Priscilla Warner on Learning To Breathe

I first “met” Priscilla Warner when she friended me on Facebook in the fall of 2011 with the following message: “Hi Priscilla – Since your name comes up every time I start to type mine, and your book looks fascinating, I thought we should connect! Sound good?” I wrote her back: “Wonderful! and I just read about your new book, and ordered it- I am so excited- I’m a big meditator, and I love the sound of your book. So happy you reached out to me.” Thus a cyber friendship and a mutual admiration society were born. We met in person for the first time when Priscilla came to see me speak at a Child Care Council of Westchester event- we couldn’t stop hugging each other!-, and last March we hung out at the Books for a Better Life Awards where our books were both nominated. Priscilla is one of the warmest, most down-to-earth, unpretentiously smart, life-giving people I’ve ever met, and I was delighted when she agreed to answer questions for this blog. You’ll find a wealth of insight and practical tips in the answers she gave me. Thanks to Priscilla for gracing this blog with her spirit!

Priscilla Warner is a co-author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club and the author of a new memoir, Learning To Breathe, which was nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. Inspired by the impressive meditation practices of Tibetan monks, Priscilla set out to heal from a panic disorder that had plagued her for decades. On this winding path from panic to peace, with its hairpin emotional curves and breathtaking drops, she also delves into a wide range of spiritual and alternative health practices. Written with lively wit and humor, Learning to Breathe is a serious attempt to heal from a painful condition. It’s also a life raft of compassion and hope for people similarly adrift or secretly fearful, and an entertaining, inspiring guidebook for anyone facing daily challenges large and small, longing for a sense of peace, self-acceptance, and understanding.

1) Tell us about your yearlong quest to bring calm to your life: what inspired it, what it taught you, and how it concluded.

For years, I’d been reading stories about Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains. I’d also been suffering from panic attacks so debilitating that they left me unable to breathe. My experience with a previous book I co-authored, The Faith Club, had left me exhausted but also exhilarated by what I’d learned from people of all religions. I was open to learning how to meditate, and eager to study with Buddhist teachers. One in particular – a young Tibetan monk who’d suffered panic attacks as a child and healed through meditation – became my first teacher. He taught me how to meditate in an open-minded way – eyes open or shut, sitting, lying down and walking, listening to music. My last communal meditation experience was at a zen center where I stared at a white wall for 30 minutes at a time. In between, I meditated every day for 20 minutes, and discovered effective therapies that grounded me and lessened my anxiety significantly. I achieved a kind of inner peace I could never have imagined.

2) What are some of the biggest roadblocks or obstacles that prevent us from achieving calm and truly breathing?

We think too much! Meditation allows us to let go of thoughts.

We over-react to things! Meditation changes our brains so that we can digest incoming information with less judgment.

We judge ourselves too harshly! As Tara Brach, one of my teachers, taught me, we all have a golden Buddha deep inside of us that we can learn how to access, a basic goodness that can guide and comfort us.

We want things to be different from they way they are! And that’s the definition of suffering, according to Buddhist teachings. Once we accept that we are all suffering humans, we can have compassion for each other and ourselves.

3) What are some of the best strategies you found for calming yourself and reducing your anxiety?

Meditating daily for 20 minutes has altered the way I react to stress. And I don’t always have to do it in a solitary way. I can listen to guided imagery and music in order to calm my mind.

Somatic Experiencing and EMDR Therapy, two very powerful therapies, helped me ground myself and release disturbing physical sensations brought on by trauma and buried emotions.

4) What would you say to people who dismiss meditation as fluffy, new-agey, or ineffective?

It’s not new agey in my mind, since it’s existed for thousands of years, as an important component of many different religions and cultures!

It’s not fluffy or ineffective, because it allows us to access a place deep inside of us that is strong, secure, safe and powerful.

5) How would you define resilience? What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

I define resilience as the ability to adapt to circumstances beyond our control. In order to do that, I think we need to be humble enough to seek help from others, and to be curious and dedicated enough to acquire skills that allow us to heal.

6) How were your marriage and your parenting affected by your intense anxiety and panic attacks? How did your husband and your children react to your quest for calm?

My husband was always patient and understanding when it came to my anxiety. He loved me because I was vulnerable, and valued the idea of being vulnerable along with me. Displaying that vulnerability is freeing, and it connects us to others powerfully.

As a parent, my biggest challenge was to appear calm to my children. For years I sought help from a therapist in order to do that. She taught me how to manage my own anxiety so that it wouldn’t cloud my judgment or spill over into the way I parented, increasing my children’s anxiety. That’s not to say that I was a serene Madonna. I wasn’t. But I tried my best to heal from my own anxiety so that I could help them face theirs. Although my fantasy was that they could lead lives free of suffering, that’s just not the case. Learning that my children need to face painful experiences on their own sometimes, to suffer disappointment and anxiety, then move forward on their own, was a very difficult thing for me to accept. Although they are young adults, they still come to me occasionally during stressful situations, and it’s always a challenge for me to stay grounded so that I can be helpful to them.

My husband and children have told me how proud they are of what I accomplished by writing this book, and they’re happy to see me happy!


7) What advice do you have for anxious parents? How can they learn to breathe and let go?

We can’t raise healthy, happy children if we aren’t doing our best to be happy, healthy people. We need to feel safe and secure so that we can provide safety and security to our children.

What I love about establishing a meditation practice (which I urge even the busiest parents to do – starting with just five minutes a day) is that it provides a safe haven, a port in a storm, a room of one’s own.

Parenting can be lonely, hectic, depressing, exciting, rewarding, confusing and disturbing. Meditation teaches us that all of those emotions come and go, along with the moments that trigger them. Once I developed a meditation practice, I became less reactive to events. I was able to step back and observe myself, my family, and my friends without jumping to conclusions or donning a superhero cape to try and fix everything heroically. Parents want to be superheroes, but we need to have our feet planted firmly on the ground, and meditation helps us do that.

8) What are some of your favorite books and authors?

I was deeply moved and inspired by Lucy Greely’s extraordinary, courageous book, Autobiography of a Face, as well as Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Those raw, honest memoirs gave me the courage to write Learning to Breathe. I love fiction that grips me immediately with characters I care about deeply. A Fine Balance is the gold standard for me in that regard. I love anything Tom Wolfe writes. The last book I finished and really enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.

9) Who inspires you (public figures, writers, people in your personal life)?

People who share their stories about the painful experiences they’ve encountered in life – like you, Priscilla – inspire me. For so long, I thought I was the only person with a panic disorder, and I’ve received the most beautiful emails from readers who’ve shared their lives with me. Their courage, honesty and insights sustain me. And of course I am still inspired by Tibetan monks! And all of the teachers and healers I met in my book. I’m amazed at how many people there are in the world who want to help and heal others.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your approach to Life?

I love this quote from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist teacher: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Life can be difficult and we can’t predict the ways in which we’ll be challenged. But my meditation practice has taught me how to surf the waves of sadness, fear and sorrow that we all encounter. I still get knocked over occasionally, but everything I learned through this experience has given me the strength and confidence to get up again and keep swimming.

Priscilla Warner grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and spent many years in Boston and New York as an advertising art director, shooting ads for everything from English muffins to diamond earrings. Priscilla co-authored the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club, then toured the country for three years, hyperventilating her way through an extended book tour. Finally, in the skies over Oklahoma, she vowed to find her inner monk, and began meditating her way from panic to peace.

“Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream”: A Q &A with Dare Dream Do’s Whitney Johnson

A few months ago, I was sent a book by an amazing woman named Amy Jameson, who used to work with my mother and now has her own agency and editorial consulting firm.  A good friend of hers had published a book Amy thought I would love, and so on a chance, she sent it to me.  Dare, Dream, Do is my kind of book: filled with inspiring and poignant stories of real women facing real challenges and pursuing real dreams, uplifting and encouraging quotations (you know I ate those up!), and practical, detailed, compassionate advice about how to be effective and tenacious in realizing our dreams.   I was thrilled when Whitney agreed to answer questions I posed to her about the nature of dreams and how best to achieve them, work/life balance, challenge and resilience, her own strategies for maintaining optimism, and what people, books, and quotations inspire her.

Whitney Johnson is the president and co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm Rose Park Advisors, and author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, 2012).  A former Institutional Investor-ranked sell-side analyst on Wall Street, Whitney is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, was recognized as a top ten blogger by Marcus Buckingham, and is one of Inc Magazine’s 12 People to Follow on Twitter in 2012.  She also serves as a senior advisor to the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, and is the mother of two children.

Dare, Dream, Do provides a three-step model for personal advancement and happiness.  Whitney first encourages us to DARE: to boldly step out, to consider disrupting life as we know it. Then she teaches us how to DREAM, to give life to the many possibilities available, whether to start a business, run a marathon, or travel the world. She shows us how to “date” our dreams (no need to commit!) and how to make space for dreams. Finally, Whitney’s model brings out the businesswoman in her; she teaches us to DO, to execute our dreams. She showcases the importance of sharing dreams with others to give them life, creating your own “dream team.” Rich with real stories of women who have dared to dream, DARE, DREAM, DO offers a practical framework for making remarkable things happen.

 

1) Tell us how you came to write your book, Dare, Dream, Do, and what you hope to accomplish with it.

When I took a sabbatical from Wall Street in 2005, I was brimming with confidence at having risen from secretary to award-winning stock analyst.  Having discovered my dream could come true, I began to ask others, particularly women, about their own dreams.  While many of these well-educated, eminently capable women confessed to not really having a dream, often there was an unspoken, “I’m not sure it is my privilege to dream.”  Concerned, but mostly saddened, I knew I had to do something.  To build the case that dreaming is an inalienable right.  I began my Dare to Dream blog in 2006, which eventually became the inspiration for Dare, Dream, Do.

2) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to doing what we dream?  How can we overcome them?

Whether you are plagued by perfectionism, or riddled by self-doubt, there are a number of derring-do hacks.  First, persuade yourself you have the right to dream.  Second, throw out conventional planning because dreaming is discovery-driven. Third, go ahead and date some dreams, lots of them – you don’t need to commit to every dream you date. Dare to disrupt yourself.  Dream your very own dream. Do.

3) What would you say to someone who insists he or she just doesn’t have the time or luxury to dream, let alone dare, or someone who claims dreaming is for impractical and self-indulgent romantics?

When we dream, we make meaning of our life, discover the essence of ourselves, truly grow up, and most importantly model for our children how to dream.  As we focus on our ‘to-be’ list, rather than our ‘to-do’ list, research indicates we’ll actually get more accomplished.  Dreaming then, is anything but a luxury or a lark for the romantic (though it is that too), but rather a productivity-maximizing tool for the pragmatist.

4) What personal dreams have you not yet realized?  are there some dreams better left unrealized?

The right dreams expand our hearts, binding us to those we love. They also enlighten our minds, as in ideas begin to flow.  If it feels right in both our heart and our head, the dream becomes delicious.  I love that word delicious:  delicious pineapple, strawberries, cherries, apricots. Delicious dreams.

As for my still to be realized dreams, I have the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of working with one of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Clayton Christensen:  he knows — and has encouraged me in my dream to one day have my own venture capital (VC) firm.  I also dream of producing a documentary.

5) What do you rely on in your daily life to help you stay focused and centered, to help you do what you dream of doing?  for example, meditation, a spiritual practice, special diet, support groups, etc?

We believe within the context of our deeply held beliefs:  I’m reminded of those beliefs when I pray either alone or with my family, read scriptures, go to church on Sunday, journal, walk/run outdoors alone or with friends.

6) Tell us about attending to multiple dreams, or multi-tasking.   How can we achieve a more sane and fulfilling work-life balance?  How can we pursue our individual dreams and still make time for our crucial relationships?

According to Jungian psychology, our psyche is made up both masculine (power) and feminine (capacity for love) components.  In order to dream, we need to develop both sides of the psyche, to handle power and to love, to learn to be a ship and a harbor.  To “have it all”.  The question, to me, is less about whether we can have it all, but rather what our definition of ‘all’ is.  If it is vital to be both ship and a harbor, it means we have to make choices. For women, the choices we face may feel Solomonic; we simultaneously feel the tug of our ship full of dreams while trying to keep one foot grounded on the dock of family life. But a choice we have to make, trusting that we’ll know which are the right dreams for us.   And only us.

7) How would you define resilience?  What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?

When plagued by fear and perfectionism, resilience =  “never, never, never, never giving up” to paraphrase Winston Churchill.   It means when you come to a challenge, rather than sidestepping, you make meaning of that challenge, asking, what am I supposed to learn so that I can do what I’m supposed to do next.  Resilience is behaving as if the biggest lesson we can teach the next generation is to let them see us our mistakes, and gradually shorten our recovery time, such that every time we fail, we fail forward.

8) Who inspires you? (this can include public figures, writers, and people in your personal life)

In the public sphere, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Barbara Corcoran, Brene Brown, Gretchen Rubin, Joanne Wilson.  In my private life, I have a core group of girlfriends whom I adore, and with whom I find respite, and of course my husband, and my two children – they are my harborhaven advisors.

9) What are your favorite books and authors?

I started to think about my favorite books, but then I realized that if I start wracking my brain, for anything other than top-of-mind, then the book is probably not my favorite.  So here goes: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Enders’ Game by Orson Scott Card, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Personal History by Katharine Graham, and of course the myth of Psyche.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your positive, inspiring outlook on life?

“You can bet your life, and that, and twice its double, God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed.” These lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, encapsulate what I believe about your life and mine.  Each of us is exactly where we are supposed to be.  So we can learn what we need to learn, accomplish what we are meant to accomplish, help who we are supposed to help.  Where we are, who we are, and what we do matters.

www.whitneyjohnson.com

A Q &A with Sean Meshorer, spiritual teacher and author of The Bliss Experiment

 

One of the last projects I sold when I was working as a literary agent was a fantastic book called The Bliss Experiment by Sean Meshorer.   The book has just been published by Atria, and I’m delighted to share with you a Q &A I did with Sean via email recently.

 

THE BLISS EXPERIMENT

 

28 Days to Personal Transformation

 

Sean Meshorer

 

A cross between The Power of Now and The Happiness Project, The Bliss Experiment reveals how to tap into the innate state of joy that resides in all of us: bliss.

HAPPINESS IS GOOD. BLISS IS BETTER.

We have a higher standard of living and more ways to fulfill every desire than ever. Yet we remain unhappy because happiness isn’t what we truly want.   What we seek is bliss: a complete spiritual state where happiness, profound meaning, and enduring truth converge. With it come unshakeable joy, interconnectedness, and wisdom. It offers a solution to both personal and societal suffering. The book includes stories, over 300 scientific studies and exercises that have worked, time and again, for people from all walks of life.

Sean Meshorer is a spiritual teacher and New Thought minister based in Los Angeles. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in philosophy and religious studies. He spent fifteen years meditating, studying, practicing, and living in an ashram and spiritual community in Northern California. Sean lives with daily, chronic pain from a serious back injury and finds bliss nonetheless. 

 

1) Define bliss.  What does it mean to you and why do you see it as such an important goal for all of us?

Bliss is an inward experience of happiness. With it comes a complete feeling of inner peace, contentment, love, connectedness and joy that dwells inside each and every one of  us, no matter our background, religion, age, gender, genetics, or life experience. It exists entirely independent of our external circumstances, including negative ones. Once we discover bliss inside, it’s something that we can confidently know to be a permanent and positive inner resource that’s always with, no matter what’s happening around us.

2) What would you say to people who dismiss the possibility of bliss as fluffy, new-agey, or unrealistic? 

According to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center, almost half of all Americans have had a bliss experience and they come from every religion (and no religion) and background across the spectrum. So it has nothing to do with anything new age, or even unconventional. These kinds of experiences are happening all over the place and in all kinds of people but they’re not always well-understood and there’s a great reluctance to talk about them–and most people don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about it. And the 50% of people who haven’t had a bliss experience probably haven’t just because no one has ever told them they have that potential or how to realize it. Once you know, it’s not that hard to have at least a glimpse of taste of it. And even a moment of bliss can completely transform your life.

3) I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin and her Happiness Project, as are many of my readers and followers.  What is the relationship between happiness and bliss? 

Happiness is an important way-station on the way to bliss but by itself it’s incomplete. Happiness is based on external circumstances–whether lower-order pleasures or higher-order positive relationships–that is itself fleeting. Happiness ebbs and flows. For example, we might go out for a night of drinking with friends and a loved one and it’s all highly enjoyable but what happens the next morning? The hangover comes. Even the most optimistic positive psychologist will readily tell you that it’s impossible to be happy all of the time. Bliss is different: once we know it’s there and learn to access it, it can always be with us, no matter our external circumstances–even when bad things like unemployment, illness, or relationship problems are happening in our lives.

4) What are the greatest obstacles or roadblocks to experiencing bliss?  

There are three major obstacles. The biggest obstacle is not knowing that we have the potential to experience it. Awareness is truly half the battle. Second, we have to learn to stop looking for authentic joy outside of ourselves–especially in wealth, material objects, sex, romance, beauty, fame, or power. These outward things distract us from looking inward, which is the only place that genuine bliss dwells. Finally, we have to learn how to control and quiet our own minds, especially the myriad negative thoughts, feelings, and images that so many of us experience on a daily basis. These are like cloudy ripples on the surface of our mind, creating mental disturbances that prevent us from having the peace and clarity necessary for noticing the quiet reservoir of bliss that lurks beneath the surface of our agitated minds.

5) Is it possible to attain bliss if one is facing a major challenge like divorce, job loss, a cancer diagnosis, a child’s learning or developmental disorder, or a chronic health condition?  How have you achieved bliss despite your own struggles, losses, suffering, and challenges? 

Absolutely. In fact, not only is it possible but ultimately when life is going poorly, it’s the single best and most effective resource we can have to help ourselves rise above whatever outer challenges we’re facing. No one–and I mean no one–has a perfectly turbulent-free life. None of us can fully control our circumstances–some, yes, but never fully–but what we can learn to control is our internal response to difficult circumstances.

6) Give my readers 5 concrete strategies they can use to bring more bliss to their daily lives.

1. Don’t look for fulfillment in things like money, material objects, fame, beauty, sex, or power. It’s not that those things are bad, it’s that they’re neutral. Empty vessels. The only thing that gives them meaning is the inward meaning that we bring to them. The faster we understand that, the faster we can turn our attention inward.

2. Learn how to release the past, forgive others, and stop ruminating about the bad things that have happened to you. The more you dwell on that, the more miserable you make yourself.

3. Practice being aware of this present moment. Right now. Don’t live in the past or the future. The present moment is all there really is, it’s where everything happens, and it’s the doorway to bliss. If we pull ourselves too far out of this moment, not only do we stress ourselves out, we miss the positive opportunities in front of us.

4. Learn how to harness and control your mind. For most of us, our minds are seriously out of control. We have up to 50,000 thoughts per day and even someone who is just average and not severely depressed, at least half of those are needlessly negative. That’s a lot of negativity that courses through us all day, every day. If we can be aware of that and then learn how to reduce those needlessly negative thoughts, we can realize very fast gains in our happiness.

5. Practice giving something positive back into the world. Be nice to people, give them a smile, act selflessly whenever possible, practice compassion towards others. Happiness and unhappiness are highly contagious–we pass emotions back and forth in as little as a second–so be aware that what your’e doing and how you’re behaving is actually affecting others and quite literally changing the world. Studies show that the emotions we transmit directly to someone then end up transmitted by that person to complete strangers who didn’t come into contact with us. So if you want the world to be a better place, realize that it has to start with you.

7) As someone who’s kept a quote book since 7th grade and shares inspiring and motivating quotations daily on Facebook and Twitter, I especially liked the section of your book on the positive practice of affirmations.  At one point, you say “while often seen as excessively self-helpy, affirmations are anything but New Age . . . [but rather] are based on the neural operations inside our brain.”  Can you explain how and why you’ve overcome your distaste for affirmations and come to see them as crucially important to cultivating resilience, achieving success at work and in our relationships, and attaining bliss? 

I’m the first to admit that affirmations can sound embarrassingly new age. That’s certainly what I thought until I stumbled across more than a dozen scientific studies that prove they work, including one that showed inner-city, African-American schoolchildren could almost entirely close the test score gap with their white, middle-class peers solely by affirming their abilities and self-worth. There’s something scientists call Hebbian Theory which basically means, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If we repeat affirmations in a certain way with repetition, it actually helps create new neural pathways in our brains that in turn give us the brain resources necessary to make whatever we’re affirming a reality, whether that’s workplace success, relationship improvement, or spiritual realization. That’s the key: most of the deepest and hardest personality changes also require our brain grooves to change–and it turns out that affirmations are one of the most effective techniques to enable this.

How would you apply the principles, attitudes, and actions of your work on bliss to the act of parenting?  

No one needs the inner experience of bliss more than parents! The more chaotic, stressful–and exhausting–our outward life, the more crucial it is that we cultivate the inner resources to deal with that. It’s really not the difficult or time consuming to practice some of the bliss techniques.As a parent, you might only have a few minutes here and there, bliss practices can help us go on an instant vacation, revitalizing and centering ourselves very quickly. Most importantly, bliss helps us stay centered in the moment, helping us rein in our fears, anxieties, and negative emotions. We can actually come to enjoy and appreciate our family time much more–plus feel confident that we have the inner resources to deal with whatever challenges our children throw our way!

9) How would you define the word resilience?  What is the relationship between resilience and bliss? 

In one sense, resilience is a sub-aspect of bliss. To be blissful is to be perfectly resilient, among other things. In another sense, bliss supersedes the need for resilience which implies that we’ve been knocked around but found a way to rebound. When we learn how to access and feel our full inner resources, we often don’t get shaken to begin with. As my own teacher said, “We learn to stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.” But of course, that’s not always the case. Often, we are thrown for a loop by life circumstances but ultimately the only thing we can truly control is our own response to whatever is happening outside us. Bliss and its attendant practices give us the techniques and resources needed to bounce back from whatever negative is going on–and often very quickly.

10) Why do you think I chose to represent your book?  What values and aspirations do we share?  What similarities do you see between my experience and yours, my approach to life and yours?  Why will readers of The Anti-Romantic Child or followers of my Facebook page like your book? 

Priscilla, you are one of the most hopeful, joyful, and positively infectious people I know! You instinctively try to find the good in a situation which is one of the foundational mindsets necessary for finding bliss. Like many of us, you’ve also suffered greatly in your personal life but instead of it destroying you, you’ve found ways to learn and grow from it–and then share that with others. These are all aspects of the bliss process. I think, too, we have a shared background–private schools, high academic achievement combined with a certain kind of intellectual training and approach, and even similar types of families in which we’re raised. You get where I’m coming from and where I’m trying to go. In The Anti-Romantic Child there’s this kind of intersection between intellectual understanding and practical experience, that attempt to actually apply your love of poetry, Wordsworth, and the feelings and ideas represented by that to your daily life–and all woven into a compelling personal story. You merge together two worlds that often seem, or can be, separate. You insist on exploring how Wordsworth really does apply to the experiences and lessons of daily life. The Bliss Experiment shares this sensibility. I needed to merge together my intellectual background and rigorous scientific studies with my own practical experiences in these past 15 years, while telling not only my own story but those of dozens of interesting people that I met along the way.

 

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