The anger, fear and anxiety is palpable online and off. The decades of systematic racism and ignorance has hit a tipping point that we hope will create substantial change for communities and societies not only in the U.S. but worldwide as well. This is not solely an American problem. But as we navigate these stormy waters, this is a critical time to make sure we are creating mindful spaces in our conscious minds. We often neglect self-care but these are the times when we need it most. Mindful meditation practices such as sleep meditation, guided meditation, calm meditation, deep breathing, gratitude, body scan meditation – whatever works for you, just take some quiet time for yourself. Make sure you make room for loving kindness meditation. Why? Because when your mind is calm, you can make clear and focused decisions not based on reactions to anger, fear or anxiety.
I did this interview with Certified Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness Expert, Michelle Maldonado, pre-Covid but her words are more important now than ever. She walks us through how neurologically we are wired to behave certain ways but how we can change that through mindfulness and meditation. Michelle conducted a 6 part Mindfulness-based workshop on Living and Loving Through Change for Modern Aging that I invite you to watch on our YouTube Channel.
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FOR MORE INFO ON MICHELLE AND HER WORK https://www.lucenscia.com/
Here’s a transcript of the interview for those of you who prefer to read rather than watch.
Risa: “Today we are going to talk about being present and mindful and how that’s all backed up by neuroscience. Before we talk about that, I want you to talk to me about your background and how you even came to the field.”
Michelle: “I love having this conversation because there is so much that we do and there’s so much that we do in the world that requires us or really invites us to be mindful and then, in doing that we can move through the world with a little bit more ease and grace. That is probably the big takeaway from having been introduced to mindfulness as a young child and I remember kind of growing up like any other kid and running around playing in the beach—I lived in a small beach town—or playing in pools, riding bikes, and one day I had the great fortune to be introduced to meditation when I was seven. I remember when I was invited to sit with my great aunt I was thinking that doesn’t mean there aren’t pools to be swum and dirt to be dug and bicycles to ride, but then I remembered she was my favorite aunt, so there had to be something to this so I tried it.”
Risa: “So you sat there with her?”
Michelle: “I sat there with her. I’d climbed up in this chair and the only thing she said to me was ‘quiet here (placing her hands on her head), so you can be here (pointing at her heart).’ That’s all she ever said. She never told me it was called meditation and then, she simply said, ‘when you feel ready, just go ahead and get up and go play even if I’m still sitting here.’ So what I remember about that is that I felt good. I stuck with the practice after I left that summer and continued with it through high school and college and then, in college learned that it was called meditation. Then, I started to learn more about it’s various lineages, but I really grew up in a very secular based mindfulness practice and what I think the gift of that was is that I can speak about it to so many people making it very simple and accessible. As a leader when I moved into my legal work as an attorney or even a business leader and business roles, it really impacted how I showed up. It was the quality and nature of my presence. I remember, one time, one of my bosses asked me, ‘What is it that you do that makes your team so high performing?’ I really didn’t know how to answer the question because I kept trying to tick through my mind about what and then I realized it wasn’t a what. It was a how. I just said to him exactly that. It’s not what. It’s how and here’s how I do it. Here’s how I show up. Here’s how I interact. Here’s the grace.”
Risa: “So it wasn’t like you were teaching your coworkers how to meditate, but it was why you meditate and why you being mindful that transmitted to them to act in the same similar way.”
Michelle: “Yeah. Exactly because we have to start with ourselves first and that’s part of the un american way like we all want to jump into being an expert and we all want to jump into fill-in-the-blank and teach other people it, but we have to do it ourselves. We not only have to know it mentally, but we have to integrate and embody it so that we’re modeling it. Then, it becomes the default operating system and then other people notice that and they’re like, ‘what what? What is that? What are you doing?’
Risa: “So, what are you doing?”
Michelle: “Yeah mindfulness depending on who you ask can have a number of different definitions but I’d like to use a very general definition that really kind of leverages and pulls from the mindful UK. My inflammation became a UK report that says really loosely that we’re sort of being fully present in the moment to the mind body and surroundings with a level of curiosity and kindness. So we’re not bringing judgement to whatever is happening in the moment and we’re not thinking about the past and we’re not thinking about the future. We’re giving the gift of our full presence. Right here. Right now.
Risa: “I think that’s probably really hard for a lot of people.
Michelle: “Yes. Think about it. You don’t even have to be in the United States right now. You could be anywhere in the world, but even if you just look at the example of what’s happening in the United States across economic lines, racial lines, cultural lines, political lines, there is so much that is dynamic, uncertain, ambiguous, complex, and it’s confusing and it’s scary. So, there’s a lot of fear that kind of rises in any society or any community where there’s so much ambiguity. How do we help ourselves navigate that? How do we help ourselves stay grounded and clear and not into places of judgement and certainty versus staying in discernment and curiosity or wisdom? A lot of that will be leveraging the power and the practices of mindfulness meditation. So, when I just talked about mindfulness a second ago, I didn’t say anything about meditation right? I just said being fully present essentially and of the entire ecosystem that starts with you. Meditation— mindfulness meditation—then, is kind of a mental training practice that helps us to sharpen our focus which then also helps sharpen our clarity. When we can see more clearly, then we have power and choiceful responses. When we can’t see clearly and we’re lost, we tend to react. When we react it’s more like our emotions are taking control of us rather than us choosing how we wish to respond. Responding doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge and process and embrace the emotions. It’s just that we don’t let it be the controlling factor.
Risa: “So there’s actually science to back this up? This is not just your opinion?”
Michelle: “Yes, there’s quite a bit. So in the field of neurosciences it’s just been an explosion of research that’s happened over the last couple of decades, but here’s the thing. I always like to offer a note of humility if you will around the science because if you think about the history of medicine being a mile long. That’s the history of it. There’s all this rich information that we have in it. If you look at neuroscience, it’s probably a couple of inches of that mile. It’s only been around for maybe two or so decades where we really started to pay closer attention to what’s happening in the brain in this particular kind of way. The other thing is that a lot of the early research really wasn’t very rigorous. A lot of self reporting and surveys and self assessments that later morphed into more diagnostic and more rigorous control groups using first MRIs and then, functional MRIs. The difference is that the functional MRI is actually like looking at a movie— a live movie— where you see blood activating in different parts of the brain versus a standard MRI was just taking a snapshot in time. We can see through fMRI and we have control groups. You can get a better sense of what’s happening in the moment and whether things are directly related or not. So, when we look at some neuroscience, one thing we do know for sure whether it’s related or not to meditation is that what you think, do, pay attention to repeatedly over time changes the structure of and function of your brain. I always tell people that’s the great news, but not-so-great news that what we think, do and pay attention to overtimes changes the structure and function of the brain. The brain doesn’t care if it’s something that supports you and helps flourish or it’s something that sabotages you. It just creates new grooves, Surt highways and you’ll create a pattern so then that becomes your default way of thinking—of being. It’s the way your brain will literally function. So, I always ask people why not be intentional about what you’re putting into your brain. What’s that inner critic and inner narrative? Can you reframe that? Can you change that? The answer is yes because the more you do something repeatedly, the more you create different circuitry and neural pathways. The easy way to sum that up is to say that neurons that fire together, wire together.
Risa: “Oh, I like that.”
Michelle: “So why not choose where you’re placing your attention and be intentional about it.”
Risa: “That sounds amazing and I totally get it, but I think for most people it’s like, ‘how do I do that? I am 50 or 60 years old. I’ve been thinking this way for a long time. I am set in my ways,’ but I think even at that age you can change the pathways.”
Michelle: “yes, absolutely.
Risa: “How do you recommend people start? Is there some sort of method?”
Michelle: “Well, I’d like to say that life is full and there’s always an integrated way to do things. I’m not a fan of saying well here’s the one. A number of ways can serve you and part of our jobs is to figure out which one we’ll stick with because if we won’t stick with it, it doesn’t matter how good it is right? So, when I think about where would I start in and sometimes people have a harder time seeing it in themselves and in a lot of times, I’ll teach a program and they’ll go, ‘oh you know my boss really needs to be here or my husband or my wife needs to be here,’ and nobody’s really thinking about themselves. We all play a role in the play of our lives. If we remember that how we show up matters, that informs the quality and nature of our presence. If we start first and bring a practice of mindfulness. Before we even talk about meditation, let’s just be intentional about being mindful. Do you notice that you tend to be on autopilot? Do you ride the train and it’s your stop and you don’t remember passing by the first or the last three stops or if you’re driving, ‘Oh, I’m home already. I forgot I have to go to the store to get some milk.’ Are you on autopilot? Can you bring notice that the part of being mindful is noticing when you’re not and so then, redirecting. In order to help you do that and cultivate that muscle, that’s where mindfulness meditation can come. Mindfulness meditation can help you learn to focus your attention. There are really two types that I often teach about and that is focused attention where maybe you’re focusing on your breath or sound or visual and anytime that you notice that there’s a distraction and that distraction can be anything. A lot of people think distractions are ‘somebody said something’ or ‘I heard a noise.’ Well, a distraction could be a thought or lots of thoughts or my favorite: itch. Whenever you are trying to be quiet or still there’s that you know all of a sudden your cheek itches. So, a distraction could be anything. In mindfulness meditation, when you are doing focused attention, you just want to simply again bring that kindness and curiosity when you notice that distraction and see if you can just notice it and let it go. That’s the hard part because it’s in that noticing where a couple of things tend to happen as humans. One, ‘This doesn’t work. Gosh, this doesn’t work. I keep having thoughts,’ and then we notice ‘this is really hard. I don’t know how to—you know that that thing that happened. That was really awful. That made me angry.’ So we do a couple of things. We say, ‘This doesn’t work.” The other thing is we sit and we quickly go into judgement and we get lost in a story around it and before we know it —we’re not meditating anymore. We’re ruminating. So, that’s where noticing comes in. If we see that we’re doing that, it’s okay. No judgement. Just bring your attention back to your point of focus. I don’t always say that the point of focus has to be the breath. In different lineages and practices, it is the breath. The reason I am a little broader and I like to refer to it as home base is because when you are working on body awareness, sometimes there is trauma that sits in our bodies. It sits in our cells in the form of in and in memories. When you really start to reconnect to your body sometimes it’s hard to do the breath first because it can retraumatize. It can bring up things that you are not ready for or don’t have the supports in place to process. Sometimes we have people who come back from war-torn areas who might have experienced some things in first responder communities, so I often encourage finding a home base that feels safe for you and maybe that is your knee or your big toe or maybe that’s the sound of the air conditioning or maybe it’s the spot on that wood grain wood floor. Come back to your home base everytime you notice that you notice that you have been distracted. Take a breath and come back to your home base. Allow your breathing to settle into its own natural and cadence, so you’re not trying to control it. Then, it’s a cycle. Focus on your home base. You breathe. You notice a distraction. You try to meet it with kindness and curiosity and then, you gently and kindly reorient your attention back to your home base: your breath. It happens sometimes if you’re doing it for a minute. Sometimes it happens fifty times in a minute, but that actually is the practice. The fact that you’re noticing it. Whenever you notice it—at whatever point you notice it—it’s working. With practice, it becomes easier to do and the disruptions or the distractions seem to be less frequent. The caveat though is that people think, ‘Oh I did it. Wow this is amazing.’ They have won the experience and then two weeks later something blows up in their lives and they go to meditate and they have all this— all these thoughts; this monkey brain. They think, ‘this doesn’t work. It was working before, but it doesn’t work now.’ The one thing I like to remind people is that everything happens in context. You may have an amazing, incredible experience doing a meditative sit one day when everything is just beautiful. You’re flowing on all four cylinders. The sun is shining. The birds are Singing and your meditation was just like angels were singing and then the next time you might have some crisis going on in your life and that experience is different. It’s all okay. We can’t strive for perfection. What we’re striving for is simply non-striving and being human and acknowledging in those moments of mindfulness our common humanity, our own vulnerabilities, but also our own power that resides within us naturally. That’s what we end up tapping into and it allows us to move through the world more skillfully with clarity and compassion most importantly.”
Risa: “That’s amazing. Is there a recommended length of time for people to sit quietly with themselves whether it’s meditation or…?”
Michelle: I get that question all the time. Here’s what I would say more is always great but if you don’t have time and all you have time is to take three deep intentional breaths. Take three breaths and that is just as good. If you can do five minutes, do five minutes. If you can do thirty minutes or an hour. Do thirty minutes or an hour, but if you set up a framework where you say I don’t have twenty minutes or I don’t have an hour, so I’m not going to do it today, then we end up not doing it. Especially, when you are first starting, it can be very daunting to think I’m gonna go sit for ten minutes let alone thirty or an hour. So, I ask and I invite people to start where they are and maybe that’s just when you get up out of bed. You put your feet on the floor and you feel your feet—the sensation of your feet on the floor and that’s bringing mindfulness to your movement. Then, maybe you decide, after I brush my teeth or take my shower, I’m going to sit by the window for two minutes and then eventually you say, ‘Well that was two minutes? That was quick. I can do another minute and you start increasing it. The goal is to live an integrated life, so what I just described about sitting in a chair and putting some time aside is called a dedicated practice, but there are many many kinds of integrated practices that you weave in throughout the day. For example, if you are in a meeting that is maybe a little contentious or a little tough, you might choose in that moment to pull an integrated practice to help ground yourself to stay clear to stay a kind of presence in the room that is helpful and impactful for yourself and others. So, you may decide to take three deep breaths. The beautiful thing about these integrated practices is you can do them in stealth mode. People don’t even know you’re doing it. You got to breath, so nobody’s gonna know but what you’re doing is attaching an intention to each of the breaths. You might say ‘Okay the first breath. Let me just relax or bring my attention to my breath’ Second breath: notice my body. Where am I tense? Am I holding stuff in my shoulders? The body awareness piece is critically important and I can tell you about that in a second. The third breath: you may be asking yourself what’s important now. ‘What can I do in this moment to help right this ship? What can I say or not say because sometimes mindfulness and compassion is actually not saying anything? That’s still an action. It’s still a choice.
Risa: “It’s also really hard sometimes, especially if you’re from New York.”
Michelle: “Or if you’re from my family. It is, yes. We all have our personalities. We all have our styles, but if you’re constantly asking yourself what would serve the highest good in this moment, we teach ourselves to get out of the frame of reference that it’s all about me. It helps us move closer and closer to compassionate behavior towards ourselves and others and to recognizing our common humanity. We can see across the table that somebody may be behaving badly, but you also recognize there’s some wounding. There’s some hurt underneath that surface. It doesn’t mean that you excuse or allow the behavior, but you can approach it differently because many times we take things personally when people do things. We look at the impact versus the intention and sometimes the intention doesn’t match the impact that’s given. So, looking at ways to bring integrated practices throughout the day, so that can live an integrated life. The dedicated practices I think are what fuels your ability to do the integrated practices. The dedicated practices are important and you can figure out whatever time. I happen to like—I would love it if I have a moment to do an hour sit. I would love it. I used to. When I was less busy, I could do an hour. I would do a very quick sit in the morning and then, every afternoon when my son was younger. When he took his nap, I meditated the whole time. I’d get a good hour in and then, I would do another quick one before I went to bed. That is not my life right now. So mine are more bursts. I do maybe twenty minutes here and twenty minutes there or maybe sometimes I only have time for one breath, not even three.”
Risa: “But it’s a consistency.
Risa: “So you were also talking about body awareness and this is something that someone just shared with me recently. I feel like we don’t even realize how disconnected we are from our bodies.”
Michelle: “yes, yes. I’ll tell you a quick story. When I took a retreat in 2013 I think and the facilitator was talking about body awareness and a lot of people walk around with their shoulder all up here and they don’t even know it. We took a break and I stood up. I’m like how do they not know it and I realized I am walking around with really stressed and tense shoulders. It began to really peak my curiosity about what is this whole thing about body awareness and how is it impacting how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, what I’m doing and how I’m showing up and interacting with others. Overtime, I began to learn a little bit of the research around it which is really quite fascinating and it’s morphing as we learn more. Initially, there was some research that looked at different types of emotions and where people feel them. There was one study that was done in Finland and in 2013 has done some follow-on things since then. They were cross-cultural, cross-generational, and cross-gender in Europe and Asia. They gave silhouettes of the human body on a piece of paper and next to those silhouettes were either a video or a word or a picture that suggested a particular emotion. They were asking people, ‘Where do you feel this emotion in your body? If you feel an increase in sensation, color it on this silhouette. If you feel a decrease color it in, in this one. If you feel nothing at all, don’t color it in at all. Then, eventually what they did was they took all of those responses, superimposed each person’s two silhouettes and came up with a composite—kind of what I call a heat map of the body. That was very telling for us because what it suggested for one of the first times in a very clear way is that we all tend to hold the same types of emotions in the same general areas of our bodies. What that study doesn’t do and what newer research is showing us is that not everybody identifies the same experience as the same emotion. So, you may look at a face and it may look like angry to me, but it looks like frustration to you or it looks like confusion to you. And so, there is some growing knowledge. What’s really important is just to understand your own body map. Whatever the label is for you, take a moment to figure out where it sits in your body. One good way to do that is to think about— I like to conjure three good emotions right? Take a moment and sit and bring to mind something that is somebody you love. Somebody that you would move heaven and earth for— that you want them to be happy and you want the best for them. You kind of sit there for a good few minutes just feeling them and then, pause and figure out what sensations are showing up in your body. Some people describe that their chest feels like it’s blooming open like a flower or their feeling warmth. It can be anything. Make a note of that. I say make a mental map in your head. ‘Okay, I feel it in my chest when I’m feeling love.’ Now, take the same experience of the same exercise and use it with fear and anger and see where those show up in your body and boom. You’ve got your body map. During the day when you are doing integrated practice moments, one of them might be ‘let me check in with my body. How’s my shoulder because I know I hold stress in my shoulders? How is my stomach? I noticed, when I’m anxious, I feel stuff there.’ So you know with your own body map, where to check in and that gives information. The reason that’s important is because the one thing we do know is that emotions show up physiologically in the body and they connect to the thoughts. However we label sensations in the body forms that thought and then, that is like a domino effect about if there’s a story related to it, if there’s past trauma related to it, if there’s fear related to it, and then that allows us with that information to choose how we respond. Often times that’s when the inner critic starts to work — needs to be done — because we sometimes have to reframe a new truth around it. It’s not that the act itself didn’t happen, but we are reclaiming our power around it and how we wish for it to interact with us going forward. So, I always say the lesson can stay, so pull the wisdom forward, but heal the emotional part of it.”
Risa: “Wow. So, let’s say you know something happening and you feel anxiousness in your stomach. So, once you can identify that then, you can try to create language that will shift… Is it the type of thing that you’re like, ‘I no longer feel anxious about this. I can feel calmness or I think I feel… Turbulence is a big thing for me.”
Michelle: “Turbulence- that’s a good word. I think a lot of us feel that. The first point I want to make is that it’s not about denying whatever is showing up. It’s not about saying, ‘Nope we’re not nervous.’ It’s okay because it might not be okay. It’s acknowledging what it is and telling yourself, ‘you are okay. Okay, that is what’s here. This is what’s present.’ You may need to use some meditation or practice to help calm the sensations so you do have the emotional mental capacity to process it in healthy way because none of it is about suppressing, denying, or avoiding. It’s about allowing with some sense of equanimity whatever is present to exist and to meet it from a place that’s healthy. Oftentimes, when that happens we do find that we might need help outside of ourselves, so we may need to go talk to somebody. Whether that somebody is formal or informal, a friend, a therapist, or what-have-you, but part of the processing of it, after we notice it is, ‘what do I need to do for my body to help it relax a little bit more so that it’s not so palpable?’ The other thing is sometimes it’s there to help us all. I’ll give another example. When I first started doing keynotes, I was terrified at public speaking even though I was a lawyer. I could do that, but there was just something about talking in front of a room full of people and being the only one up there. What I realized after looking at some research and seeing a magnificent video of research by Kelly McGonigal on how to refrain stress—what I realized is that if I told myself two things about how my body was feeling— I was feeling lots of stuff in my stomach. My chest was constricting. I was perspiring and my heart was beating fast and I was telling myself, ‘I’m so nervous. I don’t know how I’m gonna do this. I’m so nervous. I’m so nervous.’ I was drilling it, right? So, two things happened after I did the research and saw kelly McGonigle’s video. I realized I could interpret what I was feeling differently as something positive. What I said to myself was ‘I am nervous because I’m about to do something really important that means a lot to me and my body is simply summoning the energy that’s needed for what I’m about to do next, number one.’ Number two, because I am not interested in being the sage on the stage or the expert of the room—what I really enjoy is conversation and discovery, so I told myself I’m not going out there to lecture anybody. I’m going out there to have a conversation. Those two things: telling myself that my body was just simply summoning the energy for what I was to do next and that was important so thank you body. Yeah I’m nervous and that’s okay. The second was because I’m going out to have a really important conversation and that began to shift how I showed up and how my body started to feel. I still feel nervous, but now I kind of celebrated it.
Risa: “That is awesome. So, what would you love for people to take away?”
Michelle: “I would love for us all to not be so fearful and anxious about everything because there’s a lot out there that we could say, ‘Well this a crisis. This is why I’m anxious and yes they’re all real and in fact, many of the things that we’re watching and witnessing today are very scary. This isn’t about not acknowledging that. This is about acknowledging that this is about, ‘how do we ground ourselves so we can show the best version of ourselves to meet that complexity that is here in the world?’ The crisis that we make. The crisis of trust. The crisis of fill-in-the-blank. This work is about us choosing to show up and stand up differently for ourselves and others in the world and when we can do that—that creates a ripple effect that is so incredibly powerful and transformative for everyone that’s in our wake.