My Experiments with Fasting

From a young age I have been consistently fasting. There is no boasting in that. It is simply the way I was raised by my angel mother who fasted frequently herself. I believe in and was raised in a faith that encourages its members to fast once a month with a purpose. That monthly fast has always been understood as abstaining from food and drink for 24 hours. We are encouraged to donate what we would have spent on our meals to a fast offering fund which is used to help the less fortunate or those in need.

Our Prophet asked us to fast this past Sunday for those suffering with the effects of COVID-19. It was a wonderful feeling to fast and let go of worldly desires for food, but also to cleanse my mind and my focus.

The term and concept of fasting has become trendy as of late, especially intermittent fasting. From what I can tell most of the benefits being touted are for health and aesthetics, not necessarily always increased spirituality or to seek divine guidance. There are definitely many healthy benefits to fasting that also help increase longevity.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always enjoyed fasting and the spiritual as well as the mental benefits that come with it. For me, I have particularly enjoyed praying and reading scriptures while fasting. Recently I’ve been reading about the Desert Fathers in Egypt who fasted for extraordinary periods of time. Something about their ascetic desert rituals really calls to me. These were men that devoted their lives to monastic service to God. What discipline! What focus! And what devotion! These were men of truth and character.

So that being said, I’m looking forward to using my Coronavirus isolation time to increase the frequency of my fasts. What comes with that is also an increase in prayer, meditation, and scripture study. There is something peaceful and cleansing about fasting. It brings me closer to God, and gives me greater compassion towards my fellow brothers and sisters.

In my recent thoughts about improving my fasts I’ve felt that I should take detailed notes about how I feel, inspiration I receive, and the purpose of my fasts. I’m looking forward to using this time away from the world to draw closer to God and to serve his children. One additional thing I plan on doing this evening, after I start my fast, is writing handwritten letters to my family, friends, and neighbors, to let them know how much I love them, and how much they mean to me. My hope is that we can all find some time to draw closer to God, and each other, through this time of trial. May we each do so in our own way, and in our own truth.

3 Lessons on Success from a Billionaire and an Ascetic Leader

Some might think that Stephen A. Schwarzman and Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t be any further apart from one another. As different as they may seem these two extraordinary men both came from humble beginnings to become world renowned. I just started reading Stephen’s new book and Gandhi’s autobiography at the same time. Even in their early years you can see similarities in their trajectories. In Stephen you have an overly ambitious founder of one of the world’s leading asset managers, and one of the richest men in the world. In Monhandas Karamchand Gandhi, you have an ascetic seeker of truth, political and civil rights activist, and a staunch opponent of colonial rule.

Below are three main similarities that I found in common between the two.

  1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.
  2. Challenge accepted practices
  3. Seek your own truth

1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.

In Stephen’s book What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence, Stephen is undeniably a big picture thinker and yet he also delves into the details. Let me give you an incredible example. While he was a young boy working for his dad’s window drapery business in Pittsburgh he tries to convince his father to expand. He first starts off with the idea of going nationwide. His dad shoots him down but Stephen attempts again by asking what about multiple locations all over the region, or even just multiple stores? He quickly realizes that his dad has no ambitions outside of just running his store. At that young age Stephen comes to the conclusion that some are just managers and others are entrepreneurs. He was already thinking really big as a kid. In his book he explains, “it’s as hard to start and run a small business as it is to start a big one. You will suffer the same toll financially and psychologically as you bludgeon it into existence. It’s hard to raise the money and to find the right people. So if you’re going to dedicate your life to a business, which is the only way it will ever work, you should choose one with the potential to be huge.”

Gandhi in his own right was also a big thinker. You don’t free an entire colonized country like India from Imperial Britain without some outsized ideas and aspirations. That being said, even early on, before he was the great social reformer that we now know, he had big plans. He came from a working class family in India. His father died while he was young. Gandhi left his single mother, his young wife (they were married at 13), and his newborn child to go study in England in hopes of becoming a barrister. He left everything he knew at great expense to his family and started a life that was so foreign from what he knew, all because he dared to dream. He was bold and audacious even while having a shy personality. He took a large risk and it was much larger than most around him were willing to take. Both he and Steven started in small humble places, but thought about getting to bigger and better.

2. Challenge accepted practices

The best example of this is how Stephen managed to change the rules at Yale for visitations from members of the opposite sex. In his book he states, “In my final year [at Yale], I decided to take on the biggest issue of all for Yale’s men: the 268-year old parietal rules that forbade women staying overnight in a dorm room. ” Now I’m not saying he used his abilities for all the right reasons but he managed to change these rules by outsmarting the school administrators. He knew he couldn’t discuss changing the rules with them so he decided to do a survey of students, who majoritively supported abolishing the old rules. Steven then published the results in the student paper with supporting reasons. The Yale administrators folded. What most people would just accept as the way things were, Stephen sought to change. He challenged conventionally accepted practices over and over again with astonishing results.

Gandhi didn’t fully accept the traditional practices of his day despite what some may think of him. He was definitely a non-conformist and that is obvious from the beginning of his autobiography. He came from a vegetarian and deeply religious family and yet in his youth he had secretly been eating meat, smoking cigarettes, and even ended up in a brothel. Fortunately for him and future admirers of the leader, nothing happened in the brothel. To be clear he had firm values and felt much guilt because of his wayward ways, and mostly for disobeying his parents. What really shows Gandhi’s grit early in his life is a prime example of his disregard for the way things are just accepted by everyone else. In Gandhi’s quest to leave India for England he was confronted by people of his caste who forbade him to leave to England. Gandhi was reprimanded, looked down upon by others around him, and the leaders of his group. They told him that people of his caste don’t leave India to study abroad. Gandhi explains in the book how he just didn’t care what they thought. It is interesting to see how even in his youth he didn’t accept what everyone told him was the way things were done. He simply left. He didn’t care about their antiquated rules. He never looked back.

3. Seek your own truth

Stephen created his success by seeking for opportunities that were different than people around him. He took his own path which was really unique at the time. From his average high school and town he managed to get into a premier Ivy league school on his own. While a college student at Yale he found grueling work on cargo ships in the summer that traveled the world. He joined the army reserves during Vietnam and turned in leaders who were stealing food and selling it, which earned him recognition from a colonel. He went on to Harvard Business School but was so disappointed by the curriculum, the teachers, and the administration, that he complained about it to the Dean of Harvard Business School who flat out asked him, “Mr. Schwarzman, have you always been a misfit?” No matter where he went Steven was trying to get to the truth of things in his own unique way. He was forging his path of truth.

Gandhi was also seeking for his own truth. The subtitle of his book is, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi displayed an ability as mentioned previously to look outside of himself and what others thought to be the conventional way of life. His leaving his homeland, mother, wife and young child to go study was very unconventional for someone of his background. This is further evidenced by the resistance of others in his caste. He mentions though how he was interested and influenced by three “moderns” as he calls them. He was influenced by a young man named Raychandbhai who was a savant and also a wise spiritual man that he knew. The other two were “Tolstoy by his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You; and Ruskin by his Unto the Last.” For an Indian man such as Gandhi to be reading and influenced by these men says something. It shows that we was seeking for truth well beyond the world his neighbors and friends were confined to. He even later named one of his South African farms after Tolstoy. He was seeking not just in Hindu texts from his background but in the Qur’an and the Bible as well.

These two men although worlds apart had many similar characteristics that helped them in their early years in life. So we find that principles of truth and character are not limited to race, gender, nationality, geography, or wealth. They transcend space and time and are available to all. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jewish-American billionaire or an Ascetic spiritual leader, these principles can be applied by all who are willing.

Faith and Remembrance

In the trying times that our world is under it is common and healthy to ask for a why. What is the purpose and what is the meaning to all of the fear, and suffering we are witnessing and some of us experiencing? We anguish at those we love who are worried and we see the news of hopelessness as many have lost jobs and are trying to figure out their next steps.

No one on this earth has a true grasp of the why. That is for our Creator to know and for us to maneuver through with faith. If we had a deep knowledge and fundamental understanding of the why it would impede our ability to place faith in him who is our Father.

In the same way that my young children put all of their trust and faith in me because they recognize subconsciously what they don’t know, and I am a source of wisdom and understanding, so it is with our Heavenly Father to us. But as children get older, usually in their teenage years, they come to the realization that they know everything about life and don’t need an old man’s wisdom. In fact they believe they know more than their Father.

Our Heavenly Father reminds who has all knowledge and power. It is important for us to remember. Remembrance is a part of faith. Remember the times when we felt the hand of the Divine intervening in our lives. Through this remembrance we can build our faith. Sometimes we forget God in the hustle and bustle of our daily grind.

God has a way of slowing things down and helping us to remember. He does it many ways but sometimes he can do it to everyone all at once and remind us who is in control, and in who we need to place our faith.

Simeon Stylites

A man lived on top of a pillar for 37 years. You read that right. He lived 50 feet in the air on top of a 10 foot square pillar. Not only did he live there, he was exposed to the elements. He was exposed to the winter and summer near Aleppo, in what is now modern day Syria. Thirty six degree Fahrenheit average lows in the winter and 98 degree average highs in the summer. Sometimes it snows and sometimes it’s over 100 degrees in the summer. Rain or shine, he stayed on his pillar.

He was born Simeon around the year 390 A.D. in Sis, found in modern day Turkey. The picture above is what is left of the pillar he stood on. After a bombing by Russian military forces in 2016 during the ongoing Syrian war the pillar has been destroyed.

Christianity was growing rapidly in Simeon’s lifetime and was becoming openly accepted by rulers and leaders. Simeon, at a young age was so moved by reading the Beatitudes that it sparked his lifelong quest for truth. This small event in his life is an extraordinary example of the power of scripture. The word of God in written form has the power to change the trajectory of lives in sometimes rather spectacular ways. Who would’ve thought that a young boy influenced by the beatitudes would go on to influence the world in such a profound way? This is very similar to the experience of Joseph Smith, the latter day prophet, after reading a passage in the book of James.

Simeon tried to join a monastery in Egypt but was rejected because of the extremeness of his asceticism. That is really saying something about Simeon’s level of devotion to his cause if Monk’s were thinking he was taking things too far. He later fasted during the entire period of lent, nearly died, and because of this immortal feat became a fairly popular guy. He fled the fame for isolation and prayer to God and had followers that wouldn’t leave him alone. He eventually retreated to a pillar in an old city but when followers still came to him, he retreated to an even higher pillar about 50 feet high. Atop the pillar Simeon would pray and give sermons to the crowds that came to hear from him. These followers included Roman emperors and other leaders that sought his counsel. So revered to believers in Christ that Simeon today is venerated as a Saint in the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Church.

I’m not one to judge and I believe there is truth to be had from everyone. I like to learn from other people and I genuinely want to know their perspectives. Where they come from? How they were raised? Why they think the way they do? Why they do the things they do? It is no different with Simeon Stylites. By the way, stylites is derived from the ecclesiastical Greek term for pillar, hence the appellation.

When I first heard of Simeon’s story my first impression was how is this even possible? After further research my thoughts shifted to this is an impressive man with complete control of his mind and body. As I read further I wanted to understand the why. After more reading I’ve come to the conclusion that his reason was tied to his search for God, truth, and meaning. This was Simeon’s quest for learning and divine guidance. He shunned the throngs of followers not because he was mean. He was seeking for God and truth and not fame or money. He wanted to hear the inspiration of the divine or as modern Christians know, the influence of the Holy Ghost. I’m sure some were attracted to him because of his extreme asceticism and the novelty of what he was doing. That is human nature. There were probably others who wanted to be close to learn from him. He had many imitators. So many that people were imitating him for centuries. Yes, for hundreds of years there were stylites. Yet through the fame Simeon found truth in isolation and in constant prayer and meditation.

What is the lesson to be learned from Simeon? What is the application to our modern day? After all, this is why we read and study. It is for learning, yes, but more importantly to change our behavior and for application. For me there are several great lessons to learn from Simeon.

First, the human spirit is something that we don’t really understand. Simeon proves that there is no limit to what the mind and body can overcome and achieve when they are working towards a goal.

Second, it is incredible to see a Christian who can be in the world yet also be so separate from it in his living and devotion. Again, is this the approach that I would take? No, but that doesn’t matter, and I have a different world view, different experiences, and different beliefs. Also I believe periods of isolation are healthy, but then I also enjoy periods of being surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors. I am a social being for sure. Before anyone confuses or misinterprets what I am writing, Simeon did perform daily sermons from his pillar and he also converted many Arabs to Christianity. He was also a social, loving person.

In a day where I hear people bemoaning the Coronavirus isolation, and having to be inside all day, I wonder how Simeon would view our modern culture and our application of Christianity. I imagine that he would first recognize that we are weak in many ways and highly distracted by fleeting materialism. Could we look at his example and extract some of the devotional habits to apply into our lives? Could we be more willing to pray and meditate and focus less on the external and more on the internal?

Could we overcome our worldly habits and lust for sex, food, and comforts? I certainly don’t think that I could have the devotion, fortitude and discipline of a Simeon, not by any means am I even close. But I would like to be more disciplined in my devotion. So in my life, I think I can fast more. Fast earnestly and try not to focus so much on my hunger, but on my prayers for others and for those suffering in this pandemic.

I can dim my lustful and materialistic thoughts, and focus my thoughts on serving my fellow brothers and sisters in their time of need. I could do as Simeon and focus on studying and teaching those around me what I know. Most importantly I could deepen my devotion to God and his children by seeking ways to inspire and uplift others.

If you think about it, all of his followers looked up to Simeon. They looked up to his example in a figurative way, but even emperors had to physically look up to him. He was a light set on a hill that brought more people closer to Jesus Christ by just living on pillar. May we all reach upward and lift others eyes upward as well.

Deep Work

About a week ago I finished a book that caused me to have a paradigm shift. That’s saying something considering how much I read. I like to read. That’s a lie. I love to read. I’m an unapologetic bibliophile. My wife thinks it’s disease. I think it’s a gift. I digress.

Back to the point of this post. The book I finished that caused a change in my worldview is Cal NewPort’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. As you can tell by the first paragraph I’m not a distracted person. That is probably why I so greatly enjoyed this book, I needed it. Like a moth to a flame I read through this book and enjoyed every morsel of research and devoured each chapter.

Cal is unique individual. He seems to have a predisposition to cut through the noise and get to the meat of things. From the descriptions he gave about how many research papers he publishes each year to his tenured track at Georgetown University, this guy means business. His style is easy to read and his thoughts are so clear that I sometimes had to pause and appreciate their profound importance.

What was it about this book that changed my thinking? Cal makes the point early on that we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with useless information, phone notifications, banner ads, and trivial alerts. Our brains are addicted to social media code that is written to lure us into a time suck vortex. We clicked on Facebook and Instagram to quickly check in only to later realize we’ve spent several hours down a digital rabbit hole and forgot to work on that project.

Now, that was all stuff I had heard before. Social media is bad and a waste of time, blah, blah, blah. I knew that, that’s why I spend so little time on it. At least that’s what I tell myself. Where the book and his ideas really shine is when Cal explains that the ability to do deep, meaningful, distraction-free work is a special ability. An ability that will be highly sought after and will be something akin to a superhero power. Cal goes on and on about various tools, tips, and methods to deep work but the concept of deep work being unique and sought after is what made it interesting to me.

I became even more intrigued when Cal started explaining the difference between what he calls shallow work and deep work. This explanation hit me so hard that I came to the realization that most of what I do is shallow work. What? I do shallow work? Yes, and so do you. Yes you. You’re doing shallow work.

So what is the difference between deep and shallow work? I thought you’d never ask. Shallow work is defined by its ability to be easily replicated. Or said otherwise by Cal, the ability for you to train a recent college grad to do the same work. In essence, the quicker the recent college grad can be trained to do your work, the shallower it is. The more difficult it is for your work to be replicated, the deeper the work you are doing. If you can train Parker to do you your job as effectively as you can in a week or two, your job security might be in trouble. If it will take years of training to get Parker to where you are and there is a chance he may never get there, then you my friend are doing work that is both deep and providing you some job security. Well this is assuming your job is necessary and/or in demand in the marketplace.

I’m oversimplifying what is a well thought out book to give you some of the broader points. Deep work is meaningful work. It is greatly satisfying work. It usually doesn’t involve filing papers or filling out generic forms. There is nothing wrong with doing those things as a job, but it is not deep work. Deep work usually involves several layers of critical thinking, creativity, and imagination. It is the kind of work that if done consistently could change your life. It’s obvious you don’t want to waste your life just merely being entertained. That’s not being productive. But we also fool ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when in reality we are not really working, or worse, we are bogged down in shallow unimportant work.

So what is the solution? The solution is to be brutally honest with ourselves and ask hard questions. How much time am I really working in an 8 hour day? How much of the time when I am supposedly working am I doing deep work as opposed to shallow work? If I’m wasting time with shallow work is there anyway that I can minimize it or find a way to delegate it?

The other thing that is great about this concept is that it trickles down to every other aspect in your life. If you can be brutally honest about how you are spending your time and whether or not you are doing the most important thing, you will start to ask yourself questions like I did. Is this the best time of day for me to focus on this? Turns out it’s better for me to focus on the really hard things earlier in the day. Is this work really something that I need to or should I delegate this? What is the most important work that I could be doing right now?

It’s hard enough to face the hard truth of how little we actually work and how much time we waste with things that are not important. It’s taking you to a whole other level to analyze your “work” and see whether it is deep meaningful work or frivolous shallow work. This is something that is varied from occupation to occupation, but most people when honest with themselves know the difference.

Reading this book has changed the way I perceive and analyze the work I am doing. It has also helped me to be more honest with myself and has helped me to realize how much of my life is skewed by my own perception of what I think I am doing, and not necessarily what my time and results actually show.

What I have also found is that when I do deep work, work that challenges me in many ways, it is then that I am happiest. When I meet resistance with focus and get lost or entranced in what I am doing, that is when joy melds with productivity. May we all find more moments of blissful deep work.

Coronavirus and a Reset

I’ve read a few articles recently that have discussed the idea of this pandemic being some form of a reset, and others touting an economic equalizer. I’m not sure about an equalizer but if there is anything I have learned in all my years of living it’s that through trials and tribulations come the greatest opportunities for growth and improvement. The Covid-19 disease has already and will continue to change the world as we know it.

Will this be a difficult time for many? Undoubtedly. Everyone will be affected by this in some form or another, if they haven’t already. You can’t have 3.28 million people in America file for unemployment benefits in one week without it having ripple effects. Bloomberg news reported that the number filing for unemployment in Norway jumped 350% and the unemployment rate shot up to 10.4%. This is all in the past two weeks! This is just the beginning and the road ahead will be full of potholes and obstacles for many of us.

Does this mean that everything is gloom and doom from here on out? No of course not. There will be a turning point and things will eventually get better. I’m a believer in the future of the United States of America. I’m also a believer in the future of our world and all of it’s beautiful countries and peoples. Hell, I’m a believer in the human spirit in general, and most of all I’m a believer in human ingenuity. Don’t ever bet against people and their ability to overcome obstacles that stand in their way.

This reminds me of a fantastic book I read recently written by Ryan Holiday titled The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. The title and concept of the book is based on a Marcus Aurelius quote which reads, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I love everything about that quote. It speaks to my very soul.

Humans are known for adapting and overcoming. That’s what makes us different than other species. We adapt like no other. We live on every climate on the earth and maybe to our own detriment we build like no other species can. You can’t walk through New York, Paris, Shanghai or any major city and not be amazed at the sheer complexity and grandiosity of human creativity and imagination.

You see human ingenuity in the foods, the clothes, the signs, the lights, the cars, the streets, the skyscrapers, and just about everything you see in a major city is a testament to the hand of God working through the human mind.

So am I optimistic about the future. You better believe I am. It’s going to be better than anything we know now. Similar to how we look at the days of yore and lament at the thought of no air conditioning, cars, planes, medicine and dentistry without anesthesia. We will look back at this time and say “that was crazy, but we survived.” The reality is we won’t just survive it but but we will thrive through it.

One day we will look at a chart of the S&P 500 and this whole time period will simply be a blip on the chart. I don’t mean that to make light of the situation but only to point out that in the annals of time and history it will be small. To us, and as we live through the events, it will be everything in that moment. Perspective is everything. Eternal perspective is everything.

That being said after the threat of this virus has subsided, things will look different. Jobs will look different. There will be new opportunities for new jobs and there will also be more liquidity in our economic system due to the Federal Reserve and Congress’ unprecedented actions. There will be more access to cheap money than we have ever known before. With that change will come repercussions that we will have to deal with for years after the crisis.

I’m not sure what unemployment will look like over the next several years but some, including our Treasury Secretary, are saying that it could get to as high as 20%. If that’s the case the economy will shift and some industries will die and new ones will emerge.

One obvious change in the workforce that I can see because of all of this is the increase in remote workers. This has been a great worldwide experiment in remote productivity. If the numbers come back that some companies have been able to thrive in this environment and some employees have even improved productivity, then there is no looking back.

Another outcome that I see unfolding now is an even faster shift from face to face brick and mortar retail to more online stores and more delivery options. We will be a world of people huddled and more isolated in our homes as we can have access to everything we want, when we want. We’ve become little emperors and empresses with the world in the palm of our hands. If Mansa Musa could see me now!

In the end, I’m still not exactly sure how all of this plays out but if history is an indication all world economies will decline for a period and then eventually move higher. The same can be said for our resilience as a people. We will take a hit, people will die, and suffering is inevitable, but we will move on and be stronger because of it.

I’m a believer in purpose. Everything has a purpose. I know that it is hard to find purpose in suffering and loss. There have been times in my life where I have gone through great suffering that seemed to have no purpose or reason. It is only decades later that I am able to see a snippet of the great Creator’s plan for my life. In the moment we never have full context, and the wisdom that comes with retrospection and a fuller knowledge of other forces at work.

There are brighter days ahead and growth to be had both, spiritually and temporally. I’m more grateful now for the little things in life. The fresh air, the sun, the moon, my loved ones, friends, and the use of my senses to name a few. Cherish what you have. There is always space for gratitude. Things will get better. As far as a reset. Sure. Whatever we call it, a reset, a fresh start, time for change, it will all be new and exciting and an opportunity to discover or rediscover who we are, why we are here, and where we are going.