#85: Mark Coleman, Meditating in the Great Outdoors
“The critic manifests mostly as words, but it affects us physically, emotionally, energetically,” says Mark Coleman, a mindfulness teacher and author of “Make Peace With Your Mind.” Mark and Dan talk about how to deal with your Inner Critic and treat yourself with compassion. Dan opens up about the sudden loss of a friend, and it leads to a deep discussion on impermanence and how meditation can help you acknowledge it in your day to day life. Mark is the founder of Awake in the Wild and The Mindfulness Institute. Mark talks about how nature and meditation are a great pairing, and how nature can relieve stress and help you “open your heart.”
Mark tells of his young days as an anarchist in the political underground
How squatting in a Buddhist housing collective led him towards his own practice
Why practicing meditation should lead to being more present in every moment
How to your “inner critic” and make peace with your judgmental thoughts
Nature can “open your heart” and relieve your stress
Dan and Mark have a deep conversation about the impermanence of everything in life
How to recognize impermanence daily, not just when difficult events remind you of it. Mark explains his use of the observation, “One less.”
How humor, lightness, and sarcasm can help you deal with self-judgments
Moving from self-criticism to self-compassion
“No matter how many spiritual, mystical, wonderful, profound experiences you have ... the practice always comes down to how are you showing up in this moment.” -Mark Coleman
“What arises out of all of this deep practice that we do in meditation … is the ability to get outside of oneself and to be able to be more present and caring and awake to what's here, as opposed to … auto-pilot, being asleep, being reactive, being lost in one's thoughts, being lost in one's self-critic, etc.” -Mark Coleman
On being outside: “Everywhere you look is an expression of change and transience. There's nothing about being outside that's not changing.” -Mark Coleman
On noting impermanence: “I say to myself, ‘One less.’ So, with breath, ‘One less.’ A fabulous meal? One less before I die. This wonderful conversation I'm having with you? One less. This time on retreat or in the country? One less time. This full moon? It'll be one less full moon.” -Mark Coleman
“So, your critic is just lashing out at you for, whatever, being not perfect and being stupid, or whatever. So, you shift from the thought and the critic to, you ask yourself, how am I feeling right now? How does that land? What do I feel in my heart or my body or my energy? You shift from the thoughts to the feeling. With that awareness of the feeling, my experience, when we acknowledge the suffering of something, it doesn't create, but it allows the conditions for a compassionate response to arise.” -Mark Coleman
An example of turning critical thoughts to compassionate feeling: “Rather than like, ‘Oh, you stupid, you should have done more, you should have done better,’ is that, ‘Oh, this is hard for you. This is hard for you, this is difficult.’” -Mark Coleman
Other Content Mentioned
10% Happier Podcast Episode 42: Robin Roberts
10% Happier Podcast Episode 28: Oren Sofer
10% Happier Podcast Episode 22: Dr. Mark Epstein
How to learn more about Mark:
Books by Mark Coleman
Introduction from Dan:
Dan Harris: Okay, before we start, we start a quick programming note. Today is the start of Season 2 of Robin Roberts' podcast. It's called "Everybody's Got Something." The last season I was a guest on there, along with my colleague Amy Robach, so you can go back and check that out. It was really fun.
And Robin has been a guest on this podcast, and she really came to play. I learned a lot about her, and I've known her for more than a decade. I think you'll learn a lot about her too, as somebody who's in the public sphere. But I think this was really educational and inspirational, the interview she gave to us, which was back on Episode 41 in this podcast stream.
Anyway, go check out her new podcast, season 2 of Everybody's Got Something. Now here's our show.
On the show this week we've got a renowned mindfulness teacher by the name of Mark Coleman, who has a particular focus on meditation in nature, which I have to say I've been thinking a lot lately that I am not spending enough time in nature, and I wonder if that's a problem. Anyway, he got me thinking about that. He also ... You'll hear about his backstory, which involved having a mohawk at one point. So he comes to meditation from an unusual background.
Before we get into that though, I just also just want to plug quickly that one of our previous guests on this show, Oren Sofer, who was back on podcast number 28, we've posted a new course from Oren on the 10% Happier app. It's called Emotional Agility, and it's really about how to be agile with your emotions. A lot of us, myself included, find it really weird and squishy to talk about our emotions. But they are there, and when you're unaware of them, they yank you around. So Oren is actually a maestro at coming up with a really interesting, practical techniques for dealing with your emotions. If you check out the course on the app, the first session is free.
Back to Mark Coleman. Brilliant guy, has a new book out, and as somebody who's been on the mindfulness scene for a long time had a whole life story about which I was unaware and has a ton of practical wisdom for dealing with the voice in your head, which I really found quite impressive. So here he is, Mark Coleman.
Conversation with Mark & Dan:
Dan Harris: I'm going to start with the question which I ask everybody at the beginning, which is how did you start meditating?
Mark Coleman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I started meditating in the early eighties. Actually, the interesting story, my father originally took mem to a transcendental meditation class when I was about 16. Our family is not in any way meditation inclined, but he had a health condition that his father said, "If you don't do something about your stress, you're going to die, so how about a meditation class?"
Dan Harris: And where was this?
Mark Coleman: This was in a small working town in the south of England.
Dan Harris: Okay.
Mark Coleman: And then later, a few years later, I had that experience and it was great, and I enjoyed it, but it sort of wasn't really that impressionable. I just went on with my life.
Dan Harris: Did your dad stick with it?
Mark Coleman: He did for some time.
Dan Harris: Interesting.
Mark Coleman: Yeah, yeah. It actually was great. We all meditated together, and it was a very sweet family experience. My mother, my father, and me. Being quiet for 20 minutes a day. How amazing?
Dan Harris: Yeah.
Mark Coleman: Then I moved to London, became a punk rock guy, was an anarchist. I was a very angry young man.
Dan Harris: Were you in bands and stuff like that? Or were you just a fan of them?
Mark Coleman: Just a fan of bands, yeah, I couldn't play anything to ...
Dan Harris: Do you have crazy piercings or anything like that?
Mark Coleman: I had a white mohawk.
Dan Harris: Nice!
Mark Coleman: Big earrings. I used to make my own clothes. It was a really fun time, the boom of punk in the early eighties. Anyhow, I was an anarchist, and there was a lot of ... Similar time like now where there's a lot of political underground against Thatcher, who was really dismantling some of the social fabric. I was pretty angry, a lot of hatred, and I thought the problems of my mind were all because of the government and society and corporations and the way the society was running.
I ended up squatting. There was a big movement taking over public housing. There was hundreds of thousands of houses that were empty because of the mismanagement of housing in London. And so I took over this house that ended up being, I realized, was owned by a Buddhist housing cooperative. I got to know them and they, being Buddhist, they didn't kick me out. They said, "You know, you should really check out your own mind. Go around to this meditation center around the corner and maybe you'll actually find some help to what it is you're going through."
I was definitely searching, I was definitely unhappy and was looking for something, looking for a way out other than drugs, alcohol, and demonstrating on the streets.
Dan Harris: What do you think the source of the unhappiness was?
Mark Coleman: You know, that's a really good question. So the reason I wrote the book is because I had a lot of self-hatred.
Dan Harris: Which book? You have two.
Mark Coleman: Uh-huh. The second book, "Make Peace With Your Mind."
Dan Harris: Yes.
Mark Coleman: Which is a book about how mindfulness and compassion helps free you from the inner critic. I had a tremendous amount of self-hatred and self-judgment, and that in itself caused a lot of suffering. I didn't understand and I thought that was normal and so I went into this Buddhist center and I started meditating and I realized, "Oh, wait a minute, that's what's causing this pain. That's what's causing so much suffering is the way that ... not the only cause but one of the ways is that I'm torturing myself with self-judgment, self-criticism, undermining myself, and just carrying around a general sense of unworthiness, not good enough, and anything I did wasn't right or perfect.
Dan Harris: And how did you see that? In the most granular terms, can you describe how did that become clear to you? You just started noticing the kinds of thoughts you were having?
Mark Coleman: Yeah, as you know, what happens when you're meditating, you start to see one of the things that's the loudest is there's the radio station of your mind that's broadcasting a lot of thoughts, and I just began to see most of the thoughts were really negative, angry, and they were a lot turned towards myself, and really harsh and mean and cruel and critical, and really just difficult to be with.
It wasn't all that was there, there was plenty of other stuff too. I was also judgmental of other people in the world, and the whole variety of meandering thoughts, but there was definitely this strain of heavy, negative-oriented thinking.
Dan Harris: It sounds like you were hard to live with, and the person who was taking the brunt of you being a pain in the butt was you.
Mark Coleman: Yes, yes. Which I think is true for many people.
Dan Harris: Yeah, I could have been describing myself.
Mark Coleman: We are the hardest people to live with. We're our own worst critics, and we tend to orient towards what's wrong, what's negative, what's problematic, what's deficient, and therefore have a distorted sense of ourselves and feel really bad about ourselves.
Dan Harris: From an evolutionary standpoint, why do you think we have been bred for that propensity?
Mark Coleman: I think it's a negativity bias. You know, we grow up in the Savannah or wherever it is in the wild, and we've been trained and we survived through looking at what's threatening, what's problematic, what's different, what's fearful. And so the brain's very heavily oriented. Neuroscience has really illuminated that negativity bias lives on today in the way that we're still scanning the environment as if looking for that deadly threat, except it's turned inward, and also turned outward too. It's that hard-wired orientation that we can start to unhook with meditation practice.
Dan Harris: So evolution didn't care about happiness. Evolution cared about getting your genes into the next generation. So, this threat detection reflex kept us alive, and miserable.
Mark Coleman: Yes. Perhaps not so miserable back then, because there was plenty of threat to be oriented towards. Now there's less threat and there's more time for rumination, and we also have social media and a whole other realm of things to compare ourselves to and all the ways that we're not good enough and cute enough and smart enough, et cetera.
Dan Harris: We're going to talk a lot more about this, the inner critic, but just staying with your chronology for a moment. So, you go on a retreat? Is that what happens? You're squatting in these people's house. They say, "Cool, you can stay, we suggest you go on a retreat." And you said, "Sure"?
Mark Coleman: No, I just went to the center around the corner and I started taking classes. Actually, what happened is I walked into the center and I saw these milling around. They were working, cleaning the place. As you may have had this similar experience, I saw the look in their eyes, and there was something about these people that had a quality of presence and purposefulness and clarity, and I didn't know what it was, but I knew I wanted it. I was like, "They're onto something, and I want to know how they got to that place."
Dan Harris: That's the way I felt when I met Dr. Mark Epstein, who has been a guest on this podcast and was one of the first practicing Buddhists I ever met, and then a lot of these sort of paleo JuBus that he introduced me to, like Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. They had a something that I coveted.
Mark Coleman: Yeah, it's tangible. You can see it, you can feel it, there's a brightness in the eyes, and there's a sudden calmness in the presence, and it was very different than ... I'd grown up in a somewhat rough, working class northern England environment, and the qualities of meditation presence were not what I was exposed to. It was much rougher. It was an aggressive kind of culture.
So, seeing this quality in these people, it's like, "Ah, there's another way to be here." I started meditating, and I started getting a little intimation. As you know, it's slow, it's slow to begin to feel and develop these qualities, but I began to have a taste, and also something about seeing them gave me a sense of faith, that that possibility was available if you put the time and the effort and the practice in.
Dan Harris: That's important. And faith, which is a loaded word, can also just be confidence.
Mark Coleman: Yes, confidence or conviction or, you know, just the awareness that there's a possibility of a way to develop something that wasn't even on my radar, yet once I saw it, it was like, "Oh, that seems like a really smart way to live.
Dan Harris: So what did you do next? Did you shave the mohawk?
Mark Coleman: I did, I shaved the mohawk, I gave all of my clothes away, and I moved into, basically a kind of a monastery. A retreat center that was way out in the country. I dropped out of college, much to the shock of my family and friends. I just really wanted to go deep into the practice of meditation and Buddhist teaching, and it seemed like that was more important than anything. And so I was ready to give up everything for it.
Dan Harris: Were you a monk? On a silent retreat?
Mark Coleman: I was in a tradition where you could've ... there was an ordination process. I didn't get ordained, but I was very much involved in that sub-culture of Buddhist practice in England.
Dan Harris: What tradition?
Mark Coleman: It's called The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. They're now called the Triratna Vandana Sangha, I think.
Dan Harris: That first one was easier to pronounce.
Mark Coleman: I know, it's English, so it helps.
Dan Harris: So is it Thai?
Mark Coleman: It was an integration of Tibetan and Theravada and some Zen, developed by Sangharakshita, who was a Buddhist monk, from England, in the forties and fifties. Met all of the great masters coming out of Tibet in the fifties and sixties, and then developed his own brand of Buddhism that had an emphasis on community, on right livelihood, and a very integrated practice, actually. Very much in the world.
I studied with them for many years, and at some point I realized I was itching for something more closer to the original tradition, closer to Asia and India and the Buddha. So I went to India, and I met my first Vipassana teacher Christopher Titmuss.
Dan Harris: Christopher Titmuss, yeah, okay, I've heard his name.
Mark Coleman: He's based in England, founded Gaia House, co-founded Gaia House, and a wonderful-
Dan Harris: Yes, yes, which is a famous retreat center in the U.K., yeah.
Mark Coleman: Yep, and a wonderful Vipassana teacher.
Dan Harris: Controversial?
Mark Coleman: Yes.
Dan Harris: Yeah.
Mark Coleman: Somewhat, yep.
Dan Harris: Why?
Mark Coleman: I think, well, he's radical ... he has a certain uncompromising quality. I think in Buddhist tradition in general, many teachers have this kind of pretty strong cutting through, no (bleep), am I allowed to say that?
Dan Harris: Yeah, you are, I'm not. Go ahead.
Mark Coleman: Not pandering to people's comforts and need to have it easy and cushy. Very on fire, at the time, in his own awakening and teaching. I was riveted. I studied with him in Bodhgaya, and went back to Bodhgaya, the place the Buddha got enlightened, and I was there for every year for 10 years. It just completely lit up my practice, and also being in that Asian milieu really helped kindle a deep love of the teaching and the tradition and the practice.
Dan Harris: But if you're going to go to Asia, why not have an Asian teacher?
Mark Coleman: That is a good question. Well, I did have an Asian teacher. I also studied with a teacher called [Pun-ja-chee], who is from the advaita vedanta tradition.
Dan Harris: Of the Hinduism?
Mark Coleman: Yep, yep. Advaita vedanta is quite close to much of Buddhist teaching. He was both a lover of the Buddha and of Vedanta. So, I was actually studying both. Then I went to Thailand at [inaudible]'s monastery and studied a little bit there. But to me it was less about going to Asia to study Asian Buddhism, even though I was falling in love with the context of that tradition, it was really falling in love with the process of awakening, of insight, of freeing one's mind and heart from suffering.
Dan Harris: Okay, so you just used a bunch of classic Buddhist jargon. Can you put that in English for me? These are alluring terms. Awakening, you know, it's really, I don't know, I want to be awake, except for-
Mark Coleman: When you're not.
Dan Harris: Yeah, when I don't. Freeing from suffering. I'm forcing you now, proverbial gun to the head. What do you mean by that, in the plainest of English? How would you explain it to your former neighbors in Northern England.
Mark Coleman: Good question, which I may be going back to in a couple of months to do that very thing. I just found out that many of my school friends are actually becoming interested in mindfulness, which is amazing to me given that it's seemingly a long way from where I am not in San Francisco.
How would I put that? You know, the simplest way I like to talk about it is how we show up and meet whatever moment is in front of us with awareness, with kindness, with understanding, right? So, no matter how many spiritual, mystical, wonderful, profound experiences you have, and they of course inform who you are and how you live, the practice always comes down to how are you showing up in this moment?
So, today it took me 10 extra hours to get here because of delayed flights and cancellations.
Dan Harris: And, by the way, you seem unruffled.
Mark Coleman: Well, here we are. So, the invitation, the practice is awakening has to mean how you're living and responding in this moment. Are you living with awareness and presence? Or are you living with reactivity and self-absorption?
Dan Harris: And that would be to be asleep. In other words, to be on auto-pilot.
Mark Coleman: Yeah, autopilot.
Dan Harris: Sleep walking through everything.
Mark Coleman: Unconscious, reactive, resentful, blaming everybody, not taking responsibility, and being self-absorbed and self-centered, versus being aware, being present, whether it's to your children or to your colleagues, or to the bus driving down the road. Also, you know, there's a lot of pain, difficulty and struggle in life, for all of us in different ways, internally/externally. How do we meet that with care, with kindness, with compassion?
From my experience, what arises out of all of this deep practice that we do in meditation and in whatever spiritual practice you're doing is the ability to get outside of oneself and to be able to be more present and caring and awake to what's here, as opposed to, as you say, auto-pilot, being asleep, being reactive, being lost in one's thoughts, being lost in one's self critic, et cetera.
Dan Harris: Well, your self critic should tell you that you just did a great job explaining that with no preparation, you didn't know I was going to ask you to do that, so that was very good and I think very compelling, and extremely comprehensible and relatable, universally.
So you walked us through the various teachers with whom you studied. What do you do now?
Mark Coleman: I am mostly a meditation teacher, so that forms a basis for many, many different things that I do. I teach out at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which is a center in California.
Dan Harris: Where I did my first 10-day silent retreat.
Mark Coleman: That's right, that's right.
Dan Harris: Yeah. Joseph Goldstein, who taught that retreat, sent me a note over the summer saying he was going back to teach it, and he expected that they would have a plaque erected in my honor. They didn't.
Mark Coleman: They didn't.
Dan Harris: No.
Mark Coleman: That's cute. Well, who knows? In time. "Dan Harris sat here on this very cushion."
Dan Harris: I was sitting on a chair, man. I'm not limber enough to sit on a cushion.
Mark Coleman: Right, yeah, yeah, it hurts your knees. So yeah, I'm a meditation teacher there. I have a lot of different avenues. I think of myself as a bridge builder from the tradition of meditation and Buddhism to different facets in communities. So, one of the things I'm passionate about is integrating mindfulness and meditation in nature.
Dan Harris: Which was the subject of your first book, if I recall.
Mark Coleman: Right, "Awake in the Wild." And I love the wilderness, I love nature, I love this earth, and I love, particularly, how we can learn to bring this practice of mindfulness, bring a contemplative awareness to being outside. Rather than just doing it, biking it, conquering it, scaling it, to actually bring that same quality of awareness that you might do to yourself or your children, or whatever it is you love, to nature. Then in doing that, you actually become much more receptive and open to being touched, and also being taught by nature. Nature is, I think, the perennial teacher of wisdom, of letting go, of connection, of love.
Dan Harris: How does nature teach that stuff?
Mark Coleman: It does it simply by ... because it is that. So, for example, one of the key teachings of both Buddhism and many other traditions is the teachings of change, right? Everything's impermanent. Transient, fragile, and unreliable. Including our body, everything.
So you go out and you sit in the woods, you see the whole thing is changing. Whether it's the wind in the trees, the grasses are both, you know, right now they're flourishing, but there's also decay. The trees are sprouting blossoms but also have dead limbs. There's skulls and bones and debris on the ground. Everywhere you look is an expression of change and transience. There's nothing about being outside that's not changing.
When we're in our rooms, like the room we're in now, it's built to keep out change, to keep out obstacles and wind and-
Dan Harris: (inaudible)
Mark Coleman: Yeah, yeah. So we get to believe this idea that things are kind of stable and steady, and they sort of are on one label, on another level nothing is stable, nothing is reliable. All the sense of connection, right?
So, one of the things I was just teaching up in northern New Mexico at this wonderful center called Vallecitos, it's a wilderness ranch. We drink from the spring, and I say to people, you know, there's this idea that everything's connected and we're intimately woven into the web of life, and that's a nice idea. And then I say, "Well think about it. We're mostly made of water, right? 70% water. And we're drinking from this mountain spring. After a week you are mostly that spring." That's not just a nice idea, that's true. That becomes your cells and your blood and your tears, right?
It's when you spend a lot of time in nature, quietly, with some awareness, that stuff starts to permeate. Or we simply walk out of our office or our house where we're having a stressful time, and we look up, even if we're in the city and we see the sky, or we look at the clouds, or we feel the wind, it takes us out of that small sense of self. When we see there's something, there's a bigger reality. That is tremendously stress-relieving. It's also wisdom in that, oh yeah, there is this bigger thing outside of this little microcosm of me.
There's just so many ways that nature's teaching us, not like, "You should learn this," but just like, "Here it is," if you spend enough time there to listening. You can get that from going down to Central Park. You can see whether it's change or openness or connection, then it opens the heart. We go outside because we love it, it's beautiful. Fall leaves or the spring grasses or ... yesterday I was driving in California, saw this little two-day old little Bambi. It breaks your heart open, it's beautiful.
Dan Harris: Okay, so I didn't plan to bring this up. I'm going to bring something up that's going to be a little jarring and heavy and maybe a little horrifying, because it's on my mind right now, and it relates to the issue of impermanence. I found out today that a very close friend of mine was on a plane that went down in the Bahamas with her two young children.
Mark Coleman: Oh, I'm sorry.
Dan Harris: Yes, and so all of my friends are horrified, this has actually been kind of a big news story in the news today. Her name is Jen Blumin, she was just a wonderful human being, and her children are beautiful. The children's father survived and wasn't with them, so obviously he's in a really tough way.
The conversations we're having today are about impermanence, and wake up this morning, everything's normal, all of the sudden you get a phone call, "Jen Blumin is missing." You know, and a lot of these conversations we're talking about this and then talking about how we are programmed for denial. So we may be in touch with impermanence right now, but in a week, two weeks, three weeks, we're probably not going to be thinking about it. We'll be just as consumed with the petty obsessions that were consuming us in the 30 seconds before we heard what happened to our friend.
I just wonder if you have any thoughts on how not to get ... you know, now that we are tenderized, our group of friends, how could we stay tenderized to this inarguable fact of human existence?
Mark Coleman: Yeah, I think ... and I'm really sorry for your loss and for your friend's loss. I think that the gift is that it does tenderize us, and it does open us to appreciating those that are here, right? The husband, your friends, and not taking each other for granted. Your kids, people you love. That happens for a while, and as you say, over time ... it's built into the hard-wiring, I think, that we have amnesia around loss, around deaths, around fragility, and we do go back into autopilot, and we get caught up in petty things that we can't believe we're getting caught up in given where we were a month ago with the tenderness.
I think it does behoove all of us to keep turning our attention to it. Whether it's, for me, I live sort of semi in the country. When I drive past roadkill, I look at the roadkill. Oh, that? Right, that was a deer yesterday, now it's dead. I've just been doing this practice that I learned from a wonderful teacher, Venerable Analayo. It was reflection around death, but I added a piece where I say to myself, "One less." So, with breath, "One less." A fabulous meal? One less before I dies. This wonderful conversation I'm having with you? One less. This time on retreat or in the country? One less time. This full moon? It'll be one less full moon.
Keeping that close to heart and my reflection that each time I do something, that's one less time I'll have a fabulous time with my sweetie.
Dan Harris: What do you say to people who say that's morbid and depressing?
Mark Coleman: Yeah, it definitely can feel that way, but it's actually not. The irony is it makes you wake up and appreciate the preciousness and the beauty, because we just don't know. I mean, I'm flying out to New York, I was on the plane, the plane hit some turbulence, maybe this is it, you know? How did I leave my friends and family last time I talked to them? Was it really with that knowing that this could be the last time? My parents are in their late seventies, I really, every phone call, like, "This could be the last phone call," and I really want to be present for them.
So, I think it can be morbid, but I think that's if we have a resistance to the truths. I think one of the gifts I feel like I've gotten from my Buddhist practice is, yeah, things come and go. That is the reality. I feel like I've learned over 30 years of practice to soften into that. It doesn't mean I feel depressed, it just means that, "Oh, I want to really do the best." When my flight's delayed and the man behind the counter said, "Wow, you really seem to be in a good mood." It's like, I don't want to take it out on you. He's a nice guy, just doing his job. I want to show up the best I can. That's what it reminds me to do.
Dan Harris: It's interesting you talk about this One Less practice. Practice is the key word here. So, my friends and I, right now, we're attuned to impermanence. As you say, we are programmed to eventually start tuning out from that and back into our petty desires and competitions and whatever else is going on in our respective lives. But, if you make a practice out of it, just as you ... I mean, there are many ways to do this, one example being One Less, then it kind of pounds it into your neurons in a way that is, I think, quite useful.
It's interesting to me, though, because I've started doing this practice where once a week I volunteer in a hospice for three hours. It's easy for me to walk in and out consumed with whatever bologna I've been concerned with overall. Definitely I tune out of that stuff in a pretty powerful way when I'm in there, but it's not uncommon for me to get back on my phone in the Uber on the way home. That was less common when I started doing it eight months ago than it is now that I've kind of habituated to the experience.
It is powerful, what the Buddha would call, "Delusion," which we could just describe as ignorance or confusion or anything in that family of synonyms. As somebody said to me recently, I was having lunch with some friends in the city, and they're both pretty avid Buddhist practitioners, even though they're in business, and one of them said to me, "You know, desire and aversion get all of the headlines in Buddhism, but delusion is the joker. It's the trump card." I think there's something to that.
Mark Coleman: Mm-hmm, yeah, it's true. We walk around. We don't see the veil that we're walking around obscured by.
Dan Harris: It's the water we're swimming in. We're fish.
Mark Coleman: Totally, totally. And we're in our little bubbles, our little microcosms, our little stories, projections, perceptions, and ideas about the way the world is and who we are, and it's mostly, you know what, in Hinduism they call it Maya, an illusion, it's just stories we make up. The brain is a meaning making machine, and we believe it. We buy the press release.
Then you have these moments, like you've had today, and reality shatters through, and it's like, "No, it's not actually going to just continue on forever, it's actually going to be really bumpy at times, and we're going to lose things, and lose things we love, and we're going to be woken up to not just going to sleep." I think most practice, like in Buddhist practice, is trying to wake us up.
Dan Harris: That's what's meant by awakening. It's sort of a grandiose term, when it's said without the proper context or understanding, but the way you're describing it is riveting! It's not a bromide. It's a crackling, lively, applicable goal.
Mark Coleman: Yeah.
Dan Harris: Practice.
Mark Coleman: And it does make life very alive and very juicy and very vivid. It was interesting. I was aware as I was having this very kind of hassle-y day, you know, long plane delays and just the annoying part of flying and delays. I noticed that as soon as I was on the plane, I would just look out the window and I'm riveted by landscapes and flying over deserts and mountains. The whole drama of being delayed completely disappeared. Like, I knew I was going to be late for this interview, and it just disappeared, because being able to be present, just like, "Okay, well I'm on a plane, I'm going to get there when I get there. What an amazing skyline going over Nevada, or going over the Rockies," or wherever we were, you know? So, it also helps us come out of the drama.
There's a lot of drama, a lot of self-created drama.
Dan Harris: Yeah, well, speaking of self-created drama, the new book, "Make Peace With Your Mind" really talks about the inner critic. In fact, in there, as you told me before we came on, after I sheepishly admitted to you that I hadn't read the book, which makes me the worst podcast host ever, you very kindly pointed out that one of the things in there is an inner critic toolkit, a book that will be of extremely high interest to people listening to this podcast. Can you talk about what's in there?
Mark Coleman: Yeah, so there's a whole list of practices. Probably, I don't know, twenty practices or so. The two basic baskets of the practices, one mindfulness, one compassion. So we start, as I think with anything, we have to start with mindfulness, with awareness. And so we bring that quality of mindful self awareness to ourselves, and we start to see what's happening in our minds? What is our mind saying? Can we see the difference between a judgment, what I call a negative-laden judgment, versus just a random thought or an evaluative thought?
Can we first just be aware when the mind's judging? Because mostly it's so automatic we don't even notice. We don't even see it just rambling on. "You should have done this, you could do that better, why haven't you gone to the gym? You should lose weight." Yada, yada, yada, yada.
Dan Harris: Yeah, I'm looking at you, actually, and I'm thinking, "He's so lean. Does he eat Whole30? Is he a vegan? Why am I such a fatty?" That's just happening all the time.
Mark Coleman: It is. So first we have to just recognize, "Oh, that's a judgment!" Different than, "Oh, this wall is gray," you know? The piece about the judging thought that we have to understand is it's not neutral. It's maybe obvious. It has an implication about who we are, as a person that's not good enough. It's not just, "Oh, you should have shaved today." It's like, "Oh, you didn't shave today, you look terrible, you really, I mean, you can't even shave?"
Dan Harris: You're going to die alone.
Mark Coleman: Huh?
Dan Harris: You're going to die alone.
Mark Coleman: Yeah, that's right.
Dan Harris: That's where it goes.
Mark Coleman: End up on a railway bridge, no one loves you, and forget it. You're a loser. Why bother, right? Everything leads back to that fundamental sense. You're not good enough, you're not lovable. So you first have to see that.
And then it's useful to name it. Oh, there's the judge! Hello old friend, you're back again today. Joseph gave me this practice of counting judgments. I was on these long retreats at Insight Meditation up in Massachusetts, and it can be comical to count the judgment. "123, 495, 862 ..." You start to see this is ludicrous. It's just this machine that keeps cranking out these inane, except painful, jabs.
Dan Harris: He's got this other thing where he says, "Pretend all of your thoughts are coming from the person sitting next to you." I hate that person sitting next to me! He is the worst!
Mark Coleman: He's so mean!
So first you've got to know the landscape of the thoughts. Then, what's really interesting in to pay attention to what your relationship is to them. Do you believe them? Do you let them go on and on and on? Do you take them in? Do you feel like they're true? That's a really good question. Because often we think, "Oh, my thoughts, it's true, I believe all of my thoughts, they're objective truths."
Dan Harris: Yeah. It's a news ticker.
Mark Coleman: Right. When we really pay attention and we ... You know, so I have people on my courses write down their judgments. Top ten judgments, pretty painful list, but write them down anyway. "I'm a loser, I'm never going to be loved, I'm stupid, I'm too overweight," whatever it is. When we actually bring a scrutinizing awareness to that, you read them, it's like, "Oh, that's not really that accurate. Maybe I could be a little better in shape, or I could be kinder from time to time, but that doesn't mean to say I'm a loser, horrible, mean person."
So, we're noticing the thoughts, we're looking at our relationship to them, we're seeing how much we believe them. We're seeing how much we give it the time of day. Ultimately, one of the fruits of doing this work is we become somewhat disinterested. It's just like this little yapping dog in the back of our mind. "You're not good enough, you should do this, you should do that." If we can see, if we've trained to see the judge, to not buy into it, to not believe it, to not give it so much attention, it doesn't matter whether it's here or not, because it's just like static in the background.
It's a similar way in meditation. You know, we have thoughts, plenty of thoughts, distracting thoughts, fearful thoughts, wanting thoughts. Over time they have less stick. Of course we still get pulled away into thoughts and dramas and stories, but over time we care less whether the thoughts are there or not. It's just not such a big deal, not so alluring. We lost the fascination. So, we want to have that kind of relationship with the critic-
Dan Harris: How can we have that relationship if we're not meditating?
Mark Coleman: Well, you don't need to be meditating to pay attention to your mind. You just simply need to notice what's happening, whether you're thinking, what kind of thoughts you're having, are they judgmental? Do they have negative tone? Is there some implication about you in those thoughts? That you're a unworthy, bad person?
Dan Harris: Easier to do that if you're engaged in the daily training of doing it, meditation.
Mark Coleman: Yeah, for sure. Meditation definitely is the lab for cultivating that self-awareness. But once that's initially developed, I think you can do it anywhere. You just simply learn how to pay attention to the inner dialogue rather than just being lost in the external world.
So you're tracking the thoughts, you're tracking believe, you're tracking relationship, and then you're tracking how they impact you. The critic manifests mostly as words, but it affects us physically, emotionally, energetically. So, for example, I can be sitting at my desk. I love to write, and I love that few hours in the morning where I just get to play with words.
Dan Harris: You should come write my books. I hate writing.
Mark Coleman: Okay! Sign me up.
Dan Harris: You just have to learn how to use the F-bomb a lot.
Mark Coleman: Alright, I can do that.
Dan Harris: Because that's how I roll. Not on this podcast, because we're owned by Disney, but the books, all mine. Anyway, so I keep tearing you out of whatever you're trying to say. So you're at your desk, happily writing, which I already envy you for, but go ahead.
Mark Coleman: And then I might remember, like, I may have shown a poem to a friend the day before, and they had some sort of slight, you know, not so flattering comment about it. And so I'm writing away, and then I remember that thought, and then suddenly I start to feel kind of heavy and foggy and kind of blah and I ask myself, "What's going on? I was loving writing, and suddenly the whole juice is sapped away out of me?" And then I remember, "Oh, right, I had that thought, I showed my friend the poem, I could tell the look on his face he wasn't really into it," and then I just realized, the thought came, "Well, you're not a writer. You're hopeless. Why bother?"
So, that thought, I didn't catch the thought, but the thought then created that sense of fatigue, foggy brain, kind of lethargy, and then the last thing I wanted to do is write.
Dan Harris: I've lived in that state for weeks at a time, mindlessly.
Mark Coleman: Uh-huh.
Dan Harris: Even post-meditation. If the circumstances of your life are acute enough, I can get there.
Mark Coleman: Yeah, I mean, I'm sure you know, when you're doing whatever show that you're doing and you haven't maybe been so attuned or on the ball, like are your facts wrong?
Dan Harris: Yes. People are hammering me on Twitter, or I didn't get something I wanted professionally, yeah, I can revert. That state that you're occupying at your desk, I can live there for weeks.
Mark Coleman: Right. And then, of course, the critic's so particular and distorted in what it sees, you may have had a fantastic show, 95% of the show was fabulous, and then the couple of things that were just slightly off, and of course what do we notice on, what do we focus on is what we could have done better.
Dan Harris: So, we're still on step one here of the toolkit. But you talk about this, whether powered by mindfulness, whether powered by meditation, formal meditation or not, mindfulness of our thinking, whether it's laden with negative value judgments, are we believing it, what kind of physical effects is it having? I guess my question on that is this requires some wherewithal, this requires some intention to do this, because most of us, walking around locked into the movie, you know, we're in the matrix. It takes some real intention to be aware that we are not our thoughts, and to continue to come back to that. It does take energy, because otherwise we're sucked up in the thing. We're not seeing it's 24 frames per second.
Mark Coleman: Right, right. I think the biggest motivator is to realize how much pain it causes. Because once we get that, it's like, "Oh, this is miserable." A big point that happened for me, I was some year into my meditation practice. I was sitting in meditation, just no idea exactly what happened before, but ... and I was following my breath, I was doing what I was trying to do, you know, as we meditate, and I then my critic was just assaulting me with, "You're just ... not good enough, blah blah blah blah." I don't remember exactly what it was saying, but it was really painful.
I suddenly, for whatever reason, as meditation can do sometimes, I took a step back and I felt, rather than being a friend of the critic, and normally I'm just believing in yes, yes, I should have done that, and yes I'm bad ... I started to feel how it felt in the heart, and I felt, well this is really painful, to just listen to this tirade over and over and over. Saying most of the same old stuff, but really harsh, and in a way that if someone had said that, a friend or a stranger had been doing that same kind of litany of woes, I would have felt collapse. I would have felt so withered and battered by them. But with our own minds we don't see it so much, and so we let it go on and on.
That's why I think the practice is illuminating. When we cultivate mindfulness, we do start to have that space where, at times, we step back and go, "Wow, this is really painful, or delusional, or unnecessary." So, it's really important to see that the critic, when the critic's on its case like that, it's attacking our fundamental worth and value as a person.
We all make mistakes, and we all do what we do, and it's never perfect, because have you ever met a perfect human being? There's no such thing.
Dan Harris: I have a two year old who's perfect.
Mark Coleman: (laugh)
Dan Harris: He poops in his pants, so I guess he's not perfect.
Mark Coleman: Almost.
Dan Harris: Almost perfect.
Mark Coleman: Yeah. We set ourselves to these impossibly high standards. That's where the second basket of practices come in, which is compassion. Because it's so painful, what happened in that meditation was I shifted from being an ally of the critic to an ally of my own heart, because I actually felt in my heart, it felt like it was being bruised.
Dan Harris: When you say heart, you actually mean chest cavity?
Mark Coleman: I felt like, in some way, in my chest I could feel it was like a wound that was being stabbed. I mean, not literally, obviously, but I just felt really battered. I think our critics do batter. I think, personally, the leading cause of depression is the inner critic, that voice that's telling us that we're bad, that we're stupid, that we're hopeless, that we're a loser, we're not good enough. You listen to that for 10, 20, 40 years, you know, you're going to feel mildly depressed, if not seriously depressed.
Dan Harris: Yeah, I've done plenty of battle with the black dog.
Mark Coleman: Yeah.
Dan Harris: Yes, I know the feeling.
Mark Coleman: I'm sure, I mean, it's the nature of your work. You're in the critic business, in a way, because people are watching you and evaluating you at every step, whether it's the producer or the audience or ...
Dan Harris: It also runs in my family and yeah.
Mark Coleman: Yeah. So the compassion component is really important too because it's so painful. It's one of the most painful things that ... I work with students all over the world in the meditation context mostly. I've also been a therapist and a coach and consultant and all of that. But no matter what work I'm doing or who I'm working with, I see this phenomena play itself out. People, you know, they could be running tech companies in Silicon Valley, they could be successful surgeons and parents and talk show hosts, and that same voice will just diminish any sense of well-being or success or accomplishment.
It's essential that we find some way to meet the pain of that. So in Buddhist practice the way to turn towards suffering is with kindness, with compassion, which is, of course, very easy to say, very challenging to do. But the first thing we have to do is acknowledge how painful the critic is, and when we acknowledge that and we feel the suffering of being defeated, attacked, diminished, put down, and feel the vulnerability end of that, that allows the heart to feel a little warmth or tenderness.
Dan Harris: So, practically speaking, how would I do that?
Mark Coleman: Maybe you’re sitting in meditation, maybe you've been on the air that day and something didn't go so well, and you're on your case because you could have done better, theoretically. So your critic is just lashing out at you for, whatever, being not perfect and being stupid, or whatever. So, you shift from the thought and the critic to, you ask yourself, how am I feeling right now? How does that land? What do I feel in my heart or my body or my energy? You shift from the thoughts to the feeling. With that awareness of the feeling, my experience, when we acknowledge the suffering of something, it doesn't create, but it allows the conditions for a compassionate response to arise. It doesn't always arise, but it's much more likely.
Dan Harris: And what would that compassionate response be when you're dealing with your own suffering? What would that look like?
Mark Coleman: Well, the first response might be, "This sucks, this is hard."
Dan Harris: Yeah, right.
Mark Coleman: Yeah. Whether it's having maybe not performed well on a show, or ... it's funny, I was on this flight today and I had a choice, to just sit out and wait for the next, you know, there was a bunch of flights canceled and then I could have just waited there to get the next flight. And I decided, "Oh, I'll just find the next best flight quickly and jump on a plane," and of course I ended up making a decision that made me much later than if I'd just stayed behind. So, my critic had a few things to say, like, "Why didn't you stay? That was the most obvious thing to do."
There's a chapter in the book called 20/20 Hindsight. The critic has 20/20 hindsight. It's always on our case. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. You do the best you can.
So, I'm sitting on the plan and my critic's "Yada, yada, yada," and like ... and actually I wasn't really taking that seriously. It was pretty clear and silly to be judging myself for that.
Dan Harris: The old you would have taken it worse.
Mark Coleman: The old me, yeah. It's like, "Oh, god, I really can't do anything right, I really should listen."
But, you know, the times that I'm really suffering from the critic, and so you're asking me about what that compassionate quality looks like. It looks like, and it sort of feels like is, the word that comes up for me, rather than like, "Oh, you stupid, you should have done more, you should have done better," is that, "Oh, this is hard for you. This is hard for you, this is difficult."
There's something in the just acknowledging of that that everything sort of drops a little. There's just that, "Oh yeah, this is hard, yeah I could have done better, or I could have said this and done that, and I didn't and it's a little painful and I kind of feel regret and a little silly and a little stupid. The whole thing is just a little icky. And I just hang out with that, "Oh yeah, that's not very pleasant, that's hard."
Dan Harris: So maybe you can move from mindless self laceration to what the Buddhists call Wise Remorse.
Mark Coleman: Wise Remorse, and also just holding the pain of whatever the situation is.
Dan Harris: Yeah. Does it work all the time? Or is this just sometimes this process works?
Mark Coleman: It works most of the time. My critic hasn't gone away. It's definitely a lot quieter, and I most of the time don't care whether it's ... You know, when I'm late ... I make this joke when I'm going out to teach at Spirit Rock a few times a week, I like to cut my time a little fine, I hit traffic, I'm late for my meditation class, and I know the critic's going to say, "Why didn't you leave earlier? Why couldn't you get this together? Why couldn't you be more organized?" And I'll say, "Thank you, Mr. Critic." Or I'll be leaving the house, and I can't find my keys or my wallet because I'm like that. They just seem to live wherever they want to live. And my critic says, "God, you're so disorganized." And I say, "Thank you, Mr. Mindfulness wins the day, yet again."
So I make a joke of it. The humor is actually a really important quality in the critic toolkit, because we have to laugh at ourselves. We are strange, idiosyncratic, silly beings. The critic is also silly. Just like having 20/20 hindsight. "Oh, you should have taken that flight." How did I know what flight to take? How do I know what freeway to take, which one's the worst? If we can find a sense of lightness in it. I'll be sitting these long retreats, I'd imagine wearing this gray wig, you know, the wigs that the old English judges wear. "Bad meditator! Failure! Out!"
Dan Harris: (laugh)
Mark Coleman: You know, so I kind of ham it up a bit. Sometimes I exaggerate. "Yes, I really am the worst meditator in the world. I am the worst friend in the world." Whatever you think, "Yes, I can't cook, yes. No, and I can't meditate either. Okay, great." If we can find a sense of playfulness.
Because humor does the same thing mindfulness does, which is it disengages us from being so identified.
Dan Harris: Yeah, yeah yeah yeah.
Mark Coleman: Which is why we love humor and why I love going to see standup comics.
Dan Harris: If people want to learn more about you, how and where can they do so?
Mark Coleman: My main website is MarkColeman.org. That's Mark with a K. That will take you to many other websites, my AwakenTheWild.com website, which is my nature work, and my Mindfulness in Situ, which is my mindfulness counseling. But if you go to MarkColeman.org, that's where most of my work and information about the critic and my retreats and teachings.
Dan Harris: My final question for you is what would I take, financially, I don't know, whatever, what would it take for us to get you to regrow the mohawk?
Mark Coleman: To regrow the mohawk (laugh). It wouldn't take much. I could take this headset off and I could rub my head, and it would go up into a mohawk immediately. But I'd be happily to spray paint it. It wouldn't take very much at all.
Dan Harris: Nice! Alright. Well, you've been a fabulous guest.
Mark Coleman: Thank you, a pleasure to be here.
Dan Harris: And you had a tough day, and you now have more traveling in front of you, because you're heading up to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where everybody should go at least once in their lifetime, because it's amazing, and you're going to teach a retreat with Sharon Salzberg.
Mark Coleman: I am.
Dan Harris: Thank you very much.
Mark Coleman: What a pleasure, great to be with you.