Are we doing meditation all wrong? (feat. meditation teacher Michel Pascal)

Vector image of a pink lotus flower symbolising meditation. Copyright Conrad Emmett

Today, Conrad Emmett talks to LA-based Michel Pascal about his new way of meditation – one which turns conventional thinking about meditating on its head.

Michel Pascal was not what I expected.

For the first few seconds of meeting him, maybe you might disagree. Michel, on the surface, fits our expectation of someone who has spent years at one of the largest Himalayan monasteries to learn about meditation. He has a relaxed, almost serene composure. He has a somewhat joyful smile and, as you start talking to him, a sparkling sense of humour.

But, when he starts discussing meditation, he turns any Hollywood-informed expectations upside down.

The question

Michel Pascal image, outdoor, hands together smiling
Meditation Teacher Michel Pascal

First off, I feel – interview-wise – like I walked slap-bang into the lesson that Michel wants to get across. And not in some sharp journalistic way. No. It was more like I blundered into it. Blundered into it in a way which Michel was ready for. I began to wonder if it was something he had, subtly, prepped me to ask about.

Let me explain.

You see, in the run up to the interview, he had said twice in his messages that his schedule was busy, but that he wasn’t.

When we first start the interview itself, he says it again. He steadfastly refuses to say he is busy. Just that his schedule is busy.

I sense a distinction, so I ask him about it as we get underway.

And I’m thrown by how he begins his response. “In our lives we need to be very productive, very active,” he says in his French accent, which has survived years in the Himalayas and LA without losing its gentle lilt.

Being calm, 9-5 and beyond

Surely, I think, I’ve misheard. We’re meant to be taking lots of time out, right? Isn’t that how you meditate? Isn’t that what all the imagery shows me in the media? That imagery is everywhere: from lovely coffee-table books to movies about zen-powered superheroes.

But Michel has a packed schedule just like the rest of us. He started his day in the early hours – he normally gets up at about three or four in the morning.

And that hard work ethic is not a problem, he believes. Not a problem as long as we appreciate the crux of the matter. “If we are stressed we never have enough time,” he says. “But if we are calm we have more time.

“Time does not exist. The only thing that exists is the perception of time. As I taught a manager of Google in New York: the more we need to be active, the more we need to be calm.”

Prisons of the mind

Michel is definitely very active, and definitely very calm.

He works with people in person, on Skype and in environments which include tech companies, an Ivy League University and jail. He also develops some meditators, across the world, to become teachers in their own right.

At the moment, he’s planning his latest meditation-based concert for the Carnegie Hall. It is an event in which he takes the audience on a musical journey to connect with themselves.

All money raised is being devoted to creating new meditation teachers to help prisoners and women who have suffered abuse. If you buy a ticket but cannot get to New York, then the ticket can be passed on to someone who needs it – Michel particularly wants to pass the tickets to women suffering from abuse and also parolees.

He said that parolees really benefited from attending the last such event: “It was an amazing chance for those guys to say ‘oh my gosh I was in jail for 20 or 30 years – but I’ve been invited to the Carnegie Hall.’

This last point is interesting. On the one hand, Michel is particularly proud of the impact his work has. So far, of those prisoners he has worked with, he says 80 percent go on to get jobs and integrate back into society – the complete inverse to California’s own re-offending rate. He considers meditation, or finding calm, to be a possible end to violence in the world.

On the other hand, it seems he doesn’t draw a huge distinction between this work and the work he does with teachers, political leaders, managers, students, celebrities, children, the homeless, and victims of abuse. It’s all the same teaching. “There is no difference in the brain,” he says.

“It is the same mechanism of stress anywhere in the world. And it is the same if we are a child or a student or an adult, or a senior. It’s the same if we are rich or if we are poor. It is the same – the same situation for everyone.”

The real overarching problem for practically all of us, according to Michel, is the prison in our mind.

We’re doing it wrong

Michel believes that the world is busy, and we have to work. And there’s no dodging it, wherever you try to run.”You can say I want to escape, I want to live in a monastery,” he says. “But life in a monastery is in fact very active. It’s not the cliche.”

Of course, if you embrace the busy life there is another pitfall, according to Michel: “We think that the more we are stressed, the more we will be productive. It’s exactly the opposite of the truth. Because the more we are stressed, the more we are tired.

“We are in confusion because we are unable to organise our mind: our mind is like a room, and we need to clean our mind every day, all the time.

“So, yes, we can do many things each day – many things. But only if we are more calm. And then, mysteriously, time is expanded.”

Dangers of stress

He says stress is destructive, and believes it’s one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s. That’s not only the thoughts of a spiritual man, however. It’s backed up by scientific research: a study in Sweden which found such a result. Michel is concerned that Alzheimer’s will not only be for older people but for young students, eventually (Michel has worked with students at Harvard to help reduce their stress in an effort to turn this potential tide).

And the dangers of stress are not simply something he has seen through his work. Michel’s father died of a heart attack connected to stress. “It was very simple for me when I was so very very young to understand that there was no life without peace,” Michel says.

He says he knew instinctively to seek out places of peace. One way or another, he has often lived a “monastic” life in the years leading up to his move to LA. As a child that meant being drawn to churches as a place of calm. As he became a singer, when he was older, he still eschewed the rollicking drink and drugs lifestyle on hand.

Eventually, he would become a photographer, and took pictures for a book by the Dalai Llama, snapping the spectacular Himalayan vistas and buildings which are home to Buddhist traditions.

Not long after, he would find himself at the Kopan Monastery, one of the biggest in the world. It would become a place central to his search for inner peace.

The big question

He describes his teacher, high master Chepa Dorje Rimpoche, as his “spiritual director” and as “my teacher, my father, my brother, my uncle, my family, my best friend”.

One day, after much practice, Michel had what he felt was an important question for his teacher. He asked him exactly what meditation was. “I’ll never forget his answer,” Michel says.

“He said ‘there is no mediation. You think too much for nothing.’” He described instead “sitting down like a mountain.” For Michel, this has summed up the route to a powerful and healthily addictive inner calm. “Because when you are sitting down like a mountain you enter the spiritual experience.”

“Meditation is not a technique, it’s not a tip, it’s not a talk,” he adds. “It’s a spiritual experience we can do in one second. In one second we can be more calm. We touch our soul.” This spiritual experience is interpreted in different ways by different people. “In theology we talk about a ‘soul’,” he says. “In Buddhist language we use another word: we have a ‘seed of the Buddha’. In science it is described as a special cognitive process usually we don’t use.

“We feel in a second we are in eternity. We feel good.”

Blah-blah-tation

This new understanding of meditation has shaped how he works with busy people in the western world.

“We think that with meditation it’s a technique,” he says. “We think that with meditation it’s a tip. ‘Oh I have a tip, I can give you some advice. Take a deep breath, do this, do that, be focused, meditate 30 minutes per day.’ We know those tips.”

And he’s right. This notion of meditation is commonplace. Chances are you’ll have at least tried one those techniques yourself.

“The problem with those tips is that they are totally un-adapted to our world,” he says. “How can we tell someone to do this when they work ten hours a day? Some people I have taught work 17 hours a day.

“How can we say that to students at Harvard University? Students are PhDs in stress.

“So how can we say to a student or a manager: ‘you have worked ten hours today, maybe more, but you must practice meditation. You must be focused on your breath, you must do this, you must do that.’ It doesn’t work. It is not adapted.

“How can I say to a prisoner, a guy who has stayed in jail 20 or 30 years: ‘Oh, my friend, you have anxiety? You have PTSD? You are drug addicted, alcohol addicted? Simple! Practice meditation!’ Someone said to me last week that if you say that to one of the prisoners, you are not respectful.

Tips for me? It’s blah-blah. It’s blah-blah-tation: it’s not concrete, it’s not efficient.”

New York minutes

Twenty minutes a day to meditate is, to many, “a joke”, he says. It’s like an over-the-top New Years’ resolution to lose a lot of weight – only to find within weeks that we have started gorging on unhealthy food once more.

“The key to Meditation for Daily Stress,” a technique he has outlined in a book by the same name, is “we practice one minute in our daily situation. If you practice in a beautiful quiet room it’s wonderful; but when you go back to your job you are stressed out again.

“Your brain has not received the information that ‘yes I can be calm in my office.’

The settings are important when working with clients. So Michel picks places where people would normally suffer stress. He taught one Google employee on the train. He has sat in the back of Uber cars and in offices of major corporations. When he leads retreats it’s not to some quiet hillside but to Times Square in New York.

The important thing is to be calm where it is busy. In the centre of the storm.

Feeling h-app-y

The future of Michel’s teachings will take us into similarly unconventional terrain.

He says he is developing an app for both Android and for iPhone which will respond to your current needs with an appropriate form of calming measures.

But, like Michel’s own attitude to meditation, this will turn the idea of an app subscription on its head. The app will have a timer – the idea being the more you use the app the less you pay. So if you don’t use the app much, you could be paying $9. If you do use the app a lot, then it could only cost 20c.

It will feature not only Michel, but a series of scientific experts. “I want people to understand what is happening in the brain as they practice this kind of meditation,” he says. “I love science. It’s important for me to be very concrete and to be able to show exactly what’s happening in the brain when we use these techniques.”

His app will be released later in the year.

Get involved

Check out Michel’s book Meditation for Daily Stress here on Amazon.

Tour dates for Michel’s performances – including at Carnegie Hall – are constantly updated here. The poster is below. You can get your tickets from carnegiehall.org

Learn more about Michel, his techniques and books at his site here.

Poster for Michel Pascal's next concert at the Carnegie Hall

 

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