Mindfulness is all the rage right now, but many people may be over-complicating it. Learn how to implement the benefits of mindfulness effortlessly into your daily regimen with mindfulness master Thomas McConkie.
Thomas McConkie is an author, public speaker, and mindfulness teacher. He is the Founder of Lower Lights School of Wisdom where he teaches principles of developmental psychology and incorporates his 20 years of experience practicing mindfulness. He is the creator of the podcast, Mindfulness+ and has been featured on NPR, Religious News Service and Tricycle Magazine.
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Miranda : 00:00:02 Welcome to the Dirobi Health Show, covering the world of fitness, nutrition, and supplementation with world-class guests, the latest clinical research and plenty of tips you can use right away to boost your health and wellness. Here’s your host, Dave Sherwin.
Dave Sherwin: 00:00:21 Welcome to the Dirobi Health Show, and this episode with Thomas McConkie is hopefully going to be something that is very meaningful, profound, something that really gives you some practical things you can use in your life to improve your life. This can be a topic that can make a major difference for a lot of people, young and old. So I’m excited to jump into it. And first of all, let me give you a little background on Thomas McConkie. He’s an author, a public speaker, and a mindfulness teacher. He’s the founder of the Lower Lights School of Wisdom, where he teaches principles of developmental psychology and incorporates his 20 years of experience practicing mindfulness. He’s the creator of the podcast, mindfulness plus and has been featured on NPR, religious news, service, and Tricycle magazine. And with that being said, Thomas, thank you so much for being on the show.
Thomas McConkie: 00:01:13 Happy to be here.
Thomas McConkie: 00:02:45 I would totally agree whether an individual listening to this conversation right now is diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or not. I think we can safely diagnose our culture as having ADHD. And if our culture has ADHD, then that’s going to trickle down to all of us. In other words, it’s going to encourage behavior, even reward behaviors that reflect the symptoms in the state of Adhd. So we’re, we’re vulnerable in that sense. You look at the average youtube video and the ones that go viral tend to be 90 seconds or less. You think about how long it takes you to send a text message or tap an app when you get to a stoplight and like read the latest headline. I mean, we’re, we’ve been trained to pay attention for five seconds at a time, 10 seconds at a time. And there’s this massive counter cultural movement, I would say we could call it the mindfulness movement, something like that where people are developing this intuition that they’re very attention is under nourished.
Thomas McConkie: 00:03:54 And so if we pay attention in an intentional way and we practice paying attention over longer periods of time, well the science is telling us that that’s extremely good for our brains. It’s good for our bodies that’s good for mental and emotional health. So I think, you know, this meditation, Mindfulness Movement, is this intuition we’re having on a societal level that was being undernourished in important ways as human beings. Not In terms of food and like some people, yes, but on a more subtle level were undernourished in like how long we will pay attention to something in a given moment. And how wholesome that thing that we’re paying attention to is. That’s a real form of nutrition that we’re starting to raise awareness around in society. It’s a fascinating thing.
to be more mindful and vice versa? Can you be more mindful without meditating, and I’m sure you can to some extent, but what would you say is the relationship between meditation and mindfulness?
Dave Sherwin: 00:06:26 Excellent. I want to jump into a story of yours that I heard you share publicly that was really, really meaningful to me and I want our listeners to hear it, but I want to. I do want to save it and yet at this point, I do think it would also be good for you to jump in and do a little bit of more of a biographical sketch on yourself as far as you spent 20 years in a Buddhist setting. And why don’t you talk to us about that and how that laid a foundation for what you’re doing now.
Thomas McConkie: 00:07:03 It’s nice to hear people’s stories and how they come into the practice. For me, I was, I think a very average teenager who graduated from high school. I had no plans for any future. I had, you know, some pretty significant depression and
Thomas McConkie: 00:07:22 it insomnia when I moved away from home for the first time and was starting college and it became clear to me pretty quickly, but I did not have the skills to live an independent adult life. And by some grace, I had this thought like, oh, maybe if I meditated. And the funny thing about that is I had never even met an actual meditator at that point. I didn’t even know
Thomas McConkie: 00:07:46 know what meditation was. I might’ve gleaned from Kung Fu movies growing up that these people could control their minds and you know, a kick people in the head at the same time. But I was working with how do I stop this monkey mind from, you know, jumping around the jungle and driving me crazy. So I, you know, started asking people about the practice. And sure enough, you know, in a matter of, I think days, I had found this major order of advanced Buddhism based in downtown Salt Lake City where I was living and I met another teacher. I’ve had a lot of experience. So I’m actually in the Sufi tradition of Islam. So I look back, still am in touch with these people. And I think how fortunate it was to have met teachers like this early on in my practice and the kind of world we’re living in now.
Thomas McConkie: 00:08:40 Podcasts like these and you know, audio cds, different channels make these teachings more available to all of us than they’ve ever been. I mean, I was looking around in the late nineties. The teachings weren’t quite as widely disseminated then as they are now, but even still, but I’ll say to the, you know, the story you’re referencing, I hadn’t experienced just starting my meditation practice and I knew instantly the day I started that it was both very challenging and undeniably rewarding. I knew that the first day I practice like I could see if I kept doing this. Good things were gonna happen and you know, between that intuition and having teachers that I think cared about me and were invested in my practice, that’s a really important aspect of developing a strong practice. I was able to stick with it and stick with it through the hard times.
Thomas McConkie: 00:09:38 After about six months of daily practice, I noticed a dramatic change in my personal life. And when I say dramatic, it was still subtle but dramatic in a subtle way where I noticed something as simple as my breath kind of dropping more into my belly when I’d walk around campus as a freshman in school and what I had kind of grown accustomed to this like buzzing disquieting anxiety that was constantly in the background of my entire life. And one day I remember the exact moment where I noticed it was gone and it’s like the silence, the absence of anxiety and the stillness that stilled, that space was palpable to me and in the whole world transformed. I had become a new person in a matter of months and the whole world felt a little bit safer to me, a little more inviting. And I was off to the races.
Thomas McConkie: 00:10:37 After that I knew that, you know, there was no end to what I can discover through this practice. So that was really profound for me as a teenager with depression, like so many teenagers and just learning to sit still and breathe in a different way was enough to just turn everything around for me in a matter of months. So these, these subtle shifts that come from practicing can be extremely significant. That’s not the story you heard me tell in public recently, but that’s, that’s the story that got me going in a mindfulness practice over the years and I continue to deeply rewarded by it.
Dave Sherwin: 00:11:14 And describe the practice. When you say it’s a practice that you did for those six months, what exactly were you doing on a daily basis?
Thomas McConkie: 00:11:23 Yeah and this applies to I think anyone who wants to undertake any kind of mindfulness or awareness practice where I was basically sitting still and I was attempting to focus my mind, uh, it would be on the breath sometimes or it would be on the body. So how I was feeling in the body sensations, it would be a mantra which is, that’s a particularly a form of meditation, comes from the Hindu tradition that involves repeating a word or a syllable over and over to help the mind become a single pointed. Uh, so I did that for several months and attention would wander, which it would extremely frequently, I would just practice coming back to focus and it would wander and I’d come back to focus. And over several months I noticed that my concentration was improving. I felt like I was focusing with a different mind that I’ve started with.
Thomas McConkie: 00:12:26 And in fact I had been quite a mediocre student in school for many years. And I noticed that I was able to stay in the library for hours at a time because my meditation practices developing. And I noticed that my grades were, you know, going up and up and up and I wasn’t consciously trying to get better. Grades are the most interesting thing. So I literally felt like I was, you know, learning and living and focusing with a new brain. And the, the modern neuroscience bears that out there are, there are studies that show people focusing in a way I just described a for most days, several days a week and you know, we all miss a day here and there, but you focus for a minimum of 10 minutes a day, most days of the week you will have measurable brain growth after eight weeks. So it’s really fascinating what we know about the physical brain now and how a mindfulness practice can impact our bodies and minds.
Dave Sherwin: 00:13:30 Excellent. And, and with that, let’s talk a little bit about what this is and what this isn’t. And let me explain that question a little bit more detail as I’ve been fascinated with this world and, and finding a personal benefit to these principles you’re teaching. One of the podcasts I’ve really enjoyed is no rush as podcasts, the secular Buddhist, uh, he’s been a guest on this show. For those listening. He did a podcast episode with me on a mindful eating and it was phenomenal. And if you’re interested in this whole world, it was about more than just mindful eating. And another one well worth listening to, but I love his podcasts. I listened to it quite a bit and I love the very simple practicality of it. And I’ve listened to other podcasts. I recently started one that within minutes they were talking about this state, this surreal state they were trying to achieve through meditation.
Dave Sherwin: 00:14:30 And then they started talking about their drug experimentation, uh, to achieve these states. And immediately that turned me off. I’m not, I’m not judging it, I’m not saying you know, that, I’m judging it for myself. I’m not interested in that, I’m not interested in anything that leads to necessarily altered of being or some type of mystical experience through this. For me, the practical use of mindfulness when you talk to me about, you implemented these principles and over time you found you had more peace. At least the way I interpreted it. When you said that that kind of buzzing went away, you had better grades. That’s very interesting to me. And I imagine to most of our readers. And so I’m pointing that out because when we say meditation, I think there are some people that think of these altered states of potentially even a drug-induced states and of creating a mystical experience. Again, uh, I’m not against wonderful experiences and you’re going to tell us one here at the end of the show. Um, but we’re talking today on this podcast anyway about effortless mindfulness for non monks and practical ways of making your life better. So do you have any comment on that? And as we use the word meditation, what you think it is or isn’t or what we’re striving for is just ordinary, average people here trying to do better in this highly distracted world we live in.
Thomas McConkie: 00:16:09 Those are all great. I’ll, add on a practical level, I mentioned, you know, strengthen my concentration of a teenage meditator. Not only a good my grades go up, but I was more sensitive to what was going on in my body and moment to moment. And I had noticed, um, the foods I would eat that know, where I’d feel really alive and vibrant and energetic and other foods where I felt a little more sluggish and indigestion so well. So I learned at that time just by paying mindful attention to my body that I had a little bit of a dairy sensitivity, not, not lactose intolerance, but I just noticed when I ate dairy I’d feel a little bit kind of fuzzy. And so I, I experimented and stopped drinking cow’s milk and that helps me pay better attention during the day. And, I think everybody will notice what foods work best with their bodies.
Thomas McConkie: 00:17:00 And that starts a virtuous cycle of your concentration is improving so you’re more sensitive to your body to eat better foods and sleep better. So your meditation gets better. I mean, every last thing about my life was getting better with this practice so that, I mean, I was converted early on to the practical take-home value of it. To your second point, I’m very sympathetic when you hear a podcast talking about these far out a trippy states, you know, drug-induced a insights, no judgment here either those have their place, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about the day I love the phrase that comes from very early zen, Chan. Buddhism in China, Ping Chong scene should allow it would say, and that translates to “ordinary mind is the way.” And what that means, ordinary mind is the way is that if we, all of us in this very moment, pay special attention to what’s happening at this moment.
Thomas McConkie: 00:18:03 In other words, if we’re mindful, we will realize at this moment that it’s actually quite extraordinary at the level of the distracted mind, the personality that’s never satisfied and always needs more than it has or it’s got too much of something. So it was less of that I want less debt and I want more pleasure and the faster car and everything we want in this world. This ordinary mind teaching tells us that just sitting here, just having a human body and the precious human life and breath to breathe, everything that’s arising and the simplicity of this moment is actually incredibly extraordinary. And, for me, that’s what’s so profound about this teaching is that you truly learned that you need nothing else beyond just the inherent joy this moment and of course, once we’ve touched into that primordial joy that said, you know, the heart of our human experience, it doesn’t mean we stop breathing or stopped drinking water or eating or you know, doing the work we love in the world and having relationships.
Thomas McConkie: 00:19:15 But it means that our whole motivation system has shifted. It shifted from this sense of lack like I need to do things to fill this hole, this void that I fill in my life. And maybe if I finally get enough love and I get enough respect and I get enough possessions and I get enough power, then I’ll finally be happy. That whole motivation system translates into I already feel deeply whole and fulfilled at this moment. Given this wholeness and this fulfillment that I’m experiencing in the ordinariness of right now, how do I choose to just overflow into the world with this and gift as much of this as I can to everybody that’s really the practice in a nutshell?
Dave Sherwin: 00:20:04 Well, you know, I’m learning. I’m learning these things. This is new to me. I bought the app headspace about a year, maybe 18 months ago. I’ve been dabbling and being more mindful. I’ve been listening to the podcast and as you talk about the ordinary mind, I love that. And one of the changes you’ve talked about, some of the practical changes you saw when you started seriously practicing, or at least daily practicing, one of them that’s been really profound for myself as I have a dog and I love my dog and I love to walk the dog. I always have, but it used to be that I put on the headphones and turned up the music and went out there. And, we walked and it was nice, but I was completely distracted. I had my entertainment on and what I found is that as I started using headspace, spending more time trying to quiet my own mind and working on these things, I found that I quickly didn’t want the headphones, at least not all the time.
Dave Sherwin: 00:21:11 Sometimes I’ll listen to an audiobook or something like that still. But, but I found that just taking the dog and walking the dog and enjoying the time with her and, and finding out that I don’t actually have to yank on the leash every time she wants to stop, but that we can work together to have a really nice 30 minute walk and really enjoy it without headphones. That’s new to me, you know, two, three years ago I’d say, you know, forget that. I mean, that would not, you know, unless it was like a hike or something. And now I go out and I’m walking my dog and I see these people and it becomes obvious to me the ones that have to walk the dog that is kind of dragging the dog on the leash and trying to get it over with. And I think that that, that was me, you know, and this ordinary little experience of nonheadphone walking the dog and making it a pleasurable experience, so much better than, than what I did.
Thomas McConkie: 00:22:13 That’s a beautiful example of starting to develop new eyes to recognize how beautiful ordinariness is.
Dave Sherwin: 00:22:24 Excellent. How beautiful ordinariness. I like that phrase and tell us, you’re now helping people. You are now in this world. I’m coaching people and helping them to develop that, that mindset. And, and where do you start? Let’s get into the practical, you know, a person listening to the podcast right now. It goes, you know, this is making sense to me. What do I do?
Thomas McConkie: 00:22:52 Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, what I would typically do if somebody came to me and said that he or she were motivated to learn this practice, I would start very personally and ask them, you know, what is it about your life that has brought you to want to learn some mindfulness? What, is it that you would hope to get out of a mindfulness practice? Because if I know, if I just read in some magazine like, Oh, you know, mindfulness has proven to promote healthy brain growth and etc, etc. If it remains at an abstract level, uh, our motivation may not be sufficient to get us through the very challenging times in practice because this is like life itself a challenging practice. So I like to connect with people on a really personal level and check in and ask like, what, what is it that you hope to develop out of this practice?
Dave Sherwin: 00:25:06 And how do they do that? People are listening to this podcast all over the world and mostly in the United. Most of our listeners are in the US. But regardless, whoever’s listening, what advice do you give on how do you find a mentor, where, where are they at? Are there certain organizations or how does a person find a mindfulness teacher?
Thomas McConkie: 00:25:28 Yeah, I mean, I, you know, I can’t say anything authoritative about those things I say might not work for everybody. Well, I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned, in 20 years doing this, that first, there’s a tendency to want to search the ends of the earth for the ascended master on the mountaintop. And if we could only find that, big guru, that will liberate us, then we can finally give ourselves to the practice. Something like that. I’m exaggerating, but we have the site, we idealize the teaching role and I’m really deliberate when I say having a relationship with somebody farther down the path with you at different times, you know, your teacher might be a few steps ahead, is all, you know, you might, you might be working with somebody who’s meditated a couple more months or years.
Thomas McConkie: 00:26:22 Then you, and another time it’s really valuable to be able to check in with somebody who’s been meditating for 50 years or 75 years or longer. In my last zen teacher when I became an official student of his, he had been meditating I think almost years. He was 102 and he started meditating in the Zen tradition at the age of 14 or so. So there are different levels of teacher, but as long as somebody has real genuine experience and can communicate that experience too, it’s valuable. So I would say trust your gut if you are, you meet somebody you sense that you could learn from, you know, try it out and maybe there’ll be your teacher for an hour. Maybe there’ll be a teacher for a week and maybe there’ll be your teacher for 50 years. And I’ve, I’ve had all of those kinds of teachers and they’re all very valuable.
Thomas McConkie: 00:27:20 I’d say that about finding a teacher. And another extremely valuable support in the practice is to find a community that’s doing this. And the community can mean one or more people. Maybe you’re in a relationship and you decide you’re going to start trying to meditate with your partner and that can be really valuable because you start to talk about what you’re discovering in your practice, the struggles, the successes of the triumphs. And maybe you get a little group together and your neighborhood and it’s a three or four of you or 50 of you that gathering someone’s living room and do a little meditation on a weekday night and talk about it after and just support each other in the practice. Those are all really important aspects of, you know, developing your own practice. And for those of you listeners who are tuned into this, I’m kind of reciting the three gems of Buddhism, the Buddha, the dharma, the songa. These are the pillars of practice and as I’ve pointed to finding a teacher and appointed, defining a community which is called a songa and Buddhism and you know, then there’s just relying on your own practice. It’s actually showing up for you or your own personal meditation practice, especially when you don’t want to. So those are just a few thoughts off the cuff and I’m borrowing from an ancient pattern that is tried and tested. So hopefully that’s some support to the listeners.
Dave Sherwin: 00:28:46 Yeah. And I liked how you talked about the community could be quite small. I’m chuckling, a little bit insight as you say that because two weeks ago I gathered my family and said, let’s meditate. And we, I taught them a little bit about mindfulness and then we talked about what we were going to do and I set a timer for five minutes. Okay. And we, we, uh, set the timer and we sat there and, really we were just trying to be quiet. And my, my younger kids were kinda giggling, you know, and it was all a little bit uncomfortable and a bit silly for a little while I think. And then, and then everyone got quiet and we just sat for five minutes, which if you’ve never meditated before, five minutes is actually a long time to sit and do nothing. And but that was our little family experience. Our one and only so far. We do talk about
Dave Sherwin: 00:29:42 mindfulness meditation in our family. We have a college-age son who took a transcendental meditation course last summer that’s really been phenomenal for him. He meditates twice a day for 20 minutes and rarely misses, even on vacation, we will find him slipping away sometime in the morning sometime and then in the afternoon or evening and doing his meditation and he is, is noticeably different and improved from this practice. So as a family or a small group, as you mentioned, how do we make that a practice? Is this something you recommend that you do once a week together and how does that work? How do you, how do you make that work? What are the, what are the rules or what have you found that to work for small groups or families?
Thomas McConkie: 00:30:40 Well, I’d say the first rule or principle of how that comes to mind here is that with all of the advice available
Thomas McConkie: 00:30:50 nowadays, podcast, you know, magazines and books and keynote speeches. It’s easy to develop this idea of what our practice should look like and then try to fit into it. I recommend a bit more of the bottom-up approach of, you know, sense into your own rhythm, what, what feels right for you, a few who in your family wants to do it for you, among your friends or see what groups are already existing in the community and find your own rhythm with it. Some people, I get students who just come voracious and they want to practice four hours a day when they first started and they’re still going strong years later and other people dip their toe in and they’ll do a few minutes here and then I’ll see them a month later to dip back in and, you know, they know there’s something in this for them, but they’re finding their way to it.
Thomas McConkie: 00:31:50 Just really trust yourself and um, you know, give yourself time to come into your own rhythm with it I think is really important. And that said that the flip side of that like you pointed to, is that it does help to hold ourselves accountable once we do recognize, okay, this really is capable of transforming me. If I’d given myself to this practice, at that point, we need support and we need people to hold us accountable because I’ve mentioned the number of times in this conversation already, we will experience periods of bliss and effortlessness and it just feels like the wind is at our back and nothing can ever go wrong again. And then five seconds later everything goes wrong. And you know, that’s why I found it so important to develop a bit of a discipline around practicing, especially when we don’t feel like practicing. That tends to be the most valuable time to practice that I’ve found.
Dave Sherwin: 00:32:51 Okay. And you used the word effortlessly. We put that in the title, effortless mindfulness for nonmonks and a little bit of a cheeky title, but the idea being that most of us have a normal lives. We are not dedicated monks with full time to dedicate ourselves to mindfulness and meditation. And so this word effortless, let’s talk now about to the individuals listening. So we’ve talked a little bit about group meditation, family meditation to the person listening who likes this idea of effortless mindfulness. What do you recommend for them to get started into a practice? It sounds you’ve mentioned a few times that this is a daily kind of a thing, or at least a while. You may miss a day here or there. We ought to try every day. Do you have recommendations for how a person gets started? For how long, when the best time, those types of things for starting up a practical, effortless mindfulness discipline?
Thomas McConkie: 00:33:55 Well, Yeah. Let me start by offering an experience for the listeners of. It might be your first officially meditative experience, you might have had many, but let me. Let me speak to thIs word effortless. So if I were to invite you right now to drop down to the floor and do 100 pushups, most people’s muscles would be built. Mine would fail it about 20 or 25. The muscle would give out. we would exert the effort to go through a particular physical motion and after a certain number of repetitions, the muscles would just fail. There would be no effort left to give.
Thomas McConkie: 00:34:41 The reason I use the term effortless mindfulness is because when we’re doing a mindfulness practice, we’re working with something quite different than a muscle, and here’s where I’d like to invite you into the very simple experience. Notice in this moment that you were having an experience. Forget what the experience is for the moment you might be aware of your body are sitting in a chair. You’re lying on a sofa. You’re driving a car, you’re walking. You could be in the mountains, you could be by the beach, it could be in the city. You could be having any kind of experience right now, but the fact is that you are having an experience and you’re having an experience because at the level of awareness you were already aware. If you weren’t aware, there would be no experience to be had. You wouldn’t be aware it and so for all practical purposes, there would be no experience of human lives. There’d be nobody experiencing it. So just notice at this moment, unlike the muscles in your body that will fail after you worked them hard enough after you exert enough effort. This awareness at the very heart of this moment, it cannot fail. Awareness can only be aware.
Thomas McConkie: 00:36:05 Don’t think about that. Just appreciate at this moment that it requires no muscular exertion, so to speak, to just be perfectly aware.
Thomas McConkie: 00:36:19 And when we notice this again and again, this is another way of understanding of mindfulness practice that when we actually come to appreciate and develop a habit of appreciating the wow, I’m, I’m aware that we’re back to this ordinary moment again where it doesn’t matter what I’m aware of, I can be aware of like I’m in this lush forest just teeming with life and natural beauty or I’m aware of that, oh man, I’m so stressed I have so much to do and it’s already four pm in the day. How am I going to get it done? Whatever the experience, whether it’s positive or negative if we learn to look beneath that the activity, that surface level activity of experience, we start to realize how amazing it is that we’re even having an experience at all and it’s amazing because every human being can do this. Every human being has this, you know, they call it the precious human birth and Buddhism. Every human beings haven’t been a gift and the capacity to become aware. They’re aware and when you really learn to stabilize in that awareness, pretty soon as they say again, and then every day is a good day. it doesn’t matter what’s going on because at the deepest level I feel awake, I feel happy. I feel free even when objective circumstances are extremely challenging. This awareness does not fail.
Thomas McConkie: 00:37:54 It’s a profound gift at the very same awareness that I’m speaking from right now. That same awareness Is listening through your ears and having a human experience. It’s very intimate, precious thing, and to just come back to this realization for a few moments a day, whatever our rhythm is, however, we choose to set that up for ourselves. If we practice remembering that we practice remembering that we’re aware over time that becomes habitual and our just our baseline, the way we move about in the world Is with this deep recognition that wow, like I’m aware and I’m alive and it’s an incredible thing and no matter what happens next, I’m going to be ready for it. That’s the spirit of the practice
Dave Sherwin: 00:38:46 and that’s profound and probably different for a lot of us than what we would have thought meditation and mindfulness was. And let me back up and give you what I used to think. What I used to think. When I saw, say, an image of a Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged in the monastery. I thought that was a person who had perfect control over their thoughts at some point and had a completely blank mind that there are no thoughts going through their mind and that they were able to achieve levels of consciousness or different than what anyone else could. But what I’ve come to understand from my recent, and let me just to say I come to understand in the last six months I’ve. I’ve listened to almost every episode of the Secular Buddhist podcast. I listened to a lot of, episodes from zen cast.
Dave Sherwin: 00:39:43 I’ve read why Buddhism is true by a Wright as well as I just finished old path white clouds by tick not han. So That’s kind of laid a groundwork for me. And, and in all of those different and kind of disparate places, I’ve found that that’s kind of not really it and that the mind is, it doesn’t really stop working. Right? That you, you mentioned the monkey mind earlier, that there’s, there are thoughts running through our mind and it’s, and, and, uh, and, and several of these masters or books have said along the way. Well, if you think you’re going to control your mind, just do it right now. Just stop your thoughts just for a minute. And, what we find is that’s pretty much impossible, right? They are, our mind doesn’t stop until we die from what I can tell. Uh, and so could you speak to that for a minute and the difference between what you described regarding awareness and what people may perceive that mindfulness and meditation is all about, is that it’s, it’s there for, I’m kind of stopping your mind and getting into this, this void a, so to speak. Just turn off our thoughts. Can you speak to that?
Thomas McConkie: 00:41:01 For sure. Yeah. I think in a western cultural context, it’s no surprise that we have this kind of fantasy about getting rid of all our thoughts because we all feel so harassed by our thoughts from moment to moment throughout the day and throughout life. If I were to try to describe the experience of developing a little bit of mindfUl awareness over the days, weeks, months, years, whatever your case is who is listening, I would say that what you realize and you start to develop a new relationship with the thinking mind where the driven the inertia, the momentum of the thinking mind no longer feels like this torrent, these flood waters that are just too powerful to fight. They just sweep you away. It starts to feel more like a faucet and you can, you can turn that faucet on and you can use thinking like a tool you can work with thought and thought can help you get things done in the world, but you are not working for the thinking mind anymore.
Thomas McConkie: 00:42:13 It’s working for you. So it becomes more voluntary. We were less susceptible to getting swept away by the thinking mind, but at no point does the thinking mind just stopped working. And in fact, my experience has been just the opposite. That is that as I’ve practiced over the years. My thinking feels much more clear and precise. Like I said earlier, my just so my brain works better. Um, so when we first start thinking feels like a big problem and we have these fantasies about like, oh, I can just stop thinking everything would be fine. And as we get more into the practice, we realize like, oh, that’s nice. sometimes the mind is quiet and there are no faults and I can enjoy that. And other times they actually need to think about this because I’ve got this long grocery list and a complex meal to cook for my friends coming over tonight and I better get out the thinking mind for those tasks. So that’s what I’d say about that.
Dave Sherwin: 00:43:11 Excellent. One other thought that sparked a is that one of the topics that are covered everywhere you go and everything you read and everything you listened about with meditation and mindfulness is the breath. Everything always seems to come back to the breath. Meditations usually start by paying attention to the breathing. Why is that? What is the relationship between meditation, mindfulness, and the breath?
Thomas McConkie: 00:43:40 Great question. There is nothing sacred about the breath or inherently more sacred than anything else we can use for our meditation practices. Really the breath is something, experience a sensation in the body and sensation in the body is one of the many things we can choose to focus on, to cultivate mindful awareness.
Thomas McConkie: 00:44:05 The reason the breath is advantageous to work with is that it’s vivid. We can locate it readily. You know, anyone listening now can bring their attention really naturally to the sensations of breathing in the body. Breathing tends to be pleasurable. Pleasurable objects of meditation, especially when we start tend to be easier to focus on the unpleasant objects of and the breath is always present. There’s never a moment where we can’t bring attention back to the breath. we can be in any situation and we can potentially just ground our awareness and the breathing body, so there are there absolutely reasons to recommend the breath as you know, a good way to meditate. I think the popular misunderstanding is that there’s something fundamental about the breadth and I would say not inherently. I think there’s something fundamental about learning how to concentrate and something fundamental about learning how to be clear about what we’re paying attention to and learning how to be very open and allowing of our experience nonjudgmental, nonreactive, but we could apply those principles to anything under the sun so the breath is a good place to start. Certainly not the only place.
Dave Sherwin: 00:45:24 Okay. Outstanding. Now, one of the topics I want to have you talked to as well, and we’ve alluded to it a little bit, and that is outside of meditation, simply being more mindful in everything that we do. You know, Noah Rasheta said a few years on a regular basis that, uh, a person who’s mindful when they’re walking, they’re walking when they’re eating, they’re eating and so on, whatever they’re doing, they’re doing with full attention and awareness. Even sitting at a traffic light is an opportunity to be mindful. So from understanding, you know, we try to implement mindfulness and meditation into our lives. It’s not just about meditation, although we know from the research as you mentioned, that those who meditate find themselves more mindful outside of their meditation. But the opposite can also be true. A person without a meditation practice can be more mindful in everything that they do. Can you talk to us about simply being more mindful in our lives and how we could, and you know, how can we use mindfulness throughout the day in the week as a practical method for just improving ourselves?
Thomas McConkie: 00:46:41 No, I love that question. A framework comes to mind that’s been very helpful for me as a student over the years. This comes from, you know, one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever studied with Shinzen Young who teaches in the Buddhist tradition, he uses the analogy of an athlete who trains at the gym, trains on the track and the pool, and during that intensive training time, the athlete is developing fitness and strength and agility, flexibility, but when they work out and the athlete doesn’t lose all of that fitness that they gained during the formal regimen. So you can imagine a marathon runner who
Thomas McConkie: 00:47:26 puts in 10, 20 miles who knows how many miles a day and during that exercise time, they’re training the body to use oxygen more efficiently to strengthen the muscles, ect.. And then when they’re not running, they just have the pleasure of bopping around the world and an ultra-fit body. All right, so they’re benefiting from their training 24 hours a day, but they’re only using that fitness to train a limited amount of time during the day. MIndfulness is similar. We can think about mindfulness is a kind of gym that we go to, to work out specific muscles and skills. I mentioned them a moment ago, I’ll name them, and again this comes from Shezhen Young’s really brilliant formula, formulation of mindfulness. He talks about exercising, concentration, exercising the faculties of clarity, our ability to just be clear about what we’re experiencing in our in our sensory experience moment to moment, and then he talks about training equanimity or the ability to just be able to accept and not struggle against our internal experience of what’s happening in the world. We can certainly struggle against things happening in the world if we deem they’re unjust, where they need to be corrected, but we learned how to not interfere with ourselves internally and that releases huge amounts of energy and happiness. It turns out. but anyway, so these are like muscles
Thomas McConkie: 00:48:57 train in the gym and there are exercises that human beings have been doing across very different cultures and different geographies for thousands of years and what we find is if we do these exercises that these skills generalize to other parts of our lives. I’m not just concentrated, when I sit on my chair for 10 minutes and focus on my breath, I exercise my concentration formally in a mindfulness practice and then all of a sudden I noticed while I’m more present to my children, I’m more present to the demands of my job and my performance is getting better because I’m not able to concentrate longer and more clear about the distinctions of how important each thing is and I can prioritize better and you know, like my colleagues are noticing that I’m easier to be around and that that’s where the kind of cross-training we get from mindfulness starts the show up everywhere in our lives. So if we’re doing it right, if we’re training well, the most natural thing in the world is to see the momentum of our mindfulness practice changing everything else we do in life.
Dave Sherwin: 00:50:11 Okay. Excellent. What is your current daily practice?
Thomas McConkie: 00:50:16 You know I hesitate to answer because when I do, I think people may think, well, I need to get into that routine.
Dave Sherwin: 00:50:28 Okay, Yep.
Thomas McConkie: 00:50:29 You know, I meditate more time now than I used to than I think I did for many years. I don’t mean to be coy, I’ll just say that you know, I tend to sit for 30 or 40 minutes in the morning and then I tend to sit for any length of time in the afternoon. It might be a little shorter, 20 to 30 minutes. That just happens to be my routine right now. But what I’ll say is that what feels most significant to me right now is not just like, you know, getting my butt on the cushion, so to speak in the morning, the afternoon, but it’s really feeling the flavor, the taste, the flavor of this mindful awareness from the moment I get off the cushion and just having an intention to stay with it throughout the day. So I’d say, you know, my real practice, it’s touching in the morning and the afternoon because that deepening helps me stay on point. But really the challenge I find and the adventure I find right now is I’m catching myself throughout the day and really just holding that intention. I’m to be as mindful at this moment as I was at the deepest moment of my meditation this morning when I was sitting still. So that’s, that’s a lifelong endeavor. I mean, I don’t know if any of us ever, you know, master every single moment. I think that’s what’s quite amazing about human life now. We’re always improving.
Dave Sherwin: 00:52:01 Yeah, absolutely. What was that being said? You did share an experience the first time I met you or heard you at a talk you gave in which you did have a tremendous spiritual experience at a retreat in California if I remember right. And I think that would be wonderful if you don’t mind sharing that with our, with our listeners,
Thomas McConkie: 00:52:27 I’d be happy to. I think it goes well with one of the themes of this conversation, which is ordinary enough. I was at a meditation retreat with my teacher I, it was about seven, a little over seven years ago, and I had a moment which, you know, it didn’t feel like anything special was happening and I felt this kind of release. It was spontaneous. I didn’t do the relaxing
Thomas McConkie: 00:52:55 like something just kind of let go for me and when that happened, I’ve felt a kind of stillness and peace that I don’t have words to describe to this day. Nothing happened. I was just sitting in a kind of hot cabin with 20 other people sitting on their cushions. But what was different was that when I felt everything kind of come to the profound stillness internally, I had the experience of total non grasping where again, I pointed to this at the beginning of the show, but I had this direct experience of how profoundly satisfying the world exactly as it is in this moment could be, and with that moment I had this insight that everything I had ever done in my entire life was a gesture. Reaching towards that fulfillment that I felt in this moment. I thought in my mind I thought I had to reach for it because circumstances had to be just so and once circumstances were perfect and we all have our idea about what perfect circumstances would be.
Thomas McConkie: 00:54:18 I thought then finally I could let go, but at this moment nothing happened. The circumstances were actually not that great. It was like a hot cabin. I was in sweaty robes that you were at that particular trade and uh, my body was aching because I’d been sitting long hours each day. The objective conditions were less than desirable. And yet I felt complete. I felt totally fulfilled and I realized that if I could feel like that at that moment, then all of my reaching and all of my searching had nothing to do with what I thought it did before that moment and I left the retreat center that day, coming down the hill on my way to the airport, getting ready to fly back home. And I thought like, my life is never going to be the same because everything I thought that would make me happy was actually just developing more craving in me.
Thomas McConkie: 00:55:15 The more I got, the more I wanted the less I had, the more I needed to get away from this or that. And all of a sudden I realized my fulfillment and joy in life had nothing to do with what was going on all around me. When I say that it can sound well quite ordinary, but to actually feel that permeate our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our spirits at that point, I think for me, I don’t mean to say this will be true for everybody. I’ll just say in my own words. I felt like my human life started that day. So like that was the day like, okay, I can finally start being human beings. And I said, not that we’re not all human beings. All I mean to say is that I touched into something that has been abiding to this day. I, you know, continue to nurture and cultivate that sense of freedom and
Thomas McConkie: 00:56:13 fulfillment. But every one of us has already that. I’m just telling my own story about it, my own personal kind of touching into it and realization of it, but each person listening to that will be a point sooner or later where you realize the exact same thing I’m saying and you’ll realize it in the unique contours and details of your own life. And I’m confident to say you’ll be stunned. Like I was like how simple it actually is. How ordinary this radical happiness actually is.
Dave Sherwin: 00:56:51 Yeah, that’s outstanding and, and comforting and just normal. It’s just as you share the story in, and you’ve used the word ordinary a few times now on this podcast, that’s the kind of thing I think is inspiring to me and I’m sure to others of our listeners that you’re not describing, again, some type of mystical or transcendental type of estate, but a wonderful experience that was so pivotal in your life that you mark that day is almost a beginning of a new, a new life, which is huge. And I’m sure there are people listening to that think, wow, I want that. That would be nice. My life is very difficult. And, I’d love to have a fresh start, a reset button, you know,
Thomas McConkie: 00:57:41 The best part is, it’s right here. What we want. It’s already right here.
Dave Sherwin: 00:57:48 Yeah. And, and by that, you know, you were at a meditation retreat, you were in California, but you’re, you’re saying you didn’t really have to go anywhere, you, you, you, you were, it was inside you all the time. You just had to tap In and that could have been done anywhere.
Thomas McConkie: 00:58:06 That’s right. That’s right. And I know people who tapped into it and even less exotic than a hot, sweaty cabin up in the mountain meditation retreat,
Dave Sherwin: 00:58:17 that’s good to know because I think that we all don’t want to head to California to have that transcendental experience. It’s here now and all of us have everything that we, we need to be successful and happy. Right? That’s just part of the message that I’m hearing that, as you said, we have the illusion that sometimes the next raise or the next car or the next relationship or the next fill in the blank will make our lives better. And from all these things I’ve mentioned, some of the resources I’ve been reading and delving into and you have many years experience, you know, I’m just a novice into this, this world, but all these things basically make it really obvious very quickly that none of those things are going to do it for you. Right?
Thomas McConkie: 00:59:08 Absolutely, and you know, again, I think this is important because this can be misconstrued, when we start to feel more and more free, more and more joyful just for this simple feeling of being to be awake and aware in this moment, it doesn’t mean we can’t start a new relationship or get a new car. We, we can just live the life we were given to live, but we’re living it from a different place. We’re not trying to fill some void or sense of lack where we’re already full. I mean, a different way to phrase this in the form of a question is, what would you do with your life? How would you express your human life at this moment if you were already free and, resources were totally abundant and you know, it turns out that we are already free and resources are abundant? So it’s an amazing question to live into.
Dave Sherwin: 01:00:06 Outstanding. Well, this has been phenomenal. I do have one more question for you before we wrap up and that is about resources. Uh, I’ve mentioned a few books and podcasts. I listened to but what other resources do you recommend? Either books, podcasts, ideas, things that people listening can use to implement these ideas in their life or get, get more knowledge, you know, carry on down the path.
Thomas McConkie: 01:00:35 Yeah, I mean the resources are extensive. Trust your nose. I mean, you could hop on a google search, find a local community in your neighborhood or you know, there will be teachers who inspire you more than others so that just really trust yourself and follow your nose is my advice there. I do my best to support the community that gathers here where I live and I produce a weekly show, a simple concept or aspect of mindfulness practice and then I, you know, do a practice, a guided meditation or something that invites you into that so that I do a podcast called Mindfulness Plus and you know, we also do events, meditation retreats, workshops, training, and that’s, you can check that out lowerlightsslc.org. So, you know, lots of different ways to touch into our community. And we’re one of many.
Dave Sherwin: 01:01:33 Yeah, lowerlightsslc.org. Correct. And any social media or other places people can find you? Or is that the only thing they need?
Thomas McConkie: 01:01:47 The website’s a good place to start. We’re pretty active on Facebook, so that’s another place you can check us out.
Dave Sherwin: 01:01:54 Okay. Well Thomas, thank you so much for being on the show. This is a topic that is very interesting to me. It’s very meaningful to me. I’m like I said, I’m a novice. I’m learning these things and uh, already just with them, the little bit I’ve done, it’s made a big difference. I’ve seen it work well in other people’s lives. I mentioned my son who is meditating twice a day has had a huge improvement in his life and a lot of ways from that. I hope that those of you listening have, have picked that up and picked up some ideas and practical ways that you can be more mindful. Thomas, thank you again for being on the show.
Thomas McConkie: 01:02:37 Thanks for having me here. I’ve enjoyed it.