Posts in ByMarkus
Is There Even Such a Thing as Men's Intuition?

Post by Markus

Hi, my name’s Markus and I’m a human – specifically, a middle-class white American straight male thirty-something raised in a large city in the Bible Belt.  By reading those words you probably have some idea of the perspective that’s colored much of my experience into adult life - socioeconomic privilege, American male perspective, conservative/fear-based upbringing and all.

Up to about age 36, I held certain beliefs about what it means to me a man.  No one handed me a manual at any point along the way – it was a construct I’d built throughout life based on what I’d absorbed from the world around me.  The messages were loud and clear. 

I knew that to be a man, meant certain specific things.  These were so obviously true in my mind that I had zero doubts about them.  I took them as completely true and accurate – though reading these now it’s immediately apparent that they’re very flawed.  Chief among these beliefs were:

  • To be a man means to be immune to the “weakness” of living emotionally

  • To be a man means to be “tough”, “right”, “in control” and “not feminine”

  • To be a man means to live logically and rationally – the opposite of whatever “women’s intuition” is

I’d heard about women’s intuition enough times to know that it was a great mystery that I should probably leave unexamined, since I clearly didn’t meet the prerequisite to even begin to understand what it might be. I couldn’t have given you thirty seconds worth about it:

“Women’s intuition?  Let’s see – so it’s for women, obviously.  OK – so, probably it’s how they say they have feelings about something, like they just know something and really trust it based on – something.  Based on feelings, I guess.  It seems pretty complex, likely has to do with being emotionally-based – not like us rational men.”

So basically – emotion plus a certain enigmatic “je ne sais quoi.”  I decided it must be irrelevant to me and I let it be, without much thought. 

ABER MACH IT DAS FASHION!

Armed with this ignorance about women’s intuition (and about the concept of intuition in general), my indoctrination as an American male raised in the 80s and 90s was in many ways pretty average for that time.

There are shades of gray, to be sure.  I was born in Germany and I lived there until I was five years old.  I went back to visit fairly regularly throughout elementary and middle school – plus we were frequently hosting family and friends who flew over to Texas to visit.  That did give me a different perspective on things – men’s fashion for example. 

In the U.S., skinny jeans didn’t come into trend until about the mid/late 2000s (at least where I was living).  Before that time, especially in the mid/late 1990s, it was clear to me that wearing skinny jeans as a man had certain implications about whether or not I was a “real” man.  That was based on what I heard from other guys at school and from what I absorbed from TV and movies.  To make sure there was no ambiguity about my identity and to prove that I was definitely a man’s man, I made sure my jeans were as baggy as possible.

Even though that “truth” about men’s pants existed in the U.S. (or at least in the public schools I attended), it didn’t seem to exist in Germany.  Skinny jeans for guys were rampant there as far back into my childhood memories as I remember.  It seemed like for some reason, German guys didn’t get the memo. 

German men were wearing skinny jeans without a second thought about the implication of what that meant about their identity as a man.  Even when family friends came to visit us in Texas, the guys brought their skinny jeans along and wore them as if it was the most normal thing in the world.  It was beyond strange to me and to my friends, especially in middle school. 

The only way I could reconcile it was to decide that for some reason, German guys like their jeans to fit snug and slim.  I concluded that they were just misguided or a little behind the times and didn’t know any better.  I chalked it up as a strange, unexplainable cultural difference – like the German obsession with hard-boiled eggs for breakfast or their passion for taking things way too seriously.

THAT COLOR

There were other ways that I was different from the guys at school, besides that I spent the first five years of my life in Europe.  I was definitely on the more thoughtful/sensitive end of the spectrum. 

“Thoughtful” - meaning that I was often lost in thought, followed a wild imagination, and had tons of creativity. 

“Sensitive” - meaning that I was a softie, likely to get my feelings hurt, and couldn’t handle movies with any kind of blood or guts. At the same time that my friends were watching the R-Rated Terminator movies with wild-eyed excitement, I was covering my eyes and hiding from the PG-13 classics like Dances With Wolves.

I never played any organized sports although disorganized sports were definitely my thing – I couldn’t get enough of riding bikes, skateboarding, and playing street hockey.  I did try really hard several times to get into baseball, basketball, and football so that I could relate to my friends and join their conversations about games they watched and how their team was doing.  When I tried, it was forced though – there was nothing that was pulling me toward sports, they just didn’t move the needle for me (and still don’t today). 

The closest I got to dabbling in following sports was getting really into the Charlotte Hornets in the early/mid 90s. 

Actually – make that “getting really into the Charlotte Hornets logo and color scheme in the early/mid 90s.” 

The first time I saw the logo, this cartoon character struck me as edgy and unconventional – but mostly as fun.  To me, all the other NBA logos seemed boring and like whoever created them had just phoned something in that somehow got used as the actual logo. 

After that, cue the Charlotte Hornets gear.  Hats, jerseys, shorts, Starter Jackets, special edition Larry Johnson shoes – nevermind that I couldn’t have told you anything about Larry Johnson or that I didn’t watch the games.

I got really into the team colors – the teal definitely, but way more into that purple.  From that point on, if it came in purple – that’s the color I got it in.  I had purple shoes that I wore with purple jean shorts (still thinking about bringing those back in 2020).  Purple and I had a great run for years.

That changed when I found out in no uncertain terms that purple was not a color that was cool (or even OK) for boys to like.  I learned that pretty easily by osmosis in the suburban public school system around the transition from elementary to middle school.  It was clear: “If I wear the color purple (or even just like the color purple) – then I don’t fit in with the guys.”

This was around the time that I also learned that the more I modified my preferences and self-expression to fit the expectations of others, the easier social interaction seemed to be.  With those two new beliefs quickly ingrained, I put the color purple on the back burner and started looking toward the status quo for guidance on what colors were OK for guys to like.

 

BE A MAN

Learning the lesson that certain colors were OK to like and others weren’t was one thing.  The larger lessons that came along the same time cut deeper and were more harmful.  There was no ambiguity – these were unbendable rules if I was to consider myself a man.

  1. Don’t appear weak (or even remotely vulnerable or caught off-guard), ever.

  2. Don’t cry (or express any emotion unless it’s one that’ll make you look tough).

  3. Constantly overcompensate to prove that you never do both of the above items.

The seeds for these beliefs were planted years earlier and by early middle school, they were irrefutable in my mind.  I started building a wall against these in my heart to make sure it wouldn’t betray me by letting emotion/”weakness” out accidentally.  I didn’t realize that I was actually betraying my heart by shutting it down. 

Emotion was out and the replacement was action – the domain of men.  It was time to do things, impress people, achieve something.  I was no longer a little kid and it was time for the rubber to meet the road.  No more playing around - this was middle school, people.

I internalized new beliefs easily since I was a very suggestible kid - eager to understand messages about what I should do and who I should be, so that I would get approval from others.  These included:

  • Let your accomplishments speak for you. 

  • If you do something great, then you’ll be great. 

  • See all those stats on the back of baseball cards?  That’s something these mighty men DID and because of what they did, they’re mighty men.  They’re stronger, faster, and can go harder than anyone else out there – that’s why they’re winners and that’s why all the rest are losers.

My default mode was “more / faster / harder”.  Is something not working? 

More! Faster! Harder!  Push, push, push! 

If I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted, then obviously the answer must be “more / faster / harder.”  It worked in the movies for all the badass guys who represented power and all that is man.

Like Gary Gulman emphasizes in his recent HBO special The Great Depresh, the dominant message was “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”

I tried the more / faster / harder method for decades.  I never got anywhere with it.  Sure, I got a little extra quick-burn horsepower when I needed it in short bursts to burn the midnight oil for projects – school, work, home, etc.  But it wasn’t the real power that I needed to actually be effective - and in the long run, it only led me to frustration and burnout.  The dangling carrot of self-approval never got any closer, although each new project and to-do list promised to deliver if I only pushed even harder and got even more done.

NOTHING TO DO

About this time last year, I found myself in Miami with an empty day and nothing on the agenda.  My default response at that time to any unexpected block of free time was “great – now I can catch up on this mountain of things to do.” I considered hitting the gym, reading, doing work on my laptop, and organizing my many to-do lists that I had brought on the trip.  But I didn’t do any of those. 

Something pulled me toward the water and for some reason I went with it.  The best I can explain it is that I just slowed down for a minute and “felt” what seemed the most natural.  It turns out, that was walking to the beach alone and standing in front of the wind and crashing waves.

It gets a bit metaphysical here which I’m definitely into.  The magic was that I heard something – except I didn’t hear any words.  It’s like I just felt the presence of something deeply true and the words came together somewhere in my being.  And they weren’t words – they were more like gentle commands.  There was no force – it’s like they were strong recommendations from a deep, ancient source of wisdom.  To keep it simple, I’ll call them “words.”

The power and depth behind those words made it seem like the source knew that I would hear them and that I would listen.  I had no judgment or consideration of whether I should or shouldn’t listen.  Honestly, that was the whole reason I was there - I had followed the pull of the ocean.  I wanted to connect with a source infinitely bigger and far more ancient than my own being.

Through the wind, I looked out at the ocean.  It was just “there.”  It didn’t seem to be “doing” anything, it definitely wasn’t “trying” to do anything, and as the number one largest thing on this planet – it had nothing to prove.

I stood still for a few minutes with the wind in my face. 

Then, I heard “Sit.”  So I took off my shoes and sat down in the sand.

After a while, I heard “Listen.”  So I listened. 

Actually I kind of figured that I had already BEEN listening but OK – I’d come this far, and I was willing to listen more intently.

A while later I heard “Breathe.”  So I did. 

I had been dabbling in box-breathing (à la the Navy Seals) for a while - though I’d only been doing it one-minute sessions, which already seemed really long.  I had nowhere to go and nowhere to be, so I did five-minutes of box-breathing as I sat on the beach - using the second hand of my watch to guide my breath.  After those five minutes, it felt like I was connected even deeper with this presence before me and like the dividing line between myself and the ocean dissolved away.

Sometime after that, I quietly heard the last word: “Be.”

That was it.

So I did. 

Or rather, I didn’t – I mean, I didn’t “do” anything.  Just like the ocean when I first got to the beach, I was just “there.”  I wasn’t doing anything, and I wasn’t trying to do anything – I just was.  I kept sitting and breathing until it felt that the experience was complete.  I looked at my watch and I’d been there on the beach about an hour.

I’m convinced that the entire time that I was there in the sand was just so that I would hear and absorb that simple, final message – “Be.”  The three prior words – Sit, Listen, and Breathe – were just as important, so that I would be open and receptive to the ultimate message.  With a stormy, chaotic mind – it’s easy to miss a calm, simple message like “Be.”  In the state I was in when I first got to the beach, that message wouldn’t have even been a blip on my radar.

WAVES IN THE OCEAN

It felt very much like I had been exactly where I was supposed to be, in that place on the beach at that exact moment in time.  When I think about that experience these days, it feels like the lighting of a small fire of what I can only describe as “intuition” – to me, that means “being in-tune with something greater and wiser than myself.”  

I believe the purpose of that attunement is so that I will grow and thrive, to ultimately be more useful for the people and world around me.  A major part of that growth is to stop pushing and resisting life – and instead, to surrender and let life live thru me. 

I’m just the vessel, here for whatever greater purpose life has in store for my time on this planet.  One of my all-time favorite song lyrics are these words from the band 311 – “Kingdom comin’ thru ya!”  To me, that means life living its purpose thru a human being, for the good of others and for the world.

Just like waves and the ocean – inextricably connected.  One moves thru the other and there is no resistance – only flow. 

In the time since that experience last year, I’ve switched my default mode from “more / faster / harder” to “less / slower / easier.”  Rationally and logically, that made zero sense to me at first.  If I’m “not getting everything done that I need to” and “I don’t have enough time for everything on my plate” – then obviously the answer must be “more / faster / harder.”  I mean anyone can clearly see that more is more, amiright?

Instead of redlining and brute-forcing my way through when something isn’t working, now I take a deep breath and ease off the gas.  Somehow that makes me more calm and better able to approach whatever I’m struggling through – strange, I know.

So is there even such a thing as men’s intuition?  Well, here’s how Merriam-Webster defines intuition (condensed for simplicity):

  • quick and ready insight

  • immediate cognition

  • the power of attaining direct knowledge without evident rational thought and inference

So does it exist for men?  I have a couple responses and I’m only scratching the surface here. My answer has several parts:

  1. There is such a thing as intuition and men can tune-in. 

  2. In a calm, non-resistant state of mind – messages via intuition appear obvious.

  3. In a chaotic, resistant state of mind – the mind and heart are insulated from intuition.  I would compare it to take a cell phone into a cave deep below ground.  Both the source and the receiver are still functional, but something is blocking the line of communication.  There’s an impenetrable barrier and no reception.

I believe this rabbit hole of intuition for men goes much deeper and that intuition is intricately connected to a calm mind and open heart – which when combined, are ultimately our real source of power.  One of my favorite quotes is this one by Marcus Aurelius:

The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.

Intuition, calmness and power/strength – to what end?  That depends on purpose and meaning – two topics for another day, and the central question of why we’re even here on this planet in the first place.  For now I’ll leave it with this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh – comparing waves (each human being as an individual) to the ocean (humanity and existence as a whole):

Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water. When we realize we are not separate, but a part of the huge ocean of everything, we become enlightened.

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Go Make Mistakes - They're the Patina of Life!
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Post by Markus

To quote one of the literary greats, author Michael Bond: “Things are always happening to me. I’m that sort of bear” – from A Bear Called PaddingtonPaddington knew what kind of bear he was – the kind who has interesting things happen to him on the reg.  When you’re the kind of person (excuse me – bear) who expects interesting things to happen – they usually do.  Just like how when you start thinking about getting a Jeep (speaking for a friend), all of a sudden you see Jeeps everywhere.

I knew what kind of bear I was too – the kind that screws things up.  Not surprisingly – when I expected to make mistakes, I usually did.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t set out to make mistakes.  No, no, no – I set out specifically to not make mistakes.  Totally different.  But there’s this thing that happened along the way – by specifically trying not to make mistakes, I actually made more mistakes.

 

WHERE THE SHIP IS POINTED IS WHERE THE SHIP WILL GO

My theory is that it’s about where I’m putting my attention – where am I focusing my thoughts and mental energy?  A great piece of mountain biking advice that never steered me wrong is to look where you do want your bike to go and not to look where you don’t want your bike to go. 

Once I heard that, I noticed that it was true every time – when I stared at a big rock or drop-off trying not to go there, I automatically went there.  It took a long time to retrain myself to look at the boring, flat parts of the trail instead but once I did – my bike seemed to avoid sketchy spots as if my magic.

Unfortunately, I never made the connection that what worked on the bike might work in my life.  My focus in almost all areas of my life was seriously: just don’t screw this up, Neubauer!  My “plan” that I wasn’t even aware of was this:

  1. Think about everything I might screw up in a situation - everything.

  2. Start obsessing about it way in advance – but don’t think of it as obsessing, think of it as “being really, really prepared” – so obviously it’s a good thing.

  3. Spend zero time thinking about what might go right or how I could shine.

  4. Stay small – don’t speak up, don’t try something where I might fail, and especially don’t try something where I might look stupid.

  5. Hope, hope, hope that I don’t screw up.

  6. Screw up (because that’s the only place I’ve been focusing my thoughts and energy).

  7. Guilt, shame, and otherwise demean myself for any and every mistake I made along the way.  Maybe if I shame myself enough and really believe that I’m awful, I won’t make those mistakes next time. 

  8. Rinse and repeat.

Turns out this plan wasn’t useful for anything except to find ways to punish myself for making bad decisions.  Of course I would have told you that the point was to apply the maximum amount of pressure to myself to “make myself better.”  I assumed it was just like applying tons of pressure to coal – obviously I would turn myself into a flawless diamond.

I have pretty strong beliefs about where this came from and I’m confident it’s not something that I had in me when I was born.  If we’re talking nature vs. nurture – I’m squarely in the nurture camp here.  That said, I’m much less interested in the cause of it and way more interested in what’s on my plate - here, now, in each present moment of my life.  To paraphrase Mark Manson (author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving AF) - it may not be my fault but it’s still my responsibility.  I didn’t cause it but it’s on my plate to heal it – no one else can do it for me.

  

PAYING FOR IT BY GIVING UP MY ENERGY AND MY VOICE

It’s tough to convey the amount of time and space in my brain that this approach consumed.  I mean it was the number one thing I focused on without even realizing it.  It had physical components too – holding my breath and breathing super shallow all the time, moving less so that I wouldn’t draw attention to myself, slouching, trying to fit in and look like everyone else – the list goes on.  If someone could have tapped into my brain and my body, they would have seen high-grade ambient fear and self-loathing coursing through my veins as my main sustenance.  I was so used to it that I embraced it.  It felt as normal as breathing (OK, as normal as barely shallow-breathing in my case).

Don Miguel Ruiz (author of The Four Agreements) puts it simply:

How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. The rest of the animals pay once for every mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and we punish ourselves. If justice exists, then that was enough; we don’t need to do it again. But every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.

How did I avoid making mistakes?  There were plenty of individual ways depending on the specific mistakes I was trying to avoid, but really they all came down to this – stay tense (and super serious), don’t shoot from the hip ever, and if you happen to squeak by without screwing something up – be pleasantly surprised.

Where it was particularly damaging was when it came to my voice, in every context that implies – literally and figuratively.  I would second-guess every word that I was about to say and once I finally was ready to speak, I would talk with a weak voice and trip over my words.  I would spend minutes (minutes!) reading almost every text message before I sent it, proofing and re-wording until it was mistake-free.  The same went for email – except that took even longer.  Anything that represented my voice was weak and tentative at best.

 

STARTING TO HEAL TRAUMA

That was then, this is now.  So what changed?  Plenty – and it’s all around “unprocessed trauma.”  To me, that still sounds more like an Emergency Room patient description than it does something related to personal growth. 

It turns out that “trauma” doesn’t have to be physical trauma.  As a lay-person, I would say trauma in this case is basically anything that’s overwhelming, stressful/distressing, painful, and too intense for the body/mind to appropriately process and heal around the time that it occurs. That can be physical, emotional, psychological, etc. 

When it’s too great to be processed, it’s stored somewhere in the body/mind until it’s processed out. Except in the majority of cases, that healing doesn’t happen.  Through shock, denial, or just being unaware - we usually don’t even know that it exists.  Slowly, the trauma starts driving the bus from the back seat and we never even know it’s there. 

That leads to things like fear, anxiety, depression, anger, dissociation, addictions, and withdrawal.  For me, one of the main symptoms was a repeating pattern of the bottom falling-out of my life about once a month.  Energy, motivation, mood, focus – they were all non-existent, from one day to the next.

To separate out any individual thing that’s helped along the way would be simplifying the magic of how this growth has happened.  That said, the three things that have brought about the greatest healing in this area are brainspotting and therapy, listening to how I speak with my five-year-old daughter, and Network Spinal Care (NSC). 

NSC is another topic for another day so stay tuned.  That said, I can’t overstate how incredibly transformative NSC has been for me – if you just can’t wait, hit me up and I’ll give you the cliff notes version.

Brainspotting – say what now?  What’s probably obvious is that it sounds like the movie Trainspotting and to me, that was the only obvious thing.  An official definition is here – the main thing is that together with therapy, it brings about healing of unprocessed trauma.  I describe it to people as:

  • Re-visiting a painful experience in my memory (that’s still painful in present-day)

  • Re-framing and re-experiencing what that pain and memory means through a new context

  • Healing it in real-time during that experience

  • From that point forward – still knowing the original story and remembering the original pain, but feeling deeply healed around it and no longer feeling the sting of the pain. It also includes bringing back a new definition of what that experience means about me and about my life.

It’s voluntary and conscious and is very calming and nurturing.  It’s not hypnosis or being surprised by uncovering repressed memories. The brainspotting sessions that I’ve done have been very healing and that effect has been really tangible from the moment I’m done with the session.  The overarching emotion that I leave with is compassion for my self – for my younger self and the pain I carried for so long, and also for my current self and how I’m still healing from whatever the experience was.

WHO’S TEACHING WHO?

The other thing that’s been deeply healing I stumbled onto by accident - listening to how I speak to my daughter.  I firmly believe that the way parents speak to a child when they’re young ultimately becomes the child’s inner voice when they’re an adult.  Is that a kind voice of compassion, curiosity, and understanding – or is it a judgmental voice of strict rules, anger, and punishment?

Almost every time I speak to her, I’m conscious of essentially writing the lines of code into her heart and mind that will become her inner dialogue when she’s an adult. That’s given me a huge sense of compassion for her and for myself too. The way I encourage her is the same way that I want to live myself – with appropriate discretion (not necessarily caution), but generally living with enthusiasm and a huge grin on my face. 

Speaking to her with kindness and compassion has made it glaringly obvious when I don’t do the same thing for myself.  It’s tough to have understanding for her and at the same time think of myself as worthless and shameful for having made some mistake. 

When this really hit home was one late night in our kitchen.  I was alone and I was filling a glass with water to drink.  As soon as it was completely full, I somehow dropped the entire glass on the floor and it spilled under all the cabinets where I couldn’t even clean most of the water up.  Without even thinking, I heard myself say to myself out-loud in a calm, kind voice “It’s OK, kiddo.”  WHOA.

I’ve never had anything close to that level of compassion or understanding for myself before that night and it seriously blew my mind and heart wide open.  My inner dialogue has only gotten kinder and more compassionate since then and I still think about that night frequently.  “It’s OK, kiddo” has become one of my new phrases that I say to myself when I make a mistake or feel myself starting to get upset at myself about something I did.

GO MAKE MISTAKES!

These days the pendulum is swinging to the other side.  I look forward to making mistakes, especially making them big, loud, and fast.  If my heart and enthusiasm are in it and if I’m doing my best – then I say there’s no such thing as a mistake.

Sure, there are still echos of the old survival-mode approach that show up from time-to-time – but those are getting less and less frequent.  When I notice them, that’s all I do – just notice, like noticing a cloud.  “Oh hey, look – a cloud.”  Then I move on.

Today I would tell you that a “mistake” doesn’t even actually exist.  It’s not a mistake, it’s just “something that happened.”  I believe mistakes are just patina – the unique, beautiful, weathered, story of our Life. 

Without patina, it’s just a plain blank slate.  Just someone who played it safe, never got hurt, and never did anything fun, cool, or worth mentioning – like a ship that never left the harbor.  That’s a boring life – and I’m convinced that if I was to live a life like that, my five-year-old self would (and definitely should) somehow find a time machine to come to the future and kick my ass for it.

What is patina?  The best description I’ve seen is this:

A patina is essentially the weathered look a piece of leather will take on as it ages. A good patina is a sight to behold. It’s a richness and beauty that only comes with time and experience.

Generally speaking, the higher quality leather, the better the patina.

Does a patina mean that the leather is worn out? No, no, no. Just like a 30-year-old bottle of fine wine, it gets better with age. The development of a patina is the goal.

I say – let’s make an awesome freaking patina while we’re here on this earth!  GO - MAKE MISTAKES.  MAKE THEM BIG, MAKE THEM LOUD, AND MAKE THEM FUN (AND IDEALLY, FUNNY TOO). FALL DOWN, FALL DOWN HARD AND GET EXCITED ABOUT THE SCARS AND THE STORIES WE’LL TELL TO THE NEXT GENERATION.  The patina of life is one of the very best parts and it’s all thanks to making “mistakes.”

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This Didn't Happen TO Me, It Happened FOR Me
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Post Written by Markus

When I was in middle school, my family of origin broke apart. I don’t know the specific reasons although I can speculate - but really that doesn’t matter much to me now. It was a long process that from what I can tell began a few years earlier when I was still in elementary school. And really, our family wasn’t technically broken apart until I was a sophomore in high school. But it was definitely broken years before that and there were more than a few painful years while everything played out.  

I’ll be honest - at the time, I didn’t think much of it. Plenty of my friends at school were in broken homes and that concept seemed pretty normal to me by age 16.  But my heart (and my life) would tell you otherwise. Both were screaming in anguish and it would be about two decades before I started to regain a sense of security, belonging, and vulnerability.

For me, the aftermath of my family dissolving was in a word - devastating.  There were plenty of other things at play that made life from age 11 to age 16 excruciating but the breaking apart of my family dumped jet fuel onto an already blazing dumpster fire.  What little footing I had crumbled beneath my feet and I went into a tailspin in many ways, especially emotionally.  

There’s plenty of detail and plenty of stories for another day.  It’s hard to say which of those two decades was “harder” or “worse” - both of them included moments darker, more lonely, and more painful than I ever believed possible. It’s not until one year ago when I took the plunge and went on The ManKind Project’s NWTA weekend mens’ retreat that things tangibly began to change.  That weekend was a catalyst in the best way for the most profound healing and growth I’ve ever experienced.

What Did It Mean?

If you had asked me at any point during those two decades to talk about how my family’s breakup affected me, I would have given you one of these responses:

  • I’m good/fine/OK.

  • It’s not a big deal.

  • Tons of people come from broken homes and they’re fine, so I’ll be fine too.

  • I’m actually glad because before the breakup everything was even worse and at least now there’s peace.

Although I was in massive denial, my heart knew that none of those were true.  I distinctly remember the day I closed my heart up tight “so that I wouldn’t keep feeling so much hurt.”  Spoiler alert - it didn’t work. Not just that, it actually guaranteed that I would experience the exact emotions I was trying to avoid - pain, sadness, and loneliness. 

Now that I have a little perspective and am looking at much of this era of my life in hindsight, there’s an important question: how do I see this event in terms of what it means? The real question is the same no matter how it’s phrased, and it’s about Life itself:

  • Is Love even real or is Love just a fake lie?

  • Is the world a safe place or is a dangerous place?  

  • Can I trust that I’m going to be OK even when painful things outside my control happen or do I need to protect my heart by armoring up and not letting anyone in?

For me, the question boils down to this: did this event happen TO me or did it happen FOR me?  


Considering That I Might Be Wrong

The first time I even considered the idea that this event might have happened FOR me, I immediately dismissed it because it was obviously a stupid nonsense question.  How could my family dissolving possibly be FOR me? Anyone that might even suggest that’s the case must be insane - that event triggered the lowest lows I’ve ever experienced.  FOR me? Come on. Don’t waste my time.  

What I didn’t see at the time was that I was already bringing my own pre-determined meaning to this question. I had already made up my mind and it was not open for discussion. It was an open-and-shut case as far as I was concerned: Markus’ family dissolves and as a result, Markus experiences pain and sadness. This happened TO him.  Done and done.

If something happens FOR someone, that means they somehow benefited from it.  I would never have described my experience as something remotely beneficial or positive.  So therefore, it happened TO me. Negative effects = TO me, positive effects = FOR me. Easy. 

And yet - today I believe deeply that this (and plenty of other painful things in my life) happened FOR me, not TO me.  I’m honestly grateful for each moment of pain that I experienced along the way. Each of those moments has somehow led to my growth.  

Although it took a long time, my family’s breakup ultimately led to me at age 35 being desperate enough to sign-up blind for that mens’ retreat which ended up being an experience that blew the doors of my heart and my life wide open.  The positive effect of everything that’s happened since then has been blindingly obvious - which means that my family’s breakup actually did happen FOR me, not TO me. It was something that was brought into my life for my own growth.

Another big one was a severe ankle injury I sustained in 2003. It was a badly broken bone from a freak “sports” injury (paintball is a real sport, OK?) that led to multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, including a nasty staph infection in my ankle joint that wiped out all the cartilage.

I still have the scars on my arm from where I had a PICC line installed so I could self-administer my antibiotic IVs each day. I was two-years into my career as a student at SMU at the time and I quickly found myself in massive depression and realized I hadn’t been to class in a month. That turned into a downward spiral and I withdrew from SMU indefinitely - which turned into four years.

At my last orthopedic appointment earlier this year, my doctor told me (not jokingly) “Well, your ankle is still in terrible shape but it hasn’t gotten any worse. Honestly it’s amazing that you’re not in constant debilitating pain.”

But for me, today - it’s the same with this injury as it is with my family’s breakup. This injury happened FOR me, not TO me. The very painful journey that happened as a result of this injury taught me things I would not have learned otherwise and which I needed badly so that I could be of service to other people. Things like empathy - especially for people living with depression or disability. Also for people dealing with issues around body composition and fitness - I’d previously always thought it was a moral failing. I mean it was easy for me to stay in shape so why not everyone else? That perspective quickly changed when I realized I had gained about 75 pounds over two years and I learned firsthand how real that struggle actually is. 

That injury also led to me moving out to Lubbock in 2006 where my brother was going to school. I remember the conversation as him saying something like “Hey man, you’re not going to school and there’s nothing keeping you in Dallas - we’re looking for a roommate, wanna move out here for a while?” I knew I would meet a lot of dust and a lot of wind in Lubbock. What I didn’t know is that I would meet a girl who would knock me off my feet, rock my world, and that I would ultimately ask to marry me. 

It’s beyond obvious today that this injury happened FOR me, not TO me. This was a cosmic two-by-four that smacked me clear across the forehead and that forced painful experiences into my life for my own growth, so that I would be of better use (alright, any use) to the world around me. And so that I would meet Lilly, after which my life would never be the same - in the best ways. 

A New Default Mode

These days, I notice myself genuinely saying a phrase out-loud to myself plenty of times throughout the day, and it still catches me off guard. It’s after something has happened that seems annoying, frustrating, inconvenient, unpleasant, painful, or unfair. That phrase is “Thank you.”  

When I’m running late and I seem to catch every single red light?  “Thank you.”   

When my daughter accidentally knocks a full glass of water onto a clean wooden floor as I’m closing the door after saying goodnight?  “Thank you.”  

When I have one item at the grocery store, the express lines are closed, and it’s a 10-minute wait to the cashier? “Thank you.”

Because what I’ve come to realize is this:  I am the one who decides what the things in my life mean, whether they’re positive or negative.  Are they happening FOR me or TO me?  

And what I’ve decided is - no matter what it is, it’s happening FOR me.  

How do I know?  Because I’m playing the long game and because I’m no longer arrogant enough to assume that I know how everything (or anything for that matter) is going to play out over time. Everything that looks like it’s happening TO me in the moment, might be the exact opposite and I just might not know it for twenty years - because that’s exactly what happened in my life.

These days, if I can’t prove immediately which of the two it is (i.e., always), I now assume that it’s happening FOR me.  There are two options that it could be - TO me or FOR me. I’ve been down the “everything that’s unpleasant is happening TO me” road. I spent decades being cynical, jaded, paranoid, pessimistic and with my heart locked-down tight. I’ve lived as if the world was a bad, scary place and that everyone and everything was out to get me. I even had so much “proof.”

But no thanks, that’s not for me anymore. Whatever each day has in store, I’m there for it. Amor Fati - a love of fate. Not merely to bear what is necessary, but love it. The obstacle really is the way.

In the words of Marcus Aurelius - “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” What looks like it might be a total derailing of my life or at least an annoying, inconvenient mess - I now view as a scenic detour and I keep my eyes peeled for rainbows along the way. Believing (and knowing) that life is happening FOR me - to me, that’s the essence of what it means to live with an open heart. 

GROW, ByMarkusMarkusComment
The Magic of Prayer
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Post Written by Markus

Prayer has meant different things to me across my life.  From a comforting evening ritual with parents, to a “boring” experience at plenty of conservative churches, to an inspiring and raw experience at some tiny churches, to a very unpleasant and disingenuous experience at some big flashy churches, to a desperate cry for help and reassurance in many of my own dark, quiet, lonely moments.  For most of my life I understood prayer to be at best a hopeful, but not guaranteed, petition for some desired outcome - and at worst, a resignation of admittance that I couldn’t handle life on my own and was “one of those weak, pitiful people who needs God for real and can’t handle life on their own.” 

That understanding has since shifted, seemingly out of nowhere.  One early morning a few weeks ago, an idea in my mind gripped me to write it down because it felt significant in my heart. I expected it to be a relatively brief complete thought, so I just grabbed the closest thing which was my phone. Fast forward to an hour later when I looked up and realized that it was much longer than I had expected and would have been way better suited to typing on my laptop.  But there it was, as it had shown up.  

Note that I use the word “God” throughout.  This is actually not the term that resonates with my heart the most for my higher power - those terms are “Source”, “Love”, “Life”, “Universe”, and “Infinite”. To me these convey the essence of something that is at once very personal - yet profoundly powerful; tangible - yet without boundary, beginning, or end.  For me, the word “God” brings with it many associations and connotations that were taught by well-intentioned people but that served mostly to make God smaller and more manageable to fit neatly into a conservative Christian box. That said, using the word “God” in this writing actually brought about a sense of healing for me as those layers of projection began to fade away, leaving a sense of loving compassion instead.  These are those words:

When I pray - does God listen? Why is it important to pray and to talk with God? If I’m honest and open with God, what does that do for me? It really doesn’t matter where God physically exists or if God hears those specific words in English that I say out loud or in my mind to God - as one person out of billions of people on the planet today and of trillions of people across all time. It does matter though that I say these things to myself, out loud or in my mind. That I’m honest and open with myself. And what happens then? Who hears these things?

Anything I express - worries, fears, desires, emotions, pain, hard truths about the world, hard truths about myself - I can bring them to God. Even doubt and even anger. Out loud and in my mind I can bring these to God. At that point there’s no denial and no repression. If I’ve named and expressed an emotion, it’s not hiding under the surface anymore. If I’ve taken an honest look about a shortcoming about myself, it’s not hiding anymore. So that’s an important step. That’s not nothing - that’s a massive first step. To be aware. To not resist what is. To let life live thru me.

So who’s listening? Does God hear? Does it matter that I pray beyond just keeping myself out of denial and repression? Something happens thru these moments. There’s something that’s troubling me, usually. Either about “the world” (something outside my self) or about my self. Really they’re both about my self. The world is what it is. It’s my resistance to “what is” that’s the problem. 

When I bring these things to God, I’m saying “These are things that exist. Things about the world or about myself. They’re troubling me and right here, right now, I don’t have the answers or the immediate power to change them to be as I wish them to be in this moment.” This may sound obvious. Why even mention this? There’s nothing I can “do” about them - right? So why waste time talking about what I can’t change?

This is the heart of the serenity prayer. To understand what things are outside my control to change. So if I can’t change them, what’s the point of spending any mental time on them, not to mention prayer time? The point is that in these moments, someone is listening. I know and can prove 100% that someone hears these. I’ve always been able to since I was a young child, but that’s not unique to me. When I pray, I am listening. ME. My self. When I pray, I hear these things. Concerns, problems, griefs. And I understand that the ones about the world are not in my control. Though I may wish for a certain outcome, I can’t create it myself and I can’t expect it from God. Maybe there will be a change and maybe not. I can’t control the world or circumstances.

When I talk with God about things in the world that I can’t change, I’m honest about them. I’m not saying that they’re OK but I’m taking a look at them as they are today. There they are and they’re out of my hands. That’s honest acceptance. Seeing things as they are and not as I wish them to be. And taking my hand off the wheel and not trying to force them to be different. 

When I bring these to God as things outside my control, it frees up a tremendous amount of energy in me to not carry these concerns with me each moment of each day. Carrying them as concerns is one thing, and putting them down frees up so much energy on its own. Yet even more energy is freed when I don’t carry the burden of responsibility each day too. And that burden is one thing - though even greater is the burden I place on myself for what it means about me to carry that responsibility. If I have the responsibility for these things, then I’m accountable. I MUST be able to change them. But obviously I can’t. So what has that meant in my life to date?

It’s meant that the responsible person was incompetent; and because of that, this person was bad; and because of that, this person was unacceptable. That person was me. That meant that I was incompetent and unacceptable and bad. I was supposed to do these things and I didn’t or couldn’t. I tried and tried and tried and failed. If I was to look at the situation honestly, I would have agreed with the individual pieces. That I can’t actually change these things and so really I’m not in control. But something there doesn’t add up. Because even seeing these things and agreeing to the individual pieces, I still didn’t let go. 

There’s something I’ve clung to here. Desperately. I’d have told you it was about the world, but actually it was about my self. I clung to the deep belief that I was incompetent and therefore bad and therefore unacceptable. So deeply that I look back and see these moments all throughout my life. Being surprised when I’ve succeeded at something because I expected failure - over and over. Declining compliments from others about my self because I believed they weren’t true and that I was unworthy, unattractive, and unlovable. Denying my own needs over and over, needs as basic as food, rest, fun, friendship, and pursuing my dreams - because I believed I didn’t deserve these things.  And because I believed very deeply that I specifically deserved the opposite of these.

So I have these two things - things about the world that I can’t change and a deep need to not accept myself because I can’t change these things. That is a need to punish myself and withhold the things that my body and mind need in order to thrive and grow and live the life that my self naturally wants to live. When I bring these to God, someone sees them. I see them. There they are. About the world and about me. They’re both there, in the palm of my hand, and I can turn them over. I can see them as being outside my self, even the ones that are about me. They describe actions I’ve taken or not taken and they describe how I’ve felt. But neither of these is me. 

I used to believe that they were both me. My actions and my emotions. What else could be me? I believed that my actions defined me and that if I made a mistake, it meant that I was bad. OK, not necessarily just bad - also stupid, not OK, unlovable, unacceptable, and not deserving of anything good in life.

I missed an important distinction - the problem wasn’t making mistakes, the problem was not recovering from mistakes.  I can’t avoid making mistakes. If I do, I’m not living - I’m just cowering in fear - and that’s the biggest mistake of all.  I could write volumes about that - I would say that I have more direct experience with that than anything else in life.  The years I spent with my number one goal as “just don’t make mistakes” drained my energy and made my existence miserable, endlessly anxious, and very, very small. Everyone falls down trying something hard for the first time - and still makes mistakes many times after that. And accidents happen too beyond our control, even big accidents - ones that can stop us dead in our tracks in an instant. Yet everything is in the recovery. Not the cards I’m dealt but how I play them. 

It was true all along but I didn’t understand it. I was focused on not making mistakes so much that I never learned how to recover from making mistakes. A mistake was a verdict about my self and meant that I was bad and unacceptable. At that point, the proof about my self was already there and there was no use fighting it. I was unacceptable. My only hope was to hide those mistakes from others and from my self and use all my time and energy to try as hard as I can to not make any more of them as long as I was alive. 

And that’s where prayer comes in. Me looking at these things about the world and about my self and understanding that I can’t change them. I look at what is - as it is today, here, now. Then I lay all of it down. I don’t carry these things. They stay here and I’m not responsible to carry them. They’re not mine and that was never my role, even if caretakers told me that was the case when I was too young to understand they were wrong because they didn’t know.  I’m not responsible for the outcomes and because of that, the outcomes don’t mean anything about my self. I do my best and the chips fall where they may.  

The point of prayer isn’t to “do” anything - it’s not to affect a certain outcome in the world outside my self. I may consciously believe in the moment that the main “problem” that I want to pray about is the world. Prayer often starts with me talking about the world - something outside my self. That I want to accept the world and circumstances as they are today. But really I want to accept me.

I need to accept me. As I am - today, here, now. A person on this earth who’s here for a very short time and who needs deeply to live freely and to grow toward the light and to express openly and fully the love in my heart. If I don’t accept my self, I can never do any of these things. Ever. It’s 100% guaranteed. I can’t give anyone else something that I don’t already have. What I want and need to give to others is love and an honest open expression of my natural self in each moment. 

I realize that projection is heavily at play here.  Donny Epstein argues that at least 80% of what we “see” in the world around us (people, places, things) is our projection - not what’s actually there, but what we believe is there.  We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.  That said - when I accept myself and accept the world as it is (as best I honestly can), I’m able to see easily where I can change things and where I can’t. And those are hugely important distinctions. They’re part of the work I’m here to do. But my work is not my self. My work is not my heart and it’s not my soul. It’s just my work.

Prayer is a moment to look at my self as I am and also to separate things “about me” from my heart and my soul. To accept whatever is there “about me”. To accept it as “OK”, but so much more than just that. To accept my heart and my soul, my true self - to accept it as beautiful, good, worthy, attractive, and beyond all - deeply and truly lovable. This is the real Magic of prayer.

The Refrain of Love
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Post Written by Markus

[I originally wrote this in Winter of 2018. It was a moment where emotion pulled me to pick up a pen and write what was there. I’ve made a few minor edits for clarity but other than that, the words are unchanged. Something pulled at me again to find these specific words and share them. I hope they speak to your heart as they spoke to mine - and still do.]


At what time does pain become too great to bear?
Is there a breaking point of the heart, and if so – how would I know?
Are there signs to look for or are these just a false weakness of wanting to escape pain?
If life is an allegory as per many of the great teachers, then no pain is ever too great.
No cost too high to not double-down and pay it every time.
Then there is no fool who gave too much or who did not hold his own.
There is only Love – and the cost is irrelevant because it must be paid and because there is no other choice.
Ultimately, what if there truly is no other choice?
Maybe it’s just a matter of time.
We all must choose Love at some time, it just depends on when and if we do so willingly.


Then who is the fool, in Love?
How is an identity maintained?
That further brings the question of what identity even is – which is likely nothing, like so many things in life.
An illusion, a construct, a narrative of the mind – that exists only in the viewer’s imagination.
Just like the ego.
The I.
Me.
I am not me any more than an individual wave in the ocean is its own anything.
All the waves are minute instances of the energy of the sea – intricately played as instruments by the moon and the weather and the forces deep within the earth’s core.
The whole earth then is but one.
So many distinct individuals – but that is a lie.
That is the great lie.
That we are anything but one, anything but connected.
Our fates are the same, our song is the same.
The specific details of our problems vary, but we all have them.
We all have burdens to bear, though they take different forms and names.
Even privilege cannot escape this – though from its perspective, the other and the individual are much more pronounced.
It’s not that we’re in this together, it’s that we are this together.


What then is life, if not empathy?
What besides reverberating at the pulse of the Source could be worthwhile?
We are all unique instances of the Great Love, though we often forget, and often for far too long.
Like a clogged artery or arterial, we become taken with some minor facet not worth our attention.
Mere constructs, mere illusion.
More reasons to confirm our pain, and the other, and ourselves - as individuals.
We do not deserve what we have, to a person.
Whether good or bad, everything we have was given to us.
We are products of our genetics, of our environments, and of our upbringing.
We bring elements from within our heart and soul to the table, certainly – but where did these originate?
Did we conjure these up from nothing?
Did we create what was not there on our own merit or even our own choice?
Through tragedy and through joy – we are but resounding instruments.
We observe and we feel and Energy lives out its Purpose through us.
We are a light, we are a sound.
A brief refrain in a symphony millennia upon millennia long, with glorious accompaniment from the sky, the fire outside our planet, and the great vastness beyond.


For one fractional blip on the radar of the infinite universe, we matter.
That is, we are matter.
One day we do not exist – then Energy lives its Purpose through us – and then we are off to another plane.
The aftershocks, good and un-good, echo through the world around us until they are dampened by time and distance.
Neither is bad.
Both simply are.
But the Light, the Fire, the Source, the Infinite Ocean, the Eternal Summer, the Pulse, the Song, the Masterpiece of the Universe – this is our calling.
To turn ever to Love, as a flower turns to the sun.
As in meditation the mind turns back to the Breath, and merely notes “thinking.”
We must turn to each other, not because we are all we have, but because we are all One.
The fool is not the one who loses all in the pursuit of Love.
What would he even own to be able to lose in the first place?
No, the fool is the one who believes the lie of the other, of hurt, of pain, of ownership, of preservation, of self-protection.


We breathe in, we breathe out – and another beat in the song of the Infinite passes and yields to the next.
Forever playing on, forever passing, forever now.
Forever changing, growing, and dying – though beneath it, the Source remains.
We are the Source.
We see glimpses of the Source, though we cannot understand.
We are too small, through no fault of our own.
The Source is too bright, too great, too vast, too deep.
The pieces we see are enough for our time in this plane.
We all see glances, we all know.
We get hurt, we scar, and we defend – but we know.
We cannot escape the Source because we are the Source.
For our size and our reach, where would we go?
In a galaxy within galaxies, as a pure burst of Energy, where is our home?
Our home is with growth, with Sunlight, and Water.
The descriptions and synonyms are true.
What we need shows us an attribute of what we are.
Generations upon generations of beings.
Trying.
Failing.
Embodying joy.
Writhing in pain.
We cannot do else.
For what we are, this is our path.
We improve and innovate, but these will remain.


The cycle of the breath, the day, the year, the lifetime – they are relentless.
They are our marching orders.
Turn to each other.
Love each other.
No – turn to your self, love your self.
There is no other.
When one grows, we all grow.
When one hurts, we all hurt.
Forever as one – not individuals connected, but one and the same before the construct of time began.
We must love.
We must give all.
We have naught else.
If there is anything we can offer, it is everything we are.
Each smile, each tear, each burst of laughter, each embrace.


We must love, no matter the cost – because there is no cost and there is nothing else.
Love is not the top choice, it is the only choice – the only response.
Each day as the Sun rises, so do we – and so must our Love.
We tune ourselves as an instrument and we are ready to play our Song again.
The Song of Us.
The Refrain of Love.
The Infinite Rhythm of Everything, and Beyond.
If we have not Love, what have we?
If we are not Love, what are we?
Love knows no limits, Love has no end.
Love always perseveres, always hopes, always believes.
We are Love.
We.
Are Love.

GROW, ByMarkusMarkusComment
Calmer Than You Are, Dude: A Calm Meditation App Review
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Post Written by Markus

[Note: This is not a sponsored post - I wrote this because of the impact that the Calm app has had for me and I hope you’ll have a similar experience too!]

I toed-into meditation kicking (not literally) and screaming (literally).  I don’t remember the specific circumstances or what my exact frustration was, but I remember exactly where I was and how I felt.  It was a few years ago and I was getting into my car in front of our house and I couldn’t contain how upset was.  I felt beyond frustrated, beyond overwhelmed, beyond distraught. 

Somehow, I managed to take out my phone, search for a meditation app, download it, open it, and do a 5-minute “Emergency Calm” session.  That session was very weird to me, having never done this before.  All I could think was “am I doing it right?” and “Is this even going to work?” and “What is the point of this even?” (well, throw in as many expletives as you can, and you’ve got it).

Amazingly – it did work.  That first session was excruciating, even just to sit still and quiet that long - but it did keep me from throwing my phone against a brick wall.  Whatever happened in those 5 minutes was enough to take me from redlined to just slightly-below-redlined.  I would describe the experience as when a parent helps a child calm down by lovingly guiding them through deep breaths and honoring their emotion, whatever it is.  “There might be something here,” I thought.

I had previously read the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris and it made a lot of sense to me and I bought-in to the idea of meditation in principle – but I had no idea what it was (“Is that some kinda Eastern thing?”).  I figured I’d keep the principle on-deck in case I ever got desperate enough to need it - which luckily I was on that day.

WHAT IS IT?

So what is the Daily Calm?  In short, it’s an exercise in calming the mind that channels resilience and acceptance when done regularly over time.  Really, there’s not much to it – the only things you need are:

  • Yourself

  • Your phone with the Daily Calm app loaded (there are others, like Headspace that are great too)

  • A quiet place where you won’t be disturbed

  • Optional – headphones if that’s your preferred method of audio (it’s definitely mine, specifically these – the noise-cancelling function is incredible and makes me 3% calmer)

That’s it in terms of tangible ingredients.  My favorite places to do a Calm session are:

  • On a yoga mat at the gym after a workout

  • On the sofa at home

  • In our wellness room at the office

  • In my car, especially since this is easy in terms of access, I know I won’t be disturbed, and audio is easy over Bluetooth.  I keep a pair of sunglasses in my car to wear during sessions so it looks slightly less strange if someone walks by.

    (I’ve been told that meditating in the car is not actually an ideal location from a Pavlovian standpoint. If possible, the goal from that perspective is to have one regular place where most meditation sessions are done. Ideally that would be a place that’s not used for anything else so the automatic mental association of that place is one of calm and “this is where I calm down and meditate” rather than “this is where I channel stress during rush hour traffic”.)

In terms of the best time to do a session:

  • The absolute best time without a doubt is the time that works best for you.  Just like a diet or exercise plan, the “best” one is the one that you’ll actually stick to.

  • Within that context, the overwhelming consensus is that morning is best (or the beginning of your “day”, if you’re on a non-standard work schedule).  Meditating in the morning sets the tone for the day as a tone of calm.  By doing it in the morning, it’s a guarantee that the session actually happens before the changing schedule-landscape of the day begins.

So what actually happens during a Calm app session?  As little as possible.  From what’s observable – a person sits still with eyes closed for about ten minutes while listening to guidance (well, mostly quiet with some guidance) from the app. After the session, the person opens their eyes and is ostensibly – calmer.  My app shows that I’ve logged 359 sessions so far and I can attest that without exception, this is the result every time.  That said, across all those sessions, there have definitely been some sessions where I wasn’t “as calm as I should be or wanted to be” after the session, but definitely was still calmer than before doing the session.

Which brings up a great point – there is no “should” with meditation and there is no physical “goal.”  The point is to listen, observe, accept, and be – and if it’s “there” today, the idea is to calm the river of thoughts in the mind.  Usually that’s brought about through a focus on the natural breath (just breathing normally, not forcing deep breaths) and observing thoughts without attaching to them or following them.  Whatever’s there in the mind today is what’s there – in terms of emotion, and especially in terms of thoughts.  From a metaphysical perspective, the theory is that “we are not our thoughts” and that instead we are the person witnessing the thoughts. 

The metaphor of standing behind a waterfall is a great way to illustrate this.  The river is the flow of thoughts – endless, rushing, turbulent, deep.  When the river goes over the waterfall, the observer watches the waterfall from an alcove behind the actual waterfall.  Even though the stream of thoughts is so fast and powerful, the observe can see that “I am not my thoughts, I am the person hearing my thoughts.”  Big deal, especially when you’re dealing with a tyrannical mind (my case) – which is a topic for another day.

Another of the most common metaphors used to describe meditation is that of watching clouds pass in the sky.  The observer doesn’t identify with the clouds as “I am the clouds that I see” but only watches them as they pass, noting “Hey, there’s a cloud.”  In the same way, the idea with meditation is to watch thoughts pass in the mind and not attaching to them as “these are my thoughts” or “these thoughts are me”, but instead noting “Hey, there’s a thought” – and honestly leaving it at that. 

After that, it’s a return to following the breath – in… and out.  In… and… out… and… in… and.. out… Really the entire process boils down to that – maintaining a loose focus (in the Daily Calm, usually a focus on the breath – or in other practices, a focus on a mantra) by breathing naturally and redirecting.  Redirecting is just that simple moment of noticing when the focus has shifted from the breath over to a thought, letting the thought sit where it is, and going back to the breath. In and out.

Thoughts are often “shiny objects” with a particular pull for the mind and focus - for me, normally it’s along the lines of “HEY THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT THING THAT YOU’RE GOING TO NEED TO REMEMBER SO YOU NEED TO THINK ABOUT THIS THOUGHT RIGHT NOW INSTEAD OF FOCUSING ON THE CALM APP OR BREATHING OR ELSE YOU’RE NOT GOING TO REMEMBER THIS THOUGHT AFTER YOU’RE DONE AND THEN HOW WILL YOU EVER KNOW AND IS THIS CALM APP THING REALLY THAT IMPORTANT COME ON MAN YOU CAN JUST THINK ABOUT THIS OTHER THING FOR A LITTLE WHILE”.

That moment is where the rubber hits the road for me.  Saying “whatever this thought is, I trust myself enough that if it’s really super important, I’ll remember again later.”  In this moment, while I’m doing my Calm session – there’s nothing more important that I could possibly be doing, not even remembering a thought or idea that I have during the session. And I know that my marching orders are to just notice “hey, there’s a thought.”  As a person who writes down almost everything “or else I won’t remember”, this has not come naturally to me - but has made all the difference.

 

AM I DOING IT RIGHT?

This has been tough for me to quantify because there is no directly measurable external metric (well, technically there is and you could even have meditation “contests” to see who’s “better” at meditating – but that flies directly in the face of the concept of non-attachment). 

The ultimate test in my view is “am I leaning more toward Acceptance, Breathing, Presence, and Non-Attachment over time?”  If the answer is yes, then it’s a clear indicator that you’re moving in the right direction.  If the answer is no, but you’re enjoying the daily 10-minute session and feel like you’re getting something out of it – then I’d argue that yes, you’re still doing it right.

And you’re not limited to once per day (especially if you draw inspiration from comedy great Jerry Seinfeld who’s famously been a huge proponent of Transcendental Meditation – crediting much of his success in dealing with the stress of “Seinfeld” to using his lunch break each day for a 20-minute meditation session). Once a day is a great frequency to get rolling with meditation and makes it an “easy win” that doesn’t seem too daunting each new day. Where the Daily Calm shines is the daily meditation session that’s new each day and specific to that day. Serendipitous, kismet, The Universe Has Your Back, whatever you want to call it - it’s eerie how timely the daily topics can be. Beyond these there are also plenty of pre-loaded sessions that are available to listen to any time.  These cover topics such as “Managing Stress”, “Calming Anxiety,” “Emergency Calm,” and “Emotions.”

 

DAILY USE

Most days, I start my day with a Calm session.  Not. Every. Day. #Blasphemy, I know!  On a fair amount of the off days, I’ll work in a session later in the day.  Plenty of days I don’t do a session at all – not intentionally but I’ll notice that’s how it shook out.  I don’t see that as a problem – I just notice.  The next day, I look to make it happen more intentionally since I missed a day already. 

I’ve found that the times that I’m most consistent overall in life are when I’m doing the Calm app regularly. I’ve also found that that I’m most consistent with sitting still for a Calm moment when I do it first thing in the morning. It’s called “Daily Calm” and doing it daily is obviously the goal. That said, in the almost three years that I’ve been pausing for Daily Calm sessions, my longest streak is 12 days in a row – still shy of two consecutive weeks.  As a dude who has a PhD in All-or-Nothing approaches, that’s humbling.  And it’s OK. I notice it, and I let it sit. And then I breathe in. And I breathe out.

I also use the Calm app in other ways – the sleep stories and the Breathe bubble.  Our daughter actually loves both.  The sleep stories are usually about 30-minute stories read by soothing narrators (think Matthew McConaughey and Anna Acton).  Stories include The Nutcracker, The Wind in the Willows, and even some by Bob Ross, the master of Happy Little Accidents.  When our daughter goes to sleep, I’ll set a timer on the phone for 5 minutes and we’ll listen to a portion of whichever sleep story she chooses.  Pro tip – if you’re using you phone as the timer, use the “Stop Playing” option instead of an actual alarm sound. The story just stopping keeps the “time to sleep” vibe going much more than a loud ringtone alert does.

The Breathe bubble is so simple but so profound in what it does. It has a few different options to set duration and type of breathing – my favorite is box breathing (made famous in part by the Navy Seals). At times when our daughter (or me, let’s be real) is overwhelmed, this is a great option to take a few minutes and seriously reset.  Box breathing is no joke, and can take either of us from wound-up-real-tight to ahhhhhhh-relaxed in just that short duration of a few minutes.

If this sounds like something that might be useful to you, check out the Daily Calm app and give it a spin!  The app allows each person to give out five 30-day guest passes - here’s my link for the first lucky five people! Calm also published a book that features many of the same principles as the app - and is great if you’re a very visual person (me, me, me).  I hope this gets you one step closer to being “Calmer than you are, Dude.” Namaste, homies.

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The ManKind Project’s NWTA Weekend
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Post Written by Markus

On a Monday afternoon last September, Lilly sent me a text: “Hey, I found this weekend men’s retreat that sounds interesting, would you consider going?”  I was on a huge deadline push at work that day and I read the text quickly before replying “Sure, thank you.” Lilly had heard of a similar retreat a year or two back that I also attended and based on that experience, it was an easy decision for me. That prior retreat was on the shores of a lake nearby and it was a silent retreat. No talking, no phones – just being. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done and it was incredibly grounding, calming, and centering for me. Apparently, I was now the kind of guy who regularly goes on retreats like this – bring on the silence and a break, I thought.

What I didn’t know was that this weekend was a bit different than the first one. This one was called NWTA (“New Warrior Training Adventure” – I’ll be honest, I rolled my eyes at the name) a three-day “retreat” that seemed to be the main event put on by an organization called The ManKind Project (MKP). I was still trying to figure out what any of this actually was and I figured that if MKP or this warrior weekend was really such a big deal, then I would have already heard of it before now.

Full disclosure – Lilly hadn’t found this new retreat as something unique and interesting just because she cares about me (although she does and she would) – but because it was a long shot at trying to get things moving that were stuck, specifically in/with me. Things like emotion (me not expressing emotion, me not understanding Lilly when she expresses emotion, me having low empathy), listening skills (or lack thereof), reliability in general, and my lack of a well-defined purpose beyond “work hard and be good for my family.”

GETTING READY

That same Monday afternoon, I got a (slightly) better picture of what I was getting into as I was texting Lilly:  “OK, so what is this retreat exactly?”, “Where is this place?”, “What do people who’ve attended say about it?” On the MKP site they describe the weekend as “not a retreat” (thanks guys - wait, OK what is it then?) and they refer to it as “a real-time hero’s journey” (way to be dramatic about it, I thought).

The official MKP description of the weekend is: “You'll get more than you're willing to hope for: purpose, passion, vibrancy, joy, healing, connection to self, new energy, clarity, power, freedom, understanding, brotherhood, trust. Over 64,000 men have now taken this journey, and every man's experience has been unique.” That description also didn’t help me much – that’s just a list that sounds like it was pulled from a BuzzFeed clickbait post titled “13 Things The Modern Man Needs To Be a Hero (Number 8 May Surprise You!)”.

Boy, it seemed like these guys really weren’t doing much to pitch this to the average guy as something that might seem even remotely appealing – unless he was a guy who needed a Hail Mary attempt at keeping a marriage together, which was the case for me. With that context, it honestly didn’t matter what they called this non-retreat adult man sleepover weekend. Like so many other decisions in my life, this came about because it was finally too painful to not change.

As I was looking for any third-partyreviews of this experience/weekend, the trail pretty much ran cold. I could find almost nothing online about this organization or the weekend – which meant my imagination began to run wild.  What little I did find seemed questionable at best and what I didn’t know at the time was that there were two things at play:

  1. MKP is by definition a men’s group (explicitly welcoming to GBTQ) by each man’s own definition.  Saying that to say – as a group, men are generally less effusive, and are already less likely to write reviews of their weekend non-retreat experiences.  My opinion is that this is one reason why there are few reviews out there.

  2. The weekend has been running for over three decades, is held in many countries, and generally still takes the same shape today as the early years. A fair amount of the efficacy of the weekend is based on the construct of following a hero’s journey where a large part of it is the unknown of the path before you. To this end, MKP asks attendees to talk in generalities about the weekend and leave the specifics for each man to experience on his own during the weekend. In my opinion it’s this request, coupled with #1 above, that leads to the shortage of actually useful third-party information about MKP online.

Where this really doesn’t work in MKP’s favor is that online, the vocal minority has the floor. The guys who are attending and having awesome, life-changing experiences are not writing about it – at least not where other interested guys can find the reviews. For me, that was crucial and I was basically taking a leap of faith with little time to decide whether to spend $750 (wait - seriously, $750? Seriously.) for the weekend. MKP does offer case-by-case options and they want to make sure that cost is never a barrier to attendance.

Lilly sent me that text on a Monday and the way the timing of this retreat fell, it was that upcoming weekend in a rural area outside Houston. If I would have paused at any point between that moment and the weekend (I didn’t) to make a list of the things I thought were not working in my life and that I might like to examine during the weekend, it would have included:

  1. Lack of emotional attunement

  2. Lack of traction/consistency in progress

  3. Lack of connection with my inner child

  4. Unawareness of shame (and the major role it was playing in directing my life)

  5. Lack of a clearly-defined purpose – sure, I wanted to be a good husband, good dad, and have a good career – but I had never defined the actual goal and hadn’t considered what greater overarching purpose there might be

  6. Fears that I had never faced that were redirecting my life by me avoiding them

  7. Though I couldn’t put my finger on it, what I now recognize as a constant need for approval

Even though I didn’t put it into those words before the weekend, I had a strong sense that something was going on. I also believed that I was the only one feeling like this and that these problems were unique to me. That led me to avoid talking about them, which only made them worse.

LESSONS FROM THE WEEKEND

The best way to describe the weekend actually is MKP’s standard description from earlier in this post. Each man’s experience is different. It’s an opportunity to take a look at things in life that are working (and things that aren’t working) in a different context. Think Joseph Campbell and his paradigm of the myth of the hero’s journey – especially the quote “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

The other best way to describe the weekend is describe what I got from the experience, including lessons about these topics below. By “lesson”, I mean something that I absorbed to a level deeper than just a theoretical surface-level understanding.

  1. What a man is, and what he is not (most of the images and archetypes celebrated by our culture are at best incomplete, and at worst, destructive to self and others)

  2. Emotional attunement (even just the “base” emotions of happy, sad, angry, afraid, ashamed)

  3. An understanding of agreements – the moments where I agree to do something and how I do (or do not) honor that agreement

  4. Integrity (aligning my words and my actions) + accountability (doing what I say I’ll do)

  5. Shame

  6. My inner child’s deepest need (and out of that, my mission)

  7. Understanding that I’m not on earth just to be a work-horse productivity machine

  8. Actually hearing my real Voice for the first time (both figuratively and literally)

  9. Connection with other men, besides just surface-level

  10. Connection with the Earth, with Nature, and with Life

  11. A deep sense of connection to the men who came before me in prior generations and those who will follow

The weekend was surreal in terms of cultivating a sense of reconnection to myself – and coming back home (literally and figuratively) was even more surreal. Everything at home felt very familiar yet also very different.  Our house looked the same when I walked up to the door, but my connection to it felt much stronger. I can’t explain how overcome with love, gratitude, and adoration I was when my eyes saw Lilly, My Love, for the first time after I came home.  

It was a deep sense of appreciation for an ocean of incredible qualities about her. For believing in me, for finding the weekend and encouraging me to attend, for her support in general – and a deep appreciation for her as a woman, especially for her intuition, for her emotion and her attunement, her love, her physical beauty – and her smile, her kind eyes, and her presence.

We talked some, but mostly we were quiet. I couldn’t stop looking into her gorgeous green eyes – holding her gaze, staring at her pretty face and taking in her beauty.  Lilly had picked up dinner for me and I was ravenous from the drive home – but I could barely be bothered to eat it, I was so taken by her. I’ve always been smitten but this was different. Just being next to her was enough and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The intensity and intimacy of our connection that first day back and across the next few days felt like something from a classic love story.

The first week was back to “normal” life was so surreal. I wore out Porangui’s album Ayahuasca Remixed which has the most awesome primal, tribal energy and beats. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Fight Club kept resonating in my mind “After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down.”  It felt like everything in my life, especially the mundane work-life items, had become very muted in my daily life. The hard landscape was technically still the same but it seemed like everything had changed.

Before, it was a world where there were “so many” “important” things that I needed to stay aware of, pay attention to, and do something about. I had a death-grip attachment to viewing myself as Work & Productivity Man - and that attachment had long been trying to fill the voids in my life that I now call Identity and Purpose/Mission.

The thing I needed the most from the weekend (though I couldn’t have put it into words) was to have some kind of experience where I at least glimpsed a sense of trusting myself again. The experience of the weekend gave me a peek at that sense of trust and I could feel deeply that a very old need and wound was beginning to be met and healed. At the time I didn’t know quite how old and deep that wound was. I also didn’t know that the first week back was NOT actually the new normal, not yet at least – and not without a lot of hard work still ahead of me, and in so many unexpected areas of my life.

That first week passed and after that, the weekend was still semi-fresh on my mind – but definitely a little less fresh and a little less intense.  It seemed like “reality” was setting back in and I began to wonder if my weekend experience had produced real, lasting change – or if it was just an isolated experience to itself with no ultimate tangible translation to me actually living my life.

TODAY

One of the things that has not been lost on me is what purpose the weekend experience has served for me, besides the obvious shifts in emotion, Voice, and Connection. Those three weekend days together with the first days back at home were nothing short of an experience like looking directly into the Sun. It was white-hot, bright AF, and nurturing, and it let me directly experience first-hand the heights of what is tangibly possible for me in my life – and here’s the kicker – with what I already had inside myself that’s been there all along.

The toughest thing for me since the weekend was that realization that the initial “new normal” was not actually a new normal – at least not yet. I would compare it to the experience of coming back to “real life” from a proper vacation. On so many prior vacations, I’ve tapped into what I would describe as the core essence of my being – and that’s been via Connection to both myself and the world around me. I’ve gotten there essentially the same way every time – slowing down, breathing deeply, being present with myself, getting out in the Sun, and moving through nature. The Markus that came back from those trips was instinctively more focused on Energy, “Vibes”, and Fun than before the trips.

The main word I would use to describe MKP as an organization is Connection – with oneself, with other men (and with women), with emotion, with love, with nature, and spiritual connection (not religion - think along the lines of native American spirituality) with the ultimate goal of being a better man for those we love and the world around us. The other word I would use is Awakening – to the world, to others, and most importantly to oneself. I would describe this Awakening as the first step toward Recovery. By this I mean Recovery in the sense that Russell Brand defines the word: “recover[ing] the person you were born to be.”

Something I’ve noticed on many occasions since the weekend is increased attunement and intuition. One way this manifests is during times when I notice the opposite - a strong sense of mis-alignment in my life. That can be anything – the way I’m breathing (or not breathing), how strong (or weak) my Voice is on any given day, where my energy is focused, and especially my purpose/mission.

There are plenty of days that I wonder how I ever got to 36 years old before learning some of these (seemingly) very basic things that I learned about myself and about life at the weekend. I usually counter that with this quote from Steven Tyler, “I’ve got a lot of great excuses. Don’t we all? So what if I was 60 years late - I was busy getting ready.” Busy getting ready – that was me, and that was OK.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I discovered something deep and important that weekend. I got glimpses at deep, powerful Truths that I’ve felt all along but hadn’t touched and couldn’t put my finger on. I heard my Voice for the first time.

What I got from the weekend actually was the “more than you’re willing to hope for,” just as advertised. There was the immediate impact and the lessons listed above – but it didn’t stop there. The weekend served as an initial catalyst and the amount and depth of things that have been healed since still blows my mind. I can 100% say that I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t attended that specific weekend last September. Either directly or indirectly, my weekend has somehow influenced all my growth since then.

Two Joseph Campbell quotes have also resonated very strongly with me since September. One is, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are” which I have taken to heart. For a long time in my life I wanted to (and did) conceal who I was, so this hits very deep for me.

The other is Campbell’s description of The Hero Path. This has been my understanding of life since the weekend:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone

for the heroes of all time have gone before us.

The labyrinth is thoroughly known

we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.

And where we had thought to find an abomination

we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another

we shall slay ourselves.

Where we had thought to travel outward

we shall come to the center of our own existence.

And where we had thought to be alone

we shall be with all the world.

Before the weekend, I would have called this poem overly dramatic or trying too hard. After the weekend, each line resonates deeply. “Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.” I had thought that my problems in life were due to something outside myself - but when I took an honest look, the issue was actually me. When I started to change, magically so did my problems. “Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” What initially felt life-threatening was actually life-giving through the Connection that can only come from vulnerability and openness.

Check out the MKP FAQ page for more details about the weekend - I’d also love to answer any questions.  Hit me up in the comments below or send us an email for more!

Spotify Morning Mix and Our Morning Hacks
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Mornings can be such a challenge. On one hand, there’s so much magic in this space we get to share together as a family before we have to reckon with the outside world. But also, we need to get out the door and be ready to take on the day! I want a pace for our mornings that feels calm, manageable and my own (versus running against the clock), but with good energy flowing through ourselves and the house before we go see what the day brings.

Music is such a big part of this! Markus can lure me out of bed best with music. He loves to get the speaker cranked up in the kitchen where he’s typically making coffee to get him in his headspace for the day. His tunes have the added benefit of being just loud enough where I can’t go back to sleep and I eventually relent and show my face to the world. A few minutes after that I start to perk up and actually enjoy the morning’s music myself.

Whether it’s musicals, the classics or something new, we gravitate towards fun, energetic music in the mornings to help our outlooks and days follow suit. Here’s what we’ve been cranking in the morning lately!

Don’t forget you can follow our Open Hearted Home Family Friendly Spotify Station for all of our playlists for cool families.

Here’s 10 other ways we “hack” our mornings:

  1. Markus: Very first thing, every day - a drink of water. No set amount, but always cold.

  2. Lilly: I wake up almost every morning by doing Morning Pages, a practice of writing three pages of stream of consciousness thoughts in a journal never to be read again. It’s like flossing or (for a tad grosser example) scraping my tongue, where I can clear out the first gunky layer of thoughts and let my brain go to more interesting places over the course of the day. I write out what’s on my mind, which eventually lets me air out my worries and on the spot I write them into prayer and surrender them for a higher power to deal with. It’s my way of taking my mind out of the picture for a minute and just handing the day over to the greater forces. Our girl is a morning cuddler in our bed, so to be able to pull this off I got her a journal and pen of her own that she practices letters or doodles in while I write. We both get out of bed in a different frame of mind if we’ve done our morning pages!

  3. Lilly: When we have to be out the door at a certain time, we use this visual timer to guide our daughter as she works on developing her focus on singular tasks and concept of time. Not wanting it to take on any bootcamp and/or Captain Von Trapp vibes, we typically offer it as a helpful tool and set it for a little longer than we know it takes our girl to complete one of her morning tasks, such as finishing breakfast or getting dressed for the day. We also set it for five minutes as a “tidy timer” so we can take a moment and try to put away at least a few things that made their way out in the morning so we can walk back into a well-cared for space when we come home towards the end of the day.

  4. Lilly: Markus makes me the “perfect” cup of coffee every morning. I think this may have begun a few years ago as a short term project to get on my good side, but like some great ideas, it’s worked so well he may be stuck doing it and reaping its rewards of my affection for life. Below is the recipe should you need to start your day with the best cup of coffee ever or get on someone’s good side yourself. I treat this as a morning smoothie and it holds me off until a late morning snack or even lunch.

  5. Markus: This recipe is a twist on the classic Bulletproof coffee recipe that’s been around for what seems like forever by this point and that’s still my personal favorite. The version I make for Lilly takes it up a notch in terms of creaminess and overall nutrients. Although “true” Bulletproof coffee by definition has very specific steps/ingredients (here’s the rabbit hole), generally I:

    1. Make coffee

    2. Pour 16 oz of coffee into blender

    3. Add:

      1. 1 Tbsp organic ghee

      2. 1 Tbsp MCT oil (Bulletproof Brain Octane Oil)

      3. 2 Tbsp Nutpods (esp. Hazelnut, Peppermint, or Pumpkin Spice)

      4. 1 scoop collagen peptides

    4. Blend on high for 30 seconds

    5. Pour into a huge mug and try to contain my excitement at how frothy this drink is that I just made in my own house by myself.

      (Two notes about MCT: (1) Don’t go cheap, speaking from experience here.  Avoid MCT oil that contains lauric acid - your stomach will thank you. (2) Make sure that your blender container is made of HDPE or glass and that your mug is ceramic or glass (metal is fine too).  MCT generally melts plastic and styrofoam.)

  6. Markus: I start most mornings with a 10-minute Daily Calm app session. The daily sesion is new each day and the 10 minutes are about evenly split between guided meditation, “quiet” time (not necessarily “silent” because you can choose your own background sounds), and a daily topic for reflection. There are tons of background sound options like waves on a beach, rain in the jungle, or my personal favorite called Open Ocean, that makes me imagine I’m deep down below the surface of the endless sea. When I start my day with the Daily Calm, the rest of the day seems to flow and everything seems more manageable that I expected, even the tougher parts of the day.  When I don’t start my day with the Daily Calm, it’s generally the opposite - it’s that simple. The narrator usually recommends sitting up tall, although my favorite way is laying down on my back with a towel over my eyes so it’s totally dark.

  7. Markus: After the Daily Calm session, I’m usually in my personal power hour. My brain and body are awake and my energy is calm and focused. I’ve found this to be the best time to write, especially in terms of flow and general quality. Usually I’ll walk away from a writing session pleasantly surprised and feeling like I can’t take credit for the words on the page, even though I remember typing them just minutes ago. When my brain and body work together like that, it feels like an out-of-body experience where I’m just observing and that I’m just along for the ride. I’ve had zero writers block with this approach, rather it’s always the opposite - I feel like I could easily write for hours more.

  8. Markus: Music, preferably loud. The genre all depends on the day, though typically hip-hop, rock and pop are big players. On days where I feel that I’m dragging, I’ll generally throw on something with a beat that’s faster than my heart rate, like a good NYC house music playlist.

  9. Markus: Sitting Still.  This is the toughest one of every morning, even the weekends. It’s also the best one. This is normally on the order of 5 minutes and happens at the tail end of the morning routine. No phone - usually just me and my coffee.  This is the calm before the storm.

  10. Lilly: Sunday is our one day a week where we don’t set an early alarm. I wait for it all week! We’re at a glorious phase of life now where we all sleep in a little and once Heidi is up she climbs in our bed for a good dose of snuggles and laughs. So my “hack” is saying no to morning plans, Sunday school or anything else that might make it longer than a week before I can savor this slow wake up. Until it’s time to nudge Markus out of bed for that morning coffee!

What’s your favorite way to start the day?!

Home Actually Is Where the Heart Is
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Post Written by Markus

Home. It’s a short little word – but the story behind it is usually anything but short. We each have a home with our family of origin that’s out of our control as children. That first home sets the tone for much of our lives through adulthood in huge ways, even when (especially when) we don’t recognize how it’s even happening.

Home is often a charged word – case in point, realtors refer to selling “homes” and not “houses.” The association of the word is for family, love, happy memories, and warmth - and at the beginning and end of each day, it’s where we belong. These days, the shelf-life of the average childhood home isn’t great and the divorce rate is high. My original home officially dissolved when I was almost 16 which means that I made it a lot further with my original home still technically “intact” than many of my friends did.

Where we are today as a culture, I believe (not a shocker here) that we’re in an epidemic crisis of lack of human connection. As we get more and more “connected” digitally, we slowly phase out in-person human-to-human experience and conversation. We have home-buttons on our browsers, home-screens on our phones, and home-pages on our websites. At the same time that we’re using the word “home” so much in our digital experience, we’re also decreasing actual human interaction. Why meet someone IRL just to talk when a text message can get the same information across – and don’t even talk to me about calling someone without texting them first.

I believe that today we’re in the greatest possible time to be alive so far in history as humans on this planet. So many critical problems that once threatened our very existence have been solved. Advances in medicine, science, and mental health keep expanding what’s possible for us. As the digital arc of our culture keeps increasing and does not yet seem to have a peak in sight, I believe the need for connection and home is greater than ever. For a long time I ran away from connection and from home because the associations for me were too painful. They were the opposite of family, love, happy memories, and warmth. Beginning when my parents’ relationship got rocky, home for me was a place of loneliness, fear, painful memories, and unbearable emptiness. Looking back now, I’m able to connect the dots in reverse and see that it was all part of beautiful healing story although I would have punched you if you’d have told me that during the hard times.

CHILDHOOD + SHAME

My childhood was pretty normal in many ways – from K to about 6th grade, my parents seemed to generally be happy, functional adults and family/home life held a positive association for me.  Though it was a modest upbringing, my parents had friends over for dinner all the time and home life was pretty peaceful. If you’d have asked me at the time, I’d have said that my parents were doing most things “right” and I would honestly have given them an A+ grade. It wasn’t until very recently that I was able to consider for the first time the idea that maybe my parents didn’t do as many things right as I’ve always believed.

At first blush, the idea seemed absurd to me because I’d believed the opposite for so long. As I kept turning it over in my mind and my heart, I started to see there was something to it. I began to accept the idea that maybe my parents weren’t 100% A+ parents.  I saw that actually, the way they raised me and their own patterns of unresolved trauma had planted deep, painful, untrue core beliefs about myself.  These also sent a loud and clear message about lack of belonging and a fear of the world around me that shaped my major life choices in huge, damaging ways – enter Shame.

Shame. I define this as “the deep belief that something about myself is utterly unacceptable and so I must hide it from everyone or face humiliation because of it.” A constant state of self-loathing and disconnection from the parts of myself that are unacceptable – which for a long time was pretty much everything. I could have easily told you anytime what my perceived flaws were. Body issues. My family’s modest means. Feeling different for being from another country. Believing that I was weak, stupid and lazy.

Where did the shame come from? Both of my parents seemed to lean toward shame as a preferred method of raising me. From that standpoint, there was much that was functional about shame – namely that it squashes behavior that the parent is looking to stamp out, like house training a dog the old school way. The problem is that it also stamped out my heart, my sense of belonging, and my identity – and left me with an ambient fear and mistrust of the world around me. The kicker though was how shame decimated my sense of self-confidence and took it another step further, leaving me with the opposite – a constant sense of specifically NOT trusting myself.

Not. Trusting. Myself. On paper it doesn’t make much sense. I’m an average guy who’s been through a fair amount of challenges and though I’ve made my share of mistakes, I have plenty going for me. Enough book-smarts to make school mostly a breeze and to find success in the engineering field after college. Being told on many occasions that I have innate leadership qualities that come across automatically when I first meet someone. Learning most new things quickly enough to feel like I’m a natural at almost anything that I try, to the envy of others.

But yet – even with those qualities and more, I was still actively not trusting myself. I believed deeply, strongly, critically that in each moment, I was the LEAST qualified person to face that moment for myself. It made zero sense to me until I started looking back and recognizing the shame and humiliation that drew the lines so early in my life. I was an active, engaged, bright child and I absorbed eagerly the things that were told to me by my parents.

When I wet my pants on the preschool bus when I was four years old, my mother completely let me have it with her words through shaming.  When my parents found out I had a crush on a girl in second grade, they made fun of me in front of family friends until I hid under a table crying from humiliation. It was deeply confusing for me - having to trust these two people as a dependent and at the same time being hurt so deeply by their shaming me for things I couldn’t help. I had to trust them 100% - whatever they told me, I believed was true.  The only way I could reconcile this in my mind and my heart was to believe that they were right about me. They were right when they told me that I wasn’t really a four-year-old because four-year-olds don’t wet their pants, they know better. They were right about me looking stupid and weak for having a crush on a girl and so I buried future crushes deep in my heart so no one else would see.

SELF-DESTRUCTION AS AN ADULT

For decades, the shame from my upbringing was a huge part of the lens through which I viewed the world, and more importantly, myself. I never even saw it - although looking back, it was clearly driving the bus. Much of my energy was going toward concealing myself and the parts that I believed were unacceptable and weak. My body did not measure up to what it should be – so I held my breath all the time. My productivity did not measure up to what I should be able to get done in a day – so walked faster than anyone else and I never took breaks, ever. My knowledge of any given topic was not as extensive as it should be, especially at work – so I kept my mouth shut and didn’t ask questions. Most importantly – I withdrew and isolated so that others wouldn’t see these Horrible Truths about myself.

I was constantly trying to prove what I was NOT, although I could never pile up enough evidence to convince myself that I was NOT these things. Not stupid, not lazy, not fat, not worthless, not embarrassing, not bad – but the toughest one was about belonging. I could not pile up enough evidence that I belonged, no matter where I was. The kicker was getting into an intimate relationship and then slowly sabotaging things because of how deeply I believed that I didn’t belong and that I was unlovable. I assumed that I must have lucked into hiding something that she didn’t see and I knew that I had better make damn sure that she never sees it, whatever it is.

I was completely oblivious to these self-defeating patterns for most of my life until a Cosmic Two-by-Four hit me over the head and made it too painful for me NOT to change. I think of Cosmic Two-by-Fours as messages of Love from the Universe that keep getting louder and louder until they’re impossible to ignore. These are messages of Love, yes - but Love presented through hard Truth, meaning that Pain is usually right there with Love and Truth. There’s growth that needs to happen and a lesson that needs to be learned - and for someone who’s been very stubborn and oblivious like me, it seems there is no other effective way than getting hit over the head with it.

My loudest, heaviest, most painful Cosmic Two-by-Four landed squarely on my forehead a few years ago when, after 18 months of hiding it, I told Lilly that we had substantial consumer debt spread across several credit cards. All of it had accumulated over the prior 18 months from living expenses in excess of our monthly cash budget. It started “innocently” one month when we didn’t have enough cash to cover what was on the cards, which at that point was a relatively minor amount. However, the instant that I realized this situation, I saw it as a weakness and a loud and clear message about my self-worth – and so I hid it. I did the same thing the next month and the month after that. This only made things worse for the climbing debt - and even more so for my mental health, my physical health, and my relationship with Lilly.

The progression inside my mind was always the same – from the initial sting of “uh-oh” during that first month, all the way to the house of cards crashing down. This was the same progression that I learned through shame and humiliation as a child, except as an adult I was now an Olympic-level pro at it.  Before, someone outside me had to convince me that I was bad and it took a little time and forceful words for me to absorb this message. Now, it was an inside job and the pathways in my brain and my heart were well-worn from years of practice. What used to take at least several minutes now took less than a split second - it went like this:

  1. External evidence of a perceived weakness: in this case, not having control over finances.

  2. Immediately assigning meaning about myself: “I am stupid, incompetent, and don’t have what it takes.”

  3. Immediately assigning meaning about my fate: “I don’t belong, I am shameful, I am bad, I am worthless – and things are not going to be okay because of me and there’s nothing I can do to change that.”

  4. Hiding and isolating: “OK, so I know these awful things about myself, but if I can just hide them from everyone else, maybe I can fool them enough to squeak by unnoticed until everything eventually still falls apart because of me.”

Every single day during those 18 months it went like that – although it kept getting louder and more painful. The trouble with this four-step progression is how good I had gotten at it. It was such an ingrained pathway in my brain that all the steps happened together, instantly. Just thinking about the credit card debt at any point during that 18 months immediately took me to “I am bad” and “Things are not going to be okay because of me and there’s nothing I can do to change that.” But I could never even put it into those words - instead it was a deep-seated feeling in my body that gave physical life to these crushing beliefs. I was constantly in a mode of fear and reaction – not ever making choices on purpose put only living in pain and running like hell from it and what it meant about me. It felt like I was barely holding up a massive dam that was about to break and that if I relaxed for one moment, it would all be destroyed because of me.

I kept up a front that everything was OK although Lilly could sense that it wasn’t. The amount of turmoil and tension inside my mind and body kept growing like a pressure cooker ready to explode. That stress culminated in me coming down with a bad case of shingles (yes, shingles) toward the end of that 18 months which was another Cosmic Two-by-Four asking quietly for my attention – although it still wasn’t quite painful enough to get through to someone as stubborn as I was.

The next few years from the day I told Lilly the news played out in excruciating fashion. I’m not proud of the things I said and I’m not proud of how little I did to make the situation better. This was a time of crushing depression that included the darkest days I’ve ever known. I was a shell of a person at best and I was a terrible example of what it means to be a man. The pain was unbelievable and seemed endless – I still don’t know how I made it through that time although I’m incredibly grateful that I did.

 

HEALING + A NEU HOME

Healing for me has played out through many different paths – though they’ve all had the same thing at the core: opening my heart. Mine was closed extremely tight, so let me tell you – this was not an easy or fast process, and that’s a huge understatement. The major elements, in terms of the momentum they gave me, are below. They’re so interconnected that it’s tough to even put them in chronological order, and even tougher to list them in order of “importance” or impact – so, they’re in alphabetical order. There’s not one in the list that I could remove, each one is that important on its own. I could write plenty about every single one (stay tuned).

  • Brainspotting

  • Breathing deeply (instead of only shallow breaths)

  • Carrying an Amor Fati coin in my pocket each day - and spending plenty of time with it in my open palm, just breathing and accepting

  • Connecting with my inner child through following my creative instincts

  • EMDR

  • Exercise, specifically old-school heavy weightlifting plus HiiT cardio

  • Getting involved with an international men’s organization called The Mankind Project

  • Journaling

  • Letting go

  • Love and Support from Lilly, to whom I’m eternally grateful

  • Meditation

  • Nutrition – especially acknowledging foods that are inflammatory for me and generally don’t work for my body or brain

  • Pursuing stillness, listening, and “being” instead of “doing”

  • Seeing a psychiatrist for the first time (this was a tough one to swallow)

  • Solo time in nature

  • Talk-therapy

  • Tough conversations (so many)

Without any of these, I would not be here today, not a chance. For so many years, I lived in a very oppressive place with a very cruel jailer and tormentor – my own mind. There was nothing I did that it didn’t see and it criticized me for every single thing I did and destroyed me anew for each one, whether good or bad. The cumulative effect of the Medicines in the list above has been nothing short of life-changing through deep healing for my heart.

For the first time in my life, I’m able to live each day in a place that is not oppressive and where I’m not driven by a constant seeking of belonging, validation, acceptance, and approval. It’s not that I don’t need these things anymore – I do, and deeply. But now I don’t need to seek them outside myself because I know intrinsically that I already have them within me - and that they were there all along.

THAT was the Big Secret that I didn’t know all along. Shame told me that I was embarrassing, bad, stupid, and worthless. Shame told me that I needed someone outside myself to tell me that I was OK and that I was enough. Shame told me that I was “less than” – literally less than every other person. Shame told me that I was a threat to my own being and that the only way to survive was to hide.

As I stand here today, I’ve heard my own Voice. I’ve literally faced every fear I’ve had. I’ve held that little boy’s heart gently in my hands and I’ve cared for it well. I can feel deeply that I’m the best person for the job of caring for that heart - not the worst, like I believed for most of my life. I’ve felt Truth -  and mostly it’s been quiet, shapeless, and without words. This was an inside job all along and I was so well-equipped to handle my own life - I just had unhealed trauma that kept me in self-defeating patterns and that hid the Ultimate Truth from me.

That Truth is that I am Love; that you are Love; that we are all Love and all connected. We all belong with each other – in the words of Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.” I did the best I could with what I had and what I knew at the time. Though it’s easy to look back to find evidence to the contrary so that I can beat myself up like I did for so long, I know deeply that this is true.

Today I can honestly say that I’m comforted by knowing that I will never experience the same level of darkness again as the darkest days I’ve known. That’s because of the healing I’ve experienced so far and the connection I have with myself and my heart. No matter what circumstances happen, I know more than anything that I don’t have it in me to hate myself anymore or to abandon myself anymore.

The pathways of self-loathing are still there just like expressways that get built and that have millions of cars running down that pavement over decades. If you put up a “road closed” sign, some cars may stop driving on the road - but the pavement is still there. It takes time and hard work to build new paths and to get familiar enough to go down that new road - instead of the old familiar ways that I drove down so easily on autopilot. I can still recognize the patterns and the old conditioning - but usually when I recognize them, it’s because I’m noticing how things are playing out differently and how I’m NOT going down those roads anymore.

The darkness and pain I experienced were excruciating. That said, they were well worth it to gain the healing and growth that my heart and inner child had so desperately needed for such a long time. There is no way to overstate this deep, critical need. Every moment of my life was driven by a need for external approval to accumulate any evidence of acceptance and belonging – anything to counter the pervasive ambient self-rejection and self-hate.

For many years, “home” was a four-letter word to me. After my family of origin fell apart when I was in middle school, “home” was the last place I wanted to be. I barely used the word “home” in conversation, I would say “house” instead. Though I still have a sense of loss for my family of origin and the home we once had, that grief now feels healed. Today I’m fortunate enough to be creating a new home with Lilly – our home that belongs to us both, and that’s our daughter’s home and her family of origin. It sounds cliche – but now, our home really is where my heart is. This is an Open Hearted Home where the expectations are to be, to share, to listen and to love. I’m here to be. I’m here to share and to listen. I’m here to Love.