From Middle America to Zen Buddhism

In an earlier post I offered to explain how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how Zen might help you be a little happier. Since I’m all about truth in advertising, here goes.

Seeds planted:

As I look back, Zen and meditation piqued my interest waaaaay back.

Kung Fu, Grasshopper

Perhaps like most Western boys in the 70’s, I developed a fascination with martial arts. I loved Bruce Lee and I loved the show Kung Fu with David Carradine. I saw “the Grasshopper” working on his skills and learning from his master. The show Kung Fu helped me realize that the martial art was about more than just kicking butt. There was a mental discipline that was needed to be a “master” and mediation and mindfulness was a big part of it. And then you kick butt.

Phil Jackson

I was also big fan of the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls. When Phil Jackson came on board as head coach, the team went from great to legendary. Sports-casting was entering the hyper-journalism cycle at that time. I gobbled up the program that talked about Phil’s Zen practice and how it influenced him and the early 90’s Bulls’ success. I was further intrigued.

Non-Western Religions and Philosophies

When I got my Bachelor’s degree as an adult learner at Otterbein College (now University), I was introduced into the liberal arts. My original degree in college is a technical degree, so we spent very little time on literature and philosophy. Its a good thing too, as I had just about zero interest in the liberal arts when I was just out of high school. If it isn’t going to help me make money immediately, you can keep it. As an adult learner with a family, I was much more open to the experience. My time at Otterbein changed my life for the better, but I’ll trim this point down to one class.

As an elective, I took Non-Western Religions and Philosophies. I learned two important concepts. First, I learned about monism – which is essentially the concept that God flows through – or IS – everything rather than the Western theistic notion that God is separate but interested in our world. Think “The Force” in Star Wars, because let’s be honest, the Eastern philosophies are where George Lucas got the concept. Second, I learned that in the Far East, people don’t generally think about “religions” or philosophies as exclusive. One could subscribe to Shinto and Confucianism and Buddhism all at the same time with no problem. These concepts opened new possibilities to me. I felt that I could investigate without stepping on the toes of my deeply conservative, Protestant upbringing.

Time of turmoil:

My career was taking off

I definitely started my career with humble beginnings. But at about the 10 year mark in 2007, it was starting to take off. I had gone back to college as a working professional and the experience expanded my horizons. I was taking on growth roles at work and my salary was growing at the same time. In ~2010 I landed a corporate leadership role that put me in the running for an executive position. I was completely out of my comfort zone. I was trying to get things done while not making a misstep. I was hyper-aware of my new surroundings at the executive leadership level and was hyper-sensitive to any and all feedback. Each day was a roller-coaster ride of emotion. In 2012, I landed my first executive role, but the turmoil in my head didn’t stop. I had finally “made it;” but now more than ever, I walked on egg shells because I felt that any mistake would set me back and betray the firm’s faith in me.

My marriage was falling apart

My success at work was making my wife at the time more and more uncomfortable. She and I had come from very humble beginnings in the blue collar heartland of America. The more I grew professionally, the more she put pressure on me to reaffirm my love for her. From about 2007 to 2010, we fell into this terrible pattern where she would find or invent and offense and then put the burden of proof on me to resolve her complaint. It was obsessive. It went on week in and week out. She was satisfied with the argument and apology cycle, but on the whole something else was deeply wrong and I was at my wit’s end.

I asked for more permanent solutions over the years: couples therapy, individual therapy, classes, books, whatever; all to no avail. Her standing position was, “No one is ever going to look into my head.” In June 2010, I had had enough and I told her I was separating. In separation, we did some couples and individual therapy, but it was too far gone.

I want to be very clear here. I genuinely believe that my wife at the time felt completely cornered by her emotions. I genuinely believe that she was doing what she thought was right to “save our marriage,” even though the jeopardy was in her head. The bitter irony is that for me, the cycle of chaos ruined our marriage. I also want to be clear that I take responsibility for my part in the downfall of the marriage. I simply did not have the tools to overcome the problem at the time.

Panic Attacks

Over the course of my promotion and simultaneous separation and divorce, I was under immense pressure. In 2010, my kids were 14 (son) and 10 (daughter). The 14-year-old had seen enough to know what was going on, but the 10-year-old was not ready for the change at home. At 10, kids see the world as categorically right or wrong. I had made the decision to separate the family and that, along with some encouragement from my estranged wife, made me dead wrong. Additionally, my estranged wife had enlisted the help of friends and family in the case against me, the family destroyer. Financially, I was operating at a $100 per month loss in order to keep the kids in their home and keep them in their sports activities. At the same time, I believed I needed to walk a tight-rope at work and I perceived winds gusting when they were probably at most a light breeze. Oh and then let’s further complicate things. While going through the divorce, I started dating – and that is absolutely another story.

All of this turmoil culminated into what I thought at the time was a heart attack. I was sitting in my office at work and I got this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It raised up through my chest in through my esophagus and into my teeth. My chest hurt. My head hurt. It hurt to breath deeply and even worse to swallow. But like a good hillbilly, I didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, I took to the internet and realized I was having a panic attack. It was the first of many. I needed to do something about the stress in my life or I was in for some real trouble.

Meditation:

Journaling

This being the age of internet problem-solving, I spent a lot of time researching stress-relief techniques. I started journaling, which I would argue is a form of meditation. I found it was extremely helpful in getting my thoughts and concerns – whether they were work, family, or otherwise – out of the swirl in my head. I wrote and wrote. I wrote during lunch. I wrote in the evening. I got it all out. I weighed my relationship and whether or not I wanted to remain part of it. I wrote about my new environment at work and what I thought the perceived the issues were. The more I wrote, the more it helped. I never shared the writing with anyone, but the process helped me put everything into context. As I settled my mind with the journaling process, I began to look for what was next. I kept reading books and doing research. I came across various meditation techniques and eventually settled on Zazen.

Zazen

Zazen is an extremely simple meditation practice. Sit down, shut up, and stare at the wall for a period of time. Yep, that’s about it. Nothing special. And yet it is. I actually learned Zazen from reading several different books and doing a lot of online research. Most notably, I was influenced by Brad Warner and his fantastic little book titled Hardcore Zen. I’ve always been a “pull yourself up by your own boot-straps” kind of a person. I’ve also never been afraid to chart my own course. Brad’s brand of punk rocker Zen Buddhism really speaks to me. Through this simple practice of sitting, I have continued my personal development in profound ways.

Zazen in Action

Fast forward to 2016. About 6 months into my practice of sitting Zazen for 10-20 minutes a day, I was going through a bumpy patch in my new job. On of my coworkers was creating some challenges for me by making some half-truth negative claims about my work. I was really upset about it. I was about 2 years into my new job and I was enjoying some great success. I was being talked about by senior management as a contender for another executive position at this new company and in the midst of it, I was having to defend my integrity because of this person’s comments.

While this was going on, I was doing one of my routine Zazen sessions. I put on the timer, put the pillow down, and had a seat with an erect spine. I breathed normally and stared at a blank 3 foot section of my bedroom wall. A few minutes into my session, the wall in front of me started to “swirl.” For the simple fact that I’m trying to wrap up this post, I won’t get into everything that I “saw.” But the most important thing that I did “see” was that my coworker and I were the same person. It was a lot like watching a child gain awareness that the image in the mirror is hers and that she can control it. But my experience was like being the child and seeing it from a third person’s perspective at the same time. I was watching myself look into the mirror and seeing my coworker. When I talked, she talked. When I put my hand on my face, hers followed suit. It was in that moment that I will tell you rightfully and honestly that all the baggage I had been carrying about this situation melted away on the spot.

I realized that I had been in this person’s exact same spot a few years before and I had acted almost identically to how she was acting now. I instantly understood my coworker. I also knew that in the long run, my performance would stand up to the scrutiny because I honestly was doing the work that was being recognized. From that point on, I handled the coworker and similar situations with more poise. The beauty of that development is that it essentially sealed the deal for my promotion, which I’m happy to report happened about 6 months later.

In Closing:

I hope this post has intrigued you. I hope this post has explained briefly but clearly my background with Zen Buddhism and some of the benefits that I’ve experienced. However, I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have. Please post in the comments section or email me directly at quixotegoes@gmail.com if I can be of service in any way.

Five Benefits from Five Years of Journaling

I first started journaling when I was going through a divorce several years ago. The stresses of separating from my spouse, figuring out finances, and helping the children adjust all while maintaining my focus at work was getting to me. I almost started journaling on a whim. I’m a bit of an introvert and I’m not prone to sharing details with others. So journaling was my way out; my way to organize my thoughts and to “say” the things that I didn’t want to actually verbalize to anyone else. I wrote somewhere around 200 pages over 18 months. When my divorce was complete, I purged the file and later started a new one. My second journal turned 5 years old two weeks ago. I’ve decided to start a new one. The file size was getting unwieldy and five years seems like a good cutover point. Starting anew, I reflected on the journaling process and realized how much I’ve learned from it. While there’s probably more, here are my top five benefits from five years of journaling.

1.) Problem solving

I solve problems for a living. Of course, I could argue that everyone who has a job is essentially being paid to solve problems that customers aren’t willing or able to do themselves. But problem-solving is my specialty. I have an engineering background, several technical certifications, and 20+ years of experience solving fairly sizable problems across various industries. With these credentials, one might think that I could solve just about any problem in my sleep. That would be wrong. While it certainly is my forte, sometimes I get stuck. I find that journaling is my unlocking mechanism. The free form of journaling helps me describe a problem from multiple angles or to refine what it is and what it isn’t. I find that spending time writing about a problem not only helps me find breakthrough solutions, but it also stops the swirling in my head. I also use it for household problem-solving. For instance, there was a particularly nasty head and chest cold going through our house from season to season and journaling about it over time helped me figure out how to 1.) avoid getting it and 2.) speed the recovery time from more than 3 weeks to about 5 days. 

2.) Procrastination buster

I’m not one for procrastinating. I’ve always been internally motivated, so when I recognize that something needs to be done, I generally get going. Therefore when I am actually procrastinating on something, I know it’s a special cause. I might not like what needs to be done and I might be waiting on a better solution. Or, it might be that I have too much to do and – if I’m honest – I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself that I won’t pick a direction and move. Bring on journaling! Writing about these situations helps me to be honest with myself about my lack of movement. It really might be that I’m overwhelmed. I’ve often heard the quote, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, the best thing to do is nothing.” (Unknown attribution) I wouldn’t say that I do nothing. But I certainly have learned that sitting down to the keyboard, which was no where on the list of things to do, helps me prioritize the work in front of me. When I’m procrastinating out of a sense of being overwhelmed, journaling is exactly what I need. If I’m just hung up on the task at hand or feeling sorry for myself, sometimes I go ahead and have a good complaint session. I write down all the crap that’s annoying me at the time. The act of reading it after I’ve written it helps me see how petty I’m being. Recognizing my pettiness then causes me to shift into gratitude for everything that’s great in my life. And gratitude is extremely motivating. The point is that while I don’t procrastinate often, it can be caused by a number of different factors, and writing helps me get to the bottom of it and get moving.

3.) Better communicator

Have I mentioned that I’m an introvert? One of the key characteristics of an introvert is that we have far, far more thoughts than what comes out of our mouths. A lot of times, I’m just not ready to speak. I might have 4 thoughts on the same topic and if I start speaking without organizing them, I’ll probably confuse myself, never mind the poor listener. Journaling helps me get my thoughts out of my swirling mind. When a topic is particularly complex, the only way to sort it out is to pick up the journal and simply start writing. I may write in circles – making the same point repeatedly with only slightly different angles. But writing it down helps me sort out my thoughts so that I can communicate in a cogent manner. 

4.) Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and exercise control over your emotions, which in turn helps you connect with others. Journaling has helped me in strides on this front by following a simple guide that I learned in college. I took a course on Personal Transformation, which was amazing. Among other techniques, I learned to break down interpretations of an event. I’ll use an example to illustrate. Let’s say I’m running late to work and on the commute, someone cuts me off in traffic. My brain might jump to a conclusion like, “She cut me off just to be a jerk because she could see I’m in a hurry.” In this class, we learned to separate what happened from our interpretations. What actually happened? A lady merged into traffic in front of me, maybe cutting it a little too close given local standards for traffic spacing. When I interpreted what happened, I assigned meaning to the event. She meant harm. She meant to do what she did to prove a point. When I journal about this event, I might rant and rave about it for a few sentences, but then I use the “what happened and what did I interpret” method to break it down. After journaling, I might realize that I created the tight space with my rushed driving. She might have thought she had ample time to pull into traffic had I been going with the flow of normal traffic. Or, maybe she was also in a hurry because she was on the way to the hospital to spend time with an ill child. I really can’t know what was going on with her and I may have had some input in the event. Over time, this practice has become like a muscle that I flex through journaling so that I’m able to process faster in real time, thus giving me more Emotional Intelligence.

5.) Mindfulness Step 1

I didn’t realize it, but when I started journaling on and off about 8 years ago during my divorce, I took my first steps toward a path of mindfulness. dictionary.com defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” I originally started journaling to sort out my thoughts and feelings during my divorce. I needed to address my concerns about the kids and money and the car and the laundry and the bills and the… you get the point. Through journaling, I was able to feel like I was doing something about my concerns. I could write them out to their logical conclusion and see that things would somehow be okay. I was learning to be present. It was a form of meditation for me. Having logged 300 pages in the last five years, I can easily say that journaling was a HUGE first step in my mindfulness journey. 

Getting Started

If these five benefits sound pretty awesome, there’s not really too much to getting started. You might start with a pen and paper. I personally use Pages on Apple products and simply password protect the file to help ensure that it doesn’t get opened or edited by others with whom I share devices. You can do the same with Google Docs and Microsoft products. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not see the benefits on your first entry, but over time you’ll have your own top five list of benefits.