Buddhists philosophers begin their quest for a good life with a counter-intuitive observation. They notice, simply, that life kinda sucks.1 They then ask, “So if life sucks, WTF should we do about it?”
Earlier this year I found an amazing answer.
Jack Kornfield, one of my meditation teachers, studied with the late Achaan Chah, a revered forest monk from Thailand. In “A Still Forest Pool,” Jack collects Achaan’s core teachings. One of Achaan’s lessons has been on my mind for months,
“There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If you are not willing to face the second kind of suffering, you will surely continue to experience the first.”
It’s worth slowing down and reading that again. It offers one of the clearest paths to a better life that I’ve ever seen. The idea is so simple and so beautiful: since pain is inevitable, we might as well experience it productively.
Feeling pissed at your partner? You could wall yourself off and pretend everything’s ok, or you could talk about it.
Feeling depressed? You could spark a joint and drift away, or you could reach out to a friend.
We can go on with examples profound (working to overcome addiction) and mundane (opting in to a kettlebell workout), but the idea remains the same: our goal is to feel the right type of pain.
The tricky part is that both paths have their appeal.
The walls, weed, and junk food are easier than their alternatives, at least in the moment. Sometimes they are the right choices too; there are days when I just don’t have the stamina to deal with life’s shit head on.
But there’s a catch. Avoiding our problems tends to make us worse for wear. When we take this path, the disconnection, depression, and shame reappear far sooner than we expect. This is the type of suffering that leads to more suffering. It’s easier for a few hours, but it tends to perpetuate our problems.
But having a hard conversation, asking for comfort, and getting a therapist is hard. They require true vulnerability and effort. Yet, with time, these choices free us from pain, and often more quickly than expected. This is the type of suffering that leads to the end of suffering. Even though it’s harder in the beginning it almost always pays off.
There is no avoiding the bullshit and dissatisfaction of life (trust me, I’ve tried). The best we can do is learn to work with it skillfully. It helps to slow down and ask, “Am I just shifting my pain away from the moment and into the future? Or am I meaningfully working to end it?” In both cases we have to deal with the affliction. It’s just that in the latter case we eventually become free of it.
Every few years I pause to ask myself, “What are the best five moments of my life?”
I love this question. It’s nice to revisit the bright spots, especially when there’s so much darkness in the world. The answers tend to be illuminating too. You might expect that the big moments are also the ones that make life worth living. But often, they’re not. At least not for me.
When I reflect on my favorite moments, I don’t get caught up in the professional milestones I worked on for years or the status symbols I coveted.
Instead, I notice the quieter moments. The time my brother and I were able to control the rain (don’t ask) or when he surprised me with tickets to see Borat. I think about a glass of champagne with M* on a perfect, late summer evening in grad school. Or the weekend in the Shenandoah mountains with my college friends. The time Cranium got way too out of hand with my parents. Or the night we stole (and then returned) the canoe and crashed a party on the other side of the lake. Stuff like that.
It strikes me that life’s relentless speed, stress, and ennui risks washing these experiences away, unnoticed and forgotten until I pause to pay attention. When you have a moment, it’s worth slowing down to ask yourself, “What were the five best moments of my life?” Spend some time with your journal searching for and revisiting them. I like to write them out in my journal. You might also ask, “Am I living my life in a way that creates the opportunity for more moments like these? If not, what are the small things I can do to make them more common?”
When the pandemic hit I began offering free live-online meditation classes every Monday night through July of 2020.
You can find recordings of these classes and guided meditations below.
Before you dive in, two quick warnings:
1) I am new to teaching. Though I’ve been meditating daily for well over a decade, I only started studying how to teach meditation last year. My training is overseen by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, and I have an excellent mentoring teacher…but I’m still learning!
As you listen to these recordings, there are times when it’s obvious I’m searching for the groove and experimenting with style. Think of it as the training wheels phase.
2) I am aware that the sound quality could be better. The plan was to start teaching meditation in September, but given all that’s going on in the world, I figured it would be best to start teaching now. That means that I didn’t have time to create a high quality audio setup before I started teaching (though this will change in the future).
With those caveats aside, please enjoy. I’ll add to the archives as new recordings become available. If you’re looking for a place to start, the class and guided meditation on forgiveness seemed to strike a chord.
In 2016 I wrote a post titled, “Calling my shot.” In it, I committed to valuing authenticity and service over vanity metrics and popularity. At the time I worked as a speaker.
Since then I closed several financially successful businesses (more here) and learned to tame my inner demons (see here and here). I went to grad school (more here) and enrolled in a two-year certification program to become a meditation teacher (check it out here).
Today I’m a registered psychotherapist and in the process of being certified to teach meditation.
I was trying to untangle two core issues that hindered me as a writer:
I’m not the guy I was when I started this blog. The darkness that inspired some of my most popular posts doesn’t grip me like it used to.
While I was in school, I realized that writing about the human condition, mental health, and spirituality in a way that is valuable, true, and responsible is extremely difficult.
We don’t actually know that much about psychology. Though there are endless studies that appear to be statistically significant, their reproducibility rate is an abysmal 36% (Open Science Collaboration 2015).
Further, what helps some people heal and flourish can be harmful or a waste of time for a different person in a similar situation.
While this isn’t a problem in a therapeutic setting where the therapist and client interact, it is a problem for writers.
Suddenly, I found myself stuck. I struggled to thread the needle of true, helpful, responsible, engaging, and worth your time.
Should I write from personal experience? Should I write based on what the latest studies say? Is it ok to write about things that seem to work even though they haven’t been heavily researched? How do I factor in the myriad research considerations (reproducibility rates, applicability across different intersections, controls for various researcher and publication biases, etc.)? What about the ancestral wisdom that clashes with materialist perspectives? What about the clinical stuff that counselors swear by, but researchers fail to validate? What about the stuff that has an amazing research base but just doesn’t seem to work in the real world (CBT, I’m looking at you…).
Everything felt so grey to me. I agonized over this problem for months, before landing on a simple solution: I’m going to embrace the grey.
I love writing about the intersection of psychology, inner game, spirituality, and philosophy even though they often fail to agree on first principles.
I love writing for the artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, executives, students, misfits and rascals who want to face their demons, live vividly flourishing lives, help others, and stare unflinchingly into the void while making an ill-timed joke. It’s an embarrassment of riches that y’all read my shit.
We’re living through an era that no longer values traditional credentialing or expertise. This is a dangerous and misguided trend. With that in mind, I aim to hold my work to a higher standard.
Moving forward I will explain what type of article you’re reading and where the evidence for its potential effectiveness comes from. Life experience? Clinical experience? Philosophy? Ancestral wisdom? Research? A mashup? When I lean heavily on the research, I’ll cite my sources. When making controversial claims about health, healing, and flourishing, I’ll engage a peer review process similar to those used in traditional journals.
My goal is to share what I’ve learned as a clinician, a meditation teacher, and a dude in a t-shirt while also doing my due diligence.
As before, I plan to place all of my chips on the following bet: I will do the best work I can, make it accessible and trust that worthwhile things will materialize.
This is overdue and I’m ashamed of that. And I acknowledge that I’m not in a position to meaningfully advance the conversation.
But still, silence is far worse than tardiness, so I’ll state it plainly: I stand with the people who want to end white supremacy, structural oppression, systemic violence, and the blatant racism that plagues much of this country and its people.
There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken, a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy, and a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space too vast for words through which we pass with each loss, out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open to the place inside that is unbreakable and whole.”
– Rashani Réa
– 1 –
There are forgotten truths about the human experience and society.
We’ve been led to believe that we’re less capable and less resilient than we truly are.
There is a part of you – of all of us – that knows how to get through this. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.
Beneath the pain, fear, and uncertainty we know how to get through this, how to get back up, and how to flourish in the eye of the storm.
We can wake that part up.
– 2 –
First, you need to stop fighting against the darkness. To deny your deepest and most complex feelings is to become both victim and aggressor.
Instead, allow yourself to feel the things you’ve been longing to avoid.
Ask yourself, bravely, “What is standing between me and greater well-being?” Of course, we know some of the easy answers: the virus, uncertainty, stay at home measures, an economy in tailspin.
But those aren’t the answers we’re looking for. We want the feelings beneath those concerns: the fear, the confusion and smallness, the lack of preparation or ability, the sense of being unloved or unlovable, and/or the specter of death and loss.
Surrendering to whatever is true for you is the first step to rekindling the strength and clarity that so many of us have been tricked into forgetting.
Then, simply ask, “Can I be with this feeling?”
You may be surprised to find that the answer is a calm and stable yes. Stay with that yes for a moment. Recognize that your fears do not own you.
– 3 –
Next, we come together to help one another.
This is trickier now than it used to be. It feels like there is only so much we can do from the confines of our homes. And many of us are more afraid of other people than we ever were before.
So we must learn to distance our bodies but not our hearts.
We ask an elderly neighbor if we can pick up food or prescriptions. We check in with our friends and family who have been struggling. We donate a bit of our money to people who need it more than we do. If we have a skill that can help others, we offer it.
We thank the countless medical professionals, delivery and mail people, law enforcement officers, people providing food and working on the supply chain, scientists, reporters, and others who are risking their well-being to keep the world running. We thank the people who stay at home and share their resources.
We mourn with the people who have lost loved ones, who have fallen ill, and who don’t know how they’ll pay rent or buy food. We do our best to lend an ear and to shoulder some of the burden.
– 4 –
Finally, we treat ourselves with compassion. We take breaks from the pain before we need to. We watch a movie, sleep in, lower the bar, smoke a joint, go for a walk, whatever. We accept that some days are going to be better than others and that there’s nothing really wrong with us. We’re just getting used to it.
Just as we must find the courage to stare it all in the eye, we must also find the compassion to take a break.
And when it feels like the darkness just won’t abate, we ask for help and call a friend or a professional.
None of us will get through this alone, so reach out. Check in on old friends, your family, and colleagues, because we are all affected by uncertainty and history in the making.
We only ever heal and we only ever persevere together.
I’m taking a few months off from writing for this blog.
I’ll be back in the spring / summer of 2020.
The long version, part 1: I need to dedicate time to projects in the works
I finish grad school in May to become a therapist. After that I’ll be launching new projects, including:
Live-online groups to help people develop self-love and self-compassion
One-on-one consultation to help individuals understand the mechanics of their mind, address blind spots in their psychology, and work to live at the edge of their happiness, connection, and success
An in-person event (potentially)
All of these projects will be built around evidence-based practices and will live at the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and philosophy. They won’t be for everyone – or even most people – but for the right person, they’ll be transformative.
Updates and applications for all of the new projects will go out to my mailing list before they are posted here. If you haven’t already, I’d be honored if you considered signing up for the mailing list here.
The long version part 2: I need to go back to the drawing board
I’m taking a break from this blog for a few additional reasons…
1) Many of the most loved articles on this blog, especially those in the first year or two, came from places of darkness.
On the other hand, I think that most people who turn to self-help and personal development (both practitioners and providers) are deluding themselves; they don’t need a clever book, article, podcast, or coaching business – they need a therapist.
All of us are wounded and many of our wounds need another person’s care, attention, and perspective to heal. I wish we could bypass it, but I don’t think we really can.
As far as I can tell, true flourishing works like this:
1) First, you work to address the core wounds that hold you back from your true self. This almost always requires the assistance of someone else, and it may require medication too as you work to get your life together. Note that many people (myself included) will spend countless years of their lives ignoring the reality that we can’t heal alone.
3) Finally, as you gain possession of your life and develop comfort in your skin, you work to unfetter your heart and mind. This is where personal development really comes in.
Of course, none of these steps exist in isolation, nor are they perfectly linear. However, it’s extremely difficult to flourish when you’re still being controlled by your demons. When I started this blog, I thought self-help was the first, and maybe only step. I no longer believe that and want to take some time to think about what that might mean for me as a writer.
3) I don’t want to play in the sandbox anymore. Real talk for a second: 99% of the influence industry is gross. (By influence industry, I mean speakers, coaches, podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, social media influencers, etc.).
So many of the people involved with churning out content are doing it for the wrong reasons. They say they just want to help people, but in reality, they’re looking for validation. They say that they know how to build a business and will teach you, but in reality the only business they’ve ever built is teaching you how to build a business. And don’t get me started on the army of influencers trying to help others lead vibrant lives while privately struggling to keep their own heads above water.
Even really good people with pure intentions and strong work ethics still fuck it up. Something I didn’t fully understand until I went to grad school is that unless the person is a trained expert or a researcher, they almost certainly have no idea what they’re talking about and are confusing anecdotal evidence for science.
Reading a scientific paper and understanding its applicability is deceptively difficult. Before you even get out of the gate, you need to have a decent grasp of statistics and the science behind research. There’s a huge difference between a prospective study with 22 participants and an experimental design with 50,000. Yet, both can be published in credible, peer reviewed journals.
Crazier still: just because something is published, well designed, peer reviewed, and statistically compelling doesn’t mean that it can be reproduced. In fact, a shocking number of studies – especially in psychology – can’t be reproduced. Of course, most successful influencers don’t concern themselves with any of this (even though many pretend to).
So the problem boils down to this:
Much of the best science around psychology is shaky, irritatingly nuanced, and difficult to fully understand.
Many of the most qualified people to help us understand the research don’t work in public or haven’t put in the effort to make themselves and their work engaging.
Many of the people working in the influence industry are unaware that they lack the expertise to actually understand (let alone communicate) what they’re talking about; by the looks of it, many can’t even differentiate anecdotal from empirical evidence. However, unlike most experts, they’ve learned to be amazing at marketing their stuff.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in the influence industry are motivated by validation, vanity metrics, fame, and money, not ensuring that what they say is true and useful.1
So we have a problem. The stuff that gets rewarded online is overly simplistic and often straight up wrong or incredibly misleading. The content that’s evidence based and useful is nuanced, long, and at times dry AF. One is Laffy Taffy, the other is a poorly made kale salad.
Can this problem be solved? Certainly. There is a way to write about science that is both engaging and helpful, but again, I want to think about what that looks like for me and for the people who trust me enough to read my work.
So, with all of that in mind, it’s time to take a break. I want to integrate everything I’ve learned in grad school and figure out how to meaningfully – and responsibly – contribute to the conversation around mental health and personal growth. I’ll be back in a few months. Until then be well!
2019 was a year lived in the extremes. On one hand, for the first time ever, I feel firmly on my path. I experienced a flow, joy, and ease of life that used to be alien. On the other hand, returning to school has been tedious and extremely time consuming. Far worse, five people close to me died.
As always, I’ll end the year with a personal review of what I learned, what went poorly, and what went well in 2019. I’ve also added a section on my favorite books of the year. (If you really want to see what’s changed, these are my reviews of 2016, 2017, and 2018).
It is life’s imperfections that make it beautiful: in October I flew to Virginia to officiate a close friend’s wedding. I worked for months on the ceremony and was proud to deliver it, especially since my new girlfriend was going to be there, too. As I started to say, “I now pronounce you man and wife” the bride interrupted me, saying, “I want my ring!”
First, I was confused. Then, my stomach twisted in knots. Despite months of preparation I forgot the part where the bride and groom exchange rings. Yeah, that part. The part that the entire ceremony builds to. I literally walked off stage, half as a joke, and half because I needed to recompose myself before completing the ceremony.
Earlier this week I hung out with the bride and groom. They were recently interviewed for an article about their wedding. When the interviewer asked, “What was your favorite part of the wedding?” they responded, “The officiant forgetting the exchange of rings. It was funny and it reminded us that life doesn’t need to be perfect to be beautiful and fun. It also made our wedding unique.”
Life is a lot better when you’re on your path: changing careers and going back to school while still working full time is the opposite of fun, and huge parts of 2019 were defined by things I disliked. And yet, I found myself mostly feeling happy and playful. I think this happened because I took the time to find the right path for me, and then did the hard work of redirecting…everything… so I could step onto it. Not only did I feel happy against the odds, I had one of my most successful years in business ever which I suspect is an artifact of getting on the right path.
How to be a productivity wunderkid: More than anything, 2019 was defined by a relentless stream of work. I took on:
An accelerated Masters program to become a therapist that requires 66 credits and 1200 internship hours
A 2.5-year training in Buddhist psychology and meditation that requires multiple practicums and retreats
A full client load all year long
In any given week I had limited hours of free time. To pull it all off I focused intensely on the basics. I:
Stopped using social media as a form of distraction or entertainment (article on how to do this coming in 2020)
Spent 45 minutes meditating 6 mornings / week
Made sleep a priority
Hit the gym at least 2x / week
Developed a strong organization system
Attempted to take one full day off every week (I succeeded at this less than 50% of the time)
The real trick to productivity isn’t some fancy hack, it’s getting the basics right. Everything else flows from there.
Sometimes you have to move down if you want to move up: 2019 created a weird dual reality between my professional and academic life. As a consultant I worked with some of the most esteemed and recognizable people of my career. But when I wasn’t doing that, I was a student and unpaid intern.
In one half of my life I was treated like an expert whose time was valued. In the other half, I was treated as a beginner whose time was worth little to nothing.
It was harder to keep feet in both worlds than I expected, and it was extremely humbling.
And yet…there’s no other way.
I have no desire to pretend to be an expert on mental health. I want to be able to read and produce the research that shapes the field. I want to be able to implement evidence-based practices with precision and style. I want a licensure board and world class supervisor holding me accountable. Doing that requires going back to school. And while the academic path is slow and tedious, I’m absorbing tons of important stuff along the way that will make me a much better therapist, researcher, and innovator.
WHERE I MESSED UP
Five people I cared deeply about died this year. Five. I miss you.
Many of my relationships floundered. The demonic levels of productivity in 2019 came at a cost. I spent less time with my family, friends, and my girlfriend than I wanted to. I have a perpetual backlog of unreturned calls, voicemails, and emails from people I adore.
Though I’ve done my best to communicate that my absence is a reflection of the career change and not apathy, I worry that I’ve been gone too long. The busyness ends in May of 2020 which is when I intend to make up for lost time in my relationships, though it feels shitty now. Sorry guys. I love you. Forgive me.
This blog. Woof. I published fewer articles in 2019 than any other year. Instead, the majority of my writing time was spent on papers for school. While this is a necessary evil, and one that I won’t need to deal with after May, I still miss writing here. Thank you for your patience.
WHAT WENT WELL
Business. This was my best year as a consultant, by far. Most of my competitors missed a significant shift in the market last year. I didn’t. Consequently, my clients soared while my competitor’s clients flagged. That feels good.
I also made a subtle change to how I decide whether or not to work with a client or not. I ask myself: do I adore this person? Am I confident I can knock it out of the park for them? If the answer to either of these questions is “no” then I don’t take them on as a client. This strategy has worked extremely well.
For those of you in the beginning stages of your business, keep in mind that this is a late stage strategy. I started working for myself by doing 100 cold calls/week and charging less than my competitors. The trick is to consistently do your best, always strive to improve, be honest, and be fun to work with. Start there and things will go well.
Meditation teacher training. Holy shit has this been cool. I’ve learned more about the mind and the spirit than I ever imagined possible, and I’m not even halfway done. Of course, this is largely due to my teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, as well as my teaching mentor P*. While there have been countless highlights from the training, two stand out:
1) RAIN partners. RAIN stands for Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nurture. It’s a psycho-spiritual approach to identifying the blocks in your life and weakening their hold. While you could do this practice on your own, it’s more powerful with a partner. I started doing RAIN meditations every other week(ish) with a guy friend and can’t recommend it enough. It’s transformative. Instead of attempting to explain the process myself, I’ll let my teacher Tara do so here.
2) In October I started teaching meditation classes in Denver’s jails. Doing so has been one of the most educational and rewarding things I’ve ever done. While my thinking on working with incarcerated people is still developing, I will tell you this: the punitive approach to criminal justice is cruel and almost certainly deleterious to everyone involved.
Vacation! I took a real vacation this year for the first time in four years! I went to a small surf town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. I left my computer at home, kept my phone off, and spent my days sleeping, reading, surfing, journaling, and walking along the beach. The world slowed down. Eating a popsicle or taco felt like a spiritual experience. If you haven’t been on a real vacation in a while, do yourself a favor and prioritize one in 2020. You deserve it.
BEST BOOKS OF 2019
Most years I read a lot of psychology and spirituality, but this year, between grad school and meditation teacher training, I was drawn in different directions. In no particular order, my favorite books of 2019:
The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson: I spent a huge amount of time in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, and OMG is it amazing. The series starts with “The Way of Kings” and continues across 2.5 other books with several more in the works. My personal favorite so far is “Words of Radiance”, but honestly, every book in this series is great. If you’re a fantasy fan this series is a must read.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare: earlier this year M* and I saw “Sleep No More” (if you find yourself in NYC, I highly, highly recommend). In preparation I read Macbeth. Though I remember hating Shakespeare in high school, I loved Macbeth. Turns out Shakespeare is pretty legit. Who knew?! Protip: if you’re like me and struggle to read Shakespearean English check out “No Fear Shakespeare”. It makes understanding the text infinitely easier.
What it Takes: How I Built a $100,000,000 Empire Against the Odds by Raegan Moya-Jones. I don’t read many business books anymore; they’re mostly redundant. However, “What it Takes” stands out. The author has an unusually human and transparent approach to entrepreneurship, leadership, management, and innovation. This was the first book on business that I’ve read in years that felt fresh. One of the things I loved about “Shoe Dog” was how transparent Phil Knight was about building Nike. Raegan Moya-Jones generously offers the same transparency about how she built aiden + anais while also explaining how she thinks about leadership and innovation.
Here is Real Magic: a Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth. If I have a spiritual cousin out there, I’m pretty sure it’s Nate. Both Nate and I fell in love with magic at a young age, became working pros, burnt out, and travelled the world trying to find whatever it is we lost. “Here is Real Magic” is Nate’s memoir about what it’s like to be a working magician, what happens when something you loved becomes a chore, and travel. Though I left professional magic much sooner than Nate, reading this book felt like coming home. In many ways it echoed another favorite, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.”
Fair warning: I bribed my book club into reading this by promising to do magic for them if they selected the book. While they took the bait, they didn’t love the book. If you don’t have a background in live entertainment (especially as a kid) or interests in magic or travel this book may not be for you. But then again, my book club also disliked “The Alchemist”, so… maybe they just have bad taste.
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer. This was a suggestion from my RAIN partner and good lord did it resonate. I read it three or four times during a silent retreat. Though Iyer is a travel writer, in this book he talks about the beauty, challenge, and adventure of being still. It’s accompanied by beautiful photography and great storytelling. Did you know that when Leonard Cohen wasn’t busy being a rock star, he lived as a monastic? Neither did I. If your life is filled with noise and motion, I can’t recommend this book enough.
The Stand by Stephen King. A mishandled chemical weapon kills almost everyone. The survivors who are mostly good move to Boulder, CO. The survivors who are mostly wicked move to Las Vegas. Both parties become aware of one another and battle for control. Like the Stormlight Archives, this book kept me up at night and I ended up missing the characters when I finished the book.
The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. Murderbot, a lethal military robot hacks his governor and becomes self-aware. Along the way he becomes socially awkward, self-loathing, and kinda lazy. In other words, he undergoes a crash course in becoming human. But also Murderbot can kill and out maneuver pretty much everything. The Murderbot Diaries, which starts with “All Systems Red”, is a collection of short and fun books that walk the line between thriller, sci-fi, and entry level existentialism. They’re excellent for when you need a thrilling escape.