I Forgot I Was Gifted. You Probably Have, Too

For the longest time I have tried to meditate. My monkey mind is an entire menagerie!

I watched my breathing. I sat still and sensed my body. I mantra'd. I laid still and sensed my body.

If I lasted 2 minutes without a thought, I was lucky. Usually it was much less. I kept trying for months, without success. I grew disheartened.

Today I remembered how - for me.

How could I have missed what was hiding in plain sight?

It's 1981. Boston, Massachusetts. A student at M.I.T. faces 6-10 hours of homework a day. How do you maintain focus for those stretches?

For me, it was two things. When I started to work I popped Cheap Trick's 'At Budokan' into the cassette player. After the first bar I was in the zone. Yes, the place Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called flow. And the world outside my desk disappeared. After two plays of the cassette I'd break and gather my roommates and go to the Pizza Pad to play Frogger. Then back to the desk for another double play of Budokan. Sometimes it took 3 or 4 cycles to get the homework done, but the routine didn't vary. The music allowed me to use 100% of my mind to solve the problem at hand without fatigue.

Okay, maybe the effectiveness decayed a bit after 2 a.m...

Sometimes we rotated music, but the cycle was the same. By the most conservative estimate, I listened to that tape over a thousand times in my time at M.I.T.

Recently I mentioned on Liz's blog that Umphrey's McGee's podcast #39 had the same flow-inducing effect. My creative writing ablity soared when I listened to it. I'm guessing that I've listened to that recording nearly 200 times.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

Let me add one more illustration. In high school I was a pole vaulter. It's as much a mental challenge as a physical one. There you stand at the end of the runway, staring at a bar floating above the clouds behind it. Your job is to run as hard as you can at the bar, stick a fiberglass stick in the ground and wait for the stick to flick you over the bar. Assuming you jammed the stick into the ground at the proper angle and rate of speed. If you don't, bad things happen - I have two concussions and innumerable ankle sprains to show for it.

I know what you're thinking. Mike - after all those ankle sprains and two concussions, didn't you LEARN anything?

Yes. I did. I learned to fly.

And that's why I kept vaulting. It's hard to describe that moment you go over the bar. You see it below you. Time stands still. Then, after that blissful moment in which you are aware of the bar, the crowd, and the air beneath you, gravity returns and pulls you to the ground in a great rush of wind!

That may sound zen-ish, but that's not my revelation.

As I said, standing at the end of the runway can be very intimidating. But I learned a way to beat it. It started with the opening chords of Grand Funk Railroad's Shinin' On (the live version, not the studio version). Then I saw myself hurtling down the runway and vaulting over the bar. Then I hit the pit shouting "YES".

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) afficianados would recognize this sequence immediately, but Bandler and Grinder were still grad students in those days. I had no idea what I was doing; I just knew it worked.

Fast forward to this afternoon. It's a hundred and farkin' fifteen degrees outside! And it doesn't feel like a dry heat. Did I mention the A/C on my van is acting up? I'm reflecting on Eckhart Tolle's 'The Power of Now' and thinking "how can I be present if my face is melting?" I flipped on ol' podcast 39 and started trying to concentrate on the now. And it worked! I drove home in presence. I walked down the driveway and gazed at the evening sky with total amazement and no mental chatter. And then I turned off the music and used my mind to continue the soundtrack, with no mental chatter.

And then it hit me like a freight train running over my foot. If I'd looked within for my ability to meditate instead of looking for external guidance, I'd have saved myself a great deal of frustration.

What have you been looking for externally that you already know internally?

Please consider that question carefully if you're not totally satisfied with your life. You already have the answer. You just need to be willing to acknowledge it. Don't be a dumbass and turn a blind eye to it for 30 years like I did! Ask yourself: was there ever a time when you succeeded in anything closely resembling what you want to do? If yes, what went through your head? If you can't remember such a time, is there another frame of reference that gets you to yes? Because you have surprised yourself at least once. I know it.

And you know it too.

More on this subject when the experience design site explodes on the scene next week!

posted by Mike at 5:51 PM


Blogger "ME" Liz Strauss said...

AW, Mike, we all the way to fly by our own methods. I kinda like the way you chose. You're one of a kind and it's a one of a kind experience. Congratulations!

1:35 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Hi Liz,

I thought I was the only one left on the internet this weekend! ;-)

It's probably a good thing that I'm one of a kind...


8:17 AM  
Blogger sjs said...

I can personally attest to the fact that Mike is one of the finest Frogger players there is.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks, Steve! I guess that does prove the old adage about practice making perfect!


1:48 PM  
Blogger roobaron said...

Here is the link for that podcast #39


4:18 AM  
Blogger roobaron said...

Trying to remember a link or keyword, but having been listening to that podcast the music is very "busy". Music which is busy tends to stimulate the brain, fire more neurons, everything from Mozart to heavy metal.

I actually expanded on your technique at uni, listening to music to get in the flow, always the same music for a specific subject, all I had to do then was remember the music in the exam and bingo.

Lately I have found that the genre vocal trance (dance music) works well.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks for reminding me to fix that link! I've seen studies on the effects of baroque music, but it seemed to focus on the tempo more than any other factor.

I like the idea of a specific piece for a specific subject! I wish I'd thought of that. I'll have to see what sort of use I can put it to now.


7:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outstanding post, Mike... some great reminders here, and beautifully written.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Hi Yvonne,

Thank you for your kind words. A compliment from such an accomplished writer is a blessing!


8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Jay@Soob said...

"What have you been looking for externally that you already know internally?"

That's sage stuff, Mike. And I'm not being a wise ass. Excellent bit of wisdom and I thank you for it.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks, Soob, for those kinds words. That's what keeps us going, right?

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent insight. I look for that special place at times as well. I will try going back to the basics.

By the way, a thousand times? Dang. I'll have to trust you on that. Any estimates for Dream Police, Kid Creole's Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, and whatever that Dave Brubeck album was?

BTW, the Frogger machine awaits your arrival at The Lodge at The Wildlife Preserve.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


Thanks for stopping by! I thought you were still with FP&C. A thousand IS a rough calculation, but I still have the tapes (English Beat is B side of Kid Creole), and there's [probably forensic ways to validate the number now.


P.S. Take Five

P.P.S. It's quite possible that one of us still holds the world Frogger record...

9:43 PM  

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