The Power of Presence – Strength, Peace & Deeper Connection
Interview with Cory Muscara, Speaker, Teacher, Author
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Welcome to Field Notes, an exploration of functional medicine. I’m Rob Downey, a family practice MD and Institute for Functional Medicine certified practitioner. I’m coming to you from Seaworthy Functional Medicine in Homer, Alaska. I want to thank everyone joining us today to learn and grow during our time together.
I’m very excited, and we’re fortunate to have Cory Muscara with us here today and I’m excited to get started! Cory is an expert in mindfulness and presence. He teaches positive psychology at University of Pennsylvania, and has taught mindfulness-based leadership at Columbia University. He spent about six months living in silence as a monk in Burma in 2012, and logged over 14 hours per day meditating under the instruction of the late Sayadaw U Pandita. That is certainly distinctive and noteworthy, and I’m sure it was revelatory and transforming.
A frequent guest on the Dr. Oz show, he is passionate about helping everyday people find peace by offering workshops in schools, organizations, and to the general public. He is an international speaker and his meditations have been heard more than 10 million times in over 50 countries.
Cory recently published a book about the power or presence, Stop Missing Your Life- How to be present in a deeply un-present world. I’d love to hear more about the power of presence. Welcome Cory, and is there anything else I should add about your bio as we get started?
Thank you, Rob! It’s great to be here! Part of my journey that I want to share is that I didn’t start any of this for noble reasons! I got into meditation to impress a hippie girlfriend in college, and she was into it. I didn’t start with an interest in stress reduction, Buddhism or anything noble. It was very superficial. It was the doing of the practice and watching it shift me in certain significant ways that intrinsically motivated me to go deeper. I think when people hear about meditation teachers or someone that does this practice, it often comes with certain ideas. Usually it’s very spiritual or noble, or even just to reduce stress. My journey was quite different.
That may be a really important area to explore right out of the gate. I should mention that you have millions of people around the world who’ve listened to and benefited from your meditation videos. You have a podcast and a book in multiple formats. You have a presence in a lot of different places online, which is where people are attending to and learning about things right now.
Let’s grab onto the Arthur Ashe thread of, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” You mentioned where you started, and I think that it might tie into something I watched. It was a recording you made in Australia talking about the dark side of awareness. Not the dark side in a negative way, but the unintended consequences of becoming more fully aware and present in the moment. It often allows us to see things with an intense clarity, and sometimes we’re moved to have difficult conversations, or what have you.
When you spoke a moment ago about jumping in the pool of mindfulness or awareness and things starting to happen, I can relate that to my own life as well. In college I tried to meditate with a candle, and I quit five minutes later thinking, “I can’t meditate.” I didn’t realize until 20 years later that meditation wasn’t about the thoughts going away, it was flowing with them.
I tried to meditate in college and quit five minutes later thinking, “I can’t meditate.” I didn’t realize that meditation wasn’t about thoughts going away, it was flowing with them.
Maybe a good place to start today would be for people that say, “Well, I don’t think I can meditate,” and tying that to how you encourage people to just jump in. Should we start there? As an expert, what would you recommend for people who are game to try but they are intimidated?
For people who are already warmed up to the idea of meditation, it’s just a matter of finding decent enough instruction, guided meditations, and a time that feels practical for you. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Some people aren’t as warmed up to the idea, and may feel like, “I don’t think I can do this,” which is a common refrain. They may think, “I’m scared about being with my mind. I’ve tried to sit down and focus on my breathing, and my mind’s just all over the place. I’m just not someone that can do this.” Those are my favorite people, because I was like that as well. I had these classic diagnoses of ADD and I have a very, very active mind. I loved that about me. I could think a lot, plan for the future, and create goals.
There was something that seemed very boring about just focusing on the present moment, and that also seemed oppressive to the natural state of my mind, and some of the things I appreciated about my mind.
The first thing I can say is that we’re not stopping the mind from thinking, as you already mentioned. We’re not actually stopping anything about our experience. The byproduct of meditation might be that thoughts start to reorganize, shift, and perhaps become more positive and settled. The practice itself is an attunement to what is actually here, both in the mind and the body, and cultivating more awareness around it. It’s like a physician taking a stethoscope to listen more clearly to what’s going on with the heart.
Meditation doesn’t stop the mind from thinking, but the byproduct of meditation is that our thoughts start to reorganize, shift, and perhaps become more positive and settled.
We see more when we pay attention, when we have a different lens and an ability to amplify the experience. Meditation is a particular mental training practice that allows us to amplify what is already happening. Not ‘amplify’ it in the sense of exacerbating anything, but amplifying our awareness to see what is actually causing us to feel and behave in a certain way in each moment. Many people, especially those who have very active minds like myself, can get caught up in a series of reactive moments where you wake up in the morning, go to bed, and most of your life is happening very quickly on automatic. It feels like you’re in control, but when you actually look at it, you’re just reacting spontaneously to whatever comes up.
One of the powers of this practice is taking the time to stop and actually feel and observe the flow of the conditions of your life, and cause and effect relationships within it. It allows us to start responding differently. There’s a famous quote, “Between stimulus and response there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth, our freedom, and our happiness.” If we could encapsulate the core of what we’re doing with this practice of mindfulness in one sentence, it’s learning to see that space between stimulus and response, and then inhabit that space. That is something that can be available and accessed by anyone who at least has enough mental capacity to be aware of what is happening, and a willingness to look at what is happening.
Meditation is a particular mental training practice that allows us to amplify what is already happening.
Many people that I work with, if not the majority, have very active minds. People whose minds are still usually aren’t looking as much for meditation. It’s their way of being, you could say. The people that tend to push back on this and say, “This isn’t for me,” are the ones that often get the most benefit out of it.
Now let’s go back and answer your question about how somebody who’s open to diving into meditation for three to six months gets started. If you can commit to 15-20 minutes per day, I would start with that. You can either do breathing exercises or follow guided meditations which you can find on apps. I teach on Simple Habit, but there’s other apps such as Ten Percent Happier, Waking Up, Headspace, Calm, all of that.
If you want to keep it very simple, try breathing! I would say do 100 breaths for 100 days, which actually turns out to be about 10 to 13 minutes. You sit down, and you breathe, because everyone’s breathing. As long as you’re alive, you’re breathing. You inhale slowly, and exhale slowly. You can feel that one breath. If you can feel one, you can feel another one. You just do that 100 times. It doesn’t have to be 100 in a row, because that could be very difficult. After each breath count the number one, then another breath two, another breath three. If the mind goes off at 30 seconds, that’s fine. Just come back to four and then five.
Try and get to 100 within a single sitting. Do that for 100 days. If you are able to do that, you’ll notice more focus, more groundedness, reduced stress, more clarity, more awareness. That would set a solid foundation for any other practice that you pursue related to meditation.
Wonderful, thank you, I love that! Some of my favorite things are activities that don’t need any WiFi, plugins, devices, or any kind of special watch. You can do it in a cave. You can do it in your truck when it’s parked. You can do it in the middle of Calcutta!
Many people feel they have very active minds, or what I call ‘monkey mind.’ It’s great news for them to know their thoughts don’t need to go away when practicing meditation.
I’m so glad you illuminated the part about, “What if I have monkey-mind?” Back when I did a lot of rock climbing I would talk to these big wall climbers. These are people who climb huge, steep rock faces that often take days to scale. They would talk about that feeling of being three days up the wall and two days from the top. They said they’d develop what they called ‘mind riot.’ I talk to so many people who feel like they have ‘monkey mind’ or ‘mind riot.’
Some of the best news for them to hear is that when they are practicing meditation, their thoughts don’t need to go away. I don’t know where that presumption came from! It must be a cartoon of meditation, or something from a movie or something. A lot of us coming to this right now are Westerners. Maybe people assumed that a person in a tranquil state with their eyes closed was in a blank state, as opposed to being in a state of flow with their experience and attending to what’s happening. It’s the opposite of checking out but rather, just being in a flow state and being aware.
Let me mention two things that were really poignant for me in the last couple of years that I see as concrete manifestation of mindfulness and presence. I’d like to see what you think about them for our listeners. One example is sad and beautiful, and I think the other is just beautiful and beautiful. It’s about that gap, that space between stimulus and response.
One example is when I hurt one of my teenage kid’s feelings. Because I practice a lot of mindfulness and yoga, I was immediately aware of it viscerally. I just stopped and took a breath. My response was, “I’m sorry.” What stood out to me is that it wounded my pride a bit. I pride myself on being a good parent, and I messed up. In that moment, though, I was able to recognize that I got off track. Maybe I was impatient or tired, but it was so helpful to simply apologize. It hit the reset button emotionally. I could feel it in that state of re-attunement, and it meant something to my child.
Another time there was a patient and a bunch of folks gathered in one of these high stakes, multidisciplinary meetings with lots going on. A family member of the patient was really frustrated and stressed. She shared her frustration about patient communication, and discussed a medical diagnosis that was dragging them down. It was loaded because the doctor was in the spotlight, and all the team members were there. The patient expressed a sense of betrayal with the medical system, and then personal betrayal at being oppressed by this new diagnosis.
I’ve seen a lot of physicians in that setting push back because they feel assaulted, as though their competence has been assaulted. There was a silent pause that lasted maybe 30 seconds, Corey. It was really long. It felt so long, because it felt so intense. What struck me was the thought that, “She needs to be heard. Our response can’t be about, “Our team does good work,” because that’s not the point. The point is that she’s saying, “I’m suffering.”
Sometimes patients are very frustrated with the medical system, communication, or diagnoses. Many physicians in that setting would be defensive and feel attacked. I find that letting patients know that I truly hear and empathize with them can lighten the tone enough to move the discussion forward, and focus on improvement together.
I remember I responded with, “I hear you,” and then I said it again. “I just want you to know, I hear you. That sounds so hard feeling like you wanted more information and to be challenged with this diagnosis at the same time. That’s so oppressive, and I just want you to know that I hear that.” What’s really wild is that the rest of the discussion wasn’t about the betrayal around the patient communication. It lightened the tone of the meeting. We got into the substantive stuff about other people sharing their compassion for her, and then how we were going to communicate in the future.
That’s what I think about in that gap when I reflect on my own life. I guess this is an overt reference, and maybe today it would also be nice to talk about flow state and day to day living, too. When you hear stories such as these, is that what you see when you think about people bringing presence in their lives? What do you flash on when you hear those anecdotes?
That’s just incredibly touching and makes me very grateful for people like you doing the work that you’re doing. It’s filling a gap, especially within healthcare. With any profession where you’re working with people in our traditional system, and rightfully so, you’re developing an expertise about what this person might need. If they present something, you learn how you’re supposed to respond and what to do. All of that’s necessary as we grow into adults and human beings, and become people that can offer something. The underbelly of that process is that we often end up getting caught more in our ideas of what is necessary at the moment. We fall into very quick algorithmic ways of responding, or heuristics. If we see this, say that. It’s just that life, and especially working with other human beings, is much more complicated than that, much more nuanced.
To be efficient and save time we often fall into quick algorithmic ways of responding to patients or other people in a given moment, but then we can miss huge amounts of data for what is actually necessary.
If we’re only working with very quick scripts of how to respond in any given moment, then we’re missing huge amounts of data for what is actually necessary. What you sensed there was just this person’s pain. That can’t come from mirroring as in, “Oh, their voice is low, so I’m supposed to act sad as well.” You could kind of get there with that, but even then it’s too subtle. You have to get out of your head and drop in and feel with your full being to get exactly what the person is communicating and how they’re communicating it. What does that actually mean? I don’t really know. All I know is what it feels like.
It’s a very difficult thing to teach. You can point people to it, and get them to start to touch into it for themselves. What is happening in those moments? What actually happened when you met this person? I’m not sure. How did you sense it? We could go into some of the neuroscience, maybe about the energetics of it.
As human beings we’re wired to connect. It’s one of our strengths as a species to be able to pick up on another person’s emotions and understand what they need. As tribal creatures, that’s what has facilitated our ability to grow and evolve so quickly.
We’re wired to connect in this way as human beings. It’s one of our strengths as a species to be able to pick up on another person’s emotions, understand what they need, and know how to connect. As tribal creatures, that’s what has facilitated our ability to grow and evolve so quickly. Nowadays we’ve become very individualistic and very caught up in our heads. This gets in the way of our natural expression of being, which is deeply connected. It can be accessed again through this quality of presence.
For anyone in a scenario like that, or wondering how do I bring this to a similar conversation, take a deep breath and notice your thoughts. You may have had a long day and your child tells you they’re going through something difficult at school, or your parent is on the phone, or you’re working with a colleague or an employee. Notice what’s going on in your head, the natural momentum and rhythm that’s saying, “Okay do this. I want to respond in this way.” Instead of immediately following that first thought, just take a deep breath. Let your center of gravity drop a bit. I feel myself get heavier. My belly drops, I get more in my body. Try to listen to understand, rather than listen to respond. Have trust! This is the hard thing. Trust that your presence in the moment will help you generate the response that is most necessary in that moment. That’s a practice, and it takes a huge amount of trust to let go of all of our ideas and just follow. To me, that’s flow. That’s moving and flowing with the moment. Thanks for the story, It’s beautiful! I hear lots of those as people engage in this practice.
Try to listen to understand, not to respond. Have trust! Trust that your presence in the moment will help you generate the response that is most necessary in that moment.
I think we should make sure our listeners know that in these moments when we use ‘presence strategies’, that it does not mean we are passive and weak. Sometimes I think people buy into a troublesome cliche. The harmoniousness, flow, and peacefulness that is part and parcel of getting into these states can be confused with a lack of assertiveness or weakness. Many Americans have kind of a John Wayne figure running their brain, and they feel they’ve got to have a cowboy confrontation with every problem, or they’re going to be the loser in a zero sum game. I’ve found that nothing has made me stronger than the presence, in terms of boundary setting. When you talked with your friend in Australia in the video clip I watched, you mentioned having a challenging conversation with a parent rather than letting it ride.
When we use ‘presence strategies’ it doesn’t mean we’re passive and weak. Nothing has made me stronger than having presence, especially in terms of boundary setting.
The connection point to me is that we can’t be assertive in a strong, helpful way unless we have goodwill toward those we have adversity with. Some of the beauty of these ancient mindfulness traditions is loving-kindness. As I reviewed some of your work I saw that you teach loving-kindness and encourage it. I wanted to do a little connect-the-dots exercise, and have you reflect on that. How does presence make us strong? How does it help us set boundaries? How does it help us do difficult things, because we want the best for ourselves and we want the best for the person we’re being assertive with?
That may be a bit too much. I love having these conversations. I need three days to talk with you, not just an hour, so any of those things that you can address would be great!
Sure, let’s just start with the first one, strong. In my book, I have a section called the Paradox of Invincibility. When many of us think of the word invincibility, it conjures up the idea of “no pain, no gain,” or a stoic “I can overcome anything” mindset, or even just the sense of invulnerability of a teenager, recklessly doing whatever. That’s not how I think of invincibility. To me, that’s just masked pseudo-toughness. Invincibility and real strength is the understanding and recognition that you can be with and get through whatever arises. Not in the manner of gritting your teeth, powering through it, and creating more tension in the process. It’s really meeting the experience as it is, and knowing that it doesn’t compromise who you are on the deepest level.
The paradox of developing that invincibility is that we have to let down the veil of being invincible. That allows us to experience more moments of our life, to learn how to be with an in those moments. That’s because the only way we develop this quality of invincibility is to allow ourselves to go through moments of experience, all the different shapes and forms, the thoughts, the emotions, the sensations, and learn to relax into them and see, “Okay, I can stay present to this. Who I am is bigger than this momentary experience.” That’s where the power of meditation comes from.
Invincibility and real strength is the understanding and recognition that you can be with and get through whatever arises. It’s meeting the experience as it is, and knowing that it doesn’t compromise who you are on the deepest level.
Anyone that practices meditation for a sustained period of time, especially those who attend meditation retreats, will describe a sense of confidence and strength. It’s a very different type of confidence than the typical, “I got this. I can do it.” It’s not that. There’s an unassumingness to their presence and their tone. It’s just that they’ve sat with everything that could come up in their experience. That’s because your whole experience of being human can essentially be experienced right here in your fathom-long body. Every interaction you have with other people in the outside world is still all happening here. It’s showing up in the form of thoughts, emotions, visual images, sensations in the body and different sensory experiences. In the meditation practice, you’re not transcending into any far off place or other dimension. You’re just getting closer to your moment-to-moment reality that you usually turn away from.
Learning how to sit and be present with all of that is key. It doesn’t have to be sitting because you could do it walking or lying down. There are a lot of ways to practice. Learn how to stay present, feel yourself when it gets uncomfortable, or when there’s an itch on your back or face, or you have to pee. Your first response may be to immediately tell yourself, “I have to get up to take care of this,” but for these little moments try to practice and even try wanting to be with that discomfort. Soften the fearful mind and say, “We can be with this, we’ve got this.” Even if you do that for 15 seconds longer than you typically would, it’s like a psychological vaccination for your mind. It prepares you for other moments of your life that are uncomfortable or potentially painful. You can have the knowledge that this experience is something that’s happening here, right now. It’s thoughts, emotions, sensations, it’s painful, and it hurts, but I know how to be with it, and I trust that I can be with it.
Learn how to stay present, feel yourself when it gets uncomfortable. Try practicing being with that discomfort. It’s like a psychological vaccination for your mind. It prepares you for other moments of your life that are uncomfortable or potentially painful.
We all have coping mechanisms to get through those difficult things. Some of them involve things like trying to grit our teeth through it, which isn’t real toughness. It’s just a facade and it’s masking sadness with anger or something like that. But then, there’s also alcohol, drugs, zoning out, tuning out. You can get through difficult moments like that. I still remember one of my first students, who I talk about in my book. When Chandra came to me, she had just gone through the death of her father, but she had been an alcoholic for years. The way she got through it was by drinking. She numbed herself to the experience. A couple of years later she was still processing all of this unresolved grief within her. It was extremely painful for her to reflect back on that experience and see how checked out she was.
Several months after we finished working together she went through the death of her mother. When I saw her again afterwards, she said, “Thank you so much.” She said, “These practices allowed me to stay present through the death of my mother. It was extremely painful, but I am so grateful for that experience. It allowed me to connect to my siblings, my child, and my mother in a way I hadn’t before.” She left feeling with a newfound strength within her, even though it involved incredible amounts of pain. She allowed herself to go through it and come out on the other side.
The idea of strength is interesting and it requires vulnerability. Real strength, the depth of our being type of strength requires vulnerability. The rest is just like a show. It’s not real. It won’t come with a corresponding deep sense of peace. It will usually come with numbness and having to heavily compartmentalize our life to get through it.
I think that’s really important for our listeners who might be intimidated, but also for our those who are receptive and might be interested to think about this phrase that I heard from my friend, who’s part of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Zen tradition in Plum Village, France and down in the Deer Park Monastery in California, “No mud, no Lotus.”
With some of the big difficulties that I’ve faced, I’ve realized that presence and engagement during the challenging and overwhelming parts of those difficult times forms part of the genesis of compassion, of feeling a sense of confidence that the next time something arose of that magnitude I could flow with it again.
Presence and engagement during challenging and overwhelming times forms part of the genesis of compassion and sense of confidence.
I’ve always been cautious of the phrase, “The blessing of adversity,” because it sounds insensitive to somebody for whom the loss is so raw. It feels insensitive to them to hear that there’s a blessing in the mud, or the pain. I’ve gotten used to saying first, “I hear you. I get it.” I think that softens it for them a little bit. That connection that this is one of life’s blessings, is the challenge itself. It seems really, really important.
Absolutely! You hit the nail on the head when you said that there’s a sensitivity as to when you introduce that idea to people, to see what the gift of this is, what the potential of this is. I think we’ve all had those experiences where we might bring something difficult to someone, and they say something along the lines of, “Just be positive!” It feels so dismissive. Even when people prematurely try to see the goodness in something when the emotion is so very painful and raw. There’s a big space for that.
I think a reframing of raw and painful experience is, in and of itself, positive. You are opening up dimensions and doors of your humanness that you couldn’t access without this experience. As hugely painful as it is, and even though we would choose not to have it if we had a choice, it’s here. That gives us options for how we can relate to it. We can either shut down to it, numb it, suppress it, or we can allow ourselves to experience it fully. That will let it open us up and tenderize our heart, rather than harden our heart and cause us to go numb.
How we relate to challenging and painful experiences is a choice. If we experience them fully it can open us up and tenderize our heart, rather than harden it. We can become more connected to other people, not disconnected.
How we relate to challenging and painful experiences is a choice that people have to make for themselves. We can’t push it on anyone. Anyone who has gone through the numbing process, is familiar with both sides of it. The positive side is that you are not feeling everything, when there’s so much to feel. The long term negative implications of that are that we shut down to the negative, but we also shut down to the positive. The nervous system doesn’t just decide, “Okay, no more pain, and now you get to experience all the goodness!” It just covers everything with a blanket of numbness.
We start getting more disconnected to ourselves and to other people. It’s uncomfortable to be still and vulnerable. Numbing has all of these really significant implications long term that I see all the time in the people I’m working with. They have gotten through life by not dealing with their stuff, by not being present to it. You can get by for a certain amount of time, but it will accumulate. Then you just start waking up thinking, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m extremely stressed.” Or, “I don’t know why I’m feeling this way, but there’s this sense of grief.” Or, “Everything in my life objectively looks good, and yet I feel hollow on the inside.” We need to be connected to the pulse of truth, and the pulse of our life as it’s happening. We need to give it space to breathe, to move, ebb and flow. Otherwise things will get jammed up, and it will eventually catch up to us.
Presence is this moment-to-moment checking in. You don’t actually say it aloud, but it has the sentiment of, “How’s it going right now? What do you need, and what is it like to be you? Do we need to adjust anything that we’re doing?” The opposite of that, which I think many of us can resonate with, is the mentality of, “That’s the goal, that’s where I’m going. This is where my life is headed. Head down, push, and don’t pick up until we get there.” Sometimes we like what we say on the other side, but oftentimes a great deal was compromised. When that happens we’re not even fulfilled once we get to the place that we’re working toward anyway.
I think many people that are interested in the work that you and I do are craving that. They are thirsty for presence. They sense a dilemma, or they report a dilemma. They’ve either numbed out or tuned out, or they’re overwhelmed and raw, and they want a middle way. They want something that isn’t either arm of the dilemma. It’s something different, and it’s real. They’ve had suspicions that they can’t meditate, or they’re stuck. A lot of the people I see are fatalistic.
I think another good thing to talk about today is the peace that can come from presence, especially because we’re having this conversation during the COVID-19 pandemic with a shelf life of two years from now. I have found that I’m often at peace just from doing yoga daily with my wife, and also a minute-to-minute presence practice. It’s a blast to be flowing all the time. I’ll notice that I don’t need something more than hearing the birds at that moment, or feeling a hot beverage in my hands at that moment. I wasn’t planning for it, or trying to get a break from something. It’s fine to attend to whatever arises, but I think a lot of people are craving peace. I have found that peace is a side effect of presence.
Yes, I don’t know if you’ve run into this yourself, but I often find that it’s very hard to describe some of these benefits. Some are as simple as, “I was drinking my cup of coffee and I just didn’t feel like anything needed to be different.” That’s because, after practice, or after integrating this into your life more deeply, a lot of things remain the same. You’re still in your body, there are still thoughts moving through your mind, you still have some of the good relationships and the crappy ones. They’re there! But, the relationship and the groundedness within yourself changes the experience entirely.
One metaphor to think about is that of a river going down a mountain, which could represent the river of life. A lot of times, we’re just caught in that river, smashing into the bank, drowning in the white water, sometimes really enjoying the ride, but going wherever it takes us. Part of what starts to happen with practice is, we see what it’s like to step out of the river, and just watch it go by, as though we are sitting on the bank. It’s the same river, same you, different experience or different relationship, and it then becomes a different experience entirely.
With practice there’s such joy that can be gleaned from the small moments of life that we would typically have written off as neutral, or not worth our time, or just a stepping stone to get someplace else.
Some people hear that and go, “Well, I want to be in my life. I don’t want to just watch it go by.” We can take that metaphor a step further then and say that we’re learning to kayak. We’re learning to really float with the river and move with it. We periodically have these opportunities to be totally still and allow the river moving through us. We can just rest or hover there on top of it. That’s what this practice allows us to do. It’s so hard to understand until we get to taste it. I’m sure everyone listening to this has had a glimpse of this, even without any potential meditation practice. A glimpse of these moments of stillness amid chaos, upheaval, and uncertainty.
A lot of times these moments come during grief or great ecstasy. It’s like, “Wow! This moment is perfect as it is. There’s no resistance to it.” We get more of those moments with practice, and simplicity becomes highly compelling. There’s such joy that can be gleaned from the small moments of life that we would typically have written off as neutral, or not worth our time, or just a stepping stone to get someplace else.
We can step our way into as many future moments as we want, and one day there’s going to be no place left to step. If we’re just living our lives in that way, jumping to the next thing, then we’re missing so much along the journey. I think a lot of people feel for themselves, “Yeah, I get that nice philosophy. I’ve heard it before, but the present moment sucks. My life sucks right now. I’m trying to change it and get to someplace better. I’ll do the mindfulness thing then.”
We can wait for things to be perfect and step into as many future moments as we want, but one day there’s going to be no place left to step. If we’re always jumping to the next thing, then we’re missing so much along the journey.
That’s where we lose it, because there’s no future moment where everything is going to come together in that perfect permanent arrangement that you. We tend to think it will. What changes when there’s deep peace is not the experience itself, but it’s the neuroses. If the neuroses that you’re harboring include, “Once I get there, then I’ll be happy,” then once you get there, you’re still going to have the same neuroses. Those neuroses are pushing you into some future moment that your mind thinks has to be better. From the very beginning we have to start with recognizing that it’s that thought pattern in our mind that creates dissonance with the moment as it is, and the discomfort and tension.
Wherever you are right now is the place to start and see, “Can I relax into this moment however it is? It doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it, but is the tension against this moment serving me in any way?” That’s what you get to ask yourself. If the answer is yes, then cool! Follow that until there’s a different response. Most likely what you’ll see is that you can do everything you need to do, engage in what you need to engage in, be vigilant in creating boundaries and taking a stand, and be an activist, without having to feel crippling tension and anxiety in this moment. When we start to do that we’re laying the foundation for a mind that can be deeply equanimous. We can have a deep inner peace regardless of the changing landscape of our life.
Peace and engagement. That’s so good. I love how you articulated that. Thank you! I was thinking while you shared about this same friend who goes every year to the Deer Park -Thich Nhat Hanh Monastery and Retreat in California every year. He loves it, and the Zen mischievousness that Thich Nhat Hanh brings to how he sends his message, the Great Room there is apparently relatively empty a lot of the time, and there’s a single hand-written calligraphy sign from Thich Nhat Hanh that says, “This is it.” Some of the people who come from Asia to experience this are expecting a lot of statues and honorifics and stuff. There’s a little let down for them to meet this Zen master’s approach, who really strips it down.
I got to thinking about Zen a little while you were talking. Not in an esoteric way, but it made me think about what was happening in my functional medicine practice a few years ago. It was a brick-and-mortar practice, with a relatively small service area. The last two years have been about questioning, “Well, what could it be? What’s its fullest manifestation?”
I think the main thing that happened was that I let go. I asked myself from a heart perspective, “What is my service obligation, given the number of years I’ve logged as a physician and the amount of mindfulness I’ve done and yoga that I’ve done? What do I have to share or impart that I don’t want just trapped in this vessel when I get to the last step? If it has value, I want it to get out there.”
About 90% of the process was letting go and trusting. There was a lot of monkey-mind! I felt like a big wall climber running out of food three days up the wall. I really did. I felt like, “I’m vulnerable, I’m exposed, I’m getting into a flow state, I’m meeting my tribe out there. I know what these people value, but I don’t know who they are, what they care about. I don’t know what’s happening in 2019 or 2020 due to some isolation and focus on my practice.”
I thought of these Buddhist psychological components where equanimity is the center state, and aversion and attachment are the two traps pushing things away. They spring back, and if we grab them it’s like we’re just tumbling down the river hanging onto a log, or clinging to the rock with the current surging over us. I think there’s a very real world application of what you’re describing. That is for any of us who want to be successful, to be our fullest manifestation, be fully engaged, or live some of those things that bring us a profound sense of joy, we’re accessing the capacity to do that in a really ironic way. We do it by letting go and attending in the moment to, “Who are we, what do we want, what do we believe in?” Then we act, and we act from a clear lucid place. This isn’t passive. It’s peaceful, but it’s not passive.
Yes, just take a minute to watch your mind. Even though your body might look physically still, there’s nothing still about what is happening. The practice of renewing the presence to show up for that moment-to-moment is an incredibly active and courageous thing to do. Cool, I love what you just shared there. That’s great!
You’ve given us a lot of your day, but there’s one more thing I’d like to touch on. I think it’s important to highlight that when we fear things it can bring out the conflictual part of us, or even make some of us believe we’re built to fight. There’s a lot of science, though, that we’re built to connect. Our primary mode is to connect, to bring out the best in one another. We’ve got a secondary mode, which is what do we do when we have to fight. I think that gets conflated in society and the world, you name it. Our neighbor builds a fence and doesn’t ask our permission. It’s microscopic, it’s macroscopic, it’s societal. You’ve you referenced it, Tara Brach talks about it, and Dacher keltner PhD has done a lot of science around how we’re built to connect.
Let’s close with this idea that it’s our birthright, and genetically where we’re coming from is to connect with others. We over attune to, or see too much of in the media, the dramatic resolution of conflict. I think it’s important for people to hear how we are built to connect from an expert of your caliber.
There are many ways that we can see it, even in early childhood. We’re wired to play with one another. I have a brother and a sister, and I remember wrestling more with my brother and also my sister, too, when we were kids. I recall how much fun it was to be rolling around on the ground, pretending to beat each other up, never with any fists.
Evolutionarily, we know the reason that type of interaction feels so good is that it’s like young animals playfully trying to figure out how to coordinate. They are preparing to eventually fight. There is this protection side of ourselves, but it also happens through connection. Those are both woven into the same fabric. There are other simple things, such as the white portion of our eyes, the sclera, on each side of our pupils. If you look at most other mammals, they don’t have this region that is unpigmented and white.
There is so much evidence to show that it’s the ability to come together that has allowed humans to get to where we are right now.
This evolutionary feature allows another person to follow your gaze if you’re working on a project, or trying to figure out a tool, and it’s known as the Cooperative Eye Hypothesis. Without having to use language, others can better see where your eyes are going, what you’re looking at, and whether you’re sensing danger, because they can watch where your pupils are going. You don’t have that ability if that region is dark or fully pigmented. There are all of these ways that show us that what has allowed humans to get to where we are right now is our ability to come together. The difficult thing is, we’re independent creatures and we’re also simultaneously deeply interconnected. The meditation practice can seem like an independent thing. I hear this all the time, “Meditation feels selfish,” or, “I shouldn’t take this time for myself,” or, “I’m more interested in connection.”
I hear you, but being able to connect to another being starts with first being able to connect to yourself. It’s also necessary to see all the ways that we block our own experience, or we block our own truth, or we block our own ability to create boundaries. With this practice of connecting in, I am always much more connectable. I long for connection with other people when I take time to reconnect to myself. Anecdotally that has been shown to me over and over again.
I think our society has become disconnected from our evolutionary roots. We’re feeling this epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
That doesn’t mean that we have all these mental health issues, but more that the foundation of it is social isolation. People are not feeling connected in the way that they most need to feel connected.
I hope that we can keep that in mind in the bigger picture of this practice. As you do engage in your meditation, if you feel that impetus and motivation to connect with another person, or if you feel a sense of loneliness, do not spiritually bypass it and go. Don’t think, “Oh, I’m trying to be this transcendent being that doesn’t have needs and feelings.” That’s bullshit, if you’ll excuse my language. If you’re going to be in this human body, then it means you’re going to have needs. I haven’t met anyone that doesn’t need to eat, or doesn’t feel hurt when they get burned. I think that those who say they don’t need connection are a little disconnected from themselves. But that’s another podcast episode!
It’s where we’re holding two ends of that polarity, the need to express and be individual, and the need for interconnection. If it feels complex at times, and just know it’s because it is! Being human is messy, and presence is just making space for the full range of it, moving with the flow of what feels true right now, and slowly learning about ourselves and how to dance with this very big thing called life.
That’s great, and it was so great to talk with you today. I’ve looked at people who have benefited from your wisdom and reflections on your book. I was struck by how your words and perspective keep it real. It’s contemporary, it’s happening in real time. It’s got an authenticity and a ring, and a clear-eyedness. It’s really fresh! I can get a sense then of why what you offer is such a wealth of information, a wellspring for so many, and such a timely one. Thank you for what you do and what you care about, and thank you for your time!
Thank you, Rob. I appreciate it, and it’s been a pleasure!
Rob Downey, MD
Founder of Seaworthy Functional Medicine