Finding Self-Kindness: An Interview with Yunasa Fellow Dan Tichenor
By Jennifer De La Haye
Dan Tichenor is a beloved Yunasa Fellow and friend of IEA. During our virtual Yunasa West session, Dan led a workshop about self-kindness, a topic that seems especially important right now, when everything feels upside down. I conducted an interview with Dan about self-kindness so that our entire community might have access to wisdom on the subject.
Jennifer: You end all your emails with “be kind to yourself.” This has always struck me; it lends a gentleness to all your messaging. It is a simple, powerful reminder in a world full of aggression and urgency. You exude kindness. Do you feel you have more kindness to offer when you are kind to yourself?
Dan: In the fall of 2008, when I started teaching the Learning Opportunities Program, a self-contained special education class for the lowest cognitive functioning kids in the school district where I worked, I needed to come up with a simple set of rules that everyone could understand. I found these three rules in an article about a school in California with students who came from challenged backgrounds. The story discussed how focusing on these simple rules helped the school achieve behavioral and academic success.
Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Take care of the place.
Every year we spent a lot of time discussing as a classroom community – teachers, assistant teachers, and students – the rights we all shared within the three major categories. From the list of “rights” we constructed an “agreement” that we would all sign. As I observed kids honoring each other’s “rights,” I thought it was important they receive recognition. I started a “Kindness Basket.” If I observed someone being kind or doing something kind, I would ask them to write a note describing their behavior and put it in the basket. Periodically we would go through the notes and publicly acknowledge their kindnesses.
I became a Yunasa Fellow in 2007, and I began to introduce mindfulness practices, sitting quietly, deep breathing, and short psychosynthesis exercises into the daily routine at school. It wasn’t long before I began reminding some of my colleagues, who were often self-critical, to take time to be kind to themselves. It just made sense not to beat oneself up over frustrating situations that are out of our control. I shared these thoughts at faculty meetings. Over time I started using “be kind to yourself” as a salutation on e-mails and notes.
In 2018 when Michele and I went to Australia to vacation with our son and his family, I spent some time in a bookstore in Sydney. As is my habit, I browsed the mindfulness section, where I found The Little Book of Kindness by David Hamilton. When I saw that chapter 4 was entitled, “Be Kind to Yourself,” I bought the book immediately. For me, who had been telling folks for years to be kind to themselves, it was like finding a buried treasure.
It is an amazing source of validation for the positive effects of kindness on both the agent of kindness and the recipient. In the first chapter, “Biology of Kindness,” Hamilton compares the benefits of kindness to the effects of stress.
What Stress Does What Kindness Does
Increases blood pressure Reduces blood pressure
Damages the cardiovascular system Protects the cardiovascular system
(Kindness is “cardioprotective”)
Can make people unhappy Makes people happy
Suppresses the immune system Boosts the immune system
Tenses the nervous system Relaxes the nervous system
Increases inflammation Reduces inflammation
Can trigger depression Can be an antidote to depression
Later in chapter five, he demonstrates how kindness is contagious and has a ripple effect, like dropping a pebble in a pond. The more kindness you give, the more it is reciprocated and paid forward to others.
Jennifer: How do you encourage the gifted kids in your life to be kind to themselves?
Dan: In his book, Hamilton says that “Being kind to ourselves is part of valuing ourselves and also gives us more energy to be able to be kind to others.” I explain to kids that self-care impacts our ability to extend kindness to others. We all need to look after our own energy levels to be able to extend energy and kindness to others.
Jennifer: During your Yunasa self-kindness workshop, you emphasize the importance of saying “no” as a way of being kind to yourself. Why is saying “no” so important during our pursuit of self-kindness?
Dan: Saying “no” sometimes allows us to re-energize and recharge so we have the energy to give and be kind. Hamilton says it “allows us to increase and restore mental and emotional energy so that we are able to say ‘yes’ on many other occasions.”
Jennifer: Why are healthy boundaries important as we strive to be kind to ourselves?
Dan: Healthy boundaries are the safety nets of life. They provide us the opportunity to remain safe when we face choices between risky behavior and appropriate behavior. There are many examples that can be applied regarding drinking, controlled substances, sex, curfew, driving, parties, etc.
Jennifer: I agree wholeheartedly that boundaries are the safety nets of life. I would even take it further and say that boundaries are important during the everyday minutiae as well as when confronted with potentially dangerous circumstances. Boundaries go hand-in-hand with saying “no.” When we are maxed out, over-committed, and in need of alone time, saying “no” to extra activities (even uplifting activities) can be an act of self-kindness. When we spend time getting to know ourselves, tending to our interior lives through meditation and self-reflection, we become more aware of the boundaries we need to remain healthy.
What are some ways you prioritize self-kindness in your own life?
Dan: I have been an athletic person my whole life. For me, it is important to have a regular exercise routine. Recently I found I benefit from keeping an exercise log: writing down the various exercises and number of repetitions each time I exercise. It is a self-motivating tool. I limit the amount of sugar snacks and deserts I eat, focusing on healthy eating. I also feel it is very important to practice mindfulness meditations on a regular basis. During the current pandemic situation, Michele and I are both committed to staying healthy by practicing social isolation, wearing masks, not going to stores, etc.
Jennifer: I was kind to myself today when I mindfully enjoyed a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch!
What are some ways gifted kids can interact with their own inner critic?
Dan: Let the inner critic know that everyone makes mistakes. Do your best to rectify the situation, and try not to make the same mistake again. And even if you do, let it go and start over. Just keep going. Practice perseverance.
Jennifer: A mantra can be helpful when standing up to our inner critic, too. For me, it is helpful to notice my critical thoughts as they flit through my mind: I acknowledge them, release them, and return to my mantra or short prayer. I find that my own mantras are helpful all day long. I don’t necessarily need to be engaged in a session of meditation for my mantras to aid in the redirection of my thoughts.
You are a storyteller. How can the stories we tell about ourselves influence our own self-kindness?
Dan: Stories provide examples of how we were kind, what happened when we were kind, how we felt when we were kind, how others felt during our kindness, how we took another step on the path of life after stumbling and falling down, and how we are able to reinforce resilience in ourselves and others.
Jennifer: I also think about Stef Tolan (to those of you who don’t know her, she is a brilliant author, Senior Fellow, and friend of IEA) who believes in the power of stories as a way of shaping our lives. The way we frame our circumstances can inspire gratitude and contentment rather than despair and resentment. She says, “I have whatever I need whenever I need it, wherever I need it, for as long as I need it.”
How have you been kind to yourself today?
Dan: Yes, I have been kind to myself today. I got up early to drive 40 minutes back to our home to get some items we needed that were delivered there. When I got back to our lake house, I completed the outdoor chore I had planned for the day – spreading fertilizer on the lawn. I had lunch, took a shower, and sat down to complete this kindness project. When I finish, I plan to make chicken chili for dinner. I like to cook.
Jennifer: You usually lead Qi Gong and Labyrinth workshops at Yunasa; how do these practices promote self-kindness?
Dan: The practice of Qi Gong is mindfulness in motion. It allows me to connect the Qi energy – life force – within me. I find it physically and mentally relaxing, especially when I can do it accompanied by Tibetan flute music. Walking in a labyrinth is a meditation in motion – a mindful journey to the center, focusing on whatever intention one chooses. For me, both practices are relaxing and spiritually stimulating at the same time.
Jennifer: Qi Gong, labyrinths, and psychosynthesis are all modes of meditation and powerful conduits of self-kindness. There have been wonderful discoveries about the effects of meditation and contemplation on the brain’s neuroplasticity. Typically, our neurons love to latch onto negative thoughts. Rick Hanson, psychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain says, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Meditation (or contemplation) orients the brain toward positivity and improves immune functioning (“Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation,” Richard J. Davidson, et al). This means that our bodies can be physiologically changed by the intentional way we direct our thoughts and breath. Meditation also helps our attentiveness, and attentiveness leads to presence and further self-discovery. In the words of the brilliant poet Mary Oliver, “Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathetic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
So, in the words of Dan Tichenor, be kind to yourself.