How to Wake Up! An Interview with Toni Bernhard

Toni Bernhard on why it's so difficult to be present in our lives, and her new book, How to Wake Up. 

Everyone has ups and downs in life, sometimes they’re more extreme than others. Today I am thrilled to bring you an interview with Toni Berhard, someone I deeply respect and a longtime practitioner and leader in mindfulness. She is author of her newest book How to Wake Up, helping us navigate these ups and downs with greater ease and also the past award winning book How to Be Sick, which speaks of how to live with greater peace with chronic illness. Toni was dean of students at the University of California Davis School of Law and the writings and practices in these books have been inspired by over 20 years of personal practice.

Today, Toni talks to us about why it’s so hard to be present to our lives, practices that Toni finds to be personally impactful, why we have to navigate joy, and some personal advice for the rest of us.

Elisha: You say that the key to peace and well-being is to be present for your life as it is. Why is that so hard to do?

Toni: It’s hard because the present moment is not necessarily a pleasant moment! Life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We’ll experience success but also disappointment, joy but also sorrow. There’s a tendency to turn away in aversion from any unpleasantness, instead of being willing to stay in the moment with it and acknowledge whatever we’re feeling. This turning away from experience that’s not to our liking serves only to make an already unpleasant situation worse, because it adds a layer of suffering in the form of painful emotions, such as resentment or frustration.

We have much less control over our experience than we’d wish, meaning that life doesn’t always conform to our desires. Uncertainty and unpredictability—two corollaries of the universal law of impermanence—are always by our side. It’s only when we’re able to accept this reality of the human condition that we can be mindfully present for each moment, even if it’s unpleasant, without being lost in fantasies and desires for it to be different. It’s about accepting life as it is—unpleasantness included—and then to be as present for it as we can, without turning away in aversion if it’s not to our liking. When we’re present in this way, compassion naturally arises for any suffering we might be experiencing.

Elisha: The book has many exercises and practices. Is there one that you rely on most heavily? Is there one that stands out as the biggest challenge for you?

Toni: I rely most heavily on the many self-compassion practices in the book, particularly learning to transform the inner critic. Most of us are conditioned from childhood to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. As a result, we habitually judge ourselves negatively for the slightest imperfection.

The good news is that we can reverse that conditioning. Minds can change. Neuroscientists are confirming this today—that the mind is constantly rewiring and reconditioning itself. The book has several exercises to help us turn our inner critic into an ally. Other exercises focus on learning to treat ourselves as kindly and compassionately as we’d treat a loved one in need.

The practice that’s the biggest challenge for me is the one that gives rise to true peace of mind—equanimity. A mind that is equanimous understands that life is a mixture of joys and sorrows and responds to both those circumstances with an even temper and a peaceful heart. In those moments when I’m able to let go of the desire for the world to conform to my liking, I can feel the peace and well-being of equanimity arise.

Equanimity is a challenge to sustain because it requires accepting that life won’t always go the way we want it to. Whenever I feel stuck in this practice, the first thing I do is to try and remember to be kind and compassionate to myself. Why shouldn’t I treat myself well? It’s not easy to navigate life’s ups and downs with equanimity! Being understanding about how hard it can be softens my heart enough to take a deep breath and then…try again.

Elisha: The subtitle of your book is about navigating joy and sorrow. Why do we have to navigate joy?

Toni: At first glance, it would seem that there’s no need to navigate joy. We all prefer joy over sorrow, so why not grasp at joy when it comes? The reason is that, like everything else, joy is subject to the law of impermanence and so it cannot last. Until I understood this, there was always an undercurrent of unease and even anxiety whenever I was in the midst of a joyful experience.

I came to see that it was because I was grasping and clinging to it, wanting it to last forever even though I knew, at a gut level, that could not happen. And so, by navigating joy, I’m referring to the skill of enjoying it fully, even passionately, but also having the wisdom not to cling to it because that clinging has that undercurrent of unease, maybe even fear.

One example I use in the book is of my experience watching a spectacular sunset on the island of Molokai and how I felt unease in the midst of its beauty. This unease spoiled my ability to simply enjoy the unfolding display of colors. Then, compounding my suffering, I started adding distracting commentary to what was happening in the moment: “How much longer will it look like this? Ten minutes? Five minutes? Two minutes?” Then I topped it off with a stressful story about the future: “Maybe tomorrow night, after we’ve left the island, it will be even more spectacular and we’ll miss out on it.”

I’d be surprised if everyone hasn’t engaged in distracting mental chatter that’s interfered with the ability to enjoy something pleasurable that’s going on in the moment—a beautiful sunset like the one I described or perhaps a fabulous concert. This chatter reflects a desire to control our experience.

We could cling to this desire as long as we wanted, but it wouldn’t affect the fleeting nature of the sunset or how long the concert will last. These are circumstances in our lives over which we have no control. Seeing this clearly, we could bow to the law of impermanence and enjoy the pleasant experience while it lasts, without dissatisfied longing creeping in to pollute our joy. This would be navigating joy skillfully.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was struggling emotionally, what words of wisdom would you like them to leave with?

Toni: Of course, if this were an ongoing struggle of several month’s duration, I’d encourage the person to seek counseling. That said, all of us struggle emotionally at times. We can’t control what thoughts and emotions pop into the mind, but we can learn to respond to them so as not to make matters worse for us. I would encourage the person to use mindful investigation to see if he or she can pinpoint what triggers the stressful emotion (perhaps fatigue or feeling disappointed by someone or stress about an upcoming obligation). Investigation is the third in a four-part approach I set out in the book for working skillfully with stressful emotions. Understanding all we can about a stressful emotion can begin to loosen its grip on us.

Then I’d encourage the person to let it be. Trying to force a stressful emotion out of the mind can leave us feeling like failures if we’re unsuccessful in our efforts. Instead, gently and with self-compassion for whatever suffering the emotion is causing, just let it be until it yields to the law of impermanence and passes out of the mind.

Elisha: Thank you so much Toni for sharing your wisdom. As always, if you have any thoughts, stories and questions, please comment below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy

For more articles on Toni Bernhard, including mindfulness practices, click here.