Monthly Archives: August 2012

Bootcamp Model of Learning

The “bootcamp” model of learning is on the rise–learning via a focused, intensive period of time dedicated to learning one thing.

I did a 10 day intensive meditation bootcamp. All meditation, all the time.

A friend recently completed a four day rationality bootcamp — where you learn and think about the meaning of rationality and how to become more rational yourself.

Another friend recently completed a 10 week Ruby on Rails bootcamp — where you intensively study the Ruby programming language and by the end are employable as a web developer.

Another friend recently completed the 10 week Singularity University at the NASA Ames campus — where you think deeply about how to change the world and network with the likeminded.

In all cases, you stop what you’re doing, travel to a place, surround yourself with teachers and students, and go deep on the topic. The upside to learning this way is obvious. It takes hours to get into creative flow. Deliberate practice — which is a structured way to learn something — requires sustained attention. In an always-on and distractible culture, the rare act of deep immersion can produce differentiated insights. At my meditation retreat, the deep, sustained focus mattered because it was only after 80 hours of continuous meditating where I was able to achieve some of the more profound insights. Had we done two hours a day over many weeks, I don’t think I would have ever reached the heights I did.

The downsides to the bootcamp approach are perhaps less obvious. One downside for me is what you might call “social marination.” I rely on my network to teach me things via ongoing conversation about an idea bouncing around in my head. I might read a book about something, blog about it, then talk to someone in my network, get emails from readers on the topic, then read another book, then perhaps listen to a speaker at a conference, etc. Over a multi-month period of time, consciously and unconsciously, I begin to crystalize lessons or insights. (Is another downside the idea of spaced repetition memorization?)

Formal schooling is the anti-bootcamp model. You study many different topics at once–it’s a constant balancing act. As David Brooks once noted, to be an excellent student you have to train yourself to not let yourself become too interested or immersed in any one thing. I should note that the liberal arts school Colorado College is an exception. There, you study one class per semester. It’s interesting more schools haven’t tried that model.

Finally, the bootcamp model of learning doesn’t have to be a formal class at a campus. Ryan Holiday suggests a bootcamp model to reading books. Interested in the civil war? Read 10 books on the topic in a row. Then pick a new topic. One topic at a time.

My questions in close: What are the skills that lend themselves particularly well to learning-via-bootcamp? Should a model for investing in yourself include attending bootcamps of this sort?

The Wisdom in India

“If I were asked under what sky the human mind…has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions to some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant — I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw the corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human a life…again I should point to India.”

Max Müller, via the opening chapter on Hinduism in The World’s Religions.

Different Messages From Different Women

A couple hours before I went off the grid and headed to the 10 day silent meditation course, I spoke to my mom and to my girlfriend, who knew about my anxieties / doubts. They each proactively, independently told me the following.

Mom: “If it’s not working out, it’s okay to come back early.”

Gf: “Be brave. Don’t come home early.”

Both are important thematic messages to hear in life from people close to you–strive forward and take risk, but we’ll support you if you fall.

It seems just too right that I encountered this zen balance in advice right before leaving for a meditation course…

Political IQ is Like “Overall Athleticism” and “Court Vision”

James Fallows, who’s one of the most consistently level headed and clear bloggers on current affairs, has a post up with two good yet different points. The first point is a worthwhile one about the role of “culture” in a country’s success.

The second point is about “political IQ”:

Political talent includes the ability to tell your immediate audience things it wants to hear — without offending people beyond that audience, who in today’s panopticon age will inevitably hear anything troublesome you say. At its crass extreme, this is the “dog whistle” — sending a coded signal that the general public will miss but only a select group of listeners will recognize and respond to. Less crassly, it is a skill both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton demonstrated in managing to appeal to some groups without alienating too many others. Barack Obama took such heat for his “people get bitter” comments four years ago because they violated this rule. For him it was a rare exception….

Here is the point I am building to. Three months before the election, it is fair to wonder about Mitt Romney’s basic skill level as a politician. I am not talking policy and substance, which I will do later. I’m talking about the counterpart to what coaches call “overall athleticism,” “court vision,” “ball sense,” even “football IQ.” In politics this includes an ability to read audiences, to self-edit and self-correct in real time, and to sense effortlessly how your words will sound to people on the other end. Right after Sarah Palin’s pick four years ago I guessed that she was going to have trouble with the surprisingly onerous demands of a national campaign. Now I am struck that we’re still seeing indications of limits on Romney’s “political IQ.”

“Court vision” and “ball sense” exist in a business context too, and I think it goes beyond polish. I’m reminded of my post a couple years ago on the “it” quality — the total package of qualities that so surpass simply “smart” that you’re left saying the person has the “it” factor.

What I’ve Been Reading

A recent roundup of books.

1. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday. Ryan paints a dark picture of the blogosphere, rightly identifying the bad incentives that corrupt internet journalism (and in turn, offline journalism). I don’t agree with everything here, but if you’re in the business of generating content on the web or trying to get your stuff covered by bloggers or online journalists, there is much provocation here from an insider who knows what he’s talking about. Oh, and if you love books, you should be subscribed to Ryan’s reading newsletter, which is always broadening my literary horizons.

2. The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness by Virginia Postrel. An excellent analysis of the role of aesthetics in society and business–and how and why matters. She wrote it in the early 2000s, so before Apple took over the world with its nice shiny things, which makes the book especially prescient (without it now feeling dated). Postrel analyzes words usually lacking precise definitions; words like “beauty” and “style.” My favorite insight: aesthetic identity is when “I like this” becomes “I’m like that.” One sum-up paragraph near the end: “Aesthetics is prerational or nonrational, not irrational or antirational. Look and feel appeal directly to us as visual, tactile, emotional creatures, but they do not inevitably override our cognitive faculties, much less our sense of right and wrong.”

3. The Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future by Richard Lagos. The former president of Chile recounts his time before, during, and after office. Lagos started emerging as a revolutionary figure when Pinochet’s grip on the country started weakening. The chapters where he talks of Pinochet’s iron fist and his own brave refusals to stand down are riveting.

4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki Murakami. I love Murakami. And this is one of his most famous novels. I was totally engrossed to the halfway point, lost steam in the next quarter, and didn’t quite finish. But, the highs were high; such a rich, imaginative world Murakami creates. I enjoyed paragraphs like: “Even so, the anger, like water, seeped soundlessly into every corner of my body. It was an anger steeped in sorrow. There was no way for me to smash it against something, nothing I could do to dispel it.” Or sentences like: “The quiet rain continued through the night, tapering off toward dawn, but the sticky presence of the strange little man, and the smell of his unfiltered cigarettes, remained in the house as long as the lingering dampness.”

5. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. Nuggets abound on human nature and modern society. The fictional characters he created to convey the points don’t work, as many reviewers have noted, but forget about the narrative and jump around to the different studies and quotes about what makes us tick. Brooks’s writings about how each of us is enmeshed in a social network and in a society have influenced me in many ways.

Reflections and Impressions from a 10-Day Meditation Course

It was during the 8-9 PM meditation session on the 8th Day — by then I was 80 hours into the 10 day, 100 hour meditation course — when I experienced something remarkable. I was partially kneeling and partially sitting on a small bench in the meditation hall with about 45 other meditators, doing breathing techniques (anapana) and scanning my body for sensations (vipassana). Shortly after starting the session, my mind became as sharp as I’ve ever felt it in my life. I was in complete control of a lucid, concentrated mind.

I became meta aware of this mental clarity. It’s how I imagine it feels to “wake up” in the middle of your dreams and control them. I directed my attention away from my body to a random thought. And then brought it right back. Then away. Then back. All by choice. It was a striking difference from what often happened during my meditation sits (and during life in general): the mind inviting hundreds of random thoughts to derail a moment of concentration. To top it off, during the sit, I visualized a glass window in my mind and in my mind’s eye focused on it and it cracked the window, as if just thinking about the window produced the sort of cracks you see when a bullet strikes bulletproof glass. When the chanting began playing on the hall audio speakers to signal the end of the session, I felt sad. Now in most of the other sits I greeted the sound of the glorious final chanting with relief, signaling as it did the imminent end to 60 minutes in a frozen posture, knees throbbing, back aching. But that night, I was thriving, my mind was as sharp as freshly sharpened hunting spear, and I felt totally and completely relaxed.

With that as the highlight, let me back up and recap the experience from beginning, since it was considerably more challenging than one excellent meditation session. And I’ll add the proviso that I just got home a couple days ago, so I am still absorbing all that happened.

To start, there are many different types of meditation. There are also many types of courses / retreats. So when someone tells you they “meditate” or “attended a meditation retreat” that doesn’t tell you the full story. Myself, I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Northern California, organized by the Dhamma Manda center and taught via video and audio by S.N. Goenka (of India) and in-person by assistant teachers carrying out his vision of Vipassana. Some of the key characteristics of my course:

  • In order to help achieve mental silence, the course is conducted in an atmosphere of silence. No talking, eye contact, or physical gestures are allowed between any of the students. You are to work in total silence 24/7. You are, however, allowed to speak with the management or teachers as necessary.
  • No writing, reading, technology, extra food, or sexual activity allowed during the course.
  • Complete, 100% gender segregation, including in the dining halls. Zero sexual tension or distractions.
  • The whole day is scheduled and structured from 4 AM to 9 PM, including two vegetarian meals at 6:30 AM and 11 AM. About 10 hours per day is dedicated to sitting meditation.
  • The course taught Vipassana meditation specifically, which seeks insight through observing reality as it is. Within Vipassana, there are variations. S.N. Goenka’s approach is considered, I found out while there, a comparatively pure conveyance of what the Buddha actually said–which makes it stricter and arguably harder for beginners to learns. Think of it like a Great Books model of education or an originalism interpretation of the Constitution. On the flip side, Goenka’s tradition is easier for secular people to pick up in that it wipes out any classically “religious” components (no incents or chants or statues or gods) and other potentially alienating, non-universal norms.
  • The course was totally free — which includes 11 nights of lodging and meals. Only those who have completed a course can donate money to the Center. Every course and every center — there are dozens around the world — rely exclusively on donations from former students, which is pretty remarkable. (Other retreats usually start at $150/day and go up from there.) This economic dynamic affects the content and structure of the course itself: since you’re not paying anything, you can’t complain about lodging or food. You accept gratefully what’s given. It also means the teachers can be as strict as they want to — there’s no pressure to ease up on students who complain about pain, say, in the way they might feel they ought to if someone were dropping a thousand plus dollars on the adventure.

I had no formal background in meditation. I’ve been meditating sporadically and informally for about a decade, originally as an attempt to reduce stress. In 2006 I spent a day at the SF Zen Center. I’ve been talking about going on a silent retreat since 2009 to try to help make it a daily habit. So I really went into last week’s course knowing very little about what I was getting myself into but very motivated to learn more. As it turned out, most of the other “new students” may have been new to Vipassana, but had experience at other sorts of retreats. Most were deeply spiritual already. (Other than this uniting factor of previous experience, it was a very diverse mix of people age and race-wise.) So, as far as I was concerned, I was learning to swim in the deep end of the pool.

At the first night’s orientation, before silence became the law of the land, the manager made some general announcements. She concluded, “We hope you have a productive and successful time here.” This took me by surprise — the goal was to be “productive and successful”? The course content reinforced this theme repeatedly. Goenka, the main teacher via video/audiotape, said repeatedly, “Work diligently, work ardently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently, and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.” The assistant teachers would release us to meditate in our residences with the final words: “Keep working, continue to work.” Was this a meditation retreat or an ass-kicking business seminar? By the end it was clear: the philosophical belief of Goenka and Buddhism is that salvation comes from self-mastery; to do so requires extreme discipline and focus and training of the mind. Then, you have a shot at success, which is defined as liberation from suffering and living a life, as Goenka put it, of “true peace, true harmony, true happiness.” It’s a definition of success considerably loftier than the one that actually brought me to the Dhamma Manda; my aim was merely to concentrate my mind, kickstart a daily habit, and achieve a difficult goal I could fail at.

The next morning, after sleeping in a shared dormitory, the gong rang at 4 AM and the course officially began. What began for me, though, was less about meditation and Buddhism and more about struggling to position my body on a meditation cushion on the floor. The bigger you physically are the harder it is to sit on the floor for 10+ hours a day. There was essentially no instruction or discussion of the various cushions, benches, pads available to use–it was up to me to grab cushions and figure out how to lock in a position. The first day I tried crosslegged sitting all day. The second day I woke up with severe nerve pain up and down the entire right side of my body.

The “official” view on pain from the instructors was complicated. On the one hand, Goenka says explicitly that you’re not here to torture yourself, so do what you need to do (i.e. sit in a chair if absolutely necessary). On the other hand, managing pain — observing the pain sensations with equanimity — is part of the mental mastery process. Moreover, there’s the view that the pain represents some of the negative emotions in your life that are poisoning your unconscious — connect those thoughts to the physical sensations on your body, and observe them essentially leave your body.

To me, the physical pain in the early days overwhelmed the other things I was trying to focus on, like my breathing. It was like trying to observe subtle breath and subtle sensations while a bullhorn blasted in your ear. The nerve pain on the right side of my body was so sharp that at the end of Day 2 I began to seriously contemplate leaving the course. I crafted a narrative in my head to explain to people back home about the pain and how I would practice sitting on my own and return and finish the course later. Three male students had already dropped out by this point.

But in that evening’s discourse — at the end of each day and on the final morning Goenka delivered a 75 minute video lecture, which meant we watched almost 14 hours of lectures — Goenka specifically addressed the pain point and said you may want to leave because of it, telling yourself you’ll come back another time, but don’t listen to yourself — have a strong determination to continue with the course. He also said that you may think the other students are working swimmingly and only you are suffering, but think again — they’re in pain, too. It was true, I learned later — even though 70% of the other students seemed very athletic and in good shape (the guy meditating next to me did an Ironman last year), everyone was in pain. This convinced to stay through to Day 3.

By Day 4 and 5, I had finally figured out a physical position that was relatively comfortable to me — kneeling and semi-sitting on a bench. While I rarely made it the full 60 minutes without throbbing in my knees, I was able to go a good 45 minutes feeling like I was in a steady posture and able to focus on my respiration and bodily sensations.

The next challenge to face was mental and emotional: the overall isolation. If you asked me about my favorite things, I would answer, “Reading, writing, conversations with people, technology/internet.” It felt utterly strange and lonely to go cold turkey on all of the above — spending hours staring at trees or the ceiling above my bed or the wall in front of my face as I ate meals in the dining hall. There were a couple designated walking areas on the property and most students including me walked in circles around the paths, over and over. It occurred to me — and Goenka even mentioned it jokingly in a discourse — that it was my first roundabout with prison: strict rules and schedule, an exercise yard with marked areas, no tools allowed, no communication with the outside world. When I stared out at the highway beyond and saw cars, I thought to myself, “That’s freedom. Those cars have freedom. I do not have freedom.” Literally those words.

The Noble Silence though did make it easier to meditate. Now that I’m back connected to reality, I appreciate how recent emails or recent songs that get stuck in your head distract from the task of meditation. On the retreat itself, silence eliminated anxieties that people on the retreat were talking about you and judging you. Meals were silent affairs. No cliques and chortles over dinner.

Turning off the spigot of information and conversation meant my mind had to plunge through my personal past to generate thoughts as I walked or ate or rested or, yes, while I tried to meditate. Memories surfaced from every part of my life and from every period of time. It was certainly interesting to observe which memories came to mind, though I did not have any profound realizations about life in the process other than an important meta realization: our subconscious is informed by vast numbers of memories.

All that silence and lack of socializing meant no laughter, no humor, no smiling. On Day 5 or 6, I ended up having “humor day” and spent hours recounting in my mind various Seinfeld episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm bloopers. I played the Liam Neeson / Ricky Gervais skit in my head about three times. The Alec Baldwin Always Be Closing scene. Etc. I laughed to myself, lying in bed.

By the final third of the course, doubt and anxiety about leaving had passed (home stretch!), the physical pain had subsided (alternating between bench and chair), my growling stomach had come to terms with the dramatic drop in daily caloric intake, and I was able to focus more deeply in the actual meditation practice.

I was able to focus my attention on respiration. My in breath, my out breath. I was able to feel sensation in a focused area just above the upper lip and to the top of the nostril. I acquired tools and exercises that bring the mind to the present moment that I have taken home with me and already deployed in day to day life. Doing the actual Vipassana technique, however — observing the physical sensations on your body — was harder. I could feel itches and observe them rather than react (i.e. notice the itch without scratching it). I could feel blood pumping and pinpoint its precise location on my body. But I rarely felt anything subtler, and I certainly didn’t feel vibrations from head to toe–which masters of the craft supposedly feel.

I was of mixed minds about the broader Buddhist philosophy that Goenka taught in the course. On the one hand, there was much wisdom in the Buddha’s views he relayed to us: Misery is all around us. We get stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Material acquisition and money won’t make us happy (Goenka himself was a successful businessman before turning his focus to meditation, so he spoke credibly about how he and his rich friends were not happy.) I loved the emphasis on looking inward to liberate yourself rather than appealing to a god or guru — the absolutely secular, universal nature of the practice appealed to me. More love and compassion in yourself — observing anger within and not acting on it — it’s a good thing. And experiencing the present moment, finding peace and joy in the present, is something I can and should do more of (and the course helps with that).

But I wonder about how to square ambition with the idea of non-attachment. If you have a goal and want to achieve it, you have to be at least somewhat attached to the outcome. And reincarnation isn’t my jam, even if there’s fundamental truth (which I realized in the retreat) in the idea that your forefathers shaped your chances and you seriously shape the chances of your offspring.

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So….

To answer my prior post about trying something I could fail at, did I fail at this meditation course? No. I think I succeeded in two respects. First, I stayed the full 10 days, despite badly wanting to leave. Second, I do think I acquired skills that put me on the path to having a more disciplined mind and perhaps a more compassionate heart.

I don’t often say it and I frankly don’t often feel it, but: I’m proud of myself. I adapted. I survived 10 days of isolation and faced new physical and mental challenges. I’m occasionally reminded of the sheer resiliency of the human being. I’ve been to places where my first thought upon arrival is, “Get me out of here.” From the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador, to the poor Costa Rican family I stayed with for a week near the ocean who didn’t have hot water, to my first rickshaw ride India — in all I had a knee jerk reaction, airlift me out! Yet, by the time I was scheduled to leave, I adjusted just fine. I underestimated myself–which, as we write in the Risk chapter of The Start-Up of You, is a function of the negativity bias built into us by natural selection.

Going forward, the question I’m asking is, how can I develop meditation as a daily habit? The minutes of sheer mental clarity and control I experienced on Day 8 and recapped at the outset were amazing and I want to have that more regularly. I think being able to turn on focus and calm and discipline can contribute to a professional / career advantage. It will happen if I practice every day. Although Goenka advised two one hour sits a day, I’m going to start with one 45 minute sit a day. I think I can do that. In my calendar, I’m going to label the entry, “Train the mind” to make it seem less miss-able.

As I finish this post, the words of Goenka — who uttered the only words I heard orally for more than a week — are echoing in my head. Work diligently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently…and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.

There’s wisdom there.

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