Stephen McManus is a meditation and yoga teacher, and director of Three Jewels in New York City, a studio which integrates yoga, meditation and Tibetan Buddhism. He was originally introduced to yoga and meditation by his mother as a child, and returned to it as an adult as a way to cope with anxiety and stress. Clay Hamilton interviewed Stephen in autumn 2019.
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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.
My entire life is woven around my spiritual practice. My partner and I run Three Jewels as well as teach there. There is no separation between work life, love life, and meditation life, and somehow we make it work really well. Three Jewels is an “Enlightenment Studio” that teaches yoga, meditation, and Tibetan Buddhism. There are a lot of different types of meditations within Tibetan Buddhism, but lately I have been focusing a lot on opening the heart and cultivating compassion.
How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?
I grew up meditating because of my mom, but I didn’t get serious about it until college when I used it to cope with anxiety. After college I moved to New York City and met Hector Marcel, who introduced me to Tibetan Buddhism. After practicing meditation more seriously for a couple of years, I did the Meditation Teacher Training at Three Jewels to go deeper in my own practice. But, as with anything that you learn, eventually you share it. That’s how I started teaching.
What types of meditations have you studied or practised, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?
I have practiced a lot of vedic meditations growing up and now I practice mostly Buddhist meditations, but they are all the same more or less. They all point to the same thing.
What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?
Connection and compassion. I feel much more connected to others.
What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice?
Tong Len. It’s a Tibetan meditation that means “Giving and Taking”. You take away others suffering and send them love and wisdom.
What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?
Each cycle of breath is a meditation.
How many times and how much time per day do you recommend students to meditate?
Start with 5 minutes every day, then add 1 minute every week.
What do you think about meditation retreats (what form, how long, any advice)? What if someone can’t afford the financial or time commitment of a retreat, do you have any recommendations for them?
They are a must. I wish everyone would do one. Even 1 day of silence can change you. There are options for people that can’t afford them, but I think you should spend the money. We are happy to spend money on our physical health, we should spend more on our mental health.
What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture?
People don’t know what to meditate on. They learn how to sit and focus their minds, but they don’t know what to place their minds on. The Buddha didn’t get enlightened because he was mindful.
Do you have a favourite funny or profound story, koan, parable, or anecdote which helps students understand a concept in meditation or life?
The Pen Thing – a pen is a pen for a human, but a Chew toy for a dog. It’s the same object, but seen two different ways. When the pen is left alone, what is it then? Let’s say it’s neither. It’s a blank screen. Infinite potential. But as soon as the human lays eyes on it, it’s a pen. So things are not themselves. We project onto everything. It’s true for everything, our surroundings, our emotions, ourselves. And we load the projector with our thoughts, speech, and actions. That’s why it’s cool to be kind. And to meditate.
What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?
When I moved to NYC, a friend gave me “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse to read. I had no idea it was about Lord Buddha. Then 3 months later I met Hector, a devout Buddhist. We’ve been together for 7 years now and run Three Jewels. Read Siddhartha, it might change your life.
What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?
There is an entire Buddhist monastic curriculum for free online offered by the Asian Classics Institute. It’s probably the purest translation of the monastic curriculum out there.
Is there anything else you want to explain about your practice or meditation in general, or advice to give?
You should do yoga if you meditate! And you should meditate if you do yoga! They are made for each other.
How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?
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[This interview is an extract. You can read Stephen’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]