In 2009 after being promoted to CEO of Global Music at Live Nation, I was ecstatic. At 36 years old I’d successfully clawed my way from flea market parking attendant to the top … 15,000 concerts per year, 10,000 employees, offices around the world. I’d made it. With a smile glued to my face and the sound of trumpets playing in my heart, I took a victory lap: I flew to London to visit my new team members. After a day of handshakes and getting-to-know-each-other meetings, I took the late train to Paris to watch Madonna perform to a sold-out stadium full of singing Parisians. It was as if nothing could stop the flow of magic that seemed to envelop my life, much like the white light my mom used to pray for to keep her little boy safe before tucking me into bed.
Later that night after checking into my hotel, I called home. As the lights of the Eiffel Tower twinkled through the window, my then-wife and I had an honest talk. It was the official end of my second marriage, which – as the cliché goes – had been over for a long time. I tried my best to sleep, but there was no masking the emotions of the moment. I cried, tossing and turning while wondering where all that magic I’d felt before the phone call had gone. I thought (momentarily) about going out but it was that time of night when it’s simultaneously too late and too early to go anywhere. So I lay there pretending to rest until the sun rose; then I got up and got dressed and went out to meet the most romantic city in the world with a broken heart. I asked the young woman at the front desk where to go. She looked at me intently for what seemed like an inappropriate amount of time, before replying that I might enjoy Jim Morrison’s gravesite. Maybe in all that looking she’d seen my sadness. It made me feel a bit self-conscious, but in an odd way a cemetery and Jim Morrison sounded like a good idea. Jim would understand, I thought. I caught a cab to the cemetery and walked around for a while amongst the antique-etched tombstones until I stumbled upon Morrison’s grave. It was early, I’d missed the crowds, so I sat for a while, just Jim and me in the cold air of the Paris morning. I wondered what he would have done in my place. I found the answer a few hours later in a small piano bar nearby. I got a table and a few too many bottles of Bordeaux and spent the rest of the day and night drinking away the pain…
Change often hurts, it just does. That’s part of what happens as it upsets the neatness of our lives and the stories we’ve told of being safe because we have everything sorted out. We know there are obstacles in life, but we learn to organize our lives in such a way that we start believing we can avoid them. We turn our blinkers on before changing lanes; we put our bills on autopay; we store our anniversaries in our smartphone calendars with a reminder a week prior so we don’t forget to buy roses for our wives. We identify the pitfalls and set up a life designed to dodge them. Like a driving test with orange cones in a parking lot, we navigate around them until we think we have an understanding, the cones and us. It becomes predictable, reliable, safe, until life moves a cone and we run it over. Or we get run over by life. That’s when the drama begins. We call these unexpected events tragedies. We say they happen out of the blue. Impossible to see them coming. And yet, that’s not quite true. Like my slowly dying marriage, life’s experiences are expectedly unexpected. We know that change is inevitable, but we don’t like it because it makes us feel unsafe. So we ignore the signs and rearrange the cones and re-learn to navigate them until we can feel safe again… and again… and again.
When I first learned to meditate, I did so because I’d grown tired of running over traffic cones. I was weary of the drama. I wanted a shortcut to find peace. But that turned out to be a funny thing. I learned that the seeking of peace can, in itself, become a new set of cones, albeit spiritual ones. I sat down to meditate in the belief that if I did, life would finally fall neatly into place. I recognized the un-neatness of it all, which was why I was there on the cushion at six in the morning, but I believed I’d found a hack to avoid life’s difficulties. But life doesn’t really work that way. It’s not interested in hacks – even well-intentioned spiritual ones. When I realized this, in the midst of some new life drama that I thought wasn’t supposed to happen when you’re spiritual, it was a shock. Or maybe more accurately, a betrayal. It’s not supposed to be like this. And yet it was… and it is… for us all.
It’s in those moments of betrayal, or perhaps after many of those moments, that we gain the courage to look deeper. To glance beyond the part of us that’s trying to game the system. Weary and licking our wounds, we stop trying to manipulate life and let go, resigned to go along for the ride. In this way we might say peace finds us. It’s not without work. In fact, it probably requires all that work of doing and failing to wear ourselves out to lower the defenses, to get the desire to find peace out of our psyche so that peace can slip in, on its own, through the back door. In one of life’s ironies we learn that we don’t find peace, we learn to be at peace with where we find ourselves in life. There’s no order or neatness; no orange cones arranged to show us the way. In fact it’s often a mess, which is where peace lives. Like my miniature dachshund Napoleon burrowed in the blankets at the foot of the bed, peace likes to nestle deep inside the mess of life.
A friend of mine is nearing retirement. He’s been talking about it for some time. His wife is already retired and they want to travel the world together. But my friend has been struggling with the idea of making that change. He started with a brave face, the way we all do when talking about that kind of far-off change. But as “one day” has morphed into “this year,” it’s scared him. “I’m panicked. I feel like my life is ending. I don’t know who I’ll be without my job,” he told me. Those are the confessions of an honest soul, the ghosts hidden within the winds of change. It’s scary. It hurts. It challenges our identity. And, nonetheless, it comes. Change always does.
Sharon Salzberg said, “The moment when we realize how much we cannot control, we can learn to let go.” Letting go takes practice. It’s a skill, like being able to throw a big orange ball through a hoop. I’m learning to view my meditation as that practice… of letting go, accepting my life, allowing whatever thoughts and emotions come up, welcoming them, and being okay with myself as life runs its course. Sitting alone, I practice embracing my humanity and understanding that okayness doesn’t always come easy, it involves all the messy emotions that make up my humanity. My desire to hack happiness has been replaced, at times begrudgingly, with an acceptance that there are no hacks, just practice and letting go.
My friend called me the other day. There was a calmness to his voice I hadn’t heard in a while. He told me he’d been meditating, reflecting on his life, looking back on all the big changes – from clinging to his mom’s hand on his first day of school to graduating high school and leaving home for college to finding his first job, marrying his wife, and having children. “You know,” he said with a sigh. “I see now that everything I value in my life began as a moment of change. It was all scary, but letting go of the fear filled my life with so much good. And that’s helping me believe that retirement’s going to be okay too.”
This week I invite you to join me in the practice of letting go and being okay. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and allow yourself the experience of being accepted as you are, without having to take any action or heroic effort. Sitting there, breathing – as the world changes all around you – you are okay. Allow that same gift for all areas of your life as you practice allowing that how things are today is good enough for now. Avoid the temptation to seek peace, and instead allow the experience of peace to be the byproduct of this acceptance. Change is inevitable. So is pain. But as we practice letting go and being okay – breathing, accepting, allowing – we find peace waiting gently, curled up at our feet, where it’s been all along.
Big hugs of love and peace,