Learning to Scuba Dive

A couple months ago, a friend and I were wading out in the Mediterranean Sea, looking to body surf some of the light waves that were crashing down on the beach. I’m a strong swimmer, I body surfed a bunch in New Jersey as a kid, and the water temperature in the Mediterranean was pleasant. No big deal. After 15 or so minutes of bobbing up and down in the water facing out toward the sea, fruitlessly trying to surf the waves that lost power just as they crested, my friend yelled over, “Hey, I think we’re a bit far out from the beach. We should probably swim back in.” I turned around and looked back at the beach. We were indeed way further out from the shore than I would have expected, given it had only been 15 minutes and we hadn’t swum out too far. I hollered back that I agreed, and we both turned toward the shore.

I swam hard back toward the shore for about 30 seconds. I was definitely moving through the water. I figured I’d be at the sandy beach in no time. When I pulled my head back up to stay directionally oriented, I glanced toward the shore, and I felt a jolt of panic: I was further from the shore than before. Despite swimming strongly towards it, I was now further from the shore than I was 30 seconds prior. My heart began beating quickly and my breaths became shorter. For a few moments, I contemplated whether I’d make it back to shore at all. I’d never had the experience of swimming as hard as I could in a certain direction but being pulled in the exact opposite direction at the same time. There was no one else swimming in the ocean who could lend a hand, and we were far enough from the beach that yells for help may not have been heard.

After a pause, my friend yelled out to me that we needed to swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip tide. Apparently there’s fairly common knowledge, but I had never heard of it. Thankfully, I was with someone who knew what to do when caught in a rip tide. I moved parallel, and indeed, within a couple minutes, we were back in easy water, and I swam easily toward the beach. I was happy to have made it back in one piece, but disappointed that my “panic mode” activated so quickly.

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As it turns out, managing your panic impulse — not freaking out too much when something goes awry or when you feel claustrophobic — is key to becoming certified for open water scuba diving. (In the certification, they also train you to swim parallel to the shore in a rip tide!)

Prior to last weekend, I had never scuba dived, and snorkeled only a few times in Hawaii. But I had heard that the coral reefs are dying due to warming ocean temperatures. I figured I better go see the reefs while they’re still alive.

Scuba training is intense. Several hours of online training, Friday night orientation, all day Saturday and Sunday at the pool in the Bay Area, then another Saturday and Sunday at freezing cold water ocean in Monterey to attempt certification. Through it all, you’re being told to remember different safety acronyms that represent safety checklists, sign language (to communicate underwater), and a multitude of instructions for how to configure and operate the equipment. Along the way, you’re supposed to get comfortable breathing through your mouth underwater and figure out how to make sure your ears stay comfortable as you descend into water. Finally, you’re taught 10-15 specific skills that you have to successfully demonstrate in the pool and ocean: how to do an emergency ascent on breath alone, how to give your buddy oxygen, how to demonstrate neutral buoyancy in the water, how to clear your mask of water, and others.

Much of the skills training involves emergency situations that you will likely never encounter. The purpose of these skills is obvious at one level: on the off chance you do have an emergency underwater, you’ll know what to do. Otherwise you’ll die, as plenty of people do. The more interesting other purpose of these skills is to stress test you: to get you comfortable with things going wrong and to train you to just keep breathing in and out, and calmly figure out how to solve the problem.

One of the skills they train you to do in the pool is how to take off your BCD under water. The BCD is the life preserver backpack that has the oxygen tank, weights, and all your equipment attached to it. It’s hard to do, and not something you’d ever want to try in a real ocean dive. Almost all the students failed in their first and second attempts. When I took off the BCD at depth, I began flailing about in the water, trying to stay on the bottom of the pool even though the weight had been taken off my back. Meanwhile, I was trying to keep the oxygen line in my mouth the whole time. The purpose of the pool-only skill is to induce stress and build confidence. The students who dropped out of the class too frequently panicked and jumped to the surface. Removing and then putting back on your BCD under water was a big confidence booster…even though I’ll likely never have to use the skill in real life. It’s interesting to contemplate other stress tests we should be running in our personal and professional lives…

Some other quick observations on my experience:

  • I was one of the weaker students in the class. It was a good experience to struggle at something genuinely new and hard for me. In addition to all the scuba-specific training, I was also a newbie at putting on a thick wetsuit, using a compass under water, and other random tasks. And, in general, any activities that require fine physical motor skills — buckling and harnessing and clipping and tying knots — are not my strong suit, especially if I’m wearing wearing thick gloves and operating in cold water. For all these reasons, it was especially gratifying to learn the skills, complete the four open water dives, and become certified.
  • Diving opens up new travel options. I’m excited by the prospect of being able to add a day or two to a trip somewhere in the world, and go diving. A whole new world of travel opportunity might be opening up.
  • Diving is a dangerous sport. Our teacher recounted multiple stories of people who have died while diving. With danger comes adrenaline. I don’t do many physically dangerous things in my life.
  • Learn to scuba dive when you have a life partner or go-to friend. It’s a buddy sport — beginners never dive alone. Learning with your partner is a blast.
  • My ear equalization is still a little messed up. If anyone has tips on clever ways to equalize, let me know. For me to stick with diving, I’ll need to be able to equalize effectively and not have my ears clogged up for the week+ after diving.

Next up: The Great Barrier Reef in Australia. And New Year’s Eve in Sydney. My first time to Australia!

Book Notes: Shantaram

I finally read Shantaram. A lot of people list Shantaram as one of their all-time favorite novels. Tyler Cowen put it well when he called it one of the best bad books he’s read. It’s engrossing, often insightful, often beautiful in its description of India, and keeps you hooked for nearly 1,000 pages. There are also cheesy foreshadows, clunky one-liners, and a bunch of other elements that would prompt eye rolls from high brow book reviewers. But no matter. I enjoyed it! Recommended for all those with an affinity (or aspirational affinity) for India. Or those who just get a kick out of a fugitive on the run in an exotic land with exotic mafia friends.

The author, Gregory Roberts, himself escaped from an Australian prison and ended up joining the mafia in India before being re-captured. It was in prison that he wrote this book. Much of the novel is presumably autobiographical, though how much exactly is “true” seems to be up for debate. But knowing at least some of it is first-hand lent a certain immediacy to the experience of reading.

It’s mostly a plot book, but occasionally there were highlight-able sentences on my Kindle, which appear below.


The real India is up near the Himalayas, at Manali, or at the holy city of Varanasi, or down the coast, at Kerala. You gotta get outta the city to find the real India.

Let me put it this way: Karla is reasonably good at being a friend, but she is stupendously good at being an enemy. When you judge the power that is in a person, you must judge their capacities as both friend and as enemy. And there is no-one in this city that makes a worse or more dangerous enemy than Karla.

Even on that first train ride, I knew in my heart that Didier had been right when he’d compared India and its billion souls to France. I had an intuition, echoing his thought, that if there were a billion Frenchmen or Australians or Americans living in such a small space, the fighting to board the train would be much more, and the courtesy afterwards much less.

One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.

Like outcasts everywhere, I courted danger because danger was one of the few things strong enough to help me forget what I’d lost.

What I didn’t tell Karla was that the girlfriend had described me as interested in everything, and committed to nothing. It still rankled. It still hurt. It was still true.

I also agree with Winston Churchill, who once defined a fanatic as someone who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject.

If you do not speak English as your first language, the word “characteristic” has an amazing sound—like rapping on a drum, or breaking kindling wood for a fire.

The only kingdom that makes any man a king is the kingdom of his own soul. The only power that has any real meaning is the power to better the world. And only men like Qasim Ali Hussein and Johnny Cigar were such kings and had such power.

The Quarterlife User Manual

My friend Rob Montz created a 10 minute mini-documentary called The Quarterlife User Manual. Contains fantastic advice on careers and life delivered in an engaging format. It’s very much consistent with The Startup of You. Cal Newport, Jon Haidt, and I are featured, among others.

My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Knausgaard

I completed the next 800 pages of the Karl Knausgaard My Struggle odyssey. Book 2 — “A Man in Love” — is said to be the best of the six volumes. I ate it up. So intimate. So raw. So many insights. This book focused on falling in love, having kids, and the balancing of work and family. Also, death: frequently death.

Not everyone should commit to reading a 3,600 page six-volume novel about a Norwegian writer who’s writing a 3,600 page novel. (To borrow a phrase from Leland de la Durantaye.) There’s a ridiculous amount of detail stuffed into the stories, but it’s all centered on one man, so it’s easier to keep track of than your typical 1000+ page beastly novel. And fortunately, the man has a pretty interesting inner life.

My Kindle highlights below. All bolding mine. Here were my highlights from book one.


People who don’t have children seldom understand what it involves, no matter how mature and intelligent they might otherwise be, at least that was how it was with me before I had children myself.

She was blond, had high cheekbones and narrow eyes, a long, slim body, and she knew how to dress, but she was much too pleased with herself, too self-centered for me to find her attractive. I have no problem with uninteresting or unoriginal people – they may have other, more important attributes, such as warmth, consideration, friendliness, a sense of humor, or talents such as being able to make a conversation flow to generate an atmosphere of ease around them, or the ability to make a family function – but I feel almost physically ill in the presence of boring people who consider themselves especially interesting and who blow their own trumpets.

I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them.

This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.

What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result? Who knows?

Be that as it may, we can’t go back in time, everything we undertake is irrevocable, and if we look back what we see is not life but death. And whoever believes that the conditions and character of the times are responsible for our maladjustment is either suffering from delusions of grandeur or is simply stupid, and lacks self-knowledge on both accounts.

This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.

Yet I wanted to have more of what came in its wake because public attention is a drug, the need it satisfies is artificial, but once you have had a taste of it you want more.

What had once been normal topics you didn’t talk about much, namely children, were now placed at the forefront of existence and cultivated with a frenzy that ought to make everyone raise their eyebrows, for what could be the meaning of this? In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else.

The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.

I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms, thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies.

Now I had an hour to myself. It was the sole condition I had made before taking over responsibility for Vanja during the daytime, that I would have an hour on my own in the afternoon, and even though Linda considered it unfair since she’d never had an hour to herself like that, she agreed. The reason she’d never had an hour, I assumed, was that she hadn’t thought of it. And the reason she hadn’t thought of it was, I also assumed, that she would rather be with us than alone.

But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in it while still surrounded by people on all sides. All with faces I had never seen before! The unceasing stream of new faces.

One’s self-image not only encompasses the person you are but also the person you wanted to be, could be or once had been. For the self-image there was no difference between the actual and the hypothetical. It incorporated all ages, all feelings, all drives.

As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me. The way I was seen changed, as if at the stroke of a magic wand, the instant I laid my hands on the stroller. I had always eyed the women I walked past the way men always have, actually a mysterious act because it couldn’t lead to anything except a returned gaze, and if I did see a really beautiful woman I might even turn around to watch her, discreetly of course, but…

Before Dostoyevsky, the ideal, even the Christian ideal, was always pure and strong, it was part of heaven, unattainable for almost everyone. The flesh was weak, the mind frail, but the ideal was unbending. The ideal was about aspiring, enduring, fighting the fight. In Dostoyevsky’s books everything is human, or rather, the human world is everything, including the ideals, which are turned on their heads: now they can be achieved if you give up, lose your grip, fill yourself with non-will rather than will. Humility and self-effacement, those are the ideals in Dostoyevsky’s foremost novels, and inasmuch as they are never realized within the framework of the story line, therein lies his greatness, because this is precisely a result of his own humility and self-effacement as a writer.

Why should we do one thing rather than another when there was no goal anyway, nor any direction in life, apart from to huddle together, live, and then die?

Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious.

Or as Jünger writes: “Little by little all areas are brought under this single common denominator, even one with its residence as far from causality as the dream.” In our century even our dreams are alike, even dreams are things we sell. Undifferentiated, which is just another way of saying indifferent. That is where our night is.

However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.

…it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.

Feeling cold to the depths of my soul, I walked down the corridor.

What did I want? I didn’t know. I was lying on a sofa just outside Stockholm, knowing not a soul, and everything in me was chaos and unrest. The uncertainty penetrated to my core, through to that which defined who I was.

“Attending a poetry reading is like being in a hospital,” he said as we left the next station. “Full of neuroses.”

Then I met Linda and the sun rose. I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.

But Arve, it seemed to me on that day, was a truly open person, as well as being curious and constantly striving to understand what he saw. But there was no ulterior motive about his openness, it was not a damned psychologist’s openness, nor was there any ulterior motive about the curiosity.

I was married, we were fine, soon we would be buying a flat together. Then I came here and wanted to wreck everything? I did. I wandered beneath the sun-dappled shade from the trees, surrounded by the warm fragrances of the forest, thinking that I was in the middle of my life. Not life as an age, not halfway along life’s path, but in the middle of my existence. My heart trembled.

She eyed me with obvious scorn. Pancakes are for children, she said. We’re not having a children’s party. Okay, I said, let’s call them crêpes then. Is that good enough for you? She turned her back on me.

If she was angry her presence was all that existed in me. It was like having an enormous dog in the room growling and I had to take care of it.

“I’m very sorry. Terribly sorry. But it was what you said that hit me so hard. Before I met you I hadn’t even dared imagine that I might have children one day. I didn’t dare. Even when I fell in love with you I didn’t. And then you said what you said. It was you who brought up the subject, do you remember? The very first morning. I want to have children with you. And I was so happy. I was so utterly, insanely happy. Just the fact that there was a possibility. It was you who gave me that possibility. And then … yesterday … Well, it was like you were withdrawing the possibility. You said perhaps we should put off having children.

The next day we moved my things, that is to say all my books, which had now grown to number twenty-five hundred titles, a fact which Anders and Geir, who were helping me with the move, cursed from the bottom of their hearts as we shifted…

And it is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it.

One evening I got so angry at her that I threw a glass at the stove with all my might. Strangely enough, it didn’t break. Typical, I thought afterward, I couldn’t even perform the classic act of smashing a glass during a fight.

When she became pregnant everything changed, now there was a horizon beyond the one the two of us formed, something greater than us, and it was there the whole time, in my thoughts and hers. Her unease may have been great, but even in its midst there was always a wholeness and security in her. Everything would fall into place, it would be fine, I knew it would.

The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it was impossible to dislike him. He could talk to anyone, which is a rare gift, and he was generous, which you noticed as soon as you met him. And he was always happy. He was the person who stood up at parties and thanked the hosts for the spread or congratulated them on whatever occasion it was or did whatever was required, and he had a kind word for everyone, however much or little they had in common with him.

She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone. I just held it away from my ear and kept writing. She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You’ll never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty pages a day. I didn’t see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a

Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.

It was easy to protect yourself against music when you were prepared or just had it on as background, because it was simple, undemanding, and sentimental, but when I was not prepared, like now, or was really listening, it hit home with me. My feelings soared and before I knew what was happening my eyes were moist. It was only then that I realized how little I normally felt, how numb I had become. When I was eighteen I was full of such feelings all the time, the world seemed more intense and that was why I wanted to write, it was the sole reason, I wanted to touch something that music touched. The human voice’s lament and sorrow, joy and delight, I wanted to evoke everything the world had bestowed upon us. How could I forget that?

And if there had been any limits before they had certainly been removed now that a grandchild had come into the world. She worshipped Vanja and would do anything, absolutely anything for her.

One of the consequences of living here, I mused, as I banged the container lids shut and unlocked the door to have a cigarette outside, was that I simply said less. I had just stopped almost all the small talk, chatting with assistants in shops, waiters in cafés, conductors on trains, and strangers in chance encounters. This was one of the best parts about returning to Norway: the ease of dealing with people I didn’t know returned and my shoulders dropped.

Since I also wrote I ought to have been able to relate to her work, but the craft side was so prominent in writing a screenplay, where it was about all manner of ebbs and flows of tension, character development, plots and subplots, intros and turning points, I assumed I would have little to contribute in that respect and never mobilized more than polite interest.

She radiated a business-like manner that went well with Fredrik’s more flippant and child-like character. They had one child and were expecting another. Unlike us, they had everything under control, there was order in the home, they went out with their child and organized interesting activities. After we had been to theirs, or they had been to ours, that was often what Linda and I discussed: how on earth what appeared to be so simple for them could be so utterly beyond our capability.

But there was always a piece missing, it was always as though we were standing on opposite sides of a small chasm, the conversation was always tentative, we never really found the right tone. But the few times we did it was to everyone’s relief and pleasure. Much of the reason it did not really work was me: my great expanses of silence and the slight discomfort that came over me when I did say something.

From there it was a swift jump to pregnancies in general and then to births. I chimed in with something or other, added a snippet here and there, and otherwise listened in silence for the main part. Births are an intimate and sensitive topic of conversation for women, there is a lot of covert prestige and as a man the only possible option is to keep well away. To refrain from expressing an opinion.

The clouds in the sky to the east had a gentle golden hue, as though lit from the inside by the sun that was behind them.

Vidar drove as many older men did, hunched over the wheel, as though the few extra centimeters closer to the windshield were decisive for good vision.

The light beneath the sky was losing its luster. The approaching darkness was unevenly distributed across the landscape, the already dark areas were sucking it in more and more greedily, such as the trees at the edge of the forest, the trunks and branches were completely black now. The weak February light faded without a fight, without resistance, not even a last flicker could it rouse, just a slow, imperceptible decline until everything was darkness and night.

What was going through her head? Oh, I knew. She was all alone with Vanja during the day, from when I went to my office until I returned, she felt lonely, and she had been looking forward so much to these two weeks. Some quiet days with her little family gathered around her, that was what she had been looking forward to. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.

We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None. But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows, and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.

He radiated naïveté, but not as though from inexperience, quite the contrary, he gave every impression of having experienced a great deal, it was more as if all the experiences were there but he hadn’t drawn the consequences, as though they had left him unaffected, so to speak.

I had only met her a couple of times, but to me she seemed to have many sides, there was a wealth of nuance in her personality, and you intuited a psychological depth, with no apparent signs of neuroticism, the constant companion of sensitivity of course, at least not obtrusively.

Not that I think she is innocent, necessarily, but she gives that impression. Innocence of this kind is typical of you. Purity and innocence don’t interest me. However, it’s very clear in you. You’re a deeply moral and a deeply innocent person. What is innocence? It is that which has not been touched by the world, that which has not been destroyed, it is like water into which a stone has never been thrown. It’s not that you don’t have lusts, that you don’t have desire, for you do, it’s just that you conserve innocence. Your insanely huge longing for beauty comes in here as well. It wasn’t by chance that you chose to write about angels. That’s the purest of the pure. You can’t get purer than that.” … Others search and search, and when they find a nugget, they sell it to acquire life, splendor, music, dance, enjoyment, luxury, or at least a bit of pussy, right, throw themselves at a woman just to forget they exist for an hour or two. What you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation.

What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have any outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is as an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.

I shook my head. “There’s no safer place for secrets than in you,” he said. “You forget everything. Your brain’s like Swiss cheese without the cheese.

Then Cecilia came into the office wanting to chat. We went for lunch together. She had been out last night with her partner and his friend. She had flirted with the friend all evening, she said, and her partner had been livid when they got home, of course.” “How long have they been together?” “Six years.” “Was she thinking of leaving him?” “No, not at all. On the contrary, she wants children with him.” “So why the flirting?” I asked. Geir looked at me. “She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, obviously.” “What did you say to her? I assume she went to you for advice?” “I said she should deny it. Deny everything. She hadn’t been flirting, she’d just been friendly. Say no, no, no. And then don’t be so stupid next time, wait for an opportunity to offer itself and go about it calmly and collectedly. I don’t blame her for doing what she did. I blame her for being inconsiderate. She hurt him. That was uncalled for.”

However, there are many ways to be trapped; there are many ways of not being free. You have to remember that you’ve had everything you wanted. You’ve had your revenge on those you targeted. You have status. People sit waiting for what you do and wave palm leaves as soon as you show your face. You can write an article about something that interests you and it will be in print in the newspaper of your choice a few days later. People phone and want you to go here, there, and everywhere. Newspapers ask you for a comment on all sorts of matters. Your books will be published in Germany and England. Do you understand the freedom there is in that? Do you understand what has opened in your life? You talk about a longing to let go and fall. If I let go I would be standing in the same place. I’m standing right at the bottom. No one’s interested in what I write. No one’s interested in what I think. … Whenever I enter a room full of people I have to make myself interesting. I don’t preexist, like you, I don’t have a name, I have to create everything from scratch every time. I’m sitting at the bottom of a hole in the ground and shouting through a megaphone. It doesn’t matter what I say, no one is listening.

The last thing you want to hear when you’re in the darkness of depression is the babbling of some happy jerk.

As always after long interviews I felt empty, drained like a ditch. As always, it felt as though I had betrayed myself. Merely by sitting there I had gone along with the premise, which was that the two books I had written were good and important, and that I, the writer, was an unusual and interesting person. That was the starting point for the conversation: everything I said was important. If I didn’t say anything important, well, then I was just hiding it. Because it obviously had to be somewhere! So when I told stories about my childhood, for example, some perfectly normal, ordinary story everyone had experienced, it was important because it was me who said it. It said something about me, the writer of two good and important books. And I not only went along with this view, which formed the basis for the conversation, but did it with great enthusiasm. I sat there jabbering away like a parrot in the zoo. All while knowing the reality of the situation.

If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following: Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not fucking believe you are somebody. Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit. Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience.

Relationships were there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom and suppress that which was pushing through.

How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough? I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.

wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already at home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work. She didn’t want to. Or perhaps she did, but she couldn’t cope. All our conflicts and arguments were in some form or other about this, the dynamics. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that. And somewhere she knew.

The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked, and I earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love. That was how I took my revenge. … Oh, how I gloated when I caught her in the trap and could stand there agreeing to all her demands! After the eruption, which was inevitable, after we had gone to bed, she would often cry and want to be comforted. That gave me an opportunity to extract further revenge, because I wouldn’t comply.

I knew John was asleep. But the ones in the back, had they also nodded off? I turned to look over my shoulder. Yes, indeed. Three girls lay there with mouths agape and eyes closed. Happiness exploded inside me. It lasted for one second, two seconds, maybe three. Then came the shadow that always followed, this happiness’s dark train.

… reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty-five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. Then life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only were the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway. When John was as old as I was now I would be eighty. And with one foot in the grave, if not both feet. In ten years I would be fifty. In twenty, sixty.

Why, when I’m on board a plane or in a car imagining it’s going to crash, why do I think that’s not so bad? That it doesn’t matter? That I might just as well die as live? For this is what I think more often than not. Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life.

Small Example of Cultivating Awe

It’s almost playoffs time in Major League Baseball and so in the theme of awe and how to cultivate it, a frequent topic on this blog…

In the National League, pitchers must hit when it’s their turn in the lineup. Next time you watch a pro baseball game, watch the pitcher try to hit. He almost always strikes out and looks goofy doing it; he’s a pitcher, after all. He spends all his time in the big leagues practicing pitching, not hitting.

But then think about the following. That MLB pitcher who looked utterly goofy at the plate was likely the best hitter on his little league team, the best hitter in his high school, the best hitter at his college, the best hitter in his region growing up, probably one of the most highly touted hitters of his generation. Yet, by the time he gets to the big leagues, he is one of the worst hitters on the field. He’s only in the pros because he can pitch.

It reminds you how good everyone is: truly, the very best in the world. It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe as a result, and it can be felt even if you’re a casual fan watching an otherwise meaningless baseball game.

Awe comes from being in the presence of world-class expertise. But sometimes it takes a little bit of a reminder to yourself to fully feel it. A bit of a re-frame. It does for me, anyway.

Village Global

Personal update: I helped launch a new venture capital firm this week called Village Global. You can check out the Village site, or read our announcement post.

Exciting adventures ahead!

Bob Wright’s Why Buddhism is True

One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and evolutionary psychology, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ally/collaborator/thought partner. I’ve learned a lot.

Over the past couple years, in various MeaningofLife.TV episodes, essays, blog posts, tweets, his Coursera course, and elsewhere, Bob has been sharing bits and pieces of how he thinks about the connection between ev psych — which he originally popularized in The Moral Animal — and Buddhism .

Now, in his new book — hot off the presses! — he presents the full argument in one coherent volume. It is titled Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It’s a fantastic book that speaks directly to a secular reader. He makes the argument that the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition — that we fail to see the world clearly and this causes us to suffer — is consistent with how you’d expect natural selection to “design” a human brain with the singular goal of genetic proliferation. Buddhism’s prescription for what to do if you wish to see the world more clearly, become happier, and be a more morally upstanding human being (the trifecta!) makes a great deal of sense, in Bob’s view. And in his experience, by attending several meditation retreats and maintaining a daily practice, there are some practical steps one can take to move closer to these truths in one’s own life.

Here’s a photo of a discussion I co-hosted over the weekend for Bob about his book. More to come on all these topics…

Emergent Order

Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity.

Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop to consider how remarkable it is that our local supermarket always has enough bread on the shelves. Suppose an alien landed from outer space and you had to explain that there were two possible systems for ensuring that there’d be enough bread in the supermarkets to feed a local population. One system involved a “bread czar” who’d be totally focused on making sure every store got the right amount of bread from farmers; the other system would involve a bunch of chaotic, self-organized activity between and among all the farmers and market owners in the world and somewhere it’d all work out. Logically, the bread czar carefully overseeing everything should carry the day. But alas!

Here’s Russ Roberts, from his blog post on Emergent Order:

Understanding and appreciating emergent order, and understanding when it works well and when it doesn’t and it does not always work well, is for me, the essence of economics and the deepest idea that we economists can contribute to helping normal human beings understand the world around us.

Economists call the interaction between buyers and sellers of bread a “market,” but our charts of supply and demand, while often very powerful, don’t get at the richness of how we as human beings manage to cooperate without top-down coordination and do it so peacefully.

Indeed. The post is a companion to a short video titled It’s a Wonderful Loaf, which Russ produced, which tells the story of the would-be bread czar. I had the pleasure of seeing it debut in San Francisco.

Inducing awe is something I’ve written previously about. It’s a powerful habit to cultivate. I love being in the presence of real expertise or real impressiveness and marveling at what happened behind the scenes to manifest the expertise in front of me. Free markets and capitalistic mechanisms — while hardly perfect — for me induce a different but related sense of awe and wonder.

Thanks, Russ, for sharing your passion and sense of wonder with others. It’s infectious.

Samatha Meditation Practice

During both my 10 day silent meditation retreats, there were moments where I felt a deep calm, my mind got very bright, and I possessed an ability to control my attention in a way that seemed totally profound. I don’t think my experience constituted a state of jhana — how the Buddha referred to blissed out, immersive, “absorbed” states of mind. I was probably experiencing “access concentration“, a precursor to the jhanic states; in any case, those minutes of absorption were utterly memorable for me. I remember returning to my dorm room afterwards, late at night, and lying in bed thinking to myself: I have a new superpower.

Like many beginner meditators who experience momentary states of profound absorption and stillness, I have foolishly quested after that state in subsequent meditation sessions. On my second 10 day retreat, I craved the state of ultra concentration that I felt during my first retreat. I intently sat late at night in the meditation hall. And then, as I felt my mind ease into a deeper stillness, I told myself, “Here it comes. Here it comes. Is this it? Is this what happened to me last time?” See ya later, still lion mind. Hello, monkey mind. On my 3 day residential retreat, I never entered deep concentration, probably because of this mental chatter around wanting it.

I think I could use more practice at stabilizing the mind — without the questing and excessive effort — before I go deeper on practicing insight meditation. So I’m going to focus more on samatha over the next year or so. The samatha concentration practice involves stabilizing, unifying, and collecting the mind into what the Buddha called samadhi, or a state of concentration. With a clear and collected mind, you can begin to discern more subtle sensations, and begin to more clearly perceive the truths about your mind and reality.

I recently attended a one day retreat at Spirit Rock on samatha practice. The teacher distinguished samatha from vipassana. Samatha practice is like trying to stabilize a pair of binoculars and getting them into focus. Vipassana is looking through the binoculars in order to observe reality as it actually is.

Throughout the day, we practiced basic relaxation. “Release tension in your body. Now release a little more,” the teacher said, as we scanned each part of the body.

With total relaxation, you can begin to quiet the mind, and focus on an object of concentration — in our case, the breath. The anapanana practice of studying the breath can become quite a granular analysis. For example, we practiced:

  • Noticing whether breath is long or short
  • Noticing the beginning of the breath, the middle part of the breath, the end of the breath
  • Focusing on spot underneath nostril where breath enters
  • Counting breaths up to 10 and then starting again at 1

On the Goenka retreats, you spend the first three days doing nothing but breath awareness, so I have some practice at it. But I never understood how object-awareness connects to broader vipassana practice until now. To deepen my understanding, I’m taking an online class at Spirit Rock on concentration/samatha practice, with 8 hours of video lectures.

I want to thank a blog reader who wrote me a very helpful comment/email last year in response to my blog post about my awareness + wisdom retreat. He helped me explore the difference between samatha and vipassana. After some gentle corrections, he included this line of encouragement at the end: “Not many people have gotten as far as you have with meditation and Buddhism. You also ask good questions and have good insights. You should definitely keep up your practice. It is a rare gift.”

As I get older, praise from others does less and less for me, in terms of emotional impact. This one was different. I’ve been exploring Buddhism and meditation seriously now for about six years and the deeper I go, the more I realize the complexities of the practice. The complexity can be daunting. Hearing encouragement a year ago made a difference to me. So, thank you to Tracy. And thank you for alerting to me to the prospective benefits of a more focused concentration practice.

Time Simply Slipped Away Without Any Meaning

In the Elena Ferrante series, the narrator visits her best friend after they had become somewhat estranged. She reflects:

“I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”