Meditation Saved My Life: A Conversation with Dr. Christopher Willard

iBme summer intern Owen Henderson made a visit to Dr. Christopher Willard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to find out more about mindfulness from a leading figure in the field. Dr. Willard, a psychologist and educational consultant who specializes in mindfulness, teaches at Harvard Medical School, runs his own psychotherapy practice, and is the president of the Mindfulness in Education Network. He has been practicing meditation for 20 years and has led hundreds of meditation and mindfulness workshops around the world. He is also the father of a five-year-old.

In this conversation, Dr. Willard takes on the question of what mindfulness is; shares how, in his 20s, a mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh completely turned his life around; and offers advice for new meditators.

As I hopped out of my car into the blazing summer heat, I felt some anxiety. I was about to meet Dr. Christopher Willard, a man with an impressive and extensive resumé, who specializes in a compassionate mindfulness practice. Walking toward his duplex apartment, it seemed ironic to me that my body was responding with fear.

When I stepped inside, every bit of anxiety melted away and I felt immediately comfortable. I wondered whether it was because I had finally arrived — or was the comfort instilled by Chris’ demeanor? Interestingly, later in the interview, Chris referenced a study that had college students meditate on and off without their roommates knowing. The results? The roommates’ moods were measured as being better at the meditation times! Mindfulness is contagious.

We found comfortable seats and I thanked Chris for taking the time to meet with me, which was pretty amazing given his stature in life and my role as an intern. I felt grateful. But more than that, I genuinely felt Chris’ generous and compassionate nature, immediately and throughout our conversation. I began with the basics.

What is mindfulness to you?

I go around and talk about mindfulness a lot, so I have a very technical definition, but to me there is no amount of words that can truly encapsulate mindfulness. I just try to ask myself, what am I doing and how do I know I am doing it. How do I know I’m driving right now? How do I know I’m walking right now? How do I know I’m eating right now?

If I check in a bit with my senses, I know what I am doing, and I’m doing it with intention. Mindfulness to me is living with more intentionality. When we are living with intentionality, we are more likely to do good than bad. So broadly, mindfulness is all these things: paying attention to the present moment with acceptance and non-judgement, knowing what we are doing while we do it, and living with intentionality.

How did you get into mindfulness?

I got interested in mindfulness in 1998 or 1999. I was in college and had a complete and total meltdown with depression, anxiety, and way too many drugs. I took a couple years off. I spent the first year getting a lot worse; I was a total mess, addicted to drugs and briefly living on the street.

My parents actually dragged me on a mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh because they had just gotten interested in mindfulness — and it totally transformed everything for me. I stopped doing drugs, I got sober, I got way less depressed, less anxious, things made sense, I felt way more creative, and I felt more connected to everyone and everything. My heart opened and my mind opened. It was really powerful and came at just the right time in my life.

I think a lot of people find mindfulness through some epic disaster in their lives. I feel grateful that I was such a mess when I was 20 that it helped me find mindfulness early.

How did the mystical experience play into your mindfulness journey, especially in the beginning?

Mindfulness creates for me a sense of awe and wonder about the world and things we have never felt awe and wonder about. Mindfulness opens your mind up to all this possibility and wonder, and that is where it is so spiritual for some people.

Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes interconnectedness, and this has been very spiritual for me. On my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, I saw that if I really slowed down and felt my feet on the ground, it is incredible that I am walking on the ground. I remember doing the raisin meditation and it really blew my mind. When I ate the raisin, I thought, “Wow, we really are interconnected and intertwined with each other, the planet, and the stars.” That’s when mindfulness really locked in for me, when I noticed this interconnectedness. And that can either be mystical and mind-blowing — or not mystical at all but still mind-blowing.

I am really interested in whether mindfulness and compassion are contagious. There’s research that finds that if you do something kind or someone sees you doing something kind, they are more likely to do something kind. That will have a ripple effect that even comes back to you. It’s almost as if that idea of karma is real and can be measured with statistical models! But, you can also just know it to be true. What I find amazing is that you can both measure it scientifically and feel it spiritually.

What has been your largest challenge in meditation?

It has changed over time. For a while it was just trying to sit still. Self-compassion practices have always been hard for me, but very rewarding. Seriously, how do we stay compassionate in a world where it feels like a lot of things are happening that are not so compassionate?

Also, sitting with uncertainty is very difficult. My mom and my sister both had cancer a few years ago (they are better now). I’ve sat through some hard times. My best friend died after I had started practicing for a bit, and I remember sitting and crying and crying on my cushion. Now my parents are aging. It is really hard to sit with that uncertainty, as it turns really quickly into anger or frustration. In some ways, it was easier to sit through the death of my friend than with this uncertainty of sickness and old age.

What do you think about social media?

We need to consider that when we use social media, we literally change our posture and breath. We are hunched over, which changes what is happening hormonally. Our breath is shortened, which makes us closer to fight or flight mode, and that shuts down the part of the brain associated with compassion, decision-making, and impulse control. In a sense then, social media makes us less compassionate biologically. That’s how it can be used to actively contribute to polarization and even cultivate aggression.

Do you have any advice for those who are beginning their meditation practices?

Start small, don’t give up. And find other people. The best way to practice is to find other people to practice with. Actually, that is a place where social media and the online world can actually connect us: we can create communities, download podcasts, or apps. As much as these things are dividing us, they can also connect us.

My advice? If you forgot to practice today, just practice tomorrow. If you don’t practice, just sit on your cushion for one minute, try walking more mindfully, or put on your favorite song and really commit to fully listen to that song.

As my conversation with Chris came to a close, I was looking forward to revisiting my notes to write this blog post. We had also discussed difficult emotions, the uncertainty of the future of the world, and the current political climate, all of which underscored the importance of engaging people in meditation, mindfulness, and compassion. Chris had pointed out that scientific studies show that you can actually build compassion through meditation. Right now, the world needs as much compassion as we can generate.


Watch Dr. Christopher Willard’s TED talk
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