Notice when you are feeling good and let it sink in, pushing the positive mental state to a neural trait. That’s experience dependent neuroplasticity. You can rewire your brain for happiness and resilience.
As part of my series about health and wellness leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing author and mindfulness expert Julie Potiker. Julie is an attorney who began her serious study and investigation of mindfulness after graduating from the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of California, San Diego. She was trained by Kristin Neff, Christopher Germer and UCSD as a Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher. She went on to study with Rick Hanson, becoming a graduate of his Positive Neuroplasticity Training Professional Course. Potiker also completed Brené Brown’s Living Brave Semester. Now, she shares these and other mindfulness techniques with the world through her Mindful Methods for Life trainings and her new book: “Life Falls Apart, but You Don’t Have To: Mindful Methods for Staying Calm In the Midst of Chaos.” She holds a B.G.S. from the University of Michigan and a J.D. from George Washington University. For more information, visit www.MindfulMethodsForLife.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was a lawyer, and then a full-time mom to three kids: a singleton and a set of identical twin girls. Shortly after the twins were born — after a horrible pregnancy and a harrowing, life-threatening delivery — I suffered debilitating post-partum depression. I didn’t feel I had the strength to go on living. I squeaked out the words between sobs to my husband, who made an emergency phone call to the doctor. My OBGYN put me on antidepressants and I started seeing a therapist.
When the kids were little, I kept myself busy volunteering at their schools and participating in leadership positions at various not-for-profit agencies at home and abroad. Parenting them from newborn to age 10 or 11 was not so bad! I have happy memories of arts and crafts, field trips, and general warmth and love. I managed my depression with meds and therapy, but never really got out from under it. Some days it would swoop in and take me down. On days when I was in the bottom of the snake pit, the thing that would keep me from ending my life was the suffering I would bring to my kids, husband, and parents. I used to tell myself that I didn’t want the twins growing up and working for the Sunshine Cleaning Company — a reference to a black comedy about sisters that witnessed the aftermath of their mom’s suicide and ended up working for a company that cleaned up crime scenes.
Around the time the twins turned 12 or 13 years old, everything started to get way more difficult. All three kids have ADHD so schoolwork, and school in general, had specific challenges. The medications for ADHD have side effects, and finding the right balance was a never-ending process. Making matters worse, the twins had all sorts of weird health issues, as well as generalized anxiety disorder/depression that added to my stress as their mom; I was a nervous wreck. One of our girls even went blind temporarily in 7th grade! I kid you not. I could not make this stuff up!
Thank goodness there was a breaking point in me, affecting my speech. I was intending to say “cappuccino,” and “cappatino” rolled off my tongue. “Magical” became “maginal.” I tried to say “topsy turvy” and it came out “bunky burvy.” Screwing up my words was serious enough for me to go to the doctor. I went to see a neurologist to rule out a brain tumor.
After a complete battery of testing and a psych/social interview, the neurologist explained that I had too much going on in my brain — too much stress. Looking back, it’s extraordinary that he recommended Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). That neurologist saved my life. I took MBSR at the UCSD Center for Mindfulness near my home and that sent me on the path that I am still on to this day. Taking dozens of courses and trainings in brain science, psychology, happiness, meditation, and Mindful Self-Compassion among others, I developed a toolbox to heal my brain, which healed my life. I no longer suffer from depression. I no longer take antidepressants. I learned how to manage difficult emotions so I can live with less suffering and more ease. Pain is inevitable because we are human; suffering, however, is optional.
Can you share an interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2014, soon after I began teaching Mindful Self-Compassion — a fabulous eight-week curriculum developed by Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff — I knew I had to make it my own. This took courage and chutzpah. I had to be okay going it alone. I had taken other trainings that I needed to incorporate for me to be true to my students, to give them the benefit of all my learning. After a focus group with two groups of graduates from my MSC course, the curriculum for my Mindful Methods For Life was born. This happened organically. I originally wanted to call my course Equanimity 101 because it’s all about balance, but my trusted advisors said no one really knows what “equanimity” means. I know what it means, and how it feels, and I can say that it feels great! As a fall back, we decided to call the course Mindful Methods for Life because that is the name of my LLC, which I formed after becoming a Mindful Self-Compassion teacher. Since then, I’ve been rolling along, having one thing happen after the next, taking the next right action, and seeing how it all unfolds. That is certainly true with the meditation center.
The week my mom died in 2016, I was keeping my commitment in teaching meditation for free at our local community center. Meditation really helped her manage her fear and pain at the end of her life. I knew that meditation, especially in my time of grief, would help me too. My Dad and I were kibitzing (casually discussing) my drop-in meditation classes, which took place in any room available at the time, and I mused about how wonderful it would be to have a dedicated space for meditation at the community center. That is how the Balanced Mind Meditation Center, in memory of my mother Ruth Jacobowitz, was born! My Dad and I donated the funds, and the JCC allowed me to create a beautiful and spiritual room, complete with mediation cushions, cabinetry, a gorgeous painted logo that I designed: a stick figure and a scale, balancing a heart on one side and a brain on the other, similar to the scale I look at in my office every day. I also had loving kindness phrases painted on the top of the walls. Six months after my mom passed away, we had the grand opening of the Balanced Mind Meditation Center.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started my book tour and had the opportunity for live television appearances, I made the mistake of not having my hair and makeup done professionally and I looked like a cadaver from Six Feet Under! The second TV appearance, I made sure to have my hair and makeup done (at the break of dawn in my hotel room in Portland, Oregon), and I looked like a clown. Now, I do my hair and makeup myself and don’t worry how I look as long as I am comfortable with my message. What a relief!
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
I am working on recording new episodes for my podcast, “Balanced Mind with Julie Potiker.” A few years ago, a wonderful woman named Patty Lane interviewed me for her podcast, “Do You Know Who I Am?” After learning about my mission to alleviate suffering and witnessing how remedial I am in the technology department, she graciously offered to help me create and install my podcast on various platforms. Now, she is encouraging me to do more with it!
I’m also donating my time teaching at two upcoming retreats. One is a day-long retreat in September at this cool non-profit called A Ship In The Woods in Escondido, California. The other is a three-day women’s retreat in October at Camp Mountain Chai, up in the mountains outside of Los Angeles, California.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
If I had to choose only one person, it has to be Rick Hanson. Very early on in my teaching MSC, I attended a week-long residential retreat entitled Science and Meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Rick was the key presenter. Every day, I wrote a question and tacked it on his bulletin board in order to get a short meeting with him. By the end of the week, he and I shared an easy familiarity with one another. He encouraged me to create my own course, and to write a book. The questions he asked me that have been guiding me are: “How big do you want to be? How many people do you want to reach?” Since that time, I have taken online courses with him, attended seminars where he was presenting, and completed his in-person six-day Positive Neuroplasticity Training Professional course. In September 2019, I will again relish learning in person from him at a 10-day Neurodharma retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. I sound like a groupie to a guru, but I can tell you, he is no guru. He is the most generous teacher — not a sage from the stage, but a guide on the side! (I probably am a groupie though!)
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that will help people feel great?
- Keep a gratitude journal. It will improve your health, relationships, emotions, personality, and career. A positive feedback loop is a good thing!
- Notice when you are feeling good and let it sink in, pushing the positive mental state to a neural trait. That’s experience dependent neuroplasticity. You can rewire your brain for happiness and resilience.
- Meditate! Download Insight Timer, or another app. (I like Insight Timer because it’s free and won’t get you hooked, then charge you!) Set aside five minutes or more each day and listen to a guided meditation. Meditation teaches us to widen our window of tolerance. Rather than looking for an exit strategy for feeling an unpleasant emotion, you can witness with gentle curiosity the feeling attached to the thought drifting through you. See how you feel after practicing for a few days. The proof is in the pudding!
Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?
I am a woman of the book, so it’s difficult to choose only one book that made an impact on me. The reading and resource tab on my website opens into a library of books that I wholeheartedly recommend. That being said, early on I was deeply touched by “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown. I went on to read “Rising Strong and Daring Greatly,” and participated in her online course, “The Living Brave Semester,” based on those two books. I’m a huge fan. And of course, I read and love everything written by my mentor, Rick Hanson. “Buddha’s Brain” and “Hardwiring Happiness” are amazing, as is his new book, “Resilient.” The concept of resilience is central to my teaching — so much so that I named my sailboat Resilience!
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I believe it has already begun! The Mindful Self-Compassion movement is alive and well, training teachers all over the world (www.centerformsc.org). I’ve attempted to make it more accessible.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By being the best human I can be and teaching others to have a better relationship with themselves so they can have a better relationship with others. I also donate the proceeds of my book to worthy charities, and donate my teaching at various not-for-profit institutions.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I wish someone would have told me to self-publish my book right away. I spent so much time having my hopes lifted and smashed by various editors at publishing houses. I did meet two terrific editors, though, that really wanted to publish my book, so maybe there will be another project I will work on with one of them. Who knows? Maybe there is another book in me!
- I would have loved help from the start with publicity and marketing. I wasted $800 printing gorgeous flyers for my first MSC course. It was a pitiful return on investment! I think I may have captured two students (out of 12) with the flyer that went home in each kid’s backpack from day camp at the JCC. I was like a chicken with my head cut off, getting the flyers printed at Kinkos, and then rushing around town putting them up at Whole Foods, Starbucks, and getting them into the campers’ hands so they would put them in their bags.
- I wish someone would have told me how teaching others would impact me. It has been such a huge gift to me. One woman told me that I saved her life. I told her that she saved her own life by doing the work, but it hit me right in the heart in a good way because I know just what she means. From teaching six- or eight-week courses, to teaching short workshops, I have an opportunity to help alleviate suffering and that means the world to me.
- I wish someone would have told me how fun it would be to teach college students. Every year for the past five years, I have been a guest lecturer at SDSU in the School of Public Health teaching mindfulness, experience-dependent neuroplasticity, loving kindness meditation, and compassion practices. Professor Mary Mulvihill sends me batches of the student comments and I’m always delighted and amazed that they take in so much information. The first few years, I had jitters and used a Power Point presentation. Now, I’m so relaxed I can teach without notes.
- I wish someone had told me how you never know whether someone who is resistant to learning Mindful Methods might nonetheless try it and be surprised by how well it works. A wife brought her husband in for a one-on-one stress reduction session with me after he suffered a heart attack. I didn’t realize that she dragged him into our session until I met with his closed body language and shut-down attitude. He pushed my gift of a gratitude journal back across the desk, explaining that he writes in his food log and also uses that log to express his frustration that his daughter is not living up to her potential. I countered with the idea of a journal as a dedicated space for writing what you enjoy and are grateful for, illustrating the evidence-based benefits of keeping a gratitude practice. I thought the meeting went horribly until I got a text message from his wife sharing how much better he is doing. She said, “I wanted to touch base and thank you again for working with us. I have watched my husband keep a gratitude log daily, feel his comfort rocks” — what I call here-and-now stones — “and focus his thoughts (well, I couldn’t see that but he told me he was doing it), and his stress level has gone WAY down. He is thinking and acting more rationally than I have seen in YEARS! I too have been keeping a gratitude journal and focused more on self-care. You helped us launch these practices and I am very, very grateful. Thank you for helping us get through a very difficult transition in our lives.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.” H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Oprah, of course! She’s been on my vision board for the last two years! I imagine us chatting on the couch, or maybe we are sitting in two overstuffed comfy chairs. I see and hear her telling her millions of fans how helpful she and her staff found the stories and lessons in my book. I feel my body fill with joy. Ah… it’s almost as great as being there!
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
My business Facebook page, Mindful Methods For Life, (Facebook.com/mindfulmethodsforlife) is a lovely and inspirational place to hang out! My blogs and articles are published there, as well as wonderful posts curated and shared from elsewhere on the web. The Facebook page pushes to Twitter, but I must admit that I don’t spend much time on Twitter. I did, however, share two short conversations on Twitter with someone masquerading as Keanu Reeves! Poor guy, I told him he is enough just as he is, and that he doesn’t need to pretend to be Keanu Reeves! Social media can be wacky!
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.