Interview with Mindfulness Expert, Dr. Gail Gazelle
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Dr. Gail Gazelle, author of Everyday Resilience: A Practical Guide to Build Inner Strength and Weather Life’s Challenges, is a fascinating triple threat: Harvard Medical School professor, former hospice physician, and certified mindfulness teacher.
As host of the mindfulness and minimalism podcast Enough-ism, I interviewed Dr. Gazelle to dig into one burning question I — and just maybe everyone reading these very words, no less — seem to be always searching for an answer to: When life gets hard (and then gets even harder), how do I practice — and maintain — resilience on an ongoing basis?
“Resilience,” according to dictionary.com, is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” It’s about your “toughness” and your “elasticity.”
“We think about that willow tree bending and not breaking, or about the rubber band bouncing back,” says Dr. Gazelle. “Resilience is a well of inner resources that allows you to weather the challenges you encounter without unnecessary mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual distress — whether that’s the pandemic of 2020, a difficult relationship, complexities in your workplace, or an illness — the difficulties all of us face in this journey we call life.”
Dr. Gazelle believes resilience — an inner well of strengths, resources, wisdom, and goodness we’re all born with — lies deep within everyone. Yet, we don’t always learn how to access it. Societal expectations — small yet mighty words like could, would, and should, for instance — often dominate our thoughts and derail us from what truly matters. Questions like “Is there something wrong with how I look? Is there something wrong with how I’m acting?” can end up consuming us.
Three cornerstones of building resilience
Below are key strategies and tools to free your mind of turmoil and chaos.
1. Use your brain to, well, think about your brain
“We must get to know our own habits of mind. We must understand how our own mind works,” Dr. Gazelle emphasizes. “Mindfulness helps us pay attention to and get to know our own internal milieu and decide which thoughts it makes sense to give attention to and which it doesn’t.”
2. Energy goes where attention flows
“If we focus on what’s going well — like our own strengths and capacities — we actually build our ability to see those positive elements in our own lives. So much of that has to do with what we understand about the human brain and the human brain being malleable,” she says. “Where we put our energies and what we focus on can actually help us grow more of those positive traits.”
3. Focus on the small picture and what you can (versus can’t) control
“Although many of our challenges and adversities are beyond our control, what’s really important about resilience is realizing the choices we have in everyday life,” says Dr. Gazelle. “Far from being a passive endurance of life’s difficulties and tribulations, resilience is an active process we can choose to engage with.”
Enter…the art of minimalism
As a minimalist fascinated by what it means to have and be enough, I was curious to get Dr. Gazelle’s take on how practicing minimalism builds resilience. There is indeed a connection — and a strong one, she said. Our belongings, she told me, and our desire for them, can actually cause our innate sense of elasticity to eventually snap.
“Let’s face it. In modern Western culture, there are so many options and so many things we can buy. We can go to the supermarket and there are myriads of choices waiting for us in every aisle. We have all these social media outlets. It’s really all too much! Many people in Western society are overwhelmed by a plethora of decisions,” she says.
Striving for a never-ending sense of “enough-ism,” she says, only fatigues us and takes us further away from who we really are and our greater life purpose.
“With all these decisions — and all this complexity — we lose confidence in our ability to choose and our ability to know at our core what is right for us,” she says. “With resilience, however, we develop authenticity and start relying on our own values to guide us in decision-making. We leave a pattern of defying them, which only leaves us in various stages of misery.”
“Once we know deep in our bones what’s right for us in this world and this one precious life we get to lead — and lead with resilience — we can step away from all those choices, put a line in the sand, and say:
‘There’s all this noise out there in all its many forms. But I can step away. I can realize that’s not where I need to be putting my energies.’”
This reflective and perhaps even meditative process, Dr. Gazelle says, represents the foundational synergy between minimalism and resilience — an empowering realization that it’s okay to step out of the fray and realize so many things we spend all our efforts on are not all that important. They’re also not at the heart of what truly sustains us.
In essence, it’s also about ignoring all those coulds, woulds, and shoulds.
“Step out of the societal shoulds — what I should own and the kind of house I should live in, the kind of car I should drive, the kind of partner I should mate with — all these external pressures — and look more deeply inside of the well of resilience. We can then ask, ‘What’s most important to me?’”
Minimalism of our things is just the beginning
Here’s some food for thought: our thoughts! “It’s estimated that we have 20,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day, maybe even 75,000. That’s a lot of thoughts,” says Dr. Gazelle. (That’s around 3,000 for every waking hour, for those looking for something new to think about.)
“Many of them are purposeful. Get out of bed. Get dressed. Move your car away from that truck on the side of the highway. The thinking mind is so important, yet, it gets us into trouble,” explains Dr. Gazelle.
“Many of our thoughts are judgments about our circumstances, people around us, or ourselves. When we begin to pay attention to our thoughts with mindfulness, it can really be shocking.”
This, she explains, is the construct of the inner critic — an internalized voice most of us have that we’re not good enough, smart enough, or we’re nothing more than an imposter.
“This demeaning voice we internalize is often the voice of parents, coaches, mentors, siblings, or somebody who’s been critical of us. In our psyche, we learn to internalize it to the point that many people actually feel like it’s their own voice, but it isn’t. I can assure you that it is never your own voice.”
“It’s a construct we’ve internalized. And we accept our inner critic, almost like they’re sitting on our shoulder, judging, evaluating, and finding flaws in everything we do or say,” says Dr. Gazelle.
“Working with our inner critic is critically important to developing resilience. In truth, the inner critic is simply a thought pattern and a pathway in our brain that’s been overactive, that we can take control of and quiet.”
But how do we quiet our minds?
Dr. Gazelle says that with mindfulness, we develop an exquisite awareness of what our mind is up to.
“We can get to the point where we almost say to ourselves, ‘Wow, there’s that negative voice again.’” As you practice this, you begin to realize that you can choose how much attention you give to your thoughts. In doing so, you become the master of your mind, rather than the slave.
“Sure, I can listen to that voice of negativity and criticism. But I also can put that aside. I can say to myself, ‘That isn’t the truth. Maybe it’s a partial truth. Maybe in some ways, I’m not as smart, as pretty, as good as, but it’s not the whole truth,’” Dr. Gazelle says.
“Then we can ask ourselves: ‘How do I feel when I’m experiencing this inner critical thought?’ We begin to see that there’s a dragged down, downtrodden feeling, like somebody’s wagging their finger at us and telling us how bad we’ve been.”
Dr. Gazelle believes it’s important to get to know this feeling well, because it’s a feeling that can be replaced.
“We can refute it. We can say, ‘What is the truth of my lived experience as opposed to this voice and this thought pattern. How do I feel when I counter that message?’”
“Because when we do, there’s often a sense of expansion in the chest, of standing taller. There’s almost a sense of physical pride. And we want to get to know that as well, so that we really understand what’s in it for ourselves to speak back this voice that somehow has gotten all this power in our mind, this power that it really does not deserve.”
The greatest lesson
This is an act of self-love that takes a lot of practice. But we owe it to ourselves to take back agency over our lives in this way. “It’s a vitally important task,” Dr. Gazelle says. And one she’s been able to conquer following a dark childhood filled with trauma and pain that no longer haunts her after having once haunted her deeply.
“Sadly, I came from a very abusive family. It all looked great on the outside — middle-class family, well-educated, no drugs or alcohol — but my parents were wounded from their own childhoods and a lack of resilience, and a lack of really being able to dip into their own inner well of strengths and goodness and purpose. Through their wounding, they repeated some of the patterns from their own lives,” she shares.
Dr. Gazelle says that as a child, she internalized that there was something wrong with her as a result of the abuse she experienced.
“I internalized shame. All these narratives were coming into my head: ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with the way I talk. Maybe there’s something wrong with the way I walk,’” she says. “This mental pattern was almost like wallpaper I took for granted — a fabric in my own mental construct.”
Dr. Gazelle says her own resilience journey was through the art of mindfulness — a process she explains in terms of what helped her heal.
“I became very able to realize that I wasn’t the shameful one. The shameful acts were done to me. As an innocent vulnerable child, I mistakenly took that on myself. So, much of my resilience journey was getting to know my own mental patterns and then beginning to work with them and realize I had a choice,” she says. “I began to see that my narrative was a complete phony and there was nothing true about being shameful. It was a storyline I had internalized.”
“Once I took it out into the light of day, out of the mental shadows going on behind the scenes of my awareness, I realized I can believe this story and be miserable, or I can shed this story. I can put it aside. I can remind myself of my own goodness, strengths, and inner wisdom. And that really freed me.”
And it can free you, too.
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Gail Gazelle, MD, MCC, is part-time faculty at Harvard Medical School, a Master Certified Coach, and a mindfulness teacher. She is the author of “Everyday Resilience: A Practical Guide to Build Inner Strength and Weather Life’s Challenges.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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Thanks for reading this excerpt from Enough-ism: This Minimalist Wants More. Can’t get enough of Enough-ism? ❈ Visit IAmEnoughism.com ❈ and follow @IAmEnoughism on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Medium. | Image credits: Canva.com.
About the author: Yugen Bond, B.Msc., is a metaphysics writer, podcast host, and reiki master who once despised meditation, had both too much and nothing to wear, and didn’t know how to slow down her thoughts. What a journey it’s been. Time to share it with the world, especially with you. Business inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.