Meet Theo Koffler, Founder of Mindfulness Without Borders

Interviewed by Eleanor Duke

[Photo: Teaching at Hope North Vocational and Secondary School with colleague Gary Diggins]

[Photo: Teaching at Hope North Vocational and Secondary School with colleague Gary Diggins]

Whenever I am with a new group of students, I tell them that I am not there to teach anything, rather I'm there to facilitate a conversation in a way that brings out the wisdom that is already in the room.

Before founding Mindfulness Without Borders, Theo Koffler was a successful young entrepreneur in the healthcare field for 20 years. After being diagnosed with LUPUS she was forced to leave her career to restore her health. After years of personal healing work, her second career has been spent developing programs focused on mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and mental health. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Mindfulness Without Borders is active in 15 countries around the world and operates youth programs, professional development programs, and online courses.

Mindfulness Without Borders has recently released the RETHiNK Digital Kit, an online curriculum for educators, parents, and professionals working with youth focused on strengthening mental health and mindfulness practices. Theo is offering a special discount to our community on the RETHiNK Digital Kit with the promo code SKG17 at checkout.

Do you have a daily practice?

I have a both a formal and informal mindfulness practice. Together, they make up what I call my “best medicine.” Formally, I start my day with a 10-minute body scan followed by sitting meditation. The time I devote to my seated practice very much depends on the context of the day. For the most part, I carefully measure my time as I don't like to feel rushed. Typically, it is followed with getting outdoors and into nature for mindful walking. Rain or shine, being in nature makes me thrive. In fact, my mindfulness practice is all about aligning with what brings me alive in the moment — out of a sense of intention and not of obligation. It’s something that has become a vital part of my day.

As part of my informal practice, I spend time when I wake and just before I go to sleep silently reflecting on the small blessings that surround me. Before each meal, I have a gratitude practice which directs my attention to the people that have helped bring food to my plate. When surrounded by friends or family during a meal, we join hands for a hand prayer — a tradition that my parents instilled at family dinners. During the meal, I am very intentional about eating mindfully and take the time to savor the smells, tastes, and textures of my food. For the most part, I eat the slowest of all my friends, which I quite enjoy as there is a different quality when I pay close attention to the meal. All in all, my idea of living mindfully follows the sage advice of my wonderful colleague and friend Jon Kabat Zinn ­— who says to pay attention from moment-to-moment as if my life depended on it.

What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome in your work thus far?

When I was a young entrepreneur in my early thirties, I was diagnosed with LUPUS, an autoimmune deficiency disorder. It stopped me in my tracks and literally, within days after giving birth to my second son, life ended as I knew it. I had to resign from a corporate career and redesign my life to meet the devastating health conditions that pervaded. I lost the Theo I knew in the blink of an eye — and my life as a young entrepreneur went down the drain. It took years to wade through the turbulent waters of physical and emotional suffering and find a new sense of purpose. Until today, even with all of the life lessons that I have received, my health continues to be one of my greatest challenges.

What advice do you have for kids and families who are struggling?

Offering advice to people that I don't know has never been part of my mojo. I never want to presume that my advice is right for someone else, especially for those who are suffering. That said, if I had one wish for those that are struggling, it would be that they don't suffer in silence. I think kids feel so shamed by their peers when life goes differently. It may prevent them from trusting others enough to share their challenges. In turn, they become isolated and feel pushed out of the very community to which they belong. Young people need to know that everyone has inner struggles despite the demons that they carry. The idea is to reach out for support and communicate — especially to someone with whom they can feel comfortable and safe. I think more emphasis has 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 to their confidence and meeting their needs. For me, as a mother of two, I have always encouraged my children to lean into their difficult emotions, knowing that in time, things change. There is no timeline to getting better, it’s more about meeting themselves just where they are and making responsible choices.

While it’s hard to have hope and faith that everything is happening for a reason and will work itself out, it does make good sense to encourage young people that are feeling caught in their struggles that taking one step at a time may just be what’s needed to ease the pain.

If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you’d most like to tell yourself as a child?

If I could go back in time, I would say to my teen-like self, “you are good enough just as you are.” I would remind myself when the chips were down, that it is what it is. I would forgive myself when I faltered. I would find a technique to stop the self-limiting thoughts, and I would find a way to mitigate all the gut-wrenching moments of “should I or shouldn't I?”

Honestly, I was the teenager that would do almost anything to be valued by others. It was important that my parents recognized my achievements and my closest friends saw me as equal. Whether I worked hard at getting good grades for parental recognition, played piano for hours to get praise from my teacher, or invited to a PJ party to hang with friends — recognition was paramount to my happiness. Now, I can see the incongruities. Despite my yearning to be seen and valued, it didn't make me happier. I spent countless hours feeling guilt, shame, and even inadequacy. Actually, it stressed me out.

Fast forward, years later, I now get it that the things that make me different make me.

Are there any stories of working with kids or caregivers that you’d like to tell?

One of my favorite experiences in the field happened during the days that we were working on the ground in select locations in Africa. It took place at Hope North Secondary and Vocational School in northern Uganda; a school for former child soldiers.  My colleague Gary Diggins and I were co-facilitating one of the lessons of our Mindfulness Ambassador Council that imparts soft skills needed to navigate the ups and downs of daily life. The students met for 12 in-class meetings in very sparse classroom conditions. They sat together in a shared learning environment, learned strategies to identify and manage emotions, shared matters of the heart, listened to the insights of their peers, and discussed how they could develop a more compassionate understanding of the complex world in which they lived. What is most memorable is that despite the trauma that these students faced in their earlier years, as former child soldiers, they had big dreams. They wanted to graduate school to become doctors, nurses, engineers, politicians, and change-makers. It was during my time with these students, that I recognized that everywhere in the world people are broken. 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’s the first thing you do when working with a new group of students?

Whenever I am with a new group of students, I tell them that I am not there to teach anything, rather to facilitate a conversation in a way that brings out the wisdom that is already in the room. At that very moment, eyes open wider, students lean-in, and typically, an appreciation for our common humanity emerges. 

What books have most inspired you and are there any on your shelf begging to be read?

The books that have shaped my life include: Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Healing by Deepak Chopra, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block, The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life’s Perfection by Michel A. Singer, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalinithi.

The book on my bedside table is Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human by Dr. Dan Siegel.

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

My second career, as the founder of Mindfulness Without Borders, would never have come into being had it not been for my journey with LUPUS. I was living in Israel at the time and this health condition led me to wonder what was the missing piece in my education that could have helped me better navigate through living in a country that was divided by war and an “us and them” paradigm. The notion of turning into the mind-body signals when I was sad or discouraged was not part of my regimen, let alone using these signals as important information to help manage my stress! For that matter, communicating my challenges was taboo in my family, as I grew up with parents that insisted that I should be happy each day, no matter what came my way! As I began to heal, I learned that social and emotional intelligence was the missing piece and so I started to dream. I knew that my next career would be developing educational programs for young people to help them transition into their adult lives with the very soft skills that I wish I would have had in my formative years. For the past 10 years, Mindfulness Without Borders has been doing just that!

How has your work changed you?

Every day, I thank the people associated with my work life for giving me the courage to develop insight, look outside the box, and be innovative. In 2005, Diana and Jonathan Rose, founders of the Garrison Institute, gave me the opportunity of a lifetime as Program Advisor to their first-ever Contemplation and Education Initiative. Through their philanthropy and leadership, I met every thought-leader possible in the field of mindfulness, neuroscience, and social and emotional intelligence. In turn, this experience and the relationships that were formed not only inspired me as a person, they are the very people until today that bring meaning to both my personal and professional life. In fact, Susan Kaiser Greenland is one of the precious relationships that started way back then, because of my role at the Garrison Institute.


Mindfulness Without Borders has recently released the RETHiNK Digital Kit, an online curriculum for educators, parents, and professionals working with youth focused on strengthening mental health and mindfulness practices. Theo is offering a special discount to our community on the RETHiNK Digital Kit with the promo code SKG17 at checkout.