Exercising my Demons

Seven years ago, almost to the day, a seemingly minor incident triggered a series of events that continues to shake the foundations of who I am. Sometimes life shifts so subtly, over such a long period, that we can’t see any change. Psychologists call this change blindness. Other times, an event demarcates where our old self starts to fade, and the possibility of a new self presents itself. Not subtle. An inflection point.

In May 2016, during a team meeting, I became angry with one of the sweetest women in the world – over a triviality. I don’t know how I bottled it up (my self-control was an underdeveloped skill), but I kept it inside. I walked out of the meeting and started planning to take time off. Lots of time off. Something needed to change, something deep inside me was broken, and like a car that develops a clanging noise on the 401, I couldn’t work on it until I got some space from the career and people that defined my life.

Sidenote: I remember watching this episode of Justified and thinking, “he doesn’t seem that angry to me.”

Around that same time, our team at the office was scheduled to begin a fitness challenge, and I decided to stick to my commitment to participate with my coworkers. This was the smartest decision I’ve ever made (aside from marrying my wife).

I turned out to be an epic walker, and audiobooks became my constant companion. Before long, I was listening to mostly nonfiction and delving into increasingly challenging subjects.

I’ve never considered myself all that bright, and some of this material was tough for me, sometimes to the point where I felt frustrated and even angry. I became increasingly aware that anger was with me often, maybe even constantly. It could burst out in explosions with no warning to anyone around me (and sometimes, I didn’t even know where it was coming from).

Three things came together that helped me start to deal with this demon. First, I started to read more about psychology and philosophy. I tackled tough reads about the Big Five personality traits (especially narcissism and openness to experience), took a deep dive into human emotions, devoured as much as I could handle on human development and consciousness (even to the point of going to an academic conference on the neuroscience of consciousness – maybe the scariest thing I’ve done), jumped in a time machine to read a few books of wisdom from antiquity, and much more.

Second, I embraced vulnerability. You may have a different path, but I needed to open up all kinds of old wounds and raw emotions to begin to deal with my uglier feelings. I apologized to some of the people I hurt, some from decades ago (many more apologies to come), and I learned to sit in oceans of discomfort. My new reading helped here  – bell hooks’ The Will to Change broke me wide open, and Thomas Harbin’s Beyond Anger showed me parts of me that I didn’t even know were broken.

And finally, just a couple of months after the first lockdown, I started meditating. My wife tried to get me into it back in 2017, but it just made me frustrated and angry. The problem, of course, was me. I just didn’t know what meditation was supposed to be. I thought it was “woo” and nonsense. Two books opened my mind; Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True and Sam Harris’ Waking Up. You can take meditation down some deep places, but you don’t need to go deep to experience some incredible benefits.

There’s a well-known quote from Lao Tzu, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” that I never understood until recently. I needed to get off my well-worn path, I needed to be open to the wisdom of others, and I needed to start accepting uncomfortable truths. It wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now, but it’s the most fulfilling work of my life.

You might think none of this applies to you, and maybe you’re right. We all need to walk our own paths, and yours won’t resemble mine, but if this dumb, angry, skeptic* can find enlightenment and previously-unknown happiness in his 50s, maybe you can too. It’s worth the stretch.

*well, maybe a bit less dumb and angry, but still a skeptic.