My Mountain of Pain

Context

Vipassana is a meditation technique discovered by Buddha centered around observing sensation. It’s partly famous for its 10 day silent retreats where people who want to learn or practice the technique spend 10 hours meditating every day. I had heard about Vipassana years back but didn’t know anyone who had tried it until 18 months ago when my friend, Mo, did it in Vancouver. It changed his life. He liked it so much that now he volunteers his time to help facilitate retreats for others. This is called “serving” in the Vipassana world.
I came to India for two reasons: to do yoga and to meditate. Within a week of getting to the country I went to the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh. I met a girl there, Pamela who is now my girlfriend, who also did a Vipassana retreat in Kathmandu and she found it transformative. A few days later I started a 3 week yoga teacher training course and soon after became a “certified” yoga teacher. The course I took was awful and I don’t feel qualified to teach but hey, I got the certificate. Yoga check. While I was doing the course Pamela and I spent a lot of time together and I decided to sign up for a Vipassana retreat before we went to Bali together.

Day 0

The retreat was in a city called Jaipur in central India. Check in started at 2pm and began by handing in my passport and filling in some paperwork. Next we had to go to the male dining hall to have a consultation, get our room assignment and get a laundry token. Genders are kept strictly segregated throughout the retreat to keep distractions to a minimum. Similarly, students pledge to a Noble Silence for the entire retreat and we later learn this is to help prevent us from getting distracted by the experiences of others. The line for the consultation took me nearly an hour which I thought was fitting. This is a meditation retreat and the first thing we do is a test of our patience. I could see lots of people waiting in line were antsy and squirming. I laugh and take it in stride and I think I did pretty well. Finally I get to the front of the line and I’m asked three question: what do I know about the course?, do I know it’s painful?, do I know that students who use intoxicants generally find it more painful?. I answer, get my laundry token and room assignment and find out the schedule:
4:00am – wake up bell
4:30-6:30am – solo meditation
6:30-8:00am – breakfast and rest
8:00-9:00am – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
9:00-11:00am – solo meditation
11:00-1:00pm – lunch and rest
12:30-1:00pm – interviews with teachers
1:00-2:30pm – solo meditation
2:30-3:30pm – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
3:30-5:00pm – solo meditation
5:00-6:00pm – dinner  and rest
6:00-7:00pm – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
7:00-8:30pm – teachers discourse
8:30-9:00pm – group meditation in the hall (mandatory)
9:00pm – lights out
Whoa. Ok. I go and claim a bed in my room, hand in my valuables then grab dinner and wait outside the Dhamma hall to get my seat assignment for the group meditations. I get J13 which is all the way in the back. We do all of our meditations sitting on the ground with a cushion. We have our opening meditation session which lasts about an hour. First we go over our pledges again: not kill, not steal, not perform sexual misconduct, not lie, and few other things I don’t remember. Then we’re instructed to just observer our breath. My mind raced almost endlessly. I have been practicing about 10 minutes of daily meditation since January 2018 but that doesn’t prepare you for an hour long meditation session. I have no idea what I thought about but I was surprised at how out of control my mind was. Finally the meditation session ended and we’re allowed go ask our meditation teachers questions. I go and ask what to do about the pain in my legs – I don’t spend time sitting on the ground in my daily life and have lots of mobility problems like tight hips and quadriceps. John tells to get some more cushions to support my legs. I go to bed and have an awful night of rest and wake up delirious a few times.

Day 1

The bell went off at 4am. I hadn’t woken up this early in a very long time. The beds at the center are thin pieces of foam on hard wooden surfaces. I barely slept and didn’t feel rested. I got up and sat for the 2 hour morning solo meditation in the Dhamma hall. I managed to keep my eyes closed the whole time but squirmed on my cushion. Coming out of the meditation I think to myself “if I can do this I can do all of it”. I somehow didn’t realize that the afternoon is four hours of meditation with two five-minute breaks. I ate too much food at breakfast and made it through the morning group meditation. I go to my room for all of the remaining solo meditations and sleep during most of them. I slept through the beginning of the afternoon group meditation and one of the servers had to come get me. Oops. I ate too much food at lunch. During the interview time I asked my teacher two questions:
  1. What are the most common mistakes beginners make?
  2. I practice meditation at home, do you find that affects students during retreats?
I’m told that having expectation is the most common mistake and that the home meditation isn’t a problem if you leave it at home and only practice Vipassana while at the retreat. Discourse the first night is filled with religion. I don’t remember what was said except that students tend to find day 2 and day 6 the hardest. I sleep better that night but still not great.

Day 2

Day 2 started and I meditated for the entire opening solo meditation in the Dhamma hall. During the morning group meditation session we were told to now focus on the triangular area from the upper lip to the top of the nose between the eyes. Focus on the breath there. I ate too much food during the meals the day before and that made meditation more difficult than it needed to be. I learned my lesson and ate less today. Meditation was similar to yesterday. My mind raced but it was slower, calmer and more methodical. Again I went to ask questions during the lunch interview but the only question I remember asking is whether counting your breath is a good way to stay focused and the answer is a simple no. Just focus on the breath.
Again, the discourse at the end of the night is filled with religion. The discourse is done through video recordings of the creator of these retreats, Goenka. I think he’s dead now and I think the recordings were done in the 80s or 90s. I don’t remember exactly what but sometime during the first three days Goenka tells us that Buddha meditated and found that all matter is made of these tiny subatomic particles called Kalapas. Kalapas are made of 8 parts: each of the 4 elements (earth, air, fire and water) and 4 complements to the base elements. Kalapas vibrate at trillions of times per second. Buddha felt all this. Then Goenka went on to tell us that a scientist at Berkley did an experiment and found that some subatomic particle vibrated at 10^22 times per second. He seemed to think this validated Buddhas discovery but I’m not sure Goenka understands large numbers. A trillion is 10^12 which is not at all close to 10^22. During these discourses Goenka keeps telling us that Vipassana is not dogmatic yet it claims to have a Universal Truth and all these Laws of Nature. He also talks about how it’s non-sectarian and oh so scientific. I totally disagree. I don’t see any science (though maybe my understanding of science is flawed) and I see lots of religion in the teachings.
We were told on day 1 that day 2 is typical overwhelming but that wasn’t my experience. It was mildly more difficult than day 1. I slept a bit better than the night before but had lots of trouble falling asleep. My mind raced in bed and I noticed that I couldn’t fall asleep because I was thinking and I remembered a technique Viktor Frankl suggested in Mans Search For Meaning. His technique is a sort of reverse psychology. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try to stay awake. I noticed I was having trouble falling asleep because I was thinking so I tried to think as hard as I could and I ended up listing all the things I missed: friends, family, chocolate, the internet, reading, writing, my routine, Pamela, having my own schedule, etc…. It worked, my mind slowed down and I got some sleep.

Day 3

I started getting lazy on day 3. I woke up for the morning meditation but only stayed for the first hour then went back to bed to get more sleep before breakfast. After the morning group meditation I sleep even more. I estimate that I’m meditating about 6 hours per day considering how much I’m resting and sleeping during the solo meditations. My mind is much calmer today compared to yesterday. I’m seeing progress. I’m thinking about more meaningful things: people in my life, work, relationships, my plans, my values. On day 3 we were instructed to narrow the area of focus to just the mustache area on the upper lip. We were told not to focus on the nose at all anymore. I was getting better at keeping my attention and at pulling it back once it’s lost. Again the discourse at the end of the night is filled with religion. I wish I could remember what Goenka taught each night but one of the rules of the retreat is to not keep any writing materials either so I had no way of recording my daily life. The night of day 3 I get the best sleep I’ve had so far and while I fell asleep I thought a lot about the people I care about. Mom, dad, Nikon I love y’all and if you ever need my help just let me know. I have your backs. Finally this course starts to feel useful. Day 3 was harder than day 2.

Day 4

I woke up for morning meditation again on day 4 but went back to bed after about an hour. I slept more today during the solo meditations and finally feel rested for the first time. During the morning group meditation we’re told that there’s a slight change of schedule. The afternoon group meditation will begin at 2 so that from 3 to 5 we can learn the Vipassana technique. We had been doing Anapurna meditation this whole time. We’re also told that there won’t be a question and answer period with the teachers at 12:30. Ok cool, I come up with a plan. Meditate in the hall from 12:00 to 12:30, take a break, meditate again from 1:00 to 1:30 and then show up for the group meditation at 2. I start meditating in the hall at noon and I’m told by one of the servers that I’m not allowed to meditate now and I have to take rest because I might fall asleep during later meditations. I don’t know how anyone could fall asleep meditating while sitting. It’s such an engaging activity for me. Ok fine, I go to my room and rest. Oops, I fall asleep and miss part of the afternoon group meditation again. A server had to come find me and I was 20 minutes late. Ok, no big deal. Honest mistake. I go and sit for the group meditation and then Vipassana teaching starts. Holy shit. Sitting for nearly 3 hours straight hurts my back so much. My muscles ache from keeping my spine straight and my ass hurts from sitting on the same cushions for so long.
 The core of the Vipassana technique is this: start at the top of your head and try to feel any sensation, tickling, itching, heat, cold, expansion, compression, anything. Once you do, move on from the top of your head to your scalp and feel any sensation. Then move to your face. Then right shoulder. Then right arm. And so. Move through your body part by part trying to feel any sensation and as you do this stay equanimous (stay calm and keep your mental composure). Don’t be averse to any sensation and don’t crave any sensation. All of the teachings are done through recordings of Goenka. He was an amazing orator. He had this incredible cadence to his speech. He repeated himself a lot. He had this way of drawing you in and convincing you to do what he wanted. It felt like he was trying to convince me of something I don’t want to be convinced of, like a dictator or snake oil salesman. I have no idea why but he reminded me of Mussolini. I’ve never heard Mussolini talk but I assume he also was a great orator because, well, he’s a famous politician. Finally we finish learning Vipassana and go eat dinner.
Every group meditation starts with chanting followed by instructions. Every group meditation also ends in chanting. The evening of day four we were told that from now on to practice Vipassana and that during every subsequent group meditation we will also have Strong Determination. That means we won’t change posture, open our eyes or move our hands for the entire hour, 3 times a day. Whoa. That’s scary. Prior to this I would change posture six or so times every hour but after Goenka lay that challenge I managed to immediately bring down my posture switches to 3 times per hour. I already didn’t have problems with opening my eyes or moving my hands. We were told to not move our hands because sometimes you’re tempted to itch an itch or satisfy a tickle while meditating.
The discourse that night is again filled with religion but I don’t remember what. During the closing meditation of the day I realize what this course is all about for me: climbing my Mountain of Pain. Sitting for an hour with crossed legs is excruciating. The night meditations are only 15 minutes long (even though the schedule says they’re 30 minutes). That night I switched postures 3 times in 15 minutes which is way worse than the evening group meditation. It’s ok, I have a plan. I can’t climb my mountain in a day so I’ll train for it. I’ll start by sitting in postures for 30 minutes + 20 minutes + 10 minutes and slowly extend the time of the first two postures until I only have two switches per hour. Eventually I’ll only have one posture for the hour. Incremental progress is a powerful tool.
My mind races that night and the discomfort of the bed is getting to me. I’m used to sleeping on my side and that’s hard to do when the bed is a thin piece of foam on wood. My shoulders always hurt and I always wake up sore. I took a sleeping pill, diphenhydramine, that night. Somehow I can feel some of the people reading this judging me, across space and time.

Day 5

I woke up for the 4:30am meditation session and decided to sit as long as I can in one posture then go back to sleep. I managed to sit for 35 minutes. Whoa, that’s awesome. I congratulated myself and went back to my room to try to sleep. The morning group meditation goes worse. I only hold my first posture for 20 minutes and then I’m in a terrible mental state because I failed. I try to tell myself it’s ok and that it takes time to get better. Sometimes you go backwards. After the morning group meditation we had our third check in. Check ins happen every odd day in groups of 10 with the teacher. Today John asks us if we’re able to feel sensations throughout our body and if we can hold the posture for the entire hour. Everyone could feel sensations but only one person, Mattia, managed to hold a posture for an hour. The rest of us were changing postures between 3 and 6 times an hour. Hearing Mattia succeed motivated me. There’s this story that once upon a time people thought that running a mile in 4 minutes was impossible. Then one day it was broken and with months of that a cascade of others broke it too. It’s as if there’s a group psychological barrier and that once one person can do something others suddenly find they can do it too. I think that happened here.
My afternoon group meditation went slightly better than the morning. I had a much more difficult time. My breath was short and stressed. My mind was assaulting itself. Somehow I managed to perform better even though my mental state was worse. After it I went to John to ask him some questions:
Q: I find I’m looking at the clock to benchmark my progress. Should I do that?
A:No, just think, the chanting hasn’t started so I’ll do another round.
Q: I find that sometimes I try to control my stress levels by controlling my breath. Should I do that?
A: No, just focus on the sensations let the breathing be natural.
Q: I give myself words of encouragement. Should I do that?
A: Yes and no, you want positive motivation but you don’t want to get attached. Just keeping scanning the body and stop doing that.
I can’t explain exactly why but John had this calming effect on me. During the evening group meditation I managed to stay calm the whole time. I slowed down the speed of my body scans and went back to 35-15-10 for my postures but with less stress. Day 5 was the first night with, in my opinion, useful discourse. Goenka taught us the fundamental observation of Buddha. I don’t remember all of the details and all of the complexity of it but here’s what I took away from it. Desire causes misery because desire results in attachment. We become miserable because everything is impermanent and anything we’re attached to is bound to change. If I’m attached to a cell phone and it gets lost, I’ll be miserable. If I’m attached to life and I see death coming, I’ll be miserable. If I’m attached to sugar highs then I’ll be miserable when the high fades. It’s from this observation that we reach reincarnation. The logic goes something like: when we’re attached to things we generate sankaras, when we die, all of our sankaras a released and enter a new consciousness, when the new consciousness is born it’s has sensory doors (eyes, ears, nose, etc…), when these doors feel something the mind reacts and generates new sanakaras and the cycle continues. Buddha found that in order to break this cycle we should eliminate desire and that is what Vipassana is meant to do. You observe body sensations and try to not desire the bad sensations away or to desire the good sensations stay. Just observe. This seemed quite reasonable and I subscribed to it.
I went to bed and had a hard time sleeping. My mind was thinking and I stumbled on an idea. Not all desire causes attachment. If that was the case then everyone would be near-infinitely miserable because people have near-infinite desires. For example, I desire to have an extra dollar but I’m not attached to it. Same with two dollars. Three. Four. Etc…. Some of you may object to me using money to illustrate this idea so let me also illustrate by asking: would you like one person at random to be lifted out of misery? I bet yes, but I also bet you’re not attached to this idea and don’t get miserable if it doesn’t happen. Would you like two people at random to be lifted out of misery? Three? And so on. I propose that people have a near infinite (maybe actually infinite) number of subconscious desires, many (or all?) of which they’re not attached to. I don’t think misery is the opportunity cost of unfilled desire. What really causes misery, I think, is attachment. Sure, if you get rid of all desire you’ll get rid of all attachment and will never be miserable again. I think that’s using a saw where a scalpel will do. I don’t find an answer for getting rid of attachment. I start to doubt Buddhism and the core philosophy it’s built on. I take a sleeping pill and try to sleep.

Day 6

I wake up sore, again. The bed is killing me. I can’t wait to sleep in a proper bed with a blanket and air conditioning. I’ve been using my rain jacket as a makeshift blanket. Blankets give me a lot of comfort while I sleep. I spent half an hour in the morning meditation perfectly still then went back to bed. After breakfast I went back to bed. Suddenly I started having a mild anxiety attack. I can’t recall ever having one of those before. I didn’t know what was happening but my mind was spiraling downwards. I was scared of the pain of meditation. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt like a prisoner of my own mind. I don’t know what word to use other than depressed. I was really really sad. All of this happened in about 15 minutes. I started worrying about being depressed for years on end and that this course was making me unhealthy. Suddenly the bell for the morning group meditation rang and I knew I had to get up and go meditate. I don’t know how or why but I managed to climb my mountain. I kept a single posture for the whole hour. I climbed the mountain that was taunting me and didn’t feel special. It wasn’t even that hard. I just sat there and scanned my body. There was pain but it wasn’t unbearable. After the meditation ended I went to talk to John.
Paymahn: There’s good news and bad news. Good news and bad news. The good news is that I did it. I sat for an hour. The bad news is that I felt awful this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything near depression or anxiety but I felt that this morning. If I try to evaluate my mental health now against the day I came here, it’s gotten worse. I know I shouldn’t give up right now. What’s going on?
John: You’re on the right path, you’re on the right track. In order to get better you first have to get worse by pulling up all of these deep rooted miseries of craving and aversion and delusion. The only way to get them out is to pull them to the surface. Imagine a bucket of water with some dirt settles on the bottom. You take a ladle and scoop out some dirt and you disturb the dirt and it makes the water cloudy. That’s what we’re doing, scooping out the dirt. The cloudy water is your complexes coming to the surface.
Paymahn: So to take this metaphor further, if I quit now the dirt will settle and everything will be alright? (I could tell he didn’t see this coming)
John: yes but you’ll be going out into the world with cloudy water and that’s not good.
 I still don’t buy it. If you’re ladling out dirt even on the last day the water will still be cloudy unless you let it settle or use a different tool like a sieve to clear the water. I went to rest in my room then ate lunch and climbed my mountain again during the afternoon group meditation session. This time the pain attacked me. I was going crazy trying to stay calm under the pressure of the pain in my legs. I sweat profusely. Somehow I managed to do it. Again I went to ask John some questions.
Paymahn: It seems like there’s a mountain we have to climb and sometimes it’s cloudy at the top, sometimes it’s sunny and sometimes it’s stormy. But the weather at the top isn’t what matters, it’s the journey getting up there. Is that right?
John: Yes and no that’s kind of it but what we’re trying to do is be equanimous to all sensation. This is equanimity training.
Paymahn: Does all desire cause attachment?
John: I don’t really know about that word but no, not all desire causes attachment. If something doesn’t go your way, accept it and move on. If your ice cream is salty, don’t throw and tantrum. Accept that you won’t have ice cream today.
John validated my idea that it’s attachment that’s problematic, not desire. I went to my room and started thinking. Hold on, we were told to be equanimous and not be attached but here I am, attached to the outcome of each meditation session and in general attached to the outcome of the retreat in general. There’s this meta-attachment, attachment to attachment. I don’t know how to capture in words the profundity of this realization. I felt enlightened when I stumbled on this. Not enlightened in the absolute sense but in a relative sense. I found some truth for myself. I felt unreasonably happy, similar to the feeling I had last year when I finally learned to fully accept my body while I was on DMT. I think the deeper lesson here is: don’t be attached to anything. A weight was lifted off my chest and my shoulders. I moved on from the depression and anxiety. In the morning I was thinking things like: “ok fine, I can handle depression and anxiety but what if I have them for 10 years?”. I was in a really bad place. Not even 12 hours later they’re gone. Completely gone. I decided I’m no longer going to bust my ass to sit in a single position for an hour. I’ll do my best and the outcome will be whatever it is. The future is as it will be. There’s one version of the story of Buddha, I think I read it in the Way of Zen by Alan Watts, where Buddha was trying to find enlightenment for years and all he could find was his own effort. One day he sat down under a tree to meditate and gave up trying and within 24 hours found Complete Unexcelled Awakening. He found nirvana after he didn’t want it anymore. I felt like I had a mini-Buddha event.
I ate dinner then came back to my room to wait for the evening meditation session. The bell rang and I went outside to walk some laps around the campus before we having to sit down and everyones face was somber. Nobody was smiling and here I was basking my realization. I’m smiling, laughing a bit to myself. Everyone’s preparing to climb their mountain again and I’m gonna go walk up my mountain until I’m tired then set up camp, make a fire, roast some marshmallows, maybe take a shit and smoke a joint. I’m gonna do what I think is fun and makes for a good life. We all sat down to meditate, the chanting starts and during the session I start to laugh at the noises that people are making. Burps and farts and sighs and the birds going crazy (they always do at sunset and sunrise) and the guy to my left, Sasha, starts chuckling too. I know he’s going through a tough time, I can sense it, but somehow I think I lightened the mood for him.
Again the discourse at night was full of religion. I’ve started to not pay attention to what’s said during the discourse. At some point in the day I realized that this campus is the Buddhist version of church. Again I take a sleeping pill and try to sleep on this horrible bed.

Day 7

I skipped morning meditation. I didn’t care so much anymore. I’ll show up and do my best, whatever that means and however that feels. The morning group meditation goes well. I’m still chuckling at people making noises and the person sitting to my right, Mattia, started chuckling too. There are only 4 white people in the sea of brown and we all sit at the back. At least 3 of us were laughing during the meditation. At least we were having a good time. After the morning meditation I go to my room and start talking to my GoPro to record my experience. I wish I had started earlier. There are so many details of the first few days that I’ve forgotten. Oh well. After lunch I do some yoga in my room which is against the rules. We’re not supposed to do anything that distracts other students and yoga is distracting. Thankfully I don’t have a roommate so it’s not a problem. I also start thinking more. Is attachment always bad? I’m kind of changing the question on the Buddhist belief. Sure, attachment causes misery but should misery be avoided at all cost? I think a mom caring about the safety of her child is fundamentally good (this can probably be debated but lets just assume it’s true for now). A mom who isn’t attached to the safety of her child might not try to find her child if it gets lost but a mom who is attached certainly will try to find her child. I suspect that attachment is what causes people to pursue their goals in the face of difficulty. If that’s the case, it’s not that attachment and misery are fundamentally bad but that too much of either is bad. Which isn’t that surprising since too much of anything is bad, by definition. Similarly, not enough is bad too. Finding the right amount of attachment I think is the real secret and I’m not sure there’s any way to answer that because everyone is different. That’s some wisdom I’ve been developing for the past five or so years and it still hasn’t stuck that deep in my mind. Everyone, I mean everyone, is different. No two people have the exact same value system and I think religion fails to account for that and tries to put everyone in the same box.
I stop practicing Vipassana during the meditation sessions and start to practice what I’ve been practicing at home. I don’t know if there’s a name for the technique. It’s a technique taught by Sam Harris in his app Waking Up. I try to find where thoughts come from. It’s funny, try to find the source of your thoughts. I think you’ll see that as soon as you examine a thought it disappears and your mind quiets. Somehow I managed to find mental silence for what felt like five minutes. Five minutes of bliss. It was incredible.
Again the discourse was filled with religion. I’m really starting to dislike hearing Goenka speak. I don’t trust what he says.
While falling asleep I noticed that there seems to be a lot of spiritual elitism with western people who stumble on Buddhism. I met this guy in Dharamshala, Alesh, who is really into western philosophies. Any time I tried to get him to explain his beliefs he would give non answers. He would say things like “I thought like you when I was younger” but couldn’t tell me how he had changed. He told me to re-read Ram Das’ books and when I asked why he didn’t give a reason at all, he looked at me a certain way and kind of shrugged his shoulders. I also discovered another philosophical realization. The founder of these courses, Goenka, keeps telling us in his lectures that experience is truth. Something about that seems funny, our experiences can be fooled quite easily with drugs, lack of sleep, certain foods, optical illusions, etc…. Some people really honestly have experienced the Christian God, does that make God real? Same with the Islamic God. Some schizophrenics (I’m way out of my depth here) experience multiple personalities, does that mean they have many souls? There’s a whole field of science dedicated to understanding how our behavior relates to our experience, behavioral psychology. Thinking Fast and Slow is a classic book in the field and discusses about how easily we can be fooled.

Day 8

Again I wake up sore. This bed is giving me mild PTSD. I can’t sleep well and it’s breaking me. I keep practicing Sam Harris’ meditation technique and it makes me way happier. I enjoy it more and find more bliss with it. After the morning group meditation I start thinking again and decide engliithtenment is a sham for a few reasons. First, I think the Christian Heaven and Hell are a sham and the Buddhist story is oddly similar. Life is misery and if you don’t Behave This Way you’ll be reborn into this misery. That sounds a lot like hell. But if you Behave This Way you’ll attain nirvana which is some type of eternal bliss. Sure sounds like heaven. Second, I would like to see an enlightened person withstand the most creative tortures people can come up with. Can they withstand weeks of light + sound + temperature torture while being sleep deprived and withdrawing from heroin? Can they stay equanimous if they’re forced to rape children because that’s a lesser evil than what would happen if they refuse to rape the child? I suspect not.
During the afternoon solo meditation there was an alarm going off somewhere on campus and it was making meditation difficult. I left the Dhamma hall to try and find the alarm but didn’t succeed so I found one of the severs and explained that I hear an alarm and would like him to find it and turn it off because it’s making meditation distracting. He told me he can’t give me meditation advice and that I needed to wait for the teacher to ask about the alarm. He thought I was hallucinating! I find this happens a lot in India, people tend not to listen to what you’re saying. I asked the server to come with me to the meditation hall and when I heard the alarm again I said stop! Listen! Do you hear it? Da-da-da, da-da-da. “Ooooh yes, I thought it was in your head. I’ll to take care of it.”
I did more yoga that afternoon and generally chilled on my own. Again the discourse was full of religion. I didn’t sleep well. Day 8 was the day I realized I love Pam. Not in the way a mom loves her child but in the way a boyfriend loves his girlfriend. Pam, you’re amazing. I want to make you happy and keep you safe and help you be whoever you want to be. I love you.

Day 9

The meditation instructions for day 8 and 9 were to always be in a state of meditation. Always feel sensations, even when you’re not sitting down to meditate. During lunch, while you walk, etc. I ignored the instructions. I had emotionally checked out of this course. After the morning meditation we got another lecture about how to go to the next level of Vipassana. Once you feel a free flow of subtle sensations throughout the body on the surface, start paying attention inside the body. And once you feel a free flow on the inside, pay attention to the spinal cord. Once you feel a free flow of attention there too, you will have achieved full dissolution of your body. Sitting down and listening to him talk gives me a headache and keeping my cool while he talks is the biggest challenge of the course. I’m fine being averse to physical pain but the standard I hold myself too is that I should be able to manage mental pain more effectively.
I realized that truth, or its perception, has this funny property. If you hear something enough times with enough conviction you believe it to be true. Politics is built on that idea to some extent. Trump will Make America Great Again. That’s the Truth. That’s what was happening at this retreat. Life is misery. Life is misery. Life is misery. But wait, you can escape the misery if you follow these simple steps. And if you do, you’ll find eternal bliss. Nirvana. When Goenka talks he sings just a little bit and talks with just enough speed to pull you in but not give you time to evaluate what he’s saying. What he says must be truth. I found it infuriating. I also realized that Goenka keeps preaching the value of experiential wisdom and that experience is Truth. I suspected that if a Christian came to him and said “I experienced God” Goenka would tell him that his experience is great, but false.
The discourse talk was good. Goenka tied observing sensation to observing emotion. When you have an emotion two things happen: your breathing changes and some biochemical changes happen like heart beat or sweating. By observing sensations you can observe these physical changes and notice your altered state of mind and come out of it. Interesting. I wish this was taught earlier in the course. We’re told we need to practice an hour in the morning and an hour at night when we go home.
At the end of night meditation the teacher came on the microphone and says that if there aren’t questions we can go to bed. As soon as he’s done Mattia shouts across the room “can we use the pagoda tomorrow morning?”. Poor guy. The master says again, if there are no questions we can go to bed and Mattia shouts his question again and the master says please come up to the front and we can discuss your question. I went to bed. Again I didn’t sleep well.

Day 10

I skipped morning meditation and we learned loving kindness meditation. After that Noble Silence was broken and people started talking. I spoke with Mattia and turns out the masters got quite upset with him which is against the whole teaching isn’t it? It was an honest mistake. The way Mattia described it made it sound like they didn’t maintain equanimity.
Everyone who I told that I didn’t like this course was surprised and few questioned it. Those who did seemed to get my point about religion. But many seemed to have fallen for what Goenka said. “But Goenka said this is non-sectarian!”. They couldn’t see the parallels to the christian heaven and hell.
I skipped the evening group meditation and instead wrote an outline of this essay. I’ll fill it in tomorrow.
Discourse was a review of what we’ve learned throughout the course so I left partway through.

Day 11

We had a 4:30am lecture which I skipped and I left the campus around 7:30. I’m in an Uber right now going to a nearby city called Pushkar to meet up with Pam. I can’t wait to see her.

Conclusion

I think the Vipassana technique has real merit. It might be a nugget of gold but it was surrounded by shit and I couldn’t get to the nugget in 10 days. The shit smelt so bad that I gave up searching for the nugget. There are all sorts of ways to exercise the body and similarly there are all sorts of ways to exercise the mind. I don’t think Vipassana is The One True Way just like I don’t think power lifting is The One True Way. I also suspect that the Pareto Principle applies to Vipassana. You can get most of the results with a fraction of the work.  The religion of the course left a terrible taste in my mouth. I have a hard time imagining I would take another course anytime soon but who knows how the future will change me.I think everyone should form their own opinion but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who has similar religious sensitivities

Edits

I’ve shared this with a few people and it seems y’all like it. Please leave comments and questions and call out any bullshit you read.

I forgot to include some of my thoughts in the original version of the article so I’m going to add them here in no particular order.

9/21/2019

We were told over and over that Life is Misery. I’d bet that if you ask 100 people to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, the average and median scores would both be above 5. I don’t think most people perceive Life As Misery.

These meditation camps undeniably have powerful effects on people. I suspect that if I set up a 10-day silent prayer camp in the heartland of the US many people who attend those prayer camps would come away with similarly powerful experiences. These camps (meditation and prayer) self-select people who are in a bad place and are looking for answers. I’m not suggesting that the experience of the people at meditation camps are invalid but that some of the specialness is manufactured.

Much of this camp is oriented towards improving the mental states of those who attend. In his book, The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama says something like “if you have a problem and you can fix it, don’t worry. If you have a problem and you can’t fix it, don’t worry.” I don’t know exactly how to articulate why I think of this but his perspective seems closer to Universal Truth than the core Buddhist teachings.

My Path to Privacy

Things I’m doing to improve my online data privacy:

  • Use protonmail (instead of google)
  • use protonvpn (mobile and laptop)
  • Use firefox (instead of chrome) – I’ll eventually move to Brave once they support multiple profiles
  • Delete the Google and Inbox apps on my iphone
  • Use firefox on iphone
  • Use thunderbird as my third party email client on my laptop

 

Resources I’ve found useful:

The Constitution of the United States

This document is old, I’m lazy and my english is weak. Here’s a best attempt summary. I’m sure it’s going to be missing essential details. I’m also sure I’m misunderstanding some (lots of) things.

Article 1

  • The powers of this document are held by a Congress
  • Congress is composed of a Senate and House of Representatives
  • Members of the House of Representatives will be elected every two years.
  • Candidates of the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old and have been a citizen for seven years.
  • Members of the House of Representatives must live in the state they represent.
  • Each state will not have more than 1 representative for every 30,000 people.
  • Each state will have at least 1 representative.
  • The House of Representatives has the Power of Impeachment (of the president?)
  • The Senate has Senators from each state.
  • Each Senator has one vote.
  • After the first assembly of the Senate, all Senators were split into 3 classes. The first class held only a two year term, the second a 4 year term and the third a 6 year term. This means that every 2 years, ⅓ of the senate changes (unless a Senator gets re-elected or re-appointed).
  • Senators must be at least 35 years old and have been a citizen for at least 9 years.
  • VPOTUS is the President of the Senate.
  • VPOTUS doesn’t have a vote in the Senate unless there’s a tie.
  • The Senate has the sole Power to try all Impeachments.
    • Does this mean that the House decides whether to impeach and the senate does the legal process?
  • Congress must meet once a year on the first Monday in December.
  • The House can expel a member with agreement of ⅔ rds of its members.
  • Journals must be kept and published except when secrecy is required.
  • Senators and Representatives are paid by the Treasury of the United States.
  • They cannot be arrested during attendance or when they’re going to or from their sessions unless they’ve committed treason.
  • Bills are proposed in the House of Representatives then sent to the Senate and finally to the President.
  • The President can reject with objections for reconsideration and send it back to the Representatives.
  • The Bill becomes law if the President accepts OR ⅔ of the House and ⅔ of the Senate accept after reconsideration.
  • If the President does not sign or object to a bill within 10 days (except Sunday), it becomes law.
  • Congress will not prohibit importing people but may impose a tax not exceeding 10 dollars per person.

Article 2

  • How the President and Vice-President get elected:
    • Each state appoints Electors equal to the number of Senators and Representatives of that state.
    • The Electors cannot be Representatives nor Senators.
    • Electors meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for two people, at least one of which must live in another state.
    • These ballots are signed, sealed and sent to the President of the Senate.
    • The President of the Senate counts the ballots in the Presence of the Senate and the person with the most votes is determined President. The runner-up is Vice-President.
    • If there is a tie for President and both candidates have a majority of the votes then the House of Representatives votes to break the tie.
    • The nobody has a majority of the vote then the House of Representatives picks from the top five through ballot.
    • Same deal for Vice-President except the Senate chooses the VP in case of ties.
  • Natural born citizens (or citizens at the time of writing of constitution) are eligible for Presidency.
  • Presidents must be at least 35 and have been a resident for at least 14 years.
  • Congress and remove the President and/or the Vice-President and appoint someone to their place until an election or their reinstantiation.
  • Upon taking office the President must take an Oath of Affirmation: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
  • The President can make treaties and appoint ambassadors and other public figures but only with the consent of ⅔ rds of the Senate.
  • The President, Vice-President and all civil officers are to be removed from office for treason, bribery or other high crimes.

Article 3

  • Judicial power of the United States resides in a Supreme Court.
  • Congress may establish inferior courts.
  • The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction of cases involving public ministers and states.
  • All crimes except for impeachment will be tried by a jury.
  • Trials are to be held in the state where they are committed.
  • Nobody is to be convicted of treason without the testimony of two witnesses on the same act within open court.

Article 4

  • Citizens of one state are entitled to the privileges of all states.
  • Anyone charged with treason who has been found in another state will be delivered to the state where he committed the crime.
  • New states can be formed but not within the jurisdiction of an already existing states.
  • States cannot join together to make a new, larger state.
  • The United States guarantees every state a republican form of government and will protect them from invasion and domestic violence.

Article 5

  • Congress can amend this document when ⅔ of both houses agree.

Article 6

  • Debts and engagements agreed to prior to the constitution are still valid.
  • The Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States will the be supreme law of the land which all states must abide by.
  • No religious test will ever be required as a qualification to public office.

Bill of Rights (amendments 1 – 10)

  1. Congress will not make laws supporting or prohibiting religion, denying freedom of speech, freedom of press or the right to peacefully assemble.
  2. Congress will not infringe on the right to own weapons.
  3. Soldiers will not be kept in houses with the consent of the owner in times of peace.
  4. The state will not perform unreasonable searches of people or their private property without probable cause and a warrant.
  5. Nobody will be tried for the same crime twice. Nobody will have to be a witness against themselves. Nobody will be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of the law. Private property will not be taken for public use without just compensation.
  6. In criminal prosecutions the accused has the right of a quick and public trial by an impartial jury. The accused is to be informed of the alleged crime and the right to confront the witness against him and the right to counsel.
  7. Trial by jury is to be had for lawsuits over matters exceeding $20.
  8. Excessive bail will not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
  9. The Constitution does not deny other rights held by the people.
  10. Powers not expressly allowed or prohibited by the constitution can be chosen by the states.

Amendments 11 – 27

  1. Citizens cannot sue states?
  2. See article 2, this amendment describes how the President and Vice-President are to be elected.
  3. Slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment of crime by law, will not exist within the United States.
  4. Everyone born in the US is subject to its laws. No state may deny privileges granted by the United States. No state may deny any person life, liberty or property without due process of the law. Everyone must be given equal protection of the law. Those of have gone against the United States may not hold public office unless Congress votes by ⅔ to remove that disability.
  5. People of color and race can vote.
  6. Congress can collect taxes on income.
  7. Stuff about how senators get appointed and hold office.
  8. Manufacturing, sale and transportation of liquor in prohibited.
  9. Women can vote.
  10. New Presidents and Vice-Presidents come into power on the 20th of January. New Senators and Representatives come into power on the 3rd of January. Congress assembles at least once a year on the at noon on the 3rd of January. If the President dies, the Vice-President will become president until a new one is elected. Congress can pick new Presidents and Vice-Presidents if they die.
  11. Alcohol is no longer prohibited.
  12. Nobody can be president more than twice.
  13. The district of the seat of the government is entitled to Senators and Representatives like other states.
  14. Failure to pay tax does not remove a citizen’s right to vote.
  15. If the President is removed from office then the Vice-President will take his place. When the Vice-Presidency is vacant the President can appoint one.
  16. People who are at least 18 can vote.
  17. Laws varying the compensation of Senators or Representatives can take effect until the next election.

Lost and Founder

Rand Fishkin

I stumbled onto this book at such a good time in my life. I had no idea who Rand was before this book but now I feel like I know him intimately. I respect him. Rand has courage. Rand is the founder and former CEO of a business called Moz which specializes in search engine optimization and this book he gives new founders cheat codes he’s found starting his business. Along the way her shares some personal and professional stories which, I suspect, most people would not be willing to share so publicly.

Like most things in life, starting a business the first time is hard. Luckily for everyone who’s read Rand’s book, there are cheat codes. Shortcuts we can take to build a better business faster. Rand starts off his book with five cheat codes:

  • Raise prices and grandfather existing customers.
  • If you want to raise money from an investor, ask for help with your business. If you want an investor to help with your business, ask for money.
  • Founders should buy preferred shares in their own companies when raising money from investors.
  • When you’re gaming news aggregator sites like HackerNews to promote your product, make sure your friends who are upvoting your post live in different geographies.
  • Founders should recruit software engineers directly and not offload it to a recruiting agency.
  • Find a co-founder or two. Doing it alone is dangerous and scary.

Even with these shortcuts, founders should expect to fail. Over 90% of tech-based venture-backed startups fail to return their investors capital and half of those who reached year 4 still ended up dead. Building a business is hard. The statistics are overwhelmingly negative. Yet somehow, people keep trying.

The reality of being a CEO is different from what’s portrayed. The job of a CEO is managing people, holding people responsible, recruiting, dealing with customers and dealing with daily crises. Starting a software company means that you won’t be writing code for very long. Same goes for marketing or any other skill set. This often means that new CEOs don’t like their job because their passion lies in what they want to do day to day as opposed to what they want to accomplish. And that’s ok. If you want to write code all day you probably shouldn’t start a company. If you want to affect the world, then building a business is for you.

Companies take on the personalities of their founders. Rand gives examples of misogyny and Uber, logistics and Amazon and people management and inDinero. A founder who’s self aware of their weaknesses and strengths is at a massive advantage because they can fill their holes earlier in their entrepreneurial journey. Different founders find different parts of business building difficult. MBAs may find that building software is hard while software engineers may find marketing the most difficult part. It comes down to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the founder(s). There are three ways to deal with weaknesses:

  1. Learn the process and do it yourself
  2. Find cofounders who fill this gap
  3. Invest in building enough knowledge to hire talented people

Learning to do it yourself is time consuming and inefficient. Finding cofounders lets in a lot of risk because that founder leaving might be catastrophic. Learning just enough to hire effectively is probably the best tradeoff between the two. Any senior executive you hire to fill your gap should have an aptitude and bias to teaching. A CEO with a weak technical background needs a CTO to teach her so she can become a better CEO.

Venture capitalists go out and raise money from rich people (Limited Partners or LPs) promising a return of ~3x of 10 years. Then, venture capitalists invest this money in startups. Most of their investments fail but one or two will succeed and VCs needs these one or two to succeed big. Real big. This means that if your VC backed company is getting an offer to be bought which returns ~3x of investor capital, your investors won’t be happy. If you’re one of their good investments they need you to sell for 10x or more. Incentives quickly misalign if founders are ok with exiting before becoming a unicorn.

When you’re raising money from a VC who’s genuinely interested, make sure you ask to speak with CEOs of other companies they’ve backed. Often you’ll find candor and camaraderie in the entrepreneurial world. Rand found that many CEOs he contacted about a potential investor would speak negatively about their own VCs.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins look at what separates good companies from great ones. One of his findings is that good companies are filled with people who share the same fundamental beliefs. Not beliefs like Star Trek > Star Wars. Beliefs like transparency or frugality. When core beliefs aren’t shared by everyone in the company, every project and initiative is undermined. Values cannot be set but instead discovered. Values fail in organizations in three ways:

  • When they’re viewed as paper platitudes and not embodied
  • When those values are created to build a cult-like environment
  • When values are publicized and must be discovered by potential candidates and new hires

It’s important to share core values but a mistake to be homogenous. When you hire people because they prefer Star Trek over star wars you miss out crucial elements that diversity brings like empathy. Rand says (and I think Facebook has real data to back this up) that diversity is inherently good. When hiring, if you find two candidates who are equally talented, the more diverse one should be preferred. Diversity brings empathy, perspective and creativity.

Once organizations reach a certain size there needs to be a formal way for people to grow within the organization. If management is the only way to grow, the organization will suffer. Management is a unique skill set just like marketing or engineering. It’s important that there are management tracks and individual contributor tracks within the organization and that they be treated and compensated equally. The job of a manager isn’t to boss people around but to act as an efficient coordinator and communicator for the whole team.

Some research has been done which shows that psychological safety is the single greatest predictor of a successful company. This means that people don’t fear being ridiculed or blamed for mistakes. This means that people feel comfortable sharing personal details. This means that colleagues become friends. This means that tough times doesn’t mean bad times (or maybe the other way around?).

Rand’s final piece of advice can be summarized in a single word: focus. To get this point across he talks about at one point his company offered 8 different products. Each new one added took resources away from the others. Moz had gone from being a clear market leader to an average SEO company. Profitability was down and layoffs had to happen. Afterwards they cut some of their products and found that this newfound focus made them profitable again. Moz was spread too thin and did nothing well. As Ron Swanson says: “don’t half ass two things, whole ass one thing.”

The Power of Now

Echkart Tolle

The Power of Now needs a certain level of spiritual preparedness. Something I didn’t have and still don’t have. I can see the value of the messages Eckhart purports but it’s hard to internalize them fully. I had such a hard time internalizing these ideas I’m not sure how much I can say off the top of my head other than embracing the Now. Compulsive thought of past or future does no good. Peace and happiness lie in the now. Eckhart proposes that psychological time is an illusion. Nothing happens in the past or future, everything happens in the now. The past can be remembered and the future can be imagined but things only ever happen right now.

I don’t know if I wrote about this before in a book review or as a journal entry but I’m finding a lot of what I’m reading a learning ties in well together. There’s seems to be a thread to my life. Ayahuasca taught me presence. The Power of Mindful Learning taught ideas of mindfulness just like the Eight Steps to Happiness. It seems that presence is some sort of spiritual secret waiting to be uncovered. Presence is some higher level of consciousness that’s waiting to be discovered and liberate all of us from the shackles modern society places on us. I don’t know, were humans more present in the past? I suspect that since homo sapiens have been around we’ve been burdened by psychological time – cringing at our past and worrying about our future.

Many of us have probably experienced presence without being aware of it. In fact, many of us seek it out without knowing that we do so. Presence explains why people do dangerous things like mountaineering or racing or skydiving. Momentary lack of awareness could mean death. Activities like these force us into presence. I identify with that idea. The times I’ve skydived were addictive because of how engaging it is. Riding hard on my motorcycle is the same. There is no time to think about how I said that stupid thing some time ago or worry work.

Embracing the Now means all of your problems disappear. Problems are a form of resistance to what is. By embracing the now you can embrace what is and take action to make life better and find peace in what you cannot change. Another interesting aspect of embracing the Now is guilt of what you “should” be doing. If you’re fully present you either get up and do that thing or fully embrace your laziness and either way whatever inner conflict existed will cease to be.

This secret of presence has been taught for millennia but somehow it still eludes almost everyone. Those who have found it speak so highly of it. I think presence and being is worth looking for. I wonder when I’ll find it.

Extreme Ownership

How U.S Navy Seals Lead and Win

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

⅗ book. The principles that Jocko gives us are great and I feel like my perspective on leadership has changed because of this book. But, the authoring of the book isn’t great. The book is laid out in three sections, each with several chapters. Each chapter has three parts: a description of something that happened in Iraq, the call out of the core principle of the story and an application of that principle to a real business scenario (Jocko and Leif, former Navy Seals, now run a consulting company called Echelon Front).

The storytelling of parts of the book were the parts I skipped over the most. They got repetitive. The same adjectives were used over and over and over. Deadly. Badass. Murderous. My aphantasia plays a role but I had a lot of trouble imagining the pictures Jcoko and Leif tried to paint.

I think there’s little value in me telling the stories in the book or how the various principles were applied to business. Instead I’ll name the principles and give a short description of each. The TLDR of the book is that leaders must own everything in their world. There is no blame to pass around.

  1. All success and failure in any organization rests on the leader. There is no one else to blame. Leaders must take ownership of mistakes and develop and plan to win. If someone on the team isn’t performing up to standard, the leader must train them. If they cannot be trained the leader must keep the mission above all else and remove the underperforming individual.
  2. There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. If the leader accepts substandard performance this will become the culture of the entire team/organization. It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. Everyone wants to win, it’s up to the leader to act as the forcing function for everyone in his organization. Those being lead need motivation and direction and it’s up to leader to provide these services. Leaders are always looking to improve and never satisfied with the status quo.
  3. Leaders must believe in the mission. When leaders doubt, the rest of the organization doubts. Without belief the leader (and organization) won’t take the risks necessary to overcome the inevitable challenges. Without belief, the “frontline troops” (the people at the bottom of the organization) cannot be convinced that their job is important. Leaders must also understand their mission and take time to explain it to those they lead. Belief and understanding go hand in hand. Leaders must ask their own leaders (senior managers must ask their executive team) for explanations of things they do not understand.
  4. Leaders must check their ego. Ego clouds judgement. Ego puts personal accomplishment over the mission. Ego prevents leaders from accepting mistakes.
  5. Teamwork. If the mission fails, the whole team failed even if one division of the team did their job successfully. Blame divides the team and cohesion is important for success. Teams must be able to trust one another.
  6. Simplicity. Complexity is the enemy of success. Complex plans are harder to execute. Complex plans leave less room for improvisation when things don’t go as expected. Complexity leads to butterfly effects where one thing going a little wrong causes something else to go really wrong. Complexity leads to confusion. Complexity is hard to communicate.
  7. Prioritize and execute. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Pick the most important and most urgent problem and solve it. Then move on to the next one. Trying to accomplish many things at once will lead to all of them failing. Leaders must “stay off the firing line” and maintain strategic vision to know what is worth prioritizing.
  8. Decentralize command. Train those you lead to make their own decisions and be leaders themselves. This lets you maintain a higher level picture and operate more strategically. Sub-leaders must understand not just what they are doing but why they are doing it. Knowing why lets decision be made more effectively. If a sub-leader does not understand why, they must ask their leader for explanations.
  9. Plan. To accomplish a mission it must be understood. There must be clear measures of whether the mission was accomplished or not. There must be clear directives for how to accomplish the mission. Planning must be delegated down the organization in order to create more innovative solutions and get buy in from junior members. Once decided on, the entire organization must be made aware of the plan. Everyone must be allowed to question the plan and ask for clarification. After a plan has been executed, it should be analyzed for weaknesses and failures so that future plans don’t make the same mistakes. Post-mortems are critical.
  10. Leading up and down the chain of command. Ownership must be given to those below you. When those above don’t understand your circumstances, it’s up to you, the subordinate leader, to help them understand. Leaders own everything in their world.
  11. Decisiveness and uncertainty. Leaders can never have perfect information. Waiting for perfect information leads to inaction. Most decisions are reversible and consequences of bad decisions are almost never catastrophic. Make decisions.
  12. Discipline equals freedom. This is counter intuitive. Discipline with your exercise routine gives you more freedom to play with your children. Discipline with your finances lets you travel more freely. Day to day discipline gives more freedom.

“Every leader must walk a fine line. That’s what makes leadership so challenging. Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities, between one extreme and another. The simple recognition of this is one of the most powerful tools a leader has. With this in mind, a leader can more easily balance the opposing forces and lead with maximum effectiveness.

A leader must lead but also be ready to follow. Sometimes, another member of the team— perhaps a subordinate or direct report— might be in a better position to develop a plan, make a decision, or lead through a specific situation. Perhaps the junior person has greater expertise in a particular area or more experience. Perhaps he or she simply thought of a better way to accomplish the mission. Good leaders must welcome this, putting aside ego and personal agendas to ensure that the team has the greatest chance of accomplishing its strategic goals. A true leader is not intimidated when others step up and take charge. Leaders that lack confidence in themselves fear being outshined by someone else. If the team is successful, then recognition will come for those in charge, but a leader should not seek that recognition. A leader must be confident enough to follow someone else when the situation calls for it.

A leader must be aggressive but not overbearing. SEALs are known for their eagerness to take on tough challenges and accomplish some of the most difficult missions. Some may even accuse me of hyperaggression. But I did my utmost to ensure that everyone below me in the chain of command felt comfortable approaching me with concerns, ideas, thoughts, and even disagreements. If they felt something was wrong or thought there was a better way to execute, I encouraged them, regardless of rank, to come to me with questions and present an opposing view. I listened to them, discussed new options, and came to a conclusion with them, often adapting some part or perhaps even all of their idea if it made sense. If it didn’t make sense, we discussed why and we each walked away with a better understanding of what we were trying to do. That being said, my subordinates also knew that if they wanted to complain about the hard work and relentless push to accomplish the mission I expected of them, they best take those thoughts elsewhere.

A leader must be calm but not robotic. It is normal— and necessary— to show emotion. The team must understand that their leader cares about them and their well-being. But, a leader must control his or her emotions. If not, how can they expect to control anything else? Leaders who lose their temper also lose respect. But, at the same time, to never show any sense of anger, sadness, or frustration would make that leader appear void of any emotion at all— a robot. People do not follow robots. Of course, a leader must be confident but never cocky. Confidence is contagious, a great attribute for a leader and a team. But when it goes too far, overconfidence causes complacency and arrogance, which ultimately set the team up for failure.

A leader must be brave but not foolhardy. He or she must be willing to accept risk and act courageously, but must never be reckless. It is a leader’s job to always mitigate as much as possible those risks that can be controlled to accomplish the mission without sacrificing the team or excessively expending critical resources. Leaders must have a competitive spirit but also be gracious losers. They must drive competition and push themselves and their teams to perform at the highest level. But they must never put their own drive for personal success ahead of overall mission success for the greater team. Leaders must act with professionalism and recognize others for their contributions.

A leader must be attentive to details but not obsessed by them. A good leader does not get bogged down in the minutia of a tactical problem at the expense of strategic success. He or she must monitor and check the team’s progress in the most critical tasks. But that leader cannot get sucked into the details and lose track of the bigger picture.

A leader must be strong but likewise have endurance, not only physically but mentally. He or she must maintain the ability to perform at the highest level and sustain that level for the long term. Leaders must recognize limitations and know to pace themselves and their teams so that they can maintain a solid performance indefinitely.

Leaders must be humble but not passive; quiet but not silent. They must possess humility and the ability to control their ego and listen to others. They must admit mistakes and failures, take ownership of them, and figure out a way to prevent them from happening again. But a leader must be able to speak up when it matters. They must be able to stand up for the team and respectfully push back against a decision, order, or direction that could negatively impact overall mission success.

A leader must be close with subordinates but not too close. The best leaders understand the motivations of their team members and know their people— their lives and their families. But a leader must never grow so close to subordinates that one member of the team becomes more important than another, or more important than the mission itself. Leaders must never get so close that the team forgets who is in charge.

A leader must exercise Extreme Ownership. Simultaneously, that leader must employ Decentralized Command by giving control to subordinate leaders.

Finally, a leader has nothing to prove but everything to prove. By virtue of rank and position, the team understands that the leader is in charge. A good leader does not gloat or revel in his or her position. To take charge of minute details just to demonstrate and reinforce to the team a leader’s authority is the mark of poor, inexperienced leadership lacking in confidence. Since the team understands that the leader is de facto in charge, in that respect, a leader has nothing to prove. But in another respect, a leader has everything to prove: every member of the team must develop the trust and confidence that their leader will exercise good judgment, remain calm, and make the right decisions when it matters most. Leaders must earn that respect and prove themselves worthy, demonstrating through action that they will take care of the team and look out for their long-term interests and well-being. In that respect, a leader has everything to prove every day.

Beyond this, there are countless other leadership dichotomies that must be carefully balanced. Generally, when a leader struggles, the root cause behind the problem is that the leader has leaned too far in one direction and steered off course. Awareness of the dichotomies in leadership allows this discovery, and thereby enables the correction.”

A Philosophers Notes On Optimal Living, Creating an Authentically Awesome Life and Other Such Goodness

Brian Johnson

Introduction

  • Living a life of virtue and integrity will lead to all things we desire such as meaning, love, wisdom and kindness
  • The integrity gap is the difference between what we’re capable of doing and what we actually do.
  • The integrity gap is where depression and anxiety happen.
  • Happiness is not something to chase, but something to practice.
  • Write down your answers to the following questions:
  • What is the single thing which, if you started doing consistently, would have the biggest positive impact on your life? (my answer is fasting)
  • What is the single thing which, if you stopped doing consistently, would have the biggest positive impact on your life? (my answer is smoking weed)
  • Take action on your answers. Do it right now. This is how you live a life of virtue and integrity.
  • These are the 10 principles of optimal living:
    • Optimism
    • Purpose
    • Self-awareness
    • Goals
    • Action
    • Energy
    • Wisdom
    • Courage
    • Love
    • en*theos

Optimism

  • “Imagine a study with two dogs. They’re both given shocks at random intervals. One can press a lever to stop the shocks. The other can’t. The first dog quickly discovers how to stop the shocks and is fine. The other dog—the one who can’t do anything about the shocks—eventually gives up and curls into a helpless little ball in the corner as the shocks continue. Eek.That’s Part I of the study.

    Part 2: Those same dogs are put into a new environment. This time, both dogs can easily avoid the shocks. The healthy dog quickly discovers the trick and is fine. The other dog, EVEN THOUGH IT NOW HAS THE POWER TO CHANGE THINGS, just gives up—curling into a ball as the shocks continue (and continue and continue). The dog has learned helplessness.”

  • Don’t learn helplessness. You can always choose your attitude and attitudes of mastery/courage/dominance/happiness/etc will make life so much better.
  • Optimism can be trained the same way physicality can be trained. Go to the optimism gym if you’re not an optimist.
  • Instead of complaining, find solutions.
  • Don’t be a victim, be a creator. Define what you want and go get it.
  • Life is hard and causes you to lose focus. Practice regaining your foucs and each time you will get better. Eventually you will be a master of focus.
  • Everyone has negative thoughts. That’s ok. Don’t dwell on them. When you realize that you’re dwelling, do literally anything to distract yourself: walk, breath, journal, sing, anything to get your mind off these negative thoughts. Eventually their frequency will reduce.
  • Here are two tools to reframe bad things:
    • pretend you scripted the bad thing that happened (you intended for it to happen)
    • Ask yourself “what if this was a gift?”

Purpose and Self-Awareness

  • Reframe your highest purpose as living with virtue and integrity. This will give you a the opportunity to live every single day happily instead of delaying your happiness to achieve some 10 year goal
  • Deepak Chopra asks: if you had all the time and money in the world, what would you do? Use this answer as a north star in how you life your life today.
  • What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? Embody those thoughts today.
  • Here’ an exercise (I haven’t done this yet myself): take out a notebook and write down 100 questions. Find a theme in those 100. Pick out the top 10 and write them down elsewhere. Rank those top 10. Start living those top 10 questions today.
  • Near-death experiences cause people to reprioritize their lives and live differently. Suppose you had one, how would you live differently?
  • Pretend in the future a time travel machine is invented and your 110-year-old self can come back and talk to you for 30 minutes. What would they say? What if the conversation was only 5 minutes?

Goals

  • Acquiring stuff never creates lasting happiness
  • Set “being” goals instead of “bling” goals
  • Make your goals attainable and as soon as you attain one, set another attainable goal. Incremental progress is powerful.
  • Ask yourself, and write down the answer, “if everything went incredibly, splendidly right, what would my life look like?”

Action

  • You gotta do things, just like Nike tells us.
  • Show up every day and put in the effort. Never underestimate incremental improvement.
  • The masters of any discipline have learned it’s fundamentals. What are your fundamentals?
  • Every decision you make either pushes you forward (+1) or backward (-1). Try to end each day with the highest score you can. Again, incremental improvement.
  • Ask yourself “now what needs to be done?” and go do that
  • Plan your life
  • Blowing off commitments isn’t virtuous. Before you make a commitment, take stock of whether you will follow through. Once you’ve made a commitment, don’t back out.
  • If something comes up and you can complete it in less than two minutes, Just Do It. Accomplishment begets accomplishment.
  • Exploit the pareto principle as much as you can. In almost all things in life, 20% of the work gets you 80% of the way there.

Energy

  • Oh, one more thing. Ever hear the story about the guy who runs into another guy who’s sawing down a tree? He’s watching the guy work and work and work and he’s like: “Hey, dood. You might want to sharpen that saw. I think it’ll make everything a lot easier.” And the other guy says: “No way, man. I’m way too busy to slow down long enough to sharpen this thing.”
    • It’s (almost) always worth it to sharpen your saw
  • Exercise has been shown to be more effective at treating depression than antidepressants. Exercise is good. You’ve heard this before. Make sure you exercise.
  • Remember the idea of incremental improvement? Well it comes up here again. Prefer consistency over intensity. Doing a little bit every day will yield greater results than doing a lot every now and then.
  • You should meditate daily. The book recommends this and so does Paymahn.

Wisdom

  • Here are the 12 Hows of Happiness
    • Expressing Gratitude
    • Cultivating Optimism
    • Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
    • Practicing Acts of Kindness
    • Nurturing Social Relationships
    • Developing Strategies for Coping
    • Learning to Forgive
    • Increasing Flow Experiences
    • Savoring Life’s Joys
    • Committing to Your Goals
    • Practicing Religion and Spirituality
    • Taking Care of Your Body: Meditation + Physical Activity + Acting Like a Happy Person
  • We can’t be happy all the time. But we can move needle for both our lows and our highs. We can orchestrate our lives such that some time in the future, our lows are higher than our current highs. It just takes some work.
  • The activites of our lives can be defined along two axes: important/not important and urgent/not urgent. We can even plot these activities on a cartesian graph with 4 quadrants. Doing things which are unimportant and not urgent is a waste of time (quadrant 4). Doing things which are important and urgent is the best use of our time (quadrant 2). Aim to do things in quadrant 2 as much as possible.
  • Nobody is perfect and humour is a good way to reduce the fear of mistakes. Laugh at what you did wrong, learn and try again. Almost no mistake is catastrophic.

Courage

  • Fear is tied to negative expectation. Try to reframe your thoughts positively to avoid fear.
  • There are two types of struggles, against external oppressors and against ourselves. The harder struggle to overcome is the one within.

Love

  • One marriage counselor claims he can predict with 90+% accuracy whether a couple will divorce or not. He does this by measuring the ratio of positive to negative interactions and has found that the magic ratio is 5:1.
  • Here’s a great way to reframe your thinking: change “should” to “could”. “I should have gone to the party last night” -> “I could have gone to the party last night”. Should is blaming while could is empowering.
  • Don’t take things personally. Other people’s behaviors are because of their internal state and not because of you. You act different when you’re hungry and tired vs full and awake, so do others.
  • Try not to lecture others and when you do, try to listen to your lectures.
  • Let go of your grudges. Holding a grudge is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.
  • Never forget the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
  • Learn the platinum rule: Do not do unto yourself what you would no do unto others

En*theos

  • Tear down your temple walls and see the whole world as your church. Pratice spirituality every moment of every day.
  • Stop waiting and start doing.
  • What you can be, you must be.
  • Live with virtue and integrity.
  • Get god flowing through and within you.
  • Don’t wait for retirement to live. Live now.