Journey

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There is something in me that constantly searches. I want to become better, I want to grow and change. It’s a voice that whispers incessantly, “Further. Keep going.” There’s no turning it off or changing its tune. There is only ignoring it or listening to it, and I spend my life alternating between these approaches. It’s patient, this thing inside of me. It perches in my chest and waits for me to come back around. I always do.

As I walk this pilgrimage that is life, I find myself open to any tools, methods, or experiences that will help to push me further. To make me better. I might be painfully reserved in other aspects of my life, but in self-improvement I am fearless, relentless. I am a warrior. I tear through books and online articles and weekend workshops. I treat my life as a laboratory, experimenting with diets, daily regimens, esoteric practices. The books on my shelf get steadily stranger and stranger as I spelunk down the rabbit hole. In recent years I have taken a deep dive into meditation, yoga, reiki, qi gong, traditional Chinese medicine. And down, down, the path we go.

My first experience with ayahuasca was two years ago. I had heard of plant medicines before but they seemed like the type of thing for only a medicine woman or a madman lost in the desert. As the South American practice popped into my readings more and more I started to warm to the idea that this spiritual brew might be useful. It is not at all uncommon in Silicon Valley circles and plenty of famous visionaries have been known to explore the fringes of human consciousness (Steve Jobs was quite outspoken about the virtues of psychedelics, for example). When I discovered that Paul Simon used ayahuasca, I was sold. Besides, wasn’t I a madman lost in the desert?

One does not simply buy ayahuasca off the internet and drink it one night during reruns of The Office. This is a serious and sacred spiritual undertaking and requires weeks of physical and mental preparation. Meditation, fasting, and abstinence are all part of the regimen, and the dietary restrictions are severe. If undertaken sincerely, these practices inevitably cause emotional upheaval. After a week or two I’m usually ready to snap at anyone who looks at me funny and then go cry into my cereal. And really, maybe that’s the point — to get these raw emotions to the surface so the medicine can work on them. It’s a sacrifice, but no one promised that radical life changes would come easily.

The brew itself is a foul-tasting green concoction made from vines, leaves, and other natural substances. It is difficult to drink, as if to remind you that it is difficult to change. I always find myself both nervously dreading and eagerly anticipating a ceremony. What keeps me coming back to it is that I’m not sure what my alternative is…I can’t go on resenting my loved ones and wallowing in a stew of depression and anxiety. I just can’t. So I get off of my ass and I do the work. Exploring the depths of your inner life takes a courage and an honesty that are rare in today’s society. Only warriors need apply.

Once you gather your courage and get the pungent elixir down your throat, what follows is a six hour journey through what I call “the world behind the world”. Each time is different — you may see visions or hear music or visit other realms, but not always. It is common to weep. Or laugh. I bring a notebook and scratch away at it for hours in the dark. The only certainty is that you will be guided (either gently or otherwise) to confront the darkness inside of you that you have been running from for far too long. The shortcomings and mistakes that have been holding you back are laid bare and you have no choice but to regard them. This is why we do it: to finally draw a line in the sand, determined to look at ourselves with a fearless honesty.

This is not meant to be a solitary journey. When I partake of this odyssey I am surrounded by other pilgrims, searchers and warriors just like me. To my left and to my right are companions who are fighting alongside me and with me. The room is filled with music, both haunting and reassuring, to guide us along. We share our lives with each other and cry and laugh together in a rare space of unconditional love. Their stories are mine (and yours); strained relationships, broken families, staggering loss. We all come to the medicine for the same reason — not because we are whole, but because we wish to be.

Medicine — that’s the only word for it. Ayahuasca has been the catalyst of more growth in my life than hours upon hours of counseling. I awake after the experience with fresh eyes and the clear knowledge of what needs to change in my daily thoughts and actions. I leave with a list of relationships that need rekindling, tasks left too long undone, words that need to be spoken. I am a different man when I return, yet more myself than ever.

There is no such thing as a magic potion. There is no pill that can save you from your struggles. Ayahuasca does not make all of your problems magically disappear — they are all still right where you left them, waiting for you when you get home. But choosing to explore yourself and to be honest about what’s inside of you will bring you healing and peace and strength for the journey.

Important

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This was a difficult year. Tonight I’ll raise a glass to the end of it. Maybe a few glasses. I’ve earned them.

I had a strong feeling, around this time twelve months ago, that it was going to be a very important year. That prediction proved to be all too true, though important doesn’t always mean easy or fun– in fact it rarely does. This year was important in the way that an appendectomy is. When it’s time for it, you have to do it, ready or not. Nobody wants to get ripped open and have painful stuff cut out of them, but what’s the alternative?

Besides, pain brings lessons. Now that it’s almost over and I’m poised to dive into the unknown waters of next year, I can look back with wiser eyes and see the lessons that were begging to be learned. For me, they were all about being present.

Lesson 1: Let the past stay in the past. I didn’t realize how much anger I was carrying around inside until I started to let it out. I even scared myself with some of my unexpected outbursts this year, though they needed to be expressed. Now that I’ve given these thoughts voice I realize that no one has wronged me and I’m not owed any apologies, period. Anger mostly leaves me alone these days.

Lesson 2: Let the future stay in the future. I’ve been operating at alarming levels of anxiety for too long. This pervasive fear that has gripped me is common but not normal, and it’s time to stop worrying about what could be. I have everything that I need and there’s no fight or quest or achievement to be sought. It’s time to just enjoy where I’m at for once. Tomorrow will work itself out.

Simple lessons, sure. It’s not like I didn’t know them. Yoda has been preaching for decades that fear and anger lead to a dark place. But wisdom doesn’t come from hearing sermons or reading about other people’s experiences or watching awesome sci-fi movies. Wisdom only comes from struggle, and struggle means pain. And pain teaches the lesson.

So I’ll raise a glass to the closing year, thanking it for all of the pain. I’m a stronger, better person than I was before. Here’s to a slightly less important New Year.

First

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I did it. I wrote a book.

It’s a first draft and it needs heavy editing before I’d show it to anyone, but it exists. After all those years of doubt and excuses and hearing negative voices in my head, now the question is finally settled. Can I do it? Yes, yes I definitely can. Because I did. My first book.

Firsts are magical, aren’t they? It’s so exciting to do something you’ve never done before.  I remember my first job, my first kiss, my first musical performance. There’s a sense of adventure and danger involved that makes life feel so malleable. You don’t really know if you can accomplish something until you’ve done it. Even if you fail at something, there’s still the possibility that you could succeed in the future. So failure doesn’t answer the question, only postpones it. Can you do it? Go do it and find out.

As a staunch creature of habit, I feel there’s something to be said for repetition. Doing the same thing over and over again invites a sense of stability into life. Practice makes perfect and all. But growth requires something else, a sacrifice of the comfortable and familiar to welcome an opening to possibility. Chaos and order need to be carefully balanced so that life can flourish in the cracks between. It is this push and pull that lets us shape new things. Like a book, for instance.

Now I need to edit it. I’ve never edited a book before. This will be exciting.

 

Pendulum

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A pendulum swings.

A pendulum keeps time. Keeps the beat. After all, that’s it’s purpose. Without the oscillation there would be no rhythm, no use. It finds its way to the center, its home, but forgets to stop. Correct and over-correct, constantly displaced. How many times does it carve out this path?

There is a point on the journey where the pendulum says “enough”. More than enough. This path has been traveled to its conclusion. And it begins to turn its swing in the other direction, back toward equilibrium. Back to home. There’s another beat waiting there to be struck and it simply won’t do to miss it. And so it turns.

It is at this instant of syncopation, in the space between moments, that a wonderful thing happens. If you’re attentive you can catch it, the split-second where the pendulum is no longer moving. When it can no longer be said to be traveling in this direction, but not yet in that one either. It stands in place, however briefly, entirely at rest. This is eternity. Utter stillness amid perpetual motion.

May this be that moment, peace both fleeting and forever.

Show up

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Dear Self,

No. Just stop. Stop.

Stop performing your life for an audience. Relax and let whatever comes out come out. You are not rotten. You are not broken. You are beautiful inside and it will all come out naturally beautiful. There is no impending judgment. Only this moment, right now. Where are you right now? Be here where your power lies.

Pick up the sword and start fighting the correct battle. You will win. All you have to do is show up. Stop running. Stand still. This is a good place to be. The sun is out. Amelia is cleaning her fur on the bed. You have a pen in your hand and it is moving. This is what you want. You’ve done it. There is nothing else to do but be here. Here is your strength. You don’t need anything else. Live here.

Stop building in imaginary futures and lamenting that you aren’t there. Build here. It will stick.

You have been so absent. No more! Your life is here and if you don’t show up soon they’re going to start auctioning off all your stuff. Nothing is wrong here, only in that place to which you’ve abandoned yourself. Turn off the mind for a little while and see what happens. This is a good time for it. Things are stable and everything can wait. Try living your life. You might like it.

Love, You.

Fighting

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I thought I was fighting for us, but maybe I’m just fighting. Maybe it’s time to put down the damn sword and let natural things occur. I might be being selfish. Is fighting for things selfish?

There’s no clear way to determine when it’s time to give up. Have I done enough? I’ve done an awful lot more than anyone could understand. Few would have made it this far. Does that make me a doormat? Stupid? Tough? Stubborn? Kind? Who’s supposed to judge these things? Do I really have to just figure all this stuff out on my own? What if I fuck it up?

WHAT IF I FUCK IT UP? What’s the backup plan? Who comes to save me? Me?? This is a terrible plan. I shouldn’t be trusted with this shit. I’m damn unreliable in these situations and this is super important stuff. I can’t do this without a lifeline of some sort.

At least let me phone a friend.

Authentic

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Dear Self,

You are gripped by an anger that won’t let go. Your entire body is shaking involuntarily as your eyes stare off, unfocused, into the distant nothing. There’s a burning in the pit of your stomach, an ache behind your ribcage. It would be so easy to give up now.

It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. You deserve so much more than you’re getting. All of these things are true, not that it helps. You could blow it all up if you wanted to, and you’d be right to do it. Who could blame you after this?

Deep breathing isn’t working. Peace seems like an impossibility — not just now, but ever again. How could anything go back to the way it was? Maybe it was never that good…maybe you were just fooling yourself because you didn’t want to see this.

Anger is whispering dark words in your voice.

There’s no advice that will help today. Sometimes you just have to sit in a feeling with no escape, no relief. Feel it. Allow it. Listen to the voice and understand what has to say. Whatever action you choose next will be authentic and it will be yours.

Love, You.

Bad Beat

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I’m staring at two diamonds in my hand and two on the board, with one card still to come. My opponent just placed a bet and is staring daggers across the table at me, as if his scowl could affect my decision. I consider the situation: if a diamond comes out next I will hit the flush and win, otherwise my hand is a steaming pile of crap. Should I call his bet and take the risk, or is the smart move to walk away with what remains of my money and live to fight another day?

Luckily there’s a clear answer to this very common situation, and (surprise!) it’s math.

Time for some quick mental calculation while everyone’s staring at me. There are 52 cards in a deck and I can see exactly six of them: two in my hand and four on the table. Of the 46 cards I can’t see, some are in my opponent’s hand, some have already been folded or mucked, and the majority are still in the deck that’s being dealt. Since I don’t have any information whatsoever about any of these cards, it doesn’t help me to think about these different categories. I just know that there are 46 possible cards that could come out next and exactly 9 of them are diamonds. A roughly 20% chance of making my hand. Not worth it, right?

Hold on a minute. Knowing the odds of success is extremely helpful because it tells me that I’ll win this hand about 1 out of every 5 times I play it (or 4:1 odds against). But there’s one more piece of information I need before either pushing my chips in or licking my wounds. How much did the sucker across from me just bet, relative to the pot? If he made a large bet, I’ll happily fold. Risking a lot on a slim chance of victory is just dumb. If, however, my opponent has made a blunder by betting too little, well then we might just be in business here. Let’s say the pot was already $500 and he just bet another $100. I’d be looking to risk $100 to win $600…and I’d win 1 out of every 5 times. I walk through five example hands in my mind: lose $100, lose $100, lose $100, lose $100, win $600. I come out ahead in the long run and I’m going to take that bet every time. Come on, diamond!

Stressful situations like this at the poker table are rife with opportunity — especially if you’re playing with my friends. Most of them just ‘play from their gut’ or some ridiculous nonsense. It makes it especially satisfying to see that last diamond come out and to hear them marvel at how I knew it would happen. But I didn’t know. I just played the odds. More often than not, a useless card comes out and they guffaw at how dumb my move was as they are scooping up all of the chips and I’m excusing myself to go puke. Regardless of the outcome, I sleep well at night knowing I made the smart move. Over time the chips eventually find their way home to me.

My relationship with the stock market is much the same, really. I place a large number of reasonable bets, knowing that they won’t all pan out. As in poker, the point is not to win hands but to win money.  I continue to collect a bunch of small losses and large gains, watching my portfolio get larger and larger as the years march on. It’s no different a feel than ‘gambling’: I’m still putting my money down on the table because I think I’m observant and astute enough to come out ahead, and I still don’t sweat the inevitable dud.

Due to my good “luck” in the stock market during my early thirties, I found myself in a position to make an even larger bet. I started my own business. As always, I analyzed the odds and carefully considered the risk/reward topography before committing my proverbial chips to the pot. This one was worth a shot.

What came next wasn’t a diamond. It was more like a club.

I’ve struggled for two years with the fallout of that decision. Anger, self-loathing, despair. It’s so easy to retroactively question my decision or to invent reasons to blame myself for circumstances out of my control. At the end of the day, we have to own our choices and play the hand we’re dealt.

Today I started my second business. This one is worth a shot. Knowing that a play like this might work out about one in five times is enough to make it worthwhile. It was basically my entire dating strategy, before I won that whole damn game (2016 champ).

Like poker, life is a game of both skill and luck. All you need is a chip and a chair, and you can start to climb your way up the ladder one decision at a time. Fortune comes and fortune goes. Just because you get a bad beat, it doesn’t mean you made the wrong move.

Companion

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I love my mother. She is there for me.

When the kids came, my mother stopped working so she could stay at home with us. She returned to her career after we were all in school and old enough to survive on our own, but for many years she was my constant companion. I was a bookish boy in the heyday of video games, which is to say I spent a lot of time at home.

When my gang of young friends would hang out, the mothers would swap turns in hosting the two or three or four of us (and it was always the mothers). It probably wasn’t as taxing at it sounds. Back then, parents could just say “Go somewhere and be back for dinner” and kick us out of the house. We would run out the front door to wherever our imagination called us. Usually exploring a creek or biking to the pool. More often, we were sitting quietly in front of a television set with Nintendo controllers in our hands. When we were hungry, sandwiches and macaroni and cheese would appear magically from the kitchen at just the right time.

She’s always loved to watch me play video games. She’d sit there for hours yelling “Get him!” or “Look out!” while folding loads of laundry. She’d listen to my explanations of the storyline and let me know when she thought one of the characters was a prude. I always felt important around her. The things I cared about mattered.

It’s a full-time job, running a household. Especially the tight ship she ran. My mother was never off the clock. If there was a mess, she’d clean it. The laundry never ended. She did all of the grocery shopping, the cooking, the mopping, the dishes, the ironing. Hell, I had a packed lunch waiting for me on the kitchen table every morning, straight through high school — a brown paper bag with stickers on the front. Stickers. Every day. For fifteen years. Sometimes she’d slip a nice note inside: “Hope you have a wonderful day, Love, your mom”.

I remember the first time I had my heart broken by a girl. My mom told me, “Don’t worry. You’re a great guy and there are lots of girls out there. One day you’re going to meet the one who is meant for you and she’s going to be amazing.” We had that same conversation over and over through my teens and my twenties and my thirties.

No one else fed me. No one else watched me. She was the one who yelled if we tried to shirk table clearing duties after dinner. She nursed my first bee sting, which must have been a very traumatic experience for me because I’m completely terrified of the little demons to this day. She taught me about god and politics and what it means to be a great neighbor.

She bought me my first comic book.

I get a call about once a week from my mother asking me how I’m doing. I’m doing great because I’ve never been alone.

A Still Moment

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I was only going to get one shot at this (I hoped). Everything had to be perfect. She certainly was.

The ring box was burning a hole in my carry-on luggage and my mind for the entire trip there. I was so worried that they would open it up during security screening and my surprise would be spoiled. That was silly, I knew. Why would they need to bring attention to it? They’ve seen this kind of thing a million times and know better than to mess up my big moment. This was just jitters.

It was more likely that she knew it was coming already. I’m not great at hiding things, though I had given it my best effort. The meetings with the jeweler were conducted clandestinely during work hours, as we carefully designed a ring that I would be proud to present and that she would be proud to wear. The sizing happened at night while she was in one of her deep slumbers, slipping each of her own rings onto her finger until I found one that fit like a secret glass slipper. I told the jeweler my firm budget and then spent twice that. I went with an asscher-cut solitaire sandwiched between two trapezoidal stones to make sure it mesmerized. They told me the stone was internally flawless and I knew it was hers.

Once finalized, the gorgeous ring was stashed away: in a box, in a bag, in another bag, in the back of the closet. It was unlikely that she would discover it accidentally and almost as unlikely that she’d find it if she went searching. Still, I checked on it almost daily. I didn’t like sitting on such an expensive item. Secrets weighed heavily on my heart.

I thought for sure she would know it was coming when I asked her to go on a trip out of the country. Such a telegraphed move, but what else could I do? Life had been so difficult lately, with the business obviously failing and the stresses of life piling up with the bills. I told her we needed to get away and she agreed.

The ring was a special sort of problem, as I had to carry the bulky box on my person at all times. I certainly wasn’t about to let it out of my sight or leave it in anyone else’s care. It would be a miracle if she didn’t ask me what the heck I had in my pocket. I resigned myself to carry out the plan and hope she at least acted surprised when the time came. She’s nice enough to do that.

We boarded the cruise ship and discovered that they had booked us in a room with bunk beds. This was not part of the plan. Was the mistake mine or theirs? It definitely didn’t sound like a mistake I would have made…I’m a notorious triple-checker and this was important to me. I asked kindly if they could move us, but it was impossible. We would be sleeping in bunk beds for the trip. So be it. The plan still moves forward.

Once we were all settled and the only thing left to do was relax, I started to panic. This was as far as I’d gotten in the planning. Where would I pop the question? What would I say? What would SHE say? I insisted on bringing my backpack with me when we arrived at our first port: Key West. She asked why I needed it and I snapped off some feeble excuse and changed the subject. She had to know. It was time to put an end to all the secrecy. As we wandered around Key West, I searched for the perfect spot. Near the dock, in front of the gift shop, at the bar? Nothing seemed romantic enough so I decided to wait until later.

We took a boat out onto the water for tandem parasailing. Raised up above the world, everything got quiet. The ring was in the bulky box, in the unnecessary backpack, in the boat with the strangers, way down there with the rest of the world. Only she and I existed up here, smiling in the sunlight and wind and enjoying the still moment. I forgot about the ring and the plan and everything. And I remembered- only she mattered.

After we came back down to let another couple have a turn in the sky, I looked around at the beautiful world and realized that this was it. This was the perfect moment. I gave the boat crew a heads up so they would take some pictures and I got down on my knee. I told my beautiful girlfriend that I couldn’t imagine living my life without her and I showed her the ring.

She was surprised. She was speechless. She didn’t know which finger to put the ring on. She would be my wife and I knew that everything would be perfect from that moment forward. And it is.