Oh, the wretched relief of change.
It's a certain struggle (the wretched), but also one of most important facets of our existence (the relief).
Just when you start to get used to a different and exciting experience--a fresh new way of living--it inevitably and abruptly ends, and the winds of the change push you in a new direction.
This constant shift is a central element of life. We need both beauty and brawn. We need both the amazing and the awful.
But it goes far beyond those two basic and diametrically opposed emotions. Within both the amazing and the awful--even within the mundane that comes between--we require variety. You might take the same path to work, go to the same class at the gym, or wake up every morning at the same time... but still each day there are different people on that commute, there's a new exercise routine at the gym, and the song on your alarm clock is the new big hit. It's that balance of variety, no matter how subtle, that keeps life fresh, keeps us going, and keeps us growing.
There's been a lot of change in my life this past year. If you've ever read this blogl, that's no secret. But the shifting winds have been gale force of late.
Through it all there's one major thing I've learned: no matter what happens in life there's always a yin and a yang--a balance.
Over the course of one recent week I went from a very definitive yin to a whole other extreme yang. One day I was meticulously gussied up at the Academy Awards, and then just a few days later I was antithetically grubbied down in a dusty tent at Death Valley National Park.
This situation of contrasts was an accident of sorts.
First of all, I don't work in the entertainment industry, so it was of no effort on my part that I ended up attending the Oscars. My partner, Jonathan Herman, was deservedly nominated for writing Straight Outta Compton. I'm proud of my man and grateful I got to tag along for the ride. And what a crazy, magical, amazing ride it was--from hob-nobbing celebrities, to red carpets, to Chris Rock’s daughters' Girl Scout cookies, it was the apex of glitz and glamour. And even though I'm more of a down-to-earth-hippie-granola-kinda-guy, I loved every minute of it.
Second of all, it wasn't particularly my intention to visit Death Valley again. I had just traveled there a few months prior, but Mother Nature, El Niño, and the superbloom she kindled had other intentions. I wanted to see that naked and desolate landscape spring to life. I wanted to marvel in yet another beautifully twisted contradiction of nature.
So, while still hungover and starstruck from the decadent Vanity Fair Oscar party, I packed my tuxedo away on the closet, readied my camping gear, and dusted off my tattered national parks passport. I was ready to follow the prevailing winds that were yet again guiding my life. Eagerly adaptable and willing to shift from one apex of life to a completely opposite, yet still resoundingly amazing apex.
You see, balance in life isn't just about ups and downs. Sometimes balance is about both regular ups, and other, totally dissimilar, but still completely awesome ups. It’s also about both terrible downs, and other dissimilar, but equally debilitating downs. It's also about a variety of discernible dimensions in between.
I've been through periods in life when downs compounded upon downs, and I thought there would be nothing left for me in life but more of them, in perpetuity, ad nauseam. But alas, as usual, the ups eventually returned. They all repeat and cycle, each time in new, profound, and inexplicable ways.
That's life. Assorted ups, miscellaneous downs, and a whole slew of gray areas in the middle.
Routine feels safe, but rarely is it real. You can fight the prevailing winds all you'd like, but eventually they will knock you down, lift you up, and shove you from side to side. That bluster of variety is what makes us unique. It’s what life is all about. It's kind of magnificent.
I don't believe in finites: that is, the use of words we use to profess an emotion or opinion we believe will never change.
I have a little trouble with the words "best" and "worst" because in reality our perspective and experience in life is always changing. It's always possible that something can be better or worse in the future than whatever's happening right now. Something I think is the best or worst ever, is really just the best or worst so far.
But possibly my least favorite finite is "never."
How can you, in all seriousness, say you'll never do this or never try that? Are you channeling a psychic that suddenly enables you to predict the future? Are you so rigid that you know even in 30 years time you'll never change your mind, your tastes won't evolve, your world won't expand.
Whatever you think you'd never do is merely a product of where you are now, and the only way that now is the be all/end all, is if you die right this second...
But you didn't die did you? You're still here, living another now. It's just a few seconds after the last now, but it's still a new now.
You're a few seconds older and a few seconds wiser, and in any given second - in any given situation, conversation, or experience - your mind could change on any number of things.
I don't pretend to know what I'll be like 30 years from now. I'll be me, of course, but I'll have 30 more years of life to draw on. 30 more years of trying new things. 30 more years of getting out of my comfort zone. 30 more years to change my mind.
Today I could say I will never skydive. I'll never climb Mount Everest. I'll never eat durian fruit. I'll never visit Antarctica. All possible "nevers" for me.
But what if somewhere down the line I change my mind? What if I hike Mount Whitney here in California and love it? So then I take on Denali in Alaska and really catch the climbing bug. Then, despite just watching the harrowing movie Everest where (spoiler alert) pretty much everyone dies, I decide my life goal is to stand at the highest peak on planet earth.
What if a series of decisions I make alters my mind on this or any number of opinions I have about things I'd "never" do?
Honestly, right now I can't see myself ever having a desire to climb Everest (take a deep breath, mom). I love hiking and I've already put together a list of mountains I want to climb, but I'm also risk averse and exceptionally uninterested in dying at a young age.
Despite that, I still can't use the word "never" here, just like I can't ever use it anywhere. My thoughts on Everest are just my current opinion. I am well aware that many of my opinions will change over time, and this could be one of them.
Rather than make bold statements of certainty, I choose to mindfully live in the present and fully acknowledge that each moment is another experience that alters my future.
I can never know if anything really is a "never," so I choose to never say never again.
Life has a way of taking you in unexpected directions. My path is about to take a sharp left turn.
We all have different and very personal journeys in life. Sometimes you push yourself along, controlling your direction by sheer force of will. That is the road you choose. Sometimes you're slowly pulled into unknown and uncharted territory by a strange gravitational force. That is the road that chooses you.
In both cases, you either move or your heart aches, knowing that there might something else out there—something more.
I just quit my job of 5 1/2 years. It's the first time I've ever quit without having something else lined up, be it work or school.
I know it's risky. I'm used to having a paycheck and a daily schedule. I'm used to the comfort and stability that brings. I'm used to having an answer to the proverbial question, "what do you do?" I'm used to the comfortable persona I've created through my answer.
I know it's risky to leave my job, but I also know it's right.
This wasn't a decision made lightly. I worked at AIDS Project Los Angeles. There I advocated with government and the community to end LGBT stigma and to combat the health disparities that put my community and my friends at risk. It's a wonderful organization, there are amazing people who work there, and I know for a fact that they do great things and help lots of people. I've truly appreciated every second of my time there.
But for the last few years I've felt a shift. Something deep inside me wanted to explore, to take a step in a new direction. A strange gravitational force was pulling me away into uncharted territory, and I finally obliged.
During this same period I discovered mindfulness—how to chill and be present instead of worrying about the endless and unknowable possibilities of the road ahead. But being mindful in the present doesn't mean you give up all your hopes for the future, it means you live in every moment as another step towards that future. I'm living those moments now.
So I took a leap of faith—a simultaneously frightening and exhilarating leap.
The next step I'm taking is perhaps even riskier. I'm leaving home to spend 3 weeks in the woods...alone.
This is something I've thought about for years and I know it isn't all that groundbreaking. There are hundreds of books, new and old, on the topic. Native American tribesman did it as a coming of age ritual. There are even major motion pictures depicting it.
But every time I've read about it, or saw it on a screen, or imagined myself doing it, I knew. Even though it would be difficult, physically and emotionally, I knew. Even if it would be nearly impossible to explain to colleagues, friends, my mom, and especially to my partner, I just knew.
From childhood until now, my passion for the environment has been a guiding force—I was fascinated with Walden in 7th grade and my masters degree was focused on environmental policy.
In the last few years my relationship to nature became even more personal. Beyond my drive to protect the planet through everyday decisions and advocacy, the earth has also become my teacher, my friend, and my mindfulness guru.
So I'm taking another leap of faith—a revelatory, mildly dangerous, and possibly selfish leap.
I'm leaving the city to go wild and commune with nature, to camp without modern distractions, to hike and explore our National Forests, to read books about discovery, self-reliance, and overcoming fear, and to write pages and pages of inspired Mindfulness Now posts (you've been warned).
I'm leaving my man, my dog, and my home behind for this experiment, and that has been the biggest struggle of all.
I'm leaving all the things that give me comfort in life so I can really understand what it feels like to get out of my comfort zone.
I can't predict the outcome of all this. Ideally I'll rediscover myself, figure out my next step in life, write amazingly insightful blog posts, and set a solid foundation of inspiration to guide me into the future.
Or maybe, after a few weeks of sleeping in a tent, hiking in the woods, and taking some pretty pictures for Instagram, I'll still have no clue what to do with myself. And that would be ok. Really.
A journey isn't about expectation, it's about discovery.
The trail ahead may not be clear, but I'm ready for this hike. I've taken one step by leaving my job. Soon I'll take another next step by going wild. It may end up easy, with the trail coming into focus as everything falls into place as I walk ahead confidently. I'll learn from that. It may end up arduous, with cliffs, loose footing, and more questions than answers. I'll learn from that too.
Either way, I'm ready to walk down this path. Hopefully it leads me to myself...
I love movies--the way they can take you out of your world and into another is magical. For me, peering into that other world through the camera lens is really about discovering a new perspective, and you can find that in a scifi space odyssey just as much as you can in a real life story of redemption.
From time to time on this blog I'll highlight a movie (like Boyhood) that I find particularly meaningful from a mindfulness perspective.
WILD is one of those movies.
I believe that we are best able to truly find ourselves by spending time with no one else but ourselves. Alone, quiet, thoughtful, with ourselves. You don't find your footing by using someone else or some other thing as a crutch.
That is the central theme of WILD. Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, doesn't find herself through a self-help guide, she finds it using a trail guide and then by writing her own guide.
The other star of the film is the Pacific Crest Trail. I've found that time spent in nature is some of the best time you can spend with yourself. No distractions from people, stoplights, smart phones, TVs, or Twitters. Just you, the trees, a creek, and maybe a coyote. Without those distractions you can't help but turn inward. That's how a search through nature eventually leads you to yourself.
This is why you'll find me exploring Griffith Park, the Angeles National Forest, and the other hills around Los Angeles on a regular basis. It's my urban retreat into nature. It's my nature retreat into myself.
For each of us individually, we don't have to take on the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, a heavy undertaking, to get to that place of mindfulness. We can start with something as simple as a walk in the park or as basic as taking a moment at home to breathe and reflect.
The movie eventually comes to a much more profound mindfulness ethos: our path in life.
Here's some questions I've been asking myself: what if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do a single thing differently? What if all of those things I did were the things that got me here?" ~Cheryl Strayed
Regret is a powerful emotion. It makes us want to go back in time and change things. It causes us to do things in the present to make up for our past transgressions, be it seeking forgiveness or turning to mind numbing substances to forget.
But our path has already been forged, it cannot be changed.
Whether you realize it or not, you don't actually want to go back and change those decisions. As difficult as they were, they were an important lesson. The only reason you are able to know how to do things differently now, how to do things better, is because you did them incorrectly in the first place.
That mistake, that lesson, gave you the wisdom you carry with you today. Without it you'd be a different person on a different path with a different understanding of life.
Every decision we make, every step we take, is our path. It's being written as we walk, created as we go. Without both the slipups and the successes, we wouldn't be ourselves.
That's the realization Cheryl Strayed came to understand during her walk alone through nature. It makes me want to run off to the woods and start searching, thinking, being.
WILD is an exploration and a real life example of abandoning regret in order to find one's self, and it might just be the inspiration you need to start that exploration on your own. I highly recommend it for my fellow mindfulness seekers/adventurers/nature lovers/dreamers.
You know how everyone's always saying seize the moment? I don't know, I'm kind of thinking it's the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us." ~Boyhood
It's a tough business growing up. Life starts out simple and seemingly preordained. But at a certain point you have to forge your own path–the path of who you are, what you do, and the people with which you associate.
Sometimes I'm wistful for my boyhood, which at least on the surface felt so uncomplicated. A time when your friends were everything and you didn't have to compete with bills, careers, or lovers for attention. When the stress and drama of adulthood rears it's ugly head, I tend to look back at a time of bicycles and popsicles and wish I could hop in a Delorean and go back to 1985. I'm fairly certain I'm not alone in this.
Then there's Richard Linklater's brilliant movie Boyhood. Beyond it's unique filming style–it was shot over the course of 12 years as the actors aged in real life–it's also one of the best cinematic explorations of nostalgia and mindfulness I've seen in quite some time.
Boyhood reminded me of my own wistful tendencies... and it reminded me why those tendencies are completely foolish.
To be clear, my own boyhood didn't follow the exact same path as the boy we follow in the movie. But then again, no path is ever the same. Despite our differences and our similarities, the questions I had then, the questions I have now, and the questions about life the movie explores all are on a very similar wavelength.
I guess that's what draws us towards any movie really–it's something we enjoy, something that makes us think, something that sticks with us, or at least something we find entertaining.
Both boyhood and adulthood are like a labyrinth. Looking back at our path can provide us with lessons for the future, but pining after the past doesn't help us move forward. The only way to decode the puzzle of life is to live in the moment and let those moments live through you.
In both boyhood and adulthood life is complicated. Very few of us had a perfect life growing up. In the movie, our main character grows up as a child of divorce, with alcoholic step-fathers, school yard bullies, and a slew of questions about life's path. As adults these days we live surrounded by break ups, alcoholic loved ones, work and online bullies, and a continuing onslaught of life questions.
In both boyhood and adulthood friendships take a lot of work. Very few of us are still friends, or at least close friends, with those childhood besties. In the movie, our main character has friends who are central to his life, but when he has to move or simply loses touch, he is forced to let them go. As adults, friendships are more stable because they're made out of choice and experience, but they are still fraught with complex emotions, and once in a while we are still forced to let them go.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As we get older our minds grow. We learn through experience and slowly figure out some of the answers to life's questions. But the more you grow and the more questions you answer, the more questions you create. We grow, because of and despite of our age.
Boyhood raises questions about each of our individual paths in life, about the wistful emotions our experience stirs, and those questions are just are relevant to me today as they were to me when I was a boy.
But if you really stop and think about it, life now is no more complicated than life then. Melancholy, looking backwards, regretting decisions, or longing for the relative simplicity of boyhood, those feelings aren't going to get you anywhere in life.
The big question posed in Boyhood, at least to me, is how do we use our experiences in life to grow up? How does that growth move us along our path? What is that path and where will it lead?
That answer to those questions are not found on some preordained paved road to success and happiness. What you do as a kid, what you enjoy in high school, and what you study in college are just small parts of the large puzzle. Every moment is stepping stone taking us to new uncharted territories in life. They may be completely unrelated to one another, but they are still ours, and they've all led us to now.
It's up to us if we live in the present moment or to constantly look back at what is finished or forward at what is unknown. It's up to us if we keep trying to seize each moment as the be all/end all, or if we just let the moment seize us and see where it leads.
Remember the good times of the past–in fact, never forget them–but then take the lessons you've learned and look forward. Appreciate your present life, complications and all.
When you're searching for it, you may never quite figure out exactly what you want to be and where you want to go. But you can always figure out the right now, and that's the only thing in life that actually matters.