Begin Again

Two weeks ago our family drove up to northern Minnesota to attend a wedding of Kristina, a young woman who grew up in our neighborhood and who is to this day a very close friend of our family. 

Kristina is a force of nature, and consistent with her overall demeanor of anything is possible, she and Eric decided to have an outdoor wedding at their family vacation home on Gull Lake in northern Minnesota. Getting everyone tested for Covid -19 and the actual wedding day logistics were daunting, but to no one’s surprise, Kristina pulled it off and it was one of the most lovely weddings I have ever been to.

Having gone to school out east (code for Harvard), finished law school, and now in medical school, Kristina has a wealth of people and connections in her life, so I was amazed, and honored, to be one of two non family members asked to say a few words at her wedding.  

The wedding ceremony took place on the fine sand of a beach at the edge of the water. Rows of chairs faced the lake and a specially constructed wedding arch made of large tree branches adorned with flowers stood before us, waiting for the arrival of the bride and groom. 

After they read their beautiful vows they had written to each other, they were pronounced man and wife, and suddenly it was my turn to get up, walk in the sand to the microphone to Kristina’s right, and read my advice.

Here is what I said:

What an honor it is for me to say a few words at our dear Kristina’s wedding. This force of nature blew into our lives like a hurricane when, as a young neighborhood kid, she decided to set up camp as part of our family.

Now, I like to think of myself as being deliberative and emotionally even keeled, so you can probably imagine how Kristina’s teenage force field often rattled me on a regular basis.

But now, with our mutual connection to the world of medicine, and with Kristina’s maturation into the young woman you see before you today, our relationship has blossomed. 

Kristina has often referred to me as her other father. This is one of the greatest compliments a young person can pay me, since being a good father is one of my highest values. 

And for me, the best part of being a father is when the father child power differential of the early years melts away and I become not just a father, but also a close friend, mentor, and confidant, all wrapped into one. 

These kinds of relationships – relationships with depth, vulnerability, psychological safety, and compassion are central to our ability to thrive as human beings. 

Kristina and I have that kind of relationship.

Which is why my comments today matter so much to me.

As a surgeon, I have this near genetic urge to give advice, a habit I have worked hard to put in the storage shed of my life. 

But for this special day, I dug around in the shed to look for a tool that I felt confident would help the garden of your marriage grow and thrive. 

There were lots to choose from, but the one that really stood out is one that has changed my own psychological well being and the quality of my marriage.

The tool is to Begin Again. And again, and again, and again, and again, every day.

There are two “weeds” if you will that can keep the garden of your marriage from growing to its beautiful potential.

The first weed is the centrifugal force of the outside world and its relentless demands. This force can pull you apart, bit by bit, day by day, in a slow downward spiral, that may not be recognized, until you have completely lost your connection with each other. 

The weapon to keep this force contained is to Begin – your relationship – Again, every day, with the right intention, and the commitment, to do the small here and now actions that keep your connection to each other alive and strong, actions like:

Cuddling in bed in the morning and at night

Saying hi in the morning and goodnight at night

Holding hands whenever you walk somewhere

A phone call during the day to just check in to see how their day is going.

Eating dinner together and not on the fly

A ritual of spending dedicated, specific times together

Minute to minute patience and kindness

Being grateful for your partner, and expressing that gratitude

Taking time to make making love happen

All these actions, though small, add up profoundly. 

It is no different than exercise. If you don’t exercise, your body pays the price over time. If you do exercise, even a small amount on most days, your body thrives. 

So begin every day, again, committed to the small here and now actions that will keep your connection to each other strong. 

The second weed or threat is the inability to recover and reconnect rapidly from the inevitable conflicts you will experience together. 

There have been over 107 billion people that have lived on this planet. Imagine all of the emotions and upsets and small conflicts that have occurred over our human history, the vast, vast majority of it totally irrelevant. 

Impermanence dominates our existence and all of our thoughts, emotions, and stories we tell ourselves fade away, unless we stay latched onto them, like a dog tied to a tree.

To begin again is to really let go of the story of each skirmish and all of the emotions and the resentments and to be able to get back on the road of the relationship, rapidly

To begin again says to your partner that you value the relationship and your connection above all else, even more than being right.

To begin again feels like that moment when you’re in a plane and you break through the turbulence and clouds and suddenly the air is smooth and the warm sun is shining.

But it gets even better. To begin again is the foundation of forgiveness. The only way to **truly** forgive someone, or oneself, is to restart the clock in the present. 

It is not easy, especially in the face of strong emotions. It takes personal force and effort, but it is a skill so worth developing, for your own psychological wellbeing, and for your relationship. 

The skill of being able to Begin Again is a relationship superpower

So Kristina and Eric, to keep your newly planted garden growing – my advice is to begin again, and again, and again, and again…every day.”

After the wedding ceremony I was nearly assaulted by people telling me how much my comments moved them, with several saying I should publish them. So that is what I am doing here, today, with the hope that you may find some value in the words for your own life. 

I learned of the Begin Again from Sam Harris in a lesson on his Waking Up meditation app. Aptly enough, the lesson is entitled Begin Again. 

Here is part of what he says in the lesson: “when we practice meditation, one of the things we learn is how to begin again in each moment. You notice that you’re distracted, you have been lost in thought for who knows how long. And then suddenly you return to a clear witnessing of the contents of consciousness. You notice a sound, or the breath, or some other sensations in your body. Or you see the present thought itself unraveling. And in this clear noticing of this next appearance in consciousness, we’re training our minds. We’re practicing a willingness to simply return to the present moment, without judgment. Without disappointment. Without contraction. With a mind that is standing truly free of the past. And it is always possible to recover this freedom, no matter what happens.”

Until I found his Waking Up app, my meditation practice was like going to the gym and trying to get as many reps as possible of paying close attention to the air at the tip of my nose. But I constantly got sucked away into a sea of thinking. I felt like a miserable, skinny nosed, weakling who had just had sand kicked in his face at the beach by some imaginary muscle bound goon. I thought I would never be able to build up big stretches of nasal air flow focus and concentration and become a meditation “mindbuilder.” Until I found the Waking Up app. 

The moment I heard these words I realized that the ability to Begin Again is like a superpower that had implications for many areas of our lives. I knew it would take practice and commitment, but I also knew it would be worth it. And meditation, non striving meditation, where you simply return gently, as Harris says “without contraction,” is the perfect training ground for the overall project. 

Here are my 3 critical takeaways about the habit of Begin Again that are worth emphasizing:

1. The ability to Begin Again is like carrying a psychological Swiss Army Knife around in your back pocket. Whenever you feel what Harris calls “the ghost of mediocrity” clouding your mind like an overcast sky, you can pull your Begin Again tool out of your back pocket and just Begin Again, gently, and with kindness and self-compassion. 

2. The ability to Begin Again, when you get good at it, feels like that moment when you’re in a plane and you break through the turbulence and clouds and suddenly the air is smooth and the warm sun is shining.

3. The ability to Begin Again when we screw up is a powerful self-compassion practice. It is nearly a sure bet that every day each and everyone of us will make a mistake or do something that has a negative impact on someone else. To Begin Again is acknowledge the mistake, commit to learning from it, and then drop the verbal beating we so often give ourselves over our missteps and mistakes. 

To begin again is the foundation of forgiveness of ourselves and others. As Harris says, “the only way to truly forgive someone, or oneself, is to restart the clock in the present,” and Begin Again.

 

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