Christine Carter is a sociologist and happiness researcher who recently spoke at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.   The topic of her talk was "Full Plate, Empty Life: How To Achieve More By Doing Less".  Her talk explores the benefits of "single-tasking" in our fast paced multi-tasking society.  As I grow older, time has become more precious to me.  I'm interested in having a more grounded, satisfying life.  I hope this talk inspires you to consider slowing down and savoring the task at hand. 


Using ACT To Deal With Stinking Thinking

Sometimes my clients ask me how they can get their minds to quiet down.  I am a big fan of mindfulness and meditation.  I recommend starting with 5 minutes of silent meditation in the morning.  Some people think that if they meditate “properly”, they will have a “blank mind”.  As a longtime meditator, I am here to report that I have never experienced a “blank mind” and I still have “stinking thinking” on a regular basis. 

I have experimented with all kinds of ways to deal with stinking thinking, here are some of them: reading the book “The Secret” (I felt like a failure when all my  positive thinking failed to bring a Porsche into my life, this lead to even more stinking thinking), trying not to think about what is bothering me (only made me think about it more- try not thinking about a pink bird and you will be surrounded by pink birds ), chanting (works great and very uplifting but the thinking came right back) yoga (this is one of my favorite pastimes and I experience lots of benefits from my yoga practice, (sometimes I have stinking thinking in the middle of yoga class, especially when the entire class is doing a pose that I cannot manage with my tight runner’s hamstrings), meditation (works well and calms me down like nothing else, but thinking still occurs!).  I could continue my list, but I think you get the point.  

I recently attended a training on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy otherwise known as ACT.  The therapy combines mindfulness and behavioral interventions.  It differs from other therapies in that it does not attempt to reduce symptoms like stinking thinking; however, symptom reduction is often a byproduct of the therapy. The goal of ACT is to create a rich and meaningful life while experiencing the pain and discomfort which is an inevitable part of life. There are two main assumptions underlying ACT’s interventions. The first is to learn how to develop acceptance of unpleasant experiences which are out of our personal control.  The second is making a commitment and taking actions which support having a rich and meaningful life.  So if I treat my stinking thinking using ACT, my first step is to give up trying to stop my stinking thinking (allowing it as opposed to trying to eliminate it).  The next step is to learn how to accept it or be with it when it happens.

There are six core principles of ACT: The first is Contacting The Present Moment, which simply means being present in the moment. The second is Defusion, which I will be talking about I greater detail. The third core principle is Acceptance, which means allowing ourselves to be open to all our feelings, sensations and thoughts as they come up without struggling with them. The fourth core principle is Self-as-Context which is similar to the Observer Self, from the meditation world. The fifth core principle is Values, which in ACT terms means deciding what we want to stand for in life.  The sixth core principle is Committed Action, which simply means taking actions that are based on our values.

I am going to focus on the principle of defusion.  Defusion is the practice of learning how to avoid becoming “fused” with our thoughts.  In ACT fusion is defined as when our thoughts and whatever we are thinking about become fused together in our minds.  I like to think about it as becoming overly attached to my thoughts, which leads to “stinking thinking”.  ACT refers to our thoughts as “stories” so another way to explain defusion is the story and the event become “fused” or stuck together.  We start believing that what our thoughts are telling us is the absolute truth. 

One way to understand this is that certain magazines and newspapers are known to be somewhat biased, especially some of the tabloids. So my thinking is often similar to a story from The National Enquirer and somehow I believe that the tabloid reporter (Me!) is telling the truth.  I have a choice in how I respond to the stories that are in the tabloids.  ACT differs from CBT in that it does not recommend substituting a positive thought for a negative one or practicing “Thought-stopping” two very effective techniques that do work for some people; instead ACT recommends learning how to experience are feelings and change our response to our thinking.   

One important principle of defusion is to refrain from asking ourselves whether a thought is true and instead to focus on whether a thought is helpful.  If we pay attention to a particular thought is it going to help us to create the kind of life that we desire?  If I notice myself drifting off into worry I can stop and gently say “Is this thought helpful?” There are many ways to practice defusion, here are two of my favorites-


  1. Pick a troubling thought that you have on a regular basis, a good example might be “I am not good enough.” Be sure to pick one that really works for you.  Often when I am out running and I see other younger runners flying by me I think “I am too slow”
  2. Now insert the following words in front of your thought “I am having the thought that…I am too slow”.  Practice the new thought a few times in your mind. “I am having the thought that I am too slow”.

Often after practicing this technique people notice some distance between themselves and the thought. You might try practicing this technique each time the thought comes up and see what happens.  You can practice this anytime you catch yourself thinking unhelpful thoughts.

To continue with the “I am too slow” thought, another popular version is the “I am too old story”. In this story I am too old and certainly too slow to be running and I should feel embarrassed to be seen running outside in a neighborhood where so many younger, faster runners are passing me by.   Often there are different versions of the same story, I think you get the idea.  

  1. Name your thought as a story- “The I am too old story”
  2. When the thought comes into your mind (usually for me this happens early in my run before the endorphins have kicked in) simply acknowledge it- “Oh there it is, the I am too old story” or “I know this one it is the I am too old story” or maybe you like “My favorite story- the I am too old story”.  Use whatever words feel authentic to you.
  3. Once you have acknowledged the story, there is no action to take, just let the story come and go and continue on with what you were doing.  In my case, just keep running. 

So the next time your mind starts engaging in “stinking thinking” try one of these techniques and see if you find it helpful. I recommend Dr. Russ Harris’ website f you would like to learn more about Acceptance and Commitment therapy.



My Adventures in Meditation

By now you might have heard about the many benefits of practicing meditation. I don’t know about you but my mind begins to snap shut as soon as someone tells me that something is good for me (especially when it comes to lima beans).  So I won’t tell you why meditation is good for you, instead I will share some of my own experience with meditation and some tips for starting your own meditation practice.  I hope to dispel some of the myths that I had to overcome when I began practicing.

In the late 80s I was living in Boston, attending graduate school and waitressing in Kenmore square.  I was pretty anxious during that time, I had trouble sleeping and most of the time my shoulders were tense and inching closer to my ears.  A friend introduced me to George Mumford, a meditation teacher and sports therapist.  George spent 5 seasons with Phil Jackson, (legendary coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls) helping professional basketball players practice mindfulness on the court.

George suggested that meditation might help reduce my anxiety. When I first began meditating I really did not like it.  In fact, I hated it.  I would sit down to meditate and the thoughts in my head would get really loud.   It seemed that meditation was making things worse not better; I called George often, sometimes late at night.  I would complain that I did not have a blank mind.  Myth # 1- Nowhere is written that successful meditators have blank minds; I am not sure where this rumor started but it is just not true.  As I continued to struggle, George would say kind, practical things like “Just direct your attention to your breath”.  I would go back to my practice, determined to get it right this time.  Sometimes I found it helpful to count my breath, other times I would silently repeat “breathe in love, breathe out fear”.

Sometimes I could not sit still and I would choose to practice walking meditation.  Myth #2- Meditation must be practiced in a seated cross-legged position, even if you are a runner with tight hamstrings.  George taught me how to practice walking mindfully; paying attention to the sensations in my body, especially my feet as they touched the ground.  I practiced moving slowly with focus, (luckily there were no cell phones in those days) breathing and noticing sensations in my body as I walked.

Eventually I developed a daily 20 minute practice.  I like to practice in the morning, sometimes I practice in the middle of the day if I am running late.  If I have had a stressful day, I might practice again for a few minutes before bed. Myth 3- Meditation must be practiced in the morning and Myth 4-Meditation must be practiced for at least an hour for it to be effective.   I have experimented with longer and shorter time periods throughout the years and have found that 20 minutes feels right for me. Some people prefer a longer period of time. One of my friends who is the mother of a small child, likes to practice at night while she sits in a rocking chair near her daughter’s bed watching her fall asleep.

I would describe my practice as Insight Based meditation, focusing on the sensations in my body and thoughts in my mind.  When I find myself getting attached to any particular sensation (for example-itchy nose) I simply come back to my breath.  If I am sitting and I start thinking “What’s for dinner” I simply come back to my breath.   There is a funny meditation teacher in Venice, California who asks his thoughts to have seat on the couch and says “I’ll get to you later”.  When I worked in technology I would often think about my coworkers and how they irritated me, I would acknowledge the irritation and then direct them to have a seat on the couch. Sometimes my couch would be packed with so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor.

My meditation practice extends throughout my day into mindfulness.  The way I differentiate between the two terms is that meditation happens at a specific time that I set aside each day for practice. Mindfulness means carrying my meditation practice into my daily affairs; it is about my commitment to slowing down and being aware, trying to respond mindfully as opposed to reacting.  Each day is different.  Sometimes I meditate, start my car and ease into my day.  Other times it is clear that everyone in Los Angeles needs to take driving lessons and that I am the only person who knows how to operate a car. Those are the days I try and practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s red light meditation.  Red light meditation consists of stopping at the red traffic light and relaxing your tight grip on the wheel. The next step is to take a breath and softly smile.  It does not have to be a huge grin, just a gentle smile and a few relaxing breaths. 

Myth #5- Meditation is no fun. Meditation is an “individual adventure” (these are Bill Wilson’s words, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).  I encourage you to make it work for you.  Some days I practice sitting meditation, other days washing dishes meditation, making soup meditation, the list goes on.   Whatever you choose to do just have fun with it, just don’t forget to breathe.  I incorporate meditation and mindfulness into my work with my clients; helping them to develop their own unique ways of being present in the world and using that presence to enhance their experience in therapy.

A Formula For Happiness

The author's formula for happiness includes: faith, family & meaningful work. I incorporate the principles of Positive Psychology into my work with clients. Existential issues are sometimes the underlying cause of depression and anxiety. I am particularly interested in the work of Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky, two well respected researchers in the field.