by Fiona Brandon

When Sharon Salzberg lead San Francisco’s 2017 Spring Mindfulness Year retreat, she playfully challenged the notion that Mindfulness, “Seems to imply a complacency: be in the present moment without reacting. Sounds dull!” The students laughed. I appreciated how Sharon addressed the popular misunderstanding that the goal of mindfulness meditation is to have no thoughts and sit in some kind of fixed non-reactive state. When in reality, the four foundations of mindfulness — the main meditation practices taught during the Mindfulness Year of the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program — are anything but static.

San Francisco faculty Nalanda Institute

Sharon Salzberg with Mindfulness Year faculty Joe Loizzo, Linda Graham and Fiona Brandon.

During the retreat Sharon emphasized the dynamic qualities of mindfulness meditation. The practices encourage us to witness, and actively investigate, the fluctuations and changes that occur in our physical, emotional and mental states. In gathering our energy around a particular object of focus, we give ourselves the opportunity to relate to our experience in a different way! Sharon explained, “Mindfulness is a powerful way of relating. We do not immediately draw a conclusion, hold on, or push away. And we do not add on things like ‘it will be forever’ or ‘it is all my fault’ to what is going on. Instead we come back to our actual experience. We distinguish between actual experience and add-ons. Then we have choice. The fewer distortions we have, then our relationship to our experience gets clearer and clearer.”

This process of mindful inquisitiveness is vital, lively and dynamic because we are examining the movie our mind creates about ourselves and the world around us. When we use mindfulness meditation to actively engage and be curious about our experience of our internal movie, mindfulness becomes — as Sharon put it to the cohort — “the engine of insight.” In this way our personal insights, attained by mindfulness meditation, can lead us to tap into universal insights about the nature of reality.

When I was a participant in the first Mindfulness Year, I came to understand that ultimately I have to be able to see the nuts and bolts of how I internalize my experiences. I had to consciously try to stop using a distorted lens with add-ons when relating to myself and others. As a psychotherapist I like to share with my clients that we cannot just “let go” of ingrained dysfunctional mental and emotional habits. They need to be deliberately pruned. And meditating on the four foundations of mindfulness is an excellent pruning shear. Unless we become aware of our internal movie, our mind will continue to identify a present moment experience based on past experiences, and block us from having fresh insights about ourselves.

As the Program Director of the San Francisco Contemplative Psychotherapy Program, I am excited for our 2018–2019 cohort to take the Mindfulness Year journey and experience for themselves what happens when we use the four foundations of mindfulness to cultivate insight about how we relate to ourselves and others.

To help us on this journey we will be working with Nalanda Institute’s core faculty including Nalanda Institute’s founder and director, Dr. Joe Loizzo; and guest speakers including Sharon Salzberg, Mark Epstein, Richard Davidson, Paul Fulton, Ethan Nichtern, Jeffrey Rubin, Sebene Selassie, and Rick Hanson.

We will also be welcoming Linda Graham, MFT to lead our intersession retreat in February. I am delighted that Linda will join us and share how she integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices, and relational psychology into her work as a psychotherapist and mindful self-compassion teacher.

Linda is the author of Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster (September 2018, New World Library) and Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life award and the 2014 Better Books for a Better World award. She publishes a monthly e-newsletter and weekly Resources for Recovering Resilience, archived on her site.

If you are interested to learn more about the Mindfulness Year, please feel free to contact me via email with questions large or small at

Editor’s Note: The Mindfulness Year of the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program/San Francisco begins with a retreat, September 21–23. Find out more about the program, curriculum and faculty on our course information page.