Theo Koffler, founder of Mindfulness Without Borders, talks about mindfulness programs for teens and young adults and tips for parents on being mindfully present to make our lives joyful and meaningful.
Scott Snibbe: Can you tell me a little bit about your personal story, how you came to where you are in life today, as the founder of Mindfulness Without Borders?
Theo Koffler: Sure, my own journey to mindfulness began in the late seventies. I was 32. And I like to say of myself at that time that I was at the top of my game in the corporate world. But underneath the surface, I found myself struggling to deal with the stresses associated with living in Israel, which at that time was divided by conflict and violence. It was a really difficult experience for me to witness.
I was in Israel because of my career, and growing up in Toronto, I had little if any experience with the complexities inherent in living in a country of war. And as hard as it was to just deal with the conditions in Israel, in the end, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Eventually the stress caught up to me, the country’s divide became mine. And shortly after the birth of my second son, I literally crashed. I was diagnosed with lupus. My world turned upside down and everything changed. The metaphor I like to use which demonstrates my experience is akin to pulling the plug out of a bathtub. Rather than watching the water drain from the tub, I literally saw myself disappear down the drain with the water.
The more I learned about lupus, I realized that the role of my internal world, my internal stressors, played a strong role in my health and wellbeing. And I tried so many different Western medicines to heal and to comfort a very painful body, to reduce the inflammation in my joints, but nothing worked.
And so I was motivated to find the self practices that could help me heal or at least strengthen my body and strengthen my health. And sure enough, the universe was there to support me, a friend came for a visit and brought this little small white paperback book, titled Peace Is Every Step written by Thich Nhat Hanh.
And I looked at the book and I went, This is interesting. This sort of names where I need to go. I need to work on “peace is every step” in spite of my health and my current condition. And I read the book in one sitting and I was inspired by the simplicity of the message.
The book itself was focused on a mindful way of being in the world. It was focused on simple meditation practices as a way to build both a sense of inner composure, or inner peace if we want to say that, and outer peace.
So I started with short daily meditation practices and in time, I found that the place of refuge didn’t have to come from my doctor’s advice, but rather came from my newly found ability to connect to myself and accept the ride of emotions, especially the pain and the difficult challenges that I was facing.
This practice was helping me see that everything changes in time and help me build a different sense of hope around what my future looked like, because I didn’t know if I would get through my lupus and I would be here today talking to you. And in fact, that brings a little tightness in my throat to be as honest about that and to share that with you and your audience, but how it started.
Scott Snibbe: So this is your personal journey of how you benefited in extraordinary ways from meditation. And then how and when did that shift into your career and this incredible organization you’ve created?
Theo Koffler: I love the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, which is “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”And that became my inspiration. And then it led to an inspiration around I can derive sense of meaning from what it is I was experiencing.
My professional life also did a 180. I was inspired by the benefits of mindfulness. I began looking deeper into what was missing in my own education that could have prevented my downfall.
As my story unfolded, I started to have conversations with others and did my research. I discovered there was a learning theory called social and emotional learning. It is named by this wonderful organization called CASEL, the Collaborative of Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as the missing piece in education.
Before long, I set my sights on dreaming of what could I do as an entrepreneur to change the current tide in education and advocate for the integration of social, emotional learning as a systemic change in education.
And of course, having had the benefit of mindfulness practice and learning a whole new field of practice, I thought, there it is. I’ll see whether there’s a possibility to combine social-emotional learning theory and secular mindfulness into a program that nurtured and nourished especially teens, because I think that’s when these kinds of competencies are more suited for integration.
And in 2005, my great obstacle of lupus turned into my greatest and most profound gift and Mindfulness Without Borders was born – even though it was born under a different name, the organization emerged from a thought into a reality.
Scott Snibbe: That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. I grew up very close to the Vajrapani Institute, which became my main retreat center. And I sometimes fantasize how different my life would have been if I had discovered meditation as a teenager. So I wish there was a program like yours when I was a kid in the eighties.
You have the word mindfulness in the title of your organization and this word mindfulness seems to mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. So could you describe what it means in the context of your programs?
Theo Koffler: Sure. Let’s say that with mindfulness, we refer to the practice as a way of being in life. And in its most general sense, mindfulness is a quality of awareness that grows out of paying attention on purpose and without judgment to what’s happening in the present moment. It involves a training in attention, awareness, concentration, and the qualities of heart like compassion and kindness.
I can break down the definition even further by saying that when we’re turning into the present moment, we are building a commitment to notice when the mind is distracted. And the resolve to return our attention back to the present moment over and over again. In this practice of noticing the mind’s distraction, we are able to get more insight into why it’s distracted, and making deliberate choices to return, to experience the moment just as it is. Noticing our judgments as they arise, remaining open and curious to the experience rather than to our habitual feelings and actions and behaviors, and then ultimately with this practice, it really refers to reflecting and responding with less reactivity, more discernment, more kindness and compassion.
There’s a misunderstanding that it needs to be a skill that is learned. And actually for us, it’s an innate quality that just needs to be nurtured. And that the nurturing of these qualities is what really helps energize ourselves in becoming alive with who we are in the moment and what are our best selves and choices, and that by bringing mindfulness into our daily lives and our routines, we are actually able to move off that treadmill of automaticity and constantly doing. By doing that, we actually can return to the practice of being and savoring the moment and savoring what is happening right in front of us.
Scott Snibbe: I really like what you say about bringing out your best selves because a huge aspect of mindfulness and a very beneficial one today is therapeutic, using mindfulness to address certain problems that people have. But it’s very nice hearing you talk about bringing out your best qualities because, from the traditional perspective of meditation, that’s why it was invented or discovered thousands of years ago, is to bring out our best selves, right?
Theo Koffler: I’m so with you there, we’re so caught up in ourselves, we so self-identify with our emotions and our feelings. And the mindfulness processes allows us some space between our thoughts and emotions. And expand that just into an awareness, Oh, so this is how I’m feeling right now. And that with this more spacious awareness, we can loosen our grip around who we think we are and the tricks that our minds are doing on us to take us off center, so to speak.
Scott Snibbe: And can you talk specifically about why teens and young adults? A lot of these programs are directed towards adults. They say that period between 25 and 35 is your spiritual seeking time in life. So why teens and young adults, how did you choose that audience?
Theo Koffler: We chose teens and young adults specifically because I was missing these skills as I was growing up. And there were other programs emerging in the field of mindfulness that were for younger kids in preschool, kindergarten and primary school.
So I felt a desperate need to catch teens as they were transitioning into their adult lives. So at least they had these tools while they were emerging into young adults. And it just came out of my experience, obviously, having lived in Israel and not knowing how to cope with challenging, difficult situations in my life.
I’m not sure about your experience, but my education helped me with cognitive development. I learned languages. I learned all about science and geography and history and math, but once I stepped outside the classroom and began to face real world challenges, knowing the square root of PI didn’t help, that was not what got me through my challenges. It was clearly my awareness around how to navigate the challenges that helped me grow, learn and deal.
The second compelling reason which catalyzed me to action is that in teen life they’re facing huge pressures, the stress of keeping up, the fear of missing out, the pressures in social media, the fat shaming, the bullying, parental pressures to perform.
It just seemed that these pressures, which are showing up in society, where teens are experiencing more and more depression and anxiety and substance abuse, that it became of increasing importance.
Scott Snibbe: Can you describe what some of the practices are that you teach the teens and young adults. Is it a more simplified version or a different emphasis on mindfulness?
Theo Koffler: Our program for youth is named the Mindfulness Ambassador Program. The program really sits on the foundation of mindfulness as well as social emotional learning. With social emotional learning, I’m talking about five specific domains: there’s self awareness, self-management, social awareness, healthy relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The program has 12 lesson plans. Each of these lesson plans incorporate, let’s say a global theme or a roadmap for self-discovery that relates to different themes.
And each of these themes have practices. The experience of mindfulness practices is to help train attention and awareness as well as to invite our participants to discover themselves, their qualities, their strengths, their limitations, and uncover a sense of purpose in life, meaning in life.
We don’t actually teach, we facilitate our programs. We come to the room as facilitators, believing that the wisdom is already in the room and that our role is to discuss the themes, seed questions, catalyze conversations, and actually encourage our young participants to speak their truth, to speak from the heart. So that approach allows each individual to take what resonates.
The first practice in self-awareness is to learn about the breath as this important tool to bring us back into the moment. We have practices like mindful listening, the body scan. We have practices that help nurture gratitude, like mindful eating. We have a practice on nurturing compassion. So those are the five core practices that we teach.
Scott Snibbe: Oh, that’s fantastic.
Theo Koffler: Yeah.
Scott Snibbe: Is it possible to talk about, obviously without mentioning a name, but to talk about a specific person and how they benefited from your program? Just so our audience could get a picture of how this program can affect a teenager’s life.
Theo Koffler: Oh, that’s a sweet question. It actually brings a lot of emotion up for me because so much of my work has been facilitating these programs. We started in communities that were reshaping themselves from violence and reshaping themselves out of conflict into a new narrative in select communities in Rwanda and Uganda and Nigeria. And then we moved to communities in North America. And now with our facilitator training, we train others to take our programs to their communities.
I had an experience, one that I will always remember. After the twelfth session of our program, one of the students came up to me and this student never said a word. The student pulled me aside and said, do you have a moment?
A moment? I have as much time as you want. And he took me aside and he said, I want to tell you, and with a quiver in his voice, he said that this program saved my life. I didn’t learn too much more at that moment. But when I inquired with our school lead at the time, I found out that he lost his brother to suicide. Hence the program for him saved his life in a way that what I imagine renewed his sense of meaning out of this trauma of losing his brother and wanting to not let this narrative lead him into self-destructive behavior.
So that, that was a moment, a really powerful moment for me.
Scott Snibbe: Is there anything as a parent we can do to help steer our children towards these kinds of practices?
Theo Koffler: I guess that’s a powerful question as well, because as parents, we have a number of opportunities. So the answer is yes, there are things to do. I do want to set some context that my kids are grown up and I don’t yet have grandchildren to make my answers age appropriate for younger parents. But parents can advocate for social, emotional learning in education.
Whether they have children in elementary or middle and second or secondary school. I literally encourage parents to speak up. If these types of programs that help build character and values and mindfulness for sure, are absent in your community schools, then make a point of addressing someone in your school district to get the topic on the next district meeting’s agenda. Take a stand. Have a voice. It’s your children’s education and advocating for that, I feel seems like an appropriate role.
And as far as the personal side of parenting, I actually think parents are the champions of social, emotional learning in the household. So it’s not just about finding a program at school. It’s about demonstrating these important soft skills as parents and their children grow together.
I’ve prioritized honest conversations at home. I wasn’t afraid as a parent to share my vulnerabilities. I was encouraging of my children to share theirs. We know that life is a mixture of joy and happiness and pain and suffering. These are natural vicissitudes of life that we as parents ride and our children ride. So one way to nurture a conversation and gain better understandings of where our children are is during mealtime.
I found mealtime to be an ideal moment to give my full and undivided attention to my children. The minute the meal got on the table, I would sit with them. I would ask them questions. What made them happy today? Not just, How was school? Because that becomes a very redundant question, but what made them happy? What challenged them and talk it through.
And also show that I was available to be of service to them. That just because there was a conversation, it didn’t stop there. Each conversation was a moment for other conversations to emerge.
I think as adults and parents, it’s our responsibility to our children and to future generations to have these honest conversations and to be good listeners, to be open and curious. I think I’ve learned more from my children’s points of view than I have learned from my own self.
And I guess, finally, the idea as a parent of demonstrating their best selves and their compassion and kindness to their children is really something that parents can do. Bottom line, you don’t necessarily need a program at school. I think that if you have a built-in focus to really bring this alive in your family, that’s the best way to start. It’s just be here now with your kids. That’s my thought.
Scott Snibbe: So it sounds like practice mindfulness as you’re with your children to be completely there, completely focused.
Theo Koffler: Yeah. And I think that my children saw me as they matured, move out of the serious health condition that I was leading into a more active life. And so I had to be sensitive to the fact that the greater the activity and busy-ness in my life shouldn’t impact the way that I was with my kids.
There’s a balance there. Bringing your complete presence to your children, takes a lot of motivation.
Scott Snibbe: You talked about one of the students saying that you saved their life, which it doesn’t sound like there’s any stronger evidence for your program success than that. But programs like this, I think we’re often also looking for scientific evidence, more and more. Even His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is a big proponent of this.
Is there any scientific evidence for the efficacy of your programs? Have you done formal studies of any sort?
Theo Koffler: First of all, our content is driven by neuroscience to a large extent. And because evidence-based programs have more merit in the larger world, we took research as a very serious part of our role at Mindfulness Without Borders. With the growing body of evidence that’s in the external world, we began to see that it was important that we prove efficacy of our programs as well.
So our first study actually took place in 2012. This was four years of being in the field. And the study took place with a team of researchers at the University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work led by the Dean at the time, Dr. Faye Mishna. And this study revealed that the participants were applying what they learned in our 12 sessions about mindfulness into their daily lives.
It was a small group, there were only 80 students. But trust me, 80 students is a lot for a research project like ours because they have to consistently show up for every one of the 12 sessions. So of these 80 students, almost three quarters of them through qualitative study found that the program was highly valuable.
These students that participated in our program had filled out a survey before and after the program. And this analysis demonstrated that participants were employing the skills, including the ability to cope with challenges, work with others, improve their relationships with others, manage stress and anxiety and cope with sadness. This was huge for us, that was an amazing study.
The next scientific research we did was with Dr. Arlene McDougall, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Western University, which again is in Ontario, Canada. Arlene was so moved after participating in the program and then getting certified to teach our program that she decided along with her colleagues to examine twenty-one outpatients between the years of 18 and 35 that were demonstrating symptoms of early psychosis.
And they found that the program decreased depression and fatigue and increase the degree of acceptability. So this is where an adolescent would accept their condition and learn ways to navigate through some of their depression and the anxiety that comes along with early psychosis.
So that was profound.
Fast forward to today. We actually have a new member of our team by the name of Dr. Sarah Hunter. She’s our Head of Research and Innovation. Along with her colleagues, Dr. Soyeon Kim and Nicole Mace that work with the Waypoint Center for Mental Health and a college in Ontario called Georgian College, they decided to condense our youth program into a 30-minute version.
And this version, because this happened just recently, was not taught on site in person, but rather online. And their study was to determine whether participants online could benefit from the program.
And the participants themselves reported that the program helped them build resilience, empathy and decrease burnout. So that’s really important for a number of reasons, but the most important is that it teaches us a lot about dose relationship of online learning programs.
In other words, how much mindfulness training is needed to have an impact. And we found in this study that even a small amount, let’s say, the four 30-minute sessions, can move the needle on wellbeing.
Scott Snibbe: Okay. So you do, there’s a lot of scientific backing for your work. That’s fantastic. We’ll put some links on the website too. So I want to ask you about the other side too. These are clearly secular programs, right? But meditation of course comes from spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism.
So how do these programs relate to traditional Buddhist teachings and forms of meditation? If they do.
Theo Koffler: Let me start by saying that the connection to secular Buddhism again, came out as a result of my experience. Honestly, I have a number of teachers from various lineages that have shaped my understanding of secular Buddhism and actually not only just transformed my life but has been a very much part of the work we do at Mindfulness Without Borders. People like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, Ram Dass. I have a younger teacher, Matthew Brensilver. I just have to mention my deepest gratitude and appreciation to them.
Specifically, there are, four core secular teachings that have become part of our curriculum development. The first concept has to do with the understanding of impermanence, that life is impermanent and changes constantly: health, relationships, jobs, good times, hard times, loved ones, you name it. Even our own life will end. When we truly understand impermanence, the less we cling to our outcomes and expectations, our goals, our perceptions and the more capable we are in seeing life’s experience from a beginner’s mind, open and curious to things just as they are. So that’s the first.
The second concept I would say is an understanding of right intention. It acknowledges that our thoughts and words and actions are all driven by intentions and looks into what the true motivations are behind our actions.
The third concept, I would say revolves around right view, this encompasses acting or behaving in a way that’s not harmful to others. That concept of bringing our best selves forward and knowing that wholesome intentions leads to wholesome actions.
And the fourth concept I have to say is all around the notion of interconnection. Everything about us is constant change. From the trillions of cells that make up our body to the multiple thoughts and emotions, reactions, and beliefs that we have. And that the things we do affect things in turn that affect other things. That in turn, when they’re out in the world have a ripple effect.
This concept of interconnection is just so key. We have the power to change the world and we’re already constantly changing it without even noticing it, if we’re not aware of that.
So honestly, I’m always thinking about the fact that we can actually think about the way we impact each other. The reality is that a simple smile to a stranger has a positive effect on that stranger, which in turn has a ripple effect in his or her world. Just as driving down a highway and throwing a middle finger to a fellow driver has an effect far beyond what we can comprehend. The idea of interconnection is key.
Scott Snibbe: A very rich program you’ve described. It’s really goes, it goes quite beyond a lot of the simpler programs I’ve heard described. So it’s very impressive.
Theo Koffler: Yes, thank you. And I do want to mention again, we remained secular in our content. So while we take these concepts, we integrate it into language that is applicable to a secular livelihoods, so that our content can cross borders, cross spiritualities. That’s the idea of our name, Mindfulness Without Borders, so that we can hold a learning container that really values the diversity of the people that come our programs.
Scott Snibbe: Wonderful. So you’ve agreed to lead a meditation, like the ones you lead for teens and young adults, for our listeners. And we’re going to share that as an extra to this week’s episode. But can you describe this meditation for our listeners right now?
Theo Koffler: Sure. Though listening may seem like a natural skill, truly staying present to both our internal and external experiences takes focused attention. It takes setting intention and also takes patience. So our mindful listening meditation highlights the arc of the listening experience.
In other words, sounds, emotions, body sensations, feelings, they have a tempo. They arrive, they linger, and they diminish and fall away. So our practice invites the participant to notice the arc, to notice the thoughts as well as the distractions that often draw us away from the listening experience.
Scott Snibbe: Wonderful. We look forward to that.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced and edited by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio