Meditating to Center: Meet Tony Pham

April 5, 2021

Tony Pham started meditating in 2010 during a difficult time when he began to question all the stories people told him about who he was supposed to be. He has sat in multiple 10-day silent meditation retreats. Over the past five years, he has guided meditation for hundreds of people across North America.

Salonpas sat down with Tony to learn more about how meditation can help us during these turbulent times:

Tell us about your background and how you came to become a meditation instructor.

In 2010, I was feeling burnt out from leading the marketing team at a hyper growth Silicon Valley technology startup. I started asking myself questions like, “Do I want to keep squeezing all aspects of my life around a job as the number one priority?” A friend suggested that I may want to consider a meditation retreat. Even though I had never sat in one before, I decided to try it. That first experience was a 10-day Vipassana course as taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. 

Since then, I’ve also sat in additional retreats for a week and longer (at Spirit Rock and other places). Things started with friends asking if I could introduce them to meditation, and I was happy to do so. Over the past five years, I’ve guided meditation for hundreds of people across North America. Whether business professionals, festival goers, and/or spiritual seekers, I’m thankful that I can be of service in helping people to cultivate mindfulness within safer spaces.

I’m a heritage Buddhist and healer that occupies the intersection of queer and BIPOC identities. In terms of training, I graduated from MNDFL’s 300-hour secular meditation teacher program, having received mentorship from B. Anderson and David Perrin. I’m also a current student of Arinna Weisman (Theravada/Vipassana) and Lama Rod Owens (Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism) in addition to participating in the East Bay Meditation Center’s PiTA8 program for social justice. 

Has the pandemic affected people’s meditation practices?

The pandemic has, understandably, raised the level of anxiety and stress for many people. The COVID-19 virus is a huge reminder that we never know what is going to happen next; part of life is uncertainty. With so many routines upended and social distancing encouraged, meditation can help people to feel a sense of grounding by being present in their bodies. I can relate to when people say that it feels harder to sit for extended periods of time with so much worry. I find that, even if for just a little bit, feeling the breath and body helps provide some calm. At the height of the pandemic last year, I thought it was nice that apps like Headspace and Ten Percent Happier provided free subscriptions to New Yorkers, first responders, and others.

What advice would you give to someone who has never meditated but would like to try?

First, I would encourage that person to give themselves credit for wanting to try out meditation. It takes courage to attempt something new. People sometimes have a misconception that meditation means not thinking about anything. Part of being human is having thoughts. Meditation is an opportunity to show kindness, patience, and understanding to ourselves when thoughts inevitably show up. 

There is no requirement that meditation takes place while sitting in a crossed-legged position. You can be standing, sitting in a chair, or laying down. I would advise to choose a posture in which you can comfortably stay still, which may mean sitting up against a wall.

To try out meditation, even for just 5 minutes, I recommend setting a timer (most mobile phones have them) and closing the eyes. Then, feel the support of the ground below and bring gentle attention to each breath, in and out. If it helps, count each exhale from 1 to 10 and then backwards from 10 to 1 until the timer rings. 

How can meditation help ease the anxieties of people aged 50+ who may not have meditated before?

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Mass General and Harvard Medical School conducted research on the frontal cortex of the brain. Her studies showed that, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators displayed the same amount of gray matter as those half their age. As the frontal cortex is linked with working memory, meditation can help people 50+ with boosting their “brain power.” 

In subsequent studies, Doctor Lazar has found that meditation is correlated with increased self-compassion, which is helpful when working with anxiety and fear. Starting on June 1, 2021, I’ll be teaching an 8-week course (meeting once a week on Tuesdays) called Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Each CCT class will include accessible meditation practices, personal investigation, space for sharing, and compassion exercises. For more information and to register, please visit the Tibet House USA program page.

Please share an experience about how meditation positively affected someone you have worked with.

When I first moved to New York City a couple of years ago, I facilitated an outdoor sunset meditation. After the 30-minute group session ended, a woman who appeared in her 40s or 50s and worked at a large company shared that she had been under a lot of stress related to her job, family, etc. She said that there were always “a million thoughts” running around in her head. By meditating with me, she was able to quiet her mind. She thanked me because she hadn’t felt that peaceful in a long time. It was gratifying to hear that I assisted her with finding some ease. 

Tell us about a typical day in your life; from when you arise to when you retire.

I find that a simple meditation ritual with breathing to awaken into my body makes a positive impact on the day. After waking to my body’s natural rhythm or the sound of an alarm, I choose to lay in bed for a couple of minutes to take some deep breaths. By bringing mindfulness to feeling my breath move in my body, I can be present in the moment before getting caught up in the “to do’s” of the day. I feel gratitude for the beginning of a new day and the infinite possibilities that come along with it. 

After performing my morning ablutions, I’ll prepare some herbal tea while starting to stretch and bring my body into some slow movements. Then, I meditate for anywhere between 10 minutes – 1 hour in a dedicated part of my apartment, near the altar where there are cozy cushions. 

At this point, I’ll check my emails and see if there is anything urgent that requires a response. In addition to instructing meditation & compassion, serving as a death doula, and holding sacred spaces, I lead marketing for a blockchain/crypto business. 

During lunch time, I’ll usually take a livestream fitness class like HIIT or yoga, followed by making a vegetable and fruit smoothie for myself.

In the afternoon, it tends to be a combination of marketing work and meditation. I’m thankful that I have a fairly flexible schedule that I can structure to my needs as long as I meet my commitments. A study by the Draugiem Group found that, to optimize efficiency and productivity, a ratio of working for an hour and then taking a 15-minute break yielded positive results. I sometimes take a walk around my neighborhood to get some fresh air.

My evenings consist of dinner along with one or more of the following activities: checking in with mindfulness peers, taking a development workshop on compassion, listening to a dharma talk, reading a book, participating in a conversation about social justice, attending a meeting with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (I serve on the board of directors), chatting with a friend, browsing the news, watching a streaming show, cleaning up the apartment, writing in my journal and/or another meditation (that likely has a focus like contemplation or compassion vs. my morning sit).

I welcome the Salonpas community to learn more about me on my website at tonyopham.com. People are welcome to contact me with questions, download a free audio recording of one of my guided meditations or schedule a private 1×1 meditation session with me. I also post to Instagram and Twitter.