Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Nook: Forty Things I Wish I'd Told My Kids

The eastern practices of mindfulness and meditation are becoming ever more crucial for those of us mired in the stress and anxiety that accompany our fast-paced, digital lives. Unlimited access to social media, news articles and a seemingly endless number of amusements on our phones allow us to sleepwalk through our lives, never truly engaging with the world or the people around us. 
For this reason, veteran mindfulness practitioner John Allcock sought to engage his own children – as well as those at the Sea Change school that he co-founded – with easy-to-understand mindfulness concepts. In Forty Things I Wish I'd Told My Kids (a Morgan James paperback, on sale March 2018), Allcock offers this essential wisdom to parents and children alike, breaking down each lesson into memorable chapters. Practical, universally-applicable lessons cover:
•    How to let go of the "I'll be happy when …” fallacy
•    How to identify the false narratives that prevent us from achieving our goals
•    How to drop the mental habits that do not lead to genuine happiness
•    How to change our thoughts, not control them
•    How to separate our intrinsic value from our achievements
•    How to become a student of pain, not a victim of it 

I have a chance to post this interview to learn more.

What inspired you to write 40 Things That I Wish I'd Told My Kids?
I was going through a challenging time in my life (a divorce and associated difficulties) and I was introduced to mindfulness. I read widely, went to retreats, and listened to literally hundreds of talks by some of the leaders in the field—Jack Kornfield, Gil Fronsdal, Joseph Goldstein, Thich Nhat Hanh and others. I wanted to pass what I was learning onto my kids, but could not find a single book that I thought explained the concepts and practices in an easy-to-understand manner for a Western audience. Thus, I wrote emails to my kids over the course of a few years, which ended up being forwarded to many people who had a favorable reaction. So, I wrote a book that I think accomplishes the objective I first had in writing to my kids. 
The students at the Sea Change school that you co-founded have achieved multiple athletic firsts—like swimming a 42 mile open ocean relay. How did their training in mindfulness help them achieve these records?

Mindfulness allows students to recognize those internal thoughts and beliefs that get in the way of such achievements, investigate whether they are actually true, and then release those that are false and impede their ability to achieve their goal. For example, with proper training, a student can swim one hour in the open ocean. It is only fear of the unknown, or doubt in their abilities, which would prevent them from achieving this very significant accomplishment. Mindfulness allows the student to recognize that fear and doubt are not real - only figments of their imagination – and to free themselves from them. We find that this concrete use of  mindfulness teaches our students that mindful practices can be very useful in overcoming similar obstacles standing in their way of achieving many other goals in life—like doing well in academics or going to college. 
You encourage readers to change, not control their thoughts. Does this mean that you advocate for positive thinking?
Yes, but I would think of it as balanced or realistic thinking. Much of our thinking (and core beliefs) have a bit of a negative bias. Our minds have the same basic characteristics and make-up as they did when we were cave people—and in that circumstance, being fearful of your environment made good sense. In other words, erring on the side of being fearful or negative about the external environment helped to avoid tigers or warring tribes and to propagate the species. But we don’t need this negative bias in the modern world. Mindfulness allows us to recognize those thoughts (or core beliefs) which are unrealistically negative, investigate them to discern their accuracy, and then replace them with more accurate (or positive) beliefs and intentions, which allow us to live a happier, fuller, and more meaningful (and productive) life. 

Are there ways to recognize false narratives that prevent us from reaching our potential? 
Yes. The most basic way is to learn to do nothing. In other words, to learn that we need not be captured by any narrative that comes into our head, and recognize that much of our thinking is a self-created narrative or story that is not necessarily true. Basic mindful meditation—doing nothing when we are confronted with such internal stories—teaches us that we do not have to actively buy into the story. Rather, we can simply recognize it for what it is, investigate it, not buy into it, evaluate it, and ultimately choose a different, more realistic and more positive narrative to guide our lives. 

How can we teach our children - and ourselves! - that our intrinsic value has nothing to do with our achievements?
This is a tricky one. There is an ancient saying that goes something like: “We are perfect just as we are but there is always room for improvement.”  So, the idea to convey is that all people are born with a unique set of capabilities and characteristics. Not being “perfect” according to some external standard does not mean you are deficient—it means you are human. But, that does not mean that we should not try to drop those unskillful or unhelpful behaviors that we have adopted—like we can dispose of that dirty old sweat shirt that we are holding onto long past its usefulness. But realizing that it’s a behavior we have adopted, rather than a core aspect of who we are, actually makes it easy to dispose of it. 

Why is it more important to have goals than to achieve them?
The short answer is that goals are very important because they give us direction and meaning to our lives—so it is very important to have them. But we can look at them as climbing a mountain: once we get to the top, there will be another one. Or even if we don’t get to the top, we made a lot of progress in climbing as far as we did, and as long as it was a worthy mountain to climb we have done something meaningful with our lives. But more important than reaching our goals, is approaching the task of achieving them with wise, daily intentions—like being kind, generous, and grateful—so that we maintain our moment to moment happiness as we trek up the steep path, regardless of how far we get. 

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