Control your thoughts better with tips from mindfulness guru Cory Muscara
Useful advice on how to be more present and less stressed from the University of Pennsylvania lecturer and former Buddhist monk
Mindfulness is a buzzword around so much of our lives. We can end up paying a small fortune for someone to help us be mindful, and still be none the wiser. Cory Muscara hopes to make mindfulness more accessible and comprehensible. He is a mindfulness teacher, a frequent guest of the Ten Percent Happier podcast with Dan Harris, and a professor whose online meditations have been heard more than 10 million times in more than 50 countries.
In his early 20s, he spent time ordained as a Buddhist monk in Myanmar in 2012. He has taught mindfulness-based leadership at Columbia University, and currently serves as an instructor of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his graduate work.
He released his first book, Stop Missing Your Life: How to be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World, in December 2019. In it, he describes a workshop where he encouraged hundreds of Fortune 100 executives to sit silently and listen to a bell ring three times. This exercise is meant to help people focus on the present moment. The exercise led to a lot of the executives feeling calmer and less consumed by their thoughts.
Muscara argues that it’s important to be intentional about our thoughts and where we direct our attention, as this can help us combat worries, fears, and negative thinking.
The following is an excerpt from his book:
I’ve done this exercise more than 500 times, and there are usually common themes in people’s responses, but the one response that always comes up is an increased sense of calm.
It could be that the bells are very pleasant to listen to, or that the room is quiet, or that they’re not immersed in emails – but it seems that when we make the intention to pay deeper attention to one thing (in this case, the bells), we’re less prone to falling into the dominating stream of thoughts and stimuli that typically consume our attention and create extra agitation.
You know those thoughts, right? The judgments, the worries, the rumination, the thoughts about the future and the past. Not only do they create agitation and stress, these pesky little critters become the filter through which we experience our life.
Some sceptics might think that I’m suggesting we clear our minds of thoughts, never think about the future or the past, and just focus on what is happening right now, all the time, in every moment.
Eh, not quite. If that were the case – or if it was even possible – I’m not sure how we would get anything done. We should spend time thinking about the future – planning our goals and scheduling out our day – and time reflecting on our past – what we need to improve and what went well that we want to remember. Both of those domains, the future and the past, heavily inform how we live our life in the present moment.
However, in my own life, I’ve noticed that my mind can go into the future and the past without me asking it to. And it’s not always helpful. It often leads to extra stress, extra worry, and extra judgement about things that have very little to do with the reality of what is happening right now.
So, this is not about clearing thoughts from our mind; rather, it’s about developing an awareness of what is going on in our minds – where does our attention go, moment to moment? What does our mind reflect on when we’re not aware of it? – and then being more intentional about where and how we direct our attention.
A thought can be a powerful and positive force in our lives, leading to creativity, planning, and problem solving; a thought can also be meaningless neurotic chatter. We want the ability to leverage the former and not be swept away by the latter.
But, Cory, I don’t want to constantly monitor myself. I want to be free and spontaneous!
The kind of freedom I’m talking about is not being trapped in the unconscious pattern of reactivity. It’s about seeing what our usual impulse is in the moment and then being able to choose to follow it or respond differently.
I believe this sentiment is best captured in this quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth, freedom, and happiness.”
The ability to respond in that space between something happening and our response to it is where we find freedom. It’s where we can show ourselves a little more compassion when we’re beating ourselves up. It’s where we can decide to be a little less impulsive when we’re about to say (or text) something we shouldn’t.
And when it comes right down to it, it’s where we start to make meaningful changes in our life.
Excerpted from the book Stop Missing Your Life: How to be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World by Cory Muscara. Copyright (c) Cory Muscara by Da Capo Lifelong Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.