Japan in Review: Different Ain’t So Bad

Imagine walking around Times Square in New York City.  A family of Japanese tourists approaches and asks you for the name of the block you’re standing on.

You explain that you are on 47th, between Broadway and 8th.

The Japanese family looks at you with bewilderment and repeats the question, “what is the name of the block?”

A little confused, you clarify, “we are on 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue.”

Street map of Times Sqaure.
Street map of Times Square.

Unfortunately, you have not helped the Japanese family and they move on in search of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. still lost and confused.

Now, imagine you are in Tokyo.  You are a bit lost and ask someone, “what street are we on?”

The person looks a little confused, points across the street and says, “that is block 24 and we are on block 25.”

You probably hang your head to the side as you try to make sense of this answer.  Going for it one more time, you ask, “what is the name of this street?”

The Japanese local responds, “that is block 24 and we are on block 25.  Streets do not have names, blocks have names.  Streets are the empty spaces between the blocks.”

Street map of the ward Shibuya in Tokyo.
Street map of the ward Shibuya in Tokyo.

All of a sudden, that run in with the Japanese family in Times Square starts to make sense.

The Japanese not only label their blocks as opposed to streets (some major streets have names, but not most), the house numbers do not go in order based on location, they are numbered based on when they were built.

When I was in Japan, I couldn’t wrap my head around how they managed to navigate with such a backwards address system.  I couldn’t understand how anyone knew where they were going.  Yet, this system works just fine in Japan.

Addresses were not the only thing that appear backwards and upside down in Japan to a foreigner (or Gaijin in Japanese).  When I told my friends and family I was traveling to Japan, they all said I was in for a major culture shock. 

After spending 6 weeks in Japan, with a trip to South Korea mixed in, I realize my friends and family were right.  However, the differences are not as extreme as you may think; a little weird for sure, but sometimes things that are different and a little weird aren’t necessarily so bad.

When I arrived, I felt like a child.  I pointed at menus to order food.  I relied on seven words of Japanese and Tarzan-like English to communicate.  I smiled and nodded a lot in an attempt to not offend anyone (I probably offended some people anyway, but at least I tried).

I’d have a rush of excitement when I got the hang of something or learned a new word.  The same type of excitement you experienced when you were able to ride your bike down the street without training wheels and not fall off.  I wasn’t accomplishing anything spectacular.  I was getting used to walking on the left side of the sidewalk, receiving change with two hands or walking up the right side of an escalator as opposed to the left.  It was all about the little victories.

There is a lot to get used to. 

Everything in Japan opens late.  There are a few exceptions, but most stores and restaurants don’t open until 10-11AM, even on the weekends!  Imagine if we did that in the States.  There would be a mass hysteria if us millennials couldn’t roll out of bed and get a bottomless Bloody Mary with our Eggs Benedict for brunch.

Once things are open, Tokyo is an amazing city.  Having spent most of my life in New York and Washington D.C., one of the most glaring differences is the quality of public transportation.

Being better than the Washington D.C. Metro is not much of an accomplishment.  However, in Japan, trains are always on time, run every 5 minutes, connect to every corner of the city, are wonderfully air-conditioned and are – drum roll please – clean.

When I say clean, I do not mean simply free of visible debris, I mean spic and span.  In contrast, when I hopped on the D.C. metro upon arriving back in the States, I had to avoid an empty “Big Bite” 7-11 container, covered in mustard, on the only open seat.

During my first few trips to the train station in Japan, I noticed there were all these yellow paths with little ridges leading everywhere.  Given how concerned the Japanese are about safety, I was shocked they would have such a blatant tripping hazard all over the place.  I felt like skipping along and singing “follow the yellow brick road,” until I was informed that they are there to help blind people navigate the train station safely.

Guides for the blind. Luckily they are used to walking on the left side of the walkways.
Guides for the blind. Luckily they are used to walking on the left side of the walkways.

The subway system is not the only place that is clean, the whole city is pristine!  It is common to see city workers and store owners, cleaning the sidewalks and the exteriors of buildings every day.

There is virtually no trash on the ground, not even cigarette butts.  On it’s own, this is not groundbreaking, but it is impressive when you realize there are virtually no public trash cans on the street.  I am not exaggerating, you would often walk blocks and blocks before running into some small receptacles outside a convenience store.  Each bin is labeled for burnables, glass or plastic. 

Furthermore, these few trash cans are never overflowing like you would see at a park or neighborhood with a vibrant nightlife on the weekends in the U.S..  The Japanese are very careful with their trash situation and you don’t see many people carrying Orange Mocha Frappaccino to-go cups on the street.  Japan puts even the most progressive college campuses to shame that think they are reducing their carbon footprint.

This is not to say everything is perfect.  Most public restrooms are often not equipped with soap or paper towels.  You know you are in a fancy shmancy area when the bathroom has paper towels.  Most locals carry lots of hand sanitizer and follow the BYOT rule (Bring Your Own Towel).

Once you get past those short comings, the bathroom situation is actually quite lovely.  Unless you find yourself stuck with a squatty potty, every toilet is complete with a bidet and heated seat.  Talk about a big variation, either a hole in the ground to squat over, or a luxury spa for your bottom.  I was skeptical of the bidet at first, but once I got used to it, a little rinse before reaching for the toilet paper is a massive upgrade.  Japan is the land of the cleanest streets and the cleanest buttholes, just bring your own soap.

The dreaded squatty potty.
The dreaded squatty potty.

The bathroom feature that blew me away had nothing to do with cleanliness.  Toilets in restaurants and nice areas have noise makers that produce the sounds of a toilet flushing or birds chirping.  Imagine, you never have to be embarrassed about the plippity ploppity and splashy noises you make when nature calls.

Another big difference in Japan is related to crime: there is none!  Every English-speaking bartender and local says that if you miss the last train home, you could pass out on the street with your wallet in your hand and wake up with it in your pocket.

I did not test this theory out myself, however, the way people behaved made you feel like crime is less of an issue as it is in major cities in the States.  It was common to see people asleep outside the train station after a night of drinking.  People did not lock up their bikes.  Business folks would go to the bathroom at coffee shops and leave their laptops on the table.  Stores had large displays of goods outside without anyone making sure anything walked away.

I realized how conditioned I am to think that some degree of crime is normal.  When I first arrived, I thought these store owners were crazy and these people were stupid to leave their bikes and belongings unattended.  By the end of my trip, I realized they weren’t the silly ones for being so trustworthy, I was for being so speculative.

I am sure you have seen the ads on trains in the U.S. that warn you to keep your phone and bags close by so they are not easily grabbed by thieves leaving the train.  There are no such ads to be found in Tokyo.  There are, however, signs reminding you to give up your seat for the elderly, a pregnant woman or someone with a disability.  Different for sure, but that really highlights the priorities and concerns of the community in Japan.

Not all signs or ads are quite so noble.  A few examples include: cautioning drunk people to be careful by the tracks, warning you not to use a selfie stick near the tracks to avoid being electrocuted, and my favorite, a sign by the escalator warning men not to take pictures up women’s skirts (for real).

Anti-Pervert Warnings.
Anti-Pervert Warnings.

Maybe some folks are a tad perverted in Japan, but at least they are taking measures to curb such behavior.  This sign is not the only precaution for creepers.  All Japanese cell phones have a security feature that ensures the phone makes the “click” noise when you take a picture.  This way, no one can take a picture of you without everyone around knowing.  Luckily, phones in the States can be set to silent, which helped me take this picture of some dude passed out on the train one morning…

Catching a snooze on the morning train.
Catching a snooze on the morning train.

Moving on to food.  There are definitely some interesting features and practices in the world of Japanese food.

First, the Japanese love vending machines.  They are everywhere.  You can’t walk more than a block without running into a machine selling water, soda, alcohol (yes alcohol, no open container law!) or hot coffee.  The hot coffee brand “Premium Boss,” oddly uses Tommy Lee Jones and a stoic Japanese dude in sunglasses as their spokesmen.

Tommy Lee Jones: The Premium Boss
Tommy Lee Jones: The Premium Boss

Vending machines are not limited to soft drinks and Tommy Lee Jones sponsored caffeinated beverages.  A lot of restaurants use vending machines for you to place your order.  You put in your money, pick your meal, a ticket prints and you hand it over as you walk in.

Ramen vending machine.
Ramen vending machine.

With my experience in the restaurant business, I am skeptical about how this would fly in the States.  The Japanese are not big on substitutions, while most Americans read a menu as a list of suggested ingredients that can be interchanged at will.

The Japanese don’t allow such requests just to be a pain.  They want you to order items as is to ensure a quality product.  There is nothing more frustrating in the restaurant business, than a person who would create their own dish only to be disappointed that it isn’t as good as they expected (that’s why it isn’t on the menu!).  I actually respect the Japanese for sticking to their product and not allowing for variation they do not control.

A lot of friends asked me if I ate sushi for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Surprisingly, I ate less sushi than I would have expected.  The sushi I did partake in is leaps and bounds better, fresher and cut in vastly larger pieces than any sushi spot in the US.  If your idea of sushi is the roll variety, covered in spicy mayo and crunchy toppings (sorry Dad), you are in for disappointment.  I do not believe there is any spicy mayo in the entire country.  This was exclusively sashimi and nigiri land, and it was glorious.

The one time I did have sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was as good as it looks.
The one time I did have sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was as good as it looks.

There are a lot of great things to eat away from raw fish.  Yakitori, grilled meat on a stick, was very popular and a delicious meal or snack.  Dumplings were pervasive and amazing.  The Japanese take their noodles very seriously; udon (thick noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles) and my favorite, ramen (not instant), is available on every block.  Ramen also doubles as a late night snack spot.  I am fairly certain ramen is some type of ancient hang over remedy.

My favorite ramen spot. This style is called Tongotsu (Pork Bone) ramen.
My favorite ramen spot. This style is called Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) ramen.

Most restaurants in Japan encourage reservations and are skeptical of accepting walk-ins.  There were several instances when a restaurant would be reluctant to seat a party of 2 at 6:00PM because they were holding that specific table for an 8:30PM reservation.  The restaurant manager in me wanted to shake them by the collar and explain to them how much money they were losing with this practice.  Upon reflection, I began to respect these establishments for running their businesses the way they want to and avoiding anything that might diminish the experience for their customers.

The music played in restaurants and bars is pretty spectacular.  One afternoon, I went to a restaurant that did not have an English menu.  After a five-minute ordering process with the one lady who kinda spoke English, I sat down and took in my surroundings.  I realized they were playing “Endless Love” on the radio.  Don’t get me wrong, this soulful ballad by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross should be appreciated by different cultures, but I was definitely the only customer who understood the words.

One night at a bar, there was an eclectic Funk band performing.  Until you see a Japanese man sing “She’s a Brick House,” you simply have not lived.

Besides all the institutional and cultural differences, I had some experiences during my time in Japan (and South Korea) that I would never have done in the States. 

I rode a go-cart, dressed as Luigi from Mario Kart, in the streets of Tokyo. 

Classic Asian tourist picture driving a go cart.
Classic Asian tourist picture driving a go-cart.

I went to a baseball game where the there is no middle-aged man screaming, “ICE COLD BEER HERE!”  Instead, there are petite Japanese women running around with back packs filled with kegs.  Oh, and the team’s name is the Tokyo Yakult “Swallows” (referring to the bird, get your head out of the gutter). 

Draught beer on the go!
Draught beer on the go!

I went to a Robot Show, which consisted of four acts that can only be described as some sort of live anime with monsters, robots and people.  They were playing drums, and then fighting, and then dancing to Michael Jackson music, and then fighting some more.  I am pretty sure there was supposed to be a story line, but the volume of neon lights, smoke and debauchery made it hard to follow.  Luckily, they serve beer.  If given the opportunity, go to the Robot Show and prepare to get weird, really weird.

One of the music scene's from the Robot Show.
One of the music scene’s from the Robot Show.

I bathed naked at a natural hot spring spa called an Onsen. (For obvious reasons, there are no pictures to accompany this experience)

I went to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea.  I was close enough that I could hear the propaganda North Korea blasts through speakers to entice the South Korean’s to defect over the border.  In retaliation, the South Korean’s play Korean Pop music back at North Korea (can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor).

Spying on Kim Jung Un.
Spying on Kim Jong-Un.

I went to the official “Cup O’ Noodles” museum and made my own “Cup O’ Noodle.”

I have the artistic skill and sense of humor of a 10 year old.
I have the artistic skill and sense of humor of a 10-year-old.

I went to an Owl Cafe, which did not live up to the Harry Potter like expectations I had.  PETA would have disapproved, but how often do you get to hold an owl?!

We are ready for our close up!
We are ready for our close up!

While there was plenty of weird by American standards, there was also plenty of normal.  Lots of beautiful parks, fascinating museums, cultural festivals, delicious food and impressive temples, shrines and architecture.

At the end of the day, I have learned from the people in Japan that the world is a lot less daunting than we often make it out to be.  Yes, things are different.  Yes, things can be a little weird, but my experience in Japan has led me to believe that weird and different isn’t necessarily as bad as we anticipate.  Often, our fears and lack of understanding paralyze us from doing something that can turn out to be amazing and unforgettable. 

It is easy to watch the news these days and think that the world is a dangerous and scary place.  However, walking the streets of Tokyo felt just as safe, if not safer, than the streets of D.C. or New York.  Do you need to use some common sense and avoid some sketchy areas?  Of course you do.  Are there still some bad people out there?  Absolutely.  But, it seems like the world is generally filled with a lot of good, decent, friendly and hospitable people.

One of many that wanted to take pictures with me while riding go carts.
One of many that wanted to take pictures with me while riding go carts.

This extended time out of the country has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.  I always dreamed of having an experience like this and until now, I had always had an excuse to avoid taking the plunge.  If I learned nothing else, I learned this: If you want to take a trip or experience something new, don’t wait for all the traffic lights of life to turn green (because they won’t) and don’t let fear get in your way.  Be like Nike and “Just Do It.”

Now that I am back in the States, I am not thinking about if I will take another trip like this, I am thinking about when and where.

Lessons from My Dog, The Stoic Philosopher

My dog, Tara, that my family adopted when I was thirteen, passed away recently.  While her passing hit me more emotionally than I expected, I do not intend for this piece to be a sob story about losing a dog, you can read Marley and Me for that.  When my sadness subsided, I thought about how nice of a life she lived.

When my dog passed, I had been reading a series of essays aptly named, “On the Shortness of Life,” by Seneca the Younger, a Stoic philosopher, born in the year 4 BC.  Now, before you stop reading, I am not about to drone on like that blonde haired prick in Good Will Hunting.  Previously, when someone would bring up philosophy, I would immediately yell, “SOOOCRATES DUDE!” in my best impersonation of Keanu Reeves a la Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Seneca’s writing is very approachable and surprisingly relevant to modern life.  I don’t think Tara dabbled in Stoic philosophy, but reading these essays made me reflect on her short, yet hopefully fulfilling, life and what I can learn from them both.

Don’t get me wrong, laying around while the person who feeds you is at work doesn’t exactly sound riveting or rewarding.  But, Tara really did as she pleased and I would like to think she lived a good life.  She would wake up, eat, pee, poop, chew a good bone, bark at the mailman and enjoy her spot on the carpet where the sunlight came in to keep her warm. 

Dogs don’t have to pay bills or take on anything in the way of responsibility, they just live in the moment.  She wasn’t worried about tomorrow, about meetings or about coffee plans with other dogs she didn’t want to hang out with.  She partook and relished in every activity until she was satisfied and moved on.

Last picture of Tara and me.
Last picture of Tara and me.

In Seneca’s letters to a friend, he laments the way many of us spend our days making ourselves needlessly busy and how this is in stark contrast to truly living our lives.  He notes how so many men spend their lives chasing power, wealth or fame, only to get to the end of their lives and realize they have not truly lived.  How many times do we hear this story when celebrities fall from grace?  And this guy was writing this stuff 2,000 years ago!

“The very pleasures of such men are uneasy and disquieted by alarms of various sorts, and at the very moment of rejoicing the anxious thought comes over them: ‘How long will these things last?’  This feeling has led Kings to weep over the power they possessed, and they have not so much delighted in the greatness of their fortune, as they have viewed with terror the end to which it must some time come.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XVII

I am not pretending that money does not make a big difference in our lives.  However, today, particularly in the U.S., we are pretty high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  How often do we complain of not having the time we wish we had?  How often do we fill our days with things that really don’t matter or give us any satisfaction?  As Seneca says, “…no one sets a value on time; all use it lavishly as if it costs nothing.” 

When I read these essays, I think about all the time I have let slip by with mindless Internet surfing, keeping up-to-date on past peers’ whereabouts on Facebook, going to events I don’t really want to go to, working a job that was burning me out…  Any of this sound familiar?  Seneca explains that this need to fill our time with busyness cuts the time we truly live short:

“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.  Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to all the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” I

Seneca observes how cheap we are with our money and yet wasteful with our finite resource of time.

When I started working, I enjoyed keeping myself busy, avoiding downtime.  It just seemed like what I was supposed to do.  I never thought about the experiences themselves as a sacrifice of time. 

Many of those gatherings led to great memories with great friends, and I do not regret any of them for a second.  However, I now wonder if I was keeping myself busy to avoid thinking about my goals and how my time was being spent trying to achieve them.

As I got older and work continued to take more of a toll, I found myself indulging in the lazy couch day more than my younger self would have ever been satisfied with.  As I wrote in my post on meditation, I did not spend this time indulging in deep thought, reading or any type of self-improvement.  My lazy days were not mindful, they were mindless, spent reading every article published about the Yankees, surfing Facebook and zoning out watching TV. Seneca touched on this too:

“Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XII

I feel like this dude was writing to me from Rome, two thousand years ago. 

The Stoic Philosopher’s believe that the only endeavors worth pursuing are those that improve yourself and benefit the greater good.  While Seneca would love to have everyone spend their time studying philosophy, I don’t think we need to go that far.

I do believe that we all need to create some time in our lives to evaluate our goals and priorities in life. If you do not create the time to really think about what is important to you, no one will. 

There are no guidance counselors in life, unlike High School and College, it is up to you to set goals and live the life you want to live.  When we have a clear goal in mind, it is easier to cut out the daily activities and minutiae that distract us from achieving them.

“All postponement of something they hope for seems long to them.  Yet the time which they enjoy is short and swift, and it is made much shorter by their own fault.

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XVI

The message Seneca is sending is clear, we need to do a better job of appreciating the moment and not always looking forward to tomorrow.  

Tara never worried about the next day, never worried about keeping herself busy so she didn’t have to deal with her feelings.  She loved chewing on bones and running back and forth with the neighbors’ dog on the other side of the fence.  She enjoyed the present, never rushing from one thing to the next.  I’d like to think that, had she realized death was approaching her, she had gotten the most out of life and enjoyed it the best a dog can.

Tara hated that cone, made it hard to catch Frisbees.
Tara hated that cone, made it hard to catch Frisbees.

Over the last month of traveling, without my usual distractions, I have been able to think about my past and present in a peaceful and reflective way that I was not able to while working.  When you just go-go-go, it is hard to take the time to think about what you really want out of life, what you are working so hard for and why you keep yourself so busy.  Seneca writes:

“…those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for the future, have a life that is very brief and troubled; when they have reached the end of it, the poor wretches perceive too late that for such a long while they have been busied in doing nothing.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” XVI

Work is hard, for many it consumes around 50-60 hours per week (even more given the time needed to get ready, commute and check our email at 9PM.  Out of 168 hours a week, that’s about one-third our time.  In 2013, Gallup reported the average American gets about 7 hours of sleep a night, that comes to 49 hours a week.  So, we spend roughly 109 hours a week working and sleeping, that leaves us 59 hours to “do what we want.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think about my life, I do not feel like I have that much free time.  So, where does all my free time go?

Of course, there are the basic chores and items that modern life requires us to deal with.  However, I know I am guilty of noticing it is 5PM and saying “I have 2 hours to KILL before dinner at 7.”

Hours to kill.  After reflecting on “The Shortness of Life,” it is hard to imagine wanting to “kill” any time.  And this is the time I spent all week at work looking forward to!

Time is so valuable, and yet, it is something that is easy for all of us to take for granted when we are young, healthy and feel like we have so much to look forward to:

“Present time is very brief, so brief, indeed, that to some there seems to be none; for it is always in motion, it ever flows and hurries on; it ceases to be before it has come, and can no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose ever unresting movement never lets them abide in the same track.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” X

Remember those 109 hours we spend every week working and sleeping?  We need to keep up that pace until we are 65, probably longer now a days.  Our only source of relief being our weekends and 2-3 weeks of vacation (if we are lucky) a year.

Seneca criticizes those who claim they are offsetting “leisure” and time for themselves until they are in their fifties and sixties, which was pretty old in the 40’s (not 1940’s, but 0040’s AD).  We work so hard through the prime years of our life with the expectation that we may be able to enjoy our latter years when living is not as easy.

Seneca’s disdain for delaying life for retirement, extends to the “P” word, procrastination.  I am guilty of being a master procrastinator.  I have always thought I have plenty of time to chase my dreams and live the kind of life I want, when the time is right.

I am beginning to realize that life is not going to slow down to make it easy for me to change.  The time for change is never going to be “right.”  If you know what is important to you, you have to make time, not excuses, and make it happen.

“The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes to-day. You dispose of that which lies in the hands of Fortune, you let go that which lies in your own. Whither do you look? At what goal do you aim? All things that are still to come lie in uncertainty; live straightway!.”

– Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life,” IX

This idea has stood the test of time.  1,700 years later, Benjamin Franklin echoed Seneca’s sentiment, “do not put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”  When I reread that passage, it seems so obvious, yet something that many of us, myself included, continue to struggle with.

Tara did not wait until she turned 10 to chase Frisbees up and down the backyard.  She ran after them the moment she was strong enough to run.  She attacked life, not the other way around.

We often don’t appreciate how good something is until it is taken from us.  While Tara did not have the foresight of getting old to let her enjoy the moments she had, we as human beings do. 

From now on, I will do my best to remain mindful, observe the past, appreciate the present and remember that the future is not guaranteed.  I will try to live offensively, and tackle life as Tara would tackle her chew toys.  Living life defensively, on terms you don’t set for yourself, is unquestionably easier.  However, when you are reminded that the future is promised to no one, would you rather finish living the way you want to or worry that you missed something?

Yeah, I Went to Japan and Meditated

Several months ago, a friend from work started practicing transcendental meditation.  He told me he was relaxed, less stressed, more in tune with his thoughts and even cursed less.

I thought to myself, “fuck that.”

To be honest, I thought the idea of meditation was a bit of a quack.  Who needs to sit quietly, focusing on their breath or a sound to relax?  I kept thinking about the scenes in Bad Boys II where Martin Lawrence and Joe Pantoliano rub their ear lobes and say “woo-sah” when they begin to lose their temper.

This summer, I began listening to “The Tim Ferriss Show” podcast.  Tim Ferriss, author of “The Four Hour Workweek (Chef & Body),” does long form interviews with world-class performers in various fields: acting, music, investing, athletics, writing, medicine, start-ups, technology, academia, military, and more.  Besides finding these interviews very inspirational and educational, I realized almost every one of these “world-class” performers had some kind of meditative practice.

I finally heard enough about meditation and decided I would give it a try while I am in Japan.  Now, there are many different types of meditation, and if any of this interests you, there are lots of resources online for beginners.  I tried two apps that provide guided meditation to get started.  I have done the free trials for Headspace and Calm, I will give my opinion of the different approaches at the end of the blog if you want to get into the weeds.

When I began, I really didn’t know squat about meditation.  I envisioned sitting with my legs crossed on the floor and like Peter Gibbons in Office Space, “just you know, space out for a while.”

I quickly realized that meditation is just the opposite of spacing out.  It is much more about finding space for clarity while your mind has the urge to jump around and worry about anything and everything.

Both apps walk you through 10 minute sessions, you focus on breathing, noises around you and how your body feels.  It was quite shocking to realize how infrequently I ever just sat still and focused on such simple things.  My “unwind time” usually involved tv, music, movies, Facebook, surfing the internet, and beer.  While relaxing, those activities made me feel mindless, not mindful.

Quite often in these 10 minute sessions, my mind wandered all over the place, from memories of the past to worries or excitement about the future.

Luckily, these guided meditation apps know this whole “mindfulness” business is not easy at first.  Both apps frequently reminded me to bring my focus back to my breathing or body or whatever part of the session I was on.  It is amazing how much my mind gravitates towards “autopilot.”  It reminded me of how many things I do on “autopilot” in my daily life.

I don’t know about you, but when I learn something new, I get immersed in the task or topic and think about every aspect.  However, once I get comfortable, it becomes easy to go through that same task without thinking about all the details I focused on when I was a novice.

Remember when you learned to drive?   You had to think about how much to press on the gas, how much to turn the steering wheel and how hard to hit the breaks.  After you got the hang of it, how often do you really think about the finer details when you get behind the wheel?  It comes naturally, you just drive, right?

Life is complicated, and it is normal to learn to automate tasks so we can focus on all the complexities the world throws at us as we grow.  This ability to drive and do various mechanical tasks without thinking too hard is a good thing for the most part.  But, how many times have you been in a meeting or a conversation and realize that you completely zoned out and have no idea what was just said to you? 

The mind likes to wander and jump around.  If we never practice being mindful and being present, we often miss out on the beauty of what is around us.

This is where I have found meditation to be the most helpful.  I have learned that the idea is not so much to control my thoughts, but to feel comfortable letting thoughts come and go, not allowing them to control me and create undue stress in my life.  We don’t need to judge what we are thinking.  How often do you look back on something you did and think, “seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Sometimes ideas and thoughts come to us when we least expect them.

It is important to be aware of how we feel and not be afraid to ask why.  The key is awareness.  Awareness of what makes me feel good.  Awareness of why I feel good.  If I am in touch with that awareness, I can try and create more of that good in my life.  On the flip side, if I allow myself to obsess over negative thoughts, or to let them stress me out, not only am I dealing with the negative thoughts, but the added stress of worrying about those thoughts.  It can feel like an endless cycle, a cycle that inhibits the action I need to take to deal with those negative thoughts. 

The more I dig, the more I realize these negative thoughts are a product of what I am afraid of.  I am not pretending dealing with my fears is easy, but wallowing in the quicksand of negative thoughts won’t get me anywhere either.  Tim Ferriss writes, “what we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

Now, with a bunch of meditation sessions under my belt, I am not going to shave my head, sport a robe, and move into a monastery with some monks.  We usually feel like we need to make BIG changes in our lives to improve ourselves.  Sometimes, all we need is a small change to produce large and impactful results.  Merely taking 10 minutes in the morning has really helped me focus on how I am feeling that day and not let the stress of having quit my job and other stresses we all face control my thoughts and life.

They use this metaphor in Headspace about a clear, blue sky.  That blue sky represents the clarity of mind I have been talking about.  It is often easy to forget that the blue sky is present when the clouds, storms and distractions of life get in the way.  The goal of meditation is not to create clarity, but remember that the blue sky is always there above the clouds.  We should not aim to have everyday be beautiful and sunny because we have as little control of the weather as we do our thoughts.  We should practice cutting through the clouds in our lives and remember that clarity is always there for us, no matter how hard it is to remember when times are gloomy and tough.

If you have read this far and still think meditating is not for you, I get it.  It took me a long time and I had to hear about it from a lot of sources before giving it a shot myself.  Even if you don’t want to just sit down and meditate, I would encourage you to try and create some space in your day to get in touch with your thoughts. 

Next time you go for a walk, take off the headphones and just appreciate the world around you.  Instead of ordering pizza, go to the grocery store and cook yourself a meal.  I never realized before, but cooking puts me in a similar mental space as meditation.  You have to focus on what you are doing since there are sharp objects and repetitive tasks.  Try and find something that lets you get in that zone, I am sure it is different for everyone.  If you have a tactic or activity for creating mindful moments in your life, I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.

If you have read this far and think you want to give this a try, you may feel that you don’t have the time.  But, as Russell Simmons says, “if you don’t have 20 minutes to delve into your self through meditation, then that really means you need 2 hours.”

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Looking meditative.

Headspace VS Calm:  Both apps cover a lot of the same practices.  They are both focused on mindfulness and do emphasize focus on your breath and body.  This is different from transcendental meditation, which focuses on a sound or repeated mantra.

Headspace has a free 10 day program to teach you the basics.  The sessions are led by the founder, Andy.  Andy does a great job of going through a similar routine everyday (focus on breathing, scan of the body, let the mind be free and back to the breathing), but gets you to focus deeper each day.  I liked Headspace because Andy really does not let you stray too much, and for a beginner like me, I needed a lot of reminding to stay present. 

Calm has a 7 day free trial that takes a stepby step approach to the the same style of meditation.  The lady who leads the meditation starts day 1 by only focusing on the breath and adds steps as the days go on.  I did Headspace first, so I found this style to be refreshing since each day focused on one task at a time and put the pieces together into a seamless routine by the end.  If I could go back in time, I would have done Calm first.  The only thing I did not like about Calm was that they would go longer periods of time without refocusing your attention on the task at hand.  As I mentioned, as a beginner, I really appreciated the reminders Headspace provided in these early stages.

I recommend committing to the trial program and really try to practice every day, around the same time.  The first couple days might not feel like much, but after doing it almost everyday for a week or so, I really began to feel a level of natural relaxation and calmness I had not felt in a while.

 

Don’t Find Your Passion, Be Passionate

“Finding your passion” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot.  We often seek this magical passion like we’re Nicholas Cage in National Treasure; searching for years until we realize it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.  Chasing your passion, allows us to make excuses, letting the end justify the means.

We all have that friend who complains about their job or current situation, and when you ask them, “why are you still doing it?” they respond with, “so I can work on my … (insert book, movie, other career, schooling, etc..).  They schlep through the weeks, months and sometimes years, waiting for the weekend, because they are chasing something greater.

What happens when you put your blinders on and exclusively focus on finding this buried treasure we label passion?

I think you end up missing out on the beauty of the journey and perhaps new routes and detours you did not expect.  When all you do is look towards the future or the end of the day on Friday, we miss out on something we can never get back, the present.

I think we should focus less on finding our passion and focus more on being passionate about the things we do and opportunities we get in life.

In my life as a restaurant manager, I saw a lot of people, of various ages and backgrounds apply for a job and be very upfront about it not being their end goal in life.  I usually respected those people who had an end game in mind and something they were working towards.  We all need to make money and it’s refreshing to have a member of the team have goals beyond the restaurant.

When I would interview anyone for a job, whether it be a college kid looking for a job as a host (like me), someone looking to make a career change on their own volition, or someone who lost their last job, I cared a lot less about how much they knew about seating rotation or actually waiting tables.  What I did care about, was hearing how passionate they were about other things in their life.  I hoped that this passion and energy would translate to effort in the workplace.

A lot of times, this was a successful strategy.  Often I could sense some surprise when an interview for a serving position consisted of questions like: How do you get along with your siblings? What do you really love doing outside of work?  What was the last job you had or project you worked on where you really got in the zone and lost track of time?

I wish I could say I came up with this idea all on my own, but credit must go to Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group (think Shake Shack, along with many other successful restaurants).  In his book, “Setting the Table,” Meyer explains that technical competency and specialization comprise 49% of the ideal employee.  The other 51% should be the intangible, emotional qualities you want in an employee: Optimism, thirst for learning, work ethic and integrity, to name a few.

Often, we would hire the 51% applicant and have the confidence that we could teach them the tools to be successful hosts, servers, bussers or bartenders.  Most of the time, this strategy worked out great, these were the employees who showed up early, really studied the menu, went the extra mile and genuinely cared for the guests and their needs (as a restaurant manager, re-reading that line makes my heart jump for joy!)

Sometimes people can fool you.  I have been in the shoes of Mr. Farkus, who told George Constanza in his interview to be a bra salesman, “You seem to have a great passion for brassieres,” following his fabricated tale about his first encounter with a bra in his friends bathroom at age 14.  You can fake passion in one interview, but sooner or later, your true colors show.  This employee is the one that ended up being late, making careless mistakes, receiving complaints about their attitude, never putting in the requisite work to be a good employee or getting fired for “feeling the material” of the CEO while waiting for the elevator.

It would be very frustrating to try and get through to those employees; it’s hard to teach someone to care, to be passionate.

Some days are harder than others, but, if you are going to spend 10+ hours a day anywhere, you may as well make the best of it.  For the most part, you are not obligated to work at any particular place.  You choose to be there and it reflects on you and your character how tenacious you are about being successful. 

Similarly, there are some things in life that you “have to do.”  Since these are necessary tasks, why not choose to have a good attitude about it?  Why not choose to be passionate about the things you do in your life.  You, and only you, can choose the effort level put forth on daily endeavors.  Whether or not people around you notice, this is not about outward appearances, it is about living a meaningful and fulfilling life for YOURSELF.  In my opinion, it is these people who are passionate about their work, their families, the people they surround themselves with and even the things they would rather put off until tomorrow, who are infectious, successful and others want to be around.

I recognize “being passionate” is easier said than done.  If it were easy, everyone would be passionate about going to the dentist, cleaning their dogs poop off the carpet, getting to the gym, and so on.  Being passionate is not something you are born with, it is something we all need to work on and practice.  And, like anything worth practicing, it requires discipline to improve.  Being passionate is not something we should be “when we feel like it,” it should be something we commit to every day, in every situation.

Passions can be fleeting.  We live in a day where many people change careers and many people do not work for the same company or in the same line of work their whole lives.  Check out this TED Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sZdcB6bjI8 ) by Emilie Wapnick.  In summary, she talks about people who have a variety of interests and do not settle on one career or passion for their whole life like many of our parents, grandparents and even ourselves have been encouraged.  She labels these folks, “multipotentialites.” 

I love the idea of being able to blend experiences and various passions together.  I believe these opportunities can come to us at any time, especially times we do not expect them to.  It is this reason why I encourage you to be passionate about everything you do.  You never know when that experience, mentor or fork in the road of life will present itself to you, so you have to keep your eyes open and always put your best foot forward.

I genuinely admire people who have always known they wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or a chef or a *insert profession here* since childhood.  I encourage those who know their calling to keep doing what they are doing and enjoy and embrace every peak and valley that comes along on that journey.  It is just as important to be passionate about your life’s work as it is if that work is constantly evolving.  But, if that day comes when the passion runs out, don’t be afraid to passionately seek another.

For many others, I think we are lucky to be able to change focuses and follow different passions throughout our lives.  At 27, I have already spent 7 years working on one path and now I am excited about working towards the next.  I do not believe the job I started when I was 20 would have turned into the passion I have for developing employees, helping people and being a leader had I not tried to be the very best host I could be when I first started in the restaurant.

Just remember, whether you are working your way through school, working because it is the only field you have known, working to support your family or working so you can chase your dream of singing, filming, writing or drawing, that work is part of your story. 

Are you ok with half-assing a part of the story of your life?  Are you ok with missing out on opportunities because you “know” where you want to end up?  Are you ok with playing it safe?  Are you ok with selling yourself short?

I hope not.

Next week, I am going to post a piece about some things I am doing to practice living this passionate life I am talking about.  If anyone has any practices or experiences that have helped them or just want tell me about an “unconventional” combination of passions, please drop me a line in the comments below!

Expose Yourself

Last week, I published my first blog post.  I had actually written the material a week before and spent the seven days leading up to posting the piece editing, critiquing and having some self-doubt about sharing my feelings with the world.

I experienced some negative self-talk that I am sure is not unique…

“Why does anyone care what I have to say?”

“Who would actually want to read this?”

“What if people don’t like it?”

I knew I wanted to write about this adventure and change in my life, but when the words were on the page in front of me, I got some stage fright about sharing it.  Luckily, I had an experience that helped me realize opening up and exposing myself to some vulnerability was exactly what I needed to do.

On my third day in Japan, I ventured to an Onsen in Hakone.  Onsen is a spa that pumps water from natural hot springs up to a variety of pools.  Each pool has different temperatures and legend has it, the water from the hot spring has mystical healing powers.  Magic powers or not, it is a pretty relaxing experience that I definitely recommend.

Onsen is not a run of the mill spa you might find in the States.  Yes, the pools are jacuzzi like, some with jets and some without, there is a locker room, there is a sauna, however, the spa is split by gender and bathing suits or clothing of any kind is prohibited in the pool area.  Side note, if you want to check out an Onsen, most of them do not allow people with tattoos in.  Definitely check TripAdvisor or some other website before going or you might have to deal with the Yakuza!  Back to the story; yes Grandma, you read that correct, butt naked spa time.

To be honest, I was a little weary of just strolling around a spa in my birthday suit.  However, after the first couple minutes, and the requisite sit-down-shower you have to take before going in the pools, I realized I was more comfortable in my own skin than I thought while getting undressed in the locker room.

I am not writing this to tell you about my au natural experience, as lovely as it was.  As I soaked in the water, sweated in the sauna and relaxed surrounded by nature and more uncircumcised penises than I care to recall, I found myself thinking about why people, myself included, are so afraid of exposing themselves.

When I say, “expose themselves,” I do not mean exclusively in the bare skin way you might be thinking.  Why are many of us afraid to expose who we really are, how we feel and the things that matter most to us.  In a time when we are all so connected with social media and technology, it seems like we are more afraid to show our real selves or do the things that we really want to out of fear.

We have all heard the old saying, “don’t just talk the talk,” and I don’t mean as much to our peers as I do to ourselves.  In different ways, there are things we all want to do in life that we are afraid to take that first step towards.  So what do we do?  We make excuses about not having the time or that people don’t care what we have to say or what we do, so we never break the boundaries that make us feel safe.  It is easier to let our dreams remain just that, dreams.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people who do bare themselves (pun intended) to the world and are unashamed to scream about their passions from the top of mountains or on Facebook.  There are times when I see friends who post their art, music, deep thoughts and even dreams on social media or blogs. 

Are these people special?  Are they super heroes? 

No and no.  Everyone starts somewhere and everything starts with a first step.  If we are so afraid of failure or rejection, we will never overcome the inertia to do anything exceptional.

These people who create, these people who are unashamed to share the story that only they can tell or start the business that only they can start, these are the people who inspire me and give me the confidence to put my words out there.

We all have our own story to tell or service only we can provide.  Whether it is writing, painting, singing, coding, programming, engineering, starting a business or anything in between; we all have a unique voice that we owe ourselves and the world to share.  No one is going to do it for you.  It is really up to you.

I know it can be daunting.  Whether your hand is over your mouse waiting to click “post” on your blog or your hand is covering your genitals before entering a nude spa, it is scary to click “publish” or jump in the pool.

Usually, the thing we fear most is the thing we need to do most.  The first step is always the toughest.  For me, now that I have taken this first step, I can’t wait to write and share more with you.  I can only hope that by sharing my experiences, someone will gain the confidence to start their own project, adventure or maybe finally get the nerve to confront their boss about what is bothering them or ask for that raise they so deserve.

No one is going to get the ball rolling for you.  Don’t put it off for later or the “perfect time,” because you know what?  There is no such thing as the perfect time; you could always be a better writer, a better painter, make your website look cooler and so on.  We all need to start somewhere.  Whether that first step is your first post, sharing your first drawing or contacting your first potential client.  The perfect time is right now.  Go out and make it happen.  I believe in you.

I am no expert, but I promise you, once you take that first step and expose yourself, it is quite a rush and you will want more of it.  I might even hit another Onsen next week.

What is it that you want to create?  Is there a project that you have always wanted to take on?  Is there something you have worked on that you have not shared yet but want to?  Or, maybe you are a badass and have already putting your work and yourself out there.  Let me know in the comments section, I would love to hear about it!

Get going and good luck!