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Mindfulness, Mastery, and the Cultivation of Presence

Photo by Luiz Hanfilaque

This article was originally featured on The El Paso Herald-Post.

As a musician, educator, and lifelong learner, one of the most inhibiting mistakes that I have observed in students and clients is the tendency to favor the results over the process.

In the amateur’s mind in any field, the swiftness with which a piece of information can be sent out over the internet seems to be the same speed with which we can also learn and consolidate large amounts of information. I see this far too often in young musicians who see some impressive young musical savant on YouTube, and assume that with just one year of study they too can sound just as good.

Of course, having been a musician for 20 years, as well as a consultant for musicians, artists, and creatives from varying disciplines, I can attest to the reality, which is that quality and true learning do not happen in a short amount of time.

As we will see, to believe so is to deny a fundamental truth about the nature of our design as humans.

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Vipassana Meditation and the Nature of Happiness

Photo by Kosal Ley

Have you ever been doing something for an extended period of time and found yourself lost in thought about something entirely unrelated to what you’re doing? This sometimes happens when we’re carrying out a mundane task like cleaning or organizing clutter. Other times, it happens while we’re passively waiting for something to happen. Some researchers have compared these kinds of states to Flow States, states where we become so immersed in one activity or thought process that we lose our sense of time perspective and surroundings. Other researchers have argued that this may be the basis of stress in what is called Stimulus-Independent Thought. But a rather curious question to ask yourself about these kinds of mental states is:

Did you choose to have these thoughts?

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris recognizes processes similar to these as stimulus independent thought, that is, brain activity which takes place in the midline regions of the brain, namely, the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. Stimulus independent thought occurs most often when we are disengaged with intentional activity and are doing nothing more than biding our time. In the research of Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, using a smartphone app which enabled people to monitor their ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions, Gilbert and Killingsworth concluded that, “…people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and … doing so typically makes them unhappy.” The study actually determined that people spent roughly 46.9% of time lost in these stimulus independent thoughts, thereby dramatically increasing experiences of unhappiness. This means that while we may have the illusion of being in complete control of our thoughts and ideas, we actually spend about half our waking lives in thoughts that we did not necessarily choose to have.

Neuroscientists Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, and John-Dylan Haynes carried out experiments that involved having test subjects decide on a switch to press from a set of options. At the finale of the study, the researchers concluded that, “…a network of high-level control areas can begin to shape an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” They summarize their study with, “…the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 [seconds] before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” What this suggests is that our decisions, however intentional they may seem, actually begin to culminate in brain processes that begin well before the decision enters awareness. What does this mean about our experience of the world and of our lives?

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The GRV Method: How to Take Control of What’s Most Important

For years, I’ve struggled with indecision. In the few years after my college graduation, I almost blindly led myself into several irrational career changes as a result of frequent cognitive dissonance. Perhaps some of you have experienced the same kind of problem: You see someone that you respect and admire doing well both professionally and personally. What they’re doing with their life sounds interesting. Immediately, you decide that you’re not doing enough, that you need to do more, that you’re doing something, or some iteration of the three. This is where our problems begin.

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What I’ve learned is that if we don’t first decide what’s important to us right from the very beginning, and figure out how to keep this in mind as we go about making important decisions in our day-to-day, we’ll find ourselves pushed and pulled back and forth into one life decision after another, one thought after another, and never actually get anything done.

This system first began as a tool that I created for some of my students who also struggled with stress and indecisiveness, but quickly turned in to a tool that I began using myself. The moment finally came when I realized that it was time to stop following every single opportunity that came my way. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I had to start saying no to more things. I had get clear about what I needed to get done based on the roles that I already filled in my life. Everyone has long-term goals and plans, but unless we do exceptionally well at what we’re already responsible for, we’ll always be paralyzed by over-analysis. It’s about “taking control of [your] circumstances instead of passively awaiting for them to decide [your] fate.”

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Fear, Goal-Setting, and Incremental Learning Theory

Photo by Arnold Exconde

Most people have trouble believing me when I tell them that I didn’t actually read a book cover-to-cover until sometime during college. This used to be something that I was deeply ashamed of because I once falsely believed that my ability to read was commensurate with my level of intelligence. Conversely, the hidden lesson of these kinds of painful experiences have the potential to reveal an immense amount of insight into our lives. Today, I am an avid reader with an extensive library spanning a wide range of topics. In fact, some of the most frequent questions I get from students and readers are about books. Today, I spend a large majority of my time reading. I even credit most of my personal growth as a person to the insights I’ve gained from reading books through a constant application of the ideas I’ve collected from them. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would one day be an avid reader as an adult, I never would have believed you. Today, it’s a way of life.

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External vs. Internal Standards of Happiness

Photo by Zachary Young

What I’ve noticed most in both myself and other young professionals is our obsession with this thing called “happiness.” Due to the largely convoluted system that educated us for almost two decades, we’ve been conditioned to think that happiness and success are arrival points that come to us only after the fulfillment of certain prerequisites. We’re taught that learning, studying, and achieving certain compliance requirements are the items necessary for experiencing this happiness and success. This unintentional conditioning continues for years and gradually becomes embedded into nearly every aspect of our lives, often to our own dismay. While I don’t discredit the value of hard work or the school system altogether, what I do disagree with is hard work towards things that are entirely unimportant to us from the start. It seems absurd at face value to strive tirelessly to meet standards of society that are in reality wholly disconnected with our intuitive desire for self-realization and self-expression. Most have had the confidence and the foresight to study what they love to do in college and end up working in careers that they enjoy. Others, succumbing to external pressures from parents, friends, and counselors who have misaligned incentives, end up working in careers that they know they do not enjoy, but unfortunately cannot escape due to the pressures associated with identity and fear.

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An Ode to Noise

This article was originally featured on the El Paso Herald-Post.

I first started playing drums sometime right after my 6th birthday. My dad, after months of being constantly begged, finally decided to buy me my first pair of drumsticks from a local pawn shop.

From that day on, everything in the house became some kind of percussion instrument. I remember drumming on every hard surface I could find, experimenting with timbres and textures, somehow managing to land free lessons with a kid who lived across the street and played on the drumline where I eventually went to high school.

I learned the correct way to hold the sticks, how to think about rhythm and sticking patterns, and even how to do some of the flashy stick tricks I’d use much later on in my playing career.

When I first wanted to join the school band in 6th grade, my teachers were amazed that I knew so much without any formal instruction. I eventually went on to study music for my undergraduate degree, perform with world-renowned musicians, play under the batons of some of the most respected conductors in our day, and eventually earn a living through teaching music full-time.

But of course, any parent who has had a child who played a musical instrument knows that all of this comes with a great cost: lots and lots of noise.

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The Guide for the Financially Perplexed

In 2015, Forbes published an article online outlining what they called 7 Frightening Millennial Money Trends. In in, they detailed some surprising realities, including:

  • Almost half of all millennials are not saving for retirement
  • The millennial generation has a much larger delinquency rate on bills than any other generation
  • Since 2008, student loan debt has risen 84%

The greater and more frightening reality, in my observation, is that these trends don’t only describe the millennial generation. Financial problems like lack of a retirement nest egg, delinquency on bills, and massive students debts are all problems shared by a vast majority of people in the United States. An APA survey in 2014 showed that 72% of individuals living in the United States state that money is among the top stressors in their lives. My question is: Where did all of this come from?

Being close to the millennial generation myself, I first faced the reality of the consequences of poor financial habits after graduating from college. While still in school, I had the opportunity of meeting people from all different majors and backgrounds through my involvement with various student organizations. What I found most startling was how many of my friends had squandered away their earnings and savings potential in the few years following graduation. It seemed that very few of them, despite their apparent aptitude, had figured out how to plan for retirement, invest and save strategically, or determine if a purchase was a smart one or not. I recall one of my personal financial advisors telling me how much of a shame it was that so many people in their early twenties were making such respectable incomes, yet losing it all as a result of poor financial decision making.

In almost all of my work as personal strategist, the first thing I teach people is personal finance. As this is the single-greatest stressor in most people’s lives, I find that if this area can be put under control, many other “problems” we think we have naturally dissipate. For most of my clients, it’s hard to see five to ten years down the road when they don’t know how they’re going to pay all of their bills this year. In those first years after graduating, I spent almost two years studying the best financial books, interviewing the best financial advisors I could find, studying investment strategy, and at one point almost decided to make a career move into financial consulting.

The truth is, we shouldn’t have so many financial problems. What I’ve learned is that a majority of our financial problems stem from a few key areas:

  1. There is no true financial education in school
  2. Most of us lack an awareness of our spending habits
  3. We think that money is far more complicated than it really is

After several conversations with friends and clients, I’ve decided to put this post together for anyone who has ever stressed about money. These ideas are a summation of everything I’ve learned, applied, and taught to clients in the past three years. This strategy is simple, but is nonetheless the result of many hours of study and interviews and has proven to be effective in many of my clients and, not to mention, myself included. It has undertones of Benjamin Graham, Daniel Solin, Warren Buffett, and Dave Ramsey. All in all, this is something that I hope everyone takes for themselves, develops, and executes. Money shouldn’t be the greatest stressor in our lives. The fact that it is is just an indicator of far greater problems in our society. On the contrary, money should be a tool to get us what and where we want. Bearing this in mind, remember that the longer that we defer making serious financial decisions, the far greater our problems become down the road. At the end I’ll also include a reading list of some of the most important books that I’ve learned from for all of you overachievers who want to go learn more about portfolio theory or basic economics. I would love to hear back about questions and points of clarification. This is for all of you, and if there’s anything I can add, please do let me know.

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Our Ethics and Global Warming

The National Wildlife Foundation estimates that the United States is the second largest global contributor of carbon emissions, though only comprising a mere 4.4% of the global population. It seems that the apparent dangers of rising sea levels, devastating coastal floods, damaging wildfires, destructive hurricanes, and increasingly threatening heat waves somehow all seem to fall short in providing the necessary motivation needed for a global coalition on energy reform. The international conversation on global warming can at times seem discouragingly pessimistic. While the scientific community shares the consensus that global warming is indeed a critical global issue, it seems that the movement for an international communal effort has only begun to gain momentum. Meanwhile, newer green technologies are continually competing in broad markets against other long established companies and products. Even worse, unequal tax burdens for existing energy companies, as well as a failure of the market to value green energies to begin with, are only some of the contributing factors that are slowing the global green energy movement.

The reasoning behind the argument against energy reform stems from two basic beliefs: first, that the science is wrong. Surprisingly, there is still a large population of people who either deny the implications of rising carbon emissions or deny the scientific community’s findings altogether. Second, the more pragmatic critics note that while it may indeed be in our best interest to accelerate the transition to more efficient sources of energy, the reality of capitalistic interests, insufficient technologies, and unscalable initiatives seem to be the unsurmountable challenges that many are not yet willing to face.

Considering that the effects of carbon emissions are affecting the planet, this brings up an unavoidable question: Are we humans the only ones who are suffering from this global phenomenon? The International Union for the Conservation of Energy estimates that nearly 21,000 species of animal life are at risk of extinction due to rising CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. While this number does not include plant life, with such a huge proportion of the natural kingdom in such alarming danger, the question must be asked: Do we have an ethical duty not only to ourselves, but also to the other species of life on this planet to do something about our carbon emissions?

In light of these considerations, many countries are making strides in addressing these issues. On January 1st, 2017, The Costa Rican Electricity Institute reported that 98.2% of the country’s electricity generated in 2016 was created by renewable energy sources. Costa Rica’s eclectic mix of efforts include hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass energy sources. Even with such great efforts, Costa Rica currently ranks 42nd in the 2016 Energy Trilemma Index, a study that ranks countries in three domains: Energy Security, Energy Equity, and Environmental Sustainability. Countries leading the globe in renewable sources of energy include Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden, each scoring a perfect A in each of the domains, per the 2016 index. The United States came in 14th place with the weakest domain being Environmental Sustainability, which the council defines as, “…the achievement of supply- and demand-side energy efficiencies and development of energy supply from renewable and other low carbon sources.”

While an all-or-nothing approach seems to be a looming inevitability, the global leaders in sustainability seem to have already come to the realization that the longer we wait for a global coalition, the greater the danger we are in. Countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Costa Rica seem to be hinting to the world that we have more control over our future than we might think. Indeed, this is the mentality that we as Americans should keep as we make decisions that affect lives other than our own. Websites like carbonfund.org suggest ways in which individuals can reduce their own carbon footprint, including ideas for our driving habits, traveling, home ownership, and even weddings. Surprisingly, a 2005 study completed at the University of Chicago discovered that switching to a battery-powered vehicle, like a Toyota Prius, saves, on average, roughly 1 ton of carbon dioxide per driver each year. The study also showed that switching to a plant-based diet saves, on average, 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, a much more inexpensive and healthy option than switching vehicles.

The quality of our lives in the future depends entirely on the decisions that we each individually make today. Perhaps the longer that we wait for an international consensus on global warming before acting, the greater and greater our future challenges may become. The choices we make about what we put into our bodies each day, the kinds of companies that we choose to buy from, and the way that we choose to live our lives as conscious consumers all do indeed affect other conscious, living beings. As we have seen, a little change can go a very long way. I am always disinclined to end essays with quotes, but I am strongly reminded of the anthropologist Margaret Mead who said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The time has come for us to shift the conversation from disappointingly delayed global efforts to the kinds of things we can each do in our own lives to contribute to the greater good. It us up to us to lay down a brighter future for those who will inherit this planet after us.

The Rise and Fall of the Artistic Experience, and What We Can Do About It

This piece was originally featured on The El Paso Herald Post.


I was at an art gallery recently, an event put together by a new friend of mine who is serving as the director of cultural affairs and interim director of the art museum in El Paso, Texas. In a very genuine attempt to combat what I believe to be art’s greatest foe, my friend organized event that was based off of Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory, and actually featured original prints and polaroids of the famed Warhol. The event was complete with a DJ who was spinning on vinyl, a cash bar, and a very diverse crowd that brought people from all different ways of life.

It was an eventful evening, and a very successful attempt to bring the El Paso community together in a way the El Paso community might not have seen before. In a very special way, my friend was inviting the El Paso community to see art in a different way, a way that isn’t commonly understood or accepted, a way that most think can’t exist.

While looking at one of Warhol’s prints, a member of the very flamboyant line of Queen Elizabeths, I overheard a conversation between a couple about their thoughts on Warhol. Now, I’m no stranger to prints, nor am I a stranger to art in any capacity. I have studied music since I was six-years-old, gotten my degree in music and education before my 22nd birthday, been great friends of incredible artists, and consulted for musicians, artists, bands, and creatives from all avenues. Personally, I can honestly say that I understand art in a way that is very unique to me, a way that no one could probably understand no matter how much I tried to write it out or explain it in detail.

The couple was going back and forth about how Warhol was pretentious, about how he was no one special, and how his techniques are not very impressive when you think about the overall development of art over time. Of course, everyone is entitled to opinion, but when people begin referring to those who have been dead longer than I have been alive with such overambitious adjectives like “pretentious,” I think it’s time for us to stop and have a good look at what we’re really doing here.

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A Time to Reinvent Yourself: Forging Your Own Opportunities (and Never Needing a Résumé Again)


I had a conversation with a close friend of mine recently about the advice we wish we had gotten earlier on in life. On the drive home, I began seriously considering what this advice could have been.

When I ask this question to people I interview, (what advice do you wish you had gotten earlier in life?) I’m met with an unbelievably vast array of answers, many of which are seldom in unison with one another. My study of logic has led me to believe that this might just mean that there really is no such thing as that magic advice. There really aren’t any words you could get, “earlier on.” The truth is, whatever advice we get today is the only advice we can act on. Perhaps if we only worked more diligently at putting it to use, we wouldn’t be having so many conversations about, “What if?”

One of the most popular questions I get from readers, usually those who are about to graduate from college, is any variation of, “It’s time to start looking for a job. What do I do?”

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