Who Determines Reality?

December 24th, 2012

It is 11:17 AM in Los Angeles, one year exactly from the day and time I was taken by friends to the realityemergency room of a hospital in Australia. During the six months prior to that, I had endured acute to excruciating pain in my lower back. I had been virtually bed-ridden, gulping down enough pain medication to sink a boat. I had been repeatedly diagnosed with a variety of spinal disc issues and had received numerous treatments from chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths, and massage therapists. One year ago today, I realised that something was very wrong. I couldn’t stand or walk, I was losing lower body mobility. I entered the hospital.

A few days after admittance into the hospital, following on from X-rays, MRIs, and a biopsy, an entirely new diagnosis was offered: stage four lung cancer. Tumors riddling my lower spine and pelvis. Extreme spinal compression. Fast approaching lower-body paralysis. I was immediately given a series of radiation treatments to mitigate the metastasis, and relive pressure on my spinal nerves. This prevented paralysis, and restored some degree of strength to my legs.

In spite of the welcome relief from pain, the prognosis offered by one attending physician was six to nine months. For a brief time, I took that opinion as fact, as reality. I returned to the US, at peace with and prepared to say good-bye to this world. I had always lived the life I’d wanted; I had pursued my spiritual and creative path since I was 11 years old. I had no regrets or unfulfilled dreams. In a certain kind of quirky way, I was looking forward to this next travel adventure.

Upon my return to the US, I met with an oncologist who reviewed the reports I had brought with me, examined me, and offered another opinion. He said that the radiation treatments had “zapped” 90% of my metastasis, that I was in great overall health, that even if I did nothing else, I would still be alive in a year. He further offered that I was suffering from extreme “post traumatic stress disorder” — a result of months of acute pain, prolonged use of medication, long distance travel, and the shock of impending death.

Perhaps that kind doctor was a Zen master in disguise, who struck me with just enough force and love and at just the right time to release me from having accepted the first prognosis as inevitably real. Suddenly, years and years of self-inquiry self-activated and asserted itself. Very simply, I began to ask, “Is it true that I have six to nine months to live?” That question came from my being, in a loud and insistent voice. It did not come from my brain or voice box. It did not come from fear of death or clinging to life. It seemed to be impartial with respect to motive and outcome. It was just a simple question. Another way to frame that question is: Who determines reality?

Existence, of which we are a part, is so full of miracles, marvels, and wonders that I doubt anyone knows the whole truth of this thing called reality. Yes, we have spiritual teachers who claim to know the absolute truth, but mostly they are just passing along what they’ve heard from others or read or imagined. The truth is big business today, and many people are selling bits and pieces of it, or so they say.

Who determines reality?

Our human body is composed of approximately 100 trillion cells. One hundred trillion. Each cell is encoded with intelligence, skill, purpose, and function. Each one. Our brains, perhaps the most miraculous and marvelous of all wonders, is composed of 85 billion neurons, brain cells, with trillions of connective possibilities. It is greater and more powerful than all the computers in the world.

You may be reading this while sitting in a chair, or on a couch, or in a park. Do you know that you are actually hurtling through space at 1,665,000 miles per hour? Indeed.

Our planet Earth orbits the star we call our sun at a speed of 65,000 miles an hour. Our solar system orbits our galaxy, the Milky Way, at 600,000 miles per hour. The Milky Way is speeding along among other galaxies in excess of 1,000,000 miles per hour. This gives us a total in excess of 1,665,000 miles traveled every hour of our lives.

Who determines reality?

Reality is so vast, so mysterious, so full of kaleidoscopic miracles and marvels and wonders. That is fine by me. I’ll keep exploring an ever expanding reality within myself, and all around me.

Let it go

December 10th, 2012

In a recent Conversations on the High Wire, a participant said, “I have a question.”monkey

I replied, “Yes, what is it?”

He spoke for a long time. A long time. Finally, he said, “So that’s my confusion.”

I replied, “Well, if I had that question in my head, I would be confused also. I don’t think you’re confused. I think you’re just holding on to a confusing question. Why don’t you let it go? If you let it go, it probably won’t come back. You won’t be confused anymore. It doesn’t sound like a real question; it sounds like a habitual question. Break the habit. Let it go.”

Asking Permission to Leave

December 8th, 2012

This post is the Preface of my first book, The Guillotine of Silence: It’s Never How You Think It Is, available in paperback and e-book formats from my bookstore. This piece recounts how I met Swami Muktananda and my “asking permission to leave” conversation that, inexplicably, re-routed the course of my life. I now think of that conversation as my personal initiation into the possibilities of life beyond the mind, as Baba might call it, or the thoughstream, as I call it. I tried to map the border crossing to this life forty years later with The 5 Principles of Authentic Living. The pictures are circa early- to mid-70s, in the ashram in Ganeshpuri, India.


Robert, Baba, horse

In 1969, I lived in a wood shack near the village of Trinidad, about thirty miles north of Arcata, California. I was supposed to be studying Eastern philosophy at Humboldt State College but spent hardly any time in class. Instead, I sampled a variety of hallucinogens, sat zazen and practiced Aikido, followed the saga of Carlos Castaneda, and read haiku poetry — tiny bridges of words that are connected to the immense emptiness behind conventional thinking and meaning. During this time, I encountered the world of silence and in that silence I first experienced that the physical world perceived by the senses was a mere tissue hiding something vast.

It was in search of that vastness that I traveled to India. In 1973, I set off with a friend whom I had met the year before in Israel. Eric and I had decided to go overland from Europe. We set off from Paris, hitchhiking to Brindisi, Italy, intending to take the ferry to Greece, and then trains and buses through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India.

During one of the station stops in eastern Turkey, Eric and I ventured out to the platform, where we met another traveler, a Frenchman. Herve was a shepherd who was returning to India to see his “guru,” Swami Muktananda. The three of us struck up a friendship and journeyed together another two months, ending up in Delhi, India. We had endured and enjoyed much and had formed a great bond of love. In India, Herve invited us to visit him at his guru’s ashram near Bombay. But Eric and I were headed to Bhutan, so as we parted company to go our separate ways, I was sure I would never see Herve again.

I never made it to Bhutan. I think that the vast silence I was searching for took control of my itinerary. I was first sent to a small ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the resident guru, Neem Karoli Baba, had passed on just days before. I stayed there for about a week. During that time I heard many stories of Muktananda, and several people suggested I visit him.

Returning to Delhi, Eric decided that he wanted to study the sitar in Benares. I bought a third class ticket and boarded a train for Madras. My next adventure, courtesy of the silence, was a two week vipassana meditation retreat with Goenka, a Burmese teacher. I subsequently visited Satya Sai Baba’s ashram, and wandered around south India. Several months   later, I ended up in Bombay. I thought of Herve.Ganeshpuri_1973

I climbed into a battered red bus and spent the day crawling the 60 miles to visit him in his guru’s ashram. I entered through a circular gate into the small marble courtyard that is the entrance wearing sandals, white cotton pants and shirt, and carrying a small rucksack.

Herve was in a Bombay hospital, expected back soon, and Muktananda was up north in Kashmir with a few disciples. I was invited to stay as a guest until Herve’s return. I settled into a tiny room with a cot and mattress and a view of the rice paddies and plantain trees. The ashram was quite beautiful and clean, a real oasis from the pounding I had taken wandering around India for five months. Herve returned two days later, and he became my enthusiastic guide through the ashram’s rigorous discipline.

One was expected to wake up at 3:30 AM and pretty much remain engaged with meditation, chanting Sanskrit hymns, or work of one sort or another until 10:00 PM. As I was still but a guest, I was allowed some leniency. I managed a few hours a day of meditating and chanting, pitched in with the dishes and the gardening. Sometimes, a few of us would escape to the dingy yellowed tea shop next store, where in deep shadows we’d drink strong tea strained through a T-shirt unwashed in over a decade.

I began to get restless. I wanted to head up to Benares to meet Eric. Herve went nuts when I told him I wanted to leave. He insisted I wait a few more days to meet his guru. French shepherds can be very persuasive. I relented.

A few days later, a current of intense excitement went through the ashram. Muktananda was coming home. In the late morning we all gathered densely in the front of the ashram with the usual cacophony signaling auspicious events: bells, trumpets, conches, gongs, and clapping, shouting, and stomping. Suddenly, there was the guru.

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Choosing the Difference

December 4th, 2012

On December 20th, 2009 I entered a three-week retreat. Something irresistible was pulling me away from the outside world, towards an unknown inner journey of reflection, release, and renewal.

One day, my eyes closed. Shortly after, they opened, but I was no longer in my home in Richmond; I was sitting burning_ghatson the banks of the Ganges river in the ancient city of Varanasi. I was at one of the several “burning ghats,” stone steps where hundreds of cremations occur every day, with bodies placed on wooden pyres, set alight with ghee, while priests chant sacred mantras. There I was, in some astral form, sitting quietly, taking it in.

I could feel the many ways in which people had lived, the ways in which they gave themselves too often to things that did not really matter — to worries and concerns, to activities and aspirations, to quarrels and squabbles. I also felt how quickly each body journeyed from birth, through the drama of life, to these burning cradles that were birthing them out of this world.

Some invisible guide asked me, “What makes life truly worth living? Look how quickly it all ends. What makes the difference between a well-lived life, and one squandered on petty things?”

What I discovered in this shamanic journey is that “the difference” we want to make is about a way of living. It is a choice between petty concerns, mindlessness, sadness, negativity, cynicism — and clarity, truth, meaning, and purpose.

I already knew that there is something written in each person’s heart, in the scripture of their soul, that is their map for an authentic life, and if they follow the paths of that map they will live a well-lived life, a significant life, without regret or sadness. They will live a full, unique, joyful, exuberant life. But now I know it more fully, as if a brighter light has been installed in each cell of my being. Making a difference is not something we do, but rather a lifestyle we choose, one that flows from the words inscribed in the scripture of our heart, of our soul; and in this way of purposeful living we are a constant blessing to ourselves and to others, we are a walking seed and spark that awakens and fires the imagination of others towards a similar way of living. The ways in which each of us will make a difference by definition and necessity will flow out from our inner being. First, we choose the difference between true and false, between authentic and inauthentic. Then, we act. Then, we make the difference that has already been made within us through our choice as to how we are going to live.

I understood that the size and scope of what we do is not important. Our life may be huge and daring and world-shaking, or it may be small and quiet and unrecognized by the masses or media. What matters, what makes the difference, is the fragrance we emit, the intoxicating aura we carry, as we fulfill whatever roles we are called to by the secret that only we know, the secret revealed to us when we enter the deep and beautiful sacred place of our heart to read what is written there for us. That is what counts. That’s how we live a well-lived life.

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A Commotion at Night

December 2nd, 2012

Be Present. Pay Attention. Listen Deeply. All night, I have embraced, and been  embraced by, these three 5 Principles logoprinciples. I knew sleep would not visit me tonight. It was nowhere near me. Instead, I have been sitting with these three friends, in the darkness and stillness of night. It is very silent, save for the breath, an invisible tide coming in and going out.

Somewhere, I sense a commotion. It is within me, within the trillions of cells that comprise this body. The commotion is a humming sound, and a current, a vibration. I hear and feel the humming vibration of these cells, their intelligence, their work, their diligence.

Within the silence that attends and surrounds and supports and permeates the three principles that have kept me company throughout the night, there is this commotion. Within this commotion is a deeper silence, which spreads outward and inward, dissolving boundaries.

Now, language falters altogether, and words are useless.


A Conversation with Chris Hebard

November 7th, 2012

On September 12, 2012, Chris Hebard, founder of Stillness Speaks, came to visit me to speak about myConversation
spiritual journey, my present state of awareness, and my recent diagnosis of stage four lung cancer. He brought along his considerable cache of video equipment, which was used during our conversation by ace film directors Larry Travis and Krista Eulberg. Together, the four of us generated a 50-minute video, touching on a variety of topics, including:

  • Robert’s Spiritual Journey
  • Awakening: Who am I?
  • Meeting Swami Muktananda
  • The Path of Inquiry and Listening
  • The 5 Principles of Authentic Living
  • Accessing Creative Consciousness
  • Manifesting Inner Realization
  • Stage 4 Lung Cancer
  • Terror of Extinction
  • Journeys to Oblivion
  • Awareness Without Objects
  • Dissolution of Time
  • Integrity of Being
  • Reality Beyond Language
  • The Primacy of Inner Awareness
  • The Embodiment of Insight
  • … and much more!


Eating Eternity

October 21st, 2012

The following essay is from my book A Mystic in Corporate America, available in paperback and e-book formats from my bookstore. It recounts a deep plunge into the very source of what I call “authenticity.”


On a warm summer day in Santa Barbara, I had lunch with eternity.

I was a participant with about 20 others in a meeting whose purpose was to inquire into truth. The meeting was led by Jean Klein, an elderly Belgian teacher of non-dualism. We were sitting in

Jean Klein

folding chairs or cross-legged on the carpeted floor or on the couch that had been moved to the back of the large living room. Jean was perhaps 80 at the time, white haired and translucent, the embodiment of silence. He was like a waterfall of pure acceptance. Standing beneath his spray I breathed with lungs I didn’t know I had.

He would say a few words and then fall silent. Someone might venture a question. He would respond. Then more silence. We passed the morning like that. His speaking was itself a form of silence, each word coming slowly, with precision, from a deep well. You could almost hear his mind falling like an empty pail into an invisible depth, filling, and then being drawn up by his careful voice.

We stopped at about noon, and went outside for lunch. I sat with Jean and a few others at a picnic table. We ate slowly, silently, still appreciating the atmosphere of the morning. It seemed to me that we were all attentive, mindful of what we were saying and doing, respectful of others, listening with our entire bodies to the total environment. It was natural, without technique or effort. It was simply a condition that had been established of its own accord.

We ate ice cream for dessert. Then, as we sat together on the benches with elbows and forearms collapsed on the tabletop, the world dissolved. I took a breath, and it was my last.

 There is perception, but no perceiver! There is perception, but no perceived! All worry is worry about me and my body; I’m just an idea and not really worth worrying about. Love is this … no other … nothing other … only this wholeness …

Everything I’ve ever thought is just ridiculous. My God, we should all just sit down and shut up and not move—that would really be the best thing. What are these electrical flashes and currents? This is all energy! Pure energy, vibrating and singing!

I simply disappeared, but remained present, as an awareness. I looked up and saw the sky and the clouds, but the seeing was with eyes that were not mine. I looked at the others, and saw myself. Everything was bright and radiant. It was so simple and so awesome. There were cognitions, but they were too fine for words, and they passed quickly, as a silent commentary on the pure feeling of just being, everywhere at once.

It seemed that everything was alive in a way I had never noticed. The grass of the lawn, the dirt clumps at the base of a lemon tree, its bark; at the end of the bench was a woman whose hair shone; the air itself—all this was alive, breathing, growing, moving in something, a kind of force, a comforting presence. When I looked at something, it looked back. There was no separation, no difference. I did not own this seeing; it was not mine, not my eyes.

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Winnowing the World’s Wisdom

October 21st, 2012

I have been fortunate to meet several people who taught me about wisdom and in whose presence I traveled Smithdeeper and farther into the world of wonderment, beauty, grace, and Silence. Huston Smith is one such person, and it is about an encounter with him that I wish to write.

Huston Smith is, to my mind, a living saint, a man of prodigious knowledge and wisdom. A few lines from his Wikipedia biography shed light on his distinguished life of spiritual devotions:

“Huston Smith was born in Soochow, China to Methodist missionaries and spent his first 17 years there. He taught at the Universities of Colorado and Denver from 1944-1947, moving to Washington University in St. Louis, MO for the next ten years, and then Professor of Philosophy at MIT from 1958-1973. While at MIT he participated in some of the experiments with entheogens conducted by Professor Timothy Leary at Harvard University. He then moved to Syracuse University where he was Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy until his retirement in 1983 and current emeritus status. He now lives in the Berkeley, CA area where he is Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at U.C. Berkeley. During his career, Smith not only studied, but practiced Vedanta, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufism for over ten years each. In 1996, Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS special to Smith’s life and work, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”

Huston Smith has paid his dues. He has earned his credibility the old fashioned way: through many years of study, practice, reflection, and realization. He embodies wisdom. One of my favorite Smith aphorisms is: “The goal of spiritual practice is not altered states, but altered traits.”

I love this emphasis on behavior as the “brand” of authentic spirituality. Anyone can talk the talk, and many do; but how many walk it? In these modern times of quick fixes and instant everythings, of faux Vedanta and simpleton solutions to existential complexity, of unseasoned and inexperienced teachers, of commercial success trumping inner maturity, Smith is a unique beacon of depth, clarity, and compassion — a man whose light comes from a born-long-ago star of authentic being.

A few years ago, I went to a bookstore in Berkeley to hear Huston speak about his newest book, Why Religion Matters. When he asked for questions, I raised my hand. He called on me and I said, “Dr. Smith, if you had a microphone to speak to the entire world for 60 seconds, what might you say that would represent the essence of the world’s wisdom traditions?”

His smile was beautiful, as was the gleam in his eye. He didn’t even have to think. He spoke immediately, but with words carefully considered, “Well, that’s an easy question! In fact, I asked the same thing to one of my mentors, Aldous Huxley, many years ago. I can’t really do better than to tell you what Aldous told me, in answer to the same question which I put to him many years ago. He took in my words, and then was silent for a while, reflecting, I would imagine, on his lifetime of study, practice, and experience. Finally, he said what I will say to you, in answer to your question to winnow the world’s wisdom.”

It’s important to know who Aldous Huxley was (as if being one of Huston’s mentors weren’t enough!). Huxley was brilliant: a true pioneer of consciousness studies, one of the midwives of the human potential movement, and the acclaimed author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. Huxley was, like Smith, a rare and potent blend of scholar, interpreter, explorer, and experiencer of the inner realms of mystical consciousness and human motivation and behavior. Together, they are a dynamic duo of spiritual super heroes, which is why we must pay close and careful attention to their answer to the question I put to Huston, to winnow the world’s wisdom.

I was sitting on my chair totally focused on Huston, opening every ear in my being to hear whatever he would say next. It was a glorious moment. Here was Huston Smith, about to impart the essence of what he knew, of what Aldous knew, of what the wisdom-keepers throughout human history knew — the entire scope and spectrum of fathomed wisdom from the first dawn of human existence to this evening in Berkeley.

He smiled. His light was enormous. Finally, he spoke. “Here is what Aldous told me. Here is what I tell you, and what I would tell the world. Here is the essence of the world’s wisdom…”

What he told me may not seem like much, or enough. Perhaps you’re hoping for something more transcendently exotic, or intellectually dense, or philosophically subtle. To me, what he said is as profound and practical as an embodied being can be. If we would all keep his words alive in our minds and hearts in each and every moment, and let Huston’s words, the winnowed wisdom of the world, guide our every act, however big or small, if we could do this, if we would do this, I believe we’d create heaven on earth within minutes. Here is what Huston Smith said to me:

“Try to be a little kinder.”


Do What You Say You Will Do

October 2nd, 2012

A reconstruction of remarks made to the GATE Leadership Circle on September 27, 2012.


For my entire adult life, I have devoted myself to cultivating self-awareness. For me, self-awareness implies Do-what-you-say-quote.“applied”; in other words, self-awareness in action. What does self-awareness look like as we go about our daily lives? What are the behavioral corollaries to self-awareness? My teacher, Swami Muktananda, exemplified self-awareness in action; everything he did had the distinctive qualities of clarity, competence, completeness. In a word: impeccable. He set the bar quite high for us. We were expected to match our inner meditation with our outer work. One was not more important than the other; they were one and the same. What we did and how we did it were a manifestation of our inner work. We couldn’t let the “good work” of running an organization dedicated to spreading meditation and spiritual development overwhelm how we did each thing, how we interacted with each person, moment to moment.

Spiritual philosophy and inner experiences were expected to manifest as impeccability in our words and actions. For many years, I brought this notion of applied self-awareness into my work as a leadership advisor and organizational consultant.

After some 35 years of working in my teacher’s organization and then working with numerous diverse organizations and professionals, I discovered a single principle the practice of which definitely increases self-awareness, while at the same time creating an organizational culture that fosters interpersonal connection, trust, reliability, accountability, enthusiasm, wholeheartedness and all kinds of other good things. One principle does all this. And I want to share that with you now.

Do what you say you will do.

Everything. All the time. Every time. No excuses.

Do what you say you will do: I’ll call you right back. I’ll send that to you tomorrow. I’ll have that done by Wednesday. I’ll meet you at noon.

Do you do everything you say you will do? Do you know anyone who does?

Why don’t we do that? Well, we might not be fully aware of what we say we will do. So, that’s where it all begins. We have to be present enough in our speaking to know what we say we will do. Then, we have to maintain our awareness all along the way to the delivery point of our promise. It’s all about awareness.

Don’t blame not doing what you say on other things. Don’t blame the traffic, computer problems, memo mix-ups, global financial crisis. Awareness is superior and supreme. If you notice that you are falling behind and will likely miss your promise, than immediately contact the people impacted and renegotiate your delivery date. That is OK. That is still functioning from awareness.

Think for a moment about what it feels like when someone habitually does not do what they say. What does that feel like? In personal relationships, what does that feel like? In a work setting, what happens to your levels of interest, engagement, participation? What happens to your level of trust in people who do not do what they say?

When you do what you say you will do, you show respect to others. You shine with dignity and distinction.  You leave a trail of applied self-awareness for others to follow. I know what it’s like to be busy, to have multiple projects and many unforgiving deadlines. I know that things “out there” are always changing, and that others drop the balls you were counting on.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s a practice. Some days we do better than other days. The important thing is that we practice, that we endeavor to do what we say we will do. The leverage in this is applied self-awareness. Don’t let what you do, the good works, overwhelm how you do what you do. How is the moment-to-moment expression of your degree of self-awareness, higher consciousness. How you do what you do distinguishes yourself; it is what communicates your level of awareness and consciousness. Doing what you say you will do, all the time and every time, brands you as being conscious, purposeful, intentional. It will truly amaze everyone. You will be a super hero of awareness.

Do what you say you will do. All the time, every time. No excuses.

Thank you.

“Being Present” in a Corporate Environment

September 22nd, 2012

Question:  Being present sounds easy, but how do I apply this at work in a busy corporate environment corporate
where those around me — my boss, my peers, and senior management — are focused on anything and everything other than being present. My days are filled with meetings, emails, and phone calls! How can I be present?

Robert:  I understand and empathize with the intensity of your busy corporate environment. Many of my clients over the years have worked in the same kind of environment, and much of my work has focused on helping them find their way to a state of clarity and presence in the midst of confusion and chaos.

Being Present means to be aware of our thoughtstream — of our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions — without being defined or determined by them. Being Present means that we perceive and act from the silent awareness that is outside of the thoughtstream, surrounding it like an oasis of clarity and stillness. Being Present is, in a way, our posture, our position, our point of view. It is not dependent on what is happening around us; it is not dependent on what other people are doing. It is a choice we make about how we are going to be.

In every storm, there is the eye, the center of stillness. This is what we must find within our self, regardless of the storm’s intensity. This center of stillness is what allows us to see what is really happening, while it is happening. Our capacity to Be Present is always within reach, and it is not dependent on anything other than our choice to focus our awareness and attention: either we live from within the thoughtstream or from silent awareness. It is always our choice. In terms of leadership effectiveness, silent awareness is almost always the wiser choice.

From the eye of the storm, in the silent awareness of Being Present, our overall capacity to see, hear, feel, and act is elevated and refined. Our subtle sense of intuition is activated. We are able to be creatively responsive to circumstances, rather than being unconsciously reactive. Our very presence becomes a stabilizing force, and we can begin to influence the incoherence and chaos around us. We can settle things down with our presence; invite others into a similar space of awareness.

How do we do it? First, we must intend to do it, to Be Present, knowing it is always our choice to do so. Then, we can become friends with our breath, with the rhythm of our own breathing. Our breath is always “now”; being aware of our breathing helps us to become present and gives us a vantage point from where we can notice our thoughtstream. We can take regular breaks from our work, from the emails and meetings, and phone calls — walk outside, if we can, or in some way create a break in the unrelenting intensity of the external demands on our time and attention. We always want to be in control of our attention, our focus, our energy. If we surrender our choice and control of our attention to the chaos around us, we will be swept away.

Stay in the eye of the storm. You’ll be safe there.