Meditation

Meditation

3 Ways to Keep Spiritual Growth the Main Thing

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

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

Spiritual growth is the main thing

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

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

Why people get thrown off the spiritual path

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

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

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

Regular meditation is the key

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

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

My meditation program

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

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

Zen and mindfulness

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

My big break: a job on The West Wing

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

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

Recreating the Rwanda genocide in fictional Kundu

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

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

Teaming up with a friend from the real West Wing

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

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

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

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

The Sperling credo: outwork everybody

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

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

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

Hard work = better work product + less stress

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

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

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

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

Meditation

An Invaluable Tip I Learned That Transformed My Meditation Practice

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

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

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

Radiant meditation sessions turn to twisted steel

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

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

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

Meditation isn’t about achieving ecstatic states

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

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

Mindfulness: also about accepting good AND bad moments

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

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

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

Princeton rain vs. Hawaii rain

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

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

Try my meditation program

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

Meditation

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

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

1. “Accept this moment as it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key is eliminating secondary pain

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

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

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

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

Acknowledge your primary pain, don’t engage with it

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

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

Allow the cloud to pass over you

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation will help you succeed

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

How An 80 Year-Old Woman’s Tears Righted My Spiritual Ship

I’d just returned to my seat from a pit stop to the lavatory on a flight last week from Chicago to Santa Ana, California. I buckled my seatbelt and eagerly reached for my headphones. I was excited to watch the last half hour of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a movie that got pretty awful reviews but that I found surprisingly entertaining.

Just as I raised my headphones…“Are you going home to Orange County or just visiting?” This from the older woman sitting to my left, spoken with a clear Irish lilt. Great. Just as I was about to get back into my thriller, I get this.

Now I’m a fairly gregarious, extroverted guy, but I’ve always hated airplane small talk. For me the routine has always been put bag in overhead bin, sit in seat, fasten seat belt, put on headphones, grab book, tune out world, land, leave plane.

I’d helped my seatmate earlier in the flight with raising and lowering her tray table and had gotten the feeling that she may have wanted to chat, but had successfully warded off any attempts at engagement.

I responded, “I’m headed home. How about yourself?” She said she was on her way home after visiting family in Chicago and Michigan.

We’d chatted no more than two or three minutes when the subject of her husband came up. “He died six months ago.” Two seconds later tears streamed down her cheeks. Without even thinking, I grabbed hold of her hand. Told her how sorry I was to hear this. “We were married for 44 years. He was such a kind man. And so good to me.”

My reaction to seeing Margaret break down in tears was a normal, human one. Only the coldest of the coldhearted would have said, “Yeah, sorry to hear that, but I’ve gotta get back to my movie now. Good luck!”

But something odd happened. It literally felt like a light went on inside me. Understanding this requires some brief background on my journey. Six and a half years ago, after my Hollywood writing career had circled the toilet for one too many years, I began a regular meditation practice. This led to exploring the entire spiritual arena and, recently, to my decision to leave Tinseltown to focus on spreading meditation to the hinterlands.

The scores of hours of meditation these past years have definitely made me a calmer person. And the extended time spent in solitude has brought me closer to god, the universe, the Tao, whatever you want to call it. I’ve come to realize that god is not to be found “out there” in the world but in the silent stillness within.

So what does all this have to do with the poignant moment I encountered 35,000 feet in the sky? I felt like that light that came on was a slap on the head from a higher power telling me, “Hey, you. Mr. Spiritual. Wake up! This woman is hurting. Deeply. And you’re bent out of shape because you want to get back to some movie? Stop being a selfish jerk and help her. This is what it’s all about. I didn’t get you into doing all this work on yourself so that YOU can feel awesome all the time. It’s about becoming the best YOU so you can be there for others. Now get off the sideline and get in the game.” This all came to me in the instant I saw Margaret’s tears.

So I immediately put the headphones down and plunged head first into a lengthy discussion with Margaret about everything under the sun. The fact that she and her husband didn’t have kids. That she was the youngest of 13 children and that she felt like her children were the many nieces and nephews she had. The dangers of living in Belfast during “The Troubles” in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether she was going to keep the golf membership at their club. (I urged her to keep it because it would be good to be around people.) The odd fact that Margaret’s tiny Northern Ireland had three major golf champions in Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.

Through it all, the only thought I had was “Just be present and listen.”

The point of all this is that far too often those on the spiritual journey, like me, can unwittingly get sucked into the path of self-indulgence. Spiritual work becomes about me, me, me. How can get calmer, more peaceful inside. You blow your kids off so you can go meditate. Or sometimes the truth of the matter is that you meditate BECAUSE you want to get away from your kids. Or you’re always cleansing, fasting, whatever, in the quest of fully purifying your “vessel.”

My experience with Margaret provided a valuable reminder that spiritual work, for me, is about being as present and conscious as I can be. Wherever I am. At the store. By myself. With my family. And yes, on airplanes.

It also reminded me that the highest service you can offer begins with your immediate environment. Being good to your wife, your kids, your friends, your siblings, your neighbors and strangers on airplanes. If after doing that you want to go save the whales or make sure that every child on earth has enough to eat, great, go do that. But, as Eckhart Tolle often says, the greatest gift you can give the world is to be present. So thank you, Margaret, for teaching me this. And as the Irish say, “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, and may the sun shine warm upon your face.”

Meditation

All Spiritual Growth Comes From Doing This: Subtracting, Not Adding

Most of the conventional wisdom about spiritual growth focuses on the many things you need to add to yourself. Read the great books to add to your spiritual knowledge. Repeat positive affirmations to add to your ability to win the war against negative thinking. Eat the right foods to add to your body’s ability to enhance spiritual growth. But spiritual growth isn’t about adding to yourself. It’s about ridding yourself of the “stuff” you’ve accumulated over your life. In other words, it’s about subtracting, not adding.

That’s not to say that reading, being positive, eating well and all the rest, are bad for you. It’s to say that if they’re not helping you shed, they’re not doing their spiritual job.

Shed what, you ask? The answer to this question is the whole spiritual ball game and it’s this: The highest path of every human life is to shed the ego that we accumulate over many years, starting in childhood. All of the hurts, the slights, the “I’m not good enough”s, the “I’m right, you’re wrong”s, the judgments about people. Also all the roles we assume — mom, dad, executive, teacher, etc…essentially, everything you think about yourself and everybody and anything else. You need to just let it all go. And what is one left with after doing that? The beautiful, peaceful, radiant consciousness deep inside you, aka, the real you.

Sculpt like Michelangelo

Here’s a visual metaphor to illustrate the point. Imagine that you are Michelangelo, the most talented sculptor who ever lived. For his greatest work, Michelangelo took a massive block of marble and started chiseling away, day after day, for over two years, at the end of which he gave the world the sublime statue of David. His process consisted of subtracting small pieces of marble, by the thousands, in a quest to unearth the divinity that lay deep within the originally massive block.

Similarly, your block of marble is your entire psyche, within which exists a David-like masterpiece. The chiseling required to access that masterpiece consists of thousands of instances of subtracting, or letting go of, the egoic junk I mentioned above. There is no adding to be done — just letting go. And letting go. And letting go.

Now if I’m you, I’m asking the $64,000 question: “That all sounds great but how the heck do I just subtract and ‘let go’ of all my inner junk?” For the answer to this, I’m going to go to the well of one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Mickey Singer, author of the bestsellers The Untethered Soul and The Surrender Experiment. I just took his online course Living From a Place of Surrender and it focuses on this very topic. [I highly recommend taking the course. You can find it at Soundstrue.com.]

How to let go of your stuff

Here’s how Singer teaches one how to let go of their garbage (as he calls it). When something happens that stirs up your stuff you first recognize that that has happened. Then you immediately relax, everywhere, but especially in your head and in your chest and stomach area. And then you simply let go. Don’t engage with the feeling, whether it’s anger, fear, sadness or anything else. And don’t think about it and pinpoint it and try and figure out where it came from, etc. Just feel it. Then relax and let it go. Do this over and over and over again. If that sounds daunting just remember this: There is nothing more important that you can do with your time and attention. Why? Because this is the path leading you to your inner David, the path leading you to that calm, beautiful presence that is your natural state, which is blocked by your egoic stuff.

Fine. But here’s another critical question I would ask if I were reading this piece: “You say relaxing and letting go of my stuff is the most important thing I can do with my life. What do you mean by ‘my stuff?’ Give me some specifics.” I’ll break it down into two categories — little stuff and bigger stuff.

What I mean by “stuff”

Little stuff would be the anger that rises up inside you when someone cuts you off in traffic or drives 20 MPH below the speed limit. Or when a red light seems to have been red FOREVER and you completely lose your head. The most important thing is noticing when these things happen and feeling the anger/frustration within you. Then relax for five or ten seconds. And then let it go.

For the bigger stuff I’ll give an example from my life. First, some quick background on me so you’ll better understand my stuff. I come from a successful family with a father who was a Fortune 500 CEO. Long story short, lots of pressure on the kids to succeed. So after graduating from Princeton I worked in Washington, DC, for 15 years as a congressional aide and then as a lobbyist. I then spent fifteen years in Hollywood as a writer on shows like The West Wing and others.

Then recently I decided to devote myself to writing about spirituality, with an emphasis on spreading meditation as far and wide as I can. I’m still in the early stages of this endeavor, which means working at home and making no money.

My wife stirs my stuff

So back to my stuff, which means enter Stephanie, my wife. She’s working a regular job making good money. But her commute sucks and sometimes she gets frustrated and exhausted. Then she gets home from work, looks at me, making no money and working from home (where I have a 15 second commute from bedroom to office) and…well, sometimes she explodes at me. Tells me to get a real job. Or she’ll call me from the car, mired in traffic on her drive home and say something like, “If you don’t have anything better to do, can you pick up some diapers at Ralph’s (we have a two year old)?”

This of course pushes the deepest button inside of me — the feeling of failure and not measuring up in the world. In years past I reacted by launching a retaliatory nuclear missile right back at Steph, which only escalated the war and made us both feel terrible. Recently I’ve responded by stopping, noticing the deep anger I’m feeling and then relaxing and letting go. The result? Averted wars. But even better than averting wars, when I focus on letting go, I chip off one more piece of marble and get closer to this David becoming THE David.

Everybody’s got stuff. No one is immune. What’s yours? Maybe you’ve battled with your weight your entire life. And you’re out to lunch with your mom. You order a cheeseburger. And she gives you “the look.” Or worse, she says, “What about the veggieburger? It’s so much healthier.” At which point lava explodes through the top of your head and you let your mom have it. Or maybe you grew up with a father who didn’t listen to you. So after your husband tells you he doesn’t remember you telling him something (which you told him THREE times!) that latent anger from your childhood sprouts up and you scream at him. Well, next time something like this happens, the very first thing you need to do is STOP. Catch yourself. Don’t react. Just notice the anger. Then close your eyes and relax. Take a few deep breaths. Then let go.

The key to the whole process is practicing NOTICING when your stuff gets stirred up. You can’t relax and let it go unless you first get yourself to notice that’s it there. And in the beginning that’s hard. Why? Because all your life this stuff has come up and you’ve been in the habit of just reacting to it. So it will take a lot of practice.

Meditation will strengthen your noticer

The absolute best way to strengthen the noticer inside you is to develop a meditation practice. All meditation is is sitting quietly and following something happening in the present moment, like your breath. Then, when your mind wanders, and it will, you simply notice that that has happened and bring your attention back to your breath. That’s all it is. When you practice this on a regular basis your noticer “muscle” inside will strengthen.

How does this manifest in your everyday life? You’re at a red light and you notice that you’re getting annoyed, just the way you notice when your mind has wandered off during meditation. But now you cut it off at the pass. You feel the impatience and frustration, then relax, then let it go.

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

So subtract, don’t add. Make shedding your stuff the focus of your life. And be vigilant. And patient. This “stuff” has been inside you for most of your life and is lodged in there nice and tight. But the work it takes to dislodge it and let go of it is worth it. Because the prize is the real, natural, calm, compassionate beautiful being that resides inside every one of us.

Meditation

The College Cheating Scandal: A Teachable Moment for Parents and Teens

Parents paying thousands of dollars to illegally rig the system so their kid can improve their SAT score. A couple shelling out half a million bucks to a university sports coach to get their daughter in as a phony recruit. This is shocking behavior that requires our full attention, right? Wrong. Because if we focus on this tiny sliver of awful conduct we’ll be overlooking the far more important problem that does require a national reckoning: the college admissions process in America that has gone over a cliff in the past few decades, to the detriment of the many millions of disillusioned kids affected.

As someone with eleven nieces and nephews who’ve navigated the college admissions game in the past ten years, I’ve been a front row observer. Their stories were all too similar — major anxiety over standardized tests, grades, whether to hire a “consultant,” friends fretting with friends over who was going to get in where and parents hovering over everything, every step of the way.

Academic pressure crushing teens

A recent Pew poll revealed the dire situation faced by America’s teens. When asked what pressures they feel most in school, 61 percent of teens listed getting good grades. This dwarfed looking good (29 percent), fitting in socially (28 percent), being good at sports (21 percent), drinking alcohol (6 percent) and using drugs (4 percent). Although not stated in the poll, it is safe to infer that these kids feel academic pressure mostly for one reason: so they can get into a good college.

Did this craziness exist when I applied to college in the early 1980s? Yes. But the angst felt by the kids and the parents was far less severe than today. I’m the youngest of six kids and my parents played little role in any of our admissions work. Sure, my dad wanted all of us to go where he went (Wesleyan), but other than that, we studied for the tests, wrote our essays and applied where we wanted to apply. And we did just fine. I went to Princeton and the other five went to Harvard, Stanford (2), Wellesley and Wesleyan (my dad got one, at least).

Parents should know better

So who’s at fault for the chaotic frenzy the admissions process has become? There’s lots of blame to go around, but I’d put parents at the top of the list. They have decades of experience as adults. They should know that it is awful for their child’s well-being to get them all spun up about getting into the best college they can. “If you want to get into X you better study your ass off for those ACT’s. And you need to ace your calculus final, too. Now, let’s go over your application essay. I feel like it needs to stand out more. It’s too pat…” This kind of thing is the norm, not the exception.

Why are parents doing this? I think there are two motivations and both are bad. For one group of parents, pushing their kid to get into a good college is about THEIR egos. Of course, no one would admit to that. But the fact is, they want to tell their friends and peers that junior is going to Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, etc.

The second parental motivation is even worse for the kids: Fear. Fear that if their kid doesn’t get into a good college they will never make it in life. So the emphasis with their kids is on getting good grades and excelling in everything with the hope that if they do, they’ll get into a good school and thereby secure their future. The subtext of what these parents are telling their kids is, “Honey, I love you, but I have no confidence in you. If you listen to your insides and strike your own path in life you are probably going to be a huge failure. So just work hard on your academics and follow the regular path that American society has set for you — go to a good college, get good grades there, then secure the best job you can get and settle into a career…”

Is this fear-based parenting understandable in many people? Yes. Maybe they grew up during the Depression or had parents who did. People raised under those circumstances generally fear that poverty and starvation are just around the corner and live their lives accordingly.

Kids share some of the blame

Now obviously parents aren’t the only ones at fault here. The kids also buy into the admissions frenzy. I was 100 percent guilty of it myself. I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy in my high school years keeping my “eyes on the prize” of getting into a good school. And while there was some indirect pressure from my parents and siblings, it was my own insecure ego that drove most of it.

And I got in to Princeton, usually thought of as one of the best, if not the best, colleges in America. Great, right? Yes and no. I had a good experience at Princeton and met some lifelong friends there. I have no regrets about going there. What I do have serious regrets about is how and why I ever wound up there in the first place.

Because the singular focus on studying and excelling in tennis (which helped me get in) carried with it a steep opportunity cost. Turns out that spending all of my psychic energy pursuing excellence so I could get in to a great college diverted me from focusing on the most important thing a young person can do: digging deep inside and asking myself who I was, what I really liked and what I really wanted out of life. Some people come to that naturally. I didn’t.

The never ending high-achiever merry go round

Making matters worse is that this “go for the best” mentality that gets you into Princeton doesn’t stop for most people. Because then they need to do the next “big” thing which, in the mid 1980s when I was there, was either going to a killer law or medical school or getting a job on Wall Street at one of the big banks (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, et al). Then it’s clerking for a federal judge or making a boatload of money working eighty-hour weeks on Wall Street. And it never ends, which is sad because the vast majority of these high-achiever types are some measure of miserable.

By the way, you know who DOESN’T take this “I just want to be big for the sake of being big” route? The visionaries. The people who actually change the world. I’m talking about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and a classmate of mine at Princeton named Jeff Bezos who happens to be the richest person on the planet. These are people who followed their noses, their passions, their guts. They didn’t care about the keeping up with the Joneses status stuff. Jobs dropped out of Reed College his freshman year, Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to work on what would become Microsoft and Bezos left a promising Wall Street career to create Amazon in his garage.

Which brings us full circle to the insanity of today’s college admissions world. Let’s start encouraging our kids to look inside themselves and let the voice they hear be the guiding force in their livesand not the lifeless path beaten by blind devotion to American societal norms. It takes courage to do that, on the part of kids AND their parents. But it is SO worth it. I remember a brilliant roommate of mine at Princeton who DID beat his own path in life. He had a sign on his door that read: “The only true success is to live your life in your own way.” So true.

Where you go to college less important than ever

The massive irony in all this is that where you go to college is less important now than at possibly any time in American history. Why? Because the working world has become massively decentralized. In the old days, let’s call it pre-1960s, if you went to Princeton or Harvard you were virtually guaranteed an upper class life from graduation day until you were laid into the ground. A white shoe job on Wall Street or at any number of Fortune 500 companies was yours for the taking.

But that’s not where the world is now or where it’s headed. The internet has leveled the playing field such that independent thinking, ingenuity and an enterprising nature determine success far more than pedigrees like the college you attended. An angel investor in Silicon Valley doesn’t care if you went to Princeton. He cares about the soundness of the idea your pitching him.

So yeah, Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, my fellow Corona del Mar High School alum Mossimo Giannulli and many others took unconscionable actions and should be punished for it. But they’re just extreme examples of the underlying problem of the awful college admissions rat race currently infecting our country.

What to do about that? Let’s start with urging parents and school counselors to stop scaring teens into thinking that if they don’t end up at a great college their futures will be bleak. And let’s get our teens’ eyes focused on the real prize: looking inside and discovering their true passions. As the great scholar of myths Joseph Campbell once said, “Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid. Doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” A teen that has the courage to follow their bliss instead of blindly grinding away on their studies? That’s where you find your next Jeff Bezos.

Meditation

Does Running Errands Stress You Out? Try Doing These Five Things

Going to the grocery store. CVS. The dry cleaners. Running errands. It’s a part of life. Some find it relaxing. I, like most people, find it stressful, owing mostly to the irritations inherent in being out and about with humanity — lines, traffic, crowds, noise (Yikes, I sound like The Grinch)…Here are five things I do to keep calm and ensure that my inner Vesuvius doesn’t erupt.

1. Slow down, don’t rush

Slow down, meaning literally walk slower. This dawned on me one day as I got out of my car and walked through the parking lot toward the grocery store. I was speeding along and feeling really uptight and tense. And it hit me: Why am I walking so fast? If I slow down to a saunter it’ll take me maybe ten seconds longer to get to the entrance. So what? So I slowed down. And immediately I felt the tension melt away.

I can hear many of you right now saying, “But I’m always in a hurry! I’ll get behind schedule if I just stroll around.” Sorry, but I’m going to call bullshit on that. Sure, sometimes you may have to get in and out of a store or two in five minutes because you have to pick up your kids at school or whatever. But MOST of the time, if you added five minutes to the total time of your errand excursion because you chilled out on your walking pace, it would make absolutely zero difference. And you’ll feel so much better.

What we’re really talking about here is the concept of rushing. And most people rush for one and only one reason: because they’re in the habit of rushing! I think I can speak for all humans when I say that rushing produces stress and anxiety. So slow down.

2. Breathe while waiting

An older woman rummages through her purse for a few minutes gathering her coupons at the grocery store check out. You’re fourth in line and your head is about to explode. Ahh, waiting in lines. So fun. The old me absolutely detested it. But now? I view it as an opportunity to relax and go inside. All I do is close my eyes and take five deep breaths. I feel way calmer when I open my eyes. And then I look around the store and keep my attention on my breathing. This is so much healthier than checking your phone for the 297th time that day. Bottom line: When I do this I’m calmer and more peaceful than if there had been no line at all and I zipped right through.

3. Stop and smell the roses

This one is specifically for the grocery store. On your next trip, make a point to walk over to the flower section. Almost every grocery store has one. Stand there and look around at all the brilliant yellows and purples and whites. Just take it in. Then go to the roses and smell them. Do your best not to think about what you’re seeing and smelling. Try to experience the flowers’ beauty from a place of no thought. Just take one minute. You won’t regret it.

4. Use Red lights

You’re racing from one errand to the next to the next and you’re fried. Then on the way to your last stop you hit a red light, and it takes f…o…r…e…v…e…r to turn green. Finally, you lose it and yell “GODDAMNIT!!!” as you smack your innocent steering wheel. Be honest. You know you’ve done it. I know I have. Many times.

But again, look at red lights as opportunities to calm down and be present. I know, you’re thinking, “First this idiot wants me to enjoy waiting in line and now he wants me to rejoice in red lights? F that!” I get it. We humans like to move, to go forward and we absolutely HATE being forced to stop. But unless you have a death wish, you have no choice but to wait at that light. So use it. Look out your window at the blue sky or the trees swaying with the breeze. As you’re doing so, place your attention on your breathing.

And here’s one thing to definitely NOT do — don’t let your mind wander as 99 percent of all earthlings do when stopped at a red light. Because normally it’s wandering to places that aren’t good for you — like the snide comment your boyfriend made earlier in the day or how much you hate your job or, or, or. It’s an endless and mostly destructive list. Do your best to stay in the here and now.

5. The two breath rule

Sometimes things happen on your errands expedition that go beyond just being annoyed by waiting, etc. I’m talking about stuff that really pisses you off. Someone takes a parking spot you’ve obviously been waiting for. You go to Staples and they don’t have any staplers in stock (this literally happened to me!). You go to pick up your shirts, which were supposed to be ready yesterday, and they’re still not ready. When something like this happens and you’re about to blow your stack, force yourself to stop and take two deep breaths before responding to the parking spot thief, the Staples clerk or the dry cleaner guy. It’s the difference between reacting, which is usually not healthy or constructive, and responding, which is measured and won’t send your blood pressure through the roof.

Making these things happen for yourself requires only one thing — awareness. You need to train yourself to become aware when you’re about to blow your stack or when you’re walking really fast and feeling uptight, etc.

The best way to strengthen your “awareness muscle” is to meditate. All meditation is is placing your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing. Then when you became aware that your mind has drifted into thought, you simply bring your attention back to your breath. Doing this repeatedly, over time, will strengthen your ability to notice when you’ve been yanked away from the present.

If you want to give meditation a try, and I HIGHLY recommend that you do, go to my website davidgerken.net and download my free ebook Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice. The sole focus of the book is to make learning how to meditate as easy as possible.