Meditation

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.

Meditation

Can’t Find Your Way in Life? Read this Nine Page Mark Twain Essay

Mark Twain’s essay The Turning Point of My Life will take you fifteen minutes to read and could change the course of your life forever. Why? Because in recounting the events of his life that led him to a literary career, Twain teaches a universal lesson about how to live life. What is that lesson? Allowing your life to be governed by the marrying of fate and who you are at your core (what Twain calls temperament).

Twain wrote the essay in 1910 at the request of Harper’s Bazaar, which asked several prominent writers to relate the one incident in their lives that led them to the literary profession (here’s a free link to the essay: www.online-literature.com/twain/1324). At the outset, Twain calls BS on the question itself, arguing that there were several turning points that led him to a literary career, none more significant than the others. And, most important, every one of those turning points was random and dictated by fate.

Twain’s recounting of how he found the literary life offers a clear picture of how this can help you find YOUR way in life. Here it is.

A measles epidemic changes everything

Twain gives the lion’s share of credit for becoming a writer to a measles epidemic that ravaged his small Iowa town when he was twelve. What? Yes. With his father recently deceased and his mother carrying the burden of the family, a measles epidemic killed several people in town. Twain was cooped up inside for weeks and worried constantly that he would be the next to get sick and die. One day he couldn’t take it anymore so he fled the house and jumped into bed with a friend who was dying. He just wanted to end it. Sure enough, he got sick and for the next two weeks was on the verge of death. Fortunately, he survived.

But his mother was so upset with him that she took him out of school and apprenticed him to a printer. For the next ten years young Twain traveled around, as printers did, and worked on setting several books. One of those books, about the Amazon River and its exotic birds and animals, captivated him. He resolved that he would go there once he had enough money.

Soon thereafter, fate stepped in when he found a fifty-dollar bill on the street, a lot of money in the 1850s. He advertised his find, but nobody claimed the money so he hopped on a riverboat and headed down the Ohio and the Mississippi for New Orleans where he planned to catch a ship to the Amazon. Upon reaching New Orleans he quickly found out that there weren’t any boats heading to Brazil. Ever. Oops.

Falling in love with the Mississippi

But on the trip South Twain fell in love with the Mississippi. The riverboat captain had taken him under his wing and taught him how to pilot. So Twain became a riverboat pilot. And loved every minute of it. Until fate intervened again when the Civil War broke out and the boats stopped running.

Around that time, his older brother got a job in the Nevada Territory government and asked Twain to join him. This time Twain’s dream became striking it rich in the silver mines. But he spent his spare time writing and sending articles to the Virginia City Enterprise newspaper. After printing and reading so many books the previous ten years, Twain learned about good and bad writing and decided to give it a try just for fun. The Enterprise was so impressed with his writing that they hired him. Thus started a journalism career.

Not long after, the Sacramento Union sent Twain to the Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic to write about sugar. The quality and style of his writings there thrust him into the top echelon of journalists in Northern California.

The Innocents Abroad

That led to the San Francisco Alta sending him on a five-month trip to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867. Upon his return, Twain was asked to write a book about his travels. Two years later he published The Innocents Abroad. He was now officially an author, something Twain credits to getting the measles at age twelve.

The relevance of all this to people living in 2019 is obvious: most of us plan too much, analyze too much and just plain THINK too much. Everybody’s a control freak these days. And what does that do? It takes the universe, god, nature, fate, whatever you want to call it, out of the equation of your life. Which often leads to an antiseptic and flat journey through life.

Most of us 2019ers, were we put in Twain’s shoes, would’ve read that Amazon adventure book and said, “Wow. That is so cool. But Brazil is too far away and I don’t have any money so…oh well. I’ll always have the book.” Or if they’d found the fifty-dollar bill they would have done the “prudent” thing and put it in the bank for a rainy day. Or if they did strike the intrepid course and head for the Amazon, they would’ve written all kinds of letters inquiring about shipping schedules, etc. that would have taken several months after which time they’d be off to something else.

Live like Twain

So what’s my recommendation to every single person reading this article? Live like Twain did! Be spontaneous, adventurous, impetuous. This is all Twain did: be himself, live in the present (i.e., no thinking about the past or future) and allow fate to be the riverboat transporting him through life.

Now Twain had two huge advantages that made it easier for him to live like this. First, he described his temperament as someone who “does things and reflects afterward.” That’s a hugely helpful trait. And second, his father was not the governor of Iowa putting pressure on him to go into politics. Or a farmer leaning on him to take over the family farm. Twain was left to his own devices at age thirteen. So the combination of Twain’s temperament and his life circumstances made it relatively easy for him to pursue this life of adventure.

What about you? Do your parents have a restaurant they expect you to take over some day? Is your father a Harvard trained lawyer at a blue chip law firm in Manhattan who expects you to follow a similar path? Or maybe you just feel pressure from society in general to “stand out,” “be a big deal,” and “make it.”

I know from personal experience how powerful those forces can be in preventing one from following the Twain path. I was the youngest of six kids and my father was a mega-successful Fortune 500 CEO. My siblings all went to Harvard, Stanford, Wellesley and Wesleyan and I felt huge pressure to live up to this impossibly high standard. I somehow squeaked into Princeton then spent the next three decades trying to be “big,” first as a political aide in Washington, DC, then as a writer in Hollywood. But the truth is I never felt quite right inside.

An implosion in Hollywood puts me on the Twain path

What got me on the Twain path? My Hollywood career imploded, which resulted in me imploding. I had two kids under age four, a mortgage that was under water and no money coming in the door. I tried meditation as a way of helping me through the days. And it worked. I felt better, calmer and less depressed.

As I read more, went to meditation and mindfulness conferences and really got into it, three things occurred to me: meditation is profoundly beneficial for anybody who does it, not many people do it regularly and it’s not that difficult. As a result, I decided to devote myself to spreading meditation and mindfulness as far and wide as I can. Fate gave me something to help me through a tough time and that became my life’s work.

[By the way, if you’re not meditating, PLEASE give it a try. The peace it will bring you is invaluable. Go to my website at davidgerken.net and download my free ebook Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice. The goal of the book is to make developing a practice as easy as possible.]

Be courageous and fight!

So what does it take to live a Twain-like life for someone in 2019 who feels all this familial and societal pressure? One word: Courage. You have to fight like hell for yourself. Some will wage that fight against their parents. Others will wage it against their peers. And others will battle an amorphous force coming from multiple aspects of society telling them they need a higher profile job, a better car and a bigger house.

But most of these fights will be fought on the battlefield of your inner self. Because your parents, peers and society have spent years residing in your psyche. So when you start thinking about leaving your job to spend a year in Paris working on the book you’ve always wanted to write, it’s going to roil your insides. And that’s when you have to fight. For yourself. And be as courageous as a warrior in combat, because you’ll be doing the same thing: Fighting for your life.

Be yourself and trust in life

But please trust me when I say that that battle is worth fighting! Because the Twain way of life is so much more fun, exciting and fulfilling than the worrier, planner way of the timid control freak. When all you have to do is be yourself and trust in life, the stress and anxiety just melt away. And remember this: You will never feel true peace inside until you fully accept and embrace who you are and then entrust your life to the universe, nature, god, or whoever or whatever you believe is running the metaphysical show.

So read this essay! Here again is the free link:

www.online-literature.com/twain/1324

Print it out and keep it on your desk or bedside. Read it every so often if you’re feeling adrift or just want to be inspired. And fight for yourself! You, and the world, will be better for it.

Meditation

How Meditation Saved Me From Myself

You want to know who was I before I started meditating six years ago?  I was the jerk who leaned on his horn and flipped you off for the most minor of driving offenses.  I was the dad at the pre-school gathering who didn’t talk to the other parents because I didn’t want them to know what a loser I was.  I was the husband who yelled at his wife over stupid, trivial stuff. Bottom line: I was a depressed, miserable mess.

What saved me?  Meditation. I know.  I know. You probably think meditation is for granola eating, pot smoking, man bun-wearing hippies.  Trust me, I am so NOT that guy. In fact, we’re probably not that different. I struggle with the same everyday challenges most of you do, like paying an ever-growing stack of bills every month and navigating three squabbling kids and a working wife who feels overwhelmed much of the time (bonus points for anybody who can guess where she dumps most of her stress.  Hint: it’s a two-letter word that starts with m_).  

So how did I get to be that bird-flipping, depressed guy in the first place?  I grew up in Southern California, the youngest of six kids. My five siblings were all go-getter type A’s.  Worse, my dad was a Type A+ CEO of a big company. Me? I was always a Type B. Growing up I was content with playing my sports, watching my TV shows and studying a moderate amount, at best.  

The fact that I always felt I should be a Type A like the rest of my family served as the foundation for a decades long struggle with depression and anxiety and a general feeling in my gut that I never quite measured up.  I look back now on my first two years in college and realize that I was more than a little psychologically messed up. The cause was a combination of my congenitally sensitive nature and being thousands of miles from home surrounded by a bunch of neurotic, over-achieving East Coast kids.  The low point came when I had a nervous breakdown in December of my freshman year. In hindsight, I should have been hospitalized. The long-term gain would have more than made up for the shame I would have felt. As it was, I soldiered through those years, putting band-aids on wounds that needed psychic surgery.

My first stop after college was Washington, DC, where I worked on Capitol Hill for a couple congressmen.  Then, after ten lucrative but soul-trying years as a lobbyist, I decided to chuck it all and move to Hollywood to pursue my dream of being a writer.  

After writing a spec script and calling in some Washington chits, I got a job on the writing staff of The West Wing.  Talk about beginner’s luck.  I was writing for my favorite show and learning the craft from the Babe Ruth of Hollywood writers, Aaron Sorkin.  From rubbing elbows with Martin Sheen to being onstage when we won the Emmy for Best Drama Series, I had to pinch myself several times that year to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  

And then, as happens with fairy tales, it all came to an end.  The higher-ups decided not to pick up my option for another season.  (That’s my weaselly way of saying that I got fired.)

From there, I traveled a slow, torturous path to the depths of Hollywood Hell.  Off my West Wing job I got a few more gigs on progressively worse shows, ones you’ve never heard of because they got cancelled so fast.  Over the next seven years, I worked on precisely two shows.  Yes, I sold a couple pilot scripts during that time, but that didn’t make me remotely enough money to break even.

It’s hard to describe those years because they were shrouded in a thick, depressive fog.  I was definitely not a lot of fun to be around.  A friend of mine told me the other day that she dreaded calling me back then because she could literally feel my negative energy through the phone.  Imagine living with me.  Yikes. How my wife survived those dark years I’ll never know.  All I can say is kudos to her.

So this is where things stood in late 2012:  I was 48 years old, with a wife, two kids under the age of four and a writing career that was circling the toilet.  And to top it off, thanks to the 2008 financial crisis my mortgage was underwater. If I had to sum up how I felt in one word it would be hopeless.  Bottom line: I needed a break or I was going to break…

And the break came…in the form of meditation.

My sister, an avid meditator, had gotten me to try it a few times in the past but it never took.  But my antidepressants weren’t doing the trick and neither was anything else so I figured I’d give it another go.  

But this time around I knew I couldn’t just dabble.  The stakes were too big. I had to go all in. And that meant devising a plan.  A plan that got me to meditate regularly, but that was flexible enough to allow for the fact that I, like most people, am annoyingly, frustratingly human; i.e., easily distracted, undisciplined…You get the drift.  

Because the hardest part of developing a meditation practice isn’t the actual meditating.  It’s getting used to sitting your butt in the chair until it becomes a habit. Meditation itself is uber simple.  All it 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.  Can that be difficult at times? Sure. For one reason: The human mind loves to wander. But like anything else, the more you meditate, the better you get at it.  

Anyway, armed with my new plan I sat my butt in the chair on January 1, 2013, for day one of my meditation odyssey.  This time it took. And I can honestly say that it wasn’t that hard.  

Six years and change later I’m still going strong, meditating for fifteen minutes roughly six days a week.  And what have I learned over those years?  Simply this: There is nothing more beneficial for the mind, body and soul than regular meditation.  Why? Because the bulk of most people’s problems stem from constant, injurious, obsessive thinking, a disease for which meditation happens to be the antidote.  

As for meditation’s specific benefits, I’m sure many of you have heard of the scientific studies from the likes of Harvard and Stanford showing that meditation helps with depression, anxiety, weight loss, chronic pain, boosting the immune system, improving focus and others, so no need to do a deep dive on that.  

Instead, I’m going to relate in a personal way how meditation has made me a better dad, husband, brother, friend, writer and overall human being.  It really is that profound.

As I was wondering how to describe this, I got to thinking that, other than me, the biggest beneficiary of my meditation has been my wife.  So I thought it would be cool to just ask her straight up what she thinks it’s done for me. I just got off the phone with her and here’s what she said:  “You listen to me more. You’re more patient with me and the kids. And a huge thing was it got you focused on your internal world and not so consumed by external success, which is what made you so miserable.  You’re just a happier person.”

There have been other benefits, too.  First, you’ll be happy to know that I no longer lose it when someone cuts me off in traffic.  I stay in the moment and listen to my beautiful eight-year old daughter when she reads to me instead of drifting off and fixating on some DVR’d show I can’t wait to watch.  Rather than fuming as I wait forever in a long grocery store line, now I use that time to take some deep breaths and look out the window at the palm trees swaying in the wind.  I’m calmer. Less anxious. I’m far more compassionate and less judgmental than I used to be.

In all candor, meditation hasn’t made me perfect.  I still lose it from time to time. And when I do, my wife loves nothing more than torturing me with, “Well, I see that meditation thing is really working for ya, huh?”  Which of course results in lava exploding out the top of my head and, on a good day, a hearty laugh had by all five minutes later.

The point of writing all this isn’t to give you my happiness rags to riches story.  It’s to tell you that if I can do it, you can too. It’s not that hard.

There is one critical thing I need to tell you, though: The science has proven that to realize the transformative benefits of meditation, it needs to be done regularly.  Stopping in at a meditation den every week or two isn’t going to cut it. Oh, no! Developing a regular practice is brutal, right? Wrong.

And that’s where I come in.  Because remember that plan I devised for my supremely imperfect self?  I want you to try it.  It’s simple, doable and designed to help regular people, like me, develop a practice.  It’s also free. The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there.  Come on, you can do anything for two minutes! Access my plan by signing up below to receive my free articles (like this one). Then I’ll send you, for free, my plan. This is a no-brainer. Do it!

So if you want to worry less, do this.  If you want to feel calmer and more peaceful inside, do this.  If you want to be a better person, do this. You owe it to yourself.  I did and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.


Meditation

Five Spiritual Classics You HAVE To Read

Each of the texts below is packed with essential, profound wisdom.  They’re also short and easy to read. As such, if I were dictator of the world I’d make all five of them mandatory reading for all earthlings.

1. TAO TE CHING by Lao Tzu

Written 2,500 years ago in China, the Tao is, in my estimation, the wisest work ever written.  I keep it on my desk at all times. Why is it so great? Here are a few of my greatest hits.

-Chapter 8:  “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”  If you have kids, cut this one out and put it on their bulletin boards!

-Chapter 30:  “The Master understands that the universe is forever out of control, and that trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao.”  This one is for you control freaks out there. Just think of life as like a river that you need to flow with rather than constantly wearing yourself down by fighting against the current, i.e., trying to control everything.

-Chapter 37:  “When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”  In other words, the simpler you live, the better off you’ll be.  Cut down on how much you want and need and the anxiety will melt away.

Chapter 44:  “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”  No words can improve on that.

Do yourself a favor and read the TAO.  The Stephen Mitchell translation is best.  Amazon link here.

2. THE BHAGAVAD GITA  Author Unknown

The Gita, one of the main texts of Hinduism, was written roughly 2,200 years ago in India.  It’s written as a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna, who is actually God incarnate.  My favorites…

“Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”

-Bottom line:  When you’re constantly looking toward the riches at the finish line, your work not only suffers but you’re miserable to boot.  Place all of your energy on the task at hand and your work will be the best it can be. You’ll also feel serene inside.

“Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires.”

-I know this one sounds Pollyanna-ish, but it’s true.  Serve others and you will be amply rewarded by God, the Universe, the Supreme Being…whoever you think is in charge of the cosmic show.  

“The practice of meditation frees one from all affliction…Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.”

-Couldn’t have said it any better.  Meditation is the most important thing you can do for yourself.  And as it says, it takes time and repetition to achieve the profound benefits.  Read on to the end and I’ll show you how you can develop a regular meditation practice.

I find the Eknath Easwaran translation to be the most readable.  Amazon link…

3. ESSAY ON SELF-RELIANCE by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance, written in 1841, has had a greater influence on my life than anything I’ve ever read.  I first read it when I was 18 and it has been at my fingertips ever since. Here’s why.

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or for worse as his portion.”  

-Most of this essay comes down to Emerson insisting on being yourself.  And that means accepting who you are, no matter what. Another great one for the kids.

“…The rose is perfect in every moment of its existence…But man does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.”  

-A rose doesn’t know about past or future.  It only exists in the now. We, on the other hand, are constantly stuck in thoughts worrying about what was or will be.  If that’s you, try walking in nature and just looking at a flower. Or stand next to a tree and notice its stillness. It’ll bring you into the present moment.

“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

-So do I.  Whether it’s inside a church or inside ourselves, silence is where God/Jesus/Allah/The Supreme Being/The Genius of Nature (whoever floats your spiritual boat) resides.

“Nothing can you bring you peace but yourself.”

-This is huge.  So many people look out to the world for the answers to their problems.  The answers are found by looking inside and listening to the stillness (aka yourself).

This one’s free.  Click here.

Hesse, a German writer, wrote Siddhartha in 1922.  I’m including it not because of any pithy, wise quotes, but rather for its central theme:  The importance of blazing your own trail in your quest for spiritual development. This is so important in today’s world where spiritual seekers too often look outside to teachers for spiritual guidance and in doing so lose touch with their internal selves.

4. SIDDHARTHA by Herman Hesse

The book begins with young adult Siddhartha leaving his comfortable life in search of spiritual enlightenment.  His best friend Govinda joins him. One day they meet the Buddha who tries to convince them to join his already large following.  But Siddhartha tells the Buddha that while he believes his teachings to be supremely wise, it’s his firm belief that each individual must learn from his own experiences.  Govinda decides to join the Buddha while Siddhartha declines. The rest of the novel is about Siddhartha’s circuitous journey through life. After years as a pious beggar he meets a beautiful woman who says she’ll only be with him if he has wealth.  So he becomes a successful businessman, lives in the city and enjoys the high life. After many years he finds this life spiritually unsatisfying and devotes the rest of his days to being a lowly ferryman on a river. Using the river as a metaphor for life, Siddhartha becomes supremely enlightened.  In their old age, he and Govinda have a chance encounter at the river. Govinda reveals that after several decades of following the Buddha he is still spiritually lost while Siddhartha has attained peace.

Such a powerful message.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t read Eckhart Tolle’s books or watch Marianne Williamson’s lectures.  Just don’t outsource your spiritual education to them or anybody. Be vigilant about never losing touch with your internal world.  Amazon link here.

5. THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle

I think The Power of Now is the most compelling spiritual book of the past fifty years.

Eckhart’s main point is that we are not our thoughts.  So much human suffering comes from the constant, involuntary mind chatter our brains produce.  “That was a shitty comment. I can’t believe she said that.” “If my business doesn’t pick up, I may have to sell my house.”  “I wish I were thinner.” Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. Constantly racing around our heads. Tormenting us. Why do they torment us?  Because we identify with them.  We believe all those thoughts make up who we are.  Eckhart’s point is that they don’t. So if we aren’t our thoughts, what/who are we?  We’re the consciousness that is aware of those thoughts. There is you (the awareness) and the thoughts.  Two entities. I know. Sounds nutty. But understanding and incorporating this distinction is literally the most important thing you can do for your mental, emotional and spiritual health.  Read Eckhart’s book and you’ll find out why. Amazon link here.

Final Thought

So Eckhart says that obsessive thinking is our most formidable adversary.  Well, is there anything you can do about it? Yes. You can meditate. Meditation is just 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. When you do that over and over, day after day, month after month, and yes, year after year, your uncontrollable thoughts subside.  

I know this from personal experience.  I’ve been meditating regularly for the past six years and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.  And you can do it, too. I’ve designed a simple, easy-to-follow eight-week program that starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then builds gradually from there.  And it’s free. Access my plan by signing up below to receive my free articles (like this one). Then I’ll send you, for free, my plan. This is a no-brainer. Do it!


Meditation

Trying to Find Your Path in Life? Do This

What’s my purpose in life?  It’s the most vexing question we earthlings face.  And unfortunately, most people go from womb to grave never coming close to finding an answer.  In fact, most of us just punt altogether, eventually saying to ourselves, “Look, there’s no way you can know your true purpose so stop whining about it and just make your way through life as best you can.”  I should know. I was one of those people…Until the last few years, when I did find my purpose…At age 54! What was the game changer for me? I’ll get to that, but first I want to talk about who does know your true purpose in life:  The mysterious voice within you.

The what?  You know what I’m talking about.  Some call it intuition. Some call it the voice of the soul.  Others the voice of the supreme being. Maya Angelou called it the voice of God.  I call it the voice of the Universe trying to express itself through me. Call it whatever you want, the voice is some all-knowing being deep inside that knows the true path of our lives…if only we would listen to it.

But how do you listen to something you can’t hear?  I don’t know about you, but when I was searching for my path in life in my teens and twenties, countless “wise” people told me some version of, “Dave, don’t look out to the world for the answers.  Look inside yourself.  And listen.”  Upon hearing that, I’d nod and say, “Great.  Thanks. I’ll do that.” And then I’d say to myself, “What the heck does that even mean?  Go inside and listen?” Because when I would “go inside and listen” all I’d hear is a cacophony of voices swirling around like a tornado saying, “Go to a great college!”  “Get a high profile job!” “Be the best!”

The voice within urging me to be myself, the voice that actually is myself, was drowned out.  This is the case for the vast majority of people.  Why is this? I’ll answer with an analogy. Think of yourself as a car radio and the radio station you’re tuned to is God/Jesus/Allah/The Universe/Yahweh/The Supreme Being/The Genius of Nature…whoever or whatever you think is running the cosmic show.  The “songs” that God/The Universe…is beaming out from this radio station are messages about your destiny, or Providence as others call it. And the reason that many of us, the “car radios,” don’t receive these “songs”/messages is that our racing minds create static.  

What creates this ‘racing mind static?’  Well, as most of us develop into adults we incorporate the voices of our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, the cover of Cosmopolitan, Instagram, Facebook and the rest of society into one big, noisy pot of stew.  And unfortunately, if you were going to give that concoction a name, it would be Not Me Stew.  

What caused my ‘static?’  In other words, what were the ingredients in my Not Me Stew?  Mine came mostly from the Gerken Family section of our metaphorical grocery store.   I’m the youngest of six kids and all five of my siblings were go-getter type A’s. Worse, my dad was a Type A+ CEO of a big company.  Me? I was always a Type B. Growing up I was content with playing my sports, hanging out with my friends, watching my TV shows and studying a moderate amount, at best.  The fact that I always felt I should be a Type A like the rest of my family served as the foundation for a decades long struggle with depression and anxiety and a general feeling in my gut that I never quite measured up.

What’s the static drowning out your ability to hear your destiny?  You’ve never felt smart enough? Or thin enough?  Or pretty enough? Or successful enough? Some of these?  All of these?

My static followed me every step of the way in my adult life.  First stop after college was Washington, DC, where I worked on Capitol Hill for a couple congressmen.  Then, after ten lucrative but soul-trying years as a lobbyist, I decided to chuck it all and move to Hollywood to pursue my dream of being a writer.  Soon thereafter, I got a job on the The West Wing where I was part of the writing staff that won the Emmy for Best Drama Series.  Did my static subside because I’d finally “made it?” No. Not at all. I was just as insecure as ever.  The cosmic radio signals beamed my way still registered as loud static.

Then a really great thing happened to me.  Hollywood kicked my butt. Badly. First, I got fired from The West Wing at the end of the season.  This was followed by a couple gigs on lousy shows.  Then, in a seven-year span, I got jobs on precisely two shows.  Ouch. Things got pretty dark.  Here I was: 48 years old, with a wife, two kids under the age of four and a writing career that was circling the toilet.  And to top it off, thanks to the 2008 financial crisis my mortgage was underwater. Bottom line: I was looking for something…anything, to keep my head above water.  And I found it…

Meditation.

My sister was a regular meditator and had gotten me to try it a few times over the years, but it never took.  This time I really went for it. And this time it took. I’ve been meditating regularly for over six years now.  

And what has it done for me?  I’m less anxious, happier, a better dad, a better husband and a better human being.  But possibly the best thing meditation did for me? You guessed it. It calmed the crazy static inside my head.  And what did that do? It allowed the wisdom of the all-knowing voice to make it through my car radio.  A direct result of that has been my decision to leave the Hollywood writing business to do what I’m doing now:  spreading meditation as far and wide as I possibly can. Never in my life have I felt so in tune with what I feel I was put on Earth to do.  I found my true purpose. What a gift.

End of story?  No. Because if I’m you, I want to know how meditation calmed my static.  What’s so magical about meditation? The answer is simple. 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 intelligent voice within. This isn’t to say that thinking is bad. Of course not. What is bad is involuntary, obsessive thinking.

Now here’s the thing.  Even with a completely still, quiet mind, that all-knowing voice inside is elusive.  Because it’s subtle. And its messages aren’t typically delivered in the form of direct, hit-you-on-the-head epiphanies.  In my case, I’d been meditating for four years when it dawned on me that spreading meditation was my purpose. The point is, without meditation I’m convinced I wouldn’t have been able to “hear” my true purpose.  (And yes, the irony is not lost on me that meditation is what led me to my true purpose of spreading meditation!) To sum it up: The voice within can be hard to hear under optimum circumstances, so that vast majority out there afflicted by near constant thought babble stands a slim chance of hearing it unless they calm their minds down.  

Finally, hearing the voice is critical for anybody at any age.  But it’s especially consequential for those in their teens and twenties searching for their place in the world.  I remember all the pressure and anxiety I felt in those developmental years. If only I had meditation! So if you’re a twenty-something agonizing 24/7 about your future, please, please, please meditate.  

And if you have a teenage kid, get them into meditation.  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.  My god! High school years have always been challenging but nowadays it just seems out of control. So do the best thing you may EVER do for your teen and get them meditating.  Yes, it will help them find their way in life, but possibly more important for their teen years it will help reduce this overwhelming anxiety plaguing them.

How do you get started with meditation?  That’s the easy part. It’s why I wrote this piece.  Because when I started meditating six years ago I actually created my own program.  I knew for me to be successful I had to design a program that ensured that I meditated regularly, but that was also flexible enough to allow for the fact that I, like most of you, am annoyingly, frustratingly human; i.e., easily distracted and undisciplined.  As a result, my program is simple, doable and designed to help regular people, like me, develop a practice. I strongly urge you to try it.  The good news is it’s free.  

The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there.  Come on, you can do anything for two minutes! Access my plan by signing up below to receive my free articles (like this one). Then I’ll send you, for free, my plan. This is a no-brainer. Do it!

“Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”  This was my yearbook quote as a 22 year-old college senior. It’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay on Self-Reliance.  I took it to mean:  Listen to your insides and the world is yours.  As it turned out, that was easier said than done as it took thirty years and meditation to finally allow me to ‘absolve me to myself.’

The point is, I don’t care how old you are, you can find the true purpose of your life.  You just need to get quiet inside then be patient. I can’t guarantee that every person who develops a regular meditation practice will find their true purpose in life.  But how’s this for a worst-case scenario? You don’t find your true purpose, but you do become a calmer, happier, better person. Bottom line: This is a no-brainer. Do this.  Start a meditation practice. You owe it to yourself.


Meditation

7 Tips for Navigating Those Tough First Minutes of Your Meditation Session

The first few minutes of any meditation session are usually the most challenging.  Why? Because when we first sit down to meditate our out-of-control noggins are usually racing faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona Speedway.  Here are seven tips to get you through the first minutes of your meditation session.

Tip #1:  Do Nothing For the First 15-30 Seconds

So you’re sitting in your chair and you’ve just closed your eyes.  What’s the first thing you should do? Nothing. Yes, you read that right.  By ‘do nothing’, I mean that right after closing your eyes I don’t want you to place your attention on anything.  Let your thoughts go. Let your body go. Let everything just be exactly as it is. Let it all hang out. Why do I suggest this?  Because I find the simple act of closing my eyes and sitting in silence to be a bit jarring. So to ease into any session it helps to just sit there with your eyes closed for several seconds and do absolutely nothing.   The only thing you’re “doing” is getting used to sitting with your eyes closed.

After roughly fifteen to thirty seconds of this, gently transition into trying one of the following four tips, whichever most resonates with you.

Tip #2:  Say “Slow Down” to Yourself

On an inhale say the word “slow.”  On the exhale say “down.” It’s amazing what that can do.  Try doing it five times. Much of meditation is about “slowing down” your mind so that you can place attention on what’s happening in the present moment.

Tip #3:  Four Count Breathing

This is a simple breathing practice that is incredibly effective at calming the mind and body.  All you do is inhale for a count of four, then hold your breath for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four.  Try repeating this four times. This one is a no-brainer that works for just about everybody in getting the mind and body to relax and slow down.

Tip #4:  Place Attention on the physical sensations of the present moment

What physical sensations?  Feel your feet pressing against the floor.  Feel your butt and upper thighs pressing against your chair.  Also, acknowledge any tightness or aches or pains you’re feeling.  Why is this helpful? Because all of these sensations are happening in the now.  Placing your attention on those sensations will facilitate bringing you into the now.

Tip #5:  Acknowledge How You’re Feeling

For most people this will mean acknowledging that your mind is racing and you don’t feel the least bit zen or calm.  Your kid may have just gotten your blood boiling by saying he’s tired of eating Cheerios for breakfast. “A good dad would make me pancakes!”  Whatever it is, just acknowledge how you feel in that moment. Say it to yourself in your head. “I feel uptight.” “I feel upset because of the snide remark my boyfriend just made.”  “I feel a bit lethargic and tired because I didn’t sleep well last night.” “I absolutely don’t feel like meditating right now.” Whatever it is, acknowledge the truth of how you feel in the moment.  And don’t try to change it or fix it. Just acknowledge it.

If after trying one of these five pointers you still feel a bit unsettled and antsy and not ready to start following your breathing, try one of these two tips.

Tip #6:  “Not Trying To Get Anywhere”

This one I learned from an excellent meditation teacher named Peter Russell.  He advises saying to yourself something along the lines of, “You’re not trying to get to some special spiritual place.  You’re not trying to achieve anything.  You’re just sitting here, fully accepting anything and everything that’s happening in the present moment.”  This works great when my do, do, do gear is revved up and I’m trying to get somewhere awesome and other-worldly in my session.  When I say Peter’s words in my head, it helps me get to the place where meditation resides – simply being.

Tip #7:  Relax Your Brain

This one also comes from the Peter Russell playbook.  It is just as it sounds. Inhale. Then on the exhale, visualize your brain relaxing.  Do this for five breaths and I guarantee that your mind will calm down significantly. One caveat:  You don’t want to get so relaxed that you become sleepy. That’s not what meditation is about. You want to become relaxed but in the service of feeling more awake and energized.

After you’ve put some of these tips to use your mind should have calmed down enough that you can move on to following your breathing or whatever you have chosen to place attention on.

Finally, be sure to sign up to receive my free regular meditation program.  It’s simple, doable and designed to help regular people develop a practice. I should know:  I created the program for myself in 2012 when I wanted to start practicing regularly. Six years later I’m still going strong, meditating fifteen minutes a day.  The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. Come on, you can do anything for two minutes!  Access my plan by signing up below to receive my free articles (like this one). Then I’ll send you, for free, my plan. This is a no-brainer. Do it!


Meditation

Why the Future of Humanity Depends on a Buffed Up Don Knotts

Why the Future of Humanity Depends on a Buffed Up Don Knotts

Huh?  It all comes down to meditation.  Don’t worry.  We’ll get there.  For now, bear with me as I unload on humanity.  What the hell are we doing? We get cut off in traffic and erupt, rage spewing out of us like lava.  We stand in line at the grocery store and stew over the fact that the checkout guy’s hands aren’t operating at the speed of light.  Your best friend pours her heart out to you over the phone about a relationship gone south, but you can’t hear her because you’re fixated on the five things you still need to check off your to-do list.  You write off your own brother because his worldview is too liberal…or too conservative.

Why are we behaving like this?  Because our stressful job and rambunctious kids make us feel perpetually anxious?  Could be. Because we’re frustrated with our station in life? Not successful enough?  Not respected enough? Perhaps. Because our brains are off-kilter from having our noses stuck in our phones 24/7?  Maybe. One or all of these may apply to WHY we’re acting like this.

But all of this bad behavior emanates from a common source:  humans’ egoic selves dominate their conscious selves. Before you click over to check your Instagram, let me explain.  It all starts with the fact that humans are comprised of two entities: an egoic self and a conscious self. The egoic self is the person your mind tells you you are.  “I am David Gerken. Grew up in Newport Beach, CA, played college tennis, average-looking, hope I have enough money for retirement someday, worried I may have to get my other hip replaced and will that curtail my exercise life and throw me into a depressive spiral…”  And on and on. It’s the you of your past and the you of your perceived future.

The key is this:  your egoic self doesn’t exist.  Really? Really. That past is gone and exists only in your mind.  And the future hasn’t happened and also doesn’t exist…except in your mind.  The only thing that exists, that is real, is the present moment. It has always been the only thing that exists and it will always be the only thing that exists.  The egoic self is what causes you to think the obsessive, useless thoughts that consume virtually all of us.  “I never reached my potential. I should have worked harder.” “Why does that bitchy mom never say hi to me? We’ve met like five times.”  “My butt is so big. Let’s face it, I’m fat.” The egoic self is the harsh, relentless critic inside you. Without those involuntary thoughts coursing through your head, the egoic mind would cease to exist.

Your conscious self is the you that exists only in the present.  This is the real you, the you that exists when you’re not thinking.  After a minute of your egoic self taking over your mind and, for instance, repeating over and over exactly what you’re going to say to someone you’re mad at (spouse, sibling, coworker, boss), your conscious self is the part of you that finally recognizes this and says, “Whoa.  Enough. Let’s get back to the present. The here and now.” It’s also the “you” that is in charge when, for example, an athlete is in “the zone,” making every shot on the basketball court or the putting green. That athlete is not thinking anything when they are performing at the highest level.  They’re just allowing their conscious selves to take over.  Just ask Lebron James or Serena Williams. The no-thought, conscious self is also present when you watch a sublime sunset and feel completely peaceful and blissful inside.  Because you’re experiencing it in the present moment. Not thinking about how beautiful it is.  Just a thought-free experiencing of how beautiful it is.

To articulate the monumental impact the interplay of these two selves have on humanity, I created the LT-Don Knotts Theorem.  Here’s how it works. In the vast majority of the 7.5 billion people on planet earth, the egoic self dominates the conscious self.  It’s not even close. Most everybody is lost in egoic thought much of the time and not living in the present moment. Why is this so?  That’s the subject of a future piece, but for now, suffice it to say that for a few hundred thousand years our brains evolved as homo sapiens to thrive in the hunter-gatherer environment we lived in.  Then roughly 7,000 years ago agriculture took hold, throwing our brains into a distracted, anxious tailspin that has worsened with each passing millennium. So let’s picture the powerful, egoic self as Lawrence Taylor, thought by most to be the best defensive player in the history of the National Football League.  Known as LT, Taylor was 245 pounds of raw, athletic ferocity.

Lawrence Taylor

Now let’s call the conscious self Don Knotts, the hilarious actor from the Andy Griffith Show in the 1960’s.  Knotts was five-feet six inches tall and weighed 120 pounds soaking wet.  [Apologies to the non-football fans and those of you unfamiliar with 60’s sitcoms, but LT was the fiercest, and Don Knotts the slightest, person I could think of so I went with them.  And by the way, if the Knotts-Taylor references seem wacky and bizarre, they’re meant to be. A major reason I started this site is that I want to bring some fun and creativity to learning about meditation and mindfulness.  Most stuff in this space is way too serious and boring, in my opinion.]

Don Knotts

Now is when meditation enters the story.  And by meditation I mean sitting quietly for a period of time and placing your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing.  Turns out, every time we meditate, what we’re doing is putting our skinny, Don Knotts/no-thought/conscious self through a weightlifting routine. Not a crazy, Schwarzenegger-in-his-prime workout.  Just a regular, medium workout. And when we do that on a regular basis, over the weeks, months, years and, yes, decades, here’s what happens: Don Knotts slowly but surely transforms into 180 pounds of rock solid muscle.  In other words, a more present person less plagued by compulsive thoughts.

And what about our egoic selves?  What are we doing about that troublemaker LT while we’re building up Don Knotts through meditation?  This is critical so laser in. You’re not building up your Don Knotts/conscious self so that he can become strong enough to step into the ring and beat the heck out of LT.  No. You don’t beat LT by fighting him. In fact, fighting is exactly what the LT/egoic self wants.  LT’s lifeblood is drama and conflict.  Every one of you knows this. Example: You get pissed at that guy at work for lobbing a snide remark your way during the meeting with your boss.  The little shit knows you can’t do anything about it because if you complain to the boss it’ll just make YOU look bad. So you stew over it in your office.  “Man, I hate that bastard. If I ever got him alone in a dark alley…” Eventually you peel yourself away and get back to writing that memo that’s due at the end of the day…Until seven seconds later, BAM, your egoic drama queen pulls you back in for more stewing.  And on and on it goes. Sound familiar?

So the question is, how the hell do you deal with this egoic insanity?  It’s simple: You just notice LT when he appears, in the form of involuntary thoughts.  Don’t try to change him or tame him or judge him or get mad at him or DO anything to him…just notice him.  That’s it? That really is it.

How does that manifest in our meditation?  Simple. Every time we have a thought, we just notice it and then let it pass on like a cloud moving across the sky.  We don’t judge it. We don’t get mad at it or annoyed with it. We just notice it. Observe it. And let it pass through us.  Bottom line: You don’t engage the thought, you starve it of the attention your drama queen/egoic self craves.  And when you do that, it just dissolves. Here’s how we want it to play out in your head when you’re meditating:

LT/Egoic Self:  “I can’t believe what that asshole Jerry said in the staff meeting.”

Don Knotts/Conscious Self:  “Had a thought about Jerry’s remark in the meeting.”

LT/Egoic Self:  “I mean, what a dick!” Silence… “Hello?  Anybody home? Let’s go! This guy Jerry’s a total loser…Let’s dish!  I’d love to grab him by the lapels and smash his face in!”

Don Knotts/Conscious Self:  “Thinking bad thoughts about Jerry.”

More silence…

LT/Egoic Self:  “Come on, I’m starving, man!  Throw me a bone here…Oh, no, I’m drifting away!  Say something! AAAHHhhhhhh!!!!”

And the bad thoughts about Jerry drift away, biting the dust because the conscious you refused to engage with the egoic you.

So what happens to you as your Don Knotts/conscious self gets stronger and Lawrence Taylor gets weaker…in other words, what happens to you when you meditate regularly?  Really great, profound, life-transforming stuff. You worry less. You ruminate less. You don’t completely lose your head when someone cuts you off in traffic. When you walk by the flower section at the grocery store you stop and spend a minute just looking at the dazzling yellows and purples and whites of the alive and brilliant flowers.  When your adorable six year old daughter reads a book to you before bed, you don’t obsess over the sales meeting you have tomorrow morning or fixate on that DVR’d Game of Thrones episode you can’t wait to watch once your slow-as-molasses reading daughter finishes her stupid book!  No. You’re actually there.  Listening.  Present.

Now to be realistic (and honest), most of us aren’t going to eliminate our egoic selves.  Maybe the Buddha did. Perhaps a fortunate few others over the millennia have. Someone like the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has come pretty close.  Well, that’s not going to happen to me, or most of you. But if we could go from 98 percent egoic/2 percent conscious, to 50/50 that would be an enormous game changer.  Not just for us, but for our spouses, siblings, friends, coworkers…and yes, for humanity.

So how do we get there?  That’s the purpose of this piece.  You start by developing a regular meditation practice.  But you’ve heard that’s really hard. No. It isn’t. All meditation is is placing your attention on something happening in the present moment.  Then when your mind wanders off into thought (and it will, often), you simply notice that and bring your attention back to the present. That’s it.  

Having said that, there are pitfalls that can keep you from developing a regular practice.  How do you avoid those pitfalls? Easy. You read my free 45 page ebook Five Steps to a Regular Meditation Practice, a practical, step-by-step guide that has one goal:  helping you develop a meditation practice in the simplest, easiest way possible.  How do you get this ebook?  You just sign up to receive my free articles.  

I’ve been meditating for six years and it has made me a better dad, husband, brother, friend and overall human being.  You can do it, too. It’s not that hard. All it takes is a manageable dose of discipline in the beginning for a short period of time.  

So DO THIS!  Go sign up and start reading my ebook.  Today. If not for yourself, do it for your kids, or your wife, or your husband, or your parents, or your friends, or your community.  If not for them, do it for the great Don Knotts!