How I Turned my Dog’s Eye Problem Into a Mindful Practice

A year ago my wife and son came home from the dog rescue center with two gorgeous Jack Russell Terrier-Chihuahua mix sisters. Our four year old daughter wanted to name them Sign and Pepper. To this day we have no idea where those names came from. Our older two kids prevailed on the naming front so they are now Sunny and Georgie.

They’re both fun and lively dogs, except for the occasional (daily!) pooping and peeing inside the house. There’s actually only one real complication with our dynamic doggy duo: Sunny’s left eye produces no tears. None. She has complete dry eye and has had it since the day we got her when she was six weeks old; i.e., it’s probably congenital. Left untreated it would cause an ulcerated cornea which would require removal of her eye.

Throwing the kitchen sink at Sunny’s eye

Our vet had us give her an ointment medication for several months. No luck. They then sent us to a veterinary eye specialist. Their plan was to throw the kitchen sink at Sunny’s eye, prescribing four different medications that needed to be administered twice a day. All in the hope that this would result in at least some tear production. Several months into this medication madness, still no luck getting our precious Sunny to make tears.

But the point of this piece isn’t about Sunny’s eye. It’s about what I finally figured out could be helpful to me in my mindfulness practice.

Simple idea, big gain

As is always the case with mindfulness, the whole thing is simple. I realized that I had to apply all these medications every day, twice a day, at roughly the same times. So it hit me. Why not use those occasions as reminders to stop and take some mindful breaths?

The truth is that it’s a pain-in-the-butt to have do this medication thing twice a day, especially since Sunny hates it when I put drops in her eyes. She nips at me unless I get in and out quickly.

But I made a positive out of it. That’s at least two times a day that I now stop, relax, breathe consciously and get centered in my seat of self.

How this can help you

What does this mean for you? Odds are you don’t have a pet that needs medication administered twice a day. But I’ll bet you have activities that you repeat every single day.

The obvious one that I also do is breathe mindfully while brushing my teeth. As I brush I simply take long, slow, deep breaths. This is one I recommend highly. What the heck else are you going to do while brushing your teeth that is more valuable than calming and centering yourself with some conscious breathing?

Heating up your coffee

I’m sure there are others, too. For you coffee drinkers, consider taking thirty seconds to breathe deeply while you warm up your cup in the microwave. I have to warm my coffee at least three times every morning. That’s a great opportunity to practice presence.

Showering is another good one. I actually have a yellow post it note on my shower wall on which I wrote “Breathe.” One of the students in my online meditation and mindfulness class says she loves doing her breathing every morning as she applies her makeup.

The takeaway

Consider taking a minute or two to think about your daily routine and whether there’s anything you do that would be conducive to consciously breathing.

This mindfulness stuff is all about repetition. The more you do it, the more present you’ll become. And the more present you become, the better human you’ll become, in every way.


A Mindful Strategy for Dealing With Bad Moods

For most of us, life is a series of ebbing and flowing moods. We’re in a good mood then something happens that puts us in a bad mood or vice-versa.

The point of this piece is to get people to take a fresh look at those cycles and then work on minimizing the bad moods. First, let’s take a look at what causes our bad moods.

Obviously, thousands of factors could come into play. Many are dictated by the lives we lead. A single mom with three kids in diapers will have different mood shapers than an unemployed, twenty-something college grad living rent-free in his parents’ basement.

An Instagram-induced funk

The babysitter calling in sick five minutes before mom is supposed to leave for work throws her day into the toilet pretty quick. For the twenty-something guy it could be seeing an Instagram post of a college buddy of his out celebrating the cool new job he just got…as he sits on the couch bobbing his eyes between Instagram and the World Series of Poker on ESPN.

Second would be moods determined by our general makeup. Some people come out of the womb with a relatively sunny disposition, others…not so much, with everybody else somewhere in between. So a flat tire might ruin an entire day for somebody while the sunny type will roll with it like water off a duck’s back.

The random bad mood

Finally, some mornings we roll out of bed and feel great, or lousy, for seemingly no reason at all. It’s random. This is in keeping with the mood cycling dynamic that seems to be part of most people’s lives. We go up…and down…and all around.

Which frustrates a lot of people, myself included. We do well for a day or two then hit a bad mood patch. Why can’t we just stay in that good mood mode?

Buddhism and impermanence

The Buddhists are all over this one with their concept of impermanence. All that means is that life is constantly changing. Things never stay exactly the same from even one moment to the next. Sometimes that constant change puts us in a good mood while other times it puts us in a bad mood.

Fine, so we all constantly experience ups and downs, for many different reasons. I’m going to focus on how we can shorten, or even stave off, the down moods. I’ll use an example from my life to illustrate.

Gerken family morning mayhem

Mornings at my home are typically chaotic as my wife and I navigate getting our 13, 11 and 5 year old kids out the door to school. Lunches need to be made, breakfasts served, clothes put on, teeth brushed, etc. Sometimes, in the midst of this mayhem, major meltdowns occur.

Like when my daughter has something in mind she wants to wear but can’t find it. As takeoff time inches closer my wife slowly but surely loses it. “Let’s go! It’s 8:25. We have to leave!” “But I can’t find my sweater!” “I don’t care! Wear another sweater!” “No!” “We have to go! It’s not fair to make your sister late.”

Then comes the inevitable barging into my office — “You have to take her. I can’t wait,” followed by the also inevitable SLAMMED door. I then burst out of my office, track down my wayward daughter and get her butt moving. This often ends with my wife and me yelling at each other. Fiasco completed.

What we do AFTER the explosion is what matters

The point of all this is about what happens AFTER the explosion. With frayed nerves and a pounding heart the tendency is to go into shutdown mode. This is where we throw in the towel and essentially say to ourselves, “Screw it. Screw the world. Screw everybody. I’m going to be in a bad mood now…” In other words, some triggering event leads us to throw in the towel and board the plane to Bad Mood Island.

The central problem is that giving up like this often results in our bad mood infecting the rest of the day. It’s not a conscious decision where we actually say to ourselves, “Okay, I’m going to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.” But that’s the effect. This has happened to me far too many times.

So what’s the mindful way of tackling these bad mood situations? In the example with my daughter where the whole household has erupted and I’m finally back in my office trying to get to work, what do I do?

The mindful solution

The answer, as it is with all things mindfulness related, is simple. I stop. Close my eyes. Take at least five deep breaths and get centered. I relax as best I can. Then I lean away and observe what I’m feeling, from a place of nonjudgment. In this example, I’d say to myself:

“I just got all bent out of shape because daughter went nuts over missing sweater, then wife screamed at me because she was stressed about getting out the door. Okay, so that’s what is. Life goes on.”

The key is how we end this inner monologue. We say,

“I am not going to let this ruin my mood. I’m going to let it go and move on with my day.”

Don’t expect that this inner pep talk is going to make you feel okay right afterward. That’s not the objective. The objective is to nip a bad mood in the bud. It is to NOT allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole of stewing about what just happened, which only serves to feed that bad mood the egoic poison it so craves.

If you’re in a bad mood for no identifiable reason, we do the same thing. You may have just woken up and you feel off. So you take some breaths, lean away and observe how you feel. We don’t complain about it or judge it in any way. We simply observe it. Then we say:

“I feel kind of lousy. Not sure why. But that’s what is. Let’s see how things go.”

What we don’t do is wake up, feel lousy, and say:

“I’m in a lousy mood and feel like crap. Boy this day is gonna suck.”

By the way, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do the myriad things we can do to get ourselves out of a bad mood. We can get some exercise, call a friend and a million other things.

The key is NOT punting on your day

The key to this whole idea is that it seems so many of us get in a bad mood, caused by any number of factors, and then we just punt. We throw in the towel and capitulate to a long bout of bad mood-dom. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

The truth is we have a choice. We can choose to punt our day away or we can exert a modicum of mindfulness into the situation to nip the bad mood in the bud.

The best cost-benefit deal of all time

The cost of doing this is minuscule. It’s maybe a minute of calming down, getting centered, letting go and then moving on with your day. The benefit is that you don’t allow the rest of your day to go down the tubes. And that’s just for the one-time example.

Think of how much it would help our lives to practice this on a regular basis. Let’s say you saved yourself from being in a bad mood three times in a week. That’s 150 bad moods per year you’re averting. For five years. Ten years. Thirty years. That’s a ton of bad vibes not being released into the world.

All for the price of breathing, relaxing and then sticking up for your well-being by refusing to let your mood go south because of whatever just happened. That’s a great deal for each of us. And an even better deal for the world.


How a Terrible Writing Session Led to a Spiritual Breakthrough

Yesterday morning I sat down to write. The goal was to come up with an idea for my next article. I’d published one the day before and my process is to decide on the next one the day after. What did I come up with yesterday morning?

Squat. Nothing. Nada.

I looked at my notes where I write my ideas for articles. Nothing popped. So I stared out the window for far too long looking for inspiration. An idea. Anything. And I got…bupkis.

So how did this great spiritual victory arise from this lackluster, unproductive ‘writing’ session? It’s what happened after I rose from my chair, threw in the towel and went on with my day.

My writing schedule

First, a little background. I usually write from 9 a.m. until 12:30 or 1. Then I workout, have lunch, read, nap then get back to writing around 3:30 or 4 and go until dinnertime.

Normally, a frustrating writing session results in a mood decline. I chose those two words carefully. Because it’s not like I fall into some deep depression every time I have a bad writing session. I just have a little less pep in my step. I get a little shorter with people.

This has been the case for a long time. I wrote in Hollywood for fifteen years and this same thing happened when I hit an unproductive patch.

Looking at this from a more developed spiritual perspective, I understand better where this comes from. For those of you not familiar with my history, I grew up in an ultra-successful family, the sixth of six incredibly smart and talented kids.

Future president of the United States

My dad was a Type A+ CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I remember countless times when I’d go in to say goodnight to him and he’d say, “Do you realize that you could be president of the United States someday?” And this was when I was six or seven years old! Suffice to say that traditional success, the American version, was imprinted in my brain from my earliest days.

So what the heck does any of this have to do with the issue at hand? When I have an unproductive day on the writing front, somewhere deep in the recesses of my egoic mind that seven year old kid is feeling badly that he’s not measuring up.

Making myself feel badly…so I can feel good again

What I’ve done for too many years is when I’m not productive (which my insides translate as ‘successful’) I purposely make myself feel badly. Why? Well, in a sick way, it makes sense. Making myself feel badly gives me a perverse incentive to turn things around and become productive. I set up a system where I reward myself with feeling good once I get writing again.

The good news is I’ve been working hard on this core issue of mine dealing with productivity and success. How? By trying to notice when those feelings of inadequacy arise…when they arise. Which is hard. Why? Because this issue has been so pervasive for so long that it’s hard to catch when it happens…because it happens so much.

Anyway, so the work has been in noticing when these feelings arise, then relaxing, leaning away and letting them go.

Which brings us full circle to yesterday when I got up after my unproductive morning to go workout. It was a nice, hot day here in Southern California, ideal weather for my bike workout.

My light bulb moment

As I was walking away from my desk, something clicked inside me. I can’t describe it any better than that. It was like a light turning on. And a combination thought and feeling came over me that said,

“I got nothing done this morning, but I’m NOT going to feel badly about it. It’s gorgeous outside and I’m going to go on a fun ride.”

That thought led to a stream of further thought/feelings about the fact that I have a ton going for me in life. An amazing family with three healthy, fantastic kids. A wife and marriage that I wouldn’t trade for anybody. Good health. A career centered on writing and teaching about stuff that I value deeply. And on and on and on.

Punishing ourselves accomplishes nothing

It felt so good! And it dawned on me: I don’t have to make myself feel badly in order to be productive. Punishing myself doesn’t help the process. It doesn’t unlock the door to some fount of creative genius.

Bottom line: I left my office feeling better than if I’d come up with ten great article ideas. It felt like a big rock that I had been holding down in my ‘lower self stream’ had sprung loose and drifted away, resulting in that trapped energy flowing up.

The cherry on top is that, as I was off on my bike ride, beaming from this wonderful spiritual experience, it hits me: What a great idea for an article!

The takeaway

So that was my spiritual ‘victory.’ Now let’s turn to what that means for you.

First, I hope the example of my breakthrough shows you that this work works. The continual awareness of, and letting go of, our egoic baggage pays dividends.

Second, do yourself a favor and look at my example as incentive to take stock of your own core issue situation. Have you struggled with weight/body image, feeling generally unlovable, not smart enough, not feeling successful enough (I can help you with this one!) or some other emotional albatross?

For most of us, that core issue is pretty darn obvious to identify. Why? Because it rules over a huge hunk of our lives in the form of career decisions, marriage partner decisions and hundreds of used Kleenex tissues at the therapist’s office.

Once identified, take the enormously important step of simply making yourself aware when that issue rears its head during your day. Then start relaxing with it and leaning away. And just watch it. Don’t yell at it or moan and groan about it. Just watch it. And let it go.

This yoga work, as Mickey Singer reminds us, happens on a deep, deep level. So we can’t control when or how it pays off. It’s not like starting to lift weights where you know you will see bigger biceps and pecs after only a few weeks of training.

My noticing, relaxing, leaning away and watching work resulted in a wonderful energy release a few days ago. You won’t know when it will happen for you. You just need to trust that it will. And be patient.

Keep trekking, my friends…


To Try or Not to Try: That is the Question With Spiritual Work

A major reason many people, especially Westerners, find spiritual work so difficult and frustrating is because they misunderstand the fundamental nature of that work. What is the nature of that work?

First, let me get specific about what I mean by spiritual work. For our purposes, let’s define that as regularly practicing meditation and mindfulness and a focus on letting go of our egoic selves. We could add Yoga, chanting and all sorts of other practices as well.

It’s an art not a science

The fundamental misunderstanding most people make lies in treating spiritual work as a science and not as an art. What does that mean? Working in the arts requires subtlety and nuance. When I wrote scripts in Hollywood, I couldn’t force myself to write good dialogue. I had to sit quietly and listen.And be patient. The artistic process requires giving up significant control and trusting the process.

Science, on the other hand, is about formulas and a rigid, methodical approach to work. It requires mostly linear thinking. Do A then B then C then D then observe what that produces.

What this all boils down to is trying versus not trying. And therein lies the rub for spiritual work. Because at the heart of spiritual work is this paradoxical truth: We have to try, but not try too hard.

The Wall Street meditator

Let’s take a look at meditation to see how this plays out. Pursuing a Wall Street, take-no-prisoners, investment banker’s approach to meditation would mean sitting down, closing our eyes and saying to ourselves, “Alright, let’s kick some ass, baby! Thoughts, you’re going down! I am going to WILL myself to keep 100% of my attention on my breathing at ALL times…Aaaaaand GO!” At which point they’re so keyed up and tense that the thoughts pour forward like water over Niagara Falls.

That’s a hyperbolic example, but it does cut to the truth of why Westerners especially find meditation so difficult. Our culture teaches us to dive in and attack our work. To think our way through obstacles. To be aggressive, persistent and energetic in pursuing our goals.

Spiritual work is the exact opposite. It requires quieting our thinking minds. We close our eyes and the only thing we do is observe, nonjudgmentally, what is happening in the present moment. Sounds, breathing, bodily sensations…anything in our field of awareness. What we don’t do is try to stop our thoughts. We merely observe those thoughts when they arise then let them pass.

Try, but not too hard

The kicker is that while we can’t try too hard in our spiritual work, we do have to try…just not too hard. For instance, if we sit down to meditate with no intention at all and just let everything fly, we’ll end up in a thought haze for the duration of our session.

So there definitely is some level of trying involved in corralling our attention on our breathing, for example. But not too much.

The same was true for me while writing scripts. The trying came in the form of getting my butt in the chair, outlining a story, figuring out plot points and many other actions requiring thought involved in the craft of writing. But the art of writing, the real gold, always came when I took my hands off the wheel, so to speak.

The takeaway

So what’s the point of all this? It’s simple. Unless this fundamental concept of trying, but not trying too hard, is both understood and embraced, one’s spiritual work is likely to be rife with frustration and lack of progress.

The obvious irony here is that the approach to the work, subtlety and nuance over rigidity and forcing, is the work. It’s about parking our egos at the door in furtherance of practicing…parking our egos at the door. All in furtherance of diminishing the role our egos play in the daily living of our lives.

Is the hard work of striking this balance between trying, but not too hard, worth the effort? Only if you value peace of mind and becoming better at everything you do…


The Simple Phrase Ram Dass’s Guru Spoke Again and Again

Ram Dass met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, in 1967 in northeastern India. That chance encounter changed his life from that day forward and, if you’ve benefited from Ram Dass’s teachings, it changed yours, too.

This piece is specifically about one thing Baba said over and over, usually out of the blue, to Ram Dass and many other of his followers. He would say two Hindi words:

“Sub ek.”

The English translation is “All one.”All one. What does that mean?

Maharajii, a higher being

Before answering that, it’s worth relating a little more about who Neem Karoli Baba was. Maharajii, as he was known by his devotees, was a higher being, for lack of a more eloquent phrase. Because I plan to write a full article about Maharajii, I don’t want to spend too much space describing him now.

Suffice to say that he operated on a different plane. How? One way that manifested is that he had special powers, known in Sanskrit as siddhis. Please know that for me to write that last sentence means something because I have always been a rational, fact-based skeptic. But there are literally hundreds of stories, many from Ram Dass himself, of Maharajii knowing or doing things that defy logical explanation.

Here is just one small example of what I mean. Ram Dass went alone on a twelve hour bus trip from the temple to Delhi to work on a visa issue he had.

Ram Dass’s biscuit splurge

After resolving the matter he went out to eat. He’d been on a strict vegetarian diet and had lost sixty pounds, but decided that he was going to splurge that night on dinner. He went to a fancy vegetarian restaurant and ordered the deluxe meal. His vice had always been sweets so he got some ice cream with English biscuits for dessert.

A few days after returning to the mountain temple, he saw Maharajii who had been away for six weeks. After being mobbed by everybody because they hadn’t seen him for so long, Maharajii pulled Ram Dass in close and asked, “How did you like the biscuits?”

Again, there are hundreds of these stories told by a diverse group of his followers. For all of these to not be true, Maharajii would have to have been the most talented, hardest working con man in history, something I find virtually impossible after studying him.

By the way, Ram Dass was so moved by all these incidents that he took a few years to track down as many devotees as possible and compiled their stories into a book called Miracle of Love. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a link.

When Maharajii talks, I listen

I relate this about Maharajii because I think it gives his words more weight. As someone who’s got access to a different plane of consciousness, when he says one thing far more than anything else, sub ek, it makes me lean in.

So what is this ‘all one’ thing Maharajii mentioned so often? It means we all come from the same source. Eckhart Tolle calls it the one source. Others would call it simply ‘God.’

Whatever this ‘one thing’ is that we all come from is unknowable to us humans. But I think a highly revealing facet of this entire discussion centers around who senses this ‘oneness’ and who doesn’t.

The awakened sense the oneness

Those that sense it most are those farthest along the spiritual path. People like Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh andMichael Singer. And why is that the case? I think it’s because those people have let go of most, if not all, of their egos. They’ve shed their ‘Michael Singer-ness’ and ‘Thich Nhat Hanh-ness.’

And after they’ve done that, what’s left inside of them is consciousness. Presence. Atman. God. Different people and traditions call it different things, but whatever it is, it’s the same inside all of us.

So if that’s all that’s left inside of, let’s say Thich Nhat Hanh, it makes sense that he would feel this universal connection to all people. The powerful and unobscured consciousness/presence/God in him recognizes that same thing in everybody.

Separateness, the opposite of ‘sub ek’

The converse is also true. Those whose egos still dominate their inner lives, which would be most people, feel a deep sense of separateness from all things. As Eckhart says, they are like a small wave riding on top of the ocean that feels it’s just a small wave and no more. It feels alone, scared and powerless because it doesn’t realize it’s connected to, and a part of, a vast ocean; but it’s not separate at all. And neither are we.

It’s also fascinating that those who’ve had near death experiences talk about feeling that sense of oneness and connectedness to all creation while they were temporarily ‘dead.’ This doesn’t surprise me. It makes sense that when we give up our bodies, and all the egoic baggage that comes with it, we would feel that pure consciousness, that is the same in everybody, most vividly.

The takeaway

So what does all this add up to? What does it mean for us mere mortal spiritual beings who haven’t reached the end point of the path?

Mostly, this ‘sub ek’ serves as incentive for all of us to keep traveling the spiritual path. To remain committed to the daily chopping wood and carrying water involved — meditating, practicing mindfulness and letting go of our egoic selves to the best of our abilities.

Because, from observing those, like Ram Dass, who have traveled far enough that they feel this all one universal dynamic, it’s a truly awesome, liberating, peaceful place to be. This feeling that all beings are interconnected serves to melt away all the animosity, tribalism and ‘separateness’ that has plagued our world for thousands of years.

Maharajii reminds us that this separateness is not the reality of the universe. The reality is…

Sub ek.


4 Dalai Lama Quotes to Inspire Your Insides

Of all the spiritual luminaries I’ve followed over the years, the Dalai Lama sits at the top of what I’d call the “good vibe” category. Listen to him talk or read his writings and one gets the sense of a truly beautiful, compassionate human being.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a slew of others, like Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh and Pope Francis, who exude peace and good will. But for me, the Dalai Lama is numero uno.

In case you didn’t know, the Dalai Lama is the 14th in a succession of Tibetan leaders that goes all the way back to the 14th century. When one Dalai Lama dies it is up to the High Lamas to seek out and find which body the lama has been reincarnated into and make that person the next Dalai Lama.

The current Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese brutalized Tibet with a violent suppression. Ever since, he has worked tirelessly to promote peace and compassion throughout the globe, living mostly in India.

I found the following four quotes of his to be particularly powerful, wise and beautiful. Allow them to seep into your being.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

If I had to pick only one word to describe the Dalai Lama it would be compassionate. It’s no wonder that many of his teachings center on this one word.

And I couldn’t agree more with him that being compassionate makes one happy and also those one shows compassion toward. It’s all about being there for people who need help.

Somewhere in the nexus between compassion and love lies the answer to the secret mysteries of life. It is in those states that is found the heartbeat of the universe. Sorry, but that’s my best shot at expressing it.

A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”

I take this to mean that an out of control egoic mind leads to suffering and one that is quieter leads to happiness. Therein lies the basis for all of the spiritual work I do.

How do we discipline our minds? We meditate regularly. We practice mindfulness. And while doing both of those, we work on letting go of ourselves.

It’s the most important work we can do, for ourselves, for those around us and for the world itself.

We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.

I love this. This one is all about where the Dalai Lama suggests we put our focus, which is on our inner work. That always comes first.

The Dalai Lama, and others like Eckhart Tolle and Mickey Singer, all say that angry, underdeveloped activists mostly just spread negative energy, whether in saving the whales or holding the corporate world accountable.

People who exemplify the Dalai Lama’s quote would be Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Both of these great leaders achieved monumental success in their benevolent endeavors and one of the main reasons was the awesome strength they derived from their peaceful inner worlds. It gave them a transcendent kind of power to sway both their followers and their adversaries.

There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies.My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.

This captures another of the reasons I so admire and respect the Dalai Lama: His eschewing of dogma and tradition in furtherance of pan-spiritual, universal principles. In other words, he doesn’t care if you’re a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew or Zoroastrian — all that really matters to him is that you’re kind. If I had a religion, that would be it!

I wish the rest of the religious leaders of the world were the same way. Not caring so much about whether you believe in the Koran or the Bible, but about how you treat others in our one world. As Louis Armstrong said, “What a wonderful world” that would be.

The takeaway

If you haven’t already, check out some of the Dalai Lama’s public appearances. Here is a link to one of them. But go to YouTube and take some time to listen to this great human being. He is a gift to our world.


Eckhart Tolle’s Advice About Dealing With Annoying Everyday Situations

I listened to an Eckhart Tolle talk recently where he spoke about how to deal with the annoying situations we encounter in our daily lives. Things like waiting at red lights, dealing with bumper-to-bumper traffic, waiting in line at the supermarket checkout, etc. We’ve all been there and done those.

What do Eckhart, Mickey Singer and many others advise us to do in those situations? Get out of our complaining, impatient, egoic minds and return to the present moment.

Looking around at the grocery store

How? While you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, look around. I advocate naming five things you can see. Nike shoes. Jen Aniston on the cover of People. Red bell pepper. Fan on ceiling. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Voila. You’re back in the present moment.

Same when you’re stopped at a red light. Look around. See the sky. The palm trees. The storefronts. People walking on the sidewalk.

What Eckhart advises is that we look at red lights and long lines as opportunities to practice present moment awareness. You may have heard all of this before in other articles and talks by me and countless others.

What’s new in this piece is that I think it makes sense to take it even one step further. And I’ll warn you: What I’m about to write may cause you to curse me and click out of this article. But here goes.

think we should all LOOK FORWARD to and WELCOME the red lights and the lines at the store.

In other words, when you’re driving along and you see that a light is green, I say we all think to ourselves “Boy, I hope that light goes orange quick so I get to stop at a red light and practice being present.”

For those of you who haven’t clicked over to your Instagram already, I know. That sounds crazy. As someone who has been particularly impatient about these kinds of things my whole life, it sounds even crazier to me.

But it makes total sense if you give it a moment’s thought. Here’s an analogy to crystallize this.

See the red light as your driving range

Let’s say you want to get better at golf. What do you do? You find a driving range where you can practice. You like that driving range because it provides you with the facilities to help you improve at golf.

Red lights and long lines are no different than the driving range. They provide the necessary ‘facilities’ to help you improve your “presence game.”

And we should love those red lights a helluva lot more than the avid golfer loves their practice range. Why? Because there’s nothing more valuable to a human being than becoming more conscious.

Waking up is more important than anything

Golf is great. I enjoy playing. But it is pales in comparison to the profound benefits that come from awakening from our “mind sleep” and becoming present for the moments of our lives. So it makes a bunch of sense that we would welcome anything, like red lights, that offers us the opportunity to get better at being present.

The most important thing is to realize that working on becoming present is the most valuable thing we can do. Because absent that, why would we ever be so crazy as to want to hit a bunch of red lights on the way home from doing errands?

The world would be an infinitely better place if we all came to that realization and acted on it.


2 of Shakespeare’s Greatest Plays are Cautionary Tales About Capitulating to Our Egos

It occurred to me recently that my two favorite plays by Shakespeare, Macbethand King Lear, share the same spine: The protagonists lives fall apart after giving in to their powerful egos. Are there literally thousands of examples of this throughout literary history? Yes. But Macbeth and Lear have a purity that has made them resonate with audiences for over 400 years.

Here’s how it plays out in Macbeth. Returning from a heroic turn on the battlefield fighting for King Duncan, Macbeth comes upon three witches in a heath:

MACBETH: Speak, if you can; what are you?

WITCH 1: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glanis!

WITCH 2: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

WITCH 3: All hail, Macbeth; that shalt be king hereafter!

Thus begins Macbeth’s inexorable slide into the abyss. He was already Thane of Glanis, but the witches foretold that he would become Thane of Cawdor (a promotion in the aristocratic hierarchy) and eventually king of Scotland.

When he sees him, Duncan tells Macbeth the good news that he is making him Thane of Cawdor. This gets Macbeth’s wheels turning. If the witches were correct in their prognostication about Cawdor, it would seem that their prediction of him becoming king would also be true.

Next thing he knows, the king has invited himself to Macbeth’s castle for a visit that night. With some necessary and sinister prodding from Lady Macbeth, his wife, Macbeth’s ego turns murderous as he stabs Duncan to death while he sleeps.

Macbeth, the homicidal maniac

After being named King of Scotland, Macbeth unravels even further, slaughtering others who could contest his legitimacy as king. Not surprisingly, Macbeth is stabbed to death in the end by his rival, Macduff.

Before hearing the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth was by all accounts an honorable man, a talented and loyal general. But hearing that he could, and would, become king ignited and infected his ego so strongly that he completely lost his way. The result was a total life catastrophe.

Lear, getting off on being groveled to

King Lear traveled a different path to ruin, but as with Macbeth, capitulating to his ego was central to his downfall. Lear, the aging, narcissistic king of ancient Britain, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. To determine who gets the best slices of the kingdom, Lear asks each of his daughters to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan lay it on thick.

Here’s part of Goneril’s epic suck-up:

“As much as child e’er lov’d, or father found; A love that makes breath poor and speech unable; Beyond all manner of so much I love you.”

When Lear asks the same of his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, she has none of it. Incapable of insincere fawning, she says:

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth: I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”

Lear prods Cordelia for more, but she refuses to take the bait. He then melts down and disowns Cordelia, opting to split the kingdom between Regan and Goneril.

To make a long story short (literally), Regan and Goneril go on to abuse their aging, ex-king father, to the point that he goes insane, wandering naked on a heath during a violent thunderstorm. Lear, completely broken, utters one of the greatest lines in all of Shakespeare:

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Then, in one of the least happy endings in all of storytelling, Lear holds in his arms the recently hanged body of his beloved Cordelia, so despondent that he collapses and dies of a broken heart.

Pretty uplifting, eh? But at least Shakespeare’s message is clear (as it is with the plays of the great Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides): Given the right circumstances, succumbing to the powerful ego leads to ruin.

The takeaway

So what does this all add up to? Mostly, it’s a cautionary article about two cautionary plays. All sorts of situations arise in our lives where we’re tempted to leave our seat of self and surrender to the voracious appetites of our ego. It rarely ends well. Be on the lookout.

It’s also a not-so-gentle reminder that letting go of our egos is advisable. Let’s face it: Macbeth and Lear would never have done what they did had they been meditating fifteen minutes a day and practicing mindfulness.


Want to Spur Your Meditation Practice? Go Back to Kindergarten

Adyashanti, formerly known as Stephen Gray, is one of the foremost spiritual teachers alive today. He lives near San Francisco and draws on a potpourri of traditions, chiefly Buddhism, but also Hinduism and Christianity, for his teachings.

I specifically like his approach toward meditation. He emphasizes relaxing into the natural state of awareness that is always present in us, but is obscured most of the time by our chattering minds.

Adya’s mind-blowing meditation talk

One of my favorite ideas from Adya, as he’s known, came from a teaching I listened to a few years ago. It was an overview of the meditation process. It’s fantastic and I highly recommend listening to it. Here’s the link.

In the beginning he talked about the education process for learning meditation. He said it’s the exact opposite of traditional education. Here’s what he said:

In meditation the rudimentary stuff is the advanced stuff. It isn’t like learning something in school where you work yourself up to the PhD program. It’s the opposite. You’re trying to work yourself backwards, down to kindergarten. Down into simplicity, not into complexity.

This gets it exactly. The problem many people have when learning meditation is that they get bogged down with a bunch of details. They make it too complex.

Why do most people do this? Because our brains thrive on complexity and doing and figuring things out. How could anything be profoundly helpful that is so simple, seems to be the thought process involved.

Meditation is about keeping it simple

The fact is that meditation is simple. It’s about placing attention on something happening in the present moment. Then, when our attention wanders into thinking, which it inevitably does, we simply notice that and bring attention back to our present moment awareness.

So the work involved seems counterintuitive to most of us mere mortals: It centers on being vigilant about bringing everything back to the simple. Consistently. Just coming back to the breath or whatever it is you’re placing attention on.

The words I hold onto from Adya’s teaching are kindergarten and Phd. I just love that. I visualize a 26 year old in the bowels of some university library racking their brains analyzing some esoteric poem by Chaucer for their dissertation. This intense use of the brain has its place, but is the antithesis of meditation.

The simple movements of a beetle

Then I imagine a kindergartener on the playground spending a few minutes enthralled with the movements of a beetle. Just curious about it. Not analyzing a thing. Just there. Watching the beetle. Totally present.

That’s the approach we want to bring to meditation and, frankly, mindfulness and most areas in life. Simplicity. Innocence. Curiosity. The Zen people call this beginner’s mind.

The takeaway

The key is realizing that attaining beginner’s/kindergartener’s mind is NOT easy. Many unwittingly assume that staying with the simple should be simple. Unfortunately, it’s not, for the reason I already mentioned: Our brains drift toward complexity.

Also, our society values putting our noses to the grindstone and doing, doing, doing, going, going, going. This leads to a prejudice toward the Phd grind and away from kindergartener simplicity.

So the central work is being vigilant about coming back to the simple. Doing so will take us a long way in our meditation practices and in all facets of our work on the spiritual path.


Spiritual Work is Like Anything Else: Progress Comes Through Practice

I know tons of people who get into the spiritual stuff and then early on throw up their hands, saying it’s too hard. That they just “don’t have it” in this area. So they blow it off.

If you’re one of those people who has blown off spiritual work or is struggling mightily and considering casting it aside, this article is for you. Here’s why.

At the heart of most people’s struggle in this arena is a misconception about the work itself. They get into it, inevitably encounter obstacles, then quit.

But consider what my favorite spiritual teacher, Mickey Singer, says about this. He asks people to consider all kinds of things we endeavor to learn.

Trigonometry was hard at first, too

For example, consider when you took trigonometry in high school. You’re in there for a week or two and the teacher is talking about secants, cosecants, tangents, cotangents, etc. And this stuff may as well be a foreign language. You really have no clue what it’s all about. Did you go up to the teacher early on and say, “I’m really sorry, Mr. Johnson, but I just don’t understand trigonometry. It’s too hard. I’m not cut out for it. So I’m going to drop the class.”

No, you didn’t. Why? Because you just started the class. Of course you don’t understand trigonometry. You need to learn it.

Same with the piano. After a week of lessons you can’t play Beethoven. You need to learn the notes of the white keys and black keys and learn scales, etc.

Practice is required to get good at anything

It’s the same with tennis, golf, French, 17th century Dutch painting, welding and every other subject under the sun. We commit some level of effort to practicing and studying these things and then we get better.

In fact, I defy anybody to challenge me on this point: If on day one you commit to practicing any of the above, you will be more proficient at it on day 365. And I don’t even mean giving your whole life to it. Giving some modest level of effort to anything will result in you getting better at anything.

It is the exact same way with spiritual work.

How practice works with the spiritual path

To illustrate why, let’s dive in by identifying three discrete areas of spiritual work — meditation, mindfulness and letting go — and see how this plays out.

Meditation: This is the most glaring example of people giving up early because they think they’re just not cut out for it. They get started and the thoughts swirl around like leaves in a Kansas tornado.

If this frustration happened to a budding piano player, they’d be told to stay with the basics — just be patient and keep learning your notes.

With meditation, it’s the same thing. Stick with the basics, which would be simply following something like breathing or a guided body scan meditation and when that tornado of thoughts invades, just do your best to notice them, nonjudgmentally, and return attention to the present moment.


Patience is the key to learning anything, isn’t it? It’s being okay with NOT being proficient at whatever your pursuing. But staying with it and trusting in the learning process. So it is with meditation.

Mindfulness: You’re trying to be more present throughout your days, but keep finding that you get lost in your head all the time. You drive home from a tough day at work and realize you were so stuck in your mind that you can’t remember anything from your thirty minute drive.

That’s okay! You just stay patient and keep practicing. With mindfulness that mostly means being as vigilant as we can with becoming aware as quickly as possible when we’re drifting off into thought. And then bringing our attention back to the car, our work desk or the conversation we’re having with our five year old daughter.

Letting go: I’ve written extensively about the importance of letting go of our egoic selves when our buttons get pushed. And especially when we’re just starting out on this, it is incredibly difficult. Why? Because our buttons have been pushed every single day, for decades for most of us, and we have reacted by diving in and fighting, arguing, retaliating, stewing, etc.

In other words, reacting that way is so normal that it’s hard to even become aware that we’re doing it. So what does it take to get better at it?


Just like the piano, tennis and French, the more we practice, the better we’ll get at letting go.

As with mindfulness, the key lies in using our will to become aware when our buttons have been pushed. Because we can’t let go of something if we aren’t conscious that it has arisen.

Commitment is the indispensable piece

Finally, for spiritual work, and every other endeavor, there is one underlying necessity for success: Commitment. If you want to become a great piano player it’s going to require that you commit to practicing a lot.

Making progress on the spiritual path is no different. It takes commitment.

The only thing that differentiates spiritual work from piano, tennis and all the others is that spiritual work is more valuable than any of the others. And it’s not even close.

Spiritual work makes us better at everything

Why? Because the benefits of this work, in the form of greater inner peace, more compassion for others and accessing the power and genius inside all of us that makes us better tennis players, piano players and everything else, make us better human beings in every way.

So pursue your spiritual work as you would anything else: commit to it, practice and be patient. You, your family and everybody in your life will be better for it.