My first 120-min meditation (Or: the most painful two hours imaginable)

At some point bringing my attention back to a global awareness of the present moment stopped being a thing I had to do. The pain did it for me. My left ankle, trapped underneath my right shin as I sat cross legged on a cushion, throbbed with electric pain with every heartbeat. Each time my mind wandered, a jolt of pain would wrench it back..

At first it was uncomfortable. Then, about 30 minutes in, it started to hurt. It became unbearable nearing the end. My left ankle, my right knee, my thighs, my lower back. They melded together into a lake of pain within which my mind hopped from lily pad to lily pad. At times the mind would simply drift down into the water itself, submerging into a comprehensive fire, drowning everything, and then I’d suddenly find myself adrift, lazily coasting in a canoe of future plans, or a raft of my past. As I noticed myself drifting, a flare would yank me back to the pain, and the hopping would continue.

At some point I thought the timer must have stopped. It had to be close to two hours by then. That text message I got must have overridden the timer, which is why I didn’t hear the halfway gong, because it had to be close to done. This was far longer than I’d ever sat before already, and light streamed through the window above me, which meant it must be close. My foot was on fire. An icicle pierced my knee. Shooting pain shouted at me to move. Adjust. Do SOMEthing to make it stop. But I hadn’t moved at all yet, so I just had to hold out a bit longer.

I heard a gong. Unfamiliar. Must be the halfway interval. I was an hour into my first unbroken 120-minute meditation, which meant I had that amount again to go. My foot screamed, my mind instinctually ran from the pain to the anticipated pride that was only 60-minutes away. I caught myself drifting again, and settled back into the fire. I noticed my right hip had tightened up only when it finally let go, as I relaxed the weight of my right leg deeper onto my left ankle.

I empathized with my left foot. It mobilized every force at its disposal, throwing the most intense, unyielding pain at my brain, and still my body did not relent. It stayed still, while I observed. The intensity shifted after a time, dissolving into pins and needles, and still I watched. The pins and needles dulled, or I was somehow more distant from them, and upon noticing this my mind suggested that my foot would be amputated as a result of this exercise. It wouldn’t survive, and I’d hobble the rest of my life. Too stubborn and stupid to walk again.

No. It was only two hours. People did this all the time, right? I stayed with it.

At some point the pain stopped being a problem. It didn’t go anywhere, but I wasn’t as involved with it, somehow. It throbbed, it burned, and my heartbeat amplified a deep electric current throughout my ankle and my foot, but all that was pretty ok. It was interesting to watch, more than anything. At first I watched mostly the pain, savoring the multiple layers and subtleties within the sensations. Then I followed the pain up my leg my waist my torso my brain and watched the birth of a compulsion that nearly moved my legs involuntarily. A kind of surety, that no matter what I’d sat with thus far, this time was different and I simply had to move or I’d do irreparable damage. I watched the thought fade away into mist, leaving only raw sensations.

I noticed myself thinking, then, that I’d done it. Like a marathoner passing the 13th mile, I’d gone past the pain and reached, what? Ecstasy? Not really. Enlightenment? No. No, but it was a kind of equilibrium. It appeared as though I’d reached a different relationship with the pain, in which the pain just was, and I just was, and we were both simply ok with that. I could sustain this forever, I felt. This peaceful reprieve, the eye of a whirling storm. And then my right knee lit up as if a knife had lifted up the kneecap.

It hit me hard, and I found myself swallowing reflexively. My first movement in forever. My hip relaxed again, and I saw the signals coming from my knee up my leg torso brain and again the compulsion to move. But I knew what happened next, this time. I felt the familiar electricity in my ankle, and knew I wouldn’t move. I settled into the pain in my knee, leaning into the knife while the blue jays chirped through the open window. I felt myself slipping underneath the water, being swallowed into the lake of fire. I felt a peace and stillness so big it enveloped everything, reducing my pain to an angry child in the distance. My angry child, I realized. I loved him. And I was grateful.

I heard the thump of my three-year old jumping out of bed, and there was a wave of sadness. I wouldn’t get to finish, I knew, and there was disappointment. Getting the kids fed and ready for the day was my job, and I couldn’t let them be downstairs alone with sharp things. I could say I made it 110-minutes, at least. It had to be close, for fuck’s sake. Maybe I could make it, I thought. I heard another thump, and a voice, “we can go downstairs, Leo. We can go and play downstairs and see mom and dad.” A rumble as they ran down the hallway and to the steps. I had to stop.

I closed my eyes. I lifted my hands up to my forehead, savoring every sensation, every glorious movement. I grabbed each knee in turn and, degree by degree, unfolded my legs. The pain evaporated into a dull ache, and I sat with myself on the cushion. I heard voices on the other side of the house. And then, the sound of the final gong. I had made it.

I smiled, and stood up, pushing off of my son’s fuzzy rocking sheep amidst the sense that I’d gained a kind of knowing, somehow. Something about pain, but it seemed even broader than that. I decided I’d have to think on it. I opened the door and followed my boys downstairs to make them breakfast.

I noticed my computer sitting on the kitchen table, triggering an impulse to answer an email I’d noticed the night before.

Friday Sabbatical

Whatever you’re doing this Friday, I invite you to pause. Just for a second. Or maybe for four days. Get outside and lay in the grass. Listen to the birds, the wind, the cars on the street. Smell the goddamn roses. Now is the time.

Here are five things that stuck with me this week:

  1. I finished Altered Traits: Science Reveals how Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain & Body this week. I’m a longtime meditator and can vouch for the subjective benefits of contemplation (which I think of as Concentration, Equanimity & Insight), but data does something profound to our Western brain’s willingness to accept new information. Good read if you’re interested in the objective science behind the subjective benefits (particularly interesting was the fact that many elite meditators spend their entire lives, both awake and asleep, awash in Gamma brain waves, whereas the normal human brain only experiences Gamma waves the moment it is hit with inspiration).
  2. If you’re looking for another reason to distaste Vladimir Putin, or maybe to like him, depending on your NFL team allegiances, I recommend reading this. I cracked up hearing Robert Kraft’s story about how Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. It somehow fits my view of Putin, who I know not at all but yet about whom I have opinions.
  3. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kind of augmented reality we each live in, as well as both the exquisite usefulness of that adaptive talent, and it’s cost. Seems to me there’s a time and place for our optimized interpretation or projection of reality, as well as a time and place to slow down and experience the real thing. The ideal would be to have psychological flexibility sufficient to toggle at will. The Reboot podcast created a graphic detailing the Ladder of Inference, which is effectively a map of what that toggling looks like in practice, and in what scenarios it would be done. Super interesting.
  4. The NBA is, knock on wood, going to finish their 2019-2020 season! Holy hell I haven’t been so excited in some time. Empty gyms, who cares! We have basketball! Coming to an Orlando near you in June/July. And, in the meantime, Apple just greenlit a “Last Dance-esque series about athletic greatness, featuring Lebron, Brady and more. We’re figuring out how sports work in the After, people.
  5. Has anyone used Bevy? I read about their recent financing round primarily because it was a bit backward that an events company raised $15m on the heels of Covid, but in reading into their community management / video software I was pretty intrigued. Might be useful for meditation groups.

And with the weather heating up, here’s a quote for the road:

Strawberries are too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfect ripe ones bruise at even too heavy a human touch…every strawberry you have ever eaten—every piece of fruit—has been picked by callused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represents someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandana on her wrist to wipe away the sweat.

— Alison Luterman

As always, please let me know what you think in the comments, or if you stumble upon something excellent I should be aware of let me know that as well.

Recognizing I live in augmented reality

I’ve outlined before the myriad ways human adults, as a rule, do not live in actual reality. We live in a type of augmented reality; which is to say reality, refracted through a distorted lens of beliefs, experience, bias and more.

This is a threatening concept for many, confronting the fact that the world one lives in is not the real world. Very Matrix-y. And it can be a tough concept to understand, particularly if you haven’t looked at your thinking through meditation (or another introspective analysis tool).

Michael Pollen describes how this happens in practical terms, in his book How to Change Your Mind, which may help to demystify the process:

“over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings. Each of us develops our shorthand ways of slotting and processing everyday experiences and solving problems, and while this is no doubt adaptive—it helps us get the job done with a minimum of fuss—eventually it becomes rote. It dulls us. The muscles of attention atrophy.

Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.)

If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up! And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over, as if from scratch.

The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing. We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence (AI) program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.”

That description may be sufficient to overcome the mental hurdle and gain ontological humility. For me, straightforward logic helps me understand intellectually, but often I find that to be very different from really getting something in my gut. For that, I usually need to see the dynamic in action.

Luckily this is possible, too. Actually, experiencing how inaccurately we perceive reality for ourselves is pretty straightforward.

The GIF below depicts a rotating mask.

It is rotating, not popping out, but because our mental machinery has been conditioned over our whole lives to assume any face is convex, it is nearly impossible to see the concave mask for what it is. We see clearly, but what we see clearly is 100% false (interesting that very small children can sometimes see the concave face, as their machinery has not yet locked in that particular default).

It’s so easy to think that the way we see the world is the way the world is. But like Mark Twain said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

I will try to remember this the next time I am sure I’m right.

(Title image: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45522095 )

Friday Sabbatical

Whatever you’re doing this Friday, I invite you to pause, and take a mini sabbatical. Listen to psychologist James Fadiman’s wishes for you, and for us all:

I hope whatever you’re doing;
you’re stopping now and then;
and;
not doing it at all.

Here are five things that stuck with me this week:

1. An old friend of mine from grad school, Eric Hultgren, had me on his Incredible Hult podcast to talk about meditation, only he didn’t tell me I was on a podcast when he called so I rambled on for a while thinking we were just catching up (in hindsight I should have known, but must have been distracted). I finally figured it out when he mentioned a takeaway for his listeners, and I started laughing. Anyway, the edited version hides this fact well, for which I credit Eric, but hopefully may make for a good listen anyway (I am a horrible critic of my own appearance, so caveat emptor).

2. I spent a long time this week with this article, an apparently-faithful summary of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind.” The book was recommended to me by multiple people in the same week (apparently the topic of meditation segues nicely into clinical psychedelic research), so I had to pick it up. My “to read” stack is ridiculously high, and nonfiction is usually good summarized so after reading the intro I finished the rest of the book via this article. For someone who grew up in the 90s, when psychedelics were evil and Tim Leary was the quintessential loser who’d thrown his life away to get high, this book is pretty eye opening. It is a history and status of psychedelic research in the states, punctuated by personal experiences recapped by Pollen himself. TL;DR: Psychedelics are actually very useful, and have a history of solving issues like depression and addiction at rates higher than anything else we’ve discovered. Politics shelved them, rather than efficacy, and they’ll finally be re-available soon.

3. As a resident of a tier 3 (or so) city, I’m excited at at least one of the possible dynamics of the COVID crisis: people fleeing the major cities for tier 2 and tier 3 cities, as Fred Wilson explains. With minimal reason to go into the office, people have less reason to live by where they work, making the whole country their oyster. You can work for a SV startup, and live in Idaho or Montana or Michigan. The implications of this on property value, multiculturalism in GR (remember we’re the 13th best place to live), and the electoral college are encouraging.

4. So we’re opening up soon, following Georgia and others. From casual cul de sac conversation it sounds like this is being interpreted to mean that we’re getting slightly safer. Maybe that’s right, but math (and this guy) keeps telling me that less restrictions = more people infected = higher chance I’ll get infected = less safe. So while everything may open up, I’m curious to see what that means to the actual populace. Will people let the dogs out, or did people pay attention in the first day of algebra?

5. I just bought this card game. I like game night more than most, and though it’s been a while I am fully prepared to do a zoom version (if I can talk Laura into it). If you like Cards Against Humanity, this looks better (caveat: I have not yet played, but if you look you’ll know what I mean).

As always, please let me know what you think in the comments, or if you stumble upon something excellent I should be aware of let me know that as well.

Transformed Relationships through language

This week’s On Being newsletter, The Pause, made me reflect.

Here’s the newsletter:

The simple act of checking in with one another feels different now. What was once a cursory, even automatic, “How are you?” has often softened into, “How are you holding up?” or, “How are you doing today?” It’s as if these two extra words, appended to our usual greeting, are an invitation to be honest about how we’re feeling — to say something other than “good” or “fine.”

Writer Ocean Vuong has long noticed how we grow numb to language when it’s ubiquitous, rote, rehearsed — and what’s at stake when we stop examining the words we use. Krista spoke with him at On Air Fest in Brooklyn back in March, just days before the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic. Even then, he said “How are you?” doesn’t go deep enough.

“What happens to our language, this great, advanced technology that we’ve had, when it starts to fail at its function and it starts to obscure, rather than open?” Vuong asks in this week’s On Being. “The great loss is that we can move through our whole lives, picking up phones and talking to our most beloveds, and yet, still not know who they are. Our ‘How are you?’ has failed us. We have to find something else.”

This task — to find something else — falls on all of us. As Vuong says, we’re all “participants in the future of language” each time we speak or write: “When you’re using language, you can create it, use it to divide people and build walls, or you can turn it into something where we can see each other more clearly, as a bridge.”

Maybe this is one way of asking: How can we choose words that allow us into one another’s lives, especially in a time when language is one of our few remaining ways to connect? Vuong beckons us toward the freshness of tomorrows, just at the tips of our tongues.

I’m experiencing this dynamic in nearly every conversation. Even though we’re connecting over Zoom, these days even in the business world my conversations are of a depth that was rare when we were all busily living our normal lives. It’s as if there’s a mostly unspoken understanding that we’re all human, underneath all our efforts to grow our businesses and careers, and we’re all struggling right now. And recognizing this, we speak differently. We ask the questions we’ve always asked, like How Are You?, but for real. We don’t feign interest in how someone is doing, we simply are interested, without trying.

When everything was normal it was easy to focus on only the task at hand, but our shared tragedy has made it socially acceptable, and in fact natural, to care about one another as people, even in a business context. The walls we create around ourselves, the solidity, have been shaken, and for the first time in maybe a while we can see that underneath all the achieving and crushing it, we’re all, in the end, vulnerable. Groundless. Human.

That part of all this, at least, is wonderful.

It’ll be easy to reflexively reconstruct the walls when we start rebooting everything, but I don’t plan to. I feel more alive and connected with others now, through Zoom, than I had IRL for a long time, and I plan to intentionally create the space for this type of connection in my business meetings moving forward (whatever the vehicle). So, don’t be surprised if I ask you how you’re doing, and I really want to know.

Another important relationship

I am thankful for this Pause (both the newsletter and the societal one) for opening up a space for us to relate more deeply with one another. But for me it also mirrors the question of how we relate to ourselves.

It’s natural for me to get so caught up in today’s to-do list that I relate to myself—my emotions, difficulties, needs, my humanity—as things in the way, obstacles to be managed on my way to getting wherever I’m going. It’s easy and normal to relate to myself in the functional way I have for so long related to others. Hi how are you good I’m good too what is the purpose of this interaction? I might wake up tired or sad or excited, and my relationship to those realities is usually to push them aside so I can get shit done. I think I went 10 years without ever intentionally checking in with myself, never mind giving whatever the answer was space to be ok.

I wonder if, in the same way we’re giving each other space to be real people, as opposed to a role serving a function, we might learn to give ourselves the same space.

As we learn about the depth of relationship possible when we just care about one another as people, and we learn how seamless it is to transform all of our relationships in this way through language, I wonder if the same might be true of our relationship with ourselves.

I wonder the impact would be, if we asked ourselves how we were doing, and meant it?

Friday sabbatical

Whatever you’re doing this Friday, I invite you to pause, and take a mini sabbatical.

Stop trying to figure things out. Stop trying to make sense of things, to control them, to steer them, and just watch. Let go of producing outcomes, and simply see what’s left in their absence. Consciously look, and see what life feels like, without the rush.

You can live in that place, even if it doesn’t make sense. Just ask Winston Churchill:

“The human story does not always unfold like an arithmetical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life they make five, or minus three, and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye. The element of the unexpected and the unforeseeable is what gives some of its relish to life, and saves us from falling into the mechanic thraldom of the logicians.”

Here are five things that stuck with me this week:

1. I’ve always been frustrated by the game of politics. Specifically I think my beef is that nobody seems to have any genuine opinions or beliefs or backbone of their own, instead simply toeing the party line on virtually all issues. It’s difficult for me to believe that our elected representatives are all automatons who cannot think for themselves, but a dispassionate alien watching from one of those recently declassified UFO’s could be forgiven for believing just that. So this piece in Rolling Stone, in which climate crusader Bill McKibben flames climate crusader(?) Michael Moore, was instructive for me.

Both of these guys are on the same side, with similar goals to save the planet, but McKibben is furious at Moore for essentially breaking with party lines, and releasing a movie critiquing McKibben’s work. I have no idea which of these fine gents is in the right here, but McKibben makes it clear in the piece that more important than that is that they’re on the same side, and therefore that they should prioritize building their movement (through compromising and consciously adjusting their own perspectives to fit with those of the movement, ostensibly) over having an intelligent, public, inter-movement debate. I get why this is necessary, to project a unified message to the rest of the public who will never dive anywhere close to deep into this topic and really just wants someone else to tell them what to think, but we see in national politics what can happen when people stop thinking for themselves and start compromising to gain followers. There’s got to be a counterforce to this type of partisanship, but hell if I know what it is.

2. Marc Andreesen said at one point in advocacy of learning to code, “in the future, either you will tell computers what to do, or computers will tell you what to do.” If you’re out of work, there might not be a better use of your time during COVID than to learn how to code (national average salary of software engineer: $92k). Unemployment benefits are good right now, but they’re not $92k. And Codecademy, one of the leading online resources for people looking to learn how to code, is offering free scholarships for displaced workers (details on AVC.com). If this is you, it’s possible that the lights may never again be more green to finally learn how to code.

3. Of course, software engineering as a discipline is also at the forefront of the pay equity movement, which will only increase pay in that sector over time, probably at a rate disproportionate to the rest of the economy. As we as a society move, slowly, many of us kicking and screaming (including me, for a long time), toward pay equity and transparency, those brave souls willing to take the risk first (including not only people like this writer, but also companies like Buffer who transparently pay all employees based on an objective formula) inspire me.

4. I loved this video. Disclaimer: it’s a bit cheesy, and comes from the privileged perspective of those not actively affected by or fighting COVID. That said, watching it filled me with hope that amidst all the death and struggle, perhaps, if we are intentional about it, we humans might make some good out of all this. It offers the question: what will you do differently, once restrictions are lifted? Of course you can ask that question at any point in your life, but I’m not sure I’ve lived through a time in which the answer had as much freedom and leverage.

5. Last year at the NBA Tech Summit, I had the opportunity to see Steve Ballmer, owner of the Clippers, give a demo of Second Spectrum in action. I forgot about it until this week, when I read this piece in Fast Company about how the company’s AR tech is positioned to reinvent the way we consume sports. From the piece:

Most of the 18 screens mounted on the wall of Second Spectrum’s small control room were showing versions of that same Clippers game. In one of them, the Xs and Os of the offensive plays that the teams were running were superimposed over the action. On another, the chance that each offensive player had of making a shot, recalculated in real time, was displayed beneath him as he moved around the court. Whenever a player on either team scored or grabbed a rebound, his updated statistics flashed on the screen. A third variation overlaid plays with explosions, shaking baskets, and licks of fire, as in a video game. A fourth combined elements of the first three. It was as if a producer were able to see a minute or two into the future and continuously layer in relevant graphic elements as the game unfolded. No live producer is capable of that, of course. “But AI is.”

I suppose I’m a purist, in that I actually like to watch full basketball games, on a real TV, and even in the stadium if I can. I know that makes me old school in the way that the NBA thinks of their fans, as increasingly they’re seeing fans watch primarily highlights, broken down ad infinitum, across multiple screens, while chatting with friends and randoms and gambling in real time over the outcome of the next play. I like to concentrate on the beauty of the game for its own sake, which is probably why I wasn’t hooked by the video game demo of the tech when I saw it last year. But then sports stopped, and when it starts it won’t have fans, and my perspective is considerably more open these days.

I still think sports are going to feel empty without fans in the stands, but it’s clear that smart people are going to try to make us not care. I hope they are successful. I’m imagining myself strapping on a headset and logging into NextVR, paying a tiered fee to login to one of the thousands of 360-degree cameras installed in place of fans in the stadium, and watching a version of the game alongside thousands of other virtual fans from the perspective of that specific camera. I can’t decide if that excites me or depresses me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I get to find out soon.

As always, please let me know what you think in the comments, or if you stumble upon something excellent I should be aware of let me know that as well.

The indivisible grayness of COVID (or: how can we go back to work without going back to the way things were?)

I read this article in WIRED today, sent to me by the lovely and thoughtful Laura, and found much of it resonating. It’s becoming more and more common (thankfully) to discuss the use of this weird COVID time to reevaluate our lives. Many people now have recited the adage “don’t waste a good crisis,” myself included, and while our brothers and sisters on the front line continue to wage war, the rest of us have what is for the first time looking like a finite window to get out of this thing whatever lesson we’re going to take from it.

But despite the increasing frequency of the question on my Zoom calls the world over, a clear answer eludes us.

What lesson are we supposed to learn?

As David Foster Wallace examined in his famous commencement address This Is Water (which I have never quoted more in daily life and therefore surely has never been more relevant), we all live in a society which, far from objective, actually has very real and influential opinions about how things ought to be. We’re all swimming in water with uniquely American characteristics to which we conform with minimal question and about which, were we asked about it two months ago, we would have been completely blind.

From where I’m sitting, COVID has given us the opportunity to step out of the water for a moment. And looking back, we can now see those characteristics clearly, in all their unnecessary, manufactured usefulness/manipulation (depending on your perspective).

As they told me in AA, “the first step is admitting there is a problem.” It seems to me that, increasingly, we now see problems wrapped within the water in which we’ve been swimming, but the specifics around those problems differ drastically depending on our perspective.

Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” So before we jump to solving anything, perhaps it’s worth examining what problem is actually worth solving.

From one perspective, we see the economic toll this has taken on the economy, and we feel personally impacted via our work and the accompanying trappings (finances, savings, maybe purpose for some of us). We have less money, less security (or at least a less sustainable illusion of it), and generally it feels like we just need to get everybody back to work to return things to normal.

Harvard Business Review focused on the question:

Millions of Americans — especially those who have been most impoverished by the forced shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic — want to return to work. But with the Trump administration now urging Americans to stay at home until May 1 and the likelihood that a vaccine against the disease won’t be widely available for 12 to 18 months, how can we safely make that happen?

Or stated more colorfully by perhaps the most successful entrepreneur alive Elon Musk:

“To say that they cannot leave their house and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic, this is not freedom, give people back their god damn freedom…Free America Now!”

From this side, we’re being held back from living the productive lives we want, and exercising our freedom to move about, have experiences, work hard and buy stuff. I empathize. I would like to leave my house, play basketball and make money. I like money. And I also own a business, which is facing literal death due to the shutdown of schools and sports which no broken PPP program has yet addressed, which would have an immense impact on people through loss of income. We need to get people back to work. I’m on board.

But from the other side the same crisis looks vastly different. We see the way we’ve been living our lives in constant busyness, convinced unquestioningly that if we just hustle harder, or wake up earlier, or self optimize more, we’ll finally be safe, secure and happy. But:

The idea that hustling can save you from calamity is an article of faith, not fact—and the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to shake the collective faith in individual striving. The doctrine of “workism” places the blame for global catastrophe squarely on the individual: If you can’t get a job because jobs aren’t there, you must be lazy, or not hustling hard enough. That’s the story that young and young-ish people tell themselves, even as we’ve spent the whole of our brief, broke working lives paying for the mistakes of the old, rich, and stupid. We internalized the collective failures of the ruling class as personal failings that could be fixed by working smarter, or harder, or both—because that, at least, meant that we might be able to fix them ourselves.

The cult of productivity doesn’t have an answer for this crisis. Self-optimizing will not save us this time, although saying so feels surprisingly blasphemous. This isn’t happening because you didn’t work hard enough, and it won’t be fixed by optimizing your morning routines and adopting a can-do attitude. After the quarantine, after we count the lives lost or ruined, recession is coming. A big one. For millennials, it’s the second devastating economic calamity in our short working lives, and we’re still carrying the trauma of the first. This time, though, we know it’s not our fault. This time it’s abundantly clear that we didn’t deserve it. And this is exactly the sort of crisis that gives people ideas about overturning the social order.

In writing this it’s tempting to try to polarize this paradox — to analyze which type of people see the crisis in which terms, and segment them into clean buckets. It’s tempting to say, “so which is it?”

Is it political, meaning one’s perspective correlates to her leanings, either republican or democrat? Is it generational, as the writer seems to allude, and we’re really talking about a culture war between the old and rich and the young and used? Is it the one percent versus the proletariat? Something else?

It’s so tempting to try to create these buckets because understanding it makes it feel a bit more under control. Even though we haven’t yet been able to fix partisan politics, the fact that we can talk about it in terms we mutually understand feels like progress. We want to feel like we’re making progress here, too.

But it also makes it easier to stop thinking. Creating buckets of thought in this way clarifies the right way of seeing things, and creates an Other–a group of people who hold the Wrong View. It separates a gray area into black and white components and, with the view-holder obviously vindicated as correct, empowers us to think only of how to convince those on the other side, rather than wrestle with the ambiguity of the actual problem.

Near as I can tell, the problem presented by COVID, and the accompanying lessons offered, are, like politics, uncomfortably gray. Focusing our efforts on understanding and solving for the gray seems infinitely more worthwhile than repeatedly pointing out the fact that within the gray are black and white components, and trying to solve for which is superior.

It is difficult for me to believe that any human can believe something that is 100% false, with no truth or value to it whatsoever. Nothing in life is that binary. It seems as though both must be true, to one degree or another, and the question really comes down to: what must be so, such that the core of both viewpoints can be considered true, on their own terms? What is the greater whole, of which each viewpoint is a part?

One way of phrasing it might be: “How can we go back to work, but not back to the way things were?”

I wonder if that’s not the problem worth solving.

And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Friday Sabbatical

Whatever you’re doing this Friday, I invite you to pause, and take a mini sabbatical. Take a deep breath. Now consider that each breath you take is an extremely intimate embrace with every tree around you, and that those trees are simultaneously embracing every other being on the planet. Though you may be quarantined, you are not alone.

Here are five things that stuck with me this week:

1. One of many highlights from The Universe in Verse, this animated short film accompanies an amazing poem which I won’t spoil with a description. Just watch it, and if it moves you pass it along. (and here are the rest of the highlights)

2. I’m really enjoying reading the paper version of the NYT each Sunday, not the least because it helps with discovery. The digital version is so tailored to the stuff I tend to click on, that I miss a ton of content that is slightly off-fairway but I would really enjoy. This week’s edition included one such piece by Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk (he of the amazing novel Snow I read with my near-teenage book club), titled What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us. Pamuk is three years into writing a pandemic novel, and in the midst of the incredibly deep research accompanying that project he has gained some important context into how societies from around the world tend to respond to pandemics throughout history. Highly recommend this article for context into how, while inept and harmful, our administration’s response to all this is actually not at all uncommon over human history.

3. I let my YouTube TV subscription lapse, confident in my not needing it due to the dearth of sports. Then resubscribed once the Jordan documentary was launched, because, well, my oldest’s middle name is Jordan, and he sticks his tongue out when he dunks on the Fisher Price hoop on our deck. Not a ton of air, at three years old, but we’ll get there. He’s at least got the shoes.

Anyway, Jordan aside I’m a Pistons fan through and through, so it was disappointing that the ESPN documentary deliberately skips a key point in the Stons feud with MJ — MJ trashing them the day before the game — when telling the story of how the Pistons walked off the court with a few seconds to go in the final game of a playoff sweep. It omits the fact that Jordan told the media the day before the game:

“The Pistons are undeserving champions,” Jordan said on the day between Games 3 and 4 in Detroit in 1991. “The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.”

basically trashing their back to back titles, and simply says the Pistons walked off, absent any context, so they look like “bitches,” as Horace Grant puts it. Since ESPN obviously knows this, the omission must have come aat Jordan’s request. In an era of Relative Facts, I suppose this may be normal, and history is written by the victors, etc etc. Plus, Jordan is notoriously competitive, which is close cousin to vindictive, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, but still, disappointed in my man MJ for picking and choosing his facts to support his narrative. Perhaps holding a grudge over a missed handshake for 30 years is the price of Jordan’s level of success.

4. Twitter VC/philosopher Naval Ravikant again, this time with 10 insights on meditation. For the futurists among us, this is a good, punchy look at the practical side of the practice. I especially like the drastically understated #7 on the list, referring to the realization one gains through sufficient meditation that one does not exist in the way one expected. And I’m done with Naval links after this. He gets enough love.

5. I just finished The Midnight Gospel on Netflix. First off, I never watch these types of cartoons. Frankly I rarely watch any TV that is not sports, which means I watch zippo these days (NBA fake news aside). And honestly, looking at the cover of this show I feel like I would have to be on serious drugs to enjoy it. Caveat caveat, caveat caveat, caveat caveat caveat…

This show blew my mind and right now I think it’s in my top shows of all time list.

Think of it like a very intelligent podcast (first guest Dr. Drew, if you were wondering what he’d gotten up to these days), tackling topics like the meaning of life, spirituality, psychedelic substances, and what happens when we die (hosted by Duncan Trussell, creator of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour), laid on top of an LSD trip cartoon in the way that The Wizard of Oz supposedly synchs up with Dark Side of the Moon. Only for real. The last episode was surely the first time I’ve cried at two cartoon planets conversing. It’s surreal, it’s bizarre, it’s smart, it’s profound, it’s deep, it’s funny, it’s sad, and if those adjectives sound appealing I can’t recommend it highly enough. Just, wow.

6. Freebie. Loved this video from an astronaut, and the sentence: “we need to behave like crew members on planet earth, not just passengers.” Beautiful.

As always, please let me know what you think in the comments, or if you stumble upon something excellent I should be aware of let me know that as well.

For leaders, meditation is more useful than business school

Meditation makes people better leaders, and when done consistently can be more effective than any knowledge on leadership one could acquire, or class on leading one could take. Hard stop.

If you are in a leadership position, nearly all acquired knowledge (including any degree on which you spent many tens of thousands of dollars) is obsolete the moment it’s acquired, given the pace of change today. By definition, leadership involves facing and navigating ambiguity and change and helping others to do the same, a task at which acquired knowledge, or even practice, produces outcomes only about 1% better than doing nothing at all. As Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList, prolific angel investor and Twitter philosopher says, “there’s no skill called ‘business’” that you can learn.

Much better, then, to develop your ability to navigate change and uncertainty. Better to hone your ability to make good decisions, free from unconscious bias, and invest in your ability to connect with, understand, and lead your people. These are the traits of a successful leader today.

Those are also the results one can expect of meditation.

Three offerings of meditation

Leaders are often driven by attaining goals — by success. This makes meditation hard to navigate for some at first because, by its nature, meditation is about letting go. Any amount of chasing “good meditation” will only bring you farther away from the remarkable benefits that it can bring.

That said, if you haven’t already developed a practice and are wondering why anyone would invest in “sitting quietly not doing much” rather than checking another email off the list or attending leadership classes, allow me to suggest that one would choose meditation if one wanted to strengthen the following three attributes: Concentration. Equanimity. Insight.

Concentration:

— the action or power of focusing one’s attention or mental effort

It seems like anyone should be able to focus on something for a minute, without getting distracted by thought. It’s only a minute, right?

Neuroscientist Sam Harris offers an experiment, to test this:

See if you can stop thinking for the next 60 seconds.  You can notice your breath, or listen to the birds, but do not let your attention be carried away by thought, any thought, even for an instant.   Some of you will be so distracted by thought as to imagine that you succeeded.  In fact, beginning meditators often think that they are able to concentrate on a single object, such as the breath, for minutes at a time, only to report after days or weeks of intensive practice that their attention is now carried away by thought every few seconds.  This is actually progress.  It takes a certain degree of concentration to even notice how distracted you are.  Even if your life depended on it, you could not spend a full minute free of thought.

Meditation is, in essence, practicing focusing. Whether the object of meditation is the breath, a mantra, or even if you’re practicing objectless meditation like Shikantaza, you’re directly flexing your concentration muscle. And like any muscle, over time it gets get stronger.

Leadership is distracting, by nature. Between status updates with team members, strategy sessions, business development, fire dousing and the rest, most leaders can’t afford much time to dive deep into focused time, regardless of how important they know it to be (hint: it’s not just leaders). Being distracted and “busy” has become so ingrained in our culture that we glorify fundamentally impossible things like multitasking. But that really only serves as an emotional justification for our painful inability to focus.

The reality is, to make progress in anything requires focus, and the more consecutive moments of focus you can muster on a single item, the quicker progress happens. Particularly in leadership, when you must dive into a situation, focus, and then jump out quickly before diving back into another situation, the ability to focus deeply on a problem or situation at will without getting distracted is critical.

You may not make it a minute, but meditation is the most direct way to ratchet up your Concentration stamina.

Equanimity:

mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation

We notice things happening as we move throughout the world, but most of us don’t also notice the corresponding sensation in our body or thought in our mind. For every thing that happens in your external world, there is a corresponding internal marker, whether it be a body sensation, a thought or an emotion.

Whether conscious or not, most people spend most of their lives managing these sensations, thinking they’re operating within an external world. Two of the biggest triggers for people are change and uncertainty, which our mid- and post-COVID world has in spades. The world might trigger an emotion like dread (say your Controller says to you: “we need to talk”), which if unnoticed can literally color your entire reaction to the situation, and drive suboptimal outcomes that you look back on with regret. Not that I know anything about that.

Meditation gives us a space to see this mechanism in action. To literally watch the sensory nature of our world, and watch how those sensations trigger habitual reactions. To see dread for what it is: a mix of sensations, thoughts and emotions, none of which mean much at all despite their perceived intensity. And sitting still with our eyes closed, meditation offers the opportunity to practice experiencing these sensations without automatically reacting. 

Through meditative practice, you develop your ability to experience thoughts/feelings/sensations as they are, without reacting to them, judging them, or needing to change or add to them. So that in situations of intense emotion, instead of making a reflexive decision you regret, you develop your ability to pause, let the feeling happen, and then act. You develop the power to remain calm in crazy situations, not because you’re not feeling the craziness, but because you’ve trained in how to manage it.

In other words, you develop Equanimity.

Insight:

direct, experiential understanding into the true nature of things

You probably think you know the true nature of things already — that you live in reality. If so, you’re wrong.

Not because Elon Musk is right and we’re living in a computer simulation, but because your mind has created innumerable virtual realities to help it navigate the world, and then mistakes those abstractions for the real thing.

This is helpful in many cases. For example, I can type many words per minute on this keyboard because my mind has created a mental model of how words translate to letters and then to finger strokes. I don’t have to interact with the actual complexity of the keyboard, the electricity that powers it and the connections to the black pixels appearing on the screen (reality), nor do I want to. It’s useful to live in the reality of simply words showing up on the screen while my hands go on autopilot. We do this type of abstraction to everything in our world, thereby isolating ourselves from reality in a bubble of abstractions, which we interact with as if they are actually real. Much of the time it’s a superpower, without which society as we know it would not be possible.

But this process of abstracting reality can also prevent us from seeing truths that are right in front of us, and actively inhibit us from making good decisions. Such as if we develop an abstract model of Bob from accounting as reliable and happy, and relate to him as such all the way until he blindsides us with his two week notice. As Mark Twain said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Ray Dalio, billionaire hedge fund owner, author of the amazing book Principles, and possibly the most intentional decision maker in the world, agrees, adding, “Most people make bad decisions because they’re so certain they’re right that they don’t allow themselves to see the better alternatives that exist.”

In other words, we interact with our mental models of reality as if they were real, and in doing so miss key aspects of a situation that, were we to see them, might change our perspective. Our version of reality has blind spots (if you’re still skeptical, try this experiment).

Dalio (unsurprisingly an avowed meditator himself) elaborates, calling out two key inhibitors to good decision making within our distorted version of reality: Ego and Blind Spots. Said Dalio, “the two biggest barriers to good decision making are your ego and your blind spots. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about you and your circumstances and to make the best possible decisions by getting the most out of others. If you can understand how the machine that is the human brain works, you can understand why these barriers exist and how to adjust your behavior to make yourself happier, more effective, and better at interacting with others.”

To maximize our potential as leaders, we must develop the ability to discern between useful abstractions like the keyboard, and harmful ones like our ego or beliefs based on faulty and unexamined premises. This skill requires first the humility to admit our perception of reality is fundamentally inaccurate at virtually all times (useful sometimes, yes, but still wrong), and second the willingness and ability to dissect our perception into its parts to determine what is actually true or useful, and what is not.

Enter meditation.

Through meditation we learn to understand reality on reality’s terms, seeing our biases, beliefs and other mental landmines in action. Seeing the mechanistic nature of our thoughts first hand while meditating has the affect of loosening our attachment to them, and giving us the choice to not respond or react. Meditation is a direct path to understanding how the machine that is the human brain works.

One of the early insights gained by meditators is that one is not the same as one’s thoughts; in fact, it doesn’t take much meditation at all to learn that we don’t actually have much control over our thoughts at all. So when you get the thought that you should fire off that angry email, coupled with tension throughout your body and mind, it’s easier to see it for the meaningless sensation it is, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with you, and simply wait for it to pass. Or, once you see that you have a tendency toward outsized optimism in the face of risk, or an unreasonable fear around running out of money regardless of your balance sheet, or that you’re hiring your father over and over again to work out unresolved childhood issues, to name three examples that have nothing to do with anyone we know, you then have the choice to intentionally tare out those biases, and make related decisions consciously (easier said than done in some cases, surely, but worth it in every case).

This is Insight in the context of meditation. The ability to see reality as it is, not as you are, and in doing so position yourself to make better decisions, connect more authentically with your people, and lead more effectively.

OK I’m in. So now what?

Download an app

If you’re just getting started, download a meditation app. There’s no wrong way to meditate, but there are definitely ways that work better than others, and having a pro walk you through it is infinitely more efficient than simply sitting quietly and thinking about your breath. Like camera phones, the best meditation teacher is the one you have in your pocket.

I recommend Waking Up by Sam Harris. He cuts through a lot of the unnecessary stuff that can get lumped in with meditation and focuses strictly on the practical. Other options are Headspace (popular), Insight Timer (behemoth), Calm and more. But if you’re unsure, go Waking Up.

Find a teacher

If you’re past the app stage, there are thousands of types of meditation you can practice, and any number of teachers, past and present, who you can look to for guidance on deepening your practice. I’m an avid reader, and so have found myself influenced deeply by specific authors and books. Here’s a short list of books I’d recommend on the topic:

Additionally, if you live in a major metro there are likely teachers who will work with you one on one as you deepen your practice. Finding someone like this is worth many, many books.. In Michigan, I primarily work with, and can vouch for:

Find a community

According to the guy who wrote the book on creating successful habits, James Clear, “The key, if you want to build habits that last, is to join a group where the desired behavior is the normal behavior.”

I am in violent agreement with regard to meditation. People approach meditation as a private thing (mental health being, unhelpfully, taboo in western culture), and understandably fall off the wagon at a high percentage. Your chances of developing a sustainable habit increase dramatically if you surround yourself with like minded folks with the same goals.

There are many meditation communities you can find via Google (typically called Sangha). Many are Buddhist, many are other traditions. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I’ve found that many sects of Buddhism are very accessible, so don’t let the specificity of the tradition dissuade you.

Or, if you’d prefer to practice amongst a group of your business peers in a non-theistic setting, contact me about joining one of my private Meditation for Leaders groups called The Quieting.

As Ramana Maharshi said, “Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”

The path to becoming a great leader is fraught with stones and thorns. Rather than reading book after book about where the stones and thorns are, meditate and make yourself some damn shoes.

Meditation Groups for Business Leaders

In the latest of a string of very odd life transitions, I’ve now begun running meditation groups for business leaders.

It started on a whim. I’ve been meditating regularly for going on a decade now, throughout which time it has been a foundational part of my daily axe sharpening, but has always been a private practice. Perhaps because I wanted a community to challenge my ideas and increase the pace of my mental training, or perhaps because we’re all locked in our houses, either way it seemed to me one day that now was the time to start a meditation group for business leaders and entrepreneurs. So I did.

I’ve always had a plan for everything I’ve done. I’ve always had goals, a vision, timelines, the works. For this group I have none of that. I have no idea where it’s going and I check myself every time I begin to care. It’s not about getting somewhere, or becoming something. It’s an expression, it’s organic, and it’s beautiful.

It’s like art. So much so that along the way one of the members of the group started creating beautiful, interpretive art about his experience meditating:

In any event, after a month with the first group people are digging it enough that they’ve started to tell other business leaders, and what started on a whim has now blossomed into three separate Meditation & Leadership groups (capitalized now), spanning multiple states.

The working title of this community is “The Quieting.” And here’s the logo:

What a weird and wonderful ride this has been, I commented to a friend and group member. He said, “I think it’s going to get even weirder.” I can’t wait.

Meditation has radically changed my life. I am not the only one; Ray Dalio and Jerry Colonna (not to mention Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and all the ones you’ve already heard of) would attest. So I am deeply grateful to get to share that passion with the world, particularly in a business context. The benefits of meditation (equanimity & insight, the subject of another post) are so profound, and so profoundly useful, to leaders, that it’s incredible it’s not standard curriculum in B-school. Either way, knowing what my meditation practice has given me, I am thrilled to share what I’ve learned, and work alongside amazing leaders from every industry to journey inward.

I have no idea what’s to come of the Quieting groups I find myself running. Maybe this is all it is, and that will be enough. Or maybe it grows into something else. [shrugs]

I have no idea, and am loving the freedom in that. But I do know that the combined impact of all the amazing people involved will be incredible, both immediately in leading us through COVID, and over the long term as the world continues to spin.

I may have no five year plan, and no milestones. But I do have a hunch that it’s going to be good.


If you’re interested in learning more about The Quieting, please contact me.

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap