Meditation

Meditation

2 Valuable Things I Learned Living In Paris With My Wife

My wife and I lived in Paris in March and April of 2006. Here are two important lessons I learned from the experience.

The Universe rewards risk-takers

First, the greatest of great things often happen when you throw caution to the wind and take a big risk. In our case, I had just finished working on the writing staff of an NBC show about an elite unit in the Pentagon and my wife had just left her job working for the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The risk for me jettisoning Hollywood for two months was that I could miss out on meetings with television executives for jobs that would be doled out during the network staffing season that occurs every May. But I had decided to write a screenplay about Teddy Roosevelt and figured Paris would be an ideal place to do it.

My wife had already lined up her next job but had to ask her new boss if he’d be okay with her starting a few months later than planned. Turned out he was fine with it.

Spending money, not making it

The big risk was obvious: We wouldn’t be making any money while in Paris and we sure would be spending it. But I had saved up a bit from my years working as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., so I didn’t see that as a deal-breaker.

The biggest hurdle was that my wife was financially conservative. In other words, she was a huge worrywart about money and ending up in the poor house. Her parents were like that and their parents were like that, and on and on. My parents were also like that, both being children of the Depression. For whatever reason, though, it didn’t bother me.

So after a lot of my wife saying, “Do we really have the money to do this? Don’t you think this is irresponsible of us?”, I finally said, “Screw it. Let’s do it.” To which she responded, “Okay!” So we rented an apartment through VRBO, bought our plane tickets and off we went.

Paris as our playground

The result? We had the time of our lives. I’d get up early, get an exquisite espresso and croissant and then write all morning. My wife would sleep late most mornings, trying to catch up on ten straight years of working her butt off. It worked perfectly because once she got up, I’d be finished writing and we’d head off to explore Paris. One day it was the Picasso Museum. The next day the Rodin or the Louvre or Montmartre…We walked everywhere. And of course, interspersed through it all were sublime meals.

The moral of the story? We took the risk and were more than amply rewarded. If you’re in the position to do something like this, go for it. You only live once.

The French live right

Second, and maybe even more important, I learned that we Americans have much to learn about life from the French. Here’s one anecdote that captures this.

We lived in a quaint four-story apartment building in the Latin Quarter, about a two- minute walk from the Pantheon and five minutes from Notre Dame. We saw three construction workers in the courtyard several days in a row fixing something (I can’t remember what). One day as we headed out around noon, we saw these guys eating lunch. A brown bag with a ham sandwich and a thermos full of water? No.

Luxury lunch in the courtyard

These guys, in their construction shirts and overalls, had made a makeshift table, covered it with a WHITE TABLECLOTH, on top of which were a couple baguettes, some cheese, charcuterie, and…drum roll please…A bottle of red wine! My wife and I looked at each other and laughed in amazement. In a million years would you ever see that anywhere in America?

Can the French, especially Parisians, be crazy? And rude? And exasperating? You bet. But it’s like the Buddhist conception of suffering: once you accept that it exists, it’s not nearly as bad.

But the bottom line on this is inescapable: The French know how to live. They don’t sit around worrying about their station in life or obsessing about whether the boss thinks they’re working hard enough. They enjoy themselves. They sit at cafes and talk to each other. With the best food and wine in the world, one would think France would be a country of obese alcoholics. Not so. For the most part, they eat and drink in moderation.

An American at peace in Paris

As someone who grew up in a Type A American family, this way of life was a salve for my soul. Strolling through Paris, I felt none of that insidious, invisible, suffocating pressure that permeates so much of America.

And the good news for my wife and me, and you if you ever take the French plunge, is that you can take it home with you. If you’re there long enough, that essence of French living can embed itself in you and survive the return to America. All these years later, we still drink a lot of espresso and wine, too. We did cut back on the baguettes. Too many carbs. C’est la vie.

Meditation

For a Fulfilling Life, Follow R.W. Emerson’s Definition of Success

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s final declaration in his treatise on what makes for a successful life is timeless, universal and applies to us all. It is this:

“To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”

So true. Helping someone else “breathe easier” in their life is paramount, in my opinion, and should be asignificant part of anyone’s view of success. For their sake and the world’s.

Unfortunately, American society doesn’t share my view. Success in America is far too often measured by how much money one makes, what kind of car one drives, how big one’s house is and how important one’s job is.

It’s not that Americans don’t think that helping people is a good thing. They do. It’s just not very far up the pyramid in their definition of success.

My struggle with American-style success

This American view of success has been my personal Achilles heel for much of my life. I grew up the youngest of six kids with a father who exemplified the American ideal of success. My dad rose to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and served on the board of directors of several more. He was a corporate titan in California in the 1970s and 1980s, which happened to coincide with my formative years.

How did that rub off on me? For one, he told me repeatedly as a kid that I could be president of the United States if I really wanted to. I kid you not.

This chasing of American success led to spending my teen years focused on getting into the best college I could, which turned out to be Princeton. That was followed by fifteen years in Washington, D.C., working for current Speaker Nancy Pelosi and also as a lobbyist. Then fifteen years in Hollywood working as a writer for television (The West Wing and some other less well known shows).

Throughout all of it was the consistent pressure to be a “success.” But none of it felt quite right to me. I felt like I should aspire to powerful positions in Washington and running important shows in Hollywood, but never felt it deep in my gut.

Meditation woke me up

It wasn’t until I started meditating regularly seven years ago that it really sunk in that traditional American success isn’t something to put at the top of one’s aspirational pyramid. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working hard and reaping the benefits of one’s labor. What I am saying is that if the benefits your shooting to reap are money, fame, power and status, you are doomed to a life that will always feel lacking. There will always be a sense of emptiness and inner unease.

I’ve seen it in people I worked with in Washington who reached some of the highest levels of power in the government, and also in Hollywood where colleagues rose to run popular television shows. Most aren’t happy people.

I firmly believe it’s a natural law of the universe that chasing money, power, fame, etc., CANNOT lead to inner fulfillment. They are mutually exclusive.

Which brings us full circle to Emerson’s definition of success: “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.” Most people who live this credo do feel peaceful inside. They are the ones who go toward, not away, from a friend who’s getting divorced or who just got a cancer diagnosis or who regularly checks on their elderly neighbor whose wife just passed away.

The givers always win in the game of life

My other natural law of the universe is that these people who consistently reach out to help others “breathe easier” are paid back with benign karma that comes in many forms, but that shares one common trait: These givers feel good about themselves and feel a sense of peace inside.

Of course, what I’ve written here is nothing new. Versions of the “Good things come to good people, while bad things come to the selfish and avaricious,” have been the subject of novels, religious texts and philosophical works for thousands of years.

I’ve written this piece as yet one more reminder that what has been true throughout the ages, still is: Being good to your fellow man/woman is good for everybody. As a natural law of the universe, it’s heartening to know that that will never change.

Meditation

An Easy And Effective Weekly Task To Focus Your Life Where You Want It

If you’re like me, you’re reading this headline and saying, “Great. Yet another Medium article about how to ‘vastly improve my life by doing this one easy thing!’” Well, this one really will ‘vastly improve your life by doing this one easy thing!’

Here’s the idea: Write out 1–2 goals you want to accomplish in the upcoming week. Do it on Sunday as that is the day before what most people consider to be the start of the week, Monday. Put those goals on a post-it note and slap it down wherever you will see it most often — your desk, bedside table, bathroom counter, etc. Two main points on this idea.

First, you limit your goals to one or two because that far increases your odds of actually achieving them. If you have five to ten goals, chances are you’ll get lost in the fog of your busy life and accomplish none of them. By choosing just one or two you narrow your focus and create a mindset of “Come on, you only have these two goals for the week. You have to at least get those done.” How does this manifest during your week?

I’ll give you my own example from this week where my goals were: 1. Write three Medium articles, and 2. Write out my core exercise training program.

I’ll start with the second goal. I’ve been seeing a personal trainer for the past month to start me on a training program emphasizing strengthening my core (abs, lower back, glutes…) He’s given me several exercises and stretches to do and I needed to put all of that info together into one comprehensive daily program or I knew I wouldn’t do them. I’d been busy and putting this off the past few weeks. But I knew that making it one of my weekly goals would force me to, in the words of Larry the Cable Guy: Git-R-Done. The result? I Got-R-Done.

My Medium article goal even better illustrates the value of this idea. How? I wrote two articles Monday through Thursday. I’d hoped to write the third on Friday, but alas, my mojo left me and I got nothing done. Weekends are normally a hard time for me to write because of my three munchkins (11, 9 and 3-year-old kids) and all of their sports activities, etc. But I only set two goals for myself this week and therefore felt I had to get this done.

So take a wild guess as to what day it is as I’m typing these words? Yep. Sunday. Otherwise known as Last Chance Sunday. My daughter has a basketball game in an hour coached by my wife, which = you-know-who is in charge of my 11 and 3 three-year-olds. In other words, I need to put the pedal to the metal and get this article done soon because I know the day will get out of control after the game. So onward we go…

The second main point concerns the type of goals you set. Don’t think they have to be related only to concrete areas like work (“Sell two cars this week”) or working out (“I want to swim laps four days this week…”). Include the things in your life that truly matter to you. For example, if you’re a busy tech entrepreneur immersed in a startup, maybe one of your weekly goals would be to have dinner with your significant other at least twice. Or put your kids to bed at least twice and take them to school once.

If you’re a stay-at-home-mom overwhelmed with kids in diapers, maybe one of your goals is to get a massage. Or read a set number of pages in your book.

If you’re unemployed, maybe you set a goal of sending your resume to at least ten places. Or set a goal of rising at seven each morning and working out to start your day off on the right foot.

This idea of setting goals in all areas of your life is best expressed in Stephen Covey’s fantastic book First Things First. I highly recommend it.

Finally, if you want to set three goals in one week, go ahead. Just make sure that the third one is ultra-easy. Something like calling your mom once.

Meditation

Want To Add Intimacy To Your Relationship? Get Into Wine

The busy world we live in is making it harder and harder for couples to find things that bring them closer. People get home from a hard day at work and just want to decompress on their own, either burying themselves in their phones/laptops or zoning out in front of the TV. This kind of life far too often leads to relationship inertia in the intimacy department. Wine is the perfect antidote. Why? Three reasons.

First, drinking wine takes little time or effort. You have to buy a bottle, open it, pour it then drink it. TOGETHER. Voila.

Second, wine is fun. And I don’t mean fun as in drinking two bottles every night and getting rip-roaring drunk. I mean fun in that there are myriad grape varieties (varietals) and styles of wine to learn about and try. And most fun and intimate of all? Learning to pair wines you like with foods you like.

Finally, let’s face it, wine is inherently romantic. As the great Roman poet Ovid wrote:

It warms the blood, adds luster to the eyes,

and wine and love have ever been allies.”

My easy 5 point plan

I’ll elaborate on all of these points with the following five-point plan for incorporating wine into your relationship in the easiest way possible! My only qualification for doing so is that I’ve been drinking and learning about wine for 25 years. And for the last 14 years, my wife and I have been drinking all kinds of wines with all kinds of foods and having a great time in the process. We have three little kids and life can be crazy, but wine has given us a fun thing to bond over.

[An obvious disclaimer: if you or your partner have a history of alcoholism or drug abuse, best not to do this.]

On to the plan.

1. Buy “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course” by Kevin Zraly

Windows on the World is known as the best book ever written for learning the basics of wine. I read it many moons ago and it gave me the foundation I needed for my wine education. The bulk of the book is devoted to learning about the different wine regions of the world and the grapes grown in each: Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley and Loire Valley in France; Tuscany, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto in Italy; Spain, Germany, Australia and, of course, California. And many others.

If this geographic/grape thing strikes you as odd, that was my reaction when I first read the book. I’d always thought a wine book would devote at least 80 percent to the specifics of tasting wine. Nope. That’s about five percent, if that. In fact, I can give you the barebones of tasting in nine words: look at it, swirl it, smell it, taste it. Learning about wine is mostly about getting to know the different grapes, where they grow best around the world and, most important, trying a bunch of different wines and discovering which ones you like and which you don’t like.

The book is easy to read and not long. You can get it on Amazon for twelve bucks.

2. Find a good wine shop

Next, Google “best wine shop near me.” Yes, most big grocery stores have decent wine selection these days, but in the beginning, it’s best to find a good wine shop with knowledgeable staff. These people love wine, which makes it both enjoyable and educational just yakking with them about their favorite subject.

And by the way, if you want to just get right to it and not take the time to read Windows on the World, you can start with this step.

3. Buy a few bottles

On a weekend day, go with your partner to the wine shop and buy a few bottles of different grapes. If you’re both inclined toward whites, try a chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a grape you’ve never tried before. Possibly a dry German riesling, a Gruner veltliner from Austria or an Albarino from Spain.

FYI, I rarely, if ever, spend more than $10 on a white wine. My go-to white for the past few years has been Pontificis, which is a blend of three white grapes from Southern France — Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. It costs seven bucks and I love it. It’s available only at Trader Joe’s.

If you’re both into reds, try a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Pinot Noir and a Syrah. Cabernets can be hugely expensive, but you can get a decent bottle from Sonoma County or Washington State for as little as ten or twelve bucks. Plan to spend $15-ish on the Pinot Noir. The cheap pinot noirs ($7–12 range) are almost universally awful and do a disservice to this fantastic grape.

BTW, you don’t HAVE to buy ANY of the wines I just suggested. I’m just trying to give you a starting point if you don’t have any. The main thing is to just get your butt into the wine store and buy a few bottles that sound interesting and fun to you and your partner.

4. Buy a Vacuvin Wine Saver

You won’t finish every bottle you open in one night. The Vacuvin pumps the air out of the bottle, which can preserve the wine for several days.

A few years ago the Wall Street Journal tested several wine preserver systems, ranging in price from $10 to $400. They found that the Vacuvin, the $10 one, worked the best. It’s what I’ve used for years. You can find it on Amazon or most likely at your wine shop. Also, goes without saying, but buy a wine opener.

5. Pair wine with food

The adage goes that wine makes food taste better and food makes wine taste better. So true! Food and wine are meant to be consumed together. This is where you can really give your relationship an intimacy boost.

How? For starters, many couples are so busy that they don’t have the energy or the wherewithal to eat dinner together. The fun of pairing food and wine will give you the incentive to take the time to eat together…at least a couple nights a week.

Because all couples aren’t alike, I’ll break the wine-food advice into two groups.

First, this is for couples who are crazy busy and usually order take out:

-Chinese/Thai — Dry Riesling (Kabinett style)

-Pizza — Chianti from Tuscany (Sangiovese grape)

-Mexican (Taco Bell, etc.) — Dry riesling or sauvignon blanc

-Hamburgers (Wendy’s, etc.) — Grenache from Spain or France (great value)

How much to spend

A comment about cost: You shouldn’t have to spend more than $12 on any of these. Just ask your wine shop helper to get you something in this range. Again, you’re just starting out and getting the lay of the land with the various wine types. If you both end up LOVING a certain varietal (Cabernet? Pinot Noir? Riesling?), you can go crazy someday and splurge on a really nice bottle. That in itself would be a cool, intimate activity.

For couples who do some cooking at home, here are some basic dishes and wines:

-Pasta with red sauce — Chianti, Malbec (Argentinians have the best value)

-Baked Chicken — chardonnay

-Big salad, oil, and vinegar dressing — Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay

And obviously, just Google other foods you both like and the wines they pair well with. There’s a ton of easy information online.

Finally, here are three ideas for weekends when you can really relax, not rush and enjoy the pairings:

1) Steak with cabernet sauvignon. This is the big daddy of wine and food pairings.

2) Oysters with muscadet or Champagne. This is another classic. If your grocery store doesn’t sell oysters, go to your local Whole Foods or other high-end grocer and they will. Get a dozen or half-dozen and some cocktail sauce. Have the oysters with the muscadet or Champagne as an appetizer before dinner.

3) Baked salmon and Pinot Noir. This is one most people don’t know about and is absolutely fantastic. (If you’re a single guy, interested in someone and you’re at the point where you feel comfortable inviting her over for dinner, DO THIS!)

It’s so easy. Go to your shop and ask your wine person for a decent bottle of Pinot Noir for $15–20 from the Central Coast of California, Santa Barbara County or Santa Maria, CA.

Then buy a pound of salmon at the grocery store (just get farm-raised; I could write a whole article on farm vs. fresh, etc., but that’s for another time.) At home, put your oven on 400. Get a basic baking dish and spread a little oil on it. Put the salmon in the baking dish. If you have soy sauce, spread a little over the salmon and rub it in. Put salt and pepper on the salmon. Put the salmon in the oven for 18–20 minutes.

Make a salad and some rice and you’re golden. If you’re too lazy to make rice (I am!), go to Trader Joe’s and buy it frozen. They come in packets of three and all you do is put one in the microwave for three minutes. The rice tastes great and comes in brown or jasmine variety.

Closing thoughts

Wine is fun. Drunk in moderation, it’s also healthy, with multiple studies showing it’s good for the heart and reduces the risks of some forms of cancer and other diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (Ashley Sobel, Healthline.com, 8/27/19).

Most important, it’s a whole world you and your partner can experience together. Cheers.

Meditation

Want to Feel Better? Go Outside and Listen to the Birds

I live a stone’s throw from one of the top birding sites in America, the Back Bay in Newport Beach, California. As I watched and listened to the birds there a few days ago on one of my writing breaks, it occurred to me: This is so peaceful and relaxing, I should write a piece about this. Here it is.

First, to get you enthused about actually trying this, you should know that there is scientific evidence that listening to birds reduces stress. Scientists at the University of Surrey in England have been studying the “restorative benefits of birdsong,” testing whether it really does improve our mood. They discovered that, of all the natural sounds, bird songs and calls were those most often cited as helping people recover from stress, and allowing them to restore and refocus their attention. (Stephen Moss, “Natural high: Why birdsong is the best antidote to our stressful lives,”The Guardian 5/4/19).

Birds pull you into the moment

But forget for a moment the health benefit, I find watching and listening to birds to be a beautiful, spiritual, meditative experience. Why? For one, it pulls me into the present moment. The birds I’m listening to are singing right now. And the sounds are so mesmerizing that my mind (for once!) doesn’t want to drift off. My focus wants to stay right there, on the sublime songs.

Second, there is something so sweet and innocent about birds and the sounds they make. When you look at them chirp away, it is so obvious that they have no idea what they’re doing. They’re just doing it. By instinct. And not to get too “out there” about it, but it’s like God/Nature/The Universe is expressing itself through these tiny, cute creatures. They’re just vessels of God.

Which is why birds are so inspiring to me — because I believe we humans are at our best when we “just do it,” and don’t get caught up in all the crazy thoughts and emotions that block us from being vessels of God/The Universe or whoever you think is directing the cosmic show.

What to do

So how do you do this bird listening thing? That’s pretty self-evident. You go outside and listen.

Couple other suggestions, though. First, birds singing is obviously most pronounced in the morning. So one thing to try is getting your coffee, going outside in your bathrobe and slippers and just sitting and listening. And this doesn’t have to be some hours long activity. Just a few minutes will put you in a better place.

Second, it’s best if you can actually see the birds as they sing. Watching them allows you to truly soak in their zen-like innocence.

Finally, I wouldn’t concern yourself with identifying the birds and making lists of them, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you get into all the facts about birds and species, it will tend to divert your attention from the main intention: Experiencing the birds and their ethereal, majestic presence. As Eckhart Tolle says, someone who knows absolutely nothing about honey but who has tasted it knows far more about honey than a guy who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on honey but has never tasted it.

Trust me, watching and listening to these adorable creatures that weigh all of one ounce will put you in a better mood.

Meditation

How Mindfulness Can Be Especially Helpful During Tough Times

If you’re going through a difficult period in your life (the end of a relationship, loss of a job, family problems, etc.), mindfulness, when utilised properly, can prove to be one of the healthiest ways to navigate through the storm.

So how do you practice mindfulness? I’ll get to that shortly.

First, it’s worth exploring the reasons why people often don’t use mindfulness during bad times. Often it’s simply because most of us don’t like the idea of being completely present with our pain. Because, after all, that’s what mindfulness is — presentness — and we’d much prefer to avoid pain rather than face it.

Furthermore, many people make the misconception that the central aim of mindfulness is to make one feel better, calmer, and more peaceful. And while that’s often the result of practising mindfulness, it’s not the fundamental purpose.

The paramount objective of mindfulness is to be present for each moment of your life, whether those moments are good or bad.

Many of us struggle to be mindful during times of turmoil. Our lack of present moment-awareness manifests itself in the form of excessive thoughts — obsessive, involuntary, mostly pointless musings that distract us from whatever’s happening to us right now.

So a logical question you might have is: Why the heck would I want to be present when I’m feeling awful about something? That is the million-dollar question, and it gets to the crux of this entire piece.

The answer is that not being present with your difficult feelings often only exacerbates the problem, making your situation markedly worse. How does that work?


Obsessive Thinking Compounds the Problem

Let’s take an example.

Your boyfriend breaks up with you and you feel shattered inside. Your days are spent lost in thoughts that pinball from what a terrible person he is, to worrying that you’ll never meet another good guy, to thinking you’re not attractive or good enough for anybody, to how much you miss him — and then right back to what a terrible person he is.

On and on this goes. For weeks. Months. Sometimes years.

And you might ask, “So what’s wrong with that? That’s a normal reaction to being broken up with.” True, it is normal. But it’s not the healthiest way to deal with your painful breakup.

Why? Because all of that ruminative thinking is only adding to the original source of pain: Your boyfriend broke up with you. So how might a more mindful approach to such a heartwrenching experience look?

Well, it’s as simple as consistently saying to yourself, “My boyfriend broke up with me and I feel absolutely awful inside because of it.” And just feel that, and only that. Meet those feelings head-on. Don’t resist them or think about them or do anything with them. Just feel them. Because those feelings are there in the present moment. They’re real.

And do you know what’s not real? All of those conjured thoughts about you, your future with guys, etc.


Letting the Storm Blow Over

Now here’s the good news: When you handle the situation like this, the black cloud hanging over you, in the form of the deep pain you’re feeling, will start passing through the sky… and then disappear.

But you might say, “Well, we all get over breakups and deaths and bad times. So the black cloud eventually does pass over.

That’s right. But the key is, when we approach hardship with mindful awareness, that black cloud will pass significantly faster. Because when you’re obsessing about your boyfriend and if you’ll ever meet anyone again, etc., what you’re really doing is feeding that black cloud which allows it to just hang there, making you miserable.

When you’re present with just what you’re feeling, the cloud loses strength and passes through faster.


Jon Kabat-Zinn On Pain

It’s worth a quick digression here to note that the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding visionary for mindfulness in America, which was initially centred on dealing with physical pain.

In the late 1970s, Kabat-Zinn asked the doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to send him their patients whose pain problems weren’t responding to any traditional treatment or drugs. It was from this work that Kabat-Zinn created the now world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR).

Bill Moyers did a piece on Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR program at UMass Medical Center in 1993. Among many moving stories, the one that stood out to me was that of a fisherman from Gloucester who fell off a roof and cracked several vertebra. No longer able to work and in near-constant pain, this man was at the beginning of the eight-week MBSR program was absolutely miserable.

But Kabat-Zinn taught him how to be present with his pain, and not try to shoo it away or think about how terrible it was making him feel or how his life was ruined forever.

Did Kabat-Zinn make his pain disappear? No. Not completely. But after eight weeks of meditation and mindfulness training, this guy was a different person. Smiling. Laughing. His old self.

Why is this relevant here? Because physical pain and emotional pain need to be dealt with in the same way: by being present with what is actually being felt in the moment. When that is done on a consistent basis, the pain is vastly reduced and often subsides much quicker.

Try This

So give this a try. It’s not complicated.

The next time you’re in an especially bad place, go inside and place all of your attention on exactly how you feel at that moment. Don’t try to get rid of the feeling or ruminate about how unlucky you are or how this situation is going to ruin your future. No.

Go inside and feel that pain. Be present with it. Acknowledge its existence.

And just keep saying to yourself, “Okay. I feel like absolute crap right now and that’s it.” Leave it at that. Don’t let it go beyond how you feel at that moment. Because how you feel at that moment is the only thing that exists. Everything else is just your egoic mind creating thoughts that will make you miserable and prolong your agony.

Is this hard to actually do? Sometimes. But you’d also be surprised at how easy it can be.


Closing Thoughts

I’ve gotten into all sorts of spiritual pursuits over the past decade or so. Meditating regularly, reading all the books and taking the courses and listening to all the great teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Michael Singer.

And I can honestly say that the most valuable thing I’ve learned that has had the most direct and positive effect on my life has been this practise of being mindful in tough times.

Meditation

The First line of the Tao Te Ching: The Ultimate Teaching

I believe the Tao Te Ching is the wisest book ever written. This is the first line:

“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

That one sentence carries a gold mine worth of spiritual wisdom. How? I’ll get there quickly (I promise).

First, some context. The Tao is thought to be written in China by Lao Tzu some 2,500 years ago. It is nothing less than a handbook on how to live life.

Definition of the Tao

So, what is the Tao? Here the definition is given in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “The unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality.” Some equate it with God, others with nature.

Which leads us back to that first line: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” The fact that Lao Tzu chose to begin his sublime treatise on life with this sentence reveals the import he places on its meaning.

What that sentence means is that the Tao/God cannot be understood by talking about it or thinking about it or reading about it or writing about it. So how does one come to understand the Tao? By sensing it.

This is enormously important for those trekking the spiritual path. I know many people who derive great pleasure and stimulation from talking and engaging about spiritual issues and concepts. They love to talk, for instance,about the conscious self and how that is the real self vis-à-vis the egoic, voice-in-the-head self. And on down the line of the myriad topics in the spiritual realm.

Don’t talk, get quiet inside

I’m not opposed to talking, writing, etc., about spirituality. That’s most of what I do on Medium! What I do caution against is allowing the stimulation gained by talking/writing, etc., to become one’s primary spiritual pursuit.

Because as Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, you can’t understand the Tao or God by talking about it. The only path to the Tao and God is through the silent stillness inside you.

This concept of going inside to find the big answers is universal. Luke 17:21 quotes Jesus as saying, “…The Kingdom of God is within you.” Well, you don’t enter that kingdom by listening to the cacophony of chatter spewed out by your conceptualizing mind. You get there, as you do with the Tao, by entering the state of no-thought, or still, presence as Eckhart Tolle calls it. In other words, you sense the Tao/God.

The fundamental problem with many spiritually-minded people is that they spend 80 percent of their spiritual energy conceptualizing and only 20 percent on getting quiet inside and sensing their true self/the Tao/God. Those numbers need to be reversed if true spiritual growth is to be achieved.

Why do so many people focus on the conceptual aspect of spirituality? Because going inside and getting quiet is HARD. Really hard. Our minds love to race. They’re like rambunctious five-year-old boys: They don’t like to sit still.

Meditate to get quiet inside

The best way to teach your mind to sit still is to develop a regular meditation practice. I’ve been practicing regularly for seven years and it’s made me a better dad, husband (even my wife agrees!), friend and overall human being.

I created a simple program designed to get people into regular meditation practice in the easiest way possible. It’s free and can be found at davidgerken.net. I also recommend the books and recordings of Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Peter Russell.

Read the Tao!

Finally, if you haven’t already, do yourself a huge favor and read the Tao. It’s easy to read and is only 4,000 words, which is shorter than many magazine articles. The Stephen Mitchell translation is the best.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages:

“Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?”

Meditation

How to Encourage Your Children to Meditate

Seven years of regular meditation have done wonders for me, so it occurred to me earlier this year, why not try and get my 11-year-old son to do it too?

Several months in, he’s meditating regularly. Here’s how I did it.


Keep it Simple

First, and foremost, I kept it really simple and easy. How? For one, I only have him do three minutes. At this age, that’s plenty.

I have him do it in my home office where I adjust the seat down to his level. Then I go to the free Insight Timer app on my phone (which I highly recommend) and go to my preset three-minute timed session and press start. A bell sounds and off he goes. Three minutes later another bell sounds and he’s done.

Maintain a Routine

To help establish a routine, I have him meditate around 8:20 each morning, just before he heads out the door for school. Meditation has become just another part of his morning routine before school: wake up, get dressed, play some games on his computer, eat breakfast, brush teeth, meditate, get his backpack ready, get on his bike and ride to school.

I also don’t have him do it every day. We shoot for just five out of seven days a week. This takes a lot of pressure off him because he knows he’s got two days to play with if he’s not feeling up to it.

As for what I taught him to actually do in his session, that’s no different than what I’d teach an adult — simply place attention on the area just outside your nostrils and watch the breath go in…and then out. And if the mind takes you away, just notice that and come back to that place in front of your nostrils.

The other thing I have him do is start and end each session with two long, deep breaths. I’m going to introduce him to a body scan meditation soon, which seems to work well for all ages.

Provide an Incentive

Now comes the slightly controversial incentive I give him if he gets his five out of seven days in: I pay him. Ten bucks a week. I know that may sound awful or crazy to some of you, but hear me out. My thinking is that if this meditation routine really sticks and he continues it into adulthood and for the rest of his life, well…that is priceless. I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but it could. So giving him that extra monetary incentive early on, while not ideal, is something I’m willing to live with given the upside potential.

And by the way, I don’t have to grab him by the ear every morning to do this. Several months in, he rarely protests or gripes about it. He actually says meditation makes him feel calm. With all the stress and anxiety kids feel these days, I can’t think of anything more important or effective to teach him than meditation. Feeling calm and clearheaded right as he goes to school is a great way for him to start his day.

Explain Why Meditation Matters

And it isn’t just the actual meditation that’s helping him. Because along the way I’m teaching him about why meditation is so important. That getting stuck in your head thinking obsessive thoughts all the time is not healthy. That the state of no-thought is the place where genius and true creativity arise.

He loves to play lacrosse and I’m teaching him that meditation, by clearing his mind of thoughts, will make him an exponentially better player. It’ll also make him a better student for the simple reason that meditation vastly improves focus.

Most importantly, it will make him a calmer, happier person. My hope is that learning all of these concepts about the mind and obsessive thoughts, etc., as a kid will make it easier for him to become a conscious, aware adult, which, in my book, is the most important life mountain any human can climb.

By the way, meditation is doubly important for today’s teenagers. I live in a wealthy town in Southern California and all I ever hear about the high school kids is how anxious they are. About their grades. Their sports. Their social status. What college they’re going to go to. Not to mention the torment that social media inflicts on them.

High school years have always been challenging, but nowadays it just seems out of control. So if you have a teenager, I strongly urge you to at least TRY to get them to meditate. It will help reduce this overwhelming anxiety plaguing them.


So, to sum up the process I’ve used with my son:

  • Three minutes of meditation is plenty in the beginning.
  • Set up a place in the house with a chair that’s the right size or that can be adjusted. Comfort is essential.
  • Download the free Insight Timer app and set up a three-minute meditation.
  • Try and do it in the 15 minutes or so before leaving for school if that’s possible.
  • Have them meditate by taking a few deep breaths at the beginning and end; focus on the area in front of the nostrils, watching the breath go in, then out. When the mind wanders, just tell them to bring attention back to the nostrils.
  • Do it five out of seven days per week; they decide which days to take off.
  • Think about paying a little money; doing so will make it easier to get them into it initially.
Meditation

A Simple Technique You Can Use to Quiet the Voice in the Head

We all have it. That voice jabbering away in our head all day long. “That was a snide remark. What’s her problem?”

Then ten minutes later…“I can’t believe she said that. What a bitch. I never liked her.” Then five seconds later…“I’ve missed the last seven fucking lights. How is that mathematically possible?”

On and on and on like this. All-day long. Every day. Blah, blah, blah. It’s the voice in your head that won’t shut up.

Eckhart Tolle calls it the egoic self. Michael Singer calls it, well, the voice in the head. The essence of many spiritual traditions is that we are not this voice. What are we? We’re the conscious self that is aware of this annoying voice.

The problem most people have is that they identify themselves with this voice. One reason they do this is that they’re not even aware that there is any other “self” than this crazy voice.

That being said, the key to spiritual and personal growth can be summed up in two simple steps:

  1. First, becoming aware that there we are comprised of two distinct selves.
  2. Then, through practicing meditation and mindfulness, working on the conscious self merely observing the crazy voice in the head — the egoic self.

When you do this repeatedly, over time what happens is your conscious, present, real self gains influence over your life while that annoying voice in your head takes more and more of a backseat.

It’s for that reason that people like Eckhart and Michael Singer and any number of true yogis from India and elsewhere are so calm, content and exuberant. They’re present. Conscious. Not lost in their busy, thinking minds like most of us.


With all that said, let’s move on to that technique I mentioned. What I used to do when the voice in my head got all bent out of shape about something was to step back, become aware that I was getting upset about something the voice was ranting about, then simply say to myself,

“Okay. My egoic, crazy self is upset that Steph forgot to tell me that I had to take Violet to preschool this morning, which is throwing off my writing schedule.”

Lately, I’ve found that an even more effective way to isolate and separate from that voice in the head is to actually use my name when talking to myself. So using the example above, I’d say,

“Okay. David is upset that Steph…”

In doing so, I’m literally referring to this egoic self/voice in the head as if it were a separate person. Why? Because it is. It’s not me.

Try this sometime — with your name, not mine.

Whatever the thing that has the voice in your head babbling in overdrive, the next time you talk to it, call it by your name. It will accentuate the separation from the real you, which, as we say in October during the World Series, is the whole ballgame.

Meditation

What I Learned Working For Two Oscar and Emmy Award-Winning Writers

As a writer in Hollywood for fifteen years I got the opportunity to work for two of the most accomplished writers in the business. And while we wrote for the screen, the lessons I learned from these heavyweights apply to any literary form, and that includes writing for Medium.

Aaron Sorkin — Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (“The Social Network”), Five Emmy Awards for “The West Wing”

As part of the writing staff for season four of “The West Wing,” I learned two main lessons about writing from Aaron, considered by many to be the best writer in Hollywood over the past twenty-five years.

Lesson One: Be vigilant in adhering to the main fundamental of your writing form.

This is going to sound utterly simplistic but here we go: The main fundamental of dramatic writing is to make it dramatic. Simple? Yes. But you would be shocked at how often writers on our staff would pitch ideas about some “interesting” political issue. Aaron would shoot them down in a second. The biggest fallacy about the show was that it was a platform for Aaron to air his liberal agenda. Wrong. Aaron focused on one thing in running and writing “The West Wing:” Making it dramatic. Here’s just one example.

In the season one episode “Take This Sabbath Day,” President Bartlet, a Catholic who didn’t believe in the death penalty, had to decide whether to commute the execution of a convicted murderer. He has his boyhood priest (played by Karl Malden) fly down from New Hampshire to counsel him. When the priest enters the Oval Office he asks Bartlet what he should he call him. Bartlet responds that in deference to the office he should be called ‘Mr. President.’

Throughout the episode Bartlet agonizes over what he should do: follow his conscience and religion or carry out the law. The final scene occurs after the inmate has been executed. Bartlet and the priest, Karl Malden, talk about it for a bit and it’s clear that Bartlet is shattered inside.

And then Aaron brings the dramatic hammer down. The priest, dispensing with propriety, says, “Jed, would you like me to take your confession?” Bartlet says, “Yes,” kneels down and says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” Fade to black. End of episode. Aaron took a big issue and the most powerful man on earth and created an exquisitely poignant, human, DRAMATIC moment.

What’s the fundamental tenet of your writing? If you’re writing business memos, I’d say that tenet would be expressing your ideas in the easiest, most digestible way possible. Don’t make your boss or colleagues work one smidgen harder than they need to in reading your memo. How do you do that? You say in the first sentence or two what the memo is about and then you explain that in the clearest, simplest language possible.

For Medium writers, I’d say the main fundamental is grabbing readers’ attention through a solid title and first paragraph that both capture your unique voice. Why? Because Medium is flooded with content and if you don’t capture a reader early, they’ll move on.

The chief lesson I learned from Aaron on this is that you have to be vigilant and disciplined about not letting yourself be diverted from that main fundamental of whatever writing form you’re engaged in.

Lesson Two: Writing is hard.

In the 23 episodes we produced in season four, Aaron was stuck in writer’s hell in every one of them. The writing process was agonizing for him. Every time. The only time he was truly happy was just after he’d finished a script. In fact, he said many times half-jokingly that the only reason to write was the feeling you get when it’s done.

The only person I heard of who could whip off a really good script in an afternoon without breaking much of a sweat was David E. Kelley who ran “L.A. Law”, “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and, most recently, “Big Little Lies.” For everybody else, lots of pain, drudgery and hitting your head against the wall.

The point? If writing is hard for you, take solace in knowing that it is brutally difficult for even the most accomplished writers. I liken writing to doing pushups: neither ever seems to get easier with time or repetition. And the only real solution that Aaron, and virtually every other writer since Homer, has come up with is to just suck it up and soldier on. Bottom line: You’re not alone!

David Shore — Emmy for “House”

Lesson Learned: Success comes from developing your unique writer’s voice.

I worked with David on a short-lived show called “Century City,” which was billed as “L.A. Law” fifty years into the future. David had a deal with Fox at the time requiring him to create a new show while working on “Century City.”

The idea that his producing partners talked him into writing was a medical mystery show. Instead of solving a crime or resolving a legal case, the show would pose some bizarre medical condition and the doctors would have to figure out what it was in order to save the patient.

The problem for David? He wasn’t a doctor, he was a lawyer. He walked into my office many times lamenting that he had no idea how to write this show they were calling “House.” “I’m a lawyer. What the hell do I know about medicine?”

After procrastinating for months, Fox put a gun to his head and gave him two weeks to write the pilot script or the show was toast.

So he disappeared for two weeks and banged out an excellent pilot script. How did he do it? He decided to put all of his creative energy into the lead character of Dr. House.

All of that cranky, acerbic, recalcitrance displayed by House? That was David himself. That was his voice screaming through. And I didn’t watch “House,” but those that did told me that the main attraction of the show was this fascinating, entertaining, central character.

The moral of this story? Unless you are writing absolutely dry, scientific abstracts, developing your voice is absolutely essential to succeeding in the writing trade. Don’t copy anybody. Ever. Dig deep inside yourself and whatever you find, express it in your writing.

Your writer’s voice is like your fingerprint: It is entirely unique. Not one person on earth has a voice identical to yours. Finding it, developing it and expressing it is not only the surest ticket to writing success, it also provides you the best opportunity to inject energy and passion into your work.