By Jason Tafler, Founder & CEO of Unyte
In case you haven’t seen this, I wanted to share this tragic story from Forbes about Tony Hsieh’s mental health struggles and recent passing.
While of course it is important to celebrate our worldly achievements and successes, it is also important to explore the root causes of human suffering and to learn from others’ experiences. That is the internal journey I began five years ago and continue to be on. A journey that stands on the shoulders of so many seekers before me.
First off, I want to be clear that I did not know Tony Hsieh personally, having only once met him briefly in passing. So I can’t speak in any way for him or his life experience. That said, I do know that his lifelong quest was to find and spread happiness. I am very sorry that he suffered so much near the end of his life. And I pray that his soul rests in peace.
He has also inspired me to do what I can to shed some light on this important topic from my own direct personal experience. While I never turned to drugs, as I’ve shared before, I was fully addicted to work, achievement and “success” for most of the first 40 years of my life. For two decades, I worked 80+ hours per week and celebrated many “accomplishments”; for sure, I had a lot of fun and am forever grateful for those experiences. But they were fleeting and I never found myself truly happy deep inside. And the inner trauma and stress partially led to a near-death experience five years ago that I thankfully survived.
Many don’t have such fortunate outcomes. So it is important for those of us who do to speak out – to speak our truths in the hope that they can help others on similar paths. Especially if these truths run counter to so much of what we’ve learned and believe.
For me and many others who have struggled, we often focus on our external successes in life, yet we fail to ask the really difficult and uncomfortable internal questions:
- Why am I suffering?
- What trauma might I have experienced?
- What pain or void am I running away from?
- How do I truly feel inside?
- When I strip away my external identity and assets, who am I really?
- Why am I here?
- What is meaningful to me?
- Is all of my “doing” coming from my true self, or is it being driven by my ego, attachments, aversions, or what others might think of me?
What if most of the beliefs that we’ve been taught by modern society, our parents, schools, workplaces and social media influencers about what brings happiness are completely wrong?
What if after we do everything we were told to do, acquire all that we ever wanted, and experience every possible earthly pleasure, we still aren’t truly happy? What then? What might we be missing? When we are laying on our death bed, as I almost was, what of all this can we take with us?
According to one of Tony Hsieh’s friends: “He fostered so much human connection and happiness, yet there was this void. It was difficult for him to be alone.”
You see, I was a constant “doer” with an overactive mind and never-ending list of things to get done. I was running away from the pain and emptiness I felt inside, and the fact that no matter how much I did, how many external rewards I became attached to, or how much money I made, it didn’t seem to help or fill the void. I would just immediately move on to the next thing to accomplish. An endless cycle of desire, achievement and suffering. The more we get, the more we want. This cycle of bondage – and how to break free from it – was first written about thousands of years ago in certain traditions, and that wisdom holds just as true today.
For me, this suffering caused a tremendous amount of internal conflict, represented by stress, anxiety, frustration and anger. As the science on trauma and mental health shows, much of this gets repressed in our subconscious, our nervous system, deep beneath our conscious mind. And we end up spending most of our time in nervous system states of fight/flight or freeze, which have cascading effects on our mental and physical health and relationships. This is certainly partially responsible for the health challenges I experienced and endured.
According to Polyvagal Theory, much of this is physiological in nature. And our physiology can either hinder or enable our journeys. The parasympathetic, or ventral vagal nervous system state, is a pathway that enables us to quiet the mind, regenerate and heal the body, access our higher brain functions, embrace social connections, and unite with our true selves. When we can strengthen our nervous system to more easily and consistently get into this state, we are more calm, regulated and resilient and can be more accessible to other psychological and physiological therapies. Overall, we can better respond to life’s challenges and better experience life.
After I survived nearly five years ago, I was incredibly fortunate to have amazing support from my family, many mental and physical health professionals, and various guides and tools to explore these questions and experiences. There are many pathways to this ventral vagal state, but I have found meditation, breathwork, yoga and certain forms of psychological therapy like Internal Family Systems and working through limiting beliefs the most powerful for me. Each person can ultimately choose the pathways that resonate most with them.
The average human is awake for around 1,000 minutes per day – why not commit to spending just 1% of that time, or 10 minutes a day, meditating to calm your mind and body and get to know yourself a bit better? For those who have experienced trauma or have very dysregulated nervous systems, I highly recommend initially working with a trauma-informed therapist, coach or teacher. Sometimes, in the early days of trying to sit in stillness, repressed emotions and experiences can surface, and having someone to guide you through can be very comforting and helpful.
For most of my life, I couldn’t sit still and just be. It was only through many months and years of daily meditation practice and other mind-body work that I was eventually able to be comfortable in the stillness of just being with myself. To realize that I am not my thoughts, emotions, identity or accomplishments. To become aware of my breathing and physical sensations. To process trauma from my childhood. To witness that there is something deeper inside beyond all of those things. Whether you call this your true or authentic self, your soul or otherwise, it makes no difference. But with the right support, it is essential to go there over time if you want to really know yourself, work through the suffering and find what you are ultimately looking for in life.
The truth – which thousands of years of ancient wisdom and thousands of modern scientific studies have shown – is that, assuming you have your basic needs met, true safety, peace and happiness can only be found in one place – inside. And from this inner place, we can then undertake the things that research shows create meaningful and lasting joy – self-growth, relationships and service/community. Or as Viktor Frankl discovered, beyond the needs for pleasure and power one can find the need for meaning, in the present, moment by moment, even during the most intensely difficult of times.
Everything else, especially the material successes like money, image and status, are secondary, transient and can really only lead to temporary, fleeting happiness. They can be a wonderful part of experiencing life, as long as they are not the foundation upon which our experience and identity are built. As long as, as the great sage Yogananda put it, we are not possessed by our possessions.
So to all those who are struggling or suffering right now, who have the courage to be vulnerable and share their feelings, who are asking for help, who are seeking deeper meaning, I celebrate all of you and your journeys! I know it can be a very difficult path to trod, especially during this challenging time in the world. As you walk it one step at a time, I hope you can get the support you need and give yourself the compassion you deserve.
There is a well-researched concept called post-traumatic growth, which shows how over time often the most difficult challenges can lead to the most personal growth. That has certainly been my direct experience and can give us hope.
One of the meanings of yoga is union – and if you haven’t already, I hope that you will one day find that place of true happiness deep inside where you can unite with and love your true self, not for what you do or have, but for exactly who you are. To know that you are safe, you are loved, you are enough.
When you then do the work that you need to do or that is meaningful to you in this life, you can do it while centered in this place, and without attachment to the outcomes or rewards. The external things will then no longer be the sole foundation of your value or self-worth. And when you get thrown off course, you will have the resilience to bring yourself back into balance. It is certainly easier said than done, but I do I fully believe this is possible for all of us. And it is important to keep talking about it openly and ensure we have access to all of the help we need on our journeys.
About Jason Tafler
Jason Tafler, Founder & CEO of Unyte, has been interested in health, neuroscience and the mind-body connection for as long as he can remember. He always knew he wanted to make a difference in the world. What he didn’t know was the path life would take him to get there.
In January 2016, Jason was rushed to the hospital with a serious inflammatory health condition. In the thick of being treated for life-threatening internal bleeding, he realized the only thing he cared about was living to see his wife and son again.
At the time, Jason was the EVP & Chief Digital Officer of Rogers Communications, a $30B Canadian telecom company. He had also worked in investment banking and run a marketing technology company in the US called PointRoll that grew to over $100M in revenue.
But this focus on achievement and work—putting in 80 hours of work a week for two decades—had taken a toll. He knew he had to make a lifestyle change. From his hospital bed, Jason began to meditate daily. He credits many factors to his recovery, but he feels that meditation and other nervous system training techniques were the most important element of his healing process and to finding true meaning in life. He decided he wanted to share what he had learned, so he founded Unyte and acquired Wild Divine and Integrated Listening Systems to bring his vision to life.
In addition to leading Unyte in a mindful way, Jason enjoys practicing meditation and yoga, walking in nature, reading about ancient wisdom and modern science, and being fully present with his family. His passion for well-being and mental health is also a family affair – his wife Afshan is a wonderful life and health coach, and his son Aydan has many special needs gifts and challenges.