Meditation

Meditation

Do You Know That ‘Being Present’ Is Invaluable But Find It Hard To Do?

You hear it all the time. Live in the moment. Be present. Be here, now. Spiritual heavyweights like Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass and scores of others have preached this to their flocks for decades.

And many of you have tried it. You sit in your backyard and say to yourself, “Okay. Let’s be present. Right here. Right now. Just looking at the trees. Listening to the birds…Crap. I’m so not here.”

Your mind crashes the party in two seconds, bombarding you with thoughts. You get frustrated. Give up and start thinking about your job review the next morning. Bye, bye trees. Bye, bye birdies.

Easier said than done

Just be present. It’s the epitome of the old adage “easier said than done.” Bottom line: it ain’t easy.

Why? The obvious and correct answer is that our minds love to think and wander. Later I’ll describe a long-term solution for taming your active mind.

But for now, let’s deal with how you can improve your ability to become present in any moment you choose.

How NOT to become present

First, it’s important to know what doesn’t work. It’s the thing that most people do when they want to enter the present moment. They go for the direct entry. “Okay, I’m in my backyard. Let’s be present…”

To explain why this doesn’t work, let’s imagine that the present moment is a room and there is a door you need to walk through to get inside. The person attempting the direct entry is too large to fit through the door.

What makes that person too big to fit through the door? Tension. Holding on to feelings. Resisting the reality of their life situation. Think of all that as creating inflammation that puffs the body up.

Letting go is the key

So how do you shrink enough to fit through the door? You shed all of those things. You let go of all feelings of tension and tightness. Let go of any and all resistance you’re feeling in that moment. You surrender to everything that is happening in that moment.

If any of that sounds confusing, I have good news. Because practically speaking, all you need to do to scale down so you can walk through the door and into the present moment can be summed up in one word: Relax.

Here is a specific relaxation technique I use that helps me get through the door. I close my eyes and visualize my hands squeezing some unseen tension. Then I see my hands go completely limp and let go. I then see myself slowly drift away from the tension, completely relaxed.

How to actually become present

Let’s run through a full example. You want to experience some presence in your day. You walk out to your backyard.

You sit. Close your eyes. Take three, long, deep breaths. Then visualize yourself clenching your hands onto the unseen tension/”stuff” you’re holding onto. Then see yourself let go and drift away from the tension.

Surrender

Then say to yourself, “I give up. I surrender to everything going on inside me, in the world and to everything happening right now in this moment. I accept everything exactly as it is.”

Take one more deep breath.

Then open your eyes. Look around. See the trees. The plants. The sky. Don’t think about them or say to yourself, “Wow, the sky has such a beautiful, pink hue!” Just experience all this as your highest self, which is simply pure consciousness. Which is just…

Present moment awareness.

This is the indirect way into the present moment. It’s the best and easiest way to get through the door.

Now all of the preceding has dealt with “I want to be present right now. In this moment.” And that is a critical, healthy skill to develop.

Becoming naturally present

But of infinitely greater importance is improving your ability to be naturally more present. In other words, to get to a place where you already fit through the door because you’ve already shed the “stuff” that is preventing you entry into the present.

And that, my friends, requires work. It’s the work of a lifetime. It’s also the most important work you can do.

Meditation is most effective

If you’ve read my previous work, I know I’ll sound like a broken record here, but the best practice you can develop to propel you forward on this journey is meditation. Why? Because all meditation is is practicing being in the present moment.

Is it easy? No. Especially in the beginning. But just like playing the piano or learning French, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Give it a shot. It could be the greatest thing you ever do for yourself.

Subtract, don’t add

Finally, what I’ve said here is that you don’t need to add anything to the present moment to gain access to it. You need to subtract, by shedding tension, etc.

The same principle applies to the totality of spiritual growth. It’s never about adding to yourself, in the way of reading great spiritual books or doing daily affirmations or eating the right foods, etc. All those things can be helpful.

Be like Michelangelo

But true spiritual growth comes from shedding your “stuff.” Imagine yourself as Michelangelo. He took a massive block of marble and chiseled 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.

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, your stuff.

And what is your “stuff”? Anything that isn’t you. Anything that isn’t your true self.

Again, there’s no adding to be done — just letting go. And letting go. And letting go.

Letting go. It’s how you access the present moment. And it’s how you access the true, beautiful genius David inside you.

Meditation

3 Mindful Tips To Help You Cope With The Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has caused pandemonium throughout the globe. People are on edge. Anxious. Worried. Here are three ways mindfulness can help you navigate this storm.

1. Keep asking yourself this question: “How am I doing in this exact moment?”

The fundamental problem that the coronavirus is causing is fear. Think about it. If you had zero fear about the coronavirus you would be absolutely fine. It is fear that is paralyzing so many across the planet.

How does fear manifest? It’s all about the future.

“What if I get the coronavirus and die?”

“What if the stock market never comes back and I don’t have enough money for retirement?”

“What if my kids’ school shuts down? I have to work and have no way of caring for them during the day.”

Future, future, future. It’s where our worrywart minds always want to go during times of stress.

Well, try this. Several times throughout your day, particularly when you’re at peak anxiety, stop whatever you’re doing and ask yourself, “How am I doing in this exact moment?”

I’m telling you, almost every time you ask this question the honest answer will be “I’m fine.” Let’s say you’re in your car on the way to picking up your kid. What is wrong right then? Nothing. You’re driving. Maybe listening to music. That’s it.

I’ve been using this technique for years during times of high stress and it really helps to calm me down. It inserts me into the present moment and quiets my catastrophizing mind.

2. Use your smartphone to remind you to breathe deeply.

I wrote a piece recently about this very topic. The tip is this: Every time you enter your security code to get on your smartphone use it as a reminder to take one long, deep breath. Every time. I don’t care if you need to get onto your phone ten times in ten minutes. Do it. And if you’re really anxious, take three deep breaths each time. Taken together, these deep breaths throughout your day will help calm your nervous system.

3. Be present with your anxious feelings.

When most people feel anxious they do the same, unhealthy thing — they resist the anxious feelings. It’s not even a conscious decision. People just do it. Their involuntary thought process is, “Ahh! I’m anxious. I hate this feeling! Go away, damn it!” All this does is prolong and exacerbate the situation.

The healthiest way to deal with persistent anxious feelings is to do the opposite of resisting them and, instead, go inside and place attention on exactly how you feel in that moment. Don’t try to get rid of the feeling or ruminate about how this coronavirus situation is going to ruin you.

No. Go inside and feel the anxiety. Be present with it. Observe it. Acknowledge its existence.

And just keep saying to yourself, “Okay. This coronavirus thing has me feeling like absolute crap right now, in this very moment.” And leave it at that. Don’t let it go beyond how you feel in that moment.

Because how you feel in that moment is the only thing that exists. Everything else is just your egoic, fearful mind creating thoughts that will make you miserable and prolong your agony. You’ll be surprised how effective this can be in getting anxious feelings to pass through you.

We live on a speck of dust

Finally, this coronavirus hysteria seems to have had the effect of making people take life more uber-seriously than usual. So to try and calm people down a bit, I’m going to leave you with this photo.

Photo Taken by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990 (NASA)

Taken from Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles, the photo is the most distant image of Earth ever taken. Can you see little old earth? It’s the tiny dot about half way down and to the right, in the middle of the brown vertical band (the bands are the result of sunlight reflecting off the camera).

My point? In the midst of all the coronavirus hysteria, try to remember that we are living on a tiny rock that is spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

So take a deep breath. Be present with what’s going on right now. And remember the words of the great Persian poet Rumi: “This too shall pass.”

Meditation

Got the Quarantine Blues? This Short, Guided Meditation Will Make You Feel Better

The pandemic and the quarantine it has forced us to live under have produced two distinct feelings in many people: persistent anxiety and a perplexing fogginess/malaise. Many of us are walking around our houses saying, “Ugh. I just feel weird…and lazy…and unmotivated.”

One obvious remedy for both of these afflictions is exercise. Throw your shoes on and go for a run or a walk or a bike ride.

But an equally powerful solution is meditation. You’ve all heard about it. Many of you have tried it. Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of humanity does it regularly.

Some of you may be psyched out about meditation. You may have heard that it’s really hard or that it’s some weird, Eastern tradition where you have to burn incense, wear a funky robe and chant wacky Sanskrit words. Wrong.

Don’t overthink meditation

Meditation is not the big deal it’s cooked up to be. It’s just placing your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing. Then when your mind wanders, you just notice that and bring your attention back to your breathing. Seriously, that’s all meditation is.

But it turns out that doing this for a short amount of time each day physically changes your brain in ways that will make you less anxious, more focused, happier and a whole host of other great things.

Don’t take it from me. Studies conducted at Harvard, Stanford and many other top flight research institutions bear this out.

Meditation has transformed me

I’ve been meditating regularly for seven years and it has been a game-changer. I’m calmer. Less anxious. More patient. My focus has improved. I’m happier. And by the way, I’m not a hippie, granola dude who grew up in an ashram. I’m a fairly regular American guy. So if it benefitted me, it can benefit anybody.

I’ll write an article in the coming weeks about how to develop a lasting, long-term meditation practice in the easiest, most painless way possible.

A simple meditation to calm you

But for now I want to focus on a simple, short-term solution that will help you today. And that is a five minute guided meditation by Sanjeev Verma.

As part of helping people in my community learn about meditation, I’ve been searching high and low for good, simple, guided meditations. Not too funky or “out there.” Just simple, calming meditations. This is the best one I’ve found so far.

Here’s what you do

What you have to do is incredibly simple and easy. Just bring your phone or computer to a quiet place in your home or apartment (btw, if it’s crowded and noisy at your place, just lock yourself in the bathroom and sit on the toilet). Put on headphones or ear buds if you have them. If you don’t have either, that’s okay. Bring this article up on your phone or computer. Sit up straight. Click this link to the five minute meditation. Then follow the instructions of Mr. Verma. If you find that your mind has drifted, just notice that and bring your attention back to listening to him. That’s it.

I can almost guarantee you that this five-minute meditation will leave you more relaxed and clearheaded than you’ve felt in weeks.

If you do it once and feel better, that’s great. But if you want to make a serious run at eliminating that pandemic-quarantine induced anxiety and fogginess, you’ll be best served by doing it every day.

Morning is best

And if at all possible, try doing it in the morning. Doesn’t have to be right when you pop out of bed. But within an hour or two of waking is optimum. Why? Because the calm and focus you’ll generate can serve as an anchor for the rest of your day.

And if you’re really digging it, try listening to it a second time in the late afternoon when most of us fall prey to that midday letdown.

Self-care is critical right now, not just for you but also those around you. This one’s a no-brainer. Give it a try.

Meditation

Bored in Self-Quarantine? Here’s How Two Barbarians Randomly Influenced The English Language

Granted, I majored in history, but I can say with utmost conviction that the following is objectively interesting. It’s the story of how two barbarians had a massive influence on the English language.

Germanic influence

First, a guy named Alaric, leader of the barbarian Visigoths, is directly responsible for German having the largest influence on the English language. For example, to swim is schwimmen in German. Our beer is their bier. And so on.

Here’s how that happened. Starting with Julius Caesar in around 50 BC and culminating about 100 years later, the Romans conquered Britain.

Alaric the Visigoth

Almost 400 years later, Rome was under attack from various barbarian tribes. The Visigoths, under Alaric, were the strongest and caused Roman leaders to recall all of their forces to defend Rome. Thus, Roman soldiers left Britain.

Word of the Roman evacuation spread to the Anglo and Saxon tribes in modern day Germany. Their response? They hightailed it across the North Sea, spending several years conquering most of Britain.

Over the next several hundred years the Germanic language (which we now call Old English) took hold in Britain. And by the way, ever wonder how England got its name? It derives from Angle land.

French influence

One-third of our English vocabulary derives from French. Beef=boeuf. Salad=salade. Toilet=toilette. And many hundreds of words are literally the same. Menu, chic, chauffeur, genre, souvenir and bouquet to name just a few. How did the French muscle in on the Anglo-Saxon Germanic influence on English?

It starts in the ninth century when the Vikings from Scandinavia started sailing south and pillaging modern day Germany and France. In France they would sail down to the Seine River, then head east and create havoc all the way to Paris.

Rollo the Viking pillager

Rollo was a particularly successful Viking pillager. So much so that the King of France, Charles the Simple, offered Rollo a deal. If he agreed to stop pillaging and actually defend France against other Viking invaders, he would grant Rollo the area known today as Normandy.

Why is it called Normandy? Because the French referred to the Vikings as the “Northmen.”

Meditation

Eckhart Tolle Is Right: Surrender Is Central to Spiritual Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t resist, surrender

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

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

Mickey Singer surrenders

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

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

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

The Zen master and the girl

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

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

Incorporating surrender into your life

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

Everybody judges

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

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

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

Judgment in Hollywood

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

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

Why we judge

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

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

How to stop doing it

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

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

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

Don’t be condescending

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

Comparing Ourselves To Others: All Harm, No Benefit

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

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

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

The cure: be like a golfer

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

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

Comparing at work

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

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

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

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

Relax, breathe, let go

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

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

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

Teaching my kids

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

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

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

The spiritual path

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

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

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

Meditation

How To Use Your Smartphone to Build Mindfulness

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

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

Mickey and Eckhart’s techniques

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

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

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

Why the phone passcode prompt makes sense

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

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

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

Our minds are Goliath

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

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

Quieting the mind is very hard

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

WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY THIS MINDFUL TECHNIQUE IS SO IMPORTANT!

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

Meditation

One Way Meditation Rewired My Brain…for the Better

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

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

My big break

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

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

“Sorry, they fired you.”

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

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

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

Paris Letdown with no Meltdown

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

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

Paris, here we come!

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

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

Or not

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

Ouch…

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


Rough Ride with Teddy Roosevelt

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

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

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

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

Our crazy Amygdalae

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

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

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

The Prefrontal Cortex — The Cool Cucumber

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

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

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

The prefrontal cortex to the rescue

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

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

Meditation made the difference

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

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

Harvard/Mass General studies

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

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

Give meditation a try

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

Meditation

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

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

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

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

How Siddhartha attained peace

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

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

Becoming anxious at Eckhart’s conference

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

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

Meditate to strengthen your inner connection

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

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

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

Your inner self knows your path

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

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

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

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

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