Meditation

Meditation

The One Thing You Need to do to Master Any Craft

When you boil it all down, mastering any craft, whether it’s writing, acting, surfing, golf or anything else, comes down to doing one thing: Vigilantly focusing on and mastering the few fundamentals central to that craft. Let me explain with some examples from my life.

I’ve been a serious tennis player since age nine. I played on the junior tennis circuit in the highly competitive Southern California area then played four years of division one, varsity tennis at Princeton. Upon graduation, I took a short, and admittedly failed, stab at playing professionally in Europe.

The fundamentals of tennis

In my quest to master the craft of tennis, I learned early on that I had to focus on the fundamentals of the game. In tennis, that meant a loose, flowing body, constantly moving my feet with small steps and turning my shoulders and bending my knees on groundstrokes and volleys. That’s it. Focusing on those few fundamentals was the key to advancing my game to the highest level.

My wife is learning how to play tennis and I just keep telling her the same thing over and over: be loose, move your feet, turn your shoulders and bend your knees. Over and over and over again.

Writing in Hollywood

In 2001 I moved to Hollywood to pursue my dream of becoming a writer after spending fifteen years in politics. I had some friends who’d been in the business for years and I’d already written a few scripts while working in Washington, DC, but the bottom line is that I was starting at ground zero.

So what did I do? I dove whole hog into learning and mastering the fundamentals of writing, specifically writing for television drama shows.

What were those handful of fundamentals? First, there has to be conflict in every scene. Characters telling each other how much they like and admire each other is as exciting as watching paint dry. Second, stories need to have twists and surprises. Three, stories need to put the show’s main characters in highly dramatic situations that put them under intense pressure.

Aaron Sorkin and the fundamentals of writing

I learned much of this while writing on The West Wing, which was run by Oscar and Emmy Award winning writer Aaron Sorkin. Many people thought the show was just a vehicle for Aaron to advertise his liberal views. Wrong. I saw Aaron time and again eschew political ideology in an episode in furtherance of one thing: making a scene or story as dramatic as it could be. That’s all he cared about. What made him a great writer was his vigilance in sticking to the fundamentals of dramatic writing.

Upon learning these fundamentals, I set about creating a story for The West Wing. Previous seasons had featured a fictional African country called Kundu. My idea was to recreate in fictional Kundu the conditions of real world Rwanda in 1994 when a horrific genocide claimed the lives of upwards of 800,000 people. President Clinton to this day considers his lack of intervention in Rwanda the biggest regret of his presidency.

My WEST WING story

My idea was that President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) would receive intelligence showing that a genocide in Kundu was imminent. Thus he had to decide: intervene and probably lose about 150 American soldiers or do nothing and allow half a million innocent Kundunese to be slaughtered.

Remember, Fundamental #3 is to put your characters in the toughest position possible. And my thought was, if you’re President of the United States, there can be nothing more excruciating than sending troops into battle, knowing that a good number of them will be coming home in flag-draped caskets. Mothers and fathers losing sons and daughters. Kids losing their moms and dads…all because of you.

Then, to make it even more difficult on Bartlet, I added the wrinkle that the US had zero strategic interest in Kundu; i.e., no oil, no important borders (with Russia, for example), no terrorist training grounds, no nothing. Bartlet would have to decide to put US troops in harm’s way for purely humanitarian interests.

Off to the Emmys

This emphasis on fundamentals paid off as this was the most successful story of season four and accounted for two of the six episodes the show submitted to the Emmys that year for Best Drama Series. [BTW, we won and I got to go on the stage with Aaron and all the actors and other writers. It was surreal!]

Not all writers I worked for did this. Another boss of mine, who has had a surprisingly successful career in Tinseltown, used to get overly intellectual about the stories we were developing. His focus on ideas and concepts extinguished the heart and emotion from our stories.

Not a big surprise that the show was cancelled after a few episodes while The West Wing won the Emmy for Best Drama Series four years in a row, beating the likes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under along the way.

What you need to do

Fine, so those are some examples of focusing on fundamentals to master a craft. What about you? What do you need to do?

Two simple things. First, you need to laser in and determine what those few fundamentals are. The key word in that sentence is F-E-W. If you come up with ten things you think are fundamental to mastering your craft, they aren’t fundamental! Just about any endeavor you pursue will have three or four things you need to focus on, TO THE EXCLUSION OF LOTS OF OTHERS.

Second, once you’ve determined what those few things are, you need to be VIGILANT and DISCIPLINED about not allowing yourself to get sidetracked from those fundamentals.

It shocked me how often writers in Hollywood would lose sight of the core principles of dramatic writing. For example, coming up with a great story…in which everything dramatic and interesting happened to guest stars and not the show’s main characters. If you ever pitched something like that to Sorkin he’d shoot it down in a nanosecond.

Gladwell’s 10,000 hours

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the need to spend 10,000 hours on any endeavor in order to master it. And he may be right. But you have to spend those 10,000 hours on the right FEW things!

If you think all this sounds overly simplistic, it is. But disciplined focus on the fundamentals is absolutely the key to mastering any craft.

Meditation

The 3 Things You Have To Do To Develop A Lasting Meditation Practice

Meditation has been all the rage for years now. The Headspace app has over 31 million users, Meditation dens are opening everywhere and it seems like every day there’s a story in The New York TimesTime or on Good Morning America extolling the myriad benefits of this awesome, ancient practice. Yet with all this hype, the fact is that only a tiny percentage of people actually meditate regularly. And the science shows that the profound benefits of meditation only come with consistent practice. So why is it that with all these amazing benefits hardly anyone sticks with it? I think I have the answer.

I’ve been meditating for fifteen minutes a day for almost seven years and the reason it stuck for me is that before I got started I asked myself the obvious question: How in the hell am I going to keep this ball rolling once I get started? After giving it a lot of thought I came up with THREE extremely simple but crucial things I knew I needed to do if my practice was going to endure over the long haul.

By the way, I’m writing this because meditation has done wonders for me and can do so for most everybody else who does it. The problem is that the books, the sites and the experts all say essentially the same thing: “Hey, meditation is great! Try it. You’ll love it!” Well, for most regular people, “Just try it, you’ll love it,” won’t cut it. People need more direction and help getting started and making meditation a lasting practice. So, without further adieu, here are the three things you’ll need to do to increase your chances of making meditation stick…

1. Make a Commitment

I know. Commitment is a scary word for most of us. Trust me, I am the Grand Poobah of commitment-phobes. If I had a dollar for every woman who told me I had a commitment problem when I was in my 20s and 30s I’d be a rich man. I didn’t get married until I was forty-one!

But here’s the deal. You don’t need to commit to meditating for two hours a day for the rest of your life. You just need to bite off something doable. I recommend committing to two months of meditating for five out of seven days a week. Don’t go crazy and start by committing to doing it every single day for fifteen minutes. That would be like starting a diet by giving up sweets, pasta, dairy and alcohol and eating only celery and lettuce for a month. Two days in and you’d be pounding Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough by the pint!

I came up with a program for myself seven years ago that is simple, doable and designed so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice. Called Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice, the program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating two minutes a day then building gradually from there. You can access it at davidgerken.net (it’s free).

Before I created my program for myself I had tried meditating from time to time. And I really liked it. I felt calm and clearheaded afterward. But I never succeeded in developing a regular practice. Why? What stopped me? Life. Life got in the way. “I can’t do it this morning. I have to take all three kids to school because Steph has to leave early for work…” Yada, yada, yada. There’s always going to be something getting in the way. But NOT if you’ve made a commitment. I’ll be blunt: For 99 percent of people, just trying meditating and even loving it will NEVER develop into a lasting, regular practice unless you commit to at least a few months after which it will become more of a habit, just like working out.

2. Pick a time of day that works

This is huge. Why? Because if you make your two month commitment to regular meditation but don’t settle on a time of day that works with your schedule the chances are extremely high that you won’t develop a successful practice. There are just too many moving parts in most of our lives such that if you wake up every day not having any idea when you’re going to meditate and just wing it, you’ll get swept up by events and it won’t happen. Here are some thoughts on each time of day.

Start of the Day — If you can do it, this is the best time, mostly because it will help center you for the rest of your day. That passive aggressive remark from your boss at ten in the morning won’t send your day into a death spiral the way it used to.

You don’t have to do it right after you wake up. Maybe it works better for you to eat breakfast, take a shower, get ready for work and then meditate before leaving. Any time in the morning is optimum.

Midday — If the morning doesn’t work for you for whatever reason, how about midday/lunch time? Most of you, whether working stiffs or not, get some kind of a lunch break of 30–60 minutes. If you’re single and work at home, midday is obviously not a bad choice.

Mid-Afternoon — If morning and midday don’t work for you, the mid-afternoon can be great for some people. Whether you’re working at an office or not, most of us hit that mid-afternoon wall around 3 p.m. or so. You head off to Starbucks or grab coffee at your work kitchen. If your work allows you a bit of time during this period, meditating can give you a nice jolt that will get you to the finish line of your workday. Throw in the coffee and you’re golden.

Evening — You can also try your meditation when you get home from work. This is a great way to create a dividing line between your workday and your night at home.

Choose whatever time of day works for you. And protect it. Let your spouse, kids, roommates, friends, coworkers, etc., know that X time each day is time you’ve set aside for meditation and you’d appreciate if they’d respect that. Because again, if you go into your two-month commitment saying, “I’ll just find the time each day whenever it arises,” you won’t make it. Life will pull you in ten different directions and divert you.

3. Be patient with yourself

In my conversations with friends who’ve tried meditation but blew it off early on, the number one reason it didn’t work is that they got frustrated with themselves for not being able to stop their minds from wandering. “I can’t do this! I’m just not cut out for meditation! I suck!” Bottom line: you have to cut yourself major slack in the early phase of learning to meditate or you won’t make it. It’s that simple. You have to say to yourself, again and again and again, “Okay. I just lost myself in a swirl of thoughts. But that’s okay. I’m just going to slowly, gently, and with compassion toward myself, bring my attention back to my breathing…” Again and again and again.

And if it sounds like I’m being some new agey, self-helpy softy who’s telling you to love yourself, because loving yourself is the only true path to spiritual enlightenment, I’m not. I’m being 100 percent pragmatic here. If you are not patient and good to yourself in the early months of practicing, you will NOT succeed in developing a long-term practice.

And by the way, it’s a win-win if you can be patient and good to yourself in your meditation. One, you facilitate the development of your practice and garner the myriad benefits, and two, you get the benefit of learning how not to be a jerk to yourself. Learning that skill is one of the many invaluable byproducts that come with developing a long-term practice.

One final point. Developing a long-term practice isn’t that hard. Seriously. If a regular schlub like me can do it, anyone can. The benefits are so profound and life-altering that it boggles my mind that more people don’t do it. So give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Meditation

Learn From Rembrandt: Success and Peace Come From Accessing The Spirit Within

This self-portrait of Rembrandt hangs in my office. Why? It’s my constant reminder that connecting with the inner genius inside us all is absolutely paramount in life. Not just to achieve great things in your work, but also to lead a peaceful and fulfilling life. Call it inner genius, the spirit, the universe, the life force, chi, Shakti or God. Call it whatever you want. If you connect with it, and live your life through it, powerful and positive things will happen to you.

The reason I’ve chosen to focus on Rembrandt is that his work actually captured his deep connection with his spirit in his paintings. Meaning, you can literally see it. This is why Rembrandt is thought by many, including me, to be the greatest painter who ever lived. Not because he painted sublimely beautiful works like Raphael, Renoir, Monet and scores of others. No. Rembrandt, working in 17th century Amsterdam, is thought to be the best ever because he depicted the human spirit on canvas better than any artist in history. He was, by all accounts, a simple man whose towering accomplishments resulted from the direct connection he had with his soul.

So first I’ll show you, through three of his paintings, what I mean by Rembrandt capturing the spirit on canvas. Then I’ll recommend a practice that will enhance your ability to connect to your genius within.

A caveat: Trying to express in words Rembrandt’s rendering of the human spirit is not easy. As Vincent van Vogh wrote of his idol, “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.” I’ll try…

Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul – 1657

The Apostle Paul: The painting portrays Paul, the second most influential person in Christianity, writing one of his letters to a congregation. Rembrandt’s most important tool in evoking the human spirit was his use of chiaroscuro, an Italian word meaning “light and dark.” Look at how the light on Paul’s nose, temple and forehead works to evoke a sense of profound contemplation in his eyes, which are shaded in dark tones. Rembrandt’s placement of the left hand on Paul’s forehead further amplifies the feeling of deep spiritual reflection. You look at this painting and know that Paul isn’t writing a letter to some buddy telling him how much fun he had on his vacation frolicking on the beaches of Corinth. No. Look at this painting and you get the sense that Paul is channeling God. That is genius. If you’re ever in Washington, D.C., do yourself a favor and go to the National Gallery of Art and see it first hand.

Rembrandt, Hendrickje Stoffels — 1660

Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels: Hendrickje was Rembrandt’s common-law wife from 1647 until her death in 1663. Rembrandt again uses light to draw your eyes where he wants them: on her face. The robe she’s wearing and the background behind are completely muddled and fuzzy, Rembrandt’s way of telling you they mean nothing to him. This painting is all about Hendrickje’s face. And what do we see there? I see a gentle, beautiful soul that Rembrandt loved deeply. How? What did Rembrandt do to elicit that response from me? Just like van Gogh said, it’s hard to put into words. All I can say is that this painting impacted me so much when I first saw it at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1986 that I decided to write my term paper on it for my course in Rembrandt that I took at Princeton way back when.

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son — 1669

Return of the Prodigal Son: The prodigal son is a New Testament parable wherein the son of a well-to-do father asks for his share of the estate. The son takes the money and proceeds to squander it in exotic places on prostitutes and other unsavory activities. When the son hits hard times and is forced to become a pig shepherd, he finally realizes he’s reached rock bottom and comes home begging forgiveness from his father. It’s a parable about love, compassion and forgiveness, all three of which pour forth from this painting. The pathetic, broken son wears raggedy clothes and his hair appears withered from malnutrition. But most important, again, is Rembrandt’s placement of light, which is brightest on the father’s downturned face. This, in conjunction with his accepting hands on the back of his kneeling son, evokes a divine sense of love and compassion. This one brings tears to my eyes.

How did Rembrandt pull this off? In painting after painting? It’s hard to know as he left virtually no chronicle of how he went about his work. But it’s safe to say that he didn’t achieve this brilliance by sitting in his studio and thinking about his paintings. He did it by getting quiet inside, shutting his mind down and connecting with the spirit inside him. Just as Bob Dylan did when he wrote all those amazing songs in the 60s. Just as Michael Jordan did when he dominated basketball in the 90s.

My zen mom

And just as my mom did. What? Was my mom Georgia O’Keefe? Katherine Hepburn? Julia Child? No, no and no. My mom was a housewife who brought up six kids…with no nannies and no maids. And she may have been better connected to her inner chi/Shakti/spirit than anyone I’ve ever known. How did her inner connection manifest in the world? It wasn’t through sublime works of art, an angelic singing voice (I can attest to this one!) or some other super talent. No. My mom’s connection with her inner spirit manifested in her near-total lack of self. And by that, I mean she was the most selfless human I’ve ever known. She never demanded to go the restaurant she wanted, or the movie she wanted. She didn’t tell her six kids she didn’t have time to take them to tennis tournaments on weekends in far off places because she desperately needed some “me” time at the spa. She just flowed with life and gave and gave and gave and rarely complained about it. And guess what? She led one of the happiest and most fulfilling lives of anyone I’ve known.

The point is that connecting with your inner spirit yields sheer genius in the form of art, literature, athletic feats, etc., for some, like Rembrandt. But for others, it results in a peaceful, present-oriented manner that benefits the world greatly.

Another critical point is that it is extremely difficult to access your inner spirit when your mind is constantly yapping away. Your inner genius is most easily accessed when you are quiet inside.

To access your spirit, meditate

So, how does one get quiet inside? It’s been my experience that regular meditation is the best way. If you’re not doing it, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try. I’ve done it the past seven years and it’s made me a better dad, husband, friend, brother and overall human being.

It’s not that hard. All meditation is is sitting quietly and placing your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing. Then when your mind grabs your attention and throws you into thought, you simply notice that that has happened and bring attention back to your breathing. And when you place attention on your breath going in and out, guess what you’re NOT doing? Thinking. So all meditation is doing is helping you, slowly and gradually, to quiet your mind. And when you do that, you open communication with that genius spirit inside you.

How to get started with meditation? I designed a program called Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice that is simple, doable and designed to help regular people, like me, develop a practice. It’s eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then builds gradually from there. It’s free and you can access it at davidgerken.net. I also recommend the meditation books and recordings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Peter Russell and Jack Kornfield.

Rembrandt’s paintings inspire me to connect with my spirit. Who inspires you? Tolstoy? Eminem? Picasso? Whoever or whatever it is, go there. Go inside and connect with it. It’s the key to life.

Meditation

For a Fulfilling Life, Follow These Four Pillars of the Great Teddy Roosevelt

Former President Teddy Roosevelt (TR) led one of the most exhilarating, adventurous and joyful lives in human history. It was a life built on four pillars, and the good news is every one of them is available to you. In fact, if you truly commit yourself to these four pillars it is almost impossible to not lead a healthy, fulfilled life.

1. Focus on the work at hand: Roosevelt famously urged people to be “in the arena” fighting the good fight and not critics or spectators on the sidelines of life. How did this manifest in his career, which saw him rise to the presidency at the age of 42? Simple. He focused on the work that was in front of him at the moment and not on plotting and scheming his way to some higher office. TR’s modus operandi was to put everything he had into whatever work he was doing and success, achievement and all the rest would follow.

How many people do you know who spend half their time and energy schmoozing and bullshitting and the rest on performing their actual work?Mindfulness is all the rage these days. Well, putting all of your attention on what is right in front of you is the quintessence of mindfulness and is exactly what TR did. Operating this way allowed TR to bust the rapacious corporate trusts, build the Panama Canal and conserve 230,000,000 acres of land, among numerous accomplishments.

2. Immersion in Nature: We all know that being in nature does wonders for the soul. I’m convinced that’s because our homo sapiens brains developed when we humans lived in nature as hunter-gatherers. It’s why we feel “at home” walking through a forest or a meadow. TR from his earliest days had an almost ethereal attraction to nature. At age seven he founded the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History, which housed all manner of dead insects and taxidermied animals he’d collected.

At age 25 Roosevelt unknowingly used nature to heal his broken heart. He’d lost his young wife and his mother, both unexpectedly, in the same house, on the same day. As if this story could get any more tragic, the date was February 14, 1884, Valentine’s Day. His wife, Alice, had given birth to their first child two days prior and the pregnancy had masked a serious kidney disease. His mother, Mittie, died after a brief spell of Typhoid Fever, which Roosevelt thought was only a bad cold.

At the time TR was a rising political star who had been elected Republican Leader of the New York State Assembly at the ripe old age of 23. But losing the two people he cherished most led him to quit politics and become a cowboy in the Badlands of Dakota Territory where he bought a cattle ranch 35 miles north of the town of Medora.

He spent those days surrounded by nature, observing the meadowlarks and magpies, and watching the cottonwood trees flow with the breeze while the sun set over the hill in front of his ranch house. One day he got on his horse with nothing but a rifle, a few biscuits and a blanket and spent a week riding the prairies of the Badlands, living mostly off some antelope he killed. In effect, he was allowing the beauty and spirituality of nature to heal his fractured soul. I actually wrote a movie about this episode of TR’s life that sold to American Film Company, but unfortunately, it never made it to a theater near you.

Roosevelt’s connection with nature was sacrosanct and nothing, not even holding the highest office in America, was going to break that. As president he traveled all the way to California to hike through Yosemite with famed naturalist John Muir. He also took regular walks outside the White House, paying particular attention to identifying the birds he’d studied his entire life.

3. Living the strenuous life (i.e. exercise): TR was a sickly child who was plagued by asthma. His father’s insistence that he work extra hard on his physical condition to combat his weak body might be the best thing that ever happened to him. It led TR to live what he called “the strenuous life,” which meant brisk exercise on a regular basis. At Harvard he boxed and played football.

In his cowboy years in the Badlands TR insisted on taking part in the cattle roundup, an incredibly grueling, month-long endeavor requiring 18 hours in the saddle in addition to branding calves, both of which Roosevelt did. In Roosevelt’s 1885 journal entry about the roundup you can just feel the energy and exhilaration that vigorous physical activity brought him:

“We know much toil and hardship out here, but we feel the beat of hardy life in our veins and ours is the glory of work and the joy of living.”

As president, TR insisted on riding his horse, alone, through Rock Creek Park in Washington. He used to skinny-dip in the Potomac River during the winter. And he even boxed regularly in the White House until one of his sparring partners punched him so hard he lost the sight in his left eye for the rest of his life.

4. Ironclad Integrity: Great, so TR focused on the work at hand, loved immersing himself in nature and exercised vigorously. But what good would any of that have been were he a serial philanderer? Or a pathological liar? Or a corrupt politician lining his pockets? Luckily, he was none of those things. Roosevelt lived Ralph Waldo Emerson’s axiom that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.”

TR summed it up this way: “I care not what others think of what I do, but I care very much about what I think of what I do! That is character!” He didn’t fool around on his wife, Edith. He loved all six of his kids dearly. Bottom line: Unless you’re a sociopath, I don’t see how anyone can feel authentic peace inside unless they have solid integrity. Without it, I think Roosevelt’s life would have crumbled like a house of cards.

Will you be president of the United States if you focus on your work, get out in nature, exercise vigorously and lead an honest life? Probably not. But it is almost guaranteed that you will be content and fulfilled. All four of Roosevelt’s pillars are available to just about everybody. They’re there for the taking.

Meditation

3 Ways to Keep Spiritual Growth the Main Thing

As management expert Stephen Covey famously said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” So if you’re a car salesman, the main thing is to focus on selling cars and not allow yourself to be diverted to spending a bunch of time researching the history of cars or constantly making sure your desk is clean and tidy. No. Focus all of your work attention on selling cars. I believe that the main thing for human beings is to keep spiritual growth, defined as the emphasis on being present, conscious or aware in your life, the main thing.

And yet, I find so many people who are “into” spiritual growth spending about ninety percent of their time off the wagon and ten percent on. An example: One day you’re having a soulful conversation with a spiritual friend about how valuable it is to be present in the world. The next day they call you up and immediately launch into, “My boss is such a jerk! I hate this job. I’m so stressed out! Ahhh!” They completely lose their spiritual bearings.

Spiritual growth is the main thing

But here’s the thing: spiritual growth isn’t just any “thing” we need to make time for. It is THE most important endeavor any human being can pursue. The first person I heard say this was Eckhart Tolle, author of the bestselling book The Power of Now. He said, “There’s nothing more important you can do than be present.” Another favorite teacher of mine, Mickey Singer, says the same thing in a course of his I just took called Living From a Place of Surrender. Several times throughout the course he says of spiritual growth, “It’s by far the most important thing you can do. And you need to do it every moment of every day. It’s a 24/7 thing. Your spiritual practice IS your life.”

Are Eckhart and Mickey right about this? You bet they are. Why? Why is spiritual work more important than anything else in life? Because it sits atop the pyramid of life and as such, strengthens everything below it. Like what? Like relationships. If you are present and not at the mercy of your racing egoic mind, you will be a better spouse, parent, friend, colleague and even acquaintance. Like your work. If you are present while performing your job — I don’t care whether you’re an accountant, a teacher or a professional basketball player — you can only achieve your best if you’re present. Like your overall well-being. Being present and not stuck in your thought factory mind is the most effective avenue to feeling calm and peaceful inside. And is there anything more important than that?

Why people get thrown off the spiritual path

So if spiritual growth is so good and important for us, why are the vast majority of those so inclined continually thrown off the path? First, and most obvious, life is hectic. Kids. Husbands. Wives. Jobs. Bills. Some people can barely find the time to get six hours of sleep and eat three meals. There’s always something out there in the real world working overtime to pry our attention away from the present moment.

Second, spiritual work isn’t easy. It’s hard to stay present when your boss is an a-hole. Or when you’ve spent an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Or when your son smacks his little sister in the face and all hell breaks loose.

So if you’re one of those people who continually gets knocked off the spiritual path, here are three concrete things you can do to ensure that spiritual growth remains the main thing. The first is obvious: You need to resolve to yourself that spiritual growth is indeed the main thing in your life. For incentive, reread the paragraph above about how spiritual growth will enhance your relationships, work and well-being.

Regular meditation is the key

Second, nothing will be more effective in keeping you on the spiritual path than regular meditation. Why? Because meditation can serve as the anchor for your entire spiritual practice. It’s a set amount of time each day devoted to practicing presence. Over time, meditation will strengthen that core of presence inside you, making you less susceptible to being knocked off the spiritual path — by your awful boss, rambunctious kids, bad drivers or anything else that pushes your buttons.

If you’re not meditating regularly, do it! It’s not that hard and it doesn’t need to overrun the rest of your life, either. Ten or fifteen minutes a day will do wonders for you. Seriously, the benefits are profound and can transform your whole life.

My meditation program

I created a meditation program that is simple and doable and I urge you to try it. I designed it so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice. The program, which I’ve written as an ebook called Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice, is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. The good news is it’s free. You can access it at davidgerken.net.

Third, practice mindfulness throughout your day. Mindfulness, which I call meditation’s brother, is simply being present in your daily life. If you’re cooking dinner, place your attention on each action that requires and don’t allow your mind to drift to wondering if your family will like the veggie lasagna you’re making. If you’re taking a shower, focus on that and not on the job review with your boss in two hours.

Zen and mindfulness

It’s worth taking to heart here what one Zen master said in response to his frustrated disciple asking, “Master, I’ve been a monk for many years and I still don’t understand what Zen is. Please tell me.” And the master said, “Zen is doing one thing at a time.” That’s mindfulness. And if you continually practice it in your daily life, that will also strengthen your core of presence and make it harder for anything to bump your spiritual practice from its rightful place as the main thing in your life.

Finally, you’ll notice that none of these three suggestions requires upending your life. You don’t have to sell all your possessions, leave your family and move into a Buddhist monastery to keep your spiritual practice front and center in your life. No. You just need to resolve to yourself that that is what you want (easy), develop a regular meditation practice (not nearly as difficult as most people think — especially if you follow my program!) and practice mindfulness in your daily life (not hard and gets so much easier the more you do it). So do it! You’ll be better in every way if you do.

Meditation

Office Politics: A Valuable Lesson I Learned From a Real West Winger While Writing On The West Wing TV Show

Whether you’re a high-level executive at Bank of America, a kindergarten teacher or a burger flipper at McDonald’s, you’re going to encounter office politics.  It’s a fact of life.  What follows is a valuable lesson I learned from a good friend of mine on the  best strategy for dealing with office politics.

First, some background. After graduating from Princeton I spent 15 years in Washington, D.C., working on Capitol Hill and then as a lobbyist. Having had my fill of politics, in 2000 I ventured to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career.  Two of my best friends since college had been writing in Tinseltown since graduation so I was familiar with it and had always wanted to see what I could do with my creative talents.  

My big break: a job on The West Wing

After a year and a half of hard work, I got an enormous break: a spot on the writing staff of my favorite show, The West Wing.  It was the reigning two-time winner of the Emmy for Best Drama Series, had a talented cast in Martin Sheen, Brad Whitford, Richard Schiff, Allison Janney and Rob Lowe and was run by Aaron Sorkin, thought by many to be the best writer in Hollywood.  Bottom line: I was pumped.

Once the honeymoon was over reality set in.  I had to produce, and on our show that meant pitching stories that Aaron loved.  With ten writers on staff, the competition was fierce. I worked my buns off, marrying my knowledge of Washington and my creative instincts to devise what I thought were killer West Wingstories. Unfortunately, my bosses weren’t as thrilled as I was with these stories as I was continually shot down in the writer’s room.  After several months of little success, I started feeling major job insecurity, worrying that this dream writing gig wasn’t going to last long if I didn’t break through.  And then…

Recreating the Rwanda genocide in fictional Kundu

…I broke through.  In previous seasons the show featured a fictional African country called Kundu.  My idea was to recreate in fictional Kundu the conditions of real world Rwanda in 1994 when a horrific genocide claimed the lives of upwards of 800,000 people. President Clinton to this day considers his lack of intervention in Rwanda the biggest regret of his presidency. 

My idea was that President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) would receive intelligence showing that a genocide in Kundu was imminent.  Thus he had to decide:  intervene and probably lose about 150 American soldiers or do nothing and allow half a million innocent Kundunese to be slaughtered.  The objective of great drama is to put your characters in the toughest position possible.  And my thought was, if you’re President of the United States, there can be no more excruciating situation than dealing with sending troops into battle.  Then, to make it even more difficult on Bartlet, I added the wrinkle that the US had zero strategic interest in Kundu. Meaning no oil, no important borders (with Russia, for example), no terrorist training grounds, no nothing. Bartlet would have to decide to put US troops in harm’s way for purely humanitarian interests.  So that was the idea.

Teaming up with a friend from the real West Wing

Next I pitched the idea to Gene Sperling, a good friend of mine who had been instrumental in my landing the job in the first place. Gene was the top economic advisor to President Clinton, which meant he was one of the top three aides in the White House (along with the national security advisor and the chief of staff).  When Gene left the real West Wing in January of 2001, one of several jobs he took on was as an expert consultant on the fictional West Wing. Gene liked the Kundu idea so we joined forces and fleshed out the story more fully as a team.  

Then, in the middle of a ritzy party thrown by agency juggernaut CAA at the Pacific Design Center (located on none other than Melrose Avenue – you can’t make this stuff up), I pitched the story to Aaron.  He gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. I called Gene immediately, “We’re in, baby!” (BTW, my only other memory of that night was getting a kiss on the cheek from Paris Hilton after a short chat.)

The ensuing two months were a blur of near-constant work.  Our Kundu idea caught fire to the point that Aaron made it the main story for four straight episodes.  For comparison, no other main story carried over for even two episodes during the whole 23-episode season. 

But a problem developed early on in that period.  Remember when I mentioned the stiff competition for stories among the writers? Well, there was one particular writer on the staff who consistently tried to “poach” our story.  And he had one major thing going for him:  Aaron liked him.  I didn’t respond well at all to this perceived threat to my “baby.”  

The Sperling credo: outwork everybody

And this is when Gene taught me the hugely important lesson about office politics.  Remember, the guy worked for eight straight years in the Clinton White House at the highest level.  He faced off against some of the brightest minds in America trying to push policies that he fervently believed in.  You want to talk about brutal office politics with the highest of high stakes?  Gene lived it in the real West Wing. [BTW, after leaving the fictional West WingGene returned to the real West Wing again when he served as President Obama’s top economic advisor for three years.]

So early on, when I started whining about this other writer trying to encroach on our story territory, Gene cut me off and gave me a talking to.  He told me that in his years working in the White House he had a simple strategy for dealing with other high-level staffers trying to “beat” him on the policy battlefield.  That strategy?  Out-work them.  That’s it. 

Most important about this strategy is not what it entails – that’s obvious; work your ass off.  It’s what it doesn’tinclude.  Don’t sit around all day scheming and plotting and planning over how to defeat your office “enemy.”  Don’t be a sycophantic weasel to the higher-ups in order to procure special treatment.  Don’t cut corners with your work product in order to be seen as fast and efficient.  

Hard work = better work product + less stress

No.  Just work really hard.  That’s what I did on the Kundu project and it worked.  Nobody could keep up with the quality and pace of the work Gene and I produced.  The only down side is that I got very little sleep for two months, but it was worth every lost wink.  

Best of all, it’s a multi-win strategy.  You produce much better work than if you were being distracted by the office politics BS. And you avoid all the stress, anxiety and bad karma that comes from sitting around plotting and scheming all day.

I especially hope any young professionals out there take this advice to heart.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in petty, intra-office rivalries.  It’s a huge energy suck that diverts attention from where it needs to be:  doing your best work.  

Life’s too short.  So work hard, don’t get distracted by office politics, and let the chips fall where they may.

Meditation

An Invaluable Tip I Learned That Transformed My Meditation Practice

Anybody who’s meditated for any length of time knows this: some sessions are good and some are pulling-teeth awful.  The good ones connect us to our home base, make us feel centered and are marked by a physical feeling of inner calmness.  The bad ones are full of uncontrollable, racing thoughts and anxious feelings that make us feel worse than if we hadn’t meditated at all.  Many meditators, especially those in the early stages of their practice, give it up if these “bad” sessions continue for too long. The fundamental mistake these people make lies in what they believe to be the purpose of meditation.  Hint:  That purpose is not, as most people believe, to feel divinely serene and peaceful inside, an invaluable lesson I learned a few years ago from Western meditation pioneer Joseph Goldstein.

A little background. Along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, Goldstein helped bring meditation to America in the 1970s.  I had been meditating regularly for five years when I took Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in 2017. One of our course readings was a short chapter in Goldstein’s book Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom.  The chapter eloquently describes what the purpose of meditation is and isn’t.  

Up to that point in my practice I’d experienced hugely frustrating periods where I wondered why the hell I was even meditating.  Luckily, I persisted.

Radiant meditation sessions turn to twisted steel

The lesson Goldstein taught me came in the story he tells in the chapter about a particular experience he had while practicing in India intermittently in the late 60s and early 70s.  During one several month sojourn to India Goldstein’s meditations were off-the-charts sublime.  As he described them, “My whole body dissolved into radiant vibrations of light.  Every time I sat down, as soon as I closed my eyes, this energy field of light pervaded my whole body.  It was wonderful, it felt terrific.”

After those mind-blowingly great months he returned to America for a while.  When he returned to India not long after, he expected to resume those other-worldly, radiant sessions.  Guess what?  It didn’t happen.  Not even close.  In fact, his sessions were the worst he’d ever experienced.  As he put it, “Not only was there no longer a body of light, but my body felt like a painful mass of twisted steel…There was so much pressure and tension, so many unpleasant sensations.”  Twisted steel?  Yikes.   

Then it dawned on him: meditation is not about feeling great or achieving ecstatic states of being. It’s about being completely open to whatever is happening in the present, good or bad, radiant vibrations of light or twisted steel in your gut.  Doesn’t matter.  The point is to just observe, nonjudgmentally, anysensations you might be feeling or experiencing.

Meditation isn’t about achieving ecstatic states

Goldstein’s epiphany hit me like a ton of bricks…in a good way.  Ever since reading this, whenever I’m feeling anxious, unsettled or uptight in a session, I just step back and literally say inside my head, “Okay, I’m feeling anxious.”  And I observe it.  And sit with it.  And most important, I don’t resistit.  Or engage with it.  Or fight with it.  Why? Because that anxiousness is the reality of that present moment.  As Eckhart Tolle so succinctly puts it, “Don’t resist what is.”  

Any of you out there who are just getting into meditation or are considering starting a practice, please take note:  This really is the whole ballgame of meditation.  It’s all about being present with whatever is happening in any moment.

Mindfulness: also about accepting good AND bad moments

The same is true for meditation’s brother – mindfulness.  I define mindfulness as simply being present in your daily life. If you’re washing your hands, place your attention on washing your hands, as the great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh says.  If you’re hitting a golf shot, focus on that, not letting your mind wander to the presentation you have to give a client the next morning.  

As with meditation, so it is with mindfulness in your daily life: be present and accept whatever’s happening in any given moment.  So much of the tension and anxiety we experience comes from simply resisting what’s happening in moment after moment after moment.  And most of the time we’re not even conscious that we’re resisting those moments!  In fact, the next time you find yourself anxious or uptight, just stop and ask yourself: “What am I resisting right now?  In this moment?”  Once you identify it, just relax and let that resistance go; once you do, the tension inside you will disappear.

The good news is that the more you practice this “just accept whatever’s happening in the present moment, good OR bad” thing, the better you’ll get at it.  That goes for both your meditation and mindfulness practices. And the better you get at it, you’ll find that the bad/stressful/anxious periods start to diminish.  And when these periods do come, they pass much more quickly than when you used to wrangle, engage and fight with them.

Princeton rain vs. Hawaii rain

Here’s an analogy that captures this last concept.  When I went to Princeton, there were many days when I’d wake up, look outside and see it was raining.  And it bummed me out.  Why? Because I knew that that rain was going to stay there allday long and that I’d have to walk to tennis practice in our indoor facility jumping over puddles and avoiding general misery.  So Princeton rain is what happens when you resist and fight with uncomfortable moments.  They linger.

In Hawaii, rainstorms move in quickly, drop their water, then leave.  In, then out.  And everybody gets back to doing what they were doing.  No harm done.  Hawaii rain is what happens when you just observe the stress and anxiousness you’re feeling in any moment – whether while meditating or just going about your day. It comes, you observe it and then it goes.  So resist your tough periods and you’ll get Princeton rain.  Nonjudgmentally observe them and you’ll get Hawaii rain. 

Try my meditation program

Finally, if you’re thinking about starting a meditation practice, I’d advise you to give my program a try.  I made it simple, doable and designed it so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice.  The program, which I’ve written as an ebook called Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice, is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. The good news is it’s free.  You can access it at davidgerken.net. 

Meditation

The Ecky 5: Five Eckhart Tolle Quotes That Provide Everything You Need For Your Spiritual Journey

Eckhart Tolle is the only spiritual teacher I’ve encountered who seems to have achieved the highest spiritual state: He’s all consciousness, no ego. Incorporate these five nuggets of his into your life and you will be spiritually golden.

1. “Accept this moment as it is.”

Notice that Eckhart isn’t directing you to ‘Be in the moment,’ or ‘Live in the moment.’ Why? Because most people have trouble saying to themselves, ‘Okay, let’s be present. Just be here, now.” This direct path to the present can feel jarring and usually doesn’t work very well, or at least not for long.

For most, the easier way to access the present moment is indirectly, by addressing the obstacles preventing you from being there at any given time. And that main obstacle is usually plain old resistance. We don’t even know that we’re doing it, but in MOST of the moments of our lives we’re resisting something happening in the present. You’re driving home, you’re on time and you’re stopped at a red light. What are you doing? Resisting that moment because you’re waiting at a light. “Turn green, damn it! I need to get to some better moments!” Or waiting in line at the store. There are thousands of examples of this. What they all have in common is what you are saying to yourself: “I can’t wait for this moment to be over so I can get to some better ones in the future.”

So what Eckhart’s quote provides is a back door entry into the present moment. He’s saying that whatever is going on in the present moment, just accept it as it is. I would add just one more word to emphasize this concept — EXACTLY. Accept this moment exactly as it is. Doesn’t mean you have to love every single moment. You just need to accept it. It’s there. Don’t fight with it. Don’t resist it. I’m telling you, if you start doing this, and by this I mean catching yourself resisting something that’s happening in the moment and then accepting it, you will feel the knots of anxiety and tension inside you just melt away.

2. “Instead of asking, ‘What do I want from life?’ a more powerful question is, ‘What does life want from me?’”

Don’t look at this one as being a reprise of John F. Kennedy’s clarion call to the nation in his 1961 inaugural address where he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Eckhart’s words here are not about serving the world instead of yourself. They’re much deeper than that. ‘What do I want from life?” is a superficial question that springs from the egoic “I” in all of us. “want money.” “want to be important and powerful.” And even, “want to change the world.” People who approach the question this way can, and certainly have, accomplished what their egoic “I” set out to achieve. But that usually comes with a cost: a feeling of emptiness and lack of fulfillment all along the way.

“What does life want from me?” on the other hand, goes to a deeper part of yourself. In fact, you can replace the word ‘life’ in that question with ‘the universe,’ ‘God,’ ‘Providence,’ ‘nature,’ or whomever you think is running the cosmic show. Eckhart is asking us to go deep inside and listen to that mysterious voice within that communicates our destiny to us, if we would only listen. The people who do this, the people who “follow their bliss” as the great Joseph Campbell put it, live dynamic, energetic and fulfilling lives.

3. “You are never more yourself than when you are still.”

This one is huge and sets the table for the supreme spiritual question: Who am I? Most people believe that they are their thoughts. They believe that all the craziness going on in their minds is who they are. “If that woman flirts with my boyfriend one more time I’m going to rip her head off. Oh my god, I’m such a jealous nut case!” No, you’re not! Your mind and your thoughts are not who you are.

So who are you? Just as Eckhart states so eloquently, you are the stillness inside you. What the hell does that mean? It’s the you that exists when your mind is still and you’re not spewing out meaningless thoughts that race around your head like racecars around Daytona Speedway. It’s your conscious self. The real you. The brilliant you. The central thrust of most spiritual traditions is to get you to identify with that and not the crazy, mind-controlled you.

But my mind is crazy most of the time, you’re saying. So how do I get it to become ‘still’ and therefore access my real self? The best way is to develop a meditation practice. The aim of meditation is to focus your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing. Then when your mind wanders, and it will, you just bring attention back to your breathing. Repeating this simple practice regularly will help slow your mind down and aid in your ability to be the conscious observer (who you are) of your thoughts (not who you are).

How do you get started with meditation? It’s not that big a deal. When I started meditating six years ago I created my own program. I made it simple, doable and designed it so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice. The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. I strongly urge youto try it. And the good news is it’s free. You can access it at davidgerken.net.

4. “Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life.”

Here’s another massively important concept that Eckhart has winnowed down to one beautiful sentence. We all put so much effort into trying to control the events of our lives that we constantly resist what life has put in front of us rather than flow with it. It’s the control freak nature of humans (especially Americans!). The problem is that it’s futile, frustrating and a major energy killer. When you surrender to, and flow with, what life/God/the universe puts in front of you, good things tend to happen and you feel lighter, calmer and more in alignment with your nature.

What’s the best possible thing you could do to get a handle on this surrender thing? Take Michael Singer’s course Living From a Place of Surrender. It’s eight eloquent, moving hours of Singer exploring this subject and offering a simple technique for surrendering/letting go. I took it and it was a game-changer for me. You can find it at Soundstrue.com.

5. “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.”

I’ve seen several videos where Eckhart is asked a question from the audience about some difficulty they’re having with one of his teachings. Something like: “I get what you’re saying about being present, but I just can’t help it, my mind always wanders. What can I do?” And he answers the same way every time, “So you’re aware that your mind is wandering?” Audience member: “Yes.” Then he invariably says, “Great. You’ve already accomplished the most important thing. You’re aware of what you’re doing.” Bottom line, awareness really is the whole ball game on the spiritual path.

Why? Because awareness is what enables you to step back and become the conscious observer (which again is who you are) of your thoughts and mind activity, etc. For example: “I’ve been dwelling way too long on that snide comment my girlfriend threw at me this morning. Time to snap out of it and move on with my day.” And when you become aware of some wacky or troubling thought, you’re doing something absolutely essential to spiritual growth: you’re creating two entities, the subject (the aware observer, i.e. the real you) and the object (the wacky thought).

For most humans there is almost always only one entity — the crazy thoughts, and because of this you get lost in them and consumed by them. How could you not? That’s all there is. When you build up your awareness “muscle,” over time you’ll get better at not letting your out of control mind dictate your life. And that, my friends, is arguably the most important and healthy feat any human can achieve.

Once again, meditation is the best practice for strengthening your awareness muscle, for obvious reasons.

So there they are. The Ecky 5. Integrate them into your life and you will thrive on all levels.

And by the way, I call them the “Ecky 5,” because I’m trying to bring a little fun and lightheartedness to the spiritual space. Just because we’re into all this great stuff doesn’t mean we have to have our head in the clouds 24/7. Right? Anybody? Bueller?

Meditation

How Can You Reduce The Pain In Your Life By At Least Half? Stop Flipping Out

So much of the agony we go through in life is avoidable. And that’s not spiritual quackery. It’s not hyperbole. It’s the practical truth. All that’s required is a modicum of practice and discipline, which I’ll get to.

But first, what I mean by agony is suffering caused by either physical or emotional pain, which covers the whole gamut. Physical pain is breaking your leg or getting a headache. Emotional pain occurs when your girlfriend breaks up with you.

In both cases, there are two kinds of pain — primary and secondary. The primary pain of having a headache is that you feel actual pain in your head and it hurts. The secondary pain is what you ADD on top of the primary pain and is emotional in nature. “This headache is never going to go away. Why does this always happen to me? My friends never get headaches. I’m so unlucky in life…” When your girlfriend breaks up with you, the primary pain comes from the sadness that you won’t be seeing her as much anymore and the feeling of rejection.

The secondary pain is when you go down the rumination rabbit hole: “Of course she broke up with me. I’m worthless. I’ll never end up with anybody because let’s face it, I’m a loser.” OR “X is the most vile, awful woman who’s ever lived. I absolutely despise her.” In other words, secondary pain is about flipping out over primary pain. What most people don’t realize is that secondary pain causes as much or more suffering as the primary pain it’s responding to.

Primary pain is an inevitable and necessary part of life. Pure and simple. It’s part of being human. Loved ones will die, bones will be broken and relationships will end. One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is to accept the fact that there is suffering in life.

The key is eliminating secondary pain

The key to living a peaceful, fulfilling life is learning how to RESPOND to primary pain. In other words, to learn how to eliminate, or vastly reduce, secondary pain, aka flipping out pain. How to do this? That’s the crux of this piece so dial in.

I’ll explain with an example from my own life. First, a short history. I grew up in Newport Beach, California, left in 1982 to go to college back East, worked in politics in Washington, DC, for 15 years, then worked as a television writer in LA/Hollywood for 15 years. A year ago my wife and I moved our family from Los Angeles to Newport Beach, a town I hadn’t lived in since 1982. The schools are great, I have a brother and two sisters living here and the only reason we lived in LA was because of the Hollywood writing thing and I’d decided to move on from that. So we moved in June of last year.

And for the first six weeks or so I felt…well, weird. I’d moved home. It was mind-blowing. And not in a good way. I was driving down streets I drove down in high school. I was assistant coaching my daughter’s soccer team at the junior high school I attended, walking past the gym where I played on the school basketball and volleyball teams. We held our soccer practices on a field around which was the track where I tied a school record in the ¾ mile run…in 1978! It all made me feel anxious and panicky. What if this move was a huge mistake? What if I completely freaked out and we had to skedaddle?

After a few weeks of this it occurred to me that I could put my meditation and mindfulness training to use. (I’ve been meditating regularly the past six years.) What I did was any time that anxious feeling arose inside I’d get myself to do two things. First, I’d get myself to acknowledge that I was feeling anxious. Second, I would get myself to say, “Okay. You’ve got that anxious feeling about moving to Newport. That’s it. You’re feeling it. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s there. Don’t resist it. Just feel it and leave it alone.”

Acknowledge your primary pain, don’t engage with it

That last part is critical. Leave it alone. Because what I just outlined is the same model as the primary, secondary pain above. The primary pain was the emotional weirdness I felt from moving back to my hometown. Much of that is fairly normal. But the secondary pain is what I was adding on to it those first few weeks. I’d always prided myself on leaving the Newport Beach cocoon and heading East for college and then work in DC. And I’m thinking, “You were a worldly guy for decades and now you’re moving home. What are you doing with your life? What happened to you?”

I knew on some level that that thinking was off. That there’s nothing inherently bad about moving back to the town of your childhood. Bottom line is I got myself to acknowledge that this anxious feeling was there, BUT, critically, I didn’t allow myself to engage with that feeling. I didn’t let myself wrestle with it and flip out over it. Doesn’t mean I didn’t have the feeling (the primary pain) for a while. But by not engaging with it, what I did was allow this emotional “cloud” to pass. And pass it did. A year later I feel great about Newport Beach and couldn’t be happier that we moved here.

Allow the cloud to pass over you

This cloud analogy is a powerful one. Because the primary pain in our lives is that cloud and that cloud is going to rain on us. A death. A relationship gone south, etc. But what we do when we add that secondary pain on top of it, by engaging with it and tussling with it and arguing with it, is strengthen that cloud and allow it to remain over our heads and rain on us far longer than if we’d just acknowledged it, felt its pain, and let it pass over us.

Fine, that’s all well and good, but if I’m you I want some specifics on how to actually win the battle against secondary pain. The fact is that there is no five-step program for dealing with this. It really all comes down to doing one thing: making yourself aware of the primary pain and stopping yourself from going down the “flip out” rabbit hole. “I have a headache. It hurts. I don’t like it. And that’s it.” “My boyfriend broke up with me and I feel absolutely awful. I really love him and being with him and this is incredibly painful.” And leave it at that. FEEL the primary pain, but don’t flip out and let it become a big story of your past and your future.

In practical terms, what would it take for you to be successful at conquering your secondary pain? Two things: commitment and discipline. And not that much of either. The commitment is just resolving to yourself that you’re going to become aware when you start heaping secondary pain on top of the primary pain. That’s all it is. Committing yourself to becoming aware.

The discipline comes into play once you’ve become aware of the situation. Because that is when you’re going to have to stop yourself from doing what you’ve been doing your whole life — flipping out over your primary pain. You just have to get good at saying to yourself, “No. This goes no further than the actual pain I’m experiencing here. Not…going…to happen.” Just cut it off at the pass.

And how do you get good at this? The same way you got good at tennis, playing the piano or learning to speak Spanish — you PRACTICE. It may not happen overnight, but it really isn’t that hard. Honestly, this is one of those rare scenarios in life where there is a whole lot of gain for not that much pain.

Meditation will help you succeed

What is the best way to enhance your chances of success on this? Develop a meditation practice. Why? Because one of the most important things meditation does is strengthen what I’ll call your awareness muscle. All meditation is is sitting quietly and following something happening in the present moment, like your breath. Then, when your mind wanders, and it will, you simply become aware that that has happened and bring your attention back to your breath. That’s all it is. With the strengthened awareness muscle that comes from meditation, you’ll find that it’s much easier to become aware and catch yourself before flipping out and crawling down the rabbit hole of secondary pain.

How do you get started with meditation? Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not that big a deal. Here’s what you do. When I started meditating six years ago I created my own program. I made it simple, doable and designed it so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term practice. The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. I strongly urge you to try it. It’s free. You can access it at davidgerken.net.

So do this! Eliminate your secondary pain. It’s really not that hard and the benefits are enormous.

Meditation

Use This Photo To Help You Chill The F*&% Out About Life

The photo above was taken from Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles, making it far and away the most distant image of Earth ever taken. Can you see little old earth? It’s the tiny dot about half way down and to the right, in the middle of the brown vertical band (the bands are the result of sunlight reflecting off the camera). Launched in 1977, Voyager 1’s chief objectives were to study Jupiter and Saturn. In 1990, ten years after completing this primary mission, the famed astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the probe’s cameras around and take one last photo of Earth from deep space.

The resultant photo provides a valuable reminder of how mind-blowingly infinitesimal our world is, a tiny dot in a vast ocean of blackness. As Sagan said about the dot in the photo: “That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust.”

Here’s a suggestion. Print out this photo and put it on your refrigerator. And save it to your phone. And the next time you find yourself ruminating about some pointless workplace scenario (“If that suck up Bill gets the promotion I’ll quit!” “She wears that same top to every weekly staff meeting; gee, I wonder why?” “If my numbers don’t go up next month I could get fired. Then what?”) take a look at that photo to remind yourself that we’re living on a tiny speck of sand twirling around in space in the middle of nowhere.

If you’re a young person feeling like the weight of the world is on your shoulders (“I have absolutely no idea what I want to do with my life.” “Should I keep teaching school or transition to finance so I can make some dough?” “Am I ever going to meet a good guy or will I be single and childless the rest of my life?”) look at that little dot to remind you how insignificant your problems are in the grand scheme of the universe.

If you’re a crazed mom who expends every bit of psychic energy just to keep your head above water (“If I leave the office now I can probably catch the second half of Sidney’s soccer game, but if my a-hole boss calls us all in to prep for tomorrow’s client pitch and I’m gone, I’m screwed. AHHH!!!” “I am so sick of these cliquey moms at school pick up; my god, it’s like high school all over again.” “We really need milk and cereal, but do I really want to drag my two toddlers kicking and screaming into the grocery store…?”) take note that of the 640,000 pixels in the Voyager photo, the Earth comprises only 1/8 of one pixel! All the rest is just empty space.

In fact, that’s 99.99999% of what the universe is — black space. Everywhere. Next time you catch yourself in another pointless, anxious spiral of thoughts, just stop. Look at the photo. And ask yourself: “Why am I taking this meaningless situation/problem so seriously?” Then close your eyes. And imagine yourself floating in that dark space. Quiet. Peaceful. No problems. Take three deep breaths as you float around. Then open your eyes and get on with your day, hopefully feeling lighter and less stressed.

The point here is not that because we live on a tiny “mote of dust” surrounded by blackness that life is meaningless. What I am saying is, first, that the Voyager 1 photo gives we earthlings perspective. We get so sucked in to our lives and take everything so seriously that we lose sight of the fact that living this way is absolutely absurd. We forget the great spiritual dictum: Be in the world, but not of it. In other words, don’t get so sucked in to all the pettiness and fear and desire in the external world that you lose your inner anchor.

Second, what this photo really evokes is awe. In all this mass of blackness exists a miniscule grain of sand where people love, drink, swim at the beach, eat, play tennis, set off fireworks on the Fourth of July, knit, read and do thousands of other things.

So Voyager 1, as you continue hurtling through interstellar space, now 13.5 billion miles away from home, I’d like to thank you for reminding me not to take for granted the cosmic gift that is life on Earth. And thanks also for slapping me in the face and waking me up to the fact that just about every problem I think I have doesn’t “amount to a hill of beans,” as Humphrey Bogart once so famously said.