18 and Change

18 and Change

Photo by kalei peek on Unsplash

We don’t see things the way they are.
We see them the way we are.
— The Talmud

Most teenagers can’t wait to turn 18, a time marked by the independence (and adventure) of them moving out on their own, embarking on their dreams via college or serving their country, or the mere prospect of forming new relationships. However you slice it, it’s when youthful adults venture out into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) to come into their own.

So tell me, when you were younger, did you ever like a guy or girl, a food, or anything, and as time passed, you stopped liking him or her or it? It’s like you “aged out” of who or what you were previously enamored with or entranced by. I mean, I used to enjoy hanging out with certain types of people, and now I avoid them like COVID-19. Unless they’re doing something positive, I classify such types as “Hi and Bye” acquaintances, whom I spend as little time as possible with.

For example, I have some past “so-called” friends who believe I’ll get out and smoothly segue back into our youthful pastime activities without missing a beat. Some even say, “Jay ain’t changed.” Hmm, that’s naive and mildly disturbing given that I will have spent “18 and change” (i.e., over 18 years) in prison, and they expect me to leave prison as the same person I came to prison as?! Although, and most unfortunately, there are some guys who press the psychological and behavioral pause button upon entering prison, and re-press it when they release, I’m definitely not one of them.

Contrary to prevailing frenemy belief, prison turned my life upside down, which as I later discovered was actually right side up. I came to prison because my upside-down outlook on life skewed my perception of reality. Paraphrasing my opening quote, the world did not change, rather, only my perception of it did.

I’ve spent years trying to figure out where I went wrong, and the further back I looked the closer I got to the answers. Pre-prison, I was living my life through my tattered past. As Dr. Phil said, “The past reaches into the present, and programs the future, your recollections and your internal rhetoric about what you perceived to have happened to you.” I learned that I was living my adult life through the tragedies of my negative social environment growing up.

And since my formerly-flawed thinking produced criminal behavior that, in turn, resulted in me having to serve 18 and change in prison, I’m often overtaken with residual guilt, shame and remorse. It’s like a web that wraps you tightly, squeezing tighter and tighter with an endless thread. Don Miguel Ruiz explains this in The Four Agreements:

How many times do we pay for one mistake? The answer is thousands of times. The human is the only animal on earth that pays a thousand times for the same mistake. The rest of the animals pay once for every mistake they make. But not us. We have a powerful memory. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty, and punish ourselves…. Every time we remember, we judge ourselves again, we are guilty again, and we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.

And then there are those in society who seek to tighten the web even more by reminding you of your past mistake at every corner — without considering the mitigating factors that contributed to your downfall — pushing you to relive the past on an endless loop. They forget that every saint has a past, and every sinner a future. They judge with four fingers pointing back at them. They demand retribution, but when they (or their loved ones) are standing in the shoes of the accused, they beg for mercy and leniency.

But the good thing is: I’ve incubated for years in this concrete cocoon and improved myself in ways that the majority in society cannot because they haven’t walked my Road to Redemption, where I’ve had to revamp and reinvent myself and overwrite my faulty thought processes with success-oriented programming. Every day I use my 18 and change to update my life outlook and further disentangle myself from the web of guilt and shame.

I approach each new year as an exciting new chapter in my life, as one of many phases of my metamorphosis. I am a new creation, a phoenix risen from the ashes, a butterfly ready to explore and perceive the same world (i.e., minus the landscaping of technological innovation) through a different, more colorful lens.

And if ever accused of being the same person I was when I committed my crime, I would simply reply, “True, I am the same essence. But in terms of form, I have changed by leaps and bounds and become someone exceedingly better.” Therefore, my world has changed — but only on account of my perception changing over the course of my 18 and change.

As you embark on the new year and hope to improve some aspect(s) of your life, I want to give you a handful of positive affirmations for 2021 (in the era of COVID-19) from my affirmation stockpile that has helped me develop the right attitude to overcome WHATEVER life throws at me.

God willing, I’ll be released in 2022! Happy New Year!


Positive Affirmations for 2022

We have to be greater than what we suffer.
–Spiderman, movie

The world is hard. You have to be harder.

You gotta do what’s best for you with the time that you got.
–Detective Pikachu, movie

I am the captain of my ship, and the master of my fate.
–Dr. Ivan Joseph

Fall seven times stand up eight.
–Japanese proverb

Sometimes, the only way to heal our wounds is
to make peace with the demons who created them.
–Godzilla II: King of the Monsters, movie

Sometimes we’re tested not to show our weaknesses,
but to discover our strengths.

The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.
–Bumblebee, movie

The Four Agreements – Part Five of a Five Part Series

The Four Agreements – Part Five of a Five Part Series

We’re excited to offer the last in Eric Burnham’s five-part series on “The Four Agreements,” by bestselling author Don Miguel Ruiz. In the book, Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.

Always Do Your Best

Everyone loves success, and deep down, everyone knows that success, real success, doesn’t just happen. It’s earned. If you want to shine while everyone is looking, you’ve got to polish when no one is looking. You’ve got to do your best at all times, but what does that mean? Are there any limitations?

I think success means being your best self and applying your best self to everything you do, and I think there are some limitations. But those limitations actually liberate a person to focus mental and emotional energy on the task at hand in a more targeted way. It’s kind of like addition by subtraction. The primary limitation of doing your best carries a “being” element, which requires integrity, humility, and attention to detail.

Integrity involves honesty of word and deed and authenticity of motive, even when it’s uncomfortable and arduous. Integrity is a character trait displayed as a pattern of living, rather than a momentary decision. It is the pursuit of what you know to be the right thing regardless of how you feel.

Humility, that most slippery of character traits, involves a natural willingness not only to make mistakes, but to easily admit them as well. To be humble means having a total lack of pretense and self-centeredness, a concern for others before oneself. In a word, it means being selfless, not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

Attention to detail is paramount. It involves, well, paying attention to the little things. An NFL coach once said, “See a little, see a lot; see a lot, see nothing.” The little things inform and direct the bigger things. Most have heard of the 80/20 rule: 80% of all production is accomplished by 20% of all resources. Attention to detail requires prioritization, applying a counter-intuitive shift in focus. An emphasis on the little things will bring about profound improvements in the bigger ones.

A secondary limitation of doing your best involves a three-pronged framework of activity, the “doing” element: preparation, execution, and maintenance. The pursuit of success is not a chaotic, haphazard hope of finishing in the top tier. It is a goal-setting/goal-achievement progression.

To do your best, you must prepare. Gather information, accumulate resources, and organize effort. Preparation sets you up for success —never rely on luck alone. Then execute your plan. Do what you set out to do, and do it with a flexible but durable implementation of your plan. Finally, maintenance work may need to be done along the way to preserve gains. Success is not a one-and-done endeavor. It requires diligence and constant reassessment.

These four agreements may seem like common sense, and perhaps they are for some. However, they have helped me achieve a measure of success, even though I’m incarcerated. I may be in prison, but I’ve made the successful transition from gangster to scholar, achieving my Master’s degree in 2017 and even beginning my PhD program. I’m not saying you should listen to an incarcerated man. After all, I’m just another inmate. I’m only tellin’ you what has worked for me, and if I can do it, you can do it. Make these agreements with yourself and stay committed.

The Four Agreements – Part Five of a Five Part Series

The Four Agreements – Part Four of a Five Part Series

We’re excited to offer the fourth in Eric Burnham’s five-part series on “The Four Agreements,” by bestselling author Don Miguel Ruiz. In the book, Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Assumptions are toxic and corrosive. They erode personality and mental stability, causing people to approach social interactions in a schizophrenic way. A real I-want-but-I-don’t philosophy takes hold. An assumption is something presupposed, something taken as a given based on emotional reasoning rather than logic. 

Assumptions prove to be false more often than not. They are erroneous for two primary reasons: First, they are formed with very little information and few actual facts. Second, since they are driven by emotions and insecurities, they almost always flow from the worst possible scenarios. 

Self-confidence and self-efficacy, which is one’s belief in his or her ability to accomplish a given task or perform under pressure, are immediately disrupted by assumptions. Once you assume what others are thinking, feeling, or doing, you’re no longer on firm footing, and you’re no longer in control of yourself. You limit your options. You react to something you don’t know to be true, putting yourself at a significant disadvantage emotionally. 

Have you ever thought someone was bad-mouthing you or laughing at you behind your back? You then react to that assumption, avoiding or challenging that person, even though your suspicions haven’t been confirmed, only to later find out you were incorrect in your assumption. You come off looking like a fool, and others begin to doubt your mental stability. 

When you make assumptions and react to them, you’re not as confident or decisive as you could be because you’re operating from the emotional part of your mind, which was never intended to drive the train because it does not take factual information into account. It bases decisions on a reality of its own making, rather than objective reality. Repeated occurrences of reacting to your assumptions and later finding out that you were wrong is damaging to the spirit, opening the door for self-doubt to take root in your personality. If not dealt with properly, self-doubt leads to masking and over-compensation. 

Masking is essentially hiding from reality, putting on a front and keeping the world away from the real you. But the other side of that coin is that you keep the real you from the world, never allowing your unique light to shine. Eventually, you’ll begin to over-compensate for every perceived weakness in a thinly-veiled attempt to show the world you’ve got it all together, that you’ve got it all figured out. But you don’t. None of us do. We are all navigating life on earth with limited information. We function best when we have as much information as we can get before we make decisions. 

Don’t make assumptions about others or what you think others think of you. You simply don’t know, and rushing to judgment does not provide the safety it promises. Gather more information before reacting in your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be far less anxious. Your life goes on either way, but you have the choice to make assumptions or not. Therefore, you have the choice to pursue well-being… or not.

The Four Agreements – Part Five of a Five Part Series

The Four Agreements – Part Three of a Five Part Series

We’re excited to offer the third in Eric Burnham’s five-part series on “The Four Agreements,” by bestselling author Don Miguel Ruiz. In the book, Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

The next agreement to be made with yourself is: Don’t take anything personally. It’s natural to personalize how you are treated. The ability to not personalize anything is learned, and it takes lots of practice. Without a doubt, some things are easier to brush off than others, but the way you are treated is rarely a referendum upon your person or character. Truth be told, you’re not that important. Other people are the most important characters in the unfolding story of their lives, not you. That’s just an existential truth. 

Some people are inconsiderate, selfish jerks. Some are loud, obnoxious, and difficult. Others make broad, sweeping statements and over-generalizations designed to offend as many as possible. Still others are simply too stupid to realize their own ignorance. There are bullies, pushovers, snipers, haters, and snakes. There are those who don’t care about anything and those who care about everything. There are users, abusers, looters, and polluters. You can’t change them–and it isn’t your responsibility to do so. How they treat you, however, says far more about them than it does you. 

Of course it goes without saying that the opinions and actions of those whom you hold in higher esteem carry more weight; you’ll be more disappointed or offended by their dishonest or unethical actions, and their slights and insults will hurt more. Yet even how they treat you only becomes about you when you personalize it. It’s far better to choose to grow through the experience, rather than be limited by self-consciousness or enslaved to anger and self-doubt. 

There’s an old adage that holds life to be 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. While that’s admittedly over simplistic, some truth can be found there. Basically, how you respond to the circumstances of your life and the people around you will determine not only your degree of personal growth, but also how you feel about yourself. When you allow the words and actions of others to dictate your emotions and ensuing behaviors, you are not in control of your life. Other people are controlling you, your life, and ultimately, your destiny–even if you think they’re not. That’s the quirky thing about objective truth: It’s true whether you believe it or not.

Consequently, if life is only 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react, then taking things personally will profoundly impact your reactions. Personalizing and catastrophizing leads to anxiety, unrest, and resentment. You’ll never find peace, fulfillment, and self-assurance by personalizing the way you are treated. Even if you reach your goals, you’ll be miserable if you’re unrealistically expecting others to treat you the way you think you should be treated. You’ll be stuck wrapped up in a need for validation and affirmation that will never come. 

Everyone is in a different stage of personal development, and you’re never completely aware of what is going on in someone else’s life. But you are aware of what’s going on in yours. If you strive to be a good person, and you adhere to these four agreements, you can find lasting peace. Don’t take anything personally — things are never as bad as they feel. 

The Four Agreements – Part Five of a Five Part Series

The Four Agreements – A Five Part Series

We’re excited to offer the first of Eric Burnham’s five-part series based on “The Four Agreements,” by bestselling author Don Miguel Ruiz. In the book, Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.

Emotional discomfort is, well, uncomfortable, but unfortunately, it’s inevitable in this beautiful and broken world. However, much of our emotional discomfort is needlessly self-induced. Nobody enjoys the anxiety and restlessness that comes with being artificial and incongruent. Granted, some people’s words and actions are artificial and incongruent on purpose; these people use deception and manipulation to meet their needs — and they often feel a certain satisfaction in the turmoil and tension they leave in their wake. Yet, most of us are not so diabolical. The majority of people — even those of us who are incarcerated — want to be authentic and congruent, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Let’s define some terms. What does it mean to be artificial? The word “artificial” means “a cheap or inauthentic substitute.” It’s a fancy, four-syllable word for “fake.” So, to be artificial means to be fake, to hide the real you away and put on a mask.

There are many reasons why people conceal themselves or their intentions. Some simply lack the courage to be authentic; while others don’t know how to be real. Still others have been incongruent for so long that they are ashamed of themselves, so they use masks to insulate themselves from the pain. Over time, conveying an artificial self creates a cognitive structure vulnerable to incongruence. That is, artificial behaviors establish mental and emotional patterns that lead to an automatic response of incongruency.

Congruency refers to two things being the same in shape, form, or length. When a person is incongruent, his or her actions do not line up with his or her beliefs, values, or worldview. And when behaviors constantly fail to align with personal beliefs and values, dissonance will inevitably result — that is, incongruency tears a person apart, leaving him or her with a profoundly negative self-concept. If a person believes an action is wrong but continues to do it anyway, or if a person believes an action is right but fails to act, shame will ensue. The incongruent person experiences incredible self-doubt, debilitating self-hatred, and eventually long-term emotional dysfunction. Human beings were designed to be expressive, genuine, and free, but incongruence staunches the flow of the unique self, limits emotional expression, and chokes the spirit, which leads to anxiety, restlessness, and even depression.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Four simple agreements made with oneself can change everything. Yet, once made, these agreements must be adhered to in order to be effective — it requires commitment. Of course, everyone stumbles from time-to-time, especially early on, but a committed person does not wallow in defeat. A committed person gets back up, brushes the dust off, and begins again, stronger each time. A committed person perseveres.

These four simple agreements have the power to transform a person’s life.

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best

These four little agreements are simple, but they are not easy. Let’s take a deeper look at each one. To be continued…