Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

books_feature-18968While traveling to Africa a few weeks ago, I read Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux. Theroux is probably America’s most famous travel writer yet I had not read any of his books until now. Dark Star Safari was excellent and I recommend it for anyone taking a trip to the giant continent. It’s the travelogue of his overland journey — car, bus, animal — from the northern tip of Africa to the bottom.

He does it on the cheap: he reports from wretched-smelling train cars, rat infested hotel rooms, and dusty, poor villages where clean water is nowhere to be found. I read portions of the book in comfortable hotels or cars in Tanzania, often whizzing by the abject poverty. Theroux doesn’t make you feel great about that, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Theroux lived in Malawi back in the day and he doesn’t mince words when he returns and finds the poverty just as bad, the aid programs just as ineffective. Foreign aid diehards should be prepared for tough medicine from Theroux who at one point says that the only people who can fix Africa’s problems are Africans themselves.

The writing is lovely. His descriptions vivid. Below are my Kindle highlights. (And here is my post from 2009 about Theroux road trip in America and my own road trip impressions.)


Some countries are perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey, too. Egypt, of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long, vague history. The guide says “papyrus” or “hieroglyphic” or “Tutankhamen” or “one of the Ptolemys,” and you say “Yup.”

One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.

Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.

The greatest part of my satisfaction was animal pleasure: the remoteness of the site, the grandeur of the surrounding mesalike mountains and rock cliffs, the sunlight and scrub, the pale camels in the distance, the big sky, the utter emptiness and silence, for round the decay of these colossal wrecks the lone and level sands stretched far away.

The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s. They discussed relief projects and scholarships and agricultural schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance. They were newcomers. They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease. Foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure. Africans saw them come and go, which is why Africans were so fatalistic. Maybe no answer, as my friend said with a rueful smile.

Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa—better a year in Tabora than a day in Nairobi. None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation, though there was never a shortage of foreigners to sing the praises of these snake pits—how you could use cell phones, send faxes, log onto the Internet, buy pizzas, and call home—naming the very things I wanted to avoid.

That was my Malawi epiphany. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion.

No objects I had seen in any African museum (Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Harare) could compare with the African objects in the museums in Berlin, Paris, or London. Of course, much of that stuff had been looted or snatched from browbeaten chiefs

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

hardlanding1. Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged Airlines Into Chaos. A rigorously researched account of the airline industry in the U.S., especially the aftermath of deregulation. Probably more detail than the casual reader will care to know, but any airline nuts will appreciate the blow-by-blow about United, Continental, Delta, Southwest, the extraordinary impact of computer scheduling technology, safety regulations, code sharing, car rental companies, and many other storylines. One sample nugget:

The self-destruction of Continental Airlines vividly revealed a principle as old as passenger flight itself: people will tolerate many sacrifices to fly, but they will not tolerate surprise. They may sit with their knees to their chest for a low fare, but they will not stand for a lost bag. They may spend all night in the boarding area waiting to clear a standby list, but they will display no patience for a 30-minute rain delay.

2. Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave by Adam Alter. Various pop psych experiments, with interesting nuggets on the power of names, colors, and culture. Entertaining throughout.

3. The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing by Michael J. Mauboussin. Super important premise. I stopped reading halfway through — just lost interest.

4. Red Sparrow: A Novel by Jason Matthews. A totally addictive CIA thriller. The usual setup here for this genre, but with especially engrossing storylines, detail, and writing.

Book Short: From Beirut to Jerusalem

I finally got around to the book many have recommended over the years: Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

This is the book that put Tom Friedman on the map. At the time of publication, 1989, he wasn’t super well known. This book, which won the National Book Award, really raised his profile and justifiably so. It’s wonderfully written. He integrates extensive on the ground reporting over years of living in the region with historical vignettes and research. For those who primarily know Friedman today as a D.C.-based commentator/columnist, From Beirut to Jerusalem is a throwback to him as journalist not pundit.

As a novice to the complex issue of Israel-Palestinian relations, I learned a ton. It’s fantastic background for those looking to understand some of the core issues at work in the Middle East. Sadly, not much has changed since 1989 at a macro level, so the book doesn’t feel dated.

Among other lessons and insights, I was amazed to learn about how arbitrary many of the national boundaries are in the Middle East. E.g., Britain carving out land and calling it Jordan, France (effectively) creating Lebanon. And how, historically, men did not identify themselves with countries so much as with religious affiliation or with tribe, clan, village. “Many of the states today — Egypt being the most notable exception — were not willed into existence by their own people or developed organically out of a common historical memory or ethnic or linguistic bond; they also did not emerge out of a social contract between rulers and ruled. Rather, their shapes and structure were imposed from above by the imperial powers…boundaries were drawn almost entirely on the basis of foreign policy, communications, and oil needs of the Western colonial powers…”

Many other lessons that I’ll type up in the months ahead.

Book Review: The David Foster Wallace Reader

“A writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.”

walacereaderThat’s what one critic once said of David Foster Wallace. Its ringing truth is on display in the recent anthology of Wallace’s writing, The David Foster Wallace Reader. The collection contains non-fiction essays, short stories, excerpts from his novels, class notes/syllabi from his time as a professor, and email exchanges with his mom.

It’s an essential addition to the library of any hardcore Wallace fan and a pretty decent introduction to his work for newbies, since it’s a curated and edited “greatest hits” collection. Buy the print edition not the e-book, as it’s the sort of thing you might want to flip through, not read every last word on every one of the 800+ pages.

One of my favorites in the collection, which I hadn’t read before, was “Little Expressionless Animals,” a story originally published in The Girl with Curious Hair. There’s a hilarious sequence about how one character was “reeling into Lesbiansism.”

I had also not read “Incarnations of Burned Children” before. It originally appeared in Esquire in year 2000. It’s three pages long, a single paragraph, and very powerful. A must read.

Some of my favorite excerpts from The Pale King are in here, including his extended riff urging the reader to ignore the disclaimer on the copyright page that what follows is fiction. Many other paragraphs to potentially quote in this post, such as:

The paradox of plagiarism is that it actually requires a lot of care and hard work to pull off successfully, since the original text’s style, substance, and logical sequences have to be modified enough so that the plagiarism isn’t totally, insultingly obvious to the professor who’s grading it.

Or this one, which I tweeted:

Many of the chapters have an afterword written by an academic or commentator. One of Kari Kunzru’s comments after one of the stories gave me pause:

If being expressionless is the result of trauma, as it is in this story, then self-expression must be healthy. But somehow, in the cities of the developed world, expressing yourself has started to feel like work. We’re constantly exhorted toward ever-greater feats of affect, to be that little bit more creative; to commit to our goals; to give service with a smile, feigning excitement like contestants on a game show. When life takes on this game-show quality — fake, regimented, spiritually exhausted — expressivity pulls in two directions, both toward and away from truthfulness. It can be another kind of mask, the kind that eats away at the face until you’re no longer sure what your off-camera reaction would be.

Book Review: The Unspeakable

daumbokI’ve been reading Meghan Daum’s columns for years. When I saw she had a new collection of essays out titled The Unspeakable — and that it received the high praise of Cheryl Strayed — I immediately bought it.

The theme running through most of the pieces is “sentimentality and its discontents.” In her words:

Collectively I hoped they’d add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.

In other words: We’re supposed to feel crippling sadness when someone close to us dies but we don’t. We’re supposed to have newfound insight on life after a near-death experience but we don’t. She writes with utter clarity, energy, and honesty about these sorts of gaps in emotion. It’s a pleasure to read her and it’s easy to recommend this collection. (For excellent musings on sentimentality from two other wise souls, see these two essays in the New York Times book review.)

The opening essay of Daum’s collection is about her being at the bedside of her mother as the mother dies and instead of being overcome with grief she’s preoccupied by a range of practical concerns, like how she’s going to cancel her mother’s apartment lease. Right out of the gate you know she’s going to be as honest as can be, even about the people closest to her.

In an essay on the pleasures of not being a foodie (hear hear!), she argues that she strives for contentment, not the mushy concept of happiness. Contentment doesn’t mean settling or just a “fine” life; rather it means

…feeling like I’m in the right life. Living in a place where I feel like part of a community, doing work that feels reasonably meaningful, surrounding myself with people I enjoy, respect, and in some cases love. It would mean spending as little time as possible doing things I don’t want to do.

What I’m saying is that contentment is a tall order. Not impossible, but formidable enough to elude most of us most of the time. But there’s a trick to it, a master key to all the dead bolts that lock us out of our inner peace. The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone. Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it. Celebrate it. Be the best noncook you can be…

Of course, for some people, being outside their comfort zone is itself the comfort zone. I’m talking about people who backpack around developing countries with hardly any money, journalists who become addicted to covering wars, and soldiers who become addicted to fighting them.

There’s a piece on nostalgia and youth. I loved this graf:

Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage.

Here’s Meghan Daum’s interview on the Longform podcast, which was interesting.

Book Review: The Path to Power by Robert Caro

The movie Selma, which debuted a few weeks ago, shines a spotlight on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights. It’s also sparked a side controversy over its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Some say it unfairly diminishes Johnson’s positive role in the civil rights movement.

How many Americans really know the story of Lyndon Johnson?

Over the years, several people have recommended to me Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. It’s a four-part series on the life and career of America’s 36th president, with the fifth and final edition due out in a few years. People say it’s one of the best political biographies ever. I just finished volume one, The Path to Power, and I can report that it was totally compelling, at turns a gripping narrative of larger-than-life characters and a well-written explainer on 1950’s Texas.

Caro would argue it’s a vitally important topic: “Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century.”

The civil rights legislation that Johnson championed in the Senate and then later as President are addressed in the later volumes, which I have not yet read, so here I will pose just one general observation and question.

The question is this: Does everyone who achieves historic status in the world of business, entertainment, and politics possess a pathological level of ambition and hunger for power? Johnson reached the peak of global power despite being born in one of the poorest parts of the United States. It takes a certain kind of person to climb the tallest mountain when you start at the very bottom. Do these people suffer from insecurities and a need to be liked that’s so totalizing and so severe that these insecurities serve as the fuel for said ambition? And, moreover, is it the case that for most people who make it to the top, they sacrifice almost everything, from relationships to privacy to hobbies?

The more you read biographies of people who led historic lives, especially in politics, the more you begin to see an usual level of ambition that’s fueled as much by darkness as by light: where darkness takes the form of some primal character flaw, or an abusive or absent father, or an unforgettable injustice that molds the character.

This volume one by Robert Caro is an extraordinary of portrait of exactly that kind of ambitious, deeply flawed person: Lyndon Johnson. The portrait does justice to both the man himself and the varied influences around him that enabled his rapid rise from Hill Country Texas to Congress.

Johnson’s hunger for power knew no ends. He once said, “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.” In the early part of his career, which this volume focuses on, we see how willingly he works crazy hours, lies, kisses ass, compromises, whatever it takes, really — in order to slowly move up the political pecking order. The moment he attained power, he immediately used it to position himself for the next rung up.

Eventually, as Senator and then President, he came to use his power tragically in Vietnam but also wonderfully and historically in championing civil rights legislation that had been voted down time and time again. His Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 were the first meaningful civil rights legislation on the books since 1870.

If you want to understand the president in the movie Selma — or you just want to understand American history better — begin Robert Caro’s series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s terrific.

Various highlights from the book are included below the fold.



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Claims About Childhood

Griffiths believes that we force very young children into too much independence at a time when all they want is intimacy (she particularly deplores Ferberization, or controlled crying), and that we then exert too much control over older children who yearn only for freedom (she is dismayed by standardized testing). She questions the hierarchical nature of most adult-child relations, and demonstrates that in many cultures and across much of history, children have been given a much broader right of self-determination. She is fanatical about the importance of the great outdoors, and believes that all children need the kith of woods, sea and sky. She laments the enclosures movement of the 15th to 19th centuries that eliminated most common agricultural rights.Concerned that so many children today require treatment for psychological ills, she proposes space and freedom as the cure.She makes an eloquent, loosely Marxist argument that children’s play has been overtaken by commercial interests, so that imagination gets upstaged by sophistry. She objects to the way the nuclear family excludes the wider penumbra of people who stand to love any child, describing all the advantages of a “well villaged” child who may belong “to the street or the commons as much as to the home.” She lauds the idea of childhood as a quest that is precious regardless of its destination. And she regrets the fact that too many children are cut off from their daemon — their true calling — by a dreary pragmatism and a rigid, unresponsive education system.

Andrew Solomon on Jay Griffiths’ book “A Country Called Childhood”

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. The best collection of advice columns I’ve read.tiny-beautiful-things-vertical_320 People wrote to the “Dear Sugar” online column (the author of which was revealed to be Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame) with some pretty tricky questions about their personal life, career, sex, family, and so on, and she delivered just the right mix of encouragement, tough love, and concrete tips for action. There’s a story of guy who overhears his friends talking shit about him. There’s a woman who wants to write a book but is overcome with self-loathing and anxiety about being a woman in what she perceives is a man’s game. Strayed tells her, “Don’t write like a man. Don’t write like a woman. Write like a motherfucker.” One questioner expresses insecurity over her “useless” English degree. Srayed concludes her answer thusly:

I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say, Oh.

2. Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out by David Gelles. My friend David Gelles of the New York Times has written a solid book on how companies around the world are institutionalizing meditation practices in their offices. His timing couldn’t be better. I suspect many managers, wellness directors, and executives will be picking up his book to learn how to support employees on a quest to be more mindful and to learn why it’s beneficial to the corporate bottom line to set aside time for employees to meditate. More generally, David also offers some nice reflections on his own practice and a summary of the academic literature on the how meditation shapes our brain which will be helpful to anyone getting up to speed on the basics. The book will be published March, 2015.

130723132310-sports-gene-cover-single-image-cut.jpg3. The Sports Gene by David Epstein. A wonderfully researched and engagingly written book about genetics and athletics. It makes you not only re-think a lot of what you thought you knew about sports performance, but also questions assumptions about achievement in general. I recently met David and he’s already become one of my favorite people. Below the fold are my highlighted paragraphs from his book.


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“Waking Up” and My On-Going Meditation and Buddhism Explorations

Sam Harris has written an excellent new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion that I highly recommend to anyone interested in a hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation. This post contains highlights from the book combined with updates on my own evolving understanding Buddhism and meditation.

Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses. Arianna Huffington’s recent book Thrive articulated meditation’s many benefits with great mass market appeal. As a fan of meditation, I’m excited by how many new resources there are. There’s no doubt that folks who’ve turned away from organized religion still need a kind of purpose that’s hard to develop on your own, and meditation can be seen as a tactical tool in the quest for developing a higher understanding about life. But it feels inevitable that there’ll be a backlash, as people take up the practice expecting a cure-all. As Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Meditation said to improve everything!” Yup — that’s a recipe for disappointment. Eventually, we’ll end up somewhere in the happy medium in terms of meditation delivering on the realistic expectations of its practitioners.

I first learned about meditation a decade ago. I distinctly remember the moment. I was sitting in my bedroom and felt a twitch in the tiny muscle below my left eyebrow and above my eyeball. I walked into the bathroom, put my face close to the mirror, and waited. Sure enough, a minute later, the same muscle spasmed. Some quick research that night revealed that this is a classic sign of stress. It figured: I was exceptionally busy with entrepreneurship and school, and I was exceptionally unskilled at managing busyness. I hopped on Amazon.com and bought the first book I found on stress reduction. That book introduced to me to meditation.

For several years thereafter, I meditated sporadically, in search of stress relief. I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and focused on the inhale and exhale of my breath. After 10 or 15 minutes, I opened my eyes, and felt calmer. There’s a growing literature that suggests that what I felt was real: simple mindfulness meditation generates positive health benefits such as reduced blood pressure and etc.

Even though meditation is an essential component of a Buddhist practice, I’ve never known much about Buddhism. As a bit of personal history, I was baptized Catholic but was atheist by my teen years. I remained open to the idea of “spiritual” experiences, though. I’d had some experiences in nature that induced feelings of awe, which is the most concrete, secular type of spirituality I can think of. For example, staring up at the stars in a rural village outside Beijing or hiking in Kenai Peninsula in Alaska and stopping on a mountain of shale and looking out over the vast land. I’ve also experienced moments of extreme present-ness: I vividly remember hearing a teacher tell a story once of returning to his native war-torn Lebanon as a child on Christmas eve, driving through the rainy streets in his parents’ car on the way to his childhood home, and during that drive, looking out the window and seeing the reflection of Christmas ornaments in the puddles of water. It was the happiest moment of his life, he said. When I heard the story, I got goosebumps.

For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:

Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.

Buddhism: What Resonates, What Doesn’t

Yes: Happiness Must Come From Within

Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within. Here’s Harris:

our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. …

The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is.

And this:

Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope.

Agreed. Good things happen, bad things happen, everything arises and passes away. True harmony must be something steadier.

Yes: Self-Transendance (Or, Using a Window as a Window, Not a Mirror)

The more important idea of many Buddhist teachings — and the primary emphasis on Sam Harris’s book — is the illusion of a separate ego. Harris focuses on the quite secular project of “self-transcendance”:

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.

I need to re-read these passages of the book and do quite a bit more practice to fully understand this idea. It’s not simple! But it feels potentially quite profound, and an area I’ll explore in the years ahead.

Yes: Understand via Experience. Observe Yourself. There is No Book with Answers.

Buddhism asks its students to observe themselves and come to their own answers. You learn by experience. As Larry Rosenberg wrote in Breath by Breath, another good book on the topic, Buddhism isn’t about beliefs — it’s about first hand knowledge. By observing the impermanent sensations on your body, for example, you learn about the impermanence of thought patterns. The historical Buddha was a man who woke up and offered thoughts on the illusion of ego and the path for true harmony. Contrast his life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus — who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe. There’s a humility to Buddhist teachings that’s attractive. Although there are celebrity spiritual gurus alive today, in the Vipassana retreats I’ve been on there is a kind of disavowal of higher spirits or gurus. The unpaid “civilian” teachers wear sweatpants and t-shirts. There are no candles and no prayers. Only attention to your breath and your body.

Not So Much: Reincarnation and Other Claims About the Cosmos

The Buddha made several claims about the cosmos that are fanciful. E.g. Reincarnation, karma, and so on. Harris argues that you can ignore them and still profit (spiritually, that is!) from the other claims about self-mastery. I’m persuaded that’s the case.

Not So Much: Focus on Self to the Exclusion of Needy Others

Buddhism strikes me as self-absorbed. In a Christian church, there’s wonderful emphasis about how Jesus taught us to help those in need. You never hear that theme in talks about Buddhism. To be sure, there are teachings about compassion and a type of meditation called metta that promotes loving kindness, but it’s never felt as foundational to me as the idea of liberation of one’s self, transcendence of one’s ego, and achieving “perfect equanimity,” as S.N. Goenka says over and over again. Here’s Harris on this point:

The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.

Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing.

Okay, but it’s hard to do both at once.

Not So Much: Apathy and Passiveness, Instead of Passion

Can you really change the world and still be Buddhist? Is making the world a better place even embedded in the idea set? Harris again:

There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves

We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.

I’m not so sure these two can be squared. The classic change-the-world entrepreneurial vision requires a huge amount of passion, often with extraordinary highs and extraordinary lows along the way. It requires commitment to goals.

Advanced Meditation: Beyond the Retreats

More serious meditative practice intrigued me because I was interested in achieving a higher degree of self-possession beyond simple relaxation — being able to better control what I think and when, to cut short unhelpful thought cycles, to be present in a new moment even if something lousy happened just prior, to quiet the monkey mind in bed so I could sleep better, and perhaps ultimately achieve some of the higher Buddhist ideals of harmony. Breathing for 5-10 minutes certainly calms you down, but doesn’t sculpt the mind. It doesn’t shift your “doggy mind” to the “lion’s mind” of deep steadiness. Occasional breathing exercises is like going on the occasional jog in the park: the result will be positive but very different than lifting weights in a gym under a trainer’s watchful eye.

Harris writes, “No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.” Exactly. I needed to train.

To more seriously train my mind and jumpstart a regular practice, a couple years ago I attended a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat, followed by a 3 day silent retreat. I wrote extensive blog posts about each retreat. As I wrote in my 10 day retreat reflection, the peak of the experience came around 80 hours in, when I began to understand the difference between being “lost in thought” and being hyper observant of what thoughts I was having. It wasn’t that I had no thoughts; I had thoughts because I was fully conscious, but I felt in control of my thoughts.

This is one of the most helpful analogies I’ve come across about what it means to be totally present in meditation, via Harris:

 Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives.

The power of your mind:

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

Since the retreats, I’ve maintained a regular practice, meditating for 4-5 days a week for on average 20 minutes each sit, totaling about 500 hours of meditating in my life. For the first year after the 10 day, I was obsessed with not skipping a day. “Daily practice” is an idea pounded into your head by meditation teachers, and most apps that track your sits (I use Insight Timer) display how many days you’ve consecutively logged time. I sought to do it daily — even if it was for a throwaway 3 minutes at 11:57 PM. My reasoning was that if I focused on daily practice eventually it would become so ingrained that even if I did miss a day, I’d be conscious of the skip, and pick it up the next day. Today, that is indeed the case: when I’m getting ready to sleep, if I haven’t meditated, I’ll think about it, and sometimes choose not to meditate. That, to me, is the habit formation I was looking for. Missing a day here or there isn’t a big deal and having that attitude relieves yourself of the practice feeling like a burden. If I’m traveling and exhausted, and I know sitting for 10 minutes won’t work very well, I’ll just skip.

Everyone should do a 10 day retreat at least once in their life, even if you never meditate again. A silent retreat will almost certainly be a mind bending experience. No using any technology, not reading, not writing, not speaking — that alone will be hugely impactful, even if you get nothing out of the meditation aspect. Being alone with your thoughts for such a length of time is an experience unlike any other.

My meditation practice has certainly promoted a greater degree of mindfulness (being intentional with my attention) in my day-to-day life when I’m not on the cushion. With a subtle attention to my breath and bodily sensations, I can return to the here and now more easily, and calm the monkey mind more than I could before. But has it made me happier? In this worthwhile, skeptical take on the meditation boom on NYTimes.com, Tony Schwartz, author of the excellent Power of Full Engagementreflects on his years of meditating and says:

Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits. What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.

It’s a fair point.

All in all, I found Harris’s book super provocative and I highly recommend it. Below the fold are a couple other interesting paragraphs from Harris.

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What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

russbook1. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts. An engaging summary and analysis of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s Wealth of Nations is more popular but Theory of Moral Sentiments is arguably just as profound. Russ quotes extensively from the original text and adds color on what Smith was expressing about human nature. If you struggle with old fashioned writing, as I do, this account is a great alternative or supplement to the original work.

Russ quotes a Venetian proverb: “The sea gets deeper as you go further into it.” And then adds, “The more you know, the more you realize how much there is to know. You really don’t have to know everything. Admitting ignorance can be bliss.”

In the conclusion, I enjoyed the distinction between the warm world of intimate family and friends and the harsh and cold world of commerce with strangers.

As F.A. Hayek pointed out in The Fatal Conceit, a modern person has to inhabit two worlds at the same time — a world that is intimate and a world that is distant, a world that is held together by prices and monetary incentives. Hayek argued that we have an urge to take the norms and culture of our intimate family life and try to extend them into our less-intimate commercial life…Hayek thought that extending the norms of the family to society at large would put us on the road to tyranny.

2. Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao. Chock full of management tips and tricks, informed by real academic research. Some useful observations about how to scale something that works as well. I enjoy reading Bob’s blog and following him on Twitter.

3. Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Self-Promotion by David Zweig. The people who make the world go round you who you haven’t heard of. Zweig does a nice job with the storytelling of unsung heroes: the structural engineers of office buildings, not the architects; the wayfinders at airports who design the signage that tells you where baggage claim and rental cars are; ghostwriters who help the rich and famous write memoirs. Zweig makes a case that pursuing work you excel at that does not lead to public accolades can actually be more satisfying than achieving success that results in celebrity.

4. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips. There were some amazing paragraphs in the first chapter, but then I got totally lost as it descended into riffs on psychotherapy. Sample graph that originally intrigued me:

There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life (or lives): the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason – and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason – they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.

5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Some fun lines certainly about corporate office life, and I know Ferris is talented, but I couldn’t get into this novel. Some winning paragraphs nonetheless:

We believed that downturns had been rendered obsolete by the ingenious technology of the new economy. We thought ourselves immune from things like plant closings in Iowa and Nebraska, where remote Americans struggled against falling-in roofs and credit card debt. We watched these blue-collar workers being interviewed on TV. For the length of the segment, it was impossible not to feel the sadness and anxiety they must have felt for themselves and their families. But soon we moved on to weather and sports and by the time we thought about them again, it was a different plant in a different city, and the state was offering dislocated worker programs, readjustment and retraining services, and skills workshops. They’d be fine. Thank god we didn’t have to worry about a misfortune like that. We were corporate citizens, buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat. We were above the fickle market forces of overproduction and mismanaged inventory.

 And:

When someone quit, we couldn’t believe it. “I’m becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,” they said. “I’m touring college towns with my garage band.” We were dumbfounded. It was like they lived on a different planet. Where had they found the derring-do? What would they do about car payments? We got together for going-away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately. Invariably Tom would get drunk and berate the departing with inappropriate toasts. Invariably Marcia would find hair bands on the jukebox and subject us to their saccharine ballads while recalling the halcyon days of George Washington High. Invariably Janine would silently sip her cranberry juice, looking mournful and motherly, and Jim Jackers would crack dull, tasteless jokes, and Joe would still be at the office, working. “‘Every ship is a romantic object,’” Tom would blather, “‘except that we sail in.’” Concluding, he would stand and lift his glass. “So good luck to you,” he toasted, finishing off his martini, “and fuck you for leaving, you prick.”