Using Mindfulness to Manage Stress and Uncertainty, with Forest Fein

RHR: Using Mindfulness to Manage Stress and Uncertainty, with Forest Fein

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We are all experiencing increased stress, uncertainty, and fear in these difficult times. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, mindfulness teacher and Kresser Institute faculty member Forest Fein and I discuss how mindfulness can serve us to reduce anxiety and improve our well-being.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What drew Forest to practice mindfulness
  • What mindfulness is
  • How mindfulness benefits your life
  • Mindfulness versus meditation: what the difference is
  • How mindfulness can be a support during COVID-19
  • The STOP practice
  • Whether you need to embrace Buddhism to practice mindfulness
  • Resources to help you start practicing mindfulness

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, this is Chris Kresser. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Forest Fein as my guest. Forest is the founder and executive director of Wise Up: Greater Wisdom and Wellbeing for All, which offers innovative mindfulness-based, science-backed coaching and training to organizations and corporations.

He’s also the head of mindfulness programs for teens and young adults at UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Through community partnerships, Forest designs and teaches mindfulness-based wellness programs that incorporate yoga, social and emotional intelligence, and positive psychology to support at-risk and homeless youth to experience greater resiliency, health, and well-being. As of 2020, his programs have touched the lives of over 4,500 underserved youth.

Forest is also a faculty member at the Kresser Institute for Functional Medicine where he developed and teaches the Art and Science of Mindful Living for the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. All his work is rooted in teachings and practices that support compassion, awareness of and care for oneself, one another, and the earth. Forest has been practicing mindfulness since 1999. And that’s right around the time that I met Forest. We were both living at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California at that time, and we instantly hit it off and have been dear friends since then. So about 20 years now.

Forest is an amazing human being and mindfulness teacher. As I mentioned, he teaches the mindfulness track for the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, and I wanted to bring him on to have a conversation about how meditation and mindfulness can serve us in these times of great uncertainty and fear and anxiety and stress and difficulty that many of us are experiencing right now. So, without further delay, I bring you Forest Fein.

What Drew Forest to Practice Mindfulness

Chris Kresser:  So Forest, I’d love to just start with some personal history. I’ve known you (we were chatting before [about this when] we started recording) for about 20 years now, which is hard to believe that much time has passed. So I know a lot of your history, but I’d love for you to share a little bit about what drew you to mindfulness and meditation practice in the first place.

Forest Fein:  Yeah. So I was in my mid-20s. And I mean, the short and simple answer was that there was a kind of dissatisfaction that I was experiencing in my life. There was a way that I was feeling unfulfilled on a deeper level, and there was some sense of, there had to be more to life than the way that I was living it or the way that I was experiencing it. At that point in my life, it was right when the whole dot-com boom was just starting to happen. I was working for one of the first internet advertising agencies; we were based out of Chicago.

Chris Kresser:  In the ‘90s. So what, were you designing banner ads or something?

Forest Fein:  We were. These were the early days of doing banner ads. And dial-up connections.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Pioneer.

Forest Fein:  I was, and I mean, it was an exciting time to be in that industry. And it was also a time where we were often promising technology that didn’t even exist and selling technology that didn’t even exist. And so, I got caught up in working long hours, not taking care of myself, [and] eventually having some stress-related health issues. And then, eventually making a decision to leave that world. I did it for about three years. And, in addition to just needing to heal my body, there really was this growing sense of, there’s got to be something more to life than just making money and buying stuff.

And I’m really grateful that I had that experience because I was young; I was ambitious. And at that point in my life, I really needed to demystify for myself that just making a bunch of money and buying things and even being recognized in my field, and I was. I won some fairly prestigious awards for the design work I was doing at that time. And even after all of that, when I was honest with myself, when I was at home, alone with myself, and in my quietest hours, I was unhappy. And there was a growing sense of anxiety and depression. And so all of that is to say, it led me to leave that industry, and I began to seek and I began to explore. And that led me to my very first 10-day meditation retreat. And on that meditation retreat, the first few days were quite difficult. And [it was] definitely one of the more challenging things I’d ever gone through at that point in my life, very physically uncomfortable; my mind was so noisy.

But what happened slowly, slowly over time, just learning how to bring myself back to my moment-to-moment experience, learning how to really meet whatever I was experiencing with kindness, and just seeing these waves of, “Oh, this is so uncomfortable” and just being present with it and breathing. “Oh, this feels so pleasurable” and just being present with it and breathing. And just noticing how it all would come and it would go, and then over time, my mind started to settle, [and] my nervous system started to settle. And for me, it was this kind of, I’m not sure how to describe it other than a sense of profound inner peace and a kind of homecoming that I had been, I guess, in many ways looking for my whole life. And I think one of the things that’s worth mentioning is that here I am at a very rustic retreat center, [with] uncomfortable beds. I’m in a bunk room with 20 other guys; the food’s not great. And I am experiencing, it was the most content and the most fulfilled, at the end, that I’d ever experienced in my life. And it wasn’t because of my outer conditions.

So quite the contrast to my time in the world of advertising where things were shiny. But ultimately, on the inside, I was feeling kind of empty and unfulfilled. So all of that led me to the meditation retreat and then that led me to really dedicate myself to a meditation practice in a much more sincere way, and then that ultimately led me to the work that I’m doing now.

Chris Kresser:  Great. And for those, again, who are not familiar with that, tell us what you are up to these days and what is that work and what different forms does it take?

Forest Fein:  Yeah, so I would say my main focus is mindfulness and, but then mindfulness-based wellness programs. And that’s a broad category, but I work with the Kresser Institute, I’m part of the Health Coach Training Program there, and I love the work that we’re doing. And the focus there, it’s called the Art and the Science of Mindful Living.

And then I also work for UCSF Hospital, The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. And my work there is I’m the head of mindfulness programs for teens and young adults. And the work there is really I fundraise in order to bring mindfulness-based wellness programs to support stress reduction and resiliency and just being able to live a healthier, more fulfilling life specifically to underserved teens and young adults. And so, since 2013, through the generosity of a lot of grants and donors, and an amazing team of teachers, yeah, I’m happy to say we’ve reached over 4,500 underserved teens and young adults, youth that are experiencing homelessness.

And yeah, and then I’m also doing work with organizations and corporations. And I do some one-on-one kind of mindfulness-based coaching. But it’s all really rooted in mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

Chris Kresser:  So “mindfulness” is a term that, 25 years ago, was pretty unfamiliar. And today, [it] is probably familiar to almost everybody who’s listening to this podcast. There’s been a lot of attention on mindfulness meditation in the mainstream media and on social media, books; lots of books have been written about it. Famous people are talking about how they meditate and have a mindfulness practice.

We’ve got major corporations like Google and Facebook and Twitter that offer mindfulness instruction to their employees and talk about the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace. So it’s definitely now part of the common lexicon. But I’m curious about your personal take on what is mindfulness and what is meditation? How are those concepts similar and how are they different? [In] your experience now of 20 years of mindfulness and meditation practice, how are you thinking about these concepts?

Forest Fein:  Yeah, I think it’s a really important question. There is not, I mean, in some ways there [are] very simple ways of defining what mindfulness is to me. And one really simple definition is our capacity to be aware of what’s happening while it’s happening. And it seems, well I’m always aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. And when we really begin to dive into looking honestly, at our own inner experience, what we begin to see is that, actually, a lot of the time, we’re not present. And a lot of the time, we’re lost in thinking about the past.

Or we are lost and ruminating and worrying about the future. So, and how when we’re caught up in these stories and not present, how that’s really coloring and distorting how we’re seeing reality. So I think one way of understanding mindfulness is it’s the practice of intentionally bringing our attention into the present moment and really trying to be present and see clearly what’s happening.

Chris Kresser:  Let me just jump in because it’s so, I think, deceptively simple, right? You can hear those words and think, “Whoa, what’s the big deal?” That was really, that doesn’t sound too difficult. But, of course, as you said, when we actually do bring our attention to where, what’s happening internally in our mind, our thoughts, our sensations, our emotions, we often find that they are not centered on our present moment experiences, centered on, as you said, the past or the future.

And even something as simple as taking a walk or taking a hike in the woods, what percentage of the time when we’re on that hike are we actually just feeling our feet touching the ground and the rhythm of our feet going up and down, and the sun against our skin and listening to the sounds of birds, versus thinking about the podcast that we’re going to record later or an email that we got from somebody that triggered some negative emotions or what we’re going to have for dinner later that night? And it’s so simple yet it’s so profound and powerful, this idea of present moment awareness.

Forest Fein:  Yes, yes. So they say simple but not easy. And that to acknowledge this is a lifelong practice. It’s not something that we sit down and we practice for 10 minutes a day, and then we just go back to business as usual. It’s a lifelong practice of developing this muscle, which is our ability to recognize when we’re not present, when we’re caught up [in] unhelpful, unkind, unnecessary, repetitive thinking, which when we really start to pay attention, we are, it can sometimes be uncomfortable to begin to really see clearly through your own direct experience, how much of the time we’re not here.

There’s some really interesting research that suggests that the average person is not present anywhere from 50 to 66 percent of the time. And that is going to vary [from] person to person and day to day. But if I’m honest, if I’m present 50 percent of the time, I’m actually having a pretty good day. I think those numbers are kind of low.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I was going to say that. I would’ve thought it would be higher than that, in general. Especially for someone who doesn’t have any kind of mindfulness or meditation practice or experience.

Forest Fein:  I think the numbers are low, but what they point to is that even if the numbers are correct, we’re having to come to terms with the fact that one-half to two-thirds of our waking life, we’re not actually present with what’s happening. And Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, one of the, it’s got a lot of research behind it. It’s in hospitals around the world, and has really helped to kind of bring mindfulness into the collective awareness. One of the things that he says that I love is, “Mindfulness is living our life as if it really matters, which means that you have to be here for it.”

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I was going to say that, just to play devil’s advocate, well, what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t I think about something else while I’m on a hike? Maybe that’s how I get my best ideas or what’s actually, how do we know that there’s something wrong with not being present.

Forest Fein:  I’m really, really glad that you’re bringing this in because I would say one of the shadow sides of the mindfulness movement, or we could say, maybe part of the misunderstanding, is that it’s just about being present all the time. And if we’re not present and we’re lost in thought that somehow we’re not being mindful. And to me, I think it’s really important that we make a distinction. It’s interesting because more and more, I’m talking, like, how do we use the mind in ways that are helpful and skillful and beneficial and mindfulness helps us to see the ways in which we’re not? And so let me unpack that a little bit.

[When I take] some time to go into the future and let’s say plan my day or plan my week and get clear on what my priorities are, that’s so skillful. If I have a presentation a week from now and I just spend the next seven days worrying about it, and that creates a bunch of anxiety and stress in my life, that’s not helpful. It’s creating suffering. And so, similarly, you can think about, oh, noticing, like, oh, I just had a really difficult experience. Let me reflect back on that in a mindful way. And what can I learn from that so that I can bring that forward and do it differently the next time? Right? To me, that’s also mindfulness. It’s a skillful use of the capacity of our minds.

At the same time, if something happens, and it’s a week later, or a month later, or a year later, and we’re still ruminating on it, which again, [is a] very human thing to do. For example, let’s say that you lose your, a lot of people are losing their jobs right now. And if we spend too much time being hard on ourselves about that, it’s just creating a lot of unnecessary suffering in our lives. And I’m not saying that’s easy to let go of. But to just recognize that mindfulness helps us to see, “oh wow, I’m starting to ruminate on the loss of the job or the loss of the relationship.” Or, “I’ve already thought this through; this is creating a lot of pain and suffering in my life.” And then being able to redirect our attention let’s say to the present moment, or redirect our attention to maybe the things that we’re grateful for in our lives.

So there’s something in it around being, a growing awareness of where our attention is going and then building the mental muscle; it’s a kind of mental fitness almost, to be able to then intentionally place our attention. Maybe it’s in the present moment, or maybe it’s placed focusing our attention on something that’s helpful or constructive. Does that make sense?

Mindfulness is a lifelong practice, and the benefits it brings to your health and well-being make it worth the effort. Check out this episode of RHR where Forest Fein discusses what mindfulness is and how it can support you. #wellness #chriskresser #changeagent

How Mindfulness Benefits Your Life

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely, yeah. And there’s another element to this that you hinted at there. And I think it’s important to draw further because it’s a very practical benefit, shall we say, of mindfulness, which is the ability to witness our sensations, our thoughts, and our feelings, and then make a choice about how we’re going to respond to those. Which is different. Our kind of, without that mindful presence, the habitual thing that happens is, let’s say you’re a parent, and your kid does something that totally pushes your buttons, as kids can do like nobody else. And you feel that anger rise, and before you know it, you’re shouting at your kid or you’re punishing them or you’re doing whatever it is that you habitually do.

If you’re able, through a more mindful presence, to witness that first sensation of anger before you even know that it’s anger, maybe it’s a tightening of the chest or the belly, tensing of the muscles, and then you’re able to see that rising, then at least the possibility arises that you could make a different choice in terms of how you’re going to respond or react to that anger. And it seems to me that that’s one of the most palpable and practical benefits of a mindful practice and everyday mindfulness practice in everyday life.

Forest Fein:  Yeah, I love that you’re bringing this in because to me, it’s not just about being in the present moment. So, for example, I can be very present to, pick your addictive behavior of choice, but let’s use a simple example of, like, I love ice cream, and that’s true. And I can be very aware of the fact [that] okay, I’m having a craving for ice cream; I’m going to the freezer. I’m grabbing the pint of ice cream and then …

Chris Kresser:  It’s gone.

Forest Fein:  It’s gone. So is that better than just being on autopilot? I’d say it’s a step in the right direction. But ultimately, where mindfulness really becomes life-changing is with awareness, change is possible. And mindfulness allows us to see what we’re doing and then to actually be a choice and that’s, it’s like okay, I’m going to the freezer; I’m grabbing the ice cream. I’m noticing this desire; I want to eat the whole thing. And then I have a couple of bites and I take a deep breath. And I’m like, okay, that’s my old pattern. That’s my old unhealthy pattern. And if I continue, again, whatever the addictive behavior is, whatever the harmful or unhelpful behaviors, if I continue to do that day in and day out, it’s going to lead to problems. It’s going to lead to greater suffering in my life and the people around me.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Forest Fein:  And so mindfulness really allows us to see what we’re doing, be able to name it clearly, and then recognize do I really want to continue with this old pattern, this old way of being? Or do I want to actually choose to put the pint of ice cream down, put it back in the freezer. and begin to install a new, healthier pattern in my life.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Forest Fein:  And so maybe it’s putting ice cream away and going for a walk.

Chris Kresser:  Right, So it seems, let’s break this down even further. Because I love, I think these specific examples are so helpful. So you notice yourself walking over to the freezer to grab the ice cream, and part of this process is not just noticing the behavior; it’s noticing the emotions and thoughts and sensations that preceded that behavior, right?

Forest Fein:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  It’s noticing exactly what led you to want to eat a pint of ice cream. And in the autopilot method, there’s no awareness of those various steps. You just, it’s one behavior, and you’re not really even aware of why you’re doing it. But what you said, this very powerful concept is with awareness comes the possibility of change. Break that down a little bit further. It’s that you first, you become aware of the feelings and sensations that led to that behavior, and then, like you said, then you can make a different choice about how to respond to those behaviors. You mentioned going for a walk, or maybe you can go do something else that brings you pleasure. Because, in that example, I guess ice cream is bringing pleasure, and that’s to kind of offset whatever presumably feelings of stress or something like that. So break that down a little bit further, because I think that’s really, it really gets to the crux of it.

Forest Fein:  Yeah, so, I mean, one of the things that you’re pointing to that’s really important, and just to slow down for a moment and recognize that one of the things that, mindfulness, I think, certainly has developed in my life and I see this, it helps to strengthen in the people that I work with, is we learn how to turn our attention inward and become much more familiar with and able to see, again this idea of seeing clearly:

  • What are the thoughts that are going through my mind right now?
  • What are the emotions that I’m feeling?
  • What are the tensions or contractions or pain that I’m experiencing in my body?

And that as we become more familiar with our inner world, our inner landscape, we are able to be much more aware of when, for example, wow, something just happened.

I’m feeling really stressed out. I’m feeling emotionally triggered and I want to go grab the pint of ice cream and down it because I’m emotional eating, for example. And it’s just a way that I’m trying to deal with the discomfort that I’m feeling. And maybe the thoughts are like I’m being hard on myself. Maybe the feelings are, I’m feeling anxious; maybe what I’m feeling is knots in my stomach. And there is an understandable desire, and this is what I love, there’s an under, the motivation underneath that is I don’, I’m uncomfortable and I don’t want to suffer. And that’s a beautiful motivation, but then how we’re going about trying to remedy that suffering. And are we doing it in a way that is ultimately going to lead to more suffering? And that would be one way of kind of understanding or defining addiction. Or are we doing something that ultimately over time is going to lead to greater health, greater freedom, a greater sense of well-being in my life?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it’s so helpful to break it down this way, I think. And there’s even another component that is, of course, a big part of mindfulness and lots of different ways that I’ve heard you talk about it and my experience of it and many other practitioners and teachers, which is when you become aware of that, of your experience, you’re not judging it. You’re meeting it with compassion and non-judgment and why is that so important, particularly in light of opening up the possibility of change?

Forest Fein:  Yeah. Now thank you for bringing this in. I see this tendency within my own mind and also recognize that human tendency, which is toward negativity and judgment. And it really, it contributes, it’s actually a big part of what contributes to the suffering that we experience in our lives. We begin as you, as the mindfulness, as my mindfulness practice has deepened, one of the things that I recognize is that as soon as I am judging, and again, whether I’m judging myself, I’m judging another person, it’s actually there’s a way in which it is cutting me off from life. It’s separating me from life. And there’s a way that when I really tune in, it’s actually shutting down my heart. And I want to make a really important distinction between judgment and discernment. So discernment is actually our ability to discern and see life clearly. Oh, this isn’t being able to discern what emotions we’re feeling. Can we make a discernment between guilt and shame, for example? Being able to discern another person’s actions, and then being able to respond to that in a skillful way. But that’s different [from] judgment. Judgment is we, just very quickly putting somebody in a box or putting ourselves in a box, being hard on ourselves. And just noticing how … Go ahead.

Chris Kresser:  Like in that example, I’m a weak person because I’m eating another pint of ice cream here, right? If you become aware of that at any point in the process, that kind of blame and shame game.

Forest Fein:  The blame and shame game and how, I mean, if you think about how you would treat somebody that you really love, or that you really care about, when you’re your best self, if you’re your best parent to your kids, or if you’re being a really good friend to somebody that you care about, how would you speak to that person? How would you show up? How would you relate to that person? And to also think about, like, if somebody else outside of yourself was speaking to you in [a] harsh, unkind way, like, I would just, like I just close down. There’s something in me that just contracts. There’s something that says, like, hey, get out of here. You’re giving me a hard time [and] that’s not helpful, that’s not supportive. And so really learning like … Go ahead.

Chris Kresser:  I think I’ve shared this with you. One of my teachers, Cheri Huber, used to say, “If [you] had a [person in your life treating you] the way [you] treat [yourself], [you] would have gotten rid of [them] a long time ago.”

Forest Fein:  Let’s hope so, let’s hope so. And yet, when we talk about being in an abusive relationship, and it’s kind of a powerful way of naming it, but it’s true, we can be in an abusive relationship with other people. And it’s also possible for us to be in an abusive relationship with ourselves, and to recognize the pain and the suffering that’s creating.

Chris Kresser:  Yes. So we’ve talked a lot about mindfulness and, hopefully, with a specific example of how powerful this can be in terms of our experience of our day-to-day life. Going way back to the original question of defining mindfulness and also differentiating that from meditation, how would you make that distinction in your understanding?

Mindfulness versus Meditation: What’s the Difference?

Forest Fein:  Yeah, I mean, to me, mindfulness is an ongoing practice that I’m doing throughout the day. And I think that there can be a misperception that mindfulness is something that we do for 10 or 20 minutes. It’s my mindfulness practice. And then I kind of go back to, kind of business as usual, I go on with my day. And to just remember that, this is a way of, it’s a way of living. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. So:

  • Can I be mindful when I’m sitting?
  • Can I be mindful when I’m standing?
  • Can I be mindful when I’m in conversation with people?
  • Can I be mindful when I’m eating?

And not as something that is laborious or a drag, but as a practice of really showing up and being present for our life, and noticing when we’re not. And then being able to bring ourselves back. And for me, what I experience is that when I’m able to be more present throughout my day, life does feel more meaningful. It does feel more fulfilling, even with the ordinary challenges that arise day to day in my life. My connections with other people feel more meaningful because I’m actually more present with them. And I think one of the things that I’d like to just name is that we can only feel as connected to other people as we are to ourselves. And mindfulness to me is a beautiful practice of learning how to come home to and connect with ourselves in a deeper way.

Chris Kresser:  So meditation is a, for lack of a better term, formal way of practicing mindfulness.

Forest Fein:  Yeah, meditation would be a formal way of practicing mindfulness and helping to strengthen that muscle under, I’d say, hopefully more ideal conditions. And then mindfulness is what we practice throughout the day in the midst of driving and working and having conversations.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. I think it’s really critical to get that across. Because as you pointed out, there are a lot of misconceptions. And one of them is that meditation and mindfulness are somehow separate from life. Like you, when you’re meditating, you’re mindful and then the rest of the time you’re not. And maybe there are certain activities that are kind of where you can be mindful and present and others where you can’t, and that creates this, like, artificial separation and makes it a lot less likely that this is going to really permeate your life.

Forest Fein:  Definitely, definitely. And I think one of the things I also want to bring in is that for me, I can’t separate mindfulness from embodied living.

Chris Kresser:  Say more about that.

Forest Fein:  Well, and we’re kind of bumping up against the limitations of language, but even just the term “mindfulness,” it’s about the mind. It’s about training the mind.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Forest Fein:  And that’s certainly a big part of it. But to me, mindfulness is really about learning how to re-inhabit our bodies in a much fuller way and to recognize that most of our education that most people receive is we’re getting educated from the head up. And that we’re living in a world of ideas and concepts and theory. And that’s beautiful. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful. It’s a powerful dimension of what we’re capable of as human beings and what the mind is capable of. However, it can come at a cost, which is to really be able to inhabit our bodies, and to be able to access the deep, I would say wisdom and inner guidance that is innate within all of us.

How Mindfulness Can Be a Support during COVID-19

Chris Kresser:  So I want to shift gears or just transition a little bit to talk more specifically about mindfulness in the context of what works [with what] most of us are experiencing now, which is a lot of uncertainty, a lack of control, perhaps personal tragedy, whether that’s in the form of a friend or a family member who’s had COVID[-19] and gotten seriously ill or even died, loss of livelihood or employment. Or just social isolation and loneliness. All the things that so many people around the world are dealing with. How can mindfulness be a support in times like this?

Forest Fein:  Yeah, it’s such an important question. So much to say about that, but just staying with the theme of learning how to turn toward our moment-to-moment experience, and giving ourselves the gift of our own attention, being able to meet whatever we’re experiencing with kindness, with compassion, with gentleness, with patience instead of judgment and condemnation, which only creates more suffering. And you brought in this idea of like, we were talking about how would you treat a close friend that was going through a hard time? And can we, mindfulness is about our relationship with ourselves. It’s almost cliché, but it’s like the longest and most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself, and if I’m honest with how much of my life I was not relating to myself in a kind way. I’ve been really impatient and hard on myself and I can still do that from time to time. But I’m learning how to, through my mindfulness practice, see that, recognize that, name that, that’s an unkind thought, [and] it’s not helpful. And then to really practice just breathing and being with my suffering and relating to it, being in conversation with it in a way that is kind. Can I say kind, encouraging things to myself? Can I slow down and actually just pause? And okay, this is a moment of suffering. Can I just be present with it? And one of the beautiful things about awareness, mindful awareness bringing our presence to our difficult experience, is that awareness is healing. Right? The light of awareness is healing. Presence is healing. And to make this, I think, just a simple example of this [is] have you ever had an experience [where] you’re going through a really hard time and somebody, a friend or a family member, or a therapist, or a teacher, just sits down. I’m right here with you and they’re present with you. Maybe they’re putting a hand on your shoulder or on your arm, and they’re speaking to you in kind words, and a tone of voice that conveys I’m here with you, I care about you, I see your suffering. And how having someone relate to you in that way can be so profound, so healing. You can leave that interaction and feel so much better. And the possibility that that’s also true when we will learn, and it’s a practice. It’s a lifelong practice. Practice relating to ourselves in that way.

Chris Kresser:  So I think one thing, I’ve heard from some of my patients and people we talk [to] because I’m always recommending mindfulness, especially in these times, but even in any time, of course, it’s helpful and vital for me, at least, to navigate this world that we live in. There’s always been a kind of an irony that I’ve noticed about mindfulness meditation practice, which is that in the times that we would most benefit from it, we’re perhaps least likely to do it. Because I’m too stressed out to meditate. Right? Or I’m too busy to meditate. So can you talk a little bit about that, your experience with it and your experience working also with a population of people who are experiencing extreme levels of stress? Homeless teens and youth, and how you’ve worked with that.

Forest Fein:  Yeah, it’s such an important question and it’s true. It’s true. It’s like when I am in a state of stress, if I’m feeling really triggered, taking the time to just, can I just pause and take some time to prioritize tending to myself. Tending to my suffering. Tending to my pain. Instead of getting caught up in busyness or running away from it with the pint of ice cream or whatever it might be. And so one of the practices, one of the ways of talking about this is recognizing, I talk about being in the red and being in the green. And so being in the red is, okay, I’m in a state of stress. I’m emotionally upset. I’m triggered. But it’s just, can we just recognize, okay, I’m in a bad place right now. I’m having a hard time right now. And then, right, so that’s the mindful awareness of being able to see clearly. This is a moment of suffering. I’m having a hard time right now. And then, so that’s step one, and then step two. And again, lifelong practice. I’m not saying this is easy, but it is something that’s a skill that we can get better at. We can recognize it and then we can learn to prioritize. Doing something to take care of ourselves that is healthy, that’s nourishing, that helps to bring us back into a more centered, grounded place. And so I talk about that as centering. Okay, step one is mindfulness; can we be aware of what’s happening? And then bring ourselves to a place of choice through maybe taking a few deep breaths. And then can we prioritize, above all else, choosing to prioritize taking care of ourselves in that moment? And that might mean that we take five or 10 minutes and do a meditation practice. It might also mean right now what I really need to do is reach out to a friend. It might mean right now what I really need to do is I need to go for a walk around the block. Whatever it is for you that helps to bring you back into a more centered, open-hearted, clear-minded place. And one of the things I encourage people to do is to create a list like a menu of options. And you can have it on your phone, you can have it hanging on your bathroom mirror. But one of the things that we know is that when we’re in a stress response, the prefrontal cortex goes off and your thinking mind goes offline. Our ability to think clearly goes offline. And this is part of why it’s so challenging to remember in those moments, and prioritize doing the things that we know will be helpful to really bring ourselves back into a more balanced place, a more centered and grounded place.

Chris Kresser:  There’s another thing that I think, [and] this kind of gets more into, I think a common misconception about meditation. But I’ve often heard a kind of objection like this. I tried to meditate, but I just couldn’t stop thinking. My mind was so busy. I was no good at it. So I stopped.

Forest Fein:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  What’s the problem with that view of meditation, the idea that we should have a completely still and quiet mind to be successful at it?

The STOP Practice

Forest Fein:  Yeah. So I’m going to answer that question in a moment. I just want to piggyback on what I just shared. And to just share with everybody there is a simple practice that’s helpful. And it’s the STOP practice. It’s an acronym S-T-O-P. And the S stands for stop. So you’re just taking a moment and you’re pausing. The T stands for take a deep breath, take two or three deep breaths. The O stands for observe. So just take a moment and observe. What are my thoughts right now? What are the emotions? What am I feeling? And observe what I am feeling in my body. Knots in my stomach. I’m feeling heat in my face. My fists are clenched. So you’re just kind of scanning. And that’s the moment of mindfulness, right? And then from there, it’s like, oh wow, I’m in the red right now. I’m not in a good place. That’s the O. And then the P is to prioritize, bringing myself back into the green and to recognize, and again, it’s a practice. We’re not going to do it perfectly, but to recognize that there’s actually nothing more important in that moment, than to prioritize doing something to try and bring yourself back into a more centered, grounded, regulated state. Okay? So that’s just a simple practice that you can kind of put in your pocket and practice throughout the day. And then to, yeah, to answer your question around misconceptions around meditation practice, I’d say that’s probably the most common misperception. I sit down, I meditate, my mind is out of control. And I’m no good at this. And then that leads to this idea of, I’m not a good meditator. And then, people give up on the practice.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Forest Fein:  And there’s a couple, one just to correct the misperception. You’re doing it right. The idea that meditation is that you’re sitting there with a clear, calm, spacious mind and you’re experiencing bliss all the time is a misunderstanding of the practice. I’ve been practicing for 20 years. And I would say, pretty much every morning when I sit down to meditate, what I first encounter is a pretty busy mind. So to really understand that the practice is being mindful of, being aware of, being present with oh, my mind is really busy right now. Noticing when the attention wanders off and you’re getting caught up in the mind movies, the unhelpful thinking, and then you can just, you can silently name that to yourself, noting or naming it. Oh thinking, thinking.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Forest Fein:  And that helps to kind of break us out of the trance of being entangled in the thought. And to just acknowledge, just naming it is actually a moment of mindfulness, right? That’s a moment where you are coming out of the trance of thinking and you’re no longer caught in it; you’re seeing it. You’re able to …

Chris Kresser:  You’re witnessing.

Forest Fein:  Yeah, you’re witnessing. Mindfulness is, I also think about mindfulness is spacious awareness. So we’re developing our capacity to step back and see more clearly what’s happening. And so then, the practice is you just simply name it. And then very important, what’s the attitude? What’s your attitude in which you are bringing yourself back to the feelings and sensations in your body, coming back to your breath? And to practice bringing yourself back, not with a place of condemnation, like oh, man, I can’t believe it.

Chris Kresser:  I blew it; I had another thought. Darn it.

Forest Fein:  Right. I blew it. I’m no good at this, right?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Forest Fein:  But instead, I really like to encourage people [to] celebrate that moment. Like, all right, good job. My attention wandered off and I was able to recognize that, and now I’m coming back.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Forest Fein:  I’m coming back home; I’m coming back to my breath. That’s a win, not a loss. That’s a win.

Chris Kresser:  You could flip it around the other way, right? You could say if I sit here for a half hour, and I bring my attention back to the present 1,000 times, well, that’s 1,000 small victories in that session. Right?

Forest Fein:  And that is such an important reframe. And that’s also the, I mean, that’s the truth of the practice. That is the practice, right? The attention wanders and we bring it back. And yeah, that is the practice.

Chris Kresser:  Because that’s what your, I mean, quite literally, just to break that down, that is what you’re practicing. That’s why they call it a practice, right? You are practicing bringing your attention back to the present moment when you get distracted. If that was natural and easy, you would not have to practice, right?

Forest Fein:  Correct. And it is, it’s a muscle and it gets stronger over time. And with practice, you start to, when the attention wanders, you might notice it a little bit sooner; you might be able to bring your attention back a little bit more quickly. And then you might be able to stay present a little bit longer, right? It’s a skill that gets stronger over time. But I want to take this. And it really helped people to see, make the connection between what we’re practicing in our formal let’s say meditation practice for 10, 20, 30 minutes a day. And why this is so important, and how this translates to and generalizes in our day-to-day life. We’re strengthening our capacity to place our attention where we want it. Notice when our attention wanders when we get distracted, and then be able to bring our attention back to what we are choosing to focus on. And this is what scientists call cognitive control. And they’ve done some really interesting research around cognitive control. And what the research shows is that cognitive control is actually a greater predictor of someone’s success in life. And I’m not talking just about financial success and professional success, but we’re also talking about overall health and well-being, and success in whatever it is that our education or whatever it is that we’re learning. That cognitive control or ability to place your attention where you want to for as long as you want, notice when we get distracted, be able to bring it back. Cognitive control is the greatest predictor of success more so than our IQ, the IQ that we’re born with, and the wealth of the family that we grow up in.

Now, very important, I do not want to in any way downplay that the IQ that we’re born with has an impact. The wealth of the family that we are born into has an impact. But what it’s pointing to is that our ability to focus our attention and mindfulness is a way of training that and strengthening that, that our ability to focus our attention is really our ability to learn anything, right? It’s the foundation of a not only, you could say a high-performance mind, it’s the foundation of our ability to drop into a flow state or in sports where they call the zone. But what they also know, and this is from the research, is that a wandering mind, a distracted mind, is an unhappy mind.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Forest Fein:  And so you can think about people who struggle with, like, ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder], not only do they have learning disabilities, but they also struggle with being able to regulate themselves emotionally, emotional balance. And especially now … Yeah, go ahead.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, mindfulness and meditation have been studied in kids and adults with ADHD as an effective intervention for that reason.

Forest Fein:  That’s right, because this is a muscle that can be strengthened. It’s a skill that can be developed. So it’s also contributing to emotional balance and emotional regulation. It’s not just about being able to focus our attention.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I think it’s, [these are] such good points. And I want to share an analogy that some of my teachers have used that was helpful for me when I was first learning. It’s important to point out that that quality of attention, like sometimes when I sit and I meditate, I feel this kind of laser focus and the ability to keep my attention centered in the present moment is, it seems easy almost. And everything, it just, I feel a great sense of peace and equanimity, and I’m just in the zone, you could say, if you use a sports analogy. And then there are other meditations where it is just a slog. It feels like it’s four hours instead of a half hour and [I’m] just bringing my attention back literally every two seconds because my mind is wandering. And I’ve been sitting for 30 years. So it’s not necessarily just a function of how long you’ve been doing it or how, [or] your level of skill or capacity. It’s like, the analogy is the weather. Sometimes the sky is blue and clear, and everything is groovy. And sometimes there are big storm clouds that are moving through there quickly and it’s, there’s a lot going on. And if you think about like, in this analogy, the awareness is the atmosphere that all of this is happening in. And the clouds and the lightning and the rain and the sound, all of that is just the changing features that are analogous to our kind of day-to-day experience [of] what’s happening in our mind, where we’re at emotionally. We just, something crazy just happened with a friend of ours and that’s on our mind, or one of our kids is struggling at school, or, whatever the content of our lives is, that’s going to change and naturally over time, right? And that can affect the quality or the felt experience of the meditation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a worse meditation. And it doesn’t mean that a meditation, where we’re not thinking as, getting distracted as much is a good meditation. That was just really important for me to get. That took a long time for me to, as, like, a type A type of personality, to let go of the kind of achievement mentality of thinking that, like, a meditation with no thoughts is a good one and one with a lot of thought, thinking, and distraction is a bad one.

Forest Fein:  I’m so glad you’re bringing that in because it is one of the biggest misconceptions and it’s so easy to fall into. If I get up from my meditation and I’m feeling more peaceful and at ease, then that was a good meditation. And if I [got] up from my meditation practice, and my mind was just super busy and what I was present to was a lot of mental and physical discomfort, then that was a bad meditation. And it really is, it’s a misunderstanding. We were talking about mindfulness as being, as cultivating spacious awareness. And when I sit down and I practice, I mean, yeah, I love it when my practice is predominantly, my mind is quiet and it’s predominantly peaceful and spacious and blissful. I love that when that happens. But to recognize that I think another way of understanding mindfulness is it’s a practice of how am I relating to my moment-to-moment experience. And so whether my moment-to-moment experience is pleasant, or whether my moment-to-moment experience is unpleasant. And as we all know, we will continue to in our meditation practices in our lives, deal with the pleasant and unpleasant and challenging experiences of life. That’s not going to change, but what we can change is how we’re relating to it. And is there a way that we can actually be, learn how to step back and see it and be present with it and meet it with curiosity. Meet it with kindness, meet it with compassion. Yeah, I mean, I meet it with compassion in a nonreactive non-judgmental way. And there’s something about relating to our moment-to-moment experience in that way that’s deeply healing and that over time the mind does settle. But we have to learn how to, and again, it’s a practice of, can we just learn how to be present with what’s arising and can we meet it with kindness. And it’s not always easy.

Do You Need to Embrace Buddhism to Practice Mindfulness?

Chris Kresser:  So I want to, we’re getting to the end of our time here. I’ve really loved this conversation. I’m sure listeners are getting a lot out of it. I want to cover one more kind of question that often comes up in the context of mindfulness and meditation, which is, do I have to embrace, mindfulness comes out of Buddhist tradition and I’ve often, when I’ve taught in the past or led groups, I’ve gotten questions from people who don’t identify as a Buddhist, and who are Christian or Muslim or Jewish, and wonder if the practice of mindfulness will conflict with their faith. Do they need to embrace Buddhism as a religion in order to practice mindfulness and benefit from mindfulness?

Forest Fein:  [No], absolutely not. To acknowledge all the beautiful and powerful practices that come out of Buddhism and also the beautiful and powerful practices that come out of all these different spiritual and religious traditions. And mindfulness, as I teach it, mindfulness is being, I think taught by many, many people. It’s a secular practice, which means that it is something that is available for anybody, anyone and everyone, regardless of your faith, your religious beliefs, and that these are practices that at this point have a fair amount of research behind it. So the efficacy of these practices [is] backed by science. But to even take a step back and to recognize that the practice of being present, that was something human beings were doing long before any of these religions even existed.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Forest Fein:  Now, the practice of breathing and being connected with our bodies and being connected with our hearts and learning how to really be present with the natural world and be present with each other, this is what we’ve been doing throughout human history. And I would say, in some ways, these practices are maybe needed now more than ever, just because of the intensity of modern living. Because so many people are hyper distracted. Technology is really contributing to that. People are kind of this always on lifestyle, where we’re moving from one thing to the next to the next and staying busy and focused on productivity and all these things that contribute to stress, and then to recognize how the stress really contributes to us not being able to be as connected to our bodies and our hearts and each other and how that’s impacting our life. And so, mindfulness to me is just a master skill, a master practice of learning how to come back to and we inhabit ourselves in a fuller way. How do we inhabit our humanity in, and our birthright, really, in a fuller way?

Resources to Help You Start Practicing Mindfulness

Chris Kresser:  Well, this has been an amazing conversation and I imagine some people who maybe haven’t had a chance to try a mindfulness practice yet or start that might be interested in doing that now. What would you suggest as a way of getting started?

Forest Fein:  Yeah. At this point, there’s a lot of great free apps out there. There’s Insight Timer, [which] has thousands and thousands of free guided meditations and access to lots of different teachers. There’s other wonderful apps like [email protected] from Wisdom Labs. There’s Healthy Minds, which is Richie Davidson’s app. He’s one of the leading neuroscientists in the world. And a lot of other great mindfulness apps out there. So that’s, I think, a simple place to start. And I really want to encourage people, [it’s] wonderful to follow along with a guided practice, but to really, if you can join a class, be part of a community. There’s something about working with something that’s not pre-recorded, working with a live teacher and being part of a community of people who are practicing together that I think really deepens and potentiates the practice, and also I know for me, it would be much more challenging for me to maintain consistency in my practice without being part of a meditation group, [in] which I am every week with the teacher. So I just encourage you if you want to start off with an app and get a little taste, wonderful. But think about joining a program, joining a class. If you have to do it virtually, then do that. And when things lift, the COVID[-19] wave passes, whenever that passes, we’re able to start meeting together again in person, I can’t recommend enough coming together in person practicing with a community and a teacher.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I agree. Okay, Forest, thank you, my friend. It’s been a pleasure. And it’s been amazing to have you involved as a faculty member in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, and I know one of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get from the students in that program is how much they have gotten out of the mindfulness track and how life-changing it’s been. So we’re blessed to have you as a faculty member, and thank you for coming and spending the time with me and having this conversation.

Forest Fein:  Oh, such a pleasure, Chris. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Chris Kresser:  Okay, everybody, thanks for listening. Continue to send in your questions at chriskresser.com/podcastquestion and we’ll talk to you next time.