How could I really change? Could I give up the harmful stuff but also gain something back in the bargain?
Feel like you're going to pieces? Read on for a solution
The men in my family have a history of acting on impulse. My father once got drunk on St. Patrick’s day, painted his horse green, and rode bareback into a honky tonk with a woman who wasn’t my mother. His booze-fueled bent for B.S. and mayhem came from my grandfather, who I’m told was the most charming sot, liar, and cheat in Ada County, Idaho.
Like my dark features and long nose, my penchant for recklessness and revelry is probably genetic. And I was starting to ride that same horse. But after a “dude, where’s my car?” scene two years ago, I swore off my family’s favorite form of foamy escapism and went searching for higher relief.
Then the next question: How could I really change? Could I give up the harmful stuff but also gain something back in the bargain? Meditation piqued my interest because its promise was so simple and yet so out of my reach: peace of mind. I read up on the practice and got started.
I sat on the edge of my bed, eyes closed, breathing deeply, trying to go blank. I was a mess. My thoughts bounced around like a puppy on speed. I plotted how I could finagle a raise at work and win an argument I was having with my girlfriend. I wondered how I’d handle weekends and college reunions without booze and bedlam. Then something significant happened: I started to notice the tumult that my self-important, future-focused thinking brought on.
When my thoughts run the show and I do the first thing that comes to mind, I have the mental finesse of a brakeless freight train. I become the guy who treats his work commute like Daytona. I fire off regrettable emails that open with “WTF.” And I huffily tug on my dog’s leash when he stops to smell something for too long because, hey, I have shit to do and you sniff this same street sign every morning, buddy.
By returning each day to the edge of my bed to sit, breathe, focus on nothing, and pull back to nothing when I recognize that my mind has wandered, I’ve come to realize that impulses, thoughts, and emotions are like clouds floating across the blue sky: temporary. I don’t have to act on them, nor do I have to believe them.
About a year ago I was driving and listening to someone on a podcast explaining that if you take all of time that we know of and put it on a yearlong scale—called the cosmic calendar—all of recorded history shows up on December 31 at about 11:59 p.m. When I heard that, I truly realized how insignificant I am in the grand scheme. I lost it. Imagine a 29-year-old fitness bro bawling his eyes out in commuter traffic while passing a Chipotle and an Office Depot.
Then it occurred to me: Can I change time? No. Would freaking out about the meaning of life and what happens next do me any good? No. Didn’t I thoroughly enjoy my life and have a lot to be grateful for? Yes. I was sitting in a V8-powered, air-conditioned, half-ton pickup that was streaming audible information from outer freaking space, and I was headed to a job I love where I help men better their lives.
It’s a hell of a time to be a man, and I’m grateful for every single lucky moment. There’s freedom in that. I may not be significant from a cosmic standpoint, but I can matter on a smaller scale by caring less about myself and more about others.
Now at work I hear statements like “You’re better than me at this. What do you think?” and “Sorry, my fault. I’ll fix it,” coming out of my mouth. When someone rushes into my office with a “big problem,” I understand that it’s not a big deal (it never is) and calmly solve it. At home, my girlfriend and I don’t bicker because I now know my way isn’t “the way”; it’s “a way.” And I wait until my dog is done sniffing urine-soaked objects before continuing our walk.
My guess is that a lot of men are where I used to be. It’s the 21st century. We’re distracted, edgy, rattled, stressed, scattered, and overwhelmed. We’re tense and jangled even when we’re in a relaxed setting. We react to the pings, buzzes, and flashing lights on our cellphones while we’re at home with family, out golfing with friends, even hanging out alone. We fret about the next thing before we’re done with this thing.
The irony is that there have never been more or better researched ways for silencing stress, creating peace of mind, and living in the now. Meditation helped me, but I know it’s not for everyone. Through it, I’ve realized mental repose has many faces: focusing on the metronomic cast of my fly rod, watching my pointer flush out a bird, detaching from fatigue on a long run.
Our fathers might be right. Maybe walking in the woods, tinkering on a vintage Chevy, or sipping a cold lemonade on the porch as we watch traffic go by is all we need. Maybe the answer isn’t trying to find nirvana, but realizing that nirvana can be right here if we discover ways to engage our brains differently and focus on the moment, even when we’re brushing our teeth.
But how do you get from here (tense, frazzled, reactionary) to there (calm, present, patient)? Here’s your guide to creating space for yourself so you can live the life you’ve imagined—while you still have time.
Your path to enlightenment (or at least a slightly less dark view of the world) starts with this simple 6-step meditation plan.
1. Sit With Your Eyes Closed
You don’t need a monastery, just a spot with minimal distractions. The point is to practice tuning out intrusions.
2. Focus On Your Breath
Take several slow inhalations, exhaling completely after each one.
3. Quiet Your Brain
“Imagine your mind as a clear, calm, blue sky,” says Tim Olson, a North Face athlete and two-time winner of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. Sometimes a cluster of storm clouds will obscure that blue sky, but the sky is always there. Allow your breath to take you to a less turbulent place.
4. Do a Body Scan
Take stock: How are you feeling at this moment in time? Where in your body do you feel clenched? Where do you feel light? Don’t try to change anything you observe. Just recognize it.
5. Suspend Judgment
“It’s okay if you’re having a stressful day,” says Olson. Try to pay attention to the way you’re feeling without becoming discouraged. Whenever your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath—again and again.
6. Build Endurance
Start with five minutes, and be patient. Then work up to 10, 20, and 30. “Meditation is exercise for your brain,” Olson says. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”