The Indiscriminate Taskmaster

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This morning I am enjoying downtown St. Joe in its post-summer quietness with a mocha (decaf), the book Quiet Your Mind by John Selby and my sweet Ashok. A chipmunk just raced across the road which perked her up as I dove into Shelby’s thoughts on how judgement impacts others and, more specifically, our own minds.

The first premise he asserts is that we all judge. We see a dark alley, and we judge that it is not safe. We see our unclean house, and our critical minds asserts that we are messy. A friend says that they are $10K in debt on their credit card as they charge up a new dress, and we think to ourselves that they need to be more financially savvy. And we tell a grieving friend that they need to trust God. Judgements keep us safe, destroy our peace of mind and confidence and ruin relationships. I first need to accept that I judge and stop judging myself about that.

I have been judged harshly by others about my lifestyle. People have judged me and condemned me for my divorces. Some people even judge me for feeling and expressing my opinions. In a really odd turn of events, others judge me for working on my problems. It is painful to be judged. And, lately, as I’ve been sinking into my meditation practice, I have become aware of how much I judge.

Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. Experienced meditators say there is no way to do that. Our brain thinks. That’s what it does. Our body breathes. We can’t stop it from breathing either. The goal of meditation is to ground yourself and just notice what goes on in your brain without following the thoughts down the rabbit hole. I’m going to follow them down the rabbit hole inevitably when one interests me, and then I judge myself for doing it. I breathe, and I judge myself for trying to control the breath instead of just watching it flow. “STOP doing that, I tell myself,” as the meditation guide says to be gentle with yourself and don’t judge yourself for going down the rabbit hole.

My mind is a never-ending stream of thoughts and judgements and fears that are at once profound and a meaningless waste of time. One of my yoga teachers said that the mind that tells us to eat the apple pie is the same mind that berates us after we do. We are not our thoughts, and our thoughts are not excellent guides. I would love to study more about what creates our thoughts, and maybe that is something I will research later. Meditation sometimes relaxes me, but it is sometimes extremely frustrating. Following my thoughts can keep me constantly contradicted.

My thoughts are often the reflection of criticisms I’ve received in the past. It’s as if the very words that cut me to the bone get stuck in a recording that plays itself back to me throughout my day.  I feel confident that I was productive and creative, and I hear a disapproving parent telling me that “every time you think you screw up.” I feel healthy after a great run, and a long-ago passer-by says “hey fat-ass!” Luckily, therapy and healthy friends have recorded complimentary messages that counteract my everyday failures as well. When my house is a mess, I hear a good friend’s comment that “your house is your home. You can keep it how you like it.” When I snap off at a colleague, I hear a therapist’s message “No one is perfect. That’s why we have apologies.” The brain, it seems, is an indiscriminate recorder that plays its messages with no particular motive. In fact, sometimes I get two or three contradictory messages at once that can paralyze and confuse me

I’m playing with not reacting to my thoughts in meditation, and I’m finding that I’m playing with not reacting to my thoughts in real life. I’m becoming more aware of the content of my thoughts and my gut reaction to them. No wonder I was being jerked around so much by the thoughts in my head. Without awareness, they are a brutal taskmaster.

I’m Not Weird… Just Highly Sensitive

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I always knew I was sensitive. But I was surrounded by people who thought it was a fatal flaw. Toughen up…. don’t be so sensitive … you need to learn to cope with life … you are weak … insults around my sensitivity engulfed me. As I tried to process things like anger, sarcasm, violent movies and interpersonal drama, I struggled immensely.

I became depressed for the first time in my teens. All I wanted to do was hang out in my room, paint my nails and listen to my record player. Something was wrong with me, I told myself. How will I ever cope with my life? Why did God make me like this? Didn’t he know how hard this would be to live like this? I knew I couldn’t stop the “incoming” that was pushing my buttons everyday.

I eventually found alcohol and marijuana and started self-medicating. Of course that didn’t help either, but it helped me check out from the pressure of my overwhelming sensitivity to the world and its impact on my psyche. When I got sober in my mid-twenties, I found myself back in a world where I felt assaulted continuously. I really didn’t know how I would manage. It was just hard to be alive.

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I don’t remember when I found the book The Highly Sensitive PersonI’m pretty sure a therapist recommended it to me. I finally recognized myself, and there was nothing wrong with me. I was just sensitive to my environment. Anger overwhelmed me. My feelings drowned me. I needed lots of downtime to decompress from what others might describe as day-to-day drama. And the author offered tools for self-care and living a normal life.

I don’t know about other countries, but our culture doesn’t accept sensitive people as an asset. If we aren’t tough and in your face, we are considered weak. If I am empathetic to others, I’m a snowflake. I had a coworker tell me once that he couldn’t even have a conversation with me because I didn’t watch TV or violent movies. I feel out of step with society at times because of the way I have to “lock down” the intrusions upon my world. In order for me to show up at work in a demanding job, take care of the many tasks that single people have to handle and manage the many personal relationships that an extrovert craves, I have to be really clear about my needs. I don’t function well when I’m overwhelmed. And I know my limits.

I think I’m a good writer because I’m sensitive. I notice little things that others don’t see. I find the words that describe the smallest details that make life special. I’m a good teacher because I sense when others don’t understand. I’m a good strategist because I see connections everywhere. I anticipate problems at work way before anyone else can see them because I’m always asking questions and trying to understand the needs of others. My affinity for being immersed in my inner life makes me unique … not weird. 

If you think you might be a highly sensitive person, here are some resources for you. If you love someone who is a highly sensitive person, take a look at this material. Understand that there is nothing wrong with them, and they don’t have to “toughen up”. They just need to learn how to arrange their world so that they feel safe contributing. Our world needs more sensitive people. But we are often hiding under mushrooms. Make it safe for us to shine.

Resources for highly sensitive people can be found on this website. There’s even a quiz you can take. If you answer yes to 14 items on the quiz, you are highly sensitive. I had 23! And some areas have Meetup groups where you can meet others like you!

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Listen With Your Eyes

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The circus that is surrounding us today in regards to the Charlottesville events is irritating me. Yes, I am outraged at the event itself. I don’t think I need to add to the mayhem about that. For the record, as a young girl in Louisiana I was always puzzled by the statues in New Orleans. Why are we revering defeated generals who led a revolt against our own country? I, for one, say take them down. That war meant nothing to me except a good backdrop for the fictional novel Gone With the Wind.

As for the rest of the drama and the political fallout, the main thing that comes to my mind is what I learned in Alanon. People show you who they are. I don’t trust people’s words anymore anyway. Words are measured and sifted and sorted to project an image of who they want to be… of who they think they should be. They mean very little and spending time trying to get anyone to say something is meaningless. Even if they finally say it, it rings hollow. Just ask someone to tell you they love you. Feel what it feels like when they say they do. Yuk. Better left unsaid. They’ve already shown you who they are.

I’ve learned to listen with my eyes. Watch what they do. See who they befriend. Is there drama or peace or surrounding them? Are they humble or narcissistic? Do they act out of love or fear? What draws their attention? What motivates them to act? Who or what is in their heart? Where do they spend their money? What do they worship? Does who they say they are resonate with what you see? Is honesty and integrity evident?

Words are a dime-a-dozen. People show you who they are. When you see them, decide how you react. Do you protect yourself? Do you move closer? Do you trust them? Do you fear them? Can you put down your walls or should you build them higher and thicker and stronger? Do they need your prayer? Are they good for you or do they bring you down? Are they dangerous or safe?

Don’t become fixated on what someone says. Watch them. They will show you who they are.

Accepting my Brokenness

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I miss my house in Memphis. That place was so healing to me. The garden was too big for me to manage. The bedroom had no door. The bathroom only had a stand-up shower, so I couldn’t take baths for years. And the sunroom in the back wasn’t very well insulated which caused it to be cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. But that place was fertile ground for my growth as a person.

Be still and know that I am God. That scripture was scrawled across my empty yoga room wall at the front of the house. I’m sure the room was meant to be the living room, but I wanted the front room to be empty except for my spiritual space and those words that grounded and inspired me to stop trying to fix my life.

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I texted a friend of mine this weekend to see how she was doing. “Learning some things about being okay with my own brokenness, and the ability to just sit with that. To love myself with all my brokenness, and accept my humanity,” she texted back. Ahhhh, I thought. Accepting our brokenness … what a concept. Be still and know that I am God.

So much of my life I’ve been driven to fix things … numb my pain … say I’m sorry when I did nothing wrong  … eat to ease loneliness … find a man to fill the hole in my heart where compassion belongs. I didn’t understand that brokenness is the birthplace of wholeness.

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I thought that my heart was a vase that when shattered needed to be superglued to resemble its original form. That was so shortsighted. Isn’t it much more beautiful to accept the broken pieces as they are and create a mosaic. Choosing the most beautiful chunks, we create a stepping stone or a hanging ornament which reflects the sunshine. A mosaic carries the beauty of the original amid the amplified emotion of the breaking. Acceptance of my brokenness … be still and know that I am God.

A man died of alcoholism in that house. That’s how it came to me. I felt that I was a part of its healing just as it was part of mine. That house was empty of furnishings but full of love. Women laughed and cried and sat in their brokenness in that empty space. I painted the walls in many colors and opened my heart to the garden’s lushness. I cried tears of joy and sobbed with great sorrow. I accepted its many flaws without trying to fix them, and the garden endured my lack of experience with landscaping. The space felt huge, and my heart healed.

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How do we accept our brokenness? It’s so difficult to sit with pain and sorrow and guilt until it changes us. It’s much easier to try to fix it or numb out. The easier path is not the transformative one. I don’t have answers on how to accept your brokenness, but I know how I accept mine.

Be still and know that I am God.

~~Psalm 46:10

 

 

Seeing Others as We Are: Projection

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There have been people in my life who offer me feedback and I think, “Who are they talking about?” I get a confused feeling in my gut that tells me that something is wrong. I’ve received critical feedback that is dead on, and it feels differently in my gut. I may not like it, but I know it’s truth.

This feeling in my gut when I hear feedback that doesn’t even sound like me triggers all my codependency urges. This experience is old. It goes back to a time when my motives and my very being were run through a filter that distorted who I was. People who have those filters – psychology calls it projecting – are generally unaware but believe vehemently that what they see in the other person is truth. In fact they are looking at a mirror image of themselves.

I’ve spent way too many hours of my time in these discussions where I try to explain myself or point out the facts in my life that do not support that view. But because they have to believe it to support their own denial, They are invested more in defending their perspective than in the health of the relationship. I usually begin the task I describe as “trying to nail jello to a tree”. It never works. I get exhausted, and the relationship crumbles due to the very personal nature of the conflict.

Projection is so hard to combat because the person projecting really believes that what they are seeing is true. And I know I’ve projected things on to people. It’s sort of a normal human thing, but it becomes even more distorted and dangerous to relationships when people are not self-aware of their own shortcomings. I’m certainly not an expert in this as I’m not a psychologist but I have become more aware of  its impact on my life as I’ve worked through problems over the years. And I recognize it much more readily now.

This article explains projection in much more detail. It also brings up the very real possibility that because someone projects something onto us about their own disfunction many times, we start to believe that is who we are. Words become reality because our inner critic takes up the mantra. Years and years of hearing those words in our heads ends up creating the monster projected. Truth really doesn’t matter. Words do, in fact, kill.

What is the answer if you’ve been impacted by years and years of projection? Find out who you really are, and immerse yourself in that life. Question the criticism of people in your life instead of just believing it without evidence. Silence the voice in your head by paying more attention to the people who see the real you. Stop trying to argue with people who project on to you and realize they will never see you as a person. Get some psychological help or go to a support group so you hear alternative voices that can help you reframe reality. One day you will be able to confidently say, “That’s not even me they are talking about,” and you will truly recognize it.

In healing, you get to create the life you want instead of the one that is handed to you. There is no greater gift.

 

Randomness: Enjoy Yourself

Who would have ever thought we would get old? I look into the faces of my contemporaries and see the lines gathering. Some have been brave enough to go completely gray naturally, while the rest of us keep daring ourselves to stop coloring. The face in the mirror looks older every year, but I still have hope I have a chunk of time ahead of me. But the clock is ticking … TICK TOCK… TICK TOCK…. TICK TOCK.

A few of my childhood friends have died in the last few years, and with each one my own mortality stares me down. “Don’t waste time,” the grimmest of reapers taunts, “I’ll be coming for you sooner than you think.” And the clock chimes yet again.

I decided when I turned 50 I was going to simplify my life and be more mindful of how I spent my time. I’d spent countless days and nights trying to make relationships work that didn’t and wasting too much time on people who didn’t deserve my affections. The time until I turned 50 – holy cow – flew by. I woke up one day and I had no idea what I’d done with my life. I committed to making intentional choices about the rest of my vacation here on earth. When I lay my head down for the last time, I’d like to feel satisfied with my adventure.

While I think this is the BEST time of my life, it’s not lost on me that it feels like the most precious… and perhaps the most fleeting.

“Enjoy yourself,” Doris Day says, “It’s later than you think.”

 

Randomness: Feelings

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When I was going through my second divorce and all of the grief of my life was cascading over me in a relentless torrent of pain, it was all I could do to get through the day at work without falling apart. When I think of hard things, I think of those days. Because I only knew how to repress my feelings, put on a positive face and push through my life, I had let years and years of grief and pain build up inside me.

With the loss of that dream of being happily married, I felt like my world had come unhinged. What in the world was wrong with me that I couldn’t do the simplest of things as to keep a partner? How would I function being single in a world where couplehood is golden? What would my lonely-ass life look like as a single gal? Did God hate me so much that he created me to be an unloveable mess of a person? Was that my journey on this earth? The grief… the fear … the loss of everything I wanted … the rubble of my dreams … the pain of my inadequacy … it was all ….. too …. much.

I broke. The dam that was holding back the losses of my life cracked wide open. The cascade of hurts and fears and insecurities of a lifetime literally knocked me off my feet. Sometimes I’d hold it together at work. Some days I wouldn’t. My life was work, 12-step meetings and weekly sessions with my therapist. I’d trudge up the stairs to my apartment and start crying before I hit the top of the stairs. Locking the door behind me, I’d lay on the floor or on my bed and cry. I thought the crying would NEVER end.

Oddly enough, I look back at that time as one of the best in my life. I was forced to feel. Humans are meant to feel. We are not meant to cram feelings behind a dam of expectations. The pain was so scary because I thought it would never end, but I had people around me that told me to trust the process of grieving. Everything else I had ever believed turned out to be a lie, so I believed them.

So, today, whatever you are going through, know that you are on the path. Trudge that walk you need to trudge. Trust the process. And if all you do today is hold it together, know that I am proud of you. This walk … your unique trudge … is your walk of greatness. Real joy is somewhere on the other side. But for today, enjoy being a feeling, breathing, awesome child of God. Your feelings will lead you out.

 

Savoring My Life

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As my meditation journey continues, I’m shocked at how differently I’m experiencing the world around me. In fact, I should say that I’m actually experiencing the world around me. As mindful as I tried to be in the past, the meditation takes it to a whole new level.

I took an online course Friday night on how meditation changes the brain. A neuroscientist on Yoga International created this course that explained the parts of the brain, what they control and how meditation impacts them. It actually shrinks the size of the amygdala, the primary area that governs emotional reactions to danger. After being in an abusive relationship years ago, I learned that this almond-shaped brain part was responsible for my PTSD-like reactions. It was not only reacting to the moment but pulling up data about danger from my entire life. Meditation grows other parts of the brain, helps other areas improve their work and shrinks the fight-or-flight engines.

Joy is becoming more and more of a daily state. I’m still getting frustrated and angry and tired at times, but the level of intensity is much reduced. I’m also getting lots of insights on how to handle my emotions but also my work in a much more focused way. It’s hard to describe, but I feel really grounded and present. And I’m craving meditation time.

I just finished a course on the 10% Happier app using meditation to create emotional agility. The teacher, Oren Sofer, said that he likes to think that being agile with your emotions makes you the most powerful person in the room. I would have to agree. As a rule, humans either react to their emotions or repress them. Either way, the very important information they provide becomes useless or distorted just when you need them.

One of the meditations led me through an exercise where I brought up a very emotional situation in my mind. I felt the fear and anger rise in me as if the event was happening right before me all over again. He asked me to drop the story and just pay attention to what was going on in my body. I realized that the edges of the emotion felt somewhat jagged, and it sort of set up house around my chest and heart area. Then he asked me to go inside and get a sense of what I was really feeling. It was sort of amazing. I wasn’t feeling fear and anger so much as I was feeling unloveable and devalued. I WAS the little girl who was berated and ignored. I was at once sad, afraid and confused. The emotion was not only big but it was ancient. My reaction in that moment with a person I barely knew was the same emotion that I’ve known forever. It was familiar, huge and debilitating.

After sitting in that feeling and breathing into it, it began to change. And, all of a sudden, it disappeared. This took place in about 12 minutes. Oren says that when we actually pay attention to an emotion without judging it and reacting to it, it will do one of four things – increase, decrease, change or disappear. Apparently, emotion just want to be felt. It is our information center. It teaches us, and it reminds us of our needs.

This morning I made my coffee and was considering journaling while I drank it. But I realized that I wanted to just take in the moment with my coffee and my animals. Not only was I craving my morning caffeine, but I was craving the savoring of the moment. What I’m finding that as I practice meditation, I become more mindful of everything. I don’t worry so much about the future nor do I ruminate about my past. I am present. My senses are electrified. My appreciation of daily events is becoming awe. As with my coffee, I’m beginning to savor my life.

 

Celebrating the Decade of Me

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Today is a celebration.

Today is the 10 year anniversary of me learning to say “when” in a committed, pronounced, impactful way. I won’t get into the details since the story doesn’t matter,  but suffice it to say that what I did ushered in the best decade of my life. In fact, I’d say it’s the only decade where I learned to be Sharon, to stand up for myself and to differentiate my wants and needs from other people’s demands. In some ways it feels like it was a selfish decade, but a part of me says that doesn’t matter anyway. Learning to say no is a selfish act but one that ushers in great freedom and creativity. The energy I spent trying to be what another wanted is now directed toward what I want. And it feels very, very good.

 

So, I looked up my Shiatsu massage therapist from 15 years ago and booked a delicious session. Annemarie is amazing. Shiatsu is a type of massage that uses acupressure (similar in nature to acupuncture but without needles). When I was here before and struggling with depression, one session with Annemarie would shift me out of depression immediately. Now that I’m not plagued with depression, the session offered a lovely big hug that that told me I was loved unconditionally and inspired me to continue on a path that is uniquely mine.

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She recommended a visit to the Valparaiso Farmer’s Market and then suggested I try a unique coffee shop called Dagger Mountain. The coffee roastery is located in an industrial park. Thank goodness for GPS or I would have never found it. The cute little cozy shop is entered by walking through the open garage door. Inside it is just like the best little coffee shops I’ve ever visited.

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They are serious about their coffee. The single origin black coffee is served black only to showcase the flavor but they do have some espresso options. I opted for the Miel coffee drink which is espresso, steamed milk, honey and cinnamon. It is absolutely divine. I have finally – after being here just short of a year – found my coffee home. It’s just too bad it’s an hour away. But I can drive.

I lived in this area from 2003 – 2006. In fact, I worked part-time at a little sandwich shop not a mile away from Dagger Mountain for awhile. This is where I attended Purdue and earned my Masters degree. It is also the place where I got sober again after relapsing. Not unexpectedly, drinking didn’t improve my second marriage, but getting sober improved me. It was here that I began my journey to regain my strength and resolve to do what I needed to do to improve my life. Returning here today was a good idea.

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So, I’m celebrating. It’s a full moon this weekend. I feel amazing after my Shiatsu massage. I’m going to clean my house literally and do some smudging to clear my house energetically. I think this is a great time for me to make a choice for me again. I have a new decade beginning, and I’m excited about what it might bring. I wasn’t so sure about the beginning of this last decade on July 8, 2007, but I can see that we don’t always see the gifts clearly except in hindsight.

Where will I be on July 8, 2024? I can’t wait to find out!

 

 

Meditation Rocks

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In one of my favorite movies, Hoosiers, the basketball coach was battling heart disease. When the main character Norman enters his new boss’s office, Cletus is sitting in meditation. He said he was “floating”. His doctor had told him he had to manage his blood pressure, and meditation was his choice of medicine. In 1986 I knew nothing of meditation, but the scene stuck with me. Who would think some Indiana coach would be meditating? Wasn’t that just for yogis and girls?

Since then, I’ve become more interested in self-care, met many world-class athletes who use meditation for enhancing performance, and I have experienced the spiritual and physiological benefits of a regular yoga practice. I have, of course, from time to time meditated after a yoga class or practiced yoga nidra when I’m under a lot of stress or suffering from insomnia.

In 2007, I was experiencing high anxiety and relentless insomnia for months while under a stress from a failing marriage. I had never meditated regularly, but I was trying all of the herbal treatments I could find. Regular exercise and my yoga practice alone were not working. I read that meditation might work. I sat in meditation for 15 minutes every night. After only about a week of doing this, my insomnia abated. I slept. There is nothing more powerful than sleeping after a long stretch of sleepless nights. I continued the practice until I got out of the worst of the stress and then I forgot about it. Necessity is certainly the best motivator.

I started meditating in April with the Calm App. Several friends mentioned it to me in a short period of time as a panacea for the stress they were feeling. When three people mention something to me in a short amount of time, I take it to be a message from my Higher Power. My rule is I have to try it whether I want to or not. Well, I got hooked immediately. Even the short 10-minute meditations that I used in the beginning started to make a difference to me, and they contained great learning content on how to live mindfully.

I’m three months into this journey, and I feel like a different person. Well, I take that back. I still feel like the same person, but I feel like a lovable, grounded, well-rested, and valuable person. That is a very different experience than my previously insecure, frazzled, exhausted and somewhat confused experience of life. I know there is lots of science to back up the power of meditation, but what motivates me is how different I feel. I am now meditating 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening most days of the week. It’s the best investment of time I’ve made in awhile.

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I recently found a podcast made by my former college classmate Robin Roberts called Everybody’s Got Something. The first one I listened to was a chat with two of her colleagues from Good Morning America who talked about their life struggles and what they learned from them. Dan Harris was an anxious, adrenalin-seeking recreational drug using journalist who had an embarrassing panic attach on the air. He started meditating, and it literally changed his life and career. In addition to his journalism career, he is now a crusader for meditation. He has his own podcast and website called 10% Happier which has a short course on meditation, meditations for all kinds of situations and teachings from master teachers of meditation.

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Yesterday, on the 10% Happier podcast, Dan interviewed a Democratic congressman (Tom Ryan, podcast #87) who holds meditation sessions in D.C. that are attended by bi-partisan staffers regularly. In fact, in his opinion, meditation is a pretty conservative activity. It is a “help yourself” solution, no cost and wildly effective in changing your life.

If you are struggling with stress or insomnia or would otherwise just like to strengthen your brain “muscle”, you should open your mind a little and try meditation. Meditation is the new black, and, if just 25% of the population started meditating and seeing results that bring out the best in themselves, just think of how we could change the world. Athletes have known for a long time that meditation helps their performance. Their job is to perform, so they aren’t going to waste time on BS.

Cletus modeled meditation for us back in 1986 – long before I even knew what it was. His doctor knew that meditation lowered blood pressure and reduced stress. He probably got better sleep as a result. I suspect Norm could have benefited from meditation with his flashy temper and anger issue. Those things make for good drama but they don’t make for a good life. Like Dan Harris says, it won’t solve all of your problems, but it may make you 10% happier.