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DO YOURSELF A FAVOR


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In his book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, the "psychologist, optimist and philosopher of science" Abraham H. Maslow writes: "There is a new type of job opening up that is an activist's job, and it is one that demands experience rather than book training. It is a sort of combination of an old-fashioned minister and a teacher. You have to be concerned with people. You have to like working with them directly, rather than at a distance; and you have to have as much knowledge of human nature as possible."

I thought about this quote while on the phone yesterday with my childhood friend Jason. Jason insists that I "do something" with my life, that I "help people." He was referring to some sort of role as a motivational speaker or therapist, because in the 30 plus years of our friendship I have often dispensed advice which my friend ignores. I thought of the aphorism "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," but didn't say this. Instead I told Jason that the only avenue leading to such a career was to go back to school and get a master's degree in clinical psychology - like my friend Steve, who is also an MD - and then rent out an office somewhere and charge by the hour. I'd have to charge an exorbitant fee to cover my student loans and also the cost of a monthly lease in a high rent district, which all of Los Angeles has become. That is if I ever actually took to practicing psychology, and merely earning the degree is no guarantee. Witness my MD, which looks very impressive hanging on the wall, but which I do not use at all.

Really I have no interest in going back to school. Been there done that. I gave my all earning what I deem the highest degree in graduate education. I spent five years of my life pursuing that path and look where it got me: right back where I started. Even so, I think I would be a good "activist," in Maslow's sense of the word. Because along with advanced degrees I have accumulated lots in the way of life experience. 

I was reviewing my history of living arrangements while walking my dog yesterday afternoon. It seems remarkable that such a home body as I has lived in 13 different places, including my childhood home where I grew up and find myself now. And living at home through college, I got a late start. It wasn't until a year after graduating from UCLA that I moved into the back house of a Beverly Hills adjacent house shared by three of my high school friends. I did that for a year and came away with three finished screenplays and a 40-oz per day drinking habit. A couple years later I rented a room in the house of a French artist in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After six months I was fluent in Portuguese and had finished my first novel. I then subleased an apartment owned by an Indian woman in Manhattan. That was a fun six-months working part-time as a caterer and playing pick-up artist on the side.

Subsequently I lived part-time with my girlfriend Shannon at her Silver Lake rental before moving into an apartment of my own in West LA, which I furnished myself on a teacher's modest salary. After the year lease was up Shannon and I took over the rent-controlled apartment of a friend in Santa Monica. In medical school in the Caribbean I lived in the dorms with a great guy from New York, Raja. He was like a brother to me. When the semester ended we moved into a house not far from the beach with a classmate, Srihary. For my clinical rotations I rented a house in Houma, Louisiana which I shared with my two lovebird classmates, Mehdi and Leah, who ten years later are now married, but not to each other. During those 18 months I spent 6 weeks in a house with three other medical students in North Carolina, while rotating through the psychiatric ward. Finally back in Los Angeles, I shared an apartment with my most recent girlfriend, Kerstin, in West Hollywood. It was on Fountain that I fell in love with the farmer's market and learned to run barefoot. God has it already been almost 4 years since we split up? 

In all I've had 15 roommates, including the four members of my immediate family, two of whom are now deceased. Egad! That's enough to field a sports team. Speaking of which, I've participated on enough teams - in soccer and baseball mainly, which I played each year from the age of 11 until aged 18 - to have enough mates to fill an entire stadium, if a small one. And most of those teams finished first in their division, including both varsity squads. That's playing well with others.

If I applied for the activist's job I'd submit this history along with the application. I believe it speaks more to my qualifications than any diploma could. To learn about others you have to walk in their shoes, and I have worn many a pair even though now I prefer to go without. Because Maslow was right: real experience trumps book knowledge every time. Of course such a job as he foresaw doesn't exist, not yet and maybe never. And really there is no better way to help others than by helping them help themselves. The only way a person can help himself is by meditating. I am convinced of this. 

Meditation is the answer for everything. If you are looking for self-improvement, you'll find it by sitting quietly in front of a candle for 30 minutes a day, concentrating on your breath. In the silence you hear the conscience, which is the voice of God. The trick is to differentiate the angel on one shoulder from the devil perched on the other. But that's half the fun. The other half lies in going beyond the voice altogether. 

Why does meditation have such a far-reaching impact, from increasing your IQ and work performance to improving parameters of health, not to mention holding the answer to the secret of life and allowing you to access the Self? It all boils down to concentration. No matter what your breed of success, if you cannot focus, you will not achieve your aim. This truth was re-emphasized for me right now as I finished reading an interview in Esquire magazine with former world tennis champion John McEnroe, who says, "To keep your concentration is way more important than your forehand or serve." What you need, according to John, who didn't always have it as he was always flying off the handle at judges and fans and opponents alike, is "complete and utter control." Meditation gives you precisely this. Meditation over medication. Meditation is your destination, and also your means of getting there.

So why don't I open a meditation center? you ask. Because group sessions defeat the purpose. You pick up on the thought forms of others in the room. Meditation is best performed in solitude: ideally in the early morning, seated on a cushion or pillow, with the legs crossed and the back erect. And moreover, despite what such centers purport, meditation cannot be taught. It is not like swimming, where an instructor can observe your form and make tweaks. Meditation is more like running, for it is our natural state. Kids do it shortly after they begin to walk. But unlike running, which is still observable, the terrain of meditation is the mind. Anything that happens, and the less that happens the better, is within. No instructor can determine whether your mind is racing or still just by examining your posture. Indeed sitting still is the easy part. It is quieting the mind that takes time and effort. But persistence pays. 

If you're a Catholic you've heard of the Stations of the Cross. This refers to a series of images depicting Christ on the day of his crucifixion. As an elementary school altar boy I had to lead the congregation from one station to the next on the days leading up to Easter. The stations themselves have depressing names like "Pilate condemns Jesus to die," "Jesus falls for the first time," "Jesus is stripped of his clothes," "Jesus dies on the cross." He also falls a couple more times. Well, I offer you a new rendition of that sorry custom. I call it the stations of meditation. To do it, simply take the practice of meditation, begun in the morning cross-legged in front of a candle for 30 minutes, with you wherever you go. I meditate while swimming and counting each lap. While running and counting each step. I meditate while gardening and cooking and sunbathing, while taking out the trash and walking the dog. That is, when I'm not dwelling on pounding forties and banging chicks. Christ, I even meditate while writing about meditation!

And so in lieu of being a "wellness coach" or writing a book or opening up a center, I once again make the recommendation that you include the daily practice of meditation in your own life and watch as like a soothing balm it spreads to all four metaphorical corners of your existence, the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual, and makes everything just right. 

Recently I gave this advice to another friend from my childhood, big boy Pete. I sent him a magazine article offering pointers on how to get started. Pete's reply: "It seems logical that meditation would help a whole mess of things, but finding an uninterrupted 30 minutes would be the biggest challenge! But that crossword puzzle in the magazine looks doable.....may give that a shot!" 

Too bad so sad! I neglected to remind Pete that the crossword puzzle alone would take at least as long as one meditation session, maybe two. It's where you put your priorities. But I am not one to preach. So until the activist job opens up, you can call me an optimist, like Maslow. I'm sure there's a slot for me to fill, though I've given up the hard stuff. Until then, here's to treating you from afar. Now do yourself the favor.

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