Category: How to Human Course

(6.6) Pause to Practice & Course Wrap-Up

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You’ve made it to the last practice! I hope that this course inspired you to want to learn even more, to take these practices to a deeper level.

  • Practice mindful listening, either active listening or as a Heart with Ears. It may help to film it to see if you truly did keep listening or if you tried to change the subject or focus in some way.
  • Teach a friend how to be a Heart with Ears and take turns sharing stories for a few minutes each.
  • What are the most useful lessons from this course? What will you take with you? Share that with the H2H Facebook group. I’d love to hear what you found most useful.
  • I’d highly recommend working through the Grief Recovery Handbook for one of the major relationships in your life (parents make good ones). Pair up with a friend to do so or ask someone in the H2H Facebook group to be your partner. You’ll both need to read the book and read letters to each other. You can also just read it to your therapist.
  • Please stay in the H2H Facebook group, as active as works for you. If you are gone for a while, don’t worry. You’re part of the tribe and will be welcomed back with open arms.
  • Share other resources that you come across with us – books, online courses, etc. I have a thread for sharing resources in the Facebook group or you can post on the main wall.

Thank you SO much for being a part of this course and for your continued work in this area. We are all making the world a better place by improving our own outlooks.

I hope you were able to find something helpful here. If you have any suggestions for improvement, please email me using the contact form on this site. Sending you much love and encouragement!

May you be safe, may you be loved, may you be satisfied. ❤️


(6.5) Emotional Approach to Retirement Planning

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I read a book called “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old” by Paul Leland. It’s not a wonderful book, but it did have some good ideas. In it, the interviewed centenarians’ words made it clear that they were most happy in their life when they had a sense of purpose. The ones who achieved that were sometimes lucky, but often had planned to get there. I want that to be me.

Ok, I may never make it to 80. Or I could live to be 120. I don’t know. So I refuse to sacrifice the happiness of today in the hope that later I can enjoy it. I will savor my life now, living with joy, as I mentioned n the previous lesson, not worrying about always being happy, but content with the inevitable ups and downs.

I also don’t think, looking back from 80 or 100, that I would be particularly pleased if I had waited until then to be happy. I think happiness takes practice, so why not start?

And yet, say I do make it to 80. What do I think I will want? What will give me a sense of purpose?

So my answer is personal, and yours will probably be different, but I recommend at least pondering this question, looking at the NVC needs inventory. Here’s some of what I came up with:

  • Having people around me who I can help in some way would give me a sense of purpose.
  • Continuing to write books or teach in some way would give me a sense of purpose. To do so it helps to continue to be a lifelong learner.
  • I love the outdoors, and I’d want a space where my dogs can run without me needing to walk them on a leash.
  • I want to live in a place where I see people who recognize me and know me on a real level.
  • I’d like to have a partner as long as I can.

These are all things that it makes sense to lean toward now, rather than waiting until I’m 80. I read this book 4 years ago and I now have that land where the dogs can run, at the edge of a town in which people recognize me. I built spaces on the land that allow my friends to visit for long stretches of time, and it is essentially a very tiny intentional community. I started running open mic music nights in the town, so I could get to know more people there. When someone here needs help, I help out with my time and effort.

In terms of a partner, I have worked on my own ability to be a good partner, and continue to do so. That made it a lot easier to recognize a really awesome partner when he came along. It has only been a month and we are just getting started, but I have a lot of faith in this relationship lasting, because of all of the mutual respect, good communication, chemistry, shared interests. Life is unpredictable, though, right? And impermanent. So I will savor it every day while it lasts. That’s a good way to make it last.

I do save money for retirement, when I can, but I don’t intend to ever really stop working, so my focus is more on making an emotional plan for my senior years. I am building connections that may possibly nourish me when I get there. I don’t know if these exact connections will be there. But they are nourishing me now, and I imagine they will lead to other connections as time goes on.


(6.4) Acceptance and Joy

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Acceptance: What Happened, Happened

On an intellectual level, it can seem pretty easy to ‘accept’ that what happened, happened. But if you find yourself wondering, “But what if I had done X?” or “What if they had done Y?” then your brain is demonstrating that you haven’t fully accepted that the loss or transition has happened and there’s no going back.

Now, I’m all about doing better next time, running through scenarios that I might encounter again so that I am prepared to make healthier choices in the future. Try to differentiate between that and a. beating yourself up for making mistakes or b. finding ways to cheat fate to make it not happen.

It was kind of fascinating to me that option b above was even possible. On a rational level, I knew that whatever I come up with won’t bring the dog or person back to life, but on some deeper level, I think that’s what my mind was looking for. If I could only find some way to prevent his death, it would be prevented. But unfortunately, that’s not how time seems to work. It’s a one-way street as long as we’re here in human bodies, so me coming up with ideas was just delaying my own healing, via acceptance.

So any time I caught myself creating scenarios in which my husband lived, I’d say something like, “but that didn’t happen. And I can’t fix things. Brice is dead. No matter what I do now, Brice is still dead.” I’d pull out a picture and say goodbye to his human incarnation, yet again, allowing my sadness to come back and be fully felt. Sadness had been held at bay temporarily by my hunt for ideas. I had to feel it in order to dull its sharpness, to integrate the experience instead of shoving it away.

Do this with whatever emotions come up for you. It may be anger (although sadness may still be under that) or fear or something else.


Joy isn’t about always being happy. It’s just the opposite of suffering. It is savoring whatever experience currently happens, including grief and loss. Joy is the opposite of struggling with your fate. Accepting that I am exactly where I am, and looking at what’s possible from here with an open mind, that’s joy.

And mourning also doesn’t mean happiness isn’t possible. Quite the contrary. After savoring sadness until it flowed away, there would also be regular life, cuddling with the dogs, or times when I would have such amazing gratitude for the people who would hold space for me to talk about Brice.

There would also times when I’d relive happy experiences we had had together. Sometimes I’d also be crying, while still feeling grateful to have had time with him. In my reading and other learning, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with savoring a past experience, as long as it’s not a way to avoid the present or accepting the loss.

The more I accepted Brice’s death, the longer of a respite I’d have between “grief bursts.” Grief doesn’t come in stages, like they used to think. It comes in waves, where unprocessed grief is triggered by the environment or something in our own minds.

At the time of writing, I’m about 6 months out from his suicide, and I estimate I get 1-3 grief bursts a week. They’re smaller than before and I’m really grateful when they come, because it ends up releasing tension, like a summer storm. I think about him a lot, many times a day, but now it’s a lot less painful. Less sharp, less frequent.

In some ways, it’s not so different from rehabilitating dog reactivity: finding all the triggers and experiencing them in a different way. Except with dog reactivity, we would work the edges, stay where the dog is pushing the comfort zone but still inside of it, because we are dealing with fear, and we also have no way to help the dog process the experience in words.

But with mourning, I’m working on acceptance, and go as deep into the pain as I can, accepting it and relaxing into it, letting it pour back out of me like water. Similar to the dogs, though, if were to find that I’m ‘over threshold’ and no longer doing healthy behavior (drinking, self-harm, anything like that) then I might not go into the emotion as deeply at the moment.

[P.S. If you’re considering self-harm, please phone a friend, consult a professional, or call a crisis line.]

By processing grief, by letting myself feel all of the pain, anger, sadness, happiness, relief, etc. as it comes, I continue to live a life of joy, even with tears streaming down my face. Experiencing grief builds my compassion, because I see that we are have grief, every one of us.

Allowing others to hear my grief, and listening to theirs, helps me realize yet again that I am not at all alone, even though my individual grief may be unique. Accepting life as it is and leaning toward the possibilities of the future leaves a lot of room for happiness to take root.


(6.3) Transitions and Loss

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What are Transitions?

Transitions include any kind of change in our life, including loss through death, change in relationship status, moving, switching jobs, graduating, a diagnosis, or any kind of change in identity, to name a few. All transitions bring with them the possibility of experiencing grief, so please read this section even if you haven’t experienced any giant recent loss. If you find yourself deliberately wanting to avoid this section, it’s probably especially important to read it.

Grief is any of the completely normal and complex set of emotions that come up after a transition. Sadness, anger, confusion, numbness, fear, joy, relief…they’re all often part of grief. In some ways, you might feel “crazy” because life feels so different.

Allowing yourself to feel all of it, without distraction, is extremely helpful. Even if that means a lot of pain emotionally and physically, from the tightness of your body.

When you’ve just experienced a new loss, it can be very disorienting. I found it helpful to just focus on my body at first, keep the “meat suit” healthy, and then give myself whatever time I need to process the feelings.

Ways to keep the body healthy:

  • Eat real food. When Peanut and Brice died, I barely wanted to eat anyway, so I ate foods that I knew were nutritious, enough to sustain me.
  • Hydrate with water or tea, not high sugar or caffeine drinks.
  • Sleep. Even if you can’t sleep, lie down rest when your body wants it. I found it helpful to take melatonin at night for the first few weeks. Meditating in bed helped me sleep, too. I used guided meditations in the Headspace grief pack. I found that when counting breaths I had to count only up to 2 or 4, because it was very hard to focus when grieving.
  • Move your body when you can, go for walks, dance, stretch. We hold grief and trauma in our bodies. Let it move.
  • Relax your muscles. Do a body scan, like in the meditation section, but do it lying down and relax your muscles, one at a time. You can go top to bottom or bottom up. Relax every muscle from the top of your head to your toes. Repeat as often as you need. This is helpful for sleep.

Any unprocessed grief might come back up when you experience a new loss or transition, so it’s important to take the time to integrate the experience, to “feel the feels” and let yourself mourn.

What is Mourning and How is It Different From Grief?

Mourning is the deliberate process of working through grief. We all experience grief in our own ways, and at our own pace. Don’t let anyone tell you how you “should” grieve. That said, it’s a skill to mourn in a way that furthers your own personal growth, so it can help to learn about what has been helpful to other people.

I have an article on many ways that we can mourn the loss of a dog or other pet, called “You’re Not Crazy, You’re Mourning.” Most of the material in there applies to grief from any other kind of transition, too. Please give that a read before going further in this article.

If you want to go more deeply into pet loss grief, or if you have a senior dog that you’re worried about losing, please also read this article I wrote about Peanut’s death.

I highly recommend the book, “The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses including Health, Career, and Faith” by Russell Friedman and John James. I read it and also went through a class with one of their certified grief specialists. It was helpful and also validated that what I was doing to mourn was on a healthy track.

Even if you’re not actively grieving a loss right now, the point of their book is that you’ve had many transitions to grieve in your life already, and if they haven’t been processed, they’re holding you back. Besides, you will almost definitely experience more major losses in your life, so practicing how to grieve in a healthy way now will be helpful.

I’ll share some tidbits from that book, mostly things to avoid, and also a way to get some closure.

When you feel strong emotion from grief coming up, don’t avoid it. Let it come, sit with it.

Common distractions:

  • TV
  • Reading
  • Sex
  • Food
  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Work
  • Exercise
  • Beating yourself up for not making things differently
  • Training dogs 🙂
  • Getting in arguments

Of course, eating healthy food and getting some exercise are great. Reading can be useful. So is dog training. But just don’t go to the point of addiction and don’t use them to distract yourself from feeling and processing your emotions. I had to let myself have lots of time where I wasn’t busy, where my emotions could be fully experienced in mind and body, and the pieces of my heart could come back together in a bigger, more expansive way.

If you find yourself using a distraction to avoid a feeling, stop and get in touch with your emotions. If you’re going down a spiral of reworking the past, “I could have…I should have…” it’s okay to interrupt with “But I didn’t.”

Let it go, just like we do in meditation. I think those thoughts are a strategy to feel better in some way, but it ends up being destructive. For me, a healthier strategy to feel better was to go right into the pain, and experience it. Some of the best advice I ever got was “lean into the pain of loss.” When I refocus on the emotion underneath – the loneliness, the sadness, I turn off the stream of words and just feel it – it fades away relatively quickly.

For example, if my mind started running through scenarios of how I could have helped my husband live longer, I would interrupt and say, “But that didn’t happen. He died. And now I feel…(pause to scan my body and picture him, or look at a photo and let the feelings come) SAD. I miss him.” Then I’d cry it out or go through whatever other emotion came up. 10 minutes later, I’d feel better and go on with living. More about that in the Acceptance and Joy lesson, which is next.

The Relationship isn’t Gone, Just Different

There really is no such thing as closure, like you’re just closing up shop and done with ever thinking about the person, dog, or whatever happened before. But there is a sense of peace that comes from fully accepting that the past is not changeable from where we sit. What is changeable is how we access the past, how we think about it now, and what we learn from the experience.

When you lose a person, there is still a relationship, it’s just a radically different one. Whether you believe the other person interacts with you or not is your own spiritual belief. But there continues to be a sort of interaction with them in your own mind, ways you think about them.

Here’s a practice that I do that helps me a lot with my husband’s death. It meets my need to process the grief and also to continue to get emotional support from our relationship, even though he isn’t here on earth any longer.

When I have a question of what to do, especially one related to him, I write a letter. I have a notebook just for those letters. I spell out my issue and I end with a question for him. I sign it. Then I clear my head and write a letter back from him to me, answering the question. I try to write quickly and not overthink it. Do I believe it’s really him? Not really, but my spirituality is still evolving. I think it’s mostly a way to bring out my own wisdom.

This practice uses the fact that our minds develop a ‘construct’ of other people, “what would so and so do in this situation?” So I have this construct of him in my mind and I have ideas of how he might respond to the current situation. The letter exchange allows me to basically project my highest self onto this construct of him, so I can pull out my own truths from what I write.

It’s a technique that I borrowed from the book “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia,” where she gets inspiration writing letters back and forth to “God.”

One thing that I found extremely helpful from reading the Grief Recovery book (and the live in-person course I took along with it) is the idea of writing a letter to the person in a specific way. So in addition to the letter exchange, I also wrote a few letters using their structure. The letter starts off with my apologies (for whatever I regret), then things I forgive (events, behaviors that I accept as having happened), and then any significant emotional statements. The letter concludes with goodbye.

Then, and this is the important bit, the letter gets read to a living person, a person who knows how to be a Heart with Ears. I think having someone who is alive to witness the words is really important. Even though it’s not the actual person, something about the process helps us feel heard, and the coulda-woulda-shoulda statements can be put to rest. I had people do this as part of a funeral ceremony for my husband and I think it was really helpful.

The book points out that we can do this with people who are still alive, too. We often have many things that we grieve with our parents or other people among the living. They warn against reading the full letter to them, however, because it might just bring up conflict. So they had us read the letters to neutral parties. I imagine SOME of the items from the letters could also be brought up using NVC.

Keep Talking About It

I love this touching conversation about death between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert about the their own personal experiences with grief. Anderson Cooper lost his mother two months ago and his brother and father many years back.

Be brave, have real conversations, go deep whenever you can. Share this aspect of common humanity, let it help you realize that this is some kind of entrance ticket to being part of the human club. Turn to whatever spirituality or understanding of the world gives you a framework through which to comprehend the death, (though I’d personally hope you turn to one that doesn’t shame anyone, ever).

The more authentically we talk about our experiences with grief, the more easily we integrate them into our lives. Listen to this all, I especially connect with what he says at about 14:20 and on from there, about gratitude for our suffering, because of the compassion that it brings, allowing us to be the most human we can be.

Bonus Resources:

Here’s a lovely guided meditation for grief by Megan Devine:



(6.2) Mindful Listening

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Paying Attention

When we use mindfulness to listen, we are extremely present with the person. We’re not trying to fix them, to make suggestions, to have something witty to say in reply. The point is to listen to the main content, but also to allow all levels of communication to happen.

When someone is sharing with me, I try to put all of my attention on the conversation. The skills practiced in meditation help me let go of wandering thoughts (including preparing a response or coming up with solutions) and bring focus back to the moment. I use my senses to take in information:

  • Listen for the feelings and needs being expressed.
  • Remember what they are saying, particularly the key points.
  • Observe their body language.
  • Notice how listeners respond:
    • Feel my own body and how I respond emotionally to the conversation. I keep light attention on my breathing and my whole upper body.
    • Watch the body language of other people in the conversation.
    • If a dog is in the room, I pay some attention to how they respond to the conversation, for their wellbeing and also dogs have a lot of empathy.

Keep in mind that others listening, including the dogs, are responding from their own perspective, their own conditioning and personality.

Your dog may respond to joyful high energy with fear, for example. You may find yourself getting defensive and that was not at all the intention of the person speaking. You might become judgmental, which I find usually only happens to me when I’m feeling insecure. Something they said (or they way they said it) may just subconsciously remind you of a totally separate situation with a negative emotional context.

Frankly, I think it’s kind of a miracle that people can communicate at all. Each word or tone of voice that we use has a LOT of past uses in our own experience, so even if we have an accepted definition, words land in each person’s mind in a slightly (or vastly) different way.

Active Listening

Active listening communicates that we are listening and that the person was understood. It includes the skills above of really paying attention to the person, as well as checking in to make sure we’re interpreting the information close to the way that they intended.

  • Stay focused on understanding what they’re saying from their own perspective. It’s tempting to respond with how you see things, whether you agree or disagree, or how you would suggest that they fix their problem.
  • Use your body language to express your interest. This will probably happen naturally when you truly are focused on the person and what they are saying.
    • Smiling when appropriate.
    • Eye contact – not staring, but soft eye contact. People are comfortable with different amounts of eye contact, so be mindful of too much, just as you would be with a dog.
    • Posture – lean slightly forward or sideways while sitting. The more interested you are, the more your feet will also tend to point at the person. If you find that your arms are crossed, ask yourself if you’re feeling defensive. You might possibly just be cold, but note that your body may be communicating defensiveness with that closed-off position.
    • Crying – if they are sharing something sad, it’s totally okay to cry. Don’t stop yourself or apologize. If they cry, don’t try to stop them by saying “it’s okay” or immediately giving them tissue. If they seem to be looking for it, help them out, but don’t interrupt an emotional sharing with tissue.
    • Hugs – hugs are great, but they can interrupt the flow of an emotional sharing. Don’t rush in to hug while they’re still deep in sharing something important. Watch to see if THEY are asking for a hug, not just that you’re feeling uncomfortable and want to make them stop feeling the emotion they are expressing. If you aren’t 100% certain that they want a hug, ask first and note that their body language as well as their words are the answer.
    • Mirroring their body language usually happens naturally too, when you’re really tuned in. Or you can mirror the person in order to tune in more. Don’t totally copy them move for move, or it gets creepy, but it can help to get into a similar posture to them. If they cross their legs, for example, then you do it a little bit later. You can even mirror closed off posture, like arms crossed, and then after a while open up your posture to something more relaxed so that they might open up, too.
  • Be curious! Ask questions whenever they come up. Don’t derail the conversation from what the speaker was talking about, but people often feel really heard when we are curious about what they said and ask follow-up questions.
  • Ask for clarification. Especially helpful if you can ask if they’re feeling X or needing Y. For example, “Sounds like you were really frustrated?”
  • Reflection – paraphrase what you understood. Not every sentence, but every so often, check if you’re comprehending what they’re saying. Rephrase what they said, in a short form, in your own words.
  • Summary – basically this is reflection, but you can summarize their main points to make sure you understood them.

Heart With Ears

Sometimes, when we share our deep emotions, like grief, it is helpful to simply have a witness, and not someone who is as involved as an active listener would be. The person talks everything through and we are just there to listen. We don’t talk at all, except for small noises or words to indicate we are listening.

It helps to have this be something you arrange in advance, so the person knows they are completely running the show and you are simply there to listen, not come up with solutions or intervene in the flow of the conversation at all. But sometimes even when we didn’t plan for it, I shift out of verbal active listening and just use enough body language to let the person I’m listening know I’m still following along.

In the book, “The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses including Health, Career, and Faith ,” John James and Russell Friedman refer to this as a “Heart with Ears.”

In the Heart with Ears role, we simply listen, maybe we also cry or laugh, but we don’t give any other feedback. No questions, no reframing, nothing. This is not about making sure you understand the person, though you are listening and trying to do that, too. Being a heart with ears allows people to communicate their emotion and go deep inside it. It’s not about you, it’s about them. You witness their sharing, but you don’t participate in it with words, because those may take them away from the deep emotion.

I think the best use of the Heart with Ears idea is when you are sharing something that’s not about the other person. For example I can call my longtime friend and ask if she will just listen to me talk through my experience with a client or a new epiphany about the loss of my husband. If I don’t want or need her feedback, asking her for that in advance sets both of us up for success. She can be my Heart with Ears for a few minutes and then we swap, so I can hear about her life in a similar way.

Here’s a really helpful video about listening to someone who is grieving. I’ll dig more into grief on the next page. One important point is that we can experience grief from any transition, not just from death or other clear losses like divorce. Graduating from school, getting married, having children, changing jobs (even to a ‘better’ one), moving, having an operation, any of that can bring on grief.




(5.5) Pause to Practice

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This section had several specific exercises. Go through them and report back on the Facebook group:

  1. Lovingkindness meditation
  2. Walking Meditation
  3. Meditation while doing some other activity
  4. Relationship audits (do at least one)

(5.4) Relationship Audits

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Does This Relationship Meet My Needs?

Each of us has many kinds of relationships. You may or may not have a romantic relationship right now, but I imagine you have some kind of relationships: family, neighbors, friends, dogs, etc. or have had some in the past.

Pick 1-3 of your most important relationships, the ones that currently impact your life the most. Technically you can do these audits for relationships with people or dogs who are no longer among the living, but it probably helps to start with beings who are alive. We’ll cover grief and transitions in the next section of this course.

For each relationship, print out two copies of the NVC Needs Inventory. Start with your role in the relationship.

Pay attention to how your chest and stomach feel as you read each one, how your breathing changes and any other body sensation.

  • Go through the list once and Circle the needs that you believe the relationship with you meets for the other person. Take the time to savor the experience of helping that person meet their, and imagining how it feels to them to have that need met.
  • Underline the needs that the relationship doesn’t meet for the other person. Relationships don’t have to meet every need!  Notice if there are any needs that you are capable of or interested in meeting, but are not doing. At some point, ponder why you are not doing so.
  • Put a star (*) next to the needs that you believe you are interfering with for the other person. Is your relationship truly blocking the meeting of that need, or does it just require some creativity and adaptation on their part, to find a strategy to meet their need allows your relationship to thrive? If your behavior is interfering with them meeting their needs, is there a behavior or habit that you could change?

Repeat from the other direction, assessing whether the relationship meets your needs.

Go over the first list again. Then consider whether it would be useful to discuss your findings with the other person in the relationship, possibly using your NVC skills.

In what ways could the relationship change so that it doesn’t interfere with either party meeting their needs?

In what ways could the relationship change so that it might help both parties meet more of their needs, or in more satisfying ways?

BONUS: Do this activity for the relationship with your inner child

(5.3) Meditation on the Move

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Walking Meditation

Meditation can be done in any position, but it’s ideal to have your airway open and it’s easier if your body is not in pain.

At some times in my life (like grad school), sitting still for meditation has just been too hard for me, and walking meditation really bridged the gap. I also think that meditation while walking integrates the process in ways that sitting doesn’t do. It’s also very grounding. So walking meditation is not just an easier version, it’s something I’d include anyway.

For starters, pick an area that has few distractions, where you’ll essentially pace back and forth or walk in a loop. I walk barefoot, but that may or may not work for you.

If you want to condition a scent to be calming, put that scent in the air or on your wrist before the meditation.

The basic walking meditation I do goes like this:

  1. Keep your eyes softly open, focusing on your feet or at a point ahead of you. Be aware of the general space around you without zooming in on the details. Take small careful steps, essentially one foot in front of the other. You’re not trying to get anywhere, just keep your body busy so you can get out of the grip of your thoughts.
  2. Take some calming breaths. For example, breathe out slowly until your lungs are empty. Inhale slowly and expand your belly until you can’t hold any more. Repeat for 3 breath cycles.
  3. Breathe naturally. Keep walking, one step at a time.
  4. Let whatever sounds are in the area reach your awareness, and let them go. There’s no need to stretch your hearing, just hear the sounds as they come. Do this for about a minute.
  5. Do a body scan, top to bottom, as with the meditations in Section 4.3.
  6. Turn your awareness to your feet. One step at time, feel the sensation of your feet on the ground, making contact. Without using words, note the pressure on the various parts of your foot. Allow yourself to feel grounded as you contact the earth or at least the floor.When thoughts arise (notice I didn’t write IF), let them go and return attention to your feet. If thoughts are particularly intrusive, you can count your steps in sets of 8. When you lose track of the count, just return your attention back to the steps. If it happens a lot, don’t beat yourself up. Just like with dog training, just lower your criteria to something that works. Have a smaller count, like 4 or even 2.
  7. After some time (say, 10 minutes), return your attention to your breath for about a minute, noting when you inhale and when you exhale. If you find that you get lost in thoughts a lot, you can give yourself something to focus on. A common thing to do is count sets of breaths, say 8 at a time.
  8. Allow sounds to come to your attention again, and become aware of the sights around you.
  9. Stretching at the end or shaking off like a wet dog is a fun way to end it.

Other Ways to Mix Movement and Meditation

I’ve done a lot of meditation sessions while doing physical activities. Any kind of meditation that one does while sitting can be done with movement as well, but there’s always some amount of focus on the physical sensations of your body so I don’t hurt myself.

My favorite meditations to do while moving are metta (lovingkindness), focusing almost all attention on the breath (a type of insight meditation), and focusing all attention on my physical sensations (also insight meditation).

  • Yoga
  • Walking the dog. Keep your focus on the dog, for example, and the physical sensations of the leash in your hand. Useful with the BAT leash skills.
  • Sex with or without a partner
  • Dance
  • Hiking
  • Stay training with your dog
  • Heel training with your dog. I like doing this with “it’s your choice” training, where you basically walk around a small area and give your dog a treat whenever they show up at your left side. While you are walking, you can essentially do the walking meditation above.

Here’s an example of a guided meditation for walking in nature:


(5.2) Unconditional Love, Compassion, Lovingkindness Meditation

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Compassion and Unconditional Love

Compassion is direct awareness of suffering, the “heart that trembles in the face of suffering” (Buddhist definition), and a desire to help end the suffering. Compassion is empathy plus a desire to act.

When we see a dog being pulled off his feet by a choke chain and feel almost as if it’s happening to us, that’s empathy. That feeling, combined with the desire to do something about it, and stop the leash pops for the sake of the dog, is compassion.

Feeling the frustration or fear of the woman who corrected the dog in the first place is also empathy. Maybe she was feeling ashamed and scared because her dog was barking at other dogs, and she was worried that he would get in a fight. She didn’t know what else to do, so she watched a television show that told her to lift the dog up by his slip chain whenever he looked at other dogs. Wanting to help her train the dog without force so that her own needs for safety and predictability are met is compassion.

If we only have compassion for the dog, then our approach to the woman might not be skillful. Without compassion for the woman, we might only take the dog’s needs into account, and thus our proposed solutions are much less likely to work. We might be unkind to her or just suggest a strategy that makes no sense to her.

Compassion is powerful because when we try to see things from other people’s perspectives, we are working WITH people, not against them.

We can also build up more compassion for ourselves. Without compassion, we might see our own behavior from a conditioned point of view and pass judgement on it as Good or Bad. Seeing behavior the NVC way, as an attempt to meet a need, we can still assess our behavior as being healthy or not:
– Does it serve life? (Allow the meeting of needs)
– Does it interfere with our ability to meet needs?
– Does it interfere with someone else’s ability to meet their needs?

We can have empathy for ourselves by really feeling our feelings, and seeing them as information about unmet needs, rather than passing judgement on them. Then we can have compassion by having a desire to end our own suffering, and see that we are just as worthy as anyone else to have our needs met. Note that we are ALL worthy of having our needs met, which is antithetical for meeting our needs in a way that prevents someone else meeting theirs.

When we act with compassion, we take other’s needs into account. That doesn’t mean we meet everyone’s needs. That would be impossible. It also doesn’t mean we have no boundaries. In fact, compassion requires us to put healthy boundaries on behavior, as far as I’m concerned.

Acting with compassion means we don’t behave in a way that prevents someone else from meeting their needs, and often that we do help them meet their needs in some way.

Technically compassion applies to all people, including ourselves, so we really don’t need a separate category of self-compassion, but I think it helps to think about it and do specific practices for increasing self-compassion. With self-compassion, we recognize that were are part of humanity, every bit as worthy of avoiding suffering as anyone else.

A compassionate person doesn’t meet their own needs in a way that prevents others from meeting theirs. That also includes self-compassion: person doesn’t meet other’s needs in a way that prevents meeting their own needs.

Since I am most aware of my own needs, and they matter most to me, I figure I’m the most responsible for meeting my needs. Any needs I can meet on my own, I do, so that I don’t require as much from others. But it’s not possible or desirable to be completely independent. I have a need to help others and they have a need to help me. We did not evolve to be emotionally self-sufficient.

Lovingkindness Meditation

Also called “metta,” lovingkindness is a family of meditations to practice compassion. Love and kindness are sent to others and self in order to practice feeling unconditional love.

What is unconditional love? Well, that’s a big question and I’ll just share what I’ve come to believe it is. You may have another definition of it. First, unconditional means without conditions. So no matter what, regardless of behavior, this love is available. What is love? There are so many definitions of love that it boggles my mind.

My most basic level of love is that I wish for the object of my love to be at peace, to be free of suffering. This is love that I can feel unconditionally. No matter who it is, where they live, or even what species they are, I wish for them to be free from suffering. That applies to self-love, too. I, too, deserve to be at peace and free from suffering.

This is the kind of love that I send out during lovingkindness meditation. Here’s an exercise I like to do.

Start by getting comfortable, either sitting in a chair with both feet flat on the ground, in cross-legged pose, or while walking slowly in an area with minimal obstacles. I’ve actually done this meditation (on low focus) while listening to a friend talk something through with most of my focus. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you lose track of what the other person is saying, though.

Stay open to any feelings that come up for you. Tears are fine, it’s all fine. No judgement.


  1. Relax your breathing for 3 breath cycles. For example, breathe in deeply, hold for about the same amount of time, then breathe out slowly.
  2. Close your eyes (if possible / safe)
  3. Scan your body as mentioned last week, from the top of your head to your toes.
  4. Relax into your breathing, letting your thoughts go by. Count your breath in sets of 5 or 10 if it helps you focus.
  5. Without using words, briefly visualize the beings who will benefit from your meditation.
    [You don’t have to think of every single one. Pretty much every interaction you have with others is improved by being more grounded and compassionate.]LOVINGKINDNESS:
  6. Think of a being you love and whose company you enjoy. It can be a person, dog, or spiritual entity. Someone you are sure that you love.
  7. Imagine wishing them well. I mentally say, “May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”
  8. Imagine a tube from your heart to the heart of the other person, and back. It pumps pure gold over to them, which is your love and it gradually gets stronger and brighter, sending love over to the other person. The return side of that pump is their love mixed with mud (defenses, misunderstandings, conditioned responses, etc.), flowing out of them and into your heart, to be cleansed and returned back to them as pure, bright love. I picture it as a dull gray color on its way to me. So I ‘see’ muddy liquid flowing along to me, getting purified by the warm love inside my heart, and flowing out to them as golden love. The ‘mud’ just disappears, it doesn’t stay in me. If you want to you, can repeat the words of wishing them well, over and over.
  9. Repeat this until the tube from them to you is also clean, so you can visualize their, pure, unconditional love coming into your heart and right on back to them.
  10. Next, switch to a person more distant to you, someone you know but don’t feel strongly for, one way or another. Repeat until the pump is clear, only golden in and out.
  11. Advanced: Repeat with another person who you have a misunderstanding with right now.  Or even with someone you really, really have a hard time connecting with. Another option is to repeat this with all beings on earth. We all want to be loved and be happy.
  12. Repeat with yourself as the object of your love. You can picture it coming right out of you and back or with your inner child as the person with whom you are exchanging love.”May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”
    May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”For some people, this is easier than the steps above and for some, it is the hardest. If you have trouble with one of the steps above, you might try this one sooner to see if it helps.CLOSE:
  13. Return your focus to your body and breath. Allow yourself to notice physical sensation and the sounds around you.
  14. Open your eyes.
  15. Take a moment to rest with your sensations before moving

For me, to be “in love” with someone is to be fascinated by their inner world, to be mutually responsible for each other’s well-being. The latter half of that flies in the face of the pop psychology idea of being independent and completely responsible for our own happiness. But this is actually backed by science: we have no choice but to be biologically interdependent with on our partners. The reliable, mutual support of partners paradoxically allows them to be more free. “If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, first find the right person to depend on, and travel down the road with them” (from ‘Attached: the New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love.”)

If you want a guided lovingkindness meditation, there are a LOT of them on YouTube. Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed.

This one is from the Thich Nhat Hanh foundation, with a basic Lovingkindness meditation.


This second one is on the Sounds True YouTube channel (definitely check it out!) about self-compassion. That idea might seem a little ‘selfish,’ but it isn’t. Quite the opposite.

I firmly believe that we eventually treat those close to us in a way that is similar to how we treat ourselves. So one of the best things you can do for the people you love is to learn to be compassionate to yourself.

Another perk of compassion toward myself has been that I feel more safe with myself, and thus more willing to open up and be authentic. By feeling safe, I create an environment in which I can expose my defenses for what they are and see the shining gold of my own heart beneath them.

For example, if I react to something with shame, I can have awareness of my shame and not feel ashamed about feeling ashamed. I just notice it, holding it with compassion, let the feeling happen, without trying to push it away. My shame is sort of a “I hope nobody notices that I am such and such a way.”

Then shame fades naturally and I have space to see what was hiding behind the shame. Sometimes I realize that being that certain way is just a story in my head. I was ashamed for no reason, because it was a false idea of myself. Or sometimes it’s even better; I realize that being that certain way is actually AWESOME but I didn’t realize that when I was 5 years old so I’ve been hiding it away ever since.

For example, I was told in elementary school choir practice that I could be heard above the others. I internalized that to mean that I shouldn’t be heard when singing, and it crippled my singing voice for decades. I’m only now just learning that what I was doing at that point was called “projecting my voice” and that having the audience hear me when singing is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing! Maybe my voice wasn’t amazing. But singing is a learned skill, not a genetic ‘flaw’ or something to be ashamed of. Wow.

Here’s one for kids (of all ages). I find meditation for kids can be really useful for folks that have trouble with the standard meditations.


(4.5) Pause to Practice

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  1. Take in the Good. Today you will have a moment that is at least okay, or even wonderful. Maybe it is happening right now. Take a minute to savor the experience–take in all of the sensory experience and deliberately remember it. Use the steps in the reading.
  2. What are your ‘heart holes’ – your main go-to ways that you feel less than perfect? For example, mine are “I don’t belong” and “I’m not enough.” Look for antidote experiences, the experiences that counteract that feeling, that disprove your negative self-talk and Take in the Good for them. Share some of your Take In the Good moments in the group, if you are willing.
  3. Try each of the mindfulness exercises (say one or two per day) and find your top 1-3 favorites, to do on a regular basis. What could remind you to do those exercises? Planting your own environmental reminders, like whenever you see a Stop sign, when you go to the bathroom, when you get or out of in your car, while you wait for your food to heat or cook, while you wait for files to load, or when you get off of work for the day, for example. An alarm on your phone is another option, but I find it more durable to have something steady in the environment to trigger me.
  4. Notice experiences of shame (Rumble), and any time you deliberately use shame on someone else. Reflect on your emotions using the Reckoning. Write it out, get those words on the paper. Then look at the parts of what you wrote that might be trying to shame yourself or someone else. Accept the parts that are true, behaviors that happened that you might do differently next time. Don’t accept the critic that’s shaming you. Then rewrite it with courage.  Feel free to post in the Facebook group to try to work through this together.



(4.4) Wholehearted Living and Badassery

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This section is a dear one to my heart. It’s really a summary of the most important things that I’ve learned from researcher Brené Brown.

  1. We are all doing the very best we can, at each moment. We can also dig deep and do better in the next moment.
  2. Shame, the fear that we don’t belong, is in all of us, to a greater or lesser extent. We basically all have it and most of us are afraid to talk about it. To have no shame at all is actually sociopathic. That doesn’t mean we should constantly be trying to fit in. But it means that we evolved as a social species, and belonging is a truly powerful need.
  3. Recognizing and leveraging our experience of shame to be useful is a learned skill.
  4. Badassery comes from being authentic, from seeing our problems as challenges that we can rise to, learn from, and in so doing, gain in compassion and wisdom.
  5. When get the idea of ‘making’ someone feel a certain way, it’s usually because that’s how we are feeling. That can be our own triggered history or it could be that the person was doing it on purpose.
  6. Brown has three steps to address the times when we realize we are taken over by defenses, mired in shame: Rumble, Reckoning, and Revolution. First we Rumble with our emotions, realizing we have been hit by a wall of shame or anger or whatever. Then we start to take control by consciously going through the Reckoning, where we own our story.Write out the storyline in your head that’s driving the emotion. Brown calls this a “shitty first draft.” Write out everything, as much as you can. Example lines from that story: “Everybody hates me, I’ll never fit in.” “She wants to feel terrible because I didn’t do this for her.” You can also share the story with a trusted friend or therapist who will let you just talk it through, rather than jumping to your aid or denying your story while you’re still in the process of revising it. Then comes the Revolution, where you rewrite the story, reframe it to a more realistic point of view and a better ending. NVC skills have come in very handy for me in this step.I can’t do proper justice to this technique, and I highly recommend that you read one or more of Brown’s excellent books, starting with Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I also love her other books, including Daring Greatly, which is important to read if you have things you want to bring into the world–ideas, objects, techniques. It’s a book about vulnerability and it’s also really good for running a business or organization (like an animal shelter).
  7. Without vulnerability, we cannot create. We cannot thrive. Armoring up against negative experiences also blocks out creativity, growth, love, belonging, joy, trust, and empathy. Learning how to recover and even thrive after experiencing pain, loss, and shame is a Superpower, because now I don’t have to worry about experiencing them. I have learned how to allow myself to be vulnerable to connection. Connecting to other people (and myself) gives my life purpose. Brown’s work is a big part of that.

Here are a couple of great videos of Brown speaking.


(4.3) Mindfulness

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What is Mindfulness?

I think of mindfulness as the state of being aware of my mind, observing and experiencing, rather than getting swept up and becoming my thoughts and emotions.

For example, if I’m angry at something my friend has done, a non-mindful response would be to shout, blame, judge, sulk, or maybe find some way to get back at him. Or I might hide my anger and pretend everything is ok, burying my emotion deeply — on purpose or without even really knowing or acknowledging my anger.

Let’s compare that to responding with mindfulness. The physiological response is the same, but I recognize and pay attention to those sensations — the racing heart, the feeling in my chest — and also note the thoughts of blame, shaming, etc. but I don’t “fall” for them, to recognize them as ideas and let them go. I don’t get hooked.

It’s like observing a race, with cars speeding by. I’m not trying to climb in, just note they are there and let them go. I keep light attention on my breathing and put the bulk of my focus on the physical sensation of the anger: feeling the burn, the intensity rising and falling as the rush of neurotransmitters returns to normal. Without words (internal or external) to fuel my anger (or any other emotion), the physical sensation fades within a minute or two.

Then I might look at what feeling is under the anger to see what I really feel. Anger indicates some sort of expectation violation and underneath it there’s another emotion, sadness, shame. I look at the needs that are not being met. When I first did this, I routinely pulled up the NVC Feelings Inventory and Needs Inventory on my phone.

Once I know how I am feeling, and what I need, I can self-soothe with breathing, revisiting a memory made by Taking in the Good, meditation, or other mindfulness strategies. If it’s a situation that would benefit from talking through with the other person (I need to set a boundary or request a behavior change) I can use NVC or some other compassionate approach to talk with my friend and sort out the problem.

Here’s a scientifically measurable definition of mindfulness from Psychology Today: “mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” I like that operationalization because it’s broad enough to include the many ways to be mindful, and specific enough to tell if something is mindfulness or not.

Mindfulness practices allow us to observe the chatter and silence of our minds. It’s not so different from being curious and simply watching a group of dogs at the park, without an intention of control, judgement, etc. The practice of being able to focus one’s attention in this way has a huge laundry list of benefits


Image result for box breathingBreathing in a steady rhythm or breathing out longer than you breathe in releases calming neurotransmitters, basically like your body’s natural opium. We discussed the 4-7-8 breathing exercise at the beginning of the last section and I’ll share a few more below. As with most breathing exercises, breathe in such a way that your abdomen puffs out when you inhale and goes back in when you exhale. Your chest and shoulders should be steady while doing this “diaphragmatic breathing.”

Breathing exercises can be done by themselves or as part of other meditation. Breath work can be done alone or with a partner, including a human or even your dog (although the dog won’t know s/he is part of it!)

Focus just on your breathing. If you start thinking about something else, don’t worry or shame yourself, just return attention to the breath.

  1. Doubling. The idea here is to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in, while also slowing down your breathing rate by half at each breath cycle. I made this up, but I imagine I wasn’t the first one to do so. Exhale completely. Next, breathe in for 2 seconds, out for 4, then double those numbers each time: in for 4, out for 8; in for 8, out for 16; in for 16, out for 32 (or as long as you can). Then allow your breathing to return to normal.
  2. Box Breathing (or square breathing). This technique is taught in the US military to help soldiers handle stress. With this type of breathing, you’ll inhale, hold, exhale, and hold, all for the same count. You can make up the count.
    The longer you do each side of the box, the more relaxing it is. So for example, you’d first start by exhaling all of your air. Then breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4, and repeat. Do that for a while and then switch to a count of 8 for the sides of your box. I do this kind of breathing to calming music (but it even works for music not designed to be relaxing). I use the numbers 4 and 8 because most western music is to a count of 4 or multiples of 4.You can breathe with your mouth or nose, whichever works for you, but breathing in with the nose and out with the mouth is helpful. For one thing, it gives you more to focus on and keeps your mind quiet. For another, there is some data saying that this particular way of breathing helps.
Box breathing
Box Breathing

Feeling Emotion in Your Body

This is an extremely important aspect of mindfulness. To use the metaphor of trying to help the border collie in your head settle down, learning to physically feel and identify your emotion is as essential as learning canine body language.

If you have any young people in your life (or if you like reading kids books), I highly recommend Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia and Ying Hui Tan. For adults, I really love Meeting The Dragon: Ending Our Suffering By Entering Our Pain, a short but intense book by Robert Augustus Masters.

Here are some ways to become more aware of your body.

Body Scan

This is helpful at bedtime or any time you want to let go of tension.

Ideally, start out by breathing with purpose for a few breath cycles, with your out-breath longer than your in-breath. The 4-7-8 is a good one, as is even breathing, doubling, or box breathing.

Now for the scan. Starting just above the top of your head, shift your attention gradually down to your toes, slow and steady, like liquid sunlight dripping down. I think of it sort of like an MRI scanner, where I’m creating a sort of snapshot of the current state of my nervous system, muscles, everything. In my scan, I get information from the nerves all along my body, not in verbal form, but as sensations. If any thoughts come up, I let them go and put my attention back on the physical sensations. Usually I do it for just a minute or or two but sometimes it’s a quick scan and sometimes I take longer.

Try it out for yourself for about one minute. Did you feel any resistance during this exercise, either in your body or in your mind? Do you have any muscles that are still tight? Any “yes, but,” thoughts? Don’t try to immediately get rid of your resistance and please do let go of any judgement. As the saying goes, “what you resist, persists.” This popular saying probably came from Carl Jung’s quote, “What you resist not only persists, but it will grow in size.”

Just observe your resistance. Knowing what you resisted in this self-love exercise is powerful information.

When you repeat the exercise above, ask yourself the question, “who or what are you resisting?” Ask in the third person, like you’re asking someone else. It’s not meant to be answered in words, just mentally say the question and let that plant the seed of curiosity in your consciousness. Who or what are you resisting?

Speaking of resistance, I had the coolest experience last year. Or, I should say, the hottest. I started having some hot flashes. I had a hysterectomy in 2010 so I was told I might have early menopause. I don’t know if it’s the start of perimenopause or what, but what I do know is that it was amazingly fascinating. It was like a jolt of hot electricity taking over my body, gradually spreading and turning up the temperature. I felt like I had a superpower!

I could have resisted the hot flashes, getting into some downward spiral about age or just wanting to be a certain temperature, something much cooler. I could have thought, “not fair!” and turned on a fan or iced my forehead. Fortunately, I wasn’t in front of an audience nor even in public when they happened, so I could sweat it out and just roll with it, undistracted, excited and curious about the currents of heat rushing through my body. I was enthralled.

When the first electric tingle started and I knew a flash was beginning, I would slowly scan my body and follow the changes—bringing awareness, but no judgement or attempt to change anything. The hot flashes lasted a few minutes at first and then they gradually got shorter. In a few weeks, they stopped happening.

During those couple of weeks, I learned how to turn on a hot flash (yay! Superpower!), although I can’t do it all the way to sweating hot any more (too bad, I guess?). The skill I was able to keep was to be able to increase my core body temperature at will. At least, to me, it feels like I am warm, which is all I really need in a cold room. Being able to do that still amazes me!

Part of the reason I was able stay present and learn from my the hot flashes is that I had already been practicing the skill of staying present during a similar experience what I could call “emotional hot flashes.” I highly recommend trying it. I basically wrote about that above in the intro to mindfulness, but it’s so important that I’ll put a variation  in its own section next. I’ll write this about dogs but you can do this with anything.

Observing Emotional Hot Flashes

Practice being present with your emotion. The next time your dog does something that triggers a negative emotional response in you (anger, frustration, fear), take these steps.

  • Turn off the storyline. If you begin thinking any words, just gently let them go and return your attention to the exercise. It’s not rude to just walk away from a conversation with yourself! Sometimes I imagine my verbal mind is like a dog asking for attention. My awareness gives it just a quick “All Done” signal and looks away.
  • Take 3 deep breath cycles (in through the nose, out through the mouth), and then breathe naturally.
  • Locate the feeling of the emotion in your body. Mentally scan for tension, heat, energy, etc. that feels like it’s related to the emotion. If you can’t locate the feeling, focus on your heartbeat or your breath moving in and out of your nose.
  • Keep your attention on the sensations without forcing anything. Allow tension to release on its own.

Sensory Check

This is a great one to do when you feel a little scattered, when you are tempted to fall into an old habit that you want to change, as a road trip exercise with bored passengers (or to wake yourself up),. or when you just want to feel grounded and present for any reason.

  • 5 things you can SEE
  • 4 things you can FEEL (physical sensations)
  • 3 things you can HEAR
  • 2 things you can SMELL
  • 1 thing you can taste

I can’t always detect two different smells without moving to a different location or smelling some part of my body, so I figure that’s fair game.

My son an I play this game a fair bit, trading sensory experiences back and forth. It can be done locally or long distance. Being present and communicating what we notice often starts some interesting conversations.

Digging Deep into Trauma Emotions with Meditation/Hypnosis

Exploring trauma is best done with a therapist, but I also have had really great success with the Trauma Care Guided Meditations by Roland Bal. They are an excellent way to do somatic work on trauma, getting into the cellular level of stored trauma.

One caveat – I have the support of a professional therapist. I think working with my therapist and the other work I have done have made these meditations more effective and help me know I have support in case I break something loose inside that needs further processing.

Here’s a video from his YouTube:

Everyday Mindfulness

One of my favorite Zen Buddhist kōans is “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I see Kōans as stories, conversations, or puzzles, designed to basically shake a student out of their old thinking and test their progress toward enlightenment. Zen isn’t a major area of study to me, but I love this kōan.

That’s probably because I’ve chopped a lot of wood and carried a lot of water in my life. I grew up without electricity and running water.  But I digress…

One of the takeaways from that kōan is that going about our everyday tasks with mindfulness is both a vehicle to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.

In other words, live your life. Truly live it. Don’t be so busy seeking experiences that you miss the fact that you are actually having experiences in every moment.

Mindful Eating

This is a great example. With each bite, savor the food. Without using words to describe it, have an experience. This can be done for drinking tea or even water, too. If you are dining with someone else, see if they will cooperate and also share this meal with you in silence. Even if you’ve had this dish before, consume it with “beginner’s mind,” i.e., with an attitude of curiosity and discovery.

  • How does it smell?
  • How does it look? Are their colors? Shapes?
  • What is the texture? How does it feel on your tongue?
  • What does chewing feel like?
  • What does it taste like?
  • Does eating make any sound?
  • How does your body feel as you consume the food? When you are no longer hungry, stop eating (not full, just no longer hungry). (I recommend putting the food away and have more if you get hungry again.)
  • Visualize (without words if possible) the many people and beings who contributed to this meal, from the plants and insects that nourished them to the people who grew the food, brought it to you, maybe even prepared it into a delicious meal. Allow a feeling of gratitude to arise, if you can.
  • Savor the faces of the people (or dogs) around you. Smile, make eye contact, laugh, as you enjoy this food together. If you are grateful for their presence, allow yourself to feel that. If you aren’t, allow yourself to feel that, too.
  • If you feel like ending with a sort of ritual, you can say “namaste” which means “I salute the divine in you.” Or you can just say “thank you!”

Washing the dishes (chop wood/carry water)

This is another everyday task that can be a lovely call to be present. Turn off your ruminations, the words in your mind, and focus on the task at hand. It may help to start out with a breathing exercise from the top of this post.

  • Feel the water on your hands
  • Look at the soap bubbles
  • Feel the satisfaction of making a dish clean
  • Your attention WILL wander. Just gently return it to what you are doing.

Mindfulness Exercises

Having a specific daily habit of meditation really helps me keep my life in perspective. Meditation is exercise for your ‘refocusing’ muscles. It can be done seated, lying down, walking, or even while walking your dog.

I adore the Headspace app, because it has guided meditations on all sorts of subjects, including some single-session recordings and a ton of 10-, 20-, and 30-day packs. I listened to the Grief Pack over and over when my husband died, and I found it immensely helpful for getting to sleep and quieting my “what if” questions.

Plus it’s gamified — it keeps track of how many minutes I’ve meditated, how many days in a row I’ve meditated, and just that is enough of a “goal” for me. There’s also a way to add friends so you have your own kind of online sangha, meditation community. This kind of meditation isn’t for everyone, but it can be really helpful. Headspace also has a section of guided tools for sleep. My favorite is actually the one designed for 9-12 year old children.

If you’re seeking a local community with a mindful approach to life, I highly recommend attending a regular meditation group or a yoga class with meditation. Places offering meditation have many different flavors, some more ‘religious’ than others. I find Insight Meditation to be a good group but there are many options. Having said that, people can be spiritually mature and still not emotionally mature. So make sure you are true to yourself and have healthy boundaries.

Dog Breath Meditation

This is a great exercise to do when your dog snuggles up next to you (or on you).

If your dog gets up during the exercise, just let him go, as long as he’s not doing something unsafe or unacceptable. Allowing your dog to move away while you’re trying to meditate is good practice in non-attachment.

  1. Observe your dog’s breath. Look for a spot on his body where it’s most obvious when he’s breathing in and out. If you do that, then go ahead and do the exercise. I try to do this whenever I notice my dog breathing. In otherwise, dog breathing becomes the cue for this meditation exercise.
  2. Get settled. Start with your body in a position that lets you have a straight spine. You don’t have to be sitting cross-legged in lotus. You can be on a chair with your feet on the floor or even lying on the ground.
  3. Double breathing. See above
  4. Take in your surroundings. For about a minute, let your senses take in the world around you – feel the surface beneath you, let sounds come to you without really thinking about them, be aware of smells, temperature, etc.
  5. Count 60 in-out cycles of your dog’s breath, keeping attention on the counting task. Just as your dog begins to inhale, mentally count “1”. When your dog breathes out, silently say a slow “Yes.” I think of it as marking the exhale, like you would with a clicker, only the Yes is just in your head.
  6. Take in your surroundings again.
  7. Ponder the experience. How was that? How did it feel to take this time to pause? It’s not always a good feeling, and that’s ok too. It might have just made you notice how active your mind is! That’s common at first. If your dog got up during the exercise, you may want to practice in a place where he’s more likely to stay put the whole time.

I do this exercise with Bean and if he’s airscenting something, it can be hard to find when his inhales and exhales are happening. In that case I just wait for his breathing to settle back down, I do the same meditation exercise with my own breathing, or I switch to my other dog, Zuki.

This exercise can be done with your own breathing, but I like doing it with the dogs at least some of the time, because then I really just pay attention instead being tempted to control my breathing. When you count your own breaths, try to just lightly pay attention to the breathing. Avoid steadying your breath or controlling it in any way while counting. That’s easier said than done and a wonderful exercise for dog training enthusiasts, who tend to have something of a control streak. 🙂

Variation: At step 0, try using your hand to feel your dog’s breath going in and out. For example, if it won’t disturb your dog, rest your hand on your dog’s chest or in front of his nose. If you can detect the timing of the breath by feel, then close your eyes at step 3 and open them at step 6. I like this variation, but sometimes when I try to do this with my dogs, I can’t quite tell in from out. I think this is easier with bigger dogs.

Variation: Without analyzing, simply notice how your dog’s breathing is not always the same. For example, sometimes they heave a big sigh and then don’t inhale for a while. Some breath cycles are short and others are longer. This is good to keep in mind for when you are counting your own breaths.

Variation: This can be done with other species, not just dogs. If you have children, you do this exercise with them in the role of the ‘dog’ when you put them to bed at night (counting out loud might be helpful).

Variation: Count your own breaths instead of your dog’s. Start with your hand on your belly (or wherever you can most easily detect in and out breaths), watching your hand move. In later sessions, close your eyes and do it by feel, hand still on your belly. After you’ve done several sessions that way, switch to just counting the breaths without using your hand, and eventually just focus on the breath for a certain amount of time using a timer. Don’t rush through the variations! I think it’s useful to experience each one many times, even if you can already do the later versions.

Try to build these exercises into your day. For example, if you’re a trainer who does house calls, take a few minutes to do the last variation of this exercise before notifying the client that you’ve arrived. If you have kids, meditate just after they fall asleep. I meditate with my dogs and the cat almost every morning before their walk, just after I have my post-breakfast tea. They’ve already snuggled in beside me on the couch for the tea drinking routine, so it’s perfect timing to slip into meditation. Those few minutes set the tone for a good connection.

Inner Puppy

One way I have built more compassion for myself is to look at my inner child as a puppy that has been trained to behave a certain way. I work with dogs who growl, bite, or run away when they are actually perfectly safe. I don’t label these dogs as “vicious” or “bad dogs.” I see their behavior as just something they learned to get their needs met. We all need to feel safe, to belong, to be satisfied.

When I see behavior (including thought patterns) in myself that I don’t want, I can bring it back to my inner puppy…what was she trying to do with this originally? Can I honor the fact that this was the best thing she could come up with at the time, that this kept me safe, gave me a sense of satisfaction, or helped me fit in? Does that emotional or behavior rule that my inner puppy came up with match my reality as an adult? Can I picture meeting my needs in a healthier way?

I’ll share this as a series of visualizations. Read this all the way through before practicing. Imagine cradling your inner puppy in your lap. If you have a calm dog or other animal you can pet while doing this, go for it. You can go through all three visualizations at once or practice them individually.

This exercise is meant to be done only with visuals, with little or no verbal thinking. If at any point you notice words in your head or you are envisioning something off topic, just gently let it go and return to the exercise.

  • Take 3 deep breath cycles and close your eyes on the last breath (unless you’re walking!) Let your breathing return to normal.
  • Without words, communicate to your inner puppy how much they are loved and cherished. Feel love flowing from your heart, into theirs, and back again. Surround them in a soft bubble, like a hug made of pure love. Tell them that they belong, just as they are, that they don’t have to be any certain way to be accepted.
  • Send a visual to your inner puppy of your strong, smart, adult self, that you will keep them safe as long as you live, that together you can bounce back from anything life will throw at you.
  • Give your inner puppy permission to be curious and free. Visualize them being guided by their own authentic drive for healthy satisfaction, tempered only by compassion. Picture your inner puppy tired after a long day of joyfully following their dreams. Feel that in your body. Take a deep breath and let out a big satisfied sigh of contentment.

Tip: When you visualize, it’s like watching a movie in your head, as if it’s already happening and you’re just now paying attention. If you have trouble visualizing, feel free to get out some drawing tools and sketch it out. My drawings are just stick figures, but they still help me walk my brain through a visualization.


(4.2) Taking in the Good

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I first encountered Rick Hanson’s books when I met a young woman named Riley. She told me that she had been committed to a mental health unit after a suicide attempt as a teenager. Riley’s boyfriend had committed suicide a year prior and she was severely depressed. In the mental health unit, she was prescribed a variety of drugs which she says she didn’t actually swallow. What she did do was read the book “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson, and apply the techniques in there. She told me that it saved her life.

I read that book and also another of his, Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, which I found to be better. It’s a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. If you don’t have a lot of time, focus on the 21 exercises in chapter 10 and also the specific antidote suggestions in Table 5 (page 137-138).

So what is Taking in the Good? It is basically a strategy to notice  experiences that meet our needs and actually remember them. As we saw in Section 3, our brains are like velcro for bad stuff (noticing and remembering it easily) and teflon for good stuff (good memories don’t stick easily, they just slip away). It’s a sort of specific strategy for gratitude that is backed by neuroscience.

Taking in the good heals ‘heart holes’ – those stories we carry around with us that take away our capacity to fully feel satisfied, safe, and connected. These stories are often made up in early childhood. Our first impressions are very strong and the emotional rules we make as kids are difficult to change.

What happens when we get new information that contradicts the rule? Our minds just make stuff up. We twist and turn our stories around so that the rule still holds. If we are really sure in our gut that we aren’t lovable, but someone says they love us, then something’s wrong their judgement. ‘Maybe they don’t see the real me, or maybe they’re lying,’ for example.

Taking in the good is recognizing the antidote experiences, the situations that prove our unhealthy emotional rules wrong, and really soaking them in. Hanson is a neuroscientist and he explains that it takes about 15-30 seconds of really experiencing those antidote experiences in order to take them in properly. Otherwise our attention just slips right by it and looks for something negative to focus on.

Taking in the Good is not a one-time fix, but a lifestyle, a habit that can create a positivity bias instead of a negativity bias. Hanson gives four steps, with the acronym of HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience (contradicts your unhealthy emotional rule)
  2. Enrich the experience (take in information with all of your senses)
  3. Absorb the experience (make a point of remembering somehow)
  4. Link positive and negative material (think about the rule and then feel your experience contradicting it)

Here’s an example from my own life.

One of my heart holes, my recurring subconscious stories about myself, is that I don’t belong. I moved to a rural area at 5 and grew up as an outsider. Deep down, below the level of words, I feel that if people really knew me for myself, they would shun me.

That’s one thing that makes this course a little hard to teach. My BAT book was fairly controversial, but this course is going out on a limb. It’s a new direction from me, from dogs to humans. My self-doubt sometimes asks “who are you to teach this material?”

I realize that’s not rational. It’s just my old conditioning, and fortunately the stories spun by self-doubt are no longer something I take seriously. No I don’t have a Ph.D. in psychology, just some graduate work. I am not a hermit, I don’t life on an ashram, I’m not a neuroscientist. But I’ve spent a lot of time and study on the techniques in this course, and I’ve used them all. This stuff isn’t all common knowledge and putting it into practice has made my life wonderful. Of course I want to teach these skills to people.

I’ve historically been a people pleaser. My whole life, to varying degrees, I have pruned away the parts of myself that I knew my friends, colleagues, or lovers didn’t like. When I take a risk to put my ideas or heart out there (as I am in the course), that’s a big deal. I’m learning to be brave and authentic all the time, now, but it’s still a big deal!

Recently, I gave a talk at a conference on a subject that I dearly love – empowering dogs to get over their fears using Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). The audience packed the room, standing room only, to learn about the technique that I developed. As someone who subconsciously believes that she isn’t good enough and doesn’t belong, seeing my work change lives never ceases to humble and amaze me.

It would have be easy to just give the talk and move on. I do these all the time now, for the past decade. But I know that feeling appreciated is an antidote experience to the holes in my heart, so I deliberately took it in.

The H step in healing is to have a positive experience. For me, that was giving the talk and having people come up to me and say how they’ve used my techniques to help dogs. Some of them gave me hugs. A woman looked me in the eye and thanked me for making a difference. She used BAT with her lab mix and now the dog is social, just like any other dog. He belongs, too. Wow!

I went through the E step next, and enriched the experience using information from my senses, taking about 30 seconds (when I have time I like to savor the good stuff like this!).

Here’s what I can recall from my memory: I’m in a conference hotel in Portland. I can smell the coffee in the decanter on the table. I hear the bustle of people selling dog products at their booths, the clink of glasses being set down on the refreshment table.

It’s a beautiful, hot sunny day outside, but it’s cold in the hotel, air conditioned to feel like a crisp fall day. When the woman tells me about her dog, her smile is full of her love and compassion for him. She shows me a picture of them together, and another of him with his new dog friends. I can tell she wants a hug and I do, too, so I ask her if she’s a hugger and we embrace briefly. Oxytocin flows and I feel connected to this woman and to humanity.

Next I moved on and Absorbed this experience. This can be anything from visualization to just mentally telling your brain to remember this moment.

One of my favorite ways to absorb an antidote experience is to summarize it in a few words in the third person for focus (“you make a difference, Grisha”) and hold that phrase in my mind as I imagine the enriched sensory experience coalescing into a small ball of warm light on my hand. I bring the hand to my heart and the light gets sucked inside; then my heart pumps the light throughout my entire body, until I’m glowing and sharing more light with the world.

Another visualization I like is from Hardwiring Happiness, to imagine the memory as millions of little motes of pixie dust, settling over me and deep into all of my cells.

The final step is optional, to be done when you feel really solid about the earlier steps. Linking that positive experience to a negative one, so that the triggers for feeling the hole in your heart start bringing up the antidote experience instead. It’s like a cue transfer, so situations that used to trigger negative thoughts will pull up the good memories you’ve taken in.

You basically start thinking of things that trigger your old stories, and then shift back to taking in the good before the feelings overwhelm you. That’s similar to how you might do a cue transfer, by lightly knocking on a door and then immediately cuing the dog to go to his bed. The “Go to Bed” cue needs to be pre-trained with positive reinforcement, just as Taking in the Good needs to be practiced before pairing it with negative experiences.

As I mentioned I sometimes find myself wondering who I am to give life advice. I know intellectually I have studied an immense amount and learned some powerful things to share. I know that I love my life and want others to have a similar experience.

But I can also picture the critics. So in the Linking step, I briefly imagine judgmental Facebook comments, and before my heart freezes solid and doubt overwhelms me, I can go back to that stored memory that I deliberately took in.

I can relive the experience of a trainer sharing how my work made a difference to her, and the ice in my belly melts. I picture the glow of her gratitude lighting me up and spreading out to others. I picture the other memories of talking to people and connecting with them, helping them by sharing the resources I’ve found. And I think, this personal work…this is also powerful stuff and more people need to know about it.

You might be thinking, “well that works for you because you write books. I don’t make a big difference.” First, question that limiting belief. You probably do make a big difference to some of the people in your life. And even if you don’t, it’s the small things that matter. The authentic smile you gave to the grocery clerk and how it made her smile back for a moment. The dog whose life is better because you gave his caregiver a better way to understand him.

Once you start looking for memories to take in, you’ll see them everywhere. Take in several things a day, and they end up taking up all the mental space that used to be taken by negativity.

One of my most cherished antidote moments was simply sitting beside a friend who was worried.  I just sat there, breathing in, breathing out until he calmed down. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t need to. Later, he said, “thank you for your you,” and it had the most powerful impact on my heart. I later revisited that memory over and over, to boost me out of a time where I was feeling like I didn’t belong. That’s a priceless memory, and without deliberately taking the good, I might have lost it forever.

Here’s Rick Hanson describing Taking in the Good, which turns passing experiences into neurological support structures for happiness and resilience.


(3.4) Gratitude Can Change Your Brain Chemistry

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What is Gratitude?

Gratitude practices basically rewire our brain to pay more attention to the feeling of gratitude, balancing out our negativity bias.  A little daily gratitude list can change your brain chemistry. It’s like doing surgery on yourself, but in a really safe way.

What is gratitude? It’s more than just being thankful to someone else for helping you. A fairly recent review of gratitude research uses this definition: “Gratitude is part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world. This life orientation should be distinct from other emotions such as optimism, hope, and trust. Whilst these may involve life orientations, these would not characteristically be towards noticing and appreciating the positive in life, with, for example, optimism representing a life orientation towards expecting future outcomes, and hope incorporating this focus as well as tendency to see the pathways through which these positive outcomes can be reached.”

Evidence indicates that gratitude causes happiness, not just the other way around or a loose correlation. Gratitude can build resilience in people of all ages, and improves just about every other measure of well-being, too.

So that means this meme is scientifically verified. 🙂

Image result for grateful people are happy

And this one:

Image result for grateful people are happy

How to Express Gratitude

Here are some habits that can give you a chance to exercise your gratitude muscle.

Be creative, find a way that works for you. The key is to take time savoring little tiny (or big) unique events that evoke a feeling of gratitude in yourself.

  • Gratitude Journal. This is a standard one. My spin on it is that I do it on my phone. I have a little text document and I put the date and then at least 3 things I’m grateful for. I try to picture the thing I’m grateful for and the feeling it evokes so that I can really remember it and combat the negativity bias.
  • Gratitude Jar: I have a jar with a pad of paper beside it. When I’m home and happen to think of a gratitude (or get in a dark mood and want to pull myself out of it), I write out a little thing I’m thankful for. If you need encouragement, you could have a little snack jar right there, so you “pay” for your snack by writing a gratitude slip.
  • Social Media: Express gratitude whenever you can, just make sure it’s really about expressing gratitude and not about making yourself look good for being gracious or having a lot of stuff. I have created a Gratitude Thread in our private Facebook group. Feel free to comment there any time you want.
  • Gratitude Calendar: This is a spin on the gratitude journal. On each day in the calendar (on the wall or in your phone), write or draw 3 things you’re grateful for.
  • Verbal Gratitudes: This is great for couples or parents/kids. Say three things you’re grateful for, back and forth. “Me-too” duplicates don’t count for your three.
  • Pose the Question: During meditation, ask yourself, in the third-person voice, “Who or what are you grateful for?” Don’t try to answer it, just let answers flow up. It’s tempting to start using your conscious mind to reply. Just put the question out there and focus on your breathing. Feel free to simply repeat the question if your mind starts to wander. The idea is to plant the question in your psyche, NOT to start working on the answers. Having a continual attitude of looking for things to be grateful for is super helpful.
  • Visual gratitudes: I’m no artist, but I found it especially fun to do little drawings of my daily gratitudes. This can be done on a calendar, on blank paper, on a marker board, or even on your wall! Another person I know took a photo every day of something she was grateful for, and posted it on her Instagram. Poetry, music, sculpture, dance, and any other art can be used to express gratitude.
  • Just Say It: Just tell someone when you are grateful for something that they do. NVC statements are great for this, but a simple, “I’m so grateful that are here today, thank you!” is plenty. If no one’s around, you can still say it out loud. Works especially well if you have a spiritual recipient in mind, but you can also just talk to yourself.

On that note, I’ll express my gratitude here! Thanks for being in this course. I’m so grateful to be on this journey with you. We are never done learning these things. Teaching is one of the best ways to get new insights and I also appreciate having a community to explore these topics with.

Other Ways to Change Brain Chemistry

I felt really empowered when I learned that my activities, thoughts, and behaviors could change the chemistry of my brain. Gratitude is one useful, healthy way to change brain chemistry.

Our brains’ chemical makeup and response can be trained through our activities. Powerful choices include meditation, eating to nourish the brain and body, and activities that stimulate the vagus nerve.

I encourage you to read this additional article on the vagus nerve and PTSD, even if you (or your dog) don’t have PTSD, because we all have some experience with trauma.

Here’s another thing. Our minds affect our body language, but the reverse is also true. Check out this TED Talk about how 2 minutes a day of changing your posture can change your hormone levels and outlook.


(3.3) Assumptions: Labels, Attribution Errors, Cognitive Distortion, etc.

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Labels Aren’t Helpful for People, Either

In the dog training field, there’s a movement in the last several years to unlabel the dogs. Susan Friedman, Ph.D. urges us to stop saying “aggressive dog,” “fearful dog,” “alpha dog,” etc. because it makes it seem like that behavior is an unchangeable part of the dog’s personality.

Susan Friedman’s sticker and other handouts are downloadable at

No dog is aggressive 100% all the time. She might show behavior that we would call aggressive in a certain situation. But she’s not an “aggressive dog,” she’s a dog with emotional reactions to stimuli and habitual ways of responding. We know how to change habits.

Labeling a dog tends to limit the way we thinking about how to change their habits.  Taking off the label and looking at what meets the need or craving is much more productive.

The same goes for you. Maybe someone in your past diagnosed you with a mental illness (bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety) and eventually you took it on as a label, as a part of your identity. It isn’t. Those things are all habitual ways of responding to your environment, things you’ve picked up along the way.

You are not your diagnosis.

And if you don’t have a diagnosis, that doesn’t make you any better of a person than someone who does. I find I only get judgmental when I’m feeling insecure about my own worth. Whenever I feel solid, I can see the good in others. I might still need to set boundaries on behavior, but if I find myself looking down on someone else, it’s a sign that my own self-confidence is low, and I need to work on it.

We are all good, at our core, and we are all doing the best we can. Some folks do have more behavior that doesn’t serve themselves (or others) than others. But that’s fixable, to the person who truly wants to change. Healthier behavior and thoughts can be learned.

Behavior (including thoughts and the release of chemicals in your brain) is responsive to ‘distant and proximal antecedents” – stimuli that come before the behavior, either way before (distant) or right before (proximal). Food, alcohol, drugs (including sugar & coffee), exercise, sleep, past experiences,…all of that goes into how we view and respond to the world.

The moment you view BEHAVIOR as being mentally unhealthy versus a character flaw, a world of possibilities opens up. You don’t have to change yourself – that’s not possible, anyway.

Your spirit is wonderful, totally lovable and 100% acceptable.

You are not your behavior.

That said, you are responsible for your behavior and can be the architect of better choices. It’s not easy – engineering your own healthier choices is a skill that you get better with over time. So at first it seems really impossible. But it isn’t. Change one thing, and another. Build momentum.

If you don’t yet feel equanimity (a steady, warm state in which you feel comfortable with yourself and others without hostility), you *would benefit* from a change in your mental and external behavior.

[Just for the record I still have blips where I totally get sucked into my emotions and identify with them, like diving into a pool. But I do come up for air much more quickly now and recognize that those feelings are things I have, they aren’t me. I’m patient and love myself where I’m at. I can’t wait for perfection before I love myself, because loving myself IS part of the perfection. I might as well start now! I’m pretty sure I can’t fully reach perfection in one lifetime, anyway.]

Totally healthy brains can learn unhealthy ways of responding. When you repeat things enough, you build a habit, which eventually might be considered to just be part of who you are.

But it isn’t. Your mental and external habits are just strategies you learned to help meet your needs, and some of them are getting in the way of meeting your other needs. It takes time and effort to go through your own mental ‘garden’ and figure out which parts are authentic/healthy and which parts are weeds, choking out the health of the other plants.

Observing your behavior and thoughts with love is immensely powerful. Every behavior you have is there because it was (or seemed) useful at the time. But that doesn’t mean that you need to keep doing it.

Cognitive Dissonance

The following is am excerpt from my book, Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 New Practical Techniques for Fear, Frustration, and Aggression in Dogs (edited for brevity).

Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling we get when we simultaneously believe two ideas that can’t both be true. It is an uncomfortable feeling to hold onto conflicting opinions and the theories on cognitive dissonance in social psychology is that humans work hard to avoid this state of being. Here are some examples of conflicting ideas:

  1. “I want to be thin,” “I love chocolate,” and “chocolate makes you fat.”
  2. “I have trained with choke chains,” and “Training with choke chains is inhumane,” and “I am a good person.”

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have an innate motivational drive to reduce dissonance. People get rid of cognitive dissonance in different ways. One way is to simply avoid thinking about the conflict. So the chocolate-loving per­son may just put the desire to be thin out of her head when eating chocolate.

Or she may change behavior or add another belief, so there is no conflict, after all. For example, if you add on exercise: “My workout burns those chocolate calories,” or wishful thinking: “Calories only count if you eat them while sitting, so I will eat my chocolate standing up!” then the dissonance is reduced. She could also remove one of the beliefs: “Being super thin doesn’t matter” or edit one of them: “A small amount of chocolate in a balanced diet does not make you fat.” We have a lot of creative ways to reduce dissonance. Some of them totally remove the dissonance and others just bring it down to a manageable level.

Taking a look at the second line, you’ll see an example of the quandary that a trainer may have after her first exposure to positive training. Seeing that positive reinforce­ment training produces reliable results may have made her realize that choke chains are unnecessary. If they are not necessary and they are aversive, the trainer has been using inhumane training. But only bad people do inhumane things, and she is a good person! Her head threatens to spin off of her neck unless she can get rid of the cogni­tive dissonance.

At this point, she has at least three choices in order to continue to believe she is a good person: become a “crossover trainer” and decide to stop using choke chains, become a “balanced trainer” by eliminating the belief that choke chains are unnecessary, or discount her learning of positive training altogether and go back to her old way of training. (If you’re in this boat, I hope you choose the first option!)

Here’s a good video from the University of Texas at Austin’s Ethics Unwrapped series on Youtube:

Having healthy boundaries is a good way to resolve cognitive dissonance in a way that maintains your integrity. I believe that one of the roots of depression is resolving cognitive dissonance in unhealthy ways (essentially lying to oneself by justifying behavior that doesn’t match one’s ethics).

  1. Never ignore your guilty feelings. Analyze it honestly.
  2. Study the ways our brains distance us from immoral actions
  3. Get to know the most common justifications used, and when you notice them in yourself (or others), see that as a red flag. For example, “everyone does this,” or “this is the way it’s always been done.”

Getting rid of cognitive dissonance by any means necessary is one way our brains trick us. Another is the Backfire Effect, which the Oatmeal describes so well, that I’ll just link to it.

Next, let’s talk about why people mess up. Is it something about them or is it circumstances?

Cognitive Distortions

Our brains are really skilled at “automatic thinking,” which helps us to quickly understand our life experience. Unfortunately, we are also good at cognitive distortions, which gives us a view of the world that has very little to do with how another might see it. Trauma will often skew the way we interpret words, facial expressions, and other people’s intentions. Erring on the side of “I’m in danger”,  “don’t trust them,” etc. can prevent us from getting hurt, but they also block true intimacy.

I’ve been on both sides of cognitive distortions – we all have. By living with a man who I loved unconditionally who was often overcome by his cognitive distortions, I started really seeing these for what they were — attempts to feel safe and loved that backfired and ultimately just kept him from seeing how many people loved him. His world became very lonely, because he couldn’t trust other people’s intentions toward him. And while his distortions were frequent and large, I realized that I have them too. We all do.

Personally, when these crop up, I’ve learned to check others’ intentions as soon as I can. I try to keep my own intentions clear and clean, coming from a place of love and not fear. I surround myself with people whose intentions I trust, and work hard not to let distortions break that trust. Each time I ‘reality check’ and ask how they meant something, rather than trusting my own worst fears, I remove a little of the artificial distance between us.

Here’s a list of cognitive distortions from Wikipedia. In the original article, several of these distortions are explored more deeply in additional articles.

Always being right
In this cognitive distortion, being wrong is unthinkable. This distortion is characterized by actively trying to prove one’s actions or thoughts to be correct, and sometimes prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.

Blaming is the opposite of personalization. In the blaming distortion, other people are held responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Disqualifying the positive
Discounting positive events, such as scoring highly on an exam but not achieving a perfect score.

Emotional reasoning
In the emotional reasoning distortion, we assume that feelings expose the true nature of things and experience reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts; we think something is true solely based on a feeling.

Examples: “I feel stupid, therefore I must be stupid”. Feeling fear of flying in planes, and then concluding that planes must be a dangerous way to travel. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning one’s house, therefore concluding that it’s hopeless to even start cleaning.

Fallacy of change
Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person [This is one I think dog trainers and behavior geeks may be especially prone to.]

Fallacy of fairness
The belief that life should be fair. When life is perceived to be unfair, an angry emotional state is produced which may lead to attempts to correct the situation.

Jumping to conclusions
Reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) with little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are identified:

Mind reading
Inferring a person’s possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from his or her behavior and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst suspected case without asking the person.

Example: A student assumes that the readers of his or her paper have already made up their minds concerning its topic, and, therefore, writing the paper is a pointless exercise.
Fortune-telling: predicting outcomes (usually negative) of events

Labeling and mislabeling
A form of overgeneralization; attributing a person’s actions to his or her character instead of to an attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or otherwise extrinsic, one assigns a label to someone or something that is based on the inferred character of that person or thing.

Magnification and minimization
Giving proportionally greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, or lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity, so that the weight differs from that assigned by others, such as “making a mountain out of a molehill”. In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and their negative characteristics are understated.

Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable

Making hasty generalizations from insufficient evidence. Drawing a very broad conclusion from a single incident or a single piece of evidence. Even if something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again.

Example: A woman is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to dinner and to meet new people. She feels it is useless to even try. No one really could like her.

Attributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, to events over which the person has no control.

Making “must” or “should” statements
Making “must” or “should” statements was included by Albert Ellis in his rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), an early form of CBT; he termed it “musturbation”. Michael C. Graham called it “expecting the world to be different than it is”. It can be seen as demanding particular achievements or behaviors regardless of the realistic circumstances of the situation.

Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes.
In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns clearly distinguished between pathological “should statements”, moral imperatives, and social norms.
A related cognitive distortion, also present in Ellis’ REBT, is a tendency to “awfulize”; to say a future scenario will be awful, rather than to realistically appraise the various negative and positive characteristics of that scenario.

Splitting (All-or-nothing thinking, black-or-white thinking, dichotomous reasoning)
Evaluating the self, as well as events in life in extreme terms. It is either all good or all bad, either black or white, nothing in between. Even small imperfections seem incredibly dangerous and painful. Splitting involves using terms like “always”, “every” or “never” when they are false and misleading.

Fundamental Attribution Error

“Attribution” is what we believe is the cause of someone’s behavior. It can be “dispositional attribution,” meaning that it’s something about the character of the person that caused the behavior. It can also be” situational attribution,” meaning that we believe people’s behavior is shaped by their circumstances.

Study after study shows us that situational attribution is more accurate, but we often use dispositional attribution with other people. That’s the “fundamental attribution error,” the error that we are sort of hardwired to make, in part because we are almost never aware of all of the external and internal events that led up to other people’s behavior.

With anxiety and depression, the fundamental attribution error sometimes gets made in reverse. An anxious person might be able to justify other people’s behavior as responses to their environment, but think that they themselves are flawed, that good things happen to them only because of pure luck, and that their own mistakes are due to a character flaw, rather than just what they’ve learned to react to the situation. There’s a self-defeating attitude of “I can’t do this” versus “I can’t do this YET.”

Honestly, I think that’s why meditation and other mindfulness tools can combat depression and anxiety. The more we understand how our own behavior is shaped by circumstances, the more we can learn to give ourselves a break and work on changing what we can of the circumstance. That empowers our physical and emotional behavior to change in response. Making one little change is a HUGE, wonderful first step, it creates a little crack in the wall of dark impossibility, a glimmer of hope.

But let’s get back to the fundamental attribution error. The following is is another excerpt from, BAT 2.0:

When we ourselves behave in some way, we tend to think of it as being justified, even if it turned out to be a mistake (unless we are depressed or overly self-critical). When someone else makes a mistake, we tend to attribute it to a character flaw. This difference in how we look at behavior done by “us” versus “them” is the fundamental attribution error at work.

For example, let’s say you’re on a walk and your dog poops in someone’s yard. Sud­denly, you realize you have no bags, so you make a mental note to come back later to scoop it up. You know the whole situation and you know that your decision to walk away was based on what just happened. But the neighbor sees you walking away without scooping and calls you a lazy, inconsiderate dog walker. You knew that your behavior happened for a reason, but the other guy assumed there was something in­herently wrong with you.

According to the research of social psychologists, people have a tendency to look for character flaws to explain bad behavior, rather than looking for a situational explana­tion. It’s kind of like the opposite of functional analysis and it’s the reason why dogs are labeled as “dominant” or “stubborn” rather than “under-socialized” or “under­motivated.”

In ourselves and those close to us, we tend to create situational explana­tions of behavior (unless we are in a conflict with them over the behavior in question). With others, we tend to just write them off entirely as being fundamentally flawed. As another example, you probably have some explanation for why your dog may lunge on a walk, but if another dog does that, you might think of that dog as a bad dog, or that the dog’s handler is a jerk for walking too close to your dog.

I’m writing about this here for two reasons. First, make sure that you remember to look for situational explanations of your dog’s behavior (and then use those to train alternative behaviors). This empowers you and your dog: you can change the environ­ment, and thus the behavior. Character flaws have a fixed property, so we just give up.

Second, the fundamental attribution error applies to other trainers, too. “Positive” trainers tend to see a character flaw in “traditional” trainers who use physical punish­ment, thinking of them as inhumane or cruel, too stupid to learn good, modern train­ing. Conversely, traditional trainers tend to see character flaws in “cookie pushers,” thinking that we are weak people who don’t have the stomach for real training.

Both sides think that the other does harm and that their own behavior is justified, so we don’t empathize, look for common ground, or use our well-honed behavior modifica­tion skills. While I don’t always agree with the explanations that other people have for their behavior, remembering that they do not necessarily have character flaws, gives me the empathy to reach out to find a strategy that meets both of our needs.

Every one of us has some justification for our behavior that may be hard to stop believing, due to the cognitive dissonance problem that I mentioned before. Knowing that lets us empathize with one another and gives us a chance to create a better world together.

Here’s another UT Austin ethics video:

Compassion for all, including ourselves, is the root of happiness. Let’s plant some joy.


(3.2) Negativity Bias and Other Brain ‘Fun’ Facts

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What’s ‘Normal’ for a Brain?

In terms of the way the emotional brain works, you and a dog are not so different. Yes, humans have a more complex system than canines, but the mammalian brain has a lot of common features.  The way you and your dog learn tasks and make emotional associations is not so different.

We humans go through the equivalent of puppy socialization, made more complicated by the existence of language.

When we are very young our brains are in a receptive, almost hypnotic state, and we aren’t yet capable of critical thinking. We don’t have the ability to tell fact from fiction, we just absorb whatever our caregivers teach us, both intentionally and accidentally. Early lessons are quickly internalized, cemented in as rules for living and belonging, even when they aren’t true or useful in your adult life.

This especially applies to emotional learning, such as “men who have been drinking are scary,” “love is conditional: I have to be perfect/good/attractive/quiet/loud/smart to be worthy of love,” or “crying is shameful/dangerous/weak.” When we learn something along the way that contradicts our rules, our brains often just make an exception instead of updating the rules to be more accurate.

Those emotional rules lead to behavior, such as approach or avoidance. Whatever we do is then subject to reinforcement.

If a behavior works for us, dopamine is released in our brains and we are more likely to try it again in the future. If it doesn’t get us what we need, eventually that behavior is extinguished: we change it up and try something else. Behavior exists to change the environment we are in, to help us meet our needs or satisfy our wants. As Susan Friedman, Ph.D. is fond of saying, “that’s what your behavior is for,” similar to how your eyes are for seeing or ears are for hearing. We offer behavior to produce some effect.

Thoughts are a type of behavior. No one else can see your mental behavior, but you can rest in awareness and observe your thoughts, so they are behavior. And as I mentioned in the habits section, thoughts are behaviors that can be reinforced (or not).

And guess what else? Our brains release dopamine when we come across a story that explains something, even when the story does not match consensus reality. That little AHA you get is a hit of dopamine. For example, if you text your boyfriend during the day and he doesn’t text back in the time you expect, your brain starts making up stories. He’s dead. He got hit by a car at lunch. He’s cheating on you with a bombshell barista because you aren’t attractive enough. AHA!!!

When you find a story that matches your internal story about yourself, it’s whoosh…dopamine! You’ve hit a small emotional jackpot (even if you’re sad about the story you just came up with). We have a winner! Your brain just reinforced your mental behavior of coming up with that story. That is, you’re more likely to come up with similar stories in the future, even if they contradict some of the facts. You might even go on a storywriting binge and come up with detailed scenarios based your worst fears.

For example, if one of your early lessons was that love is conditional, i.e., you feel you aren’t lovable as you are, then you need to do something or be a certain way to enough to earn it and keep it. Your thoughts tell you that you have to be pretty / rich / smart / pious / fun / interesting / adventurous / helpful / perfect to be loveable.

Then if your jealousy starts to spin a story that your boyfriend has found someone to replace you, someone who is more worthy of love, you get a dopamine hit when it clicks in with your shame trigger: “hey! That matches the Truth I learned as a kid (I’m not lovable). Let’s stick with that one.” Now you’re miserable. Kind of weird, how the human brain can reinforce the behavior of creating destructive thoughts!

Or maybe you start pondering ways to make him ashamed for not writing you back. When he texts back to say he was just in an afternoon work meeting, you might be relieved for the moment (or not), but it probably doesn’t make you question that “rule” that love is to be earned.

By the way, wanting someone to feel ashamed tells you about your own feelings at that moment. Shaming someone else (even in your head) is a good indicator that you might be feeling shamed by them. That could mean they really were trying to shame you or that in your gut, you feel like you don’t belong, and you’ve projected the emotion on them, meaning you think it comes from them, but it really comes from your own self-doubt.

If you ever have trouble knowing how you feel, try noticing how you want other people to feel. Our relationships are often mirrors that reflect our own feelings back.

So here’s an idea. Go “small” – temporarily unleash the cruel, hurting version of yourself, in secret. Write the person an unedited letter saying everything you want to tell them, but don’t send it. Say whatever mean nasty things your subconscious is spewing out. Set the letter aside and look at it later to see how you were trying to make them feel. That will give you an insight about how you are feeling, what emotion that person triggered in you. Chances are, it wasn’t their intention at all.

The up side of this “misery loves company” brain feature is that if we are feeling safe, loved, and satisfied, we also want other people to feel that, too. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to work on yourself, to allow yourself to know that you are enough, that you belong. Be one of the people who never abandons you.

Trust that your love is enough to keep the people who are truly good for you in your life.

Working through your own triggers is the best way to help your loved ones. You will be more present and more compassionate, plus they may learn from your example of allowing yourself to feel and express your emotions. Nondefensiveness is contagious. Learning how to live wholeheartedly and open yourself to authentic joy is a great way to help your whole tribe grow.

Negativity Bias

One of the best things you can do for yourself (and your tribe) is to note when something called “negativity bias” is skewing the way you perceive a situation.

Teenagers are well known for having a negativity bias: “my entire life and existence sucks!” when a particular moment in time doesn’t go their way. As we get older, people generally can differentiate between a bad moment and a bad life, but that’s not always the case (for example, when depression makes it hard to pull out of that bias). But even as adults, we all have a negativity bias, to a greater or lesser degree. Here’s an example:

Have you ever had a really great day, but then you make a mistake or someone says one hurtful thing to you (or something you think is hurtful). Suddenly it’s hard to remember the good stuff and life seems terrible for a second/minute/day/month/year.

The awesome part about brains is their plasticity; this is changeable. We can train ourselves recognize and overcome our negativity bias.

Once we know how our brains can naturally twist things, we can take it into account and see events more clearly. We can stop feeding attention to the downside of life and start helping ourselves take note of and remember the good stuff.

Having a negativity bias is not something to beat yourself up about, no more than being upset that your lungs breathe air and not water, or that you don’t see movement as well as dogs. Negativity bias is a totally normal ‘feature’ of how our human brains learn. Negative events have more ‘weight’ for us than positive or neutral events. We take note of the bad things that happen to us much more easily than the good things.

That comes in handy when learning not to be eaten by wild animals. Your ancient ancestors benefitted from quickly learning to avoid deadly situations.

Unfortunately, psychological safety releases pretty much the same set of neurochemicals as physical safety. So we have a bunch of negatively biased humans walking around, relating to each other from a place of not feeling safe. Just like dogs, feeling unsafe can come out as defensive behavior like avoidance or aggression. That is often not safe for the receiver of said behavior, so our lack of trust is proven right. It’s a vicious cycle.

When information comes in from our senses, our brains flag when things go wrong and don’t make a fuss when things are going well. For example, if you’re walking along on the grass, it would be inefficient for your brain to make a note and remember the soft grass experienced at every single step. So unless we deliberately focus on the present, it’s kind of just a background hum of easily forgotten non-danger. When something different comes along, the brain flags it—“hey, sharp rocks here!”

So the map of our experience isn’t filled in with equal levels of detail. The danger spots have a lot of detail and the safe spots are kind of vague, kind of like a map that hasn’t fully downloaded. Maybe a few really amazing happy experiences stand out, but the bulk of your day doesn’t stand out in memory.

Fortunately, we can deliberately change what information we store about our experiences, to combat the negativity bias. In his book, “Hardwiring Happiness,” Rick Hanson describes a process called “taking in the good,” which I’ll describe in another lesson in this section.

For now, just take note of two things. First, we are biologically biased to keep track of what’s wrong, i.e., when something needs to change in order to get back to what we expect or desire. Second, that bias just changes the probability of seeing good versus bad and with practice, we can change that bias.

So while we are more likely to naturally focus on what’s gone wrong, we can train our brains to do something different. Not so different from training a border collie, but this one is in our heads.

How cool is that?!


Live Video Recordings for Each Section (From Facebook)

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Each section of the How to Human course will have two videos, one meant to be viewed before you do the Pause to Practice homework and one after. If you haven’t joined the Facebook group yet, please request to join.

Facebook Links

Here’s the link to the videos in the Facebook group, if you want to read the comments and add your own. The videos are also below this list.

Section 1: Habits

Section 2: Feelings, Needs, Boundaries, & Communication (NVC & Essentialism)

Section 3: The Border Collie in Your Head

Section 4: Being Present

Section 5: Stillness and Unconditional Love

Section 6: Impermanence, Groundlessness, and Letting Be


(3.5) Pause to Practice

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  1. How is your habit change going? Take an honest look at whether you’re keeping up with the plan to change a habit that you made in the first week.
    If not, see if a. the problem is that there are reminders to do the old habit that haven’t been changed to cue the new habit, b. you need a more immediate reinforcement for doing the new habit, and/or c. the new habit does not actually meet the craving of the hold habit. Change something to set yourself up for success. Post in our How to Human Facebook group if you need help with your plan.
  2. Habit audit. Do your habits match your values and needs more than they did in week 1? If not, are there some habits you might consider changing now?
  3. Build a habit of gratitude. From the section on Gratitude, find one of the options that works best for you, and start doing it.
  4. Notice real-world examples of the Negativity Bias, Fundamental Attribution Error, and Cognitive Dissonance. Best case is catching that in yourself, but noticing in others is fair game, too. If you have time, post one of your observations in our Facebook group.
  5. BONUS: To quickly learn more about some other “fun” brain glitches and how to overcome them, check out this TED article by Joan Rosenberg: “5 irrational thinking patterns that could be dragging you down — and how to start challenging them.” She explores all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, taking things personally / taking excessive responsibility, and should statements. It’s definitely worth a read!


(2.3) Resolving conflict and building empathy with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)

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Learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC or also Compassionate Communication) was huge for me. For years, I thought NVC was basically just about being nice, so I didn’t look into it. I figured that I was actually pretty nice and nonviolent already.

I also tried to follow the Buddhist precept of Right Speech, which has us ask ourselves the following questions before speaking:

  • Is it true?
  • Is is necessary?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it the right time?

Those are great guidelines to follow, but I needed more specifics to really hone my communication skills and truly connect in an undefended way.

As the Center for Nonviolent Communication writes, “NVC reminds us what we already instinctively know about how good it feels to authentically connect to another human being.”

I looked into NVC to find a way to nourish some friendships that were very sensitive to defensiveness. I wanted to communicate without accidentally triggering the other people’s defensiveness, and I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just a doormat, not sharing how I felt or what I needed in order to avoid their triggers. I wanted more vulnerable, authentic relationships.

NVC works great for me because it takes the approach that all behavior can be seen as attempts to meet needs. I firmly believe that. It’s at the root of my empowerment approach to dog care and the way I interact with people, including myself. As Thom Bond writes about this approach to human behavior:

“I do not claim this is true or not true. It is a way of seeing things. I DO claim that when I have this ‘perspective’ or ‘awareness’ – when I can see my own actions or the actions of others in a context of human needs, I experience more understanding, connection, and harmony.

Having a need-based approach to behavior helps me remember how much in common I have with others. Behavior that seems completely irrational can make sense through this lens.

NVC is philosophy, but it’s also a precise and effective communication tool to honestly share what’s alive in us. The basic idea of NVC is to describe what’s happening from a feelings and needs perspective, to build empathy so all parties can look for a strategy that takes everyone’s needs into account.

NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg and it’s been used to negotiate between countries that are at war. It’s so simple and yet so disarmingly effective in all types relationships.

NVC Steps:

  1. Observation
  2. Feelings [Feelings Inventory]
  3. Needs [Needs Inventory]
  4. Request [only for unmet needs]

Steps 1-3 shouldn’t bring up any defenses, because it starts with a statement of what actually happened, as a camera would record it. Steps 2 and 3 are about the person speaking, so they build empathy, not defensiveness. Step 4 is a request and the person might say no to it, but hopefully has empathy for the speaker and is willing to find another strategy to meet their needs.

Here’s a recent example from my life. I messaged a question to a friend of a friend, let’s call her Jane, who had never met me. She sent back her disapproval of me and my behavior using insults and shaming.

My first response was to get angry. I’m human. I wanted to write her a letter to put her in my place, to let her know I’m totally competent and awesome and in fact she is a bitch.

That lasted about 1 second and then I crafted a much more subtle letter in my head that still fed my ego and reminded her she was the one who should be ashamed of this kind of language.

I soon became aware that I was getting hooked by a story I was telling myself. My anger was a flag to me that she was probably feeling upset with me. How did I feel under the anger? Ashamed, her words were shaming. That’s my clue.

I know from Brené Brown’s fabulous research on shame that if Jane was trying to shame me, then she probably thought I had been trying to shame her, and she was defending herself in this way.

First I double checked that she really was using shaming language and I wasn’t just projecting my own emotion. Nope, she really was deliberately insulting me.

Ok. So my second wave of response was to just take the high road and ignore it. But that felt icky, it didn’t meet my need for authenticity, for harmony.

So I doubled down on vulnerability. I shared my emotional response to what I had observed and requested what I needed.

  1. When…[describe what happened in an objective way]
  2. I felt
  3. Because I need
  4. Would you be willing to…?

I started with some empathy for her, then moved into the four NVC steps to request a strategy to meet my need:

As you mentioned, you don’t really know me, so you wouldn’t know that when I interact with people, I’m not ever looking for ways to hurt them. Texts can be read in multiple ways, so I’d like to clarify why I asked that question and apologize if it came off as questioning your competence…

When you responded to my question with an insult, I felt guarded and uncomfortable, because I have a need for harmony and cooperation, and to be seen. In the future, if you think that I have said something hurtful, would you be willing to ask me to clarify my intention?

Her defensiveness melted on the spot and we were able to talk more by Messenger, meet up in person later that day, and actually enjoy each other’s company.

Note: be careful of using pseudo-feelings instead of feelings. Pseudo-feelings are words that we call feelings in the English language, but they’re actually describing the story of what the other person did to us or how we think we are. Examples: “like a loser,” “abandoned,” “unloved,” “attacked.”

Sharing pseudo-feelings tends to be seen as an accusation, so people get defensive and stop being able to really see you

Split that into feelings and needs, instead. Instead of “like a loser,” (which is a story of who I am, not how I feel), the non-defensive NVC phrasing would be, “I felt ashamed, because my need for competence and belonging was not met.” Instead of “attacked” (which accuses the other person of attacking), one could say, “I felt uneasy because my needs for love and empathy were not met.” Rather than “unloved,” one could say, “I felt sad and lonely because my needs to be seen, to be loved, and to belong were not met.”

Note: NVC is also great for powerful expressions of gratitude. For example, I could say to you, “when you post on Facebook in response to this course, I feel warm and grateful, because my needs for harmony, contribution, and community are met. Thank you so much!”

I highly recommend reading Marshall Rosenberg’s original book on NVC. It’s a life-changer, for sure. It’s also available in audio format.

Here’s a great modern video on using NVC with children. She has three videos about kids and a ton of other NVC videos on her YouTube channel.


References and Resources

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This is a growing list. Please check back for updates! If you know of a resource that you think I’m really missing out on, please share it in the Facebook group and tag me. I only include books and resources I’ve read/used myself so it may take me time to share your favorite here. The lists are alphabetical.

6 Books that I wish everyone in the world would read:

Also helpful:

Useful websites and digital products

  • The Center for Nonviolent Communication (online lessons, in-person courses, coach certification)
  • Cup of Empathy YouTube channel (NVC)
  • Daily Om (newsletter, amazing online classes on all sorts of spiritual and practical topics, from how to parent your inner child or help someone else with an addiction to chakradancing)
  • Headspace (App for gamified meditation – “Meditation and Sleep Made Simple)
  • Hearing Voices Network (This is the USA link, but HVN is a worldwide mental health human rights movement. HVN groups offer peer support to anyone experiencing extreme states, from voice hearing to visions, or other experiences outside of consensus reality)
  • National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (online school with AMAZING practical scientific information on trauma integration, neuroscience, etc. Bessel van der Kolk is one of the teachers)
  • Prince Ea YouTube channel (Wholehearted living)
  • Russell Brand (Wholehearted living)


(2.2) Essentialism: Saying Yes to What Nourishes You

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To which opportunities should you say yes? To which should you say no? This section is inspired by the book, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. It’s an absolutely fabulous book.

The key here is that every choice is a trade-off. We do not have unlimited time, energy, etc. “Opportunities” are chances to earn some kind of reinforcement with your behavior, i.e. some need of yours would be fulfilled. But saying yes to an opportunity takes resources (time, energy, money, attention, etc.), so you have less of that resource to apply to something else.

When I was a new dog trainer (almost 2 decades ago, really?), I had lots of time and energy. What I lacked was money to meet my basic needs, so I said yes to every opportunity that came my way. The trade-off was time for money, and since I didn’t have a lot of clients, it was worth it to me to drive far to get to clients.

Over time, I started getting more clients. If I continued saying yes to the ones farther away, I’d spend too much time driving and not be able to see all of the potential clients that lived closer to my school. Later, I had more potential clients visiting my school than I could handle. When I needed the money enough that I would say yes to more clients, I’d trade away quality time with my family. So I hired more trainers, but that meant more responsibility for their wellbeing.

Every choice is a trade-off. Before you say yes to something (like yet another foster or pro bono client or the lure of social media), remember that you’re taking resources away from something else. Your yes is a no to some other opportunity.

Which opportunities feed your purpose? 

Essentialism recommends really figuring out your mission in life, what you want to accomplish, how you want to live, the spirit with which you want to live, and making sure that all of your yesses point in the same direction.

If you offer a delicious, completely artificial treat to a dog, he will probably take that opportunity. He’s not thinking of long-term need for balanced nutrition. He just wants a snack and it smells good. Science has tricked his sesnses into thinking he’s getting his need for nourishment met.

Dogs will even eat things that are toxic for them, we we well know. In other words, they’ll take opportunities (chocolate) that actively block them meeting other needs (physical health). Here’s a video exploring the top 25 toxic foods for dogs (this video is 12 minutes long, so feel free to skip this video if you’re short on time):

I like to think of the Needs Inventory as a list of ingredients for a wholehearted living. Needs are not just about survival, but what helps us live full, satisfying lives. Every opportunity that comes my way has one ingredient, but if I ‘snack’ on opportunities that meet certain needs but make it hard to meet other needs, my emotional health eventually suffers. I’m not taking care of ‘future Grisha’ by saying yes to a narrow range of things and ignoring my other needs.

In other words, I only say yes to opportunities that help me meet my needs in a sustainable way. In particular, the opportunities I say yes to provide (or at least don’t block) the need categories of connection, physical well-being, honesty, play, peace, autonomy, and meaning.

When I say yes to opportunities that meet my needs (including contributing to the lives of my family and society at large) and an authentic, compassionate no to opportunities that block my needs from being met, I feel great. Powerful. Authentic. Not taken advantage of, not like I’m shirking my duty, not overwhelmed with how much I have to do, and grateful to myself for taking care of “future Grisha.”

By having my yesses mean yes and my nos mean no, people can also count on me more reliably. They know I’m not just saying yes to please them, so they can also ask what they need from me, knowing I’ll take my own emotional/physical availability into account. I may not say yes to as many things, but when I do say yes, I’m all in. I’m more creative, productive, and I care.

If someone can’t handle me saying no to them, then what they’ve asked of me isn’t a request, it’s a demand. That never feels good. Demands are maintained by punishment, not reinforcement. Do this, or else (they will yell, guilt trip, be violent, etc.).

Demands are often made when we mix up noncompliance and rejection. File that bit of info away. I’ll talk more about it later.


(2.1) Feelings, Needs, Strategies, and Boundaries

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  • Essentialism – where to invest your time and energy
  • Resolving conflict and building empathy with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
  • Setting, enforcing and respecting healthy boundaries

This week, we’ll talk about some really fabulous skills that help me focus my time and energy on what matters most.

Essentialism is learning to say yes to the opportunities that have the best impact, and no to the others. Nonviolent Communication is a wonderful lens through which the world makes a lot more sense: that all behavior is an attempt to meet needs.

While our strategies (behavior) might vary wildly, the core needs to thrive are actually something we share with all of our fellow humans. Boundary setting maintains our sense of self, protecting own authentic, adaptive comfort zone for physical, spiritual, and emotional interactions.

I’m so excited you’re back for Week 2. Click here to get started.


(2.5) Pause to Practice

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Congratulations, you made it through the reading for week 2! Your future self is going to appreciate this time and effort.

  1. Keep going with your habit change from last week, including marking successfully doing the new habit on your calendar. Report to the Facebook group on any other habit changes you’re making.
  2. Write out a vision of your perfect life. As you go throughout your day, get a sense of whether the activities you do are in line with that vision. Are there any upcoming opportunities that you could say no to because they don’t really meet your needs?
  3. Express gratitude to someone this week using NVC. Bonus: share how it went to the Facebook group.
  4. As you look back on your week, see if you have any areas of your life in which your boundaries are violated or maybe too rigid. This can be with people or animals. Consider setting a healthy boundary, starting with something small that feels relatively safe.  I recommend posting in the Facebook group in advance to get help on what to say or do, or report back after the fact.


(1.4) Pause to Practice

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Congratulations, you’ve made it to the practice session for the first section of the course!

  1. Print out this Needs Inventory. Read the list slowly. Pay attention to how your chest and stomach feel as you read each one, how your breathing changes and any other body sensation. Circle the needs that are routinely being met. Underline the ones that aren’t being met. Consider this list as you do the exercises below.
  2. Habit audit. Set a timer for 5 minutes. On a full size sheet of paper, write as many of your current habits as you can think of. It helps to mentally scroll through your day and include anything that you do in a routine way or on a regular basis. If you really get into this, add another 5 minutes to the timer and continue.
    If you have trouble sleeping, take a close look at your sleep routine, the habits in the last few hours of the day.
  3. Underline the habits that you feel are healthy, i.e., they meet your needs and don’t significantly interfere with meeting other needs.
  4. Circle the habits that you would like to change.
  5. On another sheet of paper, draw 3 lines so you have 4 columns: Trigger, Habit, Consequences Needs Met, and Needs Blocked. For each habit that you circled, write some of the triggers, desirable consequence, needs met, and blocked needs (harder to meet because of that habit). For example, with smoking it would be something like:
    * Trigger: break time
    * Habit: smoke cigarette
    * Consequences: time outside, nicotine rush, talk to people
    * Needs Met: air, movement, community/belonging.
    * Blocked Needs: Rest (nicotine artificially increases energy), physical well-being (cancer risk), belonging (can be shunned by non-smokers).
  6. Pick one habit that you most want to change (if any). What are some alternate habits that would be healthier and still meet the same need? Which environmental changes will remind you to  insert a pause between the trigger and habit and redirect you to a healthier behavior? Feel free to post in the group if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas.
  7. This course is for your wellness, but also for animals in your care. Create a training plan to reinforce your behavior of engaging with this course (reading the Lessons and being active in the Facebook group). I recommend printing out a calendar as I mentioned in Lesson 2. You might also need to add a bigger reinforcer, like a nap, sitting in the sun, or access to a more established habit afterwards (say, Facebook). Come up with short term reinforcers and one big reinforcer at the end for staying active throughout the course. Share your plan in the group and put it into action.
  8. Bonus video: If you have trouble sleeping, play this video at bedtime or better yet, get the Headspace app so you don’t have any bright electronics on. I highly recommend having consistent bedtime habits, activities that cue your brain border collies that it’s time to go to sleep. Good sleep hygiene helps everything go better in life!


(1.3) Thoughts are Behavior, Too

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This is important enough that I wanted to highlight it. Much of our thinking is habitual. Just as your dog sits when you say the Sit cue, you automatically think a certain way when you perceive certain “cues” in your environment.

The only difference is that most of these cues weren’t specifically trained by someone else, they’re just there because of a random association. A song reminds you of your ex, a food reminds you of your mother, etc. And off you go, away from the present moment. The cool thing is that you can change these habits just as you can for externally observable behavior.

Letting your thoughts be without jumping into them, becoming them, or blowing them out of proportion is a learned skill. It takes practice. And practice. And practice. Noticing that you have thoughts popping up IS the practice.

To combat being distracted from the present, we can build a habit of mindfulness:  simply observing that a thought is asking for attention and either deliberately digging into a thought that requires immediate attention or returning your attention to the now. In the present, we feel physical sensations arise and fall in the body, we sense the world around us or focus on the task we are doing, and let the thoughts slip back into oblivion. I’ll talk more about mindfulness later in the course.

Here’s the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön talking about the habit of distraction from the present moment and shenpa (getting hooked by our thoughts, the urge to scratch the “itch” of our cravings):

The habit of getting lost in harmful thoughts is often straightforward to change using habit changing tips. Some thought patterns need to be untangled by processing grief (which we’ll talk about in week 6) or in therapy.

Reframing thoughts as habits that I developed to respond to an old environment puts me in the driver’s seat, and lets me realize that there’s nothing “wrong” with me (or you). Outdated coping strategies are just habits that were useful at the time, but aren’t needed any more.  I can replace my own habitual responses. So can you.

It’s not possible or helpful to always be positive. Be REAL!

This is a good time to talk about the downside of positivity. It’s popular to try to just think positive thoughts all the time, but this is a form of spiritual bypassing: ideologies that systematically avoid wrestling with and integrating dark emotions. Reframing self-destructive thoughts (like “I suck at dog training”) to something with a healthier perspective is great (“My timing is off, but I can go to chicken training camp to improve it”), but that’s different from ignoring one’s own needs or shoving feelings deep inside.

We are human and we do get sad. Sadness is a natural response to loss or transition, not a character flaw or a problem to fix. There’s just a change that needs some processing to accept. (More on grief in week 6). It’s healthy to acknowledge and feel our feelings when our needs are unmet. We don’t need to run from feelings or put on a happy face.

Having anger also isn’t a character flaw. Anger is just a red flag that something is not right in our world, that a need isn’t being met or a boundary is being crossed. It’s like a dog who growls when you touch a part of his body that hurts. The dog just doesn’t feel comfortable in some way, and the growl is setting that boundary for what feels safe.

Having anger is not the same as hurting someone else with it. I use anger as a signal that I need to dig in and see how I’m feeling hurt, ashamed, or upset in other ways. Underneath, there’s usually some other feelings that are important to recognize and share to increase empathy and understanding. [We’ll talk about all of this more next week when we discuss feelings, needs, strategies, and boundaries.]

Feelings are fine. BUT… we do have habitual thoughts, stories we tell ourselves that lead to feelings. That’s pretty much like reactivity in dogs. Our minds over-react to situations that are actually safe. Those are habits we can often change.

On the flip side we can create habitual thinking patterns that help! I like planting my own self-care reminders. I deliberately associate self-care habits with environmental cues. For example, I decided to use Open signs to remind me to do a short mindfulness exercise.

Whenever I see an Open sign at a business, I observe my breathing for a few cycles and do a body scan. Starting at the top of my head, moving down to my feet, I bring my awareness to my senses in each part of my body, like a medical scanner very slowly, steadily moving its way down. I takes about a minute when I do it this way.


(1.2) Which Habits Do you Want? What Spirit Do You Want?

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I’m starting this course off with a discussion of habits, because changing one’s habits is incredibly empowering. And it can be easier than most people think.

Besides, I also want you to get the benefit of working through the entire course, and that requires creating a new habit of getting online and engaging with the material.

Habits can get kind of a bad name, like addictions, but habits are actually just behavior that’s repeated so often that we don’t even need to think any more.

Literally, habits can bypass thought. That’s simultaneously really awesome and really terrifying.

Habits are amazingly efficient. As long as that habit helps us survive AND thrive, thats great.

For example, it’s useful to drive a car and be able to press the brakes or steer without thinking. Not so for habits that damage the body, relationships, mind, etc.

In his book, “The Power of Habit: What We Do in Life and Business,” neuroscientist Charles Duhigg explains how brain activity is different when a habit is triggered.

If we don’t have a habit, brain activity is pretty active the whole time while we (or our dogs) do the behavior. If we do have a habit, then there’s a little spike right as the habit is activated, and then the brain waves fall off: autopilot.

In fact, whenever we perceive a cue to do a habit, our brain activity spikes with craving, because we are already anticipating the reinforcer. The key to changing habits with people is the same as it is with dogs: create a way for a new behavior to get the same reinforcer, to meet the same craving, or better yet, the need underneath it.

Change the environment enough that one remembers to do the new behavior and still get that same need or craving met, and voila!, the habit is changed.

No shaming, blaming, self control, any of that. It’s just like dog training, only with people. Just set up your environment to meet your needs/cravings in healthy ways.

By “healthy” habit, I mean habits that don’t interfere with meeting your other needs for thriving.

Changing a habit really is that simple: replace your old habit with a healthy one that meets the same need or craving.

  1. What’s the function of the current habit (behavior) or what craving does it satisfy?
  2. Which healthy habit could achieve the same thing?
  3. Find all environmental cues that trigger the current habit, and change things so you’ll get a reminder to do the new habit, instead.

“Simple is not easy,” as the saying goes. The hard part is finding all of the triggers for the habit and getting them to direct to the new habit. But once you have that, it’s usually pretty easy.

In Karen Pryor’s wonderful “Don’t Shoot the Dog” book, she writes:

Training an incompatible behavior is quite useful in modifying your own behavior, especially when dealing with emotional states such as grief, anxiety, and loneliness. Some behaviors are totally incompatible with self-pity: dancing, choral singing, or any highly kinetic motor activity, even running. You cannot engage in them and wallow in misery simultaneously. Feeling awful? Try Method 5.

But building a life that you love isn’t just about replacing old habits with random ones. It also can be useful to look at which needs are not being met, what values or spirit you want to have and create habits to get there.

That’s just like dog training, too. Only it’s not a dog, it’s your own mind!

I read the “Power of Habits” book and made some drastic and immediate changes to my own habits. They were all actually pretty easy, which was stunning to me:

  • I lost 35 pounds in 2 months, without feeling hungry or dieting. That weight never came back.
  • I became more consistent about being vegan
  • I began meditating regularly again
  • I trained my dogs regularly again
  • I started regularly hiking in the woods behind my house
  • I stopped eating processed sugar again (not zero, but practically none)
  • I stopped drinking alcohol and coffee (not zero, but practically none)

Yes, all at once. That worked for me, might be too much for you. I was simply ready for all of those changes, just needed structure to make it happen.

Let’s look at my weight loss:

I was clearly eating more than my body needed, so I knew there must have been a function for that extra eating. Looking more closely, there were two problems. First, I was eating at times when I wasn’t hungry (snacking). Second, when I was eating a meal, I would also continue eating when I was actually no longer hungry. In both cases, I was eating when not hungry. I determined that eating was just an activity to do.

That led to one specific new habit: asking myself if I was hungry before I put food into my mouth. This is actually just an instance of a general new habit: interrupting the habit process, or as Viktor Frankl wrote, “inserting a pause between stimulus and response.” Mindfulness is extremely useful.

Because of this eating habit change, and the regular meditation, I started being more mindful of everything I did. Before lots of activities, I began asking myself: “Which need will this behavior meet? Is it the healthiest way to meet that need?”

Again, by “healthy,” I mean it facilitates (or at least doesn’t get in the way of) meeting my other needs. It’s not just good for this one need, but it helps Future Grisha meet other needs.

So I had the sequence:

Stand at refrigerator –> Eat –> boredom relieved

I had to insert a pause between stimulus (sight of refrigerator) and response (eating). I could have done it sooner in the sequence, like when I first had the desire to eat, and that did happen eventually, but the refrigerator is magnetic, so it’s a great place to put signs with new cues.

I put up two notes. One read: “Are you hungry? If you feel hungry, drink water, and if you are still hungry, come back.”

The second note read: “Look for signs of life,” which was my way of telling myself to go to the window and look out to enjoy the movement of nature.

Picture of the note on my wall about needs
My list of alternate behaviors

Next to the window, I had another note, which read:

“Hey there, lovely, what do you NEED?”

And I listed about 20 boredom busters, including “make a cup of tea,” “walk the dogs,” “dance,” “phone a friend,” “meditate,” “rest in the hammock,” and “I need nothing right now. Feel the itch to alleviate boredom and  let yourself relax.”

So now my new sequence was essentially:

Stand at fridge –> recognize that I’ve hit an eating trigger –> ask what I actually need/crave at that time –> do a healthy behavior –> need met

Or more simply:

habit is triggered –> notice I’ve been triggered –> bring awareness to  current needs –> healthy behavior  –> need met

Once I had changed that habit, it became simpler and simpler to interrupt any habit sequence. I wasn’t just changing my eating. I was actually taking a quick inventory of my current needs.

Compare that to what would happen if I were to use shame to change behavior. I’d recognize a habit trigger, but then pile on shame to try to stop the pull I’d feel toward the craving. That habit would just punish the behavior of noticing the triggering (not helpful). It also wouldn’t meet the need or satisfy the craving, and I’d likely do the habit anyway, with more shame for not having self-control. Shame is basically a set-up for failure, for more shame.

I don’t shame or mock other people, I don’t heap punishment on my dogs. Why would I do that to myself? My inner child needs to know that she is ALWAYS safe with me.

I find it much more helpful to create a habit of trigger awareness as the cue for awareness of needs:

trigger –> “yay! I found a trigger!” (mini reward) –> “What does that mean I need?” –> healthy behavior –> needs met

Instead of worrying about having so many triggers for my problem habits, I can celebrate that I have so many reminders to check in with my, to build authenticity. “What do I need right now?”

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. -Viktor E. Frankl

In terms of alcohol and caffeine, awareness inserted after a trigger became so useful. Society wouldn’t have considered me an alcoholic or caffeine junky, but my new awareness made me realize that these were things I consumed when I wanted to override my physical or emotional needs in order to meet obligations. I drank coffee when I thought I “should” be awake, but my body was not up for it. I drank alcohol when I thought I “should” be in a social situation that my spirit wasn’t enjoying, when I really looked at it.

There are so many little trick products like this, that meet a craving, but block the need.

By taking those items off of my personal menu, I began being much more authentic. I could hear my inner child and the needs of my protein suit (my body). I was resting when I needed rest. When my mind and heart needed quiet time, I said no to social invitations and got quiet time. When I engaged in social activities, my yes was an authentic yes, and that led to deeper, more wonderful friendships.

Habits are an efficient use of memory. They can be a way to trick my instant-gratification system into being quiet, because I don’t stop to think of my short-term cravings. In order to build a habit, it helps to build in some instant gratification (well-timed reinforcement), even if it’s unrelated.

It turns out grief can make you stronger!

For example, one month before my husband died this year, he inspired me to start doing pushups. As little grief ritual, I usually do 30 standard push-ups in the morning before brushing my teeth.

That way, my pushups get a little bit of reinforcement from the toothbrushing, which itself is reinforced by the mint of the toothpaste. I also try to really notice the boost of energy in my system that comes from even a super-brief workout.

The pushup habit happens before I can even really think about it. In the long term, I’m enjoying a more stable core and sexier, stronger arms, but in the short term, doing the well-established habit of toothbrushing reinforces the push-ups. That’s the Premack Principle at work.

The Premack Principle is a principle of behavior that we dog trainers love to take advantage of: access to a more likely behavior will reinforce a less likely behavior. Or in other words: strong habits reinforce weak habits.

So if I “get” to brush my teeth after pushups, then the new pushup habit is reinforced.

Here’s a good summary of The Power of Habits, by Charles Duhigg. Note: the summary is NOT written by the author and one thing this person includes that the author doesn’t is some fat-shaming (thanks for pointing that out, Christine!).

The book author (Duhigg) makes a good point of noting that cultivating shame doesn’t help with habits, that it’s just behavior and we have the power to change it. So please ignore the quick bit in this video that could be considered fat shaming — it’s not in the spirit of the book. Feel free to discuss it in the course group.

Ironically, the first time I got the book, it also took me a really long time to open it up and read it. It’s like I didn’t actually want my habits to change. Then when I did, I read it and immediately crafted my habits to more closely match my spirit and values.

Habit hacks:

  • Calendars make good reinforcers! Print a calendar and completely color in the date square for every day that you do your new habit. Research says fully coloring in the is square more effective for habit change than just X’ing out the day. You can print multiple calendar pages (one for each habit).  Then you can look back at the calendar and see progress.
  • You can use the data from the calendar to reinforce long-term goals. For example, you could have a goal of engaging with the How to Human course at least 50% of the days for the next 6 weeks. If you achieve that, you could give yourself a no-chores day or something special that you’ve been wanting to buy.
  • Telling friends that you intend to change your habit helps! It gives you some social accountability. Only tell people who support your habit change.
  • Shame doesn’t help with habit change. If you slip up, treat yourself like a dog you were training with positive reinforcement: change the environmental conditions to make the new habit a more obvious choice and/or find a better reinforcer.
  • For particularly persistent habits, where it’s hard to consistently cue the new behavior, hypnotherapy can be quite helpful. I know it sounds kind of out there, but it’s actually clinically quite effective. Hypnotherapy can essentially plant a new cue and strengthen the effect of the cue to do the new habit, and if your new habit meets the old need/craving, it gets automatically reinforced, and the new habit can take over. You can also do it yourself, but it’s handy to consult with a professional the first time. Check out some research here, here, and here.


(1.1) Welcome!

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This course is structured with multiple short lessons, with a Pause to Practice at the end of each batch. In the live version of the course, we’ll take a week to cover a block of sessions, but you can always go at your own pace. The live parts will be recorded.

  • Lesson 1: Welcome
  • Lesson 2: Habits
    • Habits can be useful! Which habits do you want? Why?
    • Training your healthy habits [And what does healthy even mean?]
  • Lesson 3: Thoughts are behavior, too
  • Pause to Practice


I am so thrilled that you’re here! I’m excited to share some of the most inspiring wellness information I have found. As animal lovers and pet professionals, I know a lot of you don’t naturally prioritize your own self care. But finding healthy ways to take care of yourself sets a good example for the humans around you and also helps the animals in your care.

For example, one study concludes that “dogs, to a great extent, mirror the stress level of their owners.” Stress is contagious and so is wellness; please give this course the seriousness and dedication you would to a class about dogs. Mental wellness helps everyone.

These tools have helped me enjoy a life of purpose, be authentic, defend my inner child, release myself from trauma, meet my needs, be more compassionate, stand my ground, and cope with / thrive from major life events (like the recent suicide of my partner) rather than experiencing them as traumatic. In a word, they’ve helped me be wholehearted. I’m in love with my life and I want you to be able to be in love with yours, too.

My goals are to create safe, supportive container for animal lovers to explore wellness and wholeheartedness. The lessons have the information and practices that I have most useful so far. I aim to give you enough of an experience with them that you can see if they would be helpful for you to look into more deeply from the original sources.

Many of us step foot on the path to spiritual enlightenment [or personal growth] expecting it to lead us onward and upward, hoping to become something better than we are, and ready to gather all of the important things we need along the way.

What a surprise it is when we eventually realize that this path isn’t taking us onward but inward, that we’re not gathering things so much as letting them go, and that there was never anything more to aspire to than the truth of what we already are. – Cristen Rodgers

Not all tools in this course will appeal to you. That’s totally okay.  I want you to find YOUR authentic path, to find a way to tune into your own unique nature.

Some things here, you might have tried already and stopped because they weren’t a right fit for you at the time, or never will be. Some will be practices you have done for longer than I have. That’s all okay. None of us start our journeys at the same place and none of us grew up in the same environment, so comparisons make no sense.

We are all similar and yet we are all also unique. Susan Friedman, Ph.D. often says that behavior is a “study of one” because every individual responds in their own way, even though we have scientific principles to start with as our framework.

I’ve chosen to present the tools and information that I think would be useful to the most people, that I found especially helpful, and/or would have liked to have known sooner.  I’ve left out some esoteric ideas that I find fun but might detract from the main message. I am pretty sure something in here will be of use to you.

There is also almost definitely a resource, method, or practice that has made a huge difference in your life, but isn’t in these lessons. Share! If you’ve read a book or found a resource that you think might be great for other people to know about, feel free to share it with the rest of us on the Facebook page. Briefly describe to us how it has changed your life for the better and be prepared to answer questions non-defensively. Note that this isn’t to be used for marketing purposes, and should be posted in a nonjudgemental spirit, simply sharing something that was useful for you.

One more caveat before we begin:

This course is not meant to replace a mental health professional. In fact, I have a therapist and I count on our sessions to help me work through my knottiest problems. I honestly think therapy is practically a basic human right and we all need access to it from time to time. It’s hard to be human!

For myself, I prefer the flexibility of therapy by phone and have found a therapist who does coherence therapy, which is basically a way to take advantage of cognitive dissonance to rewrite the emotional rules I created in my childhood. I prefer not to have a schedule, so I just set something up when I need it, which is usually something like 3 or 4 times a year, with a few more to cope with my recent loss.

There are many fundamental approaches to therapy (orientations), so even if you’ve tried it before, I urge you to find a format and orientation that works for you. For some people, the best mental health practitioner is a shaman, a life coach, a body worker, a hypnotherapist. Some folks have one of each. Whatever works for you.

If cost is a factor keeping you from therapy, look into whether your insurance might cover it. There’s also online therapists that are very convenient, like As with any therapist, you’ll want to try out multiple people to find the best fit. Other therapy options? Share in the Facebook group.

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(2.4) Boundaries. Noncompliance is not Rejection

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Boundaries are what we use to maintain a healthy sense of self. They are the line between interactions that are acceptable or not: physical, spiritual, emotional, sexual, and relational. Healthy boundaries are flexible, allowing intimacy when it’s wanted and being clear about when an interaction is unwelcome.

Boundaries enable us to live lives of compassion. They help us live within our integrity.

Wait, what? Saying no is compassionate?

Listen to researcher Brené Brown talk about compassion and boundaries and doing the best we can.

Saying no to an opportunity or request for interaction is not a rejection of the person, just a statement of one’s own comfort level and needs. This is a huge one to ponder, especially if you find yourself saying yes when you don’t really want to or if you get frustrated when others don’t do what you want them to do.

We saw that Step 4 of NVC is to make a request. But the other person has every right to say no if your request doesn’t suit them. If they have  the emotional space to do so, they’ll work with you to come up with another way to get your need met, some strategy that meets their needs, too.

Really soak that in:

Noncompliance is not rejection.

Noncompliance is not rejection.

Noncompliance is not rejection.

Noncompliance can come from a desire to reject someone, but that’s not necessarily the case. When one is mindful of their yesses and nos, saying no to a request is just about the request, nothing else.

When someone asks me to do something, and I say no, I’m not rejecting them as a person. I’m only rejecting what they’ve asked me to do because saying yes would interfere with meeting my needs. That’s all.

I’m not saying I don’t like or love the person. I’m saying it’s not in my general best interest to say yes to the opportunity that they’ve presented.

And the flipside is true. People can love me and still say no to particular requests that I make.

Being mindful of my needs not being selfish, because one of the needs I’m watching out for is my need to contribute, especially to the wellbeing of the people I love. By saying no to their request, I often have more energy, time, etc. to contribute in a more valuable way.

Codependence, independence, and interdependence

One of the main reasons people start working on boundaries is to combat codependence. There was a popular push away from codependence that urges people to be completely independent, and that’s not healthy, either. The pendulum is starting to swing back to center with interdependence.

Codependence is merging in a relationship. A person tries to meet all the needs of the other and is threatened by any differences.

  • Fluid or nonexistent boundaries (accepts whatever happens to them and does not assert needs)
  • Jealousy
  • Uncomfortable doing things alone and upset by activities or interactions with others
  • Trying to liked or fit in, saying yes/no when it’s not one’s truth (people pleasing)
  • Hurtful, judging, or controlling communication
  • Manipulation
  • Feeling smothered by or addicted to the other person
  • Statements like “you make me feel”
  • Low self-esteem
  • Does not meet the need for autonomy, trust, empathy, self-expression, freedom, independence, for example
  • If problems are discussed, the codependent partner changes to make the other happy

This shows up in relationships of all kinds from romantic to platonic to parenting, even in our relationships with dogs.

The idea of codependence was developed when one or both partners were fighting addiction. It’s been taken to the extreme of idolizing independence. I call it reactive independence, because it’s done as a reaction to codependence, an attempt to find a healthy sense of self, but over-doing it and blocking everyone else out. Independence is *a* need, but it’s not the only one, so strategies to become more independent shouldn’t block us from meeting our needs for community, intimacy, etc. That’s where interdependence comes in.

First, let’s look at the drawbacks of trying to be completely independent.

Reactive independence is all about trying to be healthy as an island:

  • Distancing, boundaries are too rigid (no emotional intimacy, asserts ones own needs without concern for the other)
  • Taking no responsibility whatsoever for the emotional response of the other
  • Statements like “you can only count on yourself” and “Your happiness is an inside job, talk about feelings to your therapist.”
  • Thinking of people (or dogs) with needs as being “needy”
  • Not comfortable talking about feelings or being vulnerable
  • Does not meet the need for intimacy, to see and be seen, support, community, etc.
  • If disagreements arise, the person trying to be independent focuses on getting their way

Interdependence is more natural, because humans need to be able to count on others. We have a need to contribute to life and we have needs for autonomy, expression, and so much more.

In an interdependent relationship:

  • Listening and holding space for sharing happen easily, so both can be vulnerable
  • Doing things alone is not just allowed, but respected, and encouraged
  • Doing things together is done by mutual choice
  • Conflict is seen as an opportunity to discover the inner world and meet the unmet needs of the individuals
  • Good boundaries and solidly aware of responsibility for behavior
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Honest sharing is valued
  • Requests can be denied without feeling like a rejection
  • Partners can hold space for the other to explore their inner world and find their own path

Here’s a good blog post on interdependent relationships and I love this book on awakened monogamy: Transformation Through Intimacy.

So how does one actually set a boundary?

The first step is to figure out where the boundary is and that can take some practice feeling the sensations in your body. I can tell a boundary is being approached when I get a sort of icky sensation, a sinking in my gut. It might be different for you, maybe there’s an emotional shockwave of anger, numbness, worry, feeling overwhelmed, or just a desire to put a stop to something.

Boundary enforcement is naturally strengthened by negative reinforcement, in the sense that the intrusion on your safety zone has been repelled. When you set a boundary and, say, the person doesn’t touch you in an uncomfortable way, they don’t coerce you to eat something or believe a certain religion, there’s a sense of relief.

Boundaries should be flexible to adapt to the context. What I feel emotionally, physically, or spiritually safe with from a partner is not the same as what I allow from a first date or a stranger. What my dog allows from me is not the same as what he allows from another dog in the household and that’s also different from what he allows from a dog outside of the household.

Boundaries can be too close (weak sense of self), too distant (not allowing intimacy at all), permeable (not actually blocking unwanted intimacy), too rigid (not adjusting to different contexts, everyone kept at the same distance), too flexible (inconsistent, constantly changing and negotiable).

We start learning boundary setting quite young, in our first relationships with caregivers. Like all behavior, boundary setting is subject to reinforcement (it “works”), punishment (it “backfires”), or extinction (no particular consequences). Because how boundaries were responded to in different contexts or with different people, a person might have healthy boundaries in one area and not in others.

Boundaries that are too close may have ended up that way because setting boundaries was perceived as rejection and punished by abandonment (negative punishment for us dog geeks who like quadrants).  Setting a boundary feels unsafe.

Distant boundaries may have developed because closer boundaries were punished. For example: the vulnerability of closer boundaries feels unsafe in some way due to a history of other people not respecting the boundary (allowing one kind of touch opened the door for another kind, for example) or violating trust (sharing a deep emotional story with the person and they tell someone else, for example). A boundary is used to keep the other person from getting anywhere near intimacy, because intimacy feels especially unsafe.

Permeable boundaries might have developed because boundary setting was ignored (learned helplessness). For example, a child says he’s full and the parent makes him eat everything anyway, even to the point of nausea. Boundaries seem pointless or impossible.

Please feel the sensations in your body as you read the various boundary setting (or not) in these responses:

A friend describes a problem with her dog and asks you to come over to help her for free. You believe she won’t actually take the advice if it’s free. [insert another type of request that matches your line of work if you aren’t a dog trainer]

  1. You really like the dog and hope that maybe she will listen. You squeeze her into your schedule and end up having to miss your son’s basketball game.
  2. You let her know that you would be happy to fit her into your schedule, but it has to be as a paying client. You offer a friends and family discount of 20%.
  3. You say no to scheduling a session with her but she persists and you end up emailing long messages that you think she probably didn’t even read.
  4. You tell her that you have a policy of not working with friends’ dogs and ask whether she’d prefer a referral to another local trainer, an online school, a video, or a book.
  5. You tell her you’re too busy and start avoiding her calls.
  6. She’s a close friend and really want to work with her dog because then your dogs could walk together, but you have a strict no-working-with friends policy because you’ve been burned in the past.
  7. She’s a close friend and really want to work with her dog because then your dogs could walk together. You use NVC to express your concerns about her not doing the work if it’s free and ask her to honestly tell you if she thinks she will be able to follow through on your advice, which will require some behavior change on her part. She clearly understands your dilemma and reassures you that she will prioritize the work with you.

Hopefully you were able to sense the differences in how you’d feel giving each of these responses. Some of them probably feel more healthy, more authentic and powerful. Which one would be your current go-to response? Which one feels like it might better meet your needs? Feel free to discuss what you think about these scenarios in the How to Human private Facebook group.

For me, Option 1 would feel like I’m letting myself be taken advantage of, the boundary is permeable, not protecting my time and energy. Option 2 might or might not feel like a healthy, authentic boundary, depending on whether I could afford giving that discount. Option 3 is similar to option 1 except the issue is being overly flexible. It sets a boundary at first but then allows a boundary violation eventually anyway.   Option 4 is healthy boundary setting that still helps the person get their dog trained.

Option 5 sets a boundary but uses a lie and distancing the person would feel icky. This is an example of too distant of a boundary (no contact at all). Someone might use this strategy if they were afraid that they couldn’t trust their boundary setting skills if they were in contact with the person, or if they correlate boundary setting with rejection. Option 6 establishes a boundary is too rigid, because it doesn’t allow exceptions in cases where doing so would meet my needs. Option 7 is healthy boundary setting. It uses clear communication and shows flexibility to adjust for close friendship. If the person is not able to follow through, more NVC could be used to comfortably enforce the boundary and discontinue training.

Healthy boundaries help people know that they can trust you, and they facilitate true intimacy and communication. Your yesses mean yes and your nos mean no, which means it’s easier to truly count on you. Skilled boundary setting is contagious and the people we care about can learn to set their own boundaries and take better care of themselves, too. When we set healthy boundaries we also learn to respect the boundaries of others (including other species).

Boundaries are also super-important for preventing burnout. Dog trainers and shelter workers are one of the highest risk career categories for burnout and boundary setting is one of the main reasons. You can help more dogs if you set healthy boundaries. 

For more information on boundary setting, I highly recommend Ann Katherine’s book, “Boundaries: Where You Are and I Begin” and her more step-by-step book “Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day.”

Here’s a video on setting boundaries with and for the animals in your care. It’s one of videos in the member library for my online school, so when it references ‘other videos’ just ignore that, or check them out in the library if you have a Student or Pro membership in the Animal Building Blocks Academy.


(3.1) The Border Collie in Your Head

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  • What’s ‘normal’ for a brain?
  • Negativity bias and feedback loops
  • Fundamental attribution error
  • Labels aren’t useful for people, either
  • Gratitude
  • Habits revisited (how is the habit change going? Do they match your values & purpose?)

In this section, I’ll share some of the tidbits of neuroscience and social psychology that I find most useful in maintaining a sense of wellbeing and compassion.

It’s hard to be human, but we are up for the challenge!

[Did you know that there’s research that indicates using the word “challenge” combats limiting beliefs and increases one’s ability to perform?]

Our brains have a natural bias toward negativity. We have all kinds of other shortcuts that are far more useful for fighting tigers than traffic and negotiating fulfilling relationships. The good news is that self awareness can catch those strong tendencies before we get stuck.

Every time we build up healthy mental habits as alternatives to the standard way of responding we win! Every time we notice we are on autopilot and return to healthier ways of responding, we win. In the Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama calls this practice building “mental immunity.”

Here’s a video on a simple breathing technique that will relax the border collies in your head. Long exhales calm your heart, breathing, and digestion by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest part of the autonomic nervous system), and release our own natural opium, kind of the opposite of adrenaline.

Focusing on breathing for a little bit is an extremely helpful thing to include in your sleep routine, or as a response any time you notice that your body is in fight or flight mode. Just tell yourself “this is just my body responding to a challenge” and do some breathing for a minute:


(5.1) Stillness and Unconditional Love

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  • Power of Compassion
  • Lovingkindness meditation
  • Walking meditation and other integrations
  • Relationship audits

This section covers what I consider to be the most powerful route to happiness: compassion. Practices that cultivate a feeling of “we’re all in this together” and a wholehearted wish for the happiness of all beings, including myself, have produced a lot of growth for me and a brought more joy and purpose to my relationships.

According to Dr. James R. Doty, clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, and the Director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has the answer, we are neurologically prone to compassion. He says, “fundamentally being compassionate or caring for others is actually our default mode. We are wired to care for others.” This doesn’t always happen, of course, but that’s more because of learning than what behavior would most meet our own needs.

Doty says, “The problem comes with our adrenalin powered lifestyles.” He also says that, “in today’s world we have an epidemic of stress, anxiety, and depression. Our overstimulated nervous systems also make us more reactive and quick to jump to judgements about others.”

But the cool thing is that we can change that around, with practice. By directly focusing on compassion, we don’t just help others, we help ourselves. It’s a really fascinating paradox to me.

When someone acts with compassionate intention, it has a huge, huge positive effect on their physiology. It takes them out of the threat mode and puts them into the rest and digest mode. What happens when that occurs is it changes how they respond to events.

Instead of a quick response, oftentimes based on fear or anxiety, it allows for a much more deliberative or discerning response which typically is much more effective, and more creative because it’s allowing your executive control area to function at its best. [click here for the full article]

Compassion isn’t always practiced, but it’s definitely not new. It’s really the foundation of most world religions and definitely Buddhism. Here’s something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes about compassion:

The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. This helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life.

As long as we live in this world we are bound to encounter problems. If, at such times, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that it is not just ourselves but every one who has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and capacity to overcome troubles. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind!

Thus we can strive gradually to become more compassionate, that is we can develop both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase. [click here for the full article]

In this Section, I will touch on some different aspects of compassion. As with most of the subjects in this course, there is a lot of depth to this subject and I’m only introducing the parts that resonate most with me and that I feel would be most useful to you.

I highly recommend that you dig deeply into compassion practices. It’s life’s work. For a book intro, check out “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

I love that book because it’s written by a Buddhist and a Christian, and edited by a Jew, and highlights that compassion is the root of joy for all of us, regardless of whether we’re secular, spiritual, or religious.

slide 4

(4.1) Being Present

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  • Taking in the Good [take a sensory picture]
  • Mindfulness exercises, including feeling emotion in your body
  • Wholehearted living and badassery

This section has a lot of really powerful information in it. Please make sure to read it carefully and practice the techniques! I promise it will make a difference.

Taking in the Good is a practice taught by neuroscientist Rick Hanson to rewire our brains to fill the gaping holes in our heart. By noting and deliberately remembering “antidote experiences” to our worst fears, we can steer toward those good things and thrive rather than having our worries in the driver’s seat.

Mountains of scientific evidence point to the conclusion that mindfulness helps our wellbeing. I even learned recently that mindfulness practices can actually lengthen telomeres in our cells, which literally means that things like meditation and breathing exercises can keep our DNA from unraveling. Wow.

The final section covers some of Brené Brown’s research on wholehearted living. I love her work because it’s really about strengthening the connection to ourselves and to others. Brown coined the term badassery to mean showing up for life, being vulnerable, accepting challenges and learning from them to create an authentic, powerful experience as a human being.

Taking a sensory picture will help you better emotionally remember the highlights of your life.


(6.1) Impermanence, Groundlessness, and Letting Be

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Congratulations, you’ve made it to the final section! As you get to the end of the course material, please know that you are still a part of the tribe. You may revisit the material as many times as you want, so technically you’re not at the ‘end’ of the course. I’ve found that my life lessons often spiral around: even when I think I really understand something, when I encounter it again, I still more to learn, at a completely different level.

So please don’t lose the link to this course. Stay in the Facebook group and touch back to the material from time to time. And don’t worry if you end up being away for months or more at a time. You are always welcome back into the How to Human tribe.

I will also continue to share new information in the H2H Facebook group.

In this section, I’ll cover impermanence, groundlessness, and letting things be as they are. In time, everything changes, nothing is permanent on this earth. We are constantly in transition, with our minds learning and our bodies slowly moving toward death. That can seem really morbid and sad, but I find it incredibly inspiring, to know that, like a dog, my time here in this life is limited.

I don’t have to do everything – I can’t in limited time. I don’t have to put up with with anything here forever, even the things that seem impossible for me to change, because I will eventually die. That’s the beauty of impermanence. It’s not my job. I don’t have to rush the process of my dying, or run from it, either. My purpose, as I see it, is to learn to connect to myself and others and experience my senses. More about purpose in the last part of this section.

I figure that since my death going to happen eventually, no matter what, I might as well see what I can do with the time I have. I have lost a beloved husband. I have lost soulmate dogs and other friends and family. And as painful as those experiences are, they touched deep to my core, they gave me an experience shared by all of humanity.

When I fully acknowledged the feelings, and savored them, I saw that they, too, were not permanent, not constant. Knowing that even grief does not last forever, nor does any emotional state, I can intensely feel each moment as it is and let it be. When something happens, it isn’t possible to make it un-happen, and the only path to peace I’ve found is acceptance of what is.

When I accept things as they already are, I stop putting energy into fighting the past. I can live in the present and lean my actions forward into the future, knowing all the while that I truly have no idea what the future may bring.

Accepting that this Buddhist concept of groundlessness is just the way of the world, that there is no solid and completely unchangeable ground to find, was a revolution in my life. And of course I don’t remember it all the time; I have to circle back to it. But it’s something that’s proven useful to me. Buddhism isn’t a religion, more like a philosophy, and a lot of its tenets bring me clarity.

In a sense, impermanence is my “ground.” I feel solid in the knowledge that everything changes and depends on perspective, on time. I also have some spiritual ideas of what may be relatively more constant in the universe. You may find ground in your religious faith, or something else. Do whatever works for you.

The first topic I’ll cover in this section is mindful listening: how to really be present while listening to another. I’ll also talk about grief, transitions, and loss, something that we all experience as humans, and especially as caregivers for dogs and other non-human animal friends. In addition to being just really unpleasant, grief can be a wonderful teacher and a path to joy. I thought I’d cover it here, at the end of the course, because this, too, is a transition, and all transitions can bring some measure of grief.

Next, I’ll talk about acceptance and joy and what those look like, with some practical ways to build your acceptance. Finally, I’ll talk about an emotional approach to retirement planning, what you can do now to create a life you want to retire into.


Course Overview (Syllabus)

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Read through the lessons at your own pace. Every 2-4 lessons, we will pause to give you some tasks to practice. Each set of lessons with practice is meant to take about a week or so.

NOTE: This is a self-paced course. The first time through, it was run as a 6-week course with a live component, and you have access to all archived materials. We have a special Facebook group just for students.[s2If current_user_can(access_s2member_ccap_course_004_hh)]

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Take whatever time you need ,but keep going! And if you stop for a while, and remember that you’ve not logged on, just come back.   You’ll keep access to the course on this site and can log in any time.

Section 1: Changing Habits Efficiently

  • Habits can be useful! Which habits do you want?
  • Habit check: What’s the function of your current habits? Do they match your values & purpose?
  • Training your healthy habits (what does healthy mean?)
  • Thoughts are behavior too

Section 2: Feelings, Needs, Strategies, and Boundaries

  • Essentialism – where to put your time and energy
  • Resolving conflict and building empathy with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
  • Setting and enforcing healthy boundaries
  • Respecting others’ boundaries

Section 3: The Border Collie in Your Head

  • What’s ‘normal’ for a brain?
  • Negativity bias and feedback loops
  • Fundamental attribution error
  • Labels aren’t useful for people, either
  • Gratitude
  • Habits revisited

Section 4: Being Present

  • Taking in the Good
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Feeling emotion in your body
  • Shame – everyone has it, few people talk about it
  • Wholehearted living and badassery

Section 5: Stillness and Unconditional Love

  • Power of Compassion
  • Lovingkindness meditation
  • Walking meditation and other integrations
  • Relationship audits

Section 6: Impermanence, Groundlessness, and Letting Be

  • Transitions and loss
  • Acceptance and joy
  • Emotional approach to retirement planning
  • Resources for further learning

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