23. Stop and Smell the Roses

“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Psalm 46:10 (NIV)


We planted a red rose bush in our front yard when my dear mom passed away in January 2007. Anyone who knew Char was aware of her passion for the color red. That rose bush has been in full bloom on her birthday every year since. It has been a remarkable reminder to me of her spirit. Yet often, I zoom in or out of our driveway, too hurried to take notice of the latest bloom, let alone pause for a few seconds to savor the fragrant aroma. I am too stressed out for that.

Stressing Out
Growing up in Corona del Mar in the 1960s, I don’t think the word “stress” was in my vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong; we had our challenges. It was mostly around money. We didn’t have much! Our parents grew up during the depression and knew how to get by on nothing.

Today, my kids tell me that stress is in their DNA. It is unavoidable. I get stressed just thinking about their worries. I think we all would agree that stress is a byproduct of living in today’s world. So much seems to be out of whack. In surfing terms, life can be gnarly!

One only needs to look at our children in the school system today to see the depth of our predicament. Their challenges are earthshaking compared to what I faced at that age. How is it that grammar school students have to worry about a mass shooting at their school? (1) Middle school students today are questioning their gender identity. (2) College students are increasingly turning to suicide (3). We have a high school in our backyard that has a suicide rate that is four times higher than the national average. That is not something anyone wants to discuss, including the media.

I meet many parents and teachers from this high school at Trader Joe’s, and everything I see tells me they are doing a great job with these kids. But that does not remove the burden. The anxiety associated with living in today’s world is literally killing us.

We need a way to cope. “Slowing Down” (4) is a part of it, and having “Marathon Faith” (5) can surely help the long-term view.

But I need to get through today!

Sitting
A valuable tool for dealing with our burdensome world is learning to pay attention to the moment you are in. “Being present” is a nonjudgmental phrase allowing yourself to experience the here and now. Another common term is mindfulness, which Wikipedia defines as “The awareness that can emerge from paying attention to the present moment. (6)

We miss so much about ourselves in a day because of our desire for forward motion. As human beings, we are constantly striving to improve and get ahead in life. But amid our forward progress, we tend to miss what we feel in our innermost being.

“Sitting” is a simple form of being present that I often recommend to my coaching clients as a practice for learning to pause in the midst of their hectic lives. I discovered the sitting practice in my training to become a New Ventures West “Integral Coach” (7). Our instructor Steve March requested that we spend thirty minutes every day sitting for the entire year of our training. Thirty minutes a day seemed far-fetched to me. I quickly did the math to tell Steve he was crazy if he thought I had a surplus of 182 hours this year to sit!

Fast-forward one year. Sitting had become a personal highlight of the training class for me. I worked up to thirty minutes a day in quiet and found that time to be transformative in developing myself as a human being who could help others find themselves. Sitting allowed me the freedom to connect with my spiritual center while feeding my soul in the stillness. I cannot recommend it enough, even if it is for just five minutes a day.

“How wonderful it is to have a moment in time where we don’t have to be anyone.” 
Anonymous

Today I practice a daily ritual of sitting in the early morning for fifteen-plus minutes. I make a cup of green tea and then retreat into my sanctuary in the dark quiet of dawn. This time spent alone in perfect peace calms my heart for whatever God has in store for me that day. I have always felt that prayer should be a two-way conversation with God. Sitting provides me the margin to listen to what God might have to say. I come out of these sessions feeling refreshed and encouraged, with a sense of purpose around the upcoming day. The days when I have to miss my sitting practice are the days I feel the most out-of-tune with the world around me.

Sitting in the Surf
Depending on the interval and size of the waves, sitting can be a critical skill for surfing. It isn’t easy to properly position the surfboard for an incoming wave if you cannot effectively sit upright while doing the eggbeater with your legs to turn the board toward shore. I am always amused when we take a first-timer out to learn how to surf, only to realize how difficult it is for them to simply sit upright on the board in the water. I must contain my laughing out loud as they continually tip over, trying to find equilibrium on the board. Learning to sit on a surfboard can be a humbling experience.

I will admit, I am not naturally inclined to just sit on my board in the water, waiting for a wave. I get a bit anxious during a long lull between sets. If there is a wave anywhere on the beach, I am likely to paddle after it. Isn’t that the point of surfing—to catch waves? Yet, as I have grown in years, I am learning to appreciate that time seated on my board. It can be a rewarding meditative experience. In my stillness, I sense the presence of God amid His amazing creation around me.

Recently, my son Matthew and I were out at Pleasure Point (Santa Cruz) at sunset, and I experienced sitting on my board in a special way. I paddled into a space where no other surfers were around me. As I scanned the horizon to see that no waves were coming, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding sea as the sun began its disappearing act below a thin line of clouds on the horizon. The streaked cirrus clouds above me began to light up with bright orange and yellow behind the darkening blue sky.

An endless bathtub of dark magenta-colored salt water carried me into another world as I listened to sea otters cracking open their fresh seafood dinner in the distance. The lull synthesized my sense of peace and tranquility as if I was floating above it all. A seal quietly popped his head above water to greet me, just a few feet away, as if on cue. I settled into my sitting pose to soak in the unfolding experience as if I were watching a movie all around me. I did not have to be anyone. I only had to be. God was speaking to me. I was all ears.

I began to enjoy the lull and hoped it would last. I wanted to grab onto this moment and keep it forever! I had stopped to smell the roses, and it was heavenly.

“Peace” – Sitting tandem with Mark Magiera; San Onofre, July 18, 1991

—————————-

What Is Sitting?

  1. Sitting is a simple skill that involves focusing your mind on the present.
  2. Sitting is a practice of observing and discovering our true nature in the here and now.
  3. Sitting is like exercising a muscle you’ve never worked out before. It takes consistent practice to get comfortable.
  4. You do not have to believe anything to do sitting – it does not exclude any religion.

How to “Sit”:

  1. Find a quiet and private place where you can be comfortable and free from distractions.
  2. Sit in an upright posture with a straight back in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Place your hand’s palms down on your thighs; be relaxed yet dignified.
  3. With your eyes open, let your gaze rest comfortably as you look slightly downward about six feet in front of you (you can close your eyes if there is a visual distraction).
  4. Take a few deep breaths, and feel the contact points between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting–feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
  5. Bring your awareness to your breath.  Do not change your breathing; begin to observe it without controlling its pace or intensity. Simply breathe naturally.
  6. Focus your attention on how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and belly.
  7. If your mind wanders with thoughts, sensations, or emotions, gently let them come in and then release them with an exhale. Return your focus to your breath.
  8. As the time comes to a close, sit for a minute to become aware of where you are. Then get up gradually.
  9. Do this for 4-5 minutes at a time to start, and then gradually increase the time as you get more comfortable. Be patient with yourself. Like any new skill, it will take practice.

————-Footnotes——–

  1. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of U.S. teens fear a shooting could happen at their school, and most parents share their concerns, 2018.
    Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/18/a-majority-of-u-s-teens-fear-a-shooting-could-happen-at-their-school-and-most-parents-share-their-concern/
  2. Gender Dysphoria in Young People: A Model of Chronic Stress, 2021.
    Source: https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/520361
  3. According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), Suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students in the U.S., 2021.
    Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/suicide-rates-overstated-in-people-with-depression-2330503
    Rosiek A, Rosiek-Kryszewska A, Leksowski Ł, Leksowski K., Chronic stress and suicidal thinking among medical students, 2016.
  4. See Chapter 14: Slow Down
    https://surfingforbalance.com/2022/03/23/14-slow-down/
  5. See Chapter 25: Marathon Faith (TBP)
  6. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness
  7. The focus of “Integral” Coaching (a New Ventures West trademark) is not as much about being more effective or accomplished in the world (the “what” and the “how” of life), although that often will come about.  The intent is to assess the individual and design a program that provides freedom in their being; in “who” they are in the world. I call this “developing the individual.” This process is unique to each person I coach and typically takes a minimum of 3-6 months (meeting bi-weekly) to get deeply connected to the “Integral” Coaching approach. The outcome of this process is for the client to achieve long-term excellence with an ability to self-correct along the way to stay on track for whom they want to be in life.

14. Slow Down

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”
-Lily Tomlin

Slowing down in Baja California at Punta Pequeña.

When I think of slowing down, I am reminded of surfing trips in the 80s to Punta Pequeña in Baja California with good friends John Chick, Eddie Means, John Park, and Peter Vanderburg. As my career was ramping up, those trips taught me to take my foot off the gas pedal and listen within.

Punta Pequeña is a dream of a surfing destination—especially if you catch a solid south swell. It is the kind of surfing spot I imagine in heaven, composed of a near-perfectly sculpted series of right points that corral south swells as good as anywhere on the California coast.

It was as if Michelangelo himself had carved out the shallow volcanic rock shelf for a regular foot surfer riding a yellow Hanifin Bananafin longboard. I could not wipe the smile off my face the entire time we were there. The quality of the wave and the length of the ride was unequaled in my book. It is rumored that you can ride over one kilometer on a really big day. Best of all, we were removed entirely from the SoCal mainstream surfing scene. A crowd of surfers in the water was not something we had concern over.

However, we did have concerns about getting there, which made it all the more appealing. Punta Pequeña was a thousand miles from nowhere, in one of the more remote and inaccessible regions of Baja California. The real McCoy started after a two-day adventure on the rugged-but-paved Baja Mexico Highway 1, which for safety reasons, we never drove at night.

After 900 or so miles of slugging it out on the pot-hole-ridden asphalt segment, a clandestine Baja-dusty dirt road appeared out of nowhere to lead us onto the final exam for our driving odyssey. Sixty miles of ungraded rocky, dusty, and at times, washboard dirt and sand led directly west to the sleepy fishing village of San Juanico on the Pacific Ocean.

Unless you were driving an army tank, this part was never a given, even if you had made it before. It was a full-on assault that included removing parts of your car if they got in the way. To this day, I lay claim to one of the greatest driving achievements in modern surfing history with my 1983 VW Diesel Rabbit. John Park and I almost lost our silver fillings on the washboard and ended up passing out mucho dinero to the local ranchers to tow us through the quicksand section. When we pulled onto the bluff at Punta Pequeña in the Rabbit with a mere twelve inches of ground clearance, the other surfers looked at us like we had just landed Apollo 13. It had been a new car when we left, but it aged 20 years on that trip!

Eddie and John christening the 60 miles ahead to San Juanico (“dónde está la playa?”)

Once camp was established, life at Punta Pequeña settled into a singular focus on surfing. Everything we did was in preparation for that next session in the water. If the surf dropped, we had plenty to keep us busy; but hardly ten minutes went by without a glance at the waves to see if conditions were changing.

If you weren’t out surfing, you were sitting in a beach chair drinking beer, scientifically analyzing the tide and wind conditions as the sun lazed across the powder blue Baja sky. The only responsible duty was rotating the twenty cases of beer into the four ice chests to ensure we had cold brew for the entire trip. It was not as easy as it sounds! Extended games of Bocci ball down the vast, endless beach were the usual diversion in the afternoon if the surf had blown out. But we could only wander a mile or so away for fear the beer would run out, and we suffer dehydration before making it back to base camp. That could impact the next surfing session.

Looking back on those trips today, I realize that my ability to slow down was about the absolute freedom I experienced from being so wholly removed from civilized interruptions in my life. There were zero connections to the outside world. My physical body was at peace. It was similar to what backpackers experience on an extended trip into the wilderness. We were unencumbered and free, which bonded us with our surroundings. The vast nothingness of the environment soothed my soul in a way I can only dream about today. I could sit in my beach chair and gaze down upon the endless spit of land as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful beyond words. Those trips fed my soul in ways only God can explain.

I thirst for that same level of contentedness today.

Going Too Fast
Fast forward to Silicon Valley forty years later: The world is moving too fast. Our vision of the “leisure society” has been reduced to rubble by the explosive growth of computers. The chasm from the slow pace of Punta Pequeña life in the 80s is looking like the grand canyon. We are losing our ability to set aside time to be in peace and rest our souls. Busyness has consumed our lives, and information technology is bombarding us with an incessant need to be distracted by our devices instead of focusing in the present moment. Deep down, we know it is too much for our human psyche to make sense of.

There is a dichotomy here. I love doing so much in so little time with the technology we have today; I’d be lying to tell you otherwise. I have an iPhone and I use it constantly. I can check the surf, tide tables, traffic conditions, and view a live camera of Steamer Lane, all with a finger tap on my phone while I’m shopping from my electronic grocery list at Trader Joe’s.

That’s fantastic!

Like the groceries, it comes at a cost; but unlike the groceries, it’s costing us our lives.

Dr. Richard Swenson, the author of best-selling book Margin, puts it this way:

“The world has witnessed almost continuous change, but never before with such levels of speed, suddenness, complexity, intensity, information, communication, media, money, mobility, technology, weaponry, and interconnectedness.“[i]

Let’s add “stress” to that list.

Unfortunately, our children are the innocent victims of this onslaught. We have all heard the stories because it is happening to our kids. Understandably, they are having issues coping with the complexity and speed of life today. The statistics are staggering. They headline the news every day. Stress, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, ADHD, obesity, learning disabilities, social skills, and even death from suicide have been linked to the overload our children face today.

Here’s a simple example. I received an email last week from a security service I subscribe to called LifeLock. The subject was “Data Breach Notification,” urging me to change my passwords as a preventative measure.  OK.  I went into my password manager program (on my iPhone) to find out that I had entered 263 passwords! That stressed me out (and still does). I don’t think we can begin to understand the toll that stress takes.

My parents both smoked cigarettes as they came into adulthood. It was cool to have a cigarette back then, and they had no good reason not to smoke. Then they got addicted. Nobody had studied the link between smoking tobacco and deaths from things like lung cancer or emphysema. My mom died of emphysema at age 76. Those studies are out now. But for mom, it was too late.

Forty years later, I am sure that similar studies are forthcoming on the deadly effects of the technology overload we are being subjected to today. Our brains are not equipped to handle the barrage of information and radio frequency (FR) exposure coming at them. It’s too much. The negative impact on our health is clear!

This story is just one example from a close friend of mine:

After high school, his son hit a rough patch in life and developed a serious alcohol/drug habit. It was not pretty, but he got himself into a long-term rehab center and is now doing fantastic. While in the rehab center, he told a story about a small group discussion he had with a dozen or so other young adults in the same situation. The leader asked each of them in the group what they thought had led to their addiction. Each one of them agreed that it was their deep internal need to slow down. Life was moving too fast, and they could no longer cope, so they began to take alcohol or drugs to help them deal with it.

If I were to boil down my twelve months of New Ventures West coaching training to the most important thing I learned, it would be the need for us all to slow down. If one genuinely wants to have freedom in their being to discover and pursue who they are in the world, slowing down is a mandatory first step.

I had the opportunity to slow down when I was laid off from my job. It was a bit like Punta Pequeña; suddenly, I had time just “to be”. That experience led me to step off the Silicon Valley express train to make a significant transition in my career. I began to feel the freedom one experiences when listening to your heart. It was like going surfing without a leash. I felt empowered to experience the freedom of whom I was deep inside without being tethered to earthly expectations. Although I was quite scared that I would quickly fall and lose my way, this new awakening brought about a sense of joy not felt in years.

As I began to coach clients, I quickly learned that a key to my success was getting them to slow down. Coaching a client traveling through life at today’s “normal” speed is like trying to diagnose car trouble with no dashboard to display the metrics. You might as well be throwing darts at an invisible target—you have no idea what the underlying issues are. The speed and intensity of life today seem to require that we lose touch with our inner-self. We are too busy to look at our dashboard.

Being Present
Meditation is an excellent first step for starting to slow down. It is amazing what our mind, body, and heart can tell us if we can slow down enough to listen. We tend to see the world in a physical sense. If I look OK, I must be OK. Coaching brought me to realize that there is an equally-important spiritual side to our being. The soul requires every bit as much attention and care as our physical bodies do. Meditation tends to our needs in our spiritual bodies. Even the Bible contains over sixty references that tell us to meditate. [iiii]

A valuable tool for dealing with stress is learning to pay attention to this very moment. “Being present” is a phrase for nonjudgmentally allowing yourself to experience the here and now. Another common term is mindfulness, or bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. The awareness that can emerge from paying attention to the present moment can be life-altering. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes a day, it can make a world of difference. There is plenty to read from a wealth of books on this subject. Two of my favorites are mentioned below.[ii]

Looking to Heaven
Steven Curtis Chapman was on to something when he released the hit song “Next 5 Minutes” in 1999. The song talks about living the next five minutes as if they were your last five minutes; truly living in the moment.

What if the next five minutes are all you have?

I did a great deal of contemplation about my life following the layoff from Oracle and subsequent one-year sabbatical to become a life coach. There was no question about the 2×4 hitting me square on the head; I could feel God at work. Yet, I found my mind often drifting to my mortality. Mom and dad were now gone, so I was next, right? It was kind of difficult to avoid that one. In one sense, that motivated me to get my act together for that “second mountain” I had to climb (in the words of David Brooks’ from his book, The Second Mountain). But in another sense, it made me wonder about what was next. I was closer to that part of my life than I wanted to admit.

Since I am a Christian, did I really believe that paradise awaited me?[iii] What did the Bible have to say about heaven? And what about all those near-death experience (NDE) trips to heaven that people have written so many books about—Are those valid? I even wondered if I would be able to go surfing in heaven!?

It struck in me an insatiable desire to learn more.

Punta Pequeña Nothingness

[i] https://www.amazon.com/Margin-Restoring-Emotional-Financial-Overloaded/dp/1576836827

[ii] Books on meditation:
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
There are more books than I can count, extolling the many wonders of meditation. I liked this book because Daniel and Richard sifted through the morass of clinical research to boil out the truth about what meditation can do for us and how to get the most out of it. I had the opportunity to meet Daniel Goleman at a promotion event for this book and can assure you he is legit.

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
This is a beautifully written account of how to care for our innermost being. Having a firm belief that our soul is what we take with us to heaven in the life hereafter, I found this to be a refreshing view on making the most of my life here on earth in preparation for our eternal home in heaven. I completely agree with Mr. Moore’s assertion that our “loss of soul” is a significant problem facing us today, resulting in many societal ills. The primary takeaway underscored the profound value of quiet time and meditating on a daily basis. According to Mr. Moore, we care for the soul by living life in a way that our inner sense of who we are flourishes.

[iii] “Jesus answered him [on the cross], “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:43

[iii] https://biblereasons.com/meditation/