Diana Winston

Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) and the co-author, with Susan Smalley PhD, of Fully Present, the Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness (DaCapo, 2010). She teaches mindful awareness practices to the general public to promote health and well-being. Called by the LA Times “one of the nation’s best-known teachers of mindfulness,” she has developed curriculum and taught mindfulness since 1993 in a variety of settings including hospitals, universities, corporations, non profits, and schools. She has taught mindful awareness to health professionals, leaders, teachers, activists, seniors, and adolescents in the US and Asia.

Diana is the founder of the Certificate in Mindfulness Facilitation, a pioneering year-long UCLA program that provides training, support, and supervision to those wishing to incorporate mindfulness into their occupation or to share mindfulness with individuals, groups, communities, or institutions. She is considered one of the early founders of meditation programs for youth, and taught on the seminal mindfulness and ADHD research study at UCLA in 2005. Her work has been mentioned in the New York Times, O Magazine, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and in a variety of magazines, books, and journals. She is also the author of Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens (Perigee Books, 2003), the CD “Mindful Meditations,” and has published numerous articles on mindfulness.

Diana is a member of the Teacher’s Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California. She is a graduate of Brown University and has been practicing mindfulness meditation since 1989, including a year as a Buddhist nun in Burma. Currently Diana’s most challenging practice is mindfully parenting a kindergartner.

Little Book of Being Practices.


A Ruff Transcription of our Conversation:

Hi, I’m with Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA and we’re just going to jump right into it.

The first question is why meditate?

Diana: Why not meditate, it’s such a broad question. Yeah, but there’s so many dimensions to it. You know, I think about all the scientific research showing why mindfulness is helpful and how it improves. All sorts of things like physical health conditions and reduces blood pressure reduces stress, I think about how it’s helpful for anxiety and depression and all sorts of mental health concerns and. There’s you know, there’s so many different studies these days that have been showing the benefits of mindfulness. So there’s as I had the physical health impacts insomnia, it can impact cardiovascular disease. It can impact, you know, just a whole Ray of stress-related health conditions and. Just around that. Yeah, do they do you are using the same mindful meditation that that you’re teaching here or are you using different types of meditations for different types of ailments or you know chronic pain or those kind of things are working with different? It depends. So we’re talking we’re talking there’s been like about three or four thousand studies and they all do different things the most popular thing that’s been done probably as mindfulness-based stress reduction in the mindfulness world. So a lot of the symptoms that I mentioned they’ve. They’ve gone through an eight-week protocol with mindfulness-based stress reduction and but they’re different protocols. So some we’ve done research on maps are six week program. We’ve done it related to insomnia related to surviving breast cancer related to working on one right now with Alzheimer’s caregiver seeing if it improves their their ability to you know, just quality of life pain and less stress and so forth so map. The research but then there’s a lot of other studies that just, you know teach people a meditation and then look at the results of that and put them on a certain task and to see what even like one hour of meditation can do. I mean there’s a whole range of ways really just just sitting okay meditate for one hour you’ve never made it to you before and now you’re better then maybe that’s not exactly what’s happening. But it’s I’ve seen things like where they put over a period of time. Yeah, they might give someone attack. Like Lou might measure social anxiety and then teach them like 10 minutes of loving-kindness meditation and then see the results of that and whether it actually decreases social anxiety, so they’re so sometimes it’s just taught and little bite-sized pieces. There’s a lot of I mean, there’s a whole range of the way my figuring out how to study. Yeah, yeah. Yeah along with going along with teaching and so there’s there’s so there’s a lots of different areas which are mental and physical health can be improved through mindfulness practice. And and also just to say that mindfulness is not the same as meditation mindfulness is a type of meditation. Maybe this is a later question. But but meditation is a big category like sports is a big category and there’s hundreds of sports and there’s. Many many types of meditation and so mindfulness is the one that I’m that’s my expertise. And so I’m very familiar with the research. But if you go over to the Transcendental Meditation World, they’ll tell you all about their research. So of course so it just depends but also, you know, a lot of research has been done around attention impacting attention. So UCLA we when I was first hired here. 12 to 15 years ago, we were doing a study on adolescents and adults with ADHD and we saw that doing going through an eight-week program that we designed specifically for them improve their ability to pay attention and I mean so much so that the scientists were saying well what kind of medication did you put them on and with the note is meditation occasion, but. So attention is improved and then there’s even a lot of research looking at the people’s brains and how it impacts brain structure. So there was someone at UCLA researching long-term meditators and found that they had more cortical folds Than People of the same age range and that’s pretty interesting. So if you meditate your brain has more exercise for the brain, yeah. Yeah it right you can think of it as an exercise for the brain and and some of the early studies that were first on. At long-term meditators like monks who’ve been in the caves for 30 years or something found that they had thicker brain thicker certain areas of the brain Than People of the same age range. So like the two areas in the original study that was done out of Harvard and like I think 2005. Found that long-term meditators a sort of you know, you know, I’m talking about who they were looking at. They like the Olympic athletes and meditation their prefrontal cortex and insular cortex were Thicker Than People the same age range and prefrontal cortex is you know, what we think of as the CEO of our brain executive functioning delayed gratification, right working memory and +. So we develops last when you’re growing up exactly. So it’s the it’s was thicker than people who have the same age range that they compared it to so I’m answering on a kind of. I’m answering sort of like from a clinical perspective like why meditate and I wanted to start with that but then I kind of wanted to dig a little deeper into my own personal experience and why to like why I meditate and also having worked with you know thousands of students. Now what I see has been beneficial so that was where I wanted to start when I think about like why meditate it’s it’s probably for me been the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, you know, just finding that attention I was. We lucky because I got into it when I was in my early twenties and I think you know at that age were still developing right the brains not fully developed and I was it really spoke to me in such a profound way. And I remember. Like having this insight into like wow, I can understand my mind by simply paying attention to it, you know and out of that sent me on a long journey of mindfulness practice and you know living in monasteries and doing long Retreats and so forth, but. Mostly I was meditating at a time because it was so incredibly interesting like getting to know this mind and what it does and seeing the habits and the patterns and all of the things like wow, and then that there could be a relief from those habits and patterns like that was the really exciting part that I could not in the beginning but ultimately begin to quiet my mind and have these places of he’s and Equanimity and then the resulting joy and compassion and connection, you know, so. For me mindfulness, well mindfulness and meditation are synonymous for me. Although I do have done other meditations in my life. But but for me, it’s like a deep dive into myself and it’s profound and sometimes surprising and beautiful and sometimes scary and weird and you know, our minds are of these amazing things. So. I think that the biggest gift over the years of having done now about 30 years of meditating is that I under I never fully understand my mind, but I have all sorts of tools and excuse me tools and skills to deal with whatever is arising so weather. Anxiety arises over my daughter or you know loss or grief or if I’m like, I have so many skill. I always have this place of kind of a refuge inside me that’s never goes away, you know, and even when I get flustered and you know crazy about this and that because of my meditation practice, there’s always a place to return to and that’s that’s you know, the greatest gift.

I could what is your definition of mindfulness? And what is your what is your vision of a mindful life?

Have a definition that I’ve been using for some time. Of course, really? No. Yeah, I just paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness and curiosity and a willingness to be with what is so it’s so for me mindfulness is what. The word mindfulness is actually brought that sort of write technical definition and that the definition that involves the placement of attention like the training of attention all into the present moment bringing it back again, and again for the present moment with certain qualities capacity to be with so there are some definitions of mindfulness that are popular that use the non-judgmental awareness and I’m not crazy about that because I found that when students. Start meditating. They often find their mind is filled with judgments. And then if they hear they’re supposed to be non-judgmental to be mindful then they think they’re doing something wrong. So I’ve kind of replaced it in my definition with a willingness to be with what is step back and one more time on that because I didn’t quite catch the beginning of what is mindfulness as it relates to. To judgment, right? So so there’s a quality inherent in mindfulness that’s about that’s what we can use lots of words. We can use acceptance non-judgmental nests Equanimity. I use willingness to be with what is so it’s so it’s not merely paying attention, but it’s also the attitude with which we pay attention. So we pay attention with a quality of willingness of openness to the experience of not being in resistance of life with life, you know, so you can be paying attention to something but be thinking wishing you were doing something else, you know of many many many we’ve all done and have it so but with mindfulness it’s much more open and so the word non-judgmentally can work for some people, but I’m not anyway. I’m not so crazy about it. But well in also just another definition the word judgment. And is like the negative part of judgment not and then the positive part you refer to that as discernment. Right? Right. I just because that was confusing to me in the beginning here. Yeah, that’s a good way you talked about those things part of mindfulness is helping us to make decisions that lead to more and more happiness and less than the sufferers right? So when we say without judgment, it could imply the non-discernment. Peace, and we don’t want that. We want people to make you know, ethical. The exhibition so our choices in life. That’s kind of how I Define mindfulness. There are different ways of being mindful. We can be mindful in a very focused way. Like I telephoto lens on a camera. We’re really just paying attention to our breathing breath after breath. You can be mindful in a very wide open way. We’re we’re noticing everything around us and that both of them are mindfulness. So there’s more spacious awareness. There’s more focused mindfulness. There are all sorts of ways. In which we can be mindful and we can bring mindfulness to whatever we’re doing as of course, you know, but for me mindfulness is I mean, there’s that specific definition and then there’s kind of living a quality of mindfulness in life, which I think was sort of a second part of right. I’ve your question a mindful life is interesting because there’s a way. And we teach those quite a bit here at Michael awareness Research Center. We can bring mindfulness into daily activities that we can that mindfulness is not just meant for your 15 minutes or 30 minutes when you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, right or chair. We sit in chairs a lot here you feel like you do and I took a little bit of getting used to but right. Well, you’re welcome. This is. So we can think that mindfulness is just stirring this protected time period but what we teach of course is that we can bring it into all of life so we can bring it into you know, when you’re walking down the street we, of course, we teach walking meditation so that teaches you how to integrate that it’s not necessarily when you’re doing walking down the street. You’re not walking like a zombie very slowly. You’re just being normal, right you’re being normal being aware. Noticing your body noticing Your Body Sensations your feet on the ground the touch the movement we can do it even more informally than that when you’re washing dishes or when you’re taking a shower or when your we teach a lot of relational mindfulness practices. So as you also know that we do a lot where we learn how to speak and listen mindfully. And that’s an incredible place to practice my music and also a really interesting place because you’re right there with another person and can we teach ourselves cells to show up in that way? So mindfulness. So one way of thinking about the mindful life is how we just bring mindfulness off the cushion or chair into life, you know, like a new thing that’s been happening for me because I got a dog recently. I used to get up and meditate but now get up and take care of the dog got up and take the dog for a walk the second he recognizes I’m away. So I just turned the walk into a kind of casual. Dog walking meditation, you know and initially the first part is a lot of me kind of thinking and following him because he’s trying to do his business but there’s a point where my mind let’s go and just kind of rests in a place of more awareness and there’s more like a flow where he’s with me and we’re just kind of walking gently and there’s a there’s like, oh, I’m getting my morning meditation and even though it’s a little bit more informal. So there’s so there are ways of incorporating into life and then but the like the question of mindful life as an interesting question to me because I think it also implies. It doesn’t mean that I guess I wasn’t want to say is it doesn’t mean that we have to be mindful every second every day to live a mindful life. That would be number one unrealistic and number two not a lot of fun. You know, I have to be mindful every single second. But a mindful life to me is a life that’s about the values of mindfulness. So. A Life That’s about integrity. That’s that’s an ethical life A Life That’s about Compassion Care Connection a lot A Life That’s about awareness and self-reflection and growth in her personal growth. Those are all things that make up a mindful life and I would say like for myself. I hope I leave them on to life. I try and some of its that very deliberately. Okay. I’m walking the dog and practicing mindfulness. But a lot of it is like the approach than taking that even when I knew you. My kid, whatever yesterday. She like she had turned the thermostat up to 78 and I went I went boom. You know, why did you do those, you know, and I just and then my lucky grandma was there and she was like, I don’t think she knew that she wasn’t supposed to do that. And then, of course, I took a breath and I calmed down and I realized that I had made you know, I had done so many unnecessary and. I could just be there and kindness with her once I could let go of my story about. Oh, that I can’t believe that kid turn the heater up to 90 degrees. So so it’s really about leaving living a life of a tune men and awareness and connection. And those are the things that to me makeup on mindful life. And you know, I would be unrealistic but to be like I thought that to have. Always being mindful every second and also that carries with it a kind of like self-judgment quality that I write that it sounds it sounds like yeah, you know like you have to be my pain there something wrong. If you’re not Mindful and sometimes life is just like we’re hanging out with our friends or having a good time. We’re petting the dog and we’re not being deliberately mindful, but it’s like it’s like the larger intention the guides. Our vision for who we want to be in the world when I’m like when there’s like awareness is present. Wow. I’m so connected to awareness or I’m so mindful as I as I you know, I’m washing the dishes today and sometimes I’m not you know, but it’s it’s the kind of the larger container the spirit of you know, goodness really that permeates a life that is dedicated to mindfulness. That’s what I’m interested in when I think about my pull life, right?

The next question is.  What is the difference between and the definition I suppose between meditation, contemplation, and prayer?

So I was saying earlier that meditations a big category and there are lots of different types underneath it and then. I would probably say that contemplation and prayer were types of meditation, but you could also maybe argue that contemplation is the bigger category and meditation is under it and they also come from different Traditions right contemplatively. Well, there’s contemplative prayer right? And then there’s. That is often associated with Christianity. And I know that in some secular circles, we’ve been using the word contemplation to get out of using the word meditation but I think contemplation is more. I don’t know. I don’t see I’m a little biased because. I think of I think of meditation I mean I’m so kind of mindfulness Focus then I think about meditation my mind goes there, but I know there’s some like when we do the loving-kindness meditations, which are meditations that cultivate different states of heart and mind that’s different than mindfulness when we do a visualization meditation and then you could say there’s a contemplation meditation where you. You know reflect on a particular topic and her mind contemplates that topic but that not may not be how other people talk about it. They may, of course, use it as an umbrella term. That’s more how I see it and to me a prayer again. I associate more in religious traditions and I think of prayer as either, you know an asking for or a listening, you know, I mean, I love the most beautiful definitions of prayer. I hear the ones that are about. About listening, you know, that’s not about like I want to get I’m going to pray for. My you know a new car or something like that, but the ones that are connected to gratitude and listening to a deeper wisdom, whether it’s someone’s conception of God or an inner knowing to me that’s different than a mindfulness practice, which is really about as we know, you know, this cultivation of awareness of a moment to moment awareness, but I will say that. In my meditation practice of many years of mindfulness. I’ve used all different types all the ones that I mentioned that you’re not even mentioning and sometimes there might have a prayer offering in my meditation in the morning or I might sometimes a lot of times people will say. That like they hear loving-kindness meditation and they say, oh I’ve been doing that with praying, you know, so I’ve had a lot of people over the years say, it feels very close to prayer. So I think that there’s when I’ve tried to Define meditation office the best definition I’ll often say it’s it’s it’s methods of inward investigation and I feel like. Contemplation is also a method of investigation and prayer can be to prayer to me connects a little bit to it more and external. Right? Right, right. Where’s contemplation? We can contemplate Our Lives we can contemplate. We can take a topic like when I studied Tibetan Buddhism, you would take a topic and you would just contemplate it. So you would think about death and you would think about death is uncertain and the time of death is and so I mean Death is certain. Sorry. No, that’s definitely gonna die. The time of death is uncertain. You know and you would contemplate that and you would sit there for hours thinking about death and that was an incredibly powerful meditation very different than what we do with the mindfulness practice. So depressing if we did that if we spent our whole time but the whole time thinking about that, how do we how do you see? Us being able to promote compassion in ourselves, and the first I want to link it directly to meditation than to say that end to answer the first part of the question it. I think that these practices mindfulness practice that she says is directly linked to compassion in a number of ways partially it’s going back to what we were talking about that willingness to be with. What is that willingness to be with what it is no small matter? That means that you are sitting there with whatever is happening and it could be something like a fly landing on you and you’re willing to be with it, but it could also be the depth of your Despair and you. Loss and grief and anger and rage and anxiety. So as you sit with that your own some people Define mindfulness is kind attention. I think that’s a lovely but sort of incomplete but you are bringing kind attention to your experience. So if you’re sitting there meditating. Get back to the breath. No, that’s not a kind of tension. Right if you’re having a feeling arise and you’re saying I shouldn’t be having this or something wrong. That’s also not a kind attention and that’s not how you cultivate it in mindfulness. So. What instead you’re doing is this loving allowing letting be being with being with ourselves and that in itself is a cultivation of kindness and compassion for ourselves. And the more we can cultivate it for ourselves and more there’s energy to have to have compassion outwards. So that’s the first way that compassion is cultivated and the second way is. One of the things that happen in mindfulness practice is that quality that we often talk about at UCLA’s of disidentification right that there’s a sense of me me me. Oh, no, I really want my kids to be like this and they have to be like this and I’m going to dive they’re not like the okay. I’m going to let it go. I’m going to just see this. I thought wow, I want them wanting that so much and then we decide to edify from the thought or the. And and what that does is it begins to over time as we’re constantly letting go over and over in our meditation practice and that skill transfers into daily life as we’re constantly doing that that we start to break down this like kind of reified sense of me me me, right the self-centeredness that many of us kind of live by. And in that space of it lasting about me, there’s more opportunity for love and compassion and kindness to arrive. So it’s like it’s like what’s in the way of being loving? It’s me me me. It’s I’m so important. I needed to be my way. I mean, I know when I’m that way with my daughter you have to be you have to be a certain way. I’m not seeing her for who she is and the love is kind of blocked, you know what I mean? And then when I can let go and I’m like, oh, she’s just she’s that why she’s different. I am there’s much more of a connection and empathy and compassion. So so that’s that’s the second way these practices cultivate compassion. And then the third is that we as you know, we deliberately cultivate them doing cultivation practices like she can practice compassion we can practice loving kindness. So so those so that’s how we kind of work on our internal. And I will say this I don’t know. There’s a kind of mysterious quality to it. Like I would say that most people at most of the students I’ve had in the colleagues and friends that I’ve had most people just kind of. Mysteriously an automatically become more compassionate when they practice mindfulness over time. It’s kind of beautiful. It just happens and I really trust that process without exactly knowing why there are people I will say I’ve met people who that’s not the case, but they usually were stuck in some other way when anyway but so then the question you asked was about. How do we then bring it out into the world to say more about that question? What was right, it’s just how it is. How do we promote it in the world around us? I think there’s something very profound about how inner change impacts outer change and that the more we transform the more that begins to transform our relationships and our communities and our jobs and our institutions that were part of so there’s a very. Very slow but real. Transformation that happens as people practice and as there’s more compassion we become more available to others. We begin to become want to work for institutions that that and help create that within our institutions, you know, so I think so. I kind of jokingly like call the work that I do at UCLA cognitive Justice work because it’s like we’re really transforming Minds, you know. Maybe we should call it like cardio cognitive justice but change I’m transforming hearts and Minds right and it’s and like I said, it’s not the kind of fast change of activism. Although we teach mindfulness to activists and that can be really supportive to their work. But it’s more the slow change of actually like transforming human beings and. Developing more compassion which then goes out into the world now that’s that so that to me is like the bottom line and then there are other things that are more explicit that we can do as practitioners that promote compassion and that means maybe people do compassion attacks or you can involve that organizations or are you I mean the there are so many Amazing Stories. I mean, I know people who. Have gone to a colleague of mine went to Burma and saw the plight of what was happening with the Rohingyas and he just started an organization to raise money for that. And that was like a very compassionate response that came out of his practice and his exposure are so so I think there are many ways we can promote it but I did and I guess lastly I will say kind of going back to what you said before about. We need kindness so much right now. Like I’ve never ever seen ever what’s going on in this country this country in this world. I’ve never seen such such a kind of. what is the word I’m looking for but it’s like a day of vacation of meanness, you know, and it’s like a song exactly what I want to say, but you know what I’m getting at. It’s a glorification. Yes the right right a glow like like it’s not even a lack of Civility. It’s Way Beyond The Way Beyond that it’s it’s an encouragement to do the opposite of kindness, right? And so I think when you ask that question of how do we promote promote kindness? I think more than ever right now we need to be. Somehow I don’t know exactly maybe your listeners are you can figure this out but from doing what you’re doing promoting kindness out into the world and the regaining Civility and regaining ethics and regaining a basis of love and that is really hard right now in these times of deep breaths. Yeah, it’s true. Thank you very much for the time. Hey, I really appreciate this.

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