Cory Muscara, Former monk and bestselling author
Recorded Wednesday, September 23, 1-2:30PM PT
Sam Levine: Today, we'll learn what mindfulness meditation is and its benefits. Cory will lead us through a few powerful, mindfulness practices that enhance well-being and reduce burnout. And finally, we'll end with actionable steps you can take to cultivate greater mindfulness in your work and in your life moving forward. Now, I will pass it to Cory, who I'm so grateful has joined us today. He is an amazing human-being, incredibly talented person, former monk, and bestselling author. Thanks for being here, Cory, and I’m excited for this conversation.
Cory Muscara: Thanks, Sam. It's great to be here with all of you. We have about an hour for me to share some of this work and then we'll take some questions after that. A couple housekeeping items first, we’re talking today through a digital interface, which is different than being in-person. If you're like me, it can be very easy to get caught in the distractions around you, regardless of how good your mindfulness is. Notifications might arise, other tabs might pop up, and you might be notified of an email, but from the very beginning of this session, we can practice being intentional with the time we're going to spend here together. I'm sure you've been in so many presentations over the last few months and all presenters say some version of this, but it will really aid in what we're trying to deepen here. Every time you notice the impulse to check your phone or when I start getting a little boring and you want to go on Instagram, instead, notice that that is laying the groundwork for being in the present moment. I'm going to do my best to try and keep this engaging and fun. That's part of my job as a speaker. But part of the work we're exploring is being with the changing landscape of our life. Sometimes that's engaging and interesting, other times, it's boring and uncomfortable. So notice what your response is in those moments when you're not as intrinsically engaged, watch where your attention goes, and instead of immediately defaulting to that, entertain what it would be like to continue to be with the experience as it is.
I want to acknowledge that people are coming into this with lots of different experiences. We've all been navigating the current landscape of our world in different ways. However you're coming to this moment is not only welcome, but it also becomes a platform for doing the work that we're exploring here together. This is not about being positive. This is not about solely having a positive experience. This is about making space for the many dimensions of what it means to be human. It’s just see if you can relax into whatever it is you're feeling right now, whether that's curiosity and interest or a sense of discomfort, skepticism, or fatigue. The presence that we're developing can happen through all of those experiences instead of our usual approach, which is to try to be present in spite of them. That's our broader invitation.
Since I'm a new face to many of you, I'd like to share a bit about my story so you have some reference of who I am and what I'm coming into this with. I wear a handful of different hats. Right now I'm in New York where I started the Long Island Center for Mindfulness many years ago. I've taught mindfulness based leadership at Columbia University and currently teach Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. These days, I'm working with the new platform, Mindfulness.com, and it’s been really fun to shape the direction of the mindfulness industry.
One thing you could put on my business card is “mindfulness meditation teacher.” When people hear the term meditation teacher, they have a lot of different ideas of what that means. For me, I remember thinking of meditation teachers as meaning that you're a bit of a hippie. You’re very spiritual, you burn incense, you like candles — I’ve got nothing against any of that if that's what you're into, it just isn't my jam. When I got into this work it wasn’t for a very noble reason. It was to try to impress a girl. I had a hippie girlfriend in college, she was into meditation and I wanted her to think I was cool, so I started meditating. There's no happy ending to that story because she broke up with me a couple weeks after that. But the different happy ending was that the pain of that breakup actually caused me to take the practice more seriously. It went from this superficial undertaking to something I was intrinsically motivated to explore, primarily because I noticed a lot of benefits happening pretty early on. Ever since adolescence, I had been a restless sleeper. I would wake up many times throughout the night and had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. I would probably wake up about 30 times a night. I’d often put my hands on my belly and just think inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I was actually doing a meditation practice, which I did not know I was doing. It was very basic, just focusing on my breath, but after a couple weeks of doing that 15-minutes a day, three times a week, I went from waking up 30 times a night to just a few times a night until I started having nights where I didn’t wake up at all. If you struggle with insomnia, you can imagine how much of life improvement that would be. So, that caught my interest. I was in college at the time and while I was going to class, I wasn't actually in class. I'm sure you don't have to be a student to resonate with this, but what I’m talking about is when your body is in one place, but the mind is someplace else entirely. I wanted to focus, I wanted to be present, but I felt unable to do so. Within about three weeks of trying meditation, I developed this new thing that some people call “paying attention.” For the first time, I was really able to sustain focus, notice when my mind was wandering off, and bring it back. My grades improved and my listening improved and it led to the third thing, which was just that I felt more grounded. I remember walking around campus and seemingly out of nowhere, there was just a sense of ease and peace. Nothing in my external world had changed and yet something was shifting internally. All of this piqued my interest and me being a bit of a Type A personality I dropped my Managerial Economics major and got really into psychology, mindfulness, and meditation. A year and a half later, I was in a monastery with a shaved head. After college, I went to Southeast Asian Burma and lived as a monk for about six months. I went on a six and a half month long silent meditation retreat where we meditated a minimum of 14-hours per day, every day. There was no reading, writing, or listening to music—no contact with the outside world. As I'm saying it, it kind of sounds similar to what some people experienced because of COVID… maybe not to the same extent, but certainly that element of isolation. It was the most transformative experience of my life. I had never been happier, more content, and more at peace with my life. My interest in that retreat was not about Buddhism or becoming a monk. I was interested in the mind.
What I found for myself—and I'm curious if this resonates for you—is that a lot of how I was pursuing my well-being prior to that experience was in arranging the puzzle pieces of my life so the picture looked how I wanted it to look. Relationships, family life, friendships, grades, job prospects, etc.—only when all of that came together, could I be happy and rest.
The issue with that is all of those puzzle pieces rarely come together the way we want them to. Sometimes they do come together and then we're happy, but then a couple days later, it's on to the next thing, which now needs to be bigger and better and greater. This is not to suggest that we shouldn't have goals and visions, but we need to find the balance between moving toward the life we're creating and missing out on our life along the way. We get caught up in this subtle aggression of self improvement. I was curious, what is potential and how do we cultivate a quality of peace that is less contingent upon external variables. That's what I want to talk about here.
The practice of mindfulness meditation is an internal technology that we can utilize to research our own experience moment-to-moment. We can use it to see how the mind works and how to train it to work more effectively to reduce our suffering and improve our well-being. Today, we'll explore what mindfulness is, why it might be worth cultivating, the research supporting it and how the brain changes, and basic techniques that you can integrate into your life. We’ll even touch on some quick things that take less than a minute to practice, so that you can incorporate these ideas into your life, even if you don't sustain a meditation practice afterwards. I'm excited to get into it with you and the first thing that we'll do is a short exercise. It involves these bells, sometimes when I bring out these bells, people think, “Alright, this is where it gets a little mystical. I don't know if I signed up for this.” I know they can look that way, but the main reason I bring them is because they make a very pleasant ringing sound. We're going to make an exercise out of this—I'm going to ring the bells and all I want you to do is listen to the sound of the bell from the moment it begins, all the way until that split second when it dissolves into silence. See if you can bring your full presence and focus to the sound in that way. Okay, good job.
Now, we're going to add a little something to this. I'm going to ring the bells three times now, but this time, I want you to close your eyes. We're just going to see what it's like to settle in with the sound of the bell and focus as if this is the most important thing in your life. And on hand, you might think, “But it's not the most important thing in my life.” On the other hand, you can treat this experience in front of you as the only thing that is happening right now and in doing so, honoring that it is a moment of your life. What would it be like to treat it as the most important thing that's here. We're going to try and pay attention in that way. Just follow the sound until each one dissolves into silence, and we'll do it three times. So if it's comfortable to do so, you can close your eyes. I'll start with the first.
If your eyes are closed, you can invite them to open again. Great job. Take a moment to notice any subtle shifts that you experienced in doing that short exercise. It's okay if nothing radical happened. You don't need to be enlightened after that experience, but you may notice a qualitative difference in before and after of tuning into the bell. In that way, you might feel a little bit more settled in the mind or slightly more attuned to your body. You may notice more sounds around you that you weren't aware of before. This simple exercise of tuning into the bells can actually illuminate quite a bit about our moment-to-moment relationships. On one hand, you could say, “Okay, no big whoop. I didn't come here to get good at listening to bells.” But that's not my agenda here. I'm more interested in the quality of awareness that we brought to the experience of tuning in to the bell. What would it be like to bring that quality of awareness and attunement to more moments of our life?
When we look around us, it's easy to see how many of us are living our lives on auto pilot— going from one thing to the next, caught up in the next shiny bell, which is often a notification on Twitter or Instagram or an email. It's the most human thing to be caught up in our culture that is creating very addictive technology, for better or worse. And yet, at the same time, we still have this capacity to reground ourselves in any given moment and become aware of where we’re focusing our attention and how we’re relating to this one moment of our lives. This practice of tuning into the bells is an invitation to reconnect. You might feel the effects of that exercise after just a minute or two. If you do feel slightly more attuned to your body and slightly more grounded, I’d love for you to continue to hold onto that awareness as we go through this presentation. A lot of the feedback that I'm getting from people these days is that they feel disconnected and long for that human connection. Technology can't replace in-person experiences, but you still have the opportunity to ground and connect to yourself right here. That it can be surprisingly nourishing when we're engaging virtually. Not only can we feel disconnected from others, but we can also start to feel disconnected from ourselves because we're so sucked into what we're experiencing on the screen. But if you can attune to seeing me right now, listening to my words, hearing what you're hearing, seeing what you're seeing, but also feeling what you're feeling, then you can let the breath settle, lower your center of gravity, and practice this quality of groundedness, even as we continue forward.
One of the reasons I really like the bells is it starts to illuminate a foundational principle of mindfulness, which is the capacity to be aware of what is going on moment by moment. That helps us move from a place of compulsion to choice. We can stop moving through our life on autopilot and actually be intentional with how we show up in each moment. There's a famous quote that says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. And then in our response lies, our growth, our freedom and our happiness.” If I can encapsulate in one sentence what we're exploring here through this work, it's how to start to see that space between stimulus and response and then inhabit that space. It's only in that space that you can lead your life with any sort of intentionality or awareness, or in alignment with the person you want to be. The opposite of that is living on autopilot and going through the same reactions and patterns of conditioning that we've always had in our lives. It's one thing to know that we have a choice in each moment, but it's another thing to practice attuning to the moment as it is and see the subtle ways that we're dancing with the landscape of our life. To be able to have the self regulatory capacity and nervous system regulation to be able to ground ourselves, assess what's going on, and then say, “How do I want to respond?” is important. That might be something as simple as somebody saying something to me that activates some anger in my body and causes me to want to say something that I'll regret later on. It could also be noticing, I've been on Zoom calls for five hours and I’m hunched over my desk, I haven't eaten in five hours, and I haven't peed in seven hours.” It’s taking the time to have that brief moment of reconnection and self reflection. “No wonder I'm on edge, I'm exhausted, I'm not sleeping well, and I'm not taking care of myself.” These small moments when we reconnect with ourselves go a really long way for self-care and can help redirect our attention back to what is most important to me right now and how I want to live my life and how I want to be in this moment. It all starts between stimulus and response. A big part of what we're going to explore today is how to get in there and the best way I know how is through the practice of mindfulness.
If mindfulness is a new concept to you, I just want to emphasize that this is not something I invented. I didn’t go to a monastery and come back and say,”Oh, I created meditation and discovered it.” No, this has been around for millennia and it's been creeping up through the floorboards of education, business, and healthcare over the last 10 to 35 years. We're seeing a deep interest in the practice of mindfulness that is in part due to the research that is arising around the practice and its benefits. Another big piece of this interest has to do with smartphones. They’re amazing pieces of technology. Some research that came out of MIT recently by Sherry Turkle shows if you want to date with someone, and your phone is on the table—even if it's turned off upside down and doesn't go off once throughout the date—the mere presence of it prevents the conversation from going to deeper, more substantial levels. That's interesting. We don't totally know why, but I don't think you need to look too much further than your own experience. If Sam and I were having a conversation and he's talking, but I take a quick glance at my phone, he'll be able to tell my full attention isn't here. We can sense that as human beings. Phones can not only disconnect us from others, but they can also give us a way to disconnect from ourselves. This made it incredibly easy to distract yourself from the slightest bit of discomfort and stress that you experience back in the day, right? When Candy Crush was popular, it was so easy to go to the DMV and sit in line playing the game as you waited for a half hour to pass the time. We can't go more than 20 seconds of boredom without pulling our phones out and playing three hours of Candy Crush. I don't know what games people play these days, but social media is designed to be just as fun, addictive, and exciting. It's really cool that we have technology that can shift this moment and make it feel more exciting, but the long term implications of that are that every time we feel slightly stressed or uncomfortable, we distract ourselves with something else and try to ignore it. It's not like the seeds of that stress or discomfort go away, they often get stored in our backpack of life. Over time, that backpack gets heavier and heavier and heavier until one day we wake up and we feel heavy, but we don't know what's going on. Objectively, things in your life might look good, but you might feel out of touch with yourself or feel hollow, stressed, or anxious. This emotional buildup happens over time when we're not attuned to ourselves and when we're not feeling our experiences because we're doing that skillful compartmentalizing or distracting ourselves.
As we continue to engage here, the invitation again is to check yourself. What are some of the ways you deflect from uncomfortable or boring moments? What's it like to stay with those moments of discomfort, especially in the context of creativity with boredom? I remember when I was a kid, all the kids on the block would come out and we’d sit on the front lawn and say, “What do you want to do today?” And we’d all say, “I don't know.” “What do you want to do?” “I don't know.” We’d just sit there for an hour or so until someone said, “Oh my gosh, we should play tennis baseball.” We were like, “What's tennis baseball?” “It’s baseball with a tennis ball and a tennis racquet,” they said and we all thought it was an amazing idea. We found someone's yard and we created this game. We loved that we invented this and we played it for years. You know, if we had those “What do you want to do today” “I don't know” moments today instead of just going to get an iPad to distract ourselves, we might not have gotten to that place of creativity and invention.
I don't want to totally put down technology because I'm a big proponent of blending it with the new landscape of our life and acknowledge it can inspire creativity in different ways, but this is more to show that there's a lot that can come out of staying present to moments of discomfort, of boredom, and of confusion. Usually, just on the other side of that is some insight, learning, or creative growth. That's going to continue to be the invitation throughout this presentation and something to continue to explore in your own life.
That’s a great segue into our first and only meditation for our time together. I'm going to guide you through a short practice. There's nothing you need to know beforehand, you just have to listen to the sound of my voice. I'm not going to be hypnotizing you, you'll have full control over your mind, so there's nothing you need to worry about there. I invite you to close your eyes, if that feels comfortable for you, but if you'd prefer to keep them open, that's fine as well. This won't be a long practice, we'll just do a few minutes. I'll ring the bells to settle us in and then I'll ring them again at the end. But again, I'll be guiding you through the whole process, the only thing you need to do is just find a comfortable posture if you haven't already found one. You don't have to sit in some contorted pretzel like posture, just something that feels grounded and at ease for you. If it's comfortable to close your eyes, you may. We'll start again by tuning into the sound of the bell and see if you can follow it with your full presence until it dissolves.
Take the first few moments of this to settle in. Maybe take a deep breath in through the nose and slowly out with the mouth. Invite the jaw to soften. The teeth don't need to be clenched, let your shoulders be at ease, as well as the hands on the belly. See if you can give yourself the permission to just be here. On the one hand, you already have because you're here. On the other hand, there may be a feeling of resistance to being here, or a feeling that you should be doing something else. Recognize that you've already allocated this time for yourself. There's no place else you need to be, nothing else you need to do, and no problems you need to solve in this moment. See what it's like to relax into that understanding. You may even feel something in your body start to settle as you move from the momentum of your day, into the stillness of this moment.
As Parker Palmer said, “Self-care is never a selfish act. It is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”
See if you can connect to the inherent goodness of this practice and its connection to all the other people in your life and your desire to help and to serve. There are a lot of ways that we can practice bringing mindfulness to our experience. One way could simply be tuning into sound, and of course, there’s the sound of my voice in this moment. Or, you may also notice some other sounds in your own space, or even the sound of your own breathing. Just see what it's like to attune your attention to anything that you can hear right now. Sound is not trying to distract you, it doesn't have an agenda. It's doing the only thing it knows how to do, which is to make sound. If you don't make a problem out of it, it won't make a problem for you. Instead it can just become a gateway for tuning more deeply into this moment. You might even imagine any sound that you perceive as a song in the soundtrack of this moment.
This awareness of sound is something we can also do with thoughts moving through our mind. A lot of times when we think of meditation, we have this idea of clearing the mind of thoughts. But instead, we're going to explore just being aware of the thoughts moving through your mind. See what it's like to become an observer, as if you were watching clouds pass through the sky. Just watching another thought pass by. It doesn't matter what the thoughts are. They could be, “I wonder what I'm going to have for lunch tomorrow,” “I really want my kids to be meditating,” or “Why is Corey talking so much?” Just notice how these thoughts seemingly arise out of nowhere. It's not like you asked yourself to think these thoughts—they just come up. Watch them as if you were eavesdropping on someone else's conversation at a coffee shop. Let's watch your mind talking to itself.
For the last portion of this meditation, let's just become aware of the fact that we're breathing, that you're breathing. Anytime you get a text message or get distracted, you'd forget you’re breathing. So let’s just watch how this process just happens and understand what it’s like to tune in to this fundamental human experience and experience it as enough. No need for more bells and whistles to make it any better. Just embrace what it’s like to be alive right now.
If it's helpful, you can place one hand on your belly to feel the breath moving through your body more vividly. As the mind gets caught in different thoughts or ideas, just smile at it. Notice that the mind is thinking and then gently bring the attention back to the breath. See if you can do that with really precise awareness for three full breaths.
In a moment, I will ring the bells again, I'll ring them three times. When I do, just bring this same awareness to the sound of the bell, until the third one dissolves into silence.
As you're ready, you can start to reorient yourself and let the eyes open again.
Thank you for your practice everyone.
If you'd like to share your experience or anything that came up for you, feel free to share it in the chat bar. We did about 10 minutes, which is a nice chunk of time to meditate, especially if this was your first time and a new experience for you. I just want to acknowledge that a lot of different experiences can arise in this space. Sometimes we feel more grounded, more at peace. This sense of relaxation is like the snow settling in a snow globe. We have this opportunity to reset and relax some of the tension in the body and sometimes there's a lot that we've been holding in the background of our awareness that can surface and be uncomfortable. I want to make space for that experience as well.
Meditation isn't about feeling good. It's about feeling what you're feeling with good awareness. The plot twist of that is that while it will eventually make you feel good, sometimes being present to that discomfort can be uncomfortable. Reconnecting with ourselves and cultivating a depth of presence in our life can help us hold the full complexity of life.
I don't actually believe that our world just needs more positivity. I believe our world needs minds that are more complex, that can hold nuance and clarity, and can stay open and grounded to the full range of the human experience. That's what we're practicing here. That's what you got to practice here. With each breath, we might feel the subtle inhale and exhale, but we also might feel the mind wanting to go in this direction and that direction or feel more comfortable or feel more certain. What's it like to hold all of that without immediately reacting? I don't know if you realize how much of a superpower that is in our lives and our culture these days, which is completely consumed by conditioning, reactivity, automaticity, and to hold onto all of that, to see it all, to watch it.
To not immediately react is a power, because then you get to be more intentional. That's that space between stimulus and response. How you show up how you respond is up to you. But, we have no opportunity to do that if we're so consumed by the momentum of our life.
We haven't even defined what mindfulness is and that was intentional because I want you to get more of an experiential sense of it before we start putting words on it. But one definition we have is by Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn. He says, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” Let's just break that down. The first three pieces of it are pretty straightforward. Paying attention. On purpose. In the present moment. Non-judgmentally where we tend to fall off the cliff. We tend to be very good at judging. We're wired to judge. It's in our evolutionary foundation to assess moments as good, bad, safe, unsafe, pretty ugly, right? Wrong. This is just what the mind does and those judgments can be useful. Ghis definition isn't saying that you're not going to have judgments, it's just saying that you don't have to judge yourself when the judgments arise. Instead of trying to create a certain experience in your meditation, what's it like to watch the entire thing unfold with this quality of curiosity and non-judgement?
And what does the judging mind look like in meditation? One example is let's say you're a bit of a type A personality and you come into the meditation with the mindset, “I’m going to be the most peaceful person on this call. What do I have to do? Focus on my breath? Got it. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.” And then what happens? The mind starts thinking about something I want to cook right now. And then we start thinking, “You're an idiot, why are you thinking about cookies? Don't you know we're supposed to be meditating, I knew you'd suck at this. I bet everyone else is doing so much better. You're a terrible meditator, you have ADHD or OCD.” The mind just gets caught in this ruminative loop assessing how much you suck at this practice. What it ends up doing is just creating more tension and more suffering. This practice that you were doing to try and soften some of that then becomes another opportunity to reinforce the very conditioning that you're trying to change. We get to notice what our relationship to our mind and our experiences moment by moment are. If we step back to be this impartial witness or observer for just like a couple minutes a day, we allow ourselves to not be so consumed in the flow of our life. Just watching it allows you to do it in those moments where you most need it—in a conversation with your partner or colleague or on a Zoom call—and you feel yourself getting caught in the momentum of everything. That’s when you can take a moment and become lucid. Watch what you're saying or watch how you're reacting and take a moment to figure out where that is coming from. Then, we can breathe, reground ourselves, and ask ourselves, “How do I actually want to show up in this moment?”
That non-judgement allows us to hold the fullness of our experience without beating ourselves up for what we're experiencing. Not only is it a lot easier to go through life in that way, but it is also a powerful space to hold for ourselves and for other people. It doesn't mean that judgment is as bad, as I said, we need it. If you walk in the middle of the street and there's a car coming, I want you to jump out of the street. I don't want you to say, “I just attended a mindfulness conference and Cory said be non-judgmental, let me see if I could be with this experience.” No, you're going to get hit by a car and it's going to hurt. This isn't about denying the certain realities of life, it's just about noticing how consumed we can get in judgment and how it can actually create more suffering for us.
There's a lot of research supporting the benefits of developing this quality of attention of mindfulness. The last 35 years of research shows that if you engage in this practice for as little as five minutes per day, you'll start noticing reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression as well as improvements in joy, creativity, productivity, focus, concentration, and memory. That's as good if not better than medication! What I've been most fascinated in in terms of the research is just how the brain changes in response to a meditation practice. With new technology and MRIs, we can study the brains of meditators—both very experienced meditators and people that are new to this practice and have never meditated before. What happens when they engage in this practice for a few weeks? Well, what we are finding is in as little as eight minutes per day, areas of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety, and rumination actually start to shrink, while the areas responsible for working memory, concentration, focus, and empathy for other people actually start to grow. What I love about this research is it just suggests that the brain is like any other muscle in your body. If you wanted to grow your bicep, you'd go to the gym and do three sets of 10 bicep curls. Eventually, over time, the bicep gets stronger, more developed, and more functional. One of the things we're seeing is that the mindfulness meditation practice is an exercise for the brain. Every time the mind wanders and you bring it back, you could think of that as like a bicep curl, right? The weight of the dumbbell pulls you down, you pull it back up, pulls you down, pull it back up, pulls it down. Well, you're focusing on the breath, the mind wanders, you bring it back, mind wanders, bring it back, mind wanders, bring it back. We're often frustrated by thoughts moving through the mind, but those thoughts and distractions and the different emotions that arise become opportunities to train the very things that you're interested in—the ability to be patient, focused, present, and grounded, even amid the chaos.
If you've tried it in the past and had these grandiose ideas that it's just going to be super pleasant and easy, it’s not. I want to debunk that myth for you right now. You're taking the same mind and body that you're walking through your entire day with and you're going right into a meditation practice. Sometimes that can be smooth and easy, other times you're going to see that the mind likes to think a lot and the body can get uncomfortable and there could be pain, or difficult emotions, or unprocessed grief, stress, and anxiety. Learning to be present and sit with that, without immediately trying to compartmentalize or suppress your feelings, allows us to feel the full human experience, to own it, and integrate it into our presence. That way, we don't have to constantly run from ourselves or show up partially to our Zoom calls and conversations. Eventually, the more we do that, the more we can hold these many dimensions of our human experience without collapsing to them. We can train it in these little micro-hits of meditation.
If we connect to our negative thinking, we'll also see that there's something in the brain called negativity bias. This is your brain's inclination to focus more on what could go wrong, rather than what can go right. Some of you might be going “Oh, yeah, I'm very familiar with that.” All of us have fallen into that mindset at some point in our lives. One hundred good things could be happening, but one bad thing happens and what does the mind do? It latches on to that, ruminates on it, and can't stop thinking about it. That is a negativity bias.
Why does the brain do this? If we look at it from an evolutionary perspective, imagine two of our ancestors are in the jungle hunting for food. They come across a big, dark cave and one of them goes, “Oh my gosh, look at that cave, we should totally go in there. It's gonna be a blast.” And the other ones like, “Are you crazy? It's dark. We can't see anything. There's probably bears, like I'm terrified right now.” And the other one says, “Yeah, whatever, you're kind of a loser. I'm going in anyway.” Say they go in, they run into a bear, and then they die. The other individual who was fearful and anxious about the cave—what happened to them? They went back to camp, survived, procreated, and then they passed down their shitty anxious genes to us. So now all of these thousands of years later, through the laws of natural selection, we are literally wired to focus more on what could go wrong, rather than what can go right. The ancestors who had all the genes that were super trusting and loving died very quickly. The ones that survived were the ones that could stand in a corner and think, "What could go wrong? I'm going to stay right here and talk to these couple people that I trust.” That’s what we're left with and we have to be grateful for it because we wouldn't be here if it weren't for them. But this is why you can have a lot of good things in your life, but your mind still scans for everything that can go wrong. And when it does find something, it grasps onto it and exacerbates it. It wants to create as much pain around it as possible, so that you know not to go near it. Sometimes that is important, but a lot of times it's deeply unnecessary.
Rick Hansen wrote the book, Hardwiring Happiness, and he says the brain is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. However, we can start to recondition the brain through a meditation practice. How does this happen other than just, you know, trusting the process? Let's look at it very practically. Let’s say we're doing something like focusing on our breath and the mind wanders, “Well, what are we doing?” Let's say the mind gets caught up in a negative thought like, “What's wrong with me? Why did I say that thing to that person before? I'm an idiot.” If we notice that negativity taking grip, we can practice softening its hold and returning our attention back to the breath. Every time the mind wanders off again into something else negative, we can practice noticing the thought, stop ourselves from fueling it, and again, practice coming back to the breath. The more that we do that, the less those thoughts have control over us. They might still arise in the future, but they don't have as much influence over us and carry less of an emotional charge over time.
We can even develop a little bit more of a positivity bias, which is holding onto the richness of our life experiences rather than just falling down the rabbit hole of negativity. If you want to read more about that, you can check out the book, Hardwiring Happiness. There’s some really cool science in there supporting it.
If we look at it very practically, and ask ourselves “how is this helping with stress?” One definition of stress is that it’s when our perceived demands are greater than our perceived resources to meet those demands. “Perceived” is the key word. Often what we perceive to be demanding is very different than what is actually demanding. So when you're in the shower in the morning, are you actually in the shower? Sure, your body is in the shower, but is your mind in the shower with you? Probably not, you might be bringing other things in the shower with you, like your inbox, your 401(k), your upcoming Zoom calls, etc. Even when you are standing in the shower, you're not just in the shower. You're already making breakfast for the kids, you're already on these meetings, you're already having that difficult conversation, you're already in your inbox taking care of hundreds of emails—who the heck has the resources to be able to meet any of those demands? None of us do. It's just not possible, the brain can't do it all at once. The interesting thing about the brain is what it perceives as its reality when you're caught in all of those thoughts. Even though we're not doing all of those things, being consumed by the thought of doing those things, creates this perception of demands. That creates an imbalance between perceived demands and perceived resources because there's no way you can do all that in any given moment. However, if you just focus your attention into what's going on in that moment—you’re standing in the shower, rubbing soap on your body, shampooing your hair, etc.—most of us have the resources to be able to meet those demands. Now, you could create some pushback and say, “But, I like to think when I'm in the shower, are you saying I can't plan when I'm in the shower?” You can, you absolutely can plan and think when you’re in the shower. But would you agree that there's a difference between being lost in your thoughts versus being grounded, present, and aware of what your mind is thinking? When you're sucked into your thoughts, that's when you perceive them as reality. When you're grounded and just watching your thoughts pass by, that's a very different relationship. That’s what we practice in meditation, we watch our thoughts move through the mind, like clouds through the sky. When we do that those thoughts have less of an emotional charge. It takes practice. We do have to consider the future and prepare for certain things, but it’s also important to recognize that the contents of our thoughts are not happening right now. We can train ourselves to remember that.
There are always stressful things going on in our lives. It's always one thing after another, after another, after another. Let's take something relatively benign, like email. Say you have 100 emails in your inbox and they all need your attention by 5 p.m. It's 9am. When you first get into your inbox and you're replying to that first email, are you just in that one email? Or is your mind already cursing out how much you hate email and thinking about the 99 other emails you have to take care of? What's going on is you're not just doing one email, you're literally holding the burden of 100 emails. The reality of that moment is you're not responding to one hundred emails, you're just answering one. And it's not even that one email, you’re just writing one sentence. And not just one sentence, it's just one word. That's not putting on rose-colored glasses and it's not sugarcoating the experience—it's dropping into the fundamental reality of what is here. Often, when we focus on what is actually here, we see that it's a little less of a catastrophe than our mind is making it out to be. That's where we surrender to the process and allow ourselves to feel what we're going through. Oftentimes, we tend to compound our suffering and get caught in secondary suffering. What do I mean by that? We first have to deal with the primary pain, or the feeling of addressing this difficult experience. Then, we have to face the secondary pain of, “Why me? How long is this gonna last? Why did God do this to me? Nobody else seems to struggle as much as I do.” All of those thoughts trigger negative emotions, which magnify the painful experience that you're already going through. The beauty of the practice of mindfulness is that it allows us to let some of that go and meet this moment of our life as it is right now, with a little bit more simplicity, clarity and groundedness. It's really a science for how to show up. There's nothing you need to believe in here and there's no positive thinking necessary. It's just asking you to tap into the innate resources you already have, which is the ability to be aware of what is happening moment by moment. That awareness lets us see more clearly and understand what is actually going on. As humans, we’re able to think about the future, imagine, and create, but with that comes this ability to think about the future and everything that can go wrong. Once we have that awareness, we have an opportunity to do something about it. That's what this meditation training is really about.
I want to give you a few simple practices that you can try to reground yourself during the day and share some follow-up resources in case you want to explore deeper into meditation. The first is just something called the 478 breath, which was created by Dr. Andrew Weil. It involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and then exhaling for eight seconds. Let's try this out. Breathing in for four seconds… holding for seven... exhaling for eight... Okay, good. That's a 478 breath. Now you might notice that it's hard to do a long exhale. If we're trying to exhale as we normally do, we’ll probably run out of air after three seconds. There's a way that you can constrict your breathing a bit to elongate it. Imagine you're blowing hot air on a cold window like this. Then, just close the mouth, you should notice that you can exhale for much longer. So we'll try it one more time and this time, you can breathe and exhale that way. Breathe in for four seconds… hold for seven… exhale for eight... Great, that's a 478 breath. You can use this many times throughout the day. I like to use this before I go to sleep because it lowers my heart rate and gets me into deep sleep quicker and earlier in the night, which is important for restoration. Try it before bed, first thing when you wake up, or anytime that you’re feeling stressed.
The next is an exercise called Take Five, which we'll do together as well. Take out your left hand like this, place your right pointer finger in the palm of your hand right around the wrist. Then, slide the pointer finger up the thumb while taking an inhale through the nose. Breathing in, exhale back down to the mouth. Slide up the pointer finger, inhale. Back down, exhale. Up the middle finger, inhale. Back down, exhale, Ring finger, back down. And pinky, back down. It’s really simple, but there's something about the tactile nature of that in sync with the breath, that seems to be very settling to the parasympathetic nervous system. If you have kids, they really love this, so you could teach it to them as well. It is a kids exercise, but I started teaching it to adults and everyone was really into it. A asked myself, “Am I gonna be bold enough to go into corporations and tell executives to pet their pinkies every time they get stressed out?” The first time I did just that, the CEO got back to me and said, “Cory, that meditation stuff is great. I love that Take Five, it's phenomenal.” There's something about it, it's just really simple, anyone can do it, and there's usually an immediate reward. Is it going to change your life to pet your pinkie and breathe? Probably not. But it might reduce your stress, reground you, and make you a little bit more present by 5-7%. I believe that burnout is happening in the margins and those feelings are building until you feel like you can't keep going. Usually we stretch ourselves slightly beyond what we should be tolerating or what we think we can tolerate. When we do that day after day, week after week, month after month, eventually, the emotional rubberband gets so stretched that it snaps. Fortunately, if we practice managing that extra 5-7% of stress and take the time to reground ourselves, even though it might feel small in the moment, the long term implications are significant. That's what these little practices, like Take Five and the 478 breath, help us do.
The next thing I want to tell you about is shifting your mindset from a “What if” to a “What is.” This is more of a cognitive hack. We're all familiar with the “What if this happens? What if that happens? What if it doesn't go? What if they don't like me? What if I fail?” Sometimes the “What if” mind can be useful—it can help us prepare, take action, be good activists. But a lot of times, it can lead to extra neurotic chatter that doesn’t serve us in a positive way. When you find yourself caught up in the “What if” mindset and it's not serving you, try to shift your “What if” to “What is.” You could do it right now. For me, I feel my feet on the ground, I see the roof over my head, I feel my body breathing, I feel relatively well-fed. When I drop into a “What is” here practice, I see that this moment is less of a catastrophe than my mind is making it out to be. It helps us reground ourselves, step out of the story of our minds, and usually see that we can actually be with what's happening in this moment. That's just a simple cognitive hack.
The last thing I want to share is a simple technique that you can utilize when communicating with other people to bring mindfulness into the conversation. This is simply to listen to understand, rather than listen to respond. Often in conversations, when we're listening to someone's story, we're already thinking about what we're going to say before the person is even finished saying the thing that we're trying to respond to. One of the great gifts you can give to someone is just meeting them and listening to them with presence, awareness, compassion, and curiosity. We all have this deep need to be understood and heard as humans. And while you might not always get that from other people, you can offer it to other people. The more we offer that gift, interestingly, the more it starts to come back to us. What I love about this technique is that you don't need to have a deep meditation practice. Just listen in the next conversation you have. Listen to understand rather than respond and notice how it transforms the quality of your presence and your curiosity in the conversation.
We’ll go into Q&A in just a moment, but if you are interested in free follow-up resources, like guided meditations, sleep meditations, or book and app recommendations, just text your email address to this number, 201-508-0100. If you're outside of the U.S., just add a +1 before that. Text your email address to that number and you'll get an automated email to your inbox with all of those download links, including a seven-page Mindfulness Starter Kit. Most of my meditations these days are on Mindfulness.com and the Mindfulness.com app. Every day you can get a daily video and meditation, which is a great way to get a practice going. Alright, with that, we'll transition into some questions.
Sam Levine: Thank you so much for that, Cory. So many great practical techniques and thoughts on how to live a life of mindfulness and presence. We have a few chats coming in already. Julia asked, “Any tips on maintaining this is a ritual or habit? I’ve always struggled with routine. What's been your own experience around that, Cory?”
Cory Muscara: There's a lot of stuff related to habit literature. One simple thing that's often talked about, is attaching mindfulness to a pre-existing habit. That's one of the easiest ways to integrate new habits into your life. Think of something that you do regularly and then start adding something just before or after it, so you already have a cue. And this could be like a morning routine, something you do after or before you take a shower. Just get used to layering it into your daily routine. I would start with keeping a very simple one to five minutes of practice, so it doesn't feel like a huge time consuming thing, and then build from there.
I had this realization a number of years ago of how to craft your life. It basically starts with defining what is important to you, and then reverse engineering how to develop your life from there. Determine the steps you need to do to get there, and meditation might be included in that. Then, the next thing is to decide how you will ensure that you will do that. For me, I wrote out a personal contract for myself that says things like, “I, Cory Muscara, promise myself a commitment of one week to the task outlined below. I understand this contract is 100% binding and can only be breached in circumstances outweighing the value of my word to myself. I've reviewed the circumstances that fall within this category and have undertaken the designated rituals that reinforce the sacred nature of this commitment.” Whatever it is I want to do for that week, I write it down. I put on my monk robes, I bow to it, and then I sign it.
It eliminates any dissonance and wavering I have. It's just not a question. I just have to do it. It's my word to myself. It's the most sacred thing. One thing I have this week is making sure I jump out of bed within 30 seconds of waking up because I've gotten in this bad habit of checking Instagram and posting more on social media these days. It's embarrassing to say but sometimes I spend over an hour in my bed and it's such a time and energy suck. A lot of it starts in the first minute in bed, I think, “Alright, you know, I should probably get up” and then it goes a little bit longer…. and a little bit longer.... Now that I signed this contract to get out of bed in the first 30 seconds of waking up, I don't even think about it anymore. There's no wavering, I just get up. If you're really interested in this practice and you want to commit to yourself to do it, you can. It just requires forming that commitment in your own mind. It might be a personal contract that you sign or something else you perceive as sacred that you don't want to breach, or you might ask someone else to hold you accountable. I found that when it really comes to integrating these routines, it's just a matter of determining what is going to force me to do it and how can I reduce the dissonance between me just thinking about doing it and actually doing it
Sam Levine: I love the notion of a contract, Cory. I might take that up. Our next question is from Tom, “How do you reconcile the peace and contentment achievable from mindfulness with drive and ambition?”
Cory Muscara: There's a lot of interesting things to say about this. What I actually hear in your question is an internal wrestling match. Can you attain peace and contentment to this practice and how does that match up with what society often perceives as important? When I work with a lot of high achievers this question usually comes from a place of, “I'm scared that I'm going to lose my edge.” My response to that is like, “Yeah, you might lose your current edge and you might find a new one.”
Let's just look at the relationship between contentment and drive and the research on gratitude. Gratitude we’ll treat as synonymous to contentment because when we're feeling a moment of gratitude, we're at ease and appreciate the moment more. Research on gratitude by Bob Emmons shows that people who keep a gratitude journal increase their gratitude and are actually more likely and energized to fulfill and pursue their goals. There's actually this relationship between feeling more full and pursuing something. However, with that said, I've also seen the opposite of that in real life. There are a lot of people that work extremely hard and are very productive, but when they start engaging in these practices, they lose some of their steam and have trouble doing what they were doing before. This is primarily because their motivation was coming from a place of fear, anxiety, unworthiness, or self hatred. My question to those people is “You can absolutely continue on that cycle of motivating yourself out of fear, anxiety and self hatred, but is that the life you want to live?” If things start to reorganize themselves once you actually start to like yourself and appreciate your life, maybe that is telling you that you need to be doing something different or going about it differently.
Once we lose that source of motivation—like self hatred, fear, or anxiety—we can end up in this state of limbo for a little bit until our mind reorganizes around our life. Monks are hugely ambitious people. They wouldn't be committing their lives to this practice and and giving up sex and all the other great things you can also experience in the world if they weren't ambitious. A lot of people think they don’t have any goals, but their goals are just different than most people’s. They too have that source of energy that drives them to have ambition, to care, to want to release and relieve suffering from other people, and to live a good life. Even when we have that contentment, it's just coming from a place that's more full with the cup overflowing, rather than an empty cup. When we're like gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, so that I can feel good about myself, that's a hollow cup. There will never be enough achievements to fill up what cup. Instead, this feeling must come from the inside out.
Sam Levine: Great question.. We have time for one more and it's a good one from Allison. Allison asks, “Does negativity bias typically go away after adopting a long term meditation practice? And how do you specifically overcome this issue? I struggle with this a lot. Despite meditating, I often worry and think the worst.”
I’ve found—and I've studied acceptance commitment therapy, which is a really fascinating approach to mindfulness and therapeutics—that it's not actually about getting rid of those thoughts or the negativity bias. It's about your relationship to the negativity bias. It's determining how to shift that relationship to “There's that thought again, but it’s not actually a problem that I'm having a thought, the challenge is my relationship to that thought.” That's difficult stuff, but meditation has helped me with that.
Cory Muscara: Right on. Thanks, Sam. The negativity bias is a deeply ingrained primal tendency of ours that will never go away entirely. And we don't want it to go away entirely! What we're really learning is how to dance with these negative thoughts as they do arise. That’s how the negativity bias gets smaller over time.
A common phrase in the neuroscience literature is, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Every time you pull into work, a certain neuron goes off that says, “Oh, I'm at work.” Then, you might have another neuron go off that says, “I hate work.” This makes a connection in your brain: every time you see work, you hate work. That creates a neural circuit in the brain, like a bridge, that makes it so you don’t even have to think about it anymore—you just pull into work and already feel hatred. But, you can start to recondition these feelings towards your work. When you feel the “I hate work” feeling, take a breath and ask yourself, “What's one thing I'm grateful for about work?” The mind will quickly go, “Nothing, I hate work.” Take another breath and tell yourself, “I know, but if there was one thing I could be grateful for, what would it be?” Now, your mind will think, “There is that one person I see at the watercooler who doesn't totally suck. They're okay.” And that’s how we start to plant a little seed of gratitude there.
That's going to fire off a different neuron in the brain. The more that you do that, the easier it gets to fire off that neuron and then we start to recondition how we feel when we pull into work. There could actually be a feeling of gratitude that arises. It does take some time, and some of these patterns can be quite deep and take even more time to change. But it all starts with this awareness that when the negativity bias arises, we can either fuel it or practice holding it, watching it, and then redirecting the attention.
Alison, if this feels difficult, one thing I would suggest is letting your mind go through those thoughts, but practice relaxing your body in relation to those thoughts. There's an intimate connection between the mind and the body and usually when those thoughts arise, you're going to feel some physical tension. It's not always possible to shift the thoughts in our mind, but we have the ability to relax and soften the body. By doing that, we can start to reduce the emotional charge of the negativity bias as those negative thoughts arise. In these early stages, I would practice being aware of when the mind falls into those negative thoughts.
You could even give them a name. I call some of mine “Cranky Cory.” In the morning, Cranky Cory doesn't want to do anything. I go, “I see you Cranky Cory. I know today's gonna suck, you're not gonna be good at this. I know. But let's do it anyway.” You must learn to work with it and don't let it subconsciously consume you. Then, in a mindfulness practice, you can just watch these thoughts move through your mind. Just keep the body totally relaxed as they're there and see how that starts to help you recondition your thoughts.
Sam Levine: Thank you so much for taking the time, Cory. This has been incredibly enlightening and soothing. I feel more grounded and I imagine many folks who are on this call do as well. Thank you for sharing lessons, strategies, and best practices and for making this such a tangible 90 minutes for all of us. Perhaps we'll have to have you back.
Just to close for everyone on the call. Thank you all so much for joining today. As we do in every Hone class, we'd love to hear in the chat what commitment you are taking away from this workshop with Cory today. What is the commitment you’re making for the week ahead, we’d love to celebrate you and hold you accountable. Maybe we'll even make a contract of this commitment and send it to Cory just to let him know that you're following up on that too.
Just as a reminder to everyone here, as part of our mission we're offering free enrollment to 15+ classes over the next month. Those include topics like embracing diversity with inclusion, transforming conflict into collaboration, the coach approach, as well as classes on mindfulness and energy management. Plus, we’ll be offering a class on parenting during COVID later this fall, so if that interests you, please check it out. Go to HoneHQ.com and use promo code PRESENCE. We would love to see you all in an upcoming class. See you there!
Cory Muscara is a former monk, mindfulness advisor for the Dr. Oz show, and acclaimed author of Stop Missing Your Life: How to be Deeply Present in an Unpresent World. He is a teacher on the Simple Habit and 10% Happier meditation apps, and his meditations have been heard more than 5 million times in over 50 countries. For the past few years, he has taught mindfulness-based leadership at Columbia University and currently serves as an assistant instructor for the positive psychology graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a 200-hour hatha yoga teacher, certified NLP & Ericksonian Hypnosis practitioner, and an Integrative Health Coach through Duke Integrative Medicine. You can learn more about Cory at corymuscara.com