Christopher Willard: How We Grow Through What We Go Through

December 13, 2022

Christopher Willard: How We Grow Through What We Go Through

Christopher Willard December 13, 2022

Most of us are familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress. Fortunately, there’s another way we can respond to extreme adversity. This is what researchers call post-traumatic growth—and it’s something we’re all biologically “hardwired” to access, to turn even our most difficult experiences into a source of resilience and strength. 

In this podcast, Tami Simon speaks with clinical psychologist and author Dr. Christopher Willard about “how we grow through what we go through”—which is also the title of his new book. Tune in as they explore how meditation can literally be lifesaving; avoiding the trap of spiritual bypassing; the “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows” of our lives; embodiment practices and nervous system self-regulation; mindfulness and the capacity to respond rather than react; the practice of stretching the breath; acting ourselves into a new way of thinking and feeling; how there are many ways to healing and recovery—and finding the best for yourself; the power of posture; the connection between self-compassion and personal transformation; the practice of putting your hand on your heart; becoming a source of co-regulation for others; the concept of downstream and upstream reciprocity; and more.

Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of over 18 publications for children and adults. An internationally sought-after speaker and mindfulness educator, his books include Growing Up Mindful, Raising Resilience, The Breathing Book, Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing, and Alphabreaths Too.

Author photo © Kevin Day

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Also By Author

Christopher Willard: How We Grow Through What We Go Th...

Most of us are familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress. Fortunately, there’s another way we can respond to extreme adversity. This is what researchers call post-traumatic growth—and it’s something we’re all biologically “hardwired” to access, to turn even our most difficult experiences into a source of resilience and strength. 

In this podcast, Tami Simon speaks with clinical psychologist and author Dr. Christopher Willard about “how we grow through what we go through”—which is also the title of his new book. Tune in as they explore how meditation can literally be lifesaving; avoiding the trap of spiritual bypassing; the “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows” of our lives; embodiment practices and nervous system self-regulation; mindfulness and the capacity to respond rather than react; the practice of stretching the breath; acting ourselves into a new way of thinking and feeling; how there are many ways to healing and recovery—and finding the best for yourself; the power of posture; the connection between self-compassion and personal transformation; the practice of putting your hand on your heart; becoming a source of co-regulation for others; the concept of downstream and upstream reciprocity; and more.

How to Cultivate Generosity in Our Children

 

Nearly every spiritual tradition has a practice of generosity and giving. We call it Dana in some traditions, Caritas in Christianity, Tzedekah in Judaism, alms or communal sharing in others, or in the United States, “The Holiday Season” stretching onward from Black Friday through the New Year. These spiritual (and commercial) practices existed long before the term “positive psychology,” but the principles overlap significantly. We know now that making a practice of kindness and generosity leads to physical and mental health and social and spiritual benefits.

In families, children are often in the “getting” role, while adults are in the “giving role,” but how can we encourage that spirit of generosity in the next generation?

We are wired to be generous, and both neuroscience and well-worn clichés tells us we feel more joy in giving than in receiving. However, our consumer culture tells us the opposite, that getting will make us feel better. These messages run counter to the spiritual and scientific wisdom showing health and happiness come more through giving than getting. Just imagine if our society received just as many messages urging us to give than get, if people camped outside stores for days just to donate to the latest charity.

Among the many benefits, generosity also builds trust between people. Studies show that the giver’s brain regions associated with trust and connection light up, fostering optimism, reducing depression, and creating healthy attachments, showing us why cultures develop practices related to gift-giving. The benefits even extend to just witnessing an act of generosity.

 

So how can we encourage generosity our families? Here are a few ideas to consider.

  • Involve your kids in the decision for charitable giving, taking into account what your family’s values are: Social justice, the environment, health issues that have impacted your family, presents for children or families in need, and so on.
  • Follow the lead of my friend’s grandmother who gave the grandkids $100 each year, with $50 to spend on themselves and $50 she would donate to a charity of their choice.
  • Remember that giving can also include your time or your support. Volunteer as a family, a practice shown to boost happiness, empathy, and build closeness.
  • Give experiences; the happiness will last longer than the lifespan of a toy. Perhaps travel, theater tickets, or museum passes.
  • Donate toys to make space for the new. Notice together which toys are getting lonely and would be happier in a new home, saying thank you and goodbye to old toys, and imagining the happiness they will bring after they’ve been donated.

 

Looking for more great reads?

 

 

Excerpted from Raising Resilience by Christopher Willard, Pysd.

Christopher Willard, Psyd, is a clinical psychologist and consultant specializing in bringing mindfulness into education and psychotherapy. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaches at Harvard Medical Schools, and leads workshops worldwide. For more, visit drchristopherwillard.com.

Christopher Willard: Growing Up Mindful

Christopher Willard is a licensed psychologist who focuses on mindfulness, anxiety, and learning issues. With Sounds True, he has released a new book and companion audio called Growing Up Mindful: Essential Practices to Help Children, Teens, and Families Find Balance, Calm, and Resilience. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Chris and Tami talk about the inherent difficulties of being a child and how mindfulness practice can help ease the tensions of growing up. They discuss the different ways one can teach meditation techniques to kids, as well as the different ages at which one can start this instruction. Finally, Chris shares his vision of how mindfulness could be a powerful public health intervention—one that could possibly have an essential place in the future of childhood education.
(59 minutes)

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5 Tools to Create More Space in Your Mind

Busyness, distraction, and stress have all led to the shrinking of the modern mind.

I realize that’s a strange thing to say. Most of us don’t think of our mind as something with space in it, as a thing that can either be big or small, expensive or claustrophobic.

But just think about the last time you felt overwhelmed, stressed, or out of control. Chances are, you might not even have to think that hard. You might be experiencing that state right now as you read these words.

What happens in these moments? 

First, our mind wanders. It spins through all sorts of random thoughts about the past and the future. As a result, we lose touch with the direct experience of present time.

Second, we lose perspective. We can’t see the big picture anymore. Instead, it’s like we’re viewing life through a long and narrow tunnel. We become blind to possibility, fixated on problems.

Put these two together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for eradicating space in the mind. The landscape of the mind begins to feel like a calendar jammed with so many meetings, events, and obligations that these neon colored boxes cover-up even the smallest slivers of white space. 

So it could be nice for our partner, for our kids, and, mostly, for our ourselves to consider: how can we create more space in the mind?

Here are five tools for creating mental space. If you want to go deeper, check out my new book with Sounds True on the topic called OPEN: Living With an Expansive Mind in a Distracted World.

1. Meditation.

You’ve no doubt heard about all of the scientifically validated benefits of this practice. It reduces stress. It boosts productivity. It enhances focus.

That is all true. But here is the real benefit of meditation: it creates more space in the mind. To get started, try it out for just a few minutes a day. Use an app or guided practice to help you.

2. Movement.

So, maybe you’re not the meditating type. That’s fine. You can still create space in the mind by setting aside time for undistracted movement.

The key word here is “undistracted.” For many of us, exercise and movement have become yet another time where our headspace gets covered over by texts, podcasts, or our favorite Netflix series. 

There’s nothing wrong with this. But it can be powerful to leave the earbuds behind every once in a while and allow the mind to rest while you walk, stretch, run, bike, swim, or practice yoga.

3. Relax.

When it comes to creating headspace, we moderns, with our smartphone-flooded, overly-stimulated, minds seem to inevitably encounter a problem: we’re often too stressed, amped, and agitated to open.

Relaxation – calming the nervous system – is perhaps the best way to counter this effect and create more fertile ground for opening. When we relax – the real kind, not the Netflix or TikTok kind –  the grip of difficult emotions loosens, the speed of our whirling thoughts slows, and, most important, the sense of space in our mind begins to expand.

How can you relax? Try yoga. Try extended exhale breathing, where you inhale four counts, exhale eight counts. Try yoga nidra. Or, just treat yourself to a nap.

4. See bigger.

When life gets crazy, the mind isn’t the only thing that shrinks. The size of our visual field also gets smaller. Our eyes strain. Our peripheral vision falls out of awareness.

What’s the antidote to this tunnel vision view? See bigger.

Try it right now. With a soft gaze, allow the edges of your visual field to slowly expand. Imagine you’re seeing whatever happens to be in front of you from the top of a vast mountain peak. Now bring this more expansive, panoramic, way of seeing with you for the rest of the day.

5. Do nothing.

Now for the most advanced practice. It’s advanced because it cuts against everything our culture believes in. In a world where everyone is trying desperately to get more done, one of the most radical acts is to not do — to do nothing.

Even just a few minutes of this paradoxical practice can help you experience an expansion of space in the mind.

Lie on the floor or outside on the grass. Close your eyes. Put on your favorite music if you want. Set an alarm for a few minutes so you don’t freak out too much. 

Then, stop. Drop the technique. Drop the effort. Just allow yourself to savor this rare experience of doing absolutely nothing.

Nate Klemp, PhD, is a philosopher, writer, and mindfulness entrepreneur. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Start Here and the New York Times critics’ pick The 80/80 Marriage. His work has been featured in the LA Times, Psychology Today, the Times of London, and more, and his appearances include Good Morning America and Talks at Google. He’s a cofounder of LifeXT and founding partner at Mindful. For more, visit nateklemp.com or @Nate_Klemp on Instagram.

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