Did you happen to catch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk that’s been making the rounds on Facebook recently? I loved it. In her talk, Monica asks who among us hasn’t done something regretful at the age of 22? She calls for us all to have greater empathy and compassion for people whose missteps or out-of-context statements become fodder for viral videos and internet memes. She says this with the authority of someone who was humiliated nearly to the point of suicide. I couldn’t agree more on this call to create a more compassionate culture.

While I have not (yet) been publicly shamed on a global scale, I do know what it’s like to face relentless criticism at every turn, to be torn down and bullied 24/7, as I used to do this to myself. You may not know this about me, as it’s not exactly a point of pride, but I (used to) have a raging inner critic. I have been trying to get her off my back for years, and slowly but surely, it’s working. She used to be really loud and obnoxious, tearing me down even in front of other people. (Now she speaks in whispers.)

One night a few years ago still stands out in my memory: I was doing my best to make two dinners at the same time: one bland for the kids, one with actual flavors for my husband and me. Food bubbled on all four burners of the stove while veggies sizzled in the oven. The timer for the roasting veggies beeped just as a pot threatened to boil over, so I quickly quieted the timer, turned the heat down on the stove and gave the pot a stir. Then somebody asked a question, which I answered while adding the cilantro and lime juice to the curry. The veggies in the oven, completely forgotten, charred beyond the point of edible.

“Seriously???” I demanded of myself, loudly. “I can’t believe I let this happen. I even set a timer. How hard is it to take something out of the oven?”

Sensing my distress, my step-son Jack sprang up, threw his arms around me and reassured me, “It’s OK, Brodie. You’re still an amazingly awesome person!”

At that moment it sunk in: now that I’m a parent, I need to do something about this inner critic bullshit, because I now have witnesses. I definitely don’t want my new 9-year-old feeling like he needs to take care of his step-mom.

The irony is that compassion is one of my super-powers. Empathy for others is incredibly natural for me, and I would never dream of inflicting such a harsh tone or shaming questions on anyone else. Clearly, I had (and sometimes still have) a different set of standards for myself than I do for anyone else on the planet.

I have been doing this work on self-compassion for years. The work has taken many forms: breathing, meditation practices, self-compassion rituals, heart-opening qi gong, applying essential oils to acupoints, in addition to acupuncture and herbs. And I have made remarkable progress. My inner critic is no longer the loudest voice in my head.

In moments of shame when I am tempted to self-flagellate, I am able to meet myself with compassion. I know that perfection is not the metric. I can see when I’m putting WAY too much pressure on myself, and scale it back. I can even laugh about it. And I am a way better parent now that I can role model self-compassion.

After many years of walking this path myself, I’m ready to share with you the practices that have helped me in my journey. This summer at Breitenbush Hot Springs, we’ll cultivate the qi of self-compassion. We’ll also practice being super sweet to ourselves, laugh, get curious, and explore a whole toolbox of strategies.

What do I mean by self-compassion? Self-compassion isn’t merely the absence of an inner critic; it’s embracing who you are. It involves knowing yourself, respecting yourself, recognizing your humanity, and getting the ego out of the way. It’s also about self-care, knowing and respecting your energy and its limits, and knowing what you need to do to show up as the best version of yourself. Getting good at self-compassion is the opposite of self-indulgent; it helps everyone around you.

Join me for a self-compassion retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, August 23rd – 26th.


I’ve always been a planner. When I was about 9 or 10, my sister Casey and sister-equivalent Nicole would plot out weekend days together, diligently recording our mutually negotiated schedule onto notebook paper thusly: From 10-11, we’ll draw pictures. From 11-12: play kickball. 12:00-1:30 we’ll play Hearts, followed by a quick round of Boggle. And at 1:30 we’ll be spontaneous and do whatever we feel like in the moment. (That’s right, we wrote “be spontaneous” on our weekend agendas as fifth graders. Imagine our wild popularity.)

I still value efficiency, and love to get things done. But I also love sucking the marrow out of life, and this is the part that too often gets crowded out by the things I have to do — or think I have to do.

A couple of weeks ago, myJumping for joy on the beach husband Jeremy and I went to Hawaii with a couple of dear friends. We jumped off a cliff into the ocean, got pummeled by waves, heard whales singing under our feet, and played on the beach at sunset.

But joy doesn’t have to look like it does in this photo: boisterous, exuberant, outward, very yang. It’s not necessarily exciting. In everyday life, the quieter, more yin version of joy often looks more like this:

Content catContentment. Peaceful. Luxuriating. Savoring. In Chinese Medicine, cultivating this relaxed, peaceful version of joy allows energy to flow freely. This free flow of qi is fundamental for the health of every system in the body. In the Yoga Sutras, contentment (santosha) is number 2 on the ethical code of conduct list (the niyamas): something to be practiced daily right after keeping yourself clean. Both of these traditions see contentment as an essential piece of health, well-being, and spiritual growth. It’s not something that necessarily just happens; it’s cultivated.

We cultivate contentment when we accept whatever is going on right now, and then take it a step further: not only grudgingly accept, but find something to deeply appreciate and embrace about what’s going on right now, even if external circumstances aren’t what you’d like them to be. It can be a tall order.

So your work schedule is laid out on your calendar. You know when you plan to hit the gym, and when your acupuncture appointment is. You make time to prepare healthy meals. Maybe you even carve out time for a daily practice of yoga, meditation, or qi gong.

But what about joy and contentment? Do you make time to savor a juicy stretch? To let a moment of eye contact with your partner open your heart? To taste a sip of tea? To soften judgement around whatever you think you need to be doing better? To accept yourself and What Is exactly as it is right now? Or is contentment the most important thing you’re leaving out of your healthy routine?

If you can take a few minutes and sink into letting everything be okay just as it is, it might even free up your schedule; it can make everything you think you “need to do” seem a little less urgent. This is way more important than drinking a green smoothie.

In addition to practicing contentment in the little moments throughout my day, I like to make sure my calendar has something on it that helps me tap into joy/contentment — as well as some time on Friday from 7-9 to “be spontaneous.” :)

Handstand on the beach


 (Handstands are part of my practice of joy.)

Meditating on a rockWhat do you want to do differently in 2015? Lose weight? Exercise more? Learn to meditate? Write your novel? Resolving to change a behavior requires overcoming the inertia of habit. And even with determination and motivation, the Force of Will is pathetically weak compared to the Force of Habit. Here are 8 ways to leverage your willpower and turn your resolutions into lasting lifestyle changes.


1) Commit to the journey, not the destination

Rather than focusing on an outcome that may or may not be within your control, focus on the path you’ll take to get there. Replace “I want to lose 10 pounds by March 1st” with “I will do five 30-minute workouts a week, cut out white flour, and eat only at mealtimes.” Commit to specific behaviors and put them on your calendar so you know how they fit into your day.


2) Make it small — then scale up

When you set a goal and meet it, you’re proving to yourself that you’re capable of change. That’s motivating! So start with something you know you can do, such as one minute on the treadmill, one minute of conscious breathing, or rolling out your yoga mat. When that seems easy, add another simple step, then another.


3) Do it in the morning

Stress is like kryptonite for good intentions. After a long, hard day, it’s going to be much harder to stick to your plan of working out, painting, writing, meditating, or whatever. Unless your life is utterly serene, you may want to schedule your new thing for early in the day before the stress has a chance to deplete your willpower.


4) Prepare to succeed 

Make it as easy as possible to stick to your goal. Pack your gym bag or lay out your workout clothes the night before. Have the veggies in the fridge and chopped ahead of time so they’re the easy option at the end of a long day at work, when you’re tempted to eat whatever is there. Take time on the weekend to stock your fridge with fresh vegetables or make a big pot of soup for the week ahead.


5) Put it on autopilot

Willpower is puny compared to the force of habit. Hooking your new habit onto something you’re already doing can help transform a new behavior into a routine. Consider what routines are already happening automatically, such as brushing your teeth, eating, making tea, getting up to use the bathroom.  Any of these can serve as cues for things like doing five push-ups; taking 10 deep, mindful breaths; or practicing gratitude. Leveraging your brain’s strategy of taking small routines and turning them into bigger ones can help you fast-track a new habit onto autopilot.


6) Understand your triggers

If you’re trying to break a bad habit, like smoking or consuming too much sugar or alcohol, understanding what’s motivating the behavior will get you farther than simply trying to stop. When you feel tempted to engage in the bad habit, practice pausing and getting curious about what’s happening. When you’re tempted to overeat, are you really needing rest? Or support? Or empathy? Close your eyes and turn your awareness inward. Notice your breath, whatever sensations are happening in your body, your emotions, and what’s going on in your mind. When you’ve identified what’s triggering the habit, substitute a healthier behavior that will give you a similar payoff. Watching your breath for ten cycles can be an excellent way of relaxing your nervous system and enabling you to substitute a more satisfying behavior.


7) Hold yourself accountable

Tell your friends, partner, and colleagues about your goal. Tweet it, take photos of yourself doing it, and post them to Facebook and Instagram. Or if that’s not for you, identify who can hold you accountable (it could be a friend, a coach, or health care provider). Email this person once a week and tell them of your progress. Having even one person who believes in what you’re doing improves your odds of success.


8) Meet slip-ups with curiosity and self-compassion

Nobody’s perfect. When you miss the mark, give yourself compassion for being human. Talk to yourself as you would console a friend who was trying to do something hard.  Self-compassion will actually get you back on track faster than guilt and shame, and it feels way better. Next, get curious as to what derailed you, so you can plan to avoid it next time. Then double down on your goal.


I’ll be cheering you on.



The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg, (Random House Publishing, USA, 2012).

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., (Avery, New York, 2012).


Self-Compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristen Neff, Ph.D., (William Morrow, USA, 2011).


Running on empty(True story, but significant details have been altered to protect confidentiality.)

Last week I treated a woman who was exhibiting an all-too-common combo of stress and tiredness. And she was wondering “Am I doing enough?” Let’s see: full -time job? Check. Full-time husband? Check. Elderly parents and in-laws in need of care? Double check. Volunteer responsibilities? Checkety check. What got her questioning whether or not she’s doing enough was a phone call from her son, who wanted to know if she could help take care of the kids for the weekend. She said no, but was troubled by the thought of not doing enough to help. “I’d love to help,” she said, as the tears welled up, “but I’m just so exhausted. And I just feel so guilty for not doing more. ”

I could relate. It’s tough to feel like there’s not enough of you to go around – and easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong in saying no to someone you love.

I asked her if she had been getting enough sleep. Only on the weekends. Is she exercising 3-5 times a week like she’d like to? Not really. More like once or twice. Is she cooking healthy meals for herself regularly – a key part of our treatment strategy? Not so much. Is she making time for her spiritual practice? Yes, but she feels like she’s phoning it in. How about relaxing or connecting with friends? Ha.

So the absolute basic things she needs to be doing for her are barely happening. Should she be doing more? I’m going to go with “no.” How about slathering a thick layer guilt on top of that? No, and no.

Am I suggesting that everyone needs to get 100% of our own needs met 100% of the time before we can help other people? Of course not (otherwise no kid would ever make it to adulthood!). Part of love is service. It feels good to help out, and what that does for your spirit can often make up for deficiency of physical energy. But (for me, at least) those delicious feelings dry up under the harshness of overextending out of obligation. Then it’s not only unsustainable, it’s also likely to backfire, as the cry of unmet needs get externalized as resentment.

I would love to cure ebola. I would love to give away a billion dollars to help get this disease under control. But much as I’d love to write a check for a billion, I simply don’t have it to give away. I do have $50, which I can and will donate to the cause. It’s sustainable, in a way that taking out a payday loan in order to do my part in the global effort would not be.

Here’s the paradox: when we dedicate time to taking care of ourselves, we have more energy reserves to give to others. I know I’m a better practitioner (and friend, and wife, step-mom, course creator, and whatever else I am) when I’ve had enough sleep, when I’ve meditated and when I am moving from a place of presence than when I’m running myself into the ground.

I know this, yet I still feel guilty when I’m taking care of myself, if I know it will disappoint someone else (including my Work Self – she’s demanding!). There are two gauges to check. First, the fuel gauge: how’s my energy? Am I tired? The second is my intention. A quick check question I use is “what is my motivation?” If the answer involves a “should” or “ought to,” I let the answer be no: otherwise it’s a social expectation overriding inner wisdom. So how do you know whether you’re doing enough? If you’ve got a good amount of fuel (energy), and if you can say yes with love in your heart, go ahead and take the detour to help someone out. But if you barely have enough gas to make it to your destination, it’s probably not wise to take the detour. No one is served when you sputter to a halt.


Photo by ReubenGBrewer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Woman with tea looking awayEvery fall I wonder if I’m depressed. I have suffered from depression off and on throughout my life, and know all too well what it feels like. Here’s what happens: I don’t want to go anywhere. Time alone seems far more precious than connecting with friends. I want to sleep more. Sometimes I feel sad for no particular reason. Sitting on the couch with a steaming mug of tea and a cat feels better than going for a hike. I want every meal to involve sweet potatoes. Knowing the signs, I inquire within: should I be worried?

Then I remember that it’s totally natural to feel this way. In Chinese Medicine, our bodies and minds are connected to the cycles of nature. Autumn is the transition season from the yang of summer to the yin of winter. To clarify the terms: Yang means active, hot, moving, and external: in the summer, it’s hot, the days are long and many of us are busy, active, and non-stop social. Then the season shifts to autumn, and the world gets colder and darker, bringing with it a natural shift towards yin: a drawing inward, wanting rest and stillness. And chai. And the aforementioned sweet potatoes.

If you don’t follow the cycles of the seasons, you set yourself up for disease. So here are 5 tips for fall.

  • Let yourself rest more than you think you “should.” You might well need more rest to fight off the colds and flus which start flying around this time of year. Greet your need for rest with compassion rather than judgment.
  • Switch up your diet to include more cooked vegetables, soups, stews, proteiny grains like quinoa and millet, and meat if you’re so inclined. This time of year we want to build the body’s yin: that which moistens and nourishes to prevent things like dry skin, dry lips and throat, dry cough, dry stools, — pretty obvious forms of dryness, but also those less obvious — muscle and joint stiffness, insomnia, hot flashes, the ability to feel calm. Protein tends to be warming and helps to build the body and fortify it for winter. Root vegetables like winter squashes and sweet potatoes can be especially helpful for nourishing yin, feeling grounded, and ready for winter. Use gentle warming, pungent spices like fresh ginger, cardamom, leeks, and garlic to take the chill off. Eat fewer salads and more sautéed veggies: white mushrooms, bok choy , cabbage, radishes, leeks and cauliflower, are especially appropriate. Apples and pears (and dairy products if you’re good at digesting them) can help moisten the Lungs. You’ll notice many of these fruits and veggies are white, the color that corresponds with the organs of the Lungs and Large Intestine.
  • Don’t freak out if you’re feeling melancholy – the dying of the harvest, the waning of the vibrant fullness of summer involves a sense of loss, an emotional pulling downward and inward, which can feel like sadness. Feel it and let it flow through you. It’ll pass. And if it doesn’t, consider if there’s anything you haven’t let yourself grieve. If there is, allow it to flow through you so it can go on its way. Unresolved grief can inhibit the immune system – it pulls the lung qi inward, and we need the lung qi to power the protective qi on the surface of the body to keep pathogens at bay.
  • Get exercise. Those days when I just find myself tearful, exercise never fails to shift me out of it.
  • Do some qi gong for the Lungs. Stand with your feet aQigong for lungs comfortable shoulder distance apart. Inhale, and float your arms up and out to the sides, shoulder height. Exhale and bring them forward, crossing your arms in front of your chest. Inhale and expand the chest, opening the arms to either side as in the picture below as though you’re shooting a bow and arrow: left hand extends the index finger and thumb to lengthen the Lung and Large Intestine meridians, right hand makes a fist at shoulder height. Hold the breath. Then exhale and bring your arms in front of your chest. Repeat three times per side. This exercise can help with immunity, any breathing issues, and letting go of grief.

I was inspired to write this post because a lot of folks I’ve been seeing in clinic are judging the heck out of themselves for wanting to slow down, or for suddenly finding themselves grieving over the loss of loved one. Not only are you not alone, it’s perfectly natural. Not only is it natural, it is wise.

On the last night of the qigong retreat, (see previous post for more on this) there was a small ceremony honoring the students who had just completed their sixth year of study, including thousands of teaching and practice hours.  Master Liu He presented each student with a scroll, and said that on each one was a secret Taoist word that the student could use to make him/herself into a powerful qigong master.  The first student opened his scroll, but had trouble locating the word.  He turned it upside down, and then turned it over looking for the secret word. Then he smiled, realizing that there was nothing written on the paper.  Master Liu’s point was simple: there is nothing anyone can tell you that will make you a master.  There are no secret teachings which will transform you into a realized person, or whatever you aspire to be.  There is only the dedicated practice of cultivation.

In Chinese Medicine, this internal battle between the thinking mind, the yi, which is associated with the Spleen, and the zhi, the force of will, which is the soul of the Kidney.  I meditate and practice qigong daily, but despite these practices, I have a very active yi: I often believe my mind telling me that it has all the answers. And I don’t always have 50 other people around who are practicing to keep me motivated.  The thing about qigong  or meditation or probably any spiritual practice, is that as you do it, you give it the power to change you. By simply committing yourself to practicing, you put the force of your will into it.  And it’s that “will power” that makes it easier to continue practicing.  You just have to do it.

So if practice begets practice by strengthening the will, how do you get this virtuous circle going?  Some things that I have found support me in continuing to practice are:

  • Community.  Having people around to practice with definitely makes it easier.  It also adds an element of accountability.
  • Routine. If you have a time every day to practice, it makes the mind’s argument that there isn’t time, or that there are more important thigns to do, less compelling. And when something becomes routine, it’s just part of life. Most of us probably don’t have internal dialogues about whether or not we have time to take a shower — we just do it.
  • Flexibility.  Even if I don’t have 30+ minutes to practice, I do something. Maybe five minutes is not ideal, but it’s certainly better than zero.  It still serves to cultivate the will and reinforces the routine.

What helps you stay on track with your practice? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I spent five days last week on a qi gong retreat with Masters Liu Dong and Liu He.  As preparation for learning a new form, we practiced a walking meditation and a standing posture in an attempt to get grounded. The walk was very simple, but stylized walk, where every step is put down carefully, deliberately, and yet with a solid connection to the earth.  As I attempted the walking meditation, I could feel my mind wandering. Actually, “wandering” is putting it mildly.  The first day, my mind was racing, top-speed, considering the loose ends of my impending move and potential week or two of homelessness. “Just walk!” I told myself, in an attempt to call my mind back.  I heard my mind’s insistence that this transitional time means that I’m fully entitled to worry, to spend this time going through the motions of walking, instead of feeling my feet connecting with the earth.

“Feel your feet connect with the earth”  another inner voice encouraged. I tried again.   And again.  It’s astounding how many thoughts can arise in the time it takes to pick one foot off the ground, touch it to the standing leg, and connect it to the ground again. “Walk on the Earth.  Just walk – -nothing else.”  It took two days of practicing qi gong upwards of six hours a day, but finally, I felt the thoughts downshift from fifth gear to maybe second.  That’s the magic of qigong: moving the body with breath and intention changes the mind.  I could actually pay attention to walking, and moving the qi, more than anything else.  I got out of my head and into my body, out of the thousand possible futures and into the present.  (At least for a little while!)