5 Lessons Everyone Can Learn From my Naturally Zen Mom

One of several ways I hit the lottery in life was the mom who brought me into this world. I know some may find it juvenile using the word ‘mom,’ but she was never ‘mother’ to me or any of my five siblings. She was, and will always be, mom.

Darlene Gerken was born and raised on the south side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in, at best, lower middle-class circumstances. Her dad was a streetcar conductor.

She was born in 1928, six weeks premature. How did a family with little money in the 1920s handle that? They held her. Constantly. One person to the next to the next…for the first six weeks of her life. We theorized that she was so secure and happy her whole life because she spent her first six weeks flooded with affection.

Tennis tournaments and Super-Doopers

Mom and I were close. We spent countless hours driving all over Southern California for my junior tennis tournaments. When I was around eight she used to make me a “Super Dooper” (chocolate sundae with sliced banana and peanuts) on Sunday nights and we’d curl up on the couch and watch Columbo, possibly the best detective show of all time. Great times.

We lost mom in May of 2009, but her legacy endures in those of us lucky enough to have absorbed her life wisdom. Here are five lessons she taught, by example, that will deepen and enrich the lives of anybody who incorporates them.

1. Do one thing at a time

Eckhart Tolle tells the story of the anguished Buddhist monk who implores of the chief monk,

“Master, I’ve been here for five years and I still don’t know what Zen is. Can you please tell me?”

And the master says,

“Zen is doing one thing at a time…”

My mom used to say this to me, especially when I was overwhelmed with homework in high school. I’d look at all the books piled up on my desk and think about all that I had to do. Inevitably, she would tell me, with her trademark simplicity, “Just take one thing at a time.”

Is that simplistic to the hilt? Yes. But it’s also absolutely sound advice.

Piling future work into your now is a bad idea

Why? Because what most people do, whether it’s contemplating their load of schoolwork or tasks piled up at the office, is think about all the items on their “list” and allow the totality of that burden to depress their spirits. It’s the classic, bad, habit of allowing our minds to go to the future, which, of course, doesn’t exist. Ever. The only thing that ever exists is this moment.

So I’d take out my trigonometry textbook and focus on that. And then I’d do my Latin. Then my European history. One thing at a time.

Is this easier said than done? You bet. But mastering this one thing — putting all of your attention on what’s in front of you, then going on to the next thing, then the next thing — would be a game-changer for most people.

Why? Because when we’re focused on what’s in front of us: 1. We enjoy and do a much job with that endeavor, and 2. We feel better because we’re not torturing ourselves with all of those worrying thoughts about the future.

My zen mom was born this way. I had to learn, and am still learning, to do one thing at a time.

2. Adventurous risk-taking

My mom was the furthest thing from a home body who lived in fear of the world. Back in 1967, when our family lived in Milwaukee, my dad was offered a job at Pacific Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles. He’d worked at Northwestern Mutual Life for fourteen years and was a VP, but probably wasn’t going any higher.

He told my mom he loved their life in Milwaukee. They had great friends, he liked his job and we kids all had good lives. He was leaning against accepting the offer.

My mom’s response? She was having none of it. My dad was hugely ambitious and she told him, correctly, that he’d never forgive himself if he didn’t take a chance and head West to work for a company he might be able to lead someday.

My mom the adventurer

As for how this would impact her? She’d grown up in the poor section of Milwaukee and married this big shot from New York. She looked at going to Los Angeles as an exciting adventure and a way to spread her wings. She didn’t want to take the safe, familiar road of remaining in her hometown.

My dad knew she was right so off we drove to Los Angeles in October of 1967. My dad became president of the company in 1972, CEO in 1975 and was one of the top corporate executives in California for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

And my mom? She loved it all. It was the right move and it happened because she pushed for taking a risk and venturing into the unknown.

3. The value of selflessness

My mom was the most selfless person I’ve ever known. She embodied the underpinning of Buddhism which holds that suffering is caused by desire and that if one eliminates desire they eliminate suffering.

By that I don’t mean my mom was a vegetable. She loved her fried egg on a piece of toast for breakfast. And playing tennis. And reading on the back dock of our lake house in Wisconsin.

Serving others was her thing

But mostly she was a vessel offering service to others. She had six kids and was constantly doing for us. Driving, cooking, cleaning and, most important by far, loving us. And never complaining.

If living that life of selflessness meant abject unhappiness and the monthly contemplation of suicide then I’d say, hey, that’s not good. But I’m convinced that my mom’s selflessness was the central reason she led such a happy life that involved not a lot of suffering.

How many times does the world have to hear about how happy selfless people are before every single one of us catches on and emphasizes “What can I do for you?” rather than “What you can do for me?” It’s the one true recipe for a contented life.

4. Worrying is pointless

My mom was the opposite of the neurotic, the sky is falling mom. She just didn’t worry a lot.

Part of that was due to the fact that she had six kids and if she worried every time one of us was in a position to break a bone she would have had to be committed to an insane asylum. It was mayhem in our house.

Worrying helps nobody

I see lots of parents who look at worrying about their kids as some kind of virtuous trait. “Look how much I love little Bobby. I’m worried sick about him all the time!” Worrying about little Bobby does him and you no good. You’re just transferring your anxiety to him, which is going to make him neurotic and nervous as well.

My mom had tons of confidence in us; consequently, we learned to forge our own paths without her helicoptering over us every step of the way. Every one of us was better off for her not worrying incessantly.

5. Basic life toughness

Life can be hard. We all know that. And sometimes not even spiritual work, religion or anything else can do anything to relieve the pain. That’s when good old-fashioned toughness comes into play.

My mom was raised during the Great Depression in the 1930s and 1940s. People struggled mightily just to get enough to eat and have a roof over their head at night. How did they get through it? They toughened up inside.

A generation of studs

The result in America was the creation of what is now called the Greatest Generation, a group of people, including my mom, who developed great resilience and inner strength.

My mom reminded me that from time to time we all just have to tough something out. A bad break up. A heartbreaking athletic loss. Getting fired. Just suck it up and move on. As a sensitive kid who definitely needed a good kick in the butt now and then, this was an invaluable lesson that has served me well in adulthood.

The takeaway

I feel confident in saying that if someone followed these five ways of living my mom taught me and my siblings, that someone would lead a full, content and fulfilling life. Do one thing at a time, be an adventurous risk taker, be selfless, don’t be a worry wart and toughen up inside. It’s a recipe for a great life.

Thanks, mom.


Use this Ram Dass Idea to Help Heal Your Psyche – It’s about becoming nobody.

My core issue since childhood has been an unhealthy need to “make it big.” To rise above others in whatever I was pursuing.

I’m the sixth of six kids who had a type A, powerful CEO father who, for his own psychological/developmental reasons, put great emphasis on traditional success. This, unfortunately, rubbed off on me in a significant way.

My career spent chasing the spotlight

While working in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s and 1990s that meant trying to become as powerful a Capitol Hill aide as I could with the most prestigious title. Then it was trying to make as much money as I could as a lobbyist. In my writing career in Hollywood it was all about working my up the ladder to ultimately create and run my own show.

It didn’t work out too well. I wasn’t particularly powerful on the Hill or wealthy as a lobbyist and I never did come close to creating and running my own television show. In other words, my bid to “become somebody” never succeeded.

And thank God for that.

I’m glad I didn’t become somebody

Why? Because if I had become somebody (Congressman Gerken? Showrunner Gerken?) I never would have discovered the path I’m on now — writing and teaching about mindfulness, meditation and the spiritual journey. And I feel to my deepest depths that that path is the one intended for me by God/Nature/the Universe/the Big Guy Upstairs/Providence…whatever you want to call it.

Which brings us to perhaps my favorite idea/quote by the great spiritual teacher, Ram Dass:

The game is not about becoming somebody, it’s about becoming nobody.”

Such a beautiful quote. I think most of us understand intuitively what Ram Dass means by ‘becoming somebody.’ That’s the traditional ‘make a lot of money, become powerful and famous’ path taught both directly and indirectly by the world, especially here in America, as being the best way to approach life.

I can say with 100 percent certitude that it’s not the best way. For proof, look no further than those who have succeeded on that path and ask how happy they are. Most of them are more than a few French fries short of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

The question is, Why? Why does pursuing fame, power and wealth NOT lead to happiness?

Answer: Because intrinsic in trying to be somebody is the satisfying of the personal, egoic self. That’s the self that we all create beginning in childhood to acclimate to, and defend ourselves from, the big, bad outside world. And generally speaking, life paths that are dictated by the egoic self are not healthy.

My dad’s humiliating childhood fueled him

Here’s a crystal clear example. My dad grew up in New Rochelle, New York, a town where there were ultra-wealthy people mixed in with the middle class. During the Depression my dad was so humiliated by his family’s financial situation that he refused to have any friends over to his house. Ever. Why? Because his dad had lost any money they had due to a gambling addiction resulting in their having to share a small house with another family. Then when he got to college he had to drop out because his dad couldn’t contribute anything to his tuition.

What all of this created was a burning, but not healthy, fire in my dad to become somebody in order to live down a childhood filled with humiliation.

So what’s the alternative to seeking a life trying to become somebody? We find the answer in the second clause of Ram Dass’s quote: …it’s about becoming nobody.

What does that mean, to become nobody? What it means and how to achieve it are actually one and the same: It is the systematic letting go of that personal, egoic self that in so many people wants to become somebody.

Now to become nobody

Doing so involves the daily work of the spiritual path, the chopping wood and carrying water as Ram Dass called it. Meditating, practicing mindfulness and relaxing and letting go anytime your egoic buttons are pushed.

Here’s an example from my life of relaxing and letting go when my core issue of becoming somebody rears its head. My process each morning is to eat breakfast then have some coffee as I read the news online. Then its fifteen minutes of listening to Mickey Singer or Eckhart Tolle talks followed by fifteen minutes of meditation.

How I deal with my core issue

But it is inevitable most mornings that a feeling arises in me that says, “Let’s go. Let’s get writing. Don’t be lazy. Produce something.” In other words, it’s a feeling that says, “Become somebody!”

When I become aware of that feeling, I stop and say to myself, “You’re fine. No need to rush or ‘go, go, go.’ That’s your ego talking, not you.” And then I just relax and breathe with it.

My compulsion to ‘be somebody’ has waned considerably since the DC/Hollywood days of yore. If the ‘me’ of those years were in charge today he’d be sitting around all day strategizing about SEO, podcasting, Twitter, Instagram and how to land a book deal.

But not now. Now it’s about focusing my attention every day on writing stuff that I hope is helpful in some way to people.

The takeaway

So what does all this mean for you? I hope this article will propel a shift from becoming somebody to becoming nobody. Maybe it will help some of you out there cut down the number of years (decades?) that you spend in chasing things that won’t bring you happiness. I could’ve used this article several decades ago!

And don’t think that becoming nobody, i.e. letting go of your ego, means you’ll be unemployed the rest of your life. As crazy as it sounds, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were NOT about becoming somebody. They pursued passions that sprung from inside. I firmly believe that if their motives were centered around chasing adulation from society, etc., they would never have achieved anything close to what they did.

Long story short, the more we become nobody, the better able we are to hear the voice of Providence that resides inside all of us. And what’s the result of that? We become better at everything we focus our attention on.

More important, becoming nobody makes us more compassionate, peaceful human beings. Is there any higher purpose than that?


What Getting Fired From “The West Wing” Taught Me About Meditation and the Brain

I would read a line. Then Martin Sheen, one of the great actors of our time, would read a line. Then I’d read and he’d respond. Back and forth. I couldn’t believe it.

What was this? A table read for a new script of THE WEST WING, one of the best television drama series of all time. Martin Sheen and I belting out crisp dialog written by our boss, Emmy and Academy Award-winning writer, Aaron Sorkin.

The table read was a way of exploring whether the script was reading as Aaron had intended. Aaron had the writers read the guest parts for each script, hence why I was reading with Martin.

My Journey from the Real DC to the Fictional One

How did I end up at that table reading with an American acting legend? I’d spent fifteen years post-college graduation working in Washington, D.C., as a Capitol Hill aide and then lobbyist.

I’d always fancied myself a creative creature so, long story short, I packed my bags, and car, and moved to Hollywood to try my hand as a scriptwriter. After a year and a half of hard slogging in the entertainment industry mines, I struck gold: An offer to work as a writer on THE WEST WING, the premier creative entity in Tinseltown at the time.

Rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s finest

No surprise, it was an exciting year. Whether it was spending countless hours in a room spitballing story ideas with one of the preeminent creative minds of our generation or talking politics on the set in-between takes with Bradley Whitford (played Josh Lyman) or shooting the breeze in the Warner Bros. fitness center with Rob Lowe (played Sam Seabourne), it was a time I’ll always be grateful for.

And then, at the end of the season, Warner Bros. fired Aaron. His scripts were coming in later and later, costing WB more and more money because of production delays.

Aaron’s firing meant a new regime would be in charge the following season. The emperor of this new empire was John Wells and it was he who would turn his thumb up or down on the rest of us writers.

I thought I was a contendah

Though we knew most of us would be fed to the lions, I thought I had a decent chance of a thumb pointing to the sky. One of my ideas became the main story for four straight episodes, something Aaron hadn’t done in four seasons of the show. Not even close. Being chosen as one of the few to survive the Wells putsch would have been an ENORMOUS career boost for a whole host of reasons.

So I sat by the phone that day in late May of 2003, awaiting my fate. It finally came as my cellphone rang, the caller ID showing “Creative Artists Agency,” who represented me. I pressed the green button on my phone. Five seconds later, my life changed forever…

“Hi, David, it’s Tracy. I’m so sorry. They didn’t pick up your option…”

Thumbs down. Cue the hungry, drooling lions as they awaited 165 pounds of grade A David Gerken flesh…

Which brings us to the pertinent part of this piece — my reaction to getting fired. Here’s my best attempt at describing what physically happened to me during that call that lasted no more than a minute.

Depresso chemicals invade my brain

My head immediately started pumping some kind of chemical around my brain. It’s a chemical that made my whole being feel heavier. Depressed. I’m sure adrenaline was involved somehow, too. Somewhere deep in my psyche, I felt like I was dying. Not in the forefront of my consciousness, but deep down somewhere. I know. Weird.

Or is it? Many of you have probably experienced something similar in your lives. “I’m so sorry. This just isn’t working for me. I love you and I’ll always care about you, but I just can’t continue in this relationship.” Maybe your chemicals started pumping that depresso juice, too? Or you felt like you were dying inside?

What’s this all about? We’ll get to that.

Meditation to the rescue

But first, let’s flash forward ten years from 2003 to 2013. After many tough years swimming in the shark-infested pools of Hollywood, I decided I needed help. My sister Ellen suggested meditation. I’d dabbled in it before, but it never took hold.

This time I decided to go whole hog. Starting January 1, 2013, I began meditating regularly. Eight and a half years later I’m still going strong.

But what this provided was a perfect before and after experiment. Pre-meditation I handled my setbacks by falling apart — see West Wing story.

Post-meditation? Let’s take two examples.

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.

If it got the final green light, the show was going to be filmed in Paris, my favorite city on the planet. This was wildest-dream-come-true territory for me as my wife and I lived in Paris for two months after we got married.

So I work my tail off for months. Turn in the draft and…I wait. And I wait. Months later I get the word: No go.

So, how did I handle being told that my dream of producing MY OWN show in Paris was dead? 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 awful, 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, my favorite president. 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 alas, another passion project bit the dust. Again, I wasn’t happy about it. But again, 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.

The Prefrontal Cortex — The Cool Cucumber

The good news is that the newest and most advanced part of our brain, 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

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.

2011 study by 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.

The Takeaway

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


Use This Eckhart Tolle Quote to Deepen Understanding of Your True Self

Spirituality uses many names and concepts to describe the conscious self, that entity that only exists when we are present in the moment. Some call it awareness. Eckhart Tolle calls it presence and spaciousness. Witness consciousness and being centered in the seat of self are phrases used by many spiritual teachers, including my favorite, Mickey Singer.

The problem is that these words and phrases are confusing to many. And since this concept goes to the heart of most spiritual traditions, it’s important that we “get,” as best we can, what this means.

With that in mind, I pass along this Eckhart Tolle quote that offers a beautiful and apt metaphor describing what the conscious self is and isn’t:

“You are the sky. The clouds are what happens, what comes and goes.”

So we have the sky and the clouds. Let’s start with the sky. That’s who we are. Why? Because the sky is always there. It doesn’t change. It has no name and no history and, like our true self, it is formless.

The clouds come below, around and through the sky — sometimes as thunder, hurricanes and blizzards, other times as mere soft, billowy clouds. These come and go. They are the thoughts and emotions that arise in our lives, pass through our sky and then disappear.

We suffer when we think we’re the clouds

A major problem facing humanity is that most people get involved with these “thought clouds.” They ruminate and argue with these thoughts and emotions, which, again, are not who they are. In fact, they get so entangled and enveloped by all this mind activity that they come to believe that that’s who they are.

And believing that we are the clouds has a deeply deleterious effect: It stalls the clouds. It gives those insidious, torturous thoughts racing around our heads like a stock car in the Daytona 500 a longer life, which results in untold suffering all over the globe.

But if we simply recognize that we are the sky and not the clouds, then we can just watch these thoughts and emotions as they come…and as they go. We don’t wrestle with them or engage with them or judge them…We just watch them pass through.

The takeaway

Fine, so we are the sky and our thoughts and emotions are just clouds coming and going. How can this concept actually help you? By using Eckhart’s quote as imagery.

Consciousness, awareness, presence, seat of self and witness consciousness are all just words. Yes, they aptly describe the concept of the true self…but only in words.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it exceedingly helpful to conceive of concepts using images. So the practical benefit of Eckhart’s quote is to literally “see” yourself, in your mind, as the sky. Imagine it.

And use this image when you find yourself stressed out and overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions. Simply close your eyes and imagine yourself asthe blue sky. Take some deep breaths. Then lean back and just watch your thoughts and emotions as clouds passing by. Don’t dive into them. Or judge them. Just watch them…

With will, commitment and practice, you’ll get better and better at calmly allowing your clouds to pass by. And over time, you will feel and experience yourself more and more as that timeless, eternal and beautiful blue sky that we all are.


A Technique That Helps Me Stay Centered When I’m Losing It

I’m in the middle of writing something. Into my office walks my eleven year old daughter, tears streaming down her face.

“Dad, mom took away my phone away because she said I was being ungrateful to her about buying me candy at the store. But I wasn’t! I said ‘thanks.’ It’s not faaairrr…”

My daughter, the Academy Award winning actress

Yes, when she gets upset my daughter tends to stretch out the final word of a sentence for dramatic effect. But that’s neither here nor there.

What is here and there is that this kind of thing makes my blood boil. I’m in the writing zone, pumping away…and then this.

Normally, I’d react by melting down and saying, “OK! Calm down. It’s fine. Let me see what’s up.” Then I’d go to my wife and she’d tell me what a brat our daughter was about getting her candy. And I’d try to calm her down, which usually gets her mad at me and then I blow up at her and yada, yada, yada…Now all three of us are upset. Bye, bye writing flow.

Anatomy of a meltdown

Generally, what happens in these situations is that one moment we are ‘here.’ What do I mean by ‘here?’ I’m writing and I’m present. In the now.

Then the trigger occurs, in the above example it’s my sobbing daughter, and we leave that place of presence completely and get sucked down into our lower, reactive, egoic self. And as all of you know, nothing good usually happens when we go to that place.

But I discovered something recently in a talk given by Mickey Singer that is helping me stay cool in these types of situations. It’s all about trying to remain in the seat of self, the present moment…call it what you want, when something sets us off.

Here’s the technique

The practice is simple. When we get triggered, we just ask the question inside our head:

“Are you still here?”

You may still experience feelings of anger, frustration or whatever emotional button is being pushed by your particular trigger. But by immediately asking if you’re still here, you maintain contact with that ‘you’ you’re asking about: your conscious, aware self.

The key is to WATCH

And then we practice getting that aware self to merely watch those feelings of anger and frustration, etc. The key is that we remain above those lower self feelings and don’t allow ourselves to get sucked down into them.

I just love that sentence, “Are you still here?” So short and simple.

And the great thing about it is that we can already have melted down a bit, but then we remember to ask ourselves, “Are you still here?” Just asking that question can be super helpful in reestablishing ourselves in the present moment/seat of self.

The takeaway

Consider giving this one a try. If it doesn’t work, jettison it. If it does, you may find that you’ll save yourself a boatload of heartache by averting the toxic situations you may otherwise find yourself in.


Want to Heal Your Mind? Treat It as You Would a Simple Skin Wound

At the root of most spiritual traditions is what could be called the healing of the mind. Or quieting of the mind. By mind we mean that entity that creates unsolicited and mostly unwanted thoughts.

“I’m not good enough/smart enough/thin enough/successful enough.” “Why didn’t she say ‘hi’ to me? I always say hi to her. She’s just rude.” “She broke up with me because I have nothing to offer…”

These mind-created thoughts torment most of the seven billion people populating our planet and are the root cause of most suffering in our world.

Healing the mind is central to spirituality

The spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, recognize this malady as the central problem facing human beings. The prescription is, in the simplest terms, quieting or healing the mind. Because when we quiet the mind what we’re left with is our essential, conscious, true self.

How do we do that? We can approach that question in many different ways and many of my other articles have done so. Meditation. Mindfulness. You know all about those.

Today’s piece tries to help by illuminating the underlying “how” of healing the mind with an analogy. It relates to how we heal our physical injuries.

Put a band-aid on it and leave it alone

Here it is. You’re in your kitchen dicing an onion and you get a nasty cut on your finger. What do you do? You run it through some water, dry it, then put a band-aid on it.

Then what do you? You leave it alone. You let nature do its work. The more you get involved with that cut in the coming days the worse off you’ll be. Which means you don’t pick at the scab or constantly touch it. You just leave it alone.

This same course of treatment holds for healing our minds. Here’s how.

Leave your thoughts alone

Let’s stipulate that the equivalent of a finger cut for the mind is an unwanted thought or emotion. If we’re meditating and we notice a thought, what do we do? We notice it, then let it go. What we don’t do is engage with it. “Why am I having thoughts during meditation about the speech I have to give next week? Stop that!” That is the equivalent of picking at a scab.

Similarly, if somebody triggers your ego (which is, in essence, another word for mind) by, for example, suggesting you need to work out more (and you have a longstanding issue with body image), what should you do? You should notice that awful feeling that comment elicits, probably in your stomach somewhere if you’re like me, and then simply watch it.

Mickey counsels to not touch it

Mickey Singer teaches us to watch that feeling and don’t touch it. What would ‘touching it’ look like? “Wow. That really hurt. That comment makes me feel fat and just plain bad.” That is the equivalent of picking at the scab.

The best thing to do is just lean away, remain in your seat of self (the conscious you) and watch that feeling. When we do that, guess what happens? Nature does its thing and releases that energy upward, which is the same thing as letting go of our ego.

We don’t do anything to heal that part of our mind, just as we don’t do anything to heal that cut. We just watch the feeling. That’s it.

We also don’t go into defense mode and say,

“Hey, screw him. I don’t need to workout more. I’m fine just the way I am. If he doesn’t like it he can take a hike.”

Defending ourselves is just another way of picking at the scab. That’s you trying to heal things. Again, you don’t do the healing. Nature does.

Watching isn’t easy

The rub here, as many of you are probably thinking, is that this watching thing is easier said than done. When we get triggered, the tendency is to send our egoic forces into battle, often in less than a second.

So that’s where the work is for most of us. Not allowing our consciousness to be dragged down into our lower selves.

What we’re really doing here is getting rid of the things that aren’t the real ‘us’ by simply remaining in the seat of self and watching those things that aren’t us. And then letting nature politely escort those ‘not us’ thoughts and emotions out the door of our being.

The takeaway

What would I love for you to take away from this article? The realization that the mind can’t heal the mind. So when you find that you’re arguing with yourself or wrestling with yourself or defending yourself, do your best to simply notice that your mind is trying to fix things. Then step back into your seat of self and watch your mind at work. Because your mind isn’t you. That entity watching your mind is you.

Ultimately, I hope you’ll view this as surpassingly positive news. Why? Because all you really have to work on is strengthening your ‘watcher.’ How? Meditate regularly. Practice mindfulness. And commit a boatload of your will and attention to working on this.

If you do so, slowly but surely, you’ll feel lighter and lighter and better and better as you let nature offload all the mind baggage that weighs so many of us down. You’ll also get better at your job, better in your relationships and become a more compassionate human being. In other words, the work is well worth it!


The Meditation Elite Does a Bad Job of Communicating to Regular People

The meditation space has a big problem: Its experts make it too complicated and intimidating to the lay spiritual person. The result is that scads of potential long-term meditators are turned off or at least turned away from something that could have a transformative effect on their lives.

This was driven home, yet again, the other day while I listened to an interview of one of those experts. By the way, I really like this woman. She’s fantastic. Bright. Big-hearted. And the ideas she gave in the interview were really helpful FOR ME.

But I’ve been meditating for close to ten years. I’m not saying I’m some yogi who spends hours in high states of samadhi. But I’m certainly not intimidated or scared off when someone dives deep into the finer points of meditation.

The experts scare people off

Unfortunately, many people are. They hear these experts talk about all these different meditation and how important it is to practice in the “correct” way with the right teacher and on and on. This intimidates most people and scares them off.

I’ve not only been practicing this stuff for many years, but have also studied it extensively. I’ve read the books, listened to the talks and taken the courses.

And in all of that studying, listening, reading and learning about meditation, there is only one expert who I think nails it perfectly. That expert is my favorite spiritual teacher, Mickey Singer.

Mickey Singer’s fantastic approach

I’ll paraphrase Mickey’s approach to meditation:

Do mantra. Do zazen. Do vipassana. I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference. Because all you’re doing, when it’s all said and done, is practicing not being stuck in your mind. You’re just practicing placing attention on something happening in the present. That’s it. But remember, too, that it’s a meditation practice. You’re practicing being in the moment. And just like practicing the piano or tennis, the more you do it the better you’ll get. It’s all very simple. Don’t overthink it.

That captures my sentiments, and experience, exactly. Don’t overthink meditation. And most important, don’t be intimidated.

What every meditation book and talk should say

Here’s some language that I think should be mandatory for all meditation experts when giving talks or writing books or articles. It’s language that should be given at the beginning of any talk or writing. Here it is:

“I want to start by disabusing you of something: Meditation is really not that big a deal. All you’re doing is placing your attention on something happening in the present moment. That could be your breathing, a mantra you’re repeating, sounds you’re hearing…Whatever. Can it be hard to train our attention on our breathing or whatever we’ve chosen? Heck yeah. Why? Because our minds like to wander. They’ve been racing our whole lives so trying to divert attention to the present moment is like a cowboy trying to break a wild stallion. It takes patience and perseverance. But don’t mistake that with complication. Meditation is not complicated. It just needs to be done. And for most mortal humans that means making some kind of short-term commitment…”

I have no problem with the experts going into great depth and nuance about meditation. For that small number of people who want to do vipassana for hours a day or practice Kriya yoga, which Yogananda taught and that I’m actually considering pursuing, that’s great. More power to those who want to dive deep into meditation. And by the way, those who do dive deep on Kriya or other techniques will undoubtedly derive profound benefits from doing so.

Keep it simple and accessible

But for the vast majority out there that don’t want to devote a considerable amount of time and attention to meditation, let’s communicate with them in a way that gets them into the ballgame. Tell people they can reap life-transforming benefits from 10–15 minutes a day of basic meditation. I’ll write a separate piece soon about what I think is an easy meditation progression to start out with.

What’s critical for the expert teachers to convey is that meditation is mostly about just doing it, to steal a page from Nike. That people don’t need to get all hung up on doing everything perfectly. We just practice placing attention on something happening in the present moment, and when we inevitably get diverted into thought, we simply bring our attention back to where we want it.

Long story short, I wish the experts would shift their emphasis from the “how” of meditation to more urging the “doing” of it. Then emphasize that the doing of it isn’t complicated and isn’t that hard once you get a few weeks under your belt.

Why I’m frustrated

If I sound frustrated it’s because I am. I see that well under one percent of people meditate regularly, which I would define as at least five days a week. I don’t have hard evidence of that statistic because I don’t think there has been any polling on it. But I think one percent is a relatively conservative estimate.

Obviously, it’s not the experts’ fault that so few people meditate. God bless every single one of them for devoting so much to the cause of meditation. There’d be a much smaller number if not for their efforts. But I think the number would be a lot higher if meditation luminaries communicated in more accessible, unintimidating language.

The takeaway

What frustrates me is that I see the great things meditation has done for me. It’s made me a better dad, friend, brother, writer and overall human being. All that for something that I do a mere fifteen minutes a day that isn’t that difficult.

It gets me thinking about a world where billions, not millions, meditate every day, if we could just get them inside the tent. Billions of calmer, more compassionate people.

In the words of the great Louis Armstrong said, “What a wonderful world,” that would be.


My Cancer Scare: Where Spiritual Work Helped…and Where it Didn’t

My 1.3 rose to 4.7. The first number is good. The second meant something was going on with my prostate…and it wasn’t good.

The numbers come from the PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test, something any man over fifty has heard of. The 1.3 was my PSA number a year ago at my annual physical. The 4.7 was from my physical a few weeks ago. Anything over four and you’re looking at possible prostate cancer.

A friend who just battled prostate cancer

I was particularly sensitive to this development because several months ago a friend of mine had a 1 that went up to 4. They tested three months later and it rose to 7.5. This warranted a biopsy, which, unfortunately, showed aggressive prostate cancer. He had surgery to remove it and, luckily, cancer hadn’t spread so he’s in the clear. Needless to say, however, 2021 hasn’t been a walk in the park for my friend.

I got this news on a Friday. The doctor asked me to schedule another blood test asap. The earliest appointment I could get was Tuesday. This meant I’d get results Thursday at the earliest. That meant six…long…days.

The good old pit in the stomach

Some of those days I woke up early, around 5:30 or 6, with that dreaded pit in the stomach. Hadn’t had one of those in many a moon.

Other times it was just a wave of fear and anxiety that would swoop in on me. “Wow. What if, like my friend, it’s cancer and it HAS spread? I could die in six months.”

How my spiritual work helped me

So how did my spiritual work help me through these feelings of fear, depression and anxiety? For the early morning pit I went to the time-honored exercise of counting deep breaths. One, this diverted my attention away from the prostate scenario. And two, it actually relaxed my entire being.

When a wave of anxiety and fear would settle in at random times during the day I practiced nonresistance. The normal response to the onset of anxiety would be,

“Ugh. This feels terrible. Is there anything worse? God, I hope it goes away…and quick!”

But spiritual work has taught me to simply acknowledge the anxiety. And, contrary to what I used to do, I actually train my attention on the anxiety. I feel it. I accept it. I don’t argue with it or push it away. Why? Because engaging with and complaining about the anxiety only exacerbates it and prolongs its stay in my gut. This one practice helped me a ton in those six days.

Facing the big kahuna

Obviously, though, when facing a cancer scare the ultimate fear is the big kahuna. The big daddy of them all. Death.

And here again spiritual work has helped me tremendously. How? With this one, there isn’t any practice or technique involved. The help comes from all the hundreds of hours of meditation and mindfulness practices I’ve done over the past several years that have resulted in a gradual quieting of my mind.

One of the byproducts of that quieter mind has been a strengthened sense of a deeper, higher entity/power/being/spirit/soul within me. The feeling I have is that that entity is eternal. It’s energy. And energy can’t be destroyed. So when my body gives out, that entity will go somewhere. Where? That’s the $64,000 existential question that I can’t answer.

Maybe a smaller amygdala did the trick

Or maybe all that meditation has shrunk my amygdala, the worry wart part of my brain located in the more primitive limbic system. And that shrunken amygdala results in an overall diminishment in how much I fear anything. Money. Career. Death. Everything.

Whether it’s one or the other, the fact is that I don’t fear my death as much as I did before jumping into the spiritual ocean several years ago. I wrote a piece last year about my reduced fear of death due to spiritual work. You can find it here.

Where spirituality didn’t do the trick

Spirituality didn’t cut the mustard for me in one big area: My kids. Specifically, I couldn’t get over the prospect of leaving them so early. They’re thirteen, eleven and four.

I’m close with all three of them and couldn’t handle the scenario of having to say goodbye. A huge part of it, of course, was how much I’d miss them.

But even worse was thinking how painful it would be for them to lose their dad. That thought cut deep. Obviously, time would heal that wound, but any of you parents out there know that there’s nothing worse than dealing with your kids’ actual, or prospective, suffering.

An unbearable thought

Then there was the thought that my four-year-old daughter would have only vague memories of me. “I kind of remember him…I have glimpses of him.” That one brought a cascade of tears.

Honestly, I didn’t have any spiritual answers to this question of the kids. Other than it would just be terrible and painful.

I know Ram Dass would say that attachment is attachment and that goes for our kids, too. I understand that intellectually, but, candidly, I’m not far enough along the path to practice it. For now, that’s a bridge too far.

The good news is that my retest came back with a PSA of 2.3, which is in the normal range. That was followed by a manual exam by my doctor (not fun) which found nothing irregular. The theory is that my regular cycling (4–5 times a week) is what probably caused the high PSA reading. Apparently, they see that a lot.

The takeaway

The best news of all from this ordeal is that I learned I can use the spiritual tools I’ve developed for the most dire of situations. Let’s face it, dealing with death is about as big as it gets.

Hopefully, any of you reading this who are on the spiritual path will use this as a confidence booster; that your work can help you in the most dire of situations.

Long story short, keep plugging away…


How Spiritual Work Has Calmed Me as I Face the Summer Travel Shit Show

After a catastrophic fifteen months dealing with the ramifications of COVID, the travel industry is now in a different kind of disarray as it seeks to return to some semblance of normalcy. Air fares are going through the roof and, equally troubling, airlines are switching up routes and flights every day. In other words, cancellations and rerouting of already purchased flights are rampant.

My story is that several weeks ago I bought five tickets for my family to fly next month from California to Wisconsin where my sister has a house on a lake. It’s remote, gorgeous and a place I’ve been going to since I was six years old. Tubing, fishing, swimming, chasing frogs and crayfish — it’s good old-fashioned kid fun.

But at $700 a ticket, it isn’t cheap to get there. I got us flying Orange County to Minneapolis then, after a three hour layover, taking a puddle jumper up to tiny Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

“Hey Dave, Delta Airlines here…”

A few weeks after buying the tickets I got an email from Delta. Long story short, they cancelled the direct flight from Orange County to Minneapolis and instead had us flying to Salt Lake City and then to Minneapolis and then to Rhinelander. Only a fifty minute layover in Salt Lake so if we’re late out of OC, we’re probably screwed. Oh, and no price reduction for our trouble.

Travelling with three kids, with the youngest only four years old, is taxing enough for parents. Throw in three flights with a tight connection and you have a travel disaster waiting to happen.

So what does any of this have to do with spiritual work? Plenty. Because after an initial bout of irritation and future fiasco rumination, my saner, spiritual side kicked in. And it did so automatically, without any summoning from my inner depths.

Staying present with what is

I thought, okay, so we have an added stop in Salt Lake City. When we fly there I’ll just stay present with that. And if we miss the connection to Minneapolis, I’ll deal with that. And if we have to spend the night in Salt Lake, so be it.

And if worse comes to worst and we have to cancel the trip altogether, I’ll be okay with that, too. I won’t like that outcome, but I can handle it.

I feel the same about three other trips I have planned this summer and fall, two to Washington, D.C., and another to the same lake house, this time just me and four of my siblings. All of those trips involve expensive, complicated flights with off the charts rental car rates. I want to make all of those trips, but if I have to miss every one of them, I’ll be okay.

It’s critical to note that my old, pre-spiritual work self would have freaked out about all of this.

How spiritual work helped me

Knowing all that, let’s consider the massive benefit my spiritual work is raining on me. First, I’m having none of my usual anticipatory travel anxiety. “What if we miss the connection and we have to entertain three kids for six hours in Salt Lake? Or worse, spend the night! Boy, I hope we make that connection…” I don’t feel any anxiety whatsoever about this. I know whatever happens, I’ll be fine.

And the ‘what if the whole trip falls through’ fear? We live in Southern California near the beach, which is basically a perpetual staycation, especially in the summer when the weather is perfect here. So, again, no worries there.

Compassion arises to thwart the anger

How about dealing with the anger I’d normally feel about the airlines abruptly changing our plans? For this, the foundational emotion of all spirituality rose up: Compassion.

What?! I can hear many of you thinking, “Do NOT tell me to show compassion for the airlines or I will click off this story faster than grass through a goose!”

Believe it or not, I do feel compassion for the airlines. Even Delta, who I paid all that money to. Why? Because, along with the restaurant business, the airline industry got hit by COVID worse than any others. And remember, airlines are just a bunch of people and planes, and mostly people. Flight attendants, ground crew, pilots. They had a rougher fifteen months than most of us. Bottom line: I’m giving them some slack as they try to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

And who benefits by my feeling this way? I DO! It’s just fewer ill feelings I’m lugging around in my lower self. It’ll also benefit some ticket agent that I don’t yell at should anything go haywire come travel day.

Chopping the wood and carrying the water

What spiritual work have I done that resulted in this milder, more positive reaction to traveling? Honestly, it’s just been, as Ram Dass calls it, chopping wood and carrying water for close to ten years.

By that I mean the simple, daily work trekking along the spiritual path. Meditating for fifteen minutes a day. Listening to talks and reading books by Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer and Ram Dass and slowly absorbing their teachings into my being. Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis.

Nothing radical. I haven’t done a one year, twelve hour a day meditation retreat or anything like that. Just daily sadhana.

The power of nonresistance

What that daily practice produces, ever so slowly, is a gradual decrease in resistance. We stop fighting less with what is.

“They added a whole extra flight to my trip without even asking?! F*^K them!”

No. No need to explode. It’s just what is. Doesn’t mean I won’t try and get that flight dropped from our itinerary (I am), but if I can’t, then that’s what is and I’ll be okay.

Eckhart phrases this beautifully:

“Don’t resist what is.”

Nonresistance is absolutely central to spiritual growth. And boy does life get better when we start really practicing this.

Another way spiritual work manifests positively in our lives, and it’s hugely apropos to my travel stories, is that the external circumstances of our lives have less of an influence on our overall sense of well-being. Meaning, we feel positive and calmer inside, from all the work we’ve done, to such an extent that what happens outside influences us less.

For example, not freaking out about possibly having to cancel the lake trip. Yes, I’d feel badly that my kids won’t get to have that experience. But they’ll be fine at home, too. And so will I.

Not relying on the external world for happiness

Most people exert every ounce of will they can muster every second of every day trying to manipulate the external world so they can feel happy inside. Get the promotion and you’ll feel happy. Get the guy you’re interested in and you’ll be happy. And on and on it goes.

But the external world is out of our control most of the time. The result is that most people don’t feel very good most of the time.

Devoting time and effort to spiritual work results in us feeling better inside regardless of what’s going on in the outside world. I can’t think of anything more beneficial.

The bottom line? I have four trips in August and September and with the travel business in the state that it’s in, it could be a monumental shit show. And I’ve accepted that. Because that’s what is. The result is I feel peaceful inside about it, which is worth its weight in gold.

The takeaway

The purpose of writing this is to spur those of you who relate to this travel stuff, and who might still freak out about it, to give basic spiritual work a chance. Start a meditation practice. Get going on some basic mindfulness exercises (by the way, they’re all basic).

None of it is complicated. None of it is difficult. It’s simply work that needs to be done.


A Helpful Technique to Aid in Letting Go of Your Ego

I was going to write a piece about meditation today, but then all hell broke loose around the Gerken household this morning and so… I’m heading back to the subject I wrote about last week: Letting go of our egos.

[Here’s last week’s article in case you missed it.]

First, I agree with Michael Singer that there is nothing more important we humans can do than let go of our egos. We can spend thirty years in an ashram, meditate for four hours a day and do annual one month silent meditation retreats, but if we don’t work on letting go of ourselves we’ll never feel truly liberated.

Which brings us to the critical tool I recommend using to facilitate this letting go. And that brings us to this morning.

Godzilla strikes again

My four year old, who I’ve previously referred to as Godzilla but who is actually the cutest, sweetest, liveliest little girl I’ve ever known, woke up a bit late today. She needs to be at camp at nine and had only a half hour to get her act together. Correction, for her parents to help her get her act together.

After several failed attempts at getting her dressed, my wife finally threw in the towel. She had a work commitment to get to. Which meant that you-know-who, who was trying to write this morning, was going to be in charge of the girl who stomped all over Tokyo (that’s a Godzilla reference for those of you not familiar with the movies) until our babysitter arrived.

But we need to back up a little bit to get to the embarrassing part of the story — my meltdown. I was in the bathroom applying some ointment to a rash on my arm when I heard my wife say:

“Okay! That’s it! She won’t get dressed. And I have to go. So she isn’t going to camp today. Bye!”

When I heard that, it took a microsecond for me to react by throwing down my tube of ointment in a fit of rage. I then screamed out an expletive, bolted out my door and tried a last-ditch effort to get my daughter dressed and out the door. To no avail.

But the big fail was my tube tossing tantrum. I completely and totally succumbed to the lower energy that wanted me to swim laps in its anger pool.

After recovering my wits, sanity and healthy blood pressure about ten minutes later, it occurred to me: Come on, man, you just wrote about this a few days ago and here you are erupting like Vesuvius. What can I learn?

The process

The answer came quickly. This whole exercise of letting go of our egoic selves when our buttons get pushed (otherwise known as energy/shakti that is trapped in our lower selves) involves noticing that we’ve been triggered, then immediately relaxing, then watching that energy so it can release and flow up into our conscious self.

The problem, as I’m sure many of you have experienced, is that the amount of time we have to shift into that relax gear before we blow our tops is minuscule! Probably 2/10 of a second.

The solution

What’s the solution? We have to have that word RELAX at the ready, in the forefront of our consciousness. We have to teach our brains to follow a sequence, where getting a button pushed immediately conjures the word relax.

And in the first second or two we’re merely saying ‘relax’ in our heads. Then we actually go inside and relax our bodies.

Watching is the key

And then we do the real work that this sets up: We watch that energy that has been stirred. We don’t engage with it or judge it. We just watch it. Merely doing that will allow the energy to release from below and make its way up. And that is the highest form of yogic work we can do.

But we can’t do that watching if we don’t make it to the relax part. So that is where most of us need to focus our work.

Since the mornings around here have been crazy of late I’m going to set my one hour of vigilant awareness for tomorrow 8:15 to 9:15 a.m. And this time I’m going to have the word RELAX at the ready should Godzilla, or my wife or other two kids stir up my lava.

The takeaway

So the idea is to get in the habit of, whenever we feel provoked, instantaneously going to the word RELAX. Literally, say it in your head. Or even out loud. Relax. Relax. Relax.

The descent into the clutches of our lower selves happens so fast that, like me this morning, there is almost no time to stave it off. Try practicing this immediate conjuring of relax the next time you do your one hour letting go exercise.

The hope is that eventually the stirring of this lower energy causes an automatic relaxation response.