Theo Koffler

At Mindfulness Without Borders, we believe in sharing personal narratives, insights and experiences as a way to connect with each other. Here are some responses to commonly asked questions about the life and work of our founder, Theo Koffler.

What is the meaning behind your name?

Theophelia is the name that was given to me at birth by my parents. In my earlier years, it was a tough name to handle as I remember being constantly ridiculed. Now, as an adult, I would love it if more people called me by my true name. “Theophelia” is primarily a female name of Greek origin that means “friendship of God”.

What is your background?

I was born and raised in a Jewish family in Toronto. I was educated at Havergal College. My first career in the corporate world, included executive positions at Shoppers Drug Mart and Super-Pharm Israel Ltd.  When I was diagnosed with lupus after the birth of my second son, (1985) I pivoted from my corporate career to explore the role of social and emotional intelligence as well as mindfulness practice on individual and societal well-being. I then founded Mindfulness Without Borders (MWB) in 2007, a registered nonprofit organization that advances mindfulness-based learning programs in educational, healthcare and corporate settings. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If you could go back in time, what would you most like to tell yourself as a child?

If I could go back in time, I would say to my teenage self, “You are good enough just as you are.” I would try to help myself remember that the things that make me different are the things that make me, me.

Do you have a daily practice?

Typically, I start my day with a 10-minute body scan followed by a formal sitting meditation. The time I devote to my seated practice very much depends on the context of the day. For the most part, I am careful to integrate as much practice as possible throughout the day. It could be just a short breathing practice, which I would use as a brain break from work. My informal practice includes getting outdoors and into nature. Whether watering plants, walking mindfully, practicing tai chi or appreciating the magic of Mother Nature, these moments bring me joy.

What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome?

When I was a young entrepreneur in my early 30s, I was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune deficiency disorder. It stopped me in my tracks and literally, within days of giving birth to my second son, life ended as I knew it. I had to resign from my job as cofounder of Israel’s leading pharmacy chain and repurpose my life to address the devastating health conditions that pervaded.

What is the greatest gift you have received in your work thus far?

My second career, as founder of Mindfulness Without Borders, would never have come into being had it not been for my journey with lupus. This health condition led me to wonder what was missing from my education that could have helped me cope with the stressors of living in Israel and better navigate the “us and them” paradigm. 

As I began to heal, I discovered that social emotional learning (SEL) was the missing piece in my education and I started to dream. I knew my next career would involve developing educational programs for young people which integrated SEL skills before they transitioned into their adult lives—the very soft skills I wish I would’ve had in my formative years. Since 2008, Mindfulness Without Borders has been doing just that!

How has your work changed you?

I feel an immense sense of gratitude for the individuals in my life that are a source of inspiration. In 2005, when Diana and Jonathan Rose—founders of the Garrison Institute—gave me the opportunity to be the program advisor for their first-ever Contemplation and Education Initiative, the word “mindfulness” was not in many people’s vocabularies. Through this initiative, I met thought-leaders in the fields of mindfulness, neuroscience, and social emotional intelligence. In turn, this experience and the relationships that were formed not only inspired me as a person, they brought meaning and a sense of fulfilment to my entrepreneurial life.

What advice do you have for parents and their children who are struggling?

Offering advice to people I don’t know has never been comfortable for me. I never want to presume that what I may advise is right for someone else, especially for those who are suffering. That said, if I had one wish for young people who are facing adversity, it would be that they don’t suffer in silence. Kids need to believe in themselves and not feel shamed by their friends, siblings, parents, caregivers and teachers. They need to feel valued and supported for the challenges they face and not feel pushed out of the very community to which they belong. 

I think more emphasis needs to be placed on adults to hear and value what their kids are saying and experiencing. The world is a complex place, and listening carefully and acknowledging their challenges can make a big difference in boosting their confidence and meeting their needs. They need to learn that moving through challenging emotions and situations is possible by taking one step at a time. As a mother of two, I have always encouraged my children to lean into their difficult emotions, knowing that in time, things will change. There is no timeline to getting better, it’s more about meeting themselves just where they are and making responsible choices.

Are there any stories of working with kids you’d like to share?

One of my favourite experiences in the field took place at Hope North, a vocational and secondary school for former child soldiers in northern Uganda. My colleague Gary Diggins and I were co-facilitating one of the lessons of our Mindfulness Ambassador Program, which imparts the soft skills needed to navigate the ups and downs of daily life. The students met for 12 in-person sessions in very sparse classroom conditions. They sat together in a circle, shared matters of the heart, listened to the insights of their peers and discussed their future dreams. What is most memorable for me is that despite the trauma these students faced in their earlier years as child soldiers, they had ambitious goals. They wanted to graduate secondary school to become doctors, nurses, engineers, politicians and changemakers. It was during my time with these students that I recognized that people are broken everywhere in the world. Suffering is constant. Conditions vary. And yet, we can leave the world a little better than the way we found it if we embrace hope, imagination and compassion.

What books have most inspired you?

+ Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

+ When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Diff icult Times by Pema Chödrön

+ Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine by Deepak Chopra, M.D.

+ Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

+ Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

+ The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country by Amanda Gorman

+ A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives by Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.

+ When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

+ To Bless the Space Between Us: A Collection of Invocations and Blessings by John O'Donohue >

Is there a book on your shelf begging to be read?

+ Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D.