Point of View, Episode 15: Mouthing off Mindfully

Founding Editor Barry Boyce, Managing Editor Stephanie Domet, and MBSR expert Pat Rockman dispel the myth that practicing mindfulness means you must be calm and polite all the time.

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Point of View, Episode 15: Mouthing off Mindfully

  • 36:06

Stephanie: Hi There, I’m Stephanie Domet. I’m the managing editor at Mindful magazine. 

Barry: And I’m Barry Boyce. Founding editor of Mindful and Mindful.org. And I write the regular column Point of View. 

Stephanie: And this is the Point of View podcast. 

Stephanie: This is probably a good time to let you know that there is some unbridled language in this podcast. This might not be the one to listen to with kids present or those who would prefer not to hear people swearing. 

Stephanie: We’re mixing it up on the Point of View podcast today. You may remember a few episodes back, Barry mentioned an idea that he and his friend and colleague Pat Rockman had been kicking around a mouthing off mindfully podcast. Well, Barry and I and Squeaky Chair had a good laugh about that idea. And then we moved on, and that brings us to today. Barry writes In the April 2020 issue of Mindful about choosing and using words wisely. And that felt to us like a great opportunity to open up this edition of Point of View to a little mindful mouthing off. So we’re delighted to have Pat Rockman joining us today. Pat is a medical psychotherapist and a founder and the director of education and clinical services at the Center for Mindfulness Studies and the developer of the MBCT facilitations Certificate Program. And Pat is a regular contributor to Mindful magazine and mindful.org. Hello Pat!  

Pat: Hi, Stephanie. And hello, Barry. 

Barry: Hey Stephanie, Hey Pat! Pat’s speaking with us from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where the Center for Mindfulness Studies is located. So just to let people know that. 

Stephanie: A little geo-location never hurt. So before we get into it and talk about some of the ideas, in your Point of View column. Barry, could you and Pat tell me a bit about why you two wanted to mouth off mindfully? What’s behind that idea? 

Barry: It was all Pat’s idea. I’m really sort of a quiet little church mouse sort of a person. But Pat had this idea and I sort of humored her about it. I’ll say one or two things and then I’m sure Pat can pick it up. One of the things that can be, oh, let’s just say annoying about mindfulness in the mindfulness world is how sort of surface nicey nice that everybody thinks you have to be—and it gets extremely tiresome because we need to be real and talk in real ways about things. 

Pat: Yeah, I think what you’re getting at is that in any kind of adoption of innovation into a culture or you see it in occupations where certain people congregate. I think it tends to attract personality types. This, of course, is completely anecdotal. However, I do think that mindfulness propagates or has a propensity to both attract and implicitly convey a very specific way that we’re expected to behave, you know. And I think what Barry said about nicey nice, I think that there is a tendency for a kind of preciousness, a, you know, calm speech. You don’t get too excited. You don’t get mad. You’re you know, there’s a kind of. Well, if it was the 60s, you know, it would be love, peace and groovy. But probably most of the listeners may not even have been born then. So that might not seem very relevant. However, I think that one of the reasons we wanted to do this is because Barry and I talk a lot about the significant personal things that are going on in our lives and they’re not always so nice. And while mindfulness does also ask us to turn toward the difficult and to explore that and be willing to stay with things that we would rather not, I think a lot of the time the way mindfulness is being disseminated into the culture sort of forgets that. The other thing is that I know for me, I’m pretty emotional and excitable. I’m not all that regulated. I’m never going to be that kind of calm, blissed out mindfulness practitioner that I feel sometimes is the norm or the expectation that this is how we need to be, if we’re mindful that if we’re not being calm and polite, that we’re not mindful. So the idea of mouthing off mindfully seemed while at first discordant, I think it’s pretty consistent with not to speak for Barry, but pretty consistent with the way Barry and I tend to relate to the practice of mindfulness, right, in that I think we both are very committed to it. We take it very seriously. At the same time, you know, like let’s not be too precious and take ourselves too seriously and also recognize that mindfulness is really about the full range of emotion, the full range of experience and its expression. It’s kind of how we do that I think that really matters. 

We’re in work where you see a lot of pain and you also interface with all the aspects of society that deal with that pain. And sometimes the way they do it really pisses you off.

Stephanie: I’m thinking about the Mindful Vulgarian, Barry’s… 

Barry: Yeah, I think I’ve told you that story, Pat, about how this was. I taught a program in Boston once and then somebody wrote to the leadership of the place I was teaching and said, Mr. Boyce is a vulgarian, he should not be allowed to teach. I think I dropped an F bomb or two at some point. I fucking tried to be better about it. 

Stephanie: How’s that going for you, Barry? 

Barry: It’s like Pavarotti used to say about his weight. I’m always on a diet. What if I weren’t on a diet, see? What would happen then?

Pat: Sorry to interrupt, but, this is super. This is super important, I think. Right? The mindful vulgarian, you know, kind of like the mindful Vulcan or something. But the mindful vulgarian. It’s so nice, right? Because so there you are swearing. I’m imagining you’re totally aware that you’re swearing. I imagine if it’s in front of a bunch of people. There’s an intentionality to it. And then we have our reactions to swearing—and the person, not to be judgmental of that person, although, of course, I’m feeling kind of judgmental because I like to swear. That person is, you know, then saying that if you swear, you can’t be mindful. It’s kind of ridiculous, right? And then there’s a whole lot of judgment implicit in that statement, which there’s gotta be a bit of an irony there, you know. 

Barry: You know, it’s interesting. It reminds me, too, about that the mouthing off isn’t really only about mindfulness or the mindfulness world, per se. I mean, it’s as Pat was saying. That, you know, we’ll often talk about people in our lives. You know, family or friends, but also people we’ve ended up attending to. You know, we’re in work where you see a lot of pain and you also interface with all the aspects of society that deal with that pain. And sometimes the way they do it really pisses you off. I knew somebody who went to see a neurologist because they had a kind of a nervous breakdown. And, you know, I have great respect for our medical systems and particularly in Canada for, you know, the fact that we have universal health care. But, this neurologist, when we talked about whether the person should maybe follow some kind of physiotherapy regimen, the neurologist just said “oh just hit the gym more.” So this person, I’m trying not to say the gender, but, alright, it was a man. It was an old dude and his understanding of the mind-body connection with everything we’ve learned—here was a guy perpetrating for this patient a view of the body like it’s a separate deal from the mind. And you know, that’s so “arrrrgh!”

Pat: So frustration was arising. 

Barry: Yes. Extreme frustration is right. And then we noticed. And we declared it. And we’re going to change the damn system too, eventually. 

Stephanie: Bit by bit one mindful conversation at a time. 

Barry: So did we answer one question, yet? 

Stephanie: Yes. You’ve answered the first question, which is great. 

Barry: You know what? We’ve both been measured as very high in non-compliance, by the way. 

Stephanie: Is that so? I’m dealing with a couple of oppositional defiance disorder types, am I?

Pat: NO!! 

Barry: Oh, I don’t know about disorder. I didn’t say anything about disorder. I just said we don’t freakin’ comply. I mean, I comply a little bit there by saying freakin’. 

Stephanie: You did, and I commend you. We’ll try to keep it to one F bomb for the whole podcast if we can. But if things get really mindfully mouthy, then whatever happens is what happens. Barry, in your April column, you write about something called mindful communication. What are the qualities associated with that?

Barry: Yeah. I think what I’m talking about really there is to have some understanding of how words actually work, you need to take responsibility for them. In our work here at Mindful, for example, we might make a statement that meditation will make you calm or meditation helps develop calmness and stability. Well, that’s a partial truth. I mean, that needs to be inquired—what that really means, because actually a lot of times mindfulness is very disruptive and will make you not calm because you are starting to uncover stuff. So. You know, and I also use the example of, as we’re working so much with diversity and equity issues these days, we kick around words like privilege. Well, if the word privilege is being just thrown around as an accusatory thing rather than being inquired about in a setting where people can actually evolve around it, then it’s just been weaponized. Being mindful of how we use words and that words both can draw out insight and be revealing, but they can also totally obscure and create a lot of conflict. I mean, that plays out a lot in your context, Pat.

Pat: Yeah, very much so. I mean, what I hear you saying is that human beings are speakers and sometimes listeners, and I think when we are talking about our own experience or when we are conveying intellectual concepts or speaking about our emotions, there are times in which what we say lacks clarity for both ourselves and the other person. And there are times when we might over generalize, like when you were talking about the calm and stability for example, you know, we could argue that something like the calm and stability associated with mindfulness practice comes over time. It’s not linear. It comes and goes. There are many ways we might look at that. It’s not a given, is what you’re saying. And in addition, what you’re getting at also here is, oh, what does calm mean? What does calm look like? What does stability look like, for example, so that we can begin to clarify what we mean when we use certain words, and I think that this is also tied into being accountable for what comes out of our mouths. Right? And then how that might be received, which we can’t always know how that might be received, but know that if we are accountable, know that we will make mistakes and that, barring killing somebody or really damaging something, that nothing is irrevocable, that if you’re accountable, you have the chance to start again. And I think the other thing that you’re getting at Barry, with this is that when we’re learning to describe our experience or to communicate with another person about our experience, I think that this entails that we are—OK. You gotta pause this. I’m sorry, someone’s playing the piano right now and I gotta tell them to stop, ’cause I can’t think. And I’m worried you’re gonna hear it. I’m going to go mouth off to my husband, I think.

Stephanie: So Pat got her spouse, Brian, who’s a heart surgeon and apparently a beautiful pianist, to stop playing. And then she rejoined Barry and I and picked up the thread of her thinking. 

Pat:  Okay, so first of all, this idea of being accountable for what comes out of our mouths and also learning to be very attentive to what we are saying and how we are saying it, I think is really part of the practice. OK. And so what this raises then in terms of what you were talking about, Barry, there’s another piece to it that’s really been a recent discovery for me, because I tend to pride myself on being pretty verbal, in case you haven’t noticed. And also that I can actually when I’m pretty distressed, be cogent. I can still argue well, I can express my emotions without harming others, but it’s only recently that I really began to appreciate that intensity has its own impact, irrespective of the words. And I think that’s actually important because, oh, now this is another awareness practice. Not to say that I want to get all nicey nicey, but to then be aware of the intensity or the tone or the volume of how one is expressing and the impact that that may have separate from the words themselves. So that becomes a practice unto itself that you can then if you have consciousness about that, then make a choice, right? About how you want to convey what you are conveying and to and what’s the impact on others of that.

I can express my emotions without harming others, but it’s only recently that I really began to appreciate that intensity has its own impact, irrespective of the words.

Barry: Yeah, that’s really cool. I mean, that’s something I’ve been learning about and working with and failing at and learning more from for a long time. But yes, the intensity. But also because, you know, I often like you have a particular role where I’m looked to, and you say, yeah I’m just hangin’! But no, I mean, when I speak with intensity, it may have a greater effect than I’m intending and I’m not noticing that. So I’ve learned this thing a long time ago about foreground and background, that, you know, I have a tendency to always go into the foreground and I have to remind myself that maybe I need to drop into the background here. And it’s interesting, and this points out something too about mindfulness is not this like, “thing” that you “get” and you’re done. I mean, it’s like Brian playing the piano in Pat’s house today, he’s been playing for most of his life, I think. It’s not like he’s ever going to be done. Mindfulness is more like that, you know, and these things that you start to learn, like, Pat just talking about intensity. That kind of learning kinda hurts, you know? It’s like, oh, I thought, what? I’ve been doing this?! 

Stephanie: Because your context, so what you say, how you say it, and the context in which you’re saying it or which you speak from, that all matters. Because like you said, you might want to feel like you’re just hanging out, but, say you’re at Mindful, you’re the founding editor. There’s a certain position and gravitas that attaches to that. And so what you say is different from what I say. We could say the exact same thing to somebody, but our context matters. Our context is different. So that’s another layer to be mindful of. 

Pat: Right. And you’re also speaking to power, right? Power and hierarchy and the effect those have on how, you know, how difficult that can be for us to be aware of, you know. You know, Foster Wallace’s thing about like if you’re a fish, you don’t recognize the water that you’re swimming in. And I think that being aware of that, the context that you’re in and also this idea that you were just also alluding to Barry, about like the roles that we are in. And, you know, if you have a position of leadership, one of the things that I’ve discovered actually, you know, it’s also, you used the word painful, really painful way is that the more public you are, the more you have to be actually incredibly mindful of what comes out of your mouth, particularly if you’re representing an organization, or you’re trying to convey certain concepts and principles to a particular audience. You know, you can’t just “be yourself” in quotations, whatever that means. Again, being aware of role and context and who’s in the audience. And while I’m saying that in relation to being in a position where you have some kind of profile, actually what just came to mind right now is that well, actually, that just highlights how, unfortunately, you know, depending on who we’re with, we probably a lot of the time can’t just be hanging around saying whatever we want. That in any context, we need to try to be aware of these these variables as much as possible. And I mean, without getting into it, I have on a number of occasions said things publicly that as soon as they were out of my mouth, I’m busy having to apologize. You know, because it just pops out. It’s thoughtless. And then, you know, some awareness comes either internally or from somebody else that this was bad, this was hurtful. This was harmful. This was, you know, whatever it was. And that, bringing awareness and consciousness to that means then being accountable and acting accordingly to repair whatever harm has been done. And for me, that’s mindfulness. 

Stephanie: And sometimes that gets labeled as being politically correct. I used to have a filter on my computer that changed politically correct to—on the Internet would change people who were politically correct, it would change it to being respectful of other people’s feelings. Which has changed my experience of reading things online, I’d be in a comment section and everybody would be talking about, you know, being respectful of other people’s feelings. I’d be like: “Wow, this is a weirdly polite and collegial comment section.” And then I would remember that I had that filter on. But there is that when you have a high profile, you’re just under a different kind of microscope, that perhaps we could be applying in our less public interactions with people. 

Barry:  Y’know, it’s also about a balancing act. If one’s concern about the effects of what you say goes too far, then you go in that other direction and you’re too guarded and frankness and straightforwardness and being yourself doesn’t come across. And, you know, that’s one of those things. It’s that you’re just fine tuning that all the time because, y’know, people leadership that I admire, are straightforward, but also subtle and tactful and of course, they make mistakes, but like the person who’s too guarded is almost more annoying to me. I’d rather see somebody go over the edge and then be willing to apologize. 

Pat: I was just going to say it’s kind of a dance and the recognition of self as process self and other and that interaction as process versus fixed, you know. And you’re right. And that mistake making is OK. And actually to be valued because we learn from it. 

Barry: Yeah and I think I want to point to something that Pat has inspired me about over the years. One of the main modalities she works in is mindfulness based cognitive therapy, which is a bunch of really big words for something that’s actually very cool. And, you know, when you get a little bit of stability from some mindfulness practice, y’know the common practice we know about using the breath as an anchor and coming back to your breath. As you gain a little bit of stability over time, then there’s possibility of inquiry into the truth of your thoughts and how that might be affecting you. And then as you inquire into it a little bit, and you get a little bit scared, you realize okay I need a little bit of that calming practice to be able to look into this more fully. It’s the inquiry part of this work and practice where I would say the real benefits start to arise and it’s not necessarily always a calming kind of situation. 

Pat: If everything is open to investigation, then when we make mistakes or when we do things that hurt other people, then we’re able to or when we something happens that we don’t like, I think then if we’re examining it, exploring it, then we’re able to bring this kind of stance of open curiosity to experience, which I think is so essential to mindfulness practice, right? Versus a set of rules and regulations or policies about how we must behave. 

If everything is open to investigation, then when we make mistakes or when we do things that hurt other people…then we’re able to bring this kind of stance of open curiosity to experience, which I think is so essential to mindfulness practice, right?

Barry: How do we distinguish between the kind of examination that’s just discursive, to the kind of inquiry that you’re talking about where you’ve opened a space for—you know what I’m getting at right now? 

Pat: Yeah. So really, if you like, you might suggest these two types of reasoning or exploring: deductive versus inductive. And mindfulness, which is not only but is predominantly a bottom up experience, where we have a bunch of experiences that we observe and then we investigate those things that we’re observing. Exploring them, examining them, as you said, questioning them, learning to describe them. And out of this comes these theories and insights and links to how we are living. Versus, when you’re talking about this discursive way of thinking about experience, which is really much more intellectual and rational and conceptual or narrative. Right. And we’re narrating experience. We’re explaining and interpreting and coming to conclusions versus getting into the experience itself. So, for example, when you got the note from the person who called you the vulgarian, I guess how I might want to inquire into that is rather than getting into the story about what happened, blah, blah, blah. And what you think of him and so on, rather explore the components of experience. So like: “Oh! So when he called you a vulgarian, like what came up for you? What thoughts arose? So, thoughts as events and sensations, what emotions came up? Can you name them? What showed up in the body? What were the impulses and urges? Oh yeah, ok. And then what did you do, if anything? So it’s kind of, you know, exploring the components versus the content of experience. 

Barry: And the end point of that, if you’re coaching me through that so to speak, coaching me to perhaps be able to do that on my own, the end point of it isn’t you giving me the answer or the prescription or telling me what that signifies. As you’re saying, it’s inductive, it’s coming up from below. You’re leaving it as an open question about what insights or not might arise from that, right? 

Pat: Yeah. And then asking yourself also like, OK, so how might this information that I’ve received or this awareness that I’ve discovered, how could that be useful if it is? Or how might this form of investigation be helpful to me in my daily life, right? And so, again, eliciting that from ourselves or from another to kind of help one to then, the mindful words engage in skillful responding, versus writing back this guy some nasty letter is there some other way I might think about that? Maybe I have to investigate swearing in public. Maybe I actually need to. Or ask myself, oh, what could be learned here? Oh, is there something intentional about my swearing or not? And what is the effect on other people? And do I care or should I care? And you know, like this. 

Barry: Well, this circles back around to why, I think, one of the reasons we joke about this idea of mouthing off mindfully. That some of it has to do with we really care about how mindfulness is perceived by the world. I want the average person on the street, if it’s available to them to be able to engage it on their terms in a way that would be helpful for them. So when I go to a mindfulness conference and I see people modeling a way of carrying yourself that’s so overmanaged and feeling like what I’m supposed to represent is some kind of perfected version. It’s like when you brandish your yoga mat, and the equivalent in mindfulness is to brandish your calm and your control, contrast that with the nature of this inquiry, where what it’s really about is a curious process that has you kind of slightly off balance. But which makes you more there. You know, your vulnerabilities are more there. But in a way that, the thing about mindfulness is that they’re a little more manageable. But you’re not stowing them away so that you can present this. 

Stephanie: This leads me to a question that I’ve been dying to ask somebody, and you guys are both here. And I think you’re just the people to ask. 

Barry: Maybe. 

Stephanie: I know. I really feel like this is for you. So, you know, working with these ideas and trying to deepen my own practice of mindfulness and I’m noticing in myself and certainly reading it in different resources that there’s a deepening of compassion to other people and maybe an understanding of where they’re coming from. I start to look at that a little more, you know, in a more open way or more kind of generous way. So what I wanna know, because you’re both long time meditators with deep practices. Do you ever just write somebody off as a jerk? 

So what I wanna know, because you’re both long time meditators with deep practices. Do you ever just write somebody off as a jerk? 

Pat: Sure. 

Stephanie: Yeah? 

Pat:  Sure I do. And then, not always, but then, you know, I often, not always, take a step back and reflect on what might be going on here for me or for that other person, you know? And what is this bringing up in me? And If I’m my best self in process, then, you know, I recognize that urge or whatever it is I’ve done that’s written them off as a jerk and then, you know, try to investigate that. What’s coming up for me? What does it bring me? Trying to sort of think about that other person when you’re talking about compassion, like what might be their context? What might they be coming from that I know nothing about? That’s if I’m in my best self. When I’m in my worst self, no, I don’t. You know, like my mother’s in hospital right now and I had a crappy interaction with a physio. And, you know, it took me quite a while because I was pretty mad. And I just because that conversation we had had some consequences on what might follow up in her care that I then had to rectify. And it was on me because of what I said, but I felt, I had this idea that I had been misled, you know, and said things that I wouldn’t have said otherwise. Like I wasn’t giving her the benefit of the doubt, and it probably took me about half an hour to calm down. When I was actually more regulated and I’d spoken to other people in the hospital, the social worker, I could then start to then take a step back and go: okay, man. Like, you’re super agitated for a variety of reasons. Is this a bit over the top, you know? Yes, there was a big miscommunication here that could have been handled differently with a bit more information. But like, let’s just take a step back now and look at what’s coming up for you that you had this, you know, such a disregulated response, right? I don’t know if that helps. 

Barry: Yeah, no. I think that—and I would say, you know, one of the things that points out is when you allow your emotions, the space to be there, you’re gonna have to deal with the full dynamic of them. For example, in anger, they have something called the refractory period. You know, when it when things spike the point where it’s playing out now, and you’re not going to be able to quickly dial it back, it has its own momentum and then you work with that over time. But that’s actually giving your emotions a little bit of space and learning from them is, I think, a better approach than bottling them. 

Pat: Yeah. 

Barry: But it’s going to get you in some trouble. I would also say in terms of writing people off as jerks, which I do. But I have a saying, my buddy Jim Gimian and I created a long time ago: everybody’s an asshole, it’s just that some of them are your friends. So, everybody is a collection of habits. So. You know, if I look at somebody, I think, well, they’ve developed some pretty firm habits there—they’re going to be a hard case. And like if it’s my daughter’s boyfriend and she asks for my counsel, you know, I might say, well, this guy could be a tough case, you know, but no, I’m not talking about a real thing. That’s a hypothetical. That’s a totally hypothetical. 

Stephanie: Barry’s daughter, if you’re listening, it’s just hypothetical. 

Pat:  Barry doesn’t even have a daughter. 

Barry:  Yeah, I don’t have any daughters. Exactly. But you know what? You know, kind of evaluate the workability of somebody and try to figure what can I take on?

Pat: Yeah. And this is where we might then bring compassion to: What is actually workable and what is not, and when is it that we just have to accept how things are? 

Stephanie: Thank you both so much for this conversation. Pat, it was great to have you on the podcast. 

Barry:  Great fun. I think we’re going to do this again, huh? 

Stephanie: I would say so. 

Pat:  OK. Good. I’m looking forward to it. 

Barry: Did you have fun? 

Pat: I did. I love mouthing off. 

Barry: We’ll mouth off more next time.

Stephanie: This has been a special edition of Point of View with founding editor Barry Boyce and special guest Pat Rockman. This podcast is a production of mindful.org. We’d love to hear what you think about what you’ve heard on this podcast or if you have questions for us. Drop us a line: [email protected] You can find more of Barry Boyce at Mindful.org. Put his name in the search bar. You’ll find audio practices, lots of stories, all the other episodes of Point of View and you’ll find more of Pat Rockman there, too—put her name in the search bar and see what’s there. I’m Stephanie Domet. Till next time mouth off, if you will, but do it Mindfully. 

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