*Note: I wrote this in August, 2015. It's deeply personal and I was hesitant to publish it. It sat on the shelf for nine months, but no longer.
No Last Names Needed
I never actually got to meet George in person, but I would know his easy laugh anywhere.
We talked on the phone once a week for two years, yet I don’t even know his last name. Somehow, this blank where his last name should be makes my time with him feel that much more enchanted.
George died a few months ago. I miss him, but not in that crushing, grief-stricken way that so often accompanies death. It’s just that I wish I could pick up the phone and share my discoveries with him. George really knew how to celebrate the beautiful things in life. It’s his laugh I miss most, so joyful and mischievous. George was a troublemaker in the best way possible.
Before he died, sometimes I wondered, “What would I do if I couldn’t talk to George anymore?” He was 71 and had a heart condition. When that fear turned into reality, I surprised myself — I had begun answering most of my own calls without realizing it. My time with George was short, precious and life-changing and it woke me up to peace and happiness as a way of being.
George was a monk who lived on an old farm in upstate New York. I used to call him “my monk.” I’d tell my closest friends, “I can’t meet up for brunch tomorrow, I have a call with my monk.” Every Saturday morning at 11:30 am PST/2:30 pm EST.
He wasn’t your average monk. He fought in a war, he killed people. He spent a year in jail, becoming the trusted advisor of the inmates and prison guards. He had a temper which, on occasion, flared during our calls. At 35, he took off into the woods to live a solitary life and face his demons. He stayed in the woods for 5 years.
George was married four times and divorced three. On his fourth marriage, he really got it right. He married Alice, the love of his life. Their love is real, powerful and eternal.
He told me he wasn’t ready to love someone as good as Alice in his younger years. He said he married crazy, broken women because he was crazy and broken himself. But, over time and with a commitment to change, he healed enough to love a good woman.
A guy I was seeing, let’s call him Frank (because that’s his name), asked me if there were any couples in my life that I looked up to, that made me believe in marriage. Sadly, there weren’t many, but Alice and George were #1 on a very short list of four. I think about Alice often, and the broken heart she's learning to live with.
Speaking of Broken Hearts
That’s exactly what landed me on the other side of a phone line from this extraordinary man.
When I started talking to George, I didn’t know what else to do. My life was beyond charmed, but heartbreak is heartbreak. No one escapes the downward spiral that happens when life smashes their heart into a million little shards of glass.
I was kneeling there in the mess with bloody hands and knees and bleary eyes desperately trying to glue the tiny pieces back into something recognizable.
It sounds so dramatic, but that is how it feels. That makes it real...right?
I cried a lot. I worried I'd spontaneously burst into tears in front of my team. But I didn’t, I successfully saved the tears for my drive to and from work.
Then I heard about George, from a friend of a friend. That’s the only way to hear about these kinds of things. Word on the street was that he was full of wisdom and tough love, and had a gift for helping people.
Calling him was the best decision of my life — he introduced me to a world inside myself I never knew existed. He showed me I was limitless and taught me how to access that part of myself. Some people call it “getting in the zone,” some people call it presence or stillness. Whatever we call it, we know it when we feel it. Before meeting George, I had a few brief encounters with this wondrous experience, most of which were on the back of a horse.
What Happens On the Back of a Horse
I grew up on a horse farm outside of Cleveland, and I’ve been riding since I could walk.
When I was younger, green and inexperienced, I thought I was the one doing the training. It’s only in hindsight that I see I was actually the one being trained. Horses, in their fully present wisdom, taught me the importance of empathy, the practice of persistence, and the art of influence.
When I asked of them in the right way they offered me collaboration. When I asked for what I wanted with anger or without confidence, they told me, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off. They kept me honest and held the mirror to my face every single day.
I learned to listen to the signals, both human and animal (are they actually any different?), that can’t be expressed as words or thoughts, those precious experiences in life that can only be known through feeling.
I also learned to experiment my way to success from those raw and pretenseless creatures. I enjoyed the discipline of training and making tiny incremental steps of progress. I was lucky I found gratification in the grind, and that I was tough enough to (literally) pick myself up, dust myself off and get back in the saddle.
There’s little that prepares us for this whole business of life better than the practice of sport, especially one involving animals.
That Place Inside
On my beloved horse, Grappa, at Madison Square Garden, when I was the underdog and no one suspected I could win. When I was so sick I could barely get myself up off the hay bales but rode in the grand-prix like I was invincible. That time I was in a slump for weeks and was so stuck in my own awfulness that I was terrified to go back in the ring, but my friend Philip said these simple words that catapulted me out of my head, “Your body knows how to do this, you just have to let yourself.” When I found the grit to keep the wheels on the bus at my startup, when I thought they all might fly off in a spectacular display of incompetence.
Many, especially the artists, performers and athletes, experience these moments a handful of times in their lives - no thoughts, no analysis, just pure presence, responding to the energy that moves through them and letting themselves be the conduits.
Before George, mostly on horseback, I had visited this place inside myself, in flashes of thoughtless brilliance. But where was this place? How did I get there? How could I get back?
George showed me the way.
He guided me to this thing I had been seeking since the beginning of time. Presence. And he guided me there through the shared practice of meditation and mindfulness.
It all sounds so boring. Maybe too simple, or too hard, and definitely uneventful to the uninitiated. But for me, a compulsively overachieving, slightly masochistic perfectionist, this whole mindfulness thing was big. A tectonic shift in perspective, simultaneously welcomed and resisted.
The funny thing about all of this is that I didn't go to George to learn to meditate. I'd heard he was a gifted coach and therapist, so I went to him to talk. But on our first phone call, he told me that he would kick off our time each week by leading me through a guided meditation. He also sent me a CD (yes a CD!) of one of Alice's guided meditations and asked me to listen to it and practice as often as I could stand.
I didn't get it when I started. To humor him and not look like a fool, I would force myself to sit through the meditation CD maybe once a week. Like clockwork he would ask me how my meditation was going, and I would have to tell him about my struggles.
He unraveled the struggle and refocused me on a constructive approach to meditation over and over until I learned (another post to come on how to develop the mindset for meditation). Receiving the consistent feedback and guidance week after week helped, and it all started to feel different. Better. So I sat more often. And then it actually started to feel good, and I felt healthier. If I went a few days without meditating, I missed it. Over time, without ever intending to, I developed my own meditation practice and it became my bedrock for a more balanced, happier life.
I went to George to help me with my thoughts, and he showed me something much more profound - the space between.
When Love Replaces Fear
When I first started talking to George, I thought it was all about healing my broken heart. But now, looking back, I realize the healing went so much deeper. Before, fear often ruled my life - fear of being rejected, fear of failing to reach my dreams, fear of not being enough, fear after fear after fear. I lacked the inner resources to cope with the the ups and downs of life. I was a helpless passenger on the roller coaster just hanging on and fearing the inevitable fall.
It wasn’t until I fully shattered into a million tiny pieces, worried myself and my family that I just might not get my shit together after all, and desperately opened my life to this random monk from Long Island, that I experienced this deeply transformational shift in consciousness. It wasn’t overnight, but it was the beginning of the most powerful growth phase of my life.
When I started meditating, my mind, that fiend, finally took a knee (on occasion) bowing its ugly head in humility to the only thing more powerful than fear —and my heart broke open.
This is the first post of many to come in which I share my journey into the self. In revealing the results of my personal experiments with mindfulness, and exposing the raw details of my process, thoughts, feelings, struggles and successes, I offer a helping hand to those seeking their truest path.