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Podcast Transcript: Micro-Dosing Mindfulness

Updated: 4 days ago

Listen to our latest podcast where Jayne is in conversation with Michael Amster, a physician, awe researcher, writer and teacher with 20 years' experience as a pain management specialist, and who has been a meditation practitioner for over 30 years.

Here's the full transcript:

Jayne: Michael, I'm so excited to have you with me today. I'm in awe of the fact that you are a specialist in awe and I'm really keen to jump into our conversation and introduce the concept of how awe can be beneficial to all of all ages, all stages, socioeconomic status. But of course, with our listeners being particularly interested in burnout, the fact that it can really help prevent burnout and help burnout recovery as well, which I know a lot of your work and studies has shown. So where would you like to begin?

Michael: Well, I just want to share that I'm really thrilled to be here with you, Jayne and to get to meet your community of listeners. Just really an honour to be here. Well I think it's often great to begin in the beginning, which is a little bit about my background and my story.

And I actually have a very personal experience with burnout as well. So I was a child that always wanted to be a doctor since, since I, as long as I can recall, like I was three years old. And as I progressed in my education the stakes got higher with needing to get really good exam scores.

I started to develop test taken anxiety and I got to a point in college where I had a first full blown panic attack where as people who have had a panic attack know like your brain shuts down, your heart's racing, you can't think straight. And I literally ran out of the medical school entrance examination, crying, just couldn't finish the exam.

I was just so distraught with my anxiety and my mind racing. And at that point I was facing a decision point of whether I was going to get on medication to manage my anxiety or find more natural, holistic ways in which I could work with my mind and train my mind. And so that was my gateway into meditation as a teenager.

Now I've been a student and now a teacher for about 30 years. And it's radically changed my life and it's a big part of my medical practice. I teach mindfulness to people with chronic pain and I've also led an interfaith meditation community where I live. And about four or five years ago, I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, Jake Eagle, who is a psychotherapist and he's my coauthor about the challenges we saw with people developing a sustained mindfulness practice. People can you know, do a one day workshop or a half day workshop and learn some techniques and then they go home and then they often struggle to continue finding the time, the effort, the energy, the focus to practice on a daily basis. And so we decided to start coming up with ways of what we called at that point, micro dosing mindfulness, like little doses of mindfulness that we can take with us all throughout the day where we are. Instead of having to have a structured practice on a yoga mat or a cushion, you could be out at the grocery store and have a mindful moment. And so Jake lives in Hawaii and I flew out there.

And we spent a week investigating and exploring what would be that ideal brief mindfulness practice that would give us a state of peace, sort of a transcendent experience where the mind slows down. The feeling of time maybe expands like a pure awareness and presence. And we tapped into it being around the emotion of awe. When we have those moments, if you can, if, as the listeners listen to this podcast, and if they could think about a moment of all you've had in your life probably it's been an extraordinary moment.

Maybe you've travelled someplace really beautiful and you've watched an incredible sunset, looked at an incredible vista. Well, actually we can have those same profound moments of awe in the ordinary times of our lives as well. And so it was while I was in Hawaii, I had this, we call it an 'awpiphany' where I was at Jake's house making breakfast for him and his wife one morning and making pancakes.

And for those of us that make pancakes in the morning, we're often very busy. We're multitasking. You know, we pour the batter, we run, we're making sausage or bacon, or we're making our kids lunches for school. Like. I had never had a moment of just standing there watching pancakes go from a liquid batter to a solid fluffy pancake.

I just stood there and watched this amazing experience of the chemistry of the batter turning into this big puffy pancake in front of my eyes. And I had this really profound moment of awe. And it was at that moment we discovered this three step practice that we call the awe method. It's a very simple practice that takes 10 to 15 seconds to do to give people the training wheels to start to cultivate a daily practice of awe on their life.

And we then went out and did some pilot studies. I am a medical doctor, a pain management specialist. I enrolled about a dozen of my own personal patients, taught them this methodology, followed their chronic pain levels, their depression, anxiety and saw significant drops in their levels of discomfort.

And then Jake is a psychotherapist did the same with his patients. And at that point we had this really impressive pilot data. And I tracked down Dacher Keltner, who's the founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. And we call him the granddaddy of all research.

You know his whole career really has been in this field for over 20 years. He really started and has done pretty much the bulk of most of the research in this field and presented our data and he was really inspired by this and actually he said " This is the future of mindfulness" like he was so excited that we had sort of tapped into something that they hadn't done yet. Most of the research had been on extraordinary awe, that awe that I talked about where you look at the Grand Canyon and you see that mind blowing awe experience. But we could have this profound awe that would change our physiology and benefit our health in just 15 seconds. And so we then conducted two pretty robust studies through UC Berkeley at the height of the pandemic. One cohort was about 300 patients. They were primary care patients that were struggling with burnout and depression, anxiety, loneliness, other health conditions, chronic pain, headaches during the height of the pandemic. This commenced in June of 2020. And then the other cohort was about 200 nurses and doctors that were really burning out at the height of the pandemic. And we followed them as well. And so from that, we decided to write our book which brings in some of our research results as well as like the background and the theory behind the awe method and why it works, why it's so powerful.

And we give practical advice and tips of how to apply this in our lives on a daily basis.

Jayne: Fabulous. I think one of the things I love the most about the book and the fact that you've written it in such an easy to access way is the fact that all can be so easy to access as well as you say it's not just in those massive moments of something really huge that's lifetime memorable but it can be just in the small moments where we're making pancakes or we're doing something that we would otherwise be doing without any kind of conscious awareness of how beautiful or special or touching something can, can be, and then when we're able to actually bring our attention to those moments, it changes our experience in that moment.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. What we're basically doing is we're changing the filters in a way of our eyes and our hands and our ears so that we then can experience the miraculous and the beauty of the everyday moments of awe and wonder that is always around us. And it's a very easy practice to develop.

I mean, it's something that we taught in a 21 day program. We had people participate in four, one hour zoom sessions and taught them this technique and ask them to practice just three times a day for a total one minute. The practice takes about 15 seconds to do. So all you had to do to get the benefits that we saw in the study was to do this three times a day for about 15 seconds and it was really transformative for people's lives.

 We got feedback that people that had tried traditional mindfulness practices, that had been in mindfulness- based stress reduction retreats or been to Buddha centers or yoga retreats where they struggled to continue to practice. This practice is so easy that it goes wherever you go in your life.

You can be in line at the airport going through security and have a moment of awe. It can happen while you're at a red light in your car. It can happen while you're, you know, for me as a doctor, like when I'm seeing patients. And a way for me to prevent my burnout is I have a moment of awe between each patient care interaction to reset my physiology and my nervous system.

Jayne: That's really interesting. I also find as well, it's funny when you're seeing people in the sense of meeting with them, whether that's in the capacity of a doctor or a psychologist or a physiotherapist or a, a hairdresser or, you know, any meeting that we might have can be an opportunity for us to also have an encounter with somebody and find something that inspires us about them.

There's something about the approach in coaching and counseling and psychotherapy where you're trained to sort of place your attention on the person you're with. And it was a real gift to me after burnout to notice that actually, I could just dissolve into the space of being with the person in that, I was then being more present with the person, but it was also quite a replenishing experience. It wasn't until I kind of read your book, I realised, oh yeah, I'm kind of doing this every day with the people that I have these coaching conversations with, because I'm in that sense of awe about them, about how they learn, about how they think, about the achievements they've maybe had, the things that they're bringing into the space.

And I recognise that in your book, in that people can be having these moments with each other as well in terms of our relationships with other people and what fascinates us about people, our sort of human curiosity.

Michael: Yeah, definitely we, we talk about in our book about three sorts of categories, sort of the conduits or ways in which we can find. One of them is the interpersonal interconnected awe that we have with other people with like our patients, our family members. It can be simply, you know, holding the hand of your child and, and just really being present, and appreciating the texture of their skin can be a moment of awe. And like you shared, you know, these conversations or connections we have in our professional life can be really profound ways of resetting our physiology throughout the day. It helps create what we talk in our book like this sort of sense of spaciousness, this quality of presence. That's exactly what you're talking about. It brings us much more fully to the present moment and engages us deeper in the conversations with people that we have.

Jayne: There was something you shared in the book, you referenced Stephen Porges' work and like the polyvagal theory and what happens when we co-regulate with somebody else and we're in the presence of somebody else who, who enables us to feel calmer in ourselves. I love the fact that one of the guided sort of prompts in the book was to think about somebody who we either know and feel calm and good around or even somebody, a loved one that's no longer with us that helped us feel that way.

And that in recalling how we feel around that person, we can have these many moments of awe just with placing our kind of attention to that and how we feel inside of ourselves. You made it feel as though literally just in the moment that we remember, I guess, to, to, to have these moments of awe, we can have them anytime, anyplace.

And as you say, in as swift amount of time as 15 seconds, which is so much more doable. Then the people that go and learn all the meditation practices, they love them when they learn them, they maybe do them for a week and then the busyness of life takes over. Can you speak maybe a little bit more to how you've recommended people building this in so it can be very easy and built into their, their everyday. How people can remember to do it, because I think that's the key, isn't it? I always forget.

Michael: Yeah. It's all about the remembering and coming back to that, and it's funny, the word in Pali, the language of the Buddha, the word "sati", which is mindfulness, actually means to remember, to come back to. So a key cornerstone of mindfulness practice is remembering to do it.

Of course, I know. Yeah, and what I love about this practice you know, having taught traditional mindfulness to many thousands of people and then this practice to many, probably a few thousand people as well, is that it's most sustainable and so easy. Often I found, and unfortunately with traditional mindfulness practice, people, their minds are racing which all our minds always naturally do and then they're judgmental about that. And there's sort of like this bad cycle that can happen. And what I love about this practice is that there was a reward. Immediately at the end. And that's one of the things that I think helps you remember to practice is that you feel good when you have a moment of awe, right?

It's like an instant reward that you get. It's a sense of feeling alive and present and appreciation as well, all at the same time. And it's activating it. We talk about this in our book. Yes, there's some parasympathetic calming state, but there is a little bit of sympathetic activation.

And that's the connection piece that we feel to others and to the world when we have a moment of awe, like we, we feel more connected to the vastness of all life on the planet. But I'd like to share a little bit about like, you know, how do you build the technique in the practice on a daily basis?

So we recommend you go about a 21 day program and just start off doing this three times a day. And what I often recommend is what's called "habit stacking" and that is where you take this moment of awe habit and you apply it to something you already do on a regular basis. So most of us begin our day with a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and so have that be a moment of awe for you.

I love making my coffee with a French press and just there's so many moments of awe in making a cup of coffee. It's incredible. From the experience of boiling water and watching the gas on the stove heat the water and watching it steam and bubble and that chemical reaction happening.

And it's just, it's, it's so miraculous that we have all this ability to experience all this on a daily life with so, so much simplicity. We forget that it's miraculous because it is so automatic and simple, but it really is something that we can open our eyes and find so much amazement and wonder. And then the smell, the smell of coffee or tea, smell of chai.

It's just the aroma. The aromatics is just incredible. Then the flavours or, you know, putting milk in it and watching the cream go in and the different colors and patterns. Every day, even though I might drink the same cup of coffee, every experience is filled with uniqueness and beauty and wonder.

That's, that's one of a kind. And that's what this practice is about is about seeing the extraordinary and the ordinary every day. So it's helpful to, to match it with something we're already doing. I think in a beginning practice and some people find it helpful to set an alarm. To have a moment of awe let's say at a particular time of the day, like, you know, pause and be present.

You could do maybe a moment of awe as sort of a blessing before you eat a meal. There's an opportunity to have a moment of the food you're about to eat.

So another wonderful practice to close your day with a moment of awe is to go outside and just look at the stars and when you do so it gives you an experience of what we call conceptual awe. It's like the mind blowing concepts of like how vast the universe is and the amazement of it. And we know that our earth is moving, we're traveling right now and are spinning on a daily cycle about a thousand miles an hour. And then we are rotating around the sun, which creates like our annual year experience around 24, 000 miles an hour and then our solar system, the planets that rotate around our sun, we are all travelling around the Milky Way galaxy at around 400,000 miles an hour. And yet, as we sit here right now and we're looking at the star, everything seems still and quiet. And yet we're moving at a very fast clip in many different angles and directions. And to me, that's just such a profound experience of awe. It gives me a sense of the smallness of my life, but yet also the preciousness and how miraculous it is that here we are on earth with the ability to live and to have you know, communities and families and careers and everything that fills our lives with so much meaning and purpose and beauty. It's just so much ought to be had on a, on a daily and a nightly basis.

Jayne: Yeah. I, I feel really hopeful as you share that as well, that in, in the, the power of this sort of practice coming back into our lives again, because I remember reading a quote once that said something about since the birth of TV, we've stopped looking at the stars. Like before we would have just looked at the stars at night and that would have been all the entertainment we ever needed, you know as we maybe need to consciously bring this back in, but it's an innate thing that you'll have within us that an ability to experience life in these micro moments and light ourselves up and any of the worries and stresses sort of melt away, like you say it's timeless. As we do that, you said in your book about this study showing how it reduces loneliness, how it encourages social connection. It's maybe the thing that helps us to bring ourselves back together again as well that word community that you shared.

I feel, as the word hopefully spreads about the power of awe and your book and your work and then maybe that's plays a part in us, you know, creating this sense of connectedness again that's that's still there, but we just have lost touch with a lot of people I think.

Michael: So our research that we've done has really focused on the individual. We looked at decreases of depression and anxiety and loneliness and improvements in people's individual health and wellbeing and ability to manage stress better and decreases in burnout. But I really think that a big power of our work is around what is happening in communities and how this work can spread and help people. And we know that awe is what we want to say, it's kind of contagious, right? So when we share awe we impact other people's lives with awe that we have. So if it's all right, I'd love to share a few paragraphs from our book. And that gives sort of a taste from our epilogue about how this work is more than just a self help technique, but that the implications go well beyond personal transformation.

Jayne: Thank you.

Michael: Awe touches everything. Perhaps most telling is the effect it has on others. We're wired to attune to others' behaviours and moods. Our nervous system senses the emotions of those around us. Recipient of a warm smile can lighten our mood when we're in awe. Those around us feel it too. Awe is contagious, and so practicing the awe method is one not so small way we can contribute to the world.

In this book, we covered how the awe method is grounded in science, and that a whole body of science supports that awe changes lives. So we have a big, simple crash to the power behind the simple practice of the awe method. If practiced frequently enough by enough people, the critical mass as it were, everyone would experience a significant heightened shift in consciousness.

Awe changes us, and when we share our awe, we change the world. How can we be in awe of someone and physically or emotionally harm them? How can we be in awe of the natural world and destroy it? How can we be in awe of life itself and not live as if every day were a miracle? In awe of the tone of every conversation from personal to political, shifts from having an agenda to being open and curious.

Our conversations impact how we raise our kids, how we help our ageing parents, how we treat our spouse, how we participate in community, how we mentor or supervise people, how we govern a city, and how we lead a nation. We can think of no downside to practicing the awe method because awe is the light. The appreciation of nature and different cultures, the curious and open mind, the generous and giving soul.

During times of darkness like today, we need awe more than ever. So awe awaits you and surrounds you in the ordinary moments of your life. Like the view of the stars that fill the night sky, awe is free and available. All you need is to pay attention to what you value, appreciate, and find amazing. Wait, and then exhale and expand into the unlimited timelessness of awe.

Jayne: Wow. What an amazing end to a fantastic book. I wonder Michael before we do sort of end and close the podcast, if you could circle back to those three kind of key steps to the awe method. You mentioned paying attention to the thing that you value, appreciate, find amazing, and then waiting and exhaling or expanding.

Could you speak a little bit more to that?

Michael: Sure. I'd love to talk the listeners through the practice. So the three steps to the awe method is actually an acronym of the word AWE so we have Attention be the first step. And what we're asking you to do is to bring your full undivided attention to something you value, appreciate, and find amazing.

So if you're listening right now if you're driving a car, be careful. We don't want you to have a profound moment of awe while driving, but if you're at home, you just look around the room you're in right now. Or if you can't find something that you find amazing, just close your eyes and bring back a memory of someone that touched you deeply and was a profound moment in your life.

And then to fully be with that. So you're letting go of any other thoughts or emotions and just experiencing it fully. And then the W stands for Wait and waiting is a gift. You know, we're so busy these days in our lives or we're always busy and rushing and we're gifting ourselves an opportunity to just be with this moment.

I think of it as a similarity as to when you're walking with a friend and they hold the door open for you, and they are pausing and waiting there for you to go through a doorway while you're allowing yourself that gift of going through the doorway of a moment of awe. And it just takes us literally the time of maybe a breath or two.

And you're just fully being with that moment. And then the E stands for two things, a nice long exhalation. And when we take that nice long exhalation out, we're simulating our vagus nerve, which is the master computer of our autonomic nervous system. It's the part of our nervous system physiology that brings us into that state of rest and repair and healing.

And we can practice this together right now, we take a breath in together and a nice long exhale out. You can even say the word "awe".

And just check in with yourself. You're going to feel, I bet more relaxed and more subtle, the more grounded. It's as simple as that. And then the E also stands for an expansion because when we have a moment of awe, there is an excitation, a release of energy. If you can recollect back at a moment you've had of profound awe before, maybe you felt a tingle or chill in your hands or your arms or in your feet.

It's because literally energy is releasing from your body and your sense of identity is expanding. Like ourselves want to get bigger than the physical body. And so we're really allowing to cultivate this within our own physiology. And we let that moment of awe expand, like, let it fill you up.

Let it really take over the fullness of you. Almost get bigger than you. And then that's the whole experience. And then you can take a moment to just sort of pause and reflect. So it's attention, waiting, and then a nice long exhale out and an expansion of that experience and energy into your body.

And that's the negative of what we taught people and our research is all about this very simple 15 to 20 second practice. So with time, what happens is, this is really like a training wheel. You're just teaching yourself how to have a moment of awe in the ordinary, but I start to have spontaneous moments of awe, where awe will just arise without necessarily having to think about these three steps, but you'll just sort of go through them, you know in a way at a certain point unconsciously.

And it just happens where awe will bubble up all throughout your day. And it's really a profound way to live your life. I can't think of any other better way to change your mental health, your physical health, your spiritual health. In a way that is a profound reset. And because it is contagious, it really does spread as we talked about with co regulation that those around us will experience awe if you're cultivating awe in your life.

And then this effect just sort of spreads throughout the world. And it's something that we need more than ever right now is to share more awe in the world.

Jayne: Yeah, absolutely. It really is contagious in such a positive way and such a feel good habit to build that then, as you say, spontaneously, naturally starts to occur all of it of its own that you don't need to be consciously then remembering to do it anymore. It becomes who you are. Yeah, wonderful.

 It's been absolutely such a gift speaking to you and I really hope that those listening will give themselves the gift of experimenting with this and playing with it and making it their own and building it in. And I'm sure if, if people wanted to find out more about your work, Michael, what would be the best way for them to do that?

Because there's a whole range of things you offer, isn't there for people that want to go deeper with this?

Michael: Yeah. So we have our website, which is really sort of the hub of things that we're offering. We are doing some live courses from time to time. And we have a newsletter that goes out about twice a month.

It's called Moments of Awe. And so it's nothing marketing. It's just giving you an experience of an awe moment and people really love appreciating the simplicity of these awe practices. In fact, in our book, we have 30 extended awe practices that people just love bringing into their daily life.

And you can also of course, find us on social media, on Facebook and Instagram on LinkedIn. And our book is out, I know in the UK, I know your listeners are all over the world, but it's being published in many different languages and Chinese and Russian and French and German.

So also love hearing from people. If you want to just send me a message and if you have any questions, you can write me at I just love hearing from people and how this practice and this work is helping you in your life. Please reach out. Don't be a stranger.

Jayne: Thank you so much, Michael. And yeah, I hope we can keep in touch too.

It's been a real, real pleasure speaking with you. I'm very grateful for your time today. Thank you so much.

Michael: Thank you so much, Jayne, it was really an honour to be here and it's just a pleasure to meet your community as well. Thank you again.

Jayne: Thank you. Bye for now.

Michael: Bye bye.


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