Two Ancient Notions That Helped Pull Me From the Depths

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The summer of 2020 was rough for a lot of people…

…for a lot of different reasons. It was rough for me because I was experiencing levels of health anxiety only matched by the week before I received a positive cancer diagnosis in 2017. 

This was different, though.

Was I displaying any physical symptoms? Eh, probably not. Then what was the source of the anxiety? For those who have experienced bouts of anxiety, you know that you don’t need a reason. In fact, most of us pray for a source of our torment so that we can know what the hell to fix. The worst anxiety often makes the least sense. 

But I did find something that turned it all around—two ancient notions that have been helping people like me for thousands of years. But these require additional context.

Anxiety is a lying snake.

Impending doom continued to swirl around my perception of how I was doing inside. These feelings were briefly alleviated by trips to my doctor. He would immediately tell me that nothing was wrong. In fact, that I was in better health than I had been since my teenage years. I would ride this high of relief for a few weeks only for the feelings of anxiety and dread to slither back into my life. 

My health anxiety would crack fever pitches just before surveillance appointments—routine follow-up scans with my urologist following my cancer treatment in 2017. This bubbling dread leading up to scans is what is known as “scanxiety” in the cancer community. 

He’d usually just walk into the examination room, tell me how the scans showed nothing abnormal, and remind me that I hadn’t displayed any signs of cancer in several years. 

A few months later, the dread would reappear—like Ol’ Pap Finn back in town, looking for his Huckleberry to knock around. Rinse and repeat.

But that was all about to change.

One morning in early spring 2021, the dread slithered up my spine and sat atop my shoulder as I examined my appearance in the bathroom mirror. With it’s split tongue tickling every consonant, it whispered—

“You’re going to die soon.” 

Taking a deep breath and realizing it was [only] the anxiety talking—something meditation had made me hip to—I let a deep exhale flap my lips in cheeky facetious exasperation as I let out my reply.

Well, if that’s the case, I better make this summer count,” chuckling to myself, scoffing off the serpent’s lies as I dried my hands and walked out of the bathroom. 

I didn’t know it at the time but something shifted inside. That serpent, who thrived on my fear and dread, was defanged. 

Did I truly believe that I was going to die soon? No—it was just another lie my mind was trying to get me to believe. 

But I started living as though it were true

  • I made an extra effort to spend time with people I cared about —sometimes seeking out old friends who had slipped through life’s cracks.
  • I became more conscious of what foods, habits, and activities made me feel my best and made a point to fill my life with them.
  • I sought out moments of peace. 
  • I made conscious efforts to be more present in everything I did—especially while spending time with loved ones. 
  • And yes, this was around the time I quit social media—an activity I’ve mostly replaced with more pleasure-reading than I had done in my entire life. Thanks, John Grisham.

With these activities and the mental residue that accompanied them, my dread was rendered powerless. The whispered lies grew increasingly faint and manageable. Ease and contentment snuck their way back into my life reminiscent of childhood.

There’s no doubt that these activities aided in managing my mood and anxiety levels. Still, I attribute much of this relief to the combination of two philosophical pillars of Stoicism I had learned about years prior but had begun inadvertently practicing—amor fati and memento mori. 

Amor Fati

We have little control over what happens to us in life. And how boring would life be if we could? Without a little uncertainty, you may not have ever met your spouse or discovered your passion. 

Amori fati literally means a love of one’s fate—whatever that happens to be. Even if it sucks. Because ultimately it will teach you something or play a role in helping you become the person you were meant to be just as it had up to this point. Fighting fate is a losing battle, so you might as well fall in love with it. 

Memento Mori

Speaking of fate, you’re going to die. 

“Yeah, but not for a while.” 

Says who? You could die in a few months. Next week. Tomorrow. 

Instead of letting this idea burden your thoughts, use it to bring clarity to your life. When tomorrow is not promised, this notion should make your next meal delicious, every sunset spectacular, and moments with those close to you an extravagant privilege. The governor just gave you a stay of execution—what are you going to do with it before he changes his mind?

Memento mori means “remembrance of death” — which is actually a remembrance of life. 

Death is inevitable and thus a silly fear. The true fear is never having truly lived.

Still, it is important to remember that yes, you’re going to die. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Simply make sure you’re squeezing the juice out of life and not leaving any meat on the bone. 

These notions may not click for you or change your life right now or even in the near future. That’s ok. But they’re planted. If you’re like me, your subconscious may need to chew on them for a few years before they “turn on.” My prayer is that one day, your mind finds use for them when you most need them.

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Choosing Your Shovel: A Field Manual to Leveraging Fear & Managing Anxiety

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Quick disclaimer: There is a significant difference between sporadic spells of anxiety and a chronic anxiety disorder. This piece is meant more to aid with periodic anxious spells rather than treating any condition, which should be addressed by a mental health professional.

Two emotions. Endless misinterpretations.

Fear and anxiety are two of the most perplexing emotions one can have. Both can overtake you and result in a miserable daily life. Conquering fear and anxiety is the work of life and not a life hack that can be acquired by reading a short online essay or listening to a podcast episode. This being said, I’ve personally found the following mindset shifts to be immensely helpful when attempting to control or even leverage fear and anxiety. When these mindset shifts are combined, they may even be able to help the average person pull themself from the occasional bout of anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 1: Fear can be useful when correctly identified.

Fear — ”an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger.”
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

Though fear can be debilitating, it is an instrumental emotion. Without fear, we might find ourselves attempting to cross busy highways on foot, coming too close to the edges of steep heights, or petting dangerous creatures. Fear is a mechanism to protect us from many of the dangers of life.

While this is true, fear is only helpful when it can be leveraged or applied — when it results in a discernable behavioral shift. When it cannot be, it ceases to be fear. It is, instead, anxiety. 

Mindset Shift 2: We frequently confuse fear with anxiety and vice versa.

One of the biggest reasons we cling to debilitating anxiety is because we confuse it with helpful fear. As we’ve discussed before, fear is instrumental. Anxiety, however, is not. 

  • The shovel of fear can dig us free from a situation.
  • The shovel of anxiety only deepens our rut. 

For this reason, it’s crucial to correctly identify the shovel of fear and the shovel of anxiety. So, the first step out is knowing when you’re clutching the wrong shovel. 

Mindset Shift 3: Becoming mindful of anxious thoughts can help you manage them. 

You are not your thoughts. If this were the case, you would be incapable of thinking about your thoughts. Humans are unique from other creatures on this planet in that we are capable of offering the Director’s Commentary of our own thought process. 

Most of us, however, can rarely distinguish our thinking from thinking about thinking. This thinking about our thoughts can be referred to as “metacognition” but is most commonly referred to as “mindfulness.” 

The term “mindfulness” is meant to be used to contrast our default mode — mindlessness. When our thoughts are allowed to ricochet in our heads without control, the result is a dangerous rumination and can culminate in severe anxiety and depression.

Mindset Shift 3: Mind control is an obtainable superpower if it’s your own mind you’re controlling.

Like stopping a ricocheting bullet, catching a mindless thought before it tears through our emotions can feel like a superpower. Mindfulness, however, is not the act of catching speeding bullets but rather slowing them down to the point of plucking them out of thin air. When a thought or reactionary emotion can be slowed down, its details can be more objectively analyzed, its intent considered, and the most appropriate response deployed. 

Examining Fear vs. Anxiety in Practice

The next time you experience the frantic gloom of fear or anxiety, as soon as you can identify the sensation, do your best to cease what you’re doing and take hold of the moment for yourself.

  • Focus on the raw sensation of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils. This present action will help pull the emergency brake on your thought processes.
  • Once grounded in the present, aim to perceive this negative emotion as though belonging to someone else. Aim to observe it as objectively as placing a glass slide under the lens of a microscope for examination. 
  • Carefully inspecting this thought or feeling, ask yourself, “What action is this sensation prompting me to do?” 

Leveraging Useful Fear

If this sensation has practical next steps that can prevent ailment or injury, whether of your body, relationships, career, or overall wellbeing, this is valuable fear. Consider how these steps can be positively applied to the betterment of your daily life. Break each action into its tiniest achievable steps — with no effort too small as long as you’re moving forward. Construct a plan for following these steps with scheduled times and deadlines. 

The following are a few examples of how to possibly leverage useful fear to help resolve a fearful state.

  • If a bodily symptom is fearfully weighing on your mind, an executable action is to present your concern to a doctor. If this action feels daunting, break the activity into smaller parts. Perhaps, start by sending a message to the doctor through email or your health care provider’s online portal. Maybe even start as small as scheduling a time to make an appointment with a deadline for the completion of this action. If even this feels like too much, perhaps your first step is looking at yourself in the mirror and saying out loud, “tomorrow, I’m going to call my doctor’s office.” Again, no step is too small if it means moving forward from your present fearful state.
  • If you’re fearfully concerned about the future of your job, whether due to your performance or the support of your employer, an executable action would be to make a list of actionable items you can take in case your fears are founded. If the fear is performance-based, identify your weaknesses as an employee and develop ways to strengthen them — even little by little. Asking colleagues, even superiors, for constructive criticism can help in this matter and express your dedication to your duties and role. If your fear is with your employer’s support, you can either bring these fears to your employer to quell or confirm them. If you don’t feel comfortable with the potential confrontation, consider taking tactful steps toward securing employment elsewhere.
  • Suppose you’re fearful about the deterioration of a relationship. In that case, an executable action may be to identify why you feel this way and what actions you can take to nurture or remedy said relationship. If, upon closer analysis, the relationship does not seem salvageable, begin devising steps to end the relationship on agreeable terms. 

Quelling Pernicious Anxiety

The sinking feeling in your gut and increased heart rate are helpful biological responses to approaching the edge of a dizzyingly high cliff. Such sensations are your mind’s signal to your body to be fearfully conscious of impending danger. However, the same sensations while simply lying in bed can be immensely hazardous to your mental and physical health. These are not leverageable sensations but rather potentially debilitating ruminations. 

As previously discussed, properly identifying fear versus anxiety is a practical means of quelling either. When fear is appropriately identified, actionable steps can be executed to leverage and squelch such sensations.  

But once anxiety is identified, then what?

Once anxiety is correctly identified as such—as a senseless nuisance—we can begin to leverage the lack of teeth in these ruminations — aka no discernable executables — to shift our minds to efforts worthy of our attention. We do this by pivoting our thought process from anxiety to the raw perception of the present moment. 

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

― Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching

Mindset Shift 4: Simply sensing the present is your oasis from pernicious anxiety. 

Upon realizing that a particular mental and emotional sensation is harmful anxiety rather than helpful fear, there is a place we can go to manage such disturbing thoughts—the present moment. 

In the present, there is no fear or worry—there is only the moment itself. At this moment, all that need exist for us is the space we occupy and our body’s involuntary biological function. 

  • Our heart beats in our chest, sending blood throughout our body. 
  • Our skin forwards data about the temperature of the airflow of the space. 
  • Our eyes perceive the shapes of objects and the flow of light around us.
  • Our nostrils detect the coolness of inhaled air and the warmth of exhaled air.

None of these sensations of the present moment require thoughts of the past or future. In fact, they can only be perceived clearly once we’ve shelved non-present thinking. 

We can access the escape hatch from anxiety through any of our sense perceptions of the present moment. Tapping into the present perception of our bodies and surroundings rather than our mindless ruminations is immensely useful whenever anxious ruminations seek to creep into our thought process. A constructive way to do this is with a method that I’ll call the Monitor Technique for the sake of this piece.

The Monitor Technique

Unlike a full camera or audio recorder, a monitor—whether a camera’s viewfinder screen monitor, a musician’s stage monitor speaker, or even a medical heart monitor—has the singular job of sharing what exists in real-time. It cannot store sights or sounds. It cannot recall past moments. It cannot process data. Even though it is called a “monitor,” it is usually a secondary computer system or a user that is actually doing the monitoring. In this sense, it should be called an “allows-you-to-monitor.” But for the most part, monitors are nothing more than vehicles for capturing present data.

When you have become more acquainted with the mental and physical sensation of anxiety, instead of attempting to process your way out of such an episode, become a monitor of your present surroundings. Do not attempt to consider how any of these make you feel. Rather, simply observe them as objectively as possible. This is quite literally what many mean when they use the expression, “stop and smell the roses.” 

Here are a few monitoring techniques that have worked for me: 

  • Observe the shapes, slopes, angles, and colors of objects in your vicinity. The arm of a chair or couch. The rise of a window sill. The angles in the edges of the leaves on trees. The sunlight against the backside of a curtain.
  • Close your eyes and allow your ears to absorb the mosaic soundscape around you. There is always sound — from birds chirping to air vents, the whirl of distant lawnmowers, airplanes, cars on a nearby highway, a humming refrigerator, a computer fan, and beyond. You can either let all of the sounds swirl together as one at the front of your attention or isolate one sound to savor. 
  • Sit with your eyes closed and focus on the raw sensations of your breath. Feel the cool and warm air passing through your nose, the rise and fall of your chest, or the space between breaths.
  • Sit with your eyes closed and simply experience the sensation of the surrounding air on your skin. If the air is moving, notice its direction, intensity, and texture. Even with eyes closed, attempt to feel the shape of the space. 

While practicing the Monitor Technique, your anxieties will likely attempt to breach the doors of your focus. Your first impulse will be to fight them, but this too is a mindless reaction. When this happens, simply observe the anxiety itself as its own entity, mindfully note its existence, and then return to practicing the observation of the present moment via the Monitor Technique. 

Choosing Your Shovel

A fearful mindset tends to result in reaching for one of two shovels. 

The first shovel of pernicious anxiety resulting in aimless rumination is sharp and only capable of digging downward—creating ruts and holes in which to hide. Though seeming like a helpful refuge, the occupant of these ruts or holes will soon find themselves unable to climb out. 

The second shovel of useful fear is broad, better able to dig oneself out from psychological and even physical harm. Though it is a heavier shovel to wield, the more efficiently it is utilized, the sooner it can be stowed until needed again. 

Distinguishing fear from anxiety is not a life hack — it is a skill that requires perpetual sharpening. Honing of the perception of our mental state is aided by regularly “checking in” with ourselves in ways that pull the emergency brake on rumination and align our awareness with the present.  As we sharpen this tool of discernment, we must also remain mindful of which shovel we choose to sharpen — that of useful fear or useless anxiety.


The Broken Autopilot

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You’ve been actively doing something — work, a chore, making dinner — and now you’re done. For a moment, the drive of your mind peters out like a small plane engine that has just stalled. The momentum of that task, much like a spinning propeller in front of your face, suddenly flutters and stops with a clunk. What once was the sound of a some-odd-stroke engine buzzing through the skies has been replaced with whistling wind as you begin to feel the loss of altitude in your guts. 

Left with nothing that needs to be immediately done, the need to be mentally stimulated begins to bounce around inside your head like ballpoint pens and paper coffee cups in a now-dropping cockpit. Rather than clutching the headliner of the cockpit in anticipation of impact, you’ve remembered that you have a default safety mechanism for aimless thought — a shining screen.

As soon as you’ve booted up that screen — whether it’s a phone screen, tablet, or television — you can feel your pulse begin to normalize and your palms begin to dry. The engine of your attention turns back over, the propeller sputters to life, and you begin to regain lost altitude. Whoa, that was close. 

After a time, though you’re relieved that you’re not likely to plummet to the earth, you wake up from behind the controls. The auto-pilot had taken over and you’re now headed in the opposite direction. You’ve been down the rabbit hole of social media vanity metrics, social comparison, paparazzi voyeurism, and sensationalist news for a while and are now even further from your destination. Due to your original panic, you left control of your attention to the auto-pilot. Once control was happily handed off, it took you further away from your destination of contentment than had you made an emergency landing once you lost engine power. 

Here’s the interesting thing about where the airplane analogy differs from your attention: there’s not actually any ground below. You could kill the engine, prop your feet up on the instrument panel, and lean back with your fingers gently interlocked behind your closed eyes, and never actually hit anything. The Cessna of your attention span will simply continue to fall toward…nothing — like a flight simulator whose developers forgot to write the code for mountains, oceans, trees, or even firm land.

The plane of our focus will stall out every day, likely hundreds of times a day. And that’s ok. Why? Because there’s no ground beneath that plane.

But if there’s no ground, what’s down there? 

The present moment — that’s all. And it’s really quite nice. And it’s especially nicer than an auto-pilot that is specifically designed to take us away from actually living.

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My Least Favorite Side Effect of Mindfulness Meditation

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If you were to ask me which skill I’ve developed in the past five years that has been the most beneficial to my daily life, I’d likely interrupt you. 

“What would is the most useful skill you’ve developed in the past five—” 

“—meditation. Definitely meditation.” 

And it’s true. Mindfulness meditation, more than any other technique, coping mechanism, or practice has helped me manage the fidget spinner in my mind. As someone diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and treated (aka heavily medicated with powerful narcotics), I believe that Mindfulness Meditation should be utilized as a treatment for the symptoms of ADHD. Other studies have revealed that Mindfulness Meditation has been proven effective in treating anxiety, heart disease, depression, insomnia, and even reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, and psoriasis. Whoa, that’s pretty compelling. 

For all of its benefits, there is one aspect of Mindfulness Meditation that I didn’t initially care for—it perpetually reveals just how scattered my focus truly is. 

Before I started a regular a  Mindfulness Meditation practice, I was comfortably oblivious to my mind’s erratic nature. While I would grow frustrated when my focus was derailed by a fleeting thought or an external distraction, I just thought I needed to slap myself in the face, sharpen my gaze on the task at hand, and white-knuckle my attention into its proper place. This method was not only exhausting but also ineffective. 

My first couple of moments of Mindfulness Meditation revealed what the heck was happening in my mind. I would sit silently, attempting to aim my focus at the raw sensation of my breath entering and exiting my nostrils. As my attention arrived at the present moment alone, a pleasant coziness settled into my mind and body. I was surprised by how delightful this sensation of absolute presentness could feel. Just as I started to think about how pleasant the feeling was, WHAM!!—like a 1960’s Batman jab, a random thought delivered a gut-punch to my serenity. Before I knew it, more thoughts began to roll in like aggressive waves at the beach. Soon, I was stuck in a mental riptide. 


These thoughts are completely normal for any meditator to experience—even among the most experienced in the world. Actually, one of the most critical exercises in Mindfulness Meditation is becoming “mindful” of these thoughts as their own entities without allowing them to hijack your focus. 

Some meditation teachers instruct their students to treat their thoughts like leaves floating on a stream, letting them float on by without judgment. Others will say to observe them like clouds in the sky, watching them come and go. 

I prefer to look at them like clothes on hangers to move to get to the back of my closet. Sure, I can take them off of the rack to observe them, but I don’t need to put them on in order to sort through them to get to the back of my closet. In the same way, practicing the art of not putting on/engaging with my thoughts helps me see them not as reality but as thoughts hanging on my mind’s clothing rack that I can slide through while leaving them on their hangers. Never before had I ever been able to encounter my thoughts without “putting them on.” For someone with ADHD, being able to do this without medication feels like a superpower. 

So, what’s the problem? Well, now I realize just how unruly my mind is.

I remember letting my mind wander untethered while I was taking a shower. Though I was able to take a shower on autopilot, my thoughts jumped from my family to work to personal fitness to time management to everything in between. As I stepped out of the shower and toweled off, seeing my reflection in the mirror stomped the brakes on the runaway train of my mind and brought it back into the present. Staring myself down with water dripping from my face into the bathroom sink, I couldn’t help but think, “wow, your mind is still a pinball machine, isn’t it?” At that moment, I felt like a doctor had just handed me a diagnosis—” yep, your mind is still all over the place.” 

I’m still not sure what is worse—having a pinball machine for a mind and being gleefully ignorant of it or realizing the mayhem upstairs and being too hard on yourself for it. Then again, thanks to Mindfulness Meditation, I now know that being hard on myself for having such a scattered mind is, itself, a thought that I have taken off its hanger and put on. Realizing that, I can allow myself to take it off and observe it from an objective perspective.  

So, if I were armed with a time machine and what I know about mindfulness, would I go back in time and prevent myself from learning about my own mind—thus limiting my own self-judgemental nature? I’ll admit, I didn’t immediately know the answer to this. 

Being gleefully ignorant of one’s own shortcomings can be quite lovely—like enjoying a party, completely unaware of the toilet paper stuck to your shoe. However, I believe that I wouldn’t change a thing. I would prefer to understand the nature of my mind so I can work to flex my mental muscles of objective, non-judgemental analysis. 

Whether knowing that my mind’s default mode is “scattered” or that I have toilet paper stuck to my shoe, I’d rather know such things so I can pull the toilet paper off of my shoe before I get back to the party.

Related: Enjoy some of my other articles on meditation.

Helping Relieve Anxiety & Depression With God’s First Question

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Disclaimer: This piece is not meant to treat those experiencing clinical depression and anxiety—which should be addressed by a medical professional. However, for those with the occasional episodes of anxiety and depression, to quote one of my favorite writers, Patrick Rhone, this could help. 

A great deal of anxiety and depression stem from our own broken emotional time machines. 

These time machines can trigger a spiral of depression when we replay moments of anguish or regret—whether these are accurate depictions or warped perceptions of said events. In other instances, these malfunctioning flux capacitors can spark bouts of anxiety by painting worst-case projections of the future. Whether we’re reeling over a past disappointment or spinning rotisserie-style in our beds over what the future may bring, there’s a question we need to ask ourselves—the same question God asked of “us” in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 3, Verse 9. 


Ay’yehkah?” — “Where are you?”

This is the question God articulated as the first two humans scurried into the bushes to hide their newly-realized nakedness.

This one-word question seems odd. Surely, if we can determine our friends’ precise coordinates using a device we keep in our slacks, the Creator of the universe can locate two fig-leaf-bikini-sporting folks in a garden. The simple explanation is that God knew precisely where they were, but that the man and woman, themselves, did not. Their emotional compasses were shattered. They were blinded by the realization of their wrongdoing and trembling over the imagined consequences as they heard God’s footsteps in the garden tiptoeing closer and closer. 

The question God put forth was not was in order to obtain an answer but to inspire them to ask the question of themselves. And us. 

One of the devastating impacts of depression and anxiety is that they sap the pleasure from the present moment. In most instances, we’re too wrapped up in the past or the future to look at where we are. We’re emotionally time traveling in our backfiring machines, gasping on its exhaust, incapable of simply taking a breath to shelf any time that isn’t right now.

How do we shelf the past and future? Well, with three steps. 

Step 1: Realize that you’re not your thoughts and emotions…with practice. 

One of the biggest lies that we tend to believe is that we are our thoughts and emotions. 

When we’re feeling depressed, we remove the word “feeling” and believe, “I am depressed.” Likewise, when we’re feeling anxious, we remove the word “feeling” and believe, “I am anxious.” 

(As a dorky dad would say, “Nice to meet you, anxious—I’m dad.”) 

Ugh, what terrible identity, right? But it’s not who you are. You’re not depressed—you’re Anthony, and you’re feeling depressed. You’re not anxious—you’re Jessica, and you’re feeling anxious. This understanding is necessary when appraising your thoughts and emotions. 

How can we do this? With practice.

  • Sit with your thoughts. 
  • Watch as they approach like a meteorologist watches clouds in the sky. 
  • Become mindful of when the storm clouds of negative thoughts and emotions arrive.
  • Monitor and appraise these thoughts and emotions—not like someone in the path of the storm, but as a meteorologist tracking it from another place. 
  • Practice this and grow accustomed to the sensation of these thoughts and emotions. 

Step 2: Ask yourself, “Ay’yehkah?” — “Where are you?”

Indulging a negative thought or emotion can make you feel downright stuck. Much like trying to floor the gas pedal to free a vehicle from a muddy ditch, attempting to not think about a thought causing anxiety or depression can wear an even deeper rut. How can you rock yourself free from this emotional thicket? By taking a shotgun to our time machine. 

When you realize that you’re experiencing a moment of anxiety or depression, audibly ask yourself: “Ay’yehkah?” — “Where are you?” (You don’t have to say the Hebrew, but I find it keeps people from wondering if I’m talking to them and instead makes them think I’m just clearing my throat. 😉 ) 

What’s the point of asking ourselves this question? It forces us to put our feet on the ground and wake up to the present moment. Why the present moment? Well, because it’s probably not that bad. In fact, it’s probably pretty great

Just think about where you are when you’re experiencing anxiety or depression. If you’re “trapped” in your home, you’re home—likely your favorite place. If you’re near a window, you can see the sky, may be able to hear birds singing, or have the ability to open it and feel a breeze. You may be close to your family—the people you cherish and who cherish you. Even if you’re anxiously tossing and turning as you try to sleep, you’re snuggled up in your warm, safe bed. What could be better? 

Asking “ay’yehkah—where are you?” can help you realize that you’re not in the present and motivate you to return. If you were to regain consciousness in that precise moment and look immediately at what lay before you, it would likely be pretty awesome. 

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

Step 3: Attempt to live 60 seconds at a time. 

After nuking your broken emotional time machine by recentering your focus with  a full-throated or even whispered “ay’yehkah,” strive to live in 60-second increments. The past is already over. The future is anyone’s guess. What is certain? Only that which lays before you in this 60-second increment. Not 24/7 political news. Not sinking in the contrived infinity pool of social media. All that exists are these 60 seconds. Live within that time like a dolphin in the aquarium inhabits its tank. 

My prayer is that you come to realize that you aren’t thoughts, that you sledgehammer your dysfunctional emotional time machine with a robust “ay’yehkah,” and cannon-ball into the pool that is the right now

The water feels fine. 

What I Learned in 2019: My Last Journal Entry of the Year

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I do believe that 2019 has been one of the most transformational years of my life. It will forever go down as the year of intention — of discovering what I believe a great life to be and what is necessary to live it out daily. 

This year I learned…

Good habits don’t have to suck. They can be downright enjoyable. In fact, they should be enjoyable or else you probably won’t stick with them. Removing as much friction between you and your doings is the only way to ensure they actually get done. 

I am not the voice in my head. Meditation has shown this to me. It has also shown me that the voice in my head may actually represent the worst side of me, but that this is only through years of leaning into a negative bias. Training the voice in my head to be positive and the idea that I can do so has been immensely inspiring. 

It’s surprising how little I need to be happy. And these aren’t even “needs”, but falling more under the category of “pleasantries.” A good book. A comfortable pair of shoes. A jump rope. A practical watch. A french press coffee maker. The occasional drink. A few musical instruments. A means of hearing great music. My prayer accouterment. Boom — I’m a happy camper. All other joys are nonphysical. 

Social media is no match for a one-on-one drink with a good friend. Keeping up with a myriad of acquaintances online has lost its luster. But even the cheapest of beers with the oldest of pals has really become a release valve for me. I would take an evening with a buddy over the most spectacular, extravagant entertainment money can buy. 

There’s a certain pleasure in getting my attention locked into a good book. This has been the first year that my attention span has been trained to the point of being able to do this. In fact, there are times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to be left alone with whatever book I happened to be enjoying. This is new for me, but I pray that it continues. 

Memento mori. Tomorrow is not promised, that I am going to die one day so that I need to take active steps towards my goals now. If you’re going to write that book, start now because tomorrow is not promised. If you’re going to be that amazing father, start this instant because you’re not promised another breath. Avoid deathbed regret whenever possible. 

Amor fati — love your fate and let it update who you are. The good and the bad should both be leaned into to become a better you. 

Don’t react — respond. If you don’t know how to do so, train your mind through meditation. Sit with your thoughts to see that they are thoughts. This is how you will be able to create the buffer necessary to respond to life’s happenings rather than impulsively react to them. 

Life is too short for your second string anything. After finding the cut of pants you like the most, the coffee mug you go for first, and socks that actually positively transform your mood, don’t feel the need to regularly tolerate anything less than these if you can help it. Your second favorites are likely only taking up space not only in your cupboard and garage but also in your mind. 

There is a certain buzz that can be attained by simply choosing to be present. Most of the time, we’re not wherever our bodies are or actively taking in experiences as they unfold before us. Even during moments of elevated experience, our minds are time-traveling — considering the possibilities of the future or ruminating about the past. Life-changing moments are witnessed through phone screens instead of being fully savored as they unfold. Purpose-infusing experiences are completely missed due to mental scab-picking. Deciding to let the past remain in the past, the future to come in due time if at all, and to concentrate fully on experiencing the present moment like a live-streaming camera is so rare that doing so can actually bring on a lively rush. Choosing to be fully present can drastically transform your life. 

Happy New Year.

A String of Restarts: Using Mala Beads in Non-Mantra Mindfulness Meditation

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Disclaimer: I wrote this article because I could not find another one like it. Unlike most pieces about the power of utilizing mala beads during meditation, espousing their ability to help one in the counting of the recitations of a mantra, this method uses no mantra.

The “Wasted” Meditation Session

How long did it take before you experienced a “failed” meditation session? An instance where you feel like you would have been better off never having even attempted to meditate at all due to the noisy state of your mind? Two weeks? A month? Six months?

For me, I’d say it was about three days of meditating before I was routinely saying to myself, “Well, that was pointless.” My primary cause for hopelessness was what felt like an inability—or at least strained ability—to recenter my focus following the realization that I was lost in thought. In these moments, I felt like I just couldn’t shake lingering thoughts—like toilet paper on my shoe. 

Though this is a rather typical experience for Mindfulness Meditation practitioners, I’ve found some reasonable relief from this mid-session hopeless in an unlikely source; mala beads, also referred to as a mala.

“Hey, You’re Using That Wrong”

A mala? Aren’t those for mantra-based meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation? You’re absolutely correct. You’re so correct, in fact, that I have yet to find any writings online or elsewhere that outline how to use to a mala in Mindfulness Meditation—thus the purpose son for this article. This isn’t to toot my own horn—perhaps I’m just a weaker meditator in need of such a security blanket or the Mindfulness equivalent of a fidget spinner. Still, for the myriad varieties of meditation methods, I’m surprised that I haven’t found this technique mentioned.

For a quick background on mala beads for the unacquainted:

A mala (Sanskrit word for “garland”) is a string of 108 beads (a special significance in the Buddhist tradition) including a main “guru” bead to denote the beginning. Malas are traditionally used for counting Buddhist chants, prostrations, or mantras. The beads can be made of anything from wood and seeds to specific stones.

How Malas Can Be Used In Mindfulness

Though malas are synonymous with meditation, to my understanding, they’re almost unheard of for use in Mindfulness Meditation. Despite this, using a mala’s beads as a tactile denotation of mental recentering following the awareness of a thought during a sitting Mindfulness Meditation session can be transformative. It goes a little something like this:

Using a Mala for a Sitting Mindfulness Meditation Session

mala mindfulness meditation

  • Sit in your usual Mindfulness Meditation posture — likely with your eyes closed, spine straight, and your head level.
  • Take the mala in your dominant hand, lightly holding the bead just following the largest “guru” bead between your thumb and middle finger. The index finger traditionally represents the ego, so out of respect for the mala’s original intent, it may be best to hold it in its intended way here.
  • The duration of holding a single bead denotes one instance of constant mindful focus, however long that happens to last. It could last two minutes or two seconds.
  • Once you notice the presence of thinking or rumination, make a mental note of it, and realign your focus on the breath.
  • Once you have realized you are thinking, treat the new bead like a restart button for your focus on the present moment.

The tactile sensation of moving from one bead to the next following a mindful restart of present consciousness allows for an enhanced distinction between one micro-meditation session and the next.  Simply put, use the bead as a “RESTART” button like you would with a computer, mobile, or video game console—instead, this restart is for your focus on the breath and, thereby, the present moment. 

Though the use of a mala to mentally distinguish this restart is not mandatory (it’s actually downright unheard of for the most part), moving from one mala bead to the next with every mental recentering helps to separate mindful moments from mindless moments.

Begin Again

Since using a mala in my Mindfulness Meditation sitting practice, I have yet to experience the same feelings of hopelessness in the face of a seemingly irredeemable meditation session. Instead, each restarting denoted by moving to a new bead feels like a brand new meditation session within a meditation session. It’s not unheard of for me to go through the 108 beads in a single 20-minute sitting Mindfulness Meditation session. That means I allowed myself to restart over 100 times within the span of 20 minutes — all without beating myself up over my inability to focus. 

It is important to remember that unbroken focus, though a pleasurable “in the zone” sensation,  isn’t the goal of Mindfulness Meditation. Instead, the goal is to notice wandering thoughts without judgment or analysis before they derail our practice, decrease focus, or incite anxiety and depression.

Wearing a Mala Outside of Meditation

mala mindfulness meditation
Bob Ross also helps me remember to remain mindful.

I have grown to enjoy wearing my mala as a necklace during the day. Not only does it allow for quick meditation sessions on breaks, but it also reminds me to remain mindful — truly in the moment — anytime I feel its presence. Some may not recommend wearing a mala, especially if you’re not Buddhist (which I am not), but this remains a personal choice.

Where to Obtain a Mala

Malas can be obtained from most any meditation goods store—whether brick and mortar or online. While you can find malas on Amazon for as little as $7 of less, I personally recommend shopping Etsy to support smaller businesses and to receive a quality, handmade mala that is likely the product of more responsible working conditions. Spend a little time finding a mala that resonates with you as you’ll likely be spending a lot of time with it.

mala mindfulness meditation
My rosewood mala with Eitz Chaim (“Tree of Life”) pendant — representing the life-sustaining nature of the Torah for Jews.

In Conclusion

I hope that this piece was helpful. If I’m entirely wrong about this practice not being mentioned elsewhere (and I hope that I am), I wholeheartedly welcome and even covet feedback on the matter. This piece is simply me sharing how borrowing the tools from one particular meditation practice to enhance another.

Happy meditating.

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Also, I’ve recently (as of December 2019) authored a short book about my own experiences in developing transformational habits in 2019 entitled A Year Ungraded. You can download it for free here.

Meditate the ADHD Away: Personal Experiences of a Mindful Spaz

Reading Time: 8 minutes

What ADHD Feels Like

If I had to describe it, I’d say that having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) feels most like subject-specific mental exhaustion. Reading one type of book can make your eyes cross and trail over the surface of the page without comprehension of a single word. Another type of book can lock you into its narrative like a straightjacket until you look up at the clock to see that it’s 3 AM. The worst part is that you can’t control which of these subjects elicit which response. You want to be able to intelligently consume Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but your attention is held by The Stinky Cheese Man & Other Fairly Stupid Tales.

When keeping my focus on the math lesson felt like a sleep-deprived game of Operation, my inability to focus would turn to mischief in order to find something to hold my attention. While I largely had this mischief squelched by my second-grade principal’s bulging stare and wooden paddle, many other children with similar attention spans have followed their quests for attention-quenching down darker paths. Fortunately, the worst of my quests resulted in volumes of doodles and stories — probably one of the reasons I became a writer.

Attention issues also impacted my childhood outside of school. During peewee soccer, most of my time on the field was spent as goalie — usually blowing on dandelions and watching airplanes in holding patterns as the opposing team would send the ball flying over my head into the net behind me. As a little league outfielder, though I had a hand-stinging throw that could make it all the way into home base, fly balls would soar over my glance of the picture I had sketched in the dirt with my finger. Despite being a head taller than everyone on my basketball team, my coach would routinely advise that my parents give me a caffeinated soda before every game to keep me “in the zone.”

Kids on Amphetamines

Notwithstanding a lackluster career in organized sports, my ADHD was never quite debilitating. Still, as preparations for college began to appear faintly visible on the horizon of early high school life, my grades became of more significant consequence. In my freshman year, I recall being prescribed 30 milligrams of Adderall XR, a potent time-release amphetamine, by a primary care physician after a short questionnaire. During my first few days on the medication, I rode a buzz strong enough to distract me from the fact that I had forgotten to eat. While the medication certainly helped increase my focus on subjects that I had struggled to grasp, the side effects zombified me. Though an active writer, artist, and musician, I was suddenly devoid of all creative ideas. My mouth continually tasted like carbon steel. I would sleeplessly toss and turn in bed. I became so skinny that my eye sockets became visible on my face. After a few months, without consulting my doctor, I stopped taking the pills and never returned for a refill of my prescription.

Yoga Math & Equation Graffiti

Without the medication, though my creativity and body-mass-index increased, my attention span for certain subjects returned to its diminished state. Comprehending books required silent spaces and reading out loud. Mathematic concepts required real-world applications and physical representations. One of my college math professors, also a yoga instructor, taught dividing fractions by multiplying by the reciprocal. The only reason I remember this is because, to demonstrate, he stood on his head in the middle of class. The rest of my math education was thanks to an early-era YouTuber named Chycho, who would teach concepts by scribbling equations on the side of interesting buildings using sidewalk chalk — sometimes illegally, I believe. Chycho’s approach to math was just innovative enough to get me through basic college mathematics.

Over the years, I continually had to find new ways to overcome my ADHD. I would still read out loud. When I needed to complete tasks for work, on would go giant headphones, bumping repetitive instrumental music (heck, I still do this). All of this was an effort to push out what I believed to be the main distraction in my life — the world. Yet, no matter how repetitive the music was or how interesting the work, I still had trouble focusing. Then one day, while indulging in my fascination with self-help/optimization, I began to learn more about meditation.

Approaching Approachable Meditation

As a teenager, meditation seemed pretty interesting. At the time, I was primarily into its vibe of trippy, “out-of-body “ness. Over the years, I never looked any deeper into meditation because it seemed out of reach — like a practice intended for mountain top yogis or Buddhist monks in hidden monasteries. It wasn’t until I heard a podcast with comedian Pete Holmes swearing by something called “TM” (Transcendental Meditation) that I began to see meditation as even something I would be capable of doing. Pete has described himself as “a big ole dummy” with others calling him a human “golden retriever.” This was to say that Pete, despite being a brilliant comedian, is a highly approachable person. If I saw Pete in person, I would have no qualms approaching him for a chat that would probably end in a brotherly bear hug. If he was an avid meditator, what could this mean for me?

Upon investigating TM, I immediately slammed into road-block number one: it’s enormously expensive to learn. The barrier to entry is nearly $1,000 — sometimes more. I didn’t have an extra grand to throw at something just to try it out. Still, as I continued to investigate meditation, I came across Mindfulness Meditation. The basic idea is that you sit, close your eyes, and focus on the raw sensation of breathing. When you notice that you have become distracted by a thought, you return to focusing on the breath. This information was available for free in addition to an internet with more guided meditations than you could ever hope to listen to. You can probably guess which style of meditation I chose to attempt.

Keeping in mind that I had no specific reason for trying meditation other than general self-improvement, my expectations were almost non-existent. I heard that meditation was a great way to relieve stress, to exercise your mind, and somewhat helped with spiritual endeavors, though those claims were immensely vague. I began my attempts to meditate with recordings of guided sessions. I used Sam Harris’ app “Waking Up” until I ran out of free courses. I moved over to a free guided meditation application but quickly found the forced-soothing tones actually to take me out of the meditative experience. I needed to learn how to meditate without training wheels.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics

I’m not positive how I came across it, but I purchased the audio version of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris and Jeffery Warren. You may recognize Dan Harris as a correspondent for ABC News. The book’s own description defines it better than I can — “ABC News anchor Dan Harris used to think that meditation was for people who collect crystals, play Ultimate Frisbee, and use the word ‘namaste’ without irony. After he had a panic attack on live television, he went on a strange and circuitous journey that ultimately led him to become one of meditation’s most vocal public proponents.”

The book was essentially a “woo-woo”-free introduction to meditation for people who couldn’t care less about chakras, third-eyes, and dharma. I consumed the book in about a week’s time, learning many important truths along the way (more on that in a bit). Before I was even finished, I had already established a daily meditation routine…for the most part.

My first few times really meditating on my own were fraught with difficulty. For those with ADHD, our inner narrative is already like a ricocheting bullet in a Warner Brothers cartoon. Mindfulness Meditation mostly asks you to, whenever possible, turn away from those thoughts and return to your focus on the raw sensations of breathing. The brisk air entering your nose. The warm air rising up from your lungs. While somewhat possible, an ADHD person attempting to wrangle their thoughts is much like trying to put socks on a cat…and to keep them on.

Initially, every time my mind would stray (which would usually happen within about two seconds or less), I would become disappointed in my inability to focus. My internal monologue would grow hostile. I would become convinced that my brain was just broken — utterly incapable of remaining balanced on the high wire of my breath. As I got further into the book, I learned the total game-changer — staying focused isn’t the goal of meditation. What is the goal? Realizing that you’re thinking — thinking about thinking. In meditation circles, this is known as “meta-awareness” and it is largely what separates humans from other animals — our ability to observe our own thoughts. As Tim Ferriss once said on Dan Harris’ podcast, it is like being able to look into the washing machine of our mind instead of being thrown around by it. Obviously, I’m paraphrasing.

I Spy a Wandering Thought

The book went on to explain that every time you realize that you’re lost in thought and you return to using your breath to bring you back to present focus, it is like a “bicep curl for your mind.” You’re literally training your mind to be able to quickly spot when your attention has gone off the rails and to automatically course-correct. Repeatedly doing this action during sitting meditation conditions your mind to do so automatically. The more you do this, the easier it is to do when you’re not meditating. The realization of this turned what once was a one-man butt-kicking session turned into a game of “spot the thought” with my own mind. Though difficult, every time I would notice myself thinking during meditation and return to the present sensation of my breath, I felt like I was scoring points in some kind of game. 

I began to build meditation sessions into my daily routine. They started out as five minutes and gradually worked their way up to fifteen-minute sessions. My most extended session to date is 47 minutes.

Over time, I really didn’t think much about what I was doing. It wasn’t till a meeting at work that I realized what had started happening to my brain.

Breakthrough Realization #1

It was another day and an ordinary meeting. While the details of an upcoming project were being discussed, my input wasn’t immediately needed. My mind started to do what it would usually do — zone out and wander. As I began to drift into thoughts about what outer space smells like or a time before house cats were domesticated (two thought that occurred in about two second’s time), I sniffed slightly. The crisp, conditioned air of the conference room chilling down my nose hairs alerted my present consciousness that I was in the midst of wandering thought. This quickly brought my attention back to the meeting, like a camera lens finding its target. It wasn’t until after the meeting that I realized what had happened — the muscles I had been flexing during meditation had begun to be able to hold the weight of my focus. One other event made me realize the full importance of this realization.

Breakthrough Realization #2

One evening after putting my son to bed, I plopped down on the couch with the book I was about half-way through. Though I no longer needed to read all of my books out loud to keep my eyes from doing mindless flyby’s of the words on the page, I still required a near-silent mouthing of the words to properly process them. After reading a few pages, I felt how quiet the house had been for the last few minutes. Hmm. I put the thought out of my head and continued reading. Suddenly, it dawned on me — I had been reading completely close-mouthed and following every word, sentence, and paragraph of my book. At first, I thought this was just absentmindedness on my part — that I had just forgotten to mouth the words and that there’s no way what I had comprehended what I had stoically read. I flipped back through the pages. I recalled every word and action of the book. Oddly enough, I began my old method of mouthing the words again, only to be distracted by my mouth movements. Reading completely close-mouthed was now my preferred method of comprehension.

Something had shifted my brain. Focus-correcting had started to become the new default mode. Even for subjects that once failed to hold my attention were now within my grasp. Mindfulness Meditation is resetting my mind to easily focus by exercising mental muscles.

In Conclusion

As I approach over four months into my daily Mindfulness Mediation practice, I’m reasonably sure that this method can treat ADHD. No, it can’t “cure” ADHD, but it can keep the symptoms of the disorder entirely manageable for people who keep up the practice. Even more than that, because Mindfulness Meditation allows people to realize that they can observe their own thought process, they can recognize that they are beyond their process — that they aren’t their thoughts. When you know that you are beyond your thought process, negative thoughts are much less likely to control your life. For this reason, Mindfulness Meditation is being used to treat anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, addiction, eating disorders, and a wide variety of other mental health issues. The potential results are immensely promising.

Once my son is old enough to be able to sit quietly for three seconds, I’ll likely begin teaching him how to meditate. I’m still holding my breath. That counts as focusing on it, right?

For addition help meditating, check out my One Minute Meditation Tutorial.

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Meta-Awareness: The Exit Door in the Movie Theatre of Your Mind

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When you think about it, being brought to tears by a tragedy in a fictional movie should be absolutely ridiculous. Whatever is taking place is fake. The people on the screen are ostensibly lying. Even if the story were true, you don’t know them. Even if you did know them, you aren’t the one experiencing the events of the film. Eventually, the credits roll, the lights come up, and you feel like an idiot when the person seated one row in front of you stands up to see you wipe away a tear that was rolling down your cheek. You walk out of the theatre, get in your car, and go home. 

Part of you was there in the story. For a few moments, there was no separation between what may have been a tragic story and your own emotions. Driving home in your cozy car, the street lights running up the hood to the windshield and over the top remind you that you’re out of there — you’re safe. The only reason why the tragic events of the movie haven’t left you scarred and in need of therapy is because you know that it was just a movie. Once you step out of the theatre and into your car, you’re free from it. 

In many ways, our thoughts are the movies we replay in our minds all day. Like movies, we can hone in on specific parts, analyze individual clips, and even edit the events. Just because your zipper was down during that meeting doesn’t mean everyone noticed it, but in your own edit, the client definitely saw your underwear. Just because your boss forgot to invite you out for happy hour doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate you, but in your edit, he’s planning on firing you next week. 

The reason why we can feel fine and calm after a tragic film while depressed and anxious after our own internal movies is because, unlike the blockbuster, we can’t separate ourselves from our own movies. Well, most of us can’t, anyway. There are some people who can…

Most of us don’t realize that we aren’t our thoughts. For the majority of people, thoughts are synonymous with real life. A good chunk of folks not only never leave the theatre of their mind, but they also don’t even know that there is an exit. Here’s the cool part — there is. 

Here is a quick exercise to show you the noise of your mind: 

First, find a quiet, comfortable spot that allows for good posture. Rest your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Relax your body and try to bring your complete attention to the present moment, using the sensation air entering and exiting your nostrils. Cool air in. Warm air out. 

If you’re like most, your mind will immediately begin to revolt. 

  • What on earth am I doing? 
  • I wonder if anyone is watching me right now. 
  • Did I leave my phone in my car? 
  • How do astronauts keep the windows from fogging up?
  • I wonder what I should have for lunch…

Our minds, especially in the 21st century, have been programmed to be in constant analysis mode. Most of this analysis is unproductive chatter. Neuroscientists have deemed this tone of continuous chatter as the “default mode” — or the “monkey mind” according to many meditation practitioners. This mental state is largely unfocused, unproductive, and alarmingly unchallenged. Most of us don’t challenge it because we don’t know that there is any other mental state…for the most part. 

Take a moment to recall your favorite memories. These experiences can take different forms. A mesmerizing live musical performance. An intimate conversation with close friends. Witnessing a gorgeous sunset with a spouse while on the beach. Taking in the open ocean for the first time. The nail-biting final moments of a close-scored sports game. An unprompted hug from your child. A moment of epiphany. These moments usually have something in common — during those moments, we are fully present. As athletes or musician may say, we are “in the zone” without thought to the past or the future. We are focused — completely hanging on every second as it unfolds. No matter how mundane the activity, the mental state of being fully present is inherently pleasurable. 

Contrast this with our moments of misery. Take a moment to think about times when you’ve experienced anxiety or depression. These were likely times of immense mental fog. While in the throes of sadness or stress, you probably felt wholly unfocused, directionless, and unable to concentrate on tasks in front of you. You likely couldn’t enjoy movies, books, music, or your favorite sports events. Even conversation with friends sounds like overhearing murmurings through a wall due to being lost in thought, stress, pain, or depression. 

Try imagining a time when you were sad, depressed, or anxious without taking on the emotions felt during that time. Simply remember that time or those feelings without applying them to your present state. When you do this, something exciting is happening — you’re now an onlooker — an audience member of your own thoughts. This not only allows you to manage your thoughts better but shows you that you are not your thoughts. This awareness of the separation between you and your thoughts is something psychologists call “metacognition” or “meta-awareness” — thinking about your thoughts. Meditation practitioners call this “mindfulness.” 

An immensely simplified example of meta-awareness or mindfulness is in adjusting how we experience emotions. All too often, we’re quick to identify with our negative emotions. 

  • “I am depressed.” 
  • “I am anxious.” 
  • “I’m stressed out.”
  • “I am confused.” 
  • “I’m in pain.”
  • “I’m worthless.”

Meta-awareness allows us to see these are emotions to be observed and managed. 

  • “I feel depressed.” 
  • “I’m experiencing anxiety.” 
  • “I am experiencing stress.”
  • “I am feeling confused.”
  • “I’m experiencing pain.” 
  • “I’m feeling worthless.” 

While these very slight adjustments can seem insignificant, they allow us to mentally sit up from the patient’s couch and sit in the psychologist’s chair to examine why we may be experiencing negative emotions. Mindfulness allows us to take a third-party look at our thoughts without judgment. When we don’t identify as our depression, our stress, our anger, our pain, or our anxiety, this helps us to let go of negative emotions and to choose consciously positive emotions.

The more you train your mind to be attuned to the present, the more you will begin to see the separation between the film on the screen (your thoughts) and the theatre (your mind). When you can see the “exit” sign in the movie theatre of your negative emotions, you can feel better knowing that you can choose not to identify with those thoughts and feelings and instead choose happiness.

For help finding the door, I put together a simple “One Minute Meditation Tutorial” to help you train your mind to more easily live in the present moment. 

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Taming a Time-Traveling Monkey: Newbie Observations On Meditation

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been meditating for about three-and-a-half months, meaning I’m by no means an expert. Still, I feel that being closer to a complete novice versus a meditation master places me closer to the highs and lows of a meditation newbie that may prove useful to newcomers. Here is what I’ve learned and experienced about meditation during my first three months.

What Am I Even Doing?

Dan Harris (author of 10 Percent Happier, Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics, and creator of the 10 Percent Happier meditation app) says that, 

“Meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever.” 

The failure to adequately express the simple nature of meditation is due to its hijacking by pseudo-spiritual chi-mongers who are looking to leverage spiritual insecurities to sell classes, books, and app subscriptions (not you, Dan — you’re cool). It’s not uncommon to see watered-down Eastern spiritual symbols associated with the marketing of meditation — from yin yangs to chakra diagrams to people sitting crossed-legged with their thumb and index fingers pinched (something I’ve never seen outside of stock photography). However, from my own perspective as a religiously spiritual person coming to meditation, when the practice is broken down to its most essential parts, the practice feels about as spiritual as pushups or jumping jacks. 

So, what is meditation? Simply put, I’d say it’s “presentness practice.” When executed, I’d say it’s the process of taming a time-traveling monkey that lives in your head.

What do I mean by that?

The Default Mode Network

We spend most of our waking lives in a part of our brains called the default mode network. This system of brain regions is fired when we’re not actively concentrating on an immediate task or solely on the present moment. This zone is where your mind goes when you’re daydreaming or simultaneously comparing thoughts with moments to determine your next course of action. 

While your default mode network can help brainstorm a new idea for a marketing campaign based on past successes, when combined with insecurities or painful moments, it can also lead you down a spiral of dread and anxiety. Past experiences can result in healthy stress that can keep you safe. However, the default mode network can cause you to dwell incessantly on the pains of the past or worry incessantly about potential hardships of the future. How do can we avoid this mental pain spiral while also increasing our attention span? By making it easier to escape to where things are likely better — the present. How do we do that? Through meditation. 

All We Have is Now. Might As Well Enjoy It! 

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that things are good for you right now. I’m not talking about what happened earlier today or what will happen later this week — but right at this moment. If you’re reading an article online, that means you likely have a little time to yourself, you’re in a comfortable position, you have access to a technological device and electricity. Even if you’re reading a printed version of this, you’ve likely ok right now. Take a second to push the past and the future aside, take a deep breath, and just enjoy this moment. I’ll wait. 

Pretty nice, right? Well, meditation can help you access that place more often and with less work. 

Taming the Time-Traveling Monkey

The following practice can potentially hurt the read-through rate of this article, but I’m willing to risk it: 

  1. Take ten seconds to shake all focus on the present moment. Just allow any thought into your mind and feel free to follow it wherever it goes. 
  2. Ok, come back! 

If you’re not an experienced meditator, what you just experienced probably felt the way a tuning orchestra sounds — just a chaos of noises and thoughts, some ok and some negative. You just allowed your default mode network to have complete control of your mind. It was probably wholly directionless, like riding an innertube through stormy seas. This is what is popularly known as the “monkey mind.” Like a monkey on your back, it will cause you to waste time, believe your insecurities, covet the successes of others, and just be unable to focus on the task at hand. If you’re reading a book, the monkey mind is the reason why you can sometimes read an entire paragraph only to realize that, while your eyes took in the sentences, your mind couldn’t tell you want they said. It was busy time traveling to the past or future. Yes, this is why I compare active meditation to taming a time-traveling monkey. 

Is It Working? 

If you start a diet or exercise routine, you can typically see metrics of your progress. These metrics may appear on the bathroom scale or the number of reps you can perform without toppling over. However, unless you’re part of a clinical trial studying the mental effects of regular meditation, these metrics won’t seem so evident. 

One of the catch 22’s of meditation is that you won’t experience tangible evidence of the benefits because meditation itself takes you out of your ruminating mind that would detect such improvements. Still, you will recognize these benefits more abstractly. The following is a personal example: 

Just as background for those who don’t know what mindfulness meditation consists of, it’s essentially focusing all of your mental bandwidth on the raw data of the inhale and exhale of your breath — two indications of the present moment. When your mind begins to wander to events not happening at that moment, the key is to make a note that your mind is wandering and return your focus to the raw data of breathing — in, out, cool, warm; however you feel it. 

“I feel it working!”

One day, I was included in a meeting on a project which would one-day require my involvement. Because the information being discussed at the moment didn’t immediately correspond to my role, my mind began to wander. What should I have for lunch? Did I leave my phone on my desk? Did I remember to lock my car? Suddenly, upon taking a breath, the sensation of the coolness of the air entering my nostrils reminded me of my meditation sessions…and told me that my mind was wandering from the meeting. While I could have carefully studied the notes of the meeting later, it would be much easier to fully experience the material now for my role in the project later. Upon seeing my distraction, I immediately brought my focus back to the person speaking — a realization and redirection that probably took two seconds total. This feat would have been substantially more difficult without my meditation practice.

Neuroscience, Y’all

Though that instance required a stimulus (my breath) to remind me to focus, I have been receiving the “You’re wandering — focus” notification in my mind much more often in daily life when I become distracted as a result of daily meditation practice. Eerily enough, this is actually due to meditation changing the setup of my brain. A 2011 Harvard study looked at before-and-after scans of participants who took part in an eight-week meditation course. The scans showed a cortical thickness of the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory) as well as other regions of the brains associated with the regulation of emotions, perspective-taking, and self-referential processing. Scans also showed the shrinking of the amygdala — the zone related to stress, anxiety, and fear.  

Despite all of the benefits that daily meditation has had in my daily life, I’m anxious…to see what the future holds.

Ok, that was corny, but I couldn’t help it.

Additional resources:
If you’re completely new to meditation and would like to try it out, no tools necessary, enjoy the one-minute meditation tutorial I wrote here.

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