#82: Cory Muscara - Mindfulness Teacher, Former Monk
Cory Muscara, 27 years old, admits he first tried meditation because he wanted to impress his college girlfriend -- but it changed his life forever. Muscara, an econ major who considered a finance career, switched gears and spent six months practicing mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk, completed numerous meditation training programs and eventually became the founder and head teacher of the Long Island Center for Mindfulness, bringing meditation into school, healthcare, and corporate settings.
Cory describes his fascinating path in meditation practice, including discussions of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an intensive six-month retreat in Burma with the Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita. Cory’s obsessive pursuit of knowledge about meditation. The work he is currently promoting meditation in healthcare, corporate, and public settings. And did we mention he’s only 27?
How starting with the goal of ‘one minute of meditation per day’ could allow you to overcome the major obstacle that seems to get in many people’s way from starting to meditate, which is making the time for it.
There are psychological benefits of opting into meditation, minute by minute, leveraging your autonomy and choosing to be in the moment.
Give yourself permission to meditate. If you can only give yourself permission for one minute, that’s a fine place to start.
Is mindfulness a fad that will pass? A conversation on hype cycles in the perspective of meditation’s long history, and its “inexorable march towards … being a public health staple.”
“I got fascinated with happiness, well-being. I could see up until that point the exploration of it was in manipulating the external world. I got very interested in what is the possibility of cultivating a contentment that did not derive from external factors.” – Cory Muscara
“[My Dad] gave me Jon Kabat-Zinn's first book, ‘Full Catastrophe Living,’ and just every word of that book … There was something deep inside me, I couldn't put a name on it, but it spoke volumes saying, ‘This is what you need to do with your life.’ It was such a clear understanding that if this kind of work could pay these kinds of dividends, at least the dividends that they're promising, what could be a more worthwhile investment of my time? And it all just went like that and two years later I was in a monastery with a shaved head.” – Cory Muscara
“When you get somebody that wakes up in the morning and is like, ‘Alright, it was 20 minutes? Well what if I just did one minute? Alright, I can do one minute.’ So I sit down and do one minute. Usually what happens, people get to the end of one minute and they go, ‘You know what this kind of feels good, let me do two minutes.’ Then they do two minutes and it’s like, ‘Alright, let me do three.’ And you can see what happens. You go from one to two to three to four to five. But what’s key there is you go from the space of arguing yourself out of the meditation to actually arguing yourself into it.” – Cory Muscara
“Let’s say you didn’t do the one to two to three minute, you just did one minute for the rest of your life, you’re showing yourself that you’re at least worth showing up for yourself for one minute a day.” – Cory Muscara
“Self care is never a selfish act. It’s simply good stewardship of the only gift we have, the gift we were put on this earth to offer others. Anytime that we can take care of ourselves of ourselves in this way, we do it not just for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we aim to serve.” – Cory Muscara quoting Parker Palmer
“But at the root of the proposition of mindfulness and meditation is, look, this thing has been tested, not only in the labs, but also in the individual labs of human minds for thousands of years. I do think it’s going to be around, and we may get some bad press and some good press at various times, but I think we’re kind of on an inexorable march towards this thing being a public health stable, I hope, in the long term.” – Dan Harris
Other Content Mentioned
See Episode #75 with Jon Kabat-Zinn on the 10% Happier Podcast
Search Inside Yourself program (the Mindfulness Program at Google)
Ways to find Cory:
Introduction from Dan:
Dan: I will admit up front that I went into this interview not knowing what to expect, perhaps with low expectations. I agreed to interview Cory Muscara because he was recommended to me by somebody, actually, out in Hollywood who felt pretty strongly that I should sit down with Cory. He’s a very young meditation teacher from Long Island who has made some appearances on the Dr. Oz broadcast. He doesn’t have a book that I could read or anything like that, so I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was so impressed by this guy. So you’re going to hear me become increasingly impressed, you’ll probably feel the same way yourself during the course of this interview. So enough from me, here he is, Cory Muscara.
Conversation with Cory & Dan
Dan: Thanks for doing this.
Cory: Yeah, my pleasure.
Dan: If you've ever listened to the show you know I just start off with the same question, which is, "How did you start meditating?" So, how did you start meditating?
Cory: Yeah, yeah. I have an interesting path. Well, I'm sure a lot of people say that but I'm unique in the sense that I think many people that come to meditation often come through, maybe, the realm of deeper suffering or they're really spiritual, or hipster-ish. I got into meditation because of a girl.
Dan: You're not un-hip.
Cory: I mean, I'm wearing mala beads, so I might fall in that category. But yeah, I primarily got into this because I had a hippy girlfriend in college, she was into meditation, and I basically started meditating, more or less, to impress her.
Cory: I mean, that's when I started taking it seriously, at least.
Dan: I think that's a pretty good reason, just for the record.
Cory: Oh, at the time it was a great reason. Still, even now, there's no happy ending to that because she broke up with me several weeks later.
Dan: There's a really happy ending, which is that it actually changed your life.
Cory: That's the thing, and so despite it being a superficial undertaking, in a very short period of time, I noticed some pretty significant results in my life. At that point, I was someone that used to wake up 20 to 30 times a night. Very restless sleep, my mind was constantly going. This is going to sound like a bold sales pitch for meditation, but within two to three weeks of just meditating, I was doing three times a week, 15 minutes a day, lying on my dorm room bed, had no idea what I was ... just focusing on my breath. I went from waking up 20 to 30 times a night to waking up only two to three times a night, and sometimes I wasn't waking up at all. I had taken sleep medications and stuff, and nothing had a shift like that.
Anyone that suffers from insomnia, you can just imagine the radical shift that that could have. I rarely see results like that, that radical. But that was one of my experiences.
Dan: You mean in other people, your students and things like that.
Cory: That's right. I see often improved sleep, improved insomnia, and the research suggests that as well, but to make such a shift like that, that was huge.
I started getting interested in what's going on with this meditation thing, but I was an economics major, and this was in college when I was getting involved, so nobody in the Economics Department was talking about anything to do with meditation. So, the tipping point really came for me when we took this trip to the New York Stock Exchange. Every year Allegheny College, where I went to undergrad, we'd take this big trip to the New York Stock Exchange, and this year we were to meet with this multi-billionaire hedge fund manager. Everyone said, "This is a guy, if you could get anywhere, this is where you want to get. If you could learn from anyone, this is the guy you want to learn from." At that point, I was already questioning, "Is finance what I really want to go into?" But I was like, "Alright, maybe this guy will rekindle my enthusiasm for the business world."
We go there, take the eight-hour trip, sit around tables, like 30 of us, he gives a two-hour PowerPoint presentation, and it just sucked my soul right out of my body. I said, "I don't know exactly what I want to do with my life, but I know I do not want to end up like that guy." To be fair to that guy, he could have just been having a bad day, he might have rolled off the wrong side of the bed. I'm not saying he's a miserable person, and I'm definitely not saying all people in finance are miserable because I know plenty of people that are very content.
But the point of that was that for the first time I really started questioning, if that's not what I want, then what is it that I want? Every answer that just kept coming up could be reduced to the very cliché, like, "I want to be happy." That's not the first thing that was coming, a lot of it was just like, "Well I want to have a family. Why do you want a family? So I can have kids. Why? Because that'll give me greater meaning. Well, what does that do? Oh, it gives me more happiness. I want to make money. Why? So I can go on vacation? Why? So I ... then I'll be happier."
I could just see that everything was pushing me in that direction. So I got fascinated with happiness, well-being. I could see up until that point the exploration of it was in manipulating the external world. I got very interested in what is the possibility of cultivating a contentment that did not derive from external factors.
So I came home from spring break, and you can imagine a young man going home, talking to his father, saying, "Hey Dad, I know I was into business, but now I think I want to study happiness." Usually, it's going to be met with, "Okay, that's great for you, but go get a job." Instead it was, my father, who's a physician on Long Island, was kind of just getting frustrated with the direction of healthcare, and he was looking at different ways, evidence-based ways, to create positive behavior change and well-being, positive health, and that took him into the realm of the science of positive psychology and mindfulness. And he said, "Cory if that is something that you're interested in, it's now something that you could explore through and evidence-based lens. It's not exclusive to just religion and philosophy. There's a way that you can understand this scientifically."
He gave me Jon Kabat-Zinn's first book, "Full Catastrophe Living," and just every word of that book, the phrase that comes up is Dead Poet's Society when Robin Williams goes, "We don't read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey." That's what it was like just to read it. There was something deep inside me, I couldn't put a name on it, but it spoke volumes saying, "This is what you need to do with your life." It was such a clear understanding that if this kind of work could pay these kinds of dividends, at least the dividends that they're promising, what could be a more worthwhile investment of my time? And it all just went like that and two years later I was in a monastery with a shaved head.
Dan: I want to get to that real quick, but first, I let your reference to Jon Kabat-Zinn go by, and I've made a commitment to myself that when people use a name, that I will make sure that the listeners know who that person is. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been a guest on this podcast who is just kind of the granddaddy of modern secular mindfulness. He doesn't like the term "secular," but I'm-
Cory: Does he like the term, "Granddaddy"? (laugh)
Dan: He doesn't mind granddaddy because he actually is now a granddaddy. He has no problem with that, I don't think. Anyway, "Full Catastrophe Living" is among his books. He also wrote a book, "Wherever You Go, There You Are." These are great books and he's a guy who can talk about ... he's a scientist himself by training at MIT, and then ended up getting interested in how to make mindfulness something that could be taught in a secular context, specifically within healthcare, and it is what has boomed into this big, current mindfulness juggernaut we're looking at.
Dan: Anyway, having said that, just to keep everybody up to speed here, you went to a monastery in ... Burma?
Cory: In Burma.
Dan: Okay. How did you get there? How long were you there?
Cory: Oh man.
Dan: What was it like to have your head shaved? What was it like to be there? I want to know everything.
Cory: All right, all right, all right. I actually started getting ... I teach mindfulness-based stress reduction, Jon's program. So I started getting professionally-trained while I was in college to teach that program. So my entry point into mindfulness was through that lens.
Then I went on my first silent retreat here in the west.
Cory: At IMS.
Dan: Insight Meditation Society.
Cory: Insight Meditation Society.
Dan: Which is in Barre, Massachusetts and is run by some very close friends of mine, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield was also involved in starting it. These guys are all friends of Jon Kabat-Zinn, they're part of this cabal that I refer to as the-
Cory: The Jew-Bus.
Dan: Yeah, I'm not alone in calling them that. Anyway, so you went there. That's an interesting place for you to go on a silent retreat because you were teaching MBSR, which is the secular mindfulness.
Cory: That's right.
Dan: But IMS is avowedly Buddhist.
Cory: Oh yeah, very much so. However, as I'm sure Jon, as I imagine he would reveal, he's come more out in recent years, talking more openly about Buddhism and its role in MBSR. Not that he ever totally shied away from that, but in the beginning, you couldn't be talking about Dharma Buddhism in the late seventies and expect people to be receptive to it in healthcare.
All to say that the underpinnings of MBSR really do come from the Buddhist tradition. They encouraged us, as part of our mindfulness-based stress reduction training, if we were to be teachers, to go on silent meditation retreats. And they highly encouraged going to Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, which is IMS of the West Coast. That's how I went there.
I was more or less going there for seven days of silence just so I could cross it off my prerequisite list of, "All right, no I can be an MBSR teacher." I went with my father, believe it or not. It was a seven-day loving-kindness meditation retreat where, for those that might not be familiar with loving-kindness, you're essentially repeating these phrases of wishing well-being to other people, yourself, a difficult person, "May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe," et cetera.
So for someone that came to this from a very logical, science-oriented mind of like, "Alright, this is a way for me to observe my experience in a logical way," to start repeating these phrases over and over, it went over my head, I couldn't connect with it. I didn't feel anything, and I kind of just found value in learning to sit with myself for seven days straight, but at the end, didn't feel like anything spectacular happened.
But I knew all of these people were having amazing results from this work. I took my Type A personality that I had my entire life and just took it right into meditation. I said, "I want to go deep, and I want to do it as quickly as possible." I had just graduated college, I had $70,000 worth of college loans. So I was, "I'm going to defer these for a year, and I'm just going to dive into this." I talked to my teachers at IMS, Michele McDonald was one of them, and I said, "Listen, I've got six months. I want to do something that is going to take me to the heart of this practice. I want it to be difficult," because I felt like at that point I had lived a mostly privileged lifestyle, and I knew eventually [bleep] was going to hit the fan. I had the gravy right now in my life, but I didn’t feel like I had my mashed potatoes yet. So as soon as the gravy was gone, it was like what else was there? I wanted to … that might be a terrible metaphor … but I wanted to develop my mashed potatoes-
Dan: I’m with you, I’m with you, yeah, go with it.
Cory: Something to sustain myself, nourish myself, and again, cultivate that contentment that did not derive solely from external variables. I wanted to cry, I just wanted this to be hard, and I said, “Can I find a peace in some form of pain and suffering?”
Dan: You sound like a young man.
Cory: Yeah, exactly.
Dan: Very, like, grit your teeth and go for it.
Cory: That’s right, that’s right. And naïve, at that point. Arguably still. You don’t get many people coming to this work looking for that, and I think those ppl that think that’s what they want have no idea what they’re signing up for, and also to acknowledge there’s no real way to fabricate suffering. So I’m not saying going into a monastery is the same suffering as being in was or trauma, but for me at that point in time, the idea of severing myself from all external comforts and family and friends and going into silence, that was intense for me.
So I said that’s what I want. And they said, “All right, well if you want something like that and you want the mindfulness teachings, you should go over to Burma. Really intense teachings over there, some of the best teachers in the world. And if you want it to be really hard, you should study under this guy Sayadaw U Pandita, who was my teacher there. And I said, “That’s what I want.”
Dan: Legendary teacher.
Cory: Oh, yeah. You have some references to him?
Dan: Oh, well he a teacher for Joseph and Sharon.
Cory: That’s right.
Dan: He recently passed away.
Dan: He’s known as being just kind of the toughest, most demanding of all the mindfulness teachers ever.
Cory: Oh god, that guy, I mean, just tough, tough love. He would come around … I mean I’ll go through more of my experience there, but just one story that’s coming to mind … It was about three months into the retreat, and there were about 150 foreigners there because he would come for all of December, all of January and just give Dharma talks every single day. A dharma talk is just a meditation talk. So everyone from all over the world would come to study under this guy. We’d have these cottages set up, kind of in a horseshoe shape, where one person be here, here, here, here, here, here, just going around in a horseshoe. There was one day, I was ordained as a monk at this point, I was in my room just really being beaten down, so much physical pain, so much emotional pain, just, “What the heck am I doing?” So I took off all my robes, so I was completely naked because you can’t own any belongings other than your robes when you’re a monk. I had them hanging in my room, and I just laid down in my bed, butt naked, and you’re not supposed to read in a monastery, but I felt like I needed something that I could digest that was different than some of these teachings. So I pulled out Joseph Goldstein’s, “The Experience of Insight,” which was actually one of the … probably the second meditation book I got. And I just started reading this.
Keep in mind, this is Sayadaw U Pandita who is just notoriously, like, if you’re coming to that monastery, you are coming there to get enlightened or get the hell out. He would say things right along those lines. And if you’re a monk, you’re held even to a higher standard.
So here I am in my room lying naked, reading Joseph Goldstein’s book, and I hear all of these knocks on these different doors, and I’m like, “What’s going on?” I noticed the thought, like, “I should check that out.” But I noted it and then came back to my breath, and I came back to reading. And then I hear this knock on my door, I’m like, “Oh my god I’ve got to get up,” and before I can get up and put my robe, I see the door swing open, and Sayadaw U Pandita is standing right there, just staring at me.
Now, he doesn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Burmese. So he’s just giving me this death stare. It’s not a compassionate, like, Dalai Lama, “Oh I love you but you should …” It’s like, “What the hell are you doing in my monastery? Get the hell out, you do not deserve to be here.” And then he just shut the door. Was with these other two monks, and he pointed to my room number and just wrote it down in this sheet.
What he was doing was going around to every single room, just opening people's’ doors without any permission, seeing what they were doing, and then jotting their room number down if they were doing something wrong. Then he would talk to the other teachers who were doing the meetings with us and basically have them scold us and say, like, “I heard that you were doing this, this, and this, and this. If you’re going to be here, you’ve gotta take this seriously.”
So that was an interesting encounter with my teacher.
Dan: So did you get scolded?
Cory: I did, I did. Not by him, not by himself, but from someone else, because he has a lot of different teachers that are doing these interviews. Yeah, so I knew something was going to happen. So I came into the meeting the next day, and you have to do this bowing thing, bow down and report what’s going on in your practice, and at the end of that five-minute meeting, he said, “Sayadaw U Pandita came to your room the other day and he saw you reading. You know these are against the precepts. You’re not supposed to be reading while you’re here. Make sure that you’re taking the practice seriously.” It was something along those lines.
You meditated diligently, obviously out of a love for being there, but also there was an element of fear because he would call people out in the dharma hall. There would be 150 people there. If somebody was looking at the clock, he would point to you and he would tell one of his teachers that were sitting up front to go over to that person and say something along the lines of, “This yogi is not paying attention. A good yogi,” (and a yogi is just a meditator), “a good yogi should have their gaze down, be focused, not wandering.” So, when you were in this guy’s presence, his mind is vast, the wisdom is there, but it’s intense! It is intense.
Dan: Yeah it is. Sounds like it, wow! So how long were you on this retreat?
Cory: That was about six and a half months.
Cory: Yeah, of just silent, intensive practice.
Dan: And you were ordained as a monk, got your head shaved, the whole deal.
Dan: And have you done it since, or was that it? Not to diminish it. Six and a half months is a lot.
Cory: Yeah, yeah, no. No, I haven’t been back to Burma since. I try and do at least a 10-day silent retreat every year. But yeah, to do something longer like that just gets harder and harder.
Dan: Yes, of course, of course.
Cory: Unless, you know, if I were a dharma-specific teacher and I made my life specifically teaching Buddhism, I would have my priorities in a different order and making time to go on longer retreats, but for right now I teach primarily secular mindfulness, mainstream mindfulness, and keeping it as practical as possible, as non-polarizing as possible for people, and reaching as many people as I can.
I wouldn’t be able to … If I were teaching three-month retreats, that would be amazing, and my heart is in that as well, but 90 percent of the people that I teach have no interest in that whatsoever. So for me, it’s important to stay grounded in the world in a similar way that many of my students are. I found when I first came back from Asia, it was actually hard for me to relate to the person waking up in the morning at 5 a.m., and the idea of a retreat, for them, is the five minutes they get in the bathroom before the kids wake up. So, I found it helpful for me to not go away for as long and just to have my daily meditation practice.
Dan: I want to hear more about that in a second, but to get back to the retreat, you were right, his emphasis is on enlightenment, by which he is referring to (or was referring to when he was alive) the uprooting of negative emotions, which is a pretty radical thing that happens in a stepwise progression under the map that he uses.
Cory: That’s right.
Dan: And the first step in this progress is Stream Entry. The second one is Once-Returner. Then you become a Non-Returner. As I’ve said before, it sounds very Dungeons & Dragons. But there is, like, you’re not supposed to talk about how far you are on this map, so I don’t know how comfortable you are but did anything interesting or special happen to you while you were there for six and a half months?
Cory: Yeah. It is interesting there, it’s not kosher to talk about your different levels of insight and enlightenment. I will share one experience that happened around the five and a half month mark, right before I was about to leave. It’s very difficult to track your progress on a retreat like that because the progress is often very incremental. I remember getting to five months in and taking some time just to reflect on how much have I actually gotten out of this? And I wasn’t actually sure because your reference point is just Sayadaw U Pandita saying, “You need to do more, you need to do more, you need…” So it’s never good enough. I actually kind of started coming to the end feeling like, “Where’s the big experience that I’ve been looking for?
So I used to do this seeing meditation after breakfast every day. There’s a little bridge as you’re walking back to the meditation hall that overlooks a pond, and I would just sit there for about an hour during our hour long break and just look over the pond. Seeing meditation is just the same thing as just focusing on the breath. Instead, you’re just being aware of anything that you’re seeing without the story of, “Oh, I like that tree, oh, that’s beautiful, I wonder if I should bring trees back to my yard?” That would be the story. It’s just, “Alright, just seeing, just seeing.”
So I would do that, I probably did that for about two months straight, just this hour long seeing meditation. There was one day in particular where I woke up one morning and something felt different. There was a different degree of heat in my body, and my concentration was stronger than it had ever been before. Before my mind was just all over the place. But when I focused on my breath it was like my attention was glued to the breath. When I would focus on my foot stepping, it was like my attention was glued to the foot stepping. So I was like, “Alright, there’s something going on here today, I don’t know what it’s about.”
I go through the motions, wake up at 3, do a couple hours of meditation, go to breakfast.
Dan: We don’t want to let that slide by … You wake up at three in the morning at this place?
Cory: Yeah, you wake up at three in the morning, so it’s a whole other level of intensity. So, by the time breakfast is over I had about three, yeah, four hours worth of meditation in.
So I’m sitting at this bridge, and during those four hours, the intensity of the concentration is getting deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, and I’m sitting there and I’m looking out over the pond, and as I’m doing so, my eyes latched onto a tree that I was looking out in the distance, and things in my peripheral just started to get a little darker and darker, and then I felt this heat continue to rise in my body, concentration getting stronger, and then just in one moment it felt like everything evaporated.
The biggest evaporation was the sense of self. In just an instance I came into this felt sense of a communion with everything that was around me. There was no longer any division between myself and what I was seeing. There was no longer Cory, there was no longer a pond, it was just being, just seeing, just raw experience.
Dan: The world.
Cory: Just the world, yeah.
Dan: That sounds like stream entering.
Cory: You know, I won’t put a label on it. But it was a radical experience and transformed me moving forward, how I see myself, how I see the world, in that space of communion, non-duality, there was just this innate sense of compassion and care. And I am not someone that comes very naturally too. I was not involved in volunteer work growing up. I didn’t have this natural altruistic sense of service toward other people in the way that my peers did. In that experience, it shifted everything for me.
Dan: All because you were trying to impress a girl.
Cory: That’s right! Right? I’ve got to thank her one day for that.
Dan: Okay, so that’s amazing. That’s an amazing story. So just orient us in time here. How old are you now?
Cory: I am 27 now.
Dan: Okay, so you’re still a really young guy. So this was all happening, like, six years ago probably, right?
Cory: Yeah, about that.
Dan: So you came home and basically became a full-time MBSR teacher? Is that right? Is that what you do now?
Cory: Yeah. I have a lot of different trainings. One of the things, being young in this world, every training I went to I was the youngest by 10, 20 years. So there was a part of me that … I wanted to make sure my credentials were solid so people, it’s like, “What does this young kid know about …” Something that’s often associated with wisdom. Mindfulness meditation, wisdom.
So I got obsessed with doing these different trainings. I did the full MBSR teacher training, I did training through mindful schools, I did training through the Search Inside Yourself program (the Mindfulness Program at Google), Breathworks, chronic pain, I got my Master’s in Positive Psychology from UPenn and became a Duke Integrative Health Coach, training after training after training … NLP hypnosis. Part of it was I did want to make sure my resume was good, but the majority of it is I was fascinated by this stuff and all of the different ways that these different teachers were teaching it.
My training is I teach in school settings and healthcare settings and organization settings and just to the public.
Dan: On Long Island.
Cory: On Long Island, and I do a lot of corporate stuff all over the country and sometimes outside of the country as well.
Dan: And you do a lot of stuff, or some stuff, on Dr. Oz.
Cory: Yeah, so they called me up several years ago to do one of their segments, and then that spiraled into some other stuff with them. So yeah, I do some stuff with Dr. Oz.
Dan: How regularly are you on there?
Cory: I actually haven’t done a segment with them in a year. Because you can only talk about mindfulness so many times.
Cory: That’s getting into the whole wave, the fad of mindfulness may be coming … not crashing yet, but anyway, that’s a whole other topic. So yeah, I haven’t been on there probably in a year, but yeah, I did a number of things with them.
Dan: So it’s interesting to me, because you teach mindfulness, and I think Dr. Oz does transcendental meditation, which is a different modality. Was that at all an issue?
Cory: No, not at all. He’s brought on, I think, some TM teachers in the past to talk about that realm. The research with TM is more robust than people are aware of. It’s just mindfulness is so hot right now that that’s one of the reasons he was bringing it on the show.
Dan: Yeah. No, I think there’s research for both, for sure.
Cory: Yeah, yeah. But no, it wasn’t an issue at all. He was very fascinated by it.
Dan: Do you think … because I’ve been on Dr. Oz’s show before too, and I mean he’s a great interviewer and I think he totally gets it, I just wonder, do you think it makes an impact being on that show? Do you think his audience gets it? Wants it? Etc, etc.
Cory: That’s a good question. I had a number of people that reached out to me anytime I’d go on there saying that they either found it beneficial or it helped clarify some things. There are going to be different levels of how this work is beneficial for someone. You can make the argument that going away for 10 years and living in a cave is going to be the most beneficial if you’re on the path to enlightenment. It’s like, alright, are you going to do that? Probably not.
Then what would next be? Well, maybe an hour a day. Well, are you going to do that? Most people, probably not. Maybe twenty minutes? Maybe not. Maybe taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction course? Maybe, yeah, maybe that will be good. Are you going to do it? Maybe not. Maybe listening to 10 minutes of this guy talking about basic practices of meditation on Dr. Oz, is that going to do it? If that’s the thing that allows you to maybe be open to the idea of mindfulness and then ten years down the road, that’s the memory that was there? It’s like, “Oh, I saw that now I’m kind of into it.” … Then I think that’s great.
It’s not for everyone at every point in time, and I can’t give my whole pitch about why I think this work is important in a seven-minute segment interview, but I know people that watch Dr. Oz religiously and derive tremendous value.
Dan: Yeah, yeah.
Dan: I’m with you. I think … I agree with your analysis. In the meditation world the analogy that sometimes gets used, this is actually a business analogy, is that of a funnel. The top of the funnel is people who are either skeptical or maybe mildly meditation curious, and the bottom of the funnel is, “I’m in Burma with my head shaved communing with a tree.”
You’re actually, you’re dealing at the top of the funnel, it sounds to me. You’re teaching in corporations and in hospitals, and going on TV, etc., etc. I’m curious, from that perspective, one of the things that I’ve become really focused on, as a person who talks about meditation publicly, is what are the obstacles? What’s getting in the way of people meditating? I have a friend who is at Google who is in charge of getting people to meditate at Google, his name is Bill Duane. He has some expression, I don’t know if I’m going to get it right, but it’s like, “We know the medicine works, we just can’t get people to take it.”
So, from your perspective, again, at the top of the funnel, what are the major obstacles and how do we get people over them?
Cory: I’ll start with maybe the obvious one, which is time. Even though you can tell people, “You don’t need to do this for an hour a day,” you still have this feeling like, “(sigh) 20 minutes, 30 minutes …”
So if you wake up in the morning and the thought is, “Oh, I have to do 20 minutes of meditation a day,” if you came right off of a workshop or a retreat and you’re really inspired, you’re probably going to do that 20 minutes. But after a couple of weeks of that, it’s like, “20 minutes of meditation, or I can hit the snooze button, or I can watch an episode of Modern Family,” … You’re probably going to start choosing the latter after a point in time.
So, that in itself just becomes a barrier to entry. The cost of opting in, for many people, is too much. The opportunity cost is too great. What I have been telling people if they find themselves in that category, that camp of, “I can’t do 30 minutes, I can’t do 20 minutes,” then just commit to one minute.
Why? Do I think one minute is going to be the thing that changes your life? Well, you know, it could be really powerful, but not so much. What I love about one minute is it’s a very low-cost option, very few barriers to entry, because if you start saying, “Oh, I don’t have a minute to meditate,” we really have got to start evaluating some things going on in your life, because you definitely need more than meditation if make that argument. Even if it’s like, do it while you’re in the bathroom. If you say, “I don’t have a minute more to do in the bath-“ like, do your meditation business while you’re doing your other business. You can fit one minute in.
So with that, it’s hard to argue yourself out of it, and now when you get somebody that wakes up in the morning and is like, “Alright, it was 20 minutes? Well, what if I just did one minute? Alright, I can do one minute.” So I sit down and do one minute. Usually, what happens, people get to the end of one minute and they go, “You know what this kind of feels good, let me do two minutes.” Then they do two minutes and it’s like, “Alright, let me do three.”
Dan: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Cory: And you can see what happens. You go from one to two to three to four to five. But what’s key there is you go from the space of arguing yourself out of the meditation to actually arguing yourself into it.
Dan: Arguing yourself in, yes.
Cory: Why that is so important, more from a psychology perspective is-
Dan: I’m literally going to pull my phone out and start typing this down.
Cory: Okay, cool.
Dan: This is not me being distracted, this is me being the opposite of distracted, and I’ll tell you why in a second, but keep going.
Cory: Alright, yeah. One of the reasons that’s so important is because it leverages something called autonomy. And if you study intrinsic motivation, self-determined behavior, specifically research by this guy named Ed Deci and Richard Ryan out of the University of Rochester, they have 30-plus years of research understanding what drives people to do things. Autonomy is foundational to that.
I have this theory that I’ve been working, I haven’t written anything about it yet, but when you set a timer, or you have an external standard stipulation of, like, “20 minutes, 30 minutes, I have to do that,” … It’s a subtle form, very subtle, but still a form of external regulation. It’s kind of like the difference between your mom and dad, you saying, “I want to go to soccer practice,” and now you’re driven to go to soccer practice, versus your mom and dad saying, “You have to go to soccer practice.” It’s like, “Ugh, now I have to.”Sometimes the timer can act like, “I have to get to the end of 30 minutes.”
So when you’re opting into every subsequent moment after that one minute mark, now there is full autonomy there, and because of that there’s going to be greater curiosity, there’s going to be greater interest. You chose to be in this moment, and you chose to be with this moment of pain if it’s coming up. That’s very different than having to grit your teeth and get through it.
I get that there’s going to be different arguments around this and people will say, “Sometimes you’ve got to grit your teeth to understand how to be with, and you’ve got to do the thirty minutes, sit through it.” I totally get that, but for many people, it’s either the one minute or nothing at all, and I’d rather see them at least start with something they’re going to do, and then feel like they have autonomy and interest in sustaining it moving forward.
Dan: Okay. I’ve just taken a bunch of notes on my phone as you were talking, and here’s why, aside from the fact that that was just interesting, really interesting in and of itself … I’m actually, as we speak, in the middle of writing a chapter for my next book, which is a little book, the next book I’m going to put out, which comes out at New Year is a companion piece to 10% Happier. The book is a road trip we took across the country where we tried to find people who want to meditate but aren’t and made a taxonomy of all of the reasons people aren’t doing it, and then we’re trying to come up with great rebuttals to the reasons people aren’t doing it.
I’m in the middle or writing a chapter about the time issue right now.
Cory: Oh, great.
Dan: The time is the trickiest issue. You just gave a great disquisition on it, but a part of when people … there was something you said before. If somebody says they don’t have one minute, we need to really talk about your life in some ways. Actually, what I found in my research, and I’m sure this is going to ring true to you, when people say they don’t have time, they actually sometimes mean a bunch of other things, including, “I don’t believe in the benefits, I don’t want to make time.” It can speak to just laziness and inertia. It can also speak to a fear of seeing what’s there, what I refer to as the Pandora’s Box issue, that if I look, I’m going to see all of my trauma, all of my ugliness, the whole mess. The other issue is people feel like, “I don’t deserve this.”
Dan: I see this in my wife. My wife who is a scientist who knows the benefits and is married to a guy who is much less of an idiot than he used to be because he meditates, and yet she can’t do it. Part of that is because she just doesn’t believe she deserves the self-care, on some level. I see this with a lot of people, particularly people in the helping professions. My wife is a doctor, and I’ve seen it also in the course of my road trip with social workers, etc., etc. So this time issue, which is the number one thing, is kind of a window into a much deeper, darker place in our psyche.
Cory: Oh yeah, yeah. You’re right on. And you alluded to what I call the P word, Permission. Giving yourself permission to actually do this.
One of the reasons why I say sometimes, if you just did a minute, let’s say you didn’t do the one to two to three minute, you just did one minute for the rest of your life, you’re showing yourself that you’re at least worth showing up for yourself for one minute a day. That is going to carry over into subsequent moments.
Above and beyond that, when I will first, usually if I’m guiding people through their first meditation it will be about 12 minutes long. I will spend about three minutes in the beginning with people's’ eyes closed, just walking them through the fact that “I’m sure there’s been plenty going on in your life right now before you came here. Once this is over, plenty to do. But keeping in mind that you’ve allocated this time for yourself right now. Because of that, there’s no place else you need to be, nothing else you need to do, nothing you need to accomplish. See if you can give yourself the permission to be here.”
Then I’ll cite a quote by Parker Palmer, and he says, “Self-care is never a selfish act. It’s simply good stewardship of the only gift we have, the gift we were put on this earth to offer others. Anytime that we can take care of ourselves of ourselves in this way, we do it not just for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we aim to serve.”
Dan: Well, yeah, on a less fancy way of saying that is what they say during the airline safety instructions. “Don’t put other people's’ oxygen masks on until you put your own on first.” You can’t be of use if you’re a mess.
Cory: Yeah, that’s right.
Dan: It’s just what it is. I’m going to make an admission. You may not like this.
Cory: What is it?
Dan: Well, you’ll like it at the end, you won’t like it at the beginning. So, I had some misgivings about having you on because I didn’t really know who you were. This guy who I don’t know, this guy who’s a big Hollywood agent reached out to me, who, I didn’t know him either, but seemed like a pretty impressive dude. He was like, “You know, you should really take a look at Cory.” So I just was like, “Alright, fine, I’ll do it.”
And … You are really impressive. I’m glad that I … I thought I was going to like you because we have a lot in common, but I’m like, “Ah, he’s a 27 year old guy who, whatever, he’s on Dr. Oz,” not that I have anything against Dr. Oz, because I have been on Dr. Oz, but anyway, you are a massively pleasant surprise, let me just say that as a compliment that is very genuine.
Cory: Thank you, I really appreciate that.
Dan: We’re almost done. I have two more questions for you. Before we finish I want to pick up on something you alluded to before that maybe the mindfulness wave is crashing or cresting or something like that. Do you think that’s true?
Cory: It’s so hard to tell. I don’t think people's’ attention spans can continue to see mindfulness on the cover of Time magazine more than two more times, in my opinion, or Scientific American. What’s great about this is that the research is so strong and foundational that even if it goes away as a fad, as an efficacious modality for reducing suffering and improving well-being, it’s going to be there in medicine in a huge way. I think we’re just scratching the surface of getting into business, so that’s going to continue to grow. In education, that’s only going to continue to grow.
But in terms of just seeing it plastered all over the place … I mean, I even just saw an article in Time the other day talking about workplace ways to reduce stress, and then underneath it says, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to meditate for five minutes.”
Cory: I think there’s already an acknowledgment that it’s getting a bit overused. But, let’s keep in mind for anyone that’s listening, this has been around for 2600-plus years. So I’m not saying meditation is going away, I’m just saying the hype around this, most of which I would argue is not a sincere interest, it’s just people like latching onto something.
Dan: Yeah. New York Magazine used to do this thing, I don’t know if they do it anymore, they talked about the Hype Cycle. You’d get the build-up, a thing (whatever it is that’s being hyped) reaches a peak, and then you get a backlash, but then you get a backlash to the backlash.
Dan: So I think Hype Cycles are a good way to pan back the camera and think about this from a more geologic perspective because I do think we’re going to see a lot of that. But at the root of the proposition of mindfulness and meditation is, look, this thing has been tested, not only in the labs, but also in the individual labs of human minds for thousands of years. I do think it’s going to be around, and we may get some bad press and some good press at various times, but I think we’re kind of on an inexorable march towards this thing being a public health staple, I hope, in the long term.
Cory: Yeah, I agree.
Dan: Here’s my last question for you.
Dan: People who want to learn more about you, where can they do so?
Cory: There’s a new thing that I started doing. Anytime I give a presentation, people want follow-up resources, and I don’t always have the best way to do that. So I have this number that if people texted their email address address to this number, in three minutes it’ll send them a follow-up email that has five of my different guided meditations. My [crosstalk] page.
Dan: Okay great.
Cory: The number is (917) 983-0105. If you just text your email address to that, it’ll give you all of my contact information, but also five of my different meditations, a seven page mindfulness starter kit with app recommendations, books and all of that stuff. Just to get started, it’s all there.
I’m on the normal social media. I Facebook Live one of my Tuesday night meditation groups. I Reddit. I have a post called “Coffee With Cory” on Instagram and Twitter, if you want to check that out. My primary teaching is on Long Island. I run a number of groups, retreats in the Long Island, New York area. So if you’re nearby, it’d be great to have you, and if not you could come by for a retreat. I run those a couple times a year on Long Island.
Dan: Awesome. Great job man, you killed it.
Cory: Thanks man, I appreciate it.
Dan: You really did a great job.