In The Gift of Presence (TarcherPerigee, Mar.), Caroline Welch, cofounder and CEO of the Mindsight Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., sets out to distill reams of peer-reviewed science about mindfulness into plain, clear advice. Welch spoke with PW about what researchers do and don’t know about mindfulness, and what the practice can mean for wellness overall.
As the concept of mindfulness has gone mainstream, is it difficult to distinguish credible advice from unfounded promises?
The research world of mindfulness is the Wild West. You can go back a few decades and there were just a handful of articles on the topic, but by three years ago, we had 7,000 articles. And then two years ago, we had maybe over a thousand in a single year. As [Richie] Davidson and [Daniel] Goleman point out in their book [Altered Traits], iffy findings can go viral. They went through many studies, thousands of them. And in the end they found very few that they would consider to be credible.
A lot of new books look at health from a dietary perspective—where does mindfulness fit in?
In the world of mindful eating, it’s important to encourage a person to accept their feelings, accept the fact that they’re anxious or that there’s a body image challenge, or that really what’s going on is they’re filling a social void with food. Our brains achieve balance when they accept what the feelings are, not repress them, not deny them or shut them out or distort them, but actually accept them. We can’t stop feelings and thoughts, but we can observe them, know them, and then change our relationship to them.
Why is your book subtitled “a mindfulness guide for women”?
I don’t think women own mindfulness, but women have certain challenges in our society. Studies show, for example, that women in engineering programs drop out if their GPAs go below a certain number, whereas men just carry on. Women won’t apply for certain jobs unless they have all 10 qualifications; men will if they have six. Having come out of law school in the ’80s and practiced in a very male environment, corporate litigation, I didn’t expect to find gender differences to be as prominent as they still are. So I thought for the overwhelmed, multitasking, multiple-role-playing woman, there’s a special role for mindfulness.
What are some key practices that you recommend?
One of the women whom I interviewed is a judge, and she mentioned how on her bench she has a little Post-it that reads, “Don’t say it.” That’s great. That’s what many mindfulness programs will recommend that you do—have little reminders. And you can staple that [mindfulness] habit to something you’re already doing. Maybe it’s while you’re on the subway commuting or maybe there’s something you do every morning or every night. Staple your moments of awareness to that time. I’m not trying to add another to-do to the list. I think a lot of women will relate to that: “Thank heavens it’s something I’m already doing. Instead of something new I have to learn, I can just do better.”