Meditation

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

Definition of the Tao

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

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

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

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

Don’t talk, get quiet inside

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

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

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

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

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

Meditate to get quiet inside

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

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

Read the Tao!

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

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

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

Meditation

How to Encourage Your Children to Meditate

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

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


Keep it Simple

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

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

Maintain a Routine

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

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

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

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

Provide an Incentive

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

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

Explain Why Meditation Matters

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Okay. David is upset that Steph…”

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

Try this sometime — with your name, not mine.

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesson Two: Writing is hard.

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

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

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

David Shore — Emmy for “House”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

Why Getting Rid of Your ‘Self’ is the Key to Personal Growth

On page 214 of Mickey Singer’s bestselling book The Surrender Experiment, he writes, “I made getting rid of myselfmy only goal.”

I’ve been on the spiritual path for many years now — meditating regularly for seven years, going to conferences, taking online courses, reading the great books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and many others. While doing so, my instinct has been to try to hone everything down to that one fundamental thing. Not five or ten things I need to do. Just one.

Singer’s line captured it: getting rid of yourselfIt’s the be-all-end-all of spiritual growth.

Of course, in my spiritual pursuits, I’ve seen this concept expressed umpteen times. But Singer’s phrase ‘getting rid of myself’ resonated stronger than any other expression has.

Singer’s Surrender Experiment

The book (which I highly recommend) is about the decision Singer made in his 20s to surrender to the flow of life, which he equates with a continuous letting go (or ridding) of himself. If this sounds confusing, here’s an example from the book on how this ridding of himself manifested.

One summer he went away for a month to a spiritual centre in California. He returned home to his Florida land to find that a female friend of his had begun building a home on his property.

Every fibre of his being was infuriated and wanted to kick her off his property. But he had resolved to ignore his preferences and to flow with what life put before him, so he didn’t say a thing. In fact, he helped her finish the house!

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

The Egoic Goliath vs. the Conscious David

Now some of you might still be a bit confused as to what ‘getting rid of myself’ even means. I wrote a piece recently about exactly this subject. In it, I pointed out that we are all comprised of two selves — the egoic self and the conscious self.

The egoic self is the voice inside your head constantly tormenting you with those unwanted, involuntary thoughts. It’s the harsh, relentless critic inside you, the you of your past and the you of your perceivedfuture. It’s the “I have no idea what I want to do with my life. My future is going to be one big failure,” or “I never reached my potential. I should have worked harder.”

It’s also the self that wants and desires things. “I want to go to X restaurant, not Y!” It was the self that erupted inside Mickey Singer when he saw his friend building a house on his property.

Your conscious self is the you that exists only in the present. This is the real you, the you that exists when your mind is not off chasing some useless thought. In its purest form, it’s just consciousness.

The fundamental problem most humans have is that the egoic self is so dominant that the conscious self is rendered impotent. Another way of putting it is that most people are so stuck inside their heads and ruled by their unruly minds that they are seldom present.

So what Mickey Singer was saying is that the goal of his life is to rid himself of his egoic self so that all that’s left is his conscious self.

The Ultimate Goal of Life

It’s my view that the ultimate goal of life is to eliminate your self so that God, the Universe, Yahweh, the Supreme Being (whoever you think is in charge of the cosmic show), can express itself through you. And it’s impossible to be a vessel for the Universe to express itself when your mind is blah, blah, blahing all the time!

Have you ever met someone who is described as selfless that you didn’t like? My mom was like that. She had few needs and desires and her willingness to do for others was effortless. She had very little self. The result? She was universally loved and admired. AND, importantly, she was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known.

You’ve probably seen it in others, too. Ever see some of these priests or nuns who’ve dedicated their lives to helping the abject poor in Africa or South America? You see them interviewed on TV and they just exude happiness and love. And we all think, “How the heck can this guy/woman be so happy living among such awful squalor?” The answer? They have little to no self.

How many poets, philosophers and scholars need to tell us that selflessness is the best path before humanity listens?

How to Rid Yourself of Your Self

Fine, so it’s great to rid yourself of your egoic self. How the heck do you actually do that? The short answer is you chip away at it slowly and make this endeavour the focus of your life.

The specific practice that will help you immeasurably in chipping away at yourself is regular meditation. Why? Well, one way to look at meditation is that it strengthens your conscious self’s ability to merely witness the egoic self.

For example, you’re meditating and an angry thought crops up about your boss. You just notice that thought then come back to something happening in the present, like your breathing.

When you do this over and over and over again, what you’re doing is creating separation between your conscious and egoic selves. And this is monumentally important.

Why? Because as I wrote earlier, most people aren’t even aware that they have this other, conscious self because it is so dwarfed by the egoic self. Once you extricate it from the clutches of the egoic self, your conscious self gains the ability to gradually grow in influence over your life and you begin reaping all the spiritual riches flowing from that.

Meditation is the key

If you’re not meditating, I urge you to give it a try. It is profoundly beneficial to virtually anybody who does it. And contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not that hard and won’t take that much time out of your day.

If you’re looking for an easy way to start, I created a program that is simple, doable and designed so that a regular person, like me, would be successful in developing a long-term meditation practice. The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. Go for it! It’s free. You can access it at davidgerken.net.

So get rid of yourself. You, your spouse, your kids, your friends and humanity will all benefit greatly if you do.

Meditation

3 Tips for Using Mindfulness When Traveling

Let’s face it, traveling can suck. Missed flights, lost bags, packed in like a sardine in the middle seat…it’s a long list. Here are three ways mindfulness can help you reduce that travel stress.

1. The Night Before Travel Pep Talk

I used to get really uptight the night before I traveled, especially if I had an early morning flight. Will my alarm clock work? Will I get stuck in traffic on the way to the airport and miss my flight? Will the security line be a mile long also resulting in missing my flight? Will my flight be delayed so I miss my connection? Worry, worry, worry.  

I’ve been meditating regularly and practicing mindfulness for seven years so I decided to sink my brain into that well and see what I could come up with on the travel front. The solution I came up with has worked like a charm on my last several trips. As with all things related to mindfulness, it’s exceedingly simple, but effective. 

The night before I fly, I close my eyes and have a short chat with myself about what the next day may have in store. I go through everything that can go wrong (oversleep, traffic, security line, etc.) and then ask myself: Okay, what if any of those things dohappen? 

If there’s an accident on the 405 Freeway (I live in Southern California) and I miss my flight, is it really the end of the world? No. I’ll get another flight. Same with the security line. Same with any of those things.

Yes, there are times that missing a flight could have major negative ramifications. You may miss an interview for a job you really want. Maybe your kid’s college graduation is the next morning. In those cases, yeah, it would be awful if you had to spend the night at the airport and fly out the next morning.

Well, maybe it’s just me, but I’d say that 90 percent of the time I travel, it won’t kill me if I miss a flight and get in later or, worse, have to spend the night and arrive the next day.

Most of the angst we experience when we miss a flight or have some other travel mishap comes from responding reflexively. In other words, we say to ourselves right in the moment that some awful travel thing happens, “Damn it! I missed my flight. That means I have to be angry and miserable! AAARRGGHHH!!!” No. You don’t have to be angry and miserable. 

And most of the time the things we get anxious about the night before or the day of travel don’t come to pass. So have this chat with yourself the night before flying. You’ll feel calmer and less anxious the night before, the day of and during your actual travel.

2. Take Two Breaths Before Exploding

The gate agent taps away on her computer…after what seems like an eternity, she says, “Gosh, I can’t get you on anything until tomorrow morning. Everything is completely full.” Upon hearing this, or any other awful news given by some hapless airline employee, most people roll their eyes, sigh and say something like, “God, I hate this airline. Every time I fly X (American, United, Delta…we all have our least favorite airline), something goes horribly wrong!” 

The result of that response is twofold: 1. You feel worse, and 2. The hapless employee feels worse which, importantly, makes them less likely to try and go the extra mile to help you out.

Next time you get the awful news try something new: Immediatelyclose your eyes and take two deep breaths. I guaranteethat you’ll feel better at the end of those ten seconds. And the result of that will be dealing with the agent in such a way that they will be more helpful. 

This has worked for me in the past where the agent has found some better solution to my problem. I don’t know if it’s just the universe smiling on me with good karma because I didn’t lose it on some woeful airline employee or what, but good things generally happen when you chill out, stay in the moment and don’t lose your s%*t on people. Taking two deep breaths is usually all it takes.

3. Ask Yourself This Critical Question

You deplane from flight number one, look up at the departures screen and find out that your connecting flight is delayed three hours. You’re mad. You grumble under your breath and start that miserable walk toward your next gate. 

Next time you find this happening, stop in mid-walk and ask yourself this question: “Is there anything really wrong with this moment right now?” In most cases, the answer is no. You’re just walking through an airport.

Most of the pain and agony we feel in life doesn’t arise from the original painful incident. In this case, the initial pain is the three-hour delay. No. Most of the pain we feel is what WE add on top of that, in the form of negative, pointless thinking. “Every damn time I fly through Dallas/O’Hare/Minneapolis, etc., my flights get screwed up. Why does this always happen to me? I’m so unlucky!” [I wrote a separate article on the concept of primary and secondary pain that goes deeper into this. Here’s the link.]

So the next time you catch yourself at the airport about to go down the woe-is-me/rumination rabbit hole, just ask yourself, “Is there anything hugely wrong with the moment I’m in right now?” Once you realize the answer is no, your mood will lift.

This is mindfulness at its essence. Doing your best to be present in each moment of your life. The benefits of doing so are mind-bogglingly profound. You’ll be calmer, happier and a better spouse, parent, friend and overall member of humanity.

Now I’m not going to lie to you and say that that’s easy to pull off. It takes a strong commitment and sustained practice. But I can say with confidence that if you practice on a daily basis, you’ll reap deep benefits in a fairly short amount of time, especially on travel days!

Meditation

Three Ways Mindfulness Will Transform Your Marriage/Relationship

Mindfulness is a powerful tool that can enhance myriad areas of your life. Here are three ways it will deepen your relationship with your spouse/significant other.

1. Healthier Fighting

If you’re in a long-term relationship, you fight. It’s the price of admission. But HOW you fight can determine whether you’re miserable or happy in the relationship. Mindfulness will teach you to do something that seems so simple and insignificant but that in reality will be a gamechanger for your relationship.

Here’s the deal. It’s my experience that about 80 percent of what fuels a fight and pushes it into the realm of screaming and general nastiness is NOT ABOUT THE TOPIC YOU’RE FIGHTING ABOUT. It’s about completely unrelated factors.

Some examples. You’re both tired and grumpy after a long day at work. One of you fought traffic for an hour on your commute home. You’re on a diet and desperately want to attack that pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough beckoning you from the freezer…but can’t.

And then…

Significant Other (S.O.): “I see you didn’t get a chance to clean the kitchen this morning…as you said you would. Let me guess: you thought the Magic Cleaning Fairy was going to do it?””

You: “Look, I’m tired. Don’t start with me.”

S.O.: “Every time I ask you to do something, you just blow it off. You’re about as reliable as a nine year old.”

You: “You know what, go f*%k yourself.”

And you storm out of the room, plunging both of you into that frosty abyss we’ve all inhabited, a cavernous sinkhole of averted looks and bullheaded silent treatment for the rest of the night…Or the entire next day? The next week?

Commit yourself to mindfulness and this is how it would play out. After the left hook thrown your way about being a nine year old, you would literally stop. And instead of REACTING right then by telling your partner to F off, you would create some space between what was just said and your response. Bring attention to your breath. Maybe just two or three breaths. We’re talking 5–10 seconds.

And then…

You: “Sorry, I got sidetracked this morning. But look, we’re both exhausted so let’s not let this ruin our night. Okay?”

Then a quick kiss on the lips and you move on with your evening. Calamity avoided. All by a few seconds of mindfulness-induced presence.

The simple but powerful secret is: create a few seconds of space between what has just been said that angers you and your response. It’s all about RESPONDING and not REACTING.

Mindfulness is what provides you with the ability to become AWARE that you’re about to go off the rails and need to just stop and breathe. Think about all of the misery you and your partner would avoid if you did this one simple thing!

2. Deeper Intimate Moments

Do you ever experience intimate moments with your partner when you’re thinking about the memo your boss wants on his desk the next morning? No. In fact, you could say that the defining characteristic of intimacy is its requirement that both partners be attuned to the present moment. And that is really all that mindfulness teaches: living your life in the moment. Strengthen that skill and here is what you and your partner can do:

— Watch a beautiful sunset together. In silence. No need to talk about it. Or describe it. Because it’s only in silence that two souls can merge and dance with one another. So you just sit there, holding hands, while you both experience the beauty of the sunset from a place of still awareness.

— Enjoy the deepest levels of physical intimacy. When you and your partner are both truly “there,” present, and in the here and now, you will reach sublime levels of sexual intimacy that you’ve never experienced before.

— Experience a deeper sense of connectedness when doing everyday things together like cooking, working out or watching your favorite TV show. Every one of these activities will be enhanced when you are both in the mindful now.

3. Stronger connection through mindful listening

When you are fully present when your partner is talking, they feel heard. Seen. Respected. When they’re talking and you’re off in LaLa land, stuck inside your head, they feel the opposite of those three things.

It’s my experience that women are generally better, more mindful listeners than men. And they don’t like it one bit when their partner doesn’t pay attention to what they’re saying. So this one is mostly directed at the men of the world: working on your mindfulness will make you a better, more present listener. And that alone will pay enormous dividends with your partner.

Great, so mindfulness can do wonders for your relationship, but how do you actually DO it? God knows there have been thousands of articles written about any number of aspects of mindfulness.

Commit, then practice

But the actual doing of it requires only two simple things: 1. You need to decide that you want to be more present in your life and therefore commit to achieving that; and 2. You need to PRACTICE.

How do you practice? Next time you and your partner get into an argument, make it a point to see if you can stop for a few seconds, take a few deep breaths and then calmly respond.

Next time you’re in line at the grocery check out and you find your blood starting to boil because the clerk isn’t moving their hands at the speed of light, stop. Close your eyes. Take a few mindful breaths. In other words, chill out.

Next time your wife vents to you about some jerk at work and you find yourself drifting off to the Bahamas, become aware of that and transport yourself back to the here and now.

Meditation: the best path to mindfulness

What’s the most effective way to increase your ability to become AWARE that you’ve drifted off from the present moment? That’s easy. Develop a regular meditation practice.

All meditation is is sitting quietly and placing your attention on 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.

Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

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 seven 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. Give it a try. It’s free. You can access it at davidgerken.net.

And if you really want to take the bull by the horns on the mindfulness front, take the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. It was created forty years ago by acclaimed mindfulness meditation pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn. You meet once a week for eight weeks. I took the course in Los Angeles four years ago and thought it was excellent. They teach it all over the world so go online and see if it’s available near you.

Meditation

The One Thing You Need to do to Master Any Craft

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

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

The fundamentals of tennis

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

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

Writing in Hollywood

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

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

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

Aaron Sorkin and the fundamentals of writing

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

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

My WEST WING story

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

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

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

Off to the Emmys

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

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

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

What you need to do

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

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

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

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

Gladwell’s 10,000 hours

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

1. Make a Commitment

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

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

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

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

2. Pick a time of day that works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Be patient with yourself

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

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul – 1657

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

Rembrandt, Hendrickje Stoffels — 1660

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

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son — 1669

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

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

My zen mom

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

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

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

To access your spirit, meditate

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

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

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

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