Author’s Note: I wrote this for an internal blog post at my company, in January 2020, before COVID-19. I’m posting it here, now, in the hopes it may be helpful to a more general population.
In 2013, it felt like I was at the peak of my life and career. I had recently moved from Yahoo to Google and was enjoying all of the perks, cool technology, and status of being a “Googler.” In my personal life, we had just bought a brand new home, and had finally gotten the electric car we had been eyeing for years. My wife and I were making new friends, strengthening old friendships, getting into food and wine and travel, and even experimenting with holding mini-conferences for friends. I had “made it,” I was one of the “cool kids.”
The thing about peaks, though, is that no matter which direction you look, all paths lead downhill. If you lose focus and let yourself be dazzled by the view, you might accidentally step off a cliff.
Over the next six years, life presented my wife and me with challenge after challenge, on all fronts: work, health, housing, relationships, etc. As we tumbled, we would land on one ledge or one steep hillside, and establish a temporary base camp, just to realize that it was giving way beneath our feet. Often we became separated, without knowing if we’d ever re-find each other. We still don’t know if we’ve hit the bottom. It has hurt. A lot.
However, we never gave up on moving upward. How is it that we were able to persist? Three reasons. First of all, we changed the goal. We no longer look to that same peak as our goal – it was a false peak. We took the opportunity to scout out our surroundings and choose new peaks.
Secondly, we used the challenges as opportunities for growth, and explored new ways of thinking and living we had never previously considered. One important thing we learned and internalized: resilience, focus, equanimity, flexibility – these are all qualities that are helpful in dealing with the challenges of life, and it turns out, qualities that you can learn and strengthen through practice. My deep dives into yoga and mindfulness over the course of recent years were instrumental in teaching me skills and habits necessary to cultivate essential qualities for being a productive, happy, and most importantly, resilient person. My life was so positively impacted that I wrote extensively about what I learned on both HuffPost and on this blog, and gave talks to my friends.
In the end, I consciously decided to leave Google and return to Yahoo, in large part because of the people and relationships I’d built up there. The third reason we’ve been able to weather these challenges? The friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues who have had our backs. Without them (you!), we probably never would have recovered. Gratitude! 🙏
I wanted to give back, so shortly after returning to Yahoo, I started holding two daily meditation “sits” in a conference room at lunchtime. I was often sitting alone in that room. But word spread slowly, and eventually a nascent mindfulness community started forming because, as I had suspected, there was a deep need to learn the same skills I had come to rely on. A couple years later it was time to pass the reins to a new group of leaders who greatly improved on my little sitting group, and now provide all kinds of resources for those at the company interested in mindfulness (classes, sits, talks, apps, articles, mailing lists, slack channels, etc.).
As I traveled the dual path of challenges and mindfulness, I gathered and documented a large number of insights. I know that wisdom is best learned from experience, but I also know, it’s easier to recognize it if you’ve been exposed to it. Here are a handful of insights that I hope you find useful after you’ve pondered them:
- Every single thing that happens in your life is a gift. Every. Single. Thing. The birth of a loved one, the death of a loved one. A marriage, a divorce. A day of health, a day of illness. A decade of health, a decade of illness. Getting a new job, losing an old job. A smooth trip, a trip through jammed traffic. A “successful” venture, a “failed” venture. Every. Single. Thing. Each provides an opportunity for growth, if you choose to approach it with that in mind. Each affords you an opportunity to learn, if you look for the lesson that is uniquely yours to learn. Shifting your attitude to growth and learning is what fundamentally allows you to be resilient in the face of any challenge, and develop a habit of perseverance.
- One of the keys to happiness is learning to separate your expectations from your aspirations. By all means, have hopes, dreams and goals, and strive to achieve them – this is quite literally what gives life meaning. But at the same time, know that you are not 100% in control and that not all of your experiences will go according to plan. Desire does not necessarily lead to suffering. Indeed, without desire, life would be pointless. Rather, failure to separate desire from reality leads to suffering. This is the core idea of the serenity prayer, an utterance used by many to give them the strength to carry on, but importantly, this skill of discernment is not just a gift, but something you can in fact learn through practice, and mindfulness is one path that develops that skill.
- Nothing is really hard. Some things require effort and some things cause suffering, but effort and suffering are both conditions of the mind. Train your mind to make intelligent direction of energy a habit, and to recognize suffering as the temporary result of unnecessary resistance, and suddenly everything is easier. Every single time I find myself procrastinating or evading work, if I examine my motivations closely, it’s usually because I am resisting reality in some way (the other times, I just need to take a nap, go for a walk, or eat something healthful :-).
- “Doing it all” is not an achievable goal, but in the attempt, you discover your true Self. Each direction you try helps you find one of the many boundaries between what you can and cannot do. The art of living consists of skillfully probing each direction in turn, instead of trying to do it all at once. Once you recognize that you’ve gone too far, you can step back to the point of equilibrium at the edge of your Self, and step out in a new direction. In this way, you’re able to realize your own, personal ideal, by expanding your perception of who you are to meet the reality of who you actually are. This is what is meant by manifestation – realizing your true potential.
- Do you ever get that feeling, when you’re thinking about the past, that it all seems like a dream? That’s because…it is! The past, and the future, are only figments of your imagination, meaning, they only “exist” in the neural circuitry of your brain. When you think about who you are, don’t confuse it with who you were. That person is just a ghost in the brains of a few people, including you. The only true reality is the present. Be real, be here, now. Choose your next step with a will, instead of just continuing the way you were traveling. Plodding forward blindly, without constantly checking your situation both internally and externally, will just get you lost.
When this journey started, if you had asked me what the meaning of life was, I’d have honestly said I had no clue. Although I didn’t set out to answer that question, it somehow naturally emerged, and amazingly can be summed up in 6 words. For me, personally, the meaning of life is: Improve Your Self, Improve Your World. Whenever I pause, which is often, I try to ask myself – is what I’m doing or thinking serving one of those two goals? If it is not, I know that I can safely lay it aside. I don’t ask that you agree with my meaning, but you can take it as food for thought, a seed towards discovering your own meaning. If you’re looking for tools to help you on your journey, feel free to reach out to me, the mindfulness community, or someone you know personally who has also weathered the storm. You are not alone.
- May you heal steadily, swiftly, and completely.
- May you live without anxiety, fear, or pain.
- May you change the things you can and accept what you can’t.
- May you know that you are loved.
- May you find your true self, happiness, and peace. 🙏