Mindfulness 101: The Nutcases Were Onto Something

By Chip Wilson

I would never say I am like Steve Jobs, but my dad was. Like Jobs, my dad had the weird diets, communes, yoga, gestalt psychology, and the like, down to an art form. He was always looking for the meaning of life but was also determined not to find it, because if he did, he was worried his life would no longer have a purpose.

By the early 1970s, my dad went to San Francisco and took an Erhard Seminar Training (EST) course, which was the precursor to Landmark. I remember my dad coming back and telling me he’d discovered the meaning of life. “It’s living in the moment,” he said.  At the time, I thought my father was a bit of a nutcase.

Just before my dad could legally retire from teaching, he phoned in permanently sick and moved to California to become an assistant gardener at the Esalen Institute. Esalen is a non-profit retreat centre founded by a pair of Stanford graduates in the early sixties. Numerous human potential practises —including meditation, yoga, and alternative medicine— have been explored at Esalen since its inception. During his time there, my dad went into seclusion and did a lot of soul-searching for a while. If you saw the last scene in the series finale of Mad Men, you saw Esalen.

Imagine me, at age sixteen, rolling my eyes, wondering why my dad was into all this weird stuff. Of course, I did not understand how much mindfulness and Esalen-style teachings would become a big part of my own life. Esalen seemed to have a new context for health and the health care system. For example, if a person had an illness in the kidneys, a doctor would usually prescribe a solution to fix the kidneys. At Esalen, however, they were asking, “Why did the kidney get sick in the first place?” This context would set me up for the foundation of lululemon’s personal development in 1998.

Meanwhile, I reflected on the ridiculous number of lengths I swam each day while looking at nothing but a black line at the bottom of the pool. Using the lessons my dad had taught me, I coped with physical pain by taking my mind away while my body took itself beyond its limit. In retrospect, this was Mindfulness 101. I now understand those twice-daily workouts taught me how to be present. The runner’s high is a sensation that occurs after thirty-five minutes of a sustained, high-rate heartbeat. The brain releases hormones which take the athlete into an energized mental and physical space. The sensation usually lasts for about four hours. The amazing thing about an athlete’s high is the person’s past disappears and is irrelevant.

During that high, as the past becomes blank, so too does the future. We can only think of the future based on what we know from our past. When we don’t focus on the past, and the future is eliminated, all that is left is the present. The present is where all life really occurs. This was the origin of “The meaning of life may be living in the moment,” which became a key part of lululemon’s Manifesto (more on that later). I have my eccentric father to thank for introducing me to it.


Read more in my book, Little Black Stretchy Pants.