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.”

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.


Quitting Manifesto

Five weeks ago, I gave notice at my job as a restaurant manager.  I started working there part time while I was in school and it was my first full-time job after college.  I started full-time two weeks after graduation.  Last Monday was my last day.

When I first started in the restaurant industry, I loved working all hours of the day and night, I loved the rush of having a restaurant packed on a Friday night and being able to help lead the staff through the service.  I particularly loved helping people, even the guest who sent back their burger three times because they do not agree with our definition of “medium-well.”  I would love sitting down at the bar after my shift with my co-workers and talk about the shift, have some laughs and go home with just enough time to get a little sleep and do it again the next day.

Over the last year or so, I slowly felt myself falling out of love with it.  The hours started to weigh on me.  Working every night, every holiday, every weekend; the job was taking its toll. 

More so than the hours, I started to have doubts about whether or not I wanted to work in the restaurant industry for my entire life.  I have loved it, it has been good to me, I am pretty good at it; but will I be satisfied if I never do any other type of work or lead any other type of life?

Even as these thoughts began swirling in my head, the prospect of quitting seemed daunting.  The restaurant industry was all I had known professionally.  The restaurant was a big part of my life as I became an adult and it was hard to imagine life without it.

Had these thoughts and fantasies of finding another path fizzled after a few weeks or a month, I would probably not be writing this story now.  This idea was tugging at me for over a year and those fantasies started seeming like a real possibility.  I began to realize that I needed to make a change.

With that realization in mind I struggled for a long time with a feeling of guilt about quitting; I found myself thinking about how this company took a chance on a 22-year-old manager, how they had promoted me and how they made me feel like I had a promising future with the company.

To be honest, more so than feeling guilty, I was scared to quit.  I was scared of giving up a steady paycheck.  I was scared of getting out of the routine that I had developed over the last 5 years.  I was scared of leaving the relationships, both personal and professional, I spent time forging.   I was scared to let people down who expected me to grow with the company.  I was scared to leave a job I was good at.

I found myself slightly overwhelmed, I knew I wanted to change, but what type of change?  I read countless articles and books about changing careers, starting online businesses, blogging, freelancing and just about everything in between.  Reading about the stories of others was inspiring.  Learning that I was not alone in feeling that maybe there is another way was a relief.  Yet, after all that reading and research, I had not read or heard of one job or path that really called out to me.

Two things ended up being the tipping point for me: a trip and a book.

First, the trip.  I went on a two-week vacation to Japan with some friends of mine.  This was my first time overseas and I quickly realized that I did not want it to be my last.  Being on the other side of the world, experiencing a different culture and yet, seeing how people 6,000 miles away are not as different as I thought they would be, opened my eyes.  I was realizing how much can be missed when you are stuck in the office or restaurant all day everyday.

Second thing, the book.  I read “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau, which chronicled a variety of “quests” that people from all different walks of life embarked on.  Some were small; there was a family that decided to make a meal from every country in the world over 193 weeks.  Some quests were large; the author actually went to all 193 countries over 2 decades.

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about my trip, my job, my life and what kind of quest I wanted to embark on.  Growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, I was programmed at a young age to follow this all too common script: College, job, family, work your way up whatever professional ladder you are climbing, sprinkle in a vacation when you can, pick up golf and retire (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  Of course there are millions of ways that script can play out, but I was not sure that was the way I wanted the story of my life to go. 

The biggest epiphany I had after that trip and book was that I am not going to find that path of happiness grinding it out at the restaurant night in and night out.  I also realized that the feelings of guilt I had been having were not fair to me and I realized I was way more frightened of looking back on my life and wondering “what if” than I was of taking a leap of faith.

Since I put in my notice, the most popular question I have received is, “what are you going to do next?”  Like most people, I have always enjoyed knowing the next step in my life, always liked having a plan.  For the first time, I am really excited to take a leap of faith and take a step without knowing where my other foot is going to land.

So what is my plan?  I saved up some money (not that much) and am going to take a “mini-retirement” for a few months.  I am going back to Japan which inspired my thirst for travel and have a ticket booked to see South Korea while I am here.  I am going to write about my adventure, I am going to experience different cultures, I am going to eat all the strange things, I am going to drink all of the local favorites, I am going to decompress and reflect.

Even when I write that down, it sounds like a pipe dream.  But it is no longer a dream.  Now, it is my new reality.

When I thought about how I would explain this “plan” to my friends and family, I figured I would get a lot of comments to the extent of, “what are you crazy?”  The reality caught me by surprise.  The overwhelming response has been positive, supportive and even a bit envious.  My fear of letting people down ended up being a pretty baseless fear after all.

I realize that this undertaking will consist of ups and downs, great days and some where the free time and lack of structure could be a challenge, however, I am endlessly excited about taking control of my life and more importantly, taking control of the one thing we all have a finite amount of, time. 

My Grandmother always told me, “more things happen by chance than by choice.”  I am hopeful that a fresh perspective and this time to expose myself to more chance encounters will lead to opportunities and options that I cannot fathom at this point.

My goal here is to share my experience of my travels, stepping out of my comfort zone, doing things I did not think I was capable of and taking back control of my time and my life.  There may be a smattering of stories reflecting on my time as a manager; thoughts on leadership and human nature (Warning: there may be a sports or Seinfeld reference or two).  I hope you find it useful and maybe help give you the confidence to make changes, both big and small, to improve yourself and your life whether you work in a restaurant, office, farm, brothel or don’t work at all.  On the flip side, if this experiment is a complete crash and burn, it will be a good reference when you try to convince your friend not to quit his job and travel the world with no back up plan.  Either way, it should be a memorable journey.