About HSP’s — Highly Sensitive People

My wife Lynda and I just watched a fascinating documentary titled: Sensitive – The Untold Story. It turns out, the genetic trait of high sensitivity is found in 20% of the population. It is found equally in men and women and in over 100 animal species. The scientific term for the trait is SPS or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This trait is not a disorder, but it does pose challenges for people who possess it, as well as those with whom they live.

What SPS means is, certain people are more tuned into subtly of words, emotions, environments, threats, meaning, sounds, beauty, loss, poignancy, world events, human suffering, the list goes on. On other words, the brains of highly sensitive people (HSP) not only process more information, but they also process it more deeply. High sensitivity can be a blessing or a curse. Because practically speaking, HSP’s feel more. So their emotions are not only more keen and profound, sometimes they’re more gripping. For this reason, HSP’s can get easily overstimulated in environments that are chaotic, loud, or otherwise intense. Overstimulation is the challenging aspect of this trait, both for the HSP and for those with whom they live. I imagine many stress-related illnesses – addictions, depression, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, and more – are correlated with HSP.

Mark as a babyI am a highly sensitive person. I even joked about it in my guided meditation booklet when I wrote:

“When I was a kid, I don’t remember people thinking that I was spoiled, but I do remember being overly sensitive. I would throw a fit if there were wrinkles in socks when my mom put on my shoes. I’ve always liked things to be just so. I can recall my Dad even telling me to “unfuss myself.” So I guess that’s my life’s journey, learning to accept and allow.”

Being an HSP has been a journey – an educational one – where I’ve had to learn about myself. Learning to meditate and be more mindful has been a big part of that journey. Since I started meditating, my sensitivity has not toned down. Rather, it’s even stronger than ever. But the remarkably positive difference now is in the quality of my sensitivity. I’m no longer reactively sensitive, throwing a fit when I get tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or otherwise when circumstances don’t go my way. Instead, now, I can sit for extended periods of time, experiencing relative discomfort with composure. I’m still sensitive, but now, I’m groundedly sensitive. That’s the blessing that makes all the difference. I now know how to open up and have complete experiences, riding the waves of energy around me. In this way, I can experience the fullness of my gift for sensitivity without it throwing me into an emotional tailspin. The blessed gift of grounded sensitivity heightens one’s senses, and that, in turn, makes life more precious. If you are an HSP, you have the potential to make the shift from reactive to grounded sensitivity yourself. If you need support, I’m here to help.

If you think you’re an HSP, let us know. Add your comment to this post. We want to hear your stories. Also, if you know other HSP’s, share this post with them. They want to know they’re not alone.



Doing Leads to Being

Ever been to a social gathering or a meeting and introduce yourself this way, “Hi, I’m Mark, I’m a _________.’ Funny how we identify ourselves with what we do. It makes sense. I’m not quibbling about it. But it’s also strange if you think about it. A Noun (being), arises out of a Verb (doing).

For example, if I start smoking, at some point, I become a smoker. In the case of smoking, it’s hard to say exactly when that transformation happens. Are there milestones that identify the shift? Once a person crosses an invisible line it is inevitable, smoking-1026559_960_720the consequences of the actions (smoking) start to emerge. Smelly breath, morning cough, higher blood pressure, lower blood oxygen, possibly even cancer can be effects of smoking. Interestingly, the activating force behind these results begins to fade once a person stops smoking. Changing the actions (not smoking) then attracts different results–better overall health. Also too, the now ex-smoker will eventually stop identifying him or herself as a smoker. The label (the noun) evaporates away as well.

As you know, I’m in the business of trying to inspire people to start meditating. I do this because the same potentiating force that turns doing into being is at play here too. If you start to meditate, you will initiate actions that lead to predictably positive results. Studies show that people who meditate are happier and healthier. The enhanced awareness that goes with a skillful meditation practice also improves relationships at work and home. Simply put, meditators learn skills and perspectives that enable them to suffer less and their life gets easier.

EVERYONE WANTS THE EFFECTS OF MEDITATION. But to my great dismay, less than one percent of people will do what it takes to achieve those positive results. People get so totally lost in the world that they won’t prioritize the one activity that will shift things for them.

One of my meditation teachers, John Yates, PhD., (Culadasa), wrote a book, The Mind Illuminated, that details the ten stages of meditative development. His formulation teaches that a person masters stage one as soon as they develop a consistent practice. If you are part of the one percent and are interested in cultivating the positive results that come with the activity of meditating, find my free guide on starting a practice. I’ve attached a PDF to this blog. Click the link at the end of this paragraph. And please, share it with your friends too. Begin-at-the-Beginning-M1. This PDF is a part of a more comprehensive 6-module online course on learning meditation and mindfulness for stress relief. If you feel inspired, you’re invited to check out that resource as well.

Remember, Being arises out of the Doing, and, when Doing changes, so does Being. Become a meditator. Then, reap the rewards!

Kids These Days!

“Kids these days.” How many times have you heard someone speak these words? How many times have you thought or spoken them yourself? We adults are perfect projection machines—chastising children for their behavior while at the same time forgetting it is a reflection of our own. Sure, each person is born with a unique temperament. Nevertheless, the environment of the home and culture radiates a powerfully influential force that molds them as well.Fighting Children

It might be helpful to think of children as biological recording devices. As such, they come into the world equipped to record and playback everything they experience. How do we imagine children learn to feel, sit with, and process their emotions? Clearly, it is through the process of modeling the emotional responses of those closest to them. Kids learn to speak kindly to others or not, depending on whether or not they hear kind words spoken to them. They may learn to respect others and their feelings, but only if their feelings receive respect first.

Likewise, by modeling the adults in their lives, children learn to become anxious, depressed, aggressive, distracted, impatient or disinterested. Unfortunately, most often our medical system treats these emotional issues as medical conditions. Pharmaceutical companies create pills for dampening all such “symptoms.” This misguided polypharmaceutical approach has no endgame. Lab testing our kids by pouring psychoactive chemicals into them is not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying in all cases. Sure, in rare instances medicine can be a solution. What I’m saying is that pills won’t solve problems related to an unsafe environment, or the unavailability of tuned-in, emotionally skillful caregivers.

Happily, there’s another alternative to taking our children to the doctor. Humans never exhaust the capacity for growth and evolution. Meaning, grace is embedded in the practice of parenting. But, progressing along the path towards positive change requires pulling yourself out of your routine, and then, learning something new. Happy ChildrenIf you want to change your child’s behavior, start by working on yourself first. When you learn to experience your emotions more skillfully, speak more kindly and respectfully, be more compassionate, you’ll become perfectly enabled to model that skillfulness for your children. Then they’ll change.

Dr. Mark Pirtle is a meditation and mindfulness teacher who works in the recovery field. He contracts for Sierra Tucson, Miraval and is a faculty member of the Center for Integrative Medicine Fellowship Program at the University of Arizona. He teaches Skillfully Aware, a 6-week class that teaches the brain science of emotional literacy and the practice of meditation and mindfulness. For more information on classes go to www.skillfullyaware.com.

Everything is Workable

Time Magazine Mindfulness

Hi all, I wanted to share an example of a back and forth Q&A between myself and a client with whom I’m working. He’s learning how to use meditation and mindfulness to heal anxiety and depression. Here’s our email string from today:

Time-Mindfulness-020314Client: “Hey Mark, good morning. I just wanted to ask you a question. So I am reading the book “The Path of Individual Liberation” by Chogyam Trungpa. He stresses the importance of focusing on nothing besides the out breath. So now when I meditate I get very anxious and doubt myself, thinking I am doing it wrong. I was thinking maybe it would be better for me not to read any more meditation books because they just mess with my mind, and stick to our practice. Do you have any advice/thoughts?”

Me: “Great question. Reading good Dharma is always a good idea, and Trungpa is good Dharma. If you have questions, just ask. Daily spiritual reading will take you far, so keep going! The advice to watch the out breath is given because it’s so subtle. It’s a “doorway to emptiness.” But the truth is, so are all meditation objects. It’s strange, but the more carefully you observe them, the more ambiguous they become. May I suggest that you do the same with what you think is your anxiety, depression, or a strong emotion or urge. Get in the habit of asking yourself, “what is this?” but don’t answer. Go looking for it. Is it a thought? If you think so, then ask: “what is a thought?” Keep probing. Is it a sensation? What’s that? There’s a saying, “everything dissolves in awareness.” And it’s true. You’ll never actually find the thing you’re looking for. All that exists is experience, which is ephemeral, fleeting, or as the Tibetans say, “empty”. Sit with that, and let me know what you find. Your practice will reveal the truth and that’s where you’ll find your healing.”

So if this type of back and forth support is what you want, and you’d like to learn to use meditation and mindfulness to change and or heal, join us. For a limited time, I’m running a holiday and New Year’s special. Until December 31st, receive $100 off both the Skillfully Aware Meditation Program for Stress Relief, and or the 6-Weeks to overcoming Stress, Pain, Strong Emotions and Urges (Tucson residents only). This offer is not available on the website. To take advantage of it, please call 520-981-9911, or email lynda@skillfullyaware.com.

Wishing you all healthiest and happiest holiday,


How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 6)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Hello again and thanks for joining me as I read and blog about Gabor Mate‘s book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” Last time I detailed four functional centers in the brain that malfunction in addiction:

1. The dopamine “motivation” circuits
2. The opiate attachment/reward circuits
3. The frontal executive control circuits
4. The stress response circuits

Dopamine and the body’s own opiates, endorphines, are powerful neurotransmitters. Concentrations of these internal chemicals tend to be low in an addicted brain.

Brain Reward Circuit

Dysfunction in the dopamine and opiate circuits can therefore lead to feelings of malaise, which may then stimulate an urge to use substances or engage in behaviors that boost brain levels of these same lacking neurotransmitters. Accompanying dysfunction in the executive, or impulse control and stress response areas represents a double-whammy. Addicts in the throws of an addictive fixation find it hard to think rationally. This is why dysfunction in all these circuits makes it exceedingly difficult for addicts to resist their persistent urges.

The CerebrumWhen I teach about addictions, I lump them together with many other similarly dysfunctional, repetitious and persistent bio-psycho-social patterns that I call “stress illnesses.” Stress illnesses include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, OCD, ADD–the whole alphabet soup. I’ve written extensively about stress related illnesses so I won’t go into a further explanation here. The point I want to make is this: thinking of addiction as a may disease limit how we perceive it and treat it.

Yes, Yes, Yes, as I’ve explained above, an addict’s brain is operating dysfunctionally. That dysfunctional processing is inclining the addict to engage in repetitious and harmful behaviors. But be clear; nothing determines what an addict decides to do. There’s always a potential for turning away from a substance or behavior. The brain is not the only decisive element in addiction.

Mate suggests, and I whole heartedly agree with him, that we open our minds and begin to think of addictions as “processes.” A process is a flow of actions. Therefore, an addiction is more like a verb than it is a noun. Another way to describe the word “process,” is through the language of living systems theory, as a “self-making” system. A systems approach to thinking about addictions would take into account the full flow of the actions of the whole system–the actions in the addict’s environment, actions in the addict’s mind, and actions in the addict’s body. Actions in all three domains (world, mind and body) contribute conditions that reinforce the “state” of addiction.

In my next post, I’ll talk briefly about the rules by which living systems operate. Once the rules are understood, it is easy to see how the system can incline itself towards deeper addiction, or, healing. Both are possible.

If you find these posts enlightening, please feel free to share them with your social networks. I wish you happiness.


People rather shock themselves than be with their own thoughts!

I heard a rather disturbing story on the radio show Science Friday this past week. Researchers at the University of Virginia were amazed to discover that many people would rather self-administer painful shocks than sit quietly with their own thoughts for 15 minutes. This research proves to me that people just don’t know how to work with their own thoughts. I find this both sad and worrisome.

thinkingMost of us think we think. But of course, this is not true. Spend anytime watching your thoughts and you realize that thoughts arise unbidden, in a chaotic stream. Which means we don’t often consciously pick our next thought.

Thoughts that arise do so because they carry emotional relevance. We tend to think about what we like and dislike. Most of us get stuck in traps of negative thinking because of a natural negative attentional bias. I think this is the reason why people would rather shock themselves than sit with their thoughts—too much negativity.

What if you had the ability to influence whether your attention fixated on negative thinking? What if you could allow thinking, but not be the thinker? You’d be free. That’s what meditation (mind) training can do for you.iStock_000004431227Mediumcmyk

The mind (not thoughts, but pure consciousness) can focus on itself and come to know its own nature. The nature of mind is like space: quiet and empty. Thoughts are like objects in the space. If you learn to see the difference between the two, you can choose to rest in the quiet peaceful space of your mind even if you are thinking.

I’d like to ask those researchers to test meditators (not just those who know how to be “mindful”). I know from personal experience that I’d have no trouble sitting alone with my thoughts for 15 minutes, or even an hour for that matter. I’d just meditate, which I find interesting and peaceful. You can learn to meditate the same way I have. Once you do, you won’t have to resort to shocking yourself to escape your thoughts, you’ll know how find peace anytime you choose.

If you’d like to learn to meditate, check out my guided meditation program. I want you to be happy.

Wishing you well,


How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 5)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Frustrated_man_at_a_deskHello again, and thanks for joining us as we read and discuss Gabor Mate‘s book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” Last time we looked at the factors that predispose a person to addictive thoughts and behaviors. We discovered that stress, especially toxic early childhood stress–even more than genetics–is the strongest predetermining factor for developing an addiction of any kind. The question then becomes, why? The simple answer is that early childhood stress negatively affects the emotional and self-regulatory circuits in a developing child’s brain. Mate writes that four brain centers are particularly affected.

1. The dopamine “motivation” circuits
2. The opiate attachment/reward circuits
3. The frontal executive control circuits
4. The stress response circuits

Very simply, overwhelming stress causes these systems to malfunction. For example, stress creates a lack of the powerful and necessary neurotransmitter dopamine, and also of the receptors that dopamine binds to. A person who suffers from an internal and persistent lack of dopamine will have a tendency to feel malaise, which can predispose that same person to seek out substances and behaviors that increase levels of brain dopamine. It’s strange to think that a person is not actually addicted to cigarettes or cocaine. Rather, they’re addicted to the surge of dopamine that these substances provide.

Normal neurotransmitter levels and well functioning emotional control and stress centers are necessary if one hopes to feel and function normally. Mate suggests that this fact illuminates the central dilemma in addiction treatment, “if recovery is to occur, the brain, the impaired organ of decision-making, needs to initiate its own healing process. An altered and dysfunctional brain must decide that it wants to overcome its own dysfunction… the very concept of choice appears less clear-cut (however) if we understand that the addict’s ability to choose, if not absent, is certainly impaired.”

The foregoing opens the space for many questions. Primarily, is addiction a disease or something else? Secondarily, can a dysfuntional brain hope to heal itself through it’s own efforts? I look forward to your comments.

If you find these posts enlightening, please share them with your social networks. Learn more about my work at www.skillfullyaware.com.

How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 4)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Hello again, and thanks for joining me as we read and discuss Gabor Mate‘s book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” Last time we talked about the hallmarks of all addictions.

InTheRealmOfHungryGhosts_coverThis post will explore the factors that tend to set a person on the path to addiction. Mate writes that there are three: a susceptible organism, a drug with addictive potential, and stress. Reading those predisposing factors made me think. It seems like these factors interrelate and influence each other, but one stands out as the dominant force. Research suggests that the susceptibility seems more tightly linked to early childhood stressors than with a drug’s addictive potential. Mice raised in a nurturing environment resist self-administration of cocaine and heroin as adults. Conversely, mice raised in a stressful environment and with little parental nurturing do tend to self-administer these drugs.

Additionally, so much emphasis has been placed on genetic predisposition as a causative factor for addiction. But the evidence just doesn’t bear this out either. Genes make proteins; they don’t determine behavior. The science of epigenetics tells us that emotional experiences change our internal biochemistry, and those biochemical changes then turn genes on and off.

So is addiction in the genes or the drugs? Or, is it more related to environmental stress? Seems like it’s the stress. The way I read it, stress creates an addictive susceptibility. Sure, once genes are turned on they can intensify craving. In such a case, and in a person who’s suffering, an addictive drug then feels like medicine for the pain. This reinforcing feedback also explains why addictions are not isolated to drugs. People get addicted to food, sex, gambling, and many other substances and behaviors. People use or act out in a misguided attempt to feel better. Which brings us back to a premise Mate articulated earlier in his book: pain or hurt forms the backdrop to all addictions.

Thanks for joining us for this discussion. Your questions or comments are welcome. Also, if you find these posts helpful, please share them with your network. Next time we’ll explore how early childhood stress affects the developing brain.

Best to you,


How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 2)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Welcome back to our review of Gabor Mate’s Book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. I want to share a few bits from Chapter 3. Specifically, the premise that Dr. Mate puts forth that addiction is a “flight from distress.” He’s very explicit. “Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempts to escape distress.” What he’s saying is this, addicts are compelled to use substances and engage in behaviors in order to feel better. More often than not, in the background, there’s some painful circumstance or condition.  

AddictDepression, anxiety, PTSD, ADD and or any number of other chronic stress-related conditions push an addict to seek relief in their drug of choice or in medicating behaviors. Interestingly, Mate points out that the same brain circuits that feel physical pain are also active during experiences of emotional pain. ‘When people speak of feeling emotional pain, they are being quite accurate.’ Mate states very strongly that ‘hurt’ is at the center of all addictive behaviors.

In my next post we’ll explore the hallmarks of addiction.

For those readers who would like to go deeper, way deeper, check out the work of Eric Garland.

Feel free to comment and ask questions. If these posts are helpful to you, please share them with you social networks.

How to Heal Addictions with Mindfulness–In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Post 1)

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts Cover

Hi everyone. Happy Monday. I’ve been reading a fantastic book that I want to share. Indeed, as I read it I’ll spend the next month or more blogging about it. I’ll highlight the salient points and hopefully, like a book club, interest others in reading it too. And then participate in our question and answer discussions.

Physician, Author and Public Speaker, Gabor Mate

If you’re not familiar with Gabor Mate, he’s a Canadian MD, author and speaker who has written extensively on addictions and other stress related conditions. Currently, I’m reading his #1 Canadian best seller, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” In it, he details the many stories of his Downtown Eastside Vancouver clinic, where he works as a physician.

Lest you think this book is solely about drug addicts and addictions, let me pop that bubble. Mate masterfully helps the reader understand the nature, scope, and destructive power of all craving, not just to drugs, but to otherwise accepted “addictions” like to work, power, possessions, and success.

Additionally, and importantly, Mate helps the reader understand the mind-body connection. Thoughts and emotions do change our brains, which then influence subsequent thoughts and emotions. After reading his book, you will understand the science behind the difficulty of changing one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Afterwards, this scientific understanding may help engender compassion to arise, when you or someone you know struggles to change.InTheRealmOfHungryGhosts_cover

I’ll even do my best as well to get Dr. Mate to join us in our discussions, so you can ask him your questions directly. So let’s dive in and spend some time learning about the tendency for humans to fixate, and seek happiness where it cannot be found, in the realm of hungry ghosts.

 In Buddhist cosmology, the realm of hungry ghosts is occupied by beings who long for fulfillment and relief, but are never achieve it. Hungry ghosts are ostrich-like creatures with large bellies and long thin necks. Their mouths are so sensitive that they’re unable to eat or drink enough to satisfy their cravings. Additionally, whatever they do ingest, upsets their delicate constitution.

Hungry Ghost
Hungry Ghost

The hungry ghost realm therefore stands as a symbol for addictions of all kinds. Mate’s Downtown Eastside Vancouver patients live in this realm. Shortly into the book however, the reader comes to realize, that we all cycle through this realm at one time or another. The only difference between us and them is just a matter of degree.

Part 1 of the his book details the lives of patients caught in this unmerciful cyclic state. Readers also gain an deeper understanding of the motives, although sometimes irrational, that keep his addicts stuck. As many of you know, I’ve worked in rehab since 2007. I thought I’d heard and seen it all. The depth and scope of suffering of Mate’s patients surprised even me.

If you want to join in and read Mate’s book with me, get online or go to your local book seller today. I’ll be blogging about it Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s until I’m finished. There’s a lot this book can teach us about ourselves. I hope you join us.

Lastly, if you enjoyed this post and think it’s informative, please share it with your social networks on FB, Twitter, Linkedin, and others. I appreciate you helping me get the work out into the world. Thanks.

Mark Pirtle


More blog posts like this one: