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Category: Mindfulness

The Journey From Technical To Emotional

How I finally learned to be a proper rock star

My first experience playing guitar in front of people was a little like downloading a program then double-clicking the icon, or inserting a floppy disk then typing RUN into the command prompt, for those of you from my generation. What I’m trying to say is, my performance was as if someone strapped a guitar to a robot – it had no emotion.

The year was 1992, and Shelton High School was about to have it’s first “Rock Festival”, organized by our beloved music teacher, Ms Dziamba. There were many audition tapes submitted, but only 5 or 6 bands were chosen to perform – and I was in one of them!

We were called The Prions, based on something random we picked out of a biology book. Randy was on bass, I played guitar, and Robb sang. We would get together and eat pizza, drink cases of soda, and write ridiculous songs. Our collective influences included Iron Maiden, Primus, Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, and of course, it was the 90’s – Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

But now we had a gig to prepare for, the perfect excuse to start taking things more seriously. We needed a drummer, so I began courting Brandon, who I knew from the marching band (where I played bari sax.) He wasn’t interested at first, but eventually I got him – with a china cymbal – which we would need for our opening song, Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson.

I’d been obsessed with learning this song since the transcription appeared in one of the monthly guitar magazines. It was just the right combination of extremely hard to play with a hooky melody – perfect to show off a little for the people at school – to show ’em what I got!

I was a shy kid, completely wrapped up inside myself, in my own little world, as a means of survival. It was hard for me to connect with other people, because I was full of fear and anxiety. My plan was to put myself out there, literally, on a stage, hoping that I might attract some attention, then people would approach ME to be friends. 

After months of prep and rehearsals, we were ready. We even wrote an original song (mostly Robb did), called Turn Away.

It was finally show time. 

The energy that night was insane. I could feel electricity in the air, the unruly crowd of teenagers in the audience, the hum of the amplifiers, the rah rah of the other bands and the crew pumping us up as we strutted toward the stage to plug in and prepare for takeoff. 

I tested my amp … false start. Total amateur move. I was shaking and so nervous. My bare feet were sticking to my brown boat shoes.

I plunged right in, starting the intro to Cliffs of Dover, with its heroic 16th note runs, all by myself, alone. I might as well have been naked, standing at the edge of the stage, looking out into the dark abyss of the auditorium, knowing the discerning eyes of my peers were sitting just below me. Then, just as the rest of the band joined in, the hot lights came on. Red, blue and yellow gels lit us up like a Pink Floyd concert. And, there was a fiery white spotlight pointed right at ME. Holy shit.

I kept going, Randy was stage left, just eating it up. He had done this before. Brandon was up on a riser, doing his best Neil Peart impression, banging on the $70 cymbal I bribed him with. I paced around a little, back and forth, as I played. Then, in anticipation of the main hook of the song, I moved closer to the edge where the front monitors were, thinking I was really getting into it. Later on, I watched the video one of the parents made with their camcorder, and saw the truth – that I was just standing there, barely alive … fingers moving, but looking down at the guitar, with no emotion, no enthusiasm, and no excitement.

When the song was over, after a minor flub in the last crazy fast guitar run, everyone cheered. That applause was really cool, but MUST CONTINUE! Robb ran out to join us, waving his arms like a maniac – he was the perfect front man. We started The Evil That Men Do by Iron Maiden (according to Randy, that was the ideal choice because it was more “pop” than Infinite Dreams.) We also played Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd (which included Jim Russell on guitar), a Pearl Jam song, and Smells Like Teen Spirit

When it was all over, we walked off, and I was on top of the world – it was such a rush … to be done with it! There, I checked all the boxes; the computer program had ended. For the most part it went to plan, with only a few minor errors. People seemed to like it. I got some nice compliments the next day at school, which was my goal, but nothing really changed. I did not go on to become class president.

The band carried on for a while, with different line-ups. After high school and college, Randy and I re-tooled and created a Beatles inspired band. We became very interested in songwriting, thinking we might be just be the next Lennon and McCartney. We called ourselves The Trumen, and started playing out at bars around West Haven. One time we even played at a school dance. 

Well, the band broke up, as they say. If I’m honest, it was all my fault. I was dealing with demons of the drug and alcohol variety, which unfortunately consumed most of the next 10 years. Part of what fueled my need to escape reality was a longing to have a life in music, but not having the self-esteem and confidence to really go for it. I was in many bands, had many jobs, lived in many states, and even worked at a recording studio for a while, trying to find my way, but I just couldn’t make it work. I couldn’t make anything work. Apparently, what I was looking for was not “out there” ( … it was inside.)

Long story, short – I finally woke up, cleaned up, got married, had kids, and got on a path of recovery and self-awareness. 

I began to see my past and present from a new perspective. Life got better in so many ways, but music was still in a weird place for me. Why is it that, even though I was technically a really good player, I was unable to successfully express my feelings through music? There was certainly no lack of emotion, I was an emotional roller coaster!

Through the 12 steps, meditation, and slowing down my mind a little, I started noticing how I had a habit of hammering away at songs, treating the notes like they were a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in a computer program waiting to be executed. This was nothing new, but now I could see it happening – I was aware. It seemed that playing each riff perfectly, the way I had heard it on the record was all that mattered, that each song was just a means to an end, a check box. So, I decided to change. I started learning songs to the point of muscle memory, then when it came time to perform, I’d show up and just try to be in the moment, without thinking. I made progress, but still had a long way to go.

My wife Heather and I started writing songs together. Once the kids were old enough to use the bathroom on their own, we recorded an album with some amazing players at Carriage House Studios in Stamford CT. We played some shows, but I was still uncomfortable around other people, and had difficulty channeling my emotions into the music, but I knew I was getting closer. Time went by …. getting even closer. Until …

One of the best nights of my life was playing to a packed room at Cafe 9 in New Haven. They weren’t there to see us, we were the opening band – but that was ok. I don’t know what got into me, but from the start I was completely in the moment, in the zone, totally enveloped by the experience. During our set, I was moving around, interacting with my band-mates, smiling, even dancing a little, connecting with the audience – filled with enthusiasm AND emotion! THIS is what it’s all about, the feeling I had been looking for all my life! The songs, my voice, the guitar – they were just vehicles to allow me to experience the moment. I knew how and what to play without thinking about it. I was fully alive, like a fish swimming from note to note. I saw opportunities to express emotion (energy) in each stretched-out vowel of a vocal phrase, or slow drawn-out bend of the 8th fret on the B string. It was that place within the notes, the gray area in between, that allowed me to insert my true self. Everything that had been bottled up was suddenly, beautifully released in a way that freed me and fed the audience. 

So, what had changed?

I transitioned from technical to emotional – from computer to human. I was present, vulnerable, and enthusiastic. 

It turns out that authenticity and humanity are what moves an audience, not how fast I can play Cliffs of Dover.

Performing is fun now, because there’s no longer all that pressure to “do it right”. When I walk out on stage, I’m there to interpret and express the song, the way I see it. I don’t need to sound like Eric Clapton or Marvin Gaye. I can give them MY version. If I’m honest and authentic, and not overthinking things, I can’t go wrong. Because there is no wrong! This is art! Whatever is supposed to come out, comes out, and the right people will gladly receive it. 

Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned, that I’m embarrassed to say because it seems so obvious – is this: if I’m having a good time, so will the audience.

Header image of Parkway South at Cafe Nine in New Haven, CT by Sherry Lynn Photography


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Sausage, Pancakes & Suffering for No Reason

Is it good? Is it bad? I get to decide

Heather is more well-adjusted to life than I am. A lot more. And these days I’m remarkably and painfully aware, noticing when my thoughts and emotions seem to be out of line, when it appears that I’m overreacting – especially when we are experiencing the same exact situations. I’ll often look over at her and say, “Why is this bothering ME so much, when you seem just fine?” It has taken MANY years just to get to the point where I’m questioning my own reactions, wondering if there’s a better way. (The old me didn’t even know what he didn’t know.)

“They’re just facts.” she said. “I just don’t let them bother me.” 

“Ok, I get that intellectually,” I said, “but, it still makes me crazy.”

Earlier that morning, the last Sunday in August, we slept late – like teenager late, 10:30. Although nothing compared to my old hangover sleep-in’s, which lasted until early afternoon, this is very uncommon for parents with 3 young kids and an idiot dog.

It was fine, we’ve had a long week of early mornings, and didn’t have any time sensitive plans for the day, but still, that voice in my head was beating me up: “what the hell, Mike, you’ve wasted half the day … I can’t believe YOU did THIS!” What was also fueling my misery is the sad realization that now I’m old enough to snap, crackle and pop trying to get out of bed after sleeping too long, nothing like the more ‘enjoyable’ muscle ache that comes after working out (which it couldn’t be, because that was 3 days ago!)

Jacob, our autistic 9 year old, had already barged into our bedroom at least 4 times (that I can remember), asking if it was ok to turn on the TV … sure, yes, then it continues …

Is it ok to play on the computer? Yes. 

Is it ok if I make a waffle. YES.

When are you gonna get up and plug in the (Nintendo) Switch? GET OUT!!!

If only he had once told me what time it was, I probably would have gotten up.

So, Heather woke me up. No, not like that, but it was still nice to have her warm body pressed up against me, it slowed my overactive brain long enough to experience a little bit of gratitude before going into battle. Eventually, I got up and staggered down the hallway to see Jacob and Abby, his twin, playing with one of the phones –  and my nemesis, Bowie the 2 year old German Shepherd Dog was still locked away in his crate.

“What the hell! How long have you all been up? Why is BOWIE still in his CRATE!!!” I screamed.

Jacob ran over to let him out. He knew he screwed up. He had been briefed many times about letting the dog out if he was the first one awake.

“JJ, that doesn’t matter now, just … just put down the phone and go to your room,” I said, “and you too Abby.”

I was so pissed.

I don’t even like the damn dog, but for some reason it bothered me that he was in that cage for so many hours, all night, all morning, probably with an overflowing bladder.

Why was I so mad? Because I care about the dog? Because I didn’t want to clean up the mess if he had an accident? Because I think the kids are disrespecting me? Because I’ve failed as a parent, because my kids, my 9 YEAR OLDS aren’t properly and responsibly following my directions? (that was meant to be sarcastic)

I looked over at Heather. She was oblivious, in her own little world, doing Heather things, enjoying the attractions in Heather-Land. I was so freaking jealous.

Not a word. I’ve learned when to just keep my thoughts to myself to not incite an argument with my wife, especially first thing in the morning. So, I started cooking sausage and pancakes, from scratch – not for THEM, but for me! That’s right, to hell with them.

“Is Stephanie awake yet?” I said to Heather. It’s now nearly 11AM, and our 14 year old is nowhere to be found. If SHE wants the damn dog, maybe she should wake up early to take care of him, like a farmer’s daughter would have to wake up and feed the chickens and milk the cows.

I started pouring out the flower, just grinding my thoughts away, stewing in my anger. I added the baking powder, sugar, salt, making a little well in the middle to pour in the milk. Abby loves doing this part, but I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction this morning. That’s right, I’ll show those little shits the wrath of my passive aggressiveness!

“How long do we have to stay in our room?” Jacob yells from down the hall.

I shouted back, “How long was Bowie in his crate this morning? About 3 hours?”

I was slicing up the sausage, mad at the pans, mad at the kitchen, and feeling like everything sucks. Just look at the cabinets, all falling apart. And the dust on top of the stove, do I have to do everything around here? Now I was caught up thinking ahead to what else had to be done that day, lamenting my endless pile of tasks, the necessity of checking them all off, just so I can go to sleep then get up and do it all over again in the morning.

What happened to the gratitude of my half naked wife laying in bed with me just a half hour ago?

Just then I became aware that I was violently spinning inside a negative thought vortex, and was able to step out of it for a moment.

“Why does this bother me so much?” I said to Heather.

“I don’t know. They’re just kids.” she said.

And just like that, the icy meanness seemed to melt, and I told Stephanie, who had suddenly appeared, to get the twins and tell them breakfast is ready.

What are the facts of that morning’s events? We overslept, and JJ forgot to let the dog out of his crate. Period. All that suffering I went through was on me. I told myself a horrible story about how my family is plotting to ruin my day, but it was all bullshit. 

I get to decide how I interpret what is happening around me – is it good or is it bad – I get to decide. But only if I’m awake enough to notice.


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What I Learned Selling Cars

How to sell by being vulnerable and present

About 15 years ago I was selling cars at Hoffman in East Hartford, CT. It was one of the many dealerships right on Connecticut Blvd, in the shadows of interstates 91, 84 and route 2. They had Ford, Lexus, Porsche, Audi – but I worked at the Saab / Oldsmobile store. What a combo, right? Saab and Oldsmobile! Don’t they just go together like peanut butter and broccoli?  

This would be the first time I’d try to make a living without doing physical labor, although walking up and down the length of the car lot in black pointed dress shoes that don’t quite fit IS laborious.

I had answered an ad in the CT Post where they promised training and a job, for only $300 bucks. What a deal! (after wasting thousands to go to UCONN, only to drop out and spend the next 5 years pulling wires through nasty crawlspaces and fiberglass insulation sticky hot attics) – So, I was excited about a change of pace, and this car sales thing was just what I needed, partly because talking to people, especially the idea of selling, terrified me. I knew it was time to face that fear and work on myself, and I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

They ran us – the new recruits – through a 2 day seminar style training, complete with workbooks and tests. I learned some basic tactics and procedures to sell cars, but it barely scratched the surface in terms of what I would need to really do this job successfully. Especially me. I was NOT a people person.

But, I was competent enough to memorize some scripts and follow directions.

“Hi, welcome to Hoffman. What kind of vehicle were you hoping to purchase today?” Then, the most important part, to gain control and avoid being dragged around the lot, test driving 10 different cars without a commitment, “before we get started, let’s talk a minute about what you’re looking for … follow me”. And the trick was to just turn around and expect them to follow, without waiting for their consent – just start walking.  

And that worked! But it felt very douchey.

I never wanted to be THAT kind of salesman. But, what did I think selling cars was going to be like? I knew the stereotype – hell, it runs in my family! My grandfather, my uncle, and a few cousins either owned small car lots or were somehow “in the business” all throughout my childhood. I remember hearing about how my mom drove a different car every week in high school, as John Pinto Auto Sales turned over stock. They were good people, but this is a tough business.

Well, I wanted to do things differently, and embrace the idea of being nice, real, and authentic, and just try to help people.

One of the other salesmen, Bob, worked at Saab with me. He has since passed away, a super good guy, always so relaxed. There was constant drama at our little store, sometimes behind closed doors, and often right out in the showroom, but Bob was Mr. Chill – and he was successful.

Bob had a stack of Joe Verde newsletters on his desk. I was drawn to them because of the big headlines promising advice and tips for selling more cars. Since I was growing a bit discontent as the shiny newness of my budding sales career wore off, reading this stuff got me fired up again!

I became very interested in the whole self-development thing. But it wasn’t about the tactics or the one-liners, it was the belief and mindset stuff that resonated with me. It became clear that the way I was meant just as much, if not more, than what I knew. How I showed up mattered. The way I felt inside made a difference in how effective I was. I started to become more self aware, and I loved that feeling of hope – that making little improvements in the way I think can drastically improve my life.

For the next couple years, that car sales experience turned out to be a master class in human nature. I got paid to talk to people, notice their reactions, and adjust. Sometimes they were happy and sometimes they yelled at me. (Car shopping brings out the worst in people, because everyone is afraid of getting screwed, and I can’t blame them!) But I knew why I took that job – why I was there. It wasn’t about selling cars, it was about me growing as a person. In a way it was like a boot camp.

Another guru I started listening to at the time was Zig Ziglar. His big thing was, “you can get what you want by helping enough people get what they want.” Huh … think less about me, and more about them? That seemed obvious, but it’s not easy to put into practice. True, I cared about other people, and I thought I was a good person, but that’s not the same as putting my own needs aside long enough to really see things from the other person’s perspective – to really listen to understand, not just waiting for my turn to talk.

That was the big lesson. Learning to be present with people, to see the human being, with all their hopes and fears, sitting eyeball to eyeball with me.

To this day, whenever I’m aware that I’m trying to manipulate and force my way through any situation, things rarely go well. But when I slow down, and allow myself to be vulnerable and let the moment be what it wants to be, I often make the sale.

So what happened, that caused me to “wake up”, so to speak? I have a theory. Because I put myself into a continuously uncomfortable situation, I was forced to take a look at myself in a new light. And I had no choice but to grow.


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A Cosmic Shift in Perspective

This one picture of the universe changed my perspective and has really made me start to appreciate my life more, even when things are not going so well – I still get to have this one of a kind experience. This video clip is from five years ago, so I look a little different without a beard and with less hair! (who has LESS hair when he was younger?)

I’ve been fascinated with pictures of space and the universe for a long time. I’m not exactly into astronomy, and I don’t know much about the planets and the constellations. For me, it’s more about perspective.

One day I was listening to The Howard Stern Show, of all places, when that general curiosity materialized into a very useful tool for coping with life. It also sparked what I now believe to be my life’s mission obsessing over what it means to live in the moment, and what true human connection feels like.

Howard was interviewing Judd Apatow. They were talking about Jerry Seinfeld. Apparently Jerry has a picture of the universe on the wall of his writing room that he uses to put things into perspective. In other words, what does any of this really matter when really we are just a speck on a speck on a grain of sand?

This resonated with me. Somehow contemplating the vastness of space and dwelling on how tiny and insignificant we are is strangely empowering and freeing. It’s been a slow gradual shift – sort of an awakening – to the idea that it’s not so much about conquering things and racking up successes, but more importantly, those things represent opportunities to experience life. That’s a complicated way to say it’s about the journey not the destination. But now I understand what that really means. It’s not just an overused proverb.

This speech marked the culmination of an amazing group improv class I took with Jenny & Ellen who now own The Bolder Company.

Also, check out this scale of the universe simulator, it’s so cool! Thanks to my friend Ed for sharing it with me.


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Do You Feel Like Life Is Passing You By?

How can we think our way into change when our brain is the problem? We don’t need more information, we need power and inspiration. By seeking out experiences which will completely overhaul our thinking, we wake up and start to change our perception of reality.

Looking back at my younger days (this is already starting out like a Bob Seger or Bryan Adams song) … I realize now that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I was trapped in thought patterns, spinning my tires, and I didn’t have a clue.

Even when I thought I was being open minded, constantly learning new things and actively seeking (with humility), but I wasn’t addressing the real problem – my incessant thinking.

I remember my daily hour long commutes from Shelton to Bristol (this is in CT), and then back home again, driving my blue piece of crap Pontiac with its broken ignition and leaking head gasket, where I spent so much time listening to seminars, training, and self help books on CD. I would pepper in some vocal warm-ups and general “deep thinking” and contemplation all while heading down the road. I was trying so hard! I’d often stop at the halfway home mark at Dunkin Donuts for a coffee and a smoke, and to take a moment to reflect. I was always so excited about whatever new idea I had latched on to, that I thought would fix everything for me. I was a self help junkie, hooked on shiny metal objects and the search for the holy grail.

Hope was keeping me alive and it was propelling me forward. And I needed it. We all need it, because life is hard. But, 10 years later I realized that, although I had made nominal improvements, and I DID stay sober and manage to provide for my family (and not murder them … 3 small kids, including twins, one with autism) – I was actually “stuck” in spite of all my best attempts at chasing success.

I had been living completely in my head, replaying the past – either romancing it or beating myself up about it … or forecasting the future – worrying about what’s going to happen or making plans to control it. I was insane – doing the same things over and over, expecting different results, for years. Life was passing me by, because I wasn’t living in the now, in the moment, I was always in yesterday or tomorrow.

I was completely missing what was right in front of me. But how could I not see what was happening? Why didn’t anyone try to tell me? Would I have heard it if they did?

So, what am I talking about here?

Thinking can’t fix thinking!

Even when I sought out help, turning to successful people for advice, and paying coaches to guide me toward a breakthrough, I was still stuck, because I was trying to solve the wrong problems. No matter what I LEARNED, I was still standing in my own way, blocking progress. Because I didn’t need information, I needed to have an experience! I needed something to happen that would completely transform and change my operating system. Not a software update but a new install.

Self help wasn’t the answer. My perception of reality needed to change.

I had to stop grabbing at stuff, taking random actions in a desperate attempt to fix whatever issue was on fire at the moment, and stop, take a breath, and create some space between my thoughts and my actions. I needed divine inspiration – a power greater than myself, well, at least greater than my thinking mind. Whether we call it a higher “God” power, or a deeper “inner subconscious” power, it had to be something truly revolutionary – something that I had never fully tried before.

But like I said, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I knew something was wrong, and I was seeking out a solution, but I never considered the solution could be as simple as “stop thinking”. I had tried meditating before, but I didn’t understand the point of it. Because I’m a thinker, I always need to know why I’m doing something or else I won’t truly commit. I might go through the motions, but inside I’m judging it, saying to myself, “that’s not gonna work, I don’t really believe that”.

What ultimately worked for me was acknowledging that my thoughts aren’t everything. The subtle surrender to the fact that there is a power and wisdom beyond my thoughts, that when I get out of the way, and I can BE in the present moment, the world makes more sense. I don’t know how to tell you the straightest path to get to this place, to awaken, to have this change in perception of reality, this complete operating system overhaul, because I had to go through hell to find it. But, one thing I know for sure, by focusing on and working toward a solution to what I consider to be “the right problem”, this idea of practicing presence and spiritual awakening, you’ll start to notice things you hadn’t noticed before, and more will be revealed.

Really, it all begins by creating a small space in between your thoughts. Small spaces become bigger spaces over time, which allows new power to come in. You can start practicing that right now.


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We Want To Know We’re Not Alone

Why do I share stuff? Why do I write blog posts like this and put things on social media?

Am I trying to change people’s minds? Do I want to influence people? Am I trying to GET something from them?

Yes, this is probably true on some level, but more than anything I think it’s about expression. I want to share – for ME, because that’s my way of connecting with other people. I’m speaking to the people that want to hear what I’m saying, either because they already believe what I believe, or are open and interested in what I’m saying.

I’m not posting to start a fight. Can you imagine if every interaction in-person was like an angry Facebook debate? Things don’t usually go that way in real life! We usually seek out and want to have enjoyable conversations where we feel a connection with the person we’re talking to.

So when I’m sharing my experience and my beliefs, I’m doing it for me, and for the people that want to hear it – and so THEY know that they are not alone.

It’s not about telling people what they should do or that they are wrong. Instead, I want to just share my experience. Not because I know something but because I’ve lived something. And you can’t argue with experience. You can point out that it doesn’t measure up against your own experience, but that doesn’t minimize my own experience – my own truth. We have to allow people to think the way they think. And if I did want to try to change the way someone thinks, it’s not gonna happen by yelling at them. We need to connect first.

For me, the simple practice of slowing down, being more present, and creating space between thoughts has caused a shift in my perspective. I realize why I’m compelled to share what I share – it’s to feel connected to other people.

And if my true desire is to help people, I know my chances are much better if I start from a place of connection, so that people lean in and WANT to hear more from me. This can be such a subtle thing. I’m not trying to confirm that I’m right, pandering for comments and likes, it’s more about feeling connected, so we all feel less alone.

I think the main point, what I need to remember, is that there’s a real person looking at the screen at the other end, reading the post I’m sharing. And deep down we have more commonalities, as human beings, than we have differences.


PS – My wife, Heather Prescott Liebensohn and I just released a song called “Contagious” which actually inspired this post!


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