Today I want to talk about life, and specifically how in the last six months, mine has changed.
I’m at this age where I’ve graduated from college, and haven’t yet moved onto a career, and people ask me constantly, “What are you going to do?” And every time they ask me, I know that (sadly) they are referring to what type of job I’m after. And every time I’m thinking to myself, Shit, good question, while feeling slightly annoyed, and answering: “Right now I’m just trying to build a good network.”
What’s changed for me is not that I now know what I want to do career-wise. What’s changed is that I’m clearer about the way I want to live, the way I want to act, and the way I want to think, which I believe is far more important.
When I look back and think about the catalyst behind this very real, very important shift in mindset, it comes down to two incredibly basic, yet infinitely rewarding things: reading and meditation. Reading has led me to more knowledge, wisdom, truth, whatever you want to call it. Meditation has helped me become aware of how busy, clouded and insane my mind often is, and given me a mental exercise to learn how to live more presently.
I know what you’re thinking, oh jeez, here we go, this guy’s gonna tell me I need to learn some shit and get all zen.
It’s not entirely like that. I want to tell you the story of how and why those two practices entered my life, and so drastically changed it for the better, because I believe we can all benefit from the combination of these two things.
It started when a friend of mine turned me onto Tim Ferris’s podcast. One morning I was listening to an interview between Tim and Ramit Sethi, a successful finance blogger, and Tim had Ramit share what he felt were the most impactful reads of his life. And he mentioned Never Eat Alone, in which Keith Ferrazzi explains his logic and strategies behind focusing on networking as the road to “success.”
Sometimes I put success in quotes because we all define it differently. For some it’s making a bunch of money. For others it’s being in an awesome relationship. For me, it’s achieving a high default-level of happiness (which we’ll revisit later).
So I read Never Eat Alone, and it was wonderful and I highly recommend reading it. In his book, Ferrazzi details what he calls his “Relationship Action Plan” (RAP). It’s basically a system to develop and achieve goals for the near and slightly-down-the-line future, to have a clear time-frame in which to achieve them, and to continue building your network. And one of the goals that I wrote down was to read 100 books over the next three years.
To some that sounds like a lot, and to other not many at all. It works out to about one book every couple of weeks on average, and that’s what really led me to getting in the habit of reading. Although I haven’t looked at my RAP in a while, and my current focus and goals look different than what I wrote down six months ago, the goal of reading more stuck.
Now I’m reading every chance I get, and it’s become totally addicting. The first of a series of eye-opening and inspiring books that I read was The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, which is a rad combination of history and philosophy that really made me think. I read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts and it completely altered the way I look at travel. And then I read Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, and my life will never be the same because of it.
I also started a commonplace book, another completely invaluable addition to my life.
Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives
Millman’s book is basically the story of his life and the lessons he learned from his grandfather, whom he refers to in the story as ‘Socrates,’ while he was in college at UC Berkley. It’s a mostly true story with some fictional embellishments, and I’m eternally grateful to my friend Moss for having turned me onto it. It changed my entire perspective on everything, it was that powerful. If you read around a bit, you will find that it’s been just as powerful to thousands of others around the world as well.
While I wouldn’t dare attempt to summarize the story, because I wouldn’t remotely do it justice, I want to share one of many insightful metaphors, analogies, and stories from the book. It takes place in a dream:
“I am in darkness at the foot of a great mountain, searching under every stone for a precious jewel. The valley is covered in darkness, so I can’t find the jewel… Then I look up at the shining mountain peak. If the jewel is to be found, it must be at the top. I climb and climb, beginning an arduous journey that takes many years. At last I reach my journey’s end. I stand bathed in the bright light… My eyesight is clear now, yet the jewel is nowhere to be found. I look upon the valley far below, where I began the climb many years ago. Only then do I realize that the jewel has always been within me, even then, and that the light had always shined. Only my eyes had been closed.”
The precious jewel, to me, representing happiness and fulfillment. The darkness, representing the human condition, the ultimate misunderstanding. The long, arduous journey, representing our lives working our way up the totem pole. Putting in those hard hours at work to get that raise, thinking that when we make more money, and we can buy that house, or that car, or attract that gorgeous girl, we’ll have it all and that’s when life will be perfect, only to wake up and realize one day that even though you’ve gotten all those things, all that stuff, you’re still not that happy, and you haven’t figured out why. And lastly, that look back down the valley far below, representing your perspective from your deathbed, looking back on your life and seeing it clearly for the first time.
I for one, do not take this shit lightly. I do not want to be that old person in that deathbed, wanting to kick myself for not figuring out what’s truly important much much sooner, but not being able to because I’m fucking old and my limbs don’t work like they used to.
So how do I stop that from happening?
Illuminating the Darkness
As Socrates says, “Be happy now, without reason- or you never will be at all.” But I will tell you from experience that this is easier said than done. There is a psychology concept called The Hedonic Treadmill, which states that individuals have a certain level of happiness, and that even when insanely awesome or atrociously awful things happen in our lives, we generally revert back to our normal happiness level.
One writer that I’m particularly obsessed with, Tim Urban, talks about this in his article Religion for the Nonreligious. It seems to him that the key is to slowly but surely ramp up our default happiness-setting. He incorporates meditation as part of his strategy, which I understand the importance of now more than ever.
Winning the Battle Between Your Ears
Meditation is a funny thing. It’s a funny thing to talk about. It’s a funny thing to try for the first time, the second, and even the third. And when you think of monks at a monastery sitting there with their bald heads and orange robes, that’s funny too.
I mentioned earlier how I had been listening to the Tim Ferris Show. One thing that Tim loves to ask all the really smart, interesting people that he interviews on his show, is what their daily routine is. Meditation kept coming up in almost every interview. I couldn’t ignore it, because one minute he’d be talking with a writer, the next show with someone in tech, the next show with someone in finance, and they’re all bringing up meditation. All of these individuals who are very skilled in completely different ways, were practicing regularly.
So my intrigue was officially sparked.
The first meditation app I downloaded was called Simply Being. It was okay. It just had different options for time and background noises like a waterfall or the sound of waves. I tried that for a little while, without much success or enjoyment.
Then I stumbled onto Headspace. After my first session, I was sold. I was their new number-one fan.
There is a process to meditation that I didn’t understand until it was laid out clearly for the first time during Take Ten- the free, ten minutes per day for ten days challenge. When I finished the tenth session, and the option came up on the screen to subscribe for more Headspace, I did so without a second thought, and I would have paid a lot more for it. That’s how much I liked it. That’s how much value I instantly saw in it.
Since I started using the app four months ago, I’ve spent seventeen hours in seated meditation, according to my stats page. I have good sessions, and bad ones, easy days and hard days. Sometimes I can quiet my mind easily and comfortably. Other times its a struggle. I’ve experienced moments of euphoria, and moments where I feel like I’m suffocating.
With all it’s ups and downs, overall it has been probably the biggest game-changer addition to my life of all time. The thing about our minds is:
“Hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary adaptations geared toward animal survival in a rough world are very much rooted in our DNA, and the primitive impulses in us have birthed a bunch of low-grade qualities- fear, pettiness, jealousy, greed, instant-gratification, etc. Those qualities are the remnants of our animal past and still a prominent part of our brains, creating a zoo of small-minded emotions and motivations in our heads…”
What Tim Urban points out here makes sense, but because I’ve been practicing meditation it’s even clearer, and with an increased awareness of how my mind operates, I get to see just how ugly a place it can often be. We love to pay attention to the importance of our body health, but we too often forget to nurture our mental health, and let’s remember that the two are connected.
What I’ve realized personally is that my mind naturally creates a lot of tensions and stresses for no real reason, and not only do they mess with my head but I can actually feel them in my body. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. Meditation and reading work together in this beautiful harmony that relaxes me.
For example, meditation has given me the benefit of observing how my mind operates (in crazy fashion), while reading has given me the benefit of understanding why (deeply rooted in evolution). Meditation has also given me a way to live more presently, while reading has helped me understand why that’s important.
So my life has changed, but what does that actually look like on the surface?
Where I’m At and Where I’m Headed
I’m 24 years old, and I’ve lived a privileged life. I’m an only child with amazing parents, who by owning their own business were able to afford, and willing to support me in pretty much everything I have ever wanted to do. I have a college degree under my belt, that they paid for. I’ve surfed the waves that I spent a lifetime dreaming about. And I’ve stayed relatively healthy throughout.
Now shouldn’t a person with that kind of luck be like really, really stoked most of the time?
I think they’d be sadly mistaken not to be. And still, I have so many moments of confusion, anxiousness, nervousness, jealousy. And how easily I can ditch empathy, and lose sight of the bigger picture.
I hate to use the word enlightened, but that’s how I feel. I think of enlightenment not as being black or white, either you have it or you don’t, but as a spectrum of the less and the more enlightened- we all have it, just some more than others. I’ve just moved towards what I feel is the more desirable end of the spectrum.
I think now is the moment to share my last Socrates quote, that is:
“If a blind man realizes that he can see, has the world changed?”
I’m living in the same world that I was living in six months ago. What’s different is the way that I see it.
There is a picture in my head of the person that I want to be. The one that never takes his family for granted. The one who doesn’t rush his way through life until he looks back one day and wonders where the time went. The one who is non-reactive, who’s unfazed when people are dicks and understands that most of them probably aren’t dicks all the time. The one who finds himself in a horrible situation and laughs because he genuinely thinks it’s funny. The one who is relaxed in his body and his mind. The one that always loves, and never hates.
The goal is to reach the intangible stuff. The stuff you can’t touch that makes life so much richer. I know I’m a long ways off from the end of the tunnel, but I’m on the right track, and through reading and meditation, it is my belief that you can come along with me.
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