Highlights from the Mindfulness in America Summit

Last year, I fortuitously stumbled across the Mindfulness in America Summit held in New York City in October. I could not attend in person due to the distance, but they had a wonderfully inexpensive option to join via live broadcast. It was a wonderful day-and-a-half program with a number of leading experts in the field of mindfulness. I had hoped to attend in person this year, but alas, had to opt for the virtual ticket again. Nevertheless, it was another amazing experience with more excellent speakers. I thought I would share some of the highlights and the incredible ways that mindfulness is being applied in so many different arenas.

Day 1

The conference opened with the father of modern-day mindfulness himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn. He led participants in a sitting meditation but made the point that every moment is the meditation. The message: yes, our daily mindfulness practice is important to build the skill, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that living our lives with awareness from moment to moment is what mindfulness is really about.

  • Mindfulness and Politics: I was so excited to hear from Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH), author of “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.” He was asked how mindfulness can help individuals deal with the current divisiveness present in our country these days. He emphasized the need for all of us to return to civility and understand that those with differing opinions are not stupid. He also shared an update on three key pieces of legislation related to mindfulness:
    • Federal education funds designated for use on social and emotional learning in schools, including programs to teach students mindfulness.
    • The creation of grants to help modify VFW facilities to include rooms for mind-body practices such as meditation.
    • The creation of a wellness program on Capitol Hill, to include mental health counselors trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques as well as designated rooms in congressional buildings for meditation and similar practices.

 

  • The New Face of Mindfulness: There was a panel at the end of the day with three leaders representing the “new faces of mindfulness”: Jesse Israel (of The Big Quiet), Gabrielle Prisco (Executive Director of the Lineage Project) and Diego Perez (a writer known as Yung Pueblo). All three of them spoke openly about challenging circumstances in their own lives that led to their personal mindfulness practices as well as the work they are currently doing in that arena. I was most inspired by Ms. Prisco, who had previously worked as a lawyer in the family court system. She spoke of the toxic culture inherent in that system, for all parties involved (clients and staff) and the absence of the word “love” throughout the system and process. Her organization brings mindfulness programs to vulnerable youth to help them manage stress, build inner strength, and cultivate compassion. They also train youth-serving organizations in the development of mindful practices. She envisions a youth justice system built on love with workers pledging a Hippocratic-like oath to “first do no harm.”

 

Day 2

The second day was jam-packed with top-notch speakers representing areas as diverse as law, healthcare, the military and professional sports. For the sake of space and time, I have selected just a few of the sessions I found most meaningful:

  • Mindfulness in the Military: Anderson Cooper interviewed neuroscientist Amishi Jha, PhD and Major General Walter Piatt about mindfulness training for active duty soldiers. There has been quite a bit of research done using mindfulness in the post-deployment arena, particularly for soldiers diagnosed with PTSD. However, Dr. Jha recognized the need for such training both pre-deployment and in the field. She found a willing participant in Major General Piatt and has received grant funding to study the impact of Mindfulness Based Attention Training for soldiers, which is an adaptation of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. Major General Piatt argued that all military personnel need “mental toughness” training much like the physical training (PT) that is required every day.

 

  • Mindfulness in Healing and Healthcare: Dan Harris (ABC Nightline co-anchor and author of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works”) interviewed Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna. Mr. Bertolini was in a very serious skiing accident in 2004 and turned to yoga and mindfulness to help manage his pain after finding little relief from multiple pain medications. His personal experience and recovery were so remarkable that he suggested offering yoga and mindfulness to Aetna employees to help deal with stress. They did a pilot study in order to convince the skeptical Chief Medical Officer at Aetna and had incredible results: they reduced stress by 33%, increased productivity by 62 minutes/month and saved the lives of two employees who admitted that they had been on the brink of suicide due to the pressures at work. The program has since been rolled out to all employees and expanded to include other practices such as pet therapy and PTO banks (where employees can give their paid time off to other employees in need).

I was even more excited to hear Mr. Bertolini’s rationale behind Aetna’s decision to merge with CVS, which is grounded in the desire to address social determinants of health. In the United States, your zip code often plays a larger role in determining your longevity than your genetic code. The leaders at Aetna realized that an organization like CVS, with pharmacies/clinics in almost every community, would be better equipped to help reduce local barriers to health and wellbeing. Mr. Bertolini sounded like a health coach when he said, “We need to ask, ‘What is it about your health that gets in the way of the life you want to lead?’” He used the analogy of “TripTiks®” for health – similar to those highlighted road maps that AAA used to provide to members when they traveled, we need to help individuals map out the road to better health.

  • A Mindful Approach to Race and Social Justice in the US: I am not sure my summary can accurately reflect just how powerful this session was. Once again, I was awestruck by Rhonda Magee, a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, who also teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions for lawyers, law students, and for minimizing social-identity-based bias. She, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Anderson Cooper had a moving discussion about the current “woundedness” in society and how the next two to three generations need to address it to help us all heal. They talked about using mindfulness and compassion to explore who we are in relation to each other and to help recognize our own biases. Professor Magee challenged us to begin conversations with people who we don’t think we have anything in common with and be willing to sustain that dialogue. That is not an easy ask in today’s world where it seems we become more divided every day, but as she noted, we need to turn the lens of awareness to where the pain is in order to begin the process of healing.

 

If you missed the summit but want to attend next year, click here to visit Wisdom 2.0, the organization that presents the summit. You can sign up for their e-mail list to stay abreast of this and other mindfulness events.

My #MeToo Moment

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Alyssa Milano’s tweet prompting her followers to reply with a simple “me too” if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted. The response was overwhelming and set off a movement across the country and the world, with the intent of raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Many women – and men – came forward to share their stories and they were from all walks of life, not just celebrities but everyday people, willing to speak up and have their voices heard.

I posted “me too” on my Facebook page that day and I will share my story today, publicly, for the first time. For most of the past year, I have watched the #MeToo movement from the sidelines, admiring the women and men who found the courage to share their stories even if it meant painfully reliving experiences they would rather forget. I think for many of these individuals it was a relief to know that they were not alone, that sexual harassment and sexual assault are far more common than most of us ever imagined. We can quote statistics all day long but until you start putting human faces and real-life stories to the numbers, it is easy to deny or ignore the enormity of the problem. I know I personally was surprised and saddened by how many women I know that also posted “me too” a year ago. Given the events that have unfolded in the last year, I think more of us, myself included, are finally ready to come out of the shadows and share our experiences. Breaking the silence and the stigma around sexual harassment and sexual assault is a first step to changing the culture.

My #MeToo moment happened about 27 years ago. So why am I choosing to come forward now, decades later, to share my story? Because I’ve had enough of the victim-blaming and the lack of support for victims who are willing to speak up and share their stories. It was bad enough when the President mocked Christine Blasey Ford after her gut-wrenching testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (after initially calling her a “very credible witness”). But the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the recent interview with First Lady Melania Trump, in which she stated that women who come forth with accusations of sexual harassment or sexual assault need “…to have really hard evidence…show the evidence.” News flash, my dear First Lady, but most sexual harassment, sexual assault and attempted sexual assault doesn’t happen out in public. There are usually no witnesses to such events, and no physical specimens to collect if the victim is not actually assaulted. So exactly what evidence can a victim put forth when it’s two people alone in a room and one person’s word against another? It is exactly this kind of mentality – that no one will believe you if there is no proof – that prevents most victims from reporting the event…including me.

My story

I was a freshman in college, excited about my new-found independence, living away from home for the first time. I lived in a freshman women’s suite in a high-rise dorm that housed upperclassmen as well. Within the first few weeks on campus, I met “J”, a sophomore who lived on the floor above mine. We hit it off pretty quickly and started hanging out regularly. We had a little flirtation thing going on – there was definitely some physical chemistry between the two of us. I was pretty naïve when it came to the whole dating scene – I didn’t date much in high school and the one relationship I had was mostly long distance and had ended mutually that summer before my freshman year. So needless to say, I was kind of excited that an older student seemed “into” me.

Up until that fateful night, “J” never exhibited any behavior that would have led me to feel uncomfortable being alone with him. Sure, he was in a fraternity and seemed a little full of himself at times, but he was also pre-med and serious about academics and his future career as a physician. I trusted him as he seemed like a good guy and there were no red flags or gut feelings like I’d experienced with some other guys I’d met around campus. So, I thought nothing of going up to his room one Friday night to hang out after a party. I believe he had been drinking. I had not as I did not drink in college. It got late, and as is common in college dorms around the country, I decided to crash there for the night. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves on his bed, making out. That was as far as we had ever gone before on a few occasions and there had never been any kind of talk about actually sleeping together. I was still a virgin and intended to stay that way.

Apparently, “J” had other ideas as next thing I know, he’s on top of me, trying to pull down my shorts and underwear. I remember feeling scared as he was clearly stronger than me. I said no multiple times and made it clear that I was not willing to have sex with him. I fought as hard as I could and am relieved to this day that he finally relented and rolled off of me. I don’t know what made him stop – I like to think that deep down he was a good guy and his conscious kicked in. Or maybe he was too drunk to keep fighting. Whatever the reason, I am grateful that it ended the way it did – that I can say I was a victim of a failed attempt at sexual assault. I have no idea what turn my life would have taken if he had succeeded.

I remember he was pissed, as was I, and so I left and returned to my room. The next day though, I went back to his room to confront him. I called him out on the fact that he almost raped me and yes, he had the nerve to call me a tease. He questioned why I stayed in his room if I didn’t want to sleep with him, accused me of leading him on. Needless to say, whatever friendship or relationship might have been developing ended right there. We saw each other in passing but never hung out again. I warned the women in my dorm to stay away from him.

Did I report this attempted assault to campus police? Sadly, I did not, as I feared the response would be much like his – that I would somehow be blamed or admonished for putting myself in the position to be attacked. I also rationalized my decision not to report based on the fact that he did not succeed – I considered myself “lucky” that I had escaped. I already felt traumatized by the event and honestly, I just wanted to forget it and move on. Can you imagine though if the tables were turned and I was the one that had tried to force him into having sex and he refused? No one would try to blame him for putting himself in a “precarious” position. If anything, he probably would have been mocked mercilessly by his fraternity brothers for NOT sleeping with me.

Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony has made me think a great deal about my own experience as they were so similar. We were both able to resist our attacker and escape without physical harm. For her, and me, the experience is a memory seared into our brains. Brett Kavanaugh denies it ever happened, perhaps because he was too drunk to remember. I often wonder if “J” remembers that night – or me, for that matter – particularly because he did not think he did anything wrong. Going back to the First Lady’s comments, neither Dr. Ford nor I can produce “hard evidence” of what happened that night. In the end, it’s our word against his. It seems impossible to me for anyone in this type of situation to prove it happened.

I believe Dr. Ford because her story is essentially my story. She had nothing to gain from coming forward and subjecting herself to the public scrutiny of her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the world, really. If she were out for publicity or monetary gain, she would have gone straight to the media from the start. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the prevalence of false reporting on sexual assault is between 2% and 10%, and those numbers are believed to be inflated due to inconsistent definitions and protocols.  Thus, in the majority of cases, the odds weighs heavily in favor of the victim. So next time someone shares their story with you, believe her or him and thank them for having the courage to speak up.

The Aftermath of Suicide

This is one of the most challenging posts I have had to write, but I believe it is an important topic to address. I am not a mental health expert; therefore, I can’t and won’t speak in depth about the topic. However, I know I have many questions for which I am still seeking answers, so I thought I would share what I have learned in the hopes that it will help others in a similar situation.

Tuesday started out like any other day. I was in “catch up” mode after spending a long weekend in New York with my family celebrating the marriage of my cousin and his new wife. I was working in my home office when I received a text from our daughter’s school, asking us to please see our email for important information. This was an unusual text to receive so I immediately sensed that something was wrong. I pulled up my email to find a message from the Principal, informing us that they had received notification of the unexpected death of a student. The lack of details and the fact that there have been a number of students and recent graduates of this school that have died in the last year or two due to drug overdoses and/or suicide led me to believe that this might be the case again.

Sadly, my intuition was correct. Shortly after receiving the email, I texted my neighbor to share my concerns. She shared that the student was a friend of her daughter and that she had been very depressed. This morning, she confirmed that the student had taken her own life on Monday night. My heart sank and has ached all day for the student; for her family; for her friends, classmates and teachers; for my neighbor’s daughter struggling with the sudden and unexpected loss of a friend; and for my neighbor and her husband, trying to figure out how to help their daughter understand the complexities of a death due to suicide.

There are so many questions swirling through my head:

  • How does a 15-year-old reach a point where she doesn’t believe her life is worth living anymore?

 

  • How does her friend reconcile all the “should haves” running through her head, forcing her to question whether she could have said or done something to change the outcome?

 

  • How to discuss it with my own daughter, who didn’t know the student personally but may be troubled by the loss of a classmate nonetheless?

 

  • What to say or do to help my neighbors and their daughter through this difficult time?

In my search for some answers to these questions, I have found that there are many excellent resources about suicide prevention. (I have listed some key resources below in the event that you or someone you may know needs help.) Obviously, we want to focus our time and attention on helping those in crisis, to let them know there is hope and that they are not alone. However, we also need to provide support to those individuals who are impacted directly or indirectly through the loss of a life to suicide. I found the following helpful suggestions on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website:

  • Accept their feelings: Survivors may grapple with a range of emotions such as fear, grief, shame, and anger. Be compassionate and patient and provide support without judgement or criticism.

 

  • Refer to the lost loved one by name: Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors to show that you have not forgotten this important person. It can also make it easier to discuss a subject that is often stigmatized.

 

  • Be sensitive around holidays and anniversaries: These occasions may bring forth memories of the lost loved one and emphasize their absence.

In addition, I found this helpful fact sheet for friends, family members, co-workers and others who are looking for information on how to help someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Perhaps the most important thing that any of us can do is listen – without judgment or criticism – and be patient. The surviving loved ones may want to grieve privately before accepting help but be available to them when they are ready to share.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for youth 15-24 years of age and the 3rd leading cause for 10-14-year-olds in the United States. Given these statistics, I fear that this may not be an isolated incident in my daughter’s high school and college tenure. For this reason, I will work even harder than I have to keep the lines of communication open with her. I want her to know that if she or any of her friends are struggling or feeling overwhelmed, that there is always help available. There is always hope.


Resources for depression and suicide prevention:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24 hours)

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

www.itsok2ask.com

 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

www.afsp.org

 

Hopeline NC

Over the phone crisis counseling and suicide intervention

24 Hour Crisis Line: 919-231-4525 (call or text) or 1-877-235-4525

https://www.hopeline-nc.org/

 

Be the One to Save a Life Campaign

http://www.bethe1to.com/