“I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

David, Psalm 131:2


My friend Pete soaking in the stillness at Lake Brannigan

Three weeks ago I was hiking in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park with a group of friends. We put in at Hetch Hetchy reservoir, and hiked past dozens of other day hikers who were out exploring the waterfalls that cascade into the reservoir. At about six miles in, we began seeing fewer hikers and at eight miles in we were alone. We stopped at a place called Rancheria Falls, where we shed our dirty clothing and bathed in water that cascaded down a broad, slopey granite face, while we watched the sunset and felt like little kids again. The next day we hiked about eleven miles and a few thousand vertical feet to reach our destination of Lake Vernon, a pristine remote mountain lake, where we camped, day hiked, and chased off bears for a couple of days. On day four, we decided to leave our bear troubles behind and go off trail a couple miles deeper into the wilderness. Our plan was to get up to Lake Brannigan, which the map suggested was nearly surrounded by steep cliffs. To get there we would have to cross a river and hike up a steep rock mountain side for a thousand vertical feet, and then traverse in about another half mile or so. Our adventure began by hiking to a narrow, windy river etched deep into the rock, a river that had such personality and force I can’t begin to describe it. The group decided to send my friend Riley and I across the river and up a steep cone buttress to scout out possible paths up the rock face, while the group began moving more slowly across the river and up the most obvious path.

After thirty minutes of pushing our bodies very hard, Riley and I summited the cone buttress and caught a view of Lake Brannigan between two peaks. By the time we radioed the group to let them know the potential paths we saw up the rocky face, we learned they had already made good progress up the obvious route.

Let me pause here to tell you that this story’s ending isn’t adventurous or perilous or crazy in any way, so don’t get your hopes up. But I do like the ending.

Knowing that the group was okay behind us, Riley and I began the traverse to Brannigan, enjoying thoughtful discussion, the sunshine, and the lingering feeling of accomplishment that came with having summited the cone buttress. We didn’t notice the edge of the basin approaching at which the lake would open to our view, so when we jumped over the final few boulders and shrubs and Lake Brannigan suddenly and completely dawned on us, I felt an overwhelming sense of awe. The deep blue water of the lake contrasted against dark gray granite cliffs that towered above the lake for hundreds of feet, set off by green mossy foliage covering patches of the rock faces. In addition to the stunning visual appeal of the lake, the most surprising attribute took a minute longer to put my finger on: silence. No birds, no wind, no people, no sounds at all. It was as if the granite walls had stood guard over this lake for eons, creating a little haven of complete and utter stillness. I was surprised to find that I couldn’t really speak. I tried to carry on conversation with Riley but felt inside me that the only appropriate response to what I was experiencing was silence, so I eventually just dropped off conversing altogether for a few minutes so I could wrap my soul around the experience that was unfolding in front of me. The hushed feeling I had stayed with me as we traversed around the lake to find a camping spot for the group, and as my friends and I enjoyed the lake and all it offered us throughout that evening and the next day.

My friends and I were so inspired by the stillness in Yosemite’s backcountry that we committed to take it home with us. I try to backpack a couple weeks each year, and I have learned it’s not easy to take the stillness of the backcountry home with me. As Emerson says, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Many times over the past three weeks since I’ve been home, when I’ve started to become wound up by the pressures at work, I’ve taken a breath and visualized Lake Brannigan in my mind, and that feeling of stillness has returned, soothing and calming me inside.

This is all just a long way of getting to the point of my post today, which is that our souls need stillness. David gives us some insight into this in Psalm 131:2 “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

I like this scripture. David wisely explains that to calm and quiet our souls, we have to wean them from external things, just like a child is weaned from his mother’s milk. It’s so hard to wean our souls of external things that it usually takes some kind of tragedy or life-changing event as a catalyst. At least that’s what triggered this journey for me.

My own search for stillness began in earnest about six years ago when I began experiencing a prolonged personal crisis related to my long-held beliefs about God, religion, truth, and the world. The stuff of which I’d formed my life to that point began to dissolve until I was left feeling utterly vulnerable and like the foundation of my life was in pieces. It was a challenge that I didn’t choose, but that chose me, and I struggled to accept it every hour of every day. It was this intense inner struggle that led me to search for peace and stillness. I loved peace and stillness before this struggle, but I didn’t yearn for it with the same desperation. I am incredibly thankful for my struggle now because it was the catalyst event in what has become a very important and meaningful chapter in my own personal story, a chapter that has occasionally led me to discover silent valleys and quiet rivers, and to begin discovering something within myself of equally profound stillness.

When I say stillness, I am referring to the feeling we have when time seems to stand still, when our senses are overwhelmed and quieted by something bigger than sight, sound, taste, or touch. Some people have described it as a place that we enter between thoughts, when our conscious mind stops spinning and for a brief moment we are not doing anything except existing. Other people describe it as a feeling of being connected to all living things, when it becomes obvious, even for just a little moment, that my little life is just one thread in the tapestry of all living things.

However you define it, stillness has a magical effect on the soul. Probably all of us have experienced stillness at some points in our lives, and can attest that the effects of an experience with stillness can outlast the stillness itself by far, just as I’m still benefitting from the stillness I experienced at Lake Brannigan.

So how can we experience more stillness? I’m not sure what will work for you, but I can share a few things that work for many people.

First, spending time in the wilderness. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, and Buddha all went into the wilderness frequently, and I believe that one of their primary motives was to experience stillness. Somehow, the stillness in nature appeals to the stillness within our own souls, reminding us who we really are. As one example, I often learn from the mountains. I love mountains because mountains don’t compare themselves to others, they don’t bend to the weather, they don’t change with the season. The snow may cover the mountain, but that doesn’t change the mountain underneath. Mountains just are. I believe there’s a part of each of our souls, deep within, that shares these same qualities, that is beyond the ego, is unconcerned with comparisons, is eternal and unchanging, and just is. And the more we lead our lives from this place deep within, the more peace and joy we will experience, and the less conflict and pain. James Allen says, “A man does not commence to truly live until he finds an immovable center within himself on which to stand, by which to regulate his life, and from which to draw his peace.”

Another way we can find stillness is waking up early in the morning, or staying up late at night after everyone else has gone to bed. I have some introvert tendencies and I renew myself when I’m all alone. I’m at my best when I find some alone time each day to process my thoughts and emotions, unpack and appreciate my daily experiences, and become more aware of myself.

Finally, the most effective technique I’ve found for experiencing stillness is meditation. Many religious texts throughout the world discuss the merits of meditation. I’ve been amazed to discover all of the resources that exist to help people get into this practice, and it would be difficult to overstate the impact a formal meditation practice has had on my life.

It’s not easy to achieve stillness. For David to quiet his soul, he had to wean it, like a child has to be weaned from its mother’s milk. Stillness is the result of weaning our souls from dwelling on the past or future, from being directed by our desires, appetites, or passions, and from seeking meaning from anything external or temporary.

Stillness has a profound effect on the human soul. Our souls, like the ocean, might be tumultuous on the surface, but, like the ocean, if you just go below the surface a ways, you can find an eternal calm. A person who lives on the surface will never discover that calm, but it is always there, waiting for us. I believe that God is inside us, in that calm. I think this is why Emerson said that when we begin exploring our own souls we should take our shoes off because “God is here within.” I think Jesus meant it when he said that the kingdom of Heaven is within us.

One key to discovering the kingdom of Heaven within each of us is stillness. Hopefully we can all seek and find just a little more stillness in our lives.

Living In The Moment

I tend to over-plan, over-analyze, and over-strategize. I would like to find the sweet spot, where I live and make decisions from a place that is informed by the past, prepared for the future, but absorbed in the present moment in a state of flow.

In this post I share an experience I had backpacking in the Wind Rivers, a more recent experience sky diving, and a personal affirmation that helps me live in the present moment.

Here’s a video of my sky dive experience, if you’re interested.

Aging & Regrets

When I turned 30, I had a bit of a mid-life crisis. I wasn’t ready to turn 30! Since then, I’ve spent time thinking and learning about the aging process, and what to expect from each phase of life. I’ve also thought a lot about death, and how to avoid regrets. In this post, I share how a couple from my childhood (Toni and Willie S.) shaped my perspective about living without regrets, and I share a summary of Bronnie Ware’s “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”

*Note: Realized after filming that when I mention the “tiny school” I had just started when I was 30, I should have also mentioned my first 13 Williamsburg students, my relationship with whom was also a super satisfying part of life.

Three Challenges To My Gratitude: Challenge #2, Planned Obsolescence

Alright, I’m trying something different. Rather than write about Challenge #2, I want to just speak about it. Speaking comes more naturally to me, and I wonder if I can connect better with people by speaking. So, this is kind of an experiment!

Challenge to My Gratitude #2: Planned Obsolescence

Three Challenges To My Gratitude: Challenge #1, My Amygdala

Gratitude pauses time and says, “right here, right now, I am thankful.” Gratitude stills my appetite for material pleasure, fame, physical gratification and money, and says “right now, this moment, I am enough. I have enough. Life is good.” Happiness research constantly lists gratitude as a major factor in one’s happiness, and I believe gratitude is a shortcut to living a meaningful and happy life.

So why don’t I feel grateful more often? I mean, I’m uber thankful for the life I’ve been given, but I don’t take much time to consciously feel thankful. Why?

With that question on my mind, I’ve been observing my thought patterns, and I’ve come up with three specific challenges to my gratitude. My goal hasn’t been to come up with solutions to these challenges, just to mindfully observe them. But if you have solutions to these challenges, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

In this post, I’ll tell you about the first challenge.

Challenge #1: My Amygdala 

Every second, our brains are bombarded with information and we somehow have to sift through and determine what is critical and what is casual. Since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter all this information goes through is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the center of the brain, whose job is to find anything that could threaten our survival. The amygdala is a warning system, and it’s always on high alert.

Ptsd-brain (1)

I’ve found that when I listen to the news, my amygdala goes into hyper-kid-in-candy-store-mode. The news media is a steady stream of news about potential threats to my happiness, whether it’s terrorism in the middle east, the economy, or some scandal in my state’s government. News outlets are privy to the fact that as a human, I feel an innate, evolutionary duty to learn about any potential threat to my health and happiness, and they exploit these human instincts all day long. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Is There A Solution?

I dunno. I can’t turn my amygdala off, and I’m not sure that would be wise. Without it, I’d probably go base jumping every weekend and spend all my allowance at YogurtLand. But thanks to the book Abundance by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamondes, I now at least recognize the fact that my amygdala is often telling me lies, or at least distorting the truth. Here are some trends my amygdala ignores, and of which I should be mindful when choosing how to see the world:

  • Poverty has declined more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500. Over the past 50 years, while Earth’s population has doubled, the average per capita income globally (adjust for inflation) has tripled.
  • During the past century, maternal mortality has decreased by 90 percent, child mortality has decreased by 99 percent, and the length of the average human lifespan has more than doubled
  • Homicide rates are a hundred times less than they were when they peaked 500 years ago
  • Even the poorest Americans today have access to phones, toilets, running water, air conditioning, transportation. 150 years ago, not even kings hoped for such luxury
  • Right now, members of the poorest communities in Africa have access to better cell phones than the President of the US had 25 years ago, and if they’re on Google, they have more information than the President did just 15 years ago

We are healthier, wealthier, and safer than ever before, and the trends are mostly upward.

I’ve also learned that I don’t really lose much by not frequenting news sites daily. I’m slightly less informed, but I’m also more calm and happy when I don’t feed that stuff to my amygdala. I guess there’s a balance to be found.

Through mindful observation, I’ve come to see just how much my amygdala challenges my gratitude. In my next post, I’ll talk about another challenge called “Planned Obsolescence.”

In the mean time, have you found a good solution for keeping your amygdala in check? Do share.

100 Clothing Items or Less – What I Learned in 2014

I like shoes, pants, shirts, and hair styles that express who I am. I enjoy wearing clothing that is tailored to my body type, well-made, textured for outdoors, colored in earth tones.

In early December of 2013, I was unhappy with my clothing situation. I had stuff in my closet, but not many pieces I loved. So I decided to do something counterintuitive and go all of 2014 without buying new clothing. I hoped this fast would help me to feel more thankful for the quality items I had, and gain clearer perspective about missing pieces, or pieces to replace. I’ve found that one of the best ways to see what role food plays in my life, and to gain perspective about what role I want it to play, is to go without food for 24 hours. Why not try this concept with clothing, and go for twelve months?

So, with only a couple of weeks left in 2013, I needed to take inventory and see what purchases I would need to make before launching my new resolution in January. I tend to be fairly minimal by nature, and whenever I make new purchases, I try to give away older items, maintaining a streamlined wardrobe. But it had been a while since I’d gone through everything, so I pulled all the clothing out of my closet, lugged it into my office, went through it piece by piece, and created this spreadsheet (which has been updated since).

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I ended up with around 150 items. When I really evaluated each piece, and considered the role it played in my overall wardrobe, I realized I had many pieces that I didn’t love, and that were unnecessary. So, slowly, I folded and placed each item I no longer wanted in a bag, and gave them all to a friend. I counted each pair of socks as one item, each tie as an item, each belt as an item, but did not count clothing exclusive to a particular activity like biking or climbing shoes. I whittled my entire wardrobe down to about 115 items. I’m not sure whether 115 will sound like a lot or a little to anyone who reads this, but I will say that I was surprised how many items I had. You might try this activity for yourself to get a frame of reference.

After sorting, I made a list of repairs I needed to make to certain items (sewing holes in my Smartwool socks, etc.) if they were going to last me all of 2014, and I made a list of items I needed to replace. I purchased a new pull-over, a new pair of casual shoes, and a few pairs of socks, and gave away the items they replaced.


Now I was ready for my 2014. I chose as my mantra, “Fully enjoy each item I own.”

As the months in 2014 ticked by, I tried to non-judgmentally observe my experience, and here are a few realizations I gleaned in the process.

  • In January through March, I learned that I compare myself to others often. I notice what others wear, and tend to feel a need to look my best whenever possible. As I was mindful, I realized that much of this inclination was the result of subconsciously internalizing marketing messages from clothing retailers. I noticed just how much of an appetite I had for buying new stuff and keeping up with the latest styles. By April, my mind learned that I meant business about not buying new stuff, and I slowly began to just opt out of keeping up with others in my mind. Letting go of the competition, and having the freedom to dismiss marketing messages off-hand, ended up being a very relaxing experience.
  • Along the same lines, I gained a deeper appreciation for companies like Patagonia, who reminded me to enjoy the stories I was wearing in my older clothing, to be more selective about new purchases, and who empowered me to do my own clothing repairs.
  • I was most frustrated by small things. Not having socks that matched well. Not having a shirt with the right cut. Not having just the right tie or shoe.
  • A friend gave me three Patagonia short-sleeve button shirts half-way through the year, and they came just in time. I thought my short-sleeve plaids would get me through the year, but I only had 4, and three of them were several years old and begging to be retired. But, like nearly all shirts, the shirts my friend gave me were too wide for my taste. So I got on YouTube, and learned how to tailor a shirt. I found a “pinch-and-pin” shortcut that made tailoring them easy, after a lesson or two on using a sewing machine from Angela.

creations 2Gaining control over the fit of my shirts was really fun! I could now take a shirt I loved and fit it to my tastes. Rad!

  • Towards the end of the year, I consciously broke my goal and made a few purchases. I purchased one more short-sleeve button shirt (it was on sale and I loved it), and I made a few purchases that I justified by characterizing them as “gear” rather than “clothing.” These included new running shoes (I hit 750 miles on mine and desperately needed an upgrade), new hiking pants (I blew the crotch out of my old ones, again, and could see there was no way to securely sew them up this time), a hooded running sweatshirt for cold morning runs, and a tank top for exercising. All in all, I’m happy I made these purchases and don’t feel like they tainted my resolution.

The best part of this fast, like the best part of all fasts, was when it ended. As I held off on new purchases throughout the year, I learned a lot about what I really wanted in my wardrobe and what I didn’t. Fasting gave me a great excuse to be mindful about my clothing on a whole new level. At the end of 2014, I went through my entire wardrobe again and gave away everything I didn’t love, and bought replacement items that I loved. Ironically, I now felt deeper certainty about eliminating even more pieces from my wardrobe, getting my list down to just under 100 items, which is where it currently sits. I made several purchases a few weeks ago, and I am happier with my wardrobe than I have been in years!

This experience has taught me the satisfaction of making fewer and more thoughtful purchases; it has also helped me to exercise my restraint and more thoughtfully enjoy each piece I own. I wasn’t perfect, but it turns out that the solution to my wardrobe dissatisfaction in 2013 was a year of simplifying and restraint in 2014.

Were you successful (or not) with any of your 2014 goals? Do tell.