Studies show that eight in 10 Americans experience some degree of stress in their daily lives and have a hard time relaxing their bodies and calming their minds, which puts them at great risk for illness. Of the many offerings aimed at fighting stress, from yoga to exercise to meditation, mindfulness meditation has become the hottest commodity in the wellness space.
We spoke to Manoj Dias, voted 1 meditation teacher to follow in 2022 in USA today, Co-founder of Open, a modern meditation studio based in California, Author (Still Together ) & Father to his daughter, Taylah. Through mindfulness & meditation, Manoj has helped thousands of people around the globe trade stress and overwhelm for pause, so that they can live fearlessly in honor of a happier, more meaningful life. Manoj talks to us about his inspiration for his meditation studio Open and how it differs from other studio’s out there, explains to us why an awareness practice can take us all away from our engraved negativity bias, and shares how his own personal practice has been reflected in the way he has raised his daughter.
What moments in your life have led you up to where you are today, with Open and all your other creative endeavors?
There have been some pivotal moments in my life that have turned out to be serendipitousonly in retrospect. I recall stumbling into a Buddhist meditation & yoga center on the recommendation of a friend when I was very ill, and my health was bad. I would end up meeting my first meditation teacher who completely transformed the way I viewed myself and the world around me. Preceding that was the panic attack I had at work when I was a marketing director for one of the top financial firms in Australia. My future changed that moment and I never would have thought I would end up becoming a meditation teacher and launching multiple businesses in this field. The moment my daughter came into this worldwas also a pivotal moment in my life, we had her when her mother and I were so young - but it's ingrained in me a sense of care and compassion that only grew as she did, and my meditation practice evolved.
What intentions did you have with Open, that was not already offered in the space of wellness?
Open offers us a chance to reliably come into contact with presence and connection, each and every time. I grew up with teachers that didn’t look like me or understand the experience I was having in this body. With Open we’re attempting to marry philosophy with science, what can the Buddhist cannon teach us about navigating emotions? What does the scientific research have to tell us about down regulating our nervous system with our breath? We believe that there are now more ways to enter into mindfulness - through sounds, music, connection, breath and somatic movement — Open is our expression of that, both online through the app and offline. Through our live experiences.
How do you define presence and what does this truly feel like?
Presence feels spacious. We’re in our bodies not lost in thoughts and ideas. Presence doesn’t always feel good, but it is liberating. This means we’re not running away from unpleasant feelings or experiences - we can hold the weight of our full human experience. It emboldens us.
Why is it so important to develop an awareness practice?
A teacher once told me that we can’t change what we can’t see - that’s a pretty good reason to become more aware. But awareness also helps us to see the goodness that exists in the world and within us. We have an ingrained negativity bias that means we’re hard wired to see what’s wrong or what could go wrong in this world, therefore being more aware allows us to also take in what’s positive.
Science is now telling us that Meditation actually changes the grey matter in our brains, explain how this works and what we can experience from this change.
In simplistic terms, we used to believe that our brains were given to us at birth, and they never really changed (just got older.) This is untrue, they actually atrophy after the age of 21 but they also change and adapt to our repeated experiences. This is referred to as neural plasticity (or neuroplasticity) This is done by forming new neural pathways or connections as we have new experiences and learn new information. Therefore, what we expose our minds to repeatedly essentially becomes what our minds are hardwired to experience. If we stress ourselves out daily and distracted and irritable - we’ll see and experience more of that. Inversely, if we expose our minds to compassion and presence, we’ll experience more moments of that. So, the more moments we’re mindful and grateful - the more moments we have to be mindful and grateful for.
If we are newly coming into a meditation practice, being still can be overwhelming with emotion for some. Why shouldn't we label emotions good or bad, and how do we get past this overwhelming scary feeling?
We’ve never really been taught how to deal with emotions. Especially those we have been taught to label as “bad” like anger, jealousy, and anxiety. The truth is that emotions are just energy, we can learn to harness the power of these states to get things done, take action and be a force for positive change. We first have to learn to feel these emotions which is scary. If you are someone that’s overwhelmed by a particular emotion, I recommend connecting with a reputable meditation teacher or studio, learning the basics of practice and being curious about the emotions. We can learn to feel emotions in the body without letting the story about the emotion ruin our day.
How can our Breath, and breathing practice better connect us with ourselves?
Our breath is the first thing we connect to in the natural world, it’s literally sustaining our life. It’s also remarkably powerful in helping us regulate our physiological states throughout the day. Knowing how to up and down regulate our nervous system is helpful in work, study and the moments in between. Slow breathing through the nose and into the belly is one of the quickest ways to calm an anxious moment.
How Does Your Personal Practice Reflect How You are as a father raising your daughter?
Having my daughter at a very young age fundamentally changed the way I perceived life. You intrinsically begin to live for another person that is relying on you for everything. This gives an added layer of motivation to the work you do on yourself. Your mental and physical health are no longer just benefitting you - it’s benefiting others. The truth is applicable more broadly, your co-workers, partners, friends, and strangers all benefit from your ability to be a grounded human. I make sure I practice for an hour a day (you don’t need this much time - 10-15m is enough) morning and evening. I work with connecting to my physical body through an awareness practice, and also develop concentration and tranquility through a breath awareness practice called shamatha.
What Is some of the best advice you have ever received?
Everything changes - by the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi, best sums up our worldly existence. Our feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams, body, and financial situations change. Becoming familiar with this helps us suffer less when things and people change and leave us.
Where in this life do you find your inspiration?
Everyday moments. Art, dance, smiles and people’s stories of hopes and dreams. The world is a wonderful place if you’re a tiny bit curious.
Why are wellness rituals so important and what are yours personally?
My mind is naturally very busy, routines and rituals help ground me in the present moment and offer me structure. My wellness routines are fairly simple - I wake up in the morning, meditate for 30-45mins, walk in the sun for 15mins, move my body for 30 mins and take probiotics. I try not to sit for too long throughout the day so try to get 10k steps in. I also try to eat whole foods as often as I can.
We are all on the path to enlightenment. Why Is enlightenment not a destination, but rather a state of consciousness?
I think we have to define what enlightenment means to us. For some of us it’s to be free from anxiety or depression, for others it could be to achieve all our dreams. I focus less on getting somewhere and more on being. At this moment am I really here having this conversation with this person? Am I really here playing with my child? Am I here doing what I love? If the answer is yes to all of them, then defining it is less important than appreciating it.
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