Meditation

Meditation

The Profound Spiritual Lesson Tennis Has Taught Me

I’ve been playing tennis since the age of five. My parents got my five older siblings into it so, like so much of my childhood, tennis was yet another hand-me-down.

In those early years, I had to fight to get onto the court. We’d all head out to the courts at Cal Tech (in Pasadena, California) and I’d hit on a wall while my parents and siblings play.

I remember constantly begging my mom for a chance to hit, which she’d finally agreed to after an hour of me torturing her. (Karma has come full circle as my five-year-old daughter now tortures me to get on the court when we take our older two kids out to hit.)

Junior tennis leads to Princeton

As I got older, I played the junior tennis circuit in Southern California, which was incredibly competitive. I got good enough that the coach at Princeton University put me on his shortlist for the admissions office. Not that I was a C student or anything, but I had zero chance of getting into Princeton without that push from my coach. I wound up playing mostly number two to number five on the team for my four years there, which isn’t half bad.

And now? I play the old guy tournaments here in SoCal, which is a ton of fun, providing I don’t pull one of the 327 muscles in my body I never knew I had!

Rambling with Rocket Rod Laver

One short detour before we get to the heart of this piece. It’s my best tennis story. In the spring of 1985, I lucked into practicing with Rod Laver, considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all time. He’s right up there with Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in that conversation.

He was about 44 and I was 20 at the time. Bottom line: I played out of my mind, actually beating him in the practice tie-breakers we played.

Afterward, we were chatting and he asked me if I was playing in the French Open, which started in six weeks. I had absolutely no chance of making it into the French Open and told him as much. He then said,

“Do you want me to talk to Philippe and see if I can get you in?”

That’s Philippe, as in Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Tennis Federation which ran the tournament; he was also President of the International Tennis Federation. I politely told Rocket Rod that I didn’t think even that could get me in. I’ve been dining out on this story ever since.

Finally, what tennis taught me

Okay, enough of me puffing up about my tennis game. The only reason any of you should care about this is that the massive lesson I learned playing this game is something you can translate into any endeavor you undertake.

What was that lesson?

I played my absolute best when my mind was calm and inactive.

Conversely, things went bad if I was constantly thinking, “Oh no, I’m losing. What if I lose?” or, if I was playing well against a really good player, “Holy shit! Maybe I can beat this guy!” Bottom line: I learned that thinking, of any kind, detracted from my performance.

This included getting mad if I screwed up. All that did was catapult me into the clutches of my egoic mind.

Tiger Woods, one shot at a time

To give but a salient example from the sports world, look at Tiger Woods. I remember countless times when some golf commentator would interview Tiger on the 18th green after one of his innumerable, magical finishes and gush, “Wow, Tiger! You were two shots behind with two holes to go and you went birdie, birdie. How did you do that? What were you thinking?”

Each time Tiger gave some variation of this answer: “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just trying to stay in the moment and focus on each shot.”

Most important is what Tiger wasn’t doing — thinking about whether he was going to win or lose the tournament. Or thinking about how great, or terrible, his last shot was.

And do you know why Tiger focuses like a laser on the present moment? Because he’s the most competitive human being on this planet and he knows that staying present gives him the best chance of winning.

Why is this the case? Why does taking our mind out of the equation help so much? That’s easy: Because the genius in ALL of us can only arise when our minds shut the hell up.

It’s true for tennis…and everything else

I’m sure by now you see the analogy of my tennis to literally every other activity in life. That beautiful being in us is there all the time…if only we can get our minds to cooperate.

So I don’t care if you play golf, the piano, race cars, paint, sculpt or sell Ford trucks — you will perform at your best the more you stay present and don’t allow your mind to wander into the past or future.

I learned this invaluable lesson several decades before I started meditating and traveling the spiritual path and it has helped my growth immensely. Why? Because I have experienced, on a granular, deep level, the power and value of being present.

So when I started on this path, by reading thePower of Now by Eckhart Tolle and listening to any number of talks about conscious presence, I never doubted any of it for a second. Because I already knew from my tennis experience that everything these teachers were saying was spot on.

And when I started my meditation practice I knew, from day one, that this practice of getting quiet inside and watching my mind instead of getting sucked into it, was 100 percent valid and would lead me to good places. And it has.

The takeaway

So what does this mean for you? If you want to perform at your highest potential — as a golfer, pianist, salesperson, or, most importantly, a human being — focus your work on getting quiet inside.

How? Meditation is the most direct path to quieting the mind. But there’s yoga, chanting, doing mantras, taking long walks in nature…any number of activities that strengthen our ability to be present.

One last thing. Remember what I said about the great Tiger Woods? Well, his mother is from Thailand and had him meditating from a young age.

Time to get on it. If you’re looking for a place to start, try my simple, easy meditation program. You can find it at davidgerken.net.

Meditation

The Tao te Ching Passage That Shapes My Career Path- It’s about letting the mud clear.

The Tao te Chingis my favorite book of wisdom. Written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, the Tao is, quite literally, a handbook for how to live. The reason is it considered one of the wisest books ever written is that Lao Tzu’s words resonate as much today as they did millennia ago.

The Tao has affected me in myriad ways, but especially in how I approach my work. Chapter 24, which I wrote about last year, helps shape how I look at each piece of work:

If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”

To give just one example of what that would mean, if you’re writing on Medium, put all of your energy into writing each article. Then do the same for the next article. What we should avoid is constantly checking our stats page and wondering how we can best “exploit” that article.

What this article is about is a Tao passage that I use for how I deal with the macro aspects of my career. It’s from Chapter 15:

Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?

That hit me like a ton of bricks when I first read it. Why? Because it cuts to the heart of the core issue I’ve dealt with my whole life.

Growing up I had a father who constantly told me I could be president of the United States. He was ambitious, not only for himself, but for his six kids.

My Washington, D.C. career

This manifested in my professional life first in Washington, D.C. as a political aide and lobbyist. I wanted to be known as a go-getter, someone who could be relied on. I always had a pen and 3×5 note cards in the pocket of my shirts so if I thought of anything I could jot it down.

Washington is a town full of schemers so I thought I should be that way. That meant always thinking one step ahead, trying to get ahead of the next guy/woman.

What I didn’t do was focus on what I actually wanted to do. I never even asked myself. It was all about playing the game.

Off to Hollywood

I made a step in the right direction in 2001 when I moved to Hollywood to pursue my creative side. I dropped a lucrative lobbying career to take a flier on becoming a screenwriter.

But I again fell prey to thinking too much about how to get jobs and get ahead at the expense of spending 100 percent of my time and energy on my writing. If I had it to do over, I would have given everything to the work and then let the universe do the rest. Not surprisingly, things didn’t work out for me in Tinseltown.

What I’m doing today

Which brings us to the present day. A few years ago I skedaddled from Hollywood and started teaching meditation and mindfulness classes and writing Medium articles.

I’ve had decent success. Almost three years in, I have 80,000 followers on Medium and make decent, though certainly not life supporting, money from the articles. The classes have also been rewarding as I think my participants have all benefited.

How I deal with career trajectory now

This leads to the crux of this piece: What am I doing right now on the macro career front now that I’m doing all this writing and teaching? Well, here’s what it would have looked like ten or twenty years ago if I was in this position.

I would be spending tons of time and energy thinking and researching and strategizing about my next moves. I’d be mulling about Twitter. And Instagram. And YouTube. And Substack. And yada, yada, yada.

I used to be a ‘presser’

In other words, I’d expend an inordinate amount of energy scheming about how to ‘maximize’ everything I’m doing. The word I like to use to describe this is pressing.I’d be pressing to move everything forward.

Well guess what? I’m not doing that this time.

So what am I doing?I’m letting my mud settle and waiting for right action to arise.

How does that manifest? I’m putting my energy into writing the best articles I can and giving my all to those I teach. That’s it.

Sure, I let other things creep in like whether I should take a run at doing YouTube videos. Frankly, I think that sounds like fun. But I make a point of not letting myself constantly wander off into the land of “What should I do next? How can I make a killing? How can I become a big deal?”

It’s about getting of our way

When I, or anyone, focuses on the work at hand and not on exploiting the future, what we’re really doing is getting ourselves out of the way. Because when we do get in the way, i.e., when we allow our thinking minds/egos to captain our ships, the voyage is rarely peaceful and successful.

The best example I know of someone who waited for right action to arise was Eckhart Tolle. He had his epiphany/awakening in 1977 then sat on park benches and watched the world go by for two years. After that he started teaching people what he’d learned, first for free and then for nominal amounts.

It was several years of teaching like this before he said to himself, and the universe, “I can do more.” Shortly thereafter he received this strange message urging him to move to the West Coast of America. This eventually led him to move to Vancouver in 1995.

Eckhart’s Vancouver calling

For whatever reason, Vancouver was the ideal place for him to write his seminal book The Power of Now. He’d tried to write in England, but it just didn’t happen.

What Eckhart did, obviously unknowingly, was to wait for his mud to settle and for right action to arise. And thank God he did. Because if he’d employed the David Gerken of 1990–2018 strategy of “go, go, go, scheme, scheme, scheme,” I’m confident that none of his vast success would have come to pass. And the world would have been poorer for it.

So that’s what I’m doing. Working hard at writing and teaching and doing my best to get out of the way.

The universe determines right action

Out of the way of what? The universe. God. Nature. A higher power. Whatever you want to call it, it is that force/entity that brings right action to us. So I’m getting out of the way in order that a power infinitely smarter, better and more powerful than my wholly imperfect, baggage-laden ego can lead the way.

Does it take trust, courage, strength and patience to wait for your mud to clear and for right action to arise? Yes. Why? Because our egos detest Chapter 15 of the Tao! Our egos dine out on fear, greed and pride.

But after decades of allowing my ego to captain my ship, I can tell you from the depths of my being that Lao Tzu is right on the money with this one. Bottom line: It’s worth it, infinitely worth it, to summon every last drop of strength we have to kick our egos out of the driver’s seat of our lives.

The takeaway

What does this mean for you? I hope you’ll consider this Tao passage and how it might relate to your own situation. That you’ll think about going all-in on your work and letting the chips fall where they may. That you’ll put your faith in the universe to captain your ship.

That you’ll wait for your mud to settle and for right action to arise.

Meditation

My 2022 New Year’s Resolutions

My last article of the year is about what I want to focus on next year. I try to keep my New Year’s resolutions spare — usually just one. This year it’s two.

I find the fewer I have, the more likely I’ll follow through. Here they are.

1. ADD A SECOND MEDITATION SESSION TO MY DAILY ROUTINE.

My resolution for 2013, as I wrote about last week, was to develop a regular meditation practice. Nine years later, I’m still going strong, meditating every morning for fifteen minutes.

It’s the best decision I ever made. I’m calmer, clearer in the head, more patient, and, most important, more compassionate in dealing with my fellow Earthlings.

Mickey the Great

But several years ago the great Mickey Singer came across my radar. I’ve learned a ton from his teachings, as anybody who’s read my articles knows.

One of those teachings is meditation. Mickey’s thoughts are simple: We don’t need to meditate several hours a day, as he did in the 1970s in his early travels on the spiritual path.

He says all we need to do is fifteen minutes in the morning…and fifteen minutes in the afternoon. Yes, twice a day.

Mickey’s views on meditation

He views meditation as simply practicing being present and not stuck in our heads. It’s also a tool to remind ourselves, twice a day for fifteen minutes, that we are NOT the voice in our heads. We are the consciousness that is AWARE of the voice in our head.

For years I’ve been meaning to take the plunge on adding this second session and just never have. No excuses. I just haven’t gotten it done.

It’s all about habit formation

I’m approaching adding a second meditation the same way I went after this in 2013: Make it as gradual and easy as possible. The first two weeks of January I’ll do only two-afternoon meditations of five minutes each. Then I’ll gradually up both the frequency and duration until I get to my desired landing spot — fifteen minutes, five days a week.

I probably won’t get there until March. Also, I’ll keep track of my sessions on a notecard. This little bit of accountability goes a long way for me.

The ultimate goal is that I end up where I have with my morning meditation all these years: It’s not a big deal. The plan is to develop the afternoon session into a habit, something I don’t have to strain to do.

2. CHOP WOOD AND CARRY WATER ON THE SPIRITUAL PATH

Chopping wood and carrying water comes from Ram Dass’s iconic book Be Here Now, which came out in 1971. It’s how he describes the yoga (spiritual work) of daily life. In Sanskrit, the closest word would be sadhana.

It’s not about the fancy stuff like doing a three-month silent meditation retreat. It’s about the basic, daily spiritual work.

The daily work

Like meditation. And watching, instead of getting involved, when your ego tries to drag you down under after your spouse/boss/parent/kid/friend says or does something that triggers you. Or notice your bile getting stirred when you hit a bunch of red lights in a row and take three long, deep breaths. It’s the everyday things.

In previous years my resolution has been on specific practices, like surrendering (I think that was 2019). The problem I’ve found with focusing on one thing/concept/practice like surrender is that the things I focus on change a lot.

Sometimes surrender resonates most with me. Sometimes it’s simply relaxing inside. Other times it’s noticing when I feel upset or tight inside and not letting myself go down the rabbit hole of “Man, I feel like crap. I hope this goes away soon or…complain, complain, complain…” I just notice it.

It’s not about one practice, but the sum of all of them

The point for me, and why I chose this as a resolution, is that chopping wood and carrying water is not about any individual practice. It’s about the summation of everything you’re doing on a daily basis.

For me, that’s meditating (TWICE a day starting next week!) and doing all of those other mindfulness/letting go practices. And all I need to do…is keep practicing.

Keep chopping the wood and carrying the water. Just keep doing all the little things, every day, that all accrue in my personal, spiritual bank account.

The key is that I don’t need to think about or second-guess any of this stuff. Just keep doing it. And gradually and incrementally, I become more and more conscious.

Which, as I’ve written about in myriad different articles, is the greatest gift we can give not only ourselves but to the world.

The takeaway

And that’s the point of this article. Not to let you know what my resolutions are for 2022. But hopefully to inspire you to commit to your own spiritual chopping wood and carrying water for next year. Whatever form that takes for you.

You, your family, friends, coworkers, and humanity will be the better for it.

I wish you all a healthy and peaceful 2022.

Meditation

My Journey to Meditation: The Before and After

My spiritual journey kicked into high gear nine years ago, in December of 2012, when I made a new year’s resolution that changed my life forever — for the better. Way, way, way better.

What was that resolution? I resolved to make 2013 the year I developed a regular meditation practice.

You don’t need to be a Swami to meditate

Then, and now, I wasn’t a granola eating, pot smoking, man bun-wearing vegan chef (not that there’s anything wrong with those things). I was and am a fairly regular person who struggles with the same everyday challenges most of you probably do, like paying an ever-growing stack of bills and navigating three squabbling kids and a working wife who feels overwhelmed much of the time (bonus points for anybody who can guess where she dumps most of her stress. Hint: it’s a two-letter word that starts with m_). The point is, anyone can, and should, meditate.

In describing my journey to starting a meditation practice, I’m going to go a bit deeper than I have in previous articles about my pre-meditation path with the hope that it will inspire you to take the plunge. Here we go.

A type B in a family of A’s

I grew up in Southern California, the youngest of six kids. My five siblings were all go-getter type A’s. Worse, my dad was a Type A+ CEO of a big company.

Me? I was always a Type B. Growing up I was content with playing my sports, watching my TV shows and studying a moderate amount, at best.

The fact that I always felt I should be a Type A like the rest of my family served as the foundation for a decades long struggle with depression and anxiety and a general feeling in my gut that I never quite measured up. I look back now on my first two years in college and realize that I was more than a little psychologically messed up.

My collapse in college

The cause was a combination of my congenitally sensitive nature and being thousands of miles from home surrounded by a bunch of neurotic, over-achieving East Coast kids. The low point came when I had a nervous breakdown in December of my freshman year.

In hindsight, I should have been hospitalized. The long-term gain would have more than made up for the shame I would have felt. As it was, I soldiered through those years, putting band-aids on wounds that needed psychic surgery.

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

Writing for THE WEST WING — the high before the low

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

And then, as happens with fairy tales, it all came to an end. The higher-ups decided not to pick up my option for another season, aka I got fired.

Post West Wing descent

From there, I traveled a slow, torturous path to the depths of Hollywood Hell. Off my West Wing job I got a few more gigs on progressively worse shows, ones you’ve never heard of because they got cancelled so fast.

Over the next seven years, I worked on precisely two shows. Yes, I sold a couple pilot scripts during that time, but that didn’t make me remotely enough money to break even.

It’s hard to describe those years because they were shrouded in a thick, depressive fog. I was definitely not a lot of fun to be around. A friend of mine told me years later that she dreaded calling me back then because she could literally feel my negative energy through the phone.

Meditation to the rescue

So this is where things stood in late 2012: I was 48 years old, with a wife, two kids under the age of four and a writing career that was circling the toilet. To top it off, thanks to the 2008 financial crisis my mortgage was underwater.

If I had to sum up how I felt in one word it would be hopeless. Bottom line: I needed a break or I was going to break…

And then that break came…in the form of meditation.

Sister El to the rescue

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

But this time around I knew I couldn’t just dabble. The stakes were too big. I had to go all in.

And that meant devising a plan. A plan that got me to meditate regularly, but that was flexible enough to allow for the fact that I, like most people, am annoyingly, frustratingly human; i.e., easily distracted, undisciplined…You get the drift.

Getting your butt in the chair is everything

Because the hardest part about developing a meditation practice isn’t the actual meditating. It’s getting used to sitting your butt in the chair until it becomes a habit.

Meditation itself is uber simple. All it is is sitting quietly and placing your attention on something happening in the present moment, like your breathing. Then when your mind grabs your attention and throws you into thought, you simply notice that that has happened and bring attention back to your breathing.

Can that be difficult at times? Sure. For one reason: The human mind loves to wander. But like anything else, the more you meditate, the better you get at it.

My odyssey begins

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

Nine years later I’m still going strong, meditating for fifteen minutes a day. And what have I learned over those years? Simply this: There is nothing more beneficial for the mind, body and soul than regular meditation.

Why? Because the bulk of most people’s problems stem from constant, injurious, obsessive thinking, a disease for which meditation happens to be the antidote.

A Spiritual Pot of Gold

As for meditation’s specific benefits, I’m sure many of you have heard of the scientific studies showing that meditation helps with depression, anxiety, weight loss, chronic pain, boosting the immune system, improving focus and others, so I won’t do a deep dive on that.

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

As I was wondering how to describe this, I got to thinking that, other than me, the biggest beneficiary of my meditation has been my wife. So I thought it would be cool to just ask her straight up what she thinks it’s done for me. Here’s what she said:

“You listen to me more. You’re more patient with me and the kids. And a huge thing was it got you focused on your internal world and not so consumed by external success, which is what made you so miserable. You’re just a happier person.”

There have been other benefits, too. Rather than fuming as I wait forever in a long grocery store line, now I use that time to take some deep breaths and look out the window at the palm trees swaying in the wind. I’m calmer. Less anxious. I’m also far more compassionate and less judgmental than I used to be.

In all candor, meditation hasn’t made me perfect. I still lose it from time to time. And when I do, my wife loves nothing more than torturing me with,

“Well, I see that meditation thing is really working for ya, huh?”

Which of course results in lava exploding out the top of my head and, on a good day, a hearty laugh had by all five minutes later. But I digress…

Do it! It’s not that hard

The point of writing all this isn’t to give you my happiness rags to riches story. It’s to tell you that if I can develop a regular meditation practice, you can too. It’s not that hard. It just takes a modicum of inner resolve.

There is one critical thing I need to tell you, though: The science has proven that to realize the transformative benefits of meditation, it needs to be done regularly. Stopping in at a meditation den every week or two isn’t going to cut it.

The good news is, remember that plan I devised for my supremely imperfect self? You can get it at my website, davidgerken.net. It’s simple, doable and designed to help regular people, like me, develop a practice. It’s also free.

Give it a try. The program is eight-weeks and starts off with meditating for two minutes a day then building gradually from there. Come on, you can do anything for two minutes!

The takeaway

Here’s the bottom line: If you want to feel calmer inside, worry less and be a better spouse, partner, sibling, son, daughter, friend and overall human being, make starting a meditation practice your 2022 New Year’s Resolution.

Doing just that in 2013 is far and away the best decision I’ve ever made.

Meditation

2 Words to Simplify Your Spiritual Journey And cut down on all the confusion and overwhelm.

In my journey on the spiritual path I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by a barrage of concepts competing for attention. Am I just trying to stay present? Should I focus on non-attachment? Nonresistance? Surrender? Letting go? Relaxing into the present?

Other times I question whether I’m meditating to my fullest capability. Yes, I do it every day, but could I be going deeper? Do I need to “try” harder even though, as I’ve written previously, meditation is about the art of trying, without trying too hard?

Churning about getting it “right”

All of this can be summed up as questioning whether I’m doing this spiritualthing “right.” And what I’ve come to realize recently is that there is a better way to view the macro spiritual journey.

I’ve whittled it down to just two simple things we need to do. The first is committing to the spiritual journey. What that often requires is some knowledge of what that path entails and some experience with it.

Why? Because why would anybody embark on a journey if they didn’t have some reason to believe that the benefit of those travels would be significant?

Learning enough to want to make the journey

So we listen to the talks of Eckhart Tolle, Ram Dass, Mickey Singer and a host of other spiritual luminaries. Read some of the seminal books like Be Here Now. We start a meditation and mindfulness practice.

By doing so we get a taste of the profound good that comes with traveling this path. Once we reach that beginning level it becomes necessary to commit ourselves to doing the daily work going forward. For how long? For the rest of our lives.

Practice, practice, practice

Once we’ve made that commitment, the second and ONLY thing you need to do for the rest of your days is PRACTICE; i.e., do the work. That’s it. Commit, then practice. That’s all you need to keep in your head on an ongoing basis.

That practice, or chopping wood and carrying water as Ram Dass called it, takes different forms for different people. Regular meditation is an invaluable piece of any spiritual practice so I highly recommend that. Some people do hatha (physical) yoga, others do mantra chanting and all kinds of other spiritual practices.

Whatever the practices, their purpose is to facilitate the same process: Quieting our egoic, thought factory minds so that we can become the true, conscious beings we all are…underneath the chatter.

The point is, that’s all you have to do: Practice. And sometimes you’ll hit brick walls and feel lost in your meditation or mindfulness work. It doesn’t matter. You just keep practicing. That’s all you need to do.

Do you see how this simplifies things? Once you’ve committed, the only word you need to remember is practice.

Practice involves struggle, and that’s okay

Sure, there will be times when you wonder about and struggle with all the things I mentioned at the top — non-attachment, nonresistance, meditation technique, etc.; that’s okay, you just work through it. It’s part of practicing.

It’s a continuous, gradual, incremental process producing gains and advances that don’t normally slap us in the face with miraculous epiphanies.

“Oh my God, I just felt an earth-shattering shift in my consciousness! YES!!!”

Those occurrences are rare.

It’s not like, for instance, lifting weights where, a week into your program you can actually see and feel that your biceps are buffing up.

“Hey, I feel calmer now.”

Progress on the spiritual path is far more intangible and ineffable. After a while we just notice that we feel a bit calmer. Less irritated. More patient. And hopefully more compassionate, the ultimate benefit this work bestows on the universe.

Why do I mention all this about progress on the path and how it manifests? Because it fortifies the notion that all we need to do is practice. And the growth will come, on its own mysterious and intangible terms.

So practice. And keep going. There’s nothing else to think about or ponder or wrestle with.

Just keep practicing.

The takeaway

Commit, then practice. That’s all you have to do. Keep those two at the forefront and you’ll eliminate a ton of second-guessing, confusion and overwhelm.

Meditation

Nonattachment: The Big Kahuna of Spirituality — So Hard, but so Worth the Work

In April of 2015, my brother and I went to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. I’m an avid golf fan and the Masters is the premiere tournament and the only of the four majors that are played on the same course every year. For decades I had been viewing that iconic course, the Augusta National Golf Club, on television.

In 2015 I actually got to walk the course. I saw the treacherous tee shot on the par 3 12th hole, the brutal second shot down the hill on the long par 4 11th, and “the shoot” of tall pine trees that players have to drive the ball through on the 18th and final hole. I was in heaven.

Mining for Masters merchandise

One of the best benefits of attending the Masters in person is the ability to buy hats, shirts and all sorts of paraphernalia at the gift shop. It’s the only time of year and the only place where this swag can be purchased.

I bought a bunch of things, mostly to give to friends and family. One thing I bought for myself was a Masters mug. And this is where we finally come to the concept of non-attachment.

First, a CYA disclaimer. Non-attachment is a vast, profound subject that is impossible to do justice in a short article. This is my best shot.

Back to our regularly scheduled program. I treasured that mug for six years, keeping it in the freezer as my go-to glass for a nice, cold beer or my favorite post-workout drink, seltzer water with a slice of lemon. I took good care of it, always mindful of its safety as I drank from it, rinsed it and put it in the dishwasher.

My mug mishap

Then last month disaster struck. The freezer-induced, icy bottom caused my precious Masters mug to slide off the counter and smash into a zillion pieces.

How I reacted is a case study in the concept of non-attachment. The short answer is I took it well. And I’m convinced that the reason I did is because of all the spiritual work I’ve done over the past ten years.

So what is non-attachment? It’s about not becoming attached to worldly concerns. What constitutes a worldly concern? A glass mug with a Masters insignia certainly qualifies.

At its most basic, it’s about the fact that things constantly arise and pass away in life. From little things like buying a mug and six years later it shattering into oblivion to big things like we’re born, we live and then we die.

The impermanent nature of life

The Buddhists call this phenomenon impermanence. Nothing lasts forever. Things come and go. Constantly.

So the spiritual life becomes about being present for all these things that come and go. We experience them and let them go.

We coexist with and embrace this reality of the impermanent nature of life. Why? Because it IS reality.

What NOT to do

What we don’t do is experience things and events and then become attached to them. The Buddhists call it clinging and it’s what they believe is the root cause of suffering.

But you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to realize this as truth. We regular spiritual mortals can see how clinging/attachment plays out in our own lives.

Sure, I did well with the Masters mug misfortune. And I’m good now with things like which restaurant to go to. Which movie to see. I make it a point now to not be attached to any of these things. My stock answer now is, “I’m easy. Wherever you want to eat. Whatever you want to see.”

I find it incredibly freeing. It makes me feel lighter when I don’t attach myself to things needing to be just so.

My embarrassing attachments

That said, I’m still light years away from mastering non-attachment. Here is just one of many embarrassing examples of how that is true.

Since my college, Princeton, has a lousy football team, I’ve adopted my wife’s alma mater, Louisiana State University (LSU), as the team I root for. The LSU Tigers have won three national championships in the past twenty years and are a powerhouse program. I absolutely love watching them play.

The problem is that I lose my shit when they do badly. It literally puts me in a funk. I know, embarrassing.

“It’s only a game!”

But I’m working on it. I will literally say to myself, when a big play is on the line, “Just breathe smoothly. It’s a game. Things will be how they’ll be. Let go.”

This has worked reasonably well, even through an absolutely atrocious 2021 season. But I still catch myself getting angry when some twenty-year old quarterback hangs onto the ball too long and gets sacked.

This example, silly as it is, leads to an enormously important and vexing question about attachment, and spirituality in general: Is the answer that I’m not supposed to care? About LSU football? Masters mugs? Italian or Mexican restaurant?

Shouldn’t I care about my kids?

Those are small potatoes examples of attachments. But what about bigger attachments? Like the ones I have with my three kids? Am I supposed to not care about my kids? What does non-attachment look like in that area? Now you see why my title included the phrase ‘so hard.’

Ram Dass is the teacher who I feel has the best answer to this question. What he would say is that any attachment emanates from the ego and as such is an impediment to liberation.

Conversely, non-attachment comes from a place of conscious presence. And the power and depth coming from that place is vastly stronger and deeper than anything that can possibly spring from the ego.

So when we cling to and attach ourselves to our kids, for example, what they’re getting from us is infinitely less powerful than if we approached them from a place of non-attachment.

It’s about presence over clinging

Getting back to the original question, then, does non-attachment mean we don’t careabout our kids? Of course not. It means that we treat them not from a place of fear and clinging, but from a field of spacious presence.

How does this manifest in real life? Let’s say your kid is heading off to college. The attached, and, frankly, normal parent, would freak out about any number of things. Will junior be okay away from home? Will I be okay with junior out of the nest?

The non-attached parent would exude a sturdy sense of calm. She’d still do everything she could to prepare him — helping him pack, getting him there, etc. But the love she showered on her son would come from a deep and powerful place that transcends fear and attachment, thus making it far more valuable to junior.

I can imagine some of you right now are saying, “F___ YOU! Easier said than done, pal!” I couldn’t agree more. I’m right there with you in feeling that this would be brutally hard.

The takeaway

But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work toward non-attachment. How do we do that? We continually let go of ourselves and practice the techniques like meditation and mindfulness that help us become more present.

Why is presence so important? Because when we’re present, we don’t feel the need to attach or cling to things like Masters mugs, what restaurant we’re going to or even the well-being of our kids. We experience what life throws our way from a place of presence, then we let those experiences go and treat the next one and the one after that, ad infinitum, the same way.

That’s the spiritual path. No one said it was easily trod. But it’s worth the hard work.

Good luck on your journey.

Oh, and one last thing…

Go Tigers!

Meditation

Thomas Merton: If You Want to Help the World, Work on Yourself

Several of the great spiritual leaders I’ve studied these past several years have commented on the subject of, for lack of a better word, activism. For our purposes, let’s define that generally as people desiring to make the world a better place.

From Eckhart Tolle to Michael Singer to Ram Dass, they all say roughly the same thing: Prioritize getting your inner house in order over changing the world.

The person who captured this idea most eloquently was the late, great Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote:

If you want to pull a drowning man out of the water, you have to have some support yourself. Suppose somebody is drowning and you are standing on a rock, you can do it; or supposing you can support yourself by swimming, you can do it. There is nothing to be gained by simply jumping in the water and drowning with him.(The Asian Journal, 341)

What he’s saying is that if you want to save the whales or hold the world corporate oligarchy to account or ban all assault weapons or any number of activist endeavors, you need to strengthen your insides to be of effective service. Otherwise, you and those you’re trying to help will both drown.

One area where the airlines are spot on

Oddly enough, the airlines also get this one right. In the event of an emergency, we need to put our oxygen mask on first and then take care of our five year old. We’re of no help to our child if we pass out trying to put their mask on first.

Activism that comes from a place of strong inner presence is far more effective and successful than that springing from unconscious, egoic motivation. For proof, look no further than what I would call the two most successful activists of the last 100 years, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The power of Gandhi

Gandhi pursued nonviolent, civil disobedience in fighting for independence from the oppressive, colonial rule of Great Britain in India. He wasn’t angry or violent in his activism. He was calm, measured and persistent.

He was a deeply spiritual man who meditated extensively beginning in his early 20s. My favorite story about Gandhi is about the day he woke up and said to himself,

“I have so much work to do today that I’m going to need to meditate for two hours instead of one.”

He knew that the inner strength that comes with getting quiet inside (i.e., meditation) was essential to his work. It’s no surprise then that Gandhi is the one who originally said,

Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed heavily from the Gandhi playbook in his nonviolent approach to civil rights reform. He even said that Gandhi was a guiding light for him.

More important was what lay behind the nonviolent strategy. MLK was also a strongly spiritual man. While he had every reason to be angry about how black people in America had been treated for hundreds of years, he didn’t allow that to be his motivating emotion. The result was magnificent success.

And that’s the point. Changing the world from a place of strong, inner presence simply works better. Orders of magnitude better. Because the power unleashed from a place of presence is limitless. Eckhart Tolle would call it the power of now, the name of his bestselling book.

The takeaway

So what’s the upshot of all this? If you want to do good things in the world, work on yourself. Meditate, practice mindfulness, let go of your egoic self, do yoga, do therapy…Whatever works for you. Though I will say that meditation is absolutely transformative so I’d definitely put that in your inner work repertoire.

And I’m not saying that changing the world is only about joining Greenpeace or Antifa or Doctors Without Borders. Most activism occurs locally. The PTA, your church, the Rotary Club. The same principle applies. You will be more effective and have a more positive impact on the PTA the more self-realized you are.

In fact, it’s even more local than that. Because most people have their biggest effect on the world in how they deal with their family, friends and colleagues. And again, the more conscious and present we are, the more salutary the benefit we bestow on our kids, spouse, siblings, friends and coworkers.

Long story short: The best gift we can give the world is to awaken into presence. It’s also the best gift we can give ourselves.

Meditation

Simplify Your Life by Looking at Everything Through This One Lens

Let’s face it, life is complicated. How we choose to live our lives is really complicated. What do I mean?

Should I focus on making the world a better place? Or should I focus on kicking butt in my career? Or maybe I should put all my eggs into the spiritual awakening basket. Or should I place all of those behind being a great dad, husband and friend? Or should I work hard to find the perfect balance among all these paths?

Keep it simple

It gets complicated, confusing, frustrating and mentally exhausting. As such, I’m always looking for ways to simplify how I lead my life.

Here’s one way to try on for size. How about looking at each moment of your life with this idea in mind: “I want to make this moment better for it having been put in front of me.”

That’s it. All you’re doing is going through life with that one idea front and center. Serving your moments. How would that play out? Here are a few relatable examples.

To flip off, or not to flip off

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit I comment on often: Driving. Someone cuts you off in traffic, forcing you to hit the brakes. In that moment you could lean on your horn, scream in your car and flip them off.

OR, you could stay calm and throw the offending driver a look of “No big whoop. I’m good.” Choose the latter and, because that moment was put in front of you, that moment was better.

Or maybe your spouse or significant other gets home from work, clearly exhausted and in a bad mood. They start nagging or complaining. “The kitchen sure looks clean. Did you have a party I wasn’t invited to?”

How are you going to make this moment better for you having been a part of it? By saying, “Oh, go F&%K yourself.” Then grabbing your glass of wine, storming into your bedroom and watching three episodes of Game of Thrones?

Or you could say, “You’re exhausted. Why don’t you get a glass of wine and chill out.”

You could also try the humorous path my mom often took when my dad was a grouch. She’d sing the old Nat King Cole classic, “Stay as sweet as you are, don’t ever change.”

Serving our work moments

How do we serve our moments at work? If we’re writing a memo on first quarter sales strategy, we summon all of our attention and effort into writing that memo. And nothing else. That’s how those moments are best served by us.

How do we serve those moments where nothing is going on? In other words, when we’re bored. We serve those moments by staying in the moment and not drifting off into egoic thought.

The takeaway

Of course what this really is is a way to frame your life in a way that gives primacy to staying present and in the moment. And the secret is that merely being present is, in itself, the way we best serve the moments that come before us.

Consider giving this a try. Experiment with it. Maybe designate one full day where you devote all of your will and attention to making the moments that come before you better because you were in them.

Meditation

A Tao Te Ching Passage That Illuminates the Spiritual Path

Written by Lao Tzu over 2,500 years ago, the Tao te Ching is my favorite book of wisdom. The fact that its insights ring true all these millennia later shows just how timeless it is.

While I love the entire book, there are a few passages that resonate the most. One of them is from Chapter 3:

Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.”

The key to the passage is the phrase ‘not-doing.’ What does Lao Tzu mean by that?

I interpret not-doing as synonymous with being. When we are simply being, we are present in the moment.

Not-doing means not getting trapped in ego

Just as important is where we aren’t when we are not-doing. We aren’t stuck in our heads with our attention hijacked by our thought factory minds. We’re not trapped in the clutches of our avaricious, drama loving egos.

The second half of the passage resonates most with me. “…everything will fall into place.” Why is that so important?

Because Lao Tzu is saying that all we need to do in life is be present. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself. I believe this to my core.

Teddy Roosevelt’s focus-on-the-moment credo

This has myriad applications to how we conduct our lives. I’ll throw out a random anecdote about how this applies to our working lives. It comes from my favorite American president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt prided himself on throwing everything he had into the work at hand. Whether it was rounding up cattle in the Badlands of Dakota Territory in his mid-20s or negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), he gave 110 percent only to what he was working on at the moment.

Unlike most politicians, then and now, Roosevelt did NOT allow his attention to stray to things like scheming and schmoozing his way up the political ladder. He practiced being present on the work at hand and knew that the rest would take care of itself. Which it did. In spades.

I’ve worked hard these past several years to follow this simple credo I created for myself:

Be present and trust in life.

That second part about trust is essential. Why? Because most people get stuck in their heads and think and worry all the time for a reason. At some level, we believe that if we DON’T worry, about our bills, jobs, careers, etc., our lives will collapse into ruin.

So training our attention only on the present, and not worrying/thinking incessantly, requires some trust that doing so is in our best interests. The good news is that the more we do live in the present, and reap all the gold that that inevitably begets, the easier it gets to trust in that mode of living.

Practice, practice, practice

And how do we get better at not-doing/being/presence? Look no further than the first word of Lao Tzu’s passage: Practice. Notice that he doesn’t tell us to simply be present and everything will fall into place. He tells us to practice being present.

How do we practice not-doing? We meditate. Regularly. And we practice mindfulness throughout our days.

Chop the wood and carry the water

We commit ourselves to, as Ram Dass called it, chopping wood and carrying water in our spiritual practices. Slow and steady. Gradual progress. It’s not about meditating for fifty hours at a weeklong retreat. It’s about meditating for fifteen minutes a day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

When we do this, sooner or later we see that all this practicing of not-doing results in things falling into place in our lives. That’s been my experience.

It can be yours, too.

Meditation

The Question to Ask Yourself When a Stressful Situation Arises

In listening to a talk by my favorite spiritual teacher Mickey Singer this morning, I heard a fantastic nugget. It was the question Mickey recommends we ask anytime we face an adverse situation.

Let’s take a minor, relatable example. You’re driving on a two lane road, a few minutes late to pick up your kid at school, and you find yourself behind a car that is doing 25 MPH in a 35 MPH zone. It’s annoying as hell. Your energy starts flowing down to your lower self and you feel that stressful, ragey bile start to gurgle.

What Mickey says we should ask ourselves at that very moment is this:

“Is getting stressed about this situation doing me any good?”

In this example, I can think of not one good thing that comes with getting all bent out of shape because the driver is going slow. Absolutely nothing good comes from that. You feel bad and the situation doesn’t change one iota.

The truck that didn’t show up

Just yesterday, my wife and I put two large pieces of furniture and three big rugs out in our driveway for the city to come pick up and take away. We made an appointment weeks ago and they were supposed to come yesterday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

They didn’t come. My wife called and they said they had no idea why no one came. And they won’t be able to come again until Thursday. So we now have to lug all that stuff back into our garage, then put it out again early Thursday.

Do I find that annoying? You bet. Does it do me one nano-ounce of good to get worked up about it? No. It’s all pain and no gain.

Finding my clothes in the sink

One more. I put my clothes on the bedroom floor the other day when I went to workout. When I got back, I found that my wife had put my clothes in the bathroom sink. Did it do me any good to blow up at her about this? No. (Though I must admit I’ve been having fun planning my retaliatory strike!)

Granted, these are small potatoes examples. But the truth is, it doesn’t do any good to blow up at bigger stuff, either. In all situations it’s in our best interest to lean away and watch how we feel rather than take the bait and fly down south to our lower selves, which love nothing more than a good, dramatic brawl. It’s about staying present in the midst of emotional upset.

The key to this whole idea is that we’re giving ourselves a choice. Most people don’t see it in these stark terms. All they see is: annoying thing happens, go down the rabbit hole, get upset.

It’s about realizing we have a CHOICE

What this is about is stopping ourselves in these situations and saying, “I have a choice here. Get upset and feel lousy OR don’t get upset and feel okay.” It’s a no-brainer.

So what do we do to divert our attention away from going down the rabbit hole of egoic insanity? Mickey counts. Seriously.

The driver ahead is going too slow and he says, “One, two, three, four, five…” He simply diverts his attention to something OTHER than the slow driving. It works for him.

I like to go to my breathing. Just long, slow, deep breaths…until the urge to go south has passed. Do whatever works for you.

The takeaway

The bottom line is that the greatest power we humans can exert is that of deciding where our attention goes. We can decide to get pointlessly pissed off at a slow driver or we can place our attention on our breathing.

All Mickey Singer’s question does is give us a tool for framing that choice, a choice most people don’t even realize they have.