I was recently asked by a former neighbor, and current student, to write down some of my thoughts on mentoring.  In truth, her request reflected back to me more eloquently than I can accomplish here: “[The] kind of mentor that I am talking about; [is one] that is totally cool being yourself and being really present with folks and doing you OWN work and modeling your own process, and not giving advice but asking great questions that help guide, and engaging where someone is, and connecting deeply…”.  In response to her request to unpack my approach, I’ve made a “this’ll du” attempt.  The bottom line is that mentoring is a way of being in the world for me and it isn’t one I’ve tried to put into words before.

“Love is round.” - Hallmark card

“It’s name shall be everything.” - Ancient Greek saying

Wholeness: I’ve always been drawn to both of the above sentiments because of the wholeness they reflect.  Life, and the humans within it, is full of ups and downs, ebbs and flows, joy and grief, brilliance and mundanity, beauty and ugliness….   The intertwining of these dimensions, not getting too caught in one ebb or denying the flow of another, is the trick. 

Presence: Remaining present to this wholeness, bearing witness to all of it, is our job and duty as a fellow human.  I always know when I’m losing presence, losing ground – it is when beautiful and poignant moments are passing me by, I sense their fleeting nature more than their preciousness.  Doing what I need to do to reground myself – yoga, mountain air, bike riding, unplugging, calling on my own righteous allies – is necessary and is in service to my being present once again with others.  “Work-life balance” is not a platitude – it is a lived necessity, and is really in itself a statement of integrated wholeness (one in service to the other) rather than a dualistic or oppositional tension. 

Ally-ship: When I meet others who are struggling to find their path, or a way forward, I try to listen deeply to what they are saying.  Listening with discernment but without judgment. My style is, in fact, pretty directive.  I work to function as an ally, sometimes reflecting back a truth the person is already tapped into but just hasn’t put into words or full consciousness yet.  We work together to name barriers or blockages or fears, and in the naming, reduce their power and regain connection to intuition. Recognizing when intuition is fear speaking or habit and when it is truth often takes an ally to be curious, open, gently direct. I know this because it is my own lifelong journey and a gift my allies have given me on many occasions. 

Seeing and Being Seen: Knowing when a person’s story is telling me something about myself, and using that insight in ways that are in service to the person, not self-indulgent, is another lifelong process.  Cheryl Strayed, writing an advice column under the pen name Sugar (collection published as Tiny Beautiful Things) is one of my role models in this.  Her original editor called her style “radical empathy”, in which she could get right to the heart of the person’s dilemma through telling a story of her own.  She was sharing and being vulnerable herself in the telling, but it wasn’t about her.  It was ultimately about the writer asking for help.  Her stories revealed she could see what was happening and in that, offered up an invitation to see their stuckness from a different place. 

Permission to shine: I focus on strengths, passions, and contributions.  Every one of us has our own contribution to make and we can make it if we tap into or free our best selves.  This will come at the intersection of strengths and capacities we have (and coming to know what those are, owning them), our passions and core commitments, and creative thinking and openness about where and how we can make our best contribution.  Our best selves reflect – and rely upon – our whole selves.  I’m continually amazed at the power of simply giving permission to tap these gifts, as so much of our society and our institutions create cultures of expectation and performance, all driven by others’ judgment and definitions of what counts as success. 

Invest in the whole person. Your own, and that of others. That perhaps is the true secret.

“People will forget what you say. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou

Conversational credit: Katie Querna (thank you for asking!), Kemp Battle (always), Kathleen Farrell, Glenna Chang, Claire Fraicek, and Jaye Sablan.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of growth and change.” Brene Brown

How hard it is to move in worlds that expect perfection and performance of expertise and seemingly have little tolerance for anything less.  Medicine is one such world, so is academia – put the two together in academic medicine and you may as well not get out of bed today.

And yet, how are we all complicit in the creation and re-creation of these worlds?  How does this world of expert knowledge and stellar performance serve us? How might it be hindering a performance of what may be our very best shining selves?  What can we do to co-create cultures with different performance and behavioral norms are not just tolerated but embraced and expected?  

Here’s a hypothesis: when perfection is the norm, we hold back.  What a risk it is to put yourself out there, to try something, to suggest, if it may not work, may not be the right answer.  And when we hold ourselves back, what happens?  Not only does our own growth become stunted, but we also deprive those around us of our fullest selves.  We also miss the opportunity to model that risk taking may just be the act that propels us all (or our department, our team, our organization) to the next level, and we send the message to everyone around us that it is definitely not ok to put yourself out there unless you know you are right. 

What’s at stake?  Everything.  But not what you think.  We worry about evaluations, judgments, reputation, offending someone, hurting someone’s feelings.  What’s really at stake is being alive, living fully, pushing us all to the place we need to be in order to thrive, flourish, become our full potential (whatever that may be, and wherever that may take us).  Sometimes having the courage to ask the hard question, or name the difficult reality, is the voice needed to shake us into paying attention to the real work ahead of us.  Really, there is just too much work that is needed.  We spend hours/days/years of our lives performing what may not be the real work.  We cannot afford to muck around on the surface.  I know, surface work is safe, but it doesn’t move us forward.  Surface conversations are safe, but they leave us unmoved, unchanged, unfed, and we do not yet create the kinds of environments where our next generation of people can truly become (nor can we).  

Experts are safe.  They are solidly working within their known territory, the tried and true, the tested.  They have arrived.  They are also on a lonely plateau, and can be rather stuck.  In developmental language, it is the master – not the expert – who is the true guru.  He or she is the one who is always experimenting, always testing something new, always a little off balance because she is pushing herself to go just a little further or to be 10% braver.  In mastery, there is richness as you are never done.  You are on a lifelong learning trajectory, and really, what is more energizing that this kind of discovery and growth?  Think of the energy of a child who is discovering so much.  Adults get boring because we think we know everything.  I seek out the child-like adults who are in the constant world of play, experiment, are humble about what they do not yet know, and generally do not take themselves too seriously. 

What can we do?  In your own sphere, whatever that may be – try cultivating a culture of curiosity, of humility, of play, of wonder.   The best examples of this I can draw on come from yoga (yet again).  There is no judgment in where you might go in any given day.  All we ask of you is that you show up and try, and encourage the attempts of others.  Celebrate those attempts – not in shallow, empty ways – but as recognition of genuine “leaning in” and just trying.  Encouragement – because we are so starved by it in many of our environments – is rocket fuel.  Take a chance in your own work environment.  Normalize feedback, give and take, introduce recognition.  It will go a long way toward cultivating a culture of growth.

"Genuine learning, like love, is always mutual."-- bell hooks

Conversational Credit: Holly Yang, Anthony Back, Bob Arnold, James Tulsky, Gordon Wood, Lisa Ravenel, and Jillian, Stephen, David, and Sara, who asked the question. And Kemp Battle, who models this practice daily.

“Let us remember why we are here. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.” – Cheryl Strayed

We all seek belonging it turns out.  We are hard wired (or soft wired – whatever that means exactly) to find our people.  To see and be seen.  The act of recognition  - of another’s pain, joy, and just humanness creates a literal resonance in us, and we are changed by it, and thus, the dynamic between us is changed. 

Consider the opposite.  When we feel we do not belong.  When we feel unseen, unrecognized, unloved.  Removing the special sauce of the harmonic resonance between us triggers perhaps the fight or flight response in our survival brains.  That is, if I do not belong, then “fuck you, I didn’t need you anyway”.  Or, perhaps we tear apart or are critical of the very thing or people we were longing to connect with.  Our defenses go up, we stop seeing, resonating with others.  And, in a vicious cycle, we become rather unlovable and more difficult to connect with. 

When we see others who are prickly, angry, critical – can we summon our own humanity and open-heartedness, open-mindedness and embrace this person?  What can we shift in ourselves to create gracious space of welcome and being, that might allow others to flourish?

Consider this invitation: to embrace our human need for socialability, attunement, connection in this season of new beginnings (new academic year, harvest, fall, new phases of life, etc.).  Find your people.  They are in fact essential to your well-being.  Gather together.  This may mean leaning in, taking risks, exploring a bit.  It requires an open-heartedness to put you at that harmonic wavelength to discover resonance of connection.  And in that act of vulnerability, everything else becomes possible.  This is indeed why we are here.

“The life within you nourishes the life within me.” – Joseph Burley’s translation of Namaste

Conversational Credit: Holly Yang, Anthony Back, Bob Arnold, James Tulsky, Gordon Wood, Lisa Ravenel (the people of vitaltalk.org), and all the active explorers and practitioners in this space of belonging and connection. 

“Be brave enough to break your own heart.” – Sugar (aka Cheryl Strayed)

I can always tell when it is time to write – when an idea circulates around into enough conversations that signal a challenge to capture the essence of it in a few short words.  The idea of the last year has been love – generous spirited, open-hearted love.  It starts like this:

Why do we hold ourselves back - become stingy with complements, tense with what isn’t working, focus on failures, withhold gratitude, make ourselves smaller, ugly?  Our conversations at a retreat last year had the breakthrough of recognizing our fear of death and dying is really just our fear of love, our fear of being broken open. If we love, we anticipate already the loss of love, and cannot bear it.  What would be possible, we asked ourselves, if we loved openly, generously, freely, knowing we would be broken open, and trust that even in shattering, more expansive space can be created. How do we move to expansiveness rather than scarring and sealing more tightly shut after a break? Restoration and growth is there for us, if we love ourselves, believing that wholeness is not only possible, but necessary. 

The second observation has been with me for some time, working with clinicians who find it impossible to bear witness, again and again, to the pain and suffering of the people they are serving.  I often shared a life lesson from the pastor who works with the homeless in the Pike Place Market – he would sit with suffering, breathe it in with calm and compassion, feeling it, and then allow it to pass through him, releasing with lightness and strength.  It is this image that I call upon this summer as events near and far have catapulted us all into new demands for witnessing.   Our responsibility becomes to stay with, to not look away, but to do so not with pity, or guilt, but with loving kindness, breathing in.  The Buddhists teach of non-attachment, and there is such wisdom in these teachings.  And, we miss the lesson if we assume that not being attached to things or people means that we do not love them, that we allow ourselves those genuine connections – it is just that then, we are asked to release them when the time comes, and our heart does indeed break (see observation 1!). 

"Suffering is not a question which demands an answer, it is not a problem which demands a solution, it is a mystery which demands a presence." Anonymous

And the third teaching on big love this year is an idea my sister and I have worked on called ironically micro-love.  That is, how small touches, gestures, looks, words can open or deepen a connection, can buoy us up, can make it possible for us to be bigger – our big, beautiful selves.  Here is another place where generosity, and courage, is everything.  We hold complements back, hold words of love back – we don’t want to be rejected, misunderstood, invasive.  And yet, we hold within us such capacity for gifting to others on a daily basis.  Be bold. Be vulnerable. Risk something of yourself. Reach out to 2-3 people each day with a gesture of kindness – strangers and those close to you.  Sometimes it those close to us we take the most for granted and need our love touch-ins the most.  Micro-love can feed and fuel your relationships, even as it feeds and fuels your self.

Weaving together all three of these threads, those we love are everything.  Let them know.   Tap into that open-hearted space.  Release judgment.  Release expectation. Love is all there is. 

“We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like its dinnertime.” – Sugar (aka Cheryl Strayed)

Conversational credit: Kemp Battle, Matt Drews, Bob Arnold, Brooke Edwards, and the good people of the Methow Valley, among many others, strangers and loved ones, who buoy me up daily. 

My grandfather had a cabin in the woods that was the family gathering place, and still is, and created a sign with twigs hanging across the porch that said, “This’ll Du”. It became a family saying.  Particularly around the cabin, which had a plumbing system that would make Rube Goldberg proud, a shower that wasn’t quite tall enough, a fireplace that didn’t always work, and a bomb for a BBQ grill.  Seriously.  And you know what, it DID do.  The cabin is a warm place, filled with many generations of memories, and is creating more to come. 

I brought this saying with me into my workplace when I could sense my colleagues, and myself, having a mounting sense of overwhelmedness at what all we needed to do, to accomplish, to produce, to polish, to perform.  The anxiety about performance and judgment about perfection in academia is strong.  We must constantly prove we belong, that we are smart enough, that someone didn’t make a mistake when they hired us, or let us into the program.  We worry constantly whether what we have done is enough, whether we are ready enough, prepared enough, have considered all the literature and evidence, are up-to-date on our reading, will convince the grant reviewers, and on and on.

The thing is, we are enough.  Being here is enough.  Being responsive, questioning, open, curious, humble, and adaptive is more than enough.  Getting a shitty first draft together to respond to is enough to get the conversation and collaboration started.  Putting together your three talking points for the presentation and then really working those is enough (and even better than the 50 slide slidedeck).  Showing up for the meeting and being responsive to what is there can often be enough. 

How do you know when what you have is enough?  The other lesson from my grandfather is that “this’ll do” doesn’t mean some shoddy, half-assed job that you didn’t put thought or effort into.  It means, you actually have thought about this, gave it the best you had given the time, experience, and resources available, and this is the result.  Daddy Bert had deep integrity in everything he did, this is an Edwards trademark.  But this integrity comes from a coherent whole to the way of being and living a life, rather than from the number of hours invested in any one project or decision.  This is the tension that one must hold to truly embrace “This’ll do”.  Does it come from a place of integrity, from a place of the best that you have in the moment for the context?  If yes, then yes.  Is there more you could do?  Of course.  Are there ways you could improve and polish? Always.  Is it good enough?  If you are behind it, then yes it is.

Conversational credit: Bert Edwards, Elise Carey, Malia Fullerton, Bets McNie, and all the colleagues, students and fellows who have patience with me while I practice. 

At this time of year, when we turn the corner on the light as well as on the calendar, it makes sense that “intentions” are on my mind. 

How are intentions different than goals?  What work can they do in our lives? Is “the road to hell paved with good intentions”?  These are some of the questions others have asked of me over the last few weeks as I have been bringing up this question: What intentions do you have for the coming year? 

Intentions do different work than goals. For me, intentions are about pointing in a certain direction, with a certain spirit or embodied state.  They might be lifelong projects (e.g. I intend to be a more generous person, or I intend to be more focused).  Goals strike me as something attainable, achievable, and something to accomplish and move beyond.  Goals might even help operationalize or enact your intentions (e.g. I will invite people to the house for dinner that I cook, I will cull my project list).  Goals are important because they are actionable.  However, they do not inspire me – they feel like another thing on the to-do list, and taken by themselves, I forget why they are important to me.  Staying connected to intention helps me remember the “why” and how these actions may fit into a bigger picture of who I am and the life I aspire to lead. 

Intentions are not actions (which is why the road to hell may indeed be paved with them).  And yet, actions without intentions risk becoming busy work or instrumental clutter in our lives.  I need to weave together the myriad of things that I do personally and professionally to see what kind of life I am enacting through this whole series of choices, projects, and ways I choose to spend my time. 

One of my most familiar – and necessary – practices around intention comes again from yoga.  At the start of each practice, after starting with some grounding movement and breath, the teacher invites us to set a personal intention for the day.  Sometimes they suggest one (a cue to me that sometimes the best or most needed intentions come from outside ourselves).  Taking this moment to set an intention for my practice allows me to check in with where I am and assess what I most need now.  It can be strength, focus, embodiment, presence, open-heartedness, quietude, energy – very dependent on how my day, week, month is going.  This is part one of meaningful intention practice – it begins with self-assessment: what do I need?  Part two comes 20-30 minutes into the yoga practice when the teacher reminds us: “Come back to your intention. Reset.” This invitation acknowledges that we drift, we distract, we forget, as we get caught up with movement, doing, and our monkey minds.  Moving this part of the intention practice into daily life, it says to me that intentions are aspirational and need to be revisited, refreshed, recommitted to at periodic moments.  Forgetting an intention for awhile isn’t a failure leading to rejection of that intention, but rather, an opportunity to commit anew and take fresh steps to enact this intention. 

My intention to write a new blog post once a week became once a month and then life got busy and full in December and I missed a month.  Disappointed? Yes.  Failure? No.  I commit anew to a writing practice as this blog enacts my intention to be more reflective, mindful, and articulate, and to move ideas forward into practice rather than have them swirl and get lost in the sea of a busy life.  I am grateful to the conversation partners in my life who so inspire and shape the ideas that I attempt to put into words within this space. 

Conversational Credit: Rita Burke, Glenna Chang, Kathleen Farrell, Claire Fraczek, Tori Karpenko, the Morning Conversations group, and Casey, Jamie, & Matt from CorePowerYoga.  Photo credit: James Koski.


Having grown up playing sports with coaches, I have always valued the role of the coach: the person who can see your potential, sees you have more to give, and then demands it of you.  This is another place for me where physical metaphor reflects the emotional, mental, and intellectual experience.  Do you have people in your life that call you to be your best self?  People who:

  • By asking bold questions, invite you into awareness of your emotional state
  • See the moments where your energy is flagging and give you encouragement that refuels
  • Are voracious readers and thinkers and remind you the world is a richer place when we can draw threads in from the great minds and spirits around us
  • Recognize when you are being “small” when you have the capacity to be “big”
  • By being fully realized, remind you there is so much more

Such coaches in life are gifts, and I learn daily from them how to be a better teacher, mentor, friend, human.  The other key piece with coaching is the continual aspiration for more – it is about the striving, even while celebrating achievements along the way.  Where can I learn, grow, challenge, expand further?  It is also not a mono-directional march toward betterment.  Why coaches are so invaluable is we forget, get distracted, lose our way.  As with any practice, they ask us to show up each day and check-in with where the edge is today.  These guides along the path help remind us when we get lost who we are and what we are capable of.    I give a deep bow to the coaches and guides in my life.  Pay attention to where yours are, and cultivate them: I am reminded of Wayne Booth’s book, The Company We Keep, where the self is literally formed by who (or what) we spend our time with.  Pay attention to company that invites you to your best self.  The world and people around you need you.

Conversational Credit: Kemp Battle, Glenna Chang, Rachel DeBusk, Kathleen Farrell, Claire Fraczek, John Hetherington, Tori Karpenko, Sue Trinidad, and Jamie and Matt at CorePowerYoga, who always invite me to show up with more than I thought I had. 

Another common theme in our conversations and work with teachers is how directive to be in your teaching when your goal is to be “learner-centered”.  In my opinion, learner-centered teaching, along with the parallel process, “patient-centered care”, are misnomers. 

While it is true – and in fact essential – to the work to meet the learner (or patient) where they are, rather than with your own agenda or program, it is also true that there is a critical role for your expertise as a teacher (or clinician) during those encounters.  What are the effective and responsible ways to use your “teacher power”?  My approach has been to think about the metaphor of a guide. 

When climbing Mt. Rainier, or fishing in a new river, or exploring a new city, what you want and need is a guide.  The best guides do not just give you a “spiel”, but rather they take time to find out what your goals are for your adventure, and assess what skills you are bringing into the situation.  The Mt. Rainier climbing guide would be irresponsible if she didn’t have intimate knowledge of the clients’ capacities.  And yet, she does not allow the new climbers to choose the route up the mountain, or reject the 2am start time (when you must start climbing to minimize crevasse risk).  The guide uses her expertise to tailor the climb to meet her clients needs, goals, and strengths, and will send people back if she assesses they are not going to be able to make it – regardless of their initial goal to get to the peak. 

In a very similar way, a teacher working with a learner finds out what the learner’s goals are in a given learning encounter, what he hopes to accomplish, where he is challenged, and also assesses his skill level to tailor the learning experience to the appropriate level.  If the learner heads off in the wrong direction, the teacher (as guide) intervenes and can redirect onto the safer path.  If the learner resists certain learning directions, the teacher (as guide) can be transparent about why we do things and hold fast to the rules and structure that are there for good reason. 

Finding this dance between exploring with the learner and guiding them toward the experiences that will best serve them takes active work and responsible use of power and direction.  The best teachers can be deeply directive (interrupt, reframe, rephrase, recommend) and are using their direction in service to the learning experience and are not driven by agenda or ego.  In what ways can you own and aim your teacher power? 

Conversational Credit: Bob Arnold, Tony Back, James Tulsky, Holly Yang and other fabulous clinician-teachers within the Vitaltalk network. Check out @vitaltalk #pallitalk for more.

It has been a long debate in behavior change to ask whether the best strategy is to focus on behaviors or on more conceptual shifts.   We are here deep into a course, teaching communication and facilitation skills to clinicians, experimenting with this question.

Aristotle had something right when he said (so they say) that the actions make the character.  I have always taken this to mean that if there is something or someone you aspire to become, then take small action steps each day to simply “act as if” you are that person or have that way of being.  Over time, through walking the walk, you will in fact become that person to which you aspire.  Simple examples:

  • If you want to become a gracious person, start saying thank you, express gratitude each day, and look for opportunities to do something for someone else. 
  • If you want to become an athlete, do something active each day. 
  • If you want to have meaningful therapeutic relationships, take a pause in each encounter to witness and acknowledge – verbally or nonverbally – the human being that sits before you. 
  • And so forth.

All of these examples make sense to me, to a point.  And yet, I think the rote doing of something needs to be coupled with some other kind of reflective practice to fully realize the potential behavior change and identity shift.  You have to notice what happens to you when you make yourself express gratitude, or workout regularly, or recognize the fellow human in the clinic room with you.  You have to notice that something is shifting about the quality of the experience you are having.  You may notice that you are becoming different, that things come more naturally to you in this new practice, new way of being.  To fully integrate this, thinking deeply about who you are becoming, and why it matters, will help embrace and deepen the changes you have triggered through the action steps you take.  What is your next step? 

Conversational Credit: Anthony Back, Bob Arnold, James Tulsky, Holly Yang, and the other good folks of the Vitaltalk network. 


This is not a blogspot about yoga.  I just come to understand things through movement and the metaphors embodiment provides are essential for me to make sense of the rest of my life.  Here is the latest one. 

For years I have experienced the framing of yoga as a practice, where you come to your mat fresh each day and the practice – the showing up on your mat, releasing judgment, taking risks – happens each time, without regard for what happened yesterday, last week, or what will happen tomorrow. 

More recently, I have become aware of cognitive and emotional capacities as requiring practice.  This recognition is somehow freeing and reassuring to me.  If Pema Chodron is still practicing fearlessness, open-heartedness, and compassion, then clearly I need to practice too.  How would the world look different if we all gave ourselves the freedom and forgiveness required to practice?

The learning curve with emotional practice comes from glimpsing what is possible, in yourself and between others, and then losing it again.  Whole-hearted connection, non-judgmental acknowledgment and forgiveness, courage to speak openly – these moments are beautiful when they happen.  And then old habits appear, of course, like a bad skiing behavior that you have to keep noticing and shifting back to the new, freeing practice.  Why keep trying, keep regaining balance, keep asking (and granting) forgiveness? As Victoria Safford reported the AIDS activists marching in the first Pride parades claimed: “Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it's going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live anymore compliant and complacent in the world as it is.”

I work with many students and trainees and faculty who assume certain skills or behaviors come naturally to others, or are the result of natural talents.  While we certainly bring propensities toward capacities – for connection, for effective communication, for focus, for analysis – these all grow, sharpen, and really emerge through practice.  Some say 10,000 hours worth. What capacity do you want to sharpen in your life?  Come to your mat.  Practice with me. 

Related readings:

Malcom Gladwell recently clarified his 10,000 hour rule in the New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2013/08/psychology-ten-thousand-hour-rule-complexity.html?mobify=0

And Victoria Safford’s marvelous essay, The Small Work in the Great Work, available at: http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0105-23.htm

Conversational credit: Anthony Back, Kemp Battle, Susan B. Trinidad, and all of you with whom I actively practice and who regularly forgive me when I lose balance and need to start again.