Impressions of Vietnam and Taiwan

(Hoi An – Photo Source)

I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Vietnam (Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City) and Taiwan (Taipei). Wonderful trip. Here are some impressions:

Vietnam generally:

  • Vietnamese people are obsessed with food. We were told that the average person eats more than three times a day. And in between eating sessions, they discuss past and upcoming meals. A country where the locals are obsessed with food means culinary delights await tourists — so if you visit, prepare to eat your way through the country. Where in Vietnam you’re traveling will bear on your food experience. It turns out that the Vietnamese people are highly regional in their tastes. More than one Vietnamese person said she can’t stand the food in other parts of her country; indeed, she and others bring coolers of food with them when they travel domestically. (I saw several of coolers at the airport in the domestic terminal.)
  • How to tell whether one of the innumerable side-of-the-road food stalls/mini restaurants is a good one? One food tour guide offered this tip: look for dirtied, used up napkins on the ground underneath the tables. Locals will toss their used napkins on the ground, and a surplus of them on the ground indicates that a) there have been many customers at the establishment, b) the cook has been so busy cooking that she hasn’t had time to go pick up all the trash.
  • For large people like myself, eating at the side of the road produced an amusing visual given the chairs seem to be made for kindergartners — they’re truly miniature.
  • The Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War — or “The American War” as they know it in Vietnam — is incredibly informative. Haven’t finished the whole thing yet but well worth watching before traveling to Vietnam.
  • Americans who travel to Vietnam tend to have the War as a primary frame of reference. For baby boomers especially, cities like Da Nang recall memories of events from the war. I’d guess that visiting Vietnam is partly an exercise of morbid curiosity for American baby boomers. For me — the war was before my time — Da Nang is simply the airport you fly in to in order to visit Hoi An. By contrast, among many Vietnamese people themselves, the War is mostly old news. Of the 100 million people in the country, ~25% of them are under age 18. There seems to be very much a look-forward mentality among the young.
  • Vietnam is known for being cheap for U.S. dollar holders and we felt that almost every time we tried to spend money. $20 for 90 minute massages. A solid lunch would cost a few bucks. Manicures and pedicures for mere dollars.

Hoi An — A lovely small town on the coast, that’s peaceful and safe and boasts good food and 200+ tailors that make cheap custom clothing.

  • This food tour in Hoi An was excellent.
  • Our guide joked that men in Vietnam are very lazy. She then pointed out that at each cafe, in the middle of the day during the workweek, you’d see dozens of men sitting in the outdoor cafe smoking cigarettes and staring at their phones. It was true. In Vietnam claim about war being reason men flushed from workforce, and then women took over, and stayed in charge of the house.
  • The regional noodle dish (is it a type of pho?) is Cao Lao and it was excellent. The water for car lao comes from a well in the area that’s 1,000 years old. If the water isn’t from that well, it’s not cao lao. Or so the story goes.
  • A few years ago, Anthony Bourdain traveled to Hoi An, ate a Bahn Mi sandwich at a local place, and declared it the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam. Today, that restaurant has a line that circles the block. We didn’t go in but it made me wonder: Is that Bahn mi actually the best? Was Bourdain just in a good mood when he ate it? How many sandwiches did he really try in the country?
  • The old town is lovely if a bit noisy with all the scooters honking, but bike a few blocks outside town, and you’re in the real Hoi An. Bike a little further out and you’re in remote rice paddy fields and corn fields, where chickens run around and stray dogs roam amid the peace and quiet.
  • There are 200+ tailors in Hoi An who make custom fitting clothes for you. It’s the most famous tourist activity in the town and deservedly so. The tailor experience was professional, the clothes cheap but high quality, and of course all custom fitting. I got a suit, a few dress shirts, a blazer, and trousers — all for cheap and all fit to my body.
  • Being in Hoi An for Christmas was kind of funny. The country is 90% Buddhist; no one around us seemed to celebrate Christmas. The hotel informed all guests that there was a “compulsory Christmas Eve dinner” that would cost $110 USD per person (!). At the dinner buffet, there was a huge ice sculpture that spelled the word: “X-Mas”. Tinny Christmas music on the speaker system. And staff kept saying “Merry Tristmas” — I guess because ‘Ch’ is hard to pronounce. Reminded of the podcast episode about the factory in China that manufactures most of the stuff found in American dollar stores, including Santa Claus trinkets. There was a line about one of the workers in the factory, surrounded by Santa Claus figurines seven days a week, marveling at Americans’ obsession with someone who apparently is a kind, portly man.

Ho Chi Minh City – The commercial center of Vietnam in the south.

  • In the relative calm of Hoi An, some other travelers mentioned that HCMC was crazy loud and chaotic given the number of scooters and their penchant for ignoring street lights. “Try crossing the sidewalk and not getting killed by a scooter,” one traveler said. Perhaps because of that expectation-setting, HCMC seemed much more livable than I expected. Yes, there are a thousand scooters a second whizzing by when you try to cross the street, but it’s manageable, especially in the more built up neighborhoods.
  • Pizza in Vietnam? Two foodies recommended 4 P’s Pizza in HCMC. Japanese-inspired pizza where all the cheese — not easily found in Vietnam — is homemade. It was delicious.
  • The food/motorbike tour of the city was a hoot. College kids take you around on scooter (you ride behind them) and you visit all their favorite local haunts. Felt like a very authentic way to see the city through a young person’s eyes, and eat some delicious street food.
  • Preferring more “active” / adventure travel to museums or buses, we did a bike/kayak tour in the Mekong Delta area, biking through the rural backroads, and riding in a boat through the floating markets — it was an awesome way to see this part of Vietnam and get a workout in at the same time. A small highlight: Throughout the day, anytime we passed young kids on bike, they’d yell out “Hello!” while standing on the street watching us. They had a giant grin on their faces — they seemed genuinely fired up to see us westerners in the area.
    • The floating markets are going away. Used to be top tourist attraction of the Mekong Delta — to see the locals buy and sell on the markets. Now it’s just tourists who cruise by with a small number of vendors. As the local roads and other infrastructure have improved, it makes more sense for people to leave their houseboats and sell their goods elsewhere.
  • The War Remnants Museum offered powerful exhibits about the Vietnam War, even if there was a real propaganda dynamic. Exhibits relating to how Agent Orange affects the 4th generation of Vietnamese were particularly moving.
  • In HCMC, there was a general sense of growth and prosperity: people are busy, working, economy growing. A new subway system is on the way. New skyscrapers being built. Lots of potential.
  • Grab (the Uber of SE Asia) was everywhere in Ho Chi Minh city. Dominant. Go-Jek (Uber of Indonesia) has just entered.

Taipei:

  • My one word description of Taipei is “livable.” Efficient public transit, clean streets, good infrastructure, no homeless people, no litter. It’s a very green city. Lots of parks, green public spaces, and a sense of clean freshness everywhere. The national airline is EVA — Evergreen Airlines — perhaps that’s the hint. If I had other work reasons to be there, I’d be delighted by the opportunity to live in Taipei.
  • The city didn’t feel overly crowded. especially when compared to other big first world Asian cities I’ve been in (Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo). Even in relatively busy areas, neither people nor cars made much noise.
  • Eating at the night markets was billed as a primary thing to do. At the Shihlin night market near our hotel — the largest in the city — there were plenty of tasty food stalls. But standing and eating is tricky for me. I prefer to sit and eat over a table with silverware. The night market was a very fun scene but not quite as as extraordinary as it was hyped to be.
  • There were at least five Nike stores in the Ximending shopping neighborhood — all legit stores, not counterfeit. I’ve never seen so many Nike outlets in close proximity to each other. After passing the first three stores, by the fourth time you see one, you break down and enter and buy something.
  • Someone in Vietnam told us that Taiwan is “America China” whereas Hong Kong is “British China.” Sports is one area where this shows up. In Taiwan, baseball and basketball dominate.
  • Taipei doesn’t have blockbuster tourist attractions. We didn’t see very many non-Asian tourists in the city. Taipei seems like a place people love to live in, but it’s not at the top of most Westerners’ travel lists.
  • There’s a strong food culture, with night markets, hole in the wall shops, and high end restaurant offerings. Dumplings, various noodle dishes, stinky tofu, lots of pork. The Taiwanese people are very focused on food, according to our local food guide, and this makes a delightful place to eat as a tourist.
  • The big local news while we were there was President Xi’s speech about Taiwan unification with China. Via the local newspapers, it seems many Taiwanese people remain quite wary of China and are eager — although not especially optimistic about — continued U.S. support.
  • Globalization continues to shrink the differences between countries. For example, Din Tai Fung — the famous dumpling restaurant of Taiwan, which we went to and enjoyed — now has a location in San Jose, CA.
  • Airbnb inventory was limited in Taipei. Those that exist offer odd formulations — e.g. 6 single beds in two bedrooms, or 4 queen beds and one bathroom.
  • National Palace Museum has a nice East Meets West exhibit that showed artifacts exchanged between China and Western explorers and how that exchange deepened an understanding of the other’s culture.
  • We bore witness to the city trash truck pull up playing ice-cream-truck music, and residents hustling out to drop off their trash. Exactly as described in this 99% Invisible episode.
  • Good food tour in Taipei. Walk the streets and eat!
  • Random: I was complimented on my chop stick use multiple times across Vietnam and Taiwan. It happens frequently when I’m in Asia. People in Asia may not realize how much chopstick use there is in the U.S.

Bottom Line: Vietnam and Taipei are lovely places. More broadly, Christmas/New Year’s continues to be a great time to get out of town. The past six years I’ve gone overseas during this time of year. It’s the least disruptive time to travel and be off the grid because so many other people are doing the same. Already thinking about where to go in 12 months…

Book Review: My Struggle – Book 6

I spent hundreds of more pages inhabiting Karl Knausgaard’s mind in My Struggle: Book 6, the finale in the series. I skipped the final two thirds which is made up of musings on literary history and Hitler but I rather enjoyed the first third of musings which focus on how his family and friends react to reading a draft of the manuscripts of the earlier books. If you’ve read the earlier books (as I have), and thus can appreciate the inside baseball meta plot commentary on his other books, it’s worth taking a stab at this one. There were more genuinely funny moments here than in the previous editions.

Below are some choice quotes.

The meaning of life becomes less self-evident as you get older:

All generations live their lives as if they were the first, gathering experiences, progressing onward through the years, and as insights accumulate, meaning diminishes, or if it doesn’t diminish, it at least becomes less self-evident. That’s the way it is.

Karl befriends a neighbor who’s a parent of one of his kids’ friends. Funny anecdote:

We had been given the plate by the same couple when they were moving house and didn’t need it anymore. They had actually helped us a lot. What had we done for them in return? Not much. I always listened patiently to whatever they talked about, asking questions and making an effort to seem interested. I had introduced him to our Sunday football. And I had given him a signed copy of my previous novel inscribed with a dedication. Two days later he told me he had given it to an uncle “who was interested in books.” But it was for you personally, for goodness’ sake! I thought to myself, though I said nothing; if he hadn’t grasped the fact on his own I wouldn’t be able to explain it to him.

It occurred to me when reading this that I don’t often conclude that it’s not worth trying to explain something to someone on the grounds that if they hadn’t grasped it on their own they’d never be able to learn it.

His experience washing the vaginas of his young daughters:

I took three cloths off the pile on the shelf, put soap on them and washed all three of them between their legs. It felt like an assault, that was the thought that came to me every time. Imagine if someone came in and saw what I was doing, what would they think? A perverted father rubbing the crotches of his daughters? It was a thought only a man who had witnessed the incest hysteria of the eighties was capable of thinking, I knew that, but all the same it didn’t help, the feeling was there and couldn’t be ignored, and when they sat down again and I rinsed the cloths, wrung them and hung them over the radiator to dry, I was as relieved as ever that no one had come in and seen me.

Random on fathers:

“Nearly everyone I know has a father who failed them in some way. And everyone tries to compensate for that failure in the way they relate to their own children.”

On ambitious people who are going out to achieve something in the world

“They’re the ones who make something of life, who achieve something in the world rather than just using or enjoying it.”

“But even in those people there’s a sense of restlessness. That’s why they create or act the way they do, because there’s a restlessness inside them, something incomplete. But what they’re aiming for, all the time, is harmony. All through their twenties and thirties and forties. The aim is to be able to sit in a garden and watch the sprinkler watering the lawn, with their children all around them, and to be able to think, right, that’s it, I’m happy now. All human urges are about the urge for harmony.”

This is a very Buddhist idea. The sense that someday, perhaps a day very soon, you’ll be able to kick back, look around, take it all in, and say, “Ahhhhh, this is it. I’m finally happy. I’m finally at peace.” That day will never come so long as it is contingent upon the obtainment of stuff or the organization of external forces, and even if you manage to achieve the inner harmony that gives rise to peace, it is not stable or permanent in any way.

On men’s emotions and intimacy:

Now we connect intimacy and closeness with the truest of feelings. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read people ridiculing men’s ways of dealing with emotions. Slapping each other on the back, that sort of thing. But a woman doesn’t know what it means to get a slap on the back when you’re down in the dumps. Men’s emotions are worth no less, if anyone believes that, just because they’re not expressed the way women’s are. What I’m saying is there are many different kinds of solicitude, and intimacy isn’t necessarily going to be right in itself.

On what friends give you versus what lovers give you — the person you love enables you to live more effortlessly in the present, whereas the friend helps you fully understand yourself and your life:

While meeting Geir [his friend] gave me a viewpoint on myself and a space in which it could be articulated, in other words remoteness, which was invaluable, meeting Linda [his wife] gave me the opposite, in that encounter all remoteness was dissolved, I became closer to her than I had ever been to any other person in my life, and in that closeness there was no use for words, no use for analysis, no use for thoughts, because when all is said and done, which is another way of saying in life, when it presents itself in all its intensity, when you’re there, at the center of it all, with your entire being, the only thing that matters is feeling. Geir gave me the chance to look at life and understand it, Linda gave me the chance to live it. In the first instance I became visible to myself, in the second I vanished. That’s the difference between friendship and love.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh. Not that I’m exactly unbiased given the authors and my entangled relationships here, but lots of good insights from Silicon Valley and China on how to build a huge, world-changing company. Reid and Chris worked super hard to distill the complicated and sometimes contradictory lessons of fast scaling companies into a book structure that’s digestable and practical.

2. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Beautifully written memoir about surviving genocide, becoming a refugee, and resettling in the United States. “It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other place takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.”

4. Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering by Phillip Moffitt. Phillip led the meditation retreat I went on earlier this year and this book summarizes the Buddha’s wisdoms, and Phillip’s experience with it, clearly and relatively concisely. Phillip was co-owner and editor in chief of Esquire magazine before leaving the material world and pursuing serious meditative and yoga practice. The book is divided into four sections corresponding with each of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:  1) There is suffering in the world, 2) there are known causes of suffering, 3) there are solutions to the causes of suffering, and  4) there are specific tactics that can be followed to put into practice these solutions.

3. Mastery by George Leonard. During one of my private interview sessions with Phillip Moffitt at the meditation retreat, I wondered aloud whether I had hit a plateau in my meditation practice. Without hesitating, Phillip recommended I read this book from George Leonard, which discusses the issue of plateaus in the journey toward mastery. Some good insights; nothing earth shattering. The premise: “Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.”

Where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?”

Here’s my previous post on the sorts of skill building that results in quantum leaps versus continual iterations of improvement.

6. Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss. Two gargantuan interview books from Tim; tons of life hack nuggets and solid book and gadget recommendations across the two.

7. Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg. I love Jonah’s writing and his speaking (on his podcast and on BloggingHeads.tv). In this book, he makes the following argument: “Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. The world we live in today is unnatural, and we stumbled into it more or less by accident. The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death.” And as such, we should be utterly grateful for what we have, and utterly paranoid about not destroying the golden goose of modern civilization that’s laying such wonderful eggs.

More:

In later chapters, I spell out how liberalism and capitalism created the Miracle and how the United States of America is the fruit of the Miracle. But the key point to understand for the arc of this book is that both are unnatural. The idea that we should presume strangers are not only inherently trustworthy but also have innate dignity and rights does not come naturally to us. We have to be taught that—carefully taught. The free market is even more unnatural, because it doesn’t just encourage us to see strangers to be tolerated; it encourages us to see strangers as customers.

Other random highlights:

One of the most interesting taboos in American life is the taboo against discussing human nature.

Virtue requires denying one’s baser instincts—i.e., human nature—and doing what is right. This is why C. S. Lewis argued that “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point…”

Hypocrisy is often a terrible failing but it is more often a misunderstood one. Hypocrisy is the act of violating an ideal or principle you admonish others to follow. Too many people believe that hypocrisy is an indictment of the ideal as much as it is the hypocrite. This is folly. A world without hypocrisy is a world without ideals.

Friendships: Frequent Quick Hits vs. Infrequent Deep Dives

Consider the communication pattern between you and two hypothetical friends of yours.

With one, you email, text, and talk at least once a week. You’re continuously in touch. If you live in the same place, you may even see this friend pretty regularly for quick bursts. Maybe you grab coffee before work. Or get lunch in the middle of the workday. If you don’t live in the same place, you’ll hop on the phone for 5-10 min phone calls at least once a week, or sometimes a full hour if the stars align.

With the other friend, you’re not in touch all the time. You occasionally forward articles to each other and sometimes exchange a fun text message, but weeks and months often pass without meaningful interaction. When you do talk to or see the friend, it’s a deep dive. It’s a longer interaction. Maybe you see this friend in person once a year for a full day or even a whole weekend. Maybe you have a 90 min video chat catch-up twice a year.

In the busyness of my adult life, my friends increasingly fall into one of these categories. For example, I’m “in touch” with Chris Yeh on a very regular basis; we’ll talk a couple times a week by phone for 10-15 mins each time. By contrast, my interactions with Brad Feld are less frequent, but when we interact, it’s usually for 36-48 continuous hours in person. Interestingly, the one time I’ve had a very long continuous interaction with Chris was when we spent 24 hours together on the Burning Man playa (and slept in the same car). I learned things about Chris that I had not known, despite 10+ years of being in regular touch! I suspect if I ended up talking to Brad 2-3 times a week, I’d appreciate a different side to him, too.

Both are deep, positive relationships. Both types of friendship can be very rewarding. They’re just different cadence patterns.

Of course, there are downsides to each model of relationship. People whose friendships primarily consist of sporadic deep dives probably feel a higher degree of loneliness day-to-day during dry spells in-between the deep dive nourishment. (If you’re in an intimate romantic relationship, this can be okay because you tend to share minutia/quick hits with your spouse so don’t need to lean on friends as much for this.)

People whose friendships primarily consist of regular quick check-ins and texts and workday lunches probably feel some lack of depth with some of their so-called “close friends.” They realize that after years of “how was your day?” conversations and staying up to speed on the real time relationship drama or work battles that will someday be easily forgotten — they realize that they’ve never explored life’s deeper questions with their friend.

If you’re lucky enough to have a deep dive rhythm with someone, I think it’s comparatively easier to add some more day-to-day flavoring — and then perhaps you have the best of both! I was intrigued by how Gretchen Rubin described her approach on Tim Ferriss’s podcast: Every 4-5 days she sends email updates to her family recounting very minutia, day to day details of her life (“I’m getting my hair colored today”) with the explicit expectation that the update is “boring” and no one is supposed to reply. Its function is to simply keep friends in the loop on day to day happenings, like you would around a water cooler.

Finally, I wonder if women and men trend differently on this topic. The women I know tend to be better than men at staying in regular touch with their female friends. There’s a natural, continuous snacking dynamic between especially younger women I know: group text threads buzz a couple times a week, regular walks around the neighborhood, quick “Love you!” text messages, etc. Many of these women also have plenty of deep dives of course but the regular staying-in-touch with quick hits is what I notice most.

Male friendships can be characterized by months of non-communication, and then punctuated — if they’re lucky, and that’s a big if — by a deep dive. The issue is, men like to talk about the “guy I’d take a bullet for” or the “person I’d go pick up at a 4am” — but the deep dives that create  4am pickups rarely happen, at least in the post college years. Many men are deprived of both continuous quick hits and regular deep dives. White, adult, heterosexual men have the fewest friendships of anybody in America.

#

I’m reading Knausgaard’s My Struggle Book 6 right now. Yes, it’s another 1000+ page opus — the final installment — and yes, I’m enjoying almost every page of it. That’s for a different post. Anyway, I recently came upon this paragraph:

When we moved to Malmö I had been afraid Geir and I would lose touch. That’s what distance does; when the time between conversations gets longer, intimacy diminishes, the little things connected to one’s daily life lose their place, it seems odd to talk about a shirt you just bought or to mention you’re thinking of leaving the dishes until morning when you haven’t spoken to a person for two weeks or a month, that absence would seem instead to call for more important topics, and once they begin to determine the conversation there’s no turning back, because then it’s two diplomats exchanging information about their respective realms in a conversation that needs to be started up from scratch, in a sense, every time, which gradually becomes tedious, and eventually it’s easier not to bother phoning at all, in which case it’s even harder the next time, and then suddenly it’s been half a year of silence.

#

Some old posts of mine on friendship:

(Thanks to Steve Dodson and Chris Yeh for reading drafts of this post.)

The Wisdom of Eric Schmidt and Tyler Cowen

We are honored to have former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as one of our luminary LPs at Village Global. He recently participated in an event with our founders and Network Leaders in San Francisco. It was a delight to have my old friend Tyler Cowen, interviewer extraordinaire, conduct the chat with Eric. They had a wonderfully stimulating conversation about a range of topics. Perhaps my favorite part was near the end, when Eric and Tyler have a back-and-forth about GDP growth.

Here’s a video of their conversation. Here’s the post on the Village blog about the event. The audio of the conversation will also be published on Tyler’s must-listen podcast, Conversations with Tyler.

The Wisdom of Bob Iger

We’re honored to have Disney CEO Bob Iger as one of our LPs at Village Global. We recently hosted an event with Bob and about 100 of our portfolio companies, Network Leaders, and other friends of the firm at the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel.

Bob was in fine form on stage, and was terrific with a small group of our founders afterwards in a smaller session. As one of the world’s most successful CEOs, and one of the most important people in the entertainment industry, we were thrilled to be able to hear from him up close and personal.

Here are the photos from the event.

One of the more memorable things Bob said at the event was that he’s not “paranoid” about the future. He acknowledged the Andy Grove quip that “only the paranoid survive” but said that this particular framing (paranoia) doesn’t resonate with him. He’s more curious than he is paranoid. He’s relentless about trying to transform an iconic company into a new era. But it’s curiosity and optimism that drives him to do so. It was a refreshing, different sort of view than the common Silicon Valley line. It was a reminder that there are many ways to frame the challenge of disruption and innovation. And there are many ways to be an exceptional leader.

Remaining on Nodding Terms with Chile

Photo I took atop the Costanera Center

In 2010, I lived in Chile for 9 months. It was a memorable time in my life. I lived through one of the country’s worst earthquakes. I went through transitions professionally and romantically. I caught a glimpse at bilingualism in the distance.

There are many countries I have yet to visit, countries still on the bucket list. But I still prioritize visiting Chile to deepen an already deep experience.

In 2012, I returned and wrote a piece titled The Sweep of Nostalgia and quoted Joan Didion’s advice — remain on nodding terms with your past. I still believe in that advice — at least being able to nod at selective elements of your past. Staying in touch with Chile is part of that process.

I visited Chile again a couple weeks ago — a 2018 visit. Returning to a place you once knew well shakes loose old memories, like dusty old photo frames that tumble down off shelves if you open a cabinet door that’s been shut for some time. The memories are not necessarily significant. Random stores. Random streets. Random metro stops. “Oh yeah, that thing” is a routine thought during these occurrences. Not profound. Unless you consider it profound that our brains store a gazillion memories that are not bubbling at the surface and need active prompting to surface — and that is kind of profound if you think about it.

One of the more touching moments on my latest visit happened at my old apartment building. I went back to the building in the Providencia neighborhood. I told the doorman I used to live in the building some years ago, and asked if he’d let me enter to take the elevator to the roof and look out. After a bit of mental jogging, he said, “I remember you!” I stared at him and then remembered him as well. Same guy working the door after all these years. Some things really don’t change very much.

The subway is still excellent (and my transit card from 2010 that I’ve held onto still had value on it!). The andes mountains are still beautiful. The Chilean friends I made all still live in Santiago — no one has moved away.

Of course some things do change in a decade’s time. For example, everyone in Santiago has a smartphone now. I lived there pre-iPhone. Had I an iPhone and data plan in 2009, I would not have gotten lost nearly as often. I wonder how my experience would have been different had I nailed every turn-by-turn…

Mainly, the feeling I get when I think about my time in Chile is about how much time has passed in my life. I’m older now; I look much older in photos today versus my photos from then. So much has happened in my life since then. I do feel a tinge of sadness thinking about it. When I lived in Chile, I was in my early 20’s, living abroad, with so much possibility in front of me. So little constraint. I live a far more constrained life today. All by choice and I’m happy with my choices, but enough years have piled up now where I can look back and draw out multi-year detailed maps for how my life could have gone had I made different choices at different juncture points.

#

I should note a few practical things my partner and I did on the most recent trip to Chile. Agua de Ramon park is wonderful and just 20 mins from uptown Santiago. The new Costanera Center tower is cool — the tallest building in Latin America. A sunset drink atop the W Hotel offers remarkable views. And the Ritz Carlton Santiago is a wonderful hotel; the club lounge is very much worth upgrading for — 3 meals a day served there and they’re exceptional. I worked full time from the hotel so it was a good location to do that from.

#

I’ll repeat the ending from my previous post on Chile:

Some months ago, I watched saw the beautiful documentary Nostalgia for the Light. It’s about the astronomy done in the Atacama desert in the very north of Chile. Here’s the trailer. The Atacama desert is the driest in the world and the only place on earth with zero humidity year-round. Soon, 95% of the world’s astronomy will be done there. The film juxtaposes the work of scientists in the desert who look to the sky for answers, with old women just miles away who look to the ground for answers, searching for the bones of relatives assassinated by the Pinochet regime and buried in the desert. The film is about the connection between the past and the future, ground and sky. It’s also about memory.

In the film, director and narrator Patricio Guzman says, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none, don’t live anywhere.”

Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is one of my favorite writers. Here’s my somewhat detailed review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Here’s my review of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Exit West is his excellent latest novel. It’s about refugees fleeing an unnamed homeland (Syria?) and transporting through different spaces in the quest for safety, eventually ending up in Northern California. The couple, Saeed and Nadia, share an unexpected romantic connection that ultimately weakens over time, with Saeed indulging in nostalgia for the past and his religious roots, and Nadia seeking to break through and embrace a more secular stance toward the world. But before they grow apart, they endure together war and grief and other hardship.

The writing style is calm, sometimes bare. The novel’s opening line gives you a sense of the rhythm of the book: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

The theme of refugees struck a chord personally. And even for those of us who stay in the same house our whole life: “We are all migrants through time,” Hamid writes.

Highly recommended. Some highlights from Kindle are pasted below.


…they had gone to his place that night, and she had shuffled off the weight of her virginity with some perplexity but not excessive fuss.

the curfew served to conjure up an effect similar to that of a long-distance relationship, and long-distance relationships are well known for their potential to heighten passion, at least for a while, just as fasting is well known to heighten one’s appreciation for food.

All agreed he was a fine and delicate man, worryingly so, for these were not times for such men.

…but Saeed had wept only once, when he first saw his mother’s corpse and screamed, and Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room, silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

…in any case Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Saeed’s father encountered each day objects that had belonged to his wife and so would sweep his consciousness out of the current others referred to as the present, a photograph or an earring or a particular shawl worn on a particular occasion, and Nadia encountered each day objects that took her into Saeed’s past, a book or a music collection or a sticker on the inside of a drawer, and evoked emotions from her own childhood, and jagged musings on the fate of her parents and her sister, and Saeed, for his part, was inhabiting a chamber that had been his only briefly, years ago, when relatives from afar or abroad used to come to visit, and being billeted here again conjured up for him echoes of a better era, and so in these several ways these three people sharing this one apartment splashed and intersected with each other across varied and multiple streams of time.

Saeed was grateful for Nadia’s presence, for the way in which she altered the silences that descended on the apartment, not necessarily filling them with words, but making them less bleak in their muteness.

Nadia had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic, or perhaps because this was simply his temperament.

He did not press the point, but when Nadia brought her face close to his in bed that night, close enough to tickle his lips with her breathing, he was unable to muster the enthusiasm to bridge the tiny distance it would have taken to kiss.

They made their way outside. The sky had begun to change, and was less dark now than indigo, and there were others scattered around, other couples and groups, but mostly solitary figures, unable to sleep, or at least unable to sleep any longer.

Maybe, Saeed thought initially, they feared he might be able to understand them. Later he suspected something else. That they were ashamed, and that they did not yet know that shame, for the displaced, was a common feeling, and that there was, therefore, no particular shame in being ashamed.

They put their lack of conversation down to exhaustion, for by the end of the day they were usually so tired they could barely speak, and phones themselves have the innate power of distancing one from one’s physical surroundings, which accounted for part of it, but Saeed and Nadia no longer touched each other when they lay in bed, not in that way, and not because their curtained-off space in the pavilion

She noticed other women looking at him from time to time, and yet she herself felt strangely unmoved by his handsomeness, as though he were a rock or a house, something she might admire but without any real desire.

It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.

Saeed wanted to feel for Nadia what he had always felt for Nadia, and the potential loss of this feeling left him unmoored, adrift in a world where one could go anywhere but still find nothing.

In Marin, Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it…

There was also closeness, for the end of a couple is like a death, and the notion of death, of temporariness, can remind us of the value of things, which it did for Saeed and Nadia, and so even though they spoke less and did less together, they saw each other more, although not more often.

everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

In the morning when she woke he was looking at her, and he stroked the hair from her face, as he had not done for months, and he said if anyone should leave the home they had built it was him. But as he said this he felt he was acting, or if not acting then so confused as to be incapable of gauging his own sincerity. He did think that he ought to be the one to go, that he had reparations to make for becoming close to the preacher’s daughter. So it was not his words that felt to him like an act, but rather his stroking of Nadia’s hair, which, it seemed to him in that moment, he might never have permission to stroke again.

…and so they distanced themselves from each other on social networks, and while they wished to look out for each other, and to keep tabs on each other, staying in touch took a toll on them, serving as an unsettling reminder of a life not lived, and also they grew less worried each for the other, less worried that the other would need them to be happy, and eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.

[Meeting as older adults years after breaking up] Their conversation navigated two lives, with vital details highlighted and excluded, and it was also a dance, for they were former lovers, and they had not wounded each other so deeply as to have lost their ability to find a rhythm together, and they grew younger and more playful as the coffee in their cups diminished, and Nadia said imagine how different life would be if I had agreed to marry you, and Saeed said imagine how different it would be if I had agreed to have sex with you, and Nadia said we were having sex, and Saeed considered and smiled and said yes I suppose we were.

10 Day Samadhi (Concentration) Retreat at Spirit Rock

So you should view this fleeting world —
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

— The Buddha

I recently got back from another 10 days of silent meditation at Spirit Rock. One of the retreat teachers said, in the closing session, “You may want to talk a lot to people about your experience here these past days. I’d encourage you to gauge accurately other people’s level of interest in hearing the details. You may find that ‘It went pretty well’ is a perfectly adequate summary for most people.”

The retreat went pretty well! You want more than that? Okay, well you asked for it. Here are 6,000 words of detail.

First, a quick outline of the last 14 years of practice for me, as it’s been quite a journey, with links to some of my many posts about the topic in the past:

Phase 1 (2002-2012): I felt stressed in high school, read a book about stress relief, and learned about meditation. I knew nothing about Buddhism. I meditated sporadically on my own. I wandered by the SF Zen Center in 2006. Many years later, in 2012, I signed up for a 10 day meditation retreat with the simple goal of survival. Just getting through it. I did indeed endure the physical endurance test of a 10 day retreat, even though I continued to know precious little about Buddhism and meditation.

Phase 2 (2012-2014): I maintained a near daily Goenka style Vipassana meditation practice, I did a follow up 3 day Goenka meditation retreat, and began to dig deeper into the Buddhist psychology.

Phase 3 (2014-2016): Independent explorations, more intensive reading, day long retreats, community, spend time with friends interested in the topic, weekly sitting groups in SF and Berkeley.

Phase 4 (2016-2018): I completed a Steve Armstrong 10 day silent retreat on open, choice-less awareness. I wrote my most extensive post to date about my practice afterwards as that retreat helped me understand the core Buddhist argument. I became friends with Bob Wright, who recently published Why Buddhism Is True.  I published my notes from Sam Harris’s Waking Up, one of the best books on secular spirituality. And in general, I broadened and deepened my intellectual engagement through books, online courses (such as Bob’s Coursera class on Buddhism and Modern Psychology and a couple Spirit Rock online courses), and sought out conversations with smart people on the topic.

Phase 5 (Present): I completed a 10 Day Concentration retreat, the subject of this post.

The TL/DR on This Retreat Experience (August, 2018)

  1. I’m as compelled as ever by the Buddha’s core argument about the nature of the human mind and the nature of reality, the delusion that causes suffering, and the keys to happiness.
  2. If you want to improve your mind and better understand reality, you have to train your mind. If you want to be happy with a human brain and heart not wired to prioritize happiness, you have to train your heart and mind. Train. It’s like going to the gym to exercise: you have to work at it. It doesn’t happen automatically. Meditation is one way to do this.
  3. Silent retreats remain fantastic experiences for me and I continue to recommend them to others even if someone isn’t interested in meditation or Buddhism, because 5-10 days off the grid and in silence is profound on its own.
  4. I’m not sure how far along I am on the path of liberation. But I’m newly energized that this is a path I should be on and want to be on.
  5. Samadhi (concentration) practice, which I just did, is a worthwhile focus area if you want to establish a more stable mental foundation for Vipassana practice. It is a means to an end. If you want really want are jhanic experiences, psychedelics are probably a faster route than concentration meditation.

Recap of the Buddha’s Argument

The Buddha taught that there is suffering in the world, and he taught a way to liberate yourself from that suffering. I’ve written elsewhere about the full scope of the argument. I will repeat the core logic tree here for my own refreshment. Feel free to skip if you’re already familiar.

1. 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha, in reflecting upon his own life of worldly success, said that life naturally involves “suffering” –or unsatisfactoriness. “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, and obtaining those things will not bring lasting happiness or peace. (Robert Wright argues that natural selection “designed” our brain, for good evolutionary reasons, to keep us on this treadmill of dissatisfaction.) All of us must live with a brain that was never designed to produce happiness. What’s more, old age, sickness, and death are inevitable. Those account for the ultimate suffering.

2. Day to day suffering is caused by “visitors to the mind” that cause us anger, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, etc. These seeds of discontent — say, a feeling of anger — take up residence in our mind usually in response to specific causes and conditions.

3. An untrained mind reacts endlessly to these experiences with craving and aversion. When something good happens, we crave more of it — we want that good feeling to stay and intensify. “I’m happy I made a million dollars…and now I need 10 million dollars.” When something bad happens, perhaps we get laid off or someone close to us dies, we do whatever we can do to avoid the feeling and wish it to go away. 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. The Buddha called our reaction to experiences the “second arrow” that hurts us. The first arrow is the experience itself; the second arrow is our unwise reaction to it that magnifies the effect.

4. Mental restlessness enables these defilements and our thoughtless reactions to them. 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. Because you aren’t aware of that experience and the feeling it brought about in that moment, the feeling of annoyance implants. And triggers a whole cycle of negative thinking. You are deluded because you are unaware of the causes of your thoughts. You are deluded because you are blind to the cognitive biases that pile up.

5. With mindfulness practice you are remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience. You recognize what’s happening in your mind on a moment to moment level, enabling you to short circuit — and ultimately uproot — the aforementioned unwholesome habits of mind: you recognize when the craving of more pleasant things or the aversion to bad things enters your consciousness as the thought is still in formation and before it can take root. 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, a mindful mind will notice it in that moment and curtail the craving. If you feel anger, with mindfulness you can notice that anger depends on thinking anger related thoughts in that moment and you can choose to return to the present moment’s experience instead.

6. A stable mind is required if you wish to observe your experiences in such a way to understand their true nature. The practice of meditation helps you develop a mind that is concentrated, balanced, pliable, equanimous, alert, collected. A collected mind (“samadhi”) 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 residence in your mind.

7. With Vipassana or Insight practice, you are taking your stable mind and observing your experiences moment to moment — the lessons you glean from this process are the “insights” of Vipassana/Insight meditation. There are plenty of ordinary insights to be gained through meditation regarding your mental obsessions and habits of mind — e.g., “Gosh, I think about my relationship with my mother a lot.” There are also deeper truths to had.

8. The first of these deeper truths is that unsatisfactoriness pervades all of our experiences, per the previous point about craving and aversion toward good and bad phenomena.

9. The second deep truth is that everything changes, everything is impermanent. The unpleasant sensation of annoyance or envy 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 the loss of every moment effectively.”

10. The final deep truth is that, because all phenomena are ultimately impermanent, it’s 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 feeling 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. Practically speaking, you “thin out the self” when you’re in flow, when you’re totally present with experience here and now.

11. These three characteristics — unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and not-self — are referred to as the 3 Characteristics of all phenomena. In modern terms: Nothing in life is Permanent, Perfect, or Personal. Or: Life is hard, it will change, but don’t take it personally.

12. Want to understand the 3 Characteristics at a profound level? You can only do so through direct observation of your mind and body. Intellectual “knowing” is not enough. You must observe the reality, moment to moment. Hence the practice of meditation. You can read about these ideas in books but it comes to you as knowledge, not wisdom. Wisdom is experientially knowing it for yourself. The Buddha said not to take his word for it.

13. There are a set of ethical beliefs that the Buddha said should accompany the practice of meditation. For example, don’t steal, use harsh speech, etc. He argued you need to train your heart to have the right intentions. And then be mindful about each thought, speech, and action so as to harmonize your inner values with your outer actions. Wisdom and compassion are the two wings of a bird: You need them both.

14. If you can 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 can be 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. You are free from suffering. You are free from being involuntarily triggered by stimuli. You are free from identity. You are free from delusion — you have taken the red pill. You see reality clearly. You are happy.

The sequence of these steps and how one goes about realizing them practically is best described in the phenomenal book The Mind Illuminated, which I will write about in a separate post.

The Samadhi Retreat @ Spirit Rock

This was a “Concentration” retreat. To use the Pali words, the instructions focused on using samata techniques to cultivate samadhi — a concentrated, unified, collected mind.

The practical meditation instructions in a concentration retreat differ considerably from a traditional Vipassana retreat. In standard Vipassana practice, you pay attention to hindrances, observe them, watch them pass away. You’re mindful of bodily sensations. In some teachings, you’re told to be mindful of a broad range of stimuli and just notice them in the present moment. Pure, in-the-moment awareness of whatever you’re experiencing, thinking, feeling.

With concentration practice, you focus on a specific object of concentration — in our case, the breath — and you stay steady on that single fixed object. Don’t heed thoughts or noises or body sensations. Stay with the breath.

By staying on one object, your mind can become very concentrated. Why is a concentrated mind helpful? For practitioners of insight meditation, a steady, unified mind is a necessary foundation for developing insight. If your mind is all over the place, you won’t be able to pay attention closely enough to what’s going on in your reality. Concentration increases inner stability; it makes you less disturbed by disturbances. So, in this framing, concentration practice is a means to an end: the end being the insight that comes from mindfulness. Mindfulness requires a concentrated mind.

Alternatively, deep concentration practice that collapses the distinction between subject (the meditator) and object (the breath) — i.e. very deep absorption into present moment awareness — can result in a bag of temporary spiritual goodies that may not contribute to your liberation but can deliver extreme bliss in their own right (in what are called jhanas). Some practitioners spend years of their life pursuing jhanas.

Prior to this retreat, I never thought I could spend so many hours over so many days focused on so many nuances related to the breath. But that’s what we did. We were told to aim for the breath with our attention, then “connect” with it, and then sustain attention with every successive breath. We were told to examine the first half of the inhale and compare it to the second half of the exhale. We were advised to notice “pauses” in between breaths and to rest our attention somewhere (perhaps on our lips) during such a pause. We were told to feel the breath more than to verbally note (in our mind) our awareness.

We were told to love the breath, to see it as a life force, as a friend. If you find the breath boring, you won’t be able to rest attention on it productively, we were told. Because I do not intuitively “love” my breath in the way it seemed I needed to, I tried thinking about some about my breathing techniques in scuba diving and how the breath serves as lifeline underwater. (Above water too, of course, but you’re more consciously aware of it with each breath under water.) That worked okay.

Counting breathes is a common technique to stay focused. To give you a sense of how concentrated you get amid the physical seclusion: At home, I often struggle to count to 10 on breaths without my mind wandering. (Try it sometime — count each inhale/exhale as “1” and see if you can do it 10 times without your mind going elsewhere.) On this retreat, I counted easily to 70 with complete focus and then just stopped and sunk back into more spacious awareness.

Staying with the breath, in one sense, is “easier” than traditional Vipassana practice. There’s only one thing to do. And we were told to do whatever we need to do to accommodate this one task. For example, if we felt pain in our posture, we were encouraged to stand up in the meditation hall. Or change postures. Whatever relaxation supports your focus on the breath. Just keeping coming back to the breath, over and over again.

In a different sense, samata practice struck me as “harder” than the Vipassana instructions on past retreats. Steve Armstrong’s teaching of Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s awareness framework meant that we could never be “doing it wrong” so long as we were aware. If someone coughed loudly in the meditation hall, and I was aware that I was hearing, I was doing the practice properly — I was aware. In a concentration retreat, if a cough distracts you from the chosen object of concentration — e.g. the breath — you can become agitated.

Beyond the breath, we tried one other concentration technique for an hour each day: metta practice. It’s effectively a mantra technique except the mantras are loving-kindness phrases like “May you be happy” or “May you be free from inner and outer harm.” You repeat these phrases over and over again, directing them to different people (yourself, loved ones, neutral people, enemies, all beings) and through the repetition, your mind becomes more concentrated. While metta may have benefit in terms of inclining your heart towards compassion, it didn’t work as well for me as a concentration method. That said, I did direct the well-wishing phrase to different people as I walked by them on retreat — i.e. as I passed someone, I glanced at them and thought, “May you be happy” — and that generated warmth.

On this retreat, I didn’t approach true jhanic states of absorption, where the teachers and many others report psychedelic effects. I did, however, achieve very, very deep levels of calm. In my late night sits, my heart beat was so small and soft, I could hardly feel it. I likely wandered into “access concentration” states which is the level before the first jhana. A couple nights, when I returned to my room and brushed my teeth, I looked at the mirror watching myself brush my teeth and noticed my mind incredibly still, like a pond of perfectly still water at dawn.

I’m not sure how much I care about accessing jhanas through meditation, given the weeks and weeks of silent retreat experience that apparently are necessary to enter those states. It seems like psychedelics is a much faster way of inducing similar states of mind. In general, that would be a main counterargument against extensive meditation practice: not its effectiveness, but its efficiency relative to other methods.

Expecting Progress But Not Measuring Progress Too Often, and Keeping the Faith in the Interim

When I work on projects, I tend to have an end in mind and, along the way, I like to routinely check in on whether I’m making progress.

It’s rather easy to do this with simple, short meditation sessions. If you want to relax a bit, you can sit down for 5-10 mins, focus on your breath, and if you check in how you’re feeling at the end, you’ll probably feel calmer.

For longer meditation sessions, or during a long retreat, or in the context of a long term habit of meditation, teachers advise against an attitude that measures progress too much. They say to set “intentions” but to not “expect” specific, measurable payoffs. Expect results over time, they say, but don’t track those results moment-to-moment, week-to-week, month-t0-month.

In this retreat, we were exhorted to notice our concentrated mind but not to “measure the quality of the concentration.” Instead, we should just keep practicing and if we lose our focus on the breath, to keep starting over. Occasionally, the teachers would dangle tantalizing personal examples of jhanic absorption experiences, but those examples would be quickly followed up by reminders to not expect those same experiences ourselves. “The development of samadhi practice is mysterious,” one teacher said in the nightly dharma talk, “Be careful not to develop any narratives, explanations, or expectations around what is happening.”

In the private 15 minute teacher meetings that occur every other day on retreat, I asked one of them about how I should balance this instruction to not measure progress with my natural instinct measure and iterate based on progress. Sally relayed the Dalai Lama anecdote of someone asking him if Buddhism has helped him over the past year. His reply was: Probably not, but it’s definitely helped me over the past five years. Point being: Do check in on whether you’re making progress but do so at the right, long term intervals.

Okay. That makes sense. But it’s one thing to relinquish metrics and goals for 10 days. It’s another thing altogether if you’re going to spend hundreds of hours meditating or studying Buddhist psychology — what if you aren’t seeing a step function increase in benefit as the hours pile up? Can you maintain the motivation to stick with it? Myself, I have experienced a lot of progress and I’m happy about it, but I can still wrestle sometimes with doubt.

This is where faith comes in. You need faith to stick with projects that deliver progress in “mysterious” ways over long periods of time. By “faith” I’m not referring to belief in God; I mean having faith that time you spend in contemplative practice is time well spent. The religious infrastructure of Buddhism supports the faith individual practitioners need to pursue Buddhist meditation. This infrastructure takes the form of cultural and physical artifacts that have accumulated over the past 2,600 years in the way of stories, traditions, rituals, words, and beautiful meditation centers and temples. Most importantly, the infrastructure facilitates a worldwide community of people drawn toward the same goal and interested in learning practice for achieving that goal: freeing themselves from suffering.

The packaging of ideas matters. I’m pretty sure that if a new secular spiritual movement presented identical ideas to Buddhism in an office building in downtown San Francisco led by a pair of 40-something wise professionals, I’d have a harder time sustaining the habits and internalizing the truths.

It’s not too dissimilar from startups and entrepreneurship in some sense. Starting a company can be an irrational affair. To muster the faith that you can beat the odds, you need to tap into a broader support community that tells stories of those who came before you, gives you advice and involves you in various rituals, and encourages you to stick with it even during darker moments. The religion of entrepreneurship. This is why your chances of success go up if you start a company in a startup hub.

Proactive, Focused Effort vs. Relaxed, Receptive Effort

Applying the right amount of effort in meditation proved to be one of the trickiest instructions in the samata practice. The teachers would distinguish between focused, almost aggressive, effort — which would involve strong conscious attention on the breath, really zooming in on microscopic details — and a more relaxed effort, in which you let the attention “come” to you.

In one of my interviews with the teacher, he asked me if I was “close” to the breath. I nodded. He encouraged me to “back off a bit, don’t be so close, but more spacious in your awareness of the breath. You’re overexerting.” I think I understood what he was talking about.

Here’s an interactive example he offered. Take one hand and hold it out face up. Take the other hand and hover it directly over the other hand, not quite touching. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Not much. Now take the top hand and squeeze the bottom hand tightly. Clench it. How much sensation do you feel in the two hands? Some, but it’s muddied and overly tight. Now gently rest one hand on top of the other. You feel all sorts of pulsing and heat sensations. Gently resting one hand on top of the other is what we aim to do with our attention on the breath — gently rest attention on the breath.

In sum, you want to exert effort in meditation practice but not more than necessary. A bird flaps its wings and then soars on momentum, and doesn’t flap again until it needs to.

This struck me as a relevant life theme. There are situations that call for gritty effort; there are situations that call for more “receptive” effort; and there’s a skill to knowing which type of effort to employ and when.

Experts Understand Simple Things Deeply

I love the notion that experts at a craft understand the simple things about their craft very, very deeply. They continually master the basics. NBA players practice how to dribble — a skill they’ve mastered for years but in the additional understanding, they arrive at a new and subtler understanding. Professional concert pianists practice the basic scales with a nuance a novice doesn’t understand.

On this concentration retreat, each day we did metta/loving-kindness practice for an hour. On the first day of these instructions, the teacher asked us all to raise our hands if we had attended a dedicated metta meditation retreat before. More than half the hands went up. That meant more than half of the 90 people hadn’t just practiced metta but actually attended a retreat specifically devoted to metta practice. After seeing the hands go up, the teacher said, “Okay, that’s helpful.” I expected the teacher to deliver some newly advanced instructions to accommodate with the years of experience in the room. Instead, he proceeded to deliver the standard, simple instructions all of us novice and experienced meditators alike have heard before. Metta experts understand simple things about the practice very deeply.

Another example from retreat: We heard dozens of hours of instructions and dharma talks on the topic of the breath. Attending to your breath is often the most basic meditation instruction given. And yet here we were, at an advanced retreat, returning to that most basic meditation, with great depth and wonder.

Surrendering and Trusting the Process

Days on retreat are fairly well structured: There are scheduled sitting and walking meditation times, scheduled meal times, scheduled dharma talks, scheduled wake up bells, scheduled quiet hours in the dorm rooms.

After five days, my entrepreneurial self took over and, as is my tendency once I understand parameters of flexibility, I began to think about ways to optimize my experience — in this case, optimize my meditation schedule to suit my own idiosyncrasies and body rhythm. I figured that if I customized my day to involve exercise, good rest, good meal times, and very late night sits — I would have more success. Specifically, I was questing after a particular type of experience I enjoyed on my first retreat some year ago — a specific pleasurable mental state and physical sensations that are hard to describe.

So I crafted the perfect day: I would nap during the lunch break, do wind sprints and pushups and squats in the meadow during one of the scheduled sits, stretch out my back in the yoga room (to aid in my sitting posture), take a shower just before dinner, meditate in my room, eat a light meal at dinner so that I wasn’t too full for the scheduled evening sits, eat peanut butter from the kitchen after the Dharma talk in place of the final scheduled session to address my hunger needs, and then sit by myself in the meditation hall — after everyone else had gone to bed — until midnight. I even noticed a beautiful morning sky and I made a plan to stargaze at night while sitting on one of the outdoor benches in the middle of the night. Planning mind, expecting mind, comparing mind…

The day fell apart starting at 4:30pm. I had exercised, napped, showered, and skipped some scheduled sits. All was going to plan. I was ready to pursue my newly backloaded schedule! When I went to sit in my room, some light whining noise coming from the ceiling distracted me. I gave up. I ate a fine dinner and the dharma talk was stimulating. But afterwards, when I made my way to the kitchen, I discovered the peanut butter container was empty for the first time on the retreat — the one time I felt like I needed it. I went back to the meditation hall with some hunger and frustration, and planted myself on the lower level to sit privately. But unlike in past nights, a couple other people had discovered “my” spot, so I didn’t have the privacy I expected. My mind was jumpy during the sits, unable to get comfortable. At around 10pm, I wandered outside, frustrated with my lack of concentration. I looked up at the sky: cloud cover had totally obstructed all the stars. I went back into the empty meditation hall and stayed until midnight, with varying levels of peace as I alternated between my bench on the floor and the chair. As the clock struck midnight, I felt some good sensation of breath but then also had a dream-like sensation — it felt like some dreams were passing through my mind, as if I were half-asleep, even as all the while I was observing every in breath and every outbreath. I took that as a sign that it was time to go to bed. I went back into my room, lay in bed, and reflected on how my “perfect” day had been anything but. I dreamed some crazy and intense dreams. It’s common to experience vivid dreams when you’re on silent retreat but these were crazier than prior nights.

When I awoke the next morning to the 5:15 AM bell, a bit spent from my exertion the prior day and my somewhat restless night of dreams, I declared to myself: Fuck it. I’m going to surrender to the schedule. I’m just going to go through the day, do the sits, eat when I’m supposed to eat, go to bed when I’m supposed to go to bed. I’m going to assume nothing will work out as I planned.

What happened? Naturally, I had my best day of the retreat. My sits were productive, I had a good interview with a teacher, I went on a beautiful hike. When I made a plan to hike up a short hill and sit on one of my favorite outdoor benches on the retreat grounds, I joked with myself that the bench would likely be occupied and my plan would be foiled. Sure enough, the bench was occupied, but I took it in stride.

11 years ago I blogged about my favorite Toni Morrison line from Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” There’s a lot of power in the idea of surrender. Many of us exert agency in so many facets of our life that it can be easy to forget when surrender — or “trusting the process” — is a wiser way of being. I re-learned this truth on day 6 of the retreat.

Everything Is Impermanent… “And Yet”

In one of the dharma talks, Donald relayed a story about the Taliban destroying a bunch of Buddha statues after 9/11. Someone asked Buddhist scholar Gary Synder why Buddhists would care about the the broken statues if everything is impermanent. If nothing will last forever, who cares if the statues got destroyed? In a larger sense, if life itself is impermanent, who cares about compassion?

Synder replies and quotes haiku master Issa:

Ah yes . . . impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the sufferings of others because they are merely impermanent beings. Issa’s haiku goes,

“This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
And yet―”

That “and yet” is our perennial practice. And maybe the root of the Dharma.

“Dewdrop world” refers to Diamond Sutra quoted at the top of my blog post — the famous Buddhist phrasing that life is as fleeting as a drop of dew, a flicker of light, a bubble in the stream. So yes, this is a dewdrop world…and yet. Compassion matters. Life matters. Living matters. Even though none of it matters.

I find Snyder’s answer, and the haiku he quotes, a perfect encapsulation of a paradox — maybe contradiction — in Buddhist thinking. But it’s a paradox fit for a contradictory world. Zen koans and zen haiku exist to speak to complexity that normal “wisdom” cannot encapsulate.

Preparing for the Worst Day of My Life (Which Hasn’t Happened Yet)

I am fortunate to not have experienced trauma in my life. I am fortunate to not have yet experienced searing grief over the death of someone close to me. I am fortunate to not have suffered physical or mental ailments. In the questionnaire I filled out when registering for the retreat, I checked the “No” box when asked questions about whether I was taking medicine for anything, about whether I was in therapy for anything, about when I was struggling with particular emotional problems. My life isn’t perfect, but I’ve been luckier than most so far.

In Vipassana practice, where one of the more ambitious aims is to “uproot” negative defilements of mind, it can be very disturbing to bear witness to these memories or thought patterns as they surface and you observe them and make sense of them. Put differently, for a lot of people unresolved inner material surfaces to conscious attention during meditation and it can be painful to work through this material.

I’m not one of those people, most of the time. I don’t have a lot of unresolved inner material (so far as I’m aware) and I’m apparently not enough of a master meditator such that I’ve found myself wrestling with dark personal questions. I do have dark inner material but it’s not “unresolved” in the sense that it’s repressed and haunting me.

I say I’m “fortunate” about these facts and about my general well adjusted mind and body, and of course I am, but the flip side of this good fortune is a lingering curiosity or anxiety (depending on the day) about whether I will be able to endure serious hardship when it occurs. I know it’s just a matter of time before something goes seriously wrong in my life. I actually imagine what could wrong wrong a lot. I often imagine people I care about dying in car accidents and me delivering eulogies at funerals.

Sam Harris, in his excellent conversation with Dan Harris, said that spiritual and contemplate practice is in part about preparing for the worst day of your life. This totally resonated. My spiritual practice is not about “solving” some terrible problem in my life right now. It’s about training my heart and mind to be stronger and more adept here and now. And stronger still when put to the ultimate test.

Random Nuggets About This Retreat Experience Itself

– Philip Moffit, Sally Armstrong, Donald Rothberg, and Susie Harrington taught this 10 day retreat. All have been teaching Buddhist meditation for 20-30 years. All are extraordinary. Philip’s background particularly intrigued me. He was a successful publishing entrepreneur who, at age 40, quit his job as Editor-in-Chief & CEO of Esquire magazine to seek spiritual truths that would provide his life more meaning.

– This retreat had a prerequisite: Participants must have attended at least two residential meditation retreats of at least 5 days in length. So everyone was experienced. My comparing mind got a workout in the first couple hours after arriving at Spirit Rock, before Noble Silence took effect, as I overheard people discussing prior retreats and it became clear to me that for many people, this was their 10th+ meditation retreat. For me, it was my fourth residential retreat. I didn’t feel inadequate though.

– Three things were striking about the demographics of the ~90 participants. First, everyone was white or Indian. Second, it was generationally diverse, and I’m always inspired to see people in their 70’s and 80’s — some in wheelchairs — taking notes and diligently practicing. Third, there were as many well to do white collar professionals as classic spiritual hippies — e.g. software people, private equity professionals, math professors, sales reps, etc.

– The first afternoon, after unpacking my stuff in my small, simple dorm room, I lay on bed and I noted to myself that I was quite lucky to be at a point in my life where I am able to physically seclude myself for several days, be totally disconnected and silent, and travel within. I dropped into the “noble silence” that night easily and naturally. During my first retreat the silence was part of the challenge; in my fourth retreat I relished it. As Steve Armstrong says, it’s easier to learn how to drive in a parking lot than in the middle of a freeway. It’s easier to learn how to meditate in an atmosphere of silence.

– All yogis/retreatants have to do a “job” each day. Mine was cleaning toilets and bathroom floors. It may not sound like fun, but like many yogis on retreat, I enjoyed having something to do other than meditate, and I took pleasure in keeping the bathroom clean for everyone else. A couple years ago, I washed pots and pans in the kitchen, which had its own delights. (Again – only on retreat!)

– Posture is especially important on retreat. When you sit for 20 mins at home, you can maintain virtually any position. When you’re meditating for close to 8-10 hours a day, every muscle will ache unless you’ve nailed a position that’s comfortable. 3/4 of the way through the retreat a teacher told me I needed to add pillows to my chair setup, to raise my butt above my knees and to support my arms hanging down off my shoulders. Tall people problems. It made a big difference. If you’re headed to a meditation retreat, make sure you have a strategy for your posture.

– Throughout the days I had numerous inappropriate thoughts about pranks one could run on meditators on retreat. The whole environment is so serious, so focused, so…silent, that it was hard for me not to conjure jokes that would have, shall we say, awakened the silence.

– Several times I thought about how I was going to describe an experience I was having in this very blog post or in a conversation with someone. I have a hard time turning off the journalist inside my head…even on a meditation retreat.

What’s Next

There is so much more to explore. On the academic side, I would like to understand the concept of not-self more thoroughly. It’s such a slippery concept.

On the practice side, I will continue to practice Vipassana meditation, integrating the samata techniques I learned on this retreat. I also will re-visit some of the Goenka body scan techniques that I learned on my first retreat, as I have a newfound appreciation for some of his approaches.

Overall, I am grateful to have the practice in my life and this body of work to guide my spiritual pursuits. We should all be so grateful to the people who brought the Buddha’s teachings to the west and made them accessible to laypeople, especially Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, who brought this particular tradition to our shores.

Lessons from Village Global Luminaries

We’re honored to be hosting events with several of our LP luminaries at Village Global this fall. A few updates:

  • Video series of short clips featuring exclusive footage from events with Spanx founder Sara Blakely, Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and others. See the embed below for an example of Reid on Village.
  • We recently hosted Fidelity CEO, Abby Johnson, in an intimate lunch conversation with our Network Leaders about fintech and other trends.
  • Next week, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt will be in conversation with economist Tyler Cowen in San Francisco. You can request an invitation here.