The Pursuit of Excellence Practical steps toward happiness



Three weeks ago my mother died.

Strange, but I feel guilty because I'm not a wreck. When I've lost people I love in the past I've gone to pieces. Did I not love and care for my mom? Did we have a strained relationship?

No, nothing like that. She was one of my closest friends, a model parent who shaped my good character in ways that I will only begin to understand in the years to follow her death.

I would say that I'm in shock or denial, except that the pain is too vivid. Still, I thought I would be a catastrophe. I saw myself taking a month off work to inhabit the couch in filthy sweatpants, descending into an alcohol soaked, inconsolable depression.

The pain is deep and comes regularly but through all of this I've been able to dip into a well of peace that I've never accessed in past tragedies.

"So what's different?" I keep asking myself, since that morning I watched the life leave her face.

My best guess? Surrender. In the face of the inevitable and unalterable, I learned how to surrender. My mom was deemed terminal six weeks before her death, and in years past I could not have accepted this. I would have harried and harangued the doctors for better care and pushed my mom to fight harder. I would have stabbed and kicked and buried the sorrow. I might have bargained with a higher power and taken out my anger on my brother.

But that seemed pointless. For three years my mom fought cancer as best she could but she lost the day the doctor gave her the news. The death of hope. I chose to have deep conversations at her bedside, to read to her and comfort her, not to be a pain in the ass. Why worsen a death sentence?

I'm surprised by how I'm handling this tragedy. Far from becoming the whiskey-soaked zombie I expected, I found strength in the sorrow.

How did I come to surrender? I've been working very hard over the last two years to change my life by changing my thoughts (another mom lesson). I've delved deep into a meditation regimen. I work to be mindful of my thoughts, feelings, and my body all day. And I try to see that negative thoughts can self-perpetuate if you don't see them for what they are -- just passing storm clouds. There's an unspeakable beauty and peace in accepting reality without adding layers of redundant suffering. This suffering is almost always the lies we tell ourselves.

The loss still hurts like hell, but I'm not making it worse by resisting the reality. When I asked my mom if she had any life lessons to share it was this:

"Surrender. Let go and enjoy life."

I'm starting to understand, mom.

Mom T&T crop


Depression Lies

The strangest thing happened to me a few months ago. For the first time in my life I became consistently happy.

Since 18 I've known that I suffer from depression, but until I stepped out of it I didn't realize how it had been affecting me, and how severely. These last 6 months I've been walking around in a euphoric daze. I keep waiting for the crash, but it never comes.

People tell me odd things like, "you're beautiful, and "you're coming into your power." I'm not always sure what they mean, but by Zeus, I agree with them.

So how did I get here? It's been a gradual and winding path, but let me chart it for you.

Don't mind the weather

depressionThe first change came after I read a seemingly innocuous comment made in a comment thread, buried in a now forgotten post on a social media site.

"The best tool I've found to fight depression," the stranger began, "is to realize that thoughts are like the weather. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Think of it like storm clouds -- they pass, and they don't mean anything."

And he's right. I knew intuitively that this attitude was the key to beating this horrible affliction, but I still had trouble letting go of a lot of things from a troubled past.

The biggest by far was a girl. Not just any girl, but the only human being in the world that ever understood me. I lost her and couldn't get over that. So I decided to see her again.

That meeting went over like a gas leak in a fireworks factory.

The short version is that she stormed out of the restaurant, then for 20 minutes we yelled at each other in a parking lot.

That sucked.

But it was my most cathartic experience. Picture a steel cable running between her and I. For two years after our breakup I was tethered to her, and when you're linked to someone like this it's impossible not to think about her 50 times a day.

After that evening's shouting and crying was done, I could see the cable starting to fray and snap in places. It's not severed but it sure as hell isn't pulling on me like it used to.

I've made my peace with this woman and have been able to move on with my life, not just in relationships but in all my endeavours.

Don't take life too seriously; you'll never get out alive

This happened in March, around the same time I had a serious setback with my business; I lost a big contract that was supposed to be a done deal.

Naturally, I went out and got 20 sheets to the wind. Pissed up like a pro. I was angry.

But you know what? The next day I woke up and realized,

"Holy shit, if I take this work so seriously, it will kill me."

So I treated it as a passing storm cloud, exactly what it was. A blip on the radar. A stone I kicked off my path.

I've decided to do nothing, except for fun. It's an adventure, this life, not a damned serious chore full of false tragedy like depression would have you believe.

Depression is a disease, like reality TV

This whole change coincided with another major life decision: the one to get myself on some pills. No pharmaceuticals, but a natural supplement called 5-HTP. I resisted this for more than 10 years.

"Depression happens because you have real issues in your life or your past, and you can't work through them if you're drugged up."

What a crock pot of shit. The real escapism is depression. That's the false reality.

I still feel sad, angry, and depressed some days. I haven't lost the capacity for a full range of emotion. In fact, I'm now working with a full toolbox. To those negative emotions I've added joy, humour, wonder, mindfulness.

I no longer define myself as "a sensitive soul who suffers from depression." Why would I want to?

Do mind your mind

The last sea-change I made was taking my meditation seriously. I got myself a life shifting book called 'The Mindful Way Through Depression' that expands on this idea of thoughts as passing clouds, and gives you the tools to live that philosophy.

Now, when I sit on the subway every morning, I just watch people, and it's my favourite part of the day.

Go out and get yourself a new paradigm because you CAN beat depression. Don't waste ten years, like me.

The sooner the better.


Father Figure

"There are no limits, only plateaus."
- Bruce Lee

I’ve become aware of how angry I am in the last few days. I’ve been dreaming of conflict, and it’s seeping into my work. It occupies my mental landscape. It is this plateau’s obstacle and it stands in my way like a hate-filled monster. I have no doubt that I will best it, not through conflict or domination, but with surrender. The monster is just a frightened kid.

The monster is my dad. He left ten years ago, and I haven’t seen since. A third of my life without a father. I just looked into the abyss.

The rage and pain that hibernates somewhere south of my heart is the memory of him dissolving our family. I haven’t had the tools to deal with this tragedy for ten years. It’s only the last week that I feel I need to reach out. It’s painful that it will have to be me to make the first move, but I expect nothing from him. I am twice the man at half his age.

A son needs his father, maybe even more in his 30’s. In my 30s I will start a business, launch a writing career, and probably start a family. It sure would help to talk to someone who’s walked the road.

I can’t brush this aside any longer, I’m starting to look like him. I don’t want to hear that one day he died, and wonder what I missed because I clung to pride.

I’m terrified -- the surest sign to turn and face this.

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Vulnerability is Invulnerability

"Offer no resistance... In this way, you become invulnerable."
Einstein ego- Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

"They're all gonna laugh at you!"
- Adam Sandler

I'm your ego, and I want what's best for you. With me you're never wrong, never need to say sorry, never need to take an uncomfortable risk. If someone hurts you, I'll make them sorry. You may be a bundle of flaws, kid, but I'll help you put on a show. Fool them all.

Ego probably helped our ancestors survive the jungle, but it serves no purpose in a global community that's trying to rapidly evolve beyond war, hate, and suffering.

Vulnerability kills the ego, and with it the illusion that we are separate or alone. Walls between people crumble when we speak openly about our fears and insecurities.

We liberate ourselves when we stop fighting internal battles, turn to face our pain, and surrender to it.

In this way we transcend our suffering and become invulnerable.


Mindfulness in Chaos

Three weeks ago I put self-employment on hold to get back into a salaried job. I traded a relaxed 10 minute bike commute to a cozy coffee shop for an hour long, trench warfare-style slog through the gauntlet of Toronto's subway system at rush hour, complete with three transfers, including one at the city's busiest station.

Subway tunnelThe hollow faces of my sleep starved brothers and sisters-in-arms, the unconscious rushing, getting body checked without a 'sorry' might have robbed me of my spirit by now. But somehow those 60 minutes have become the best of my day. Why?

Because I have treated the time as an opportunity.

An opportunity to practice mindfulness. Humans have not evolved to deal with the trauma of racing through underground tubes toward a cubicle before sunrise. My commute is objectively unpleasant. Yet I have found peace in the bedlam through practicing mindfulness. Quieting my mind. Listening.

This peace shows that, even in unpleasant situations, I can be mindful. And If I can do it in chaos, I can do it throughout the less stressful parts of my day.

Knowing this makes me smile.


The Waiting Place

I hate waiting. I'd rather be doing.

When I was a kid I used to delay trips to the bathroom because it meant putting 'fun' on hold. As an adult I tend to jam my schedule so tight I can't find time to eat. Sitting idle is a sin, says the world outside.

Line-ups, traffic. Waiting for an important call. These are annoying, but there's a far more crushing brand of waiting: getting stuck. Life stuck.

I want to finish my book, launch my business, finally learn to play Hotel California on guitar. But my last chapter was flat; my business model is flawed; my fingers won't cooperate.

Challenges visited each of my projects all at once this past summer, landing on top of a layer of family and personal worries, and I got stuck. I fell into a funk.

For weeks I made little progress on my goals. I forced myself to keep going and beat myself up when I couldn't find the strength. The funk worsened. I had no choice but to take a vacation and to fire my inner slave-driver (he still loiters in the background.)

"Difficulties in your life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realize your hidden potential and power." - Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

In this unwanted rest period I learned there is value in getting stuck.

Ever notice that when waiting at a red light you're more aware of your surroundings than when driving?

Can't stop the funk

Standing still lets us look around. When we look around we can see what's working and what is not in our lives. In this mindful place we can see opportunities and truths we would normally miss.

In my "waiting place" I learned to ask for help. I learned to stop forcing. And I learned to be kinder to myself. These lessons helped move my projects back on track.

"Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you." - Rainer Maria Rilke

Challenges will come, and some will stop you in your tracks. You can thrash around in this waiting place or you can treat it as a welcomed chance to look around.

Have you been stuck? Let me hear your story in the comments section below.


A Window to the Unconscious

Couple sleepingLate last night I was awakened by my ex coming into my bedroom. We've been apart for over a year, so in the dark I thought it was an intruder.

But as she got closer I could see it was someone I had loved. At the edge of my bed she asked,

"Can I just lay beside you tonight?"

"Of course you can, sweetie," I told her. And we were together again, at least for a while.

It was just a dream but it felt much more real. Although she wasn't physically present, she was truly 'there', if only in spirit.

It's not often that I have vivid dreamlike experiences, but I welcome each one. Dreaming is a window into another realm, whether it's the unconscious mind, or a plane of existence that science has yet to understand. Our reality is so much larger than the waking, conscious moments that we invest so much of our time and energy fussing over. Pyschologists say around 90 percent of all mental activity is unconscious: our desires, our fears, our creativity lives here.

It would be a tragedy to go through life leaving this vast and beautiful terrain unexplored. Although last night's experience was just a dream, it was also a healing experience. It reminded me that, even though lovers be lost, love shall not.

We all dream, every night, about once every 90 minutes. We don't always remember our dreams, but there are ways to improve our dream recall:

1.Have clear intentions

Before falling asleep, tell yourself with conviction that you will remember your dreams on waking.

2.Schedule your sleep

We are more likely to remember our dreams if we get enough sleep. Try for at least 8 hours. And, since we dream every 90 minutes, you can set your alarm to wake you up in hour and a half multiples, either 4.5, 6, 7.5 or 9 hours after going to bed.

3. Keep a dream journal

I keep a notepad by my bed and as soon as I wake up, I write down anything I can remember. If nothing comes, I simply write, "Don't remember." The key to success is to get into the habit of doing it every morning. Even if you wake in the dead of night, writing a few words down will improve your recall when the sun's up.

4. The dream diet

Eating certain foods before bed may improve dream recall: cheese, bananas, apple/orange juice. Vitamin B-6 and Tryptophan may have the same effect.

What is your experience with dreaming and the unconscious? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, below.

Filed under: Psychology No Comments

Lowered Expectations

I am a productivity fanatic.

I get up early and after a healthy breakfast and some meditation I'll write down my ten long term goals and a long to-do list for the day. I try to apply the 80/20 principle to everything I do and schedule every half hour of my day. Push, push, push.

Overloaded vehicle

In the last 12 months I've been ambitious. I ran an election campaign--eight 80 hour weeks of intense, emotional work. I moved apartments, ended a long-term relationship, and left a good job to finally start a business. It's been long days of networking, business plans, and chasing investors.

At the same time I decided to start a writing career. I wrote a 65,000 word first draft of my book in six weeks and since January have been re-writing the second draft while attending a weekly writing workshop and applying for grants.

I started this website and freelance writing. I punish my body at CrossFit 4 times a week, have been teaching myself to play guitar, and reading voraciously while keeping a full social calendar.

The result? I'm badly burnt out.

Golf Wisdom

For months I've been asking myself why I can't keep up the pace; why I haven't hit my goals already. Every time I've slept in, skipped the gym, and just didn't feel like working I've berated myself about it. I'd tap thatWith that much stress, getting started again was murder. And so the cycle continued...

My turning point came a few weeks ago while interviewing a former PGA champ for a magazine article about golf tips.

"Bring down your expectations and your game will improve," he said. When golfers stress about sinking the putt they miss the shot. 'Relax and enjoy' was his advice.

Could I lower my expectations and enjoy more success?

Ongoing debate

Last week I came across an article at Lifehack asking Is it Time to Let Go of Productivity? It was a response to Leo Babauta's zenhabits article Toss Productivity Out advocating tossing goals in favour of working on what you enjoy in the moment.

"It is better to travel well than to arrive at the right destination"
- Arthur C. Custance

The authors disagreed on the recipe for success but I was relieved to know that others have also been a victim of productivity.

The ideal balance of productivity and letting go will differ for everyone, but after my own failed experiment with hyper-productivity I don't have much of a choice but to give the alternative a shot; to relax. To simplify. After all, I'm not a machine.

Do you need to lower your expectations? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Original images at ForkParty and DonkeyTs


Dear Grandson,

I am not 75, nor do I have a grandson, but...

A few years back I read a book about finding your purpose (I can't remember the title.) The author asked me to go through several exercises, for example writing my own obituary, to discover what I want to do with my life. One exercise was to write a letter as my 75 year old self to my hypothetical grandson who was asking for advice about life. I had a lot of fun with it, and just came across the letter today.

I'm no wizened old guru but I share the letter here anyway, unedited, hoping you'll benefit from the lessons I've learned through a lifetime of seeking the best way to live. Enjoy.


A letter to my Grandson, on my 75th birthday

Dear Sefringem,

Einstein funny faceI am honoured by the compliment you’ve bestowed on me by asking for my advice about life, the Universe, and everything!  The best advice I can give you, is that nobody on this Earth has all the answers.  Their wisdom, even if it is gained over 75 years, may not always be applicable to your situation!  We do not know why we are here on this planet.  Did ‘God’ put us here?  Are we just some cosmic accident?  Whatever the case may be, so what?  My point is, finding the ultimate meaning of life is probably a lost cause.  And although for a long time this was a source of frustration for me, at some point it is helpful to realize that maybe the best we can do is just enjoy the time we have here.

So what to do?  The answer? Whatever you want!!  The multitude of possible experiences are virtually endless.  It matters much less what you do, than how you do it.  In my 75 years, I’ve come to a few conclusions on how best to ‘do it’ (best for ME, at least).

First and foremost, as much as possible, do everything with love.  Treat others with love (the way you would want to be treated), and you will be richly rewarded.

Be honest.  A vast portion of human suffering throughout history has been caused by people being dishonest, either with others or with themselves.  The latter is hard to do.  Sometimes we are going to see what we want to see.  The challenge is to always strive to know thyself.

Find what you are passionate about, at any given period in your life.  This will change over time. Your goal is to recognize your passion, grab onto it and see how far you can go in life with it.  Under no circumstances let other people or society tell you what is important to you.  Others may have advice (some of it good!), but never answers.

Laugh.  I spent far too much of my life being serious and unhappy.  I held onto many things too tightly.  And if something is making you unhappy, remove it from your life, if possible.

Surrender to fate/the universe/whatever.  You cannot change everything.  The best you can do is set goals, and work your ass off to get there.  Sometimes you’ll fail to reach your goals, and it is how tightly you are attaching yourself to the outcome that determines how painful it is when you do fail.

Carry your own ‘weather’.  Strive to not let other peoples’ moods affect you, especially strangers, or people whom you don’t respect.

Don’t take other peoples’ opinions of you too seriously.  Someone doesn’t like your lifestyle? Too bad. As long as you are not hurting anyone else and you are living with integrity, love and honesty, you’re halfway to happiness.

Travel.  I cannot stress this one enough.  Get out of your city and your country for an extended period of time.  You cannot possibly learn about life as quickly if you are sitting in your home town, exposed to people who are simply recycling ideas and attitudes.  Not to mention, it’s amazingly good fun!

Be patient.  This one is hard.  Especially when you’re younger, and you’d prefer to have things now.  But a great many of life’s endeavours only come to fruition after several years, even decades.  This is related to determination and perseverance, two other important qualities to develop.

Funny grandpaDetermination allows us to accomplish incredible goals, ones which we may have never thought possible.  I’m sure you have heard of the saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Perseverance gives us the staying power to remain committed to a cause even when you experience (sometimes monumental) setbacks.  Nothing great has ever been accomplished by anyone who did not employ perseverance and determination.

Have dreams, and follow them.  The rational man adapts himself to the world around him. The irrational man tries to adapt the world to him.  Therefore, all progress depends on the irrational man.  Go ahead and build your castles in the sky.  Then, work toward putting foundations under them (that’s the hard part, but it’s made a lot easier if you do it with passion and love).

You will make so-called ‘mistakes’ in your life, whether they are determined to be so by society, family, or yourself.  They are going to happen. They are going to be painful.  But God damn it, life is an adventure.  Either you go balls to the wall, or don’t bother getting out of bed in the morning.  The challenge is to learn from these mistakes and not make them again.

Get a good education.  This is something that nobody can ever take away from you.  You don’t have to go to university or college, but only finishing high school is not an option.  You will thank me for this one.


What is your advice for living well? Please leave a comment below.


Wield Courage like an Axe

Who would you be if you were fearless? A Fortune 500 CEO; a famous athlete; a bear-wrestler? Ok let's be less ambitious for a second. If you were fearless would you go talk to that hot barrista; take a Spanish class; get off the computer and go outside?

Dwight Schrute
Fact: he's 80% faster than all bears

Fear is the thief in the night that robs us of our dreams. We're afraid of poverty, so we settle for a soul-crushing cubicle job. We're afraid of how others will judge us so we keep our music inside us. We're afraid our ambition exceeds our ability so we abandon our goals. These are the everyday tragedies.

Like a bully fear can sucker punch our motivation and take its lunch money.  But like most bullies fear recoils when we stand up to it.

Courage is the antidote, a way to say "Hell no I'm not going to let this useless feeling run my life." Sometimes that means welcoming your fears.

As we’re liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
- Nelson Mandela

What are your most important values? Love, compassion, and integrity are mine, and all of them need courage to manifest. I can't love if I fear opening my heart. I can't work to end suffering if I don't have the courage to face injustice.  I can't have integrity if I am afraid of reprisal for standing up for my beliefs.

Courage lets you wield your values like an axe to cut down the barriers between you and your dreams. But where do we find courage when fear smothers us? Here's some humble advice:

Put the challenge in perspective:

Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen? Then, if it's not too painful, think of the worst thing that's ever happened to you (e.g. being dumped, death of a loved one), then realize that you are still alive and functioning, that you got through that challenge and maybe have even healed from it.  Trust that you can overcome this next challenge, too.

Jack Nicholson axe door
Now where did I put those carrots?

Give yourself a carrot:

Vividly imagine the benefits of overcoming your fear: finding a job you love, being able to afford the trip to India, losing the weight. Picture every detail--how will you feel; who will be with you; what will you be doing?

Take the first step, then another:

Some fears can be paralyzing and trying to face them directly is futile. Start small if you have to. Maybe you are facing depression and your challenge today is getting out of bed. That's enough. You wouldn't try to run a marathon without first doing some conditioning. The key is to begin. If you don't try,  you can't succeed. Showing up, as they say, is half the battle.

Chill out:

Laugh. See the world for what it is: a wacky, wonderful place that doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes. Worrying is fixating on your fears, and that's not a good motivator. Love and passion are great motivators, and it's a lot easier to act with those things in your heart when you're relaxed.

"The world is full of horrible things that will eventually get you and everything you care about. Laughter is a universal way to lift your head up and say: 'Not today, you bastards!' "
- Anthony Jeselnik

And if none of that works,

Fake it until you make it:

If you can't find courage, act anyway. It will be scary, terrifying even. But after it's all over you will realize everything went better than expect; that the fear was uncalled for. Repeat, and it will become a habit, then a natural response.

Sometimes you can even use fear as a strength. Nobody is fearless, but life is much more fulfilling when those fears are faced with courage.

Try it and see.