Let me start by saying, I’m a loser. One of my goals for the year was to publish a blog post every week. For those of you counting at home, the last two weeks have come and gone without your weekly dose of Fired and Free fireside chats over terminations, productivity tips, personal insecurities, or parenting battles with my children. The Dan from several years ago would have ruthlessly beaten myself up over this. Today’s Dan hardly cares. Sh*t happens and I refuse to sacrifice my self-worth for an imaginary goal. While goals are great, in my opinion, mission and values are more important and I have been living in line with both over these past 2 weeks.
What then have I been doing that could possibly be more important than writing a couple of blog posts? I’ve been spending time with my family (spring break) and myself. I’ll save the camping stories of my children’s pyro-technics around the camp fire and their attempts to jump off a cliff while hiking for another day. This post is all about me (kinda, sorta, not really).
To “celebrate” my 40th birthday, I decided to pass up; a pizza party at Chuck E’ Cheese, a drug-filled rave in Mykonos, and an Instagram worthy summit of Everest. Instead, I chose to get really f’ing wild and live in silence for 7 days at an old monastery in the woods of New York. What better way to kick-off the next 40, 50, or 60 years of my life than going deep into my inner psyche and seeing what is left to uncover!?
What I found is that while my outsides are beginning to age and show wisdom with the graying of hair, the loss of hair (head), and the addition of hair (nose, ears, back, etc.), my insides are still inexperienced with much to learn. If I took nothing away from a week talking only within my head, I took away the realization that I am 40 years old going on 4. Put simply, I have a lot to learn and I feel as though I know less about the world than at any other point in my life.
As this was my second 7-day silent meditation retreat, having completed another in 2017 and where I described the week here, I had some expectations as to how my second go at silence would unfold. Namely, I would meditate A LOT and experience periods of relaxation, then face giant thunderclaps of anxiety, followed by the most amazing bliss, followed by mind ravaging anxiety again, followed by a splattering of some more bliss, followed by WHAT THE F*CK AM I DOING HERE!!?? What better way to celebrate a 40th birthday, right?
In my possibly sick or sadistic opinion, there is no better way to kick off the second half of my life. While cake and booze are fun, the insights realized during my silent party will stick with me forever. It’s a present that will keep giving too – not only giving to myself, but to my family, friends, and others in the modest orbit I revolve within. You too, dear reader, can reap the rewards of my week in silence. Let me explain.
What drew me to meditation was a feeling of disappointment and despair. In 2014, I had the wife, daughter, friends, job, home, and car of my dreams. At 35 years old, I had rushed to successfully achieve the American Dream. With much naïveté, I thought realization of this dream would bring happiness. Instead what I found was constant stress, anger, and sadness. After screaming and yelling at my 18-month-old daughter one day, I knew I had to make a change. As someone who has always eaten healthy foods and exercised, the answers weren’t to be found in another nutrition fad or weightlifting program. While I didn’t know it at the time, the answers needed to be found within.
In an act of desperation, I turned to meditation. What started as a means to relieve stress has morphed into a tool for increased awareness. With an increase in awareness, I have begun to identify patterns, emotions, and beliefs in my life that may have served me well in the past, but now hold me back. Today, I feel as though I am unleashing superpowers I didn’t know I had – namely, the ability to peel back layers of the onion of “me.” However, just like Neo experienced in the Matrix, sometimes going down the rabbit hole leads to scary and unexpected realizations.
For instance, finding out I have wrongly judged people for the better part of 40 years hasn’t been the easiest pill to swallow. Up until just a couple of years ago, if you identified yourself as religious, my first thought was probably something along the lines of, “fake news” or “quit wasting your time.” Today, I am happy to report these judgements no longer control my mind. When they do appear, I gently push them aside and welcome hearing about anyone’s religious or spiritual beliefs and can do so with an open frame of reference.
By developing the skill of awareness through my daily meditation practice, I have not eliminated the thoughts in my head, but I have gained the ability to see past these thoughts. I am certainly not perfect, but when talking to someone and finding out they attend Christian Baptist Jehovah Mormon Fundamentalist services, the thought, “weirdo” might still pop into my mind. The difference is, now, I can calmly brush that rash, terrible, and uncalled for judgement to the side, not attach myself to it and continue with the conversation I was having, without prejudice.
In attending this recent retreat, I spent a good deal of time exploring the question, “if I do not attach myself to my thoughts, then who am I?” After much meditation, I have come to the very confusing conclusion that I am NOT my thoughts. As this is a conclusion that has taken the better part of 4 years to formulate, I cannot pretend to assume I can convey its importance and meaning to anyone reading this post. I barely understand this revelation myself! However, what follows is my best attempt to do so…
All my life I have been operating with the assumption that my thoughts are my own. They come from my mind (or do they?) and my mind is mine. So therefore, my thoughts are mine. But in analyzing my life, what is actually mine?
I didn’t choose my name or ancestry. Therefore, does the family I “come from” actually make me, me?
I didn’t choose my gender, skin color, hair color, height, or other physical features. Therefore, are my physical characteristics actually me?
I didn’t choose to be born to a loving, American middle-class family. Therefore, is my “American’ness” actually me?
I didn’t choose to be raised in a suburban home outside of Washington, DC where I attended a solid public school system. Therefore, is my Mid-Atlantic accent and the education I received actually me?
I didn’t choose to NOT be abused physically or mentally during childhood (other than getting beaten up on the bus and playground a couple of times). Therefore, is my lack of fear and anger towards others actually me?
I didn’t choose to have had over 40 stitches for a variety of childhood incidents. Therefore, are all of these scars actually me?
I didn’t choose to be hired or fired from any of my jobs. Therefore, are the opportunities that were presented to me and the experience I gained from these employment situations actually me?
I didn’t choose to meet my wife (she found me on match.com). Therefore, does the amazing and loving relationship I have with her and the two wonderful children we have, make me, me?
All of these factors add up to this – by subjective standards, everything I have been given and experienced has created Dan. However, “me” or the “me” I feel inside, is not defined as a 40 year old, 5’6” white man that speaks with a Mid-Atlantic American accent who was educated by a public school system in Montgomery County, who was never abused, who has been hired and fired from jobs, who has a ton of scars and who is married to a wonderful spouse with two beautiful children. This sentence doesn’t come close to defining who “I” am. What these descriptors are, is a summary of my identity and how it operates within this world. “Me” is something you can’t see or even feel. The same way I used to wrongly see others as “religious weirdos,” you see me with your own eyes, judgements, experience, and beliefs. But you don’t see the true “me.”
You can’t see “me.” You can’t see “me,” because I barely know who “me” is. If I don’t know who I am, how can you?
Which brings me back to my thoughts. If all of these life experiences I have lived and genetics I have received do not constitute my true, “me,” then my thoughts have to be looked at in the same light.
The thoughts that pop up in my mind have NOT been chosen by me. Here’s a quick example…
I’m a Washington Nationals baseball fan because I live in the DC Metro area. When I see a Philadelphia Phillies fan, the thought that jumps up is usually something like, “jerk” as the Phillies and Nats are rivals. I didn’t choose to have this thought. I don’t even know where the thought came from. If I was born in Yemen or Tibet, it’s doubtful I would ever have a negative thought towards a Phillies fan, because it’s doubtful anyone from Yemen or Tibet even knows what a Philadelphia Phillie is.
The same is true of the judgements and thoughts I used to have towards people who were religious. I wasn’t raised religious and had trouble understanding the benefits of spirituality or religious teachings. My ignorance lead to thoughts of distrust for institutions I knew little about. Therefore, my thoughts weren’t “mine” – they were created by my surroundings and experiences or lack thereof.
If you aren’t completely confused and have made it this far, I applaud your reading resiliency. I mentioned previously that attending this retreat was a present not only for me, but for you. Here is where you benefit. In knowing that my thoughts are not mine, this does not absolve me from every terrible idea that pops into my head about Phillies fans or those who are religious. In fact, by knowing these thoughts are not mine, I have a greater responsibility not to listen to them and disregard the thoughts for the garbage they are. By continuing to distance myself from the junk that swims in my head, I can reduce the amount of mental trash I put out into your world.
As I move forward into my forty first year of existence, I do so more confused than ever. I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I think, and I don’t know what the future holds. When I scan my mind for something safe to hold onto, my thoughts don’t provide much comfort. My gut on the other hand is a little more supportive and offers a word I haven’t used for nearly my entire life – faith. Faith I am on the right path even though I don’t know where it goes.
Photo is of the Garrison Institute where “I” attended a 7 day silent retreat.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.