This Thich Nhat Hanh Poem is the Most Powerful I’ve Ever Read

A few poems have always stood out to me as the most beautiful and complete. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray top that list.

But for sheer power and emotion, nothing surpasses this poem by the venerated Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Here it is, in its entirety:

Please Call Me by My True Names

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

(Copyright: Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, Inc.)

Pardon the inartful language, but this poem blows me away. So beautiful. So poignant. So powerful.

What inspired Thay, as Thich Nhat Hanh was called, to write the poem? The roots lay in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Thay had been exiled from Vietnam in 1966 for his opposition to the war. He landed in southwest France where he created the Plum Village Monastery.

Letters from Vietnam refugees

It was there that he received thousands of letters from fleeing refugees, most relating the horrors they experienced. One such letter told of a twelve-year-old girl who was so distraught after being raped by a Thai sea pirate that she jumped off the boat and drowned herself.

Which is awful. And tragic. And filled with evil.

And that is what the poem is about. Reconciling with evil. And extreme suffering.

Evil in today’s world

We’ve all pondered that question at some point. Whether it’s the slaughter of innocent Gazans, innocent Israelis, or innocent Ukrainians. Or the atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Somalia. Unfortunately, it’s a long list in today’s world.

How do we make sense of it all?

I read somewhere that toward the end of his life, the brilliant French philosopher, Voltaire, said that the one area he’d made no progress on over the course of his life was understanding evil. He said:

“The question of good and evil remains in irremediable chaos for those who seek to fathom it in reality. It is mere mental sport to the disputants, who are captives that play with their chains.”

But Thay would disagree, as evidenced by this poem. He says it’s too easy to feel for the girl and hate the pirate. That if he were born in the same village as the pirate and raised under the same conditions, he would also have become a pirate.

Hundreds of babies were born every day in the Gulf of Siam back then and Thay felt that it was up to all of us to help improve the conditions these people grew up in so they didn’t become pirates in 25 years. He summed it up beautifully and bluntly:

“If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.”

What’s my take? First thing to know is that I started this article on Monday (it’s now Saturday) and couldn’t handle it. It was too heavy. But it weighed on me all week, to the point that I had to sit my butt in the chair and do it, weightiness and emotionality be damned.

Because, as I’m sure you’ll agree, it doesn’t get much heavier than tackling the topic of evil and mass suffering. I’ve listened to and read the teachings of people like Ram Dass and Michael Singer on this most vexing of matters.

The story of Ram Dass and Maharajii

My take starts with Ram Dass, who mentioned a few times in his talks a conversation he had with his guru, Maharajii. Ram Dass told Maharajii in 1971 that he was going to go to Bangladesh to use his VW bus as an ambulance for the catastrophic war raging there. Maharajii saw how distraught Ram Dass was over the situation and said to him:

“Ram Dass, don’t you see it’s all perfect?”

Which outraged Ram Dass who found nothing resembling perfect in other peoples’ suffering.

Maharajii said one thing over and over to his followers. He said, “Sub ek,” which, translated from Hindi, means “All one.” (Here’s an article I wrote a few years back on this topic.) It was one of his only teachings, the other being to simply love everyone, serve everyone and remember God.

We’re all one

Why do I bring that up? Because this “All one,” idea lies at the core of Thay’s poem. We’re all one. And if we’re all one, then we’re all the pirate. We’re all the twelve-year-old girl. We’re all the Politburo official. We’re all the prisoner suffering in the forced-labor camp.

Do I fully understand this? No. I have a sense that we’re all one, but I don’t know it. I have a sense, as I’ve written many times, that we all carry a little slice of God within us. But I don’t know it.

That’s what’s so hard about this paradoxical truth of life. That there is, as Thay beautifully describes it, ‘Joy, like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.’ But at the same time, “Pain, like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.’

The perfection found in joy and pain

There’s both. There’s joy and pain. And in that joy and pain, according to Maharajii and Thay, lies perfection.

What are we to do with that awful truth?

This is where Thay offers something concrete that we can do. It’s the only thing I’ve heard, in all my years studying this stuff, that makes any sense to me.

Fittingly, Thay ends his beautiful poem with this suggestion. Which is this:

Keep our hearts open.

By doing so, we allow the candle of compassion to keep burning within us.

Compassion. It’s the last word of this poem. And if one were forced to reduce Thay’s teachings to one word, compassion would be it.

The takeaway

So there it is, my friends. The takeaway of takeaways from Thay’s poem is this:

In the face of the evil and inexplicable suffering that afflicts our world, the best thing we can do is keep our hearts open. Which means, no matter how bad things get, we never close our hearts and give up on the world.

Because we’re all in it together.

All one.


Use Basic Grammar to Understand the Most Important Truth About Life – It all comes down to subject, object.

I had great parents. A dad who taught me to live by the values of honesty, integrity and loyalty. And a mom who loved me unconditionally.

But they both did one thing that annoyed the hell out of me and my five older siblings: Constantly correcting our grammar.

I would be in the middle of a poignant story, and this is how it would play out:

ME: “And then me and Bill decided to — “

MOM: “It’s Bill and I!”

ME: “Mom, would you please shut…”

I’ll leave out the rest. It wasn’t pretty.

The point being that the general area of grammar has always been a sore spot for me…Until today!

Because today I’m going to relate how we can use grammar to understand THE most important concept in any person’s life. I know that sounds hyperbolic but it’s true.

It’s all about self-realization

What is this basic concept? I’ve touched on it before, but today’s article goes all in. It’s about self-realization, which is simply realizing our true identity. Which is everything.

What is that true identity? This is where the grammar comes in.

The basics of a sentence are: subject, verb and object. I drank the water. In that sentence, I is the subject, drank is the verb and water is the object.

Subject/object is all we need

For our purposes, we’re going to drop the verb and just deal with subject and object. Because one way we can look at our lives is that they consist of only two elements: Our consciousness, which is the subject, and whatever that subject is aware of, the object.

How does that work? I hear the plane. I see the car. I taste the peanut butter. I smell the eucalyptus leaf.

The consciousness, you, experiences all of these objects. That’s all our lives are. The subject (us) experiencing a bunch of objects.

The subject never changes

Critical to all this is that, while the objects constantly change, the subject never does. It’s the same conscious you all the way through life.

Sounds simple enough, right? And it is. Where people get into trouble is when certain objects distract our consciousness so much it gets lost in those objects.

Like what? Mostly it’s thoughts and emotions. You might think, wait, thoughts and emotions aren’t objects of consciousness.

Thoughts and emotions are also objects

Oh, you bet they are. They’re like any other experience of our consciousness.

How does this work? Let’s say you have the thought, “I’m not worthy of a man. I’m not smart enough and I’m not attractive enough.”

The truth is that youare not that thought. You are not unworthy, unintelligent or unattractive.

Who are you? You are the consciousness (the subject) that is aware of that thought (the object).

Here’s the problem

Now you see the problem. The person thinking that thought isn’t aware they’re having that thought. They are identified with that thought. The thought has subsumed their identity.

Therein lies the fundamental problem facing humanity. Because almost everybody on this planet identifies with their thoughts and emotions instead of treating them like ice cream cones, sunsets, bees and all other objects of our consciousness.

I’ve gone into why we all do this many times. It’s because we develop egos early on that are so strong they are able to distract our consciousness.

Why meditation helps

That’s why we meditate. It helps us quiet that ego noise enough that we can say to ourselves, “Oh, there’s a thought. There’s an anxious feeling. There’s a honking horn.” In other words, meditation helps restore consciousness to its rightful place: As the subject experiencing and noticing any and all objects in its field of awareness.

What the heck does any of this have to do with you? Everything.

Again, this sounds so overblown, but it’s not: Realizing that you are the consciousness (the subject) is the entirety of the spiritual path. One way or another, it’s what all spiritual traditions teach.

The great 20th century Indian saint Ramana Maharshi taught nothing else but this. Simply realizing that you are the consciousness within and that everything else is false and illusory was the sum total of his teachings.

Why this is so hard

The hard part is “achieving” that, something few people manage to do. Why is it so hard? As I said, our egos are incredibly powerful and create thick clouds of thought and emotion noise that obscure our conscious selves.

But using this seemingly ridiculous tool of subject/object can help. It simplifies things.

The takeaway

We just keep telling ourselves, multiple times a day, that we are merely the subject and that whatever is in front of us, or in our heads, at the time, is the object. That perturbed feeling I just got from the snide comment my boss made about my outfit? That feeling is just an object that my consciousness is noticing.

That’s what the great beings do. The great ones from India and elsewhere. They just experience life from a place of clear consciousness. No commentary. No complaining. No attachment. Just the bliss of experiencing the moments in front of them.

Subject, object.

That’s all life is.

Keep it simple.


What’s the Healthiest Way to Deal With Anger and Upset? Lengthen Your Fuse

Spiritual work like meditation and mindfulness helps us in myriad ways. We do better at our jobs because of improved focus. Ditto for our golf and tennis games. We’re more attentive and in tune with our loved ones because of strengthened presence.

There’s another area that doesn’t get talked about as much, which is dealing with anger and upset. Anger and upset can impact our lives significantly, depending on how we deal with it.

How significantly? Respond by exploding in a situation might result in divorce. Respond in another way and you might deepen your relationship. Significant, indeed.

Which leads to the age-old question: How do we stay calm and not lose it when we get triggered? I’ve received numerous comments over the years from readers saying some version of,

“I agree with what you’re saying about responding and not reacting, but I lose it in less than a second and then it’s all over. The damage is done.”

I’ll bet many of you feel the same way. I do, too, in certain situations.

The fuse analogy

I recently thought of an analogy that clarifies this process. It’s about lengthening the fuse.

When we get triggered, that is the equivalent of someone or some situation lighting our fuse. What types of triggers?

– You’re going to bed and your husband asks if you want him to set the alarm for 5 a.m. so you can get up to workout. World War III ensues when you scream at him because you think he’s indirectly criticizing your weight. (This happened to a friend of mine…the husband.)

– Your thirteen-year-old daughter pulls your seven-year-old daughter’s hair because she’s bothering her, sending the seven year old into a sea of tears. (One of my kids hurting their sibling is one of my anger triggers.)

– Someone cuts you off in traffic, causing you to tamp your brakes.

Continuing with the analogy, someone lights your fuse — the husband, my older daughter, the wayward driver. Most of the time, for most people, the fuse that has been lit is 1/8 of an inch.

Which translates as…


The explosion happens before we have any chance of preventing it. Stating the obvious, what we want to do is lengthen our fuse.

See if we can make it five inches. Then we can use those precious few seconds to wet our fingers and put out the flaming fuse, AKA calm down and respond from a place of reasoned presence.

My bawling daughter

This happened to me a few days ago with my seven-year-old daughter. I was cruising along on an article I was trying to finish and in she burst to my office, bawling her eyes out.

“Mommy said she would make me breakfast and she didn’t! I’m so hungry!”

Turns out my wife had left the house, forgetting that she’d said she was going to make Vi breakfast.

My two triggers

Two potential triggers registered in that one second. First, my daughter was sobbing; and that is one thing in life that drives me nuts. Not if it comes from falling down and getting a boo-boo or things like that. But garden variety “Waa waa!” stemming from basic complaining makes me lose it.

The second trigger was the combo of losing my writing mojo because my wife forgot to make our kid breakfast. The kettle was coming to a boil.

And then…

I caught it. The fuse was pretty long on this one. I very quickly surmised,

“The only way out of this is to get your butt up right now and make her breakfast. Don’t even think about it. Just do it.”

And that’s what I did. Disaster/eruption averted. Toasted everything bagel with cream cheese and a bowl of blueberries coming right up.

But how did I do it?

Now if I’m you, I want to know: How was I able to stave off the explosion? What did I do differently this time?

Which brings us to the nub of this article. Here are the two things we can do to get better at the whole ‘don’t blow up in the first few seconds so we can respond with reasoned presence’ thing.

Two things that lengthen the fuse

First, I do think practice helps. That means setting an intention to TRY and catch ourselves when we’re triggered, then stay calm and respond. I think that was partly responsible for my not losing it the other day over ‘Breakfast Gate.’

But there’s another, more prominent ingredient for success here. Which is the plain old, gradual, chopping wood and carrying water of spiritual work. In other words, I think that my many years of meditation and mindfulness are most responsible for my lengthened fuse a few days ago.

The takeaway

So if you want to lengthen your fuse, and thereby save yourself oodles of heartache, agony and bad vibes, set the intention to practice.

But more important, keep doing your regular practices. Whatever helps you to let go of your ego and quiet down inside, do it. For me, that’s meditation and mindfulness.

A lengthened fuse is one of the priceless gifts you’ll receive for putting in the work.


Using the Brain to Help Tame the Mind

In studying some of the great Eastern spiritual traditions these past many years, one surprise has been the emphasis placed on working with the mind. Buddhism, Hinduism and the yogic tradition all place central importance on stilling the mind.

Why is that surprising? Mainly because they came up with these ideas many thousands of years ago. Turns out our minds have been nutty far longer than I thought!

Check out this passage from The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the most important text in Hinduism, written well over 2,000 years ago:

“For those who have conquered the mind, it is their friend. For those who have failed to do so, the mind works like an enemy.”

And how about this Buddhist teaching?

“A man’s mind may make him a Buddha, or it may make him a beast…Therefore, control your mind and do not let it deviate from the right path.”

Wise words, indeed.

The personal mind is the culprit

Traveling the spiritual path, it can be easy to believe the notion that the mind is our enemy. Often times that is the case.

But that is our personal mind. Some call it the egoic mind. It’s the entity that produces involuntary thoughts and emotions that plague us.

“I can’t believe she said that. Who acts like that? Ughh. I can’t stand her.”

“If this job review goes poorly, I am screwed. It’ll mean no promotion. No raise. And no future at the company. My career will be ruined.”

“It seems like he’s mad at me, but I’m not sure. And so what if he is. I didn’t do anything wrong…I think.”

But there’s another part of our mind that can be of immense benefit to us. Let’s call that the intelligent mind.

The good news is, we can use our intelligent mind to help us calm the personal one. How?

Michael Singer and the intelligent mind

Let’s start with something from the playbook of my favorite spiritual teacher, Michael Singer. He gives three talks a week at his Temple of the Universe in Alachua, Florida, and in most of them he mentions the following examples, all related to astronomy.

The one that resonates most with me is his observation that we are all spinning around on a tiny rock in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Most of the Universe is just black, empty space.

The Earth is tiny

To drive home how insignificant our planet is in the grand scheme of the Universe, he relates that 1.3 million Earths would fit inside the sun. I never knew how tiny Earth is, or how big the sun is, until I heard that.

Then he moves on. Our sun is one of 300 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.

Singer then relates that the next closest star to our sun is 4.2 light years away. How far away is that? If you held a light photon in your hand and let it go, in one second it could circumnavigate the Earth seven times.

That’s the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second. Travel at that speed for 4.2 years and you’d arrive at the next closest star…And there are 300 billion of those in our galaxy.

How many galaxies?

And guess how many galaxies there are in the Universe, each with billions of stars? Two trillion!

Sticking with astronomy, Singer points out that photos of Mars show it’s just a bunch of dirt and rocks. That’s it. Oh, and it’s also freezing. On Earth we have waterfalls, trees, monkeys, cheetahs, snow-capped mountains, lush countryside, fish…

Then he asks, “Where would you rather live? Mars or Earth?”

What’s the point of these astronomical observations? Singer runs through these points and then asks:

“And you’re worried that Sally just walked by and didn’t say hello? Or that your wife woke up and forgot it was your birthday? Or that junior didn’t get accepted to Harvard? Come on. Wake up, everybody! You’re going to spend a few years on a beautiful planet spinning around in the middle of nowhere. Why not enjoy the ride?”

That is using our intelligent minds to help us navigate the spiritual path. When we use our minds to contemplate the vastness of the Universe and our place in it, and juxtapose that beside our small, mostly petty concerns, it lightens our load.

The blue dot photo

At least it does for me. In fact, I wrote an article, link here, a few years ago about the photo Voyager took of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away. We were just a tiny, blue dot in a vast ocean of black space. I highly recommend reading that article, too.

What are ways we can incorporate this into our daily lives? Michael Singer has done something for several decades now where, whenever he picks up the phone to take a call, he reminds himself that he’s spinning around on a tiny rock in the middle of space. He reminds himself of the same thing each time he walks through a doorway.

Of course, contemplating the vastness of the cosmos isn’t the only way our intelligent minds can spur us on our spiritual journey. We can read Be Here NowThe Power of NowThe Bhagavid GitaThe Tao te Ching and myriad other books to help us understand ourselves and our place in the Universe.

We can write and create and do any manner of intelligent activities that get us closer to the divine within us.

The takeaway

The point is that while the mind can cripple us, it can also help us. As Michael often reminds his listeners, our minds are off-the-charts brilliant.

Our minds figured out how to put humans on a rocket and land on the moon. And make life-saving vaccines. And create King Lear, the Statue of David and Schindler’s List.

Best to use that brilliance to help reduce the dominant role our egoic minds play in our lives. It’s all hands-on deck in that paramount endeavor.


I Think We Should Call Meditation Something Else – I have three candidates.

If I’m you, the first thing I’d want to know after reading that title is why? What’s wrong with calling meditation…meditation? Nothing, really.

But the truth is that many people are put off when they hear the word meditation.It conjures images of men in ponytails eating granola in Boulder, Colorado…all of which I’m totally down with, except for the ponytail, which isn’t in the cards for this bald writer.

Also, meditate is too neutral and nondescriptive. Meditation is anything but a neutral activity. It is hugely positive and helpful to us on the most profound levels. So how about calling it something more descriptive that evokes positivity?

Here are a few candidates that do just that. Instead of saying, “I’m going to go meditate,” what if instead we said… “I’m going to go…

1. “QUIET DOWN” — Just saying those two words in my head calms me down. “I’m going to go quiet down.” Ahh.

Most of the time it’s loud in there. Thoughts race like electrons buzzing around a nucleus. “What should I do next? Why isn’t she home yet? I haven’t gotten a thing done all day.”

On and on. All day long. Quieting all that chatter would be nice.

Well, isn’t that what we’re really doing when we meditate? We walk into a quiet room, sit down, close our eyes and begin to quiet the babble buzzing around our head.

We orient ourselves at the start by maybe doing some box breathing. We place our attention on various parts of the body (i.e., do a body scan). We follow our breathing…

And eventually, some days longer than others, we get quiet inside.

2. “CENTER” — At its best, meditation is about clearing away the clutter in our minds, which then leaves us feeling centered. What do I mean by centered?

Sometimes describing the opposite is most effective in expressing something. The opposite of centered is feeling scattered, untethered, unstable and some measure of anxious and stressed out.

Several minutes into a meditation session, we often lose that feeling of disconnectedness. We feel tethered. I describe it as feeling like I’ve come “home,” with home being a place of comfort and security.

As Eckhart Tolle says,

“You are never more essentially, more deeply, yourself than when you are still.”

And feeling like ourselves is synonymous with feeling centered.

3. “SLOW DOWN” — This one is similar to quieting down, but slowing down is physical. We rush around so often, scurrying here and there.

Walking fast. From our car to the store. From our office to the kitchen.

We breathe fast. We talk fast. We write fast.

We do too many things fast! And it’s not good for us. It makes us anxious and stressed out.

So we walk into our meditation room and we slow down. Slow what? Everything.

I start many of my sessions, including this morning, with long, deep breaths where, on the inhale I say “slow” and on the exhale I say “down.” I do at least five of those.

The effect of slowing down my breathing, and everything else, is to calm my nervous system. This in turn helps slow the flow of thoughts.

One important caveat

One caveat here is that all three of these new meditation descriptions are aspirational. Meaning, we don’t start out quiet, centered or slowed down. That’s where we want to get.

And some days we won’t get there. We’ll feel just as noisy, uncentered and rushed as we did at the start.

Meditation is about non-judgmental noticing

The true point of meditation is to notice and accept whatever’s happening in the moment, whatever that moment brings. If it’s tension and anxiety, we notice and accept that.

And we don’t do that noticing with the aspiration of becoming quiet, centered and slow inside.

As long as we’re aware of that, I say we use a more positive description of meditation.

I’ll bet you have your own descriptions. If so, please let me know in the comments!


How to Deal with Painful Emotions from Our Past: Mickey Singer’s Tough Love Teaching

I’ve been meaning to write this article for years but suffer a bout of resistance each time I try. Why? Because it’s a tough love piece that I know will rub some people the wrong way.

The inspiration for it comes from years of listening to and reading various spiritual author/speaker luminaries’ teachings about dealing with tough, emotional scars.

What were those teachings?

My DC therapist’s auto-response

I’ll illustrate this through an anecdote from my life. Back in my mid-20s, I saw a therapist in Washington, D.C., where I lived. Most of it was centered around why I freaked out when things started to get rolling in a romantic relationship. Yes, the old “commitment” issue.

Maybe someday I’ll write about the particulars of my relationship pathology, but that’s not what’s relevant to this article.

What is pertinent is what this therapist used to do time and again. We’d talk about my previous relationships, what it was like growing up in the Gerken family, yada, yada, yada. I’d bring up some tough situations from my past. This was inevitably followed by:

Therapist: “That must have really hurt.”

Me: “Uhh. Yeah, it did.”

And then we’d move on until the next time she said the same thing. Sometimes, I wondered if she was even listening. Maybe she was just throwing in a “That must have really hurt” every few minutes so she could go back to deciding where she was going to have lunch after our appointment.

In retrospect, I should have tried to trick her by putting on a sad face and saying:

Me: “So I won the Powerball Lottery. Fifty million bucks. Also, I got that job I really wanted. Oh, and that terrible cancer thing with my dad? It was benign.”

Therapist: “That must really hurt.”

Me: “Try Au Bon Pain for lunch. They have a great soup and half-sandwich combo.”

Therapist: “So painful. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

Alright, back to the matter at hand.

The point is that all she and so many of the spiritual luminaries out there do in response to hearing about emotional pain is empathize. Am I saying there’s something wrong with empathizing with others’ pain?


Of course not. What I am saying, and it’s the point of this article, is that these teachers need to go one step further after empathizing. All teachers?

Mickey Singer and Past Emotional Pain

No. That’s where Mickey Singer comes in. Mickey teaches that, yes, we’ve all endured emotional pain in our past. Nobody escapes that.

Maybe we had severe acne in our teens. Or our parents went through an ugly divorce. Or we were fat, too thin, too tall, too short, not pretty, not smart, an athletic klutz. We all have something from our past that plagues us later in life.

But here’s what Mickey teaches. Umpteen times, I’ve heard him say something along the lines of:

“I get it. Your parents’ divorce was incredibly traumatic for you. You were only twelve and it left all kinds of scars. It’s awful and I’m sorry you had to go through that. But it was forty years ago! You’re telling me that you’re letting something that happened forty years ago ruin your life today? Come on. You need to let it go. Will that be hard? And painful? You bet it will. It went in with pain and it will come out with pain. But what’s the alternative? Keep letting it drag you down?”

There it is. That one scenario captures the essence of this article.

The point is that too many teachers stop at,

“Wow, that must really hurt. You don’t feel seen. You don’t feel worthy of a relationship/job/success/happiness. It has to be deeply painful for you.”

Wallowing doesn’t help.

It’s always felt to me that these teachers and my therapist back in the 1990s are encouraging people to wallow. To simmer in their sad stew of emotional injuries.

I know that might sound cruel, but it’s not. I absolutely, wholeheartedly believe in not only empathizing with those suffering from past emotional trauma but also encouraging them to empathize with themselves. These insecurities, traumas, and scars hurt at the deepest level and can haunt us for decades. Recognizing those traumas is an essential part of the healing process.

But unless we add Mickey’s second step — letting go — those scars will remain trapped inside us and continue to damage our lives.

How to Let Go

How do we let go? First, the split second you notice that a painful feeling has arisen, RELAX.All over. Start in your head, then move down to your neck, shoulders, chest, and belly.

Then, second, imagine yourself LEANING AWAY from the feeling. What we’re doing here is giving the feeling some space so that it can break free and rise up.

Third, simply WATCH the feeling from that distance you’ve created by leaning away.

The key is to not jump in and fight, engage, or resist the feeling, which is what we normally do. Rather, we place our full attention on it without interfering.

That’s how we let go.

My experience with letting go

I’ve written a few times about something I’ve worked hard on letting go of, something I’ve struggled with for many years: Playing in tennis tournaments.

Now if I’m you, my first reaction would be,

Really? Tennis? That sounds like small potatoes compared to parents divorcing at age twelve.”

Yes, it is small potatoes in one sense. But if we peel back this potato, we’ll see that it’s similar to most childhood emotional scars. How?

The knots I get in my stomach during these tournaments aren’t fun. They’re painful.

Tracing the roots of our pain is critical

But the key is tracing their roots. They come from back when I was around 8–12 years old. Formative years, no doubt.

I’m the youngest of six kids and my siblings were all uber successful. Great grades in school, good athletes and on down the line.

So from a pyschological standpoint, my doing well in tennis was way more than just winning or losing. Somewhere, in the deep recesses of my still forming psyche, it was about life or death.

Losing was more than losing

Win and I’ll be loved and accepted by my family. Lose and I’ll be shunted aside.

Of course, that wasn’t remotely the case. My family was great to me.

But when you’re young, none of that matters. What matters is what your scared, immature self believes.

That scenario explains the painful feelings I experience today around competitive tennis. Because 59 year old me is not generating those feelings; ten year old me is.

The scars stay until we let them go

I’ve held onto those scars for darn near fifty years. They’ve just been sitting there, waiting to arise again the next time I compete on the court.

Here’s the point of all this: I have two options when these feelings arise today. One, I can acknowledge that they’re there and empathize with myself.

Or two, I can empathize and THEN use the situation as an opportunity to let go of them. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing. And I have to say that with each tournament I play, those knots have decreased.

The Takeaway

True healing begins with the courage to release the burdens of the past and embrace the liberating path toward emotional freedom.

Why does it take courage? Because releasing those burdens is difficult and often painful. But in no area of life is this old adage more true: No pain, no gain.

Bottom line on all of this: If you or someone close to you struggles with emotional scars from the past, I hope you’ll be mindful of that second step of letting go.


An Emotion That Society Needs to Eradicate: Stubbornness

I find that compelling writing subjects often come from truths that most people know, but that society doesn’t express. One of those truths is that stubbornness does nobody any good.

On some level we all know this to be true. The problem is that we’re all stubborn!

Sure, it’s on a spectrum. Some people are stubborn as a mule, others less so, but we’re all on that spectrum somewhere.

Society condones it

One reason it’s so prevalent is that society, at least here in America, tacitly condones it. Many, especially the die-hard stubborn, believe this behavior shows strength. That “getting our back up” and not relenting demonstrates our willingness to fight for what we believe in. Damn straight!

What are some examples of that stubborn behavior? See if any of these sound familiar.

-You made dinner so your wife was supposed to clean the kitchen. But she had to work overtime so she didn’t think she should have to. Four days later a Mt. Everest of dishes has piled up in the sink with both of you standing your ground.

-You haven’t spoken to your best friend in three months because she hung up on you for trashing her boyfriend. You refuse to call and apologize.

The Gerken brothers’ epic stand off

Then there’s this infamous example drawn from Gerken family lore. Two of my brothers were living together in their early twenties outside of Washington, D.C.

Andy was doing a college internship for a senator and Dan had a full-time job with a congressman. So Dan drove both of them to work each morning.

Dan had to do laundry one day and, according to an interview I just conducted with Andy, forty years after the fact, Dan “tersely” asked him to cough up some quarters. Andy didn’t like the bossy tone, so he fished two quarters out of his pocket and threw them at Dan. The quarters landed on the ground, right between them, thus initiating a standoff of epic proportions.

The following unfolded:

DAN: “Pick up the quarters.”

ANDY: “You pick them up.”

DAN: “Pick up the quarters and hand them to me or you’re using PT (public transportation) to get to work.”

ANDY: “Screw you. I’ll take PT.”

With that, Dan picked up the quarters while Andy slinked off to research bus and subway schedules. This was followed by several days of silence and cold stares.

Shockingly, neither brother ended up in the State Department diplomatic corps.

The force behind our stubbornness

Why do we act this way? Stubbornness always comes down to, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ And whenever we’re in the position of needing to be right, guess what is dominating the playing field?

The egoic self.

Your conscious, present, aware self, i.e., the real you, NEVER feels the need to be right. It transcends that plane. All it wants to do is be present and show compassion for others.

Stubbornness provides the egoic self exactly what it wants — conflict, drama and a fortified (but illusory) sense of who we are. And as all things are when we feed the egoic self, the costs are high and the benefits nil.

Stubbornness is 100 percent awful

What’s the point of all this? Stubbornness is absolutely pointless, destructive, toxic and revealing of weak character.

I know. That sounds harsh. It’s meant to.

Because the point of this piece is to shine a light on this fact. Again, most of us are stubborn. And when we see others acting stubborn, we may not like it, but our reaction is along the lines of,

“Man, that’s annoying and infuriating that he’s acting this way. But what the hell? We all do it.”

We need to change this paradigm. How?

Well, it would be a fool’s errand to call out everybody we know when they’re being stubborn.

“Come on, Bob. You’re being a stubborn a-hole. That’s not doing anybody any good.”

As they say in the American South, ‘That dog won’t hunt.’

Commit to letting go

But what if we take it upon ourselves to work on being less stubborn? That is doable.

How do we work on that? As usual, it starts with Eckhart Tolle’s wise teaching:

Awareness is the greatest agent for change.

Start by simply setting an intention of becoming aware when stubbornness has arisen in you. How do we know? It’s usually obvious. We feel that tight contraction in our inner being (stomach for me) as we gird ourselves for the war du moment.

The solution: stop, relax, lean away, let go

What then? We let go. As I’ve written many times, the best approach to letting go of our egoic selves is the Mickey Singer technique.

The moment you feel yourself tightening up and readying for a round in the stubbornness ring, call on that intention you’ve set and stop.

Relax everywhere in your body, especially in your head, chest and stomach areas.

Then lean away from where you’re feeling that stubbornness-tightness so you can isolate and create distance from it.

Then let it go. Let that egoic energy float up and out of you. It’s one less piece of emotional baggage weighing down your psychic airplane.

At least be honest about it

If you don’t want to let go of your stubbornness, at least commit to being honest. The next time you feel that knot of stubborn energy rising, say to yourself:

“I’d rather be right and miserable than let go of my stubbornness.”

Because that is the truth of your decision.

We don’t let people walk on us

Now some will say,

“Sure, being stubborn isn’t fun, but I’m not going to let everybody walk all over me. It’s a tough world out there and if you don’t stand up for yourself, you’ll get crushed.”

I’m not advocating that we let people walk all over us. It’s not about responding from a place of weakness. “Okay, whatever you want is fine with me, stubborn husband.” Not at all. It’s about responding from the strongest place that exists in the universe — our conscious, compassionate selves.

But even more important is the selfish reason for letting it go. Because the more we let go, the more conscious, compassionate, brilliant, calm and happy we become.

Which is why we all need to look at these stubbornness incidents as valuable opportunitiesfor spiritual growth.

The takeaway

It’s not easy to keep our stubborn button in the off position when someone’s actions desperately make us want to turn it on. But it is so worth the work of keeping it off and ridding ourselves of a small valise of egoic guck.

All it takes is setting the intention and then doing the work.

Think of how much better the world would be if people let go of their stubbornness…


Ram Dass on Our Propensity to Reinforce Each Other’s Egos – We constantly feed each other french fries

I feel about Ram Dass the way my mom felt about me. She would always say, “How could anybody not like you?” Yes, she was that kind of mom and I was fortunate to draw her in the mother lottery.

Well, how could anybody not like Ram Dass? He gave so much of himself to help teach so many millions of us all this great spiritual stuff. His combination of wisdom, intelligence, charisma and heart are unmatched, in this writer’s opinion.

Today’s Ram Dass nugget comes courtesy of one of my regular emails sent by his Love Serve Remember Foundation. It says:

In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.”

This one really hit me. One, because he’s so right. And two, because it’s such a valuable, seldom perceived observation.

The costumes are our egos

Let’s start by unpacking what Ram Dass means here. In essence, he’s saying that we humans frequently reassure and fortify each other’s costumes of identity (AKA, egos). Examples of this are infinite.

“What? Of course your butt looks great in those jeans. You go girl!”

“Oh my God! A new Porsche 911? It’s gorgeous!”

“You’re now the youngest vice president in company history? Congrats, dude. You are one major stud.”

“Holy cow. A son at Harvard and a daughter at Stanford? Whatever your secret sauce of parenting is, you need to bottle it and sell it!”

“You were too good for him anyway. You deserve better.”

What do all of these statements have in common? They’re said with good intentions by people who consider themselves good friends, siblings, coworkers or what have you.

Building up our egos

You know what else they have in common? They are all about buttressing the recipients’ ego and are therefore not helpful.

I know this might sound crazy to many of you. What’s wrong with congratulating a guy for being promoted to VP? Or a parent who has kids at Harvard and Stanford?

The main problem is that shapely butts, Porsches, job titles and elite colleges do not make people happy.

Which is why I find Ram Dass’s statement so powerful. Because we all do this. We all play by these rules.

We’re just feeding each other fries

But what we’re really doing is feeding French Fries to somebody who loves French Fries. Do they love it when we give them the fries? You bet.

Is it good for them? No. In fact, it’s bad for them. What it does is perpetuate the stranglehold that the world’s collective ego exerts on humanity.

What should we do?

Which leads to the central question: What should we do in these situations? How do we deal with the Harvard/Stanford mom? Or the woman concerned with how her booty looks in her new jeans? Or the new young VP?

The answer is simple and sounds boring, but it isn’t. Because the answer is that we need to give these people the greatest gift any human can bestow on another:

Our presence.

What?! That’s it?

Yes. Just be present with them.

No thoughts. No scheming. No racing mind. Just presence.

I remember in my early days on the spiritual path hearing this and thinking,

“Really? That’s the best thing I can do for another? What about diving in and trying to help them solve their problems? Or giving them some money? Or comforting them?”

But then I kept hearing this more and more and more. From every great spiritual teacher I studied. Eckhart Tolle, Mickey Singer, Ram Dass, Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, et al.

There’s a Sanskrit word all of you have heard that helps illuminate this concept:


Most people know the surface meaning of namaste, which is a greeting, like “Hello.” Or, “I bow to you.”

But there is a deeper spiritual meaning to the word, which is,

The spirit in me honors the spirit in you.”

We could switch out “spirit” and use God, soul, divine, Atman or, yes, even presence. The point is, it’s about recognizing that we are all bound together at our deepest level. We aren’t separate. We are all one.

And that is what we are doing when we bring our full presence to that woman who wants to look good in her jeans. We are reaching inside and joining our presence with hers, and in doing so, weakening her sense of separateness and strengthening her connection to the divine within her.

Present people center us

That is why people love being around those who are present. Most would have a difficult time expressing why this is, but it’s simple: Present people help us feel centered and connected to something infinitely bigger than little old, separate “me.”

The opposite is also true. Most of us find it unsettling to be around people who are “not there.” When we talk, they don’t listen. They look away, stuck in their heads, swept away by an endless torrent of thoughts and emotions.

The takeaway

So what I take away from Ram Dass’s incisive observation is the need to become aware when we are feeding French Fries to our friends, colleagues and family members. See if we can catch ourselves.

Then slow down. Take a few deep breaths…

And be there.

With them.

In that moment.


Connecting on the deepest level the universe offers us.


Rumi’s Wise Nugget About Finding Love

I love the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi. And judging by how many articles I see on Medium about him, I know many of you love him, too.

I’ve written articles about his work before. And I’ve even written an article about the very quote this article is about.

But it hit me recently that this quote I’ve written about before beautifully captures the sentiment taught by two of my favorite teachers, Mickey Singer and Ram Dass. The difference? Rumi came up with it almost 800 years earlier!

It concerns the human pursuit of love, about which Rumi wrote:

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

He expresses beautifully here the spiritual concept that the path to love lies within us. We don’t ‘seek for love,’ or anything else, by looking out to the world.

Barriers = baggage

The barriers within ourselves that Rumi references are synonymous with the egoic baggage I’ve written about so often. He urges us not to look for that perfect mate ‘out there,’ but rather to let go of those samskaras we have held onto that prevent us from finding the right person.

What kind of barriers/samskaras have we modern humans built inside us that we need to remove if we are to find love? Here are some examples.

-Your parents divorced when you were ten years old and it shattered you, to the point that you’re not willing to risk intimacy well into adulthood. You forever associate intimacy with pain and won’t let any relationship advance beyond the superficial.

-Your college girlfriend dumped you after you confronted her about cheating on you. You’re forty years old now and still not able to fully trust another woman.

-Your parents never thought much of you which resulted in a life-long struggle with low self-esteem. Your relationships never take off because you always feel you are unworthy of anybody’s love.

Do all of these sound like a big downer? Yes. But the truth is, they are all too common in our world today.

And they are all examples of traumas that we have held onto. Yes, you read that right.

Most stuff passes right through us

We humans have all kinds of experiences, good, bad and neutral. As Mickey Singer says, 99 percent of them happen and they go right through us. No problem. Those are the neutral ones.

Like what? You look out the window and a car passes by. You brush your teeth. You eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast. You’ll never think of these experiences again. They happened then they passed right through you.

But when your husband leaves you for another woman, you take those traumatic feelings and store them. Same when you get straight A’s on your report card. Or have an exquisite meal at a new restaurant.

So what’s a regular human to do? It’s simple. Difficult to pull off, but simple.

It’s two steps.

The two-step process

First, we do what Rumi so wisely observed: We go inside to seek and find the barriers that we’ve built up. We discover what’s holding us back.

How? I’m not a therapist, but I’ve been in therapy and know that it can be a valuable tool in helping us discover why we are the way we are. Which is step one.

Second, we LET GO of those barriers.

How? Well, let’s say you’re the guy who doesn’t trust women because your college sweetheart cheated and broke heart. You’re 38 now and three dates in with a woman you find attractive in all manner of ways.

For date number four she invites you to have drinks with her friends; the old “meet the friends” thing.

Freaking out on friends’ drinks

Upon hearing this, your insides clench up. You get a pit in your stomach. It’s a clear escalation in intimacy and your lower self wants nothing to do with it.

But you’ve done the work of step one and you know why you’re having a near panic attack at the thought of meeting this woman’s friends. So what do you do?

This is where the rubber meets the road. Right when you feel yourself clenching, tensing and freaking out, you stop.

Notice the feeling. Start breathing deeply. Do your best to relax. All over.

Watch the freak out…then let go

Then you use every fiber of your being to watch this feeling…but not engage with it. Or let it overwhelm you.

Then you let it go.

Is this hard? Yet bet it is. Every example I gave above involves painful, suppressed emotions.

As Mickey Singer says, they went down with pain and when they come back up to be released, they leave with pain. But leave they must.

Developing a steely resolve helps

One thing that might help this guy who got cheated on in college is to get firm in his resolve. Through therapy and other work he has come to learn that letting these old feelings rule his life is costing him in a big way.

So while he’s struggling with trying to let go when she asks him for drinks with the friends, part of the arsenal he brings to bear might be saying something to himself like:

“Screw it. I’m done letting this old relationship ruin me. No more. Let’s go. Relax, stay calm and let’s let go of these feelings!”

The takeaway

Look at it like this: We’ve spent our lives collecting a bunch of smelly junk that we’ve left all over our inner house.

Letting go is the process of taking all that junk out our front door and throwing it in a giant garbage bin, to be hauled away Thursday morning.

It’s the most important work of our lives.

Something the wise Rumi realized way back in the 13th century.


Mickey Singer’s Brilliant, Unsexy Phrase Describing Our Life’s Work

Many people find the language of spirituality off-putting, airy and weird. “Let the flow of the universe flood your soul with prana…” Yada, yada, yada.

It’s too bad because many turned off by this language blow the whole thing off and miss out on enormous benefits as a result. That’s one reason I try to keep this stuff as fun, relatable and approachable as possible.

The relatable Mickey Singer

Which brings us to my favorite spiritual teacher, the great Mickey Singer. One reason I’m so drawn to him is his use of relatable language.

An example of this hit me hard the other day when I heard him sum up our life’s work in one uber-relatable sentence.

He was talking about how we get better at sports. Getting better at tennis requires playing a lot of tennis. Same for golf. And basketball. And every other sport.

He said it’s about practice, practice, practice.

Then he threw this out there:

So what you all need to do is practice the sport of self-realization.”

Bam! That says it all. Game, set, match Mickey Singer.

I absolutely love how he puts this. Why? Because it’s so unsexy. So uncomplicated. So un-“airy, woo-woo, out there.”

What he’s saying is what I’ve felt for years now. Which is that we don’t need to look at spiritual growth as some fuzzy, unattainable endeavor meant only for gurus and vegan chefs from Boulder, Colorado.

No. ANYODY can go after this stuff and have success at it.

The key is that attaining success is no different for spiritual growth than it is for getting better at sports, writing work memos, piano, Scrabble or anything else. What all of these activities require for improvement can be summed up in one word. One unsexy, boring word…


That’s it. You don’t need any special spiritual pedigree. No need to have blood relations from Tibet, India or Nepal. No need to have read the Vedas starting at age four.

Just commit and practice

You literally don’t need anything other than a commitment to practice. If you do that, you will grow spiritually.

Just as if you devoted considerable attention to playing the piano, you would improve. It’s virtually impossible NOT to get better at something we practice.

And what is this “sport” of self-realization Mickey refers to? This sport we should devote our lives to?

It’s the sport of all sports. The only one that really matters in the grand scheme of things.

Realizing your true self

Because self-realization is about, as it plainly states, realizing your real, true self. The conscious you. The God in you. The Atman, as the Hindus call it. That little slice of God that is the essence of who all of us truly are.

At least, that’s what I believe. As do Mickey Singer, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Ramana Maharshi, the Hindus and, one way or another, most spiritual traditions.

How do we go about practicing this sport of self-realization? We set about eliminating the clouds that block us from seeing and experiencing this true self that’s already there. That’s always been there.

Clearing the ego clouds

These clouds blocking us are comprised of all the experiences we’ve had, both positive and negative, that we’ve held onto. That we haven’t let go of.

Their sum total comprises the ego. Let that all go and what’s left is the realized self.

Vastly aiding in this process is quieting down our chatty minds that only cause us to add more clouds to our already blocked sky.

To get quiet and let go requires practices like meditation, mindfulness, praying and whatever spiritual techniques work best for you.

Getting better at tennis

The point is, there’s no mystical magic to it. If you want to get better at tennis, you need to go out and hit buckets of serves. And do drills. Three volleys then an overhead. Three volleys then another overhead. Over and over, until you’re so winded and your quadriceps are so strained that you almost collapse. That’s how you get better at tennis.

It’s no different with self-realization. We meditate. Preferably every day.

We give ample attention to being mindful during the day. Every day.

We look for opportunities to let go of our egos. Every day.

Do what works for you

And if other practices and techniques work for you, do those. There is no one size fits all curriculum for spiritual growth. As long as it’s helping you quiet down and let go, by all means do it!

But you have to do it. You have to practice.

Sure, there are some who were born naturally Zen, calm and for whom spiritual growth might not require as much work. But they are rare.

Most of us need to practice. A lot. For a long time.

But the gains will come. Slowly and gradually, but surely.

Self-realization tops Wimbledon titles any day

And whereas the fruits of our labor arising from doing volley drills, serving scores of buckets of balls and the rest, might be, at their highest, winning twenty-five Grand Slam singles titles, getting great at the sport of self-realization carries the highest reward life has to offer.

Peace. Calm. Compassion. Infinite love.

Even better, only a few among us — the Federers, Nadals, Djokovics, Williams and Grafs — reach that vaunted Valhalla of tennis greatness.

But all of us can do great things in the sport of self-realization.

We just need to set the intention of getting better at it…

And then practice.

The takeaway

Which is the point of this article.

Don’t overthink this stuff, my friends. And don’t get psyched out by this thing called self-realization.

Approach it as you would any other endeavor.

To quote Larry the Cable Guy, you just have to “Git ‘er done.”