You couldn’t possibly understand the impact your own life has had on those who’ve touched it. The lives which interwove with yours for a time as well as those which only grazed yours for an instant; a blade of grass on the heel of the summer of your life.
I couldn’t count on a thousand hands the people who have affected mine. A seatmate on a bus ride. Author of a favorite book. A barkeep. A best friend. An honest glimpse of another soul. A kindness or a cruelty. A question. A lesson.
Half the time I’m writing, I feel I should be giving someone else credit, so grateful for the moments and people who’ve coached and catalyzed and challenged my world view. And I doubt 90+% of them have the slightest idea they have.
So, in this, our birth month, I thank Arminu “ArminCharles Trish-from-Tower-Records Nalbeaudeaux” Nalbandian for introducing me to Henry David Thoreau. And for so much more than she could ever know.
Classy AF. A best friend when best friends meant everything. She taught me that the epitome of cool is to be silly and brilliant. That conventionality was overrated. That mosquito netting and plaid bell bottoms did in fact look completely insane, making the outfit all the more delightful to rock at our favorite olde time cinema. That I had been Gamed and that it was somehow actually a good thing (another story for another time). How to be a friend.
From sixth grade to post-grad, she’s been an inspiration, a voice of reason, a partner in crime.
Loathing my mundane, post-college, corporate-hellhole j-o-b, I declared myself amidst my quarter life crisis as though simply deciding so absolved me of all responsibility. A quarter-life-crisis I milked for quite a few years.
Wanting a change. Wanting a challenge. Wanting my life to mean something. Special snowflake shit.
Arminé, in her infinite wisdom, mentioned “Thoreau’s Walden‘s always helped me when I needed inspiration.” Never heavy handed, she left it at that.
And now, This.
Eventually I bought Walden from a favorite bookshop. Potentially the spooky-sexy one across from THE BEST froyo in the world (BerryLine).
It changed my life. Or rather encouraged me to change my own. Issued the challenge to do so. It’s taken a while to act on it but his words have burned urgently in my blood since the moment I read them. I want that.
In his opening passage which follows, Thoreau told me loud and clear, “come write for me”:
In most books, the I, or first person is omitted; in this it will be retained;
that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference.
We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person who is speaking.
I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.
Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.
Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last,
a simple and sincere account of his own life,
and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives;
some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land;
Most of us know by now that we should meditate. We may even mean to start… next week. But here’s the thing: we can all spare ten minutes. Today. Every day. Instagram and our TV won’t even miss us. And these ten minutes pay for themselves a million times over in stress-reduction, improved decision making, and increased creativity.
Make meditation a habit and you’ll meditate everywhere, everywhen.
I’m not there yet but I am a few months in to fairly steady practice and noticing an undeniable shift. I swear my peripheral vision is wider. I look up more. I can change my mind.
Practice and all is coming, right?
Here’s what mine looks like:
70% Yoga Nidra (a.k.a. yogic sleep, a.k.a. meditation-training-wheels). You lie down (yes!!!), get insanely comfy, and stay awake and aware as the facilitator guides you in slowing your thoughts, witnessing them instead of engaging with them. I’ve practiced with Yoga Nidra every day for the past few months. Well, nearly every day. “Everything in moderation, even moderation,” right?
15% movement meditation (getting into THE ZONE practicing yoga in class or at home)
3% seated meditation. You guys, I get it. Who has the time??
12% vacation meditations. This part’s getting really fun. More on this after I geek on Nidra again…
Geeking Out On Nidra Again
Because you stay awake, Nidra trains you to bring the peace of a dreamless sleep back to your waking life, granting you access to those drifting-off-to-sleep-sandy-and-happy-on-an-afternoon-beach brain waves when your boss is screaming, leaning over you in the board room.
This practice is helping me understanding by degree that responsibility for my reactions, emotions, mental state, and happiness is mine and mine alone, that no pill or person or situation or paycheck is a more powerful agent in this regard. As my favorite band The National sings, “I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain, It went the dull and wicked old merry way.” That’s kinda where I lived before this shift. In the middle of what looked like the time of my life, stressed out of my damn mind for no good reason other than I just hadn’t stopped being stressed. It had become the only way I knew how to think; my go-to response to every situation and passing thought.
I’d gotten myself so stressed that everything overwhelmed me. For years, I packed my 15-minutes-to-deadline-and-the-fucking-printer’s-fucking-broken-FUUUUUCK brainwaves with my bikini, sunscreen, and underwater camera.
The habit of thinking is so difficult to augment because it lurks beneath our awareness. Not to mention all the momentum on the side of thinking the old way.
Nidra has supported me in seeing my thoughts. How can you begin to clean out a hoarder’s house if you can’t see (or feel, or smell, or (oh, oh god.) taste) their belongings.
I’ve met my mind up there.
These vacation meditations are an exercise in being present. Living in the moment. You needn’t be on vacation to enjoy them. They work just as well sitting in traffic, in a completely useless meeting, dentist’s chair, or anywhere else your mind tends to wander and/or freak out.
Notice your thoughts. Where do you go when you’re not here. When you’re not now? Do you go to your past or do you go to the future?
For me, it’s a loopy-hybrid of both. This Havasupai trip, I spent the long walk in watching those thoughts bombard me. The shoulds and the shouldn’t haves. To be honest, I was in a totally shit mood. And it’s no surprise.
“Tapas” is an essential element of success on a yogic path. It burns away that which no longer serves us. “Tapas” means fire. Discipline. Austerity. Burning enthusiasm. Red canyon walls. Direct sunlight. Hiking your dick off.*
Tapas helps us uproot this energy from where it’s stuck. Emotions are energy in motion. My work on the way down was to understand that what I did with those thoughts was my choice. I could tangle up in a cocoon of them or choose to look the other way. Trust me when I say I did both (it’s a really long walk). Often caught up in trying to solve whatever was bothering me and alternatively chastising myself for letting it bother me at all.
Ol’ Albert had it right when he said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” It was not necessary to mentally engage or grapple with these storms.
These thoughts got up to go.
Choosing to look the other way is not running from your problems but rather choosing not to let your problems infiltrate every moment and define you.
Decide not to let them be bigger than they are.
Some will sneak back on the next train but each time I spot them in the Penn Station of my mind and choose to focus on literally anything else, the smaller they loom until they’ve all but faded into the background.
Like seeing an ex whom you’d rather not know anymore across a crowded train platform. If you focus on the fact that they’re there, they’re all you’ll see. You can almost feel their heat next to you, breathing down your neck, 14,000 times larger than life taking up the whole block. And the basement.
Every time we notice them and look away, the less real they feel. The less real they are. The less they command and consume us.
They got up to go and I chose to let them.
Happily, exercising this choice and even the seemingly straightforward acknowledgement that I have a choice has shifted lately from what I’d call a “struggle” (with a capital “S”… and a capital “TRUGGLE,” bolded, underlined, italicized) to a “practice.” Methods so simple it’s insane. Our work is to remember to try. Here are some I’ve used with increasing success, their effects bolstered through repetition:
Grounding myself in the here and now by using my senses. In this hiking example, I tuned in systematically to the
sounds (crunch of my boots, compilation of morning birds, subtleties of my breath),
sights (omfg Havasupai. But really, every time I looked up and really saw where I was I had to stop to take it all in, seeing more detail and curiosity with each passing second)
tastes (mmm… dust, inhaler, plasticine hydration pack water, pretty happy I remembered to brush my teeth this morning…)
smells (the highs of wildflower season flecked with the lows of horse shit)
feels (all of the feels. Bringing attention to how movement felt, to proper alignment, remembering to swing my arms like a cool-kid and feeling the dissolution of tension in my shoulders. Enjoying the breeze and the warmth from the sun and damn… can we go back tomorrow?)
Basically, just cultivating mindfulness, which I’ve defined for myself lately as Mind-Fullness. As in, mind too full of the present moment to have room for anything else. To full of what’s real right now to tarry with grocery lists and mommy issues.
Sometimes I popped my headphones in, focusing entirely on the beat, the words; parsing the instruments; observing how my carefully curated tunes altered my breathing, my energy level; watching as new thoughts arose to replace the old familiar ones, rewriting my stale and painful associations with THE GREATEST CARDIO SONG OF ALL TIME (if you’re an emo kid like me…)
“I find myself searching for old selves while speeding through a plate glass of maturing cells…” fuck. you guys. this song is so good.
Counting breaths helps, as does mindful breath control; e.g., breathing into the low belly, low ribs, heart space, and throat in order, holding at the top feeling the energy concentrated in the skull, and exhaling through the mouth from the throat all the way down to empty, allowing yourself to be devoid of air at the bottom for a beat. Body scans are another great way to come home to the moment.
My favorite meditation surprised and full on delighted me. To exit Havasupai, you walk 8-9 miles and THEN essentially climb Camelback mountain (a Phoenix favorite). Halfway up the interminable switchbacks, I stopped for a breather. Shut my eyes and zoomed in on my racing heart. Riding the waves as it gently slowed. A totally tubular experience that lasted a few seconds and changed everything.
I count myself among the vast majority intimidated by meditation. Aware of the benefits but daunted by the process. I can tell you that a year from now you’ll be glad you started today. Please reach out if you want to start a practice of your own. I’d be truly honored to help find something that works for you. If you’re in AZ, come to my Nidra class. There’s no shame in training wheels (fun fact: my friend Helen learned to ride a bike as an adult in a class with a bunch of strangers and they used them! Because they work! Also, she’s a badass.).
I intended this to be my shortest post yet, yet here we are, vying for longest…
In closing, go take a hike, ya crazy kids. See who you meet there.
*PSA: friends travelling to Havasupai, bring a blister stick and apply liberally to feet before any hiking and, gentlemen, make sure it can double duty as what my friend dubbed “Thigh Gap Medicine.”