A Religious Beginning
I was raised Catholic. My family went to church on Sundays and I attended catechism and eventually a Jesuit university. A gently religious upbringing cultivated a sense of order in my life. But during my freshman year of college at Creighton University, I took a survey course in the philosophy of human existence. My sense of order was toppled as I realized that the biblical God wasn’t the only possible explanation for the genesis of the world around me. This Copernican moment delivered no answers, but the questions it revealed broadened my perspective profoundly. This was the first of two major paradigm shifts in my life. The second shift, about the difference between an achievement-based life and a wellbeing-based life, has influenced my decision to become a counselor.
The Achievement Trap
As my first career developed, I assumed that my life satisfaction would increase as I achieved more responsibility and income. However, it took me years of pain and a few enlightening experiences to realize that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. In October of 2001 I was extremely dissatisfied with my career. I worked long and stressful hours as an Information Technology (IT) Project Manager. To escape my hectic career, I spent three weeks in Ethiopia, including a rafting trip down the remarkably remote Omo River. For two weeks we floated past families dressed in animal skins, living in straw and mud huts, raising sorghum, millet and corn. From this radically different context, I was able to see my own life as an outsider would. Compared to the simple existence of the Ethiopian tribes, the constant stress and break-neck pace of my own life seemed absurd. Like the philosophy of human existence course at Creighton, my journey down the Omo created a paradigm shift. I realized I spent most of my time enduring my workday so that I could improve my reputation and paycheck. This redoubled my doubts about the conventional definitions of success. I began to understand that my achievement was costing me my health and happiness. I didn’t understand it then but this was the beginning of my transition from an achievement-based life to a wellbeing-based life.
Peace Corps & Travel
For the next four years, I clung to my career while seeking fulfillment through traveling and running. Finally, in 2005 I found the courage to change. I married my girlfriend, left my career and joined the Peace Corps. For the next two years, my wife Andrea and I lived in a small apartment in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, working with local non-governmental organizations. I idealistically hoped to make a tangible impact on my host country by sharing with them the finer points of American capitalism and democracy. But as I began to appreciate the considerable limitations of international development, my philosophy changed. After 18 months of working to improve Bulgarian civil society, I realized that forging personal connections with individuals represented a more realistic and meaningful goal for me in Bulgaria and beyond.
This helped me confirm that human connectedness is the essential ingredient in a wellbeing-based life. If I wanted to promote positive change abroad or in my own community, it would happen one person at a time.
After 27 months in Bulgaria, we spent eight more hitchhiking, volunteering and couch-surfing (www.couchsurfing.com) through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Kurdish Iraq, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. From the posh apartments of Beirut to the slums of Nairobi, we befriended nationals and fellow travelers over our common humanity. We were inspired and grateful when our hosts embraced us as individuals even while castigating the Bush administration, proving once again the power of person-to- person connection. After creating a lifetime worth of memories, we returned to Denver to begin life anew.
Despite the lessons learned prior to our three-year adventure, I sought and won my old job back. At the peak of the Great Recession, we faced a depleted savings account and were anticipating our first child. I was initially optimistic that my recent experiences would inoculate me from the stresses of IT Project Management. I was wrong. 2009 was literally the most profitable and miserable of my life, except for one sublime bright spot – the arrival of my daughter, Scarlett. When my one-year contract ended in 2010, it wasn’t renewed. After some deep reflection and serious discussion with my wife, we decided that I would stay home with our baby girl and find my life’s purpose while my wife rekindled her career. As in 2001, I had to grapple with my roles as a man—this time, not only as a husband, but also as a father. Was giving up my provider role selfish and irresponsible? What opportunities would my daughter have to forgo because of my decision? Ultimately I reasoned that a happy and well-adjusted husband and father were invaluable to my family, even if we had to make other sacrifices. This decision marked my conscious commitment to a wellbeing-based life rather than an achievement-based life.
The transition from IT project manager to stay-at- home Dad was as dramatic as any in my life. It required more courage than quitting my job for the Peace Corps and more patience than traveling by bus through Africa. But we soon realized that we’d made the right decision. Andrea thrived in her work. Even though others’ perception of my achievement dropped sharply, my sense of wellbeing skyrocketed. I enjoyed bonding with my daughter, cooking nutritious meals, developing exercise routines and pursuing home renovation projects. I was able to reconnect with long-neglected family and friends. I committed myself to a daily meditation practice, which has fostered personal equanimity and joy. Like never before, I felt a deep sense of appreciation for the blessings in my life.
A New Career Path
I gave myself permission to seek a career that would nurture my wellbeing over the long term. For the first time, I didn’t allow practical or economic factors to obscure the search for my true calling. After self-reflection, personality tests and constructive conversations with mentors, I realized it was more productive to cultivate my strengths than to patch up my weaknesses. I am sometimes uncomfortable calling out my strengths, but recognizing them is the surest way to choose the right life path. In what situations am I the most comfortable, confident and impassioned?
Without deliberate effort, I actively listen to people by asking probing questions to draw out their stories and I skillfully facilitate group discussions helping people generate new approaches. These tendencies served me well during my years of project management. I enjoy discovering and discussing ideas with my friends and colleagues and I have an aptitude for logic and analysis. These qualities made it possible for me to work in IT for a decade. I have an undeniable empathy for my fellow human beings – a strong motivating factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps. I relate easily with people from different backgrounds and cultures because I understand that we all share the same essence. For the same reason, I am usually forthright about my capabilities and vulnerabilities, even to relative strangers. This helped me make fast friends of strangers when traveling through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
I have found that my personal strengths are a good match for the demanding field of psychotherapy. But that’s only half the story. My personal and professional development was also transformed by my spiritual journey.
Mindfulness & Meditation
In the summer of 2010, I picked up The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, a popular spiritual book written in the late 90’s. Tolle describes it as “a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching, the essence of all religions”. The book is passionate and readable, if not original. The Power of Now draws from several religious outlooks but its principles are essentially Buddhist. Even though I’d explored Buddhism before, I ‘d never understood how to apply its theoretical concepts.
Inspired by The Power of Now, I immediately sought local teachers with foundations in Buddhism’s rich 2500-year history. I was grateful to find Shambhala, a tradition established by the preeminent teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche - one of the most influential Buddhist Rinpoches to live in the West. The Shambhala community offers a series of sequential programs, which deepens the student’s meditation practice and expands their understanding of the Shambhala view and Buddhadharma. I completed the first training, The Art of Being Human, on January 9th, 2010, and have been meditating daily ever since.
My practice has unequivocally increased my sense of wellbeing. I’ve been able to mitigate destructive behavioral patterns triggered by defending the ego. Preoccupation with past worries and future anxieties has ebbed and my sense of connectedness with others has amplified. As I understand the transformative potential of Buddhist philosophy, I become more committed to its practice.
So it was the revelation of mindfulness and meditation practice that encouraged my career in psychotherapy, not visa-versa. The fusion of Buddhadharma, Hakomi and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy guides my work as a person and a practitioner. It is a true joy to pay-forward this wisdom to those I work with in my practice.