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It was a good day?

In the classic hip hop track “It was a good day”, Ice cube in detail describes what  a good day looked like to him while living in South Central LA in the early 90’s.  no barking from the dog, Breakfast with no hog, he didn’t have to use his AK, no one he knew got murdered in South Central La and he had no beef with the cops. They just drove right past him.  And of course he got a beep from Kim (who can go all night).  While I thought this was cool, a lot of people wondered how simply not killing somebody, avoiding getting arrested or eating a pork free breakfast could constitute a good day.  Looking back on it, what constitutes a good day or bad day is one’s own perspective and experience.

A few weeks back I was having a pretty crappy day.  When I woke up I was tired and cranky.  It was a friday. I spent thursday night arguing with my wife .  That  morning my house was loud with an eerie and uncomfortable silence. Great, I thought to myself, how long was this no talking business going to last this time? The temperature was in the mid 50’s which is cold for Morocco and it was raining. The clouds were gray and heavy, and dripping lots of water. The palm trees which usually were front and center to my eye, stand in the background unnoticed on this dreary day.

I am the assistant coach of the basketball team and we were hosting our season ending championship tournament.  I had been putting a lot of hours in for practice, travel and games. While well worth it, all the work was making me tired and put me in a bad mood. I got to school, I meet up with the team and we won the first game pretty easy. We are the favorites to win it all  so it was what was expected.  The concrete walls and metal seats made the gym feel like an igloo. Buildings in Morocco are cold during winter because there is no heat or insulation. Just to add a little more cold to my day,  all of the gym doors are open, blowing cold air and dampness into the ice gym. All of a sudden, I feel my phone vibrate. During halftime I take a quick peek, it was my wife texting me “what time am I going to take her to an appointment. I forgot I had to drive her to see a client.  So I rush out after the game. In my haste, I  forgot my umbrella and I got soaked on the way to my car.  I go pick up my wife, we are still not talking.  So between that and me sitting in wet pants, with cold and wet feet the car ride is extra awkward and uncomfortable.

Addresses in Morocco are pointers, not final destinations.  So of course we got lost. After several roundabouts and passing by the giant Marjone (Moroccan Target) we find the place.  As my wife gets out of the car she reminds me to pick her up in about an hour and a half.  That means that I will be squeezed for time, trying to make it back for the second game of the tournament.  As I am leaving, I get lost again.  I finally find my way through endless roundabouts, goat pulled wagons and that jerk in the Benz who cut me off while I was making a left.

While I am at a red light, a pregnant woman drenched in the rain and with a baby tied to her back asked me for money.  This kind of poverty is seen common here and usually I stop to help out by giving money, but not today.  I waved my finger no and just moved on. I didn’t have time or patience to show compassion.  As I pulled off from the light I kind of felt bad about not helping her out, but before my thoughts went any further I realized that I was almost out of gas.  I have had the not so fun experience of running out of gas, pushing my car to the side and walking about 3 or 4 miles to get a water bottle filled with gas.  Luckily this time I got to the gas station in time.

After quickly engulfing my lunch, I went back to pick up my wife.  On my way I saw the pregnant lady who was asking for money with the infant on her back.  When I got closer I saw that she had a smile on her wrinkled and weathered face.  There was a pain and a wince in her smile and her eyes told a sad story, but still there was something genuine in it.  The smile really made me think; I am I really having a bad day?  I get to teach and coach internationally, I woke up warm and dry in my nice house overlooking the ocean. My wife and daughter are healthy and love me. I may get lost and run out of gas, but at least I have a car! Then I wondered Where was this woman going to go to sleep tonight?  When was the last time her child ate three meals in a day? My problems of the day were starting to feel really trivial compared to what I imagined this woman had to endure on a daily basis. I drove the car next to her, pulled down the window, said bonjour and put  20 durham into her overworked, dry and cracked hand. The lady was happy to receive the small donation. She said shukran in an unassuming way using a soft voice.

My day itself did not really change much. My wife was still mad at me, it was still a cold rainy day and I was still cranky and tired.  Yet somehow it just did not seem to matter that much to me. To even call these minor inconveniences would be an overstatement.  I knew tomorrow or the next day would be better.  I am thankful that the woman taught me a valuable lesson on perspective.  It was clear I really needed it. You never know who or what will show up to be your teacher. If this was a “bad day” then I live a very fortunate life. I have now been reminded of that and do not need the lights of the goodyear blimp to remind me. Now if the Lakers could just beat the Supersonics!

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Tao of Mal: Unplugged

As my wife, mother and countless others have pointed out to me, I have an unhealthy relationship with my phone, meaning I can never put it down and that includes while I am talking to others, yes unfortunately I have become one of “those people”.  When I thought about it further, I wondered how the constant stream of information, most of it meaningless dribble was effecting my brain.  What am I not doing while I am always hooked on the phone or computer?  Does this coincide well with meditation and mindfulness? I’m guessing I have not found a happy medium.  The following is what happened when I started to disconnect.

I was laying in bed just contemplating life in general.  The harsh winter was slowly giving way to the spring air.  I was thinking about the usual; career, finances and my housing.  I thought about a time when I did not worry as much.  There was a tightening of my stomach when I realized that life used to flow so much easier in certain ways for me.  What I needed always seemed to show up at the right time.  Not so much anymore. If I’m being honest with myself, my meditation practice hasn’t really been anything special either lately. Thoughts of where did I get off track began to fill my head.  I couldn’t really come up with anything.  Then I watched a montage of Russell Brand clips.  Wow, I never knew he was so into spirituality was my first thought.  Then as I looked in the palm of my hand at the phone I had watched the montage on, I realized that is what is different about me, I’m always on the damn internet!! I decided right then and there that I was going to make a change.  Yes, I looked at the man in the mirror.

Experience has taught me that extreme shifts never work for me, I am more of a moderation guy.  So I wasn’t going to cut out internet completely.  This was the deal I made with myself: I would check the internet once a day at lunch.  There I could go nuts and look up as much as I wanted for that one hour.  I would still check and respond to emails and blog.  Other than that, no internet. At first it was hard, I felt myself shaking like a fiend for my phone.  Then one morning I woke up and just went about my business.  I noticed without checking sports scores and stories, twitter, facebook and the news, my mind was much more clear and I had a better meditation session. I also realized how much earlier I was ready to leave.  So with a clear mind and extra time on my hand I had a lovely no traffic drive into work.  Now starting to enjoy this new way of life I had a productive day at work.  The hour during lunch when I check the internet turned into only 20 minutes.  I couldn’t believe it, but the world was still standing without me checking in every 5 minutes!

Just as I had some nice positive momentum going, one of my students who was having a bad day, was very being very disruptive in my class and we ended up having a bit of an exchange.  As I went home feeling the stress in my body, I decided to do some simple conscious breathing exercises and throw on some tunes.  I listened to Jimi Hendrix Blues album from start to finish.  I started to feel very relaxed and had 2 thoughts.  First was, man when was the last time I just sat or laid down and listened to a full album?  I mean with no distractions, not checking anything.  Second, which was a bit more scary was the fact that even though in my mind I am this “meditation guy”, Am I processing feelings and emotions after a long day by drowning my sorrows online?  How unhealthy must that be? Am I even properly dealing with my emotions and stress or I am burying it, distracting myself through the internet. Whatever the answer was, today was definitely an eye opener. Over the course of the next couple of days I was excited about my experiment.

All sorts of things were beginning to happen.  I was spending more meaningful time and having good conversations with my family where I was really present.  I had more time to exercise and diet.  I was actually losing weight and eating healthy.  Instead of reading mind numbing online articles, I actually started reading books again!  Once the positive momentum gets started, it could lead to anything!! When I did things like watch tv, I would practice mindfulness.  In fact my ability to focus on the now and the space around objects was growing in leaps and bounds.  Most of all, I felt a sense of joy, excitement and even magic in my life that I had not experienced in some time. Then the unexpected happen. I had applied earlier to an agency that help me find a job teaching internationally.  The agency had told me that due to the fact I had applied late and had a wife and kid that I was probably not a good candidate despite my teaching expertise.  Six weeks into being unplugged I got an email from a school In  Rabat Morocco.  6 weeks later my family and I found ourselves living in a house over looking the beach in Morocc and the next journey had begun.  What role did unplugging have on this?  I would like to believe the positive energy, momentum and good feeling I got from this experiment played a part in propelling me to bigger things.  You get back what you put out?

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Relaxing from all the Drama

Drama is all around us. All one has to do is open the paper, turn on the news or go online to hear about the latest conflicts. I can’t lie, my Facebook news feed has seen it’s fair share of drama. So what can be done to stop all this drama? I think mediation can be a huge factor in calming everyone down, think of meditation as your own personal Détente! (Sorry I am a US history teacher and I had to get my nerd on!)

A few weeks ago my wife and I get into an argument about finances. It was the end of the month and it looked like we were going to come up short on some bills. My wife blamed my frivolous spending, while I blamed it on her refusal to live somewhere cheaper. This was starting to become a common fight for us. To make matters worse the argument took place on Monday morning at 7am, right before work.

As I left my apartment, I went to my meditation spot. I sat down and attempted to meditate. Nothing special, just repeatedly counting my breaths from 1-10. At first all I thought was “I should’ve said this, I cant believe she said that, why doesn’t she realize I’m right.” However, as I kept breathing the thoughts had less steam and were finally starting to slow down. It took a while, but I was finally in a calm spot. When I had come out of the meditation I felt relaxed and was ready to start my day with a clear head.

Later in the day my wife called. I don’t know if it was the way I answered the phone or maybe she sensed my calmness, but we had a cordial conversation. When I got home we talked and made up. Although we did not find a solution to our financial problems, we had a positive conversation about our finances, the first one in a long time.

I believe this breakthrough was made possible because of my meditation session. If I hadn’t had meditated, the angry thoughts would have snowballed all day, probably causing me to have a rotten day in other areas as well. When I got home I probably would have gotten into another argument with my wife. Instead meditation cleared my mind and there was no angry build up, just clear thoughts and a soothing feeling that many refer to these days as flow.

I often think about the role meditation can play in situations when I read the news. It seems like the Jay-Z and Solange elevator incident had been building up for a while. It’s hard in situations like that to take a step back and take a breath. However, some nice slow conscious breaths probably would have avoided an embarrassing and unfortunate situation. Maybe Jay-Z should walk around with a meditation coach instead of or in addition to his bodyguard!

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Good, Bad or just so?

I have read a lot of books that talk about not judging situations whether good or bad.  I have heard sayings like “just let it be”, “what will be will be” and my personal favorite “what it is, it what it is”.  While these philosophies sound pretty cool, I never really thought much about applying them to my actual everyday life.  However, recently I had an experience that has kind of got me thinking a bit…

It was the day after one of those bad ice storms that hit New York this winter.  I had spent over an hour and a half digging my car out and I was over the snow!  On my way back from work I decided I would avoid getting stuck or doing any shoveling by parking in a garage.  My wife wouldn’t be happy, but I thought it was well worth the $25.  I pulled into a garage.  As I was about to get out off the car I saw the attendant (kind of looked like the attendant who took Cam’s car on a joyride in Ferris Bueller!) he was waving his hands and saying in a loud voice “no, no ,all full, no more cars”. After hearing this I tried talking to the guy, but there was nothing that could be done.  I got back in the car, drove away and of course now I was pissed!

Frustrated, I went looking for a regular spot.  I drove around for 20 minutes before I could finally find one.  And almost like clockwork, I got stuck pulling into the spot.  I Was half way in and half way out.  This is usually the time I start my slow deep breathes calming and relaxing me, not this time I was rounding annoyed and headed toward anger.  To make matters worse, my wife had to go to work soon and I had to be with our daughter.  I tried to shovel out and it got me nowhere, I tried to move my car using momentum, nada.  I finally called my wife and told her to bring down my daughter because it looked as if I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.

My wife came downstairs with my daughter and her play shovel.  Very cute, but now wasn’t the time.  My neighbor Mike saw what was going on as he was walking his dog and volunteered to help.  He gave me a few suggestions about how to steer the wheel to help me get out.  It didn’t work.  Mike then looked at me and said, ‘let me try”, within a minute Mike got me out of the spot!  I was a little embarrassed, but Mike was cool.  In fact he then told me he had an extra ticket to the Nets vs Spurs game at Barclays later in the evening and he wanted to know if I could go, “Hell yay I could go!” Turns out Mike had great seats, waiter service and the game turned out to be pretty good as the Nets won. (Don’t get it twisted I am a Knick fan all the way!)

That night when I was in bed and replaying the day’s events, it dawned on me that had I been able to park in the garage, I would have never seen Mike and therefore would have never gone to the game.  A situation I was so fast to label bad, had actually been good given time.  Was this what non-judgment was all about? Will good things happen if I don’t judge and let it be?

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Client Stories: I just want to be comfortable

One of the reasons that I promote meditation as a tool to relax and not in a spiritual way is because many people who would benefit from meditation are turned off by the concept of spirituality, religion, philosophy  or they think it has to be regimented in a way that only people who live in caves in India can gain from it.  However, I find that when meditation is broken up into breathing techniques and the benefits of stress relief and relaxation become apparent, people really begin to open up to the idea.

Recently, I was doing a wellness workshop at a school.  One of the assistant Principals,  Tanya had tried meditation a couple of times as part of her yoga class.  She did not feel comfortable with some of the spiritual connotations that went along with the practice as well as sitting in the half lotus.  When she came to the workshop I could tell that she was very hesitant and wasn’t quite buying the whole deal.  First Tanya  told me that she was stressed and needed something to help her relax,  but she was nervous about opening up around her co-workers and was wondering where she would sit because she had a bad back.  I told her we would only do some very basic stuff today and that everyone would be sitting in chairs.

So we began the breathing techniques, I could tell Tanya was still nervous but was slowly letting loose and relaxing a bit.  I even saw a smile!  After we had completed the workshop Tanya asked me how she did, I told her I thought she did fine.  She was concerned that she was still breathing into her chest too much and was not doing enough diaphragm breathing.  I  told her it takes time and to keep practicing which is the most important thing.  She then told me that sitting in the chair made her feel very comfortable versus sitting in a half lotus and that is why she felt she was able to relax.  I felt good about that.

Being comfortable is a key ingredient to having a meditation practice.  Like everything else, if you do not feel comfortable it will simply not be effective.  Of course there are immense benefits to meditating in the lotus or more traditional positions, but they should not be deal-breakers if people cannot sit like that.   Relaxation should be simple and enjoyable!

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Client Stories: The Wind Down

When I teach meditation, one of the things that I stress is to make the meditation your own, meaning apply it to your way of life.  Whatever is convenient and easy for you, that is what I want.  Some folks get turned off by meditation because they think it requires too much of a commitment or is too regimented. I try to let people know that meditation can be done at any time, in so many different ways.

 Cheyenne is a very busy person to say the least.  She has 3 children all under the age of 7, the youngest is 18 months.  Her husband runs a company in Connecticut, because of this he spends a lot of time away from their Manhattan apartment.  This adds more stress to Cheyenne’s life.  Cheyenne is a high powered corporate attorney who spends much of her time negotiating corporate mergers.  She works up to 13 hours a day and can be called away on a conference call or an office meeting on a moments notice, sometimes even in the middle of the night. When she is home she is busy going to little league, gymnastics, parent teacher conferences and even baby yoga.  Although like any parent she loves spending time with her kids, she said it can be exhausting and stressful.

 When Cheyenne and I first met for a session via Skype, she informed me that she would try it but that she wasn’t sure where she would find the time to practice it.  So the session went on, we tried several breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises.  Cheyenne told me she preferred 4-7-8 ( 4 second inhale, 7 second hold, 8 second exhale) breathing, so that is what we concentrated on. At the end of the session she told me that she felt more relaxed then she had in a long time.  It made me feel good to hear that I had been a help, but I was still concerned that Cheyenne would not be able to find the time to use the techniques she learned.

 A week later I heard back from Cheyenne for a quick check in.  To my surprise, Cheyenne had told me that she had indeed found time to practice the relaxation techniques.  She says every night before bed after the last conference call and story time, she takes time for herself and practices her breathing.  She uses the exercises to help her wind down.  I was so happy that Cheyenne had adapted the meditation to fit into her busy life and subsequently benefit her by helping her get rid of the stress from the day and have a good night sleep.  Great job Cheyenne!

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The Night Meditation Literally saved My Life

Meditation has added countless benefits to my life over the years: stress reduction, better control of my emotions, increased happiness. But last Christmas, my ability to stay calm was put to the test – and if I hadn’t passed that test, I might have been a dead man.

This past Christmas my wife and I were going to drive down to North Carolina to be with her sister’s family.  We usually fly but this time we thought our daughter was old enough to do a little road trip. Our plan was to leave Brooklyn at around 3:30 am, drive to Queens, pick up my wife’s Mother and Grandfather and then begin our trek, simple enough.

I stumbled out of bed at around 3:15 as my alarm rang.  I went outside to get the car because I had parked it a block or 2 away from my apartment.  As I slumbered to my car, I started it and drove down St. Johns about to make a right onto East Plaza right by the park.  Before I made the turn I saw another driver coming out of a spot and trying to make an illegal U-turn.  I went into the other lane to avoid having to wait for him to make the U-turn.  He did not see me and we almost collided, but luckily we did not. As I was thanking my lucky stars that we did not make contact, I looked in the mirror and saw this car make an abrupt U-turn and begin to follow me. At first I thought to myself, “do people in NYC still do this? “   As I stopped in front of my apartment, the other car pulled up right in front of me.

The guy stormed out of his car and approached me.  “Why the f*ck you try to cut me off”?  I said “Hey man, didn’t mean to do that.”  Once again he asked “why the f*ck you cut me off, who the f*ck are you?” As I looked at him I saw that his left hand was holding something behind his back.

That is when I got really scared.  I thought, “Oh my God, this guy has a gun and might try to shoot me over some nonsense 2 days before Xmas – in front of my building and in front of my wife and daughter who had come down to load the car!!!”  However, instead of letting the fear grip me, I took a few deep breaths and felt a deep calm come over me, even though I was still scared.  I looked at they guy and said calmly, “I’m sorry – it is very early in the morning, I did not mean to cut you off.”  He kept asking me the same question as why I cut him off, but he was now insisting that I did it on purpose.  With every “why the f*ck you cut me off,” his voice got louder and his left arm began to shake.  I responded by getting calmer and calmer, taking deep breaths with slow exhales.

As I looked at this crazed looking man, (he might have been a little tipsy) I would respond every time with “I’m sorry, its late, I’m still a little tired.”  As he got more agitated, I became more calm and relaxed.  At one point he looked confused about my calmness.

After this exchange went on for about 5 minutes, his girlfriend yelled at him to get back in the car.  He did so begrudgingly, not saying a word to me.  Just like that, he drove off at that was the end of that.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief, gave my wife and daughter the biggest hug ever and went on my way to North Carolina.

I believe what saved my life was my ability to stay calm and focused in this most intense situation.  Had I panicked, he might of panicked also and who knows what happens then.  If I tried to be a tough guy I might be dead or in jail. Instead I chose, to get as calm as I could.

Meditation saved my life in this case. Maybe it’ll save yours – hopefully you’ll never have to be in a situation like this. But if you practice the techniques I’ve practiced, the stresses of daily life will get easier to handle – and seem a lot less like a life-threatening situation.

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Client Stories: Mother and Artist

Jen is an artist and works both from home and at her art studio.  Recently she has been working more from home as she has a very energetic 2 year old boy and a 7 month old girl.  She told me that sometimes she feels overwhelmed with the daily tasks of raising 2 kids so young and asked if I could recommend some strategies to help her out.  I said “Of course!” and we set up a Skype appointment.

Before we began, Jen informed me that she was a little hesitant about mediation.  Her sister had opened a meditation practice in Arizona.  She recently changed her name and says all the time she talks this “sun, moon, stars nonsense.”  I told her that I understood where she was coming from and that we would keep this very practical and easy to use, plus she could keep her name!

Jen was a natural learner and easily performed the basic breathing techniques.  I customized a practice for her that would keep her relaxed and would calm her down in those situations when she feels overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of her young kids.  After the session Jen noted that she had felt very relaxed, comparing it to how she felt after yoga, without having to leave her home and in much less time.

I started off our next session by asking her if she felt the techniques were working, or if we needed to tweak something.  She responded by describing a situation I feel every parent has been through. “I was feeding the baby in the kitchen and my son Thomas was in the living room playing.  The baby was being fussy and not taking the bottle. As I was getting slightly frustrated, I realized that it was way too quiet in the living room.  I checked on Thomas and found he had gotten into the crayons and drew on the couches and TV! At that point I was about to lose my stuff, but I remembered what we had gone over and I started to do the “peace and calm” breathing.  I got to a point where I could calmly talk to Thomas, feed the baby and get the place cleaned up.”

I was happy that Jen was able to apply this technique  to the exact situation in which we discussed beforehand.  I laughed and told her you don’t need to pray to the sun, moon and stars in order for meditation to work – sometimes it just works!