The Difference Between Narcissism and Healthy Self-Attention — and a Meditation and Writing Prompt

by Nadia Colburn, Ph.D.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are interested in looking inward. But how do we make time for this, especially in our busy world? And how can we justify this attention?

I remember being at a New Year’s Eve party maybe fifteen years ago. Most of us were in our early thirties and beginning to solidify our adult lives.

We were going around in a circle, saying what we wanted to focus on for the year, and one friend said, “This year I’m going to focus on myself more.”

He meant his statement as a joke. After all, he was a struggling to be in a serious relationship, and part of that struggle was to listen better, to not always put himself first. He thought it was funny to suggest that he’d be more narcissistic.

But I wondered whether, in fact, if my friend really did need was more attention to himself, just in a healthier way.

We live in a culture that often cannot distinguish between healthy and unhealthy self-attention. A narcissist focuses on his outward needs, appearances and gratifications. Blocked from his own inner life, a narcissist doesn’t recognize the inner lives of others. This is dangerous for the narcissist and everyone else (and yes, this is relevant to contemporary politics.)

Healthy self-attention, by contrast, is being able to be with oneself, with whatever arises, with curiosity and compassion. This attention actually makes us more available for others, more present in our lives, and more able to be our best selves.

But because many of us associate self-attention with narcissism, we don’t know how to focus on ourselves in healthy ways, and so we miss out on a chance to really know ourselves and to wake up to the great miracle of who we are in the world.

In fact, many of our blocks — in life, in our creativity, in our relationships and at work — come from the ways in which we cannot fully be with ourselves. And many of the imbalances in our culture come from our inherited discomfort with ourselves.

What would happen if you took more time to get more comfortable with yourself, to sit, to listen, to tune into your creativity, to attend to your body, to move, to relax, to wake up? What would it be like if you could justify taking the time and energy to do that? Even if you’re a regular meditator, are there parts of your being that you’re overlooking?

This short meditation and writing prompt that invites you to come into your light and tap into your creativity — and bring healthy, restorative attention to yourself:



Nadia Colburn brings together mind, body, and spirit through online and in-person classes, and through meditation, yoga and writing retreats. She is a published writer with a Ph.D. in English from Columbia and B.A. in from Harvard. Nadia will be offering the weekend retreat, Living From Your Center: Integrating Mind, Body and Spirit, at Copper Beech Institute August 18–20, 2017. You can learn more about Nadia at

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Get to Know Master Teacher Cheryl Jones

Who are the people who teach the programs at Copper Beech Institute? Master teacher Cheryl Jones cues us in to a little about her silly and serious sides: 

  • The first thing I do each morning is stretch in bed. Then I feel both feet connect with the ground. I follow my breath in and out  three times, and set an intention for the day.
  • I started practicing mindfulness twenty years ago when I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”
  • Three things I can’t live without are physical activity, loving relationships, and cheese.
  • I teach mindfulness because I believe it is the key to well-being for individuals, businesses, and communities.
  • My quirkiest habit is color coding my notes at work.
  • My guilty pleasure is watching House of Cards.
  • The strangest thing I’ve ever eaten is octopus.
  • The best advice I ever got was from Jackie O. She told me, “CJ, sometimes we just have to rise above things.”
  • The most important item on my bucket list is to grow a garden that my grandchildren will one day come to play in. 
  • The last thing I do at night is lie down on the floor in my bedroom. I do some gentle stretches to quiet my mind and let go of tension in my body.

Cheryl Jones is an author, coach, and the chief mindfulness officer of The Mindful Path. She has completed extensive training in MBSR through the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School and is the resident expert in mindfulness at the Aetna where she leads strategic initiatives and has inspired the adoption of mindfulness practices at work. Cheryl will be offering a day retreat for women, Create Well-Being and Thrive, at Copper Beech Institute on Saturday, August 12, 2017. 

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Two Billion Heartbeats

by Brandon Nappi

I am convinced now more than ever of the necessity for human beings to wake up to a more peaceful and harmonious existence with one another and our earth. Our world is groaning under the weight of war, violence, poverty and disconnection. Just as these cycles of greed and destruction have been reinforced time and time again throughout history, many of us sense an invitation to practice new patterns and habits to transform our lives and our world.

Recent research reveals an elegantly simple truth. The length of a lifetime is roughly one billion heartbeats. This is true for amphibians, birds, fish, mammals and reptiles whose lifespan can be counted in the number of heartbeats, and that number seems to be approximately one billion. Animals such as whales whose hearts beat more slowly (sometimes as slowly at 10 beats per minute) can live up to 150 years. Other animals like mice whose hearts beat five-hundred times per minute live for only four years on average. No matter the length of the lifespan, most healthy living things seem to get about one billion heartbeats give or take a few million.

So how do we make the most out of our billion heartbeats so that we do not squander our lives? How can we be present for our lives and live deeply? This question of present moment consciousness is not just for pilgrims on a religious quest or seekers in the self-help section of online bookstores. We know what it’s like to do something in a half-hearted way — to go through the motions without really investing the fullness of our entire selves.

Perhaps more than ever, a noisy world of dizzying complexity and unremitting velocity compels thoughtful people to draw upon our capacity to awaken to a more peaceful, grounded and heartful way of living moment by moment. I believe we are all seeking to live with wholeness of heart. This is what our world needs — people committed to living out of this wholeness of heart.

In the spiritual life wholeness and holiness are one and the same. This means living authentically and honestly with compassion for self and other. Living wholeheartedly simply means learning to be yourself and radiating the unique brilliance that each of us were born to manifest. The world needs us to be authentically ourselves. When we are, the unique brilliance that is within us and is us is unleashed in a burst of healing energy offered to the world as a pure gift.

In my own life, I’ve become aware that I need a safe place to train to foster this kind of wholeheartedness. Athletes constantly train in their sport, actors hone their craft over years, and musicians practice for tens of thousands of hours in a lifetime. Similarly, the way I have learned to practice wholeheartedness, contentment, connection and joy is through the intentional practice of cultivating the energy of mindfulness and compassion.

In meditation, we practice being at home with who we are right now. It takes radical honesty to dwell in the moment with yourself. The practice of meditation is an act of looking at yourself in the mirror without analysis and accepting what you see. When you cultivate the presence to sit quietly and follow the breath amid the intensity of thought and emotion, you realize a freedom which is the energy of change. The paradox of profound spiritual growth is that the more you accept yourself in this moment, the more available you become to the kind of transformation you seek. Trust the stillness. Stay with the breath. If you’ve gone beyond your breath, you’ve gone too far.

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 50 transformational programs annually to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.

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