Words Are Anchors… Or Only Clouds?

Words matter. We hear it all the time. We experience it all the time. We can be in the midst of a fantastic day and then BOOM, some words happen and we become completely thrown off. Maybe the words were a sharp criticism or back-handed compliment. Maybe they were a flirtation that you never expected. Maybe it was a social media post not necessarily aimed at you, but it hit home so hard that you can’t ignore it. Words anchor us to meaning. If you’re like me, you walk around (or run, or sit Zazen) and ruminate about words from time to time.

In the last few years, I have learned that resilience is perhaps the most valuable skill in my life. Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, grit, mindfulness, whatever we’re calling it this week, is the skillset that we use to bounce back from a setback to be able to focus on what is going on right now.

I mentioned earlier that words anchor us to meaning. To expand on that, think about the words that people have used to describe us or to give us feedback. If you’re like me, at least some of those words have stuck and turned into labels – some good and some bad. But either way, they anchor us and limit our possibilities. I have always been on the thin side with a slight frame, which my family lovingly referred to as “skinny.” Now 40 years later, I still doubt my athletic ability before going out for a long run or a soccer match. Will I be strong enough to compete?

One of the ways I’ve recently been able to build resilience around words is to think of them as clouds. Clouds are amazing. They can be beautiful formations in the sky or a grey blanket between the sun and us terrestrial beings. They can provide life-affirming rain or life-threatening lightening. But as with all of these cases, clouds change. Today’s dreary morning is this evening’s sky-on-fire sunset. Like clouds, words are impermanent. While words may represent “reality” right now and they should be given appropriate attention, the situation can and will change.

Interestingly, I’ve also been thinking about my words; especially, my words for others. Even though I’m building resilience to words by imagining them as wispy clouds moving across the sky, I have to recognize that other people aren’t where I am. So these days, I’m being careful to not anchor anyone with my words. I’m finding that it really doesn’t take that much extra time or care. Instead of, “You always do this,” I’m offering up, “I noticed that this happened when I did X.” I am finding that simple adjustments to my words are enriching my relationships because… words matter.

Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.

That’s Curious

Be curious, not judgmental.                                                                                                                     -Walt Whitman

Simple but powerful. I coach my team to think this way. I do my best to live this way myself.

Today, we received some shocking news at work. It was interesting to watch everyone – myself included – go through the gyrations of processing the information. Most of us were inclined to judge. As I mindfully processed, I remembered Whitman’s sage advice. Instead of getting invested, I treated the news as data. I learned more about the world today through this topic. It allowed me to still feel deeply about the matter, but to minimize the disruption and get back to my day.

I hope your excitement is positive, but in times where it isn’t, perhaps this simple quote can inspire you to be able to accept the Truth of the situation and deal with it head on.

Seeking Disorder

To say that this week has been “off” for me would be an understatement. Earlier this week I was apathetic about being apathetic. Later in the week I rashly injected some excitement into things by tearing a page out of the book of my youth. I think the two might be subconsciously related.

On Monday of this week I had a blog post 99% written about how I was having a ho-hum start back from vacation. On the work front, one of my team members did a great job of covering for me while I was at the beach. We have also been in a nice and predictable state of affairs in my department for some time, so I was feeling a bit apathetic about my transition back to work. On a personal front, things have also been very smooth. My wife and I have settled into the most comfortable relationship of our lives. We know what to expect from one another, we don’t harbor grudges or nitpick, and we work together to achieve a well-run household. But at the moment, we’re not striving for anything either. She’s between college classes, the kids are in a lull with their schedules, we’re done with vacation for a while, I’m not actively training for any upcoming races, so there isn’t a “next big thing” to work toward. As I was putting the finishing touches on that “things-are-going-too-smooth” blog post, my boss called to give me 5 new short-term assignments. Twenty minutes later, I opened the mail to find that I received a traffic citation by camera in a tiny village I drove through several weeks ago. The citation feels like a scam for various reasons so I’ll need to investigate further. So… I suppose the lesson here is if you’re feeling a little too bored about things going well, start saying it and the universe will deliver some excitement. None of it made me mad though. I actually welcomed the immediate purpose of the “to do” list.

Now nearing the end of this week, I’ve taken care of most of those new assignments, but I think there is still something brewing under the surface. On Tuesday, we were out with some friends and – while I don’t want to get into any details – I took some uncharacteristic risks that I’m not at all proud of. Then on Wednesday, I played in a league game with my soccer team and it got a little physical. Instead of brushing it off like I have come to do in my older, wiser days, I got “involved.” I wound up getting into a verbal battle and an under-the-referee-radar physical altercation with one particularly hot-headed center back. This is not who I am. At least it hasn’t been for the last 10 years.

So in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on?” How on earth did I go from a calm dude before vacation to easing back into work to uncharacteristically risky behavior to a war of words and wrestling moves with a Cro-Magnon center back in the span of a few days? And more importantly, why?

I’ll probably need to do some additional soul searching on the topic, but I have a feeling that after having a few weeks of calm, quiet order, I’m actually craving some disorder. That’s bananas, isn’t it? But as I think about it, it seems to fit. At every given moment of every given day, I have everything I need. I’m not saying I’m rich and don’t want for anything, but I have a home, a healthy family, a loving wife, nutritious food in the pantry, clean water to drink, self-actualizing work, the freedom of self-expression, the ability to pay my bills and so on. On top of that, I’ve had an eventful first half of the year with several exciting trips and plenty of fun. The last few weeks have been almost mind-numbingly smooth. How on earth can there be any malcontent sown from any of that? But I am mindful enough to know that I’m currently walking around with a chip on my shoulder. Is it really so basic? Do I want what I do not have, even when what I have is at its essence, exactly what I want?

The mind is a funny thing.

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.

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat

Vacation is Over: A Mindfulness Opportunity

To do list

As I write this, I’m fighting off the feeling of being overwhelmed. My wife and I came back from an exciting trip to Ireland and rejoined life at full pace. What a great opportunity to put my mindfulness practice to good use! Here’s a quick idea of the irons we have in the fire:

  • My wife is going to have an unplanned surgery today and she’ll need my help getting to and from the medical center and help getting around at home
  • Like her, I have my normal full time job where I need to dig out of my inbox and keep my projects going
  • I also have a special work project that’s due in 30 days, where I’m coordinating the activities of 20+ people and we will deliver our content to more than 100 people around the globe –  oh, and we’re not as far along as I’d planned
  • I am captaining a 10-person running team that will run 150 miles over 24 hours; race day is 30 days away and I need to replace two injured runners with a surprisingly administrative process to do so
  • Our daughter is being honored at a special school conference event for her outstanding achievements
  • Our oldest son is celebrating a birthday
  • Our car needs repaired because we were rear-ended the day after coming back from vacation
  • Our car also needs its routine maintenance, which is done by a different business than the one that will repair the damaged bumper
  • We need to get back into routine with normal household duties: cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking healthy food, laundry, and driving the younger kids to their after-school activities

I could go on, but I don’t want to be a bore. I also want to be clear, I’m not complaining. My wife and I consider ourselves very lucky to have four happy and healthy kids and to lead busy, fulfilling lives. But at this juncture, I’m feeling very much at full capacity. As I go through this list, I can feel the pressure in my chest. I notice that my breathing is shallow and I’m feeling “on alert.” With each new email that comes in, I’m scanning it for the next fire drill as I try to dig out of this hefty pile. Historically speaking, in times like this I would be tense with other people as well. People might stop by and ask about my vacation or ask me about the special project I’m leading, and it’s difficult to not be short with them. But that doesn’t really get me anywhere – especially when I need to work with other people to accomplish these goals.

An Opportunity to Practice Mindfulness

I’ve been studying this process for about two years. I have pulled from multiple sources, but my favorite is Zen Habits. While I think Leo Babauta does a masterful job of explaining his process, I’m going to use my own words to describe my personal experience and the process that I’ve learned.

Step 1: Sit with the discomfort*. I described how I was feeling above. I noticed that I was breathing in a shallow fashion. I noticed that I was feeling anxious and on alert for “what’s next.” In years past, I might look for a distraction. Maybe I’d grab my phone and scroll through social media or get a salty snack – anything to make me feel immediately better while not really addressing the discomfort of the long and urgent to do list. Or maybe in the case I’ve described above, old Troy would break into action; choosing one very simple thing from the list and dive right in. In this case, I’m looking for the satisfaction of completing anything. I might decide to take out the trash and run the dishwasher. Important? Meh. Urgent? Not compared to what else is on the list. Again, this jump-into-action is a form of turning away from the discomfort. 

Step 2: Breathe. This is really more like step 1.a. Finding my breath is the way to sit with the discomfort. This is going to sound silly, but I really like this metaphor. Taking deep breaths allows me to disconnect from the discomfort and examine it with detachment. I envision being able to reach into the pit of my stomach where the discomfort is stirring, remove it, and then look at it in my hand. Now in my hand, I can examine it like a child does a feather or an earthworm for the first time. Being able to mentally detach from the feeling and view it with childlike curiosity allows me to see this discomfort with perspective. This little thing is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite of the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to practice overcoming discomfort. But first, it needs a name!

Step 3: Name the discomfort. I’ve somewhat completed this one with the list above. Honestly, this takes practice. In years past, I might resist this step and just be irritable and quiet. I tended to go into a “problem-solving cave,” where I would shut out other people and roll up my sleeves to slog through the work in front of me. This often had the effect of introducing additional stress because my loved ones, who care deeply about me, would want to know what’s going on and how they can help. Already tense, I might give a short answer about being overwhelmed, which would eventually lead to a longer conversation and – most likely – an argument. By taking a few minutes to name or list the issue(s), it will help me disarm its hold over me. Then I’m free to move on to resolving it.

Step 4: Resolve it. In this case, I’ve got a lot of work in front of me. But I’ve broken through the discomfort and I’ve accepted the situation for what it is. Now that I have the list, I can…

  1. Rationalize the list – assess whether I need to do this right now or push it out until I have more time,
  2. Communicate what is in front of me to my loved ones so they can understand my stress,
  3. Identify where others can lend a helping hand (if possible), and
  4. Ask for help

I find that after completing this process, I’m in a much better mental state to accept the next curve ball that might be thrown my way. Another way of saying that last sentence is that my Emotional Intelligence has gotten a boost. And in the ever-changing and fast paced world that we live in, I can scarcely think of a more valuable skill.


Do you have a mindfulness practice? Do you have a different process or a different take on what I’ve described above? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or email me directly at quixotegoes@gmail.com.


*NOTE: I am using “discomfort” in an emotional sense. If you are having medical discomfort, please seek the help of a medical professional.