Sunday, September 16, 2018

Confessions of an Anxious Meditation Teacher

In my role as a meditation teacher I often feel like people don't get a chance to know the real me. They see a curated persona who speaks with a calming tone of voice, someone who spent two years living in a Buddhist monastery and has written two books on meditation and spiritual life. I can imagine those things might give them certain misleading ideas about me.

Behind that persona, the truth is that I struggle a lot with anxiety. I don't mean regular garden-variety anxiety, I mean the kind that I see a doctor about, the kind that has a diagnostic code in the DSM-V. Anxiety is something I have experienced for most of my life, going back to childhood. It can flare up along with insomnia to affect my sleep, my relationships, and my work. Many people might never suspect this about me, because I'm good at keeping it under wraps and showing the outside world an exterior facade of calmness and serenity.

I've been practicing and teaching meditation for 16 years, and while I can say truthfully that meditation helps me regulate my anxiety and work with it more skillfully, I cannot truthfully tell you that meditation cures it. Meditation alone, practiced in solitude, doesn't address the underlying structural issues in my personal psychology. I stopped expecting the practice to do that for me quite a while ago.

I share this confession because in the world of yogis and meditators and people walking various kinds of modern spiritual paths, there's a pervasive misconception that anyone who's been practicing for a while — and especially anyone who has stepped up from practicing into the role of teaching -- is supposed to have it all together.

In my observation, and in my own personal experience, nothing could actually be further from the truth. And this misconception creates some really toxic dynamics between teachers and students.

One of the great ironies about people in the helping professions is that they are often among the ones who need the most help. I know a psychiatrist who has borderline personality disorder. A lot of therapists and social workers I know are depressed. The suicide rate among doctors in the U.S. is two or three times as high as the general population. There's a powerful stigma that prevents us from talking openly about how people whose job is to help others may themselves need help addressing their own mental health issues.

The world of yogis and meditators and spiritual teachers is no exception. But you wouldn't know that from looking at the marketing hype.

If you're that sort of teacher, it's often assumed that you've wrestled with your demons, and vanquished them. You've worked out the kinks and foibles in your human nature, so you stand a cut above the rest of us. Your inner light shines through at all times, unclouded by ordinary human neuroses. Traumas? Shadow material? You're beyond all that. This must be why you look so beatific and well composed in your Instagram photos.

My personal advice? Run as fast as you can in the other direction from any teacher who presents a highly manicured image of having it all together. Run from any teacher who looks down at the world from a superior perch and appears to have it all figured out, or who claims to have packed away all their emotional baggage.

In the past few years I've seen a lot of teachers who projected that sort of image fall from grace — exposing suddenly and almost violently their humanity, their struggles, and the demons with which were secretly wrestling. I've learned not to project too much of a sacred aura onto any of the cows roaming about in the contemporary spiritual pasture. If you spend much time around cows, sacred or not, you'll find most of them are full of something. I know I am.

My struggles with anxiety, among other things, are part of what initially drew me to the path of meditation, and they're still part of what keeps me practicing — and, perhaps just as importantly, part of what keeps me teaching. I may not always reveal to a room full of students what's roiling beneath the surface of my own psychological waters, because it's generally bad decorum to appear like a basket case when you're sitting in the teacher's seat. But within the inner sanctum of my own mind, where no one else goes, I'm never far-removed from a lifetime of roiling waters, or from the wellspring of shadow material that percolates just beneath the surface.

There's a famous quote from Richard Bach: "You teach best what you most need to learn."

The longer I teach, the more truth I find in that statement. When meditation students tell me how calming my voice and my presence are, or how much a certain practice or teaching I shared helped them reframe their perspective on a difficult situation, I know that sharing it with them probably helped me twice as much. I needed just as much as they did, if not more, to be reminded of the teaching by sharing it with them.

I think what I'm learning is that it's not in spite of my imperfections and human foibles, it's not in spite of my ongoing struggles with my own inner demons, but because of those things, that I have something genuine to offer as a teacher.

I'm coming clean here about my struggles with anxiety because I think coming clean is necessary. In the world of spiritual teachers and students, we need fewer sacred cows and more transparency and disclosure. Without an honest and open relationship to the more troublesome aspects of myself, I would be just another one of those slick Instagram gurus trying to sell you the path to happiness, as if I had it all figured out.

If you ever catch me doing that, feel free to slap me, and bring me back down to earth.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Assessing Childhood Developmental Trauma

The ACE Quiz ("ACE" stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences) has become a standardized way for psychologists and those treating trauma to assess some of the major factors that might contribute to childhood developmental trauma. You can take the ACE quiz here.

The simple 10-question quiz gives you score on a scale of 0 to 10, with points being assigned for exposure to a number of commonly recognized sources of childhood trauma, from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to physical or emotional neglect to various forms of household dysfunction such as parental divorce or having a parent or family member who is mentally ill, incarcerated, or addicted.

If you score high on the ACE quiz, it means you had numerous factors in your upbringing that might contribute to childhood developmental trauma. In turn, childhood developmental trauma is known to contribute to other problems later in life, including increased risks for stress and depression, substance abuse, heart disease, and more.

However, it's important to understand what your score on the ACE quiz means and what it doesn't. If you have a high score, it just means that a lot of those commonly recognized adverse childhood experiences were present in your early life. It doesn't take into account other factors that might have helped you build resilience and overcome these adverse childhood conditions, such as the love and support you received from a certain family member or outside figure.

Some people with high ACE scores show few signs of developmental trauma, while others with low ACE scores go on to develop major depression, addiction, and so forth. So your score is not, strictly speaking, predictive of any particular outcome as an adult.

By contrast, the opposite may also be true. The ACE quiz looks at commonly recognized adverse conditions for developmental trauma, but some possibly traumatizing adverse conditions are glaringly absent.

When I took the ACE quiz, I was at first surprised at how high my number was. The quiz helped me to frame and understand some of the root causes of my own childhood developmental trauma. But over time, I came to realize there were other traumatic adversities in my childhood, too, that the quiz didn't even touch upon, such as sexual orientation and religious upbringing.

What about the fact that I was and am gay, and that I struggled throughout childhood and adolescence to suppress the growing evidence of my own sexual orientation in a homophobic culture that harshly forbade me from being who I was? There's no checkbox on the ACE quiz for internalized homophobia. There should be, because it's a widespread and very damaging form of developmental trauma.

What about the fearful hellfire-and-brimstone sermons I was subjected to as a child in the Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma, the intense atmosphere of homophobia in that church, and the religious delusions and existential terror I suffered as a result of my indoctrination in that religious culture? In retrospect, I consider what I was subjected to by the church to be a form of child abuse. But again, there's no checkbox on the ACE quiz for religious manipulation and brainwashing. And there should be.

What about complex factors like race and socioeconomic status, which can feed into so many other adverse childhood experiences? There are generational traumas, and traumas that you may be born into because the color of your skin isn't the one that's privileged by the society you live in. No ACE checkboxes for those either.

For now, the ACE quiz is a stepping stone that can help you begin to get a handle on some of the Big 10, as it were. Knowing where you come from in relation to these 10 factors can be helpful in assessing the roots of your own childhood developmental trauma. But you also need to put your ACE quiz results in perspective, and look at the larger picture of things the quiz never touches upon.

The causes and effects of childhood developmental trauma are highly complex, and no standardized test can really give you a complete or accurate reading on the origins or effects of your own childhood trauma. We need better ways of assessing a wider variety of adverse childhood experiences, as well as traumatic social conditions that extend both inward, deep into our hearts and psyches, and outward, beyond the walls of the houses we grew up in.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

"You Are Buddha" (The Audiobook)

Did you know that my first book You Are Buddha is available as an audiobook? You can download it for FREE with a trial subscription to Audible. That's 7.5 hours of meditation and reflections on spiritual awakening (written mostly during the two years when I lived as a Buddhist monk in Canada), read in my own voice.

From one listener's review: "Insightful meditations from a gentle voice. Modern American Buddhism can be heard in Hunter's personal stories and reflections."

Here are the links for those of you in the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany.

United States
United Kingdom

We are all looking for greater meaning and wisdom in our lives. The problem is that we search for these things outside ourselves. The most profound teachings of the Buddha say that the wisdom we search for does not come from outside. It is already within us; it is our very nature. The spiritual path is simply a way of helping us uncover and manifest the wisdom we already have.

Filled with personal stories, guided meditations, and more, You Are Buddha offers a practical guide to learning meditation, working with thoughts and emotions, becoming more deeply embodied, understanding the nature of mind, developing ethical conduct, and becoming an authentically mature, awakened human being.

Happy listening! And I would love to get your feedback on the audiobook.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Two New Web Sites to Explore

The Coherent Agency

After so many years working as a brand strategist and creative director in the trenches of NYC advertising agencies, I recently struck out on my own and founded my own web design, branding, and digital marketing agency. I'm happy to be working with a growing roster of clients including the nonprofit Kula for Karma, Warrior Flow, and globally renowned organizational development consultant Rita Meyerson. Come explore, sign up for our email newsletter, follow the agency on social, and most of all, contact me through the site if you need help with a project.

Warrior Flow

Of course my husband was my agency's first client, and I'm really pleased with the new web site I developed for Warrior Flow. The site is very visual and social in nature, and gives you a real feeling for the rich variety of yoga and meditation classes, workshops, events and retreats Warrior Flow offers in Miami and around the world -- and the feeling of community at the heart of the brand. Please come check out the new While you're there, don't miss Adrian's latest blog posts on working with difficult emotions like grief and resentment.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Four Years

Today Adrian and I celebrate our four-year wedding anniversary. Four years is definitely long enough to have moved beyond the starry-eyed honeymoon phase and to have begun getting into the real work of being in a committed relationship.

A few days ago I picked up Susan Piver's new book, The Four Noble Truths of Love: Buddhist Wisdom for Modern Relationships. In the Introduction to her book, she emphasizes the importance of understanding the difference between a love affair and a relationship. Being "in love" is magical and wonderful, and it's a bit like visiting another planet where the atmosphere of love is so intoxicating that even the things that might annoy us about our partner seem charming.

Unfortunately we can't live on that magic love planet forever. When we enter into a committed relationship, we do so here on earth, where the atmosphere is not always tinted pink with romance. We face the reality of ourselves and each other, and the reality of life, and life together, without rose-colored glasses.

And here on earth, in this human reality, stuff happens. We grow and change in ways that our partner might not expect, and we sometimes do things they might not like. We disagree or come into conflict about money, work, or sex. And life itself comes at us, throwing curveballs that we learn to catch together, and to pick each other up and support each other when one of those curveballs knocks us down. A depression comes, a parent dies, a work or money problem sets you on edge, an old karmic or psychological pattern rears its scary head again above the calm waters and makes waves that rock the marriage boat.

Our culture teaches us a lot about love affairs, but it doesn't teach us much about staying in relationships. Pretty much every other song and movie and fairy tale is about falling in love, visiting that magic planet, and staying there always, happily ever after. That's usually where the songs and the fairy tales end. But in relationships, you come back down to earth, and you start to see yourself and your beloved through clear lenses, not rose-colored ones (at least not all the time). And hopefully, as you see each other more clearly, you learn to love and accept what you see, here on planet earth, in a real and sometimes bumpy relationship between two wonderful and deeply flawed human beings.

My husband's hot-headed Argentinian temper and his stubbornness put me to the test on a regular basis. And my passive-aggressive communication style sets his teeth on edge.

But my husband also has the biggest, most tender heart of anyone I've ever met, and I can't think of a greater honor in life than to be the one who stands by his side and receives the full radiance and heat of the love shining from his heart, like standing next to the sun. But his heart, like any human heart, is also fragile, it can be wounded, and it's my honor too to stand by his side and pour my own love back into his heart when something in life has dimmed its flames.

"With a long relationship, things die and then are rekindled, and that shared process of rebirth deepens the love," says Joni Mitchell. "It's hard work, though, and a lot of people run at the first sign of trouble. You're with this person, and suddenly you look like an asshole to them, or they look like an asshole to you -- it's unpleasant, but if you can get through it you get closer and you learn a way of loving that's different from the neurotic love enshrined in movies. It's warmer and has more padding to it." I think I'm starting to understand what Joni Mitchell meant about warmth and padding. And I like it.

Four years is a long time, and yet it's also just a beginning. Through good times and difficult times, these have been the best four years of my life so far. To walk hand in hand through life with Adrian Molina is not always like living on that magical pink planet, but it is a blessing beyond anything I ever imagined, and every day it brings me something new to learn.

I love you, Adrian. Happy Anniversary.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Most Helpful Meditation Instruction Ever?

One of the most helpful meditation instructions I've ever encountered was from Ken McLeod, in his book Wake Up to Your Life.

The essence of meditation, he wrote, is to "Return to what's already there, and rest." When I'm able to remember and apply this instruction, it clarifies a lot of potential confusion.

First, learning to distinguish between what's already there and my ten thousand ways of commenting on it, adding something to it, subtracting something from it, or just drifting away to somewhere else.

And then the constant practice of returning to that — surrendering freshly each time to what's already there without subjecting it to any of my agendas.

And finally resting in that simplicity — letting go of efforts to achieve something, settling into layers of stillness and silence that lie somewhere beneath conceptual mind's humming machinery.

Like a lot of great meditation advice, this line might sound simplistic when you first hear it, but when you begin to unpack it and apply it in your own experience, it's surprisingly profound.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Get Out of Your Head (and Into Your Heart)

There is power in getting in touch with our hearts through meditation; but we can never think our way into this connection. We have to humble and quiet the arrogant brain and speak the heart’s language.

A lot of people come to meditation with the notion that it’s a brain activity, something that we do with our thinking, logical minds. We sit down to be still, and instead we encounter the thinking mind’s untamed wildness. We spend a lot of our time in meditation dealing with that part of our being that exists from the neck up. And that alone seems like it could be a full-time job!

But humans are not just disembodied heads, despite how much it might feel that way sometimes. Below the neck is a whole other realm of embodied experience unfolding in every moment, a vast world of sensations and pulses and somatic messages coursing through our veins and our nervous systems. Our gut often knows things instinctively, and instantly, in ways the brain can’t quite comprehend. The enteric nervous system, which rules the gut, has 100 million neurons, more than can be found in the 45 miles of nerve fibers running through the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system. The body has its own forms of knowledge and even wisdom, whose workings often remain hidden from the conscious mind. The body’s mysterious wisdom is experienced as sensation, feeling, intuition, and emotion.

This is an excerpt from an article I published last month in Yoga Journal. Read the full article here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Helping Adrian's Mom with Heart Surgery
You were probably expecting another post from me about my new book, right? Not this time.

I'm writing on behalf of my husband Adrian and his mother, to ask for your help. I've set up a fundraising page for Adrian's mom's triple bypass open heart surgery and healthcare:

Adrian’s mother, who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was hospitalized last week from an acute heart attack that was misdiagnosed as a bronchial spasm. She was sent home that day. The next morning, after the symptoms persisted, she was taken to a different clinic and, after further tests, her heart attack was correctly diagnosed. The initial hope was for a simple stent surgery, but the damage in the arteries is too severe, and the team of doctors have suggested a heart bypass.

In pre-surgical exams doctors discovered more blockages than expected, as well as some obstructions in her carotid arteries. The plan is now for a triple bypass procedure on Monday morning.

Our family is suffering a very difficult journey because the insurance company covering Adrian's mother dropped her coverage on Saturday Sept 23 when — without any consent from doctors or family — they sent an ambulance to attempt to transport her to another clinic of lesser quality. In addition to being unauthorized, the ambulance they sent wasn't properly equipped to handle an ICU patient. On top of taking care of the fragile situation of his mother, Adrian (as her legal custodian) has had to hire a lawyer and open a public complaint against the health insurance company. Every day brings a new twist in the legal battle.

Adrian and his father have already paid out-of-pocket approximately $25,000 for his mom’s care in the ICU. To recoup those costs and be able to have the triple bypass surgery at this clinic they are hoping to raise among family members and friends another $25,000 on top of that. This will defray costs of the basic surgery which, God willing, will go without any complications, and some follow-up care.

One week ago yesterday, Adrian got on the first flight available to Buenos Aires after he found out about his mother’s heart attack. When he landed she was already in the operating room for the failed attempt at stent surgery. Since then Adrian has become her primary caretaker, guardian, and main point of contact for everything medical and legal. For the past several days, he has pretty much moved into the hospital and spends the nights with his mother looking after her every need. He spends days meeting with lawyers, administrators, and anyone who can have influence on the legal case.

Adrian won’t be able to return to Miami for perhaps another month. He has already been forced to pass extremely large costs onto our credit cards to guarantee his mom’s healthcare and surgery. We are facing unknown costs for her post-surgery care and rehab. As an hourly employee, Adrian is also facing a huge loss of income with all the time away from his job.

Adrian will be an essential part of his mother’s recovery once she returns home. She will need 24/7 assistance and Adrian will be with her no matter what. The only thing that Adrian is thinking of right now is Monday morning, and a successful surgery.

A lot of our friends have reached out to ask what they can do, how they can help. I have created this fund to help Adrian's mother and our family during this time of great need. I ask anyone who has been touched by Adrian’s presence to help.

Even if you can't contribute, please share this campaign to help us spread the word. And if you pray, please include my mother-in-law in your prayers. Many friends have asked for Adrian's mom’s name, to include her in your prayers: Alicia Raquel Nemerovsky.

With love and gratitude,
Dennis, Adrian, and Alicia


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Four Reminders: My New Book Is Available Now

MAJOR NEWS! My new book The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret is now available in paperback and Kindle formats. Order the book today at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. With this modern interpretation of classic wisdom teachings, I've brought an ancient and very traditional set of contemplations on awakening into a fresh new light, making them relatable for anyone -- regardless of your path or background. 

This book has been over a decade in the making, and I'm delighted that all those years of hard work have earned The Four Reminders strong pre-publication endorsements from Ethan Nichtern, Yogarupa Rod Stryker, Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, Kino MacGregor, Kirkus Reviews, and more. I sincerely hope the book enlivens your own path of awakening. 

After you get the book, be sure to visit the web site and download the free Study & Discussion Guide, which will help you take your contemplation of the Four Reminders even deeper. Stay tuned for more news related to the book and upcoming events.

A smart, eminently readable Buddhist guide to achieving an inner awakening.” — Kirkus Reviews

“With a great gift for updating the language and context of these invaluable lessons from the ancient world, Hunter reminds us that Buddhist wisdom was never meant to be mystical or exotic. Instead, these pages give you something much more important: practical advice for being human.” — Ethan Nichtern

Hunter has woven a profound journey, rendering key and authentic Buddhist wisdom in a way that anyone can understand and apply. It is an invitation to all and any one of us, not just those already walking the spiritual path, to courageously embrace the eternal truths that lead to lasting happiness and peace.” — Yogarupa Rod Stryker

A welcome addition to practicing what matters most. This book personally guides us through the practice so that we can reflect on our thoughts, words, and actions.” — Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison

This book presents the transformational teachings of Buddhist mindfulness in a powerful and provocative way. Hunter doesn't shy away from challenging the reader to address deep-seated personal and cultural assumptions on the road to happiness and freedom. I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a key to unlock the path to peace in their lives.” — Kino MacGregor

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Experiencing Divinity and the Failure of Language

I want to say something about this photo. But I hardly know where to begin, or where to end. It was our first day in Rome, and both Adrian and I were overwhelmed by the city’s chaos, noise, dust, and busyness. I’m not sure what we expected from Rome, but what it revealed to us on that first day had put us both on edge. We snapped at each other whenever our patience wore thin, which was happening a lot that day. In the afternoon, I had arranged for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. I think we were both relieved to get off the frenetic streets of Rome and into the storied walls of the Vatican.

We began to relax a bit once we were inside. We enjoyed the many beautiful and ancient paintings, murals, frescos, and statuary on display inside the museum. We began to get a sense of the way Rome’s history had, for almost two millennia, been interwoven with the history of the Church. Italy didn’t exist until more recently, and back then the Church itself was a military power to be reckoned with. When Michelangelo at first refused the Pope’s request to return from his home city of Florence to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, the Pope threatened to lay military siege to Florence and compel him to return by force.

I liked imagining the stormy relationship between those two mighty men, the world's most powerful religious leader and the world's most powerful artist. Michelangelo yielded to the Pope’s request to paint the Sistine Chapel, but it was a mark of his own status as the world’s most famous and powerful artist that he could get away with painting many nude scenes on the ceiling of the holiest chapel in Christianity, including one panel that shows God’s back side and His uncovered butt cheeks. What other artist would have dared to paint God’s back side, let alone His glutes, and survived with his head still attached to his body?

Perhaps he survived because the Pope still needed more from him: designing and building St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest cathedral in all of Christianity, with its massive dome that dominates the Roman skyline. Because of its placement within the Vatican state and the square projection of the front portion of the cathedral which blocks the view of the dome from the square, Michelangelo’s work is best appreciated either from elsewhere in Rome, at a distance, or from inside the Basilica itself, where one stands directly beneath Michelangelo’s architectural work in all its majesty. (Is there anything this man could not do perfectly? Sculptor, painter, architect, and unrivaled master of every form? How is that humanly possible?)

That brings me to this photo, and to the moment it depicts. The rest of our Vatican tour, including the Sistine Chapel, had been impressive and memorable, but relatively devoid of emotion. Which makes what I am feeling in this photo all the more difficult to explain. The moment our tour group rounded the corner and walked through the doorway into the interior space of St. Peter’s Basilica, a deep emotional current seized control of me, and held me in its grip for the next 20 minutes. My jaw gaped, and I was surprised to find a steady stream of tears rolling down my face. The words of our tour guide coming over the earphones faded into the background, along with the presence of hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims around me. I simply stared up at the dome and the ceiling of the cathedral with dumbstruck awe, overwhelmed by a flood of emotion I could not name or explain. A gravitational force pulled me towards the center of the cathedral, and I wandered away from our tour group, making my way towards the space beneath the dome. I must have looked a sight, this lone man slowly ambling forward, staring up with tears streaming down his face, seemingly lost in a trance. Adrian took this photo of me from behind, as he was watching me and sensed I was “having a moment.”

I am at a loss to explain what it was that I felt in that moment, what prompted my tears to flow for 20 minutes and my mind to go as blank and silent as if I had been struck by a hammer. I am not a Catholic or a Christian, but if I were, perhaps I might call it something like being touched by the Holy Spirit or sensing the presence of God. As someone who looks at things from more of a Buddhist point of view, my thinking mind — when it eventually kicked in again — began to chatter about past lives: I’ve stood here before, I was a priest, yada yada yada. But that’s all just chatter, the mind’s feeble attempts to manufacture explanations for a powerful experience that is perhaps best left unexplained. And that’s just what the thinking mind does: it sullies the purity of experience with all its conceptual elaborations. Any attempt at explanation pales next to the experience, just as any logical explanation of musical technique fails to convey even one iota of the actual experience of listening to music.

Among the hundreds of other tourists and pilgrims inside St. Peter’s Basilica that day, I didn’t see anyone else stumbling forward with tears streaming down their faces. I was the only one. Whatever it was that I experienced, it was uniquely directed to me in those moments. I didn’t expect this experience, or ask for it: dumbstruck, overwhelmed with shock and awe, and crying tears of gratitude. For 20 minutes, I glimpsed a form of sheer majesty that shattered the walls of my ego and left me utterly exposed and raw; and in that empty space, with my heart torn open and my chattering mind silenced, I had a wordless intuition of the presence on earth, expressed within the form of what man hath wrought, of something that I can only characterize, with respect to what I felt, as divine.