How breathing is teaching me to let go

Heart and lung conditions aside, most of us don’t struggle to breathe. As a species, we have evolved to breathe oxygen on a planet that is not running out any time soon. Fun fact: Nearly half of the world’s oxygen is produced by tiny microscopic ocean algae called Diatoms. It’s not just about the trees people! Thanks to our autonomic nervous system, breathing is something we can do without even thinking about it. Aka sleep. In fact, thinking about breathing can actually make it more difficult.

In meditation, we are invited to notice our breath. Count our breaths. Through this act, we become one with our body and get a front-row seat to its natural processes. When we highjack this process and try to control it, we struggle, and that struggle, if left unchecked, can morph into anxiety or full-blown panic. The irony of a perfectly healthy person surrounded by oxygen yet convinced they are about to suffocate is worth a meditation in itself. I should know, I’ve been that person. Hell, I am that person. 3am. 3pm.

As someone who likes to be in control, I have continued to learn the hard way. In the past, feelings of breathlessness brought me shame and I resented them – as I saw them as a sign of weakness. Whenever I felt it, I fought it. Which of course made it worse. Now when I feel it I know it’s my brain’s way of saying, “let it go, John, we got this.”

‘Let it go. Right Right. Will do. Thanks for the reminder Brain.’

30 seconds later…

‘Yo Brain, what are we letting go?’

Sigh.

When I run up the steep sections of Mount Prevost, I’m met with a voice in my head that screams, “BREATHE .” The voice is so oppressive it often stops me dead in my tracks. Although this voice is in my head, it doesn’t come from my brain. It’s my ego trying to take control of a process it sees as out of control. Because the ego’s voice is louder,  I listen to it and allow it to wrest control from my brain’s autonomic breathing system.  It doesn’t go well or seem to matter if I’m on running up a mountain or lying in my bed, when ego takes control I breathe harder and faster convinced I can conquer the breathlessness that was ironically created because ego took control.

Spoiler Alert. It never works out. I am inevitably forced to cry uncle, fire my ego (again) and give back the control to my brain –  lest I experience a full-blown anxiety attack or worse, lose consciousness from over-breathing (which I’ve never experienced but hyperventilation is a real thing. It appears to be the brain’s last resort to get back the control). Well played, Brain. If that’s even your real name.

Once my brain is back in control, my breathing returns to normal. This allows the carbon dioxide that has built up in my lungs to be let out. It turns out the brain knows a thing or two about keeping itself alive. It also turns out, this was the message my brain was trying to send to me in the first place. BREATHE out. I was so focused on getting oxygen in I failed to let enough carbon dioxide out. Hence, the breathlessness. 

‘Let it go, John, we got this.’ Hmm.

It’s hard to breathe easy when we’re trying to conquer and control and we can’t let it go. So I’m learning to submit. And just let it go. And allow my brain to be my brain. It’s the least I can do. And in this case, less is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Never-Ending Story

I’m 8 years old and I’m in love with a Princess. As she stares into the camera pleading for Bastian to save her, I stare back. Those lips. She’s literally perfect. As her palace begins to crumble, I feel her growing panic like it’s my own. It’s only a movie. It’s not real. It’s only a movie.  She screams out, “Call my name!” Bastian can’t imagine that one little boy could be that important. My heart hammers inside my chest. As the storm (and the music) climax, she looks into my eyes. “Bastian pleeeeeease. Save us!!” But I have to keep my feet on the ground. A boulder flies in and strikes, nearly tearing the palace in half. COME ON BASTIAN!!!! – It’s now me that’s screaming – WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!!! I’m a nervous wreck. I feel sick. All of sudden Bastian stands up. “All right, I’ll do it, I’ll save you. I will do what I dream!” Throwing off his blanket, Bastian runs toward the storm and with rain thundering all around, he leans out the window and screams into the night. The screen turns to black.

Movies speak to me more powerfully than anything else As an eight-year-old boy, I was convinced the Princess was talking to me. In love with me. While delivering humanity’s most important message. Although completely lost on me at the time, this never-ending truth remains more relevant than ever before. Without fantasy and the ability to create new stories, we become overwhelmed by The Nothing. The Darkness. The Emptiness of human existence. And our lives turn to black. And white.

Joseph Campbell reminded us that myths exist, “to transform our consciousness.” I couldn’t agree more. Stories have always been our best method for sharing Truth. From tales spoken around the fire to cave paintings to Renaissance paintings to the printed page and now with the silver screen, we have always communicated our best truths through fiction. When we empathize with a character, we are able to connect and feel their pain. Although we know they aren’t real, we find ourselves thinking about them. Feeling for them. Living better lives because of them. Tony Soprano. Don Draper. Walter White. Daenerys Targaryen. These great characters live long after their series isn’t renewed because, through their flawed lives, they show us how to live and most importantly, how not to live.

Tonight’s Oscars celebrate those stories that stood out among the rest (as voted on by the Academy). 1917. Marriage Story. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Little Women. Parasite. The best stories don’t tell us what to do or who to be. They show us. Through inspired writing, direction, acting, cinematography, editing, and lighting, we are invited to enter a world. Join with a life. Look in the mirror. When we do, we see a reflection of ourselves and we grimace. And laugh. And cry. We are reminded of our imperfections and are inspired to do better. Live better. Be better.

When this transformation of consciousness occurs, a beautiful thing happens. People begin to enter our world. Join with our life. Use us as a mirror.  And this never-ending shared story of humanity continues.

Long after the credits roll.

 

 

 

 

Are you SAD?

Today is February 6. Unless you’re shirtless in sunny Chile, like my annoying podcast partner Andrew Langford, you are likely smack dab in the middle of the sludge, drudge, and darkness of your local winter. For many, this is their least favorite time of year and the current hysteria surrounding the pandemic and Presidential acquittal can’t be helping. Having fallen victim to this Seasonal Sadness in the past, I thought I’d check in with all of you and see how you’re doing? If you’re struggling, I’ve been there.

Roughly 10 years ago today, I was lying in my pajamas on our living room couch. Again. It was the middle of the day. I was wrapped in a blanket. A casual observer may have assumed I had just been rescued from an Arctic expedition gone awry but no, I was simply feeling blue. My seasonal business had gone dark and its effect was strong that winter. Plus I was broke. The tears that flowed from my face that day were not tears of despair but tears of empathy, for Rudy, who had just found out he wouldn’t be playing football for Notre Dame. “He’s worked so hard for this,” I blubbered through my tears. “The poor guy just can’t catch a break.” I know how you feel Rudy. I feel you!!!

SCREEEEECH.

It was at this moment, stuck in my snot and weird tears that I heard something behind me. I clicked pause, craned my neck around and caught the face of my wife. It was a look I will never forget. She had seen this movie before. Recognizing my fragile situation, Angie chose her words carefully. “How’s it going there? What’s your plan?” My plan? Well, I thought I’d watch Hoosiers next…

What I actually said, while wiping my eyes, was, “it’s surprising how emotional this movie is, apparently, it’s the #1 movie men cry in.” Silence. Her look had now changed to fear. Feeling her growing concern I launched into an angry defensive tirade. “I’m a seasonal business, of course, we’re slow right now!! I can’t just manufacture work out of thin air!! I’d love to see you run this business. What am I supposed to do?? Pretend I have a job??”

“You do have a job.”

I JUST SAID WE ARE A SEASONAL BUSINESS!!! STOP ACTING LIKE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!!! YOU KNOW NOTHINGGGGGG!!! That’s when her face changed to something else. And she walked away. Leaving me alone in my snotty pajamas.

As I laid there, I saw myself for the person I had become. A sad sack crying over Rudy in the middle of the day.  At that moment, my fear soaked defensive rage turned to shame. And deep regret. Angie was right. She had come to me in courage knowing this is likely how I would react. And I hadn’t disappointed.

It turns out, this is what we do when we’re scared and don’t know what to do. We lash out. We rage. We hurt the ones we love. We also watch Rudy in the middle of the day while blaming the weather for our troubles.

As my fear and rage dissipated, I knew I had become a victim of my circumstances. I threw off my blanky and decided I would never be a victim again. The next day I set my alarm. Got up early. And worked like I had a job to do. Wouldn’t you know it, the phone began to ring and day-time TV, SAD and self-loathing quickly became a thing of the past.

We have 2 choices. We can be a victim in need of rescuing or the one who does the rescuing. We can believe our dis-order is external and wait for the weather to change or we can do the hard work internally and become an agent of change. This is called the Hero’s journey. As humans, it is the journey we all must take. When we do, we save ourselves. And by saving ourselves, we save the day.

Just like Rudy.

 

 

 

The shit will hit the fan

Last night as I was laying in a cheap Seattle hotel room, I was a ball of restless nerves. After a tiring day of flying across the country, all flights to the Island had been canceled – thanks to an adorable snowstorm.  My frugal hotel had obviously saved loads of money by purchasing giant showerheads rather than investing in soundproofing so, at 9pm, I was thrust away from my first deep sleep in 24 hrs by the people above me who were, get this, walking around their hotel room!!! I remember feeling so frustrated I actually considered calling the front desk and demanding they tell my *#*#*% neighbors to stop moving. It was a perfectly reasonable request at the time but I’m glad I left the phone alone. That said, I didn’t leave the matter alone and my frustration and anxiety won out. I would toss and turn for the next 4 hrs before finally drifting off at 145am only to be rudely awakened 3 hrs later by my selfish alarm clock. Since then, my flight has been delayed twice and at the time of this writing, I’m sitting in an airport complaining to you rather than sitting at home, complaining to my wife. Again.

Sound familiar?

Stress, challenge, and unplanned obstacles are coming whether we like it or not. We can dread them, try to avoid them, freak out when they arrive or my personal favorite -stay awake and try and control them. Or, we can see them as training for when the real shit hits the fan.

Resilience is confidence that we can handle it. Whatever “it” is. Unfortunately, the only way to gain this resilience is to go through shit. While no one is a fan of shit, the shit will hit the fan. If not today, tomorrow. When we lay awake at night and stress about the inevitable shit hitting the inevitable fan, we experience frustration. And anxiety. That’s right, we pre-fret. It sounds insane but we’re pros at it. I think I can speak for all of us when I say, fretting sucks. It sucks to experience and it really sucks as a strategy to try and deal with our shitty life 🙂 If only there was a better way?

INSPIRATIONAL SEGWAY

It turns out this is the better way.

So.. next time your:

  • Flight
  • Plan
  • Relationship
  • Job
  • Screenplay
  • Offer

is canceled… Instead of becoming a ball of frustration and nerves, see this set back as resilience training and wrap your sweaty palms around it. Anxiety hates this awkward embrace and it will be out of there before you can say, “You incomplete me.” I eventually performed this hug last night and wouldn’t you know it, I fell right asleep. If only I had practiced what I often preach, earlier.

Life is pain, says Wesley.

True. But that doesn’t mean it has to hurt.

998, 999, 1000.

As a subscriber to Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic email, I signed up for his New Year, New You 21 day challenge. Each morning I wake up to an email and 2 min video where Ryan explains the challenge for that day and shares some tips and tricks to help us be successful. It’s been fairly easy so far (watch the sunrise/sunset, take a cold plunge). Today’s challenge sounded like hell.

Find a quiet solitary space.

Turn off all electronic devices.

Count to 1000.

Having never counted past like…60… before, I wondered how this might go. I decided to count using the rhythm of my livingroom clock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock Tick. Tock. The challenge was meant to take roughly 15 min but it took me 30min as I counted on the tock (every 2 seconds). Ryan’s advice was, “don’t break it up into manageable chunks, don’t celebrate key milestones (500), don’t celebrate when you finish (1000 baby!!!). Be still. Be in the moment. Take it in.” It was solid advice. 🙂

As I started, I felt the weight of Pascal’s famous quote but was confident I could do it. And I did! Sure, there were moments when my brain auto-piloted the numbers and when I reached 550 I remember thinking, “damn, I’m just over halfway there??” but my meditation training kicked in and I gently brought myself back into the rhythm. In the end, I actually found it relaxing.

We’ve all heard the classic advice, “close your eyes and count to 10.” The wisdom behind this is the pause allows our angry/anxious thoughts to slow down and we can begin to feel the stillness/ peace again. In short, it prevents a potentially negative experience for us and for others we may lash out against. What today’s challenge taught me was, sometimes we need more than 10 seconds.

You sleep through your alarm.

A long-time employee announces he is starting his own landscaping company.

World War III is trending on Social Media.

It’s funny how the universe works. These are 3 fairly anxiety-inducing human experiences but because I spent 30 minutes in solitary stillness, I was able to take in all these realities and move forward in confidence knowing that it’s all good. Or at least, it will be. 🙂

It is all good. No matter what you’re going through. Stoicism reminds us that while we can’t control everything we can control something. Our reaction. In this, we are always in control (which is great news for control freaks haha)

We count to 1000 not because it’s a cool badass challenge but because we never know when a real challenge will hit and we’ll need the stillness training. Resilience is a habit cultivated daily.

So let’s go!

The clock is ticking.

 

 

 

 

 

Brrrrrr

If somebody had told me 5 years ago that the most lasting and effective change I would experience in my life was  temperature-related, I would have been like… sounds boring. But fine… tell me more.

The first time I heard about The Iceman, I assumed he was a Marvel villain. Turns out, Wim Hof had become a legend for his morning plunges into the frigid cold waters of his local canal. Plus, he hiked mountains shoeless and shirtless -wearing only his shorts. Wim had also developed a breathing method that could scrub your lungs of excess carbon dioxide allowing you to breathe less and withstand all kinds of unpleasant realities. Wim claimed his methods could prevent sickness, boost the immune system and increase longevity.  The journalist, Scott Carney, had flown to Amsterdam to ‘out’ this crackpot and expose his bullshit. Instead, Scott wrote a book with the subtitle:

How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength

All Scott ended up exposing was his body to Wim’s methods. Scott did the plunges, took the breaths and even hiked Mount Kilimanjaro in his shorts. In the end, Scott proved not only did The Wim Hof Method work, it worked for people not named Wim Hof – perhaps the greatest proof of its truth. Science now agrees too, Wim’s methods actually work.

When I heard in 2017 that Wim was coming to Vancouver, I jumped at the chance to meet him. He is exactly the beautiful maniac I expected. Nearly 60 years old, Wim had the energy of a 20-year-old and inspired us with his story, the science behind his methods and we even took an ice bath together. Near the end of the day, Wim took us through one of his signature breathing sessions. What causes our bodies to cry out for breath is not a lack of oxygen but a build-up of carbon dioxide. Wim’s technique releases the excess Co2 bringing transcendence in thought and eliminating the desire to breathe. I floated through space without taking a breath for a full 4 minutes. It is still one of the more profound experiences I have ever had.

Since being introduced to Wim and his methods, I have taken a 1 min freezing cold shower every day. At first, I screamed like a small child and hyperventilated my way to the finish line. I no longer do either but instead breathe and take it in. The key is to turn the faucet all the way to cold and let the water hit back of your head, right at your spine. It’ll take you places 🙂 Then I slowly turn my body and allow the cold water to do it’s work everywhere else. The result is a follows:

  • Anxiety and Anger Away – Any anxiety/strong emotion I had before the shower is gone by the time I get out
  • Mental Reset – I step out refreshed and focused with renewed courage and vigor
  • Muscle Soreness – It is greatly reduced, along with any stiffness.
  • Skin – My skin is glowing (if I do say so myself 😉 )
  • Increased Resilience – Resilience is a habit we must cultivate daily. When we infuse our day with exercise (I jog in the mountains) followed by a cold shower, we remind the brain that although life can be a grind, we are stronger than we think and can endure any challenge that comes our way. This simple act allows us to live peacefully in the moment.

The best part? It’s free. And super convenient. If you’re looking for genuine change in your mind and body, stop being a wimp and crank it to cold. You’ll thank me (eventually).

 

 

 

3 Questions to Save your Life

If we’re lucky, we’ll wake up to a new day tomorrow. A new year. Hell, a new decade! 2020 is here yall. Woo! It’s no longer a distant year in the future or a year referenced in some 80’s science fiction film. It’s real and it’s here. Ready or not.

I prefer the ready to the not.

While I don’t recommend New Year’s resolutions per se (who doesn’t want to be fitter, healthier, richer and more adventurous) I recommend we ask ourselves 3 questions instead. If 2020 is going to be the year of perfect vision, I believe these questions can help us see our life more clearly.

I first heard these questions while recording an episode for my podcast. Andrew and I had reached out to two of the wisest women we know to speak on matters of life and death. Linda and Shauna are experts on grief, death and dying and how to help people navigate these turbulent waters. Our conversation did not disappoint and I highly recommend you give it a careful listen.

At one point, Linda mentioned the 3 questions. These are THE questions Linda and her family have asked each other for decades in order to bring focus, clarity and to keep things real. I offer them to you as a way for you to look into 2020 and be more resolute. The beauty of these questions is they can be used in the moment, to plan a future moment or reflect on a moment gone by. Just change the tense in how you ask them. They are a mirror to our true selves. If we’re courageous enough to take a look.

What am I afraid of?

 

What would love do here?

 

What is the best possible thing that could happen?

As you contemplate where things are at in your life, may these questions bring you clarity, hope, and perhaps even provide an explanation for why you feel the way you do. We’ve never lived at a better time in history and despite what you might believe, life on earth has never been better. This is your time. Our time. And we haven’t a second to lose.

It turns out, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Happy New Year everyone. 🙂 Thanks for reading.

Much Love,

John