Tom McCook of Center of Balance: How To Develop Mindfulness During Stressful Or Uncertain Times
An Interview with Candice Georgiadis
Be an intentional listener. Just listening to someone with your full attention and presence and refraining from quickly giving advice is incredibly helpful and supportive. Stay present in your own body with an open heart and mind and just be with them.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom McCook.
Tom is the Founder & Co-owner of Center of Balance, a premier Pilates, Franklin Method, Physical Therapy, Education and Wellness Center in Mountain View, Ca. Tom’s mission is to assist people in become the best version of themselves through mindful movement, education and awareness practices to serve a better world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I grew up in a large family of 12 kids, with 8 brothers and 3 sisters. I’m the youngest and was always fascinated and attracted to movement and exercise, especially watching someone move with grace and athletic skill. I began working out at 11 years old and was training the neighborhood kids in a home gym I had set up. I didn’t know at the time that this would be the direction of my career. I was the night manager of Gold’s Gym in the mid 80’s and attending college during the day. This was at the beginning of the profession of “fitness trainers”. I spend time observing the way people generally worked out and saw there was a lot of room for support and improvement. I opened my own business in 1985 and had a full schedule in 3 months. This began my journey of opening to both ancient and contemporary ways to improve health and fitness. The years that followed have been filled with ongoing learning in bodytherapy & massage, Pilates, Anatomy and Biomechanics, The Franklin Method, Yoga, Somatics, Life Coaching, and Meditation. Since 1997 with my wife Karen demoor, we own a premier Pilates, Physical therapy and Wellness and education center in Mountainview, CA. call Center of Balance.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I began my career in Fitness training in the mid-eighties. I was 4 years into operating my business, when I got the opportunity to go to a Shiatsu demonstration in Palo Alto, CA. where I was living at the time. I had never had a massage and fortunately got to be the guinea pig for the demonstration. The teacher, who was trained in Japan was very skilled practitioner and the session was life changing experience for me. I had no experience or awareness at the time how restorative, balancing and transformational working “through the body” instead of just “on the body” as we do in traditional exercise could be. My career was completely changed from that moment. I took his yearlong training and began my journey of what was possible to learn in supporting health and wellness through bodywork, movement trainings in the mind/ body field in the years to come. As a result of that experience, the very next year a attended another yearlong training in Somatics. ( a Greek word than means our life in it’s wholeness, mind, body and spirit). I met my mentor Richard Heckler PhD & the late Robert Hall MD who are the founders of the Lomi School and now the Strozzi Institute of Somatic Coaching and leadership. This is where I learned about the value of mindfulness and began a meditation practice in 1990, which I’m forever grateful for.
In 2000 I got the opportunity to go to the Sydney Olympics with the women’s swim team as part of there conditioning staff. I was working daily with 2 of the athletes, Jenny Thompson and Misty Hyman. Both won gold medals and Jenny is one of 3 Olympic swimmers who have won 12 Gold medals each. I worked with all 3 including Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin who I worked with 2 x a week for 8 years and 3 Olympics. Working with these amazing individuals was incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. To be a part of their success was amazing.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
See each person that joins your culture as an asset. Invest the time to get to know each person on your team and cultivate an open, supportive environment. Promote a “growth mindset” of learning and improving together over being punitive for mistakes or challenges. Our intention in our business is relationship over content. Create a culture that supports each employee’s well-being, development, and value as an important part of the team. Be the model of presence and behavior you expect for your culture. You need to be committed to walking your talk otherwise your incongruent. At our studio, we’ve held “staff workouts” every week since the beginning in 1997. This is a time just for the staff to connect, train together, share challenges openly and create a connected culture. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made in all the years of owning our business.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Man’s Search for Meaning By Victor Frankl
This book was recommended to me during a Life Coaching course I was attending. It’s a remarkable book where Frankl writes about survived the concentrations camps of World War 2, the horrible conditions and atrocities he was subject to and what he observed as being vital to surviving through such dire conditions. He created his own brand of Therapy after the war called Logo Therapy. Logo therapy is based on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find a meaning in life. For me this inspired me to see even greater satisfaction and meaning in helping others live healthier lives.
Second Choice, The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle
This book is a great example of a very approachable book giving insight on how being mindful and present creates the conditions for us to accept life as it is and ourselves as we are. This is also what becomes possible through a regular meditation practice. Inner peace, self -knowing, practical wisdom and self-compassion
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Mindfulness involves bringing your attention to what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without judgement or interpretation. You can consider 3 key elements: Becoming aware of what your experiencing, being nonjudgmental and being nonreactive. The goal of mindfulness is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and bodily sensations without judgement. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment.
Being in a state of noticing your thoughts, feelings and sensations from a place of curiosity about your own experience. Our bodies are a resource for wisdom, compassion, and being able to take skillful action.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
When we become mindful, we’re putting a value on being present to our own aliveness and experience moment to moment. As we become more present, there’s a natural self-organizing effect. Here’s a useful thread to consider. Energy flows where attention goes. When we become aware of what we’re experiencing and put our attention on it, we create the opportunity to respond to what we’re noticing. Example: When we become aware that we’re tensing our shoulders and jutting our head forward working on the computer, we have the opportunity to correct our posture and relax our shoulders. We can’t change what we can’t notice and feel. Becoming more mindful is a pre-requisite to being a most mature, responsive selves.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Begin a daily meditation practice! This can be through joining a meditation group in your area or online. There’s also many useful meditation apps available to be guided, which are super helpful when you’re beginning a meditation practice. Insight Timer is one I find really helpful, it has everything from 5 minutes, 10 minutes and more from some of the best meditation teachers around to learn from. The Dalai Lama is known for being asked how much time he meditates each morning and he said: 1 hour and if I have a really challenging day ahead, I meditate for 2 hours! My interpretation of his point being, when you’re fully present, you can be more effective, efficient and on purpose with your daily work and commitments. I sit most mornings and notice a clear difference on the days I sit compared to the ones I don’t. I’m more responsive, resilient and less negatively influenced by the events of the world.
There’s been over 50 years now of science-based research on the benefits of meditation to our health and wellness and the evidence is very positive. It lowers blood pressure, assists in emotional regulation, lowers stress, cultivates resilience and personal responsiveness, and improves perspective. Meditation has been proven to be good medicine.
Literally come into your senses through body tapping. Tapping is a way to enhance your proprioception: Meaning the ability to feel yourself in space and relates to better body movement. This includes improved awareness, releasing tension, better posture, circulation and mood. Stand and tap all sides of each arm, the front of the torso, the hips, all sides of the legs, the lower back, the skull, face and neck. Tapping doesn’t need to be aggressive, lite tapping is recommended. This is a great 30 second to 2-minute break that brings you into the body through the senses and into the present moment. I tap before meditation and as part of the warm-up in my Pilates Mat classes I teach on Tuesday and Thursday at noon online.
Start a gratitude practice of writing down 3 things every day that your grateful for. Preferably in the morning to have a positive effect on the day ahead. These can be as simple as remembering a smile from a child or morning cup of tea to a significant accomplishment. Take 30 seconds to 1 minute to feel and experience each one as fully as possible. This is a practice of training our nervous systems to take in the good and to remember that we have a say in our own wellness!
Define for yourself a few things that help you feel more resilient? For me it’s taking a walk-in nature every day. Another go to for me is whenever I’ve been sitting for a stretch of time, getting up and doing 3–5 minutes of movement. Planning these selfcare breaks into your day and weekly schedule as part of your wellness practice are incredibly value, easily accessible and effective!
Pick an activity you do daily and set the intention to do it mindfully 1x a day or several times a week. Examples: For me, I find applying this practice to doing the dishes very helpful. I focus on aligning my posture, relaxing my shoulders, centering the weigh evenly on my feet and unlocking the knees. I become grounded, present and efficiently engaged in this simple act. My focus throughout the time of doing the dishes is to be fully present with the task and engaged in the experience. Doing the dishes has become a very grounding, pleasant experience.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Be an intentional listener. Just listening to someone with your full attention and presence and refraining from quickly giving advice is incredibly helpful and supportive. Stay present in your own body with an open heart and mind and just be with them. Here are practical steps to be a better listening and offering valuable support. Here’s a practical way to be effectively offer support.
Here’s an Algorithm for Caring. It has six steps:
a. Listen = to listen with an open or beginner’s mind to what other people are saying with a focus on what they are listening for from you. This means having no agenda other than to truly get where they’re coming from and listening for when they are talking to you. You demonstrate this by hearing them out rather than interrupting them or changing the subject midstream.
b. Consider = to fully take in what they are saying. You demonstrate this especially by noticing emotionally charged words or increased intensity and asking them to say more about those.
c. Empathize = to try to understand what they’re feeling underneath what they’re saying. You demonstrate this by saying: “I can understand how that must have been/is/was ________ (frustrating/upsetting/angering/disappointing/exciting/etc.)
d. Show Compassion = this goes beyond understanding how they feel to caring about how they feel by going deeper and then responding compassionately by saying, “How (frustrating/upsetting/angering/disappointing/exciting, etc.) was that for you?” Let them answer and then say, “That sounds awful/must have been hard/etc.”
e. Invite and allow = you demonstrate this by pausing for two seconds after they express that and saying, “What does that all mean to you and what going forward if anything did or do you want to do because of that?”
f. Serve = you demonstrate this by asking, “How can I help you with that?”
This may seem artificial and awkward, but that is because we rarely and don’t naturally do it and almost never have it coming our way from others. However, with practice it will become more natural, more rewarding and then perhaps together we can all begin to heal the world, one caring conversation at a time. ( From the Book “Just Listen” from Mark Goulston)
Take a walk with them to help move their energy and connect with a friend which is a practical and effective way to shift their mood, feel supported and be engaged in relationship.
Encourage them to take a movement class. This can be a Yoga class, Pilates or Tai Chi and can be done online or in person. If possible, take the class with them to help them follow through and do something with you that’s about wellness.
Have conversations about wellness instead of just what’s wrong or missing in the world. The news, Covid and the many world challenges as the ongoing discussion can leave our nervous system and mind in an anxious, tense, distracted state. Discuss with them what would be useful for them to learn, do and practice on a regular basis to support they’re wellness. Share with them what you’ve discovered as helpful for you to open the conversation. Begin with just listening and then share your experience.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Begin a regular exercise program that includes mindful movement. I recommend taking either private lessons or classes in Pilates, The Franklin Method, Yoga, Feldenkrais and Tai Chi . These are all very useful and practical ways to become more present, limber & strong, confident, internally calm and mindful through movement.
For iPhone users: Grey Scale: To change the enticement of being on the phone much more than is good for our well-being, change your phone settings to “Grey Scale” which can be found in settings under accessibility. The front screen of the phone will become a dull grey and will assist in spending less time on the phone by making the colors less enticing to our brain.
Create a daily practice of meditation using an app. ( Insight Timer, Head Space are a few good options) or find a local meditation center you can take weekly class in community either online or in person. If just beginning, start with a manageable amount of time (5–10 minutes a day) and make it a part of your schedule. Do it with a friend or partner.
The Wim Hof Method: ( https://www.wimhofmethod.com/practice-the-method#learn-more) It’s a practical way to become happier, healthier and stronger through a daily breathing practice and cold therapy that has been scientifically proven to be effective. I’ve been doing it every morning for almost 2 years and really love it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I’ve been teaching Teacher Trainings, workshops, co-running a business and being a mentor for the past 20+ years. I’ve learned an important part of our evolutionary biology is that we’re all scanning our environments for safety, belonging and dignity (that we’re valued). The importance of putting a value on creating those conditions as a baseline for all to prosper has been one of the most important things I learned from one of my main mentors, Richard Heckler PhD. The founder of the Strozzi Institute of Somatic Coaching and leadership. In one of the early trainings I attended with him over 30 years ago, he made the statement that has stayed with me and I’m grateful for to this day. “Respect in not negotiable”. People don’t need to earn your respect, it’s a starting point that we all need to bring to the table to do our part to create a healthy environment at work, home and in the world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
For each business and community to have a scheduled time each week or multiple times a week for people to gather and do a sharing circle along with movement and or meditation together.
It would be best if the circles are not too large, preferably a max of 20 or less and you begin with 5–10 minutes of movement, a few minutes of meditation and then take 30 seconds-2 minutes each to share how you’re doing. Whoever is talking has the floor and no one interrupts. It can be helpful to use a “talking stick”, an object the person speaking holds while talking and then passes it to the next person.
It’s part of MEA, The Modern Elder Academy, a mid-life wisdom school in Pescadero, Mexico. I have the good fortune of being a guest faculty member of MEA, founded by Chip Connelly. The morning circle is an important part of the daily curriculum that builds trust and connection as each participant shares where they are in their lives. It’s an amazing practice of learning to share out loud how you’re doing without planning beforehand or trying to impress, just sharing what’s relevant and true for you in the moment. It’s both healing, connecting and life affirming. It’s also not about giving advice, just the practice of listening and giving each other our attention. When we really listen and begin to understand each other better, we can be more compassionate and empathic with each other.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.