“Mindfulness of Consciousness” Meditation Retreat

N.B. I’ve organized all my blog posts on meditation retreats and Buddhist into this one long page. If you’re new, you can read that page for more context on my journey to date, my summary of the Buddhist argument, and my experiences at other long retreats. This post is a dispatch from my latest retreat.

The Rollercoaster of Retreat / Life

A few days into my fifth silent Buddhist meditation retreat in April 2022, I walked out of my dorm building and ambled down toward the meditation hall to make the 4pm guided sit. I noticed a half dozen people standing at the bottom of the path, staring intently out at the hills behind me. In the next moment, I smelled smoke, and turned around to face the scene that had captivated the other meditators: smoke billowing over the hills and down into the Spirit Rock campus.

Was it a wildfire? Were we on the midst of being evacuated? My first thought: “Yes! The retreat may be cancelled and I can go home early.” Despite all my time meditating on silent retreats, they’re still hard for me. Hard first and foremost physically: sitting on the ground for so many hours does a number on your knees, back, and shoulders. And of course it’s hard mentally: the endless stretch of time with no company but your own out-of-control mind.

Nobody made any evacuation announcements, so I walked into the meditation hall for the regularly scheduled sit, half-wondering if fire trucks were going to interrupt the whole retreat at any moment. Amazingly, despite the distractions, I actually had a really good sit. My mind was still. Clear. Luminous. Present. My body felt settled. I was aware. I stayed in the hall after the bell had rung and others had left to bask in the unexpected stillness. The quiet in my mind.

When I got up to leave, I thought to myself: “Oh man, this is amazing. I need more days here. I hope there’s no evacuation.”

And there would not be an evacuation. It turned out a building structure nearby had caught fire and was quickly extinguished.

The emotional gyrations of that one afternoon embody what happens in your mind over all 10 days within the uniquely barren and silent retreat container: “This is amazing!” Followed by: “No this is terrible, get me out of here.” On retreat, the task is to achieve some level of equanimity during these ups and downs, which of course is also a task in life: learning to ride the rollercoaster of highs and lows with a smile, learning to dance with the craziness of life, learning to find some modicum of inner peace in a world which is so impermanent.

The Instructions: Be Aware of Consciousness

In previous posts I outlined the basic instruction of Vipassana practice.

The fundamental instruction of this particular retreat, which was geared towards experienced practitioners, was to maintain “Mindfulness of Consciousness.” The retreat drew upon Theravada Buddhist frameworks in general and Vipassana meditation instruction specifically for the first few days. Be aware of an object of concentration (e.g. the breath) in order to collect and unify the mind. On Day 3, the teachers instructed us to expand our practice into the broader field of awareness. Then become aware of the fact that you’re aware, and then further become aware of the fact that you’re aware of awareness.

It was very meta. And very inward looking. The idea is that by turning your mind inwards, you can become mindful of consciousness itself: its steady, mirror-like qualities. Consciousness is like clear, clean water — there is no flavor. In a big sky meditation, teacher Sally Armstrong instructed: “The mind is clear and empty, like a limitless sky. To see if this is so, look within your own mind.”

“Look within your own mind” is the quintessential Buddhist meditation instruction: you are told time and time again to observe and experience stuff first hand in order to come to conclusions. Do not accept claims on blind faith. This retreat sought to cultivate in us a subtle awareness of the steady capacity of knowing — to look within your own mind not just to notice the coming and going of thoughts and sensations, but to to observe the steadiness of consciousness itself.

One way to get at the nebulous feeling of consciousness was to feel “spaciousness.” We were frequently told to imagine endless space around us. To cultivate in your mind a sense of an endless horizon. Sally Armstrong quoted this line once: “She opened the clenched fist of her mind and fell into the midst of everything.” To fall into the midst of…everything. To feel spaciousness physically can enable you, the teaching suggested, to relax the intensity of the gaze in your own mind and take in a wider frame. If you soften your focus a bit, you’re able to relax into a state of being mindful of consciousness.

In one sense, this awareness of consciousness skill is supposed to be an “advanced” skill. You work on it only after several days of more straightforward concentration practice. And it’s a skill being taught on a retreat open only to those who had been on at least a couple retreats before (and about half the group of 90 people had been on more like 10+ silent retreats). And it’s a practice that, apparently, leads one to better knowledge of emptiness, a concept that’s definitely not in the beginner Buddhism cannon.

On the other hand, the instruction for being aware of awareness is so simple that many students think they are missing something. For example, we were told to ask ourselves: “Am I aware?” You answer yes, you rest in that awareness until that awareness breaks…and that’s it. Or, you visualize your palm facing outwards, and then the palm turning inwards toward your body. And that triggers your mind to turn inward and notice awareness. Or, you visualize a vast open sky, as your consciousness, and you notice anything hitting your sense doors or any thoughts as objects arising and falling, like fireworks, in the sky you have visualized in your mind.

I’m not sure how well I “got it” but once I sort of relinquished the idea that it was an especially difficult skill and instead took comfort in the straightforwardness of any of these instructions — I think I rested in awareness somewhat successfully. Guy Armstrong’s dharma talks in particular on emptiness were quite stimulating, but I can’t say I fully and deeply saw the connection between emptiness and awareness of consciousness.

The Pleasure of Perfect Stillness

It’s hard to convey the nature of the pleasure you feel when you’re perfectly still physically and mentally.

Sometimes, when sitting, I felt like my body was a 300 year old majestic mountain, anchored into the core of the earth and standing tall, not flinching in the wind. Perfectly solid yet with no clenched muscles.

Mentally, the majority of the time on retreat, the mind is as out of control as normal. But there are moments. Sometimes a sequence of moments that when strung together add up to an evenness of mind. Moments where whatever is happening is happening, and you’re in that moment exactly. No ambient noise or thoughts. Just the breath. Or just a specific sound or ache or a feeling.

As on previous retreats, this time, during mental stillness, I sometimes generated a visualization in my mind of my mind as so sharp, so in my control, that by merely directing the mind and my attention — as sharp as a razor — toward a glass window in my mind’s eye, the glass would shatter.

During one of Phillip Moffitt’s evening dharma talks, we were all sitting quietly and listening. It wasn’t formal meditation, but we were sitting silently in a meditation hall. There was occasional shifting of positions or sighs or coughs or what have you, as folks sat back after a long day to take in the final lecture. Then Phillip said, “Let’s all experience the next moment. Everyone just be still for this moment and then another moment.” Heeding the request, everyone in the hall ever so slightly erected their posture, froze their bodies, closed their eyes, and awoke to the present moment.

There was total stillness in the hall. It was quiet before. But now the silence was absolute and stretched perfectly taut from one end of the room to the other. After a few more moments, Phillip said, “Did you just feel that? Did you feel that wave of stillness roll through the room? I find that so nourishing.”

And I did. Stillness did sweep the room all at once, like fog rolling through the early evening of a San Francisco night, wetly kissing all its residents at once. I had never thought of stillness as nourishing before.

Deep Memories About One Place

I have now spent 30 days and 30 nights on the Spirit Rock campus. 30 exceptionally personal, intimate, intense days when time passed slowly and every little thing in the physical space around me came under microscopic presence.

The first thing you notice is the stunning natural beauty: wild turkeys, soaring hawks, salamanders, and assorted critters sharing the golden rolling hills.

Despite the vastness of the overall campus, your day to day experience mostly plays out on a finite number of paths and benches and walking paths in and around the dorm rooms, meditation hall, and dining hall.

You begin to develop associations with particular paths and benches. For example, on one of the trails, there’s a bench next to a differently shaped tree. Four years ago, during a concentration retreat, I sat on the bench and contemplated death. Really contemplated the inevitability of it. It was a powerful moment for me then. This time around I came upon that tree and that bench, having forgotten about my previous experience there, and it whipped me back in time.

Circular Habits of Mind

When you spend hours observing your mind, you notice patterns. One pattern I noticed on this retreat is that if I’m in a bad mood or if my mind gets trapped on a negative pattern, the mind inclines toward other topics for which I have built-up negativity. It bounces around from grievance to grievance, pet peeve to pet peeve, injustice to injustice. One after the other.

And if the agitated, negatively-inclined mind happens to hit upon a topic or person for whom I usually have warm feelings? The warmth is nowhere to be found, and I invent something negative.

How long do these cycles last normally? Well, in normal life, not very long. In part that’s because you have distractions. Turn to your phone. Turn on a show. Go attend a meeting in which you have to focus and put on a certain face — and push the negative thought cycle out of mind, at least temporarily.

In normal life, the most problematic time for these negative patterns to take over is at night, when trying to fall asleep. Or for me, it’s usually the middle of the night. I awaken at 2am and can’t fall back to asleep.

On retreat, when an agitated mind emerges, there are no distractions. Nothing to run towards. You have to sit there and take it. It’s the hardest part about a retreat, for me. People think it’s the not-talking-to-people that’s hard. Kind of — but not because you just miss talking so much. What you miss is the ability to distract yourself with socializing. Being alone with your thoughts is the hardest.

When you have nothing to do but observe the mental pattern, you realize its power. You wonder how often those thought patterns lurk in the subconscious, conspiring almost in secret to drag us down.

The ultimate goal of Vipassana practice, as once framed by Steve Armstrong, is to uproot these negative habits of mind by noticing them each time they emerge. And in the noticing, you become not so lost in them, and eventually, they become so weakened, they disappear altogether.

Speaking of patterns, it wasn’t all negative. Indeed, throughout any given day, most of my thoughts are neutral or positive, as I’m generally a reasonably happy person. The one spiky positive pattern I observed on retreat: my dog Oreo! It was interesting how prominently my dog Oreo featured in any thoughts that involved joy and happiness. I mean, he is the best boy, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising?

Softening the Gaze with Relaxed Effort

To meditate you need to be relaxed. It’s not uncommon for beginner or advanced meditators to forget this basic instruction. Meditators often find themselves grasping too hard to “achieve” something — effortfully trying to concentrate their mind, track the breath, track other objects, make something happen in their mind. Meditation masters will say that the more you try to make something happen, the tighter you grasp, the less likely you are to have the outcome you desire. Instead: Just sit. Just breathe. Soften your gaze. Don’t try to make anything happen.

You hear similar advice in sports. In sports, you hear coaches tell players to ease up, to back off, to loosen their grip on the bat, to “let the game come to them,” to loosen up, to remember to have fun. There’s something about applying too much effort that backfires.

It’s not advice you hear as much in the realm of business or management advice and I wonder why. It seems relevant. Sometimes we can become too wrapped up in a goal, in a project, in an analysis. We can be trying so hard to solve something, to fix something, to dissect a relationship, that our very focus on the outcome inhibits our ability to succeed.

Easier said than done, of course. To relax our focus, to soften our gaze, to let some of our emotional energy around the issue arise and then pass away. Less grasping, more fluidity. It’s counterintuitive to think that if we think less about something, if we try less hard, somehow we could realize a better outcome. I wrote about this in a previous post about a retreat: “receptive effort.”

Simple Living

One of my fears anytime I upgrade my standard of living is: Will I ever be able to go back? If I become accustomed to three star hotels, can I stay again at a two star hotel? If I upgrade to a nice SUV car, can I ever again be comfortable driving a small compact?

You learn on retreat that you can, in fact, live simply. My little dorm room was perfectly adequate. The suitcase of clothes was plenty. I loved my little in-room sink for brushing my teeth, and the shared bathroom was no big deal. How or why do I sometimes think I need 5 different sweatshirts to choose from when just one will do?

Joseph Goldstein: “We feel pleasant unworldly feelings on retreat, in the renunciation of our familiar comforts. We begin to enjoy the beauty of simplicity… When I go on retreat, it is so clear that everything I need is right in my small room, and when I think of my regular life, it seems so cluttered by comparison.”

An Easy Yogi Job

When you first arrive for a retreat at Spirit Rock, you get assigned a chore on campus — your “work meditation” or “yogi job.” The chores range from cleaning dishes in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, scrubbing toilets, taking out trash bins, vacuuming rooms, and so on.

My first time at Spirit Rock I got assigned pot cleaning duty in the kitchen. I had never worked in a commercial kitchen before, so it was an experience. I washed hundreds of dishes and pots and pans and equipment every day after lunch. As I wrote about in my post about that retreat, a fellow pot cleaner wrote me a nice card and handed it to me on the last day: “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.”

My second retreat there I got assigned bathroom cleaning duty in our dorm room. Every day for an hour I scrubbed toilets and cleaned the shower area.

Both were “hard” jobs, as far as yogi jobs go.

This time, after checking in, the staffer scanned his sheet for the available jobs: “Let’s see, it’s mostly bathrooms and kitchen duty at this point…well, it looks like there’s courtyard sweeping available too. Which would you like?”

I tried to keep a poker face. Courtyard sweeping — moving the leaves off the grounds right in front of the meditation hall, as photographed above — I could do at any time during the day, solo. It was an ideal gig, I thought. So much easier than the other gigs. But I didn’t want to seem too greedy, too self-interested when signing in for… a Buddhist meditation retreat. “Ok, well let’s see,” I told the volunteer, in an even, wannabe reflective tone, “Previous retreats I did toilet scrubbing and dish cleaning. Maybe I’ll try courtyard sweeping this time.” So it was assigned, and I was thrilled, and also somewhat amused with myself for how I felt the need to posture to the volunteer check-in coordinator about my previous good deeds.

Then something interesting happened. I found the courtyard sweeping job a dud — way less satisfying than my two previous jobs. While indeed easy and simple, it did not feel useful. There were precious few leafs to actually sweep off the courtyard. Scrubbing toilets involved grime, but I knew how much I appreciated a clean toilet in the dorm, and it felt satisfying to keep the bathroom clean for my housemates.

No Sleep, No Problem

I don’t do great on low sleep. That’s a truth, borne from experience, that I have never questioned. But I wonder if that’s a story that’s overly hardened in my head?

My most disastrous day of the retreat was about midway through. I didn’t sleep well the night before. I was up for hours in the middle of the night, including from 12am midnight until 4:50am, with my mind racing in every which direction (ironic, I know, being on a retreat). By that time, I knew I’d be woken again by the 5:30am wake up bell. I then did something I’ve never done before: I got out of bed and took a Tylenol PM at 4:50am. I sometimes take TyP when I travel or if I’ve had several rough nights of sleep, just to lock in a solid night’s sleep when I feel like I need it. But I always take it earlier in the evening because if it enters my body too late it can cause drowsiness the next morning. Taking it at 4:50am seemed crazy but I was desperate for sleep and concerned about losing a whole day of a retreat to sleep-deprivation. It knocked me out for about 90 mins. I awoke at 8am.

I missed the early morning sit and breakfast. I threw on my sweatpants and hustled down to the dining hall to grab a couple soft boiled eggs that were left in the fridge. I felt tired, groggy, and grumpy. I rolled into the meditation hall at 8:30am for the guided sit.

Then something funny happened. I had a series of excellent sits and walks. I felt tired, a bit, but not too bad. I felt concentrated. I felt aware. And my day kind of unfolded rather nicely.

It made me wonder: Do I stress too much about getting a bad night of sleep? Being stressed about getting enough sleep can inhibit your ability to get sleep, for sure — there’s a weird feedback loop. So it’d be nice if the reality of my experience is that I can manage on low sleep, at least if it’s not too many days in a row.

What Would a Virtue Bootcamp Look Like?

If I had access to a facility as beautiful as Spirit Rock, and had 10 days of my life blocked off, what other worthy spiritual or intellectual adventures could one construct? In other words, could you craft something around developing virtue and wisdom, via lectures and discussions and some meditation and some reading, where the experts or books come from a range of spiritual and intellectual traditions? What would a “virtue bootcamp” look like?

Intentions vs. Goals

A teacher once said on this retreat: “Trust your intention when you signed up for the retreat.” It made me think: What was my intention with the retreat?

I don’t really think about “intentions” but in re-reading some of Phillips’ writings, I found the distinctions below, as described in his book, helpful:

Living from your intentions is quite different from living from your goals. It is not oriented toward achieving a future outcome. Instead it is a path of practice that is focused on how you are being in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present now in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions by understanding what matters most to you and making a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.

Cultivating intention does not mean you abandon goals. You continue to use them, but they exist within a larger context of meaning that offers the possibility of peace beyond the fluctuations caused by pain and pleasure, gain and loss. Goals help you find your place in the world and make you an effective person. But being grounded in intention is what provides integrity and unity in your life.

Students often ask me whether values and intentions are the same thing. In my view, values come from understanding what is important to you and are part of your personal philosophy, whereas intentions are the application of your values in daily life. You have an array of values that extends into all aspects of your life. For example, you may value loyalty in friendship, earning an honest living, individual privacy, self-understanding, living a certain lifestyle, etc. You also have a core set of intentions that are based on your values and with which you want to meet every moment of your life, such as integrity, compassion, not causing harm to others, being accountable, and so forth. So if one of your values is self-understanding, it is through your intentions of practicing integrity and accountability that you manifest the wisdom that you gain from self-understanding.

In Buddhist psychology, your path to well-being begins with understanding the values you want to live by (your intentions) and the direction you want your life to go in (your goals).

Your values and intentions form the foundation of your inner priorities. So in setting inner priorities, you are specifying how you wish to feel inside no matter what you are doing. Begin by naming your values and intentions and reflecting on what brings you peace of mind and joy. Acknowledging that you are a work in progress, set reasonable priorities that are truly possible for you to live out in daily life. As best you’re able, rank your inner priorities on a scale of 1–3, with 1 being your most important priorities and so forth.

“I Feel the Sincerity”

Throughout the course of a retreat you have an opportunity to meet with teachers 1:1 a couple times. In my first meeting, I shared a question that I won’t repeat here.

The teacher, after talking for a bit, paused and looked me dead in the eye: “I feel the sincerity of your question.”

No one has ever said that to me before. That they feel my sincerity. For some reason that line is still ringing in my memory as I look back on the retreat.

The Best Version of Yourself

A silent meditation retreat isn’t real life. Not even close. The physical setting and conditions are hard to replicate in normal life and indeed, even establishing a regular meditation practice at home after retreat is not made dramatically easier just because you’ve been on retreat.

So what’s the lasting benefit of a retreat? A significant part of it, for me, is that you see the best version of yourself on retreat. You will likely be as peaceful, as compassionate, as level headed on a silent meditation retreat as you will be anytime else in your life. You’re not like this all the time on the retreat. Just for moments.

In the same way that mindfulness practice leads to moments of genuine freedom, in the Buddhist sense of that word, going on retreat leads to moments where you catch a glimpse of what your best self looks like. What the best version of your mind looks like: clear, stable, collected, radiant.

It’s a benchmark against which to compare other moments. It’s a true north. It’s a version of yourself that you know is possible.

N.B. I’ve organized all my blog posts on meditation retreats and Buddhist into this one long page. If you’re new, you can read that page for more context on my journey to date, my summary of the Buddhist argument, and my experiences at other long retreats.

Book Notes: The Mind Illuminated

The best practical guide on meditation I’ve ever read, as informed by a Buddhist understanding but written in exactingly clear and precise English, is The Mind Illuminated by John Yates and Matthew Immergut. I first read it several years ago at Russ Roberts’ recommendation, and re-read it for a second time recently. There is a great deal of commentary on the book that you can find online, including an entire subreddit dedicated to the book’s approach to instruction. I’ll include below direct quotes from my Kindle highlights that I think helpfully define some traditionally hard-to-define concepts. I appreciated the distinction between attention and awareness, which I bolded below liberally. It’s a powerful idea to internalize. Highly recommended to beginner or advanced meditators alike who seek very concrete instructions.


For your personal reality to be created purposefully, rather than haphazardly, you must understand your mind. But the kind of understanding required isn’t just intellectual, which is ineffective by itself. Like a naturalist studying an organism in its habitat, we need to develop an intuitive understanding of our mind. This only comes from direct observation and experience.

The Insights called vipassanā are not intellectual. Rather, they are experientially based, deeply intuitive realizations that transcend, and ultimately shatter, our commonly held beliefs and understandings. The five most important of these are Insights into impermanence, emptiness, the nature of suffering, the causal interdependence of all phenomena, and the illusion of the separate self (i.e., “no-Self”).

Willpower can’t prevent the mind from forgetting the breath. Nor can you force yourself to become aware that the mind is wandering. Instead, just hold the intention to appreciate the “aha” moment that recognizes mind-wandering, while gently but firmly redirecting attention back to the breath. Then, intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness.

Attention and awareness are two different ways of knowing the world. Attention singles out some small part of the field of conscious awareness to analyze and interpret it. Peripheral awareness provides the overall context for conscious experience.

“Concentration” as a concept is rather vague, and in danger of being misinterpreted or of having meditation students bring their own preconceived ideas to it. I prefer to use the more accurate and useful term, “stable attention.” It’s more descriptive of what we’re actually trying to do in meditation.

Now, sustaining attention is trickier than directing attention. Why? It’s possible to voluntarily direct attention. However, the part of the mind that sustains attention for more than a few moments works entirely unconsciously. We can’t use our will to control how long we remain focused on one thing. Instead, an unconscious process weighs the importance of what we’re focusing on against other possible objects of attention.

Throughout the Stages, you use conscious intention to train the unconscious mind in a variety of ways. The correct use of intention can also transform bad habits, undo incorrect views, and cultivate healthier perspectives. In short, skillfully applying conscious intention can completely restructure the mind and transform who we are. This is the very essence of meditation: we reprogram unconscious mental processes by repeating basic tasks over and over with a clear intention.

But with sati, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way. This is because having sati actually means that you’re more fully conscious and alert than normal. As a result, our peripheral awareness is much stronger, and our attention is used with unprecedented precision and objectivity. A more accurate but clumsy-sounding phrase would be “powerfully effective conscious awareness,” or “fully conscious awareness.” I use the word “mindfulness” because people are familiar with it. However, by “mindfulness,” I specifically mean the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness, which requires increasing the overall conscious power of the mind. Let’s unpack this definition.

Attention has a very specific job. It picks out one object from the general field of conscious awareness, then analyzes and interprets that object….Peripheral awareness, on the other hand, works very differently. Instead of singling out one object for analysis, it involves a general awareness of everything our senses take

Peripheral awareness allows us to respond more effectively by giving us information about the background and context of our experience—where we are, what’s happening around us, what we’re doing, and why (e.g., not mistaking the rope for a snake, since we’re in Alaska, and it’s winter).

Attention analyzes our experience, and peripheral awareness provides the context.

Any new sensation, thought, or feeling appears first in peripheral awareness. It is here that the mind decides whether or not something is important enough to become an object of attention. Peripheral awareness filters out unimportant information and “captures” the objects that deserve closer scrutiny by attention. This is why specific objects can seem to pop out of peripheral awareness to become the objects of attention. Attention will also browse the objects in peripheral awareness, searching for something relevant or important, or just more entertaining, to examine.

As attention hones in on something, peripheral awareness is alert and on the lookout for anything new or unusual. When awareness takes in something that might be of interest, it frees attention from its current object and redirects it toward the new object. Say you’re engrossed in a conversation while walking when, out of the corner of your eye, you notice a shape moving toward you. Peripheral awareness alerts attention, which quickly processes the information, “We’re in the bike lane and a biker is heading straight for us!” So you grab your friend and step out of the way.

Fortunately, not every experience needs to be analyzed. Otherwise, attention would be quite overwhelmed. Peripheral awareness takes care of many things without invoking attention, such as brushing a fly away from your face while you’re eating lunch. Attention can certainly be involved with brushing the fly away, as well as with other small things, like choosing what to eat next on your plate. But there are simply too many basic tasks that don’t require attention.

On its own, attention usually involves a strong concern for “self.” This makes sense, considering that part of attention’s job is to evaluate the importance of things in terms of our personal well-being. But it also means that objects of attention can be easily distorted by desire, fear, aversion, and other emotions. Attention not only interprets objects based on self-interest, it leads us to identify with external objects (this is “my” car), or mental states (“I am” angry, happy, etc.). Peripheral awareness is less “personal” and takes things in more objectively “as they are.” External objects, feeling states, and mental activities, rather than being identified with, appear in peripheral awareness as part of a bigger picture. We may be peripherally aware, for example, that some annoyance is arising. This is very different from having the thought, “I am annoyed.” Strong peripheral awareness helps tone down the self-centered tendencies of attention, making perception more objective. But when peripheral awareness fades, the way we perceive things becomes self-centered and distorted.

Also, because attention works by isolating objects, it cannot observe overall states of the mind. If you do turn your attention introspectively, it takes a “snapshot” from peripheral awareness of your mental state right before you looked. Say someone asks, “How do you feel?” When you look inside, attention tries to transform awareness of your overall mental state into a specific conceptual thought, like, “I am happy.”

Why aren’t we naturally more mindful? Why does mindfulness have to be cultivated? There are two main reasons. First, most of us have never really learned to use peripheral awareness effectively. Second, we don’t have enough conscious power to sustain mindfulness, especially at the times when we need it most.

The first of these two problems I describe as “awareness deficit disorder.” This means a chronic lack of awareness due to overusing attention. Most people overuse attention because it’s under direct conscious control and peripheral awareness isn’t.

Think of consciousness as a limited power source. Both attention and awareness draw their energy from this shared source. With only a limited amount of energy available for both, there will always be a trade-off between the two. When attention focuses intensely on an object, the field of conscious awareness begins to contract, and peripheral awareness of the background fades. Intensify that focus enough, and the context and guidance provided by peripheral awareness disappears completely. In this state, awareness can no longer ensure that attention is directed to where it’s most necessary and beneficial. This is like wearing blinders or having tunnel vision. We simply don’t have enough conscious power to continue to be aware of our surroundings while focusing so intently on the object.

Because attention and awareness draw from the same limited capacity for consciousness, when one grows brighter the other becomes dimmer, resulting in suboptimal performance and loss of mindfulness.

The goal, therefore, is to increase the total power of consciousness available for both attention and awareness. The result is peripheral awareness that is clearer, and attention that gets used more appropriately: purposefully, in the present moment, and without becoming bogged down in judgment and projection.

Increasing the power of consciousness isn’t a mysterious process. It’s a lot like weight training. You simply do exercises where you practice sustaining close attention and strong peripheral awareness at the same time. This is the only way to make consciousness more powerful. The more vivid you can make your attention while still sustaining awareness, the more power you will gain.

The goal isn’t just getting to a calm, quiet pool, but learning about the makeup of the water itself as it goes from choppy to still, from cloudy to crystal-clear.

Because of these different qualities, the breath is used as the basis for the practice of Tranquility and Insight (śamatha-vipassanā), dry Insight practices (sukkha-vipassanā), and meditative absorptions (jhāna).

Keep your attention on the area where the breath sensations are clearest. Don’t try to follow the air as it moves into the body or out of your nose. Just observe the sensations from the air passing over the spot where you’re focusing your attention. Remember, the meditation object is the sensations of the breath, not the breath itself.

Interestingly, what you consider the start and end of a breath cycle matters. We automatically tend to regard the beginning as the inhale and the pause after the exhale as the end. However, if you’re thinking about the breath in that way, then that pause becomes the perfect opportunity for your thoughts to wander off, since the mind naturally tends to shift focus when it has completed a task. Instead, try this: consider the beginning of the out-breath as the start of the cycle. That way, the pause occurs in the middle of your cycle, and is less likely to trip you up. This may seem like a small detail, but it often makes a difference. Another approach is to silently say the number during the pause at the end of the out-breath. This “fills the gap” and helps keep the mind on task.

Even if you use a meditation object other than the breath, counting is still a wonderful way to transition from daily activities into a more focused, meditative state. Just as with Pavlov’s dogs, the mind becomes conditioned over time to counting as a sign to start meditating, and it will automatically calm down.

The best antidote to this kind of agitation is to take up the practice of virtue. When we behave virtuously, we don’t create further causes for Remorse or Worry. But what is virtue? I don’t mean morality in the sense of adhering to an external standard demanded by a deity or other authority. Nor do I mean ethics, as in following a system of rules that prescribe the best way to act. Both moral principles and ethical codes can be followed blindly without necessarily having to resolve your own bad mental habits. Rather, virtue is the practice of inner purification, which results in good behavior.

Also, avoid becoming annoyed or self-critical about mind-wandering. It doesn’t matter that your mind wandered. What’s important is that you realized it.

Beginning meditators often try to stabilize attention by focusing intensely on the breath and pushing everything else out of awareness. Don’t do this. Don’t try to limit peripheral awareness. Instead, to cultivate mindfulness, do just the opposite—allow sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings to continue in the background.

The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice. While this isn’t always easy, a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert.

When you find the mind agitated and there are more distractions, ask yourself: Is the breath longer or shorter, deeper or shallower, finer or coarser than when the mind is calm? What about the length or depth of the breath during a spell of drowsiness? Do states of agitation, distraction, concentration, and dullness affect the out-breath more or in a different way than they do the in-breath? Do they affect the pause before the in-breath more or less than they affect the pause before the out-breath? In making these kinds of comparisons, you’re not just investigating the breath to sharpen and stabilize your attention. You’re also learning another way to detect and become more fully aware of subtle and changing states of mind.

Unconscious conditioning is like a collection of invisible programs. These programs were set in motion, often long ago, by conscious experiences. Our reaction to those experiences—our thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions—may have been appropriate at the time. The problem is they have become programmed patterns, submerged in the unconscious, that don’t change. They lie dormant until they’re triggered by something in the present.

Thus people who have cultivated mindfulness are more attuned and less reactive. They have greater self-control and self-awareness, better communication skills and relationships, clearer thinking and intentions, and more resilience to change.

Whenever some event triggers one of our “invisible programs,” we have the chance to apply mindfulness to the situation so our unconscious conditioning can get reprogrammed. Anytime we’re truly mindful of our reactions and their consequences, it can alter the way we will react in the future. Every time we experience a similar situation, our emotional reactions will get weaker and be easier to let go of.

In particular, the thoughts, feelings, and memories we associate with a sense of self are seen more objectively, revealing themselves to be constantly changing, impersonal, and often contradictory processes occurring in different parts of the mind.

As you “look beyond” the meditation object, don’t just look at the content of peripheral awareness. Become aware of the activities of the mind itself: movements of attention; the way thoughts, feelings, and other mental objects arise and pass away in peripheral awareness; and any changes in the clarity or vividness of perception. By using the breath as an anchor while you mindfully observe the mind, you’re “watching the mind while the mind watches the breath.” This is metacognitive introspective awareness…

You want to create some objective distance from these unpleasant emotions. Verbalizations are important for this. If you have the thought, “I am angry,” replace it with the thought, “Anger is arising.” This kind of rephrasing isn’t just useful to avoid getting tangled up in emotions. It’s simply more accurate. You’re not these feelings. There is no self in emotions. Remember that, like everything else, emotions arise due to specific causes and conditions, and pass away when their causes disappear. Do your best to dissociate from these emotions, keeping the role of an objective observer, even though that can be challenging.

No matter the emotion, your goal is always the same: acknowledge, allow, and accept. As meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “It’s not what we are feeling that’s important, but how we relate to it that matters.” Let the emotion just be until it goes away. Sometimes it will simply disappear. Other times, it will remain, but become less intense.

It’s simple: any moment of consciousness—whether it’s a moment of seeing, hearing, thinking, etc.—takes the form of either a moment of attention, or a moment of peripheral awareness. Consider a moment of seeing. It could be either a moment of seeing as part of attention, or a moment of seeing as part of peripheral awareness.

The second aspect of metacognitive awareness is being cognizant of the state of your mind. This refers to its clarity and alertness, the predominant emotion, hedonic feelings, and the intentions driving your mental activity. In everyday terms, you’re aware of being patient or annoyed, alert or dull, focused or distracted, obsessively focused or mindfully

You cultivate metacognitive introspective awareness by intending to objectively observe the activities and state of the mind. This means that you intend to know, moment by moment, the movements of attention, the quality of perception, and whether your scope is stable or expanding to include distractions. Are thoughts present in peripheral awareness, and if so, are they verbal or nonverbal? Is the mind restless, agitated, or relaxed? Is it joyful, or perhaps impatient?

That aversion opposes pleasure should not come as a surprise. It’s harder to feel pleasure when we’re angry, and harder to stay angry when we’re feeling pleasure and happiness. But there’s more to it than that, because aversion is a cause of pain, as well as an effect.

When you know that you’re remembering something, in the sense that you’re aware of a memory coming up in the background, that’s actually part of present-moment awareness. Likewise, being aware that discursive thoughts are coming up in the background, or even being aware that you had been engaged with those thoughts just a moment before, is part of being fully present.

Mindfulness with clear comprehension also has two other important aspects. The first is clear comprehension of purpose, which means being metacognitively aware of why you’re doing, saying, thinking, and feeling whatever it is that you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. The second is clear comprehension of suitability—of whether or not what you are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling is appropriate to this particular situation, to your goals and purposes, and in accordance with your personal beliefs and values.

10 Year Anniversary Edition of Startup of You

This week, Reid and I were delighted to release a new edition of our career strategy guide The Startup of You. 10 years since the original publication in 2012, much in the world of work has changed — and the revised and updated edition includes advice on how to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic economy. Of any of the writing we’ve worked on together or separately, I think The Startup of You has had some of the deepest emotional resonance with people because it hits on such fundamental questions: What should I do with my life? What type of career should I build? How do I balance competing motivations? What are strategies for having success in the workplace in all the key tactical areas like building a network, establishing a personal brand, taking risks?

In future posts, I’ll write a bit more about some of the specific additions in the new edition! In the meantime, feel free to pick up the book from Amazon or wherever you get your books.

Reid and I hosting a book launch event this week.

The Interdependence of Animals and the Human Kingdom

Lawrence Wright, a writer I’ll read no matter the topic, has new piece in the New Yorker “The Elephant in the Courtroom” that explores whether an elephant in the Bronx zoo should be granted personhood legal rights. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the state of animal rights more generally. And it includes sentences like the following which will tug at the heart of anyone who has one:

Orcas have no natural predators, other than humans, and yet one population in the Pacific Northwest is critically endangered—at last count, it had only seventy-three residents. They are threatened by overfishing, pollution, and noise disturbance from boats that interferes with echolocation, which they use to forage. A new calf was born in 2018—thought to be the first in three years—but lived for less than a day. The grieving mother, surrounded by other females in her pod, carried the calf’s body with her for seventeen days, across a thousand miles of ocean. It would be going too far to say that the mother knew her loss was a step toward the extinction of her community, but it might also be going too far to say that she didn’t.

I’ve become a lot more interested in these topics over the years. As Wright points out, as pet ownership has boomed in America, our natural affinity towards animals has risen in turn. Having a dog myself (his name is Oreo and he is very good, as you can tell from the photo below) has certainly made me more attuned to the potential richness of the inner life of animals, more sympathetic to animal rights causes, more interested in learning more about endangered species around the world.

Social media has also magnified scenes of animals at their best and perhaps caused a greater attention to animal welfare. We can’t get enough of cute animal pics and videos which go viral on the regular on TikTok and Instagram and the like — especially if it’s two different species of animals who have become “friends”. I find myself frequently binging on Instagram reels of dogs.

But the most likely transformative event in one’s journey toward love of animals is visiting them in the wild. Recently, I was lucky to visit many endangered animals in the wild in some unforgettable places:

  • Arabian oryx in the deserts of UAE, which have an interesting conservation story. (By the way, the Al Maha hotel is pretty spectacular and an easy 60 minute Uber ride from downtown Dubai.)
  • Mountain gorillas in Uganda. Two days of trekking to visit with two different families of our closest cousins. Worth doing if you’re under ~50 years old — strenuous hikes, but unforgettable. And there are only 1000 mountain gorillas left in Uganda/Rwanda/Congo.
  • Various epic wildlife in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, including black rhinos. (If you haven’t already read Sam Anderson’s amazing piece about the last Northern White Rhino, you should.)
  • Dizzying array of fish and coral in the Seychelles islands

So many beautiful scenes. And also so many tragic stories of poaching and human-caused destruction of natural habitat. I hope to learn more in the years ahead and learn how to make a positive difference.

Book Review: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

There’s a Franzen-sized hole in our reading lives that gets filled about once every eight years — that’s how Dwight Garner put it about Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Crossroads.

What is the hole Franzen fills when he publishes a new novel?

Among other things, our desire for piercing insight into all matters of the American family. Crossroads, Franzen’s latest, is as absorbing on that topic as in any of his previous work that I’ve read. (Here are my reviews of Purity and Freedom, both of which I enjoyed tremendously, and my quotes from his non-fiction essay collection How to Be Alone.) Crossroads is a tour de force: utterly vivid characters, dynamic plot development, gorgeous – seemingly effortless – prose styling.

As he tracks one set of family dynamics, various themes or sub-themes run through the plot:

  • Religion. “Crossroads” is the name of the Christian youth group around which the plot is anchored. The pastors’ struggle to uphold basic religious precepts introduces persistent hypocrisy throughout the story. Yet in their frequent returning to religion and being present with the “feeling” of God, faith for the couple at the center of the book somehow comes off as a source of continual redemption — a true north for goodness.
  • The self-absorption of individual family members. The story gets told, chapter by chapter, from alternating perspectives. In this way you see how self-absorbed each person is as the same plot unfolds from each of their perspectives. They’re so in their heads and they’re so unaware of what others are doing or thinking. Their interest in each other slides along the surface in a self-interested way; there’s not a lot of apparent fundamental empathy.
  • Grass is greener on the other side. As husband and wife pursue affairs and the children pursue travel or drugs or other acts of rebellion, you get the sense that everyone sees contentment on the other side of their current reality. There’s a persistent dissatisfaction.
  • Approval-seeking adults surrounded by teenagers. The pastors who oversee the youth group crave the kids’ validation and fight for it in all sorts of amusing ways. The parents crave the approval of their kids — much more so than the reverse.
  • A high IQ person’s drug addiction. One character in the book seems modeled on David Foster Wallace (the person) in multiple ways (recall Franzen and DFW’s friendship). The scenes where this character gets high or drunk while still being exceptionally articulate are some of the best moments of the book. You really get a sense of the “the pulsing nowness” of a high, to his use phrase.

Here are some of my highlighted quotes from the novel — all direct quotes:


…on his bad days he was unable not to do things he would later regret. It was almost as if he did them because he would later regret them. Writhing with retrospective shame, abasing himself in solitude, was how he found his way back to God’s mercy.

Her father was like a cross maker, only worse. His earnest faith and sanctity were an odor that had forever threatened to adhere to her, like the smell of Chesterfields, only worse, because it couldn’t be washed off.

Her father’s heart might have had room for two daughters if the first one, Shirley, hadn’t filled it inordinately. His obsessionality (the dumpling’s word) served him well in his business, Western All-Sport, to which he devoted sixty and seventy hours a week, but at home it served to make Marion feel invisible. Ruben’s darling was Shirley. When he happened to look at Marion directly, it was often to ask, “Where’s your sister?” Shirley was the really pretty one, even as an infant, and took his adoration as her due. On Christmas morning, she didn’t tear through her immense haul of presents with a normal child’s greed. She unwrapped them like a wary retailer, carefully inspecting each of them for flaws of manufacture, and sorted them by category, as if checking them against a mental invoice. The repeated chiming of her voice—“Thank you Daddy”—was like the chinging of a cash register. Marion took refuge from the excess by absorbing herself in a single doll, a single toy, while her mother yawned with open boredom.

“What I said to her was—I said that marriage is a blessing but can also be a struggle. That the enemy in a long relationship is boredom. That sometimes there’s not enough love in a marriage to overcome that boredom.

Russ knew he was being childish, but his hurt and hatred had a horizonless totality, unrelieved by adult perspective, and beneath them was the sweetness of being thrown upon God’s mercy: of making himself so alone and so wretched that only God could love him.

The image of Marion’s dewy dark eyes, her kiss-inviting mouth, her narrow waist and slender neck and fine-boned wrists, had come buzzing, like a huge and never resting hornet, into the formerly chaste chamber of his soul. Neither the imagined fires of Hell nor the very real prospect of breaking with his brethren could still the buzzing of that hornet.

Doris Haefle had a grossly inflated sense of the importance of a pastor’s wife, was sensitive to every slight to it, and therefore, because the world didn’t share her regard for the role, existed in a state of perpetual grievance. Among the crosses she bore was being married to a pastor who ironically deprecated his own role. For Marion, the miserable thing was that she, too, was a pastor’s wife and thus, in Doris’s view, worthy of the highest respect. She had to endure not only Doris’s unsolicited suggestions on how to comport herself, in her exalted role, but the unfailingly tender manner in which she offered them. It was awkward to be called dear by a person you felt like calling insufferable bitch.

“Thank you, all. Thank you. I’m afraid we only have time for one more song.” Toby paused for expressions of disappointment, and someone in the audience politely moaned. Toby had an unctuous sensitive-guy sincerity, a self-pleasuring way of smiling when he sang, that never failed to make Clem’s skin crawl.

The dress had slipped down her shoulder without exposing a bra strap. The skin of her upper back, which he’d never seen before, was smooth and lightly freckled. It, too, was real, and it gave him a pang of nostalgia for the safety of his fantasies.

And yet, when he thought of doing God’s will, at the cost of his week with Frances on the mesa, he felt unbearably sorry for himself. It was strange that self-pity wasn’t on the list of deadly sins; none was deadlier.

It took more than an hour to go around the circle, and Russ wasn’t Ambrose. He didn’t have limitless patience with the self-drama of adolescents, the Crossroads-encouraged inflation of emotional scrapes into ambulance-worthy traumas. He himself was upset, but his fault gave him the right to be, and although he’d asked to hear from everyone, because this was the Crossroads way, it tried his patience to sit in a world of real social injustice, real suffering, and make such an opera of the theft of two guitars, easily replaceable by their owners’ parents.

The letter was like a match struck in the dark.

How quickly, once clothes had been shed, the wildly unmentionable became the casually discussable. It was like being whisked to a different planet.

Her enthusiasm sounded effortful, and when he called her that night, calendar in hand, their search for a mutually workable date had a flavor of dreary obligation.

The pressure that was lately always in her head, the loneliness and something less definable, a low-grade dread, was balanced by her outward composure. She was a girl interesting enough to herself to sit alone, pretty enough to draw glances from men walking by with their families, tough enough that no one bothered her for long, and smart enough to know that being discovered while sitting on a bench was just a daydream.