Tag Archives: meditation

Hope is a decision

To many, Buddhism seems esoteric, a hard to grasp concept of inner life. The practice of non-attachment to things and people (elimination of desire), understanding and connecting with universal pain (dukkha), and compassion for self and others as flawed beings, often seems antithetical to what we were initially taught.

We can’t eliminate desire. Some of the things we crave are needed for our survival, such as food, water, safety, and sex. And other things we crave are often motivation for us to do and be better. Buddhism doesn’t actually condemn desire itself and doesn’t ask us to eliminate it.

The true Buddhist meaning of desire is to want something that is absent. But even when we get what we desire, we can become greedy and crave something more, something gone, or something ‘better’. We can always exist in a state of wanting. This is the opposite of mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to what is right in front of us and acknowledging it is impermanent. We can miss the loved ones we lost, the companions who are gone, our beloved family animals, our health or youth; but the missing can take over the moment.

Although Buddhism is primarily known as a spiritual tradition, it is also a lifestyle that encompasses the mind in almost all forms of practice. It is very commensurate with mental health practice.

The practice of Buddhism puts the individual in the role of “personal scientist,” running experiments on their own mind to see what works for them. The idea is that through this process (known as mental training), a person can achieve greater comfort (inner peace). Buddhism is self examination, reflection, and introspection.

The main form of mental training is meditation. Numerous neuropsychological studies show that meditating has many mental health benefits such as reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. It accomplishes this over time through teaching people to experience painful thoughts from a different perspective. Rather than letting a thought nag at someone’s state of mind, meditation teaches them to recognize that it is a thought; that we give it power, and we can thereby also deflate the power of thoughts and feelings to hurt as much.Read more about the Neuropsychology of Meditation.

Making Social Connections
Basic Buddhist teachings are about practicing kindness, humor and compassion towards other people. One of Buddhists’ primary principles is that there should be no agenda other than to help someone. This includes starting with extending compassion to oneself as a flawed being. In Buddhism, all people are equal. Buddhism can give practitioners a profound feeling of connectedness without loss of identity, and never in terms of superiority or inferiority to others. Sangha is a Sanskrit word meaning “association”, “assembly”, “company” or “community”. Your Sangha encourages you in your goals and journey. Your community matters; in my work as a clinical psychologist, I strongly encourage positive social connection as a primary source of mental health care and therapeutic goal.

Being in Charge of Our Actions
Karma is an often-misunderstood Buddhist concept. While many people see it as “what goes around comes around,” karma in Buddhism actually is the idea that a person has the ability to change any circumstances they face in life. Karma is an accumulation of all of your actions across time and the mark they leave on the world; it is non-judgmental. Karma is meant to be a doctrine of responsibility and empowerment, not a punishment.

For a Buddhist, hope is a decision. Resolve is a practice.
#neuropsychology #Buddhism #mindfulness #meditation #community #mentalhealth #resolve #hope

The Superhero Meditation

Art: courtesy of the fabulous Nicole Heere

When you’re doing therapeutic work with superheroes, this power meditation is a good way to help superhero clients charge for the day.

What I teach:
You wake up, and feel yourself in your body. You are a superhero, a protector making the world a better place. Every single day so many responsibilities are in your hands. Do you feel the weight of these duties? You also feel the roiling energy within. It’s already in you.

Close your eyes and find stillness in your body. Take a breath, slowly. Feel the energy that’s inside. Allow your body to vibrate with this energy, this strength, your personal charge.

Breathe in energy. Feel it recharging and swirling in your body. Exhale slowly. Breathe in energy. Savor it in your bloodstream. It might feel warm and peaceful. It might also feel like a tsunami that’s building or lava under the earth. Exhale slowly.

Feel the power that you innately possess swirling through your body, arms, legs, torso. It fills your head. Breathe in your power, breathe in your strength, breathe in your capacity.
Breathe in energy. Exhale slowly. You are a superhero ready to face everything. When you are ready, open your eyes.

Also see The Psychology of Superheroes, a tribute to Chadwick Boseman.

On adding mindfulness to treatment

For the past two decades, I have combined my passion for practicing mindfulness and eastern philosophy, with my love for neuroscience and clinical psychology. The ancient and the research; they are compatible.

This is a frequent question posed to me that I deeply honor.

Them: My partner and I are studying Buddhist teachings to help us with anxiety and depression. What can you tell us to help us relieve our suffering?

Me: I believe that attempting to alleviate suffering on an individual basis or just with a partner only partially works. Because it emphasizes attachment to self (ego). To connect with the suffering of the universe, the understanding that all beings suffer, is actually more helpful over time for healing.

I primarily specialize in depression, anxiety, grief, transition, and lack of connection to the moment (ADHD). I encourage my patients to meditate, of course. There is a strong body of neuropsychological research that indicates that meditation changes neural pathways associated with depression and anxiety. I meditate with child clients in my office or my garden outside my office. We ring the gong at the end. Their faces are solemn and joyful.  For more info see Neuropsychology of Meditation.

While most Western practitioners think of Buddhist teachings and practice as primarily sitting meditation (zazen), there is much more in actual practice that is pragmatic. Buddhism is about the every day.

The emphasis is connection, which is highly different than attachment.

I strongly encourage the following adjunct therapies:

  • volunteering and community service
  • tending a garden and green babies
  • caring for fur babies
  • eating foods that honor the earth, animals, and the bounty available to us
  • going through your home and giving away possessions that you don’t need
  • reading poetry and of course Buddhist writings, hopefully a primary source, every morning
  • doing a walking meditation every day
  • teaching non-violence and loving kindness through practical matters such as social justice. Buddhism is not esoteric; it is societal.
  • most importantly finding your Sangha, in your community or even virtually.

Practicing these, and other activities, without attachment, and with a desire to understand and connect with the knowledge that the world is suffering, actually starts to lessen our own.

My work emphasizes the practice of such steps on a daily basis. I have termed it #stonesacrosstheriver. Adding these things to other empirically validated treatment methods is potent.

Meditation for Difficult Times

I frequently recommend and teach mindfulness meditation in my practice. Meditation meets several therapeutic goals: it encourages reflection combined with self acceptance and self compassion,  it promotes calm breathing, is grounding for individuals who have anxiety disorders and panic attacks, and is a relaxation and de-stress strategy that you can take with you anywhere.

Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our hectic-ness. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is a simple, direct relationship with our being. This is known as maitri, loving-kindness toward ourselves and others.

There are four qualities of maitri that are cultivated when we meditate, as described below by Pema Chodron, in ‘Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.’

  1. Steadfastness. When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves, in body as well as mind.
  2. Clear seeing. This is another way of saying that we have less self-deception. Through the process of practicing the technique day in and day out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves.
  3. Experiencing our emotional distress. We practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. We stay with the emotion, experience it, and leave it as it is, without proliferating. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotions.
  4. Attention to the present moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward others, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love. These four factors not only apply to sitting meditation, but are essential to all the bodhichitta (awakened heart) practices and for relating with difficult situations in our daily lives. By cultivating them we discover for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.

Put your oxygen mask on first

Photo: Central park, fall, 2018.

Put your oxygen mask on first.
That’s what I always say to my patients.

Be healthy.
Be organized.
Help others.
Be financially stable.
Be independent.
Be cultured.
Be confident.
Be in peace.
Be knowledgeable. What did you learn today?
Be calm. Breathe.
Be centered.
Here’s a challenge for you: For 28 consecutive days, do one thing to take care of yourself. Every single day. It creates new neural pathways. It takes a month of consistency.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Sleep 7-8 eight hours a night.
Wake up 30 minutes earlier than the day before.
Workout 30 minutes a day.
Go to yoga. Or Pilates. Or the gym. Or your home gym.
Go outside. Get some fresh air. Every day.
Eat breakfast.
Meal prep.
Bring lunch to work.
Take a walk.
Hug your companion animal.
Enjoy intimacy, with a partner or self.
Say no to something you don’t want to do.
Say yes to something you haven’t done before.
Get a massage.
Get a facial.
Get a manicure and pedicure.
Get a haircut. Change your hair color if you want.
Clean your room.
Organize a drawer.
Give away possessions that you don’t use
Wash your sheets and blankets.
Clean your refrigerator.
Read 10 pages of a book. Every day.
Read a blog.
Write in your journal.
Find some podcasts, follow them.
Look at beautiful pictures online or in a book.
Study your hero.
See a movie.
Read a poem.
Cook a new recipe.
Sing to your favorite song.

Stones Across the River, or Mindfulness as Practice

In my practice, I teach a personal mindfulness strategy, that I have previously written about, and named “Stones Across the River”. Think of a wide river that you must cross. I help patients to notice moments (stones), by learning a daily practice of paying mindful attention to the seemingly small activities in a day that, together, can help ford the rapids of life without falling in.

Take a few moments of your day to observe your breathing. Take a longer inhale than you usually do, and then take a longer exhale than you usually do. Do it again. This practice will help you to calm yourself down during stressful situations, while simultaneously observing your physical and emotional state.

Look at yourself in the mirror.
Looking yourself in the mirror or even taking a selfie helps you see YOU. You can see how you look when you smile or when you frown, even when you are feeling angry. This helps you connect with yourself.

Savor every bite while you eat.
Focus on chewing while eating. Put your devices aside, and turn off the television. Enjoy every bite of your meal. This will help you practice focusing on your current action and appreciating the food you are eating.

Listen to soothing music.
Turn on relaxing and soothing music and really listen to it. Lay down or sit in the most comfortable position, close your eyes and feel the music in your soul. You can even use it while you’re working on a long or tedious task. Classical music has been shown to create brain waves that are very similar to meditation. I personally also enjoy trip hop, which has a steady beat that can help with focus.

Read a book or poem everyday.
Reading helps you form a focused meditation. While you are going through every word, you are practicing mindfulness and attention skills at the same time.

Go for a walk.
Our legs are our unsung heroes that are there for us, day in and day out. Going for a walk gives you the opportunity to show gratitude to your legs as well as your entire body, while appreciating the things around you. Research shows that you also get a clearer mind after a good walk.

Organize something at work or home.
Having your home or workplace in disarray can contribute to anxiety and stress. Environment matters. Getting organized is a way to reduce your stress and improve the quality of your life. While you are picking up objects during the process, you are also practicing mindfulness as you consciously observe each placement of the object while organizing.

Write in a journal.
Research shows that people who practice writing in a journal reap physical and emotional benefits. Dr. James Pennebaker, clinical psychologist, found that writing stream of consciousness in a journal for just 10 minutes a day (without editing or filtering), helped reduce clinical depression, across several studies.

Cook a meal.
The aromatic scents of cooking have beneficial effects to your mood. The process of cooking, like chopping vegetables and the various steps involved can actually take the edge off a stressful day. Interestingly, because preparing a meal is a multi step process, it is also good for executive functioning. I assign cooking a meal for the family or for friends, including planning the menu, making a grocery list, preparing the meal, and serving it, as a regular assignment for my teenagers and young adults who have executive functioning problems.

Set small daily goals.
Breaking down your goals into smaller ones helps you be more specific to what you aim to achieve on a daily basis. It can be as simple as taking your dog for a walk or cleaning up a closet. Take the time to acknowledge each goal that has been accomplished. For several patients, I have had them make a list of things they have accomplished that day, rather than the ubiquitous “to do list”. People are often astonished at how much they actually do in a day, because we are always focused on the things that are not done.

Help someone.
Research indicates that individuals who regularly engage in community service and volunteering show lower rates of depression and stress. I believe this gives people a mindful awareness of a purposeful life beyond their immediate family or circle.

Laughing releases endorphins and brings more oxygen and energy into your body while also improving your immune system. Talk to a friend who is witty, watch a show that makes you smile or laugh, play with a pet.

Engaging in creative work helps you get into a flow state of heightened awareness and consciousness. Creative activities like drawing or doodling help you quiet down your mind and help you focus on the moment, improving your practice of mindfulness. For my clients with ADHD, I actually encourage them to doodle while they are listening to a lecture or seminar. It creates more focus than attempting to sit still.

Turn off your devices.
Every once in a while, turn off your devices and engage with the people around you.

Work out.
When you exercise, you focus your attention on your sensations, breathing, and the movements of your body.

Write sticky notes.
Jotting down your thoughts in a few words is an incredible way to train mindfulness. Simply write down things that you want to remind yourself to remember and stick them around your house or your desk at work. You can jot down “smile” or “breath” to remind yourself to do the simple gesture you normally get distracted from.

Take a bath or hot shower.
A soothing hot bath relaxes your tired muscles and provides you with a relaxing atmosphere. It helps your breathing become slower and deeper, allowing you to stay in the present moment. I work with many patients who have sleep disorders. Taking a hot bath and then going to bed as your body cools off actually parallels REM sleep, during which your body temperature also drops.

Give a compliment.
Give someone you know a genuine compliment at least once a day, and be specific with it. For example, you could tell them something like, “I appreciate the way you smiled generously in the waiting room earlier today,” or “you are so generous to pick up all these supplies for the office.” One of my friends said to me, I love the way you become so excited when you learn something new. This practice of noticing what people around you do well and giving genuine compliments adds warmth, intimacy, and responsiveness to your connection with them.

Neuropsychology of meditation

A growing body of neuroscience research is attracting attention to the profound effects of meditation.

There is evidence for the neurological benefits of meditation in several studies, which showed that three or more months of meditation training improved the ability to detect a brief visual signal that most people cannot detect. In other words, meditation improves attention, and therefore can be a treatment for ADHD.
In my practice, I teach children as young as six years old to meditate, and was also able to do so for Maryland public schools last summer.

Psychologists, traditionally, have sometimes considered capacity to pay attention as relatively fixed, but attention can be trained, and in a way that is not fundamentally that different than how physical exercise changes the body.

The attention circuits in the frontal lobe of the brain affected by meditation are actively involved in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is a prevalent psychiatric diagnosis among children. This mental practice can be likened to physical exercise. Brain functioning like attention and concentration can be trained and improved through systematic practice.

I start with five minutes with child clients, and they get to ring my singing bowl at the end of the session. Meditation, good for both mental and physical health.

Meet and Greet with North Spring Behavioral Healthcare

We strongly believe in teaming up with community resources and finding the best fit. In keeping with this believe, we recently hosted a meet and greet with North Spring Behavioral Healthcare. North Spring provides multi-faceted services for children and adolescents in Northern Virginia, right outside of DC.  The treatment team includes psychiatrists, registered nurses, therapists, social workers, and mental health workers.

From acute or inpatient care to outpatient follow up, facilitated by community liaisons, North Spring works with families and young people to coordinate care in the mental health community in the DC area.  They are endorsed by NAMI as providing a high level of psycho education and mental health care.

Like Embolden, they also utilize mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and meditation strategies to work with young patients.

Thank you to everyone who attended and especially to North Spring’s Community Outreach Liaison and Admissions Director, Christy Evans,


Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

Thank you for contacting us.