Can you believe it? We’re already kicking off season two of the Mindfulness Off the Cushion podcast - and we’re thrilled to announce that we’ll be joined by a special guest for the entirety of the season.
To briefly revisit, the mission of our podcast is to provide pragmatic, concise, and practical information for everyday folks who are looking for tools to manage the stress and anxiety of life. We apply mindfulness as a skillset that anyone can learn and in turn, apply in their own lives, to drive this mission forward. Ideally, we aim to do so with a bit of the clarity and wisdom that comes from putting this thing called mindfulness into practice - which is exactly why we think you’ll find our special guest to be a very welcome addition to the podcast.
So, who is this mystery guest? Allow us to introduce you to Dr. Richard Sears. We’ll take some time in this episode recap to get acquainted, and to let Dr. Sears dig into some of the richly layered life experiences that have led him to become a major contributor to the modern day mindfulness movement.
The Work is Never Done
Before jumping into the heart of the interview with Dr. Sears, Lance takes the opportunity to ask Claudio what, for him, is a particularly salient moment from initial conversations with Dr. Sears. For Claudio, it all distills down to this - “the work is never done, and then you die.”
The point of this off the cuff remark? While we’ll delve deeper below, the essence of what Dr. Sears is saying here is not meant to be glib or dark. Rather, it's to remind us that, as human beings, life is temporary. The work of living, of working on ourselves, is all that we have - how will we make
the best of it? If there’s an answer, it likely lies less in the ‘what’ we are working on, and more in the ‘how’ we continually bring our awareness to that work.
Academic and Professional Experiences
Dr. Sears' own life work revolves in large part around a love of learning. Recognizing a desire to balance the school of life, if you will, alongside a more formal academic path, Dr. Sears pursued his doctorate at Wright State University and became board certified as a clinical psychologist. While paying his way through his doctoral studies via an assistantship, Dr. Sears also obtained his MBA, allowing a unique perspective from which to view
both clinical psychology and business. Where the business world often seemed to be lacking in understanding of human psychology and motivation, the clinical psychology field often lacked a thorough grasp on systems. Dr. Sears sought to bridge these gaps in the work of his own life via direct experience - while also taking on a doctorate in Buddhist Studies at Buddha Dharma University.
Dr. Sears’ motivation in achieving such a rigorous academic background stemmed from the necessity to earn a living at his chosen vocation - teaching mindfulness and meditation - while also desiring to help more people in a research driven, demonstrably beneficial way. While teaching at a martial arts school early in his career, Dr. Sears recalls a distinct feeling of being less than adequately equipped. His students would frequently confide in him with their life problems - yet not only did he feel ill equipped to help them, but also unable to transform his desire to help into a viable business. From this gap sprung decades of education, research, teaching, and clinical and personal practice and in the mindfulness space. As one of Dr. Sears’ Zen teachers would remind him, first he had to wake up and do the work himself - only then could he really help anyone else.
Dr. Sears also recounts being part of the first team to do brain scans on children participating in mindfulness based cognitive therapy as being a particularly salient moment in his career. Not only was he able to witness positive changes in the children's behavior and moods, but he was able to record demonstrable changes in their brain functioning. This meeting point between helping others and sating intellectual curiosity with research-backed approaches really encapsulates the motivations driving much of Dr. Sears’ life work. Today, Dr. Sears serves as a core faculty member of the PsyD Program in Clinical Psychology at Union Institute and University, where he is also Director of the Center for Clinical Mindfulness and Meditation.
Mindfulness and Martial Arts
When asked whether his mindfulness practice informs his clinical work or his clinical work informs his mindfulness practice, Dr. Sears reached back to childhood dreams many of us can probably relate to. What did a young Richard Sears want to be when he grew up? A ninja. A smattering of martial arts movies and books by Richard K. Hayes inspired our special guest in a deep and lasting way. Hayes is an American martial artist, founder of To-Shin Do, and writer on Ninjutsu history and tradition. Literally following in his footsteps, Dr. Sears eventually earned his sixth degree black belt in To-Shin Do/Ninjutsu under the tutelage of Hayes - an accomplishment young Richard Sears would surely have approved of.
As both Richards would likely wish to remind us, ninjas are real. Ninja warriors are not defined by their physical prowess, however. A warrior is someone who engages with the world, facing the truths and challenges of reality rather than retreating from them. If this sounds anything at all like a mindfulness practice to you, then you’re on the right track.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
Over the course of our introductory interview with Dr. Sears, we were undeniably impressed with the breadth and variety of his accomplishments. Writing fourteen books, for example, is certainly no small feat. In one of these books, Dr. Sears recounts the incredible opportunity he had to serve as the Dalai Lama’s bodyguard.
For a short period of time, Sears’ martial arts teacher, Hayes, invited him to join in serving as security attachment during one of the Dalai Lama’s visits to the US. Sears describes the Dalai Lama’s extraordinary playfulness of mind, a kind of levity that could only come from living a very serious spiritual life as exiled leader of the Tibetan people. Tibet has seen decades of cultural genocide and suffering at the hands of the Chinese government. When Hayes remarked upon how the DL was able to go on teaching compassion to all, even perpetrators of great harm, the Dalai Lama summed up a warrior spirit simply: Everyone loves to hear about compassion. Not everyone likes to hear the truth.
Back to the Cushion
Dr. Sears credits mindfulness with helping him to ease his relationship with anxiety, while also positioning his stance carefully for the upcoming season. In a nutshell? Mindfulness, while a tool for calm and ease, is not only about being calm and collected on the cushion. There is a time for practicing formally, on the cushion, which he likens to regular exercise’s importance to developing our underused muscles. Yet there also comes a time in which the practitioner recognizes that their practice should not be any different from any other part of life. In other words? We should aim to practice on the cushion so that we can take that practice with us back off the cushion, and into whatever challenges or difficult truths life throws our way.
We also delve deep into teasing apart definitions of meditation versus mindfulness, which if you’ve listened to season one, you already know we’re fond of doing. Dr. Sears is careful to identify meditation as a set of particular, informed practices, whereas mindfulness is a more general quality of awareness. This quality of awareness may be carried in and through different meditation practices, and should also ideally be present in our non-meditating moments of life. We are not able to pay this kind of attention at all times, of course - we all go into autopilot more times than we can count in a day. The point is to draw the attention back, back to the present, by just noticing instants in which our minds wander off.
Our attention muscles will strengthen with practice, with intention, and with what Dr. Sears refers to as curiosity for our thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the present moment. This type of curiosity isn’t curiosity in the sense of analyzing or interrogating our feelings. Rather it's about holding some space for them, like you would out of kindness and curiosity for another person, or maybe a houseplant or pet.
Dr. Sears is generous and clear in helping to ground us in the possibility of this attentional space by providing plenty of prompts and questions throughout our conversation, but we’ll leave you to listen and experience that space for yourself.
If you find yourself wandering, anxious or just seemingly too busy to hold space, then we’ll leave you with this: “the feeling of being busy only comes when you're thinking about what you're not doing.”
Hold that for a minute.
What are you actually doing, right now? Lean into that. Mindfulness is an active, dynamic state - and you can always come into it, even right now.
PS: Dr. Sears leads a special guided meditation, as a bonus for our listeners, so be sure to tune in and subscribe for much more of season two with Mindfulness off the Cushion.
Here's a link to this episode: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1842845/10163662
And here is the companion guided meditation, Letting Go of the Feeling of Busyness, from Dr. Sears: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1842845/10183969