The Magic of the Skin - a meditation by Lama Rod Owens

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In this meditation, Lama Rod guides an exploration of the most visible part of our bodies - our skin. He begins with the awareness that life and the world around us can cause us to frequently disembody - to retreat into our minds and away from our direct physical experience in order to protect ourselves in some way or generally feel safe.

As such, any path to healing involves coming back to our bodies - and using the skin as an anchor of our awareness is a beautiful path to do just that. Check it out!

We'd love to hear what you have to share from this meditation, or any feedback or questions you may have - just leave a comment below!

Caring for Others

When we're going through a tough time, we often know - at least subconsciously - what will make us feel better. Whether it's certain interactions with friends and loved ones or time alone doing a certain activity, we have that intuitive sense of what we need. And so when others are encountering suffering or just having a bad day, it can feel helpful to want to give them care the same way you show it to yourself.

Susan leads this meditation on caring for others, and when I (Ravi) did it, I noticed how much I do this with my romantic partner in our everyday lives. When she's having a tough time, her preferred method of decompression is solo time, whereas I appreciate conversation and connection. So as you can imagine, if she's had a rough day at the school where she teaches, I try to engage her in conversation, but she's looking for solo down time. It doesn't always end well. :)

This meditation helped me get more deeply in touch with this dynamic and how I can be there for her in ways she wants actually wants to be supported.

Check out the meditation! It's a shorter one, and we'll continue making shorter, bite-size meditations that are easier to fit into the chaos of life (as well as longer practices, of course). As always on the app, you can add time to any of the meditations for additional unguided mindfulness practice.

The Awaken Response to the Leaked Google Memo

4 min read. Awaken is a new kind of meditation app, combining traditional mindfulness practice, contemplation, and journaling to explore and transform ourselves and our world. The leaked Google employee’s memo highlights the necessity of this sort of practice, as it points the way to undoing toxic masculinity by calling ourselves into self-examination and conversation rather than calling each other out and triggering shame and guilt. You can check out our Kickstarter pre-sale to learn more, and browse the site to read about what makes our organization unique.

This blog post was written in response to the anti-diversity internal memo written by a Google engineer. Give it a quick read to get up to speed.

First and foremost, I strongly and unequivocally believe the author's points of view not only lack awareness but, when acted upon, are extremely harmful. It’s clear he just doesn’t see that in most situations and over the course of their entire lives, women have to navigate a male-centric world. Our culture and institutions tell them to take up less space, cater to the desires of men, and be afraid (rightfully so) of what might happen if they don’t know their place - or even if they do. He makes a number of statements deeply ignorant of these realities. I’ll refute only a few, given their similarities:

  • Women are gregarious rather than assertive? That’s not a women thing, that’s a power dynamic thing. You’d develop your gregariousness and under-assert yourself as a social strategy if it’s more likely to keep you safe.

  • Women can’t lead? If the model for leadership is based on toxic masculinity - the repression of emotions, cultivating a competitive rather than cooperative approach, and dominating others - then, yes, men will be better “leaders” on average (because women are less willing to sell their souls).

  • Women are more aesthetically oriented? Maybe - but if so, because we objectify their bodies from an early age.

But close to the end of the memo , my mind was blown. The Google author writes, “The male gender role is currently inflexible… If we, as a society, allow men to be more 'feminine,' then the gender gap will shrink.”

This person - who I think I share no common ideology with - feels and can articulate the pain of toxic masculinity. What?! Can we recognize the utter tragedy that is occurring inside this human being? Despite a mindset and internalized worldview that actively supports and propagates toxic masculinity, he is being harmed by it - and he knows it. Wow. It makes me take a step back, shake my head, and marvel in the vast complexity of the human mind. (Seriously. That’s not written with an ounce of condescension, only a staggering and awe-inspiring respect for the human condition and the universality of suffering.)

Toxic masculinity harms all of us, even men. And despite his many problematic opinions, even our misguided author sees this!

But what keeps him from being able to see beyond his own sphere - how the exact same system that cuts him off from himself and a deeper expression of his being oppresses others?

Guilt and shame. He’s already in touch with his own pain and is constantly being confronted with how his presence and his way of dominating space creates that same pain in others - can you imagine how much conscious and subconscious effort it must take to not connect the dots? And to not see his complicity in the system?

But I actually empathize with him. Because the reality is that, if I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge my own continued complicity in patriarchy. And not in some abstract way: As I’ve developed this app, I know I’ve acted out in ways that prioritize aggression and combativeness over understanding and cooperation in moments of stress and frustration. I’ve made the space less safe for my female co-founder - and I can feel my resistance right now, in this moment, from fully owning up to that fact. 

In fact, I’ve been acting out toxic masculinity while writing this article! I know that despite the vulnerable direction this essay has gone, the reason I started writing was because I was sure I could write a juicy, humiliating takedown to put this ignorant Googler in his place. My sword of intelligence, empathy, and reason was longer than his, and I was going to put it on display for all to see.

(Yes, that’s a penis joke.)

Patriarchy is in the air we breathe, and it has spent a lifetime conditioning us on how to assign value and habitually behave to get what we want.

So what do we do about it? The beauty is that if toxic masculinity exists, healthy, awakened, and feminine-nourishing masculinity also exists. The un-oppressed and liberated feminine exists.

The work to uncover our own liberated masculinity and femininity is growing our awareness and cultivating spaces safe enough to connect, share, and help each other process our deep, repressed emotions.

That work and this journey is the path of mindfulness. It’s learning about the effects of patriarchy - not just intellectually and systemically, but emotionally and intuitively, in our own bodies. It’s courageously exploring our own minds and hearts to see where patriarchy still has sway over our consciousness. It’s tasting and enjoying the liberation that comes from being free from the toxicity. And, of course, it’s holding space for others to undo patriarchy in their lives and our communities.

This has been my journey so far, and this spirit was one part of the founding of Awaken. We aim to bring mindfulness practice to all aspects of our lives, exploring what transformation looks like in ourselves and in our world.

If this approach resonates with you, check out our Kickstarter pre-sale to get discounted membership to the Awaken Meditation app and learn more about how we’re building a revolutionary startup.

Burning Man Meditations: Radical Inclusion

Radical inclusion, one of the 10 Burning Man Principles, usually points to holding space for others to feel included in our community. This meditation turns this principle around, exploring where we can be radically inclusive of ourselves. There is a universe of thoughts, sensations, and emotions inside of us, and yet we spend a lot of time and energy trying to push these away or simply being too caught up in the everyday grind to notice they're there. 

What would it feel like to be accepting and inclusive of all of ourselves? That's what we hope to facilitate in this meditation. Check it out!

You can also find the meditation on Soundcloud. If you're interested in these sorts of practices, check out the Awaken Meditation Kickstarter to learn about what we're building.

And stay tuned - I hope to do more like these! This was as inspired by life-changing conversations with new friends as the sun rose over deep playa as it was by mindfulness practice in the Zendo (meditation hall in a Zen center or monastery). I've been burning since 2012 (but missed last year!) and reallyy can't wait to be back home with you in just a few weeks!

Meditation as Resistance

Trump. Politics. The 1%. Climate Change. Police brutality. Brexit. Global conflict. Systemic racism. Patriarchy. Classism. And that's just to name a few.
Things are nuts right now. And this stuff has been going on for a long time. It’s great that, for example, the NYC catcalling video raised so much awareness about catcalling - and yet most women I know were only surprised that seemingly “aware” men were so unaware of the problem (full disclosure: I was definitely a little shocked). Policemen were killing unarmed black men, women, and children long before cell phones allowed a handful of such attacks to be caught on camera. Capitalism has been shaming the poor, exploiting entire peoples and the planet, and stressing the hell out of all of us for a very, very long time. 
And yet things seem to have reached a fevered pitch since the election of the current US President. Most of us are up in arms, shell-shocked and curled up in a ball on the couch awaiting the next piece of absurdist news, or some combination of the two (maybe even in the same day). 
Everyone knows our problems are systemic. Technology has us increasingly distracted and addicted to the next hit of digital stimulation or social approval. Our global economy is leaving more and more people behind, despite the seeming wealth and abundance of our society. Our governments and political systems seem to have gone off the rails, increasing unable to fix or even identify the problems plaguing our world.
What’s worse is that the ways our culture tells us to deal with all of this only makes our problems worse: If anything is wrong, just buy something and you’ll feel better. If you don’t have enough money, it’s your fault. If you’re stressed out, here’s some mindless television and anxiety-inducing social apps.
I’m here to suggest a perhaps surprising form of resistance: meditation. Not meditation in the way pop culture has appropriated it - as a form of escapism and stress relief - but actual mindfulness practice that brings us more completely into the moments of our lives: the fires and chaos, the peace and tranquility, and everything in between. This full understanding of what meditation is includes techniques you might have heard of, like breath or sound meditation, but also points to a range of practices that cultivate our ability to see the full picture of what’s going on in our minds and lives - to see, for example, how something we might think is a random preference for a certain kind of food or activity or person is actually the result of how we’ve been socialized within our broader culture and specific life experience. 
When we meditate, we’re rejecting the need for constant stimulation, detaching from consumerism, and cultivating a healthy, loving relationship with ourselves - one that doesn’t rely on what we have or how we look but is rooted in the simplicity of who we are, our inherent and fundamental goodness as human beings. 
As our practice deepens, we gain insight into how our minds and hearts actually work. If we’re serious about ending racism and sexism, we must embrace meditation: without the skill of mindfulness - without actually seeing what’s happening in our minds, moment to moment - we can’t even fully define the terms or come close to understanding the internal, psychological phenomenon they’re pointing towards. 
Skeptical? Let me tell a quick story. Last year, I joined about 45 other men in a workshop at the Brooklyn Zen Center entitled “Undoing Patriarchy and Unveiling the Sacred Masculine”. I know what you’re thinking - 45 men in a room for one weekend aaaand patriarchy is solved.
Stick with me. Led by Lama Rod Owens and Zen teacher Greg Snider, the weekend started with each of us getting in touch with the suffering patriarchy has created within our own lives. Using a combination of mindfulness practice and facilitated conversation, we explored how the perverted, culturally propped up definition of masculinity was actually causing us pain, stifling our growth and exploration of gender, and keeping us from a more liberated expression of our beings. 
As we turned our attention outward - to the women in our lives and the society around us - we were able to see more clearly where in our own lives we were still perpetuating patriarchy in all sorts of subtle and often overlooked ways. Whether it’s who we’re giving attention to in group conversations or how we split up chores with partners in our homes, mindfully examining our behavior and getting more intimate with our mental patterns is key to changing our actions. And we ended the weekend by brainstorming what the ideals, values, and behaviors of a healthy and even sacred masculinity might look like in our lives.
For nearly every person in the room, the weekend was truly transformative. All of us cared deeply about undoing patriarchy in our lives and in our world, but caring and even learning on our own is usually not enough. The workshop gave us a safe space to collectively explore how patriarchy manifested in our own lives and an opportunity to meditate and bring mindfulness to how we might show up in the world differently. 
And if we’re serious reversing systems of oppression, the weekend was a blueprint of a solution - men engaging men (or white folks engaging white folks, or anything else), calling each other in (not out) to deepen our understanding, awareness, and empathy, using mindfulness as a basis for exploration.
This is what love trumping hate looks like. And this is but one example of the potential meditation has. Meditation in its non-appropriated form is a social practice, not just a solo one. It’s about coming into the world, not escaping from it. It’s transformation, not stress relief.

At the End of the Day...

Nobody survives. The truth of impermanence is most deeply felt with life itself; our time in this body on this planet is finite.

Today's meditation helps us contemplate this reality - with the certainty of life's end, how do we want to be remembered? What are the things we want to have done, the impact we want to have had, the legacy we leave behind?

In the Lin Miranda Manuel's (absolutely incredible*) musical Hamilton, the protagonist Alexander Hamilton wonders aloud death as he sees the bullet that will end his life whizzing towards him: "Legacy. What is a legacy? / It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. / I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me."

(* I haven't actually seen the musical, but the soundtrack itself is mindblowingly, top-3-albums-ever-imo good. :)

What we leave behind reaches every corner of our lives - our friends and family and all the people we know (and those we don't), our communities, our society, and so on. And so our contemplation isn't specific to one part of life - it simply asks what we want our eulogy to look like, in one sentence.

Maybe that seems oppressively heavy, maybe it seems perfectly natural - however it lands on you, reflecting on this stark aspect of impermanence is part of most mindfulness traditions, and we hope you'll check out the meditation!

Finally, a quick note: I'm going to be at a meditation retreat for the next week and traveling for most of the week after, so we'll be taking a hiatus during that time, but you can find all of the last 3 meditations on the app. You can expect us back on our regular schedule of new meditations the week of April 10!

PS - in case you wanted to some examples of how awesome the Hamilton soundtrack is, here are some songs from the musical about endings and death:

  • The final duel between Hamilton and Burr, "The World Was Wide Enough" -
  • Washington telling Hamilton he's stepping down as President, performed in 2016 for President Obama at the White House, "One Last Time" -
  • Alexander and Eliza Hamilton dealing with the death of their son, "It's Quiet Uptown" -

Relationships & Impermanence

"I do."

I'm at that age when I'm going to a lot of weddings, and at every single one of them, there is a lot of pomp and circumstance about love and how it lasts forever. It makes me wonder if we're all on the same page - when we say the couple's love will last "forever", are we all aware that that's code for "till one of them kicks the bucket, at best"? 

More subtly, do we know that the quality of love - the flavor and texture, the interactions, the way it's expressed - is undoubtedly going to change over time? The honeymoon ends, inevitably - and, over time, everything changes about relationships.

I think at some level, we all know this, but I still find myself, in my relationships, clinging onto expectations about what I want from the other person or about the way things should be. Really, these expectations creep into relationships of all types, whether it's family, friends, work, etc. Sometimes I know I have these expectations - but other times they're entirely unconscious!

Today's meditation gets down and dirty with relationships and how they, like everything, are constantly changing. If we can recognize this impermanence, it can allow us to shift our expectations, and be more accepting of others and what happens in our relationships. 

Dollar Dollar Bills Y'all: A Meditation on Money and Wealth

We start off today's meditation with a quote from Alan Watts on money and wealth, but I want to start this blog post with a different quote of his - he says that we are all constantly "making the mistake of thinking the sun rises because it's 6am."

His point is subtle - the label of 6am (or whatever time the sun rises) is a human concept; it's how humans put some structure around the passing of time. Obviously, what causes the sun to appear to rise is the spinning of the earth juxtaposed with our particular position on it - so that for us, at 6am, the sun can be first seen in the sky. But over time, we tend to forget that the keeping of time is shorthand for our physical location as the earth spins and moves through space - the human concept of how time is measured takes primacy over our understanding of what the human concept is shorthand for.

Maybe we notice this when daylight savings time kicks in and ends, where we think we're gaining or losing an hour. This is true in a sense, by the conventional measures of how we keep track of time with a 24 hour clock, but of course it's not like the earth is spinning any differently during that hour!

If that seems obvious or lost on you, apologies. It's hard to even talk about the mistaking of human concepts for reality in a medium that is a human concept (language), but maybe it's easier to do so when it comes to money and wealth. 

We've been socialized to assume they're practically the same thing, so much so that we're constantly mistaking one for the other. Of course, money alone is useless - it can't be eaten, worn for clothing (unless you're quite the craftsperson), or used to build a shelter (or at least one that's waterproof :). 

More deeply, the primacy of money in our society means we tend to unknowingly devalue the full experience of wealth, which speaks to a holistic sense of abundance. Abundance in money but a poverty in love, connection, and community is hardly wealth. And as society, there is no room to ask fundamental questions, like do we, as a people, derive more wealth from chopping a forest down for economic gain or leaving it as is to explore and enjoy? (And that's not a dogmatic call to environmentalism, but merely pointing out the fact that our language and political economy generally don't make room for those sorts of inquiries.)

What is wealth, and what is the difference between wealth and money? That is what we're going to explore in our meditation today. You can access it on the app or by hitting play below - and as a bonus, enjoy the Alan Watts video snippet set to some nice music. :)

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So You're Wondering About the Awaken Meditation Formula...

By now, you're getting used to our meditations. In fact, you may have noticed our top secret formula:

  • 1-2 minute intro
  • 3-7 minute mindfulness meditation (usually mindfulness of breath) 
  • 2-3 minute contemplation, ending in a reflection question

Maybe you're enjoying this, maybe you're not (if so, let us know!). Regardless, in case you're wondering why we do it this way, this blogpost is for you.

The first thing to note is that this structure is rooted in the truth of impermanence, in that all I can tell you for sure is that it will change at some point . Hopefully as we grow our organization and hear all of your wisdom, we'll find an even better way of doing things. But for now, this structure supports our practice by allowing us to to gently come to the contemplation part of the practice in the optimal frame of mind.

We start with an introduction that brings the meditator into the practice. We usually try to include a story or a quick vignette intended to give a flavor for what's to come, mostly to help you a chance to settle in.

Next up is a mindfulness meditation, which is generally mindfulness of breath, or some other classic meditation style. Traditionally, it's taught that meditation has two components: shamatha and vipassana. Shamatha roughly translates to calming or calm-abiding, and vipassana to insight. Any time you meditate, you're accessing both of these components - the practice calms the mind *and* can bring insight into the nature of mind and reality.

With Awaken, the length and style of the mindfulness meditation practice result in it being more of a shamatha practice - which is exactly what we're looking for. It can seem like meditation isn't always a calming experience, but shamatha takes the long view: over time, a consistent practice will make our minds calmer. To get there, sometimes it's necessary to go through periods where the mind seems chaotic or boring. (In fact, some would say these rough times bear the greatest fruit in our practice.)

Alright, time for a quick digression on how meditation doesn't always seem calming, and how to maybe make it more so. Maybe.

To find an increased sense of calm-abiding in our practice, we can notice how the mindfulness meditation is landing with us and tweak our attitude and intention. Buddhist philosophy teaches that there are two fundamental ways our practice can fall short - we're either putting in too little or too much effort. With too little effort, we get sleepy or aren't really engaged with the placing of the attention on the breath (or whatever the meditative anchor is). We take the posture of meditation, but we're not really showing up to practice. With too much effort, we get that sense of chaos and never-stopping mind. The idea of practice being "calm abiding" sounds far off, because we experience practice as a nonstop torrent of thoughts.

This is a helpful framework because, unless you're already enlightened (please, please, let us know if this is the case... seriously, we can't wait to meet you :), you're always putting in too little or too much effort.

And this question of effort is the only thing we can really *do* when it comes to our practice. Our minds are our minds - we can't change what's going on in the same way that we change a state of hunger by eating. But if we recognize where we fall on the scale of effort, we can nudge ourselves closer to optimal practice. If we're finding we're falling asleep or disconnected, maybe we can meditate standing up or generally just bring it a little more. It can be helpful to remember how precious and temporary life is, and how urgent it is to work with our minds so we can free ourselves of cycles of stress and suffering.

On the flip side, if you are getting that sense of spinning out of control, it's generally because you're trying to take your practice to a certain place (usually a "quiet mind", whatever we think that means). This is a good chance to take a deep breath, remember we're not trying to go anywhere, and loosen up the effort you're putting into practice. It can be helpful to remember that there is no pinnacle meditation experience we're chasing - some days the mind will be noisy, others it will be quiet; some days the body will be blissful and others numb or painful. All we need to do for the practice to "work" is to be with whatever is going on.

As a side note, as someone who generally falls on this "too much effort" end of the spectrum, I can usually identify my effort level by paying attention to my body: maybe my muscles are tightening up or my hands are digging into my thighs instead of gently resting on them (or, as a classic one for you zen folks out there, my thumbs are pressing together when my hands are in the cosmic mudra instead of lightly touching). A mantra I repeat to myself is not to be for or against what I'm experiencing, but instead to just be with it. 

Truly, there is very little we can do - if you boil down those last 4 paragraphs, I basically just said: if you're putting in too much effort, chill out; if you aren't putting in enough, bring it. If you've ever been told to "chill out' or "bring it", though, you know how maddening these phrases can be. (My typical responses: "screw you, I am chill" or "screw you, I'm trying.) So maybe the course-correction we're going for here is simply, when you notice which side of the energy spectrum you're on, kindly and gently saying to yourself, "hey friend, chill out/bring it", and just do so once and come back to the practice.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though. Our minds have an in-built ability to self correct - experiencing meditation as sleeping/boring or chaotic is the exact feedback we need to apply more or less effort, respectively. Our minds know what to do and naturally start to move towards optimal effort, so even when we feel like meditation is really hard or doing nothing for us, the exact opposite is true. The practice is always working for us in the most nuanced of ways, even if we can't feel it doing so. There is nothing fundamental we need to change about our practice (or ourselves).

So getting back to the Awaken Meditation format, we're just finishing up the mindfulness practice, which - whether we know it or not - is calming the mind. This calming is like the giving muddy water time to settle - slowly but surely, the mud falls to the bottom. So, when we get to our contemplation, we can see more clearly what's happening in our minds. Instead of trying to analyze our way to a response to the contemplation - which is another way of muddying up the water - we notice what comes to our attention. 

The purpose of the mindfulness meditation in our practice with the app is to prepare the minds for contemplation, so the gold at the bottom of the riverbed is easier to see. This inner wisdom comes from the deepest parts of our mind and ourselves, and we can trust it to point us in the right direction. This doesn't mean each contemplation will get us the "right" answer, but instead, over time, we can know that we'll have a better idea of what our truth is, and we can let ourselves be guided by this knowing.

So to recap, here is the formula for a Awaken Meditation practice:

  1. An introduction to whet our appetite for the contemplation and bring us into the practice
  2. Some mindfulness meditation to settle the mind
  3. A contemplation to unearth wisdom from the settled mind

Hope that gives you a deeper understanding of our process, and we'd love to hear any questions or comments you may have! The awakening of our inner guru and living by its wisdom is something that can help us navigate life, access its joy, and deal with its lows. That's the power of meditation, and it's what we hope to unlock with you, together. 

All About Eating

On Saturdays, we turn the focus inward. This meditation examines our habits around eating meals and considers the way meals bring us joy and fulfillment. Far from a prescription of being a certain way to eat, we're going to explore what brings us enjoyment, and how we can bring more of that enjoyment into our lives.

Mindful eating - eating in silence without engaging in other activities - has gotten a lot of attention these days, and it's a great practice to really taste and be present with food. But like all teachings, this can create a bit of a whiplash with those of us looking to bring more mindfulness into our lives, inducing guilt around eating while watching TV or even catching up with a friend. 

This guilt is what we're trying to avoid with practice! Bringing our practice into our lives is a process of balance and flexibility. It's a very particular type of practice to eat food and catch up with a friend in a way that appreciates the moment - you're mindful of things you want to say, the taste of the food in your mouth, the feeling of empathy from your friend's story, and so much more. This can even be a more challenging practice than simple mindful eating!

These days, I'm spending a lot of time working - as your humble servant, I'm doing all I can to make this project all that it can be :). But that means I don't always have much time for dinner, and want to use it to serve more than one purpose. Cooking can be an opportunity to call my family or a friend, eating a chance to catch up on the news for the day (Vice News Tonight during dinner is a staple).

The point is that there is nothing wrong with this - as long as I'm making decisions on how to arrange my meals with full awareness. I of course recognize the richness of mindful eating - unplugging entirely - and make room for this when I feel it would most serve me. 

So our practice today isn't about shoulds - it's about noticing what nourishes us. Let's dive in!

Our mindfulness practice shows up most deeply in our relationship to ourselves. May we realize our innate basic goodness and be our own best friends. May all beings be free from suffering.

What You Need To Know About Meditation And Awaken

This post gives you the schedule and content of new meditations (summarized in bullet form right below) and dives into the philosophy behind our practice (the longer rambling after the bullets :). And most importantly, scroll all the way down for our new introductory meditation!

The Philosophy Behind Our Approach

As I’ve been settling in to record the meditations, I’ve had a gnawing sensation that we haven’t shared enough of the big picture of the practice we’re offering. Why not just do regular mindfulness meditation and be done with it? What’s our core message and where are we coming from? How do our practice pillars tie together? And most of all: why do we hope this project can be transformative for all of us?

Here is what we’ve told you so far - in short, our practice has 3 core tenets:

  • Meditation and teachings rooted in Buddhist philosophy. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with Awaken. We’re going to integrate the teachings of Buddhism and other wisdom traditions as a backbone for learning how to work with our minds. What is Buddhist philosophy, you ask? Buddhism literally translates to Awake-ism, and the teachings of the tradition are not firm rules but rather ideas for us to contemplate as we experience our minds directly in meditation practice. Here’s a quick sampling: the inevitability of suffering in our lives, an exploration of the causes of suffering, contemplating the nature of self, and recognizing impermanence in all things. Nothing crazy, but these ideas provide a framework for our experience as we engage in meditation practice.
  • Looking at our whole lives. This may be our most important tenet, and we’ll flesh it out a bunch in this blog post. For now, the gist is that all the philosophy and meditation in the world is only helpful if we can directly apply it to our everyday experience. We’ll aim to do just that.
  • Conversation and community. The Awaken app experience is social - on purpose. We’ll learn from each other as we share our experiences and wisdom. We hope to co-create a learning community with you all - everyone is invited not only to share journal posts, but also to get in touch with us and get involved! We want a variety of teachers, practices, and perspectives. Each of us has a unique vantage point, and by sharing with each other, we amplify the fruit of our practice.

Each of these areas is individually important, but it’s where they intersect that we hope to make Awaken special. We have to start by understanding how meditation works. Over time, our minds settle - a consistent practice allows us to see what’s going on in our minds and in our lives. This has been called prajna in Sanskrit, translated as discernment, insight, or (most commonly) wisdom. As we see more clearly, we intuitively feel deeper karuna, or compassion, for ourselves and all beings - we understand how our minds cause us to behave in certain ways, so we can better empathize with others. 

Buddhist philosophy says that these two qualities - wisdom and compassion - lead us to nirvana, or enlightenment or awakeness, in the same way that a bird’s two wings lead it to flight. In learning to fly, we develop these two wings both sequentially and in parallel - and meditation is the practice that allows us to do so.

And so traditionally, you study the philosophy, devote life to practice, and a few decades later (or lifetimes, if you want to go down the reincarnation road :), voila - you reach nirvana! 

But for those of us not donning the robes of a nun or monk, this formula is a bit harder - for a very specific reason. A monastic environment isn’t just a quiet place free of the nonstop traffic noises of Brooklyn (I swear, it’s actually a bit grounding :) - it’s an entirely separate community with a unique culture designed to support practice, introspection, and the ripening of the soul.

It’s hard to describe modern civilization with those same terms, to say the least - and therein lies the basis for our approach with Awaken. So often, the demands of our everyday lives actively undo the benefits of meditation and the development of wisdom and compassion. We can break up our day with a mindful walk - but it’s hard to keep that mindfulness when our cell phone blows up. If it’s a nice note from a friend, maybe it’s easy to go back to taking in the sights, sounds, and sensations of our walk - but sometimes it’s our boss with an assignment for us, or a partner with an urgent chore to do.

It’s not just stress that can undo meditation’s benefit - the rabbit hole of our habitual mental patterns goes much, much deeper. Maybe we think the assignment from the boss is of utmost importance, because if we do it well, we’ll get a promotion. Two more promotions after that, we’ll finally be able to buy that dream house we’ve always wanted, and then we’ll finally be happy. (It follows, then, that the other half of this storyline is if we don’t get that dream house, we’ll never be happy.)

Underneath this sort of grasping are so many accumulated belief systems: what it means to have security, wealth, and happiness, to name just a few. And we all have these belief systems - they’re the foundations of how we construct meaning from experience. Since birth, we’re constantly internalizing what is valuable and not valuable, what is safe and unsafe, what is love-able and un-love-able in our quest for happiness. We get these messages from every source imaginable - from our family and friends, of course, but also from strangers, the media, advertising, and so on. And each of us receives these messages and turns them into our own belief systems in different, often unconscious ways based on our class, the color of our skin, our gender, sexuality, and a thousand other factors unique to each and every one of us. 

(If that last sentence triggers any guilt, anger, or aversion, take a second and be with that emotion, and maybe gently examine its roots. We can have a lot of instant, programmed reactions to the mere mention of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. You can be sure that our intent is not to harm or impart any agenda whatsoever as we bring these issues into our practice, but instead simply to probe our unique belief systems. Specifically, we want to move out of cycles of guilt, blame, and shame so that we can more clearly see what is going on in our minds.) 

In his graduation address This is Water, author David Foster Wallace eloquently framed this idea (quote slightly edited):

"The insidious things about our belief systems is not that they’re evil or sinful, it is that they’re unconscious. They're the kind of worship we just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what we see and how we measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what we’re doing. And the world will not discourage us from being more and more entrapped by these unconscious belief systems, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self."

His words point at an unfortunate truth - from the perspective of human flourishing, many of the basic elements of our culture are incredibly toxic. And the key insight is that this toxicity is universal. It’s not just some people who are affected - it’s not that it just affects, say, the 99% and that the 1% are free from it. In a culture that confuses money for wealth and fetishizes financial success, the thirst for ever-increasing bank accounts never ceases, even for the rich. Lest you need an example, does Donald Trump, privileged and rich from birth, look like a content (or, for that matter, mentally healthy) human being? This is, of course, just one example of our culture's toxicity - there are countless others.

By all means, the relative impact of our social, political, and economic systems and culture is vastly different across populations, and those in disempowered positions get the short end of the stick. But - and here is where Awaken comes in - by understanding that we’re all affected in one way or another, we can use mindfulness practice to undo the unhealthy conditioning inside of us and start to choose beliefs that bring us joy and nourishment. In fact, we must include this work if we hope to build a better world - because if we don't heal and free ourselves, our efforts to change culture will come from a wounded place.

Our hope is that Awaken helps empower you to make the choices, conscious and unconscious, that you want to make, rather than ones that you never knew you made. And as we liberate ourselves, we start to lay the groundwork for not only a truly free and joyful mind but also for what a new culture could look like, one that supports our collective thriving. 

This practice seems like a small step - meditating, contemplating, and sharing our wisdom with each other. But our vision for practice and Awaken as an organization is to co-create this new culture, in whatever small-but-significant way we can. What would our world look like if more of us were in touch with our inner Awaken, and, from this wisdom, living, working, and creating in our lives, our communities, and society?

I have no idea, but I know how the story starts - with us looking deeply at our own minds, together - and I hope Awaken can be a part of that process.

PS - this inspired us to record a slightly different version of the introduction meditation. If you want to check it out, you can do so below or on the app - just scroll down to the bottom-most screen and hit play.

PPS - and we'd love to hear your responses, questions, and thoughts! Feel free to comment below.

PPPS - alright you made it all the way down here, so we'll tell you. On Tuesday mornings, there is something magnificent about steelcut oats (made at the beginning of the week en masse) - add some milk or yogurt (of the dairy or non-dairy variety), fruit, nuts, chia seeds, and a dash of maple syrup. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, it's because you haven't downloaded the app (iPhone) or on signed up to the mailing list (Android or if you want these meditations delivered by email). No biggie - if you fix it now, we won't tell anyone.

Starting with Basics — A Good Old Fashioned Body Scan

Whether you’re an experienced meditator or a newbie, the body scan is an essential practice, simultaneously straightforward and profound. 

That sounds abstract, but for me, it’s very concrete: for example, if I’m feeling anger and I sit down to meditate, I’ll usually find that, once my thoughts quiet down a bit, my body is sending me a strong and generally painful sensation, typically from my shoulders or neck (that’s just me — it’ll probably be different for you). I perceive this pain to be one way to understand what the cause of my anger is: I’m trying to suppress an underlying physical pain, but that pain is mutating into emotional angst, which expresses itself as anger.

Ultimately, Buddhist philosophy teaches us, truly suppressing something we’re feeling is impossible, and if we try, we generally end up making a bigger mess of things than if we were simply able to be present with the initial source of pain.

But that alone presents a pretty bleak view of this pain I’m feeling, right? Either I try to be present with it now, which sucks, or I suppress it and get angry and end up causing more suffering in my life and probably the lives of others. 

The antidote, to paraphrase Tara Brach, teacher and author of Radical Acceptance, is to give our body loving attention. The pain we feel from various parts of our bodies is akin to a part of ourselves asking for some love. Imagine if you were that neck or shoulder or knee or other source of pain, and the brain either ignored you or spent all it’s time actively wishing you would go away. That would suck, right? And in response, you might start shouting at the brain— sending strong signals of pain — just because you were hurting and wanted some attention.
I admit, this sounds a bit out there. I mean, I just spent that last paragraph role playing the possible internal monologue (can it even be called that?) of a body part. But it’s an exercise that helps me shift my perspective away from trying to block out or push away how my body is feeling.

For me, giving my body loving attention is a real source of healing. In the same way, one frame for a body scan practice is to not only investigate what sensations and feelings are arising from our body, but to also have a quality of kindness to the attention we’re giving to our body. That’s what we’re doing with today’s meditation. You can find it here: 

NOTE: This meditation comes with two strong caveats: First, nothing in this meditation or blog post in any way implies that pain isn’t real and doesn’t occasionally need medical treatment. Sometimes, we gotta see a doc, and don’t let any of my or your kooky internal experiences steer you from that course when it’s needed. Second, anger and other emotions can have roots in the body, but that’s absolutely not a reason to ignore the real w0rld causes of our emotions. To take just a random example, if you’re angry at someone because you think they’re mistreating you, paying attention to what’s happening in the body can be a way of gaining more clarity of your experience of the situation — but we also need to address and rectify what’s going on with the other person. Anger in particular is an emotion that can point us towards our own truth, particularly about injustice, and using an exploration of the body as a means to avoid dealing with the causes and conditions that create the anger is *not* the point of meditation.

Intro Meditation

For those of you who can't download the iPhone app, I wanted to make sure you could access the Guru experience. These blog posts will let you listen to each meditation we post, and you're welcome to post your reflection in the comments.

This introductory meditation is less of a meditation and more of an orientation to the app. We'll go over our approach, do a short mindfulness of breath practice, and then do a contemplation. The act of consciously contemplating and reflecting is going to be a big part of our approach, and this meditation offers extended instruction for how to do these sorts of exercises.

Hope you like it! The reflection question for this prompt is: What are you doing today or what is a part of your life that you really want to be present for, even if it's challenging? Feel free to answer in the comments if you're moved to do so! :)

The Story So Far

Welcome to the official Guru Meditation blog! This blog is going to house a lot of things: announcements for new meditations, a story about the process of bringing this app (and perhaps one day, startup) to life, contemplations on our emotional and spiritual journeys as we do this, a smorgasbord of random musings about practice and entrepreneurship, and just about anything else. And this post is intended to get you up to speed - we'll share who we are, what Guru Meditation is, why we're doing this, and catch you up on what's happened so far.

So, hey there. My name is Ravi Mishra. The idea for Guru stemmed from wanting to share two formative aspects of the way meditation was taught to me: traditional Buddhist philosophy and a social approach, where practice was frequently discussed within a community of practitioners.

Why is this so important, and how can this approach be so powerful? I felt this most intimately last fall. I found myself at a week-long silent meditation retreat that started on November 4th, 2016. You might have already done the math - overlooked by me when I booked the retreat, it overlapped with Election Day here in the US. Beforehand, the teachers at the retreat decided to post the results for those who wanted to know, thinking it wouldn't turn out to be disruptive - but as we awoke to the previously unthinkable outcome on the morning of Wednesday, November 9th, it was a bombshell that needed to be addressed. 

The teachers - Tara Brach, Larry Yang, Jonathan Foust, and Pat Coffey, to whom I'll be forever grateful - decided to break from our schedule of silent meditation and facilitate small group conversations and practices to help us be present with and process the emotions that were arising. The morning-long session was transformational for many of us: an experience of how mindfulness, Buddhist philosophy, and human connection and community can be a foundation for support, learning, and growth. After that morning, I felt a deeper connection to my own truth, instead of being weighed down by unprocessed emotional reactivity - and a large part of that truth is dedicating myself to making these sorts of experiences more accessible via this app.

The spark had been fanned into a flame, and there was no going back. So what is Guru? It's a contemplative and social meditation app rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Each audio-guided meditation includes both a mindfulness meditation and a guided contemplation, where we reflect on Buddhist teachings and how it relates to our real lives. The contemplation culminates in a question or a prompt that you're invited to answer and share with the community.

Our practice has 3 pillars, which we'll be blogging about a lot as we go forward:

  1. Rooting in the Buddhist philosophy of meditation. Meditation is built on a foundation of philosophical teachings that contextualizes the practice. For example, as we encounter difficult moments during meditation, we can lean on the truth of impermanence - that this, too, will pass. Buddhist philosophy helps us understand what's going on when we practice, and over time, we are able to develop and rely upon our inner wisdom.
  2. Fearless and gentle engagement with our whole lives. Mindfulness obviously plays a huge role in our enjoyment of life and ability to be present to it, be it art, food, sex, or anything else. But beyond that, meditation and spiritual practice as a whole are not distinct from work, economics, and politics. One of the primary themes in Buddhism is the exploration of suffering and its causes, which is primarily described as our habit of grasping or clinging onto the way we want things to be. Our approach with Guru will be to see how this grasping manifests subconsciously and affects our relationships, communities, and society as a whole.
  3. Community and conversation. Each meditation offers the opportunity to share your wisdom with others and engage with what other meditators had to say. This conversation and the community that forms around it is a key component to our practice. Lest you think this is a modern day twist on meditation, community (Sangha in Sanskrit) is actually one of the 3 tenants of being a Buddhist. Meditation is meant to be practiced together.

As we see more clearly what's happening in our minds and in our lives, we're able to access the inner Guru, that voice of wisdom inside of all of us. As we live more wisely, no part of our lives is left out of the benefit of our practice. 

This project so far has mostly been me, though I'm joined by advisers and friends who provide feedback for drafts on meditations and offshore developers and designers who bring the app to life. We're self-funding the project for now (so we're on a shoestring), recording the meditations in my apartment in Brooklyn, and generally looking for all the help we can get. The vision is to bring together amazing teachers, engineers, etc. to take the product to the next level, and have that be financially sustainable through the app - but that's a ways off at the moment, so we're making do with what we have.

I also have all sorts of wacky ideas about startup companies and how we could be doing things differently that I'll try to bring to life. For example, I love worker-owned cooperatives and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) organizational structure, and hope to figure out how to incorporate best practices from these and other schools of thought as we grow. 

Thanks for getting to know us a bit through this blog post. Getting this far has already been such a journey, full of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and, fortunately, moments of fiery courage and heartfelt inspiration. Especially given the state of world, I truly believe practicing with the approach we've outlined here can transform the way we live in and engage with our world. 

Before closing, I want to thank everyone who has helped me get here. First and foremost, that would be all those I've studied under: above all, Ethan Nichturn and Kate Johnson, who ran the meditation teacher training at The Interdependence Project and are shining beacons of Dharma in my life; Prof. William LaFleur, who introduced me to Zen Buddhism in college; Nicolas Hindeberg; Sonam Jorphel Rinpoche, who so kindly put me up at his monastery for almost a month and provided amazing instruction; and Tara, Larry, Jonathan, and Pat, who led a retreat I'll never forget.

The sanghas that currently support my practice also can't be left out: Zen Mountain Monastery and it's NYC branch, Fire Lotus Temple, the Brooklyn Zen Center, and the NYC Shambhala Center. Again, I owe so much to all the people who have specifically helped with the project by listening to meditations, editing things like this blog post, and much more. Finally, I am so, so grateful to my parents, sister, and family as a whole, as well as the many amazing friends and partners over the years.

And we'll end in the traditional Buddhist way: by dedicating the merit. May this project and the ripples from this project be of benefit to and ease the suffering of all sentient beings, particularly those with least control over the conditions and circumstances of their lives.

Download the iPhone app or get on the Android list for when the app comes out!

PS - given this is a one man show and there are always more things to do than I have time, everything from blog posts to meditations comes out a little half-baked. I like to think of this as a metaphor for our lives - we're never quite perfect, and that's ok. So I apologize for our imperfections, and would appreciate you gently pointing out everything from typos to idiocy when you come across it.

PPS - if you want to check out our introductory meditation, where we go over what we're about and offer a short contemplation, check it out below: