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Sh#t Your Ego Says: Free Chapter

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Culebra I: The Snake

Across the winding road of history, one of the most enduring mythological symbols, both ancient and modern, has been the snake. The snake metaphor has been used by cultures around the world to rep- resent a spectrum of human experiences—good and evil, creativity and death, wisdom and temptation. In some Native American legends, for example, the snake is considered a living incarnation of Mother Earth who holds power over nature. When humankind respects nature, the legend goes, the snake respects mankind, and provides good weather and prosperity. When mankind disrespects nature, the snake disrespects mankind, sending drought and natural disasters. Vedic literature speaks of a powerful energy force, called kundalini, coiled like a snake at the base of the spine. They say that when we awaken this force through yoga and meditation, we will unlock higher levels of consciousness and creativity. Hinduism gives us Lord Vishnu, the great creator, who sat on a thousand-headed snake and exhaled a single breath that gave birth to the universe. In Haitian voodoo, the snake is a sacred symbol that personifies the bridge between physical and spiritual worlds. And, of course, we have the most famous snake of all. In Genesis, a snake appears to Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempting her with forbidden fruit. The snake promises knowledge and power, distracting Eve from her purpose and leading her—and, as the story goes, all of mankind—astray.

Culebra is a Spanish word that means snake. Culebra is also a small island 17 miles east of Puerto Rico. On this island, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I hit rock bottom.

This book was an accident.

It was 10 o’clock in the morning, and the sun was already hot. Barefoot on Flamenco Beach, I checked my iPhone for messages. A few friends had texted to ask if everything was alright. I could not tell if everything was alright, so I put the phone back in my pocket and did not respond.

Culebra’s defining characteristic is the white sand. It is both beautiful and strange and resembles sand in a state of shock. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville wrote that the color white has an elusive quality which, when divorced from more kindly associations, could heighten the thought of terror. Melville cited the polar bear and the great white shark as examples. “What but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?” he questioned. To this list I would add the white sand of Flamenco Beach. The Atlantic Ocean was quiet and I was alone.

In the distance a red-tailed hawk darted from the trees and soared above the water. Had someone been watching, they would probably tell you that I looked cool and collected, like a monk watching the ocean tide come and go like a mantra. The view—lush green mountains, dark forests, a picturesque sun above the Caribbean Sea—was breathtaking, but inside I felt panic. The bright sun felt like an interrogation room. New York City was underwater, and I was homeless.

I didn’t know what to do, so I sat on the beach and did nothing. One week earlier, Hurricane Sandy had ripped through New York City like a WeedWacker. It was measured as the worst storm in the city’s history. Lower Manhattan was underwater, hundreds of people had died and thousands more, including myself, had a fish tank for an apartment. This is crazy, I thought, taking a swig of red wine. It was too early to drink. I took another swig. I wanted to run away, to be somewhere else, but I looked around and there was nowhere to run. I closed my eyes and opened them again. The ocean remained but the hawk was gone.

*

“If you want to be a writer, you should move to New York City,” everyone told me. So I did. I said goodbye to my career as an advertising executive, sold my possessions, bid adieu to my friends and family, and purchased a one-way ticket from Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport to LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York. All I had to my name were a few suitcases and the vague recollection of something Paulo Coelho had written: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” It seemed as though I had barely unpacked when the waves hit.

Hurricane Sandy’s ferocity was unexpected. We knew a storm, some storm, was coming. But most people, including myself, took minor precautions. Fuggedaboutit, was our attitude. This is New York. We don’t run away from a little bad weather. For reasons closer to boredom than safety, I spent the night of the storm in New Jersey with Madison, a girl I was newly dating. We matched our strong resolve with stronger drinks and spent the night watching movies one state away, safe from the storm. By 11 o’clock the electricity in Madison’s apartment was blinking on and off, and the wind was blowing with intensity. We did not realize that a few miles away the Hudson River was rising, and Lower Manhattan was turning into a swimming pool. Madison’s electricity went out, this time for good, so we went to bed. We made love on the fourth floor, then fell asleep as rain hit the windows. My new apartment in Broad Channel, Queens, however, located on the water in Jamaica Bay, was not so lucky. I had just signed the lease and was scheduled to move the next day. The water was knee-high before midnight. Within hours everything was destroyed.

I wanted to make a splash in New York City but this was not what I had in mind. The next morning, slightly hungover, I heard the news about my apartment. For the first time, the weight of jumping from my old life without a safety net hit me, and I felt helpless. I gave up my career for this? I thought. Already without a job, now I had nowhere to live. Taking inventory of my options, I decided that I could not move back to Minneapolis, not yet, not before I had accomplished anything. I entertained asking Madison if I could stay with her, but quickly dismissed the thought. After all, I barely knew her. I could have sent a mass Facebook message requesting an open couch or spare bedroom, but I was new to New York and had few close friends in the city. My mind was racing when my phone rang. It was my friend Jake. Like me, he had lost his apartment in the storm. Unlike me, he had a plan.

“Listen,” Jake said. “I know what we can do. I have a friend who owns a cottage in the Caribbean. He’s traveling and the cottage is empty. When the universe takes away your beach house, you know what they say? It’s time to find a bigger beach. Are you in?”

I didn’t give it a second thought. A few days later, Jake and I left the wreckage of New York City behind on a JetBlue flight to Puerto Rico. Upon arrival we put the last of our money together and bought tickets on a rusty two-passenger aircraft that carried us to Culebra, island of the snake.

*

Culebra possesses a beautiful silence that belongs to another world. Unlike the typical Caribbean tourist spot, you will not find luxury hotels and resorts spreading like bacteria around the ocean perimeter. Culebra (population 1,800) is small and unassuming. Quaint would be an appropriate adjective. The same could be said for the airplane that carried us to the island. It was a relic of a bygone era, similar to a wooden roller coaster being phased out of the carnival on account of excess rust and a tendency to screech while hurling terrified riders down its unpredictable arches.

After a rocky flight we landed, surprisingly, safely. We thanked the pilot in Spanish and walked away from the short runway into the dirt roads to look for our cottage. Chickens and lizards roamed the streets with the cocksure abandon of New York City cab drivers. It was nearing evening as we passed palm trees holding hammocks where sleeping locals soaked in the setting sun. We were among them and happy to be.

We arrived on election day, a Puerto Rican holiday. Walking past the island homes, we noticed homemade flags suspended on poles and draped from balconies. Posters with Spanish slogans and pictures of politicians with big grins were hanging on telephone poles and street signs. Voting was finished, and the celebration was beginning. We reached the cottage. Men sang in the distance while fireworks illuminated the sky. The entire island was pouring tequila and dancing to music blasting from truck radios. More than one gun was fired. I just wanted to sleep.

We stumbled into the cottage and I claimed the bigger bedroom. The bed was stiff and the window had no glass. Closing my eyes I heard music in the streets. I imagined that the island was celebrating my arrival. Soon that thought—and all others—evaporated into the humid air. I slept for 10 hours.

Boy meets Ego.

The next morning I woke up confused. How did I get here? I thought. The past week’s activity was a blur—the hurricane, the flood, the airplane, the celebration—and as I traced my steps from Madison’s comfortable bedroom to a stiff Culebra mattress, I suddenly felt alone. Wearing the clothes I had slept in—jeans and a T-shirt—I stood up and left the cottage. As I passed through the kitchen, I saw a bottle of red wine and took it with me.

I walked down the dirt road until I found a paved street and continued walking. I passed the chickens and lizards and continued walking. I passed men sleeping in hammocks and continued walking. I passed political posters and broken tequila bottles and leftover fireworks and continued walking. I continued walking for 45 minutes until I reached the ocean on the northern tip of the island, then I stopped.

I sat down in the sand and opened the wine. The sky was Dodger blue and the ocean stood resolutely calm. While I knew I was lucky to ride out the aftermath of the hurricane on a tropical island, I had just arrived in Culebra, I was worried about my future, and I already wanted to leave. I’m a failure, I thought. I should never have moved to New York City. Why did I give up a good career and good apartment? I’m too old to be chasing my dreams. I had believed that if I took a risk the universe would support me. Now I wasn’t so sure.

*

As a kid, I wanted to be a writer above all else. Every night I looked outside my bedroom window and let my imagination wander away from my small Minnesota hometown. Before long, my imagination had outgrown my reality, and I wanted to expand my surroundings to give my dreams a bigger playground. My heroes had names like Whitman, Hemingway, García Márquez, Rimbaud, Blake, and Ginsberg. Writers, to me, were the last explorers. The four corners of the Earth had already been discovered, but writers explored a new frontier— the frontier of the mind.

From a young age, writing was my meditation. I remember turning off my thoughts so I could create space for words and sentences to flow effortlessly through me. Creativity is an act of listening. Before a writer can write, a writer must listen. When we listen closely, which anybody can do, we can hear inspiration singing in the space between our thoughts.

The art of listening was my first creative lesson. I kept my ears open, hoping to catch the sound of the muse as she flew past Minnesota on her way to another world. If I listened closely, I thought, maybe I could steal a good idea before anybody else could hear it. So I paid attention to the sound of silence, hoping to eavesdrop on some great cosmic secret. I knew that creativity was borrowed from a place beyond my logical mind.

Fast forward 15 years. I was in my late 20s. My writing ambitions had been set aside, and my advertising career was picking up. I found myself playing the unfamiliar role of a fast- talking corporate professional. Driven and focused, I quickly rose through the ranks of the Minneapolis advertising industry. Writing was the last thing on my mind.

My days were packed with client presentations, creative brainstorms, more coffee than I could handle, and more meetings than I could count. My nights consisted of happy hours, hip-hop shows, nightclubs, more drugs than I wanted, and more girls than I can remember. I filled my apartment with things I did not need and spent my time with people I did not like. It was fun—for a while. But something elemental was missing. While alone, depression crept in. In my rush to get ahead I was compensating for something that was missing, something that I did not realize I had lost. I had forgotten the most important lesson of my childhood. I had forgotten how to listen.

On Flamenco Beach I reflected on the decisions that had led me to the island. I realized that I had spent the past decade chasing after society’s definition of success, and in doing so I had become blind to my higher purpose, whatever it was or had been. Like so many others, I had valued success over purpose and acclaim over authenticity, and now there was nobody left to impress. The sun was bright but an inner shadow was cast over me. My thoughts pushed and pulled without resolution. It felt like I had been punched in the face. I wanted to be punched in the face. I wanted more wine. I wanted anything to distract me from my mind.

Where are these thoughts coming from? I asked myself. Surprised to discover such contempt within myself, I traced my thoughts back to their origin. Why was I feeling insecure? Because I was unemployed and homeless. But why did I care? I was worried that, without money or a job, I would never return to New York City. But why did I care? I was afraid that I had given up my career for a dream that would never come true. But why did I care? I was embarrassed to fail. But why did I care? I needed validation from others to compensate for my insecurities. But why did I care? Because I was unable to find happiness in the stillness of being. But why did I care? Because I felt I was lacking something. And since I was lacking, I was needy. I needed something, anything. I simply needed.

Bingo. I had discovered my Ego. And it had a lot of shit to say.

*

My Ego was the voice of dissatisfaction and attachment inside my mind. It had gone undetected for years, but it had always been there, influencing my decisions from behind the scenes. I had never before noticed my Ego because I had assumed that my Ego was the real me. But I am not my Ego. And you are not your Ego. We are not our thoughts. We are the consciousness below the surface of mental activity. The mind is like rippling water on the ocean surface. It changes unpredictably and swirls with the tide. The real me—and the real you—is the ocean from which these ripples arise. Our thoughts can be random and destructive, but our consciousness remains still and complete in spite of the turmoil happening on the surface.

The Ego speaks from a mentality of lack and creates false narratives to justify this lack. “I need success. I need to impress people. I need attention.” Sitting on Flamenco Beach, I realized that these narratives, however convincing an argument the Ego made, were not true. Our reality comes from the stories we tell ourselves. If I wanted to transform my life, I realized, I had to start telling myself a different story—a story that came from somewhere beyond my Ego.

Realizing that I was not my thoughts, I remembered something that I had forgotten for many years. I remembered to stop thinking and start listening. I paid attention to the space between my thoughts. At first it was not easy. Thoughts, both good and bad, were fighting for my attention—and the wine was still swirling in my brain—but the distractions of the outside world slowly faded as I turned my attention inward. What I discovered was a conflict raging inside myself.

This conflict inside myself, I realized, was the source of conflict outside myself. Two voices fought for my attention. The first voice was my Ego. It told me to be worried. Fixated on the past, it reminded me of my mistakes; fixated on the future, it gave me a million reasons to doubt the path ahead. The Ego was everywhere at once but never in the present moment.

I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. In the stillness of my mind I heard another voice. It was quiet, not nearly as loud as my Ego, but felt true. The voice told me to calm down, and reassured me that I was safe. “No matter how bad the moment appears, there is no reason to worry or run away.” The air was warm but a cold shock ran through my body. “You are exactly where you need to be,” my Higher Self said.

The voice was not only heard; it was also felt. It was intuitive, not mental. It was part of me but also beyond me. I could not comprehend where the voice came from, but I quieted my mind and continued to listen. All at once I realized that I was stranded on this island for a reason. Negative thoughts had been flying around my mind for as long as I could remember, and I had been following them blindly. Flamenco Beach was my dead end. Sitting alone on the white sand, I decided to have, for the first time in my life, an open conversation between my Ego and Higher Self.

My Ego said that I was a victim of circumstance.
My Higher Self said that I create my own reality.

My Ego told me to worry.
My Higher Self told me to trust the present moment.

My Ego said that everything was an accident.
My Higher Self said that everything had a purpose.

Find your ocean.

“When Ego is lost, limit is lost.”
— Yogi Bhajan

As a kid growing up in Minnesota, I had never seen the ocean. But near my home was a small pond that resembled a science project gone amok. Worms, tadpoles, frogs, and turtles roamed the exterior of the pond like guardians of a swampy kingdom. I remember pulling up my pants to wade in the water and feel mud squish between my toes. I had heard stories about giant bodies of water, far away, called oceans. But where were they? I had never seen them.

On Culebra I realized that when we seek truth outside ourselves (in the form of success, media, politics, religion, and other types of social conditioning) we are wading in a small pond, a shallow version of what is possible. If we never see life from a broader perspective, we will always mistake the pond for the ocean. When our perception is limited, our reality is also limited. When we expand our capacity to perceive, our capacity to experience also expands. To be more, we must first imagine more.

We all have an ocean within us. This ocean is a state of being, not a place. It is energy, not water. When an actor gets lost in character, that is her ocean. When a father holds his newborn son for the first time, that is his ocean. When you fall in love and time stops, that is your ocean. You find your ocean by clearing your mind of distractions and accepting the moment as it is—both the beauty and the pain of life—without resistance.

Sooner or later we all find our ocean. This is inevitable because our ocean is our only destination. There is no failure, only progress. There is no fire, only water. All wrong turns reroute to the same holy highway. Some of us will find our ocean quickly. For others it will take a long time because we are afraid to venture away from the shore. Some will find our ocean because we are searching for it. For others, like me, it will be an accident. The Ego says that if we sail toward the ocean we will become lost at sea. It’s not true. We will be sailing home.

Every stream reaches a river, all rivers reach the sea. When we flow with the present moment, we are guided by the wisdom of stillness. Even if you are stranded on an island you will not be homeless. You will be home. And your Ego will have nothing left to say.

Every beginning begins with an end.

Of all the metaphors represented by the snake, my favorite is rebirth. As the snake ages, its skin wears out and stretches, making it unable to support new growth. But the snake is not finished growing. It is still becoming the snake it wants to be. So the snake grows a new layer of skin under the old layer. When the new skin is ready, the snake sheds the old layer because it is no longer necessary. It holds no attachment or sentimentality to the identity it leaves behind.

Humans also shed our skin. Every day one million skin cells turn into dust and are replaced by new cells. Every seven years each cell in our body has died and been replaced. In a physical sense we become new people. All matter is alive, moving from state to state in varying degrees of change. We crawl, we walk, we run, we fly, we crash, and we rise again. We look back and see how our journey defined us. Along the way, part of us must die so that we can continue to grow. Shedding old cells is essential for the growth of our bodies, and shedding old ideas and beliefs is essential for the growth of our consciousness. This is the story of how, on the island of Culebra (the snake), I learned to shed the skin of my Ego—one idea, one belief at a time.

Buy Sh#t Your Ego Says now.

James McCrae