When I was about six years old at around the time this picture was taken, I asked my mum: “who am I”? And what I meant was: “what is it that makes me me?” She told me that I am the voice in my head, my mind – in essence repeating René Descartes’ supposition about the core of human existence: “I think, therefore I am”. At the time, that explanation made sense but it ultimately set me up for many years of confusion.
What I did not realise then was that excessive thinking makes me sad. For many years, I believed that thinking helped me be successful in life and how could that be bad? After all, if my thoughts were me then how and why would they hurt me? In fact, for the most part, thinking isn’t a problem. On the contrary, it can be very productive. A problem only arises when thinking becomes compulsive and involuntarily. An example of that would be lying awake at night worrying about an exam, business, love, the future or any combination of things that cannot be changed or made better by thinking about them at that time.
For this reason, from a very early age, in fact, for as long as I can remember I went through periods of depression. But neither did I understand why, nor did I realise that many other people did not. For me, sadness was a normal part of being and I didn’t know that it was possible to feel different.
When I went through a period of sadness, I did not want to spend time out in the world with other people. Instead, I created my own world with music and stories: bands, books, films and games, and for a while offered comfort because it distracted me from the sadness I felt. I didn’t realise that those activities didn’t help to alleviate the discomfort I felt – on the contrary, they further encouraged my already restless mind, which in turn caused further depression; a vicious circle. Arguably, my circumstances weren’t easy but they weren’t the problem. The difficulty lay in the unconscious mechanism of repression through which I chose to deal with them. In other words, I covered my emotions with the distractions I found in books, films and music. But at the time, I didn’t know any better.
Love and Music
It was a natural progression then, for me to learn to play the piano, and for many years, playing music seemed to make me happy. In hindsight, it was probably the meditative quality of repeating scales, arpeggios and songs that helped me. I quickly improved and soon picked up other instruments and began to play with other people. Playing with others meant that I had to build people skills, which was difficult for me at first, but consistent practise helped me get better. In that way, music greatly improved my life because I learned to better relate to and even love other people.
However, during my teenage years, some relationships became more complicated, and I needed to find new ways of coping with these new emotions. Drugs seemed like a great solution for a little while but unfortunately, they tended to exaggerate my mood swings. Extreme highs were followed by periods of extreme lows and eventually, I realised that I needed to develop new strategies to get along.
At university, I learned about philosophy and again, there was Descartes followed by other questions about how the mind might be connected to or separate from the body. These were all valuable and valid roads of enquiry but they failed to connect to the experience of what it was like to be me. I could observe how thoughts would trigger emotions (and vice versa) and how they would cause physical sensations in my body so there seemed to be an obvious connection. Something was still missing from my understanding and thinking about these questions yielded no answers or made me happy.
In my final year at university I was faced with the choice of going on tour with Camp Blackfoot or focusing on my exams. I chose to do the latter because it seemed like the right thing for me to do. Since playing in the band didn’t make me happy I decided it was time to try something new and start to lay the foundation for a more traditional career. Perhaps an improved cashflow would also result in improved happiness?
So, I joined Harley-Davidson who had recently opened their European headquarters in Oxford. However, it quickly became clear that I was not cut out for the corporate world. I failed to understand nor did I care for corporate politics. While I enjoyed the work, I didn’t understand the positioning and posturing that was part of the daily routine.
So, I left Harley-Davidson and found myself once again fending for myself. This time, I focused on writing music for film because I already had friends that were working in the space and it was something I loved doing. At the time, I believed that if I could make a living like that, I would be happy. However, happiness eluded me and I did not understand why. I came to believe that suffering was the price I had to pay for creativity. However, if this was true, I did not want it.
It followed a period of reflection during which I did not really know what to do. After all, if neither relationships nor money nor creative pursuits had the power to make me happy then what did? Luckily, a friend needed my help raising money his new documentary project and I welcomed the distraction. I picked up some useful new skills and met fantastic people along the way and before long, I was a film producer.
In 2008, I was working on a new show in New Mexico when the financial crisis hit that demolished the Lehman brothers and put an abrupt end to my project. With no job, I returned to Europe. Suddenly, I was back in Berlin, where I had started and I entered another period of sadness. I felt like a failure because nothing I did seemed to be making me happy. It was time to reevaluate my priorities.
Live gracefully and don’t be a dick.
My mum was happy to have me back in Germany though and for my birthday, she had bought me a little book by Eckhart Tolle. The book was very simple and the message very clear: “You are not your mind”. It somehow made sense to me and so I followed the instructions for a short meditation practice. To my delight I discovered that I could observe my mind which meant that “I” was not my mind.
That was a revelation that changed everything. For the first time in my life I had a tool that made happiness possible. I stuck with it and over the months and years I added my own routines and techniques to the practice the way they worked best for me.
The latest addition to my arsenal is asana, which I started about four years ago. I follow the techniques originally taught by Patthabi Jois with some modifications to include Pranayama and Meditation as described in this article by Gregor Maehle. You can find out more about my practice in this article, which describes my current routine in more detail.
It’s not an easy path to follow and in spite of my efforts, challenges and periods of sadness recur. But they no longer carry the weight they used to and outlook on life and the way I relate to other people has changed for the better. I am more aware of my actions and presence in the world and I do my best to live gracefully and not be a dick.