Why is this interesting? The Meditation Edition
On Vipassana, focus, and pattern recognition
Steve Bryant (SB) is a content strategy consultant, co-founder of the midnight costumed adventure Rental Car Rally, founding editor of InsideHook, triangle enthusiast, and a longtime friend of WITI (he wrote our very first guest edition on Maslow and a recent edition on Pythagoras).
Steve here. Surely I’m not alone in noticing that meditation—the act of it, the instagramming of it, the performance maximization mindset of it—is, these days, everywhere.
Marc Benioff does it. Ray Dalio does it. Eileen Fisher. Steph Curry. The Seattle Seahawks. Bobby Axelrod meditates in Billions. The show’s three creators practice, too. Don Draper created the most famous Coke jingle in history while om-om’ing on a cliff. Some executives, when about to meditate, say they’re “gonna drop in”, as if visiting some inner conference room where the meeting’s already in progress.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, too and famously, took a ten-day Vipassana course in Myanmar, though it’s left to the reader to decide whether it’s appropriate for a man who launched a billion chatterbots to grant himself the peace of silence.
Why is this interesting?
Meditation, to judge by its corporate and power-performer reception, has lately become a lifehack. Nitrous oxide for the noggin. Game theory-optimal transcendence. And while the act of meditation hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 2,500 years—you still mostly sit cross-legged while quieting your mind—its more recent application in pursuit of material wealth is a far cry from its ascetic origins.
Somewhere near Nepal around the 5th century BCE, as the story goes, Siddhartha Gotama Buddha sat beneath a tree and taught his followers to train the mind to withdraw from automatic responses to sense-impressions—that is, to stop reacting to everything happening around them. This is the Buddhist root of meditation.
The problem, the Buddha taught, was that humans crave things. We seek pleasure (sex, ice cream). We avoid pain (breakups, brain freeze). But the gratification of getting that pleasure or the gratification of avoiding that pain doesn’t last. So we want more pleasure. We want less pain. Biologically, this is a great system for creating offspring or avoiding sabretooth tigers. Capitalistically, it’s a great system for developing dating apps and oxycontin. Emotionally, however, it seems best suited for remaining in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. The Buddha’s lesson was that you can sidestep this cycle of craving by regulating, through meditation, how you respond to your own desires.
In other words, the original idea wasn’t to discipline your thinking so you could get more of what you want. The original idea was to discipline your thinking so you wouldn’t want more.
That said, there is no “one true way” to meditate, even within Buddhism. There are hundreds (thousands?) of meditation techniques arising from tens (hundreds?) of philosophical backgrounds. Some disciplines train you to focus on your breathing. Others on compassionate feelings. Some disciplines ask you to repeat a mantra for 15 minutes a day. Others ask you to eat only one meal a day, ponder the hairs on your head, and strive to attain the deathless.
If you’ve encountered meditation in the West, it’s likely a form of Theravāda Buddhism (vipassanā, mettā) or Vedantic Hinduism (Transcendental Meditation). Those, along with pretty people on Instagram sitting cross-legged in Tulum, are the major contributors to the Western conception of mindfulness.
I learned meditation through a ten-day course at the Northern Vipassanā Center, about three hours north of San Francisco up along Highway 175. This was a few years back. There was no talking. No reading. No phones. No internet. Just ten days of meditating on mats and eating vegetarian and sleeping in a bunk room and repeat, from 4:30 in the morning until 9 at night. There wasn’t even any coffee.
The practice itself is simple in its particulars, difficult in its consistency. You sit. You focus attention on your breath. As you learn to focus your breath, you begin to focus on sensations in your body. Itching, aching, tickling, whatever. You’re taught not to judge these sensations. You’re taught to recognize that every sensation has the same characteristics—they rise, they fall away. Good or bad, pleasant or painful. Whatever is happening is just happening. Be aware, as the teacher says, and yet remain equanimous.
It’s easy to appreciate the practice intellectually. Breathe through your nose, experience pain, don’t judge that pain, ok got it. It’s quite another thing entirely to appreciate this physically when your back aches, and your knees ache, and your head aches, when your nose itches and your toes tingle and you remain sitting in a single position, unmoving, for an hour at a time, twelve hours a day, ten days in a row. As all distractions fall away, you’re left only with your mental reaction to sensation. When you’re forced to observe how you react to every sensation, you begin to realize that reacting to sensation is all you ever do. When I began meditating, I visualized these ideas in the form of a Cartesian grid (or, if you like, a 2x2). There is no future, there is no past, there is only right now, how do you feel:
Meditation is, in this way, a method of confronting your feelings, rather than enabling them. It’s also a form of pattern recognition, where the pattern you recognize is yourself. And it’s also a way of developing decision-making muscle memory (Sam Harris, the insufferable podcast host, has referred to meditative long-milers as “neural athletes”).
But where the training gets very interesting, to me, is on the internet—a non-physical problem space you navigate almost entirely using your mind. That problem space consists entirely of a rapid series of decision points. Select window A or window B, click button X or button Y, scroll feed C or feed D. Any feeling you want to have—watch a movie, trade a stock, order sushi or sex—is a click away. Yes, life has always been a series of decisions. But once the physical effort and consequence of those decisions is removed, what you’re left with is an ever-quickening series of mind-only moments. You don’t have to drive to the movies. You don’t have to call your broker to order equities. Sushi and sex come to you. Less effort, more results, more often. Aldous Huxley had it all wrong: you don’t even need drugs.
To say this another way, and simply: meditation is a tool for realizing you are, in fact, making decisions. A life lived increasingly online is a life increasingly constructed by the subtlest decision-making moments (not to mention an intermittent and variable barrage of alerts). The more you’re aware of those decisions, the more you’re aware of your reactions, the more in control of yourself you become.
The trick, as a teacher once intoned, is that only you can make those decisions. Only you are responsible for your own salvation. So you ache, says the Buddha. You want more pleasure, you want less pain. So what? (SB)
Chart of the Day:
From the FT. I knew Microsoft had done well converting its revenue from transaction to recurring, but I didn’t realize just how fast they had made the switch. To go from around 40% to around 80% in ten years is quite a feat. (NRB)
Does meditation work? Maybe! There’s a whole Wikipedia entry on that question. The term meditation encompasses a wide range of practices and interventions rooted in different traditions; research often fails to find a measurable benefit, but also fails to note the differences in approach or adequately control for variations in participation or participants. Another challenge: the benefits are hard to articulate, let alone measure. With that said, the most solid meta-analysis to date turned up mixed results. (SB)
Most of the meditation techniques you’ll encounter have theological origins, but they’re easily practiced in a non-sectarian way. Vipassanā and its cousin techniques are taught through vipassanā centers (where retreats are free) and the Insight Meditation Society (where retreats are modestly priced), and TM is taught through individual instructors (for a fee). (SB)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Steve (SB)
PS - Noah here. Variance, my new company, is just getting going with our Alpha. If you work in sales, services, marketing, or engineering and want to try out/give feedback on a tool to help your team work more effectively with their apps, please request an invite on the site. Thanks.
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