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Reaching the Shores of Sanity With Ralph De La Rosa

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When therapist and NYC meditation teacher Ralph De La Rosa was eight years old, he wanted three things: He wanted to be Michael Jackson, he wanted to know the truth and he wanted to die. Heavy start, much? But as one of the most sought-after and adored wellness practitioners in New York, his technique teaches others methods on how to use their painful past to heal themselves.

From the start, De La Rosa had plenty of material to pull from: Depression brought on by his father abandoning his family was paired with bullying at school since the young seeker didn’t quite fit gender norms. In that landscape, he couldn’t understand how to navigate and integrate into the same society that was judging and terrorizing him. Process that as a kid!

With his depression untreated for 20 long years, he sought out alternate methods of coping. This wheeled to the far expanses of a drug addiction that ended in residential treatment. It also, however, led the witty and wry instructor to spirituality. Starting with his connection to the Southern Baptist community he grew up in, he later found Eastern mysticism, ranging from being a Hare Krishna monk to traveling with the hugging saint, Amma.

Finally, he found Dharma Punx and insight meditation, a more grounded spiritual practice that he could sink his teeth into—and stick with. The study brought him a chance to have a relationship with himself, his breath, his mind and immediate situation. Add therapy and yoga to the mix, and De La Rosa had finally found his helpful trifecta. He shares his journey and awesomely useful, thoughtful findings below.

SBS: Not only are you a super popular meditation teacher; you’re also a therapist! How did that all come together?

Ralph De La Rosa: Early on, I had decided I was going to die by the time I was 30. I not only wanted it, I thought it would happen naturally, too, given I was so reckless. But when I was 30, I moved to New York. I realized, ‘Hey, I’m not on drugs, and I’m not on meds. I’m good. I can have a life that isn’t so fragmented and tortured!’

It occurred to me that this time is no longer mine. It’s an extra gift, and I want to give back. In fact I wanted to give back the exact things that helped me find the shores of sanity. So without any money, family support or college credits, I decided to become a therapist, meditation instructor and yoga instructor. I decided I’d follow that and do whatever it took. Six years after I started, I graduated with my master’s degrees.

SBS: What are the most popular forms of meditation, and how would you describe them?

RDLR: The top two are mindfulness and transcendental meditation. Those are the ones that have hit the mainstream and that have the most research surrounding them.

Transcendental meditation is a mantra-based meditative practice, and there are other Vedic forms that use mantras, like Hare Krishna. Given that it’s mantra-based, it’s repetitive and rhythmic. We know that induces relaxation, like rocking a baby. That coaxes one into a less stressed out state. Using that method purportedly puts one in a state where your batteries are recharged and everything is refreshed. That’s like turning off the computer for a while when a program doesn’t work.

The one really big difference about mindfulness meditation is that it’s less about a total recharge of the system and more like a flight simulator for rest of your life. Mindfulness says: No matter what your experience is, it doesn’t matter. We’re here to work with whatever our experience is just as it is. That becomes a profound training for the rest of your life.

SBS: Why do you think meditation is having such a big upswing?

RDLR: We do have a kind of interesting synchronistic confluence of elements in the West. For one, we are busier than ever. We’re multitasking our brains out and people are more geared toward self-actualization.

But also as a result of technology, our lives have become difficult to manage and keep up with, as well. Couple that with social evolution that’s moving faster (we’ve only had smart phones for 10 years!) versus biological evolution, which takes generation for genes to mutate. That biological evolution is still very much stuck in a more primitive time. It’s actually geared toward immediate threat like a tribe attacking or an animal approaching. That’s what our stress response is designed to deal with, but we are dealing with multitasking or rude texts, which is far more innocuous when placed in context. So, in the end, our systems go into over drive so easily! People are way more stressed out than they need to be.

At the exact same time, mindfulness is already entering our psychological discourse in the West, and because of the benefits, the corporate world has caught on. The better sleep, the decreased sick days, the better relationships in and at the office, the increased productivity and creativity: There are ripple effects, and that created a phenomenon.

SBS: What are some of the myths and misconceptions about mindfulness meditation?

RDLR: Within the context of mindfulness meditation, some of the myths include thinking it’s all about getting rid of your thoughts and blanking out. If you find that you’re thinking, there’s a misconception then that you ‘can’t do it’ or you’re a failure.

The truth is that brains are like nuclear reactors, and their output is fascinating. You’re not going to stop that just because you sit down and intend to. Working with that and training to come back from distraction over and over again is the core of the practice. That is the activity that benefits come from. It’s the dance of forgetting and remembering. You get distracted and you have to return. It’s like doing push-ups for your brain. So if that happens a hundred times, that’s a hundred push-ups! The more you space out and then come back diligently, the better the meditation.

Then, there’s this idea that meditation is meant to be totally comfortable. If your leg falls asleep or your back starts to ache, people think that’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead, I would say meditation is just like working out: When you feel the burn, that’s when the workout has begun. When the meditation becomes a little challenging and difficult or things start to come up, that’s our chance to strengthen our minds by staying in the game and practicing kindness and acceptance. That’s a profound training if you can stay with your legs asleep, leaving that itch unscratched or sitting with the bad memories of your mom that are popping up. If you can stay put, stay in the center of that and keep reaching for the breath and not lose your cool, that’s a really profound training for when life turns up the heat.

SBS: When trying out a meditation class, what would you look for in a studio and/or teacher?

RDLR: I would look for authenticity. You want somebody who has some sort of lineage, too, whether Buddhist, Hindu or a secular mediation teacher training behind them. That’s not someone who just started making it up. There are lots of people doing that. Ask, ‘Who did this person study with, and where did they come from? How long have they been doing it?’ Unfortunately, there is a lot of bogus spirituality out there.

SBS: What are your suggestions for handling that very first meditation class, especially when it can feel oh-so-intimidating?

RDLR: There’s a Zen tradition analogy that captures it well, I think. It’s about the kind of cup you want to have if you’re going to receive something. There are three cups you don’t want to have: One is full, one is dirty and one has a hole in the bottom.

If it’s full, that’s as if you think you know it all. Perhaps you know what mediation is, and you think you know what your experience is. So then, what can a teacher pour into that cup? Open your mind and forget everything you think you know to be able to receive.

Then there’s the cup with the hole in it. That’s the idea of info coming in one ear and going out the other. That’s about not retaining, not taking it seriously and not seeing it as a special opportunity. This stuff seems simple at face value, but it’s profound and an endless journey. Mindfulness is just the beginning.

Finally, the dirty cup represents someone who has bad intentions or who maybe thinks of practicing meditation just for material gain. Come to meditation with clean intentions.

SBS: How do therapy and meditation work together? What would you say to someone who says they don’t need both?

RDLR: I’ll echo the words of Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, who is also a therapist and dharma teacher: Meditation and therapy don’t do same thing, and they don’t substitute for one another. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin.

Meditation is really good at helping you learn to be present, in the moment and inhabiting your life. It’s also good at teaching us how to let go. But it’s not great at giving us tools to excavate where things come from, where our wounds are and how to heal them. But they teach us how to be in them.

On the other hand, psychology and therapy are great at teaching us what our painful experiences are, what they mean and what our limiting beliefs are. As the Tibetans say, you need two wings to fly.

SBS: What’s one of the precious nuggets of wisdom you’ve learned along your path that you keep with you always?

RDLR: One of the things that led me down the path is when I read of this concept of spiritual activism by Andrew Harvey. The concept is: Follow your heartbreak. If you’re at a loss for the direction to go in, a really good idea is to think about where you’ve been hurt, what’s messed you up and what’s broken your heart, and that’s a great direction to go in. If you’ve healed from something and you go back and try to help people, you have all types of insider knowledge and language, and you’re able to speak to folks in that population.

In that same vein, when you endeavor for a life purpose centered on helping others, something special happens. Before when I was a musician who waited tables, life was limited, and my ideas about direction were few. But when I followed my heartbreak and where I could be of help to others, the opportunities were endless. Now, there are too many trainings I want attend, too many places I want to go. I have to be careful not to work too much. When you make it about others, the entire world opens up.

Ralph’s NYC Favorites:

Healthy Restaurant: Modern Love Brooklyn
Splurge Restaurant: Jackson Diner in Queens
Calming Activity: Taking the Metro North to Bear Mountain
Fun Activity: Live music at Baby’s All Right and Mercury Lounge
Yoga Studios: Jivamukti, Lucent Yoga and New Love City
Apparel: Fleece-lined Puma sweatpants
Resources: The Awakening Body: Somatic Meditation for Discovering our Deepest Life by Reggie Ray, Sit Like a Buddha by Lodro Rinzler and A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield

Ralph’s SBS Mantra: Be Grateful! Gratitude is one of the most nourishing mental states we can experience. We can generate a feeling of gratitude just about any time we're not totally stressed out, and there's always something to be grateful for. It's easy to take things for granted, so personally I like having as many reminders to practice gratitude as possible.