The Secret to More Calm, Clarity & Joy: Redefining Mindfulness & Self-Compassion with Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D.
In this Feel Good Effect podcast episode, we are talking about talking the secret to more calm, clarity, and joy, and redefining mindfulness and self-compassion with expert Dr. Shauna Shapiro, author of the book Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy
Shauna shares her updated definition of mindfulness and dives into why your attitude really matters. We also talk about why self-compassion in itself is so incredibly transformative and radical, common misgivings people have about self-compassion, and simple ways to practice mindfulness and self-compassion to rewire for more calm, clarity, and joy.
The Secret to More Calm, Clarity & Joy: Redefining Mindfulness & Self-Compassion with Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D.
Shauna’s transformative history
Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy, is a culmination of the past 25-years of Dr. Shauna Shapiro’s life. As a teenager, Shauna had to have a spinal fusion surgery due to worsening scoliosis. She went from being a healthy and active teenager to laying on a hospital bed, unable to walk. After months of rehabilitation and significant physical and emotional pain, Shauna discovered mindfulness when her father visited her in the hospital one day with a book for her. He’d brought her a copy of Wherever You Go, There You Are, by one of the pioneers in mindfulness, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. The first paragraph read, “No matter what has happened to you, it’s already happened. The only question that matters is, ‘now what?'”
It was a lightbulb moment. This book offered the possibility of happiness again after being in a hospital bed for months feeling like her life was over, reassuring that it’s never too late. No matter what’s happened, you can always begin again. In fact, neuroscience teaches us that our brain is constantly changing and evolving over the course of our life. That means we can learn, grow, and develop new pathways, that we can even rewire our brain to be happier.
Neuroplasticity is still relevant for adults. Once we get past childhood, we tend to think that’s it, which puts us in a self-critical loop. But it’s never too late. We all have the capacity to re-architect the physical structure of our brains through practice.
Studying the practice of mindfulness
When Shauna was 20, she studied meditation at a Thai monastery. During a 2-week silent retreat, a monk said to her, “what you practice grows stronger”, explaining that if she was meditating with frustration, judgment, and self-criticism, that she was only growing frustration, judgment, and self-criticism. We’re practicing something at every moment, and our repeated thoughts, emotions, and behaviors shape our brain. We can choose to engage in practices that cultivate generosity, creativity, peace, and happiness.
Bring the science + practice together
The intention behind Shauna’s book was to integrate the current science with practices that people can easily integrate into their lives to actually create change. It’s not easy to just do, but it’s simple enough to know that you’re not stuck and your brain can change through these practices.
All of us have this possibility to change, but we often go about it in the wrong way, missing the crucial ingredient of self-compassion. When we think that change will happen perfectly overnight and we inevitably fail, we beat ourselves up. The key to change is actually recognizing that shame, judgment, and perfection don’t work. When we judge ourselves, put pressure on ourselves, or get lost in self-criticism, it actually inhibits the brain from learning. Instead, our brains shut down learning centers, shuttling our resources to survival pathways (fight or flight response).
Self-kindness is key
Most of us are missing this idea that we can change through kindness and compassion. We think that we need to change by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps or whipping ourselves into shape, yet, the research shows that this is completely wrong.
A study at UC Berkeley showed that women who were trying to lose weight who were taught to be kind to themselves, to recognize that they were never going to do it perfectly lost more weight and stayed on the study’s diet much more effectively than the control group, who were harsh on themselves. The key is to treat ourselves with self-compassion.
What self-compassion does is two-fold: let us see our mistakes and increase dopamine production. First, it lets us see our mistakes more clearly because we aren’t so ashamed or overwhelmed by them; we can actually have the courage to look for them. Second, positive emotions, like kindness, compassion, and curiosity, bathe our system in dopamine, which activates motivation and action centers in the brain and the ability to make changes. Lasting change and transformation require this attitude of kindness.
A new model of mindfulness
People often misunderstand what mindfulness is, forgetting about the component of kindness, which is crucial to how we change. To solve this, Shauna and her colleagues built a new model of mindfulness in 2006 with three key elements: intention, attention, and attitude. The first element, intention, aims to answer “why am I paying attention to this?” and “what’s important to me?”. Your attention is your most valuable resource and our intention helps to remind us. The second element is attention, which is simply training and strengthening your capacity to stay focused. Research from Harvard has shown that, on average, our mind wanders 47% of the time, meaning that about half of your waking hours are spacing out. Part of mindfulness is learning how to train and stabilize the mind in the present moment so we can see clearly so we can respond effectively (in fact, the word mindfulness means “to see clearly”). Lastly, attitude has to do with the quality of our attention and how we’re paying attention. Is it with judgment and criticism? Or with kindness, curiosity, and compassion?
The key to mindfulness is to pay “attention with kindness”. This point is exemplified by the Japanese kanji for mindfulness, which has two characters, the first meaning “presence” or “attention” and the bottom character meaning “mind” or “heart”. Having interchangeable meanings, “mindfulness” could have also been translated as “heartfulness”. But as a culture, we are so focused on perfectionism and striving that we miss the part of mindfulness that is about the heart and kindness. One of the best learnings Shauna received on mindfulness came from Sylvia Boorstein. She said to notice the tone of your voice when your mind has wandered and to notice how you bring yourself back.
With the attitudes part, we can struggle with perfectionism when it comes to self-compassion too, even judging ourselves for judging ourselves. The antidote isn’t to give up, though, it’s to practice it in an imperfect way because it’s about practice, not perfection. To counter this, Shauna has what she calls the 5% Principle. She asks people to just invite in 5% more kindness than they currently are. This way, it’s not about achieving all-out self-love, just 5% more kindness, more gentleness, and more care. Change happens in small increments. Subtle is significant and these baby steps can lead to really significant change.
Influential voices of self-compassion
A number of influential voices in the field have joined Robyn on the Feel Good Effect Podcast, including Leah Weiss, PhD talking about everyday mindfulness and Kristin Neff, PhD talking about how to cultivate self-compassion. Kristin Neff is one of the pioneers in the field and she developed a very comprehensive, clear model of self-compassion, of which the first step is mindfulness. Really, self-compassion is born out of mindfulness. We have to know that we are suffering, be present in it, and acknowledge it.
Pay attention to pain
The first step is just to acknowledge that you’re hurting. As obvious as it seems, many of us pass over the pain. The second step is to bring kindness to our pain, to actually treat ourselves as we would a dear friend who was suffering. For this, it doesn’t work to imagine what your friends would say to you if you were suffering, you need to imagine what you would say to a dear friend. When you think of it that way, all of a sudden your heart opens in compassion. The third step is common humanity, the recognition that we’re not the only ones suffering. So often, we isolate ourselves in our pain, feeling like we’re the only ones in pain. But all of us struggle, and the key is to open our awareness to common humanity. There’s so much power and transformation in it that is accessible to all of us.
Something that people often don’t expect is that when you start practicing self-compassion, you might actually feel worse before you feel better. When we start paying attention, we notice how harsh we are on ourselves and it’s painful to witness. Again, it’s not about doing it perfectly. It’s about noticing that even just witnessing how we treat ourselves is painful, bringing compassion to it, and knowing that it’s part of the process. As we bring the light of our awareness to these patterns, it can create pain.
Finding balance: incline your mind toward joy
We also need to bring balance to the process. We don’t need to go all-in, but can we bring just a little more compassion? It can also be helpful to pendulate, moving from really difficult, painful things to including practices of joy, gratitude, and appreciation in your life.
So often, practices of meditation focus on suffering and what we need to fix. The intention behind meditation was really to awaken us to the full capacity of living, which also includes learning how to hardwire these pathways of joy and happiness. Part of Shauna’s book really focuses on how to cultivate and incline the mind toward joy, to prime the mind to look for the good and the beautiful instead of constantly scanning the environment for danger and negativity. We have evolved with something called “the negativity bias”, meaning we are primed for negativity. This made sense for our ancestors who were confronted with more life-threatening experiences than we tend to be, but as descendants of these ancestors, we have evolved to look for what’s scary and dangerous. For example, when your boss gives you four points of positive feedback and one negative, we tend to focus on that one negative. Instead, we need to learn how to balance that and start to focus on what is good, what we are grateful for, and to develop resources.
In the fullness of life, there is pain and sorrow, but there is also beauty, tenderness, and joy and we need to invite in both. There’s a need for mindset work around self-compassion, which Shauna calls the “self-compassion misgivings” and Robyn calls “the resistance”. Often, when people hear about self-compassion, they think one or more of these: it’s selfish, self-indulgent, undermines motivation, weak, and/or it undermines responsibility and integrity. The research actually shows otherwise, though.
Self-compassion is not selfish
Self-compassion is not selfish. People who are more self-compassionate are rated as much more generous, giving, open beings by their partners.
Self-compassion is not weak. Self-compassionate people are much more resilient and have more courage. In a study with combat veterans, those who practiced self-compassion were less likely to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Self-compassion doesn’t undermine motivation. Instead of losing your motivation or edge, self-compassion actually makes you much more effective, giving you the motivation to work on things.
You’re able to live your best life and take care of yourself because when you care about yourself, you take care of yourself. You can be your best self through being kind. We’re never just meditating for ourselves either. In fact, everything we do in this universe has ripples. We have no idea the impact of our individual practice and compassion will have. Research shows that people who are more compassionate with themselves are more compassionate with others, and this is what our world really needs.
Self-compassion as movement
Another big name in the field and guest on the FGE, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, works on research looking at exercise and movement and the joy of movement and assigning value to movement beyond the two ways that we usually do, those being strength and calorie burn. This inherent way that we assign value causes us to lose opportunities to practice things that really do have value. We’re always trying to find happiness outside of ourselves, but research shows that external changes don’t change our happiness levels. The only thing that consistently changes our happiness is changing our internal landscape through these mindful, self-compassionate practices. These practices aren’t just stress management techniques or teaching us how to survive life, they’re teaching us how to thrive.
One of Shauna’s favorite practices is called the Magical Morning Question: when you wake up, reflect on “I wonder what surprising and magical thing will happen today.” This is a way to prime our brain to look for the good and the beautiful instead of scanning the environment for danger. It changes the quality of your day when you start to incline your mind to look for what’s beautiful instead of what’s frightening. You don’t have to be an optimist or even fully on board to adopt these habits because they will actually shift the way your brain works over time. You’re planting seeds and putting the compass of your heart in the direction we want to head; just trust the process.
Mudita: celebrate joy in others’
Another guest, Rick Hanson, PhD, talked about how to be more resilient and the concept of “mudita”, which is taking joy in someone else’s joy. He talks a lot about choosing where we put our attention because negative things tend to hold our attention and when positive things happen, they just kind of slip away. He talks about learning to encode these positive things into our long-term memory. First, we notice and become mindful of them. Then, we engage all of our senses and pause to savor that moment, taking a few deep breaths, staying with it about 20-30 seconds in order to encode it into our long term memory. You can do this wonderful practice at any moment, whether it’s eating something delicious or sharing a beautiful moment with your child, and actually pause.
Trauma on the body
So much of our memories are around trauma and negativity because we don’t want them to happen again. Holding onto them creates a certain signature, or “chemical soup” in the body. By encoding beautiful, positive, simple moments into long-term memory, we’re actually changing the flavor of that chemical soup. It’s different than just thinking positively.
20-years ago, Shauna was studying psychoneuroimmunology at Duke. At that time, the findings suggested that thinking bad thoughts led to a compromised immune system and cancer. After trying to suppress negative thoughts, it was such a relief for her to discover a mindful approach. As human beings, we’re going to experience the full spectrum of emotions, but we can do it with curiosity and kindness. Let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling, however, when you’re actually feeling happy, it’s important to let that in, which many of us don’t do.
Seek out and focus on the joy
Shauna’s teachings here are to (1) really focus on joy when it happens, and (2) to engage in practices that cultivate joy. If you want to actively cultivate joy, you can practice gratitude or with a friend, ask them, “what brings you joy?”, over and over again. Over and over, you’re grooving a pathway of joy and gratitude
We need self-compassion to experience joy and to feel like we deserve it. We deserve to feel joy. It doesn’t take away from the ability to be successful or others’ ability to experience joy. There is so much suffering in the world and it is imperative to experience the joy and when it’s offered to us, to actually receive it. There is a way in which we can feel our privilege and we can feel guilty about it, but it’s important to use that awareness to motive us to make a change in the world instead of getting lost in shame. Receive the beauty and joy and use that power and creativity for the good.
Being a scientist and writing about science, Shauna fought for the title “Good Morning, I Love You”. It was the most powerful practice that she had ever experienced in her life, and she wanted to share it. Sharing something that makes joy does not preclude you from being taken seriously, yet it’s still a very real barrier. Nonetheless, her book is here and she can share her practice.
When Shauna was going through a divorce, dealing with all of the pain and fear around that, a meditation teacher suggested that she start practicing kindness for herself every day, by saying, “I love you, Shauna” every day. She didn’t want to at first, so she started off by saying, “Good morning, Shauna” when she woke, putting her hand on her heart when she said it to release oxytocin. Instead of the avalanche of judgment and fear, she greeted herself with kindness. It became a nice ritual for her that within a few months she was able to say, “Good morning, I love you”. It was like the dam around her heart broke and all this love came pouring in. This practice changed everything for her, but it doesn’t mean she’s never felt shame since. A pathway of self-love and kindness was established and she’s been practicing every day, and each day it grows stronger. She continues to plant the seeds, trusting in the science that what we practice grows stronger.
The ripple effect is truly amazing. She shared it in her TEDx talk and now it’s been viewed and practiced over a million and a half times and she’s received so much feedback about how this has changed people’s lives. Fast-forward to now, the love that she is experiencing today from her fiance is so different from anything she thought was possible, coming from this dedication to finding that love in her own heart.
What it really means to be healthy
“Health is about wholeness. It’s about inviting and welcoming all of ourselves and all of life and really trusting our capacity that all of us are these self-organizing, self-healing systems, and we have these incredibly beautiful hearts. These practices help us uncover and get back to that innocence, that beauty, that purity. In fact, for everyone listening right now, think about your intention for going on this journey. It’s really to cultivate greater health and happiness and joy… you can feel the purity of your intention… that helps remind us of our own good hearts. And that I really believe is what health is”.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD is a best-selling author, clinical psychologist and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and self-compassion. She is a professor at Santa Clara University and has published over 150 papers and three critically acclaimed books, translated into 16 languages. Shauna has presented her research to the King of Thailand, the Danish Government, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Summit, and the World Council for Psychotherapy, as well as to Fortune 100 Companies including Google, Cisco Systems and LinkedIn. Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Mashable, Wired, USA Today, Dr. Oz, the Huffington Post, and the American Psychologist. Shauna is a summa cum laude graduate of Duke University and a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, co-founded by the Dalai Lama. Her TEDx Talk, The Power of Mindfulness, has been viewed over 1.5 million times.
Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
Visit Shauna’s website at drshaunashapiro.com and join her community
Connect with Shauna on Instagram @drshaunashapiro