“Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu
Photo by Tod Perry
“Life is an inside job,” is a phrase that my dear friend Dr. Carl Totton often says. And it’s true.
But we’re taught to see life as something that happens outside of our selves. The external world is a place where, like Super Mario, we overcome obstacles, collect coins, and try to avoid spikey things that shoot fire. However, over the past three years, I’ve learned that’s only half the story.
“Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power” — Lao Tzu
Three years ago, I was working at an advertising agency in Los Angeles as a radio commercial writer. My days were spent writing catchy one-liners for everything from a paint company to an erectile dysfunction clinic. At 5:30 pm, I’d hop in my Nissan and do a 90-miunte mind-and-butt-numbing trek across the Los Angeles basin to my home in the suburbs.
My nights would devolve into watching TV while chugging entire bottles of $4 Tisdale wine from my local 7-11.
I wasn’t depressed. I liked my career, had great friends and a wonderful wife. But I had slowly slipped into some sort of late-30s malaise. The type of funk that drives suburban couples to swing and 40-year-old men to start covers bands.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” — Lao Tzu
One evening, my existential itch needed to be scratched, so I cracked open a dog-earned copy of “The Tao of Pooh,” by Benjamin Hoff. In my idealistic 20s, I was obsessed with Taoism and the writings of its founder, Lao Tzu.
To put it simply, (and Taoists love things simple!), Tao is Chinese is for “the way” or “path.” It’s the natural way in which the universe operates. By understanding this order and living in harmony with it, Taoists can lead happy, simple, and fulfilled lives.
But by 38, the realities of paying a mortgage, wasting up to three hours in traffic every day, and the cheap comfort provided by Netflix and 7-11 wine had thrown me off The Way.
That night, before going to bed, I searched iTunes to find a podcast on Taoism, but I couldn’t find anything. Taoists embrace the power of nothing because of it’s potential to be something.
So I decided to create my own podcast on Taoism.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” — Lao Tzu
The author attempting to appear spiritual in Hawaii.
In my past life, I was a lackey at a talk radio station in Los Angeles that featured the likes of Howard Stern and Adam Carolla and had even done a little mic cracking myself on 103.7 FREE FM in San Diego.
As a novice traveler of The Way, I figured the podcast could be a master-student show, where my journey to understanding The Way would mirror that of the listener.
Now, all I needed was a master. So I did what any spiritual seeker would do, I Googled “Tao Master Los Angeles” and found Dr. Carl Totton.
Dr. Carl Totton is a doctor of Psychology, member of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, and founder of the Taoist Institute in North Hollywood, California. The most striking thing about him is his big, hearty laugh that sounds like it comes directly from the belly of the Buddha.
He immediately agreed to do the show and we were on our way to teaching other people about The Way.
what's This Tao All About?
In our first recording session for our show, “What’s This Tao All About?” we got into the topic of meditation.
I had read multiple books on meditation and maybe tried it twice for about 30 seconds but was quickly frustrated and quit.
After our recording session, I knew that I would have to start practicing meditation so I could talk about it on our next show.
Here’s the basic practice taught to me by Dr. Totton and used by various mindfulness teachers, including Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and author of “10% Happier.”
— Sit comfortably. You don’t need to be cross-legged, but make sure your spine is straight.
— Focus your attention on your breath going in and out of your nose.
— Whenever your attention wanders from your breathing, forgive yourself and gently go back to your breath. The entire game of meditation is to catch your mind wandering and then return your focus to your breath.
So, I sat on a comfortable mat, put my iPhone on silent and set a timer for five minutes. Surely, I can handle any kind of torture for five minutes, I thought.
The first thing meditation taught me was that I had zero control over my mind. It was nothing but uncontrolled, unfiltered chatter.
OK, Tod, back to your breath.
What did I eat for dinner last night?
Back to your breath, Tod. Inhale.
This Derek Carr kid is quite a quarterback, I think the Raiders have a good shot this year ...
Tod. Back to your breath.
How long have I been sitting here?
This struggle went on for about four mornings until I received a gift. I was on the freeway stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on my way to the office and I felt a feeling of lightness that one usually doesn’t experience at the 405 / 710 interchange in Long Beach at 8:47 am.
I continued meditating for two weeks and more gifts began appearing. I saw a tweet by Donald Trump that would normally send me into a rage, and I didn’t get angry.
Meditation had created a small buffer between outside events and how I perceived them internally.
I felt that I was now responding to life instead of mindlessly reacting.
I started to see the external world as a bow and my internal self, an instrument. An instrument, that through this simple practice of meditation, became more in tune with The Way.
At our next recording session, I was eager to talk with Dr. Totton about the new found freedom I had through meditation.
“You start to get freedom over your own mind, body, and emotional reactions,” Dr. Totton said. “If we are so attached to our thoughts, to our physical body, and our emotional reactions, we’re essentially a slave.”
“We can be slaves to not only external things but internal things as well,” Dr. Totton continued. “Remember, life is an inside job, and so we’ve got to go inside and learn how to modulate these responses. It takes time. It takes practice, and this is just the beginning.”
The journey of meditation, much like The Way, is one where there is no final destination.
The exciting part is that I have no idea how far I will advance in the practice and what new benefits and mysteries lie ahead.
Meditation didn’t make me a perfect person or someone who walks around eternally blissed. It allowed me to realize that life is an inside job and gave me the tools to work on a part of myself that had been neglected for 38 years.
If you’re looking to start your inside job, I suggest starting with the simple meditation practice mentioned above and then wait for your first gift to arrive.
Remember, meditation is a practice where failure makes you better. Every time your mind wanders from your breath, you have just strengthened your ability to control the focus of your mind. So don’t be afraid to fail away!
Here’s a great little video to help you get started.