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Memoir

“I started hosting daily meditation sessions on YouTube”: How an assistant professor at U of T is helping himself (and his subscribers) get through Covid

By John Vervaeke| Photography by Erin Leydon
“I started hosting daily meditation sessions on YouTube”: How an assistant professor at U of T is helping himself (and his subscribers) get through Covid

John Vervaeke has been meditating for 30 years and teaching meditation for 20. When the pandemic hit, he moved his sessions online. Here, he talks about how to silence “monkey mind” and stay connected in a time of separation.

—As told to Liza Agrba


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“I’m an assistant professor and the director of the cognitive science program at the University of Toronto. My work focuses on what I’ve called the meaning crisis: that the processes that give you the capacity to adapt to a changing world are also those that make you susceptible to self-deception. They undermine your connections to the world and other people. My solution to this is a system that incorporates teachings from a number of wisdom traditions, like tai chi chuan, Vipassana meditation and Stoic practices. They afford me cognitive flexibility: in other words, the ability to adapt to complex, novel and uncertain situations. Which, of course, is what we’re all dealing with during the pandemic.

“Covid has put our connections at risk. We need to be in the same space and breathe the same air as other people. We need to share meals. We need to share dwellings. It’s affected some of the relationships that matter most to me, with my students, my friends and my colleagues.

“In April, I started livestreaming a daily meditation practice on YouTube called 'Meditating With John Vervaeke.’ I teach practices from various wisdom traditions, how to build on them, and how to build a community around them. I live in an apartment with my son, and I’ve basically turned it into a studio. I’ve replaced a blackboard with a whiteboard, got my own camera and figured out how to do the lighting. I can’t see reactions, so I have to train my imagination to fill in that hole and get that flow going. That’s essential for this type of teaching, because I’m not just trying to give people information; I’m trying to draw them into a process. The very thing I’m teaching—cognitive flexibility—is helping me teach.

“People feel their lives are shrinking. They feel disconnected. Everything seems surreal to them. And what these practices do is give them the tools to recover the sense of realness we’re all craving right now, the sense of connection, the sense of belonging, the sense of place. One of the practices I have people do is address inner chatter, or monkey mind, when they’re trying to meditate. You teach them to step back and look at their thinking, rather than do the thinking.

“When I don’t do my practices, even for a day, I can feel it. It’s like missing a loved one. And that metaphor works both ways, because when I cultivate my practices, it’s like creating a best friend who accompanies me throughout the day. These practices give you an opportunity to befriend yourself.”

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