“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.” ~Gandhi
At some point during 2005 I discovered the sense that I am connected to everything, that nothing exists outside of me. This realization came while surfing with a friend of mine. From that moment, surfing became a religion for me.
I sat on top a surf board about 100 yards off the sand, just a little north of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in San Clemente, California, for hours on end every single day.
At some point during each session, the endorphins would kick in. My mind would empty and I would relax. The best word to describe it would be “bliss.”
Off the surf board, I spent most of my time at the public library reading books about the human experience—history, psychology, religion, and spirituality.
Each morning, as I sank into this blissful state, I allowed the information to pour over me in a manner that Thich Naht Hanh called “Dharma Rain.” I just breathed deeply and joyfully as my mind filtered information, looking for truth.
I could have easily stayed in that state of bliss had I not needed to go to work or interact with most of the people around me. I’ve never been much of a joiner. Monkhood was off the table.
I tended bar just a few nights a week. I had been sober for nearly a year but rarely became thirsty even working. It was a means to an end, and it afforded me more free time than any other job out there.
Tending bar also brought into focus the idea that all I observe is a reflection of me. I owe most of real growth spiritually not to the texts, not to meditation, and not even to surfing; I owe it to my time slinging drinks.
Working behind a bar, believe it or not, is a pretty high-stress job. The busier it gets, the faster I move and the less concentrated I am on breathing fully. The stress and lack of oxygen triggers my flight-or-fight defenses, and I’m prone to act unloving to the people I find offensive.
I’m snappy and sometimes rude. I get frustrated with people who completely lack situational awareness. I rarely take into account that the booze just removed that trait from them.
From the moment I made the commitment to stay sober, I began to take a personal inventory of all the qualities I didn’t like in myself. I knew that if I were to remain sober without going to AA, and without church, I would need to develop certain traits. Being a loving, patient, kind, and caring man was, and is, at the top of my list.
My job and the people around me posed a huge challenge. My money management skills wouldn’t allow me to quit. So I made sure to practice acceptance, and I developed techniques to help me heal and grow.
I knew I needed to remind myself to breathe. I tried to set an alarm on my phone. The amount of busyness made it impossible for me to notice when the alarm went off. So I developed the color game. When I was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching, I found a similar exercise: Mindfulness Bells.
The first exercise I developed for myself was just to remind me to breathe. It’s pretty simple really. Pick three colors (if you’re color blind I can help you modify this).
1. The color of clothing.
Each time you see that color, use it as a reminder that you’re okay. Breathe in. Breathe out. Smile. Feel love well up inside you.
2. A color on buildings and manmade products.
Same as before.
3. A color found in nature.
Every time I see a plant with hues in the range near purple, I smile. I breathe. I remember “It’s all good.”
I used this for traffic. Obviously, I had to adjust it for the bar. So I used the same three colors for clothing and accessories.
Think about the last time you bought a car. You began to notice that car everywhere. It’s called the reticular activating system.
When you practice this for a very short period of time, it becomes natural. You’ll be walking down the street, overthinking your life away, and then your brain will see someone walk by. The voice in your head will softly say, “Breathe deeply. Be still. I love you.”
If you want to stop reading here, go ahead. You now know all that you really need to know in life. Breathe deeply, relax, “It’s all good.” (Thank you, Alan Watts.)
The second exercise comes from my mind’s need to change the world. My mind was programmed to see everything that is wrong with the world and with myself. When I fix something in me, I almost want to demand that all of you fix it in yourselves.
I use that little ego-voice to my advantage. I allow it to run full reign. I use the following steps to guide my personal growth.
1. I project my negative observations onto a note card.
If I have time, I do it right there, but more often than not I just write down the person’s name or a description. Later, I spend time listing out all the things that make that person an “idiot.”
2. I reflect all the qualities I see back onto me.
I have yet to make a list without discovering that I possess each and every quality. At some time, I have felt and acted in a manner that, at that moment, I found reprehensible. Sometimes the actions are just in my mind. I haven’t actually slaughtered a bunch of people like the Third Reich, but my road rage has brought similar imaginings to my mind.
3. I empathize with the offender.
Because I take the list word by word and find each offense in my own experience, I am able to discover why someone would act like a complete idiot. I know the root cause of their actions, and I can release the resentment I feel toward them. My heart goes out to them.
4. I forgive them and myself.
I spend a little time with each trait and remember all the people I know, including me, who behave in such a manner. I bring them all in a group in my mind and offer each a hug. I say I love you. Breathe. It’s okay.
The above is the foundation for everything I do. Throughout the years I’ve noticed quite a difference when I actively practice this and when I don’t. And I’ve come to realize the wisdom of the bumper sticker that reads “Be the change.”