The question itself brings a pause and a chuckle from Cory Muscara, a mindfulness expert who will lead the keynote workshop at Oglebay Park’s “Adventures in Mindfulness” retreat this weekend.
His mission is to “make happiness easier for more people by blending eastern wisdom with western science in a way that is comprehensible, usable and penetrating.”
So, what is happiness?
That’s when he chuckled, and said slowly with emphasis on each word, “I have no idea.” But it is his goal to help us experience happiness, by using our mind.
“The word freedom comes up,” Muscara said. “To me, a mind that is free, a mind that is not consumed by desire, a mind that is not consumed by aversion, a mind that does not become small or become self-centered, a mind that is vast, that has let go, that can move fluidly in the world without experiencing the suffering of too many attachments. … When we hold onto things being a certain way, then we are inevitably being caught in a trap of suffering and distress, because nothing is going to be permanent, including the people in our lives, the jobs, the external world that we experience, relationships. Everything is constantly changing.
“So a mind that can free itself from needing things to be a particular way, is a mind that can find deep contentment and peace. And happiness.”
He explained that if you haven’t cultivated a mind that is … “able to move fluidly with shifts and change in the world, then you’re just setting yourself up for inevitable failure. And that’s why there’s so much stress and suffering for people — they’re just holding to the way people should be or things should be or how things once were.”
Muscara lived as a Buddhist monk in Burma, Southeastern Asia, for six months in 2012 to cultivate a “wellbeing, a fulfillment, that was not solely contingent upon external variables. I wanted to see how far I could take that, how I can create an inner peace and a wellbeing that could exist independent of what’s going on around me in my life, and I figured if I could do that, everything else then would be gravy — the relationships, the car, the house, the material items. It would all be extra, but it wouldn’t be necessary for me to have for fulfillment.”
Those six months in Burma changed his approach to life.
“My values are different. Where I seek happiness is different. I still have goals and visions and ideas for the future, and things I want to create, and I want a family and want a house and all of these things — but at no point do I mistake that for the things that will lead to real deep contentment and happiness. There’s no delusion around that anymore,” he said.
Muscara’s teachings blend “eastern wisdom with western science,” he explained.
“I love going deeper in the eastern spiritual traditions, specifically Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, but I also have my hand in academia. [He received a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.] I’m always integrating the two — eastern wisdom with what we know in science. And I see eastern wisdom, specifically mediation, as a science of the mind, a way we can understand ourselves better, understand the nature of a thought, understand how a thought influences an emotion, an emotion influences a thought, and how it all impacts behavior.
“By paying attention to our experience and paying attention to the mind, we learn the mechanisms of happiness and mechanisms of suffering in the same way that you can observe behavior and conditioning and phenomena interact in a lab or through basic research.”
His goal is to translate and to integrate that in a way people can understand.
Mindfulness, Muscara explained, is “paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally,” citing the classic definition by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is considered to have initiated the modern popularity of mindfulness.
He sees mindfulness as “being with experience, without being caught in experience, so that we’re able to observe and be intimately involved in our lives without getting sucked into whatever the particular story or narrative is. … It’s quite possible to experience joy without being so attached to experiencing joy. It’s possible to experience pain and discomfort and grief and tragedy without getting sucked deeply into the black hole of that.
“So mindfulness allows us to hold space for a full range of human experience without getting trapped by it.”
Muscara pointed out that there is a lot of science behind the theory and benefits of mindfulness.
“Overall, we see that mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, relapse in depression; can help with addiction; can improve joy, creativity, productivity, focus, working memory, associations with longevity of life.
“When people engage in the practice of meditation, parts of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety start to shrink. Areas of the brain responsible for empathy, joy, working memory, focus — these areas actually start to grow. The brain is a muscle, and one way we can exercise it is through meditation.”
Muscara finds that his own practice of meditation, which he started about 10 years ago, makes him a better person, he said, and it “opens my heart more. I’m more compassionate. I’m more understanding. I’m also more sharp and have greater clarity. I end up being more productive. I don’t get sucked into aimless tasks like scrolling through social media as much.”
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The workshop on Saturday at Oglebay that Muscara will lead, “Mindfulness: Shifting From Surviving to Thriving,” will focus on what mindfulness is and why it might be worth cultivating and the science that supports the benefits of it — “specifically,” Muscara said, “doing a deep dive into how the brain changes when we engage in meditation practice, how does this relate to things like stress, anxiety, depression, working with pain, what are the practical ways that you can implement this into your life.”
Participants also will receive a number of resources to take home, including guided meditations, book recommendations; tips, hints and strategies to implement mindfulness into their lives; as well as access to Muscara’s 31-day mindfulness course.
Muscara invites anyone who is interested in living more intentionally, reducing stress, enhancing their performance and just “enhancing overall quality of life” attend Saturday’s workshop.
At the core of his work “is helping people develop an inner peace so that they become an island at peace amidst the waves of chaos in their lives, and also just helping people become their own best friend. If you have to go through your life alone, you could have great friends, you can have great family, you can have great resources, but at the end of the day you have to experience thoughts, your emotions, your pains, and so if you’re not your own best companion on that journey, life becomes very difficult.”
Muscara is looking forward to the weekend event, as it is his “passion to share this work.” He suggests that people give this practice a chance, even if you’re skeptical.
“I was someone that was very skeptical of meditation. I’ve found it’s actually something that can be used across the board, regardless of your faith, regardless of your profession, so it’s always worth giving it a shot.
“At the very least, you’ll learn something new. At the very most, it might be the very thing that transforms your life.”
“Adventures in Mindfulness: Your Journey Toward Wellness” is set for Friday, April 27, through Sunday, April 29, at Wilson Lodge, Oglebay Park, in Wheeling.
“The idea of hosting a mindfulness retreat at Oglebay came about through a concerted effort to strengthen Oglebay’s spa and wellness programming for both overnight and local guests. Mindfulness has proven to be a recent topic of discussion in the media, and the timing was right to educate our region on the multitude of health benefits linked to mindful living,” said Lindsey McGlaughlin, marketing manager, Oglebay Resort & Conference Center. “Providing educational programming of this magnitude requires the expertise of professional practitioners, and Oglebay was fortunate enough to have found a donor who believes in the importance of mindfulness as a critical step toward overall health and wellbeing. Through a generous donation from The John and Kristina Kramer Charitable Fund, The Health Plan and The Oglebay Foundation, Oglebay is pleased to present two of the nation’s most well-known experts in the area of mindfulness and meditation.”
Friday includes a welcome reception, meet and greet, and a mindfulness demo led by Muscara.
Saturday’s schedule consists of yoga or a mindful guided walk, a juicing demo, dinner and entertainment, as well as workshops by the speakers. Saturday’s keynote by Muscara is “Mindfulness: Shifting From Surviving to Thriving.” The afternoon session with David Creswill is “Mindfulness Interventions, Stress Reduction and Health.”
On Sunday, the day begins with yoga or a mindful guided walk, followed by breakfast, an ecumenical service and workshop, and finally, a wrap-up with tips for incorporating mindfulness into your daily life and sharing your new skills with your family.
Cory Muscara is the founder of the Long Island Center for Mindfulness. He teaches mindfulness to school leaders at Columbia Teachers College and is assistant instructor for the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He regularly appears on the Dr. Oz show as a guest expert on the topic of mindfulness meditation.
David Creswell is an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. His research focuses on understanding what makes people resilient under stress. Creswell has been featured in The New York Times and on The Today Show.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigalhas joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.