10 Day Awareness+Wisdom Meditation Retreat

spirit-rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know: just little things.

This Retreat: Awareness + Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buddha’s Argument for Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Highest Form of Happiness “Peace”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Retreat Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bright Mind State

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

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

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

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

Becoming A Bit More Eastern

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

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

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

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

What Can You Know Only Through Experience?

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

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

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

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

Compassion and Existential Anxiety

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

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

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

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

Qi Gong

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

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

Goenka vs. Tejaniya

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

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

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

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

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

Other Odds and Ends:

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

The Way Out is the Way In

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

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

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

From Anxiety Attacks to Mindfulness Startup

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

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

10 Day Meditation Retreat

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

The Wisdom of Jonathan Haidt

Jon Haidt has been an inspiration for a long time, and someone I’ve gotten to know a bit over the years. In a recent AMA on Product Hunt, he drops various wisdom, including answers to questions I pose, such as the following:

Ben: In the Happiness Hypothesis, you talk about how happiness comes from within and from without, and you are skeptical of elements of Buddhism that promote non-attachment. You write that the Western ideals of action and passionate striving play an important role in finding happiness in the modern world. Yet, so often our action and striving is never enough. We strive for something, we achieve it, and then we immediately want something more. It’s insatiable. How do we avoid the hedonic treadmill? How do we strive, but also feel content with what we achieve in our striving?

Jon: yes, we strive and it is never enough. But can you imagine a life without striving? it is not a human life. Maybe for an old person who looks back with satisfaction. But i would be very unhappy if my children took up the life of monks before the age of 60. “Joys soul lies in the doing” said shakespeare. The key is to get the right conditions of engagement with life. Then the striving is joyous. How many of you reading this feel that you are working toward something…. and it is pleasurable to work at it?

Ben: What my Buddhist friends tell me is that you can strive while also being non-attached (or “clingy”) to specific outcomes. This is hard to do, practically. I’d love to have a life where I am playing hard in the field — striving toward something — without checking the scoreboard every hour or even every year. When you’re enmeshed in social systems where everyone else is checking the scoreboard all the time and killing themselves if they’re not winning, it’s hard to behave differently…

Jon: well put; i think Buddhism is a constant reminder to loosen our group, don’t check the scoreboard so often, that makes us petty. and if our motives are extrinsic, that’s not good either. But when your work is a “calling”, and you really really want to achieve something, i think its appropriate to feel bad when there are setbacks, and to exult when you make progress.


His book The Happiness Hypothesis is an excellent summation of what ancient wisdom teaches about happiness, and his more recent book The Righteous Mind explains why religion and politics divide us so dramatically.

 

Using Your Mind to Watch Your Mind

Steve Silberman, in an interesting post titled What Kind of Buddhist Was Steve Jobs, Really? has an especially clear and concise description of how Buddhists view meditation:

Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear.

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. 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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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.

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The always-interesting Robert Wright interviews Shinzen Young on Bloggingheads.tv 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.