10 Day Awareness+Wisdom Meditation Retreat

spirit-rock

“All conditioned things are impermanent.
They are arising and passing away.
Understanding this deeply,
Brings the greatest happiness which is peace.”

When someone close to you dies, there’s a gaping emptiness. Death causes a lot of people to engage in spiritual inquiry. It sparks a realization that there’s more depth to life than whatever you’ve experienced.

I imagine this is what happened to a fellow retreatant on the 10 day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock that I completed a couple weeks ago.

During lunch on day 4, I entered the dining hall and noticed a postcard someone had pinned to the “Meal Dana” board. Retreatants can choose to donate money (“dana”) to sponsor the cost of a meal in order to honor or remember someone they love. A retreatant had sponsored our lunch for the day and wrote a brief remembrance of her husband on the pinned postcard: “In loving memory of my beloved husband who, on this day 36 years ago, set off on a wondrous adventure with me. He died two years ago. I miss him more than words can say.”

After reading the note, I took took my seat and began to eat. It was a silent retreat, so there was no talking, no passing of notes, no eye contact. Everyone kept to themselves. As I nibbled on my vegetarian meal, I wondered which woman had shared the remembrance. It was likely one of the several elderly women in attendance who, late in their own life, had found themselves at Spirit Rock.

After finishing the plate of food, I went out and sat in the sun on a bench. I stared off into the mountains. I thought about the woman and her husband. Mainly, I thought about death and its inevitability. Death had come up a lot in Dharma talks on this retreat. The Buddha said impermanence was one of the three characteristics of all phenomena — including the phenomenon of life itself.

Tears welled in my eyes as I sat there. No one interrupted me. No one asked what I was thinking about or how I was doing. Everyone was in their own world. I felt totally mentally secluded, even though I was sharing the space with about 70 other people. I felt completely comfortable being completely raw in that moment.

I then walked to a bench positioned in front of a big stone Buddha statue. My eyes were open. With a soft gaze I looked at the ever-so-slight curl of the lips on the Buddha’s face. I had the thought: “Human war is really a tragedy. We’re all here for such a short period of time, and we kill each other over stupid things.” I know. It sounds like pop-Buddhist cliche. Yet it’s a true statement, I think, and it’s the feeling I had in that moment, and it’s the sort of thought you’re prone to having on retreat, and I wager there are worse thoughts one could have.

Now, for the most part on this retreat, I didn’t feel as emotionally raw as I did on that afternoon. I felt much more like I was in a mental workout class, sweating profusely: training my mind over and over again to recognize the present moment, to notice the sensations on the body, to understand the damaging “visitors to the mind” that lead to suffering, to build a mind that’s equanimous in order to respond to the world around me (rather than thoughtlessly react) and, ultimately, maybe, eventually, finally… achieve peace and happiness.

You know: just little things.

This Retreat: Awareness + Wisdom

My first 10 day silent Vipassana retreat was four years ago. Since then, I completed a 3 day silent retreat and various day-long and weekend retreats. On my own, I meditated for 500+ hours. So I didn’t go into last week’s 10-day retreat as a newbie. Yet, I felt I had so much practice to do. My daily practice had waned. And I still felt confused about some of the key tenets of Buddhism informing the physical act of meditation.

In his excellent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris writes, “No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.” Bingo. I wanted to continue to train, and to traverse the continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom in the direction that would lead to individual and social salvation. (Like I said: just the little things.)

This retreat, at the insight meditation facility of Spirit Rock, was titled “Awareness+Wisdom.” Awareness (used interchangeably in this context with “mindfulness”) was defined as “remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience.” Wisdom was defined as the insight you gain through personal experience and direct observation about the nature of the mind and the nature of reality. In this context,  wisdom enables you to realize the highest form of happiness, which is peace.

Steve Armstrong and Carol Wilson taught the retreat. They each have been practicing meditation for 40+ years, including tours as monks and nuns in Burma. They are Theravadan Buddhists who teach Vipassana (or “insight”) meditation in the tradition of their Burmese teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya.  There are many branches and sub-branches of Buddhism generally; many varieties of meditation; even many varieties of Vipassana insight meditation specifically. Tejaniya’s style of meditation emphasizes open, continuous, choiceness awareness of thoughts, sights, sounds, emotions, smells, feelings, etc.

Unlike Goenka’s popular meditation retreats, Tejaniya doesn’t start with object-awareness like the breath or a bodily sensation. He starts with awareness of any thought or anything coming through one of the “sense doors,” and emphasizes the higher level awareness of the fact that you are perceiving an object over focusing on that object itself (like the breath or a sensation).

Here’s what we were asked a thousand times on the retreat: What does the mind know right now? Are you aware that you’re seeing something with your eyes open? Are you aware that you’re hearing something? Are you aware of a specific thought? You are reading this blog post right now, but are you aware — right now — of the fact that you’re reading? Tejaniya teaches that you need to maintain this awareness continuously in order to build momentum, and so it should start from when you wake up, walk around, run, hike, sit for meditation, brush your teeth, etc.

A common modern example of lack of awareness, for me, is when I’m on the web. I open my web browser to load a certain URL and accomplish a specific task, and 20 minutes later, I’m reading some random article about politics and I literally forget what I initially set out to do. I spent 20 minutes completely unaware of the fact that I was clicking on a link about Donald Trump.

Awareness practice is a continuous quest to separate out you from the experience you’re having–to look upon the present moment’s experience from some remove. Otherwise, according to this teaching, you and the experience you’re having merge into one, and you forget that you are living here right now. It’s as if all of us are in a movie theater and life is playing out on the big screen. Most of us live spellbound in the movie of our lives. Do we remember that we’re actually in the audience and not just on the screen? Can we train ourselves to glance at the green “Exit” sign glowing on the side of the room of the figurative movie theater in order to wake up from living the movie itself?

Noticing our mind’s mental patterns is part of what it means to be “free.” Harris again:

Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else—something that no longer supports your current emotion—allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.

You see this dynamic in children especially. As Joseph Goldstein has noted, it’s not uncommon to see a child bounce between tears to laughter and back to tears again, in short succession, as the child’s mind reacts to unpleasant and pleasant sensations. As adults, we know that a particular mental state will likely pass away. Adults maintain more equanimity. Imagine if you could be so aware as to maintain that equanimity to an even greater degree than you do now? To have more moments of awareness — to be “free” of the tug and pull of momentary sensations of blame, praise, success, failure, gain, and loss?

A Tibetan teacher described the practice of liberation: “Short moments many times.”

The Buddha’s Argument for Happiness

Over the years, I’ve been learning more and more about Buddhism. Robert Wright’s Coursera class on Buddhism and Modern Psychology is excellent. Books like Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein, Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. On this retreat, the Dharma talks — lectures — really helped crystallize the logic chain for how Buddhists think about happiness.

There are approximately six million books and articles talking about Buddhism and happiness, but I’ve attempted to write out the argument as I understand it, if nothing else to solidify my own understanding (and expose my ignorance, perhaps!). Here goes.

1. 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha, in reflecting upon his own life, argued that life involves “suffering” –or, life involves unsatisfactoriness, which means that life often becomes a constant quest for something more. “I’ll finally be happy if I…” Get a boyfriend? Have a kid? Make a million dollars? No matter. We will constantly seek greater and greater pleasures. Getting what we want will not make us happy. Nothing can change our basic mental makeup. From Barack Obama to the homeless woman on the street: all must live with a brain that was never designed to produce true happiness. (As Robert Wright has argued, natural selection “designed” our brain, for good evolutionary reasons, in the way the Buddha described.)

2. The Buddha said there was a way out of this suffering and it involves disciplining the mind to understand reality and your mind as it actually is, and then training your mind in such a way as to enable you to realize true happiness.

3. Suffering is caused by “visitors to the mind” — defilements — that cause us anger, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, etc. These seeds of discontent — say, a feeling of anger or anxiety — take up residence in our mind usually in response to specific experiences and causes.

4. Mental restlessness enables these defilements. The wandering mind chatters on and on and on almost sub-vocally, shaping your beliefs, emotions, and identity. As a result, you are not really aware of how these defilements affect you. You might have an experience (for example, someone cuts you in line at the supermarket) that causes you some mental discontent, but since you aren’t aware of that experience and the feeling it brought about in that moment, that feeling of annoyance implants and festers. And triggers a whole cycle of negative thinking. You are living a life of delusion.

5. We experience endless craving and aversion around whatever our mind experiences. When something good happens, we want the feeling around that to stay and intensify. “I’ll finally be happy when I make a million dollars and marry a beautiful woman.” That soon becomes: “Now I need 10 million dollars, a more beautiful woman.” When something bad happens, perhaps we get laid off or someone close to us dies, we do whatever we can do avoid the feeling and wish it to go away. Craving for more good stuff and aversion for less bad stuff both lead to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. For example: No one wants to experience sadness, but feeling sadness and desiring that the sadness goes away is worse than simply experiencing sadness in the present moment.

6. With mindfulness, you begin to recognize the seeds of your own suffering. When you observe and indeed name the phenomena as it forms, you take away some of its power. You recognize what’s happening in your mind on a moment to moment level, enabling you to short circuit — and ultimately uproot — those unwholesome habits of mind: you recognize when the craving of more pleasant things or the aversion to bad things enters your consciousness as it’s still in formation and before it can take root.

7. When you are observing your experiences moment to moment, you begin to recognize the impermanence of all phenomena. (This is part of the “wisdom” that emerges from a Vipassana practice.) The unpleasant sensation of annoyance eventually passes away. The pleasant sensation you get after enjoying a nice piece of pizza or a job promotion or whatever — it too passes away. Thus, craving and aversion is pointless: it all passes away. Vipassana is the practice of “learning to grieve effectively.” You can’t hold onto anything; everything passes away; so you grieve you must.

8. Only through direct observation of your mind and body can you develop the bone-deep understanding of impermanence and craving. Intellectual “knowing” is not enough. You must observe the reality, moment to moment. You must sit with the torments of the mind. Hence, the practice of meditation.

9. Because all phenomena are ultimately impermanent, it’s a mistake to consider them personal to you in any way. “You” are not annoyed; you have the thought or sensation of annoyance. “My pizza” is not delicious; a sensation of deliciousness was felt. The anger you’re feeling is not yours; it’s not who you are. Ultimately, nothing is substantially you because you are just a constitution of millions of atoms that are always changing. Visitors to the mind ultimately leave the mind. The very notion of a steady “self” is questionable.

10. Stability of mind is required if you wish to observe your experiences in such a way to understand their true nature. The practice of meditation, when pursued more ambitiously than just trying to garner surface-level stress reduction, helps you develop stability a mind. By which I mean developing a mind that is concentrated, balanced, pliable, equanimous, alert, collected. A collected mind can recognize the present moment’s experience, receive/sit with/observe the defilements and the unwholesome patterns of mind that inevitably arise, and ultimately not let those defilements take over and dominate your mind. You observe them until they, too, pass away. Or, in a positive instance, with stability of mind when you feel joy you can just feel joy in that moment. If you begin to crave more joy in that moment, as many of us do to our detriment, you will notice it in that moment and curtail the craving.

11. There are a set of ethical views and beliefs that the Buddha articulated to accompany the practice of meditation. For example, don’t steal, use harsh speech, etc. He argued you need Right View and then the wisdom that comes from direct observation of your mind (meditation) in order to develop the right mental discipline. You need to train your heart to have the right intentions.

12. If you can do all the above (in sum: liberate yourself from craving and clinging), you can achieve the highest form of happiness, which is inner peace. Peace is not permanent (nothing is) but always accessible. Peace is not a grey, neutral, muted life. It’s the inner contentment and serenity that comes from the knowledge that no matter what happens in nature, you can always access happiness.

Is the Highest Form of Happiness “Peace”?

Inner peace is one definition of happiness. The flavor of happiness more familiar to me, and the one propagated in the West more generally, emphasizes peak experiences, ecstasies, unforgettable moments of joy, and so on. Buddhism argues that those moments of joy, in addition to causing you to cling to them and crave them even more, will inevitably fade away, so you can’t count on them. Maybe so. But I know people who’d say their peak ecstasies are worth any corresponding despondence they suffer on the other side of that high. Joseph Goldstein, a meditation master and Buddhist expert, has noted that there’s a risk in the Buddhist path of losing your connection to what the ancient Taoists called “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.”

True Happiness Is A Fine Goal…But What Benefits Accrue Nearer Term?

Even if “true happiness” seems a bit out out of reach, there are shorter term spiritual and practical goodies that one can attain via a mindfulness practice.

First, the mainstream mindfulness meditation movement focuses on stress relief, calmness, a more focused mind. All real, good, important things. Various research supports these claims. As I described in an earlier post, this was my entry point into meditation. I was stressed out of my mind and sought relief.

Second, mindfulness training can help you more skillfully respond instead of react in real life situations. If you develop enough momentum with moment-to-moment awareness, when something happens it’s easier to detach from the situation, note the moment and any reactions you may be feeling, and then deliberately and intentionally respond appropriately.

Finally, the Buddhist ideas of unsatisfactoriness and impermanence are valuable even if only partially understood. That is, even if I don’t understand them as thoroughly as would be necessary to qualify as “wisdom” in the Vipassana sense, just spending time recognizing craving and recognizing the transience of all emotions and sensations — it’s helpful. These truths underlie some of my arguments in my other essays Happy Ambition and The Goldilocks Theory of Wealth.

The Retreat Experience

Meditation is humbling. Retreats especially. You clear out your schedule, sign up for a retreat, spend real time and money to be there, enter a quiet meditation hall, and have nothing to do other than meditate. Finally, time and space to meditate! Then, two minutes after sitting, your mind has completely wandered off, and you’ve lost any grip of the present moment.

There’s a saying that novice meditators sometimes feel like have beginner’s luck. In a 45 minute sit, their mind only wandered 3 times! With more practice, they sit and their mind wanders 25 times. What happened? Well, the first time, their mind wandered 3 times…for 15 minutes each time. Later on, they noticed their attention more frequently, and re-set their mind each time.

It took a couple days to settle in to the silence — the physical seclusion, the mental seclusion, the somewhat monastic schedule and lifestyle. Early on, your mind is still dull, worn out, or as the Buddha wrote, as “inert as a bat hanging on to a tree, as molasses cleaving to a stick, or as butter too hard to spread.” But by day 3 or 4, I began to feel the calm that comes with having no work obligations or stressful social stimulation all while physically nestled in a beautiful nature setting. And the sharpness of mind that comes from steadiness. By the last couple days you’re distracted by your impending departure. So it’s days 4, 5, 6 of a 10-day that are most engaging in my experience. And by “engaging” I mean “when you’re quiet enough on the inside to really go deep with the practice.”

The day to day schedule of a retreat usually works as follows. You get up at 5am or so and until about 10pm you’re alternating between sitting and walking meditation, with breaks for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and some other rest periods. Some of the sits are guided — that is, the teachers actively instruct — for other sits, the teacher just rings the gong when time is up. In the evening, there’s a Dharma talk — a lecture — on some teaching of the Buddha. During tougher days, when you’re bored out of your mind and cursing yourself for detaching from the sensory-rich real world, you just try to make it to the Dharma talk. By the time of the Dharma talk, you know you’ve made it another day.

Spirit Rock is a great center in which to practice insight meditation. Nestled in the Marin headlands about an hour outside San Francisco, it’s utterly accessible yet very tranquil and remote-feeling. The dorms, showers, dining hall, etc. are all basic but comfortable. It’s a privilege to be part of such a rich tradition at Spirit Rock. In 1970, a small handful of Americans went to Asia, learned Buddhism and meditation, and returned home to introduce Buddhism to the west. (Not a bad legacy: introducing Buddhism to the west!) Some of these people set up the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and, some years later, Jack Kornfield and others who worked in Massachusetts set up Spirit Rock in California. People come from all across America to Spirit Rock.

The culture of the place is relaxed. “Do the best you can, and let that be good enough,” Steve said one evening before a meditation sitting. Outside of the meditation hall, rules were enforced but “do the best you can” felt like the prevailing culture in all aspects.

The Bright Mind State

About 80 hours into my first 10 day retreat, four years ago, I entered a different sort of mental state. My posture was fully erect, my body as still as a mountain, and my breathing had softened such that it was barely-noticeable. My mind got very bright. I felt, for a period of several minutes, that I was in utter control of my attention — every thought, every breath. My mind felt empty and airy and light. It was a non-ordinary state of consciousness. I did not arrive at any special revelation about the meaning of life. My life did not flash before my eyes. Nothing like that. Still, it was a profound experience of stillness and awareness, and I remember distinctly walking back to my dorm room in the darkness (it was late at night), rolling into my bed, and lying in the dark and thinking that that I had just taken a glimpse at a different state of mind.

Since that retreat, during my own sits at home, I’ve returned to that “blissed out” consciousness state every so often (about once every 20 sits) on my own. Usually for a few minutes at time, and at night. I don’t want to overstate things: usually my meditation sits are more banal, and I never experienced this state prior to a 10 day retreat.

On this most recent retreat, I returned, briefly, to this state of deep calm and awareness on day two. And then, counterproductively, I spent the rest of the retreat craving it. I knew what I was doing — craving, clinging — and that became its own meta self-critique in my mind. “Just sit there, don’t expect anything!” I told myself. But the bright mind experience was so unusual, I wanted more of it.

I talked to one of the teachers about this state of mind and she referred to it as a “spiritual goodie” that’s not bad but also not the ultimate goal of a Vipassana practice.  And she reminded me that having expectations (craving it) was a no-no. That said, she encouraged me to do a concentration (samadhi) retreat if I wanted to more deeply focus on single objects, as that sort of practice mind more often gives rise, she said, to the blissed out state I described.

Becoming A Bit More Eastern

Does Buddhism mean relinquishing ambition, goals, attachment to excellence? Do Buddhist doctrines lead one to building a fundamentally passive life in which “nature happens” and you sit and observe and let the world pass you by? It’s been a longtime question of mine, and from other entrepreneur friends.

I’m less concerned about this than I used to be. What I’ve realized is that having spent my entire life in the West I am so immersed in Western thought, culture, customs, and assumptions…my brain is so intertwined with the ideas of individualism and striving and impact…that it’d take several lifetimes to re-wire many of my bedrock assumptions about what I should do with my life.

Meditating and subscribing to certain Buddhist beliefs makes my spiritual disposition a bit more eastern, yes. But I’m not at risk for somehow moving into a monastery for the rest of my life. Many of us in the west would benefit, I’d argue, from inching a bit toward the eastern side of the spiritual spectrum. There are great truths in eastern texts. There is great happiness in a mind that’s more at ease, a set of goals that are less materialist, a perspective that’s more communal than individual.

Relatedly: A friend asked me, “What’s so good about being in the present moment?” It’s an interesting question. Some of my most important creative insights or enjoyable mental reveries happen when I’m daydreaming and decidedly not present. But, we spend most of our time lost in thought like this. And most of that time is not especially productive. Being a bit more capable of being present, of being here now when we want to, is surely a good thing. No one is saying to never think ahead, problem solve, creatively dream up future scenarios. Just become a bit more mindful. Inch a little further toward the mindfulness end of the spectrum.

What Can You Know Only Through Experience?

The historical Buddha was not a deity whose truths you take on faith. He was a man in India who, upon realizing his princely wealth wasn’t making him happy, studied his own mind and offered thoughts on suffering and happiness. Contrast the Buddha life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus, who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe! Although there are celebrity spiritual gurus alive today, in the Vipassana retreats I’ve been on, there is a kind of disavowal of higher spirits or gurus. Rather, the emphasis is: It’s up to you to study your own mind and come to your own awakening. (To be sure, other branches of Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism, emphasize deities and other supernatural forces, and most Buddhists in Asia do believe in some form of God.)

One of the specific contentions in the Vipassana tradition is that you can only fully understand the three characteristics of all phenomena — impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and not-self (anatta) via careful observation and personal experience. You must sit with your unwholesome states of mind, however agitating they may be, before you can understand them. You can’t just intellectually know it. Is that true?

Perhaps. It’s maybe a question of how well you can know the phenomena. You can study basketball for 10 years but if you never play the game, your knowledge will be superficial at some level. But, the vast majority of things we know about we do not have any first hand experience with.

It’s something I want to think more about, as the entire physical practice of wisdom meditation hinges on the claim that unless you put in the hours to observe the impermanence, you won’t really understand it.

Compassion and Existential Anxiety

I wrote in an February, 2013 post about meditation — six months after my first 10 day retreat — that “I don’t think my practice has yet made me more compassionate or alleviated fundamental existential anxieties.” Joseph Goldstein, in Mindfulness, quotes Mingyur Rinpoche to highlight the connection between an awareness practice and compassion:

But the best part of all is that no matter how long you meditate, or what technique you use, every technique of Buddhist meditation ultimately generates compassion, whether we’re aware of it or not. Whenever you look at your mind, you can’t help but recognize your similarity to those around you. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can’t avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion, you can’t help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger, and aversion. When you look at your own mind, all the imaginary differences between yourself and others automatically dissolve…

I can see that. Occasionally I’ve experienced some of these moments of clarity: “So and so is struggling just like I’m struggling, and so he deserves my compassion.” It’s compassion through awareness of your similarity with another person. This feels like a more likely compassion-generator train of thought for me than simply extolling or trying to embrace the virtue in the abstract.

With respect to fundamental existential anxieties — by which I mean death, mainly — I can’t say meditation or Buddhist study has necessarily helped. If anything, it’s made the inevitability of death and the lack of solidity of everything I hold dear even more acute in my mind, which isn’t a totally pleasant feeling. Bill Gates once said he tries not to think about death too much. This is partly why they describe Vipassana practice as potentially agitating. You’re wrapping your head around ideas that are not necessarily warm and fuzzy, with the ultimate hope that you can become truly accepting of the uncomfortable realities of life, and thus realize inner peace.

Qi Gong

On this retreat, I completed 10 hours of “movement awareness” practice — Shibashi Qi Gong. (Think of the old Asian ladies you see in city parks in the mornings…) Franz Moeckl, the instructor, was incredibly charismatic. German by birth, he now lives in Southern India, and his accented English was charming. The key acronym of Qi Gong, as he described it: MBA. Movement, Breath, Awareness. The movements with your arms and legs are smooth and continuous. Coordinating inhales and exhales with physical movement pumps a kind of energy through the body. And being aware of where you are in that moment — feet connected to the earth, the sky above — extends the practice of continuous awareness.

I especially enjoyed the final minutes where Moeckl encouraged us to visualize in our mind’s eye a white pearl in our abdomen, the power of our breath shining the pearl with a silk cloth, and the light of awareness causing the pearl to shimmer. Then he said: “May I be safe from inner and outer harm. May I be healthy and strong. May I be happy and joyful and accepting things as they are. May I have ease of well being. And just as I wish this for myself, I wish this for all beings, be they in the earth, in the sea, in the air. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering. And may all beings live in peace with one another.”

Goenka vs. Tejaniya

A lot of people conflate “Vipassana meditation” with “Goenka.” Goenka’s teaching approach is probably the most popular in the world — there are hundreds of centers, all free of charge, that offer his style of teaching. Dhamma.org is the URL for Goenka Vipassana centers. My first meditation and second retreats were taught by Goenka (via audiotape and videotape) with assistant teachers in the room only as additional resources.

Goenka has an approach. He only teaches sitting meditation. He’s very strict about the schedule, about sitting on the floor rather than chair, about observing all the precepts around food and drink, and about the intensity of your overall meditation practice. The culture of the retreats reinforce the strictness. On my first Goenka retreat, a couple days in, I was in so much physical pain from sitting on the floor that I decided to skip a morning sit. The retreat manager noticed I wasn’t in the hall, tracked me down in my dorm, and told me to bust my butt up to the hall. When I met with the teacher later in the day to say that my knees were throbbing and I didn’t think I could continue on, his advice was to just observe the pain and note the specific sensations of heat, throbbing, tingling, blood movement, whatever I was feeling. “That’s it?” I said. “Just observe it. Your mind is probably magnifying the pain,” he replied. I was incredulous, but in the end, I realized he was kind of right.

The actual meditation practice that Goenka teaches emphasizes body scans (“sweeping”) from head to toe, from toe to head, over and over, and you’re to note all bodily sensations.

By contrast, Tejaniya’s approach makes everything you perceive or think fair game for supporting an awareness practice–so you never feel like you’re “failing” if you get “distracted” by a cough or a random thought or smell or whatever, so long as you’re aware of it. You don’t scan your body; you simply maintain alertness to whatever enters your mind or body. This can be easier for beginners. Yet, I actually think the simplicity of the Tajana’a continuous awareness approach could be tricky. I think it’s easier to actually focus in on an object like the breath or body sensations to develop initial concentration. For experienced meditators who are not meditators, Tejaniya’s approach rightfully focuses on how to integrate meditation into all waking hours of your life, not just when you’re sitting on the cushion or bench. But for beginners: subtly tricky.

If you’re thinking about going on your first Vipassana retreat, I think Goenka is a fantastic starting point. Jump in the deep end of the pool. It will be very challenging, very intense, but very rewarding. The clarity of the instruction can actually make the meditation practice itself easier. And because it costs nothing, with an optional donation at the end, it’s great if you’re the type of person who’s easily put off by expensive spiritual excursions or sales pitches for donations. If you’re elderly, not physically fit, or don’t live near a Goenka center, try something else. If you feel like you need inspiration (“spiritual urgency”) to take up the practice, then live, in-person teachers who reflect on their real world experiences living in the West, like the teachers at Spirit Rock, can provide that in a way Goenka’s videotapes just can’t.

Other Odds and Ends:

  • Skill of the teacher matters a lot. Because the Goenka retreats are all taught by the late Goenka himself via video and audiotape, when signing up for this Spirit Rock retreat I didn’t focus on the teachers as much. Now I realize how important teachers because they are actually leading all the instruction and delivering the Dharma talks. I lucked out with Steve Armstrong and Carol Wilson — they were fantastic. There was a teacher-in-training on the teaching team who was decidedly less articulate and insightful. Had it just been him, I would have been immensely disappointed, I think. If you’re going on retreat: research the teachers.
  • Managing hunger is its own practice. Two vegetarian meals a day, with a snack in the evening, represented a huge drop-off in caloric intake for me. (I weigh 230 lbs.) I often went to bed hungry; sometimes I awoke in the night with my stomach growling audibly. I lost almost 10 pounds over the course of the 10 days. I must admit though that the lightness of my step did make it easier to concentrate. And I was glad to affirm one of my takeaways from four years ago which is that if I ever find myself low on food, I can survive. When I travel, it’s not uncommon to arrive at a hotel late at night, after the hotel restaurant has closed. I can go to bed hungry, and get to sleep. I can. I will. I must. :)
  • At least a sixth of the meditators on this retreat were quite elderly. In their 70’s, maybe 80’s. Some had walkers or wheelchairs. When I first saw them I wondered if this retreat was going to be too “soft” for me. After all, the young man who sat next to me at the Goenka retreat a few years ago wore an Iron Man hat most of the time. I was quickly disabused of this worry (all retreats are really hard) and, instead, the sight of the elderly became something of an inspiration: At 78 years old, still seeking a spiritual path? It’s a journey.
  • When I was a kid, I remember telling myself that whenever something bad happened to me, something good was probably right around the corner. And whenever something good happened, something bad was probably going to happen. I have no idea where I got this idea from. But looking back, it was probably one of the most important nuggets to be lodged into my adolescent brain. It’s the circle of life. Nature. Anicca.
  • On a silent retreat, you are alone, together with ~70 people. You’re utterly alone and yet you’re utterly together in tight quarters. One common social anxiety that you only recognize in a silent retreat environment because it’s absent is whether other people are gossiping about you. In silence, no cliques are being formed. No one is going up to someone else and talking about something I did. What a relief.
  • “Let it go” vs. “Let it be.” Sometimes “letting it go” involves a kind of effort that’s counterproductive.
  • With so much time and so little to do on retreat, your mind tends to produce a personal history reel of life experiences from way back. You go on a tour of your memory bank. In the process of stumbling upon long-forgotten memories, you realize how much of who you are today and what you think today is shaped by where you’ve been.
  • Can you uproot self-pity from your mind? Steve Armstrong told a story from when he was a monk in Burma, which he was for five years. It was a “job” that involved meditating from 3 AM to 11 PM every day. He said that in the early years of his practice he would feel a lot of self-pity. “It’s so noisy in Burma and it’s making it hard to concentrate” or “I’m so sleep deprived, how could I possibly meditate” or “I’m too white and western to really understand meditation.” He noticed that when these feelings of self-pity arose in the mind, his body would feel drained of energy. He spent years observing the seeds of self-pity: “I see you self-pity!” He did not invite the thought to tea; he kept it at the doorway to the mind but did not let it enter. He could “catch” the thought while it was still in formation. And he watched the feeling pass away. Today, he says his mind is rarely is visited by the feeling of self-pity. He’s uprooted that tendency altogether.
  • I always tell people who are thinking about going on a meditation retreat: even if you get nothing from the meditation itself, the silence and digital detox alone is quite an experience. Do a 10 day, and even if you never meditate again, it’ll be a heck of a life experience.
  • In Spirit Rock’s “Gratitude Hut” — a small hut that hosts photos and captions of the teachers who brought Buddhism to the west — there’s a relatively recent addition of Jack Kornfield’s remembrance of his late friend Stephen Levine, who died this year in his home in rural New Mexico. I read it several times — again, you don’t have much else to do when you’re not meditating — and found it touching. Excerpt: “I can hear Stephen Levine’s loving voice counseling healing awareness, soft belly, compassion, and mercy within mercy to all who came to see him and his beloved partner Ondrea. Their students brought everything — their spiritual longing and beauty, along with their trauma, loss, brokenness, and encounters with death…Wherever you are Stephen, O Nobly Born, as you let go into the clear light of your own true nature, your home, remember these words of the Buddha: ‘A star at dawn, a drop of dew, an echo, a rainbow, and a dream.'”
  • Question: What is the Buddhist take on free will, if everything around me is just empty phenomena rolling on?
  • Question: To what extent is effort involved in not inviting unhelpful thoughts to tea? Where’s the line between observing and pushing away?

The Way Out is the Way In

Just before the close of the retreat, silence was broken and everyone gathered their things. My work yogi colleague — we were assigned to 30 mins of day of pot cleaning in the kitchen after lunch, so it was the one person whose name I actually knew — handed me a postcard. On one side was the “The Way Out Is The Way In” image embedded to the right.FullSizeRender 3 On the flip side she wrote the following hand written note:

Ben, it’s been a pleasure doing pot scrubbing meditation with you. I hope your time here has brought much benefit and renewed your love for practice. Many blessings to you.

She gave me a beaded bracelet and wished me well. I thanked her, put on the bracelet, held the postcard in one hand, and I walked back to the meditation hall for one final time. The hills shimmered golden with dry grass, the wild turkeys were wandering on the road, and I could see a couple birds swooping in the distance. It was one of those impossibly beautiful California days, and, as I walked to the hall, I was reminded of what the teacher Franz told us during the daily Qi Gong practice: “You are so lucky to be here on this planet earth. You have food in your stomachs. You have muscles in your body that work. We should have so much gratitude for being alive in this moment.”

Impermanence Thought of the Day

Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He ruled most of Asia and even parts of Europe. His word affected the lives of millions of people.

Today, he is just one more chapter in the rise and fall of empires. And most people have never heard of him, let alone think of him with any regularity.

Almost all of the most important, influential, and wealthiest people of our time will be utterly forgotten in just a few generations.

(Adapted from Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness.)

From Anxiety Attacks to Mindfulness Startup

I recorded a 25 minute video chat with Dina Kaplan, founder & president of The Path, on MeaningofLife.tv. The Path is a company in NYC that offers meditation classes to the masses.

Here’s an excerpt on how Dina suffered anxiety attacks as a tech entrepreneur in New York, traveled to India and elsewhere, and returned to found a mindfulness startup.

10 Day Meditation Retreat

I’m going off the grid shortly to spend 10 days meditating in silence. I’ll be engaged in the below meditation retreat. I will, of course, write about my experiences afterwards! See you on the other side.

New Essay: Happy Ambition

I just published a new essay on my web site titled Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing Happiness. In some sense it’s a follow up to my previous essay on wealth. It also covers some new ground.

These ideas came together over many months, and while they’re still a work in progress, I’m happy to share them now…in part to benefit from additional feedback!

Product Hunt Podcast with Brad Feld

Epic wisdom from Brad Feld on life and business in this conversation with Erik Torenberg on the Product Hunt podcast. I make a cameo at minute 17.

What It Means to Lead a Global Life (For Me, Anyway)

On my 18th birthday, I sent a message to a couple hundred people in my network who were older than me and asked them a single question: “What is the thing you most regret not doing when you were 18 years old?”

The recipients were a diverse bunch: entrepreneurs, writers, grad students, engineers, bankers.

One theme kept coming up in the replies: People regretted not traveling more when they were younger. For example, Dick Costolo, who later became CEO of Twitter, said: “I most regret not spending a year somewhere outside the US before going to college. I generally believe that spending a year abroad, anywhere abroad, offers you a much greater perspective on the world.” Venture capitalist Brad Feld said, among other things: “Not enough worldwide travel.”

At that point in time, I had never left the United States. Shortly after conducting the regret poll, I sought to address my lack of a passport—and preempt any late-in-life regret myself. I took some time off and traveled for nearly 2.5 months around the world. My trip had a twist: rather than stay at anonymous hotels, I crashed on the couches, beds, and futons of readers of my blog in countries ranging from China to India, Italy to Ireland. These readers took me into their homes, explained their cultures, and introduced me to a way of thinking that sometimes differed dramatically from my default worldview.

Traveling for the first time opened my eyes to many things, including to this: Entrepreneurial thinking comes in all shapes and sizes…and places. Until that point, I thought a “real” entrepreneur was someone who lived in Bay Area and created internet companies — someone just like me. Talk about living in a bubble. The blog reader who hosted me in Shanghai was just as adaptive, risk seeking, and networked as my friends in Silicon Valley and yet he wasn’t founding a new internet company. He was applying his entrepreneurial verve to his career as a digital musician. I began thinking: Perhaps entrepreneurship was more a life idea than a strictly business one; a global idea rather than a strictly Silicon Valley one.

Meeting entrepreneurial people around the world who embodied the best of the Silicon Valley mindset and skill set inspired my passion for The Start-up of You, the book I co-authored with Reid Hoffman. I spent two years of my life working on that project. In one sense, the book is about capturing the universal wisdom of the entrepreneurial mindset and skill set and making it accessible to a variety of people pursuing a variety of career paths—in a variety of countries and cultures.

Fast forward to today, I’ve traveled to 40+ countries. I’ve met with thousands of people in these countries. I’ve sat down with CEOs and bureaucrats, diplomats and educators, and too many entrepreneurs and investors to count. It’s been a whirlwind!

What began as an adventure in response to the wisdom of my network—travel while young, travel while you can!—turned into a major intellectual and impact project. And that, in turn, has created opportunities for me to contemplate and experience the phenomenon of globalization even more thoroughly.

The other week, I told a friend that I was committed to “living a global life.”

The first and most important part of a global life’s appeal is simplest: travel is fun. It’s fun in part because it’s a constant learning curve. So if you love learning, as I do, it’s hard not to love deciphering a culture and unpacking some deep rooted assumption somebody has simply because that’s the way it’s always worked in their culture. Sure, it can be disorienting to travel in a country in East Asia and discover that the street numbers of buildings are based on when the building was constructed instead of sequentially in order along a street. Or sure, it was frustrating to sit through 30 minutes of “thank yous” as the host of my event in Indonesia paid due respects to the various powerful people in the room, before calling me up on stage, leaving me only 30 minutes to speak. But the ideas behind that cultural norm—around hierarchy, respect of elders, status signaling, the power dynamic between speakers and audiences—are fascinating. And utterly fun to understand.

I Pledge Allegiance to…the Tribe That Is Humanity

Travel, in all its learning and fun, involves going out in the world. Yet, building a global life also forces you travel within. Travel has deepened my own perspective on how I relate to the strangers around me. Leading a global life, to me, means developing a worldview—a personal philosophy—that accommodates what you might call “cosmopolitanism.”

Kwame Appiah, in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which I reviewed here, says a challenge of modern life is to “take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.” Robert Wright has argued that many of the problems in the world today could be attributed to our inability to understand the perspective of the other people in our global tribe. If we could put ourselves in the shoes of “strangers,” if we better understood the perspective of the person we’re fighting against or attempting to influence, we’d have a better chance at finding a “win-win” outcome. We’d more easily accommodate non-zero sum thinking. World peace, never a guaranteed thing, may well depend on our ability to increase a sense of “non-zero sumness,” Wright argues—more of a global consciousness—between and among the world’s population.

Technology helps with this. Individuals have more and more opportunities to directly connect to each other – and thus become more empathetic of each other. Whether it’s someone in Canada using Kiva.org to make a small loan to a micro-entrepreneur in Colombia, or an online retailer in Brooklyn using LinkedIn to source a UI designer in Latvia, our new digital platforms are inspiring us to create deeper connections with each other.

Travel helps, too, for appreciating the perspective of a stranger. Some of my most poignant realizations of the adage that “we’re all in this together” have come in real life conversation with locals and discovering anew that human nature is human nature no matter where you go. The cultural differences that make travel fun are, at another level, quickly overshadowed by what we have in common with each other: we all stare up at the same moon.

Within America, the extent to which I emphasize or de-emphasize my differences with “strangers”—nationalistic fervor or the opposite—has shaped my view of active policy debates such as immigration and trade. Consider that one consequence of a free trade agreement is that while my “fellow American” is out of a job at an air conditioning plant in Indiana—a real example that’s been in the news recently—a worker in Mexico has new opportunities to rise up the economic ladder. Is there a moral reason that air conditioning plant should stay in Indiana forever? Do I forfeit my status as an American if I don’t reflexively privilege the experiences and conditions of other Americans over that of individuals from other nations?

These are questions and challenges without easy answers, and I’m certainly not trying to convince anyone here of an argument one way or another. My point is that leading a global life for me doesn’t just mean getting on airplanes and traveling. It means wrestling with these sorts of questions—questions that cut at the heart of one’s personal ethics and in many cases bear on domestic political choices.

The Second Smartphone Revolution Connecting the World

Perhaps one of the best ways to create new webs of mutual interdependence and collaboration among the world’s population is to strengthen the economic links between local tribes.

It’s a profound time to do so. Over the next decade, around five billion people will connect to the Internet for the first time. Or to put it another way, in less than ten years, the already-sprawling Internet, currently at around 2.5 billion participants, is going to be triple the size it is now.

For any consumer in the world, this is fantastic news. The Internet is about to see a huge influx of human capital, a five billion node upgrade to our global network. More brains connecting to the global grid means more people developing technologies that will benefit everyone. As Alex Taborrok writes in his bookLaunching the Innovation Renaissance, thanks to the rise of China, India and other developing countries, we will now have literally billions more people who can work on a cure for cancer, or develop a self-driving car, or achieve a new breakthrough in physics. Ideas and innovation, no matter where they originate, eventually benefit all of humanity.

As an entrepreneur and investor, this is a huge opportunity: to help usher in the new wave of global innovation such as the Alibabas of the world. Massive entrepreneurial successes from outside Silicon Valley is turning Silicon Valley into Silicon Planet. This is a point my friend Chris Schroeder stresses in his 2013 book about Middle East entrepreneurship Start-up Rising. While countries like Egypt and Tunisia and Turkey are experiencing degrees of political turmoil, there is a less visible though highly inspiring entrepreneurial story in play in the region as well. Just look at Souq’s billion dollar valuation the other month. Elmira Bayrasli’s book, From Other Side of the World, maps Chris’s point of view to every corner of the world. She tells remarkable stories of entrepreneurs from far flung places that lend intrigue to her claim that “the next Steve Jobs and the next Apple, Google or Facebook is as likely to come from Nigeria, Pakistan or Mexico as Silicon Valley.”

Some of these growth market entrepreneurs will create businesses that simply make life more enjoyable and convenient, often porting solutions that already work in Europe or America to their home market (“The Instacart of Chile”). Some will create businesses that are new and fun—for example, they’ll help us attain levels of grooming less advanced civilizations were never able to manage. “Haircuts,” Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen write in their book about the new digital age, “will finally be automated and machine-precise.” And some businesses will be truly profound: pharmaceuticals tailored to a person’s unique genetic structure, or microscopic robots that will patrol our circulatory systems for early signs of cancer.

In any case, much of the disruptive power of these businesses will arise not from the exotic technologies of tomorrow, but rather from a more quotidian device we already take for granted in the developed world: the old-fashioned smartphone. With billions new smartphone owners on the way from all corners of the globe, Fred Wilson recently predicted we’re on the cusp of a “Second Smartphone Revolution” that will unleash the next wave of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

The story of entrepreneurship and innovation is always a story about humans. More precisely, it’s a story about humans organized into networks. Networks turn epiphanies into memes, memes into movements, and movements into lasting cultural change. Networks equip entrepreneurs with a superman suit—it’s the entrepreneur’s network that is the source of her market intelligence and financial capital and all the other things that enable her to create great change in the world. A global network is the ultimate superman suit.

In my view, Silicon Valley is and will remain for a long time the preeminent network of innovation. I’ve spent the last 15 years company building and engaging in the ecosystem here in the Valley and I don’t intend to stop.

But what’s equally exciting is how many other entrepreneurial networks are forming around the world. From Chile to Turkey, Indonesia to Kenya. Technology is connecting these ecosystems together so everyone can learn from each other, thus accelerating the flywheel of global innovation. Tomorrow is going to look radically different than today – and not just because we’re all going to have fantastic haircuts. Networks, and the entrepreneurs embedded in them, will reshape virtually every aspect of human culture.

The Story of My Lifetime?

I’m not sure how many Americans of my generation, when they look back on their 18th birthdays a couple decades hence, will regret not traveling.

On the one hand, travel keeps getting cheaper and easier. The smartphone and internet revolution will continue apace. And the new entrepreneurial ecosystems and rising global middle class are producing exciting economic opportunities.

At the same time, the current political climate in the U.S. is strikingly nationalistic. Xenophobic rhetoric comes from politicians from both sides of the aisle who want America to turn inward and erect barriers. Talk of a “global tribe” seems out of step with the current American milieu.

To me, this makes the task of building a global life as important as ever. I want to embrace the fun and learning that comes from exploring new cultures. I want to develop a philosophical point of view about my obligation to “strangers” versus “my fellow Americans.” I want to support, indeed help create, the economic linkages and entrepreneurial communities that sustain a global, peaceful tribe.

What We Actually Say in “The Alliance”

Dan Lyons’ op/ed in the New York Times last week misrepresented The Alliance in a big way. His op/ed was promoting his new book, which bashes HubSpot, a company he worked at for a couple years. In his book, there is a brief but even more distorted description of the tour of duty framework. Reid, Chris, and I wrote a response to correct the record, and we published it on Chris’s LinkedIn page. Excerpt:

The Alliance is an attempt to find a better way for companies and employees to relate to each other. Specifically, we suggest companies and employees build trust incrementally and choreograph increasing levels of mutual commitment by defining “Tours of Duty.” A tour of duty, which might last anywhere from six months to six years depending on its mission, ought to spell out what an employee is trying to accomplish, how achieving it benefits the company, and how that achievement accelerates the employee’s career. As a tour of duty draws to a close, the manager and employee meet to discuss a follow-up tour. By giving employees a clear sense of career development, we’ve found that companies that adopt the Alliance Framework improve employee retention and lengthen job tenures. Loyalty builds over time, as both sides make and keep their mutual promises to invest in each other.

In his book, Dan writes, “Hoffman says employees should think of a job as a ‘tour of duty’ and not expect to stay for too long.” In fact, in The Alliance, we write at length about the perils of short termism. We tell the story of an employee who worked at one company (LinkedIn) for nine years and completed three distinct tours, and conclude: “This seeming contradiction— regularly changing roles in the context of a long-term relationship— is the essence of the tour of duty framework.”

At the heart of our framework is the importance of building high-trust relationships. In The Alliance, we write, “Our goal is to provide a framework for moving from a transactional to a relational approach…By building a mutually beneficial alliance rather than simply exchanging money for time, employer and employee can invest in the relationship and take the risks necessary to pursue bigger payoffs.” Here’s how Dan describes our framework: “In [Hoffman’s] view, a job is a transaction, one in which an employee provides a service, gets paid, and moves on.” It makes you wonder whether he actually read our book!

Impressions of Japan, Spring 2016

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Shibu Onsen, Japan

Tokyo was the first Asian city I visited, back in 2006, and it left a strong, positive impression. Last week, 10 years later, I was able to refresh that impression by visiting Tokyo (and other parts of Japan) during the famous Cherry Blossom season. Such a fascinating place.

At times, Tokyo makes New York City feel slow. The underground subway stations manage to whisk eye-popping numbers of passengers through its stalls, people everywhere, every crevice, utter chaos. The electric flashing lights on certain streets of Tokyo makes Times Square feel dull. From a sheer numbers perspective, Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world and you feel this scale frequently as you meander the city.

At other times in Tokyo, off the main roads, the city feels eerily quiet, even peaceful. There is no honking — ever. There are beautiful, green gardens, either outside people’s homes, or in large public spaces. Few people yap on their phones; no one plays music loud enough in their car to hear it from the sidewalk. And of course, the overall zen aesthetic lends a certain peacefulness to the urban design.

Chaotic yet calm. It’s the first oxymoronic trait of Tokyo that comes to mind. There are others.

The most famous paradoxical trait of Japan — and it’s a cliche of travel guidebooks — is old and new. There are temples and roads and traditions that are thousands of years old. There are working restaurants and shops in Kyoto (I went to them) that have been operated by the same families for 300+ years. There are ancient customs about family, food, success, and more that still govern modern behavior. Yet, at the same time, Japan has for many years also been proudly on the technological frontier, its people embracing technology in ways that have been captured in many a viral Facebook video or BuzzFeed post. For example, a Japanese couple’s wedding is officiated by a robot. Toilets that do crazy things while you’re sitting on them. Etc etc. The techno-charged culture that is Japan, but probably soon — the techno-culture everywhere.

As a tourist, there aren’t many better places to visit. Exploring these oxymorons — or are they paradoxes? — makes for a fascinating experience. Japanese culture is riveting. And the process of exploring the culture couldn’t be more pleasurable. Everything is clean. The quality of customer service is probably the best in the world. All the infrastructure just works. There’s basically no crime in Japan. There’s no trash on the streets either, despite an odd lack of trash cans in public places, which speaks to the power of social norms for people to pick up after themselves. Taxi drivers are unfailingly polite and are the opposite of corrupt (the cabbie from the airport into town actually reduced the fare from what the meter said because the route qualified for a lower flat rate!).

I found myself feeling quite healthy by the end of a week or two in Japan. The cities are walkable (I walked 15-20k steps per day) but more importantly, the fish-heavy food diet makes you feel light. My favorite meal was a nondescript sushi place in Shinjuku, where the sushi chef made 10 pieces with his freshest fish, carefully giving instructions on when to use soy sauce and when not to.

The Tokyo Swallows baseball season had just started. Going to a baseball game in Japan, where the fans are considerably more intense than American fans, is a real treat. It was great to bear witness to the amazing, coordinated cheers — the fans chant cheers that last a couple minutes, in perfect unison, a different song for each player. The utterly coordinated and seemingly rehearsed fan activity is one expression, perhaps, of the broader cultural norms of homogeneity and community.

On this visit, I got outside Tokyo and Kyoto and the Hakone mountains and into some of the smaller onsen hot springs districts. When you stay at a hot springs ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, you take your shoes off in the lobby and walk barefoot or in sandals throughout the inn, wear a kimono even at meals, eat delicious local meals served in the hotel, and — when you’re not busy making sure you’re adhering properly to all the rules and customs! — you can bask in the relaxing glow of traditional Japanese culture. The hot springs water themselves are soothing and supposedly cure various skim ailments.

The final tourist note would be the cherry blossoms. They were in full bloom during the trip. Stunning! Perhaps even more stunning was the country’s collective obsession about the blossoms — or the sakura. Every store offered sakura-branded or sakura-colored trinkets. Starbucks rolled out Sakura colored treats in the way they do Pumpkin Spice themed items during Halloween in the States. Every Japanese person I talked to found a way to bring up the cherry blossoms. And at the cherry blossoms themselves, in the parks, it was the local Japanese taking the most photos. It reminded me of Chileans’ collective pride in the sur de chile, the tranquil towns of the south of that long, beautiful country. In Chile, it was only at a matter of time before a local would ask you, “¿Conoces el sur de chile?”

This is the best history of Japan overview I’ve seen. In fact, one of the best history videos in general I’ve ever watched:

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A macro economy that’s been sluggish for 15-20 years, a deeply challenging demographic situation, and the persistence of certain norms that inhibit entrepreneurship, such as an aversion to risk and immigrants — these factors lead some to be pessimistic about Japan’s economic prospects. The Japanese people themselves are not the most optimistic bunch by disposition, it seems. That said, there are some obvious strengths in the educated workforce, legacy of innovation, sophisticated financial capital, and its geographic position relative to its dynamic SE Asian neighbors. Demographics is not destiny. And I met with some entrepreneurial investors in Tokyo who are working to reinvigorate Japan’s entrepreneurial energy, and it left me with hope. I’d love to see Japan thrive.

The book that Rakuten founder Mikitani-San and his father wrote is a good guide to the types of reforms Japan needs to implement to make it a more entrepreneur-friendly country.

Relatedly, here’s a piece from Politico yesterday on re-visiting the “Japanese Way.” By turning away from global culture and immigration, they’ve stagnated yes, but they’ve also not had to deal with a lot of the problems currently afflicting America and Europe. I’m not particularly bullish, long-term, on the insular approach. And I’m hopeful globalization can prevail. But the Japanese model is an interesting, decidedly different approach, and one that’s certainly worth understanding for all its pros and cons.

Book Review: Purity by Franzen

purityJonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, is a page turner that locked me into a rich, multi-layered plot and had me staying up at night later than I should have so that I could keep turning the pages. 

With so many other forms of entertainment available today, purely plot-driven genre novels are a hard sell to me. I want psychological intimacy. I want complex characters. I want to get inside the head of someone balancing competing ambitions. I want to learn about someone whose love life is messed up, or family a wreck, or career falling apart, or someone who’s terribly lonely. It’s in the exploration of psychological hardship that a skillful novelist can write candidly about things a non-fiction writer wouldn’t touch. 

Franzen delivers the goods in this respect. There are no heroic characters. Fucked up family relationships. Problematic love lives. Searing guilt. Friends who betray the friendship; friends who become fuck buddies; friends who literally help bury bodies. It’s telling that when Pip, a central character, hears the word ‘sister’ “her heart constricted with hostility. Having no siblings of her own, she couldn’t help resenting the demands and potential supportiveness of other people’s; their nuclear-family normalcy, their inherited wealth of closeness.” That tells all you all you need to know about the nature of family relationships in this novel. Or when Leila reflects on her long-term relationship with Tom, the narrator says: “Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour.” Strange, ill-defined, permanently temporary: Yup.

The psychological drama surrounding these relationships unfolds in the background. The focus in Purity is on the action, which takes place through several different characters as much in their historical backstories as in their present-day storyline. The settings include the Santa Cruz mountains in California; rural Bolivia; and Cold War era Germany. The present-day story is utterly contemporary: leaked documents, Wiki-leaks style, drive a couple a non-profit organizations that engage in activist journalism. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are top-of-mind for the characters in this novel.

Franzen is restrained stylistically, relative to his ability. The “idea bombs” that I noted in my review of his previous novel Freedom — discursive remarks either said by the narrator or by some character on some general topic of consequence — are embedded in dialogue rather than formal set pieces. That said, there are plenty of sentences you’ll re-read. For example:

[Pip struggling to undress and hook up with a guy] Self-pity seeped into her, a conviction that for no one but her was sex so logistically ungainly, a tasty fish with so many small bones.

Or:

Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them. And yet, like so many imitative pleasures, it was highly addictive.

Or:

“I’ve spent most of my life hating her,” he said. “I told you some of the reasons I hate her. But now I get this email and I remember that they weren’t the real reasons, or not the whole reason. They’re half the reason. The other half is that I can never stop loving her, in spite of all those other reasons. I forget about this, for years at a time. But then I get this email…”

Or:

Andreas was gripped by an unfamiliar physical sensation. He was such a laugher, such an ironist, such an artist of unseriousness, that he didn’t even recognize what was happening to him: he, too, was starting to cry. But he did recognize why. He was crying for himself—for what had happened to him as a child.

Or:

Leila felt keenly, after the call, that she liked the girl too much. “I miss you” was already more than she had a right to elicit from a subordinate and still not as much as she wanted to hear. She felt dissatisfied and exposed and somewhat nuts. The tenderness she felt with children had always had a physical component, situated close in her body to the part that wanted intimacy and sex. But the reason she felt such tenderness was that, no matter how she warmed to a child in her arms, she knew she would never betray and exploit its innocence. This was why nothing could replace having kids—this structural insatiability, both painful and delicious, of parental love.

My full highlights pasted below. See my review of Freedom  here. My favorite lines from his book How to Be Alone. Here’s how Franzen dealt with envy when he read a galley of Infinite Jest.
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