We spoke to Cory Muscara, founder of the Long Island Center for Mindfulness and assistant instructor in Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, about his meditation journey — from impressing a college girlfriend to becoming a Buddhist monk, teaching mindfulness, and more.
How did you come to mindfulness?
I actually came into this work because of a girl, believe it or not. I had a hippy girlfriend in college, and she was into meditation. I figured, maybe if I meditate, she’ll think I’m cooler than I actually am. I made a New Year’s resolution to meditate for 15 minutes three times a week, and in a short period of time, I noticed some cool results, including better sleep, improved focus, and less stress.
Around the time that I started getting into meditation, the economics department at my college — I was a managerial economics major — took a trip to the New York Stock Exchange, to meet with this multi-billionaire hedge fund manager. Everyone said, “If there’s anyone you can become, it’s this guy.” I thought, alright, maybe this will inspire me to fall back in love with finance. He gave a two hour talk… and it just sucked my soul right out of my body. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn’t want to end up like that guy.
In a serendipitous turn of events, my father had been reading about mindfulness and positive psychology for leisure. He gave me a couple books, and they spoke to me like nothing else. Three months later I was on my first mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training. Another three months later, I was on a training with Jon Kabat-Zinn in California, and it just continued unfolding.
What made you realize that the path you were on wasn’t right for you at the time?
I went to college to major in economics, but at that point, one of the things that was turning me away from the finance world was that there wasn’t as much humanity in it that I started to realize I longed for. Much of it seemed to be about money, moving up the corporate ladder, and narrowly-defined success, and that had slowly hardened me. I was sitting through this guy’s two-hour talk — he was in his mid-40’s, but it seemed like he was already dead inside.
What would you say to people thinking about a career shift?
For anyone that might be questioning, “What do I actually want to do in my life? I feel like the path I’m on is not fulfilling” — that’s a voice in your being that needs to be heard. Many people don’t follow that because it’s terrifying, the idea of shifting radically to something that’s not fully accepted or embraced as a professional path, or even as a personal path. It can be easier to follow the path that’s actually less fulfilling, because it can reward us in other ways, like not being scrutinized or not being ostracized. If that’s the case, I say go for it, because the benefits of following your heart typically supersede the negatives of early judgment from others.
But maybe your circumstances are different and you can’t make a huge shift immediately. Well, to be honest, you may not even need to. Perhaps you just need to tweak your day-to-day activities to leverage your strengths (see Amy Wrzesniewski’s work on Job Crafting) or perhaps you can find meaning outside of your work life. My path was a total 180, but that was before I had a career, family and financial responsibilities. Your path may be different depending on your circumstances. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that everyone can do something to improve their wellbeing, personally and professionally.
What’s something you’ve read recently that you recommend?
Deep Work by Cal Newport. The premise of it is that we’re living in a society where there’s so many demands for our attention, but if we’re to do deep, creative work, it requires longer chunks of time to dive into it fully. What I’m aiming to do is have three times a day where I’ll check my emails, and then if I can, allocate 2-3 hour chunks to dive into topics that I’m interested in or writing that I’m looking to do. What that allows is for deeper concentration to arise. It’s that depth into something that allows new creativity and insights to emerge that might not if you’re just with something for 15 minutes.
Let’s say you’re trying to explore the intersection of mindfulness and positive psychology. You do that for 15 minutes, and then you hit a roadblock and immediately you say, alright, let me check some emails. That’s not going to get you anywhere. Any great development happens at that point of discomfort. So we need to stay with it right at that 15 minute period and give ourselves some time to be with the frustration, and explore new ways of thinking about this. That’s how we can cultivate growth.
How has meditation helped you and/or your students with sleeping better?
I was once somebody who would wake up 20 to 30 times a night. Within a few weeks of meditating, I went from waking up 20-30 times a night to waking up 2-3 times a night, and sometimes I wasn’t even waking up at all. For me, the meditation that I was doing during the day helped settle my mind during the night.
A lot of people are enslaved to their thinking mind. Throughout the day they have racing thoughts, when they wake up they have racing thoughts, and when they go to bed they have racing thoughts. In the middle of the night, what often happens is people wake up and a voice starts saying, “Oh no. I’m waking up. This means I’m going to be tired tomorrow.” They get more agitated, more tense, and more awake from that process. So what I’m helping them with often is instead of fighting that, just allowing that. Allowing themselves to be awake, and letting go of that resistance. I tell people to put on a meditation recording as a way to relax their mind and settle into the night, not trying to sleep, but just simply being.
What advice would you give for someone who wants to start a daily meditation practice?
I tell people, commit to one minute a day. What I’ve seen is that when people get really excited, especially after a retreat or 8-week course, they say, “Oh my gosh, I need to do this every day. I’m going to practice 45 minutes a day in the morning and evening, and I’m going to do it for the rest of my life.”
I love seeing that kind of enthusiasm, but within about 10 days, what happens — and this is the key point here — is the mind goes from saying, “Oh no, I don’t think I have 45 minutes to meditate today” to “I’ll just try this tomorrow.” It goes from this 45 minute thing to absolutely nothing. There doesn’t seem to be a gray area. If you set yourself up to do a 45 minute meditation, then you’re setting yourself up with a large barrier to entry.
What if we just committed to ONE minute? One minute a day. Everyone has a minute. If you don’t have a minute, you don’t have a life. Now, if the meditation is just one minute, there’s very low barriers to entry, and there are very few obstacles that are going to come up.
I don’t necessarily believe that one minute of meditation is hugely effective. What tends to happen, though, is people sit down for that one minute, and then after about 30 or 45 seconds, their mind goes, “Ah, this actually feels kinda good. Alright, I said I was going to do a minute — maybe I’ll just do two minutes.” And then they do two minutes, and go “Actually, maybe I’ll do three,” and then three turns into four, and four turns into five, and five can turn into 10 or 20. And so what happens is that instead of arguing yourself out of the meditation, you’re now arguing yourself into the meditation. I think that one minute commitment is huge when it comes to integrating mindfulness into your life in a meaningful way.
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