The ‘What-The-Hell-Effect’ and Other Willpower Challenges

Tap, tap, swipe, scroll scroll scroll; and here I am again staring at my phone. The comfort of distraction eases the pain of writers’ paralysis. Ha! Would you look at that…

Regardless of what you believe about free will, the “power” in willpower seems more often than not to overpower us! Why does willpower fail us so? Why do I continue to do that which I do NOT want to do? Again and again and again?

Reading Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct described for me, in scientific terms, the intractable workings of our sinful nature and the biology of will. Within one mind is contained two opposing brains – one of impulse and one of rational control. The ego – through desire and pride, subject to social pressure and shame unwillingly shapes us. The concept of mindful control over self through the power of will seems an unreachable ideal at times, try as we might. I’m certainly not suggesting we give up! But rather hoping, the knowledge of WILL, will help me live a better life.

Romans 7:21 (NLT) 21. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.

To start, it’s interesting to note that most of our daily choices (some 40% of them) are made on complete autopilot out of habit. (Check out Charles Duhigg’s book on Habit).

Next, there is a clear continuum of self-control playing out on the world stage – where some have great will and exert it vehemently, while others have little to no power at all. The famous marshmallow experiment by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel revealed the truth that those with the ability to delay gratification fare far better in life. Sadly individuals with mental differences, including Autism and Asperger’s, have much less ability to direct and control their own behavior.

Naturally, our base level of self-awareness is the precursor to our ability for self-control. Not surprisingly then, the more distracted the mind is, the more impulsive it becomes. Stress, lack of sleep, poor diet and health all contribute to a lack of self-control. Sleep deprivation is the equivalent of a mild intoxicant, and we all know what can happen when you have one too many drinks!

What’s more, society makes constant demands on our time, energy, and attention. Filtering distractions, taking on that stretch assignment at work, caring for family, responding to friends, even the basics like figuring out how to feed and clothe yourself every day creates the circumstances for decision fatigue. We become akratic, acting against our better judgment through weakness of will.

There’s a physiological signature of our willpower failures. The impulsive brain is associated with our amygdala fight-flight response vs. the prefrontal cortex which allows us to pause and plan. External stimuli trigger the dopamine reward centers in the brain. Immediate rewards inundation the primitive brain and overwhelm the logical decision-making centers. Getting even a bit of distance, a break of 10 minutes, can give control back to the rational mind.

That said, we can’t always get distance from our own thoughts! Just anticipating a reward can make it more difficult to exert willpower. Dopamine hijacks our attention so much that we mistake the promise of reward for happiness leading us to pursue objects of desire even if they fail to truly make us happy in the long-run. Desire is a serious threat to self-control.

And guess what? When you try to suppress a desire, it comes back even stronger – the ironic rebound effect! Your welcome! We have an active monitor constantly scanning our environment to protect us from threat. As soon as you tell your monitor to be on alert, it is! And because we have a cognitive bias to trust our thoughts as important sources of information, when a thought comes back that we’re trying to suppress we may feel it to be true and dive in! Crazy, I know! But you can’t believe everything you think! Focusing on what you WANT to do instead of what you DON’T want to do is a better technique.

Although it can be a threat, desire can also be an effective source of strength! In fact, the most surefire way to reach a goal is to decide what you WANT and commit to achieving it. With clarity of plan comes clarity of action. Tapping into the want-power of your deepest desires may be the only way to stay focused and succeed in the long-term.

Herein lies yet another trap, false hope syndrome – it turns out the very decision to change and become a “new you” is felt in the brain as an instant reward. We get excited by our unrealistic optimism. Yeah! And as we pat ourselves on the back for initiating change, our idealized future-self falls flat on its future face – splat goes our goals!

Strangely, we use different regions of the brain when thinking about our future self. Treating future-us more like a stranger, we tend to misjudge and overestimate our future skills and abilities. Clearly, our future-self likes exercise more than chocolate? We also discount the value of a reward if we have to wait for it. This delay discounting combined with future-self bias saddles our poor unfortunate future selves with the consequences of the not-so-good but fun and immediate choices of today. Sigh!

Dare we be optimistic! The optimism of progress may generate a license to indulgence. Moral licensing is our virtuous way to vice. We feel good after doing good, and therefore feel justified in doing less good (or even bad). Labeling our self-control challenges as good or bad is a slippery slope. When we make moral judgments, we are quick to justify and quick to use progress as an excuse to ease up and engage in goal sabotaging behavior. I had a salad yesterday, so it’s OK to order fries at lunch today! Yum!

My favorite – the “what-the-hell effect” – that inescapable cycle of shame when you indulge and the act of indulgence leads to more indulgence. Oh my god, ice cream – you taste sooo good! I’ll just go ahead and eat the whole pint.

Just when you thought you’d had enough of your own willpower trials, enter stage left and right – other people!!! The people closest to us act as competing selves in our minds. Especially the people we love and respect the most; these key influencers can strengthen or weaken our resolve. Thanks to empathy and our mirror neurons, we mimic the willpower failures around us – diving into the candy jar in the office and splurging with the spouse who wants to order dessert at dinner. Damn you people! You’re not helpful!

Rule-breaking is especially contagious. And when the rest of our tribe does something we tend to think it’s a good idea as well. Sure this social proof helps us decide what books to read on bestseller lists and what Zagat rated restaurants to visit, but it can be detrimental as well. We can’t seem to separate ourselves from our social instincts. The pull to the middle is strong we go ahead and conform to the norm. Our best intentions fall prey to the will and actions of others.

On a positive note, social acceptance and pride can reinforce our resolve to change. Imagine how much love, approval, and affection you’ll receive when you succeed! Going public with a personal goal draws on the basic human need for approval to motivate. CAUTION: social rejection is an instant willpower killer. Disapproval drains our ability to resist temptation and encourages us to give in to heal our wounded selves. Pride is much more powerful than shame.

In closing, researchers have learned that self-control behaves a lot like a muscle that can be trained. As a muscle, the prefrontal cortex center of your rational self-control mind needs rest and recovery. But don’t be fooled, like an elite athlete about to collapse near the finish line, we often feel depleted before we are completely drained. When success is in view, we can stretch our willpower limits to achieve victory.

The Willpower Instinct is a worthwhile read! It offers actionable insights at the end of each chapter as Dr. McGonigal coaches readers toward willpower success using science as a guide – observe, record, test, and try, try again! Below is a list of the do’s and don’ts that I found most helpful. Good luck!

  1. First and foremost, commit to what you really WANT to propel you forward!
  2. Of course, start strong! Do the hardest tasks at the beginning of the day when you have the most presence of mind!
  3. Why not name your impulsive mind in order to recognize and control it? Bad Kat! Haha!
  4. Get to know your triggers and eliminate them as much as possible. Remove the temptation!
  5. Pay attention to how cravings feel, you don’t have to give in. Instead, you can “surf the urge” and like a wave, it will pass over you.
  6. Get distance from the temptation, even 10 minutes can help!
  7. Architect your choices by literally automating the change you’d like to see if your life.
  8. Can you find ways to bind yourself to your goals? Or constrain the impulsive self as if it were an enemy to your future self? What rules and constraints might be helpful?
  9. Rest and recover your mind through stress relieving activities, self-control is muscle and needs a break.
  10. Invest in your health! Anything you do for your health improves your willpower! Self-care strengthens self-control!
  11. Attempt mini willpower challenges to build your resolve slowly over time.
  12. Remove moral judgments. You’re not a BAD person for eating ice cream!
  13. Avoid self-criticism, and instead, approach yourself like a good friend with self-compassion.
  14. Spend time thinking and reflecting on your goals.
  15. Identify a role model who has achieved your goal or someone you admire as disciplined.
  16. GO public with your willpower challenge and use the basic human need for approval to motivate
  17. Enlist an accountabili-buddy to check-in with regularly.
  18. Surround yourself with people who share your goals and perhaps spend less time with those who don’t.
  19. Don’t discount the future, make it matter more by envisioning the outcomes ahead of time.
  20. Dream! Imagine your success and how you and those around you will benefit in your succeeding.
  21. Imagine how it will be easier later and you’re more likely to stick with it.
  22. Why not send a message to your future self about it?
  23. FOCUS on commitment rather than progress!

Kindness First

How do we overcome the persistent feeling of isolation and loneliness in modern life? By first extending a hand, an ear, an olive branch…whatever we can muster…

“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Carl Sagan

Random acts of kindness kindle authentic trust! (#rakKat)

This week is random acts of kindness week culminating in random acts of kindness day on February 17th, a day first observed in New Zealand in 2004. Many claim the concept originated back in 1982 when writer Anne Herbert scribbled the words “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a placemat in a Sausalito, CA restaurant, a phrase she coined in opposition to the well-known “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty”.

In 1993 a book called Random Acts of Kindness was published and as a result, media coverage in the U.S. ensued. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation was founded in 1995 to provide a resource for individuals and groups interested in spreading kindness in their communities. And RAK week was born…

cat and birdKINDNESS STARTS WITH ONE – We all struggle. We all stress. But thankfully, we also all love (aww). And we’ve all had that moment when we feel like maybe what we are doing doesn’t make a difference. But we’ve discovered the loophole to that dilemma! Being good to others. Kindness really does start with one—one person, one act, one place, one city, one county, and one movement with one goal in mind: To make our world a kinder place one act at a time. And, every single one of us can play a part in this mission.

This movement is a counterbalance to the loneliness and isolation in the world. Kindness connects us with one another and creates deeper meaning in our lives. This is what’s missing in our lives, this is what the #rakKat is all about! Let us spread joy and love this week, and every week, and every single where that you GO!

To get you started, here are a few of my favorite kindness action resources:

Kindness Action Communities

Research Centers

Podcasts, Books & Other Experts


The health benefits of kindness are undeniable!


So get out there and run a #rakKat!!!
Happy RAK Week everyone!

Is It Really Worth a F*ck?

What are you willing to struggle for? NO really, what pain do you want in your life?

According to Disappointment Panda life’s problems are endless and if it feels like you against the world, chances are it’s YOU vs. YOURself! Mark Manson – a barely 30-something millennial sage whose failures taught him straight away about success – wrote a most refreshing read called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Personally, I’m just so proud that I read an entire book. And you should too! This one is fun and totally worth it.

The reality of happiness (and I couldn’t agree more Mark!) is that it requires a struggle! In fact, it’s born out of struggle! And the “everyone gets a trophy” coddling of modern culture that leads us to believe that everyone/everything can and should be exceptional is just plain wrong. Most of life is quite ordinary. And that is refreshingly OK!

Layer on all the sensationalism in the media and the pervasiveness of technology, our insecurities are multiplied and magnified, even our thoughts make us worry in what Manson calls the Feedback Loop from Hell. We experience emotional distress in our mundane lives around nearly every corner. As if being chased by lions on the Serengeti, our fight-flight systems are on overdrive. The resulting chronic stress is the real danger! Check out famed neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s work on the topic – How to Relieve Stress: Managing Bad Stress and Good Stress. He’s literally a GENIUS!

Our misguided search for self-esteem via exceptionalism prevents us from developing emotional resilience. Self-worth through self-compassion is the key! Not the measure of what others think, but the measure of what you think and how you feel about your SH*T experiences not just your super cool ones (you know, the ones with all the likes on Facebook).

Adversity breeds strength of mind and character. Constant positivity (though this “optimist-to-a-fault” knows how well intended it can be) is a form of avoidance. Denial of all that is bad and difficult in life is a denial of life itself. Figuring out what is and is not worth a F*ck to you, is about meeting the pain and suffering you experience with wisdom, being with it and, as much as possible, affirming it – really owning it. We can’t control life but we can train ourselves to a more righteous and mindful response to it.

What is really worth a F*ck to you? How to know? You can start by defining what you value most in life, and from there, determine your own personal metrics of success.

Manson suggests radical responsibility, uncertainty, failure, rejection, and mortality, a good place for all of us start in order to challenge our natural biases…

Radical responsibility – this is where the real learning comes. Apparently William James, the Father of American Psychology and a pragmatist, posited that all improvement arises from the personal realization that we are responsible for everything in our lives. Again, we can’t always control what happens, but we have some measure of control over our response. And the more mindful we become, the more presence we have to respond in ways that best reflect our values. “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” –William James

Uncertainty – removes judgment! “Certainty is the enemy of growth…and being wrong opens the possibility of change.” This idea of being in search of doubt vs. truth allows curiosity and continuous improvement to emerge. By being open to always learning we can “chip away at the ways that we’re wrong so that we can be a little less wrong” as we move through life. Embracing uncertainty certainly promises to keep us honest.

Failure – my worst fear of all! But here again, pain = resilience, a stronger sense of self, increased compassion, and an overall happier life. I love the way Manson encourages us to treat life as a science lab where actions are experiments and our thoughts and emotions the data to test hypotheses. I also love and LIVE by his ”Do Something” Principle – that is, DO something, then use the reaction to spur further action, which in turn (we hope) will generate motivation. I live by this principle, perhaps a little too much, but with action as the primary metric “even failure pushes you forward.” Get to it!


Rejection – we all need to reject something, otherwise, we stand for nothing! This one is especially hard for me, an unrelenting harmonizer. I want everyone/everything to get along. But harmony is also a form of entitlement and without conflict, there is no trust. Damned though we try, we just can’t pretend the conflict and suffering away. Rejection is a fact of life, but a fact that can hone our focus.

Contemplation (of one’s own mortality) – and the clincher…10 out of 10 people die! Death is described as “the bitter antidote” in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and the realization of death can help to bring about a better world as people strive toward a symbolic higher self that outlives the physical self through heroism. Mortality as a focus of meditation is infinitely popular, but I personally don’t love it. I am going to die, yes! But not anytime soon. In fact, we’re all living a lot longer these days, so it’s even more important to figure out what to do with the life we have in the present. I know this is indeed what meditating on death is all about, but I prefer to contemplate the fleeting concept of time vs. my certain doom and destruction. However, you label it…“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by life’s trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.” –Charles Bukowski


Thanks Mark! Loved the book! So now what?

You might start by making a list of the things you care about, then track how much time you’re spending thinking and doing all that you think and do – and begin a deliberate practice of working to align these two lists more and more. Share what you care about with a friend and/or enlist a coach to give you feedback. Prioritize relentlessly! But worry less about managing your time and more about maintaining energy for the things that matter most to you in life. Do something, challenge your hypotheses, and try again. Choose your F*cks wisely as they are guaranteed to cause you pain. But if you choose them, it will be the kind of pain that is worth it!

New Year New You?

The years mark the seasons of our progress through life – birth, childhood, adolescence, and various stages of somewhat increasingly responsible adulthood, until death. Governed by time, our social and civic lives are squeezed into minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months. Yet time is a human construct. Stripped away, how could we ever make sense of it all?

“And there we have it! Yes, this thing called ‘time’ is all about making sense out of our lives,” says Reverend Lou Kavar, Ph.D. in his post on Time and the New Year. In it he also touches on the relative nature of time and, like me enjoys pondering the mysteries of physics. Could time be an illusion? Well, it is what you make of it!!!

top resolutions
At this “time” of year, we are pressured to reimagine ourselves – better, faster, stronger – a new year presents the opportunity for a new you? Or does it?

Reflecting on the past undoubtedly prepares us for the future. It is an extremely worthwhile endeavor! But we need not get lost in lofty expectation or boxed in by someone else’s contrived formula for change. Keep it simple. SMART goals are not inspiring; they are punitive and such rigid planning in the personal realm can stifle progress.

Be flexible! Make it up as you go, and especially make it personal!

I enjoy writing, so for the last few years I’ve instituted a practice of writing and reflecting to set a general course of direction. My writings are short – literally a one-page synopsis of the year with color commentary (how I’m feeling about it) and a one-page bulleted list of general goal areas (that rarely, if ever, involve numbers or measures). I write these short “notes to self” and file them away, without looking back until the very same appointed time the next year. This simple act orients the way but does not stifle or confine and often reveals the biggest change, my frame of mind. I enjoy this SMART direction setting. It is, shall we say – Simple, Meaningful, Affirming, Relevant, and Therapeutic – for me.

What kind of year-end ritual would be most meaningful to you in helping you achieve your higher aspirations in life?

Taking the time, and making the most of it is what it’s all about!

As always, enjoy the journey! You needn’t be ‘new’, nor worry about the future. For in time, we always, though sometimes slowly, become more of what we are and all that we are meant to be. Set course in the direction of your dreams.

All my very best in the New Year – that we may realize more of the unique gifts that we each individually possess and are called to offer the world, not only in the New Year but in the many years to come as well. Salud!



Essential for Survival

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”  – Mother  Theresa

More than half of Americans report having no one outside of their immediate family to share personal troubles and concerns. The forces of modern life are alienating to a troubling degree. Low social connection is worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure with the burden of isolation linked to increased risk of depression, disease, suicide, and worse. Often a factor in tragedies of mass proportion, social alienation breeds unpredictable consequence. And yet, we’d rather retreat to our solitary spaces than open up and be vulnerable with one another.

We’ve developed a dangerous aversion to all that is bad and uncomfortable. We’re taught to brush it under the rug, take it in stride, and suck it up; vulnerability is weakness and no one likes a complainer! We’ve built impenetrable fortresses of “the good life” and learned to hide behind a smile.

In refusing to acknowledge what ails us, we’ve turned our back on life itself and what it means to be human, as messy as it is. Denial of suffering is a rejection of life.

Compassion is the remedy, and essential for our continued survival.

We are wired to connect. Our very biology is designed to facilitate bonds of social connection and cooperation, a survival of the kindest and most collaborative vs a survival of the fittest. Let’s embrace one another, the good, the so-called bad, and everything in befeature-MOSS haiga -position 1tween.

There is a real value in suffering.

“…suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency” (click the link above to read an incredibly moving NY Times opinion piece on the topic by Pico Iyer).

My weeks in Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, have inspired me to be with the sin of our suffering humanity, to accept it in curiosity instead of rushing to fix, heal, or simply turn away in disgust. Or at least try!

“I am larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness.” – Walt Whitman

By helping others we help ourselves and we begin to realize there is no such thing as “compassion fatigue.” By connecting with others, and training the mind and the heart to cultivate compassion it can be drawn up as an endless resource.

In just 8-weeks, I’m no expert. But I am encouraged to continue. My intention in taking the course was to slow down, be less self-concerned and more present, be a better spouse – attuned to the true needs rather than the needs as I see them, and to be a source of positivity and support for others. It will take a full life’s journey to reach these aspirations. So for you, and for me, here are a few final tips to keep us growing together in compassion…

  • Work to establish a regular routine and time to meditate or reflect daily.
  • Begin with YOU – start with self-compassion, treat YOU like a friend, remember and savor what you appreciate about yourself.
  • Set your intention for the day in the morning and check-in with yourself at night before bed. Keep a gratitude journal!
  • Spend time learning more about compassion and altruism.
  • Respond to the people and circumstances in your life with an open heart and attitude of compassion.
  • Take note when you witness acts of kindness and compassion. Keep a kindness log!
  • Connect with a friend or community who shares your interest.
  • Remember that every effort is an affirmation in the right direction; let go of expectation and just practice.


Taking It In

And, for me…this is where it all fell apart…it’s taken a while to process and find my voice to share what came next. In Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) week seven we learned about Tonglen meditation.

What is Tonglen? It is the Tibetan word for giving and taking. Practiced for centuries exclusively in Tibet, it’s been widely known in the West for less than a decade. The idea (simplified) is to reduce suffering in the world, by taking it in (caution! but NOT taking it on) and then transforming it through your own inner well of limitless compassion and love. The transformation is highly visual and takes place in the rhythm of the breath. The suffering of self and others is absorbed slowly with the deliberate in-breath (perhaps imagined and inhaled as a dark cloud), and then, just as light immediately cancels out the darkness, the warmth of your heart (perhaps as a golden beam of light or burst of flowers) relieves the suffering you took in with an equally deliberate out-breath.

tonglen 3
Inhale suffering, exhale love and compassion. Simple, right? Are you picking up on my sarcasm?

Before you can effectively practice Tonglen, you have to be adept at tapping into the well of compassion inside yourself. But where does this limitless well of love and compassion come from?

And that is why I stopped. I wasn’t fully on board with the concept. And I realized that I’m all too often stuck in the empathy trap. The place where you’re taking on, and taking on wholly and completely (Warning! Warning!), then walking straight off the cliff with the very person you’re trying to help. That’s not helpful and may even be harmful to YOU, AND those around you! Sigh…

Do you prioritize others’ feelings over your own? If so, you might be in this mean little trap with me.

“Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life. What’s more, unending empathy creates vulnerability to gas-lighting, in which another person negates your own reality to assert his or hers…Those who regularly prioritize the feelings of others above their own needs often experience generalized anxiety or low-level depression. They may describe a feeling of emptiness or alienation, or dwell incessantly on situations from the perspective of another.”
– Robin Stern & Diana Divecha, July 7, 2015 Greater Good Magazine

And so, the idea of Tonglen was not appealing. But I’m not alone, many people respond similarly upon introduction to the practice. They ask, how can I possibly take in and transform what already seems so overwhelming?

Then, an epiphany! I began to connect this foreign practice to the roots of my own faith.

I’m a Christian. I don’t profess it openly because I don’t subscribe to interpretations presented by “organized” religion, I don’t go to church, I happen to admire atheists like Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky, I love science, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed of what most people do in the name of Christ.

But when I began to think of Tonglen as Jesus’ calling to be a light unto the world, I began to imagine myself drawing on the light of His suffering and forgiveness. I felt an opening of my own heart toward the possibility of freedom from the burden of empathy, the burden of feeling too much.

Empathic distress is real, but with faith, there is an endless well of love and compassion that never runs dry, a light capable of transforming the darkness.

In CCT we graduated through studies and practices of loving-kindness and compassion for self, others, strangers, and beyond. I’m reminded of a book I read in an undergraduate religious studies class, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, an elegant study of the overlapping teachings of Buddha and Christ. This was the beginning of a personal spiritual journey. In college, I moved from a naive stance of reared Christianity to becoming a rebel skeptic and nearly nihilist, then later on to adopt a sort of a new age version of Christianity, and now, to professing my own authentic faith.

Christ is within. He is the infinite source of light to transform our suffering. The original followers of Christ were called followers of The Way. Unfortunately, the modern church has lost the way and the truth of Christ and Western Buddhist philosophy has risen up to take its place providing comfort in a stress-ridden world. I relate to the Buddhist idea that suffering is the base of our human experience. But taking it a step further, I know that the burden of sin is the source of our suffering separating us from the divine. This separation is the ultimate suffering.

Personally, I bear the guilt of being silent about my faith. As they say, we never really change, we only, perhaps slowly, become more of what we are. Pay attention to the moments of resistance in your life and what they may be telling you. For me, my Christian faith, which includes contemplative practice, is the source of a boundless compassion through Christ.

god of comfort

Finding Our Common Humanity

you are not the only asshole

So, the truth is…you’re not the only asshole. We’re all human! And we have a terrible tendency to make snap judgments. But we can’t help it? It’s ingrained in our instinctive nature toward self-protection.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re always asking: are you friend or foe?

Susan Fiske, renowned social psychologist most known for her work on stereotypes and prejudice, identified two universal dimensions are unconsciously used to evaluate others – warmth and competence. These simple factors lead us to move toward or turn away, sometimes in complete disgust, from others. Those who are deemed incompetent, without the necessary skills or abilities, AND cold or unfriendly (i.e. the homeless, drug addicts, mentally ill, etc) are placed into the dangerous lower left quadrant leading to dehumanization. We turn a blind eye to these people seeing them as “other than” rather than human.

universal origins of empathy

We’re all guilty of passing-by to preserve our limited energy, feeling as if what we do doesn’t really matter. Research on the bystander effect, shows we’re less likely to respond to those we perceive to be different than us.

Engaging in difficult situations is risky and exhausting. If we were to recognize every sorrow of daily life, we’d end up in an emotional tizzy? That’s because empathy activates the same regions in the brain as those associated with pain.

Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, Italian neurophysiologist and professor, discovered mirror neurons that fire both when acting and observing an action, proving that witnessing something can be very much the same as experiencing it directly. By empathizing too deeply we run the risk of falling right off the cliff with the very person we’re trying to help in a state of empathic distress (a heightened emotional state felt in response to the suffering of another). Too much empathy is harmful to your health!

Good news: mirror neurons apply not just to empathy, but also to compassion. And there’s a distinctly beneficial difference between them. While empathy is linked to pain centers in the brain, compassion lights up the same areas as love (the Compassionate vs Empathetic Brain).

Compassion is the remedy to empathic distress. It enables us to see others who appear different and embrace suffering even when suffering is all there is and nothing can be done to “fix”, “change”, or “help” the situation.

This week in Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford we’re learning to cultivate a broader sense of compassion for strangers and for the difficult people in our lives. We’re “re-humanizing” those we dismiss and those who disappoint by acknowledging that “just like me” this person wishes to be happy and free from suffering.

king network.jpg

In a TED talk religious scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, calls for a return to the Golden Rule. Her Charter for Compassion asks that we bring the spirit of vulnerability and humility to our shared experience. Here are a few techniques to help in bringing our interconnectedness and common humanity back into view:

  • Look for opportunities to appreciate and thank someone you may have overlooked.
  • Look for opportunities to reinterpret your reaction to a disappointing situation.
  • Just listen!
  • Go further and employ the practice of radical listening as coined by, Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist, author, teacher and, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
  • Look for the human in everything by observing all parts of day-to-day routines – from the barista to the coffee beans!
  • Stay curious and open-hearted.
  • Challenging stereotypes and seek to discover commonality.
  • Open up and be willing to be vulnerable yourself!
  • Remember “just like me…” all people wish to be happy and free from suffering.

In all things, give it your best to do unto others…in order that we may find peace.

Turn Toward Love

Embedded in every moment of suffering is a wish for peace, a desire for the situation to be met with ease, comfort, kindness, and goodwill. Compassion is a response to suffering. The source of it is love.

Love literally opens us, expands our awareness, and awakens otherwise unrecognized possibilities. Barbara Frederickson, author of Love 2.0, one of the most highly-cited scholars in psychology, and founder of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, is a leading expert on the science of love and positivity (find your positivity ratio – sadly 80% of U.S. adults fall short of the recommended amount).

vagus nerveLove has a powerful physical and biochemical basis in the body. The amygdala – the structure in your brain linked to emotional processing, oxytocin – a neuropeptide in the brain, and the vagus nerve – the longest nerve with the widest distribution in the body (running from your brainstem to your heart, lungs, and other internal organs) are the three central players. Oxytocin plays a key role in social bonding and attachment. Acting through the vagus nerve, it decreases cortisol (a stress hormone) and calms the heart rate, soothing our natural fight-flight response. It has the power to calm and connect us with others in a way that syncs our moods and bodies, as with infant and parent. The vagus nerve orchestrates your experience of connection by even stimulating facial and ear muscles to facilitate expression, eye contact, and vocal tracking.

Scientists can assess your capacity for connection, what’s called vagal tone, by measuring your heart rate in conjunction with your breathing. A higher vagal tone is linked with an increased ability to regulate physical and emotional responses leading to greater flexibility and resilience. The biochemical reactions in your body also alter the ways genes are expressed within cells.

Your body is constantly adapting to your internal as well as external environment! Positive emotions like love strengthen your mind-body connection and increase overall health. Research shows that behaving kindly to yourself and others raises your natural levels of oxytocin triggering a cascade of physiological and emotional benefits.

Love is the root of compassion and what we, as humans, yearn for at a deeply intrinsic level. It is a basic need. And thankfully, it can be found and cultivated from within.

To recap from last week, we began with self-compassion consisting of three main elements: self-kindness versus self-judgment, a sense of common humanity versus individuality, and mindfulness versus over-identification. Self-compassion leads to eudemonic (lasting) happiness and a sense of well-being rooted in self-acceptance.

This week in Compassion Cultivation Training, we hone in on self-love at the root of self-compassion and the practice of loving-kindness for oneself. Loving-kindness means:

  • Seeing the good: cherishing your skills, talents, and abilities, having gratitude and appreciation for your life, having a friendly attitude toward yourself – one that is warm, caring, tender and non-judgmental.
  • Embracing your desire for happiness: acknowledging and honoring your deep personal longing for connection, meaning, joy, and purpose in life.
  • Moving toward happiness: recognizing that which fulfills your innermost needs and desires and discerning between things that will bring lasting happiness vs. fleeting satisfaction.

Loving-kindness meditation helps us to recognize that we are not our thoughts and emotions. Our true nature is much deeper, and our daily life is simply the raw material for our personal development.

To tune into loving-kindness, we can ask:

  1. What do I really aspire to?
  2. What do I wish to develop in my life?
  3. If anything were possible, what would be my gift to the world?

If you’re experiencing negative emotions, dig deeper: Does what you’re feeling now get you closer to satisfying your highest aspirations? If not, what underlying need or desire is at the root cause of your feelings? In your heart of hearts, what do you want most?


To deepen the practice, take action:

  • Practice daily generosity: do something nice for yourself, even if it’s small.
  • Stop and take notice of the feelings of gratitude that arise in daily life.
  • Look for the good in yourself: think of three things that you appreciate about yourself at night before bed and in the morning to bookend your day with positive intention.
  • Ask others for help: ask eight people to e-mail you just three things that they appreciate about you and keep the messages in a “Kudos to Your Name Here” file (via e-mail, print, or some other method) to refer back to in times of distress.
  • Choose one of your top values and write about it for 10-15 minutes.
  • Reflect on the people in your life who’ve inspired you.
  • Repeat loving-kindness phrases in daily meditation: may I be happy, may I be healthy, and may I know peace.

Love is a capacity inside every one of us, a capacity for deep connection. Expressing loving-kindness for oneself increases our sense of purpose, social support, and satisfaction with life. This life-giving source of energy helps us develop natural qualities of goodness and compassion.

Colossians 3:14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Turn toward love to find lasting peace.

You Are Not an Asshole

Hey! Go easy, would ya? You’re not an asshole! You’re just human.

Our delicate self-worth is constantly under siege. By…guess who? Us!
There’s always someone smarter, prettier, better, you name it. We compare uncontrollably, and we engage incessantly in a barrage of self-judgment and criticism. And now, more than ever, we are drowning in antidepressant drugs just to cope with the insecurities of life. Our constant striving takes its toll mentally and physically, increasing stress and substance abuse.

The quest for self-confidence through self-esteem leads to quite the opposite. It’s a trap contingent on success at the expense of others and dependent on the world outside: on peer approval, acceptance, and physical beauty. The search ensnares pursuers into patterns of self-absorption, self-righteousness, prejudice, inconsiderate behavior, and so on. It even leads to bullying—a sense of feeling special, superior, and better-than.

It’s no surprise that researchers have labeled the modern emphasis on self-esteem, a narcissism epidemic. We’re taught that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves, yet we take self-love to an unhealthy and combative extreme. Where are YOU on the NPI (narcissistic personality inventory)?

Instead of trying to protect our fragile egos, how about extending a little self-care and self-compassion once in a while?

Compassion Cultivation Training Week-3 to the rescue! It’s not necessary to be right, better, smarter, or prettier to protect your ego. Self-compassion steps in when self-esteem lets us down to sooth the self-conscious soul.

“…unlike self-esteem, the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. Instead, they come from caring about ourselves—fragile and imperfect yet magnificent as we are.” – Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher, author, professor, and founder of the Mindfulness Self-Compassion Program.

How self-compassionate are you? Take Dr. Neff’s self-compassion test to find out. Self-compassion consists of three key elements:

  1. Mindfulness – the ability to recognize and relate to disappointments and personal setbacks with care instead of criticism, without judging.
  2. Common Humanity – framing your struggle within the broader context of our collective experience; you are not uniquely flawed, unworthy, etc; we all suffer and suffering is part of the human condition.
  3. Self-mentoring – being kind to yourself, remembering and honoring your intention, and encouraging yourself to act in the direction of your most deeply held values and beliefs.

The simple acknowledgment of suffering is an act of self-compassion. And there are other techniques that you can practice to accept the good and the bad that is perfectly self-contained (in every one of us). The evidence-based practices recommended by CCT to cultivate self-compassion include:

  • Recognize suffering. Stop and ask yourself, “What am I experiencing right now? Is there any negative self-talk or self-blame going on?” Name the moments you are suffering, even the small ones. Suffering is anything that is ‘other’ than what we want it to be.
  • Construct and connect to a compassionate image to awaken the qualities of warmth, wisdom, strength, and love within you as a place of refuge and support.

    compassionate image
    In Morro Bay, CA over a dozen otters nursed their young swaying peacefully in the kelp beds as sunset reflected on three pillars of the old powerhouse, a symbol of strength and ingenuity. The peace this image consistently brings to me is awe-inspiring. I LOVE cuddling! And I’m overjoyed when I imagine the caring and protective mothers grooming their young pups while rocking gently side-to-side in the cool water.
  • Offer the kind of care and attention you would offer to a close friend or loved one!
    • Learn to be a friend to yourself! Laugh out loud at your mistakes!
    • Respond to negative self-talk with a physical gesture of kindness. Give yourself a hug, put your hand to your heart, to your cheek, or take a deep breath.
    • Confront your inner critic with ferocity; “Don’t you talk to my friend like that!”
    • Picture and connect with your childhood self in a loving way.
sick Kat
I was a sick kid and this exercise brought me to tears. My husband Eric burst through the door wondering what was wrong, as I sobbed at the image of my childhood self in the hospital.
  • Mentor yourself through dialogue and letter writing.
    • Offer words of loving-kindness and compassion – may I be happy, may I be free from suffering, may I know peace.
    • Express gratitude for the good things in your life.
    • Write an encouraging letter to yourself from the perspective of a friend or loved one.

Practice! You are the only one who can fill your punchbowl; everyone else sticks in their slurpy straws and sucks out the punch! The practice of self-compassion works even when we think we aren’t succeeding. With each small effort, we’re creating the conditions where compassion can take root, learning to see what’s under the surface and gaining greater mastery.

Self-compassion trumps self-esteem; it enables us to admit and accept that there are both positive and negative aspects of our personalities. Self-compassionate people are happier, healthier, less stressed, and less afraid to fail. In fact, research has shown linkages between compassion and procrastination. People who are self-compassionate are less likely to put off tasks; they tend to be more resilient. So go easy and don’t worry!

You are not an asshole. You’re just gloriously human and spectacularly flawed. Full of anxiety, insecurity, and all manner of doubt. We all are. You can’t be it all, do it all, support everyone, or be the best. It’s not possible, there’s no such thing, and that’s not the point. You can be all of you – the so-called good and the so-called bad. It’s already enough. It’s exactly what you should be. You don’t have to be a savior. There’s no need. You only need to recognize that you are human and that our fragile humanity is cradled in an infinite grace.                                                                                                                                             – Love, Kat

The Body Knows

Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and think of a friend or loved one. Imagine a pleasant time or experience that you shared with this person. Take a minute to sense how it feels to recall this memory. Where does it manifest across your body – in your heart, in a tingling sensation, a glow of warmth?

Scientists are mapping the physical signatures of various human emotions – how love vs anger feels in the body.


What manifests in the senses, often without our conscious awareness, can profoundly influence our actions. Anger is like a hot coal; when you pick it up, you are the first to get burned. We are the most immediate and direct recipients of our emotions, thoughts, and mental states.

Indeed thoughts and emotions give rise to action without intention, forming habitual aspects of our personalities that can become deeply ingrained. I’m reminded of a movie years ago called, What the Bleep Do We Know, perhaps the inspiration for a more recent animated film Inside Out presenting many of the same concepts: that chemical reactions in the body triggered by emotions are intensely powerful.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dutch psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score is well-known for his work in the area of post-traumatic stress. He gained acceptance for the diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) by demonstrating how trauma lives in the body and how it must be coaxed out in similarly tangible and physical ways in order for healing to begin.

Gavin de Becker, the author of the Gift of Fear and world expert on security and violence, tells listeners on the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris, that intuition is your greatest strength in assessing danger. If you attend to your body, you’ll recognize how fear feels and be ready to take action. Go with your gut!

Stanford professor and MacArthur genius awardee, Robert Sapolsky changed the way we think about stress by comparing the health of animals in wild to that of humans in modern day life.

The flood of negative emotions we experience constantly degrade our immune systems and increase the risk of disease. We literally make ourselves sick with worry, anger, and fear.

It’s not all bad: Dacher Keltner, psychologist and founder of the Greater Good Science Center, describes a compassion instinct – how compassion evolved throughout our evolution promoting cooperation and social cohesion.

Compassion stimulates real physiological changes in the autonomic nervous system – a bundle of nerves, glands, and organs in the body – the same bundle that unconsciously regulates heart rate, digestion, and other bodily functions and controls our fight-or-flight response. Compassion releases oxytocin, a reward that motivates us to be even more compassionate. Recent research examined couples’ physiological states and found kindness to be the glue in marital relationships!

In Compassion Cultivation Training Week-2 we’re exploring the palpable sensations of kindness and compassion by noticing when kindness shows up in day-to-day life and how it feels. Also by noticing its opposites – like anger and disgust – and how they feel as well.

This week’s challenge is to cultivate an awareness of sensory experience, without judging. To be present with emotions as they come rejecting the belief that bad is wrong.

Denying the difficult is akin to abandoning life. In some cases, as Gavin de Becker shows, such denial may even increase the risk of threat and harm.

The skill of listening, feeling, sensing and fully recognizing ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t’ opens a path to be fully present and engaged with all that life brings without being overwhelmed.

We can’t make ourselves BE compassionate, we need only to FEEL that we ARE and then get out of the way.