Cory Muscara: “Imagine a world where people were intrinsically motivated to help others be happy. ”

Imagine a world where people were intrinsically motivated to help others be happy. Not because they “should” or because it’s morally right, but because they feel happy themselves when others are happy. I think most relationships, family, and societal issues would solve themselves. That’s a world I’m excited to live into. As a part of my series about “How […]

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Imagine a world where people were intrinsically motivated to help others be happy. Not because they “should” or because it’s morally right, but because they feel happy themselves when others are happy. I think most relationships, family, and societal issues would solve themselves. That’s a world I’m excited to live into.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cory Muscara.

Cory Muscara is an international speaker and teacher on the topics of presence and wellbeing and has taught mindfulness-based leadership at Columbia University, and currently serves as an instructor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2012, Cory spent 6 months in silence living as a monk in Burma, meditating 14–20 hours per day, and now aims to bring these teachings to people in a practical and usable way. Cory is the #1 downloaded meditation expert on the Simple Habit app, host of the top-ranked podcast, Practicing Human, and is the author of the bestselling book, Stop Missing Your Life: How to Be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thanks for having me!

It’s embarrassing to say, but I didn’t get into this work for any noble reasons. I started meditating because I was trying 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.

She broke up with me two weeks later.

Despite my superficial undertaking, I continued to meditate. In fact, the pain of the breakup is what caused me to take the meditation more seriously; it was one of the few things that gave me some relief.

Additionally, I noticed other benefits. My sleep improved, I developed this superpower that some people call “paying attention,” and I started to feel happy seemingly out of nowhere. It intrigued me.

As I continued to practice, I saw mindfulness meditation less as a technique and more as a way of being. It was a philosophy and psychology for how to live my life with more presence, connection, intimacy, and groundedness. I knew it was a path that, if I were to follow it deeper, would only continue to bear fruit. And that’s when the journey began.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 2012, I spent six months in silence living as a monk in Burma. During this time, there was no reading, no listening to music, no speaking, no contact with the outside world. Every day, we woke up at 3:00 a.m. and went to bed at around 9:30 p.m., eating breakfast and lunch before 11:00 a.m. and then fasting till 5:30 a.m. the next day (no dinner). It was often over 100 degrees with no air-conditioning; there were mosquitoes, ants, and spiders everywhere; and the mattresses were so thin you could squeeze them between your fingers and feel the bone on the other side.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done, which might sound like an embellishment when you consider that I was safe, all of my meals were cooked for me, there were no e-mails to respond to, no kids to take care of, and from the outside, it looks like we’re just sitting, walking slowly, and doing a whole lot of nothing for days on end. But it was the most intense “nothing” you can imagine.

When all of the distractions and pleasures of your life are stripped away — the smartphone, the music, the news, the friends, the career, the sex (yes, I was celibate; not even masturbation was allowed) — you’re left with just yourself. You and yourself, all the time, 24/7. The meditation adds another level of intensity to this by bringing deep awareness to your inner world — your thoughts, emotions, and pains . . . all of it.

Looking in the mirror in this way is hard, but wow, is it incredible what can happen once you do. It’s when you can meet yourself fully, turning toward not only your joy and goodness, but also your deeper hurts, and possibly shame, that you can do the work of appreciating, understanding, forgiving, and making peace with yourself. Otherwise, you risk running from yourself. The same problems, distorted thinking, and negative patterns that you’ve always had persist beneath the surface, never getting resolved, continuing to diminish your happiness and that of those around you. When we bring more awareness to all of our experience, not only aspects of ourselves that we are grateful for but aspects we’ve been hiding from finally get the chance to surface. Even though it can be painful to see and feel some of these parts of ourselves, meeting them with gentle awareness, as we do in meditation, allows these experiences to start to transform, integrate, or pass entirely.

This process, of being attuned and present to the totality of ourselves, combined with a mind that is compassionate and calm, leads to a very deep sense of peace, as well as an ability to move fluidly with the constantly changing landscape of our lives and the world.

This retreat was a profound experience for me and, more than any other training or experience dug the well from which I draw water when I teach.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Create safety.

People will be more creative, honest, authentic, and energized when they feel safe to express themselves, challenge the status quo, implement new ideas, and make mistakes.

It’s a basic human need to feel safe, and you get the best of a person when they’re not constantly assessing if they’re going to be “okay.”

This doesn’t mean create an environment devoid of pain or hurt feelings, which is an inevitable part of people coming together and working toward a shared goal. Creating safety means continuing to reinforce the message that you care about each person’s unique perspectives; will meet situations with curiosity instead of blame; and understand that being human is complex and that connection and magic happen through the mess, not in spite of it.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ll give you two.

The first is Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was the first mindfulness book I ever read, and it opened my eyes to a new way of being in relationship to my life. There’s one paragraph, in particular, that I still remember vividly. It was about watching a sunset, and being struck by the play of light and color among the clouds and in the sky. And how at that moment you are just there with the direct experience, taking it in, really seeing it. But then the thinking mind comes in, perhaps about how beautiful the sunset is, or how much you wish you could tell someone about it, and how at that moment you’re no longer with the direct experience, you’re with the thought or the idea about the sunset. At the time, this felt like such a different way to experience life, one that I didn’t quite understand, but was drawn toward.

The second, more recent book, might seem a bit out of the left field, but stay with me. It’s called Wild Power by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer, and it’s all about how the menstrual cycle is a woman’s path to personal power and spiritual insight.

Here’s a line from the intro: “The energy within your menstrual cycle is a force we call your Wild Power. It’s an animating presence — a holy intelligence that holds the blueprint of who you are and your highest potential.”

As I got into it, I couldn’t tell if this was hippie woo-woo, or pointing to some seriously deep truth. All I knew is that I couldn’t stop reading, I had a ton of energy, and I actually started getting jealous that I didn’t have a menstrual cycle.

A month later I had read the book three times. THREE TIMES.

The last time I read a book three times was when I was 15 and my dad gave me and my brother “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.”

Aside from the obvious link between “books that keep my attention” and sexuality, there was something about how Wild Power talked about the menstrual cycle that piqued my interest, because it stood in such stark contrast to everything Iknew and perceived about the menstrual cycle, which, sadly, was very little and mostly negative.

The main idea is that a woman’s menstrual cycle takes her on a journey each month, through various “seasons” that give her access to different emotions, desires, energies, and ways of seeing the world. Instead of these seasons being something to “manage” — which is how our culture usually views the menstrual cycle — the authors encourage a woman to embrace these transitions, to live in harmony with these seasons, and start to see the unique perspectives and wisdom that is available at each stage of the cycle.

Although I don’t have a menstrual cycle, I do experience various life cycles, as we all do. There are cycles throughout the year, throughout a day, and even within a series of moments. An emotion has a cycle. Grief has a cycle. Relationships have cycles.

Even right now, during COVID-19, we’re experiencing a cycle on the collective level that will bring with it different thoughts, emotions, and experiences. What would it be like to embrace this new time period, to see what it has to teach us, to let it show us all the ways we’re attached to a sense of “control”? This is very different than resisting the current reality, grasping for the way things were or “should be.” That kind of resistance only creates more suffering and doesn’t leave space for growth.

Wild Power inspired me to pay more attention to the cycles in my own life, to respect them, and try to live in harmony with them. If I’m more tired during the winter months, what if I allowed myself to get extra sleep? If I’m feeling a lot of energy toward my work during certain months (or years), what if I allowed myself to go full-in, rather than getting caught in ideas of work-life balance, or some other narrative?

There are a lot of nuances here that would take a while to address, but I found this perspective a beautiful and necessary complement to the teachings of mindfulness meditation. So much so, that I included a section in my own book, Stop Missing Your Life, titled “What We Can All Learn From The Menstrual Cycle.”

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

My working definition of mindfulness is the practice of being with our experience rather than in our experience, in a way that is spacious, curious, and heartfelt.

If you think of a river flowing down a mountain, and that river representing the stream of our life experiences, most of the time we’re caught in the river, thrashing into the rocks, drowning in the white water, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, experiencing a smooth ride. In mindfulness practice, it’s as if we’re stepping out of the river and sitting on the bank, watching it go by with quality of peace and ease. In either case, you’re still experiencing the river, just from two different vantage points, and therefore a different experience entirely.

This is what I mean by being with experience instead of being in experience. And it’s also what I mean when I use the word spacious. It points to the idea that there’s a separation between the “you” who is observing and whatever it is that you’re observing. There’s “me,” and there’s my anger that I’m observing. But most often, the two feel like the same thing. am angry. We identify so strongly with whatever experience we’re having that we get sucked into it. Once inside, we get thrashed around wherever it wants to take us.

Mindfulness is a way for us to step out of that thrashing. It allows us to deepen our connection to the present moment without getting overwhelmed by it.

I sometimes hear people pushback on this, saying: “Well, what if I like being in the river? Am I just going to be watching my life happening without actually living it?”

The quick answer: no.

Although the river metaphor helps us capture what it’s like to embody awareness versus unconsciousness, it doesn’t capture another reality, which is that you’re still living your life, and experiencing, even more, all there is to experience. So, maybe there’s a third way to be in relationship to the river: We’re learning how to kayak. To move fluidly with the flow of our life without drowning or being trapped in it.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

There have been thousands of studies on the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Although we’re still learning about what these benefits are, and parsing the good science from the bad science, there is ample evidence to support that a mindfulness meditation practice can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, relapse in depression, chronic pain, and addiction; as well as increase joy, empathy, self-compassion, concentration, self-regulation, and memory.

Think of mindfulness meditation as a form of mental fitness. It’s a way that you can (quite literally) grow areas of your brain responsible for wellbeing and productivity, and shrink areas of the brain responsible for stress and suffering.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Give Yourself Permission to Be Human:

The first thing to do is acknowledge that it’s okay to not feel serenity during this time, or during any time of crisis. In fact, trying to experience serenity can often get in the way of it. It’s normal to feel confused, anxious, or fearful right now. These are natural human responses to uncertain times and may even be serving you to take necessary precautions.

Often when these emotions arise, we either quickly react to them — doing or saying something out of impulse — or suppress our internal experience — masking it with a veil of peace. We often don’t give ourselves space to simply feel these experiences, which is why events like these can feel even more dramatic and overwhelming; we don’t know who to be present with them.

Learning to stay present to your experience, without numbing or reacting, is a powerful skill for navigating life. So, if you’re feeling fearful and anxious, this is an opportunity to give yourself permission to be human, and practice being present for your experience with kindness and compassion. It will serve you now, and for the rest of your life.

Shift Between “What If” and “What Is”:

Once we’ve given ourselves some space to feel what we’re feeling, we can start to work with the thinking mind more strategically. In times of crisis and uncertainty, it’s easy to get swept away by the “what if” mind — “What if this or that happens?”

Although the “what if” mind can help us prepare and take useful action if we’re too focused on the “what ifs” we disconnect from our current reality, creating unnecessary anxiety. This is why it’s important to balance our “what ifs” with “what is.”

The “what is” mind connects you to what is actually in your present moment experience. And you can access it by simply asking, “What is here right now?”

I’ll do it with you as I write:

I feel my feet pressed into the ground.
I notice there’s a roof over my head.
I feel coolness in my hands.
I hear the sounds of cars outside.
I feel my stomach growling.
I see little black squiggly lines appear on the screen as I type this sentence.

By connecting to the most basic elements of our present moment experience, we often see that our current reality is less of a catastrophe than our mind is making it out to be.

Of course, there is an art form to balance “what if” with “what is.” Too much “what if” and we get lost in anxiety. Too much “what is” and we don’t take action toward the future. Think of it as a dance, where both the “what if” and “what is” are working together, moving in sync, embracing the other’s role in figuring out the next step.

Change Your Beliefs:

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, there’s a useful strategy called the ABC model. This acronym stands for activating events, beliefs, and consequences. It’s a simple method to explore how your beliefs condition your experience of life, especially during difficult events. It’s also a great complement to mindfulness.

COVID-19 is an activating event that we can’t do anything about. It’s here whether we want it to be or not. We can, however, change our beliefs about it, which changes our experience entirely.

For example, if your belief is, “This experience is going to ruin me, and I’ll never be able to recover,” then that is going to condition a whole set of follow-up thoughts and emotions, most likely negative and disempowering.

But if you change the belief to “yes, this will be difficult, but I know I’ll get through it, and I believe it will be a powerful opportunity to reconnect to what’s most essential in my life,” then that will condition a more empowering series of thoughts and emotions.

Notice what beliefs you’re currently holding, and ask yourself: Is this belief serving me in a way that feels useful?

If not, ask: What is a different belief that might serve me in a more useful way?

Tonglen Meditation:

This form of meditation is a powerful way to find your grounding amid great suffering, and will also help you process and let go of difficult emotions.

To try it out, visualize taking in the pain of another person (e.g. grief or sadness) with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them (e.g. calmness or ease) on the out-breath. If the visualizing doesn’t work for you or feels too intense, you can just feel as though you’re breathing in the suffering and breathing out the benefit.

Moving closer to suffering might seem like a counterintuitive way to find peace, but remember, so much of our stress and anxiety is not from the experience itself, but rather our fear of not being able to hold the experience. In Tonglen, you’re moving toward the suffering with an empowered self, transforming it, and offering something back out. It’s an empowering practice that takes you out of a helpless state.

Whether you’re actually having an impact on the person receiving your good wishes is a metaphysical debate. But as a personal practice, it will change your relationship to what you’re experiencing.

You can also do Tonglen with your own suffering or the suffering of entire communities, the environment, and the world.

Ask: Who can I help?

Following the theme of Tonglen, my last suggestion is to place your attention on other people. One way to do this is to ask yourself, “Who can I help?”

This is not meant to dismiss your own needs and self-care, but rather to recognize that we are an integrated part of a larger whole, and it’s in our evolutionary wiring to connect with and help others during times of crisis. When we solely focus on our own needs and despairs, we can get caught in an internal black hole, leading us to feel more disoriented, more lonely, and more self-centered.

Helping others helps us get out of our own internal rumination, connecting us to love rather than fear.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Make space:

If you’re with someone who is struggling, start by making a safe space for them to experience what they’re experiencing. This is created through your presence.

Remember, as we discussed above, when you’re going through fear or anxiety, one of the worst things you can do is deny or suppress the true experience. So, when being with another person, use your presence to help them feel, connect to, and stay present to their experience.

Try to be relaxed in yourself, showing up with love and care. Once you’ve shown up with presence, continue to bring that into your listening.

Listen to understand, not respond

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation planning your response before the person has finished sharing the very thing you’re trying to respond to? We all have. But we’re especially susceptible to this when someone is sharing their struggles, which makes us feel like we need to give a good response. Try not to get caught in that trap, and instead listen to understand, not respond.

Don’t jump into your own story, and don’t try to fix this person. Just give them your curious attention. Show them that you’re there to listen, and to really understanding what they’re going through. If you truly embody this kind of presence, they’ll feel it.

Ask before Giving Advice:

As you listen, you may feel the impulse to share your perspective. Before you do, ask the person if they’re looking for advice. Much of the time, people are just looking to be heard and for someone to be present with them through their experience. Trust that your capacity to show up for this person may be enoughMuch of the time our impulse to “fix” or “help” is coming from our own inability to be with that person’s discomfort. So, be sure to check yourself, and to check-in with the other person before offering input. Good advice is only good advice if the person wants to hear it.

Let Them Know You’re There for Them:

Humans evolved as tribal creatures. We’re wired to connect, and our sense of safety is strongly connected to our perceived social support. One of the best things you can do to help ease a person’s fear and anxiety is to let them know you’re here for them, now and into the future. It might be the most simple and obvious recommendation, but the gesture of making yourself available for a conversation again in the future goes a long way for someone struggling in the present moment.

Practice Self-Care:

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself. It will be tough to show up fully for someone, especially more than once, if you’re not tending to your own needs and boundaries. Let your compassion come from a place of fulfillment and energy, rather than from a place of obligation and depletion.

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.”

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

There are SO many resources out there for people looking to get started on this path. I’ve curated a handful of my favorites that are available for download if you text your email address to +1 (631) 405–4631. You’ll quickly receive an email with 5 guided meditation, 5 sleep meditations, book/app recommendations, and an 8-page mindfulness starter kit. This has everything you need to get started.

If you’re interested in my resources, specifically, I have a daily podcast called Practicing Human that is designed to help you deepen mindfulness in your daily life. The tagline is “Every day, we’re getting a little better at life.”

My book, Stop Missing Your Life: How to Be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World, is also a roadmap into the practices and depth of mindfulness meditation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “Good Luck, Bad Luck, Who Knows?”

It comes from this short Zen story:

There once was an old farmer who used a horse to till his fields. All-day long, he relied on this horse for the health of his farm. One day, though, the horse escaped into the hills nowhere to be found. All the neighbors came by to sympathize with the man over his bad luck, only for him to reply: “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week later, the horse returned from the hills with a herd of horse friends. The farmer now had all this extra help. Of course, the neighbors came by to congratulate the farmer. “What great luck you have!” they said. Again, his reply: “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Soon after, as the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors stopped by. “We’re so sorry to hear about this bad luck,” they said. His reaction: “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A month later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they could find. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off.

After the army left, the neighbors ran to the farmer, “Wow, what great luck you have!”

Can you guess the farmer’s response? “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

I think back to the beginning of my mindfulness path, which started with a breakup. At the time, I was devastated and couldn’t see any positives to the situation. Looking back, I see that it was the catalyst for this new life path, and I’m so grateful to be doing what I’m doing.

We never know what any experience will mean for us in the future. Is it good luck? Is it bad luck? Who knows! But the opposite perspective is trying to live a life in certainty, and that’s an endless quest.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My movement would be to have everyone practice Mudita, an ancient Buddhist practice that helps you rejoice in the joy of others. Think of it as being truly happy for another person’s happiness.

Imagine a world where people were intrinsically motivated to help others be happy. Not because they “should” or because it’s morally right, but because they feel happy themselves when others are happy. I think most relationships, family, and societal issues would solve themselves. That’s a world I’m excited to live into.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Podcast: Practicing Human
Instagram: @corymuscara

Free Resources: Text your email address to +1 (631) 405 -4631

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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