to 2005 when I saw the opportunity to launch a company devoted to understanding the mind and making mindfulness accessible, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
A few years ago, I joined a corporate litigation firm in Los Angeles and was assigned to a copyright infringement matter. After the first call with opposing counsel concerning the case, he called my supervising partner to report that he thought I was practicing law without a license, assuming I was a secretary. This was so interesting — and perplexing — because even though the opposing counsel had recognized that I was practicing law, he just couldn’t believe that as a woman I could possibly be a lawyer! This situation made me very aware of what’s called “top-down” processing, information processing whereby we perceive what we believe. It has heightened my understanding of the implicit bias most of us carry, and it accounts for why I chose to focus on how mindfulness can apply to the lives of women in particular. My interviews of over 100 women, both in and outside of the workplace, confirmed that gendered assumptions and societal expectations persist and continue to present special challenges for women.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Whether in law, business, education, mental health, or any other industry, I would offer this advice for thriving and avoiding burnout:
- self-care is not selfish — so take your vacation time as well as breaks during the day;
- use selective neglect — there’s wisdom in deciding what not to pay attention to;
- make your own rules for when and how much time you will spend on your devices — and follow them (remember, the digital algorithms are designed to capture your attention, so it’s hard to resist what pops up next); and
- infuse your day with some mindful moments. While we cannot control world events nor others, we can decide how we will relate to both. Time spent in the present moment can provide the buffer we need for responding, not reacting and preparing, not panicking.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
The first step is to figure out what a “fantastic work culture” looks like in a given organization. What could the culture be like? Once that is clear and articulated, the leader’s actions need to bring the written policy to life, as the actions will have much more impact than anything in writing. The development of a vibrant culture will be a work in progress, requiring patience, persistence, and adjustments along the way.
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?
Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel’s book, The Telomere Effect had a significant impact on me. Not only is their book full of the latest science about how it’s possible to change our brains at any age — and actually repair our telomeres, the tiny ends of our chromosomes, for enhanced well-being (as well as slow the aging process!), but it also includes practical tips for being present and having a regular mindfulness practice.
The one tip which resonated the most with me, and that my students also find extremely helpful, is to select one daily activity that we can “staple” our mindful moments too. In this way, our mindfulness practice isn’t another item that will sit at the bottom of our already too long “to do” lists. This simple act will support us in infusing our days right away with more mindful moments so that we may enjoy the scientifically proven health benefits of spending more time in the present.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The upcoming fears arising from the Coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Here are five steps that you can take today to start to develop some serenity and bring more calm amidst the chaos. The steps include Presence and the 3 Ps of Purpose, Pacing and Pivoting which I discuss in The Gift of Presence.
- Take charge of when you will take the news. Pacing yourself is important. Life is full of marathons, and a pandemic is one of them. We need to give ourselves the best chance of remaining healthy, and that includes not allowing news alerts to inundate and overwhelm us. For example, I set aside a few minutes late morning and again in the afternoon to “catch up” on the latest news, from reliable sources as best as I can. Then I leave it. I accept the accompanying feelings of fear, or guilt for not being more “up to the minute,” and hold in my awareness at the same time patience and compassion for myself in order to maintain my well-being during this unusually stressful time.
- Stay in frequent touch with family members, friends, and neighbors. This is a priority, not a luxury. We are social beings, we have a social brain, and we need one another. Even with social — or what might better be called physical — distancing, and the lockdown of “shelter in place” orders, we can still be in close social contact, in the present moment, thanks to the internet and our video and audio platforms. For example, my 90-year-old mother-in-law, Sue, got on Facebook for the first time a few days ago, having resisted for years, so that she could watch my Facebook Live with Sharon Salzberg.
- Give yourself something to look forward to. With so much uncertainty and our “hoped for futures” wiped out, we need to have daily and weekly events to look forward to. This is where Pivoting, as in making a change while knowing that our skills, relationships, and experiences are still there to support us. For example, my life and work partner, Dan and I, via WhatsApp video, share a weekly meal with our dear friends and work colleagues in Asolo, Italy — breakfast for us, dinner for them.
- Make new routines. We humans value familiarity and our routines. Now that our daily lives have been disrupted, it’s important to put new practices into place. For example, I go outside every morning to “check” the tulips I planted a few weeks ago, I walk around my block a couple of times a day listening to the birds, and I set aside two hours each morning and afternoon for writing.
- Take time to write down your life’s Purpose. What gets you up in the morning? What’s personally meaningful for you? What are you trying to accomplish in your life that positively impacts others? Research confirms that those who have a Purpose can enjoy more well-being even during our most discouraging days. For example, my Purpose in my work is to make mindfulness more accessible, both through formal and informal practices, so that its benefits can be known and available to anyone interested.
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?
For those feeling anxious, here are five steps we can offer for support:
- Encourage them to stay away from sources of more anxiety, whether other persons or a steady stream of news. Now is a time to surround ourselves with as much calm as possible. Research confirms that repeated states, such as presence, calm and clarity, can become traits that change our baseline way of being. These states help us learn the art of acceptance — being aware of a sense of being grounded no matter what is going on around us. So the more we can be in states of presence, calm, and clarity — and encourage those feeling anxious to do the same, the less anxiety all of us will experience.
- Ask them to write in a gratitude journal, on post-its, or on whatever they like, 3 to 5 things daily that they are grateful for. Research confirms that being grateful increases our well-being.
- Remind them to be physically active. Moving our bodies around is good for our physical and mental health. Science confirms that when we are physically active, we secrete dopamine, the neurotransmitter which is both rewarding and essential for our well-being.
- Encourage them to remain present, avoiding fearful thoughts about the future and worrisome regrets about the past as best they can. As soon as we come back to the present moment, our past regrets and future fears disappear. The two cannot co-exist. More time spent in the present means less time spent in the past or future. Research confirms that we usually spend 50 % of our days not in the present, and it’s likely much higher in challenging times, such as during a pandemic.
- Emphasize the importance of sleep. None of us can function even during “normal times” without good rest. Sleep provides an essential way for our bodies to be fortified in order to be our strongest, most resilient selves. Studies confirm that lack of sleep which interferes with our ability to think clearly can increase our anxiety levels.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
It depends. The resources that will be optimal for one person may not be optimal for the other. For example, meditation apps, support groups, therapy, online learning groups, community offerings, and books, are all resources that can be helpful. We also have valuable resources in our personal and professional networks. We can’t underestimate the importance of turning to others for help, especially in times such as this — for being socially connected and belonging, for having the trust to be vulnerable and the courage to ask for help when we need it. Finally, we all have a free, natural resource called presence or mindfulness available to us, 24/7. We can all find both formal and informal ways of being in the present. By a formal mindfulness practice, I mean meditation or yoga, for example. By an informal practice, I mean infusing your ordinary moments with presence. For example, by paying attention to how your feet feel when you walk barefoot through your apartment, or what sounds you notice when you first wake up in the morning. Both formal and informal practices enhance our well-being.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
The quote is: “To Thine Own Self Be True.” These words have been relevant in my life repeatedly because I so often felt out of sync with others around me. I chose to study at a high school where studying wasn’t popular. I chose to go to graduate school when one of my aunts didn’t understand why “a girl needs so much education.” I chose to work in a foreign country when that wasn’t embraced by most of my family and friends. I chose to travel through 26 foreign countries over a year with my college girlfriend and a budget of $2500 when others around me were “settling down.” I think that most of us ultimately come to embrace that first and foremost we need to follow our own north star, but the sooner we can do so, it seems to me, the more we can live with ease.
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. :-)
I would start a movement called “Now is a Good Time.” If we can learn anything from this Coronavirus pandemic, it is that all we have is the present moment. Our time is fleeting. Now is a good time to tell your loved ones you love them. Now is a good time to write down what you’re grateful for. Now is a good time to catch the sunset. Now is a good time to thank your local post office, your grocery store clerks, your healthcare workers. Now is a good time to…
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I offer several resources on my website, www.carolinewelch.com, for connecting with others, both in-person and virtually, including support for starting and running your own Presence Group.