An Interview with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh and Dr. Seth J. Gillihan, authors of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life

What is mindfulness, and why is it important?

Seth: To me, mindfulness means coming home. It’s coming home to the present—to the only moment that is ever really ours. It means coming home to ourselves and allowing ourselves to be just as we are. And it’s coming home to our reality, and the people who fill it. Through this homecoming we can find ease even when things are really hard, because we release unnecessary resistance to life as it is. 

Aria: The simplest definition of mindfulness is awareness. But awareness of what? Of our experience. Both our inner experience, such as our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and our outer experience, including where we are and what’s happening around us. 

Mindfulness is important because it involves living in the present moment, right now, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. When we cultivate mindful awareness, we tend to be happier and have greater access to clarity, understanding, creativity and wisdom.

There are many different meditation practices out there, so why is mindfulness particularly useful in alleviating anxiety and reconnecting with ourselves? 

Seth: Anxiety is about the future, and mindful awareness brings us into the present. When we center our attention on the present, we can step out of anxious preoccupation with the uncertainty that lies ahead. We also find ourselves there, in the present. That’s the only time and place we truly exist: our bodies, our breath, our sensations, our spirit. The truth of who we are is always in the now. 

Aria: When we’re feeling anxious, we’re living in our heads and fusing with negative thoughts about the future. Mindfulness grounds the mind in present-moment reality and allows us to see that just because we have a thought, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily true. 

Mindfulness also involves acceptance of the ‘now.’ On a profound level, this includes accepting and reconnecting with who we are. Accepting ourselves doesn’t mean that we think that we’re perfect human beings. Accepting ourselves equates to being okay with who we are. We can see both our strengths and our flaws. We can sit with our quirks and our idiosyncrasies. With this acceptance comes a deeper sense of appreciation and ease. 

What separates “A Mindful Year” from other books on mindfulness?

Seth: This book offers daily applications of mindful awareness, based on a year of exchanges between two psychologists who are dear friends. As such, it provides the reader with 365 ways to apply the principles of mindfulness, and to hear from the writers about how they found these practices useful in their own lives.

Aria: There are naked photos of the authors scattered throughout the book. Only joking! In all seriousness, I believe it’s our personal friendship that especially distinguishes “A Mindful Year.” Writing every day to each other as close friends means that at the heart of our entries lives love, respect, humor and compassion. Over the course of the year I laughed and cried while writing and reading the messages to one another. I think the readers pick up on this authenticity and can relate the entries to their own lives.   

What are some challenges people face when first learning to practice mindfulness? How do they overcome those obstacles? 

Seth: The most common challenge is probably misunderstandings about what mindfulness is. Popular depictions of it first of all equate it with meditation, when mindfulness is really something we can bring to every moment of our experience. It’s also often tied to the trappings of religion and portrayed as something “extra” that we might add to life. But really it’s the simplest thing—being really and truly in our lives—and it’s available to all, regardless of religious or spiritual commitments. 

Aria: Judgement. We judge ourselves, we judge our thoughts, our emotions and our self-worth. The tricky part is that our minds have evolved with a negativity bias. This tendency to assume the worst is wonderfully effective from a survival point of view, but less helpful when it comes to happiness. The positive news is that the obstacle is the way. Mindfulness involves becoming aware of our judgments, and our tendency to buy into them. A mindful approach draws on qualities such as compassion, kindness, and curiosity. It offers a practical route to letting go of the attachment to judgments about ourselves and others. This is a daily practice, but one of the most worthy endeavors in life.

How did your backgrounds in clinical psychology influence “A Mindful Year?” 

Seth: Having worked with hundreds of patients provided me with invaluable perspective on the kinds of challenges all of us face, and creative solutions that so many people find to manage them. My clinical work was also a tremendous source of inspiration, having seen the strength and grace so many individuals bring to their often gut-wrenching difficulties. 

Aria: As a clinical psychologist you’re privileged to hear some of the most private and intimate thoughts and feelings of others. Something that has continually struck me over the years is that we’re all connected: we all face challenges in life, we’re all hard on ourselves, we’re all heartbroken at some point, we’re all trying our best. One of my personal goals in life is to empower people to bring the best out of themselves. I hope that Seth and I are able to do that with “A Mindful Year.”

While you are colleagues, you’re also friends. How did you decide you wanted to partner together on “A Mindful Year?” How did your friendship impact the way you approached writing this book together? Would the advice and concepts in this book be different if it wasn’t a collaboration? 

Seth: Aria and I knew we wanted to write a book together, because we both love writing and we wanted to blend our voices in a shared project. We chose this format as a way to do what we had discussed together for years: To find a means of discovering greater connection in our everyday lives. We knew it was possible to find deep connection to what we value most but found that it often eluded us. This collaboration was our attempt to foster more moments of mindful connection. It would have been a very different book if we hadn’t been such close friends. It wouldn’t have been as personal, as I think many of the things we shared required a deep level of trust. The tone would have been different, too—perhaps more clinical or academic, rather than warm and intimate. 

Aria: Over six years ago, Seth and I stood on a hill in the English countryside and as the light grew longer, we openly talked about what we cared about most: family, friends, and making a positive difference in the world, no matter how small. We wondered whether it was possible to maintain and strengthen our connections to the people and the passions closest to our hearts—especially during times of difficulty, distraction, and discontent. Writing this book became the vehicle to find out. At the outset of writing to one another, we both expressed how important it was to honor our friendship and therefore to approach the collaboration with honesty and authenticity. Because we care deeply for one another, we were committed to helping the other person to reconnect and reawaken to the present moment, with warmth, encouragement and compassion. As a result, the book is down-to-earth and relational: it’s real and so captures the multi-textured reality of life, with all its loveliness, ugliness, suffering and joy.

In your book you ask readers, what would you try today if you didn’t fear making mistakes? What’s your answer to that question?

Seth: I would live in line with the truth of who I am, which is what I strive to do now. That means worrying less about whether others will approve of my choices and focusing on where I believe I’m being led. It’s also meant being willing to risk making mistakes and recognizing that my job is to do my best, not to ensure success. 

Aria: I’d probably allow my own light to shine more, if that makes sense. I gain a deep sense of joy from helping others to live more freely and confidently. However, I tend to hold back and shift the focus of attention from myself to others. At the base of these habits are fears of being judged, losing humility, and being seen as different or as an ‘outsider.’ To borrow a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that features in “A Mindful Year:” “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Comments

  1. Maggie says:

    Thank you for sharing this interview Lori. The message is succinct and insightful. Mindfulness has been my salvation and has brought me peace, love and understanding. I am now on a continual journey of awakening. The only thing I battle with is constant pain. At this stage I have learned to live with it, and have to a certain extent reduced it, but cannot seem to heal and relieve myself of it. I heard your interview with Deb Bowen and found it both fascinating and reassuring that I am on the right path. I am awakening so much to animal energy and it is deeply revealing. I will purchase both this book and your book on power animals. Thank once again, I am so grateful you are prepared to share your experiences and knowledge.

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