Last year, in the pre-dawn hours of an early spring day, a wave of anxiety and despair pulled me to the ground as I was heading out to the gym for my morning workout. My life, already teetering on the edge, felt like it had imploded the day before. This felt like the thing that would break me.
As I lay on the floor, a plan emerged. I would end the pain by jumping from the window. One last glorious flight. I’d end it all. I would spare everyone the burden of my existence and my failures.
Obviously, that’s not how it went down. Something interrupted that moment. Within a few minutes, I was off the floor and headed to the gym. That was the last time I contemplated taking my own life.
Not because things miraculously got better. In fact, they got worse. But in that moment, something within me seemed to shift in a more permanent way.
In fact, it feels weird to write about this now. I feel so far removed from that moment by both time and emotion, almost as if I was a different person then. In many ways, I was.
What Saved My Life
What was the interruption that shifted my destiny? If this were a movie, the scene might play out with a perfectly-timed phone call, or a knock at the door. Perhaps a smile from a stranger.
It was none of those things. It was nothing visible and nothing from the exterior.
The shift happened within.
A confluence of things happened within a few brief moments. With the perspective of time and distance, I feel I can share it with more clarity. And in the wake of recent high-profile suicides, it feels necessary to speak up and share the story from that foggy April morning.
I can distill it into a confluence of 3 factors.
(1) THE PULL OF MY ROUTINE
My Fitness First ritual is the cornerstone of my morning routine. I hadn’t skipped a morning workout since August 25, 2013. That’s a long streak, that, for better or for worse, has become a crucial component of my identity. I built on that streak to develop other daily rituals, including journaling, writing, meditation, walking, and blogging.
Each of those rituals meet several needs, but the streaks themselves clearly meet my needs for significance and certainty. I take pride in my consistency and diligence. And the morning routine gives me something certain in a tumultuous world.
That said, there are times when I wondered if my obsession with maintaining my streaks was
healthy. People close to me have asked: would it kill you to take one day off?
The honest answer is: perhaps it might have.
When Vice Becomes Virtue
As I lay on the floor and got clear on my plan to jump, I heard a voice of doubt:
What makes you think you won’t fuck this up too?
Sometimes it is wise to listen to your doubts. If I failed, I would likely be paralyzed. And I would have given up my streak for nothing.
I am a master at procrastination, and I applied it to my advantage here. I told myself that I had to honor my commitment to fitness first by going to the gym. If I still wanted to fly out the window when I returned, I could do it then. I got up and headed out the door, walked down the 12 flights to my lobby, stepped outside and headed to the gym.
Of course, within a few minutes of stepping outside my mood began to shift. Exercise is a proven way to improve mood and motivation. By the time I finished my workout my perspective was more clear and I had accessed a state of more resourcefulness. I no longer felt the need to end my life.
Lesson: Ego Can Be a Good Thing
Here’s the thing: even though my rational brain knows that physical activity is the best way to shift my energy, that cognitive understanding wasn’t enough to get me off the floor in my moment of despair.
What moved me was the pull of my streak — the significance I derive from it and attach to it. We typically assign “ego” a negative connotation, but here it pulled me to something positive.
I made a pact with myself that day that I would not make any major decisions — especially irreversible decisions — without first moving my body. In fact, when I even begin to feel myself slip into a negative spiral, I stop what I’m doing and go for a walk. No matter what’s happening in my life and how much it feels like I can’t control, I know that I can control my own body and how I move it. And moving it shifts my mood.
Lesson: Finding a New Lever of Control
One of the emotional drivers of suicide is the need for control. In a moment when your life feels like it’s spinning in chaos and you have no control, taking your own life can feel like the ultimate play for control.
In my streaks, I found something else over which I could exercise control.
(2) CREATING SPACE
It’s harder to break a habit than to create a habit.
Among the hardest habits to break are our negative thoughts and beliefs. These are our longest-entrenched habits.
When I started my Fitness First ritual, my main outcome was to break my poor morning habits of hitting snooze and getting sucked into my email and social media feeds.
Over time, “Fitness First” became about more than physical fitness. It became a time for me to condition my body, mind, and spirit.
The most important muscle I work daily is the muscle of creating space for “deep work” — both the creative thought work that lies at the heart of productivity and the inner work of examining my patterns of negative thoughts and beliefs.
Creating space is hard work because it requires triumph over the mind; it demands staying in the uncomfortable place that is both empty of distractions and full with voices and thoughts.
More than any specific ritual that saved me that morning, it was this practice of creating space that was the true hero.
Even within the dark tunnel of hopelessness, I could see a glimmer of light. All you need is one glimmer of light to break the darkness. Amidst the swirling voices of fear and doubt, I heard the still, small voice of wisdom and truth.
Wisdom says to find your purpose in your pain. But you can only find your purpose if you’re willing to stay in the pain.
Over weeks, months, and years of daily workouts, I had built the strength to stay.
Lesson: Breaking the Habit of Escape
Suicide, at its most fundamental, is the ultimate path of escape from pain. We can defeat its impulse by building the strength to stay.
(3) MAKING MEANING
As I lay on the floor of my living room, I heard the voices in my head sing their familiar symphony:
I am disappointed in you. You had every advantage; how did you fuck it up so royally? You should know better. You should have done better. What’s wrong with you?
As I replayed every mistake and every failure, my eyes flooded with tears. My body filled with a shame so heavy that its weight anchored me to the floor. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move.
Slowly, in the space created by my breath, I got outside myself. I tapped into a bigger picture. I heard the stirrings of the still, small voice repeat some well-worn platitudes:
You are not your circumstances.
In a flash, I began to own this. From my journal:
This circumstance doesn’t define me. It doesn’t diminish my worth or make me unloveable. It doesn’t diminish the value of my sacred work.
If I jump, then this circumstance — this temporary circumstance — wins. Wins in a way that is permanent.
If I jump, there will be no opportunity for me to stage a comeback. No opportunity for me to declare victory.
If I jump, then this circumstance will define me. My surrender to this temporary circumstance will be final.
Everything happens for a reason and a purpose and it serves you.
This is one of my favorite quotes from Tony Robbins. In that moment, I didn’t need to know what the purpose was, or how this would serve me. I only needed to trust and open to the fact that this moment was designed to teach me something that I could use in the future.
The value lies not in the answers we give, but in the questions we ask. Questions are the lens that focus our attention.
You see what you seek.
What was this here to teach me? What am I meant to learn from this?
In your pain lies your purpose.
Dr. Eric Maisel writes that in natural psychology, making meaning is the key to emotional health and personal satisfaction. We experience a shift when we go from seeking meaning in something to making meaning.
In that moment I saw that this was an opportunity to create that shift. I had the power to make meaning from this, to shift my narrative.
From my journal:
I made some poor judgments. I failed in many ways.
But I am not a failure.
This will not define me.
I remembered a prayer I heard from Tara Brach:
May this moment serve my awakening.
The shift in perspective from myself to how I could possibly use this to serve others changed the meaning around this moment and every challenge that followed.
Even as the negative thoughts swirled in my head, I recognized that I had a choice.
I can choose to be defined by this circumstance, or by how I recover and rebuild from this.
I choose to find purpose in this pain, to create meaning that transcends my experience.
Dr. Maisel argues that emotional states like depression and anxiety — states that can lead people to suicide — are not “illnesses” to be managed with drugs, but really crises of meaning. This resonates with me. Without meaning, life feels futile.
Lesson: Make Meaning by Shifting the Focus to Others
Meaning exists in the realm outside ourselves. We find it in contribution and service. In that moment, I was able to shift the meaning. I began to see beyond my experience and open to ways I could use this moment to serve others.
RITUALS AND THE POWER OF THE PAUSE
All of this unfolded in the pause.
Our culture deludes us into the false belief that there is no time to pause in our days or in our lives. In our slower moments, we know this is false; when we are in our truth, we see the places to pause. But when we are sucked into the spiral of chaos we forget about the pause.
This takes us back to what saved me in that moment: my rituals.
It was not just the pull of my streak, or the conditioning of my mind to reinforce the wisdom that found its voice when I most needed it. And it was more than the deep work.
Yes, all of these elements were there. But what saved me was something bigger, and also less visible: the pause.
Fitness, meditation and writing are not “habits” — they are not automatic, unconscious reactions to a stimulus.
One of the first things I teach in The Ritual Revolution is that habits are automatic, unconscious responses to a stimulus.
To paraphrase the quote attributed to Viktor Frankl,
Between stimulus and response lies a pause. In that pause lies choice. In that choice lies freedom.
Rituals are intentional acts designed to break habits. A ritual requires a pause.
The Pause Becomes the Habit
It turns out that through months and years of consistent daily practice, through diligent exercise of the muscle to create space, my rituals did create a habit: the habit of a pause.
In that moment, the pause itself was the automatic response to the trigger of my anxiety and despair.
In that pause, I found clarity. In that pause, I heard the still, small voice of the wisdom within. In that pause, I saw just enough of a glimmer of light to renew my trust that the darkness would not last forever.
That was all I needed. And in that, I found my purpose: To help you create the habit of pause. To help you cultivate the strength to stay long enough to find the purpose in your pain, the wisdom in your experience, and the power of your truth.
Thank you for reading.
- Dr. Eric Maisel, Why Smart People Hurt, 2013, page xiv-xv). ↩
- Viktor Frankl has been credited with saying: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” However, according to Quote Investigator, this is unverified. ↩