An Interview with Dr. Norm Farb: Getting to Know the Voice of Wildflowers
Have you ever wondered about the man behind the voice of wildflowers? Get to know University of Toronto professor and mindfulness teacher Dr. Norm Farb as he gives us insight into his experience with the mindfulness method and the future of meditation based self-care. He’s also heading up a research study on how Wildflowers can help users manage stress and anxiety. The results will be out at the end of the summer!
Let’s start with the basics. What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is usually defined today as nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. However, the traditional function of mindfulness is to keep your positive intentions in mind. Not bare non-judgmental attention, but retention. We often know what we’re supposed to do, but get distracted. We get distracted even if we have very high level, important goals, like “the things I want to realize are love and connectedness”. So if I am clear that I am pursuing a laudable goal, why do I end up yelling at someone when they cut you off in traffic? My short term, proximal goals, such as driving safely to work, compete for my attention and distract me from this higher level goal- I have no attention left to maintain my love and connectedness intention. So, how do I maintain what is ostensibly a more important goal to me? I need a practice that competes with the pull of life’s many unexpected challenges. I should still be concerned if I almost crash in traffic, but it doesn’t have to completely encompass all aspects of my attention. Ideally, one can hold on to a wellspring of intentionality, even in heavy traffic. But it’s really hard!
I’m sure you’re speaking from experience. Where did your introduction to mindfulness begin?
I started studying mindfulness in an Affective Neuroscience lab during grad school. I wanted to learn MRI analysis, and my advisor was starting a funded collaboration to investigate the neuroscience of mindfulness. So, I started for purely selfish, skill acquisition reasons. Several years into studying the effects of mindfulness interventions, after seeing results on the brain side, I finally enrolled in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at Toronto General Hospital. It was an intense experience! I was with a group of people on the lung transplant waitlist, people dealing with a lot of ambiguity about surgery dates, outcomes, etc. Experiencing how these techniques transformed both in my own relatively mundane stresses and these courageous patients’ relationships to their adversity really cemented the importance of this work in my mind.
And meditation itself?
I wanted to get insight into what the teachers were doing, so I went on silent retreats, started a daily practice, and attended MBSR teacher training in Massachusetts. Teaching was a great motivator to practice- if I was telling students to do 45 minutes a day, I made a point of doing at least what I asked them to do. There have been periods in my life like that, but in the time since I’ve had 2 kids. So my daily practice is still important, but a lot of it is informal. A typical day may include things like intention setting, trying to establish feelings of connection on a crowded subway, three minute breathing exercises when I feel overwhelmed, and 15 minutes of meditation at the end of the day as an anchor. As my kids get older and care less about having me around, I’d like to start going on retreats again.
Do you ever get to share mindfulness practice with your kids?
The oldest, who’s five, already throws it back at me- he’ll engage in exaggerated hyperventilation if I ask him to focus on his breath! But meditation practice still has a place. For example, little kids smash into things all the time. There’s no way to stop them from destroying themselves on a daily basis. So we definitely use breathing as a way of putting a pause between the “I did something that hurt me” and the ‘I’m just going to freak out”. The My younger child, who is 2, does it more wholeheartedly than my angst-ridden 5 year old! But it’s nothing too formal, just learning to take a deep breath into the body after a nasty fall or collision, using the breath as a vehicle to widen attention beyond the immediate upset of an accident.
So, there’s a range of intensity in practice. Is there such thing as too little to be helpful?
The short answer is that we don’t know yet, but are trying to find out whether there is a ‘minimal dose’. I do have concerns that it is easy just to interpret everyday life as mindful in hindsight- I do it myself! I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘oh I don’t have time to meditate, I just try to be mindful all the time’. But that’s too easy- I’m sure everyone is ‘trying’ to be mindful all the time! It’s too easy to just say you’re doing it. I just read a compassion study where instances of compassion ranged from volunteering at an old age home where you don’t know anyone, very altruistic, to “I smiled at my barista”. But is that what we really mean by compassion? Is it just following social protocols? In the same way, some instances of mindfulness are trivial. There may be something to the idea that, if you have a depth of practice, you don’t need as much formal practice time for this foundation to make a meaningful impact in life. We are still studying what a minimum effective dose might look like, and the arising of 10 minute a day apps will definitely give us a lot of data about the effects (or non-effects) of small doses of practice.
What might you suggest newcomers to meditation?
I would suggest that newcomers spend some time trying to think about what values or goals they hope to achieve as a consequence of meditation practice. Even though the practices themselves are ostensibly about letting go of expectations and now worrying about what is going to happen in a given meditation, it’s naive to think that people are engaging in these practices without broader expectations. Why would you be doing this practice if there weren’t some potential for benefit?
That being said, not all goals are consistent with the intentions underlying mindfulness practice. For example, perhaps a person seeks meditation to avoid feeling bad– I’d suggest that’s not actually what we’re trying to do with meditation. Feeling bad sometimes is inevitable- we’re just trying to make it less disastrous when you do feel bad. Or, conversely, one might always want to feel good, but mindfulness is not about just asserting that everything is perfect without actually interrogating immediate experience! You need to stay with the experience to really know what is going on, and not jump into avoidance of momentary upsets or clinging to the good times long after they are past. With Wildflowers, this becomes interesting because we track and report on daily mood and physiological arousal. Someone at the end of their third week of practice might actually look more stressed, but that stress may mean that they’re really opening up to exploring the nature of difficulties in their life. We are currently researching what happens in those first few weeks of training to help normalize user expectations, but I would suggest that newcomers be open to a non-linear path towards their goals- the way that our experiences unfold, that transformation occurs, may be very different than we expect, but that does not mean the transformation is not valuable and ultimately satisfying.
Let’s talk about Wildflowers! What makes it special?
The male instructor’s voice is amazing.
Haha. But really.
Wildflowers has a nice holistic feel to it. You feel like you are getting a whole bunch of elements of experience that approximate what might be happening in a mindfulness course, which guided meditation recordings alone might not offer. Wildflowers is starting to take seriously that mindfulness apps can be more like a game than a pre-recorded lecture, that they can be interactive, and not just a delivery vehicle for recordings. Other meditation apps can be really slick, the content can be really great, but in the end it’s just: watch a video, listen to a recording, watch a video, and listen to a recording. There isn’t really any interactivity in terms of what you do in your daily practice.
I think we are already cutting edge in being able to incorporate heart rate, and learning how to have evidence based customization of the meditations. There is still much more work to be done to have a truly immersive, interactive, supported meditation experience, but it is a step in the right direction.
So how does the Wildflowers experience play out in real (busy) life?
I think that the most immediate return in beginning meditation is learning to foster a relaxation response, a feeling of respite or solace from the demands of the day. Wildflowers offers instructions that will help promote this response, which creates a kind of positive feedback cycle- it is rewarding to taste the freedom of letting go of stress. While we haven’t shown this through research yet, it is my hope that even brief daily practice will also help with that idea of retention of goals and values, that the app may afford greater stability of attention that could lead to more insights about oneself and a greater ability to hold onto one’s values. The jury is still out on how well mindfulness in general does this, let alone any particular app, but the potential is there.
What about time of day?
It’s good to build a foundation of meditative practice, and I think there’s definitely something to be said about setting an intention early in the day for the kind of values you want to realize in the world. But a formal practice can happen anytime. It’s like saying, should I exercise in the morning or at night? Exercise when you have time!
Is there any therapeutic value in playing any game for a few minutes a day, even without the meditative aspect?
Well, we are attempting to study this exact question, comparing Wildflowers to a control app that is just a fun but not particularly meditative game. I think there’s value in giving yourself a break. But maybe you have a break and you come back to life and you’re still really stressed. It’s like eating ice cream- it feels nice, but it is only a temporary reprieve.
So the question is (and I’m not knocking video games or ice cream): are you getting the most bang for your buck with a simple game if your goal is to reduce stress? Is this the most constructive way to prevent negative emotion from piling up and life’s demands from seeming overwhelming? The first step will be to see whether Wildflowers does anything more than this, that it promotes more long term well-being in addition to being a pleasant daily ritual. If things go well in our study, i.e., we find it does provide benefits compared to a fun app control condition, we can then use Wildflowers to test different potential mechanisms for why it is more helpful: is it about self esteem? Is it about physiological relaxation? There are a lot of explanations as to why it may be beneficial.
Can you give us a glimpse into the future for an app like this, a game that is good for you?
This is a time for cautious optimism. There is a hunger for self care, for not just depending on a medical authority, and for building a capacity for taking care of oneself.
In terms of mental health: I think people realized in the 80s that physical exercise was important in a way that they really didn’t beforehand, and we are in a parallel kind of awakening that there are things you need to do proactively for mental health. So this is an exciting time to see what the boundary conditions and minimal doses are for getting the fairly reliable effects seen in course settings.
You just have to start somewhere! Smartphones really are a technology that can do so much more than just play things for you to take in. Wildflowers has a substantive platform, and from there we can continue to ask, How can we make it better? We need to keep this science moving as fast as we can to help curate the usefulness of such apps!
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