Meditation

Meditation

Eckhart Tolle Is Right: Surrender Is Central to Spiritual Growth

Anyone seriously interested in awakening spiritually has to practice surrender. Here’s how Eckhart puts it:

“Until you practice surrender, the spiritual dimension is something you read about, talk about, get excited about, write books about, think about, believe in, or don’t…It makes no difference. Not until you surrender does it become a living reality in your life.”

So true. But you might be wondering, what does surrender even mean? Eckhart, again, expresses it best:

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

That’s it. That’s everything. Yielding to the flow of life. Do that and 90% of the angst plaguing your being will melt away.

Why is that? Because virtually all people resist most of the moments of their lives…And they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Example: someone in front of you is driving slowly. You clench up. Get annoyed. You RESIST.

Don’t resist, surrender

Instead, surrender to it. It’s what’s happening. It’s part of the flow of life. When you resist it you’re only hurting yourself. Another way of looking at it is another golden aphorism from Eckhart: “Accept each moment as it is.”

Accepting something doesn’t mean you have to like it. Nobody likes a driver going 40 MPH in a 55 MPH zone or a long, slow line at the grocery store or a snide remark from your boss. But it will make a huge difference in the quality of your life if you accept these moments as opposed to resisting them.

Mickey Singer surrenders

Here are two extreme examples to further illuminate this concept of surrender. The first comes from my other favorite spiritual teacher, Mickey Singer, who wrote a bestselling book called The Surrender ExperimentThe book chronicles Singer’s life after deciding in his 20s to surrender to the flow of life.

One summer Mickey went away for a month to a spiritual center in California. When he returned home to his Florida land he found that a female friend of his had begun building a home on his property. Didn’t ask his permission. Just started building. He was livid and every fiber of his being wanted to kick her off his property. But he had resolved to flow with what life put before him, so he didn’t say a thing. In fact, he helped her finish the house!

Not long after, this woman’s friend came to live with her, a friend who would later become the love of Mickey’s life and mother of their daughter. All because Mickey surrendered to the flow of life.

The Zen master and the girl

Another extreme example is a mythical story Eckhart tells of a Zen master who is falsely accused by a teenage girl of fathering her child. The girl’s parents confront him about this and all he says is, “Is that so?” They then tell him he has to raise the child. Which the Zen master does. For a year. Then the parents come back to him and tell him that their daughter confessed: It was a young friend who impregnated her. Again, all the Zen master says is, “Is that so?” The parents apologize profusely, then take the child and leave. And the Zen master goes on with his life.

While most of us mere mortals wouldn’t respond like this in these two scenarios, I included them because they both illustrate the essence of what surrender is: Going with the flow of life.

Incorporating surrender into your life

Great, you’re thinking, a bunch of spiritual gobbledygook that has no practical application to my life. Wrong. You can incorporate surrender into your life. How? Like anything else, you practice. Just as you would learn to play the piano or golf. Start with the everyday life stuff, like driving or waiting in lines while doing errands. The moment you find yourself becoming annoyed (i.e., resisting), take a deep, conscious breath and tell yourself to surrender to that moment.

Once you get better at those, graduate to some higher hanging fruit, like your spouse saying something that really pisses you off. Again, take a deep breath and surrender to the flow of what’s happening. Accept that moment (again, you don’t have to like it). After a few breaths, respond to the situation from a place of nonresistance.

So surrender. Get yourself out of the way of the flow of life. Accept the moments life throws your way. Don’t resist them. If you do, your body and mind will unclench into a state of ease you never knew was possible.

Meditation

Want To Unload A Ton of Psychic Baggage? Stop Judging Others

Earlier this week I wrote an article about how comparing yourself to others is all harm and no benefit. Today’s piece is about comparing’s cousin: Judging.

What do I mean by judging? A dad at your kids’ baseball game keeps yelling at the umpires. You, and everyone else there, think: “What an absolutely awful human being. Who does that?”

Or you meet someone at a dinner party. On the way home you and your spouse dish: “I liked her, but I’m not sure. Part of me thinks she’s really cool, but part of me thinks she could be a huge bitch.” “Yeah. She’s got a Prada purse and if those earrings are real they’re worth thousands. But I did like the fact that she meditates.” “But did you see how much cleavage she was showing? My god. I’ll bet she meditates in the nude!” “Ha, ha!” At which point you high-five each other then turn your dish/kibbitz/gossip/judging session to the woman’s husband. And on and on.

Everybody judges

We all do it. Constantly sizing people up. She’s smart. He’s dumb. He’s fat so he’s probably lazy. She’s beautiful so I’ll bet she’s a conceited jerk.

As with comparing yourself to others, judging is all harm, no benefit. But the central point of this whole piece is that judging is all harm and no benefit…TO YOU. Sure, it’s also not good for the people you’re judging, but I’m not even concerned with that. I’m not JUDGING your JUDGING! I’m writing this because YOU will feel better the less you judge.

I have one extremely solid data point on this from which I can extract vital information: Me. I’ve been meditating regularly and working hard on my spiritual growth for over seven years now. Before that I was just as judgmental as the next person.

Judgment in Hollywood

I was a writer in Hollywood for shows like The West Wing and many others. Those jobs require sitting in a conference room most of the day dealing with roughly ten other writers. It’s a judgmentalist’s dream. Writer A is funny, but tries too hard. Writer B is an arrogant a-hole who sucks up to the boss and treats everyone else like crap. Writer C has zero talent; how the heck did he even get hired? Yuck. It’s all a big mental and spiritual energy suck.

I can honestly say that one of the top three benefits I’ve reaped from all these years of spiritual work has been the vast reduction in how much I judge others. How would I describe that benefit? Is it some loose, amorphous, intangible spiritual “thing?” No, it’s actually tangible and practical. The benefit is that I feel so much lighter inside. Judging stuffs your insides with gobs of negative baggage. If you stop doing it, I guarantee that you’ll feel lighter and better.

Why we judge

Next, we need to ask, why do people judge so much? It’s mostly because we need to feed our egoic, insecure selves that crave the need to feel superior to others. But there’s another less obvious but equally impactful reason that we judge: Because we’ve been doing it for as long as we can remember. In other words, we do it simply because it’s a habit. Well, if you get into a habit of doing something, you can also work to kick that habit.

Which leads to the next question — what can you do to curb your judging? As with comparing, the first thing you need to do is recognize how injurious judging is and decide that you don’t want to do it anymore.

How to stop doing it

Once you’ve done that, you set an intention to become aware when you are judging. Then you take a page, yet again, from the playbook of the great Eckhart Tolle. Eckhart’s view is that every single being on earth as it some level of conscious development. He, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are far along the path of conscious awakening. Most of us aren’t, yours truly included.

Some people’s level of consciousness is very low. The guy at the office who’s married but hits on every woman at work. The dad I mentioned earlier who’s constantly yelling at the umpire. You get the drift.

So when somebody does something that infuriates or bothers you and you feel your judgment muscles revving up for attack, stop. And then say to yourself, “This person is at his/her level of consciousness at this point in their life. I don’t like how they’re acting, but I wish them well in their journey.”

Don’t be condescending

By the way, this isn’t meant to be an act of condescension. You’re not saying, “Oh, you poor soul that is inferior to me as a human being. I wish you well.” It’s not about who’s better or worse. That’s what people like Michael Singer call spiritual ego.

Also, you’re not lying to yourself or denying the reality of who that person is at this point. The dad yelling at the ump is, objectively speaking, a jerk. You’re just saying, “Hey, that’s where he is right now in his development. Maybe his dad yelled at the umpires when he was a kid.”

It also doesn’t mean you need to try and befriend him and see if he wants to grab lunch after the game. If you want to help people like that, great. But the point of this whole exercise is to stop yourself from ginning up a bunch of negative energy about other people. Because that energy stays with YOU. That’s the baggage judgment creates that YOU carry around.

There’s also the type of judgment that I demonstrated at the beginning of people you don’t really know or are just unsure of. In those cases, how about just saying to yourself, “I just met this woman at a dinner party and spent fifteen minutes chatting with her. I don’t know. Maybe she’s incredible and will become my best friend and maybe she’s awful. Who knows?” And then you make no judgment at all. It’s unnecessary. Just let life flow and that relationship will go where it will go.

Let me close by reiterating the real, tangible benefit that comes when you stop judging. It made me feel noticeably better and it can do the same for you.

Meditation

Comparing Ourselves To Others: All Harm, No Benefit

We all do it. “Their house is bigger than mine.” “He makes more money than I do, but I’m a better athlete.” “Her butt is better than mine, but I have nicer clothes.” Compare, compare, compare. None of this does us any good.

So why do we all compare so much? Because most of the 7.8 billion people on planet earth are insecure about who they are. They don’t feel rich enough, smart enough, successful enough, attractive enough…All of the above. Some of the above.

What can one do to cure oneself of this affliction? First, and most importantly, you need to conclude that comparing is bad for you. Most people don’t think about it one way or the other. They just do it. I’m telling you right now, comparing is bad and you’ll feel a ton better if you stop doing it.

The cure: be like a golfer

Well, if you’re not going to compare yourself to others, what should you do? A perfect sports analogy provides the answer: Live your life like a golfer. Why? Because in golf the whole contest is about you playing against the golf course, not other golfers. There might be 100 people in a golf tournament, but you have ZERO control over how they play that day. You might shoot a career round of 65 but some other guy shoots 64 and wins.

The moral of the story? Put 100% of your focus on doing YOUR best. That’s it. After you shoot that 65, head out to the driving range and work on correcting that slight slice you struggled with that day. Then chip and putt for half an hour. And don’t worry a lick about any other players, including the guy who shot 64.

Comparing at work

This is amply true in the workplace. My dad was a Fortune 500 CEO and always instilled in me this maxim: “Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing in the office. Just focus on doing your best and you’ll be fine.” So if you’re a car salesman and you sell 30 cars some month, but your colleague sells 33, great. More power to him. You did your best. Focus on improving your sales technique, etc., but don’t sit around feeling bad that he had a better month.

Okay, so you’ve decided that comparing is all bad, no good. The next thing you need to do is become aware when you’re doing it. As Eckhart Tolle says, “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” So true.

Most people compare without even being conscious that they’re doing it. It’s involuntary. You pick your kid up at school and see that Emma’s mom drives a Mercedes. And this little pinprick jabs you inside and your mind says, “Emma’s mom, Mercedes. Me, Toyota Minivan. Her, winner. Me, loser.”

Again, none of this is at the forefront of your awareness, but it does make an impression. You drive off, feeling slightly less good about yourself. Multiply that by thousands of instances over many years and it adds up to a big fat pot of Insecurity Stew roiling around in your gut.

Relax, breathe, let go

Fine. So you become aware of a comparison episode, like seeing the Mercedes at school pick up. Right when you notice that you’re comparing, close your eyes and completely relax inside. Your head, neck, shoulders, chest. Then take one deep, conscious breath. Then let go of that feeling of inferiority. Just let it go. Then open your eyes and get on with things. This whole practice should take no more than 10–15 seconds.

By the way, you need to also do this when you have a comparison episode of superiority. If you’re Emma’s mom, see the minivan and start thinking you’re better because you’re in a Mercedes, YOU close your eyes, take a deep breath, relax, then let that feeling go.

You won’t slay the comparing dragon in a day. Or a month. You’ve probably been doing this your entire life so you’ll have to be patient in eliminating it. The key is to be vigilant in becoming aware when you’re doing it. And then practice letting go. You’ll get better at it over time.

Teaching my kids

I have three kids, ages 11, 9 and 3, and like any parent, I have myriad things I want to teach them about life. Most important is that they be decent, loving people with high integrity. But near the top of that list is teaching them that comparing is all bad, no good.

It’s nearly impossible for kids to conquer the comparing thing. Being young is virtually synonymous with being insecure. But I hope that if I hammer on it enough they will have a head start in eliminating it in adulthood.

I myself was hopelessly insecure as a kid. I always felt it was so important that I be better than other kids, especially in sports. That stayed with me for far too many decades, causing so much unnecessary angst in my work life.

The spiritual path

Diving into the spiritual ocean ten years ago has helped immensely with this. The deeper I go, the more I realize how unimportant money, material things, professional status, etc., are. I’m not a big comparer anymore and that in itself has virtually emptied my pot of Insecurity Stew. Needless to say, I feel like a fifty-pound sack has been taken off my shoulders.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this wise advice from chapter eight of my favorite book, The Tao Te Ching:

“When you are content to simply be yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

Meditation

How To Use Your Smartphone to Build Mindfulness

Last weekend I was riding an exercise bike when my Iphone fell off and cracked. Off to the Apple store I went where the geniuses convinced me to pay for my upgraded Iphone 8 with the new Apple Card. Problem is that Apple makes it mandatory to use a security passcode for your phone if you want to use the card. Something about protecting vital financial information. This bummed me out because I have NEVER used the passcode security option for my phone. I find it annoying to have to punch four numbers in every 12 seconds or three minutes or whatever.

And then it occurred to me: This is a huge opportunity. How? Because entering that security code, which I now do probably 20–30 times a day, can serve as a prompt to enter the present moment. What I do, specifically, is every time the security code screen comes up I look away from my phone, become aware of my surroundings then take one conscious breath. While taking that breath, I say to myself, “I’m right here, right now.” Then I punch in my number. All told, we’re talking 5–7 seconds.

Mickey and Eckhart’s techniques

Other people use different daily doings. For example, Mickey Singer, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, has a thing where, whenever he opens a door he uses that as a prompt to say to himself, “I’m living on a rock that’s twirling around in the middle of nowhere.”

My other favorite teacher, Eckhart Tolle, has a practice where whenever he gets into his car, he stops, looks at his surroundings through the windshield for several seconds, then puts the keys in the ignition and off he goes.

There are myriad other daily tasks you could use to prompt yourself into the present moment. Like washing your hands in the restroom. Or sitting in a chair. Or pouring a drink.

Why the phone passcode prompt makes sense

It makes sense to start off using just one task. No need to overload yourself. After using the phone passcode prompt these past days, I highly recommend giving that one a try. Why? Because entering your phone passcode is the quintessential example of your busy-body mind taking over your consciousness and kicking you out of the present moment. You do it by rote and are not the slightest bit present.

When you first try this you will probably, as I did, experience some resistance. In the first few hours of doing it, I had a couple of times where my mind saw the passcode screen and said, “Oh, for God’s sake. I just entered this like thirty seconds ago. Ahh!”

Then the logical, sane part of me took over and said, “Don’t be an idiot. Take your one conscious breath. There is NEVER a time when bringing yourself into the present moment doesn’t make sense. I don’t care if you just did it a few seconds ago. Do it again. And again. And again.”

Our minds are Goliath

For most regular people traveling the mindful path the only reason we resist entering the present moment is that our minds don’t want to stop. The mind gets on a roll and wants to stay on a roll! “Damn it, don’t stop me and make me take a mindful breath. I’m rolling. I need to get to my text messages NOW!”

No, you don’t. You need to slow down and be present. Why? Because doing so, over time, will make you a smarter, more focused, calmer, happier and better person.

Quieting the mind is very hard

Be mindful that quieting the mind and entering the present moment is extremely difficult for most people. Our minds are powerful and love to dominate our lives with mostly pointless thoughts.

WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY THIS MINDFUL TECHNIQUE IS SO IMPORTANT!

All those conscious breaths you take before punching in your phone code will add up. Give it a try.

Meditation

One Way Meditation Rewired My Brain…for the Better

Seven years of regular meditation have made me a calmer, happier and better person. This piece chronicles one specific example of that betterment and the science underlying it.

First, some background. After graduating from college I worked in Washington, D.C, for fifteen years, as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill and then as a lobbyist. In my last few years in DC I took up writing screenplays in order to flex my creative muscles, something I’d always wanted to give a try. After a few years of being a dabbling dilettante, I screwed up the courage to chuck Washington and drive West to Tinseltown.

My big break

After a little over a year, I got a major break in May of 2002 when Oscar and Emmy Award winning writer Aaron Sorkin hired me to become part of his writing staff on The West Wing. It was great. I got to work for my favorite show with its stellar cast and first class everything. I got to go to the Emmys twice, and even received an award in 2003 as part of the team that won the Emmy for Best Drama Series.

Then in May of 2003 Warner Bros. fired Aaron, leaving we other writers waiting to see whether the new emperor (John Wells) would turn his thumb up or down on us. I thought I had a decent shot at being asked back because I’d done some solid work over the course of the season, including creating a story that continued over four episodes, when no other story had even continued for two.

“Sorry, they fired you.”

So on that fateful day in May my phone rings. The caller ID says “Creative Artists Agency” (CAA was my agency). This was it. The moment of truth. My agent: “I’m so sorry. They’re not picking up your option.” For as long as I live, I’ll never forget my reaction. My heart started beating wildly. It literally felt as if some gland was pumping depression juice into my head. Seriously. Whatever biochemical it is that makes your head feel heavy, lethargic and foggy. Thump. Thump. Thump.

This firing-induced funk stuck with me for the better part of a few months. The West Wing was a first rate show in every way — directing, writing, acting, production values. To be able to write for another season or two or three would have been a huge boost to my career. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

But here’s the thing: Since I started meditating regularly in 2013 the way I’ve reacted to major setbacks has been night and day. How?

Paris Letdown with no Meltdown

Let’s start with Expats, a pilot script I wrote that Amazon Studios bought from me. It was about four single Americans, two men and two women, all around thirty years old, living and working in Paris, who bond over their shared experience of navigating life as Americans in the City of Lights. It was my version of Sex and the City, set in Paris. The main theme was young Americans learning about themselves by observing and experiencing the wholly un-American life lived by the French who work to live, not vice-versa.

What made me prospectively ecstatic was what the execs at Amazon repeatedly dangled in my face: “Make this script really great, Gerken, because if you do, you know where we’re going to film it, right? PARIS, BABY!!!” First thing to know is that, while they bought my already written script, all studios require you to rewrite it to their liking.

Paris, here we come!

Second, just because you write a show set in Paris doesn’t mean you’re going to film it there. In fact, more often than not studios require filming in places like Vancouver or Montreal, which are closer and offer attractive tax benefits. But because Amazon has money coming out of their ears, they said screw it, if we’re doing a show about Paris, we’re going to shoot it in Paris.

This was wildest-dream-come-true territory for me. Why? My wife and I lived in Paris for two months after we got married. It is, for me, the most magical city on the planet.

Or not

So over a period of months, I dutifully take notes from the Amazon executives and do my best to execute them in draft after draft. Finally, I turn in the final draft…And I wait. And I wait. Then I wait some more. After a couple months of this agony, my agent calls Amazon and tells them I have on offer to work on a show and need to know whether they’re going forward or not. They told him I should take the job.

Ouch…

So, how did I handle that call from my agent? The call telling me that my dream of producing MY OWN show in Paris was dead? Well, I wasn’t happy about it. There was a deep sense of loss. But I didn’t get those depression chemicals pumping into my head as I did with The West Wing call. My head didn’t become heavy and foggy. In other words, I didn’t have that physical reaction inside my head.


Rough Ride with Teddy Roosevelt

A similar scenario occurred a few years later when I wrote a screenplay about Teddy Roosevelt, another passion project for me as TR is my favorite president. I even named our yellow Labrador Retriever Teddy.

I sold the script to a production company funded by the billionaire founder of Ameritrade. We went out to Kevin Costner, Michael Keaton and some big time directors and all seemed groovy. But first in their pipeline was a film directed by Robert Redford that had a solid cast. Mine was to be next up.

The Redford film hits the theaters…and tanks. Lost around $20 million. And billionaires, oddly enough, don’t like losing money. Shocking. Bottom line: my movie, budgeted at $15 million, was shelved for one that cost $3 million. After that one made almost no money the company shut down. Buh-bye, Teddy…

Another passion project bites the dust. And how did I react? Again, not too badly. No depression chemicals saturating my brain. No horrible thoughts racing around my head. Just some normal sadness that my Teddy Roosevelt project wouldn’t be coming to a theater near you.

Our crazy Amygdalae

So, how to explain that meditation rewired my brain to the point that I didn’t completely freak out when bad things happened to me? Let’s start with the amygdala. Shaped like an almond (amygdala is the Greek word for almond), the amygdala is the main processor of emotions in the brain and is responsible for our fight or flight responses. It evolved during our hunter-gatherer period to adapt to truly life or death situations, like seeing a saber-toothed tiger and running for your life.

One of the biggest problems we modern humans face is that our amygdalae still respond to many of our ordinary life problems as if we were about to be devoured by a hungry tiger. It’s one thing if a guy in a ski mask wielding a sawed-off shotgun bursts into a 7-Eleven while you’re pouring creamer into your coffee. In that situation, sure, your amygdalae have every right to shoot adrenaline to every corner of your body.

But it’s quite another to respond this way when…you get fired from The West Wing! Not consciously, but somewhere in my being I thought that losing this job was going to kill me. Sound familiar? We’ve all had these extreme overreactions to challenges life has thrown our way, but virtually none of them were actually life-threatening, were they?

The Prefrontal Cortex — The Cool Cucumber

The good news is that the newest and most advanced part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex, acts as an inhibitory influence on the older, more primitive amygdala. These two parts of the brain, located in totally different regions, communicate with each other.

For example: when you see something in your garden that looks like a rattlesnake, your immediate response comes from the amygdala which gives you a quick jolt of “Uh, oh!” But within a second or two the prefrontal cortex examines the situation more closely, then communicates a message to the amygdala that says, “No. Just a branch that looks like a snake.” And all is well. If it actually were a rattler, the prefrontal cortex would yield to the flight response of the amygdala.

To put this in layman’s language, the amygdala is the nervous Nelly and the prefrontal cortex is the cool cucumber whose job is to tell the amygdala to chill out when it determines it is overreacting to a situation.

The prefrontal cortex to the rescue

Most important for our purposes, the prefrontal cortex also comes into play as an inhibitory force in regulating emotional reactions emanating from the amygdala. Remember, the amygdala is the main regulator of emotions in the human brain. So a tranquil, emotionally healthy person will most likely have a strong prefrontal cortex with ample gray matter and a smaller, less active amygdala. The opposite would be true for highly anxious, stressed out people.

Bottom line: I think it’s safe to say that for most of my life I had an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and a fierce amygdala. So when I got fired from The West Wing, my prefrontal cortex wasn’t strong enough to override the total freak out that my amygdala was perpetrating on my entire being.

Meditation made the difference

Meditation has strengthened my prefrontal cortex and shrunk my amygdala. How do I know this? For that matter, how do I even know that my prefrontal cortex is stronger and my amygdala is smaller now than they were in 2003? Did I do some high tech, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of my brain both in 2003 and recently that would prove this?

The answers to these questions are: I don’t, I don’t and no. So am I just making some grand assumption here about meditation’s effects on me without any hard evidence to back it up? Yes, that is what I’m doing. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is solid scientific evidence suggesting that meditation absolutely does have this beneficial effect on the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.

Harvard/Mass General studies

A 2005 study conducted by a team of researchers at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital took twenty experienced meditators and fifteen non-meditators, matched by age, race, sex and education level, and took fMRI images of their brains to measure cortical thickness and related areas of the brain. What they found wasn’t surprising: the experienced meditators had significantly thicker prefrontal cortices. And again, the stronger your prefrontal cortex, the more influential it will be in inhibiting the worrywart amygdala.

In 2011 another Harvard team, led by Sara Lazar, found that an eight-week mindfulness meditation course called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) led to reduced brain cell volume in the amygdala.

Give meditation a try

Bottom line: Meditation is profoundly beneficial, not just for me but for countless others who practice regularly. If you’ve thought about giving it a try but didn’t know where to start, I created a beginner’s program that is designed for regular people, i.e., you don’t need to be a vegan chef from Berkeley to be successful. Give it a try. It’s free and can be accessed at davidgerken.net.

Meditation

Spiritual Seekers: Follow This One Key Teaching In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha

Be the captain of your spiritual journey. That’s the central theme of Herman Hesse’s 1922 classic Siddhartha. Hesse’s message of blazing your own trail is so important in today’s world where spiritual seekers too often look to the outside world for spiritual guidance and in doing so lose touch with their internal compasses.

The book begins with young adult Siddhartha leaving his comfortable life in search of spiritual enlightenment. His best friend Govinda joins him. One day they meet the Buddha who tries to convince them to join his already large following. But Siddhartha tells the Buddha that while he believes his teachings to be supremely wise, he feels strongly that each individual must learn by following his own internal compass.

Govinda decides to join the Buddha while Siddhartha declines. The rest of the novel chronicles Siddhartha’s circuitous journey through life. After years as a pious beggar he meets a beautiful woman who says she’ll only be with him if he has wealth. So he becomes a successful businessman, lives in the city and enjoys the high life.

How Siddhartha attained peace

After many years he finds this life spiritually unsatisfying and devotes the rest of his days to being a lowly ferryman on a river. Using the river as a metaphor for life, Siddhartha becomes enlightened. In their old age, he and Govinda have a chance encounter at the river. Govinda reveals that after several decades of following the Buddha he is still spiritually lost while Siddhartha has attained peace. Such a powerful message.

Why is it so common for spiritual seekers, like Govinda, to look “out” to the world for guidance, in the form of books, lectures and teachers, etc.? I think it’s because the spiritually minded tend to be more on the sensitive, vulnerable side. In fact, one could say that most people seek the spiritual way precisely because they feel more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life than “regular” people. They think a lot. And ponder a lot. And feel a lot. This sensitivity and vulnerability tends to cause a good deal of psychic pain that leads people to look “out” to the world for answers.

Becoming anxious at Eckhart’s conference

I had my own revelation about this a few years ago while attending a conference put on by Eckhart Tolle in Huntington Beach, California. The event consisted of several spiritual luminaries giving talks on different topics over a three day period. People like Jack Kornfield, Marianne Williamson and Eckhart himself.

I distinctly remember that after listening to several speakers on the first day I noticed I felt anxious. It dawned on me that I felt this way because in listening for hours on end to people telling me what was important for my spiritual journey, I had become disconnected with my own inner center. Why? Because I was concentrating on someone “out there” telling me what was important.

Meditate to strengthen your inner connection

What did I do? I hightailed it back to my hotel room and meditated. My experience is that nothing better connects me to my deeper self than meditation. I highly recommend it to any of you reading this who don’t already practice.

Anyway, for the next two days of the conference I picked and chose the few speakers I thought might really resonate with me and skipped all the others, which was most of them. It was a powerful lesson, the most important thing I learned at the conference.

Now I’m not saying that teachers and books and all the rest can’t be helpful. They can. I listen to either Eckhart Tolle or Michael Singer almost every day. Just for ten or fifteen minutes. I find their messages simple and congruous with my own internal growth. More importantly, though, I meditate almost every day for fifteen minutes.

Your inner self knows your path

The point is, when you are listening to your favorite spiritual teachers or reading their books, be mindful about staying connected to your inner self throughout. Don’t outsource your spiritual development to them or anybody. Be vigilant about never losing touch with your internal world. Because that inner voice/spirit/soul knows the right path for you infinitely better than any outside teaching.

Does blazing a Siddhartha-like path require some strength and inner work? Yes. And I’ll reiterate that developing a regular meditation practice will help you immeasurably in strengthening your connection to your true, conscious self.

But the best news of all is that if you do take the helm of your spiritual journey you’ll feel infinitely less anxious, floating and untethered inside.

The overall moral of the story here is obvious and has been said in myriad ways by others for thousands of years: The answers to life’s challenges are found by going inside, not looking out to the world. Something for all of us to keep top of mind as we travel the spiritual path.

P.S. — I highly recommend reading Siddhartha. It’s only 150 pages and an easy read.

Meditation

What’s Left After We Strip Away Our Ego?

The main spiritual traditions all seem to be saying some version of the same thing: The highest goal of humans is to eliminate the noisy, negative, chattering mind, the sum total of which most people identify as their “self.”

That sum total of one’s self-image includes thoughts about your past (went to X college, played Y sport, had Z jobs, had a bad temper, good son to parents, etc.), thoughts about your present (successful/unsuccessful career, make a lot/not enough money, single but wish I was married, too heavy/think my body is great) and thoughts about your future (worried I won’t have enough money to retire/send my kids to college, will never find the right career, will never get married/have kids…).

This leads to possibly the most vexing question in all of spirituality: Once you quieten your crazy, thinking mind, what’s left?

In other words, if all these traditions are correct, that our thoughts are not who we are, it stands to reason that once you quieten those thoughts what’s leftover is who we are.

So the $64,000 question is this: What is that entity in us that is us once the mind is tamed?

Some, like Eckhart Tolle, say that what’s left is simply consciousness. His analogy is that our true self is the sky and the clouds are the thoughts and feelings we have.

The sky is timeless and never changes, while the clouds, like thoughts and feelings, constantly come and go.


What is the ‘Real You’?

Michael Singer would say that the real you is the entity inside that merely witnesses your thoughts and emotions. So, for example, the real you isn’t the one who’s jealous because your wife is flirting with her attractive boss at a cocktail party. The real youis the consciousness that is aware that you’re experiencing this feeling of jealousy.

This concept of the true self being merely consciousness is almost impossible for most people to comprehend. Why? Because most people are so stuck inside their thought bombarded heads that they can’t fathom that people are comprised of two entities: their thoughts and feelings and their awareness of those thoughts and feelings.

This idea of the self as consciousness is also murky for many serious spiritual seekers, myself included. One way I’ve found to better “get” this concept is to actually experience people who have reached this high spiritual path, people like the aforementioned Eckhart Tolle and Michael Singer.


No Ego

When I watch Eckhart give a talk, I sense no ego. There’s no Eckhart. There’s just…consciousness. And inner peace. Watching Eckhart has the effect of calming me, regardless of the words he’s speaking. They say that the great gurus from India also emanate this sense of peace, light and egoless presence.

But describing the true self as consciousness or awareness seems antiseptic and uninspiring to me. To me, those words don’t capture the totality of what the true self is.

Which brings me to Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher who passed away last month. In reading some of the testimonials about his life, I came across his description of how he viewed his true self. When I read it, bells went off inside me. He said that he was simply loving awareness. Not consciousness or presence or regular awareness, but loving awareness.

What’s the difference? Some people may see awareness/consciousness as somebody sitting around looking like a glassy-eyed zombie. My belief is that when the mind is stilled and the ego eliminated, what’s left is, by definition, loving awareness.

And that only through a still mind and egoless presence can one become a channel for love. And some would even say, including me, a channel for God to come into the world.


The Two Takeaways

I know. These are some pretty heady, metaphysical concepts here. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the two takeaways from all this are simple and easy to understand.

  • Number one, you attain the ultimate human form, loving awareness, by stilling the mind, which diminishes the ego.
  • Number two, the best technique for stilling the mind is regular meditation. Any of you who’ve read my previous articles may think I’m a broken record on this, to which I say, guilty as charged.

All meditation involves 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.

Can that be difficult at times? Sure. For one reason: The human mind loves to wander. But like anything else, the more you meditate, the better you get at it.

With time, your mind will become stiller and your ego less dominant in your life. And with that, more and more of you will become loving awareness, the highest plane any of us humans can reach.

Meditation

Helpful Wisdom For Writers From A 2,500 Year Old Book, The Tao Te Ching

As I’ve stated before, I believe the Tao te Ching is the wisest book ever written. Believed to be written in the 6th century B.C. by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the Tao is nothing less than a handbook on how to live life. Its sage advice for writers is found in chapter 24:

“He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”

Definition of the Tao

Before elaborating, a few words about what the Tao is. Here’s the definition 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. You get the drift.

So what does this have to do with writing? This: Every writer I’ve ever known has struggled with “letting go” of their work. For Medium writers, that comes in the form of submitting an article and then waiting breathlessly for that email with the glorious title “Medium Writer Program — Your story has been recommended in topics on Medium.” EUREKA! Or constantly checking how many views, fans, and comments it’s getting.

Hollywood

Nowhere is this constant longing for validation of one’s writing more endemic than in Hollywood where I wrote for fifteen years (The West Wing, some bad one hour dramas and selling pilots and screenplays). Just about everybody I knew, including me, would finish a script then hang around the phone the next days and weeks waiting to hear the verdict from our friends, agents, and studio executives. “Did you like it?! Do you think it’ll sell?!”

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing for Medium or HBO, the result of sitting around wondering what everybody thinks about your work is the same: It’s a pointless, soul-killing, energy suck.

Be like Larry

So, what do I propose writers should do? Follow the example of the late, great Larry Gelbart, the creative force behind MASH, one of the most successful television series of all time, and several films, including Tootsie.

You know what Gelbart did when he finished a script? He gave it to his agent and immediately started working on his next project. He completely let go of his work, figuring whatever would happen, would happen. He knew that pestering his agent and constantly wondering about the status of his scripts did nothing but waste time and divert him from his next script.

I’m not saying Medium/freelance writers shouldn’t spend time on the marketing end of things with their work. Some of that is fine and necessary. But if you’re spending half your time checking your Medium stats and hocking your stuff on Facebook, Instagram and all the rest, it is almost certain that you will write, as the Tao puts it, “nothing that endures.”

This ain’t easy

I’m also not saying that it’s easy to pry yourself from your Medium stats page and other ancillary activities. There are three reasons why writers do this.

One, what others think about your writing almost wholly determines its “success” — i.e., whether it’s curated by Medium or your script sells to Warner Bros. So it’s only human to check out your Medium stats or wait by the phone about your script. None of that, however, changes the fact that it’s a useless energy suck that takes you away from making your next writing project the best it can be.

Two, more than almost any other profession, writing is personal. When baring your soul, as we writers often do, the stakes are much higher than most other professions. I don’t think many accountants wait on pins and needles for their boss’s thoughts on the seventh tax return they’ve turned in that week.

And three, let’s face it, writing good stuff is hard. You need to kill a lot of brain cells to write a compelling piece. You know what’s easier and less taxing? Wasting time by clicking on your stats page.

Give everything to each piece then let go

To sum up, what Lao Tzu is saying is to give your utmost attention and effort to whatever you’re working on. And when you’re finished, put it out to the world and let the universe/God/the Tao do with it what they will. Then put your utmost attention and effort into making your next piece of work the best it can be.

Does that take discipline? Yes. Will it help you become the best writer you can be? Without a doubt.

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.