Angels, Demons, and Sanity — My Meditation Story
Two weeks ago I asked Twitter if folks would be interested in my meditation journey, touching on the mental health strides and pitfalls I’ve had throughout the process. I’m normally a very private person, but with increased awareness around mental health I wanted to talk about and share my journey. This hasn’t been an easy by any means, but if a single person benefits from this story it was worth me taking the time to write it. The conclusion: I know where I was and I know where I am, and I like where I am.
Emotions are sticky. And by sticky I mean when we feel an emotion, they can linger with us if we don’t know how to process them. Some emotions are stronger than others, but for some of us (hi!) we pretend our emotions don’t exist. Well, happiness, sadness, and anger are ones we’re allowed to feel, but society frowns on difficult, painful, and complex emotions like anxiety, depression, or even wanting to cry at a sad situation. Those make other people feel awkward so why put someone through that discomfort? Society teaches us that these negative emotions make us weak, and we need to be this super-stoic person who has all our ducks in order. Be confident.
In addition to emotions, another big aspect of humanity is empathy. Many of us are aware of this to some degree, which is our ability to feel what other people are feeling. If a friend is excited we will genuinely feel the emotion of excitement, we share the sorrow with those who lost someone, or we may even feel angry if an injustice happens against a friend or colleague. Empathy allows us to share our emotions and struggles. Have you ever felt bad about an animal that got hit on the side of the road, hoping it wasn’t a parent or child animal? That’s empathy.
However some people are extremely good at reading emotions and body language, with some people being so in-tuned into their emotions that they can feel the emotions of someone from another room. Or in a city. Or across the other side of the world. We really don’t fully understand the extent of how this works, but from the science and observations it lies somewhere between consciousness and quantum physics.
Physics, Ronnie? Where are you going with this? Oh yea, difficult emotions.
I’ve fought cybercrime for years. Like many of you, I’ve done incident response, defended networks against foreign adversaries, and studied all things Nigerian fraud. (No, not all Nigerians are scammers…but this is just a mental reference point for how folks understand it.)
Like many of us in information security, I lived on the stress. What’s the next incident, what’s the next family of malware, what’s the next attack, and so on and so forth. Once I started tracking Nigerian fraud things got really depressing for me. We set out on this quest for the Holy Grail to solve all things BEC, but after understanding just how deep the hole went… it got dark. Fast. And the worlds mockery of Nigerian princes became gut punch after gut punch while flailing my arms and point to big numbers that we should care about.
Here’s what I mean. What started as a couple phishing emails ballooned into suicidal romance victims, emotional victim after emotional victim after emotional victim who lost their entire life savings with 0 hope of getting any of it back (and guess who got to listen to the victims choking back the tears but had to stay strong?), starving Africans being forced to choose between theft and death, voodoo (juju) rituals including human sacrifices, selling of body parts, or killing parents, children, or grandparents to become better cyber fraudsters. And as you read this, that stuff is literally happening right now. Like, now now. At the scale I saw it a scammer is probably sacrificing someone right now. This was my silent hell where I had to put a smile on for society and be like sure, I’ll happily wash some dishes. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.
As someone who was taught to have their shit together and put on a strong face, I did what any other person does: I internalized it. All of it, which I’m learning isn’t quite that healthy to do.
And when you internalize all that crazy fucked up shit (I wasn’t going to curse in this but I believe it’s acceptable here…) it gets really hard to compartmentalize “I just studied this video of scammers sacrificing a goat in a river” to “Kids! Let’s play with Legos!” and be happy and cheery. You can do your best to keep the stuff hidden away, but when you don’t have the skills or knowledge to work through emotions it all just…sticks. And won’t let go of you. And just sits there and haunts you.
Without having those skills I became ornery, unhappy, snippy, and didn’t want to be around anyone. I was frustrated and angry all the time, tried my best to keep my cool, but would routinely wake up unhappy and miserable. Your mind lies to you, saying the stress is okay and it’s just becomes who you are. I eventually got on anxiety meds, but I feel that it never really addressed the root problem. And I wanted to make the lifestyle change to address the root issues.
Two years ago I started going to therapy to get a handle on things. Around that time the pressures and reality of the material I was working settled in, realizing how large the mountain of filth I was really tackling. Everyone told me “It’s not your problem to solve, don’t worry about it,” but sometimes our minds and bodies feel totally different about the situations in front of us. You’re probably thinking I put a lot of pressure on myself and honest, I really did.
And that’s what therapy showed me. Sometimes you let things go and don’t internalize them. Just like how muscles or finger moves, an emotion can just be released. Sure you can avoid the negativity and pretend it doesn’t exist, or lie to yourself that you’re not stressed and fine, but that leads to burnout. Turning your face to your emotions is where healing begins. Trust me.
By no means was this an easy road. There were good days, there were bad days, there were days I had to fight myself to get out of bed, and days where I’d have a panic attack and put the blanket over my head, close my eyes, and not want to do anything, or just cry. Well, I’d want to cry but couldn’t if that makes sense. I never understood it at the time,but my body was unpacking all the things that I tried to block out. My therapist recommended yoga, and after all of that I chose to take my mental health serious. He said you can do yoga when you’re 9 or 90, and what I liked most is that I could do it by myself. I have always hated gyms because of the “I can lift more than you” competitions. I changed my lifestyle. I started eating right, listened to books about mindfulness, watched Youtube videos on therapy, and read way too many things about making a better path in life.
Throughout this research I came across something called meditation which opened a brand new world I didn’t know existed. This is still a taboo topic in western culture, but humans have been sitting and thinking nothing for thousands of years. And my successes in meditation is the whole reason I wanted to write this post, because I defeated my anxiety. Meditation taught me how to handle my emotions, thoughts, feelings, and how to take a step back from life and appreciate the simple things.
To most of us westerners, meditation comes with the stigma of sitting cross-legged, pinching your pointer and thumb fingers, closing your eyes going “OMMMMMMMMM.” While that is part of it, there’s way more to it. Like, and endless universe called yourself. That probably sounds really weird with how I’m wording it, but it’s kind a hard concept to comprehend. For you it might not be, but for me it was. ❤
Reflecting back on my experiences and where I was, my body got stuck in a stressful state. My sympathetic nervous system (the part responsible for high-stress situations, fight-or-fight response, etc.) was on all the time, and no one ever taught me that a relaxed state of existence exists, that actually feels relaxed. We throw words around like “you should relax and take it easy” all the time, but what does it mean to relax. I quickly discovered that the fight-or-flight mode could be turned off, switching the body to it’s more natural state. That’s called your parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the calming side of your body. You know that relaxing feeling of having a warm shower, crawling under a soft and heavy blanket? THAT relaxing feeling.
The most important lesson meditation taught me was how to feel. Sure, if you touch someones arm they’ll “feel” it, but there’s a difference between touch and excitement felt when you’re dancing around a room to one of your favorite albums. The difference between being compassionate and feeling compassionate. My inner voice was a passive-aggressive asshole who constantly reminded me I was never good enough, and you learn to control that too. Some schools of thought might even call it a minor ego death where you just…let go. It feels pretty liberating.
Through meditation I learned how to control that voice and say wait, I don’t want to go that way. Once you slow things down life gets really interesting. You have more control over your life, intentions, thoughts, and feelings. And by feeling I literally mean what you feel. The mind has often been described as a monkey jumping from thing to thing to thing with no direction, but you can control that monkey. It’s liberating, freeing, and you don’t get caught up in your head. Something most of us do.
I eventually learned that I have these things called emotions that are WAY more complicated than a simple happy or sad state. I didn’t know you could turn them on or off like a switch, something I struggle with. (Wait, I can think about feeling excited and I get excited…?! AWESOME!)
To some people It’s “Duh, that’s how emotions work,” but to others it’s reading ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics for alien civilizations flying on light chariots. It makes no sense.
To others they may say “Of course you control the monkey voices and bouncing.” Can you truly think of nothing, or is it busy with pains of the past or anxieties of the future?
…But here’s the thing. There are people who have no idea these principals exist. There’s people who have no idea that you can unload that list in your head and be like “yes this thing is in my head right now, but I can just make the choice to not worry about.” For me learning “I feel but I can choose to not feel the bad” was an epiphany. A good friend described emotions as a switch that you learn to turn on and off, which becomes natural. Thoughts work the same way too. Thoughts and emotions are like clouds in the sky…they freely come and go and we can watch them as they pass. However most of us get fixated on the clouds to analyze, leading us down the rabbit holes of nothingness.
But here’s the thing. In a world of hate, frustration, animosity, and anxiety-fueled fear news reports of doom scrolling, it’s SO HARD to turn these things off. It’s everywhere. I like to equate it to the Jedi vs. the Sith, where it’s easier for the human body to acknowledge that we feel the anger and frustration, but making the conscious choice to feel love, happiness, and compassion is the right path for our health. Sure you’re going to feel sad or angry when someone pisses you off, but contrary to paranoid media unlimited channel the human you’re talking to isn’t out to get you. They have struggles just like you. There are some who don’t realize they’re jerks or can’t acknowledge that they might be wrong (cough politicians), but most humans are kind, compassionate, and want to be loved.
…This is where I am today. I’ve been meditating on and off for 6 months, and if you get nothing from this the first person you need to start loving and caring for is yourself. Find what you enjoy. You will struggle and fail, but always remember that one step forward is still a step forward. Be kind to yourself so you can be kind to others. Kindness is infectious, spread the word.
The biggest win in my book was when my wife started to notice the positive changes in my demeanor. The kids want to be around me more. They were always there, but now they wanted to be around grumpy ol’ dad who researches all the horrors of the world.
One last thing. I’ll be introducing my kids to this Netflix show called “Headspace: Guide to Meditation.” This wasn’t in the general consciousness growing up, but from everything I’ve learned I want them to be equipped for whatever comes next. Life throws you some curve balls but when you re-direct the traffic, things get fun. Two years ago this picture would never have been possible, and I enjoyed kicking my sons butt in Mario Chess.
Namaste you crazy humans. Be awesome to each other.
PS. After edit 5,408 of this post (my final edit, seriously) the following song came on. Go donate to Webby if you like what he’s doing. (Don’t listen to his other music, you’ll be offended.)