Replace Sophisticated Mastery with Big, Dumb Empathy (A Talk)

What if meditation felt natural?

Imagine having a practice that began with spaciousness and appreciation. There is a popular narrative that after a long hard struggle we may find a peacefulness in meditation. But the secret of meditation experts like Thich Nhat Hanh or Chogyam Trungpa is that they teach us to start with an attitude of kindness. If we don’t bring aggression into our meditation practice with unreasonable expectations then it’s unlikely to become a war.

I gave this talk, “Your Body Is Your Practice,” a few weeks ago at an event hosted by the New York Shambhala Meditation Center. This talk, and the guided practices within, encapsulate much of my approach which was carefully arrived at after years of failing at every other approach. I tried minimizing uncomfortable emotions; I tried tensing my body to keep my mind still; and I definitely tried believing that someday, later on, I would gain mastery over myself through meditation. But those didn’t work because meditation is not about mastery. Meditation is not the Jedi way of gaining control over our human vulnerability. It’s a path of openness and kindness.

Below are the timestamps so you can hop around if you wish. There are two practice sessions: a short one at the beginning and a longer session around 26 minutes in.

2:00–10:00 — First guided embodiment practice [a microphone issue gets resolved toward the end of this practice]

11:40 — Talk begins. This work is the intersection of Shambhala teachings, meditation, chronic pain and illness, and Alexander Technique.

15:00 — Basically, if you’re alive, there’s a gap between where you want to be and where you are. The body is a prime example of this. How do we fill that gap?

16:15 — The Treadmill of Self-Improvement. We feel like we can’t fully live until we are better — whatever better means — whether it’s more money, job security, or health issues resolved. Meditation and the Alexander Technique (and anything really) can get subsumed into the Treadmill mindset.

20:45 — The Engine of Empathy. How we can use our experiences that feel “off-script,” or not what we hoped for, as fuel for understanding what it’s really like to be in other people’s shoes. We can start to see life as not being about hitting a narrow target but opening up to the many possibilities of being a human.

22:04 — If we see meditation as a way to gain mastery, I don’t really think it’s going to work out. Those are the people who tend to quit when their mind doesn’t snap into obedience.

22:15 — Overview of the 4 Tools.

26:10 — Meditation begins.

Posture (STAG, my four-point check in).

32:55 — Meditation Technique given.

Cultivating the Proper Attitude (this is mentioned in Overview and throughout session). A spirit of allowing and non-control. You don’t have to be in charge of resolving anything that arises.

50:41 — Re-introducing to the Heart. What do we do with intense emotions like fear, excitement, pain, and overwhelm? Habitually, we meet challenging experiences by trying to think our way out of them — a helpful skill to be sure — but we can also take a more embodied, non-conceptual approach. We can learn to gently undo the habit of constantly shutting off against our heart.

If you feel inspired to offer a gift for these teachings, or for any others, you can do so through or .

In gratitude,

Originally published at on March 2, 2021.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness.

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