Friendships: Frequent Quick Hits vs. Infrequent Deep Dives

Consider the communication pattern between you and two hypothetical friends of yours.

With one, you email, text, and talk at least once a week. You’re continuously in touch. If you live in the same place, you may even see this friend pretty regularly for quick bursts. Maybe you grab coffee before work. Or get lunch in the middle of the workday. If you don’t live in the same place, you’ll hop on the phone for 5-10 min phone calls at least once a week, or sometimes a full hour if the stars align.

With the other friend, you’re not in touch all the time. You occasionally forward articles to each other and sometimes exchange a fun text message, but weeks and months often pass without meaningful interaction. When you do talk to or see the friend, it’s a deep dive. It’s a longer interaction. Maybe you see this friend in person once a year for a full day or even a whole weekend. Maybe you have a 90 min video chat catch-up twice a year.

In the busyness of my adult life, my friends increasingly fall into one of these categories. For example, I’m “in touch” with Chris Yeh on a very regular basis; we’ll talk a couple times a week by phone for 10-15 mins each time. By contrast, my interactions with Brad Feld are less frequent, but when we interact, it’s usually for 36-48 continuous hours in person. Interestingly, the one time I’ve had a very long continuous interaction with Chris was when we spent 24 hours together on the Burning Man playa (and slept in the same car). I learned things about Chris that I had not known, despite 10+ years of being in regular touch! I suspect if I ended up talking to Brad 2-3 times a week, I’d appreciate a different side to him, too.

Both are deep, positive relationships. Both types of friendship can be very rewarding. They’re just different cadence patterns.

Of course, there are downsides to each model of relationship. People whose friendships primarily consist of sporadic deep dives probably feel a higher degree of loneliness day-to-day during dry spells in-between the deep dive nourishment. (If you’re in an intimate romantic relationship, this can be okay because you tend to share minutia/quick hits with your spouse so don’t need to lean on friends as much for this.)

People whose friendships primarily consist of regular quick check-ins and texts and workday lunches probably feel some lack of depth with some of their so-called “close friends.” They realize that after years of “how was your day?” conversations and staying up to speed on the real time relationship drama or work battles that will someday be easily forgotten — they realize that they’ve never explored life’s deeper questions with their friend.

If you’re lucky enough to have a deep dive rhythm with someone, I think it’s comparatively easier to add some more day-to-day flavoring — and then perhaps you have the best of both! I was intrigued by how Gretchen Rubin described her approach on Tim Ferriss’s podcast: Every 4-5 days she sends email updates to her family recounting very minutia, day to day details of her life (“I’m getting my hair colored today”) with the explicit expectation that the update is “boring” and no one is supposed to reply. Its function is to simply keep friends in the loop on day to day happenings, like you would around a water cooler.

Finally, I wonder if women and men trend differently on this topic. The women I know tend to be better than men at staying in regular touch with their female friends. There’s a natural, continuous snacking dynamic between especially younger women I know: group text threads buzz a couple times a week, regular walks around the neighborhood, quick “Love you!” text messages, etc. Many of these women also have plenty of deep dives of course but the regular staying-in-touch with quick hits is what I notice most.

Male friendships can be characterized by months of non-communication, and then punctuated — if they’re lucky, and that’s a big if — by a deep dive. The issue is, men like to talk about the “guy I’d take a bullet for” or the “person I’d go pick up at a 4am” — but the deep dives that create  4am pickups rarely happen, at least in the post college years. Many men are deprived of both continuous quick hits and regular deep dives. White, adult, heterosexual men have the fewest friendships of anybody in America.

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I’m reading Knausgaard’s My Struggle Book 6 right now. Yes, it’s another 1000+ page opus — the final installment — and yes, I’m enjoying almost every page of it. That’s for a different post. Anyway, I recently came upon this paragraph:

When we moved to Malmö I had been afraid Geir and I would lose touch. That’s what distance does; when the time between conversations gets longer, intimacy diminishes, the little things connected to one’s daily life lose their place, it seems odd to talk about a shirt you just bought or to mention you’re thinking of leaving the dishes until morning when you haven’t spoken to a person for two weeks or a month, that absence would seem instead to call for more important topics, and once they begin to determine the conversation there’s no turning back, because then it’s two diplomats exchanging information about their respective realms in a conversation that needs to be started up from scratch, in a sense, every time, which gradually becomes tedious, and eventually it’s easier not to bother phoning at all, in which case it’s even harder the next time, and then suddenly it’s been half a year of silence.

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Some old posts of mine on friendship:

(Thanks to Steve Dodson and Chris Yeh for reading drafts of this post.)

The Wisdom of Eric Schmidt and Tyler Cowen

We are honored to have former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as one of our luminary LPs at Village Global. He recently participated in an event with our founders and Network Leaders in San Francisco. It was a delight to have my old friend Tyler Cowen, interviewer extraordinaire, conduct the chat with Eric. They had a wonderfully stimulating conversation about a range of topics. Perhaps my favorite part was near the end, when Eric and Tyler have a back-and-forth about GDP growth.

Here’s a video of their conversation. Here’s the post on the Village blog about the event. The audio of the conversation will also be published on Tyler’s must-listen podcast, Conversations with Tyler.

The Wisdom of Bob Iger

We’re honored to have Disney CEO Bob Iger as one of our LPs at Village Global. We recently hosted an event with Bob and about 100 of our portfolio companies, Network Leaders, and other friends of the firm at the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel.

Bob was in fine form on stage, and was terrific with a small group of our founders afterwards in a smaller session. As one of the world’s most successful CEOs, and one of the most important people in the entertainment industry, we were thrilled to be able to hear from him up close and personal.

Here are the photos from the event.

One of the more memorable things Bob said at the event was that he’s not “paranoid” about the future. He acknowledged the Andy Grove quip that “only the paranoid survive” but said that this particular framing (paranoia) doesn’t resonate with him. He’s more curious than he is paranoid. He’s relentless about trying to transform an iconic company into a new era. But it’s curiosity and optimism that drives him to do so. It was a refreshing, different sort of view than the common Silicon Valley line. It was a reminder that there are many ways to frame the challenge of disruption and innovation. And there are many ways to be an exceptional leader.

Remaining on Nodding Terms with Chile

Photo I took atop the Costanera Center

In 2010, I lived in Chile for 9 months. It was a memorable time in my life. I lived through one of the country’s worst earthquakes. I went through transitions professionally and romantically. I caught a glimpse at bilingualism in the distance.

There are many countries I have yet to visit, countries still on the bucket list. But I still prioritize visiting Chile to deepen an already deep experience.

In 2012, I returned and wrote a piece titled The Sweep of Nostalgia and quoted Joan Didion’s advice — remain on nodding terms with your past. I still believe in that advice — at least being able to nod at selective elements of your past. Staying in touch with Chile is part of that process.

I visited Chile again a couple weeks ago — a 2018 visit. Returning to a place you once knew well shakes loose old memories, like dusty old photo frames that tumble down off shelves if you open a cabinet door that’s been shut for some time. The memories are not necessarily significant. Random stores. Random streets. Random metro stops. “Oh yeah, that thing” is a routine thought during these occurrences. Not profound. Unless you consider it profound that our brains store a gazillion memories that are not bubbling at the surface and need active prompting to surface — and that is kind of profound if you think about it.

One of the more touching moments on my latest visit happened at my old apartment building. I went back to the building in the Providencia neighborhood. I told the doorman I used to live in the building some years ago, and asked if he’d let me enter to take the elevator to the roof and look out. After a bit of mental jogging, he said, “I remember you!” I stared at him and then remembered him as well. Same guy working the door after all these years. Some things really don’t change very much.

The subway is still excellent (and my transit card from 2010 that I’ve held onto still had value on it!). The andes mountains are still beautiful. The Chilean friends I made all still live in Santiago — no one has moved away.

Of course some things do change in a decade’s time. For example, everyone in Santiago has a smartphone now. I lived there pre-iPhone. Had I an iPhone and data plan in 2009, I would not have gotten lost nearly as often. I wonder how my experience would have been different had I nailed every turn-by-turn…

Mainly, the feeling I get when I think about my time in Chile is about how much time has passed in my life. I’m older now; I look much older in photos today versus my photos from then. So much has happened in my life since then. I do feel a tinge of sadness thinking about it. When I lived in Chile, I was in my early 20’s, living abroad, with so much possibility in front of me. So little constraint. I live a far more constrained life today. All by choice and I’m happy with my choices, but enough years have piled up now where I can look back and draw out multi-year detailed maps for how my life could have gone had I made different choices at different juncture points.

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I should note a few practical things my partner and I did on the most recent trip to Chile. Agua de Ramon park is wonderful and just 20 mins from uptown Santiago. The new Costanera Center tower is cool — the tallest building in Latin America. A sunset drink atop the W Hotel offers remarkable views. And the Ritz Carlton Santiago is a wonderful hotel; the club lounge is very much worth upgrading for — 3 meals a day served there and they’re exceptional. I worked full time from the hotel so it was a good location to do that from.

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I’ll repeat the ending from my previous post on Chile:

Some months ago, I watched saw the beautiful documentary Nostalgia for the Light. It’s about the astronomy done in the Atacama desert in the very north of Chile. Here’s the trailer. The Atacama desert is the driest in the world and the only place on earth with zero humidity year-round. Soon, 95% of the world’s astronomy will be done there. The film juxtaposes the work of scientists in the desert who look to the sky for answers, with old women just miles away who look to the ground for answers, searching for the bones of relatives assassinated by the Pinochet regime and buried in the desert. The film is about the connection between the past and the future, ground and sky. It’s also about memory.

In the film, director and narrator Patricio Guzman says, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none, don’t live anywhere.”

Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is one of my favorite writers. Here’s my somewhat detailed review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here’s my review of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Exit West is his excellent latest novel. It’s about refugees fleeing an unnamed homeland (Syria?) and transporting through different spaces in the quest for safety, eventually ending up in Northern California. The couple, Saeed and Nadia, share an unexpected romantic connection that ultimately weakens over time, with Saeed indulging in nostalgia for the past and his religious roots, and Nadia seeking to break through and embrace a more secular stance toward the world. But before they grow apart, they endure together war and grief and other hardship.

The writing style is calm, sometimes bare. The novel’s opening line gives you a sense of the rhythm of the book: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

The theme of refugees struck a chord personally. And even for those of us who stay in the same house our whole life: “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid writes.

Highly recommended. Some highlights from Kindle are pasted below.


…they had gone to his place that night, and she had shuffled off the weight of her virginity with some perplexity but not excessive fuss.

the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.

All agreed he was a fine and delicate man, worryingly so, for these were not times for such men.

…but Saeed had wept only once, when he first saw his mother’s corpse and screamed, and Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room, silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

…in any case Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.

Saeed was grateful for Nadia’s presence, for the way in which she altered the silences that descended on the apartment, not necessarily filling them with words, but making them less bleak in their muteness.

Nadia had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic, or perhaps because this was simply his temperament.

He did not press the point, but when Nadia brought her face close to his in bed that night, close enough to tickle his lips with her breathing, he was unable to muster the enthusiasm to bridge the tiny distance it would have taken to kiss.

They made their way outside. The sky had begun to change, and was less dark now than indigo, and there were others scattered around, other couples and groups, but mostly solitary figures, unable to sleep, or at least unable to sleep any longer.

Maybe, Saeed thought initially, they feared he might be able to understand them. Later he suspected something else. That they were ashamed, and that they did not yet know that shame, for the displaced, was a common feeling, and that there was, therefore, no particular shame in being ashamed.

They put their lack of conversation down to exhaustion, for by the end of the day they were usually so tired they could barely speak, and phones themselves have the innate power of distancing one from one’s physical surroundings, which accounted for part of it, but Saeed and Nadia no longer touched each other when they lay in bed, not in that way, and not because their curtained-off space in the pavilion

She noticed other women looking at him from time to time, and yet she herself felt strangely unmoved by his handsomeness, as though he were a rock or a house, something she might admire but without any real desire.

It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.

Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored, adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing.

In Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it…

There was also closeness, for the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.

everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

In the morning when she woke he was looking at her, and he stroked the hair from her face, as he had not done for months, and he said if anyone should leave the home they had built it was him. But as he said this he felt he was acting, or if not acting then so confused as to be incapable of gauging his own sincerity. He did think that he ought to be the one to go, that he had reparations to make for becoming close to the preacher’s daughter. So it was not his words that felt to him like an act, but rather his stroking of Nadia’s hair, which, it seemed to him in that moment, he might never have permission to stroke again.

…and so they distanced themselves from each other on social networks, and while they wished to look out for each other, and to keep tabs on each other, staying in touch took a toll on them, serving as an unsettling reminder of a life not lived, and also they grew less worried each for the other, less worried that the other would need them to be happy, and eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.

[Meeting as older adults years after breaking up] Their conversation navigated two lives, with vital details highlighted and excluded, and it was also a dance, for they were former lovers, and they had not wounded each other so deeply as to have lost their ability to find a rhythm together, and they grew younger and more playful as the coffee in their cups diminished, and Nadia said imagine how different life would be if I had agreed to marry you, and Saeed said imagine how different it would be if I had agreed to have sex with you, and Nadia said we were having sex, and Saeed considered and smiled and said yes I suppose we were.

10 Day Samadhi (Concentration) Retreat at Spirit Rock

So you should view this fleeting world —
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

— The Buddha

I recently got back from another 10 days of silent meditation at Spirit Rock. One of the retreat teachers said, in the closing session, “You may want to talk a lot to people about your experience here these past days. I’d encourage you to gauge accurately other people’s level of interest in hearing the details. You may find that ‘It went pretty well’ is a perfectly adequate summary for most people.”

The retreat went pretty well! You want more than that? Okay, well you asked for it. Here are 6,000 words of detail.

First, a quick outline of the last 14 years of practice for me, as it’s been quite a journey, with links to some of my many posts about the topic in the past:

Phase 1 (2002-2012): I felt stressed in high school, read a book about stress relief, and learned about meditation. I knew nothing about Buddhism. I meditated sporadically on my own. I wandered by the SF Zen Center in 2006. Many years later, in 2012, I signed up for a 10 day meditation retreat with the simple goal of survival. Just getting through it. I did indeed endure the physical endurance test of a 10 day retreat, even though I continued to know precious little about Buddhism and meditation.

Phase 2 (2012-2014): I maintained a near daily Goenka style Vipassana meditation practice, I did a follow up 3 day Goenka meditation retreat, and began to dig deeper into the Buddhist psychology.

Phase 3 (2014-2016): Independent explorations, more intensive reading, day long retreats, community, spend time with friends interested in the topic, weekly sitting groups in SF and Berkeley.

Phase 4 (2016-2018): I completed a Steve Armstrong 10 day silent retreat on open, choice-less awareness. I wrote my most extensive post to date about my practice afterwards as that retreat helped me understand the core Buddhist argument. I became friends with Bob Wright, who recently published Why Buddhism Is True.  I published my notes from Sam Harris’s Waking Up, one of the best books on secular spirituality. And in general, I broadened and deepened my intellectual engagement through books, online courses (such as Bob’s Coursera class on Buddhism and Modern Psychology and a couple Spirit Rock online courses), and sought out conversations with smart people on the topic.

Phase 5 (Present): I completed a 10 Day Concentration retreat, the subject of this post.

The TL/DR on This Retreat Experience (August, 2018)

  1. I’m as compelled as ever by the Buddha’s core argument about the nature of the human mind and the nature of reality, the delusion that causes suffering, and the keys to happiness.
  2. If you want to improve your mind and better understand reality, you have to train your mind. If you want to be happy with a human brain and heart not wired to prioritize happiness, you have to train your heart and mind. Train. It’s like going to the gym to exercise: you have to work at it. It doesn’t happen automatically. Meditation is one way to do this.
  3. Silent retreats remain fantastic experiences for me and I continue to recommend them to others even if someone isn’t interested in meditation or Buddhism, because 5-10 days off the grid and in silence is profound on its own.
  4. I’m not sure how far along I am on the path of liberation. But I’m newly energized that this is a path I should be on and want to be on.
  5. Samadhi (concentration) practice, which I just did, is a worthwhile focus area if you want to establish a more stable mental foundation for Vipassana practice. It is a means to an end. If you want really want are jhanic experiences, psychedelics are probably a faster route than concentration meditation.

Recap of the Buddha’s Argument

The Buddha taught that there is suffering in the world, and he taught a way to liberate yourself from that suffering. I’ve written elsewhere about the full scope of the argument. I will repeat the core logic tree here for my own refreshment. Feel free to skip if you’re already familiar.

1. 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha, in reflecting upon his own life of worldly success, said that life naturally involves “suffering” –or unsatisfactoriness. “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, and obtaining those things will not bring lasting happiness or peace. (Robert Wright argues that natural selection “designed” our brain, for good evolutionary reasons, to keep us on this treadmill of dissatisfaction.) All of us must live with a brain that was never designed to produce happiness. What’s more, old age, sickness, and death are inevitable. Those account for the ultimate suffering.

2. Day to day suffering is caused by “visitors to the mind” that cause us anger, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, etc. These seeds of discontent — say, a feeling of anger — take up residence in our mind usually in response to specific causes and conditions.

3. An untrained mind reacts endlessly to these experiences with craving and aversion. When something good happens, we crave more of it — we want that good feeling to stay and intensify. “I’m happy I made a million dollars…and now I need 10 million dollars.” When something bad happens, perhaps we get laid off or someone close to us dies, we do whatever we can do to avoid the feeling and wish it to go away. 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. The Buddha called our reaction to experiences the “second arrow” that hurts us. The first arrow is the experience itself; the second arrow is our unwise reaction to it that magnifies the effect.

4. Mental restlessness enables these defilements and our thoughtless reactions to them. 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. Because you aren’t aware of that experience and the feeling it brought about in that moment, the feeling of annoyance implants. And triggers a whole cycle of negative thinking. You are deluded because you are unaware of the causes of your thoughts. You are deluded because you are blind to the cognitive biases that pile up.

5. With mindfulness practice you are remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience. You recognize what’s happening in your mind on a moment to moment level, enabling you to short circuit — and ultimately uproot — the aforementioned unwholesome habits of mind: you recognize when the craving of more pleasant things or the aversion to bad things enters your consciousness as the thought is still in formation and before it can take root. 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, a mindful mind will notice it in that moment and curtail the craving. If you feel anger, with mindfulness you can notice that anger depends on thinking anger related thoughts in that moment and you can choose to return to the present moment’s experience instead.

6. A stable mind is required if you wish to observe your experiences in such a way to understand their true nature. The practice of meditation helps you develop a mind that is concentrated, balanced, pliable, equanimous, alert, collected. A collected mind (“samadhi”) 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 residence in your mind.

7. With Vipassana or Insight practice, you are taking your stable mind and observing your experiences moment to moment — the lessons you glean from this process are the “insights” of Vipassana/Insight meditation. There are plenty of ordinary insights to be gained through meditation regarding your mental obsessions and habits of mind — e.g., “Gosh, I think about my relationship with my mother a lot.” There are also deeper truths to had.

8. The first of these deeper truths is that unsatisfactoriness pervades all of our experiences, per the previous point about craving and aversion toward good and bad phenomena.

9. The second deep truth is that everything changes, everything is impermanent. The unpleasant sensation of annoyance or envy 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 the loss of every moment effectively.”

10. The final deep truth is that, because all phenomena are ultimately impermanent, it’s 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 feeling 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. Practically speaking, you “thin out the self” when you’re in flow, when you’re totally present with experience here and now.

11. These three characteristics — unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and not-self — are referred to as the 3 Characteristics of all phenomena. In modern terms: Nothing in life is Permanent, Perfect, or Personal. Or: Life is hard, it will change, but don’t take it personally.

12. Want to understand the 3 Characteristics at a profound level? You can only do so through direct observation of your mind and body. Intellectual “knowing” is not enough. You must observe the reality, moment to moment. Hence the practice of meditation. You can read about these ideas in books but it comes to you as knowledge, not wisdom. Wisdom is experientially knowing it for yourself. The Buddha said not to take his word for it.

13. There are a set of ethical beliefs that the Buddha said should accompany the practice of meditation. For example, don’t steal, use harsh speech, etc. He argued you need to train your heart to have the right intentions. And then be mindful about each thought, speech, and action so as to harmonize your inner values with your outer actions. Wisdom and compassion are the two wings of a bird: You need them both.

14. If you can 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 can be 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. You are free from suffering. You are free from being involuntarily triggered by stimuli. You are free from identity. You are free from delusion — you have taken the red pill. You see reality clearly. You are happy.

The sequence of these steps and how one goes about realizing them practically is best described in the phenomenal book The Mind Illuminated, which I will write about in a separate post.

The Samadhi Retreat @ Spirit Rock

This was a “Concentration” retreat. To use the Pali words, the instructions focused on using samata techniques to cultivate samadhi — a concentrated, unified, collected mind.

The practical meditation instructions in a concentration retreat differ considerably from a traditional Vipassana retreat. In standard Vipassana practice, you pay attention to hindrances, observe them, watch them pass away. You’re mindful of bodily sensations. In some teachings, you’re told to be mindful of a broad range of stimuli and just notice them in the present moment. Pure, in-the-moment awareness of whatever you’re experiencing, thinking, feeling.

With concentration practice, you focus on a specific object of concentration — in our case, the breath — and you stay steady on that single fixed object. Don’t heed thoughts or noises or body sensations. Stay with the breath.

By staying on one object, your mind can become very concentrated. Why is a concentrated mind helpful? For practitioners of insight meditation, a steady, unified mind is a necessary foundation for developing insight. If your mind is all over the place, you won’t be able to pay attention closely enough to what’s going on in your reality. Concentration increases inner stability; it makes you less disturbed by disturbances. So, in this framing, concentration practice is a means to an end: the end being the insight that comes from mindfulness. Mindfulness requires a concentrated mind.

Alternatively, deep concentration practice that collapses the distinction between subject (the meditator) and object (the breath) — i.e. very deep absorption into present moment awareness — can result in a bag of temporary spiritual goodies that may not contribute to your liberation but can deliver extreme bliss in their own right (in what are called jhanas). Some practitioners spend years of their life pursuing jhanas.

Prior to this retreat, I never thought I could spend so many hours over so many days focused on so many nuances related to the breath. But that’s what we did. We were told to aim for the breath with our attention, then “connect” with it, and then sustain attention with every successive breath. We were told to examine the first half of the inhale and compare it to the second half of the exhale. We were advised to notice “pauses” in between breaths and to rest our attention somewhere (perhaps on our lips) during such a pause. We were told to feel the breath more than to verbally note (in our mind) our awareness.

We were told to love the breath, to see it as a life force, as a friend. If you find the breath boring, you won’t be able to rest attention on it productively, we were told. Because I do not intuitively “love” my breath in the way it seemed I needed to, I tried thinking about some about my breathing techniques in scuba diving and how the breath serves as lifeline underwater. (Above water too, of course, but you’re more consciously aware of it with each breath under water.) That worked okay.

Counting breathes is a common technique to stay focused. To give you a sense of how concentrated you get amid the physical seclusion: At home, I often struggle to count to 10 on breaths without my mind wandering. (Try it sometime — count each inhale/exhale as “1” and see if you can do it 10 times without your mind going elsewhere.) On this retreat, I counted easily to 70 with complete focus and then just stopped and sunk back into more spacious awareness.

Staying with the breath, in one sense, is “easier” than traditional Vipassana practice. There’s only one thing to do. And we were told to do whatever we need to do to accommodate this one task. For example, if we felt pain in our posture, we were encouraged to stand up in the meditation hall. Or change postures. Whatever relaxation supports your focus on the breath. Just keeping coming back to the breath, over and over again.

In a different sense, samata practice struck me as “harder” than the Vipassana instructions on past retreats. Steve Armstrong’s teaching of Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s awareness framework meant that we could never be “doing it wrong” so long as we were aware. If someone coughed loudly in the meditation hall, and I was aware that I was hearing, I was doing the practice properly — I was aware. In a concentration retreat, if a cough distracts you from the chosen object of concentration — e.g. the breath — you can become agitated.

Beyond the breath, we tried one other concentration technique for an hour each day: metta practice. It’s effectively a mantra technique except the mantras are loving-kindness phrases like “May you be happy” or “May you be free from inner and outer harm.” You repeat these phrases over and over again, directing them to different people (yourself, loved ones, neutral people, enemies, all beings) and through the repetition, your mind becomes more concentrated. While metta may have benefit in terms of inclining your heart towards compassion, it didn’t work as well for me as a concentration method. That said, I did direct the well-wishing phrase to different people as I walked by them on retreat — i.e. as I passed someone, I glanced at them and thought, “May you be happy” — and that generated warmth.

On this retreat, I didn’t approach true jhanic states of absorption, where the teachers and many others report psychedelic effects. I did, however, achieve very, very deep levels of calm. In my late night sits, my heart beat was so small and soft, I could hardly feel it. I likely wandered into “access concentration” states which is the level before the first jhana. A couple nights, when I returned to my room and brushed my teeth, I looked at the mirror watching myself brush my teeth and noticed my mind incredibly still, like a pond of perfectly still water at dawn.

I’m not sure how much I care about accessing jhanas through meditation, given the weeks and weeks of silent retreat experience that apparently are necessary to enter those states. It seems like psychedelics is a much faster way of inducing similar states of mind. In general, that would be a main counterargument against extensive meditation practice: not its effectiveness, but its efficiency relative to other methods.

Expecting Progress But Not Measuring Progress Too Often, and Keeping the Faith in the Interim

When I work on projects, I tend to have an end in mind and, along the way, I like to routinely check in on whether I’m making progress.

It’s rather easy to do this with simple, short meditation sessions. If you want to relax a bit, you can sit down for 5-10 mins, focus on your breath, and if you check in how you’re feeling at the end, you’ll probably feel calmer.

For longer meditation sessions, or during a long retreat, or in the context of a long term habit of meditation, teachers advise against an attitude that measures progress too much. They say to set “intentions” but to not “expect” specific, measurable payoffs. Expect results over time, they say, but don’t track those results moment-to-moment, week-to-week, month-t0-month.

In this retreat, we were exhorted to notice our concentrated mind but not to “measure the quality of the concentration.” Instead, we should just keep practicing and if we lose our focus on the breath, to keep starting over. Occasionally, the teachers would dangle tantalizing personal examples of jhanic absorption experiences, but those examples would be quickly followed up by reminders to not expect those same experiences ourselves. “The development of samadhi practice is mysterious,” one teacher said in the nightly dharma talk, “Be careful not to develop any narratives, explanations, or expectations around what is happening.”

In the private 15 minute teacher meetings that occur every other day on retreat, I asked one of them about how I should balance this instruction to not measure progress with my natural instinct measure and iterate based on progress. Sally relayed the Dalai Lama anecdote of someone asking him if Buddhism has helped him over the past year. His reply was: Probably not, but it’s definitely helped me over the past five years. Point being: Do check in on whether you’re making progress but do so at the right, long term intervals.

Okay. That makes sense. But it’s one thing to relinquish metrics and goals for 10 days. It’s another thing altogether if you’re going to spend hundreds of hours meditating or studying Buddhist psychology — what if you aren’t seeing a step function increase in benefit as the hours pile up? Can you maintain the motivation to stick with it? Myself, I have experienced a lot of progress and I’m happy about it, but I can still wrestle sometimes with doubt.

This is where faith comes in. You need faith to stick with projects that deliver progress in “mysterious” ways over long periods of time. By “faith” I’m not referring to belief in God; I mean having faith that time you spend in contemplative practice is time well spent. The religious infrastructure of Buddhism supports the faith individual practitioners need to pursue Buddhist meditation. This infrastructure takes the form of cultural and physical artifacts that have accumulated over the past 2,600 years in the way of stories, traditions, rituals, words, and beautiful meditation centers and temples. Most importantly, the infrastructure facilitates a worldwide community of people drawn toward the same goal and interested in learning practice for achieving that goal: freeing themselves from suffering.

The packaging of ideas matters. I’m pretty sure that if a new secular spiritual movement presented identical ideas to Buddhism in an office building in downtown San Francisco led by a pair of 40-something wise professionals, I’d have a harder time sustaining the habits and internalizing the truths.

It’s not too dissimilar from startups and entrepreneurship in some sense. Starting a company can be an irrational affair. To muster the faith that you can beat the odds, you need to tap into a broader support community that tells stories of those who came before you, gives you advice and involves you in various rituals, and encourages you to stick with it even during darker moments. The religion of entrepreneurship. This is why your chances of success go up if you start a company in a startup hub.

Proactive, Focused Effort vs. Relaxed, Receptive Effort

Applying the right amount of effort in meditation proved to be one of the trickiest instructions in the samata practice. The teachers would distinguish between focused, almost aggressive, effort — which would involve strong conscious attention on the breath, really zooming in on microscopic details — and a more relaxed effort, in which you let the attention “come” to you.

In one of my interviews with the teacher, he asked me if I was “close” to the breath. I nodded. He encouraged me to “back off a bit, don’t be so close, but more spacious in your awareness of the breath. You’re overexerting.” I think I understood what he was talking about.

Here’s an interactive example he offered. Take one hand and hold it out face up. Take the other hand and hover it directly over the other hand, not quite touching. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Not much. Now take the top hand and squeeze the bottom hand tightly. Clench it. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Some, but it’s muddied and overly tight. Now gently rest one hand on top of the other. You feel all sorts of pulsing and heat sensations. Gently resting one hand on top of the other is what we aim to do with our attention on the breath — gently rest attention on the breath.

In sum, you want to exert effort in meditation practice but not more than necessary. A bird flaps its wings and then soars on momentum, and doesn’t flap again until it needs to.

This struck me as a relevant life theme. There are situations that call for gritty effort; there are situations that call for more “receptive” effort; and there’s a skill to knowing which type of effort to employ and when.

Experts Understand Simple Things Deeply

I love the notion that experts at a craft understand the simple things about their craft very, very deeply. They continually master the basics. NBA players practice how to dribble — a skill they’ve mastered for years but in the additional understanding, they arrive at a new and subtler understanding. Professional concert pianists practice the basic scales with a nuance a novice doesn’t understand.

On this concentration retreat, each day we did metta/loving-kindness practice for an hour. On the first day of these instructions, the teacher asked us all to raise our hands if we had attended a dedicated metta meditation retreat before. More than half the hands went up. That meant more than half of the 90 people hadn’t just practiced metta but actually attended a retreat specifically devoted to metta practice. After seeing the hands go up, the teacher said, “Okay, that’s helpful.” I expected the teacher to deliver some newly advanced instructions to accommodate with the years of experience in the room. Instead, he proceeded to deliver the standard, simple instructions all of us novice and experienced meditators alike have heard before. Metta experts understand simple things about the practice very deeply.

Another example from retreat: We heard dozens of hours of instructions and dharma talks on the topic of the breath. Attending to your breath is often the most basic meditation instruction given. And yet here we were, at an advanced retreat, returning to that most basic meditation, with great depth and wonder.

Surrendering and Trusting the Process

Days on retreat are fairly well structured: There are scheduled sitting and walking meditation times, scheduled meal times, scheduled dharma talks, scheduled wake up bells, scheduled quiet hours in the dorm rooms.

After five days, my entrepreneurial self took over and, as is my tendency once I understand parameters of flexibility, I began to think about ways to optimize my experience — in this case, optimize my meditation schedule to suit my own idiosyncrasies and body rhythm. I figured that if I customized my day to involve exercise, good rest, good meal times, and very late night sits — I would have more success. Specifically, I was questing after a particular type of experience I enjoyed on my first retreat some year ago — a specific pleasurable mental state and physical sensations that are hard to describe.

So I crafted the perfect day: I would nap during the lunch break, do wind sprints and pushups and squats in the meadow during one of the scheduled sits, stretch out my back in the yoga room (to aid in my sitting posture), take a shower just before dinner, meditate in my room, eat a light meal at dinner so that I wasn’t too full for the scheduled evening sits, eat peanut butter from the kitchen after the Dharma talk in place of the final scheduled session to address my hunger needs, and then sit by myself in the meditation hall — after everyone else had gone to bed — until midnight. I even noticed a beautiful morning sky and I made a plan to stargaze at night while sitting on one of the outdoor benches in the middle of the night. Planning mind, expecting mind, comparing mind…

The day fell apart starting at 4:30pm. I had exercised, napped, showered, and skipped some scheduled sits. All was going to plan. I was ready to pursue my newly backloaded schedule! When I went to sit in my room, some light whining noise coming from the ceiling distracted me. I gave up. I ate a fine dinner and the dharma talk was stimulating. But afterwards, when I made my way to the kitchen, I discovered the peanut butter container was empty for the first time on the retreat — the one time I felt like I needed it. I went back to the meditation hall with some hunger and frustration, and planted myself on the lower level to sit privately. But unlike in past nights, a couple other people had discovered “my” spot, so I didn’t have the privacy I expected. My mind was jumpy during the sits, unable to get comfortable. At around 10pm, I wandered outside, frustrated with my lack of concentration. I looked up at the sky: cloud cover had totally obstructed all the stars. I went back into the empty meditation hall and stayed until midnight, with varying levels of peace as I alternated between my bench on the floor and the chair. As the clock struck midnight, I felt some good sensation of breath but then also had a dream-like sensation — it felt like some dreams were passing through my mind, as if I were half-asleep, even as all the while I was observing every in breath and every outbreath. I took that as a sign that it was time to go to bed. I went back into my room, lay in bed, and reflected on how my “perfect” day had been anything but. I dreamed some crazy and intense dreams. It’s common to experience vivid dreams when you’re on silent retreat but these were crazier than prior nights.

When I awoke the next morning to the 5:15 AM bell, a bit spent from my exertion the prior day and my somewhat restless night of dreams, I declared to myself: Fuck it. I’m going to surrender to the schedule. I’m just going to go through the day, do the sits, eat when I’m supposed to eat, go to bed when I’m supposed to go to bed. I’m going to assume nothing will work out as I planned.

What happened? Naturally, I had my best day of the retreat. My sits were productive, I had a good interview with a teacher, I went on a beautiful hike. When I made a plan to hike up a short hill and sit on one of my favorite outdoor benches on the retreat grounds, I joked with myself that the bench would likely be occupied and my plan would be foiled. Sure enough, the bench was occupied, but I took it in stride.

11 years ago I blogged about my favorite Toni Morrison line from Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” There’s a lot of power in the idea of surrender. Many of us exert agency in so many facets of our life that it can be easy to forget when surrender — or “trusting the process” — is a wiser way of being. I re-learned this truth on day 6 of the retreat.

Everything Is Impermanent… “And Yet”

In one of the dharma talks, Donald relayed a story about the Taliban destroying a bunch of Buddha statues after 9/11. Someone asked Buddhist scholar Gary Synder why Buddhists would care about the the broken statues if everything is impermanent. If nothing will last forever, who cares if the statues got destroyed? In a larger sense, if life itself is impermanent, who cares about compassion?

Synder replies and quotes haiku master Issa:

Ah yes . . . impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the sufferings of others because they are merely impermanent beings. Issa’s haiku goes,

“This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
And yet―”

That “and yet” is our perennial practice. And maybe the root of the Dharma.

“Dewdrop world” refers to Diamond Sutra quoted at the top of my blog post — the famous Buddhist phrasing that life is as fleeting as a drop of dew, a flicker of light, a bubble in the stream. So yes, this is a dewdrop world…and yet. Compassion matters. Life matters. Living matters. Even though none of it matters.

I find Snyder’s answer, and the haiku he quotes, a perfect encapsulation of a paradox — maybe contradiction — in Buddhist thinking. But it’s a paradox fit for a contradictory world. Zen koans and zen haiku exist to speak to complexity that normal “wisdom” cannot encapsulate.

Preparing for the Worst Day of My Life (Which Hasn’t Happened Yet)

I am fortunate to not have experienced trauma in my life. I am fortunate to not have yet experienced searing grief over the death of someone close to me. I am fortunate to not have suffered physical or mental ailments. In the questionnaire I filled out when registering for the retreat, I checked the “No” box when asked questions about whether I was taking medicine for anything, about whether I was in therapy for anything, about when I was struggling with particular emotional problems. My life isn’t perfect, but I’ve been luckier than most so far.

In Vipassana practice, where one of the more ambitious aims is to “uproot” negative defilements of mind, it can be very disturbing to bear witness to these memories or thought patterns as they surface and you observe them and make sense of them. Put differently, for a lot of people unresolved inner material surfaces to conscious attention during meditation and it can be painful to work through this material.

I’m not one of those people, most of the time. I don’t have a lot of unresolved inner material (so far as I’m aware) and I’m apparently not enough of a master meditator such that I’ve found myself wrestling with dark personal questions. I do have dark inner material but it’s not “unresolved” in the sense that it’s repressed and haunting me.

I say I’m “fortunate” about these facts and about my general well adjusted mind and body, and of course I am, but the flip side of this good fortune is a lingering curiosity or anxiety (depending on the day) about whether I will be able to endure serious hardship when it occurs. I know it’s just a matter of time before something goes seriously wrong in my life. I actually imagine what could wrong wrong a lot. I often imagine people I care about dying in car accidents and me delivering eulogies at funerals.

Sam Harris, in his excellent conversation with Dan Harris, said that spiritual and contemplate practice is in part about preparing for the worst day of your life. This totally resonated. My spiritual practice is not about “solving” some terrible problem in my life right now. It’s about training my heart and mind to be stronger and more adept here and now. And stronger still when put to the ultimate test.

Random Nuggets About This Retreat Experience Itself

– Philip Moffit, Sally Armstrong, Donald Rothberg, and Susie Harrington taught this 10 day retreat. All have been teaching Buddhist meditation for 20-30 years. All are extraordinary. Philip’s background particularly intrigued me. He was a successful publishing entrepreneur who, at age 40, quit his job as Editor-in-Chief & CEO of Esquire magazine to seek spiritual truths that would provide his life more meaning.

– This retreat had a prerequisite: Participants must have attended at least two residential meditation retreats of at least 5 days in length. So everyone was experienced. My comparing mind got a workout in the first couple hours after arriving at Spirit Rock, before Noble Silence took effect, as I overheard people discussing prior retreats and it became clear to me that for many people, this was their 10th+ meditation retreat. For me, it was my fourth residential retreat. I didn’t feel inadequate though.

– Three things were striking about the demographics of the ~90 participants. First, everyone was white or Indian. Second, it was generationally diverse, and I’m always inspired to see people in their 70’s and 80’s — some in wheelchairs — taking notes and diligently practicing. Third, there were as many well to do white collar professionals as classic spiritual hippies — e.g. software people, private equity professionals, math professors, sales reps, etc.

– The first afternoon, after unpacking my stuff in my small, simple dorm room, I lay on bed and I noted to myself that I was quite lucky to be at a point in my life where I am able to physically seclude myself for several days, be totally disconnected and silent, and travel within. I dropped into the “noble silence” that night easily and naturally. During my first retreat the silence was part of the challenge; in my fourth retreat I relished it. As Steve Armstrong says, it’s easier to learn how to drive in a parking lot than in the middle of a freeway. It’s easier to learn how to meditate in an atmosphere of silence.

– All yogis/retreatants have to do a “job” each day. Mine was cleaning toilets and bathroom floors. It may not sound like fun, but like many yogis on retreat, I enjoyed having something to do other than meditate, and I took pleasure in keeping the bathroom clean for everyone else. A couple years ago, I washed pots and pans in the kitchen, which had its own delights. (Again – only on retreat!)

– Posture is especially important on retreat. When you sit for 20 mins at home, you can maintain virtually any position. When you’re meditating for close to 8-10 hours a day, every muscle will ache unless you’ve nailed a position that’s comfortable. 3/4 of the way through the retreat a teacher told me I needed to add pillows to my chair setup, to raise my butt above my knees and to support my arms hanging down off my shoulders. Tall people problems. It made a big difference. If you’re headed to a meditation retreat, make sure you have a strategy for your posture.

– Throughout the days I had numerous inappropriate thoughts about pranks one could run on meditators on retreat. The whole environment is so serious, so focused, so…silent, that it was hard for me not to conjure jokes that would have, shall we say, awakened the silence.

– Several times I thought about how I was going to describe an experience I was having in this very blog post or in a conversation with someone. I have a hard time turning off the journalist inside my head…even on a meditation retreat.

What’s Next

There is so much more to explore. On the academic side, I would like to understand the concept of not-self more thoroughly. It’s such a slippery concept.

On the practice side, I will continue to practice Vipassana meditation, integrating the samata techniques I learned on this retreat. I also will re-visit some of the Goenka body scan techniques that I learned on my first retreat, as I have a newfound appreciation for some of his approaches.

Overall, I am grateful to have the practice in my life and this body of work to guide my spiritual pursuits. We should all be so grateful to the people who brought the Buddha’s teachings to the west and made them accessible to laypeople, especially Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, who brought this particular tradition to our shores.

Lessons from Village Global Luminaries

We’re honored to be hosting events with several of our LP luminaries at Village Global this fall. A few updates:

  • Video series of short clips featuring exclusive footage from events with Spanx founder Sara Blakely, Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and others. See the embed below for an example of Reid on Village.
  • We recently hosted Fidelity CEO, Abby Johnson, in an intimate lunch conversation with our Network Leaders about fintech and other trends.
  • Next week, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt will be in conversation with economist Tyler Cowen in San Francisco. You can request an invitation here.

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is not a “beach read” in the metaphorical sense, but it was a terrific beach read in the literal sense for me a couple weeks ago, when I was in between scuba dives in Cozumel, Mexico. 500 pages of tightly spun goodness; a classic love triangle story told by one of the living masters in Jeffrey Eugenides; a reading experience where you enjoy both the plot and the random life philosophy thought-bombs; and, for the writerly inclined, plenty of “what a sentence!” moments.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself, as far as reading fiction is concerned, is that I tend to like fewer protagonists and a relatively straightforward plot line. When dozens of characters surface and when the timeline keeps jumping around, I can easily lose my place and my momentum. Partly this is a function of not always being able to read large chunks of the book in consecutive days; if a few days pass in between reading, I’m prone to forget what’s going on. It might also have to do with brain works, apparently: I can’t keep track of dozens of fictional side characters in novels.

The Marriage Plot works to my style, then. There are three main characters, they graduate from university, and they go on to experience love and work and complications in the big bad real world. The chapters alternate between characters. Among the more captivating threads for me involved the manic depressive highs and lows of Leonard’s character.

I’m not informed enough to grok the literary inside baseball that pops up throughout this novel. I’m a mere surface reader of Eugenides and this novel — i.e. there are emotions in here about “real life” and I believe the stories and emotions to be realistic enough that I can enjoy the absorption. I’m not looking for or reflecting on some deeper meaning that’s being portrayed — commentary about other novels, literary trends, or sly references to Eugenides’ contemporaries. The relationship dynamics between the characters are provocative enough!

Some of my Kindle highlights are pasted below. Paragraphs appear as I pasted them in, they are not actually in sequential order in the book.


Phyllida, holding her handbag protectively against her chest, had paused to peruse the student art on the walls: six paintings of small, skin-diseased dogs wearing bleach-bottle collars. “Isn’t this fun?” she said tolerantly. [“Tolerantly” as a way of describing the tone of a statement.]

That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.

But after three solid years of taking literature courses, Madeleine had nothing like a firm critical methodology to apply to what she read. Instead she had a fuzzy, unsystematic way of talking about books. It embarrassed her to hear the things people said in class. And the things she said. I felt that. It was interesting the way Proust. I liked the way Faulkner.

Even Madeleine, who found all the reading hard going, could tell that Zipperstein’s contribution to the field was reformulative and second-tier.

The pleasure Madeleine got from looking at Dabney was reminiscent of the pleasure she’d gotten as a girl from looking at sleek hunting dogs. Underneath this pleasure, like the coals that fed it, was a fierce need to enfold Dabney and siphon off his strength and beauty. It was all very primitive and evolutionary and felt fantastic. The problem was that she hadn’t been able to allow herself to enjoy Dabney or even to exploit him a little, but had had to go and be a total girl about it and convince herself that she was in love with him. Madeleine required emotion, apparently. She disapproved of the idea of meaningless, extremely satisfying sex. And so she began to tell herself that Dabney’s acting was “restrained” or “economical.” She appreciated that Dabney was “secure about himself” and “didn’t need to prove anything” and wasn’t a “showoff.” Instead of worrying that he was dull, Madeleine decided he was gentle. Instead of thinking he was poorly read, she called him intuitive. She exaggerated Dabney’s mental abilities in order not to feel shallow for wanting his body. To this end she helped Dabney write—O.K., she wrote—English and anthro papers for him and, when he got A’s, felt confirmed of his intelligence.

Leonard did sound a little nervous. That wasn’t good. Madeleine didn’t like nervous guys. Nervous guys were nervous for a reason. Up until now Leonard had seemed more the tortured type than the nervous type. Tortured was better.

As he stood on the platform, Mitchell wondered if Madeleine’s wearing her glasses indicated that she felt comfortable around him, or if it meant that she didn’t care about looking her best for him.

Presently, Billy had one hand sensitively in the back pocket of Madeleine’s jeans. She had her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. They were moving along like that, each cupping a handful of the other. In Madeleine’s face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.

Mitchell felt guilty for fantasizing about his friend’s girlfriend but not guilty enough to stop.

He was looking at her with his big eyes. He reached out to take her hands. “I love you!” he said. And Madeleine had surprised herself by replying, “I love you, too.” She meant that she loved him but didn’t love love him. That, at least, was one possible interpretation, and, on Bedford Street, at three a.m., Madeleine decided not to clear up the matter further.

He was defective, and she wasn’t, and there was nothing she could do about it. The cruelty of this thought felt rich and sweet and Madeleine indulged in it for another minute.
Suddenly the dog sped past again, ripping up sand. “I don’t know why it makes me so happy to watch my dog run,” MacGregor said. “It’s like a piece of me gets to hitch a ride.” She shook her head. “This is what it’s come to. Living vicariously through my poodle.” “There are worse things.”

Larry was in a good mood. The speed with which he’d gotten over Claire was stunning. Maybe he hadn’t really liked Claire all that much. Maybe he disliked Claire as much as Mitchell did. The fact that Larry could get over Claire in a matter of weeks, whereas Mitchell remained heartbroken over Madeleine—even though he hadn’t gone out with Madeleine—meant one of two things: either Mitchell’s love for Madeleine was pure and true and earthshakingly significant; or he was addicted to feeling forlorn, he liked being heartbroken, and the “emotion” he felt for Madeleine—somewhat increased by the flowing chianti—was only a perverted form of self-love. Not love at all, in other words.

At one point, in his sleep, Larry rolled on top of Mitchell, or Mitchell dreamed this. He had an erection. He thought he might throw up. Somebody in his dream was sucking his cock, or Larry was, and then he woke up to hear Larry say, “Ugh, you stink,” without pushing him away, however. And then Mitchell passed out again, and in the morning they both acted as if nothing had happened. Maybe nothing had.

“Wow. Most people don’t know that. I’m impressed.” She leaned toward him and said in a quiet voice, “Are you a Christian?” Mitchell hesitated to answer. The worst thing about religion was religious people. “I’m Greek Orthodox,” he said finally. “Well, that’s Christian.”

Our relationship has always defied categorization, so I guess it makes sense if this letter does too. Dear Mitchell, I don’t want to see you anymore (even though we haven’t been seeing each other). I want to start seeing other people (even though I’m already seeing someone). I need some time for myself (even though you haven’t been taking up my time). Okay? Do you get it now? I’m desperate. I’m taking desperate measures.

All of this, as Leonard later learned from his therapists, amounted to emotional abuse. Not to be made to live in a house where a murder had taken place but to be the go-between in his parents’ affairs, to be constantly asked his opinion before he was mature enough to give one, to be made to feel that he was somehow responsible for his parents’ happiness and, later, their unhappiness.

It was like having a wild party in your head, a party at which you were the drunken host who refused to let anyone leave, who grabbed people by the collar and said, “Come on. One more!” When those people inevitably did vanish, you went out and found others, anyone and anything to keep the party going.

There was something about tennis—its aristocratic rituals, the prim silence it enforced on its spectators, the pretentious insistence on saying “love” for zero and “deuce” for tied, the exclusivity of the court itself, where only two people were allowed to move freely, the palace-guard rigidity of the linesmen, and the slavish scurrying of the ball boys—that made it clearly a reproachable pastime.

That was when Leonard realized something crucial about depression. The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up. As he was speaking, for instance, Leonard noticed Wendy Neuman cross her arms over her chest, as if to defend herself against the blatant insincerity of what he was saying. To win her back, Leonard admitted to this insincerity, saying, “No, I take that back. I’m lying. Lying is what I do. It’s part of my disease.” He eyed Wendy to see if she was buying this, or if she regarded it as further insincerity. The closer Leonard monitored her reactions, the further he got from telling the truth about himself, until he trailed off, feeling embarrassed and hot-faced, an eyesore of denial.

The bias of these kids was that Western religion was responsible for everything bad in the world, the rape of the earth, slaughterhouses, animal testing, whereas Eastern religion was ecological and pacific.

Madeleine’s excitement about the future seemed all the more vibrant against Leonard’s sudden lack of it. He was more or less sane now, more or less healthy, but he felt none of his usual energy or curiosity, none of his old animal spirits.

The logic of his brilliant move rested on one premise: that manic depression, far from being a liability, was an advantage. It was a selected trait. If it wasn’t selected for, then the “disorder” would have disappeared long ago, bred out of the population like anything else that didn’t increase the odds of survival. The advantage was obvious. The advantage was the energy, the creativity, the feeling of genius, almost, that Leonard felt right now.

It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian reform in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.

All her life she’d avoided unbalanced people. She’d stayed away from the weird kids in elementary school. She’d avoided the gloomy, suicidal girls in high school who vomited up pills. What was it about crazy people that made you want to shun them? The futility of reasoning with them, certainly, but also something else, something like a fear of contagion. The casino, with its buzzing, smoke-filled air, seemed like a projection of Leonard’s mania, a howling zone full of the nightmare rich, opening their mouths to place bets or cry for alcohol.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books.

1. Principles by Ray Dalio. In the category of “books worth reading since a lot of smart people are currently reading it.” I enjoyed it. I didn’t know a lot about Dalio / Bridgewater beforehand so it was a handy way to get up to speed.

The advice in this book that I hear referenced most often is about sharing blunt feedback with colleagues — i.e. if you think someone on your team screwed up, share that feedback with them without a sugar coat. Ray shares several vivid examples of colleagues more junior than him saying to his face (remember, he was the CEO) that his performance in a meeting was disastrous or that the quality of one of his presentations was C+ in quality. It’s the best way to improve, Dalio argues.

I’m a bit more cautious on this advice. No doubt that candid feedback is necessary to improve as an individual and as an organization. But I question how many people are truly interested in constructive criticism even if they ask for it. They know they should be asking for constructive criticism but deep down they don’t want to hear it and will resent you afterwards (without ever admitting the source of the resentment, of course). A resentful colleague may be less effective than a colleague who’s not addressing their weaknesses as quickly as they could because they’re only getting the “nice” feedback.

The other question I’m left asking myself after reading Principles is whether we should audio/video record more of our meetings at work, like Bridgewater does, have them transcribed, and then keep a searchable text archive of all meetings so that colleagues who weren’t in the room can quickly sync up at their convenience.

2. Emerald City by Jennifer Egan. After devouring Manhattan Beach, I’m now working my way through the rest of the Egan canon. This collection of short stories is terrific. Out of the 11 stories, at least 7-8 of them held my attention all the way through; indeed, I was disappointed when they came to an end.

My favorite story is “Letters to Josephine,” which is about a woman named Lucy’s complicated feelings about becoming wealthy (via marriage) relative to her childhood and to her childhood friends. Lucy’s reflections on the blur of luxury travel that she indulges in with her aloof husband are spot-on. An example exchange between her friend Josephine and her:

“What does it look like from an airplane, when you land at night?” Josephine asked. “I always try to imagine it, how cities must look from above with all their lights blinking. Is it pretty?” Lucy pictured herself and Parker in an airplane, both of them tired and eager to land. “Well, it’s…” she paused, wondering what Josephine wanted her to say. She longed to say the right thing, to acknowledge the beauty without dwelling on it in a way that would seem self-satisfied. “It is pretty,” she said. “But you get used to it.”

From other stories, on feeling preemptively nostalgic in the *present* moment:

Bernadette notices the breeze, the limp water washing her toes. She feels an ache of nostalgia. Jann’s hand presses against her back. Between them all is a fragile weave of threads, a spider’s web. Bernadette longs for this moment as if it had already passed, as if it could have been.

On developing pleasure in observing others:

Lucy sits with a magazine in her lap and watches people. She has only recently begun to know the pleasure of watching others. For many years she could only worry that she herself was being watched, and would hide beneath wide hats and sunglasses and lipstick to avoid people’s stares. But lately she has grown more curious, less self-conscious.

3. Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Terrific. A collection of meandering essays written in the second person as direct advice to his daughter. Here are my other posts on Knausgaard. Note this is not part of the My Struggle series.

One of my favorite paragraphs near the end:

And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives.

On how quickly we forget the generations before us:

Grandmother and Grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years, but were still vivid in my memory. To you they would be vague figures in the murk of history; you were born a hundred years after them, and when you entered your twenties, they would represent for you what people born in the 1860s did for me. Which is to say, practically nothing. The only ones who count are the living. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it will always be.

The paragraph continues with an original way of capturing the idea that the trivia and tedium of life is life:

Life clatters within the living, with all their mentalities and psychologies, and when they die and the clatter within them subsides, it continues in their children, and one comes to understand that the clatter was the main thing, the clatter was the point, the clatter was life.

And the final two sentences, from father to daughter:

Do you understand? Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?

4. The Diversity Bonus by Scott Page. Some solid research arguing that the quality of decision making goes up for complicated decisions when there’s more cognitive diversity around the table. Very similar to Scott’s previous book, The Difference.

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In movie/TV land, the film “Sorry to Bother You” is terrific and truly original art, and set in my current city of residence, Oakland. The Netflix documentary series “Wild Wild Country” is pretty wild indeed and fairly binge worthy.

“Happiness Is Just Like This”

There’s a wonderful, brief piece in Lion’s Roar about the following truth: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

If you feel a positive emotion, be mindful of it. Mindfulness, as my teacher Steve Armstrong taught, is remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience. To wit:  “If you’re in the mind-state of contentment and want it to continue, place your attention on the emotional sensations of contentment.”

Attend to where you’re feeling the emotion:

So the next time you have a positive emotion, see where that emotion is experienced in your body. Any positive experience will do. Say, you’re walking down the street and you see a small child do something that makes you smile. Put your attention on your smile and any emotion you experience for at least twenty seconds

Just stay with the positive emotion. You might say to yourself something like, “Happiness is just like this.” Don’t start thinking about why you’re not happy all the time, or fearing that the happiness will end, or any of the countless other ways we mess up our positive emotions.

Hat tip to Bob Wright on Twitter.