Ralph De La Rosa on Neuroplasticity, Substance Abuse, and Myths about Meditation (#4)

My guest in this episode is Ralph De La Rosa. Ralph is a psychotherapist and meditation teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the creator of The Mindfulness Sessions, a series of meditation classes held in Brooklyn. I got a chance to sit down with Ralph at his home in the charming Greenpoint neighborhood. We spoke about his thoughts on buddhism and his incredible life story extending from his years of drug abuse to the practices that healed him. We also discussed neuroplasticity and the exciting ways in which brain studies are making the benefits of meditation more known in the West.

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NEUROPLASTICITY

I started out by asking Ralph what he means by "meditation from a brain perspective", something I heard him say in a workshop I recently listened to (which you can find on his website). He remarked that there really is no meditation from a "not-brain" perspective.  Recent scientific studies have rather allowed for a new vocabulary to develop around meditation that is more accessible to many Westerners.

Ralph spoke about how, until about thirty years ago, the idea was that the brain developed only until about age five, and that after that you were relatively static. With the discovery of neuroplasticity, this has been challenged, and now we know that the brain is changing and evolving up until the day we die. We have the power to change our brains, based on the conditions and the influences of our lives. 

RALPH'S LIFE

We then dove into the fascinating and inspiring story of Ralph's life. He told me that, when he was young, he wanted three things:

  1. He wanted to know the truth.
  2. He wanted to be Michael Jackson.
  3. He wanted to die.

Ralph grew up in a Southern Baptist community in Southern California. His father disappeared when he was four. He developed a depression when he was eight years old and soon after began thinking about suicide. 

Through his many emotional lows, at a very young age he began to wonder about the meaning of life, of what it was all about, and who, if anyone, was pulling the strings. 

He became a devout Christian at a very young age and spoke about how some of his first deep meditational experiences took place while he was engaged in long hours of prayer. After being verbally and physically abused by his youth pastor, Ralph rebelled, becoming involved then in punk rock, DIY, riot girl, feminism, and animal rights. He speaks about this as an important awakening that still informs his practice today. 

When Ralph first encountered the book Be Here Now (by Ram Dass), he was heartbroken by his first love. He read into the promise of Enlightenment a possible escape from the hardships of his life. Soon after this, at nineteen, he met the Hare Krishnas, who promised him a way out of samsara (the reincarnating cycles of birth and death). He then moved into their ashram in Pacific Beach, California and experienced profound, ecstatic moments of transcendence during his time there.

He became disillusioned with the Hare Krishna path when he heard fellow monks talking negatively about women. Walking away became a painful necessity. 

Soon after, he met Amma, the hugging saint, fell in love and travelled across the country that year with her, from San Francisco to Rhode Island. 

After his time with Amma, he fell into another deep depression and turned to drugs. In retrospect, he realizes that he was looking for experiences and thought that accessing high states of consciousness and staying there was the point. He thought transcendent experiences is what the spiritual life is all about, and drugs are obviously an easy way to access such experiences. He moved from an addiction to spiritual experiences to an addiction to drug-induced experiences. 

His years of partying, playing in bands and hanging out in clubs ultimately led to isolation and heroine. He went to rehab not too soon after finding Dharma Punx, a meditation community in NYC focused a lot on recovery. This is when he first encountered Buddha Dharma and where his meditation practice truly started.  This was what ultimately transformed his life, because this meditation was not based on experiences of transcendence. Just you, your breath, and your mind. No ideas of divinity or philosophies of "getting out" of the body. 

ENLIGHTENMENT

I asked what Ralph thinks about the alienating idea of enlightenment as something "extra", outside myself, that I have to go and get. This implies, according to Ralph, that "I am not enough." Ultimately, the process of awakening should be empowering, and seeing Enlightenment as something outside you is disempowering. Ralph says he doesn't know what Enlightenment is, because he hasn't been there and only speaks from his experience. But whatever it is, "you transcend and include your present experience," in the sense of the old adage, "to be in the world but not of the world."

Ralph invites us to think of the answers not as outside, but inside us.  "The answers are all within the body and the mind. The dharma is in our bodies."  We can only realize this truth through practice.  He quotes Pattabhis Jois, saying, "Before practice, the philosophy is useless. After practice, the philosophy is obvious."

MYTHS OF MEDITATION

We then turned to the myths around meditation. Ralph says the number one myth is related to the idea that thoughts are "bad". As a result, people think, "my mind is too busy. I can't meditate." The myth here says that meditation is about having a blank slate of mind, and that thoughts are "bad". Ralph says that thoughts are our friends, and that the spiritual path is about befriending the process of thinking. The opportunity of meditaiton is to work with the situation of thinking and make friends with that situation. "Thoughts are there to help us strengthen."

He describes three forms of meditation.

  1. Object Meditation: On the breath or another object of focus. 
  2. Cultivating Positivity: This meditation works with the stream of thoughts, cultivating positive thoughts toward oneself and others. Often called Loving Kindness Meditation, this cuts through all of those thoughts and offers others happiness and
  3. Eliminating Negativity: Through healing from our traumas, compassion is cultivated. This meditation seeks to heal trauma, which we all have. The more "unfinished business" we have, the more restless we are, the more wild the mind. Having a busy mind is the body's disaster signal.

Ralph offered that, in some instances, traditional breath-based meditation may not be the best place for a practitioner to start. He recommends rather starting with the body and focusing on deep relaxation techniques. Without the body's relaxation, the mind will remain unwieldy. 

Lastly, Ralph led us through a mind-rewiring practice, in which one cultivates positive thoughts to shift one's neural pathways. He advises doing this practice often, for short periods, but several times per day, in order to experience the deepest shift in our thought-patterns.

TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT RALPH

ralphdelarosa.com

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FROM RALPH

A Path with Heart - Jack Kornfield

Turning the Mind into an Allie - 

Dharmaocean.org - Reggie Rae

The work of Bill Ferguson - Mastery of Life E-Course


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