Simple Habit Q&A: Cory Muscara on Creating a Meditation Practice, Releasing Fear, and Kids Meditations

Did you miss Cory’s Q&A on May 30th? Don’t worry! We’ve compiled the questions and Cory’s answers here (and edited a bit for clarity!):

How did you get into meditation?

Cory Muscara: I know some of you know my story if you’ve been following along in the app. I think when many people think of a meditation teacher, they think of someone very spiritual or maybe kind of a hippie or someone who burns incense. Nothing against any of that, I fully support it, but my intentions were different. I got into meditation because I was trying to impress a girl. I had a hippie girlfriend in college and she was into meditation. I wanted her to think I was cool and then she broke up with me shortly after. Despite it being a superficial undertaking, I did take the practice seriously and it all just spiraled from there.

I remember the first time I was in my dorm room bed meditating – didn’t really know what I was doing. I just put my hand on my belly and I would just *inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.* It was just a really simple technique, focusing on the breath over and over.

Within a few weeks of that, my sleep improved, my focus improved, my grades in college improved. There was just this inner sense of joy and peace starting to arise, not in a radical way, but in a subtle, compelling sort of way

I think one of the things that most piqued my interest was when I realized that I could watch my thoughts, without being caught in my thoughts. It was the first time I realized who I was could be bigger than the thoughts moving through my mind. That might seem like a very simple concept, but to me that was radical.

I started to get a sense that there was something more to this practice. It was a way to tune into many different dimensions of myself that I had not touched into yet. Quickly, it all just compounded from there. A year and a half later, I was in a monastery in Burma with a shaved head meditating 14 hours a day. It all just escalated very quickly, but that’s very much a product of my personality too.

When I stop meditating, I find it hard to start back up, any advice?

CM: Yes! This is a great question and I’m sure it resonates with anyone who has tried to start or sustain a meditation practice.

I know zero people that have started a meditation practice and then just meditated for the rest of their lives. I think it’s just human nature that when building any habit, we fall off the wagon.

I want us to think about sustaining a meditation practice as just as much of a practice as meditation itself – it’s the macrocosm of the microcosm. It’s the macro level of what’s happening on a micro level. What I mean by that is: through meditation, we give ourselves something to sustain our attention. In this case, let’s say it’s the breath. We’re saying that the intention here is to be present, focus on the breath. What happens when you do that?

The mind wanders. It starts thinking about cookies, everything you have to do, the future, the past, why did Mufasa die in the Lion King and all these random thoughts. Our job in these moments is not to go “Oh, you’re such an idiot, you’re so bad at this, you’re terrible, I knew you wouldn’t be good at meditation.”

No, we just notice the thought gently. Meditation training is about being able to let go of the mind wandering and coming back. Even if we spent three minutes off in la la land, it’s important to be able to go “Oh, I noticed my mind drifted” and come back and restart.

And meditation is all about these moments of letting go and restarting, letting go and restarting, letting go and restarting. We can think of a meditation practice on a macro level in the same way. Instead of it being moment after moment, it’s day after day. We might go multiple days without practicing and then that one day, we realize “oh my gosh I haven’t meditated.”

Instead, just accept and let go of whatever happened in the last 3 days, 7 days, 10 weeks and realize that you can start again. That way, sustaining a meditation practice cultivates the same quality of mind, peace, and letting go that the meditation practice itself does.

It’s important you cut yourself a little bit of slack when it’s happening so that you can come back and start over again. As a way to sustain practice over time, there’s a feature on Simple Habit to create a streak, which is a great self-motivating tool. Or you can get a calendar out and draw a big “X” in each day you meditate and eventually you’ll see a bunch of “X”s line up. The main impetus to keep meditating is to not break that chain.

However, the main thing is that you notice when you fall off course. Allow there to be an inspiration to reconnect to the practice, rather than a need to ‘be good,’ be a ‘perfect meditator’ or the ‘right kind of meditator.’ That’s not the purpose of a meditation habit and it will actually get in the way of getting from the practice what you’re trying to get.

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How do you prepare for teaching large groups of people?

CM: I do teach to fairly large groups of over 500 or 1000,  but I also teach to small groups of 10 or fewer people. Different sized groups have very different energies and dynamics.

My previous exposure with speaking to large groups was in college and it was for certain leadership roles that I had. For those, I would amp myself up, feel really energized, get excited and inspired. It worked well so I carried that over, but I found that it wasn’t the quality of energy that I wanted to embody.

Now before I work with a large group, I connect with the opportunity that is available to me at that moment, which is to impact people. It might seem a little corny but to me, that has been the most important thing because it gets me out of my head. Instead of getting my ego involved, for example thinking “how is this going to be a reflection on me?” or even “I want to be a good speaker, I want them to feel like I’m great in some way,” I consider the precious opportunity. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100, 500, or 1000 people, what’s important is to connect with a percentage of them. You don’t know where these people are coming from, what walks of life they’re coming from, what’s going on in their lives. Given your own practice and channeling your own experiences, you could perhaps offer that understanding and practice to them in a meaningful way

As soon as I connect to that idea, it helps to grounds and settle me. It gets me in touch with my heart. That is the quality of energy I want to bring out when working with a group of people, small or large.

I teach meditation and often come across students who get frustrated because they fall asleep – any thoughts?

CM: This is actually one of the most common themes of questions I get! A lot of people wonder about falling asleep during a meditation and think they’re doing it wrong. Some people really want to do the meditation, but they keep falling asleep. Others wonder if it’s okay to fall asleep, if they should force themselves to stay up, or if it’s just hopeless for them.

The first thing is to go back to our technique of sustaining a meditation practice – you don’t have to beat yourself up when this happens. In many cases, if sleep is something that you struggle with, falling asleep while meditating could be an indication that you’re actually starting to settle the mind and finding a deeper tranquility. We can celebrate because both finding tranquility and a calmness of mind are the foundational pillars of meditation practice.

With that said, there is a balance between this tranquility and also a degree of wakefulness and energy that we’re constantly working on within a meditation practice

So the first tip I’d say is to check your posture. If you’re falling asleep constantly, you might want to stop meditating on your bed. It might seem really compelling before you start the practice, but being in bed is such a huge trigger for sleeping and it doesn’t take long for the body to get tired. If you want to meditate lying down, try doing it on the carpet, on the floor, or a yoga mat.

If that’s still creating a sense of fatigue, you can move to a chair. When you’re sitting in a chair, make sure you’re sitting at the edge so that there’s a slight pelvic tilt forward. This will help to get a bit of abdominal engagement to keep your posture upright. That extra engagement will also energize the body a bit more. If you still fall asleep like that, you can stand up. I did many of my early meditations standing up because I’d fall asleep the first 15 times I meditated.

Essentially, the quickest way to counteract fatigue is to shift your posture. If you want to take it a step further, you can become aware of fatigue in the same way that you would become aware of any other experience that might arise. In the meditation practice, we watch thoughts coming and going. Similarly, you can notice fatigue, but instead, step out and become an observer of it. Once you do so, you’re no longer sucked into it in the same way that you were before.

Fatigue is a very seductive mind and physical state. When it comes up, we say “I like this. I know I’m not supposed to be falling asleep but I really want to fall asleep.” Before you know it, we snuggle into the fatigue and become unconscious. Being able to observe fatigue allows you to not get so caught up and sucked into it.

But sometimes sleep might be more important than meditation. If you are just grinding, grinding, grinding, (and I’ll be the first person to say) sleep might be the best meditation for you.

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What’s your favorite part about teaching meditation? 

CM: I am really passionate about taking very deep wisdom – esoteric wisdom that might be polarizing to people – and presenting it in a way that is practical, usable, and comprehensible.

I’m a firm believer that philosophy and deep wisdom needs to be communicated in language that’s understandable to the average person. These ideas can sometimes feel very foreign or deep. But, it can be presented in a way that’s understandable for everyone – it’s just figuring out what metaphors, examples, and stories help communicate it.

My whole thing is to be a bridge to people, who wouldn’t normally be receptive to this work and how to present this deeper wisdom in a way that doesn’t actually feel so deep, but more attainable and practical and something you could realize in your own life.

What do you think about guided meditations versus silent ones?

CM: It’s totally up to you. For many people starting out, using guided meditations are incredibly helpful and important as the guides help you monitor when your mind has wandered off and also helps give you instructions, while simultaneously guiding you in the meditation practice. I know many people who go years and years and continue to use guided meditations because it helps them learn new things. They also like having the support of a teacher in that way.

I also find a number of people who say “I’m looking for a little less guidance” or “I want to try practicing in silence.” I would say if that arises for you, explore it for yourself. But, don’t make it a mandate that guided meditation is like the “training wheels.” That’s not true, in my opinion.

You can continue deepening a practice with guidance but switch it up. If you’re using the same meditation over and over, the instructor’s voice can sometimes become a way to lull you into relaxation as you’re used to hearing the same words, same voice, same tone every time you meditate.

It makes me think of one of my friends. I gave him a 30-minute body scan meditation about 2 years ago to listen to. A body scan is when you pay attention to the different sensations, from your feet to the top of your head. So I checked in with him a couple months ago and asked how it was going. He said ‘it’s going great, I use it every night – I have no idea what happens after I get to my knees, but other than that it’s awesome.”

The thing is, he’s falling asleep after about 5-10 min from it! He’s not meditating. He’s using my voice, essentially, as a lullaby. That’s where we want to catch ourselves with how are we using the guided practice. On Simple Habit, you can play back and forth between using the timer and going into silence. Then, you can go back into the series to get more information about how to meditate to see what works for you.

Do you ever get nervous – how do you get past it?

CM: I definitely get nervous, maybe not nearly as much as I used to. It depends on the context, but the main way I work with nerves is using the energy of the nervous system in a moment of anxiety. The physiological experience in the body of anxiety or fear is nearly identical to the physiological experience of excitement.

If you think of two people sitting next to each other on a roller coaster, both of them have their hands gripped on the rail, their hearts are beating fast, their palms are sweating. But, one of them is terrified and the other one is ecstatic. They look the same but they’re having very different experiences. They’re both like gripping really tight, they’re sweating, their hearts are beating – same physiological experience, but completely different meaning that they’re placing on the experience.

So, one of the quickest ways to work with nerves, fear, and anxiety is not to actually calm yourself down in those moments. If it’s before a big talk and I’m feeling overwhelmed, instead of trying to come back to my breath and ground myself, I try to blend with that energy and say “okay, this is coming up in my body,” which means that I really care. But, instead of it having to indicate fear, I allow it to indicate excitement. I work on noticing that since body is reacting to this right now, what could I be excited about in this presentation? Is it the opportunity to impact a lot of people? The opportunity to have fun? The opportunity to share a message?

Typically in those moments where there’s fear arising, it’s because the mind is thinking about the worst case scenario. It’s thinking about what people are going to say afterward, or what if it doesn’t go well. Instead, use visualization in a positive way to help support you. Imagining that this presentation went as well as possible. Now imagine what people would be saying at the end of it. What would they be talking to one another about? How would I feel as I go through the presentation?

You can imagine the scenario in a million ways – you can imagine it going terribly or you can imagine it going positively. Use the one imagines it going perfectly well. This isn’t the same as putting on rose-colored glasses; rather, it’s just encouraging an effective strategy of the mind and using some of this anxious energy to turn it into excitement. Blending with that nervous energy rather than fighting it, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to work with it.

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Do you have a favorite topic to address when you teach?

CM: I have so many! However, there is one topic in particular that I’ve really enjoyed talking about recently: spiritual bypassing. This comes from a psychologist that was noticing this phenomenon within his meditation communities. Many people were saying “I want to be a meditator because a ‘meditation person’ feels really peaceful, they’re really happy all the time, they’re smiling – that’s what I want.”

So you get these people who feel or are suffering from a tremendous amount of trauma, frustration or pain in their lives. And, instead of doing the work to make peace with those aspects of themselves, they would go around it. You’d get people with faux happiness where it’s like (forced smile) “I’m so happy right now, or I’m not mad at you, we all just have to get along right now.” These people, on the inside, are pissed!

They haven’t done any work to actually identify what is the cause of the anger, the cause of the frustration, the cause of whatever is leading to their suffering. Instead, they end up doing a “Fake it ’til you make it” sort of thing, but never actually addressing the cause of the deeper suffering. I know many people who use their meditation practice to avoid the parts of their being that are too uncomfortable to be with, instead of trying to make peace with it. That will never get us to where we’re trying to go. At the very least, it’ll never get us to a place of wholeness and full embodiment.

In order to sustain it, we have to shut ourselves down from different dimensions of who we are. That will always create some form of tension or hiding or living in fear. A meditation practice is much more about creating space to allow whatever is present to arise – to feel that moment of anger and not fighting it, not pushing it, not judging yourself for having it. Instead, be curious about it and just in that moment of that emotion, having the opportunity to breathe.

There’s some freedom that happens. However, the reason we avoid it is that it’s uncomfortable in that moment. But if you stay with it for some time, you’ll notice that the emotion is sort of a sine wave; it’ll come up, increase and then it will start to come down, resolve and pass. It might come up again increase and then resolve again.

But the more we can ride the ebb and flow of it, the more we move more fluidly with the different elements of our life without getting caught or trapped in that emotion. There are even moments where the Dalai Lama, presumably the King of meditation, will have a moment of anger. You’ll see it flash up, but then it’ll pass very quickly. This is because he gives himself permission to feel it, to inhabit that experience and then he’s off to the next moment rather than shutting it down, suppressing it or denying that part of his humanness. I wish more people could understand that part of the practice.

Do you have any advice on how to get children into meditation?

CM: Yeah! We’ve launched a whole bunch of Kids Meditations on Simple Habit. I have around 4 or 5 series on there, including a Bedtime Series for Kids. So if you just want to just give them something, you can start with those meditations. However, it’s important that it starts with you; either a parent or a teacher.

So if there’s inspiration to teach this to your students or your own kids, make sure this doesn’t become something that you need to give them. First, start with embodying it yourself, understanding the practice from the inside out. Because at the heart of it, as we say in the Mindful schools’ world, ‘your nervous system is the intervention.’ How you show up for your kids or your students is going to be the best meditation teacher for them.

So, start your own meditation practice. And then as you’re going to bed with them – if it’s younger kid, 5, 6, 7 – you can lie on the side of their bed as they’re falling asleep, put your hand on their belly, put their hand on their belly and then just get them familiar with what it’s like to breathe, what it’s like to feel their body breathing, what it’s like to notice they have a mind, understand what thoughts are going through their mind. This way, you’re not trying to force the practice. It has to come from a place of instilling in them the same curiosity you want to instill in your own meditation practice. Which is the wonder of what it’s like to have thoughts, to have emotions, to have sensations, to feel pain, to give it space to arise, and to feel joy. It’s about not shutting out any dimension of our human-ness.

So there’s nothing you need to fix about your kids in this way when it comes to the meditation practice. You’re giving them an opportunity to tune into their own human-ness. That cultivates the first pillar of emotional intelligence, which is self-awareness.

We want to thank Cory for doing this Q&A with us and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did! If you’d like to learn more about Cory, you can check out his Simple Habit profile here!

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Haec a favorite Simple Habit teacher you’d like to see do a Q&A? Let us know: feedback@simplehabit.com

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