Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest

aaI recently attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time. I’m not an alcoholic myself, but a friend of mine who is let me sit in as a guest. It was a fascinating experience.

The meeting was held in a church basement in a room dedicated to AA. A large AA banner hung on the wall next to a list of the famous 12 steps that guide the program’s philosophy. As people filed into the room, I was immediately struck by the diversity of participants. There were people who looked legitimately homeless alongside people dressed in nice button downs who could have fit right in at any law office. Black, white, hispanic, Asian. Fresh faces out of college next to people who seemed to be pushing 80. About an even male-female split. Truly, all walks of life.

After opening remarks from the volunteer coordinator, one participant got up and delivered a brief speech about his life. He was to be the main speaker for the day; everyone else who spoke at the meeting did so in reaction to the main speaker’s comments. The main speaker shared his story, abiding to what I gather is the suggested format: what it was like before, what happened, what it’s like now. Or: what life was like as an alcoholic, what catalyzed you to change, and what life’s like now. What it was like for him before was pretty brutal: constant drinking, constant fighting, constant arrests. What happened was that he hit rock bottom, one or two arrests away from heading to the slammer for good. What it’s like now is that he’s a successful business owner, property owner, and faithful husband.

He finished his remarks by saying: “Thank you for helping me stay sober today.” Today was a common theme. Day by day. To not drink for the rest of your life feels overwhelming; to not drink for the rest of the day feels within reach. Focus on today.

As people spoke in reaction, they introduced themselves with the famous utterance, “My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” Everyone else said, “Hi Joe.” Joe then proceeded with his comment.

One person who spoke in response had been sober for just two days. He was struggling. Another had been sober for 11 years, and yet still attending daily meetings. Another had been sober for six months, and yet was nervous he was going to fall off the wagon. His doctor had prescribed pain killers after a surgical procedure and he felt tempted. (Prescribed pain killers by doctors came up three times in this meeting.)

At the end, everyone held hands and repeated the Serenity Prayer aloud.

As I walked out, I envied the community and fellowship to which I had just been witness. A lot of people seemed emotionally close to others in the room who they’ve seen multiple times a week for years. One person said they had met their spouse at AA. I imagine for some AA is as much about a social network that functions in everyday life as it is a place where one focuses on sobriety. I could feel social connection in the room.

As the most popular addiction treatment philosophy by far, AA ought to be subject to scrutiny. And there are many critiques of AA. One is that it was designed to help the most severe alcoholics — those truly powerless over alcohol — but it’s routinely adopted by a broad section of the population. Indeed, an estimated 12% of people at AA meetings are there by court order after a DUI or such. It’s not clear that getting a DUI means that you’re powerless over alcohol and cannot ever take another sip — and that you must attend a meeting every day. Another critique is that the 12 step program should not be expected to work for everyone and yet many people in addiction-recovery believe just that. Those evangelists believe that if you fail in AA — as countless people have, the exact numbers being hard to measure given the decentralized nature of the org — it’s your fault, not the fault of AA’s unique approach. In fact, AA is just one of many, many approaches to dealing with addiction. Finally, there’s a view that says that if alcoholism is truly an illness it ought to be treated with real medicine, not treated with therapy as practiced by volunteers and peers.

What I do know from my one in-person experience at a meeting and from my friends who attend daily is that some number of people are being greatly helped in AA; that the social bonding and social accountability is real and critical to the recovery process; that the words shared in the room, at least in the one I attended, are wise and eloquent and useful. Those who find success in AA find it to be a real blessing.

Update: I edited the second to last paragraph to clarify that the official organization doesn’t blame people who do not succeed with AA’s approach–it’s rather a stance that critics attribute to AA evangelists. Also, see this comment in the comments section of this post for a response by one person who attends AA.

What Possessors of Maxims and Scriptures Can Teach Us

The first three paragraphs of William T. Vollmann’s ode to the Gnostic scriptures drew me in, both for the quality of the writing and the substance of the ideas.

Have you ever wondered whether this world is wrong for you? A death, a lover’s unabashed indifference, the sufferings of innocents and the absence of definitive answers — don’t these imply some hollowness or deficiency? For my part, the wrongness struck when I was 4 years old. I was at my grandmother’s house, and I saw a cat torture a baby bird.

Hoping to understand the purpose of our situation, I visit possessors of maxims and scriptures. Most of them are kind to me. I love the ritualistic gorgeousness of Catholic cathedrals, the matter-of-fact sincerity with which strangers pray together at roadsides throughout the Muslim world, the studied bravery and compassion in the texts of medieval Jewish responsa, the jovial humility of the Buddhist precept that enlightenment is no reward and lack of enlightenment no loss, the nobility of atheists who do whatever good they do without expectation of celestial candy — not to mention pantheists’ glorifications of everything from elephants to oceans. All these other ways that I have glimpsed from my own lonely road allure me; I come to each as a guest, then continue on to I know not where.

Baptized a Lutheran, I sometimes wander through the Bible, drawn in particular to those deep, strange stories that so many of us know after a fashion: the creation, the temptation in Eden, Christ’s execution and quiet return. As a reader and writer, I most love the tales that raise difficult questions: Why did an all-knowing God install Adam and Eve in a situation where they would surely disobey him? Why was eating fruit from the tree of knowledge a sin? Do I truly comprehend Christ’s enigmatic sacrifice? And why do cats torture birds?

How Michael Lewis Slows Down Time

He writes, in a piece commissioned by Chipotle:

I even have tricks for slowing time—or at least my perception of it. At night I sometimes write down things that happened that day… Recording the quotidian details of my day seems to add hours a day to my life: I’m not sure why.

Another trick is to focus on some ordinary thing—the faintly geological strata of the insides of a burrito, for instance—and try to describe what I see.

Another: pick a task I’d normally do quickly and thoughtlessly–writing words for the side of a cup, say–and do it as slowly as possible. Forcing my life into slow-motion, I notice a lot that I miss at game speed. The one thing I don’t notice is the passage of time.

The last two points are what meditation and mindfulness are about. Observe the ordinary.

Here’s how Steven Johnson slows down time — he moved to a new physical place. In a new place, your status quo disrupted, and you’re forced to notice small details, which has the effect of making time pass more slowly.

“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. 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 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, 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.

Continue reading

Book Review: Breath by Breath

Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg is one of the better books on meditation I’ve read. It’s a terrific introduction by the founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts.breahtbybreath

The problem with most of the stuff I read on the topic is it’s either inaccessibly technical / arcane, or too new-agey and lacking in substance. Breath by Breath strikes a good balance: it seems faithful to some of the key ideas expressed by the Buddha in the original Pali language while at the same time expressing in clear English how a meditation practice functions in modern life. There are also specific instructions and tips for those looking to strengthen their practice.

The emphasis on breath continues to be the most practical aspect of my practice. I have a very subtle perception of my breath and this allows me to return to the present moment more easily.

Some other random points from the book, among many:

  • The idea is to go from “doggy mind” to a “lion mind,” in which there is deep steadiness.
  • People often take up meditation because they want to achieve or gain something; the paradox in the practice is that the best way to get “there” to be fully present “here.”
  • The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing.
  • Buddhism isn’t about beliefs. It’s about firsthand knowledge.

Thanks to Amy and Brad Feld for letting me “steal” this book from them.


The always-interesting Robert Wright interviews Shinzen Young on about meditation. It’s worth watching for insights from one of the more prominent American experts on meditation. Shinzen says that when he thinks about meditation, he doesn’t call to mind the common image of someone sitting quietly in a darkened room. Rather, he thinks of someone in a gym, doing cardio, pumping weights, and making a lasting effect of the physical structure of his body. Certain formal exercises increase flexibility; others increase endurance; others build muscle strength.

“My Last Days”

This is a really touching 20 minute video about how Zach Sobiech, a 17 year old diagnosed with bone cancer, chose to spend his final months. Inspirational.

It reminded me of the Enjoy Every Sandwich book trailer.

Awe, An On-Going Series


My interest in “awe” as a primary human emotion continues, so I took note of these paragraphs pop up in Jon Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a set of lectures on nature that formed the foundation of American Transcendentalism, a movement that rejected the analytic hyperintellectualism of America’s top universities. Emerson argued that the deepest truths must be known by intuition, not reason, and that experiences of awe in nature were among the best ways to trigger such intuitions. He described the rejuvenation and joy he gained from looking at the stars, or at a vista of rolling farmland, or from a simple walk in the woods

Emerson and Darwin each found in nature a portal between the realm of the profane and the realm of the sacred….The emotion of awe is most often trigged when we face situations with two features: vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilated into our existing mental structures; we must “accommodate” the experience by changing those structures). Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy. People describe nature in spiritual terms — as both Emerson and Darwin did — precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole.

Where are the best star gazing opportunities in the Bay Area?

3 Day Silent Meditation Course

Over the weekend, I completed a 3 day Vipassana silent meditation course.

Here are my other posts on my meditation practice as background:

Having already written about meditation generally and Goenka courses specifically in my other posts, I’ll keep these thoughts limited to the most recent 3 day:

  • Recharge. Think of a structured meditation course as a battery charge, and the charge weakens with every passing day you’re back in the chaotic day to day world. Returning to retreat every so often recharges the battery that keeps you on a daily practice.
  • Old students, only. A 3 day Goenka retreat is only open to people who’ve done at least one 10 day course. Many people say they want to dip their toes in the water with a 3 day, but the Goenka tradition says that that’s not enough time to give a fair trial to the technique. You have to start in the deep end of the pool. Agreed.
  • Still hard. Despite the 3 day being made up of experienced students only, it was still hard for everyone. Several people told me they thought about leaving mid-way. I certainly wondered what the heck I was doing with myself after the n-th hour of lying on my bed staring up at the blank ceiling, with nothing to read or write, no one to talk to. During the sits, the physical pain, while less than the first time, remained.
  • Follow-on versus first time. A couple people have asked whether there are diminishing returns in terms of benefit with a follow-on course. As with everything, there’s nothing like the first time. That first 10 day will always stand apart. But in this follow on course, I actually got more out of every hour of meditating. I knew exactly what the setup was, I knew how I was going to physically sit (it took me 3-5 days last time to figure it out), I had the rules and regulations down. I could focus exclusively on the actual meditation instead of figuring out how to meditate. This is a mark in favor of doing a follow on course.
  • Fasting. In addition to the silence and structured meditation, it’s basically a fasting exercise as well. Get up at 4 AM, meditate, eat at 6:30 AM, rest, meditate, eat at 11 AM, rest, meditate, rest, meditate, etc. until 9 PM. Then go to bed. Net: no food after 11:30 AM. Surviving this was a confidence boost: if I ever need to go a long time with no food, I can do it.
  • Experts return to the basics. I really enjoyed spending a full day this time exclusively focused on breath (and not Vipassana body scans). I spent 15 hours trying to think only about the area below my nostril and above the upper lip, and how my respiration hits that area of my body. Breath is at the heart of any meditation practice. I walked away from the 3 day with a better command of my respiration.
  • Organized religion. The audio discourses from Goenka in the 3 day were much more proactively secular. He said over and over again that Vipassana is not organized religion. That there are no dogma, no blind faith, no belief in higher power, no rites, no rituals. Simply observe what’s happening on the experiential level. Feel what’s happening in reality, and draw conclusions from that. I love this about the practice. And I think it explains this practice’s popularity and universality. For me, I’m so allergic to anything that smells conventionally religious (for myself — I’m pro organized religion in general as a force in the world), that even Zen meditation practices are hard to stomach — the bowing, chanting, the “priests.” At Goenka’s centers, you meditate in a “hall,” you wear whatever you want (sweatpants were common at the 3 day), there is no church hierarchy whatsoever. On top of that, the fact that it’s totally donation based removes the money aspect from the equation, which is a common corrupting force in organized religion.
  • Big picture uncertainty: I’m not sure how I feel about the ultimate Vipassana goal of ridding your mind of impurities at the deepest level via the observation of impermanent physical sensations–on the grounds that, by observing the impermanence of the physical sensations, you come to realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative sensation, and therefore you realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative thought that causes the sensation. The logic tree breaks down a bit. I also have some continued qualms about the passionless, detached life this approach might lead to.
  • Big picture positive: I may aim for the more “surface” goals of a clear mind, increased mindfulness, an intentionally detached stance to many emotions, a subtler understanding of my breath, a subtler understanding of physical sensations, and a stronger control of which thoughts I surface to conscious attention and when. Of course, those are not at all easy things to pick up, and are “surface” only in comparison to how Goenka describes his Vipassana objectives. Indeed, apart from any comparison, I believe these skills themselves can be transformative. I can already feel them transforming my life.

Overall: highly recommended.

“Sadness is a Lucky Thing to Feel”

Over the past couple years, I’ve become a huge Louis C.K. fan. I’m almost done with Season 2 of his show Louie, which is amazing. 20 minute episodes packed with comedy and real insight.

In his recent Rolling Stone interview (paywall), he says this:

I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anybody else. I just don’t mind the sad part as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I’ve always felt that way. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, there’s so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.

Agreed. Observing how you feel, not judging it or immediately trying to change it, is a powerful habit to develop. It’s the lynchpin of the Vipassana meditation I practice.

“Negative” emotions like sadness can deepen you. Suffering deepens you. These feelings can be instructive. They can inspire empathy. They can be darkly hilarious. And ultimately, they’re impermanent. As Goenka says, all sensations arise, pass away. Arise, pass away.

Wise people seem to know this: when bad shit happens to you, experience it. Don’t run from it. Don’t run from grief or pain or suffering. Accept it. Observe it. And then observe it leave your body, over time.

My 2007 post Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth? covers this theme, and the comments there are excellent. In the five years since, I’m still not sure whether joy really stretches and deepens you. But I am as convinced as ever that sadness does.

“When have you felt really sad?” is an interesting question to ask someone.

The Skill Developed in Meditation

I enjoyed this clear description:

Meditation is basically a training method for your mind. When certain things happen to you, your mind generates a certain response whether it be happiness, frustration, anger ect. The way your mind has been inculcated is the path of least resistance and the path it wants to take, and will take unless you know how to mitigate it. Meditation teaches you how and makes it easier to override the process. Who is doing the overriding of this process? Well, that’s the million dollar question. But I digress.

So here’s what I’m getting at: if meditation is too easy, you’re doing something wrong. You might be getting yourself really relaxed, but is it possible that’s all you’re doing? Not saying it is. I don’t know, just throwing some ideas out there and it’s up to you to see if any seem to fit your situation.

But as you meditate, your mind wants to grab onto the thoughts and not your breath. The course of least resistance is away from your breath and back into whatever thoughts are vying for your attention. Every time you go back to the breath, you train or teach yourself even, to take the opposite of the path of least resistance. This is coupled with the fact that half the time when you meditate, your mind says, “I’m tired. Stop concentrating on the breath and just kick back and let a guided meditation do most of the work.” But every time this comes up you learn to drop it by returning to the breath and not listening to the thought no matter how loud and powerful it can get.

When you first start meditating you have this thought and then come back to the breath. But there’s still a trace of this thought floating around in your mind and eventually it pulls you in again. As soon as you realize your back in that thought again, you turn your awareness back to the breath and away from the thought. But then it pulls you in again. And then you drop it again. You do this over and over and over. But as you practice you get better and better and faster and faster at recognizing it. You start to figure out how to do it most efficiently and quickly, seeing and dropping thoughts before they even become thoughts at all.

After doing this hour after hour, you gain a skill. One day you realize that you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to use this skill. I can’t really explain how it’s done, but it’s just something you learn from continually focusing, coming back to, and holding your attention on the breath. It’s like if you ever do a lot of push-ups, eventually you will realize, “I can flex my pecs.” You couldn’t flex them before, and you don’t really know how you learned to do it, but now you can just do it.

(Hat tip to Andy McKenzie)