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  • Selva Lawler

#16 - Always Mind Your Surroundings

The greasy pools of fat from whatever substance occupying that iconic McDonald's white to-go bag stained and seeped through the bag in a palpable way. Whatever was in that bag, it certainly didn’t constitute my definition of food. As a kid and through college, that fast food smell would have been incredibly intoxicating. But now? I found the stench utterly nauseating. Every instinct inside of me was shrieking, "Baño!" At the very least, where's a good old fashioned purge bucket when you need one?

"In 2019, who in their right mind eats at McDonald's?" my inner monologue queried. McDonald’s violated virtually every canon in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. I rattled the following violations of Food Rules off the top of my head without even needing to consult Pollan’s manual:

  • Eat only foods that will eventually rot

  • Avoid foods you see advertised on tv

  • Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food

  • It's not food if it's called by the same name in every language (like say, a Big Mac) 

  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader can't pronounce

  • If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.

Doing some rough, back of the envelope math, I calculated that it must have been at least half a dozen years since my last visit to Mickey D's. Golden Arches? Nothing was golden about in my book. Apart from someone wanting to increase the protruding arch in their gut, and McDonald's equipping its patrons with approximately 3.26 minutes of mouth pleasure (before feeling ghastly the next 12+ hours), I can’t and won't wax poetically about McDonald’s redeeming qualities.

In the area where I’m originally from - the Main Line, just outside the City of Philadelphia - several McDonald’s franchises have up and vanished like a fart in the wind. I do my best not to harbor ill will towards anyone or anything (needless to say, I have a lot of improvement to do when it comes to this), but if McDonald’s is going to continuously be part of the problem in fostering an unhealthy way of eating and living, and not part of the solution, bon voyage!

And yet, how much of McDonald’s purported downfall was my own confirmation bias? In speaking with a wealth management advisor friend, I learned that McDonald's recently had an extremely profitable quarter. McDonald’s is rolling out far more powerful technology and making a much more robust in-app experience, and is poised to continue dominating the landscape and increase their market share. McDonald’s earnings are staggering. News of McDonald’s demise in my mind was greatly exaggerated. That was part of a narrative that I wanted to construct, although one not rooted in reality. That belief was siloed and bounced around in the echo chambers of my own brain until I received irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

The woman carrying the McDonald’s bag was obese - not morbidly obese, but noticeably, undeniably obese in a way in America that is all too common and sadly not even remotely surprising. Seated down in the plane next to me, her over-shaped body encroached into my area. I couldn’t reasonably get upset over this. Where else could she go? On the spectrum of annoyances, this was pretty small potatoes. 

The transgressions continued. Before the flight and throughout the flight she would use her smartphone to make calls and play videos at an obnoxious level without any headphones. 

Drinking on a 6 AM flight? Granted, perhaps drinking is the only way for certain people to tolerate a 6 AM flight. In her case, drinking hard alcohol was on the proverbial menu and being ordered repeatedly.

The perfume she had on overwhelmed me. Enveloped in this haze, I could barely breathe. Was it possible that the top of the perfume bottle was loose and that she inadvertently doused herself with the entire bottle? How could any reasonable or unreasonable person think that taking a shower in perfume smelled nice? 

The coup de grâce was when her shoes came off, with one of her feet now stationed in the area directly in front of my seat. Naturally the socks came off as well. That one really gets my goat. 🐐

If we were playing some sort of Worst-Passenger-on-an-Airplane Bingo, with every travel violation as its own separate spot on the board, I reckon I had B-I-N-G-O horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. I figured that I only needed O-44 and every spot on my board would be covered. 

Why mention all of this? Or any of it? To fat shame some anonymous person? Not at all. To spearhead some global initiative about eating properly and exercising? There are tons of amazing resources already out there, nor is this some unsolvable mystery. If you haven’t read Pollan’s Food Rules, it’s by no means perfect and there are certain rules which I don’t adhere to or objections that I would raise. I nonetheless highly recommend it. It will take you all of 35 minutes to read, and it is a remarkable reminder about how to correctly fuel our bodies. If you want to see Exhibit A of Food Rules in action, you could always come (back) to SpiritQuest, where you can eat as much healthy, organic food as your heart desires, and almost assuredly lose weight. 

Thankfully, it was only a 2.5-hour flight. I slept through some of it. And I’m grateful that it reminded me of one of my favorite lines from Batman Begins that I forget or don’t implement all too often. “Always mind your surroundings," Ra's al Ghul instructs a fledgling Bruce Wayne. 

As someone who doesn’t always mind my surroundings, the woman’s conduct on the plane was so egregious to me that I noticed. I’m probably below average when it comes to minding my surroundings. I don’t consider myself to be hypervigilant. As my example of erroneously celebrating the ruination of McDonald’s demonstrates, I have plenty of blind spots. 

When it comes to being surrounded by a positive community, I feel like I’ve hit the cosmic jackpot. The level of high character, high integrity people in my life has been a blessing beyond words. My parents, brothers, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, and grandparents are all sublime. I’ve had wonderful teachers. Incredible grade school and high school friends. Fantastic college roommates. Ideal study abroad companions. Kindhearted coworkers who I sincerely admire who have done their best to empower me to reach my potential. 

don Howard once explained to me that the Sanctuary is like a magnet and that SpiritQuest and our work has magnetic properties. Others have told me that SpiritQuest is like a planet that gets to set its own gravity. What is the core formula for that gravity? 9.8 m/s2? Not quite. Rather, it’s how our mission - para el bien de todos! - resonates with kindred spirits from all different walks of life.

And with that gravity comes a gravitational pull. Accordingly, we attract an abundance of phenomenal people. We do our best to put out authenticity, truth, value, love, and be of service, and in a reciprocal way we get that back tenfold, one hundred-fold, one million-fold by the people that come to do the work. The amount of fascinating, highly conscious, growth-minded people that come to the Sanctuary who have befriended me has been unbelievable. 

In reflecting on minding my surroundings, I think about common questions like: who, what, where, when, why, and how. I’ll do my best to break it down.

Who? As Tim Ferriss reasons, you are the average of the five people with whom you most associate. I've read that everyone should adopt a mentality like you are appointing a group of select people to serve as the Board of Directors to provide guidance and direction for your life. 

The compounding benefits of fostering those kinds of relationships and friendships are massively underrated. The dividends are perpetual and continue to increase and increase. Surrounding yourself by exceedingly loving, conscious people who are supremely devoted to helping you reach your potential is the gift that keeps on giving. The community you cultivate will completely shape your life...for good or for ill.

What? What kind of stuff surrounds you? How much stuff do you really need? There’s a degree of truth to the expression “the things you own end up owning you,” but I don't totally agree with that. In sharing a (somewhat embarrassing) personal vignette, I bought ridiculously expensive LV shades a while back. Like with any purchase, there’s an opportunity cost, and in recognizing how many mosquito nets I could have purchased to reduce malaria in sub-Saharan Africa instead of those shades was and still is humbling. To my defense, I lived in sunny California for 5 years and used those sunglasses a lot. I utilized them, they’re very high quality, and I've been very grateful for them. 

So is every material thing bad? Of course not. And you don’t need to adhere to a Mother Teresa style lifetime vow of poverty to have a life well lived. Still, an examination of what kind of things are surrounding you and your relationship to them is a worthwhile endeavor. Success is not excess. In many respects, less is more, and there is a deep satisfaction to be found in the simplification of life. 

Where? “I don't want to be a product of my environment,” Frank Costello declares in The Departed“I want my environment to be a product of me.” While I don’t dispute that certain people are so influential that they can dramatically shape their surroundings in a Frank Costello, gangster mob kind of way, that's very, very rare. If you find yourself in a lousy, toxic environment, and think that won’t drag you down to some degree, you’re delusional. 

Allow me to get back to the topic of food while I’m still on my 50-foot high horse. 🐎 An article that I read posits that those of us that think that we have willpower and self-control are kidding ourselves. At the very least, leaning on willpower is a slippery slope. The article contends that people that pass up the cupcake don’t have more self-control than the person that scarfs down one (or a dozen). They simply view the cupcake as poison. Getting back to food, if you continuously surround yourself by unhealthy food, eventually you’ll rationalize an excuse to eat it. And that excuse is not going to serve you well, for as Ferriss correctly explains, you can’t outrun your mouth.

A number of people that come to SpiritQuest remark about how incredible the SpiritQuest community is at the Sanctuary, tell me that their community back home is deeply depressing, and how they yearn to live in an area with more open-hearted, growth mindset people. Well, you can move! Are there extenuating circumstances for certain people that make this difficult or undesirable? Of course. If you have children, that ratchets up the degree of difficulty. If there’s a sick relative who you consistently assist, moving may not be desirable. Homes can be illiquid assets. 

Some people, however, truly need a fresh start, or a hard reset, and have no reason not to do it. Sure, moving on to a new career or a different location may be risky, but staying in a depressing environment is a different risk, and a more insidious "quiet desperation" type of risk. As don Howard discussed with Aubrey Marcus on Aubrey's podcast, if you don’t take any calculated risks in your life, you’re not going to get very far. You may find that if you choose a path with heart and go all in, the universe will conspire to support you. As Terrence McKenna once said, “This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”

When? If you are in a toxic environment, you don’t have to let it completely consume your life. You can take a break from it. Venture out to a park on a weekend. Take a dog (yours or borrow one from a friend) and head to a dog park. Walk around without your shoes on and feel how amazing it is to have your toes dig into a sandy beach or onto some fresh grass.

Plan a more prolonged trip to get off the grid far in advance. Schedule that out far enough in advance, and you’ll have created plenty of notice such that you won’t leave your coworkers or your family out to dry. Go to a place that will leave you feeling recharged. 

Why? Are you choosing to put and surround yourself in a less than ideal situation? What can you do to remedy that? Are you even conscious of it? “Until you make the unconscious conscious," as Jung instructs, "it will direct your life and you will call it fate."

Ra's al Ghul sets an impossibly high bar with decreeing that we must always mind our surroundings. But can you be more mindful of your surroundings? A degree or two more mindful of your surroundings? Those small changes compounded over time yield gargantuan returns. A daily journal - call me old fashioned, but an actual journal with pages and a pen - can be a real game-changer in providing clarity. 

How? How can you mind your surroundings, and motivate others to rise to your level? People will gravitate towards a positive example. Light attracts light. My younger brother Keating has motivated my Dad and my brother Dan to train and go to the gym more, and when I look at them now compared to several months ago, I think, “wow, that ain’t the same man!” They’ve shed excess weight, lightened the load, and look and feel lighter. That becomes a way of life, not just a fad and trendy way to lose 5 pounds for a beach vacation only to gain it right back. Eating clean and living an active lifestyle becomes contagious. Strive to be a clean instrument. It's the striving that's key, and the striving journey is the real destination. "I don't take pride in my accomplishments," Andre Agassi once said, "I take pride in the striving." Or as Gandhi wrote, "infinite striving to be the best is not only a person’s duty; it is its own reward."

Life is a game of momentum. And it's amazing what simply showing up will do. Show up to the gym. Show up to meet a friend for coffee that’s struggling. Show up to help another person in need. Show up for yourself. That's powerful. 

Why have I always been so lucky to have had such fortunate surroundings? One of my best friends, and one of the most kindhearted people I’ve ever met, went for a walk with me recently, and we had a fascinating conversation. Christianity is a guiding force for good in his life. Christianity may not be something that comports with your operating system. Perhaps the Christ Consciousness that Paul Selig describes is something that resonates with you. don Howard views Jesus as a perfectly ascended Master Shaman. 

This friend volunteers and spearheads all sorts of humanitarian projects in third world countries. He is exceedingly generous. When my brother Keating and I were hitting people up for raising money for pediatric cancer research when we were running the NYC Marathon, my friend donated a staggering amount of money, and his one condition was that he wanted his donation to be anonymous. In any event, we were both discussing how it could be that we were in the positions that we find ourselves in, and not, for example, mentally retarded in a third world, caste governed society that treats those people like lepers. Is it Providence? Karma? A good roll of the cosmic dice? Sheer randomness? Your faith may provide answers to that one. I haven’t yet solved that mystery. We both agreed that whatever your reasoning is and whatever conclusion you draw, it’s imperative to do your best to pay it forward to others. 

In closing, my brother Keating, and my friends (and brothers from another mother) Mike and Zerin were in Sedona recently, and we got up at sunrise to hike Bear Mountain. It’s a challenging hike. Rocky. Steep. Intense. Hot.

(Parenthetically, I have to state...ah, Sedona. You radiant, brilliant, incandescent marvel, you. You had me at hello. Sedona has a noticeable energy about it that's highly tangible. You can practically cut it with a knife. Scaling the summit of Bear Mountain with a handful of kindred spirits provided me with an illuminating glimpse of the ineffable. 360 degrees of pure magic envelops the landscape in all directions. Upon reaching the top, the ceiling to the world is busted wide open and the treat is to take in the historical building blocks of matter unfolding in infinite complexity.)

I posed a question to the group asking what percentage of Americans would be able to complete the Bear Mountain hike. Our group had SWAG (a.k.a. Sophisticated Wild Ass Guesses), and all of the percentages were abysmally low. My guesstimate was higher than anyone else's. Although I thought I reasonably factored in the obese/morbidly obese crowd and people who are otherwise out of shape, Mike noted how my figure was ignoring babies that were 9 months old, or the nonagenarian crowd. Touché. I realized that even I had been overly sanguine. 

What a shame. The hike was spectacular, epically epic in 360 degrees. At the summit, we played a few songs, including Danza del Viento by Poranguí and Ashley Klein. We could really feel how gentle the air can be, to quote Ashley. The sense of time evaporated. I so wished that everyone could experience this. 

While I don’t always mind my surroundings, I thought about how my surroundings at this moment were perfect in every way. In finding stillness, the surroundings seemed to smile back at me.

At that high altitude of the peak, I became fascinated with my breath, and recognized how much I had taken it for granted. I felt how precious each inhale and exhale was. The sense of time evaporated. It felt like several ages of the earth.  

That moment of summiting the peak is one I’ll never be able to completely replicate. I could even do the exact same hike with the exact same people, and it wouldn’t be the same. As Heraclitus advises us, no person ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and it's not the same person. Every day we live is a day we won’t live again. And none of us know how many additional moments we have. 

Time doesn't wait for anybody. As much as I wanted to borrow more time - even if it felt like I was on borrowed time already - I couldn’t remain at the summit forever. Nor did I desire to. Try as I might to soak it all in and gulp down every last drop, I eventually descended the mountain, and came back to reality. Once at the base, could I perpetually sustain that feeling of sublime, joyful, euphoric, magnificent, as-good-as-it-gets conscious states? I don’t see how that’s possible, thanks to the ebbs and flows of life. But through it all - I hope I don’t overlook the obvious. Nothing is pure hell. Through everything, there’s some silver lining. Some lesson(s) learned. A bit of wisdom gleaned. Some modicum of growth. At the very least, I can think back to a peak experience and smile.

One of my favorite Maestras always includes the following message in her yin yoga class, and it’s one that I think about a lot. “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” 

A few hours earlier on the airplane I was enduring a totally different experience. How quickly, it is, that we can transform and elevate our consciousness! Striving to be more and more mindful of all of our surroundings is a good place to start.

As usual, I really appreciate hearing from so many of you. Even if it’s people like my brother Dan who tells me that he reads 2.7 seconds of these updates to confirm that I am, in fact, still alive, and then immediately deletes them. 😂😂

If you've made it this far, you've earned my respect. Want to earn a little more? Consider donating (or donating again) to don Howard's GoFundMe for his medical expenses. 

Yeah, I know I sound like a broken record. Yeah, I know I mention this in every update. I suppose what I've haven't impressed upon people adequately enough is that the burn rate of don Howard's medical care is exorbitant. If I'm being totally honest, I feel like I haven't done nearly enough to raise awareness. In this respect, I feel like a failure. 

Failure on this front is not an option for me. At all. I need to reach down inside, be more creative, be more articulate, and step it way up in expressing how insanely expensive the out of pocket costs continue to be for don Howard's medical treatment without compelling anyone to donate, as that isn't the don Howard way. I need to have a reach that exceeds my grasp. It's been a challenge, and one I will rise to meet. Your donations, your messages, and your love are really keeping don Howard going, so let's not let our foot off of the accelerator. Here's the link to donate and/or share:

The SpiritQuest community is the heart of SpiritQuest. Warriors' hearts beat as one. You’re keeping that heart beating, and I’m deeply grateful. 💚🔥👊🙏

All the love, -Parker


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