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Talking Meditation and compassion with Tim Desmond

By August 7, 2019 August 28th, 2019 One Comment

“It just means so many different things to different people that it stops meaning anything. And I think that that’s happened to the word ‘mindfulness.’” – Tim Desmond

Mark has revamped his Unbeatable Mind coaching program to incorporate virtual learning to get your start. You then have the option of starting the full, year-long coaching program so that you can start helping others to achieve and to become part of your team. Go to to check it out.

Today Commander Divine talks to Tim Desmond (@timdesmond)about mindfulness, meditation and self-compassion. Tim is a psychotherapist, author, teacher and long time student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.  His most recent book, “How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World: Mindfulness Practices for Real Life,” shows us that by relating to life’s ever present pain with compassion, wisdom and joy we have a chance to experience happiness. Tim dives into ways to bridge the ancient tradition of mindfulness and the challenges of modern life.

Hear how:

  • We need to remember to pay attention to the things that are important enough to take up your life
  • People need to treat every moment like something that matters – don’t allow yourself to spend your time on unimportant things.
  • We may often think of providing compassion for others, but we often won’t give any to ourselves.

Listen in for an in-depth and very practical view of how mindfulness and meditation can work for you.

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Hi folks. This is Mark Divine. Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast.

So stoked to have you here today. I really appreciate your Time and attention. I do not take it lightly. There are 10 billion things vying for your attention, so the fact you’re listening to this, means a lot to me.

Before I introduce my guest Tim Desmond today – who I’m really excited to talk to, actually – because we’re going to talk about mindfulness and meditation and how to stay motivated in this world, which has gone a little crazy and VUCA. We’ve talked about that quite a bit.

But before we get into Tim – I’ll introduce his background a little bit more – I’ve been letting people know that we spent a couple years revamping our own online training called Unbeatable Mind online. And I’m really proud of this work. I mean up until last year 10,000 people or so had already gone through the program. It already has had a profound impact.

But it really needed to be redone. And it was dated. I first launched it in 2011, and a lot has changed – both in myself as well as in the world. And also the research around all the different practices and tools of integration that we were introducing.

They were somewhat novel back in 2010-11 when I put the program together. And now they’re not so novel – which is really cool – to see our work and others like Tim really having an impact in the world. Slowly but surely.

So if we go to and just look at the online training. It’s also coupled with a three-day experience and even a coaching certification program now if you’re really interested in going that deep. It’s a 12-month program we call the foundation course and the whole principle is to expand your capacity to access greater potential, to expand your capacity to maintain peak performance and a focused flow state, to expand your capacity to relate at a deeper level with other human beings – to connect. And to expand your capacity to serve more powerfully with a more world-centric kind of perspective or mission.

So those are the four quadrants we work. We leveraged – Ken Wilber, friend of mine – his integral theory. We leveraged western psychology, eastern transpersonal psychology from practices such as Buddhism and yoga. And the martial arts. And we’ve leveraged navy SEAL warrior traditions, and other ancient warrior traditions.

So all these come together in this program of integration where we integrate five mountains of physical, mental, emotional, intuitional and Kokoro or heart/mind. A lot going on and you need to check it out, if you haven’t done so already.

So go to and check out the Unbeatable Mind online foundation course. Brand-new.

Alright, enough on that.

So Tim – we kind of cross over in some of our teachings for sure. And I’m really excited. You know – I’ve been to several trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I’ve never met him personally, where we sat down and chatted.

But Tim is a longtime student of the Zen master – Vietnamese Zen master I might add – Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s a psychotherapist and author. He’s got his own mindfulness center. I asked him where he was right now, and he’s actually at the center right now called “Morning Sun Mindfulness Center” in New Hampshire. It’s very cool.

He’s got a new book out we’re gonna talk a little bit about called “How to Stay Human in a F’d Up…” actually I think the tile is in a “fucked up world.” there’s a little star where the “U” is.

You know, Tim I think a lot of people… If I put the word “fuck” in a book title, will I sell more books?

Tim Desmond: (laughing) yeah, I don’t know. I’ll have to let you know in six months, when they tell me how many I sold.

Mark: (laughing) that’s awesome. Well, it’s so nice to meet you. Thanks for being here today. I’m really stoked to have this conversation with you.

Tim: Yeah, I’m glad to be here.

Mark: You know, before we get into anything about your work per se can you give us a sense of what your background was like? What were some of the influences in your early childhood? What led you to your current path?

Tim: Yeah. So I grew up in Boston, with a single alcoholic mother. We were poor growing up – we were homeless for a little while when I was a teenager. And I actually got into college on a sports scholarship. Otherwise I wouldn’t have made it.

Mark: And when you say you were homeless, like were you actually just like without a home where you’re going to people’s places, other friends living on their couch? Or were you out in the street?

Tim: We were squatting in an abandoned house in Jamaica plain in Boston. Before Jamaica plain gentrified. But yeah, we knew somebody who like lived next to a house that was abandoned. And so, actually, there was a woman from the Dominican Republic who was living in one of the bedrooms. My mom was living in another bedroom. And I slept in the living room.

Mark: Wow. Interesting. I imagine that had a pretty big impact… So if you were to reflect back, what did you learn from that phase of your life?

Tim: Yeah. I think… One of the big things that I’ve learned in my life that’s kind of let me have the journey that I’ve had is that I’m not scared of being poor. And I think that that’s allowed me to make choices in my life that are basically about “how do I actually want to live? And what do I want my life to be made up of?”

Rather than sort of like the first question is “how do I maintain like a certain amount of financial security? And then within that… What can I do?”

It’s like I don’t really need to ask that question so much. I can just kind of follow what really makes me feel alive.

Tim: And did you do that? Or did it take you a while to come to that? I mean, you went to school on the sports scholarship… What happened after that?

Tim: Yeah, so I showed up in college. And I’d never really… I was never really into schoolwork. I decided that I didn’t really deserve to be able to have the opportunity to go to college. And when I got there, I decided “I’m not gonna waste this. I’m gonna work hard.”

And I started getting into reading and doing schoolwork. And I actually ended up quitting sports, so that I could focus more on learning. I did a political science class and it was in a political science class and that my professor assigned the book “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Mark: I’ve got it in my bathroom. (laughing)

Tim: And so reading that book, it was just like – it just seemed it was exactly what was missing from my life. Just like sort of these practices of mindfulness and compassion just were so clearly, exactly what was missing. And for that reason it was like this kind of clarity of what I needed to do.

And so I basically just kind of dropped everything, and kind of jumped fully into – well, I guess as nineteen-year-olds sometimes do when they find something that really makes sense to them – I just kind of went in fully. I’m just like “okay, this is what I’m about right now.”

Mark: Hmm. So did that lead you to study psychology? Or what did you get your degree in actually?

Tim: Yeah, so I kind of made up my own major in college. I studied psychology, philosophy, economics… Just a lot of different things. I spent my 20s kind of going back and forth between… This was sort of in the early days of the WTO protest movement. And so I would go and help organize those demonstrations.

And then as soon as the sort of big protest was over, then I would go back to the monastery. And spend Time with Thich Nhat Hanh. And then when there was another kind of mobilization, I would go and help out with that. I just kind of moved back and forth between training and meditation – and then kind of doing this grassroots… Learning about…

Mark: Cause you truly weren’t trying to make a living per se.

Most people in the western world… I mean the monastery took care of your kind of physical needs. And then we had these protest movements there was what like a meal tent where you had soup and bread? Or something?

Tim: I just kind of whatever I could manage. It would kind of go back and forth – when I would run out of money, I’d get a job for a while. And save everything. I mean, I can live on very little.

And then what ended up happening after doing that for a while I decided that I did want to be able to have more flexibility in my life. And make a living. And so professional psychology was the thing that kind of felt to me as like the closest to being paid to focus on my meditation practice.

And it felt like, yeah… So then I went to graduate school and became a licensed therapist… Mark: Were you fortunate enough to be able to study Buddhist psychology as part of that? Or it probably wasn’t really a thing back when you did it, was it?

Tim: Yeah, so the thing is my experience of grad school was hoops to jump through to get a license.

Mark: Yeah, right.

Tim: And everything that I learned that was actually helpful I learned either from like in the monasteries studying with you know men at Buddhist monastics, or from various mentors that I’ve been lucky enough to kind of work with at different moments in my life. Were like therapists.

But yeah, my experience of grad school was pretty much just you know “jump through these hoops. Now you can have a degree.”

Mark: Yeah, same here. Although, I’m thinking about going back to get my doctorate at cis – California Institute for Integral Studies – and to study consciousness and cosmology and…

Tim: Yeah, I was just there on Thursday. Giving a public talk. Yeah.

Mark: Yeah, they’re doing some terrific work and it’s really neat. And to be able to study something absolutely love would be cool again. Just kind of a thing.

So tell us about how did you meet…? I mean you read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Peace is Every Step” – which is amazing by the way. Everyone should get a copy of that and read it several Times.

But so you read the book and then you sought out like… He’s got some training centers over in Europe? But does he have a place in the United States?

So the first thing that I did was sort of ask my professors “okay like how do I get more involved in this?” I kind of went on a reading frenzy and read as much as I could about his teachings and lineage and then related thinkers. And how does he relate to you know different schools of Buddhism? How do his teachings compare?

And then there was someone who was kind of had like a meditation group that was kind of going out of their house in that tradition. In Rhode Island, where I was going to college. But then I ended up going to… So he lives at a center called plum village which is in the Bordeaux region of France, but there’s also a monastery just outside of San Diego in Escondido called deer park.

Mark: Oh yeah. I’ve been there.

Tim: And then there’s one north of New York City kind of in the… Near the Hudson valley kind of area named blue cliff. And so basically what I would do is I would just kind of follow him around.

Because he goes on tour… Or he would go on, but he had a stroke in 2014 and hasn’t been able to speak since then. But I would just sort of follow him. Wherever he’d go and got to know more of the senior monastics, and develop more relationships with them.

So yeah, I would just… There are open retreats. And although Thich Nhat Hanh is no longer giving retreats, since his stroke, the monastics that trained with him continue to offer open retreats. And go on tours and things like that. And I just follow them around.

Mark: What’s the tradition called? Does it have a single name?

Tim: Yeah, so he’s part of the lin-chi ch’an or like the lin-chi Zen tradition in Vietnam. It’s lam te dyana, it’s like the Vietnamese school.

And he obviously kind of has his own. Like any great teacher, has his own take and is different than other people from that lineage.

But it’s a Zen lineage from Vietnam. Although he teaches things from all parts of Buddhism, as well as western philosophy and with a focus on existentialism. And yeah, there’s a lot… He’s a pretty amazing scholar…

Mark: Like a Unitarian of Zen.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. He’s like a Unitarian of Buddhism. Who speaks like a half a dozen languages… And when he’s doing a lecture he’ll be kind of like comparing a term between Sanskrit and Pali and Chinese and Vietnamese and French and English and like yeah

Zen the “right” way


Mark: So you got into this in college. So you’ve been practicing for…

Tim: About 20 years.

Mark: 20 years. That’s terrific.

Now just to give you sense I started a Zen practice when I was 21\. But I wasn’t monastic at all, although we went to the Zen mountain monastery several Times. It was through my martial arts training and many listeners heard me tell the story. But I was fortunate enough to train with a Zen master masquerading as a karate master.

(laughing) He was both, but he was very passionate about his Zen. And we would do hour long sits every Thursday evening. And it was fascinating – this is in the late ’80s – there were very few students who were “into it” – quote-unquote – back then. It was maybe like 10 of us out of hundreds of students that he had in New York City – in Manhattan.

But I loved it and it transformed my life – I mean I tell the whole story and in my book “The Way of the SEAL.” How sitting on that bench and facing myself for the first time…

I was actually in a career to be a CPA. I was getting my MBA at New York University’s Stern School for business.

And then four years after starting Zen and getting my black belt, I was in navy SEAL training. And I attribute 100% to the meditation. Transformative.

And we would go do these weekend retreats at Zen mountain monastery in Woodstock, New York. Really cool place.

And so I’ve loosely kept it up, but then the seated part got away from me for a while, and I ended up continuing my practice through yoga. And then about two years ago I came back to essentially Buddhism through – and I don’t consider myself a religious Buddhist but I practice Mahamudra. And I’ve done some training with a Harvard professor named Dan Brown. And I consider that to be one of my formal meditation, mindfulness practice while I still practice Zen. Or occasionally Zen, which is more of a concentration training for me.

So I guess I… That was one way of kind of contextualizing it for people who hadn’t heard that story from me – but I’ve been practicing for a long Time.

But I’ve always been fascinated with the monastic life. Because there’s part of me… Like in the yoga tradition they talk about the householder and then the renunciate. And the householder is a really hard path. Because of all the distractions and the responsibility and blah-blah-blah.

And so in my weaker moments I think “man, I’d like to walk away from it all at some point and just do the monastic life. And try it out.”

So tell us about that. Like, what is that like? To live in a monastery and just to do nothing but train and work at the monastery.

Tim: I mean, I think that’s sort of what you’re describing for me is kind of the freedom that comes from letting go of what doesn’t matter. And it’s this kind of clarity.

I mean, so whatever it is – whether it’s training your mind, or training your body, or kind of whatever drives you or whatever purpose you have – being able to sort of look at how am I spending my Time? How am I spending my Time on things that don’t matter as much? And just having the courage to be like “those don’t matter enough to sort of take up my life.”

And it’s this reminder… One of the things in monastic training is a sort of reminder of your life span is limited. You have a limited amount of Time here on this planet. And what do you want to do with it?

And really it’s these constant reminders to sort of… The way that I think about it is that so many of us live our lives as though a lot of our Time didn’t matter. Like we sort of use our Time up as though “oh well, this whole hour it was unmeaningful.”

And instead it’s kind of like being like “yes, this moment that I’m in right now matters. This is my actual life, and therefore I’m going to treat it like something that matters.”

Mark: Mm-hmm. I love that. Yeah Buddha said you could find enlightenment in a single breath if you could pay attention, you know?

And you’re right, we’re constantly busy just distracting ourselves and our technology is getting masterful – you know the technology company’s getting masterful at helping us distract ourselves to keep our minds off of what’s maybe truly important.

This is this is the focus of your work it sounds like. Westerners or professionals kind of find themselves… Find their center again or finding what’s important again, right?

Tim: Yeah, I mean I’d say that like for me one of the things in my life that I’ve learned in through my own practice… So I don’t consider myself a Buddhist really either… The thing that matters for me is, because so many people when they approach meditation they’re trying to do it right. They’re like “okay, well what does mindfulness really mean? What is real Zen?”

Either what is the real way to do this? What is the right way? What is the original way? The best way?

And honestly it doesn’t matter what the real, or the original, or the “right” way of doing something is. The question is how does it impact you? And how does it impact you comes from the question of how do you want it to? Like what is the point of wanting to train your mind? What do you want to get out of that?

And only if we’re grounded and anchored in knowing what we want – like what is your aspiration? Why are you even bothering to do this?

Then your practice can actually be alive. Then your practice can actually be driven by something that feels meaningful, and purposeful, and you’ll really benefit from it.

And if you’re not, as soon as you get cut off from those things, you’re going through the motions. It’s this disembodied kind of deadness that can be just as big a waste of Time as anything else.

Mark: Right. Yeah, you brought up so many ideas. When I was in my ’20s, I think for me Zen was… I treated it like a performance sport, you know? More is better, harder is better, daily practice in reading everything I could on it.

And I never really felt any type of like linear progression with it. Which was the lesson, right there, that I had to learn the hard way. Wait a minute, you know? Let go. Surrender to the experience right?

More isn’t better. Harder isn’t better. I tell my students five minutes a day is awesome, but do it every day. Don’t stack it up and do just 45 minutes once every week or so, because you’re not gonna find any results.

And then question is what are you looking for? I was looking for the black belt in meditation. It’s not going to be there for you.

Tim: Yeah. That kind of external validation.

Mark: But so many approach that and you see mindfulness today – I’m sure you run into this all the Time – where it’s being taught to like Goldman Sachs to help people with performance. What do you think about all that?

Tim: Yeah so what I wrote… I write about this a little bit in my new book. So for me the word “mindfulness” has become sick – in the sense that it’s like… There’s this idea in Buddhist philosophy that words can become sick if they’re overused. Then they lose their meaning. A word that’s…

Mark: They get co-opted…

Tim: Exactly. It just means so many different things to different people that it stops meaning anything. And I think that that’s happened to the word “mindfulness.”

And for me, what I’m really interested in and kind of the impact that I want to have in the world is for me… There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world right now. There’s suffering in our own lives and there’s incredible amounts of suffering in the world. And there’s a James Baldwin quote that I really love… Just to paraphrase, it basically says “not everything that we face can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it’s faced.”

And the issue is that we get overwhelmed when try to look at what’s painful in life.

And for me… When Thich Nhat Hanh uses the word mindfulness what he’s talking about is your capacity to be present with pain and suffering in a way that is transformative. In a way that leads to liberation.

So it’s a way of being present, but it’s not just being present in this sort of blank or neutral way, it’s a way of relating to the world so that includes both paying attention to what’s beautiful in the world. And letting that in and letting that actually feed you with experiences of joy.

And then that joy becoming the fuel that you need in order to be able to face what’s painful. And learning how to face what’s painful with full presence and compassion allows that pain to be let go and transform. And it’s not until we can face what’s painful that we can have any type of a positive impact in the world.

And so however someone wants to employ that, that’s up to them, but for me it’s really about having that experience of liberation from the fear and rage and grief that’s immobilizing us.

Mark: Right. So when Thich Nhat Hanh used the term “liberation” – he’s not talking about liberation from suffering, but liberation from attachment to suffering, right? Or something like that?

Tim: Yeah

Mark: Or to the judgment or to the identification with it. Because suffering’s there. Because what you just said – you have to face the pain. There’s gonna be suffering, but face it with total presence and awareness and allow that pain to be transformative.

So you’re not liberating yourself from suffering, which is kind of like what the yoga idea was. It’s really more… Something else, right?

Tim: Yeah, so something that he’ll sometimes say… He’ll say “if you know how to suffer well, then you won’t suffer too much.” and the image that he talks about… One of the core images that he’ll use when he’s talking about mindfulness – one of the main kind of analogies that he’ll use – is basically, there’s a way of holding a crying baby that the baby finds really comforting. And if we’re to describe the qualities that you’d imagine in terms of like holding a baby that’s crying – holding any animal that’s in distress that that animal will find comforting – or at least that mammal – it would be you’re fully present, you are open to sort of whatever… Whether that like… So for the baby if it’s gonna continue to cry, if it’s gonna stop or like whatever it’s doing – you’re open.

And you have this attitude of care. Of I’m here for you. I want to help if I can. And what he describes is that we learn how to… That type of presence alleviates suffering in any type of mammal basically. And if we can learn how to bring that presence to our own pain – it’s not that pain doesn’t arise – but that you don’t make it worse. And, in fact, you know how to be present with it in a way that leads to… That it’s soothed, that it lets go and the more that you train yourself in doing that, the less afraid or intimidated by pain you become. Because you feel competent.

And when someone else is sort of terrified or furious or whatever it is… If you’ve learned how to relate to that in yourself in a way that really kind of works for you – then when you see someone else who’s in that, you can sort of be like “yep.” completely unintimidated. You can say “okay yeah that’s terror, that’s rage. That’s not a problem. I can be open to that and I’m not overwhelmed.”

Mark: Right. You’re not trying to suppress or deny it, avoid it, detach from it – you’re trying to feel it, but not judgmentally. You’re describing kind of self-care or self-compassion. And a lot of people have difficulty with that, I think. We’re not taught self-compassion.

We’re taught to care for others. And many people will go out and care for others and then let themselves become complete train wrecks.

Tim: Sure.

Mark: Which to me makes them less qualified or present or able to care for others.

Tim: Yeah, I think the reasons that people have blocks to self-compassion… One is that they mistake it for weakness. In the sense that like they believe that somehow hating parts of themselves is the only way – or sort of being unkind to parts of themselves is the only way to sort of be the person that they want to be. That almost always falls apart on reflection, because what happens is… I mean it’s like we know this from… Its sort of behavioral psychology 101\. Punishments do not work nearly as well as positive reinforcement in changing any type of animal behavior.

And so we think that we’re going to be more effective at training ourselves using punishment. Actually becoming more of a cheerleader that has a lot of self-confidence is a lot better than that type of kind of slave-driver mentality.

The other thing that blocks it is believing that we don’t deserve it. Again, that’s something that… In my experience whatever it is, whatever the obstacle is for practice, then that obstacle becomes the new object of meditation. And if you can bring your presence and your openness and your compassion to the part of you that doesn’t want compassion. The part of you that’s uncomfortable with compassion.

And in that same type of accepting way of like “it’s okay that that part of me feels really uncomfortable with the idea of self compassion. That’s fine. I don’t need to make that go away.”

And you bring that kind of acceptance there and then you often will learn something new. Mark: Describe how you would teach someone to identify the obstacle to begin with. Cause that’s difficult for a lot of people.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. So the first question is… The first question has to be “what do you want from your practice?” so for some people it’s “I want to be more courageous. Less anxiety.” for some people “I want to be more open-hearted and sort of like have an easier Time connecting with people.” for some people it’s just sort of like “I want to be able to have greater presence and focus. And just kind of feel more alive.”

So whatever that is, you need to know what’s driving you. Otherwise as soon as it starts to feel awkward or difficult you’re gonna be like “why am I doing this?” and so you need to remember why are you doing it.

So you start by knowing why you’re doing it and let’s say it’s like you want to feel more alive. You want to feel more connected to what you’re actually doing. Then the question is what’s keeping you from feeling that? And you recognize that a lot of it is anxieties, resentments – whatever those things are.

And then you’re open to the idea – you may or may not believe – but you’re open to the idea that possibly bringing this type of compassionate presence to your resentments, to your anxieties, could potentially be transformative. So then you want to experiment.

Mark: So hold those like a crying baby.

Tim: Yeah, like to be able to… Or whatever feels comfortable for you, but basically the idea is that like that resentment, that sort of like voice that’s going over and over in your head about like “I can’t believe they said this to me.” or just like criticizing other people.

First recognize that that is a part of you that’s suffering. That is a form that suffering is taking in you, so in terms of the Buddhist four noble truths, the first truth is that we all suffer sometimes. And that’s a form that suffering is taking.

And then the second is recognizing that suffering is always a request for your full presence, your compassionate presence. So in what way is the part of me that’s like “I can’t believe they did this to me. I can’t believe they said this to me…” or just whatever that resentment is – what is that asking for? How is that asking for compassion, understanding, respect? Like what is it?

And when you can understand what that part of you is asking for… So let’s say it’s that part of me that just keeps going on a loop that’s resentful – what it wants is respect and understanding and care. That’s how it would rather be treated.

And then all you need to do is just say to yourself “yeah, that’s how I wish you were treated too.”

But there’s a really interesting kind of paradox that happens there. So in Buddhist psychology, there are two practices that kind of seem like they’re in conflict. One is the practice that we might call “loving-kindness meditation.” loving-kindness meditation are things where you might repeat the phrases over and over “may you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy.”

And that’s kind of like this well-wishing. And that strengthens a certain quality of heart.

Conversely there’s another core practice in Buddhist psychology that’s called the five remembrances. Those five remembrances are “I am of the nature to grow old. There’s no way to escape going old. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There’s no way to escape death. Everything that I love is of the nature to change. And there’s no way to escape being separated from it.” when you put those two things together it becomes a really – for me – an amazingly transformative practice.

Because we see that they’re not actually in conflict. So, for example, it’s “you’re of the nature to have ill health and there’s no way to escape that.” and yet “may you be healthy.” “You are of the nature to die.” and yet “may you be safe.”

And it’s this idea of I’m not wishing these things for you, because I think they’re really gonna happen all the Time. It’s just an expression of your human nature. There’s a longing in every person that we just wish, if it were possible, we wish that everybody could just have what they need. And be okay.

And we know that’s not gonna happen, but we still long for that. And there’s something that’s really transformative about letting yourself want that, for yourself and for other people. Even with the knowledge that it’s not always gonna happen.

Mark: And when it does happen, you’re able to be with it in a much more compassionate way. Cause it’s not a surprise.

Tim: Exactly. You’re wishing that for yourself and basically if you’re able to go through… “It’s not always gonna happen that I get what I want. And that’s fine and yet, may I have good things in my life.”

And then when something good happens you’re like “yeah. There you go. That’s a good thing.” you don’t feel awkward about it. You’re not one of those people who can’t take a compliment.

Mark: Mm-hmm. That’s interesting. I mean, so many people… Or let me put it this way… The world just seems so negative and critical. I mean this seems like the ultimate practice to overcome negativity and your own inner critic. We can only be the change we want to see in the world, right?

How does mindfulness affect someone with like clinical anxiety or depression? I mean you’re a psychologist. So how does it help in that regard?

Tim: Yeah. So ultimately… I mean, I’ve worked with people with like history of serious psychotic breaks. Intense depression, panic… And one of the things is that the way that it’s described in the sort of Buddhist psychology – at least the school that I come from – the Yogachara school is that we always need to be aware of trying to be present with suffering that’s bigger than our capacity for compassionate awareness. And if you try to sit with, or be present with, or face something that is bigger than your capacity for actually holding it with your full presence, you’re gonna be overwhelmed by it. And it’s actually gonna make you feel a lot worse.

And so there’s a titration of being able to bring up an amount of pain or suffering that is kind of commensurate with your capacity for actually being present with it. And so when people are… Basically, when I’m working with people with kind of clinical levels of anxiety, or depression, or even psychosis – from a Buddhist philosophy perspective it’s basically just like understanding “these are people with a tremendous amount of suffering. Often that’s much bigger than their capacity to tolerate.”

So we work on two things – we work on expanding their ability to tolerate it. Bringing up just small amounts at a Time for them to be able to try to be present with it. And then also, you can have the support of another person. So for me a lot of what counseling or psychotherapy really means is that the counselor or therapist or whoever is kind of holding space for you, they’re bringing their compassionate presence. So that you don’t have to hold both.

Mark: Mm-hmm. That’s interesting.

practical Zen


Mark: Some of my mostly my reading – I was going to say research but it’s not true research – just from reading around this kind of confluence of eastern meditative psychotherapy versus western psychotherapy kind of Jungian and talk therapy and gestalt therapy – there are certain people who are not good candidates – or not candidates at all for meditation. And said another way, if you look at it from the eastern perspective yoga had the Yamas and Niyamas, the Asana and the Pranayama which were all preliminary practices. And Buddhism had the ten thousand preparations. And that was all to basically get you ready to do the work.

And of course we want to go straight to the best thing, like we talked about earlier. And it can have some contraindications, is that right? For certain people?

Tim: So the way that I think about it, I developed and it’s not in my newest book, but in the first book that I wrote it’s called “Self-compassion and Psychotherapy.” and I write about sort of a technique for training people in meditation that I call “dialogue-based mindfulness,” or “dialogue-based mindfulness training.”

So for me if you give someone meditation instructions and they’re new. And especially if they’re new and they have a lot of suffering. Not only is it likely they’re going to get in touch with more suffering than they can actually handle. But they’re most likely going to misinterpret the instructions. Like, almost always. At least for a while.

And the more traditional way of teaching meditation is you give someone the instructions and they just sort of flail around with it, until they kind of – on their own – figure out how to apply it.

But what dialogue based mindfulness training means – it’s using a technique that basically kind of come from experiential psychotherapy to teach meditation. And what it looks like is so I would ask you for example so right in this moment, with your eyes open or closed, sitting in a comfortable position. Right in this moment, what are you noticing in your body? Are you noticing any tension or relaxation? Heaviness or lightness? Just scan your body.

And then let me know. You can say it out loud, what are you noticing?

And so then you might say “yeah, there’s a lot of tension in my shoulders.”

And then what I would say is “okay, so what we’re gonna try to do right now – this may or may not work for you – see if you can allow that tension to be there without trying to make it go away. Just allow it to be there and see if you can just for a minute let yourself feel it.”

And now in that moment – so that’s a very standard mindfulness instruction – but in that moment you might say “oh it starts to feel better.”

You might say “it just got a lot worse.”

Or you might say “I would never want to do that. Why would I want to do that?” and you actually get kind of nervous about the instruction.

And depending on what comes up for you my next instruction is gonna be radically different.

If I can hear what’s coming up for you, then I can guide you a lot more effectively. And so for me I think that’s actually one of the biggest missing pieces in translating these practices into psychotherapy. Because for me, no matter… I use these practices with really intensely acute clients… But I would never just give them the practice and ask them to do it on their own.

Mark: Mm-hmm. Right. So the recent book that came out June 25th – “How to Stay Human in an F’d up World,” is there anything that we haven’t touched upon that would be interesting to the listener or helpful? That you want to highlight?

Tim: Yeah, yeah. I guess it would just be like – I think that the main thing is so what the book… It’s largely a collection of stories about me applying these sorts of practices to really hard situations in my own life. And it includes sort of childhood stuff that I talked about. It includes sort of high-pressure situations doing grassroots organizing. I was one of the organizers of occupy Wall Street, and so it talks about sort of in that context. And then my wife about four years ago was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and she passed away last year.

Mark: Oh, I’m sorry.

Tim: And so sort of practicing with those experiences as well. But I think the main thing is that there are ways of applying these practices to really intense experiences in our lives. And there can be a lot that’s gained from that. I think that’s what I’d want someone to come away from the book with. Is sort of like “okay, this isn’t just sort of about like supercharge your morning.” it can be applied in really challenging situations.

Mark: Mm-hmm. Nice. And how can people find out more about you beyond the book, and your training center? Do you have a website, or social media, or anything like that?

Tim: Yeah, yeah. My publicist would be way happier if I did more social media stuff than I do.

So the center is called morning sun mindfulness center. You can find it pretty easily… It’s in New Hampshire. I have a website that’s just like a pretty simple… That’s just

I have a psychotherapy textbook for people who are interested in kind of that level of depth. Sort of a workbook about self-compassion. And then this new one that I feel like is just really written for everybody.

Mark: Nice. And the mindfulness center, can a listener just go there and do a…

Tim: Yeah, yeah. Every Sunday we have an open day of mindfulness. So like sort of a day-long practice period. And then we have retreats throughout the year and you can find out about those on our on our website. But yeah, you can sign up for those and come out and practice with us.

Mark: Nice.

Tim: And the idea of the center is it’s kind of like it’s basically a monastery for laypeople. It’s a co-housing community of sort of committed practitioners that is on campus of a meditation retreat center. So we’re kind of like… The people who live here are kind of holding the space for the retreat center. So that when you come on a retreat you’re coming into like a living community.

Mark: Right. Yeah, that’s pretty traditional and what’s the shortest amount of time you can come and do a retreat? Besides that Sunday standing thing?

Tim: Yeah. I mean, we have weekend retreats throughout the year that are sort of like you’re gonna arrive Friday night and it goes through like Sunday afternoon.

Mark: I see. Nice. I’d love to do that. I think, put that on my list. Which is a long list, I’m sure.

Awesome, Tim: Well thanks so much. Good luck with the book, and let us know how we can help out in any other endeavors of yours. And look forward to meeting you in person someday.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. Thanks so much.

Mark: You bet. Awesome.

All right, everybody. That was Tim Desmond. Check out his new book “How to Stay Human in an F’d-Up World: Mindfulness Practices For Real Life.” or his Morning Sun Mindfulness Center in Keene, New Hampshire. So if you’re cruising around the north east, then stop and spend a weekend there. Fascinating conversation and so important. So important for our day and age.

Alright and once again thank you so much for listening. By the way – usually say this is at the beginning – but this podcast is available at a lot of places now. So Stitcher, Google Play, SoundCloud, Pandora, iHeartRadio – we have a ton of five-star ratings on iTunes, but these other places that you find it are more recent. And so if you listen to the podcast from one of those platforms it’s really helpful if you rate and leave a review so other people can find the podcast. And that would help get the word out.

Really appreciate you. Stay focused, be present and use your suffering for transformation. Hooyah.

Divine out.

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