Cultivate a mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment. Practicing mindfulness can take many forms. I believe there’s always an opportunity to decide to really show up and notice what is in front of us and experience the present moment as one of discovery, curiosity, revelation. Obviously, we can’t move through our lives in a constant state of awe and wonder, but a little more of that can go a long way. I am amazed at how much more I appreciate the taste of a good Reuben sandwich, the smell of white sage growing in my garden, the beauty of my wife’s kind eyes. In these moments of noticing, I feel my perspective is widened, humanity is richer, and the possibilities abound.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jared Seide.
Jared Seide is founder and executive director of Center for Council and the author of Where Compassion Begins, a powerful new book that offers a practical approach to improving attention, mindfulness and listening from the heart — a more skillful way to show up and lead a more connected and meaningful life. Jared is a graduate of Brown University and trained as a Buddhist Chaplain after leaving a Hollywood career as an actor and director; he has travelled the world, leading workshops on compassion, wellbeing and reconciliation in Auschwitz, Kigali, Sarajevo, Bellagio, Paris and Bogota, among other places of historic conflict. Jared trains thousands of police officers, community activists, educators, prison inmates and healthcare workers in compassion, promoting individual wellness and resilience to foster thriving organizations and communities.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Sure! I grew up in the New York City of the’70s and the ’80s, and it was a place of such intimacy and proximity. You couldn’t help but bump up against folks. The visceral experience of being pushed together forced a kind of intimacy with humanity, including the enormous suffering, including the overwhelm and confusion and the absurdity and joy of being human. Later, when I had the opportunity to study with Roshi Joan Halifax, she talked about sitting in meditation in such a way that you practice zazen “with a strong back and a soft front,” being present to everything and not overwhelmed by it all, and that really resonated with me. I realized that I had learned early on what it meant to sustain oneself in the midst of a lot of stress, to allow oneself to be moved and maybe even perturbed, and to not shut down but, rather, to attune one’s ears, eyes, nose, and heart to human suffering and to stay engaged.
I spent my childhood — from first through twelfth grade — at the Walden School, on the Upper West Side. It was an environment grounded in social justice and civil rights. A few years ahead of me, a student named Andrew Goodman, along with his friends James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, went down to Mississippi to register folks to vote. They were met with tragic, evil, horrible hate and racism and they were murdered. Their story became the Mississippi Burning saga. Portraits of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner hung above the entranceway to Walden. They seemed to be keeping an eye on us young ones, beckoning to us, asking us the question that poet Mary Oliver so poignantly poses: what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life? That urgency hung over us as we walked into school, every day.
I was interested in film and theatre early on, craving the experience of bringing everyone together around a common story. I pursued acting professionally for a while and then went to Brown University. During my college days, I realized there was something deeper for me within theatre and I decided to go to London to work with teachers from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where I studied classical theatre for some time. I think my young mind figured that the theatre, and maybe the movie business, would provide an opportunity to create a career of telling authentic stories. What I found was that Hollywood was quite the opposite of that for me. Coming to Los Angeles, I found that authentic work was often undervalued and difficult to build a career around, especially from the perspective of an artist. The really interesting, authentic stories, I found, were the least remunerative, whereas reductive, superficial projects were more lucrative. It was weird and confusing to find that disconnect between authenticity and success.
When I first met the practice of council, a light bulb went on and I understood what I was seeking: an opportunity to invite the true stories of our lives and to share them in such a way that strangers could be moved, to experience the tears and smiles and goosebumps we can feel as we listen to someone else telling a story. It was a reaffirmation of interconnectedness and interdependence and it felt so powerful and real.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As the work of my organization grew, we began to bring our programs to prisons. One of the most difficult institutions we were able to work with was Pelican Bay State Prison, just after they ended administrative segregation, or adseg, which is pretty much solitary confinement. After decades, hundreds of men who’d been locked away in adseg were being moved into the general prison population. As we taught them how to sit in council circles together and share their stories, they started to speak of what it was like to spend years isolated from any human connection. They spoke about the experience of losing touch with their sense of who they were. I heard men talk about being brought out of their cell to get on that phone call with the news that a mother or father had died. They had to have the phone held up to their ear because they were in shackles, and then they were led back to solitary with a hand on their shoulder pushing them forward as their only contact with another human being. Afterward, they had days, weeks, months, years to think about how they had failed their parents, missed the opportunity to be the son they had hoped to be, failed to say they were sorry. Hearing that changed how I reacted when my own father was dying. I was able to set aside all of the bullshit and drama I’d had with my father, because I knew what a gift it was for a son just to sit with his dad in his last moments. How many men in prison wished they could have been there, sitting with their fathers? They’d mentored me in that moment of human tragedy. Their tender stories emboldened me to say some things to my dad I might not have. They’d taught me not to squander that opportunity.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We work with a great variety of populations, often with individuals who cannot imagine they share much in common with one group or another. Rather than focusing on those things that make us different, or unlike those we perceive to be “the other,” the work we do focuses on our common ground, our shared journey as human beings, those essential human qualities that lie underneath our opinions, biases, acculturated beliefs. The trick is to create an environment in which it’s okay to be candid, introspective, vulnerable. We find that we can facilitate an unexpected move toward engagement and community building, but we must first focus on self-awareness and wellbeing.
This requires some skillfulness and parameters. Once a group learns to settle and self-regulate, our practice of council provides a container for the exchange of authentic stories. After a group has built up a sense of trust and safety, constructed on this undergirding of vulnerability, we reach a point where we can begin to consider who is not in our circle, who we have excluded from our community, and how we might expand the invitation. We start to consider what we are curious about, what points of contact there might be, how a conversation might begin. We always begin with the settling and the bonding, though, and, eventually, that leads to the bridging. This process requires care and skillfulness. It’s important not to push against defensive or reactive resistance without first building some comfort and facility with the process of inquiry, listening from the heart, curiosity about the other.
What we have been able to achieve in fostering this common ground has been really inspiring. The ideal of the Beloved Community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King talked about is a concept that inspires us to bring together people who disagree, not just those who are already aligned. Our organization is particularly good at introducing these practices to individuals and groups and meeting them where they are, and then finding ways to weave together when the time is right, into a cooperative, mutually respectful and diverse tapestry. We find that we are able to keep our focus on our humanness, the universal experiences that are revealed as we share stories, instead of on our opinions. Soon the “police training program,” or the “inmate rehabilitative program” or the “physician burnout reduction program” all become the “being a human program.” Once that starts to crystalize, we have something extraordinary to work with where we recognize and appreciate each other in new ways and a kind of healing can occur. In these rancorous times, seeing disparate and oppositional groups move toward common ground is a both a relief and an inspiration.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I was lucky enough to spend a good bit of time with Bernie Glassman, cofounder of the Zen Peacemaker Order and iconic innovator of Socially Engaged Buddhism in America. Bernie trained in strict Buddhist practice and led the Zen Center of Los Angeles for years. When he left that position, he threw off his priestly robes and took to wearing Hawaiian shirts and suspenders. His work embodied profound curiosity, deep listening and compassion in action. I traveled with Bernie to Auschwitz, Kigali, Sarajevo, and other places of great suffering — not to fix or rescue, but to learn how best to respond to profound suffering and how to be of service. As we explore the harm that others have experienced, as well as our own vulnerabilities, we learn something critically important about how to heal, support, and care. The practices I came to work with, and that I built my organization around, are rooted in this deep curiosity and the commitment to bear witness and take action. Bernie’s work led thousands of students to visit these difficult and uncomfortable places. I am honored to have learned from him and to have partnered with him in finding ways to apply ancient wisdom traditions and group mindfulness practices like council to modern day conflicts and hardships.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
The quality of resilience is such a complex and critical resource. I believe it is interconnected with much of the work we do at Center for Council in fostering compassion. I think it’s important to define this term, because it is often misunderstood. Compassion is sometimes confused with empathy, or even sympathy. It is neither, though it includes some of aspects of both. Compassion begins when we allow ourselves to really hear and attune to suffering, that of others, as well as ourselves. And hearing and perceiving this anguish, we are moved to do something about it. What takes compassion beyond empathy or sympathy is that it includes action, action that is considered, skillful and beneficial.
So we are focusing on our capacity to attend to our own well-being, particularly in the face of stress. At the same time, we are attuning to the environment in which we live, the relationships, the organizations, the planet. As we learn to become more present in the moment, more open-hearted and curious, we create an intimacy with suffering — our own and everyone’s. It is in this intimacy that we find the way through. So our practice of listening from the heart, attuning to the present moment, and our resolve to make things better leads us toward healing and growth. Resilience requires that we develop the ability to be impacted by suffering and to retain our capacity to respond effectively. With these skills, when confronted with tough times, we allow ourselves to be discomfited and we don’t just bounce back, we bounce forward into a sort of post-traumatic growth.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Brene Brown points out that it’s hard to imagine an act of real courage that does not also require vulnerability. In the work we do, we stress the importance of having a good relationship with vulnerability. This idea is often difficult to swallow, as many start from a place of believing that there is something soft or weak or shameful about vulnerability. And yet, I believe the courage to be vulnerable is a critical step in building resilience.
For me, moving through stress or trauma requires really becoming present and intimate with that which is difficult. Having the courage to set aside resistance and truly face suffering requires work and fortitude, it demands that we practice and cultivate skills. Working skillfully with vulnerability enables us to sustain ourselves and not be exhausted or depleted. This is where self-compassion comes into play: as we courageously attend to the pain and trauma we experience, and which we perceive in others, and as we to do this in an effective and sustained way, we understand and commit to healthy and positive behavior. This begins with taking care of ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Only after we do that can we offer help to others. And this ability to tolerate, recover, heal and grow does not come easy. It takes great courage to allow ourselves to not only see but to perceive painful things and to have the capacity to do something to make things better. This ability to move toward suffering — whether it’s running toward a burning building, confronting a bad habit or past wound, or sitting with a heartbroken friend — the ability to show up and stay in the discomfort serves us again and again, throughout our lives, in situations is big and small. Resilience is the result of continuing to act with courage and compassion as we show up to our ever-changing and often confounding lives.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I consider my friend Sam a brother from another mother. It wasn’t always that way, though. Sam and I met at a turning point for us both. It was the beginning of my work in prison and the first workshop we did in on a maximum-security prison yard, with participants joining from several warring gangs. Sam had recently been shaken by a visit from his teenage son. He had showed up bedraggled from another run-in with correctional officers and his son rolled his eyes and muttered something about this being what he expected of his dad. Something about that moment started Sam on a path of introspection and redemption and, over the next months and years he sought out tools for transformation. Motivated to be a better father, he threw himself into the work we brought to that prison and he went deep. Slowly, he developed real insight into his past traumas, remorse for the harm that he caused to so many, and a desire to improve his limited communication skills.
That his past crimes and behavior in prison had resulted in a bleak assessment for rehabilitation, did not deter him; he chose to not only go deep in his own self-development, but to lead the men in his group in becoming a powerful and reliable resource for transformation and healing. The group continued to practice together, week after week, increasing in size and replicating throughout the prison, with the support of the authorities. The correctional officers even took note and reached out to us about beginning a program for officers. In Sam’s first appointment with the Bureau of Parole Hearings, he was granted parole and his request to continue to support positive change in the community was approved enthusiastically. In the years since he was released, he has continued to show up to do his work with extraordinary courage and resolve. His path was not an easy one, and past mistakes eventually caught up with him. He was reincarcerated, on erroneous charges this time, but, rather than losing hope and succumbing to despair, he chose to face that unexpected turn with grace and courage, using the time to deepen his practice and his studies and to lead groups of other men in practicing the tools that he had learned. In the years I’ve known him, and from the stories he shared of his past, it’s evident that he experienced more trauma and misfortune than most. What continues to amaze me is his ability to find the courage and resolve to face adversity as an opportunity to deepen his insight, engage with allies, and grow into the next, better version of himself.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Amidst some of the most difficult moments of tension between police officers and community activists, we launched a project that we called “Cops & Communities: Circling Up.” Our organization creates programs that foster compassion and resilience, but these two groups were deeply divided, gripped by anger, resentment, misunderstanding, and not inclined to give the other the benefit of the doubt. As I sat with the groups separately, there was a lot of hostility, vitriol and animosity toward the other; they were far apart. It felt critical to do some deep work on cultivating practices for self-care, reflection, communication and trust building within the groups individually. As the groups got comfortable, the symbolism and slogans (“Thin Blue Line,” “Black Lives Matter,“ etc.) were either a celebration of unity or fighting words, depending on which room you were in. Disagreement, mistrust, generational trauma were all embedded in these symbols. But I had the sense that there was something else here.
Nobody thought it was a good idea to bring these groups together. But I knew that there were stories of growing up, of taking care of parents, of friendships, triumphs, and grief that were real and unifying. Rather than framing this as a reconciliation of two sides of an issue, we invited individuals to think of things they were curious about and what courage could look like. We arranged a day of coming together to listen to stories, in a beautiful location, with no aspiration to win any debates or solve any problems, just to share stories. The day came and as individuals arrived, their apprehension and wariness were evident in their body language and expressions. The first half of the morning was tense. There was clearly a great deal on everyone’s mind. But something interesting happened when we moved into our first council circle and started to share some stories. Slowly, listening to authentic moments from the lives of others started to soften the tension, stories of authenticity and tenderness started to warm the room. A tale about a beloved pet, missing one’s child, losing a spouse were offered and landed with real resonance. By the afternoon, the simple act of sharing stories authentically, and listening without judgment or opinion, had done something miraculous and unexpected. By focusing on authentic stories of our shared humanity, this group of adversaries were no longer that at all. Individuals who had expected rancor and conflict were expressing appreciation and concern, hugging each other, smiling, exchanging phone numbers. With a simple practice, and a belief in the power of our shared stories, we achieved what most had thought would be impossible. And it was the beginning of something extraordinary.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I found myself living a life that many would consider a great success. Beautiful home, happy family, outward success. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know and it wasn’t until my life blew up that I came to realize how unconscious I had become. I went through a period of enormous upheaval: nasty divorce, financial ruin, career implosion. In the midst of all this, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who was leading a version of the work I do now. I spoke with Jack a few times a week during that time and I remember him assuring me that this period, one that felt cataclysmic and dark, was actually the beginning of my path to becoming a mensch. As I watched so much of the life I had built fall apart around me, Jack helped me realize that this was an opportunity to really take stock, to re-examine my values and goals, to set some strong intentions for the kind of life I wanted to lead, and the man I wanted to be. Amidst so much loss, I began to envision work that I felt would be truly valuable and inspiring, partnership with a soulmate that would open my heart, equanimity that would enable me to experience real well-being. Though it was hard not to bristle at my mentor’s confident assessment of a “light at the end of the tunnel,” in time things unfolded just as he had predicted. And amidst the ruins of a toxic and unsustainable life, I was able to envision and begin to construct something beyond my wildest dreams. My work is extraordinarily rewarding and inspiring now, I am deeply in love with my wife and so grateful to have found her and I appreciate my life on such a profound level. It feels like a blessing to wake up every morning. And I now see that it was the utter annihilation of the corrupt and unsustainable life I had created that made this new chapter possible.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Growing up in New York City, I was surrounded by — one might say assaulted by — a barrage of humanity. The era before crack cocaine took hold of the streets of New York could be tough but not really dangerous, everyone I knew had figured out how to walk the streets safely. I no longer live in New York, but when I visit it’s like muscle memory: the essence of my newyorkerism returns and I feel energized by the tenor and aggressiveness I can still sense there (…though I imagine it’s more nostalgic memories than anything truly nasty). That super-confident, perhaps even cocky, way I learned to put my head down and power through the subway crowds, taxi-driver arguments, grocery check-out frustrations typical of the New York experience, somehow it all returns to me. It’s been useful as I’ve traveled the world as an adult.
While the study and practice of meditation and mindfulness has been an enormous gift in helping me stabilize my mind, I have found myself in some dicey situations in unfamiliar, foreign cities and I’ve found I do know how to push through conflict and strife when necessary. It’s a curious and lovely feeling to taste the New York in me, now and then. And I recognize how difficult it can be to practice slowing down and opening one’s heart amidst the turbulence and hyper-vigilance of a lifestyle that reinforces the notion that stress and threat may be lurking around every corner. New York can sometimes feel like that, as do many environments in which I work now. But there’s always a way to take a backward step, from time to time, and to navigate back to a sense of balance and equilibrium. I really believe that, through practice, we can cultivate skillfulness such that this balance and resilience becomes as natural as (for some of us) taking a stroll through Times Square at rush hour.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
For me, the five steps that build resilience boil down to:
1) Cultivate a mindfulness practice
2) Turn towards suffering
3) Become comfortable with not knowing
4) Develop skillful communication
5) Practice gratefulness at every opportunity
1) Cultivate a mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment. Practicing mindfulness can take many forms. I believe there’s always an opportunity to decide to really show up and notice what is in front of us and experience the present moment as one of discovery, curiosity, revelation. Obviously, we can’t move through our lives in a constant state of awe and wonder, but a little more of that can go a long way. I am amazed at how much more I appreciate the taste of a good Reuben sandwich, the smell of white sage growing in my garden, the beauty of my wife’s kind eyes. In these moments of noticing, I feel my perspective is widened, humanity is richer, and the possibilities abound.
2) Turn towards suffering. While we may instinctively seek comfort and stasis, our lives present constant interruptions, obstacles, disappointments. Whether we expect it or not, inconvenient occurrences are pretty much the norm. Seeking out disaster is no good for anyone, of course, but once difficulty or challenge arises, if we make a choice to set aside resistance and open to what is really going on, we can allow ourselves to take in more information, see the situation more accurately, listen for what might be needed and make better decisions. This is not an invitation to inertia or wallowing in pain. Rather, as Bernie Glassman observed, an open heart and deep listening leads us to compassionate action. If we really allow ourselves to bear witness, I believe our innate human goodness kicks in and informs us of what will best serve.
3) Become comfortable with not knowing. To be able to bear witness to suffering, we need to check our assumptions. We are infinitely more clear in perceiving the truth of the moment when we recognize our biases, defaults, opinions, judgments — and how these things obscure our ability to perceive what’s really going on. The capacity to set aside everything we think we know about what it is we are about to confront, and to really take it in in real time, is powerful and clarifying. So much of our day is on autopilot and this can lead to missed signals, bad decision-making and unintended conflict. Having the ability to let go of our assumptions and really open to the situation, as we confront it, can be a real eye-opener.
4) Develop skillful communication. Skillful communication starts with cultivating the capacity to listen from the heart, to set aside everything we think we know and to truly listen without the filters of judgment and the need to hyper-analyze everything we hear. This kind of listening increases our ability to understand and empowers others to reveal more of their truth. We do this when we’re in nature: if we can listen to the sound of the waves without agreeing or disagreeing with them, if we can take in a beautiful sunset without second guessing the colors that show up, why can’t we listen to each other in our daily interactions this way, with curiosity and the intention to understand, rather than to judge? Cultivating this capacity to listen without reactivity or interruption can be enormously helpful in building and sustaining relationships. Similarly, the capacity to speak authentically, really putting words to what is alive, true and current makes sense in theory, but is often more challenging than it seems. We often don’t find the courage to communicate authentically, with care and candor. Our speech can frequently default to the strategic, protective or directive. Often this is necessary, of course, to achieve a goal or forward an agenda; we understandably use our speech to get what we want. But do we allow ourselves to articulate and reflect what is really alive in our hearts? Understanding where and when this is appropriate, and cultivating the capacity to do this effectively, can be very affirming. By listening and speaking from the heart, we give ourselves permission to emerge into the next iteration of ourselves, to evolve with the moment, to truly be the author of our unfolding story.
5) Practice gratefulness at every opportunity. Most spiritual traditions encourage us to count our blessings. Beyond being a polite and courteous practice, neuroscientific research is now demonstrating the extraordinary benefits of practicing gratitude. We now know that developing a practice of defining, detailing and expressing things we are grateful for creates significant, observable, and lasting changes in our brains. Thanks to discoveries around neuroplasticity, we can now appreciate how this simple practice can have a profound and positive impact on the physiology of our brains. Just as going to the gym can produce observable changes in our biceps and abs, practicing gratitude can build the muscle of resilience. By implementing a regular practice of gratitude, we increase our capacity for equanimity, self-regulation and compassion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that compassion is the key to happiness. Compassion is not something we feel, it’s something we do. In our fast-paced, complicated, demanding lives, it can be quite a challenge to take a backward step, to develop a practice of mindfulness, to listen and speak from the heart, to attend to the stress and trauma we encounter in ourselves and experience in others. But it’s hard to see a way through this life without engaging compassion. Indeed, if more people spent more time paying attention to the present moment, appreciating life, truly listening to the stories of others, taking the time to discern action and behavior that could be beneficial… I believe individual health and wellbeing, not to mention our sense of interconnectedness and common purpose, would deepen and expand.
Caring and being cared for is such a fundamental human need and I fear that we are not exercising this muscle of compassion as we should, which cannot be a good thing — either for individual wellbeing or for the good of society. Our lives are filled with images and messages that encourage us to get angry and mobilize against those with differing views, and to think less of those with whom we disagree. Compassion is not a panacea, of course, and it does not take the place of discernment. But we must reinforce this work and do what we can to build it into our day-to-day, our relationships, families and workplaces. There are concrete, nuts and bolts steps we can take to build resilience and strengthen compassion, in the classroom and the boardroom, the prison yard and the intensive care unit, at the family dinner table and the mall. We must seek out and engage skillful means to incorporate more compassion in our lives. It’s time we recognize that this is a practice that serves our health and wellbeing and that makes the world a better place.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
As I think about leaders who have exhibited the most visionary and powerful leadership, the person who comes to mind is Darren Walker, of the Ford Foundation. I find his personal narrative, his passion for justice and equity, his vision for engagement and progress to be incredibly moving. He is also enormously influential and uses his voice to galvanize resources. He is an extraordinarily inspiring person.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
More information about my work with Center for Council can be found on our website; there are lots of stories and videos there, and interested folks can sign up for our newsletter and follow us on social media. In addition, my new book is entitled, Where Compassion Begins: Foundational Practices to Enhance Mindfulness, Attention and Listening from the Heart and can be ordered though the website or via Amazon.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!