The Byzantine Empire was at it's absolute zenith when BLAM! a plague collapsed the entire enterprise. The roaring 20's gave way to the depression. The trust in government, institutions, and companies to be honest (and care for our best interests) collapsed into the disillusionment of the 1960s.
The Roman's might say these pivotal moments were caused by Fortuna turning her rudder. This mythical figure is a good object of contemplation. She represents a fundamental truth about the nature of life.
Fear not. We'll get through these Coronavirus times. We will evolve as a species for the challenge and the reminder that we are not outside of history or nature.
This is a revision of an article I published exactly 4 years ago. Now with video!
One of the most influential people in my life was a guy I knew for less than 2 minutes. Compared to other stories I have this will seem super mundane, but stick with me... that's kind of the point.
I was working as a grocery bagger for Thompson's Food Basket in Peoria, IL. One day I manned the register and soon got into the flow of quickly handling customers.
"Hey how's it going," I'd say perfunctorily.
Bleep Bleep Bleep. I'd scan their items.
"That'll be 45.60$"
"Thanks. Have a nice day."
Over and over I'd run them through like a blur. I was a young man being assimilated into the machine of the modern, busy world where we plow through our day mainly lost in our heads. Strangers around us interpreted as either obstacles or gatekeepers.
The next customer came up.
"Hey how's it going?" I said not looking up as I reached for his items.
"Good man. How are you," this shapeless customer replied.
"Good," I said as I begin to scan. Bleep bleep bleep.
"No man," He said with authority, "how's it going?"
I lifted my gaze up as if broken from a daydream to see a man in the prime of his life. He was handsome, fit, and had all his attention focused upon me. He was radiating a positive energy. He seemed to genuinely be inquiring about my state without any kind of agenda.
"Oh... I guess I'm good," I stammered.
"Right on," replied the guy with a warm smile, still looking at me.
We finished the transaction and he went his way. Never saw the guy again. That's my story.
This happened over 20 years ago and I still remember it clear as day. Why? Cause a super cool Brad Pitt type of dude gave me all his attention for a minute. He acknowledged me: a shy, skinny, socially awkward 16 year old who still hadn't kissed a girl. For a moment I wasn't just a bumbling kid that handled groceries for minimum wage. I was a bro.
Think about this: Who was the Elvis of the Mayan Empire? Who was the Michael Jordan athlete of the Mycenaeans? Who was the legendary hunter of the Apache or the beauty queen of the Han dynasty? Surely these personalities burned legendary at one point, but they are all forgotten now, just as this anonymous cool guy is nameless. He could very well be dead. His ego, just like that of all the Incan emperors you can't remember, has crumbled to dust; but the waves of energy he pushed out into the world live on. Because of him I try (though often fail) to take a beat and acknowledge the people around me. Because of him I'm writing this post.
I used to imagine one day I'd maybe change the world in a monumentally positive way, like Hellen Keller or Abraham Lincoln, and perhaps I still might. But I strongly believe our real contribution occurs this day, when you walk out your door to grab a coffee, take the subway, or buy your groceries. What kind of waves of energy are you pushing out into the world? Let me encourage you to jump on the vibration of that nameless cool cat of Peoria, IL. Take a moment to acknowledge people. Pour a few seconds of all your attention into little genuine gesture of "I see you" or "I get you." It could be the brightest spot in that person's day, and just maybe they'll remember it, and emulate it, decades later.
There will be many things you do this week for the last time in the decade. The last time you see certain friends, the last time you eat a particular food, and the last time you visit a special place. What’s the big deal? You’ll do it all again in 2020..... Or will you?
As an experiment consider that these could be the very last times you do these things. Why would you entertain such morbid thoughts? Because one day it will be the last time, and most likely you won’t realize this as that moment passes. You will probably not give tit your full attention, lost partially in thought and preoccupied with the phone.
How would you treat 2019’s last scenes as if they were final? How would you say goodbye to the friend you’ll never see again? How would you savor that meal? How would you soak in the atmosphere of your favorite spot?
Let’s give ourselves the holiday gift of placing full attention, appreciation, and intention on the decade’s final moments.
Everything in life has a beginning, middle, and end. This transitory nature of existence applies to the hard physical world where atoms are constantly spinning and shifting, and it also speaks to the nature of your conscious awareness.
Your awareness is, in fact, the only world you'll ever know. The landscape that appears within is different than what's in mine, even if we were sitting at the same restaurant, eating the same dish, and enjoying the same view.
You are the Hindu godhead of this conscious world: creating, maintaining, and destroying its constructs. One event that reliably generates this process of change is travel.
Travel is one of Shiva's world destroying dances and it's also the lotus bloom opening of Brahma's creation. When you have unique, intimate experiences with people who appear different than you, something shifts. An outdated, oversimplified, and often fearful impression is destroyed, so that a newer, fresher, more nuanced one can come to life.
Once upon a time I took a beautiful woman to a remote spot deep in the Mojave Desert. We woke up the next morning in serene isolation and realized we had a code-red critical problem: Both of us forgot to pack coffee.
I went to the nearby visitor's center and knocked on the doors of a few RVs. Did they have any coffee to spare? I'd gladly buy some for a generous price. Suspicious looks ensued. I went to the defunct restaurant inside the visitor's center and asked if there was any old supply in storage. No luck. Finally we drove 50 miles back to civilization to buy weak black drip from a Greek restaurant.
Why the desperation? We were both addicted to caffeine, and if you've ever cold-turkey quit coffee the withdrawal is a long, grumpy affair. Our romantic getaway would have had a dark cloud looming over it.
Now I would not have that problem. A 30 day no-caffeine challenge has changed my relationship to the substance. In the same way these challenges have introduced more discipline in my connection to sugar, alcohol, tobacco, social media, gratitude, and meditation.
Would you like to do a little more or a little less of something? Help yourself out by adding this effective tool to your will power. Doing it with a friend adds solidarity to the mix and strengthens resolve. When you finish your 30 days formally re-assess your relationship to that thing and how you'd like to proceed.
Our culture is obsessed with comfort. Collectively we have been coddled by modernity. We want more legroom, softer mattresses, and any vehicle that will save us from physically moving our bodies. Get in a time machine and travel to any generation before us and you'll be the softest, most sensitive soul around. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors, whose genes we still carry, would be stunned. Perhaps they are stunned inside of us at this very moment.
Suffering, inconvenience, and exertion are part of life. Just like one must experience heartbreak to get love, and betrayal to grasp trust; we must truly learn how to hold suffering to appreciate its absence: the sweet state of being at ease.
There is also a life principle at work. Accomplishing the best stuff involves pushing past challenges and imagined limitations. To become a better person one must take the Hero's Journey, walk into the dark cave, and face some tough things. If we don't learn how to frame hardship properly on the front side of life, it will find us truly unprepared on the backside.
The easiest realm in which to learn the virtue of suffering is in the physical. For that reason I organize Tuesday Trail Runs. Once a week we interval run up a small mountain in about 7 stages. The idea is to complete each segment with almost nothing in the tank and RPMs hovering at the edge of the red zone. Often I'll cry out in relief at the breaks as the powerful sensation of exertion giving way to rest floods my body. The more tension I hold on the segment, the more powerful the wave of glorious release.
On the trail the mechanisms of the self defeating mind get real clear. The first ascent triggers a cacophony of arguments to quit or walk. I treat this first chunk as chance to watch the modern mind's resistance to exertion. It's a phenomenal exposé of excuses.
On the second segment I cycle through empowering narratives to replace the weak ones.
For all other segments I settle on the technique that works best: Mindfulness and presence.
Hardship is a fascinating state that most of us work so hard to avoid. I encourage you to start a practice where you can hold and examine it. You'll find that what you were afraid of isn't so bad. It isn't bad at all. There is a side of you to explore there.
If you find yourself in LA, join me on my trail runs
There is a misguided concept that runs deep in Western culture. Christians express the idea with the acronym NOTW (Not of This World). Neo-spiritualists rephrase it by saying "We are spiritual beings having a human experience." And most of us carry this frame by imagining ourselves static capsules, encased in flesh, walking through a foreign (and often hostile) environment. This is a complete illusion of separation in an interconnected universe, where everything leans on something else. It's a misconception that undoubtably leaves us all feeling disconnected and anxious, and puts our planet in peril.
Here is a quote from gotquestions.org, a Christian site (highlights added):
"We are still surrounded by all the horrors and tragedy of this life, but this is not our life. The knowledge that we are not of this world gives Christians hope even in the darkest times; hope that this will pass and at the end of it we will be in heaven with our God, face to face forever. This cracked and broken place is not where we belong, and it is not where we will stay.
The appeal of this philosophy is evident. The challenges we have as a species are stressful. Watching the news is like consuming anxiety. What a relief to completely wash one's hands of all global problems with zero guilt. Stand by, ride it out, and grab your flight to paradise.
But what if this conjecture is wrong? It's impossible to verify stories of an afterlife. We see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the world every day. If this reality, confirmed by our physical senses, is our home then NOTW becomes a disastrous manifesto of non-responsibility. A bad idea that has spread past Christianity.
Recently I was at the University of Santa Monica, a school offering a spiritual degree in philosophy. This same concept was passed around in different clothing. One man, addressing the entire room with a microphone, began a long, rambling thought with, "We all know that this world is not our home..."
This perception even permeates the secular world. Look up from your screen and you'll likely feel a sense of subject and object with everything you see. There is a clear border between "you" and "not you". But is it really so distinct?
To challenge the idea here are a few questions to ponder:
"Hold on Jonny", one might say, "there is a difference between the body and the spirit." We have a spirit that is NOTW... that's the real us. OK. Let’s think about our spirit and how it might resemble the person our friends and family know.
What makes Jonathan Legg different than you?
Imagine a steel bar falls off a construction site and lands on my head. Instantly the brain is reorganized. My travel stories and a sense of adventure disappear. The new man remembers nothing about Jonathan Legg. However, he is a much more peaceful and kind person. When this man dies what does his spirit feel like: Jonathan Legg with his sense of adventure or the man who doesn't like to travel, but is extra compassionate?
The steel bar is unnecessary. This restructuring is happening every day.
This brain (and body) of ours is constantly reorganizing in a slower fashion. Brains at 2 years, 30, 90, and 'recently dead' are assembled differently, with profound affects on perception and behavior. Which version determines the characteristics of the spirit? Would a person to be lucky to die at 30 (to have a spirit in its prime), unlucky to die with Alzheimers, and terribly unfortunate to die while in a coma?
If this undocumented spirit, flying off into eternity, resembles none of these personalities, with no cognition of former selves, why do we cling so tightly to this phantom?
Here is the answer: the "spirit" is an escape capsule for the ego. A doomsday shelter for the pending identity apocalypse.
We live in an era of individualism unknown to our tribe-centered ancestors. The constant anxiety we feel in this modern age stems from our hyper-inflated, separately packaged egos. Egos that are culturally isolated from their environment, disconnected from each other, and terrified of their mortality. We cling to NOTW theories out of fear. They are sequels scripted to give the ego the happy ending of a Hollywood action hero.
Like many sequels there are some serious flaws with Jonathan Legg Part 2: The Real Jonathan:
What if we drop the sequel script and pay closer attention to the original movie that is in production right now. Let's look at it fresh as if all the characters, including us, are entirely OTW.
What if we embrace the fact that we are part of this planet just like the plants, birds, and whales? The air we are breathing at this very moment came from a tree that needs sun. The sun is crucially a certain distance from this earth. The sun's distance is governed by forces that extend beyond this solar system to the farthest reaches of the universe. This would make us a glorious arrangement of pieces which connect both down and up into the entirety of existence.. a continually changing assortment which is remarkably conscious in the here and now.
Who needs a far-fetched, piddling sequel? The original is a timeless classic.
Half of Americans suffer from loneliness. In my travels I've seen its prevalence around the world. The world, however, is spilling over with people. How is this possible?
To answer that question it's worth looking at how humans evolved. The Pharaohs of Egypt seem like long ago, but this was a recent event in the totality of our history. For 95% of this time we lived in tribes of 20-100 people that were completely egalitarian . Our ancestors hung out with all their family, friends, and homies all the time. They worked together, played together, grieved together, and constantly had each other's backs. Everything was shared. There is a strong possibility (as reflected in some modern day hunter-gatherer tribes) that they had no words for "mine" or "yours". Their concept of autonomy was much different than today's idea of individualism.
Flash forward to 2018. The tribes are gone. We are encouraged to believe that success means having your own house and living in it alone (or with a small nuclear family). The 4,000-5,000 ads you see in a day prod you to distinguish (i.e. separate) yourself from the pack: wear a better watch, drive a snazzier car, have cooler gadgets. "Exclusive" is an alluring word in marketing, but who is being excluded? Perhaps it's you.
Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, has called materialism a "junk value", comparing it to fast food. It hits the right signals in the brain but does not deliver the goods. Multiple studies have shown that people who think happiness comes from accumulating stuff and superior status suffer higher levels of depression and anxiety. This doesn't keep marketers from trying. That's the nature of today's economic game.
The philosopher Epicurus emphasized three things for human happiness: Friends, freedom, and thought. Author Alain de Botton has demonstrated how advertisers consistently link these three virtues to their products:
On top of all the advertising misdirection there are a couple more doozies: pervasive religious beliefs that the earth is, in fact, not our home; and agriculturist ideas that nature is our enemy. Whoof! No wonder why so many folks feel like lonely soldiers trudging through a hostile world.
The good news is we have the power to break free of this matrix and reform what we lost. If you were born in the bottom 95% of human existence you were born into a tribe. From the day you popped out of momma everybody in the group had your back. That tribe had an intimate relationship with nature, from which it did not consider itself separate. Today we get to form our tribes. It is, thankfully, not that hard to do. The toughest part is taking those first steps. Something I will ponder in an upcoming blog post.
"You need to eat more protein," said Jelena as she squished my arm in her grip.
At the legendary Muscle Planet gym in Belgrade I got a refresher course on pumping iron from a Serbian who's stacked up titles over a bodybuilding career. We met in Cyprus while filming a Road Less Traveled episode in January. I lamented about falling off the gym routine. She invited me to Belgrade for a restart.
Would you also like to lead an adventurous life for as long as possible (in the spirit of Jack Lalain , Georges Hérbert, and Laird Hamilton)? The carbon machinery moving our consciousnesses through the world must endure without a breakdown. Good diet, rest, flexibility, cardio, and weight lifting are all critical components in this endeavor.
The weight part, which I've sadly neglected recently, has undoubtably saved me from injury more than once. I've fallen off Japanese castle walls, Dutch titanium poles, and rugged Welsh cliffs. Indian wrestlers piled me into the dirt, MMA professionals threw me to the mat, and Thai kickboxers tossed me out of the ring. Core and back strength from compound weight exercises are key in maintaining a body that can take some dings and keep chugging.
In Belgrade one of Serbia's fitness icons got me back under the iron.
Article in Serbian covered by Telegraf's Jasmina Stakić
Photos and video by Maja Dobrić
Follow Jelena Jaksic on Instagram
Here are my favorite compound exercises: (Proper form is critical when putting your body under weight. Never compromise form to lift heavier).
I'm Jonathan Legg
The road has been my greatest teacher.. challenging stagnant beliefs, disarming prejudices, and developing understanding of others. I hope the content on this blog will bring a sliver of that juju to you.