I’m trying to free your mind Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one who has to walk through it.
— Morpheus, The Matrix
I have it all, but I feel a void…
I think I fell asleep at the wheel of my life.
I’m my very own “Walking Dead.”
It’s odd too because I’m successful by most measures.
Married my college sweetheart 20+ years ago. Two incredible kids. Great job. Awesome salary. Incredible opportunities everywhere I turn.
I can’t shake that feeling of something being wrong.
I feel alone. The dream-life I wished for, now that I have it, feels like a nightmare.
I’ve tried all the tricks: I lost 20lbs, got more sleep, ran a 5k. Didn’t help.
I tried to exercise more, eat better, read books about happiness. Didn’t work.
Changed jobs. Changed jobs again. Changed industries, a decade working in non-profit. Changed jobs again. More money sure, but still, felt like a failure and a mess.
As my life-dissatisfaction soared, my marriage started getting rocky. We ended up in therapy. Yeah, I can afford therapy.
It sort of helped. But it didn’t stick. I wasn’t honest with my therapist, or my wife or myself. I numbed myself by being distant and aloof. I felt like a liar. I felt like I was saying things that they wanted to hear. I didn’t want to be analysed and scrutinised and judged. Who’s perfect anyway?
I told myself maybe this was just a phase, a mid-life crisis. It wasn’t.
I started getting angry with myself, hating myself. I couldn’t even look myself in the eyes in the mirror.
I was lost. I am lost. I am losing.
I’d have dinner with my family around me yet feel isolated. Stuck in my head, alone with my thoughts about this and that.
I watched too much TV and worked too much. My job had me traveling every week to some shitty city doing some shitty work for some shitty client. All of them are interchangeable. Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Phoenix. Whatever. Wherever. Whenever.
When I wasn’t working, I’d call home for 2 minutes to say hi, then go out and work some more, or get drunk, or watch some stupid movie, or just go to sleep. Day in and day out. If Groundhog Day was a horror, not a comedy, that’s my life.
I knew I was in a funk, but I felt powerless to do anything about it. I knew I needed to do something, anything. This couldn’t continue.
One night at dinner, alone, I made the decision to start learning new things while traveling. Feeding my brain, being productive, positive thoughts. Great idea right?
I tried to learn 3D modelling. Got bored.
I tried to write a novel, hated what I was writing.
Tried blogging and thought, what a douchebag. Shut up already.
I am lost.
I didn’t give up. I kept looking for an ah-ha moment.
I’d look for signs in movies, books, TV shows. I imagined that the answers were “out there” waiting for me to find them. I’d make a big deal out of coincidences in my head and give them meaning. I tried to find patterns in the noise of life. I tried to find signals of what to do, or how to act, or how to talk, or how to think, or what job to take.
Maybe I could find a gift to give my wife that’d make everything perfect again?
Self-Help Didn’t Help
I tried Tony Robbins. I bought books and audio programs and actually did the work.
I have pages and pages of notes, memories, ideas. I had goals that in hindsight, read like someone who wasn’t being honest with himself about his life:
2005 – “Improve overall family relationships.”
2007 – “Break 100 in golf.”
2009 – “Enroll in business course.”
2010 – “Disconnect while on vacation.”
Looking back, these notes feel delusional to me now. I was lying to myself but couldn’t admit it. What they should have said was “wake up,” and “be honest.”
It gets worse.
In 2011, I wrote as part of my “Ultimate Vision” “I am someone who brings passion and spirit to whatever I am doing.” Yeah. Not so much. No amount of breathing exercises, gratitude prayers or Tony Robbins motivational talks would ever solve my problem. At least I was honest with myself about that.
After finishing Time of Your Life a few months ago, I felt a little better, but honestly, nothing much changed. I was still a zombie in a meat suit walking and talking as if I were living my life. Inside, however, I was dead.
I felt alone. I didn’t want to share my true feelings with anyone because I was afraid and ashamed. I was ashamed because everyone around me was telling me how great I was, how they wanted advice or wanted me to share my knowledge at work. I felt like such a fake: a cardboard cutout figurine, a marionette with a mysterious puppeteer.
First World Problems, I know. What right did I have to complain? On paper, I have it all. I have a great job, and I make enough money. I am healthy, and my family loves me. But life isn’t made of paper.
I was terrified to admit any of this to anyone, least of all to myself. I started to journal because Buzzfeed or Lifehacker said it would help. When you aren’t honest with yourself, it’s hard to find relief.
There was no ah-ha moment. I desperately wished there was. It would have made life so much easier. Ah ha! Color your hair, quit your job and sell your car and voila — you’ll be happy! But no, that didn’t happen. Still sort of wish it would.
What did happen, and what is still happening to me as I type this is that I have started to realize something. Something so simple and so shocking that I can’t believe I couldn’t see it until recently. I feel a tiny bit like Neo in the Matrix. When Morpheus says, “He’s starting to believe,” that’s me, sort of. No awesome glasses but still. You get the point.
One day, after talking with my coach who, I recently hired, I had a bit of an epiphany. We were talking about life and choices, and something hit me. I still can’t believe how simple and clear the message was, it didn’t contain all the answers, but it provided me with an insight, an ah-ha moment of a peculiar kind if you will.
I was not accountable to myself.
Yeah, that’s it.
I had spent my entire life trying to make other people happy. I’m one of those people who can’t say no. I say yes to everything and anything people ask for — and, of course, I end up failing half the time and feeling horrible about it.
I work hard to provide for my family. I bust my ass off at work to deliver great results. I try my best to make everyone around me feel great and yet – I was miserable. I was losing out.
As it turns out, so was my wife, my kids and everyone around me. I hadn’t noticed, but it was true. I thought I was hiding my misery but, in fact, I was infecting others around me with it.
As I thought about my big insight – I wondered what it meant to be accountable to myself. My coach encouraged me just to shut my mouth and listen to myself, but I didn’t know how. I had no idea how just to be quiet and receive my body’s messages.
I started reading a book by a guy named Sam Harris called “Waking Up” and more lights came on. Harris wrote:
“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”
That quote became a signpost, a clue. Now I had to follow it’s directions.
With this new awareness I started to see things and hear things I would otherwise have missed. I was listening to a Tim Ferris podcast and sure enough, in the episode with Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, she mentioned that she listens to guided meditations from Tara Brach.
I downloaded a bunch and tried my best to quiet my mind. I learned to start with simple things, like just sitting still and focusing on my breath. It felt weird, but I kept at it and a tiny little voice inside my head started saying stuff. Whispers.
I started meditating early in the morning. On the couch before anyone woke up. My wife walked in on me, and I felt I like had gotten caught masturbating, or doing something bad. I told her I was trying something new, and we joked that maybe I was becoming a Buddhist but, really, I was just sitting there quietly trying to shut up and listen.
I found a book called “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. It’s a 12-week course in rediscovering your creativity. As of this writing, I’m in week 7. During week 4 I was instructed to go on a media and reading diet. No reading, no newspapers, no TV, no movies, no social media. I fought it, but I did it and the whispers got a little louder. I had an incredible week of writing, thinking and didn’t miss a thing on TV or online.
“The reward for attention is always healing. It may begin as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all, as Rilke phrases it, “unutterably alone.” More than anything else, attention is an act of connection.”
I read that passage 3 or 4 times. I just sat there and stared at the words, trying to unscramble them. I wanted to believe her, needed it to be true that attention would lead to healing. I put my trust in a 15 year old book that I bought but had never bothered to read.
I don’t know what will happen next on this journey, but I feel like I found a doorway to something better. I see a light in the distance. I can hear the whispers telling me to keep going. To push hard against my need to please others and focus on myself, on what I need.
I wish I had a 5-point plan to post here, but I’ve been through enough to know that all the lists and shit you find on the web won’t help. There is no color by numbers solution to waking up. No simple, singular answer. No magic pill. Taking a walk, or buying myself a Neo action figure or going away on vacation isn’t going to help. I think waking up requires something a lot simpler.
The Matrix calls to us, tempting us with drugs, booze, toys, distractions — it calls me to take the blue pill. But no, I’m taking the red pill, and I’m going to Wonderland, I’ve had enough. I hate feeling like a zombie. It sucks.
I think waking up requires one main ingredient that I don’t see anyone talking about… personal accountability. True, no bullshit, no-fucking-around accountability to yourself. No one is going to save you; no one is going to hold your hand through this fire. You alone must do that.
I am taking steps. I am holding myself accountable in new ways at work. Investing my time in learning new skills. Meditating on a regular basis. I committed to waking up at 5:30 am every day and writing for 20 minutes before I even get coffee. What I write doesn’t matter, “The Artist’s Way” assigned me morning pages, and I refuse to miss even a single day.
So what’s next? I kind of like the meditation, so I’m going to keep doing that to see where it leads. I committed to cooking dinner for my family every Sunday night – a new dish, no repeats followed by table talk, conversation and being with each other. I am being mindful and not allowing myself to get sucked into endless sessions of Facebook or Reddit. Instead, I’m writing that novel and thinking about what I can do every day to keep waking myself up. I am learning to love myself, and I’m committed to finishing “The Artist’s Way” and to breaking my old patterns.
It’s hard, but I can’t afford to stop searching. I am spending my time creating, not consuming. Output not input.
I know something is happening. I can’t explain it yet, but I can feel it. I am just now realising that I’ve always felt it but have been too scared to look it in the eye. To face the music.
This short scene between Morpheus and Neo sums up my current headspace well…
Morpheus: I imagine that right now, you’re feeling a bit like Alice. Hmm? Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that’s not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Do you know what I’m talking about?
What happened next? Read part 2 here: