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Cory Muscara is a super interesting person.  Today, he is known for his work as a mindfulness teacher, author, podcaster, and speaker.  You’ll find his career path interesting- he started meditating to impress his hippie girlfriend.  When that relationship didn’t work out, he went all in, looked for the most challenging meditation training he could find and became a monk for 6 months in Burma where he meditated for 14+ hours per day under the instruction of Sayadaw U Pandita.  Fully engaged, he wanted more.  Not only does he have his Master’s Degree in Positive Psychology from UPenn and teaches mindfulness-based leadership at Columbia University. He also currently serves as an assistant instructor for the positive psychology graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he has a wide array of meditation training including the 2-year Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leader training,  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), completed certification with Mindful Schools & Search Inside Yourself, and has trained in Mindfulness-Based Inquiry, Breathworks Chronic Pain with Vidyamala Burch, the Trauma Institute led by Bessel Van der Kolk.  He is a 200-hour hatha yoga teacher, certified NLP & Eriksonian Hypnosis practitioner, and an Integrative Health Coach through Duke Integrative Medicine. Since then, he has had numerous appearances on Dr. Oz, has his own meditation courses and retreats, collaborates with meditation apps like Ten Percent Happier (my personal favorite), and recently published his first book called Stop Missing Your Life where he incorporates all of his teachings to help people navigate and take action to have more meaning in their relationships with others, internal relationships with themselves, and even how to have a positive relationship with digital devices.

Topics Discussed in the Podcast 

  • Good luck/bad luck/who knows parable
  • how today’s events impact the future in unknown ways
  • what is equanimity?
  • becoming a monk in Burma
  • the importance of sitting with suffering & pain
  • how not to quit despite deep discomfort
  • intersection of mindfulness, positive psychology, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • FACE Model from Cory Muscara’s book Stop Missing Your Life
  • Pushing through internal walls holding you back in the PAIN Box

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Sonya Looney: Welcome to the show, Cory.

Cory Muscara: Thank you, Sonya.

Sonya: I’m super stoked to get to chat with you. And after getting to spend a bunch of time looking at your book and listening to your podcast and learning all about you, I was really excited about today’s show.

Cory: Thank you. I appreciate it. I’m so happy to be here.

[00:00:21.460] – Speaker 1

Yeah. So first of all, I want to talk about your book, Stop Missing Your Life, and that is coming out December 31st, is that right?

Cory: Correct. Yeah.

Sonya: Yeah. And this show will be out after December 31. So when people hear this show, they can actually just go buy your book.

Cory: Yes. It is totally available wherever books are sold.

Sonya: Cool. So I first listened to you on the 10% Happier Podcast with Dan Harris. That was kind of my first entry into you, and I was laughing because you were telling a story of how you got into meditation to impress a girl, which is not what you would expect from somebody who has been like a Monk and has all this training. So I’d love to hear that story.

Cory: Yeah. Well, that was before I was a Monk. Yeah. So I just think when a lot of people, as you said, think about a meditation teacher, they think immediately very spiritual, or maybe they got into it because they’re very stressed out. I had a hippie girlfriend at college. I was like 19 at the time, and I just wanted her to think I was cool, and she was in a meditation. So I started meditating, and then she broke up with me several weeks after that. So there was no happy ending. It’s not like I meditated really hard and she came back to me, but there was a different happy ending, which is that became the impetus for taking the practice more seriously. And within a short period of time, I just noticed all these other cool benefits. First, it was helping me with the pain of the breakup. For the first time, I could see that there was a way to be in my experience without being sucked into my experience. Since she broke up with me, there were just a lot of thoughts of like, what did I do wrong? How could I get her back? And the emotions of sadness. And I could watch all of that happen without being in it. It was like watching a river go by without being caught up in the river. That was like the first really compelling thing to me. And I just remember thinking, how come no one ever taught me this? It’s so basic, but felt so radical. I thought I invented something. And then, like, I noticed my sleep improved a lot. I went from waking up like 30 times a night to only a couple of times a night. My focus improved in class, and I just started feeling happier. And all of this then led to a more genuine interest of like, wow, there’s something about this meditation thing that’s compelling, and I want to know more. About a year and a half later, I was in a monastery with a shaved head.

Sonya: Yeah. I think this is a cool example in your book you have a story about a farmer and how his horse wanders off, and all these people keep saying things to him and he says, good luck, bad luck, who knows? And you go into detail about how trauma can lead to growth or how things that we think are really good could lead to something not as good. And it sounds like this was kind of the first huge example in your life of something that maybe didn’t sound good at first getting broken up with, but leading to this transformative, life changing, amazing path that it put you on.

Cory: Yeah. That’s one of the first examples I often use to illustrate that point of like, good luck, bad luck, who knows? And for those listing that might not be as familiar with that, it’s the short story of a farmer. He has a horse, the horse runs away. All the neighbors go, oh, such bad luck. He goes, bad luck, good luck, who knows? Then the horse comes back with ten other horses. All the neighbors go, oh, my gosh, that’s great luck. He goes, good luck, bad luck, who knows? Then the farmer’s son falls off the horse’s back, breaks his leg. They go, bad luck. He goes, bad luck, good luck, who knows? Army comes by, conscripting all the able bodied young men. They pass by the farmer’s son, and he goes, good luck, bad luck, who knows? It’s just this idea that we’d never know what is going to lead to what and the girlfriend break up, i’s a 19-20 year old breakup. So how big of a deal could it actually be? But at the time, it felt like a really big deal. And I just remember thinking, what possible positives could there be in this? And here I am doing what I absolutely love in my life and has led to another wonderful relationship and all these other things. So, yeah, we just don’t know. And that perspective of good luck, bad luck, who knows? I think is most closely connected to the mind state of equanimity that’s often talked about in meditation practices where we’re not incessantly grasping at something to be a certain way, we’re not fighting it constantly. There’s this quality of allowing and being with the fullness of our experience. And to take that perspective for anyone listening, just try it out. Today something happens, someone cuts you off on the road, just go, good luck, bad luck. Who knows? You lose your job. That was a little harder, but good luck, bad luck, who knows? Because we genuinely don’t know what it could lead to.

Sonya: Yeah. I love the topic of equanimity, and that’s something that was new to me when I first read Dan Harris’s books. And I got to chat with Jeff Warren on this podcast, which is really cool. And we talked specifically about equanimity. And yeah, it’s like taking your ego out of it. And if you get rejected or if you’re mad at something and it seems like our story gets so intertwined because we feel personally offended by something. So it’s really hard to just watch the river instead of being in the river.

Cory: Yes, totally. Equanimity is a tough one to sometimes reconcile in our day to day life. And this is something I continue to explore and lean into in my own journey of exploration. But I think a lot of people, when they think of meditation, there’s this feeling of attachment or just like watching the experience come and go. And it’s almost like we’re not in it anymore. And while it’s true that meditation can develop that relationship to your experience in a way that’s freeing, I think the depth of the embodiment of the practice is that instead of just watching it, we’re fully experiencing it, we’re fully in it. But it’s in such a way that we’re not burdened by it in the same way that we were before. It’s almost like we become the experience of the moment, the full expression of it. As you can see, I’m still kind of working some of that out in my head, but the idea of equanimity can be confusing for some people because they go like, well, I don’t want to just be watching my life go by. I want to actually be in it. And just to be reassured that this practice is very deeply about being in your life, just shifting the relationship slightly so that we’re not enslaved to it or completely overwhelmed and burdened by it.

Sonya: Yes. I like to think of it as like you’re not so perturbed by an emotion that it controls you. Like you can still feel the emotion, but it’s not controlling you. And all of us have felt controlled by our emotions at some point.

Cory: Yes, absolutely.

Sonya: I want to talk about Burma and deciding to be a Monk. How did that all play out?

Cory: Yes. All I remember was my junior year of college, Type A personality. I got into meditation. I’ve been meditating for six months. And then I just said, I think that’s what I want to do after college, and I think I want to just go meditate on a mountain somewhere. That’s what the intention started with. I had no idea what that could look like. I’d never been on a retreat before, hardly knew anything about meditation. I just knew I wanted to do a lot of this for a long period of time and then see what happens. And after college, I went on a silent retreat here in the States, and it was a seven day silent retreat. And I asked the teachers there because they had referenced practicing overseas. I said, hey, I have like six months to a year to go deep into this practice. I think I want to go to India. I was thinking Eat, Pray, Love sort of thing. But I said, I told them I want it to be intense. I really want it to be difficult, hard. Like I want to cry. I just wanted to throw myself in the deep end. And they kind of like, okay, if that’s what you’re looking for, then you should go to Burma because the teachings have been most preserved there because there wasn’t access to tourism for so many years. And the teachers there are very demanding. If you want to be very hard, you should study under this guy’s side of Pandita. And so that’s what I did. I went over to it was called Panditorama Forest Monastery in Burma and had no intentions of ordaining as a Monk, just wanted to practice. And the schedule there is you wake up at 03:00 AM every day. You go to bed around 9:30, 10:00 PM. You have to do a minimum of 14 hours of meditation practice. And keep in mind, the longest I’d ever sat still was like 45 minutes. And I could hardly even do that. Well, where you’re sleeping like four to 5 hours a night, eating two meals at 05:30 AM and 10:30 AM. So just like a very austere monastic type setting. And that’s what I wanted. So I was like, okay, cool, this is going to be awesome. And then in a short period of time, I was like, well, what the heck did I sign myself up for? Actual pain and suffering is much harder than the romantic idea of it. And so there was just a ton of physical pain through my body. All these flare ups in the muscles in my back. I was lonely, I was sad. There was language barrier, confused, loss, thinking I should have went to another monastery. But I stayed with it. And within a couple of weeks, actually, it was a week into it, one of the monks came up to me that was practicing there and you’re not allowed to speak, so I was like, is this a test? Is he going to start a conversation? And I have to not say anything. But he asked me where I was from. I told him New York. And he said, how long are you going to be here? I said, I think like six months or so. And he said, you should be a Monk. I think the first thing I said was, I don’t think my mom would be too happy about that because I thought he was saying that you should live the rest of your life like a monk. But he said you could do a temporary ordination where you basically take the life of a monk. You renounce your things as much as you can. Some of it’s like dress up because it’s not like I knew that I was permanently giving this stuff up. But you give all your clothes and stuff to the main office and you shave your heads, take robes, and you take the vows of a Monk as well to live in that way as long as you choose to. So different than a lifelong ordination, but I really got to see what it was like to live that lifestyle and to go and collect food and have all these all the rules that a Monk lives by really help develop a deep quality of presence. So that’s how the Monk thing came into it. And yeah, it was a powerful journey. I could go into any piece of it. If there’s anything in particular that is compelling. 

Sonya: All of it. I think we could probably record an entire podcast about that whole experience. But the thing that I want to know is you said you really struggled for a while, like with pain or with just how difficult the entire situation was, but you chose not to give up. What was it that…were there any things that you are using mental tools or a place inside yourself? How did you not give up? Because I think a lot of us, whenever we take inspiration from books or from podcasts or from speakers, we hear all these things, and this is taking this out way on a limb here, but we hear things when we feel inspired by them, but then we actually want to put them into action, and then we’ll start something for a while. Meditation practice is a really great example of this. And this is nowhere near the extreme levels of what you did, but we end up giving up. So how did you not give up?

Cory: Yeah. Well, with that first week of pain, there were two big things that helped me through it, because I was going to leave. I was ready to give up. I was ready to go home. After the first week, the physical pain in my back was so excruciating. And I was sleeping four hours, and I was sleep deprived. There were bugs everywhere. I was getting bit by mosquitoes all day. They said there’s no way I’m going to be able to last six months like this. So I was either going to go home or go to another monastery, like Hahn’s Monastery in Plum Village, which I thought would be much softer and nicer. So the first big thing that happened was I remembered the big reason I was there was because I wanted to explore suffering. I really wanted to understand what does it mean to separate yourself from all the things that typically bring you comfort and find a peace within? And I knew that that would mean hardship or difficulty or struggle. I literally asked for that when I was telling my teachers, I want something very intense, I want to cry. And so here I was with it. And I also had goals of wanting to teach one day. And so the big shift was like, here you are suffering and now you want to leave. How do you expect to be able to help other people going through stuff that’s much more difficult if you can’t even be with this yourself? So that continued to give me the little kick in the butt to stick with it. And so the first step was just making it bigger than myself. And I think for anyone going through something difficult, maybe you’ve had this experience before or you can recognize how this could be powerful. But when it’s often about you, it’s easy for us to kind of give ourselves a break or cut ourselves some slack or not do it. But when it becomes about another person, now the vision is bigger and there’s much more energy to fulfill that or to serve that. So that was the first thing. But more practically, what I started to see was every time I’d sit, the instructions were to be present with the pain. What we were doing was focused on the breath. When the mind would wander, we’d come back to the breath. But if there was really intense pain or distraction, you bring your attention to that and just be present with that. So for me, that was a pain. And so I would be present with the pain, be present with the pain. But the more I did that, the more the pain got worse. And I was like, this is not doing anything. I hate this. This is stupid. My teacher doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Like, I got to get out of here. But then I became more sensitive to that voice, right? I could see that I was present with the pain, but it was triggering all these thoughts. What’s wrong with my teacher? What’s wrong with my body? I can’t do this. There’s no way I’m going to be able to handle this. No way I could go six months like this. Then I can see, oh, wow, when those thoughts arise, they’re actually triggering emotions. And the emotions were anger, frustration, fear, doubt, loneliness. And then this was the most interesting thing. When those emotions would get triggered, I could see that they were triggering the physical pain even more, which I didn’t even know that was possible. So there was this insidious mental loop where the physical pain would come up, it would trigger the thoughts, the thoughts would trigger the emotions, and then the emotions would make the physical pain worse. That was the first time that I saw, okay, there’s two forms of pain here. There’s the physical pain, which is out of my control, at least as long as I’m going to be in the monastery, different than being in chronic pain where I might have to live with this here in this setting, like, I am opting in. But as long as I’m going to choose to opt in, the physical pain is going to be a reality. So that’s a primary pain. There was another pain, and this was all the thoughts and the emotions that I was caking on top of the pain. Not only was that painful in itself, but it was making the physical pain worse. So these two forms, primary, secondary, couldn’t impact the primary, but I could impact the secondary. And that like, little nugget of inspiration feel reenergized around my practice. And what I would do is try and catch the thoughts quicker before they proliferated it into something else. So, right the thought. I’d be focusing on the pain, just being present with the pain. And then the thought would come up like, what is wrong with your body? Like, how could you be experiencing this much pain? Nobody’s going through it. And I would notice that. And I would just label it thinking. And teacher would call it this is his visual, not mine, but like, throwing a cast net on fish. You can imagine just like, the swooping nature of that. You catch it quickly. He would say, throw a cast net on your thoughts. So that a cast net of awareness. It’s not to obliterate them and to shun them, but just be like, oh, just a thought. So as soon as I could see that as just a thought, what’s wrong with my body? Just a thought. The thought wouldn’t turn into something else. I would just be, okay, just a thought. And then back to the pain. And then another thought would come up. Like, that person doesn’t look like they’re struggling as much. Just a thought casting out of awareness back to the pain. And the more I did that, the more I could prevent the thoughts from triggering all the emotions, and the less they triggered the emotions, the less the physical pain was, and the less I also experienced the difficult emotions of anger, sadness, frustration. And I could actually turn up or down the dial of suffering just based on how I was relating to those thoughts and how it was relating to the physical pain itself. That was the first big insight I had in the monastery and arguably may be one of the most profound because it changed everything in terms of how much autonomy I felt in relationship to discomfort and pain, which has stayed with me in my own life.

Sonya: Yes, I think you did such an amazing job explaining that. I tried to do a meditation the other day, and it was specifically about this, like, trying to feel something that hurts and then go into that. I’m having a baby in a few months. So I’ve been trying to think about, like, okay, pain. And as athletes, like, I’m a professional athlete. A lot of people that listen to this are endurance athletes. So we have our own relationship with pain and suffering. And a lot of times we try and pretend it doesn’t hurt. And yeah, we’ve talked about on this podcast, like thought labeling and I thought that you did it. I love the description of the net going over the fish, which is really the thought, and then going into the pain and saying things like, it’s okay, or like, this is supposed to happen or this isn’t bad or there’s nothing wrong with me, but it’s really hard to actually do that. And until you said that the emotions actually intensify the pain, like, I never thought about that part before.

Cory: Yeah, that was a new one for me, and it’s a new one for a lot of people. Most of us are familiar of how, like, thoughts trigger emotions and then emotions can trigger actions. It’s like very much CBT 101, cognitive behavioral therapy when it comes to running, though, or for the endurance athletes on here the one thing I’ll offer you, and many of you probably have found this through your own trial and error, when you’re working with the pain, the physical pain, yes, you can keep monitoring the thoughts and come back to being present with it. There are different strategies. You can focus on your feet on the ground. You can focus on your breath. You could actively distract yourself from the pain, but that can get hard up until a point, because eventually the walls that help us distract ourselves, the pain just becomes too overwhelming. So then I would actually just go into the heart of the pain, and your mind will most likely only let you do that for so long before it starts freaking out. And it’s going to want to quickly fight it, resist it, and the thoughts will get activated more and more and more. There’s a threshold that you pass where something gives and the fighting of the pain lets go. And then we drop into a new relationship with the pain in a way that allows us to experience it. Not so much with pleasure, although sometimes it can turn that way, but in a way that it’s not completely overwhelming us. So, like, as a very practical tidbit for those that have tried this, and it’s like, whoa, this is just way too hard. Every time you think, like, I can’t do this anymore, stay with it for one moment longer. One moment longer. One moment longer. The concentration that gets developed in relationship to that pain, something will eventually give. And you’ll feel like this new wave of energy around it, which, I mean, it’s true with indoor sports as well. You get these second waves, third waves, which you would know much better than I would, but it’s the same with concentration and working with difficult experiences. You got to go through this little battle for a while, and one of two things will happen. Either you’ll let go and stop fighting it, or the experience itself will let go and dissolve. Either one is powerful, but it requires staying with it to get to that point.

Sonya: Yeah. And I think the sleep deprivation, too, probably makes those walls come down a bit faster. I always wondered why in monasteries they want you to get up so early and why they want you to not get as much sleep. And I wonder, is that part of it?

Cory: Yeah, it’s a good question. And I think many people will be fascinated to know that the last three months of that retreat, I was sleeping less than they told us. I was sleeping only about two to three hours per night for several months straight. And I had never had more energy, more clarity. I never felt better in my entire life. So I don’t think the sleep deprivation or the encouragement to sleep less, fewer hours is part of the austerity. I think it’s more when you’re meditating that much, you actually don’t need as much sleep. I don’t believe in depriving yourself of sleep for anything really, other than maybe short term burst where that might be absolutely necessary. But to cut sleep, to meditate really hard only makes sense to me if the meditation is replacing the sleep. And there’s actually not that great of science that I’ve come across right now that supports being able to sleep two to three hours per night. I think there are a lot of variables going on with that. I wasn’t moving very much, so my body wasn’t using up much energy at all. But we do see that you access similar parts of the brain that you would in deeper REM sleep when the meditation gets very deep. And so there’s something extremely restorative when you’re meditating that many hours per day. In the beginning, the meditation wasn’t deep enough to be able to get that, which is why I was sleep deprived. But after a while I went from the most you could get there is probably like five and a half, six hours if you take a nap. And then I cut it down to four within a couple of months. And that was no problem at all. And then I just kept trying to cut it down. I got down to three, two. Some nights I was just sleep for one hour and I felt great. So I still play with this on my own. In my day to day life outside the monastery, I need seven hours of sleep to feel good. That’s like my number. But if I meditate for a couple of hours a day, sometimes I’ll go on periods of time where I’ll try and do like a three hour day meditation practice, which is ridiculous, but I see is it possible when I make it a priority? When I do, one of the ways I get one of those hours in is cutting an hour of sleep and it seems to be okay.

Sonya: Yeah, I heard that. I can’t remember who it was, but I was listening to a podcast maybe a year ago with someone who was a former Monk, and he said the same thing. Like he actually didn’t need as much sleep whenever he was deep into these meditations.

Cory: Yeah. I mean, there’s so many stories of monks that just like create their sleep schedule based on when they need sleep, and some will go a week or longer at a time without sleep. I haven’t heard longer than a week, but I’m sure it’s possible.

Sonya: So you came back and then you went all in and you took all these different types of meditation courses and trainings, and you also got your Masters in positive psychology. So I want to ask about where these all intersect, because I read Dr. Jed Brewer’s book, The Craving Mind, and you guys listening should definitely read that book. But he talks about how with helping people quit smoking, they use two different techniques to see what technique worked better. And I might be misquoting this, but the American Lung Association uses cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to try to help people quit where Jed Brewer said, well, no, let’s try using mindfulness based training to help people quit. And they saw a massively dramatic improvement in people stopping smoking and staying quit smoking when they use mindfulness based training. So I really was excited to talk to you because you have training in kind of both areas. And I wanted to know where mindfulness and positive psychology and CBT intersects so that they can all work really together to have just a better way of doing things or quitting things or starting things.

Cory: Yeah, cool. No one’s ever asked me to combine all three, but I will do my best. Let’s see. Well, yeah, so that Jed Brewer research was very interesting. I think his mindfulness intervention was two and a half times more effective than the gold standard smoking cessation intervention. So there’s something really interesting there. I think one of the reasons that is because mindfulness is training to be with the uncomfortable emotion more than anything, rather than working on the thought as much and how that might shift the emotion that you’re feeling. It’s quite literally saying, yeah, this feeling is going to be here. Yeah. You have a feeling of craving. Yeah, you feel that energy in your body and feel it in your fingertips and you want to reach what’s it like to actually just notice that, to breathe while that’s happening on a very simplistic level or just like to bring curiosity to those sensations. The key word here, I think, is curiosity when it comes to mindfulness. A lot of that stuff, like the things that we’re often trying to get rid of or fight, like sadness or the craving or any sort of volition, we take an antagonistic relationship to it where it’s like it’s the enemy. It’s the thing that has to be overcome, the thing that needs to be fixed. Mindfulness doesn’t take that perspective at all. It’s like, oh, no, this is just something that we can become curious about, that we can learn about, that we can hold an awareness. So I think that shift is really powerful for things like addiction and in this case, smoking cessation, because most people do come to realize, like, oh, yeah, I can hold this experience and not immediately react to it. And simultaneously you’re developing a quality, a new anchor, like a new form of fulfillment that is not contingent upon getting whatever the thing is fulfilled. And that then shifts our relationship to everything else. Once we have, like more of this internal sense of well being or okayness or ease and we can create it for ourselves, we need less things in order to manipulate our internal world. So in the context of addiction, I think that’s really interesting. So that’s some of maybe the distinction between CBT, which we’re working on changing the thoughts and mindfulness. Mindfulness can inform cognitive behavioral therapy because we first need an awareness of what our thoughts are and be able to have enough distance from them to manipulate them in order to do the work of CBT. I’m offering a simplified version of CBT. So for any therapist listening, I apologize for not going into all the full nuances of it. It’s a deeply rich practice and is like the gold standard for so much for, I think, therapy overall, but definitely some limitations. And I think for somatic based practices when working with things like addiction, being able to notice those thoughts and also be able to hold the emotion is really powerful. Now, positive psychology, where does this come in? Well, let’s first look at what positive psychology is, because it’s hard to say. Well, positive psychology would say this because…have you talked about positive psychology here?

Sonya: I have, yeah. I’ve talked about like, Martin Sullivan’s work or Tal Ben Shahar or Barbara Frederickson. I’m a total nerd with this stuff.

Cory: That’s great. Awesome. So I do a ton of work. I do work at UPenn, the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program, and have been there for the last five or so years. And I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to how the field is developing and what it is and what positive psychology is. The first important thing I think to recognize about positive psychology is that it’s more of an intention than it is like an actual framework. So Martin Seligman started in ’98 to sort of round out the field of psychology, which was focused more on pathology. What goes wrong? How do we bring back people up, like from a negative way to a zero way, saying positive psychology is just looking at, like the people that are doing things well, that are happy, that are flourishing, what are they doing? How can we understand that? How can we extract some of that and then offer that as a prescription? So in general, it has more of an orientation toward what is going well, and how do we promote more of that strengths? And how do we cultivate strengths versus, like, weaknesses, and how do we eradicate weaknesses. Both are important, but there’s often so much of an emphasis on the negative side or alleviating the negative and the weaknesses that we have a distorted perception of ourselves, or we focus so much on alleviating that that we’re not actually strengthening everything that’s already good. And there’s a lot of research to support the benefit of doing the latter. The reason where this becomes like a whole big thing is because there’s so much within positive psychology. There’s Angela Duckworth, Angela Duckworth’s research on grit. So that’s a whole other thing in itself and prescription in itself. There’s Adam Grant’s research on givers versus takers, and that’s a whole research. There’s Martin Seligman, like the Perma theory, positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, achievement. And each of those has their own element of prescription. But if we were to take the heart and the intention of positive psychology and kind of blend it with mindfulness, there is an interesting intersection there or potential there. So let’s look at some of the historic roots of mindfulness, which is like more in Buddhism. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life has suffering or life is suffering. Right. Not so much like the most positive psychology thing there is. In many ways, it’s a pretty sad view of life. It’s, in my opinion, taking a very realistic view of life, like the suffering in life. But that’s one particular take that we could take in relation to being our human experience. So if we’re doing the work of focusing on the physical pain that we’re experiencing in our body, we could be focusing on the pain itself and like, okay, wow, life has pain right now. Or we could also focus on the courage and the bravery and the strength that it takes to show up for that pain. So we might say that that’s like a bit of a more of a positive psychology approach there where we’re focusing on what’s the particular strength or goodness or the positive side of what’s involved in relating to this moment rather than the suffering of what we’re trying to get rid of. And if we can nourish more of that courage, that’s very different than seeing like, okay, can I endure more of this pain? It’s like, okay, let me see if I could keep my heart strong right now or keep my resilience strong right now. So, yeah, I think the intention of positive psychology can inform how we relate to our moments through mindfulness.

Sonya: Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because, as you said, I don’t want to offend anybody or misspeak and say it’s this way, but it just seems like you need them all in order to practice them all. Because in your book, you talk about the face model, and we can go into detail about those for people or like experience, awareness, experience, story of the experience. And that is kind of like the ABC model, action, belief, consequence, which we’ve talked about on the show, and I’ll link to that for those of you so we don’t go into detail on that. But yeah, the awareness of the experience, the awareness of the thoughts you’re telling yourself about something, like the pain that we were just talking about or like something happens and you react to that thing that happened. And I think it does take mindfulness and training in mindfulness in order to realize that you’re having those thoughts and emotions around that. I think maybe where the confusion is for me and maybe just where they don’t intersect as much is like the story you tell yourself. And I loved how you said, let’s look at pain, okay, I’m being brave or like this isn’t a bad thing or that is the reframing of the pain. But I don’t know if that’s the same thing as being equanimous about the pain. What do you think?

Cory: I do think it’s different. It’s a subtle difference, yes. So the ABC model. Right. Activating, event, belief, consequence. I think there are different ways we can interpret the letters, but with this or what I’m describing, actually, I think the better model would be between stimulus and response, there is a space in that space is our power to choose our response, and the response lies our growth and our freedom. When we’re working with, I think just pure awareness in the moment and like equanimity, I think equanimity is hanging out more in that space of pure awareness, and that’s where we might notice the stimulus. And then just like the space between that and the response or the response itself is like, okay, just noticing what’s coming up. That’s a really powerful practice in itself. And you can develop that in conjunction with other modalities, such as working with the belief about the event, which will be more the ABC model, or just changing the, well seeing that space between stimulus and response and then choosing how you want to respond and reflecting on how you want to respond. So especially when you’re living in the real world and you’re not in a monastery where you could just rest in awareness all day long, which is a beautiful thing in itself, but very hard to take back into a world that has a lot of demands. I think all of these tools are important, and the reason meditation and mindfulness have stayed at the foundation of my work is just because I do see them as that quality of awareness, as foundational to so many of these other things that we know are important, like being able to shift thoughts, like being able to shift beliefs, like being able to create boundaries around emotions and also be able to let emotions in if we want. I think all of that starts by being able to first be with the fullness of our experience and shift our attention skillfully. Yeah, at this point, with all the different trainings I’ve done, I have no real stake in mindfulness. It’s not like I have to defend it in order to keep my career going. It’s just the thing that I keep coming back to as important. But yeah, I do think there are differences between CBT type stuff, ABC type stuff, and the deeper work of Equanimity, and I think that’s okay. Joseph Goldstein describes how he’s a meditation teacher, how Steph Curry doesn’t become Steph Curry just by practicing layups and all these different shots that he needs to work on all different forms of his fitness to excel. And it’s the same with, I think, being human. There are so many different strategies we use at different points in time to excel and to navigate. I would never go to a monk for relationship advice. They just don’t know anything about being in marriage or relationship or partnership or raising kids. They might have some cool insights, but they don’t actually know it from experience. That’s a big reason I got into positive psychology, which was to round out and flush out my understanding of what it means to live well outside of a monastic setting.

Sonya: I think that’s so awesome. So, yeah, I want to elaborate more, or I want you to elaborate more on these four pillars of presence in the FACE model, because I think that this really ties in to a lot of the things that we were just talking about.

Cory: Yeah, sure. So the FACE model is a fourfold approach to presence. Well, when I was writing the book, the book is titled Stop Missing Your Life and the opposite of missing your life, I’m arguing, is presence, and it felt important to really break that down for the reader. And I spent a lot of time just tuning into moments of presence and like, what actually is here, what are the constituent elements and came up with four key things. And that’s what I’ll share here. That’s the FACE model. So the first is focus. And this is just referring to our ability to stabilize our attention and be attuned to what is happening here, being able to stabilize enough so that we can actually see clearly what’s going on, the different layers of our experience, thoughts arising. What is that thought? If an emotion is there, what are the qualities of it and not have our mind bouncing around like a ping pong ball? I think focus and concentration has one of the biggest returns on investment for people on their personal development journey. Just because so much of the tension we experience and stress we experience and anxiety is created in the dissonance between what’s here and what we actually want to be here. And one of the properties and side effects of more focus is that we just shrink that gap when we’re fully absorbed in what’s here, there’s less space for us to be contemplating all the ways that it should be better or we want it to be better. And focus just has as one of its qualities, tranquility. So focus, just like stabilizing our attention. So we have that. That’s important. You can’t go any place, really, without that. The next thing is allowing. And so this is more making space for more dimensions of our human experience. Being able to welcome the parts of us that we might typically shun or turn away from or dissociate or disconnect from. I see presence as most akin to wholeness. And to experience really deep wholeness requires being able to make space for more dimensions of ourselves, the multitudes within ourselves. So the allowing quality is pointing to this. It’s both a mindset and a skill. The mindset to be able to show up for the full thing, but also the skill to be able to hold the fullness of our experience without shutting down. And the key point of the allowing pillar is that we also need to be very good at creating boundaries. To be good at allowing also means being good at disallowing, to say no to something, to trust that we can step out of an experience when it feels like too much. That’s a really key part of it. So focus, stability, allowing, being able to embrace more aspects of our experience. And curiosity is the third pillar. Curiosity, to me, is the opposite of fear. Fear causes us to withdraw. Curiosity causes us to lean in. Fear presupposes something is unsafe. Curiosity presupposes that it is safe. So if you’re working with physical pain, going back to what we were talking about before, and you’re running, instead of trying to even be brave through it or trying to love it, because I think people think of the opposite of fear as either love or courage. Those are good, and they are helpful to fear, but I wouldn’t say they’re the opposite. I think curiosity is the opposite. And in those moments when the fear is there and you find your mind in this hijack space of like, you got to get out of this, shift to a mind state of curiosity, what is this thing that I have to get out of? What are the qualities? What are the sensations? What is it doing? Is it changing? Is it shifting? Is it hot? Is it cold? Is it tingling? That curiosity allows us to get closer to the experience, and it does in some way presuppose that it’s safe enough to do so, which will have a settling effect for the nervous system. So in the context of presence, curiosity is the glue to our moments. It brings us closer to our experience. And then embodiment – this is just making sure that we’re not just living in the realm of thought and concepts. A full experience of being human involves both the mind and the body. And oftentimes, if we’re not connected to our bodies or we’re not experiencing our body, it’s more often than not some form of disconnection or like a glorified form of dissociation. I think the emphasis on transcendence these days is not a good thing. I’m not against transcendence and everything that can point to on a deeper level. I think when people try to transcend their experience, what they tend to do is, yes, like a glorified form of dissociation or disconnecting from themselves. If we’re going to be humans, it means that we’re going to have bodies that can feel things and to live fully, to live with presence is to live the whole thing. So those are the four qualities – focus, allowing, curiosity and embodiment. And you can tune into those for yourself even right now, just like, what is it like to be attuned here? What is it like to allow this moment to be as it is. My voice to be the way it is. It sounds like you’re hearing to be the way they are sensations in your body. And as soon as you tune into the body, you’re practicing embodiment. And then also that curiosity, can there be a gentle wondering of, like, oh, this is what the moment is like right now? What is that like? And the more that we can do that, the more we really develop an experience of the richness of our lives from moment to moment.

Sonya: And you spoke earlier about, like, we have walls built up. And also in your book, you talk about the pain box, where we build these walls that protect us but also stop us from fully living. Like, having that disassociation that you were just mentioning or people trying to transcend an experience, but they’re not actually experiencing it. Yeah. Because everybody wants contentment and fulfillment and to live a meaningful life. But we’re always searching outside ourselves for those things. It’s hard to look inside for those things because it could be scary, because there’s a lot of risk involved with really facing what your true feelings are or to really put yourself out there, there’s going to be rejection, and there’s going to be things that don’t go the way that you initially hoped that they would go. In your book, you had this box. It was a really cool visual drawn of the pain box. I’d love for you to just talk about that for a little bit.

Cory: Yeah. You already said it so well, Sonya. But we accumulate over the course of a lifetime ways that we’ve learned to protect ourselves, that do keep us safe, but also keep us often stuck in a one dimensional way of being. So the pain box refers to the box that can keep us stuck in a certain way of being. The reason it’s called the pain box is because the walls don’t actually exist. There are no concrete walls that you need to break through or anything. It’s just the perceived pain that you might need to experience to get where you want on the other side. So let’s say somebody wants to experience more love and connection, but the last time they experienced love and connection. They gave their heart to someone, but it was crushed, and there was so much pain around that. Well, the body, the mind doesn’t want to experience that again. So it says we got to make sure we don’t go to love anymore because it means a lot of pain. So we have this thing that we want, love, connection. But there’s a wall between us and it and that’s like potential for rejection. And so that becomes the wall, the physical pain that we might need to experience in order to get on the other side, or we want to be more authentic. But as soon as we really drop into our experience, we feel a sense of shame. And we don’t want to feel a sense of shame because it might mean that we’re not a good person or it’s not good for our egos or something. And so we don’t go there as well. And we kind of just pretend like we have it all together, but we’re not really embodying that authenticity we want. So here we have the authenticity we want, but the potential pain we might need to experience is like having an honest conversation that I feel shame about something. So we have all of these walls that develop that get us stuck in a certain way of being and prevents us from experiencing the richness of our life, from taking risks, from trying new things. And part of the journey of presence is being able to soften those walls so that we’re not bound into that one dimensional way of being. And a big part of softening those walls well, that’s where the whole second section of the book is the FACE model, when you can develop that quality of focus, allowing curiosity, embodiment, that allows you to stand in the discomfort of those walls and not shut down to it and give it the opportunity to soften, to shift, to integrate, and then even to pass entirely. Because the way we work through those walls, I went back and forth on whether I wanted to call them walls because it does create, like, an adversarial relationship. It’s just helpful, I think, for us. Most of us can resonate with what that feels like, but we don’t actually want to treat them as things that need to be broken, because these are the parts of you that are protecting you. Those walls are like, when you see that wall, I want you to see just like a precious child that’s like standing there with their arms crossed, not letting you go by because it wants to protect you, because that’s what it is. It’s like that part of us that knew at a certain point that we experienced pain. It doesn’t want you to experience pain anymore. So we got to get close enough to the wall that we can feel it and that the wall knows that we can be there and still be okay. And that’s where being able to stay with that discomfort, not immediately run away from it, but also not immediately run through it allows us to shift our relationship to it, and then the discomfort itself actually starts to soften and then the wall dissolves. Rather than it being obliterated or shifted, we can move to the other side wherever we wanted to go.

Sonya: Yes. I think the run through it piece that you just mentioned is something that maybe some of us don’t think about as much because we think about walking down the wall further, maybe just to kind of get away from that thing and find something else to focus on. But also when something bad happens, I definitely am guilty of doing this. Something bad happens, and I’m just like, oh, well, and I just don’t process it and I just move on. But I’ve learned through multiple experiences that that’s actually not a healthy way of dealing with things either. So like sitting with shame, sitting with rejection, sitting with embarrassment, that is a skill in and of itself. And we don’t have to like what that feels like. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s important to sit there with that. And this brings in the entire theme that we’ve been talking about of pain and suffering, and that is part of the human experience and learning how to just sit with that and knowing that you need to do that in order to get to the other side. But it’s so hard to actually do in real life.

Cory: Yes. And again, you said that so well, I think it’s important for us just to recognize what is the alternative of that, because I work with so many people and so many people have different levels of interest in this stuff. And a lot of the pushback is like, why would I want to go into that stuff? I can just focus on something else and you can it’s important to remember that you can shift your attention and you could go your whole life, like numbing yourself to these things. But what I’ve just seen time and time again is that the more we try to compartmentalize, the more we try to disconnect from the bad stuff, the more shut down we become to the full experience. We start putting up boards on our windows so that no danger gets in. We also prevent the light from coming in. That’s like a little cliche. And I think a lot of people come to the recognition at some point in their lives that they can feel something is missing, that they’re only living half heartedly, only experiencing so much, or they just feel increasingly disconnected. Eventually we have to walk into those things that we are turning away from. Otherwise we are subconsciously running from ourselves our entire lives. And you can only get to certain levels of happiness that way, but not really deep fulfillment, peace and coziness within yourself. That is just a whole other level of wellbeing.

Sonya: It’s interesting I was just thinking about all the things that we’ve talked about. We’ve mostly been focused on mindfulness, and we haven’t even really talked about meditation very much. So can you talk about why you need meditation in order to practice mindfulness in your life?

Cory: Yeah. Well, just think of mindfulness as the fitness level. Like, everything we’ve talked about is like being good at that is like the mental fitness level. And then meditation is like going to the gym. So it’s your place that you specifically practice these qualities. It’s one of the best ways to develop all the elements of FACE, focus, allowing, curiosity and embodiment. So when you do your meditation, we have a gym on every street corner. And I know this is a very active audience. We all kind of know what we do for our bodies, but what do we do for our minds? How do we develop these qualities? How do we develop presence? The meditation practice is just a very intentional way to cultivate that so that it carries over into our day to day lives. Yeah. And so we can work to continue to cultivate that mindfulness and presence outside of the meditation practice. But it remains to me the best exercise to do that that I’ve seen so far.

Sonya: I love the way that you describe that, and I’ve never heard it described that way before. That mindfulness is like the fitness level, and meditation is the reps that you need to do. And that really, really helps me because sometimes I think it’s kind of hazy, like where one starts and the other one finishes.

Cory: Yes, totally. Good, I’m glad you liked it with all the people that you interview. I feel special now.

Sonya: And there’s a bunch of things that we didn’t get to talk about in your book. So people should definitely pick up your book, Stop Missing Your Life. But I’ll just mention them. I know we don’t have time to go into them, but there’s a whole section on, like, using your phone as a meditation tool and like how to organize your phone and the scroller coaster that you talk, like when you’re just scrolling through and it just takes over. I think people would really find value in that, so they should pick up the book for that. What else should people look for? Because on your website, you have courses, you have your book, you have your podcast, and there’s just so many great things that you’re putting out into the world.

Cory: Thank you. Yeah. So a few things, like the latest is the podcast that I recently started that’s called Practicing Human. At the time of recording this, I’m doing daily episodes. I might work to change the structure of that, but right now they’re daily episodes, short tidbits. The book, obviously, which is available anywhere. And if you want free guided meditations resources, other book recommendations, anyone can get those. Just text your email address to +1 (631) 405-4631 and you’ll get an automated email with a bunch of different guided meditations and seven page mindfulness starter kit. Really anything you need to get going into all of this. So that’s a great resource and maybe we’ll put that in the show notes or something.

Sonya: Yeah, I’ll put the phone number in the show notes for people for sure. Awesome. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show. There’s so many different types of meditation instructors and I think that a lot of people listening probably forayed into meditation through the Headspace app and that’s how I did as well, aside from yoga practices and built in meditation and yoga practices. But I think it’s important for people to realize there’s different types of meditation, there’s different types of instructors. So just because maybe you started with Headspace, you started with an instructor that didn’t resonate with you and that doesn’t mean that meditation doesn’t work for you. It just means that you maybe need to just find somebody that does resonate with you and I think that you’re a really awesome person, Cory, for finding somebody to resonate with, especially for the type of people that listen to this podcast.

Cory: Thanks, Sonya. I so appreciate it. It was really wonderful being here with you.

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