Love Interval Training? Why Not Try It with Your Meditation Practice.

I previously wrote about how much I love Power Zone training and shared the lessons it taught me that could easily apply to life and meditation practice. Interval training, such as Power Zone, is an effective way to train the body and build physical fitness because it taps into the benefits of both high intensity efforts and periods of rest. When it comes to meditation, intervals may not be the first thing we think about because we may view the entire practice of meditation as a rest period. But, for new meditators especially, meditation can be challenging since most of us aren’t accustomed to relaxing and because it may put feelings and thoughts that we’d rather avoid front and center. Thus, while meditation is a practice that can ultimately help you deal with stress in life more skillfully, the truth is that it takes effort and discipline.

For this reason, it might actually help you to think about incorporating some rest periods into your meditation practice. I first learned about this idea years ago on a meditation retreat I attended. During one of the afternoon sessions (which are the the toughest for me because that’s when sleepiness sets it), the teacher reminded us to rethink our approach to meditation. He explained that, while we often designate a time period to meditate due to our busy schedules, we can play with the structure of our practice. In particular, he had us try a period of 4 minutes of meditation with alternating 1-minute stretch/movement breaks.

When I heard this, I instantly thought of all the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio classes I’d done. With this style of exercise, you do short bursts of high impact exercise followed by lower impact, active recovery periods. Of course, what the teacher at the retreat was proposing was actually “LIIT” or “low-intensity interval training.” I soon discovered that it was, indeed, quite LIIT. After several long periods of meditation that day, it was a breath of fresh air just to try a new way.

Why does this matter? It matters because, as with fitness, meditation practice is destined to run into roadblocks if you do it long enough. You may have injuries or illnesses. You may have mental resistance. You may just not feel like it. You may still be developing the skills needed to support a practice. Sometimes it helps to keep going if you free yourself of the mental constructs you’ve created as to the “way” you are “supposed” to do it. As one example, I usually try to get 30 minutes of meditation a day. When I ran into a bad patch a while back where I just didn’t feel like it, I committed to 5 minutes a day. I often ended up sitting for longer because, by the end of the 5 minutes, my resistance had passed. More significantly, though, I still have a practice today.

On the other hand, I have also had times where I needed more than my normal 30 minutes a day to work through particular stresses in my life. The problem, though, as I have learned with years of practice is that I tend to have diminishing returns when I practice for longer than 30 minutes. My feet fall asleep, my knees and back hurt, and I tend to be so low on energy that I am almost asleep. In those times, I have instead broken up my long sit into two shorter sessions of 20 minutes with a few minutes to stretch in between. The results were much better and more helpful for me than trying to power through just 1 session of 45 minutes.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? The point isn’t to have an ideal practice. It isn’t to have a practice that competes with anyone else’s. The point is to have a practice that serves your life. So, while discipline is certainly part of any good practice, don’t put your practice in a box. If there is one thing my practice has given me, it is an awareness of the dangers of all or nothing thinking. Sure, 4 minutes of meditation may not be as “good” as 5 minutes, but it is way better than 0. More significantly, recognizing that 4 minutes might serve me better than 5 minutes on a given day is practicing self-compassion and self-awareness which, as a lawyer, I constantly need to practice.

So, if you are struggling to find the time to meditate or have a hard time sitting still for very long, perhaps you should consider adjusting the way you are doing it. Think about where you are in your life and, with kindness and generosity towards yourself, try a new way. That’s what the meditation teacher was saying when he told us to try intervals: don’t let your mind get in the way of your meditation practice. To do this, you have to factor in your body and heart along the way. Low intensity interval training for meditation is just one way that you could balance your practice to help your mind, while acknowledging the whims and needs of your body and heart.

Which Compassion Cultivation Course Is Best for Lawyers?

Though the studies demonstrating the benefit of compassion practices are no less compelling than those relating to mindfulness, I find that lawyers and professionals are far less familiar with compassion than mindfulness. Perhaps this is because, for cultural reasons, lawyers are more comfortable with the idea of mental focus than they are anything to do with emotions. Or, maybe it is because most of us humans would like to think we are compassionate already. But, whether you are a compassionate person or not, research tells us that compassion can also be cultivated and offer benefits, including a reduction in stress, improvement in focus, and significant mental and physical health benefits. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, you may be gratified to know that there are a number of high quality and accessible courses for you to explore compassion practices further. Here’s a brief comparison of some of the most well-known courses available that can help you get started with the process of cultivating compassion for yourself and others.

1. Best Introduction: Science of Compassion by Kelly McGonigal 

This is an audio course available for purchase from Audible or Sounds True. It is divided into chapters and each chapter contains a brief lecture on a compassion topic as well as relevant strategies. This course is an exceptional introduction into compassion research and practices. McGonigal is a psychologist but she knows how to tell a story and understands the science well enough to explain it in plain language. She does a remarkable job embedding research-based practices into human stories to convey the power of compassion and how we can all bring it into our lives and the world. At only $30 for the audio version, this course is a fraction of the price of the others covered here. While it cannot compare to the benefits obtained from a more interactive course, it is an excellent and accessible introduction to compassion practices and a great value.

2. Best for New Meditators: Power of Awareness by Tara Brach & Jack Kornfield

This is an introduction to mindfulness and meditation created by popular and renowned meditation teachers and psychologists, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. It is available at regular intervals throughout the year from Sounds True. The course is primarily composed of video and audio recordings but they are high quality and informative. Tara Brach is famous for her RAIN technique, a compassion practice for handling painful emotions and an entire section is devoted to this strategy. If needed, online community options and Zoom meetings are available to participants who need more detailed instruction. Although this course is not live, the teachings were recorded before a live audience. Recordings of Q&A sessions with the audience are included and this is where Brach’s and Kornfield’s teaching really shines. In addition, the course includes a self-study, half-day retreat, which offers a chance to explore the practices in more depth. 

3. Most Practical and Comprehensive: Compassion Cultivation Training from CCARE at Stanford University

This course is the marriage of ancient meditation practices and modern science. It was founded by researchers at Stanford University and Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., a Tibetan refugee who served as translator to the Dalai Lama for more than 30 years and later earned a Ph.D. in religious studies. This course uses Tibetan compassion practices, including loving-kindness and tonglen, as well as others derived from research to teach students how to increase compassion for themselves and for others. CCARE has limited in-person choices for instruction but trained teachers offer the course elsewhere, including virtual options. Because compassion for self and others is intertwined, I found the subject most practical when both aspects were treated together in this program. The structure of the CCT program, as well as the small class size, permitted more time for discussion with and learning from classmates. 

4. Best for Self-Compassion: Mindful Self-Compassion from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

This course may be one of the most well-known compassion courses across the globe. It was created by researchers and teachers, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. It is available in either a live or online format that ranges from 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the course structure. It is packed with strategies and resources to expand and employ self-compassion, regardless of one’s experience with meditation. The tone of this course is very soft, so soft in fact that lawyers or others not familiar with compassion practices may struggle or be put off by it. Like the Power of Awareness above, it includes a half-day retreat as well but the retreat for MSC is live and done with other participants, which is generally more supportive for a first retreat experience. Because MSC is so well-known, one other neat aspect of the course, especially if you take it online, is that your classmates are likely to include people from around the world. Interacting with classmates around the world on the topic of self-compassion may help you understand more than anything how universal and critical the human need for self-kindness is. 

So, which course should you choose? I’ll admit that CCT was my personal favorite, so if you could pick only one I would tell you to try CCT. With that said, I benefited from and enjoyed every course mentioned here and compassion is a capacity that I don’t think you can overtrain. The real question isn’t which course you should choose, but which one you should try first.

Why Cultivate Compassion? Because It’s Not the Weight You Carry but How You Carry It.

Founder’s Note: I found Laura where I found a lot of other wonderful people I have never met in person: LinkedIn. She posted great content about compassion and so I connected with her. When she offered a CCT course this spring, I signed up even though it ended the week after I finished Mindful Self-Compassion training. I was a bit afraid I would be sick of compassion by that point, but Laura’s style of teaching was so real, practical, and filled with heart that I ended up being even more enthusiastic about it. Please welcome Laura to the pages of Brilliant Legal Mind and check out her bio below for information about another CCT course she’s offering this fall.

In late February 2020, I traveled to New York City for a compassion workshop. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs, it felt like coming home. The city’s sights, sounds, and smells were as familiar as my heartbeat and the first bite of a folded slice of pizza brought me right back to childhood. As people jostled on the subway and scrambled up the stairs that Saturday night, the coronavirus still seemed like news from the other side of the world. Thousands of bodies crowded around Times Square, oblivious to what was just around the corner. We could not have imagined how soon and suddenly our lives would change, and how much strength and courage we would need to summon in response.

We all have done brave, hard things over the past 18 months – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – and we still have a ways to go before this journey is over. But we can do it. As humans, we are wired not only to be able to do hard things, but to do them with love and, when we do, we tap into a profound and renewing source of strength, courage, and connection. Wisdom traditions, art, and even science call this capacity compassion. It is our ability to both be aware of suffering and willing to relieve that suffering. Viktor Frankl described it this way:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Compassion looks different for each of us in the changing circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it is yielding. Other times, fierce. Sometimes it calls us to make difficult sacrifices for others. Other times, to make the bold choice to take care of ourselves. Whatever its expression in any given moment, compassion is how humans have survived and made meaning out of unimaginable tragedies across time – both individually and collectively.

As a species, we are born completely vulnerable and dependent on others for our safety and well-being. This dependence develops into interdependence as we give and receive care across the span of our lives. We need our loved ones, strangers, and even people we don’t like to survive and thrive, and they need us. Take a moment to reflect on your last meal, the clothes you’re wearing, or the technology that allows you to read this and imagine the countless other lives who make these things possible. Likewise, the positive impact of your life ripples out and benefits others that you will never know.

Whether or not we recognize it, we have all drawn on this compassion for ourselves and others to navigate the past turbulent months. And it is compassion, this awareness of suffering and willingness to relieve it, which will continue to resource us moving forward.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the poet Moya Cannon wrote:

Light is what days are made of –

it pulls the daffodils up out of dark earth,

prompts the eagle and the stub-tailed wren to nest

and draws the humpback whale north with its song.

Stones, warm on the morning sea-shore, know it.

Such tempests of grief our sun has scanned

yet light, the sun’s light and compassion’s light,

deep in every soul, eternally draws us on.

Recent discoveries in neurobiology and other sciences have begun to map out how “compassion’s light, deep in every soul” literally “draws us on” as it unfolds in our bodies. It is both an innate capacity which manifests as a specific physiological process and a skill that can be nurtured and strengthened through experience and deliberate practice and training. In addition, research shows that profound physical, mental, and social benefits result from offering and receiving compassion.

Compassion, however, is not the only way humans respond to suffering. We also react with anger, hatred, shame, blame, fear, overwhelm, anxiety, denial, violence – the list goes on. We burn out or become injured when we don’t have enough external support or we don’t know how to hold suffering when it comes too much, too fast like wildfire or lingers long like slow moving rain. These are natural responses which increase suffering within and around us, but which can in turn be met and alleviated with compassion.

So the invitation is to train our compassion muscles, so to speak, in order to become capable of holding the hard that life hands us. We can cultivate internal and external conditions that nurture compassion. We can develop our awareness and sense of care, our courage to act. We can get clear on what we love, what really matters to us, and what kind of world we want to live in, to be part of. We can ask for help and offer it when asked. We can have each other’s backs and discover our common humanity. We can pay attention to the moments that compassion flows freely and those in which it freezes rock solid or goes dry as a desert. We can learn to carry the weight of our lives in ways that make us stronger and more connected rather than hurt and broken apart.

As Mary Oliver observed:

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –

books, bricks, grief –

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?

“Heavy” from Thirst

Want to learn more about Compassion Cultivation Training? Check out this interview our founder, Claire E. Parsons, did with Laura here.