From Anxiety Attacks to Mindfulness Startup

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

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

10 Day Meditation Retreat

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

The Wisdom of Jonathan Haidt

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Using Your Mind to Watch Your Mind

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

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

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

Attending Alcoholics Anonymous as a Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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