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:

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.”

The finite and unbounded universe

In discussing the large-scale structure of the Cosmos, astronomers are fond of saying that space is curved, or that there is no center to the Cosmos, or that the universe is finite but unbounded. Whatever are they talking about? Let us imagine we inhabit a strange country where everyone is perfectly flat. Following Edwin Abbott, a Shakespearean scholar who lived in Victorian England, we call it Flatland. Some of us are squares; some are triangles; some have more complex shapes. We scurry about, in and out of our flat buildings, occupied with our flat businesses and dalliances. Everyone in Flatland has width and length, but no height whatever. We know about left -right and forward-back, but have no hint, not a trace of comprehension, about up-down – except for flat mathematicians. They say, ‘Listen, it’s really very easy. Imagine left -right. Imagine forward-back. Okay, so far? Now imagine another dimension, at right angles to the other two.’ And we say, ‘What are you talking about? “At right angles to the other two!” There are only two dimensions. Point to that third dimension. Where is it?’ So the mathematicians, disheartened, amble off. Nobody listens to mathematicians.

Every square creature in Flatland sees another square as merely a short line segment, the side of the square nearest to him. He can see the other side of the square only by taking a short walk. But the inside of a square is forever mysterious, unless some terrible accident or autopsy breaches the sides and exposes the interior parts.

One day a three-dimensional creature – shaped like an apple, say – comes upon Flatland, hovering above it. Observing a particularly attractive and congenial-looking square entering its flat house, the apple decides, in a gesture of interdimensional amity, to say hello. ‘How are you?’ asks the visitor from the third dimension. ‘I am a visitor from the third dimension.’ The wretched square looks about his closed house and sees no one. What is worse, to him it appears that the greeting, entering from above, is emanating from his own flat body, a voice from within. A little insanity, he perhaps reminds himself gamely, runs in the family.

Exasperated at being judged a psychological aberration, the apple descends into Flatland. Now a three-dimensional creature can exist, in Flatland, only partially; only a cross section can be seen, only the points of contact with the plane surface of Flatland. An apple slithering through Flatland would appear first as a point and then as progressively larger, roughly circular slices. The square sees a point appearing in a closed room in his two-dimensional world and slowly growing into a near circle. A creature of strange and changing shape has appeared from nowhere.

Rebuffed, unhappy at the obtuseness of the very flat, the apple bumps the square and sends him aloft, fluttering and spinning into that mysterious third dimension. At first the square can make no sense of what is happening; it is utterly outside his experience. But eventually he realizes that he is viewing Flatland from a peculiar vantage point: ‘above’. He can see into closed rooms. He can see into his flat fellows. He is viewing his universe from a unique and devastating perspective. Traveling through another dimension provides, as an incidental benefit, a kind of X-ray vision. Eventually, like a falling leaf, our square slowly descends to the surface. From the point of view of his fellow Flatlanders, he has unaccountably disappeared from a closed room and then distressingly materialized from nowhere. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ they say, ‘what’s happened to you?’ ‘I think,’ he finds himself replying, ‘I was “up.” ’ They pat him on his sides and comfort him. Delusions always ran in his family.

In such interdimensional contemplations, we need not be restricted to two dimensions. We can, following Abbott, imagine a world of one dimension, where everyone is a line segment, or even the magical world of zero-dimensional beasts, the points. But perhaps more interesting is the question of higher dimensions. Could there be a fourth physical dimension?

We can imagine generating a cube in the following way: Take a line segment of a certain length and move it an equal length at right angles to itself. That makes a square. Move the square an equal length at right angles to itself, and we have a cube. We understand this cube to cast a shadow, which we usually draw as two squares with their vertices connected. If we examine the shadow of a cube in two dimensions, we notice that not all the lines appear equal, and not all the angles are right angles. The three-dimensional object has not been perfectly represented in its transfiguration into two dimensions. This is the cost of losing a dimension in the geometrical projection. Now let us take our three-dimensional cube and carry it, at right angles to itself, through a fourth physical dimension: not left-right, not forward-back, not up-down, but simultaneously at right angles to all those directions. I cannot show you what direction that is, but I can imagine it to exist. In such a case, we would have generated a four-dimensional hypercube, also called a tesseract. I cannot show you a tesseract, because we are trapped in three dimensions. But what I can show you is the shadow in three dimensions of a tesseract. It resembles two nested cubes, all the vertices connected by lines. But for a real tesseract, in four dimensions, all the lines would be of equal length and all the angles would be right angles.

Imagine a universe just like Flatland, except that unbeknownst to the inhabitants, their two-dimensional universe is curved through a third physical dimension. When the Flatlanders take short excursions, their universe looks flat enough. But if one of them takes a long enough walk along what seems to be a perfectly straight line, he uncovers a great mystery: although he has not reached a barrier and has never turned around, he has somehow come back to the place from which he started. His two-dimensional universe must have been warped, bent or curved through a mysterious third dimension. He cannot imagine that third dimension, but he can deduce it. Increase all dimensions in this story by one, and you have a situation that may apply to us.

Where is the center of the Cosmos? Is there an edge to the universe? What lies beyond that? In a two-dimensional universe, curved through a third dimension, there is no center – at least not on the surface of the sphere. The center of such a universe is not in that universe; it lies, inaccessible, in the third dimension, inside the sphere. While there is only so much area on the surface of the sphere, there is no edge to this universe – it is finite but unbounded. And the question of what lies beyond is meaningless. Flat creatures cannot, on their own, escape their two dimensions.

  • Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The Stars

We eat berries and roots. Nuts and leaves. And dead animals. Some animals we find. Some we kill. We know which foods are good and which are dangerous. If we taste some foods we are struck down, in punishment for eating them. We did not mean to do something bad. But foxglove or hemlock can kill you. We love our children and our friends. We warn them of such foods.

When we hunt animals, then also can we be killed. We can be gored. Or trampled. Or eaten. What animals do means life and death for us: how they behave, what tracks they leave, their times for mating and giving birth, their times for wandering. We must know these things. We tell our children. They will tell their children.

We depend on animals. We follow them – especially in winter when there are few plants to eat. We are wandering hunters and gatherers. We call ourselves the hunterfolk.

Most of us fall asleep under the sky or under a tree or in its branches. We use animal skins for clothing: to keep us warm, to cover our nakedness and sometimes as a hammock. When we wear the animal skins we feel the animal’s power. We leap with the gazelle. We hunt with the bear. There is a bond between us and the animals. We hunt and eat the animals. They hunt and eat us. We are part of one another.

We make tools and stay alive. Some of us are experts at splitting, flaking, sharpening and polishing, as well as finding, rocks. Some rocks we tie with animal sinew to a wooden handle and make an ax. With the ax we strike plants and animals. Other rocks are tied to long sticks. If we are quiet and watchful, we can sometimes come close to an animal and stick it with the spear.

Meat spoils. Sometimes we are hungry and try not to notice. Sometimes we mix herbs with the bad meat to hide the taste. We fold foods that will not spoil into pieces of animal skin. Or big leaves. Or the shell of a large nut. It is wise to put food aside and carry it. If we eat this food too early, some of us will starve later. So we must help one another. For this and many other reasons we have rules. Everyone must obey the rules. We have always had rules. Rules are sacred.

One day there was a storm, with much lightning and thunder and rain. The little ones are afraid of storms. And sometimes so am I. The secret of the storm is hidden. The thunder is deep and loud; the lightning is brief and bright. Maybe someone very powerful is very angry. It must be someone in the sky, I think.

After the storm there was a flickering and crackling in the forest nearby. We went to see. There was a bright, hot, leaping thing, yellow and red. We had never seen such a thing before. We now call it ‘flame’. It has a special smell. In a way it is alive: It eats food. It eats plants and tree limbs and even whole trees, if you let it. It is strong. But it is not very smart. If all the food is gone, it dies. It will not walk a spear’s throw from one tree to another if there a no food along the way. It cannot walk without eating. But where there is much food, it grows and makes many flame children.

One of us had a brave and fearful thought: to capture the flame, feed it a little, and make it our friend. We found some long branches of hard wood. The flame was eating them, but slowly. We could pick them up by the end that had no flame. If you run fast with a small flame, it dies. Their children are weak. We did not run. We walked, shouting good wishes. ‘Do not die, ’ we said to the flame. The other hunterfolk looked with wide eyes.

Ever after, we have carried it with us. We have aflame mother to feed the flame slowly so it does not die of hunger. Flame is a wonder, and useful too; surely a gift from powerful beings. Are they the same as the angry beings in the storm ?

The flame keeps us warm on cold n ights. It gives us light. It makes holes in the darkness when the Moon is new. We can fix spears at night for tomorrow’s hunt. And if we are not tired, even in the darkness we can see each other and talk. Also – a good thing! – fire keeps animals away. We can be hurt at night. Sometimes we have been eaten, even by small animals, hyenas and wolves. Now it is differen t. Now the flame keeps the animals back. We see them baying softly in the dark, prowling, their eyes glowing in the light of the flame. They are frightened of the flame. But we are not frightened. The flame is ours. We take care of the flame. The flame takes care of us.

The sky is importan t. It covers us. It speaks to us. Before the time we found the flame, we would lie back in the dark and look up at all the poin ts of light. Some points would come together to make a picture in the sky. One of us could see the pictures better than the rest. She taught us the star pictures and what names to call them. We would sit around late at night and make up stories about the pictures in the sky: lions, dogs, bears, hunterfolk. Other, stranger things. Could they be the pictures of the powerful beings in the sky, the ones who make the storms when angry?

Mostly, the sky does not change. The same star pictures are there year after year. The Moon grows from nothing to a thin sliver to a round ball, and then back again to nothing. When the Moon changes, the women bleed. Some tribes have rules against sex at certain times in the growing and shrinking of the Moon. Some tribes scratch the days of the Moon or the days that the women bleed on antler bones. They can plan ahead and obey their rules. Rules are sacred.

The stars are very far away. When we climb a hill or a tree they are no closer. And clouds come between us and the stars: the stars must be behind the clouds. The Moon, as it slowly moves, passes in front of stars. Later you can see that the stars are not harmed. The Moon does not eat stars. The stars must be behind the Moon. They flicker. A strange, cold, white, faraway light. Many of them. All over the sky. But only at night. I wonder what they are.

After we found the flame, I was sitting near the campfire wondering about the stars.

Slowly a thought came: The stars are flame, I thought. Then I had another thought: The stars are campfires that other hunterfolk light at night. The stars give a smaller light than campfires. So the stars must be campfires very far away. ‘But, ’ they ask me, ‘how can there be campfires in the sky ? Why do the campfires and the hunter people around those flames not fall down at our feet? Why don’t strange tribes drop from the sky?’

Those are good questions. They trouble me. Sometimes I think the sky is half of a big eggshell or a big nutshell. I think the people around those faraway campfires look down at us – except for them it seems up – and say that we are in their sky, and wonder why we do not fall up to them, if you see what I mean. But hunterfolk say, ‘Down is down and up is up. ’ That is a good answer, too.

There is another thought that one of us had. His thought is that night is a great black animal skin, thrown up over the sky. There are holes in the skin. We look through the holes. And we see flame. His thought is not just that there is flame in a few places where we see stars. He thinks there is flame everywhere. He thinks flame covers the whole sky. But the skin hides the flame. Except where there are holes.

Some stars wander. Like the animals we hunt. Like us. If you watch with care over many months, you find they move. There are only five of them, like the fingers on a hand. They wander slowly among the stars. If the campfire thought is true, those stars must be tribes of wandering hunterfolk, carrying big fires. But I don’t see how wandering stars can be holes in a skin. When you make a hole, there it is. A hole is a hole. Holes do not wander. Also, I don’t want to be surrounded by a sky of flame. If the skin fell, the night sky would be bright – too bright – like seeing flame everywhere. I think a sky of flame would eat us all. Maybe there are two kinds of powerful beings in the sky. Bad ones, who wish the flame to eat us. And good ones who put up the skin to keep the flame away. We must find some way to thank the good ones.

I don’t know if the stars are campfires in the sky. Or holes in a skin through which the flame of power looks down on us. Sometimes I think one way. Sometimes 1 think a different way. Once I thought there are no campfires and no holes but something else, too hard for me to understand.

Rest your neck on a log. Your head goes back. Then you can see only the sky. No hills, no trees, no hunterfolk, no campfire. Just sky. Sometimes I feel I may fall up into the sky. If the stars are campfires, I would like to visit those other hunterfolk – the ones who wander. Then I feel good about falling up. But if the stars are holes in a skin, I become afraid. 1 don’t want to fall up through a hole and into the flame of power.

I wish I knew which was true. I don’t like not knowing.

  • Cosmos, Carl Sagan

 

RE: Simulation

This is the story of how Ayahuasca changed my life.

I immediately felt a connection to all the people I would be spending the next week with. On the way to the retreat we spoke of health care, cryptocurrencies, nanotechnology and history. We shared similar musical interests. We were all curious. What would the following week have in store for us? We all joked about how profound of an experience we’ll have, about how life changing Ayahuasca would be. Nothing could have prepared us for what would happen.

We arrived at the center on Sunday afternoon. A welcoming ceremony for us. People were dancing, music was playing, everyone was happy and the mood was light. A group of fourteen of us arrived and we found six people who had already been there for at least one week. We took a tour of the center and had an informational session. Our first dinner was the start of a week of strict dieting. It’s recommended avoid caffeine, alcohol, red meats, refined sugars, marijuana, sex and SSRIs for two weeks before the retreat. It’s also recommended to have a diet of the earth: fruits and vegetables, rice, fish, chicken. I later learned that the idea behind this diet was to keep our energy source as close to the sun as possible. Sprouts > fruits/vegetables > fish > herbivores > omnivores > carnivores. Interesting idea. I like it. I doubt there’s a biological basis for this diet and it’s interaction with Ayahuasca. I do believe that there’s a spiritual/mental interaction. It’s part of the prep work and I’m glad I did it, even a little bit. I’m thankful for the quality of food Arkana provided given the restrictions of the diet.

Nunu was the first ceremony we did. We did it the first night after a briefing on Kambo (which I’ll get to later) and Nunu. Nunu is a blend of 7 different herbs, primarily tobacco, which get shot into each of your nostrils. Nunu is used to clear your sinuses and open your third eye. Your third eye is the spiritual eye. It’s located in your pineal gland and many people believe it’s blocked off because of our diets. The word ‘calcified’ is used to describe the pineal gland of those who have a blocked third eye. I don’t buy into it. Nunu is not something I’d do again. It hurt. It was uncomfortable. It flushed out my sinuses but provided no feeling of relief.

Everyone woke up early the next morning to try Kambo, a frog venom. Indigenous people use Kambo before hunting to heighten their senses. They believe Kambo cures ailments and boosts their immune system. To use Kambo, a shaman burns the skin on the outside of your shoulder and applies the venom (a paste) to each of the burns. Kambo makes your heart race and your body temperature rise. Some people throw up. I had intense diarrhea. I did *not* feel like any of my senses had been heightened and I don’t think it would be a good way to start a hunt. It did not feel good. Kambo and Nunu are worth trying. I don’t think I’ll ever use them again.

Monday night, the night of the Kambo, was our first Ayahuasca ceremony. We each got a mat in the big maloka. The three shamans got their own mats. Each of the facilitators had their own mats. We had a briefing at 5:30. Quiet time started at 6:30. The ceremony started at 7:30. It was abrupt. We all went up one by one as Craig called us, told him how much we’d like to consume (nobody had more than 2 shot glasses) and took our dose. I was one of the last to go up. As I took the Ayahuasca I thought about my intention one last time: have fun. Earlier that day I had spoken with the facilitators and the head shaman about my past and why I was there. They recommended that my intention be to get closer with my family but I chose to instead desire fun. Intentions are similar to prayers, something you think about going into the ceremony. Intentions prime your mind. The candles get blown out after the last adventurer takes their Ayahuasca, shamans and facilitators included. The maloka went dark. The journey began.

Fifteen minutes after the candle was blown out I heard the first of many purges. The trips started soon after. One person repeated “fuck”. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He was in a loop. Others were crying. Some were yelling. Most were facing demons. The room was full of energy. The facilitators were working hard to keep folks calm. The shamans started singing and it was beautiful. My trip hadn’t started but I was nauseous. I was envious of those who were deep into their trip. Ninety minutes into my trip I called over a facilitator to ask for more[1]. Two neighbors to my right took more with me. This put me over the edge. Ayahuasca is more wonderful than LSD. I became a kid; I laughed at the music, pretended to conduct the songs, I danced on my mat. I couldn’t help but laugh and more than once the facilitators came by and asked me to quiet down. Others were having a hard time. Sometimes the songs would stop and we would have to sit there in silence confronting our thoughts. During these breaks I would play with my shirt. I’d throw it up into the darkness trying to land it on my face. The songs would start again and I would start conducting again. Why was anyone having a hard time? This drug is so wonderful. One of the facilitators brought me to the shamans for my Icaro. I’m not sure when. Icaros are songs sung to you by one of the shamans. The shaman sung about the intention given to me earlier in the day, to get closer to my family. I couldn’t distinguish that intention. I only heard beautiful music. Three of us would get Icaros simultaneously. I could feel the energy of the shamans. I could feel them feeling each others energy. The music and energy wove together. I felt a deep sense of wonder and amazement within me. Music is beautiful. My Icaro finished and a facilitator guided me back to my mat. It was sudden. I needed to vomit. My first purge. The facilitators had told us not to worry about the purge by hovering around our bucket. The purge will come when it needs to come. The facilitators were right. My purge was beautiful. Relieving. Spiritual. It felt *good* to vomit. I threw myself backwards on my mat and revelled in the lightness of my being. My visuals became intense. I was blind. I couldn’t understand anything I was seeing. I was still rooted in reality but I couldn’t see anything. I could hear but I couldn’t listen. Others continued to purge and received their Icaros but I was too absorbed in my own experience to consider how others felt. I felt so good. I wanted to pay for Alex and Reid to come experience this with me when I come back in six months. I convinced myself that I’d be back soon and I wanted to share the experience with close friends. Ayahuasca taught me the value of generosity. I am not a generous person. I’m selfish. I put myself before others. Ayahuasca taught me the value of putting others first. This is still a lesson I’m learning. Generosity breeds happiness and enriches life.

Mornings after ceremonies start with group share. Everyone sits on their mat and gets an opportunity to share with the group whatever they want. We take turns holding a ball, sharing and throwing the ball to another when we’re done. A facilitator translates what we share for the head shaman. The shaman then gives advice on what the trip meant and what intention he thinks you should have going into the next ceremony. When it was my turn to share, I didn’t speak much about my experience. Instead I spoke about the events leading up to the ceremony. During the prior two days I had a lot of skepticism about many of the traditions and ideas surrounding Ayahuasca. I challenged lots of them. I wanted to know the dosage of DMT in our drinks. I wanted to know why we took floral baths. I wanted to know what flowers are used in the bath. I challenged the notion of Kambo making hunters more effective. I asked lots of questions and I felt vilified for it. How dare I question what’s been done for generations. When I asked one of my questions one of the other adventurers told me to shut up. I felt disrespected. This attitude surprised me. Many put on an air of open mindedness but didn’t accept my curiosity. I felt like the vibe of the room change after I shared that. I felt disconnected from the group that day and kept to myself. I worried some of the adventurers would walk on eggshells for fear of hurting my feelings. That was the last thing I wanted. I wanted others to challenge me and question *my* beliefs. I didn’t want others to tell me to shut up and I didn’t want others to get exasperated by my questions. I wanted respect. After I shared my feelings I shared my experience. I shared how my intention going into the ceremony was to have fun. I had no deep revelations and didn’t face any demons like many of the others. The advice given to me by the shaman was useless. So useless that I don’t remember any of it. This was a theme for me throughout the retreat.

My intention for the second ceremony, on Tuesday, was understanding. The results: total confusion. My second ceremony was emotional. We all sat on our mats at 7:30 and one by one Craig called us to take the drug. I took one shot on Monday. I took 1.5 shots this time. Most adventurers started their journey within fifteen minutes of taking the drug. My journey didn’t start until two hours into the ceremony. Ayahuasca redefined love. Whatever I called love before was meaningless and superficial. I hadn’t loved anyone before. I hadn’t loved myself. Love filled me. I radiated love. Love of self. Love of others. Before this ceremony I had a fear of death. Not fear of a horrible and painful death, but fear of the idea of death. I would think about not being alive anymore and that would scare me. I felt such love for myself that I no longer fear the idea of death. My purge, like the ceremony before felt great. Ayahuasca had a much stronger hold of me this time. My purge lasted much longer. It seemed like it lasted much longer. After the purge I got stuck in a loop. The love was overwhelming. Why was I so happy? Will I always be like this? Did I eat something? I don’t want this anymore. I’m scared. Why am I so happy? It confused the hell out of me. I was stuck in this loop for what felt like hours. It was uncomfortable. The ceremony finally ended and the candle was lit. I was blind. I couldn’t perceive any light hitting my retina. I could see light and objects but I couldn’t make out what any of it meant. There was someone lying on my mat and I wasn’t sure who it was. I kept asking “who is this?” and “who’s there?” but they wouldn’t respond. I was so, so confused. I couldn’t make sense of anything. I couldn’t stop asking questions. My questions had no theme. What is philosophy? How do I sleep? What are questions? Can someone talk to me please? What’s going on? Who are you? Who am I? I kept repeating the same questions. I had felt confusion before on LSD, but not like this. I have no idea what Alzheimers feels like but I felt like I had hints of it. I was lucky that Charlotte, Rebecca and Justin were so patient. They dealt with me for hours. So did many others. Thank you to everyone who tolerated me. I’m sure it was annoying. During this eternal confusion I felt a great need to touch people. I hugged everyone in the room at least once. I cuddled with everyone too. Jay was the best cuddler in the room. This ceremony I learned what it means to love, that questions are good and that touch is powerful. It’s such a shame touching isn’t ok. I hope that changes before I die.

During groupshare on Wednesday I shared my experience. I had radiated love towards myself. I wanted understanding but instead got total confusion. My connection with the drug felt much deeper. I was almost ready to start calling it a medicine like everyone else. After groupshare we did yoga. The exercise felt great. I missed moving my body with purpose. At the very end of yoga we did a few minutes of shavasana. To perform shavasana you lie on your back and relax. Simple but powerful. Val spoke to us during shavasana. She told us to love ourselves. To love others. She spoke of pure messages. I started to cry. When shavasana ended and all the others left the room, I stayed. I wasn’t ready to leave. I kept crying. Yesterday’s confusion was still lingering. Why do I feel so *good*? Why did it take me so long to achieve this understanding of happiness and love? How is it that most people never experience this? What happened to me last night? My own happiness and love confused me. I had an emotional glow like I’ve never had before. My emotional breakdown must have lasted close to an hour. Justin, Craig and Val helped me through it. I’m so grateful to have had such an amazing group of people to help me. In that moment and throughout the retreat. Thank you.

Wednesday was our day off. We didn’t do any drugs. We didn’t do Ayahuasca. Our schedule gave us time to recover and reflect. I needed. We all needed it.

Thursday was third ceremony. Third of four. It was my last ceremony. I struggled deciding on my intention. I didn’t settle on one until a few minutes before my dose. I took a half dose with the intention of “teach me”. Again, it took several hours to start my journey. I didn’t start tripping until the Icaros started. This journey was by far the most productive. I learned more than could have ever imagined. This was more than an individual event. It was a species wide event. Coming into this retreat one thing I hoped to find answers for was my weak work ethic. I have never been one to buckle down when things get tough. I’m quick to give up. When learning a new skill I get the quick novice gains and give up when the hard work begins. I got my answer for this. My past two ceremonies had been positive. I had not dealt with any demons, fear or terror. Many, if not most, of the other adventurers had. This journey started with demons. I could see them in my periphery with closed eyes. They looked like snakes. I couldn’t quite perceive them. I was aware of what was going on. I had to work to keep them at bay. If I gave up, they would take over. Failure was not an option. I noticed I had scrunched my face. This self awareness astonished me. I decided that the only way to keep the demons away was to smile. So I smiled. I faked it. I wasn’t scared. I knew I could win but it would be hard. I suddenly realized the power of listening to others. I had beaten the demons. My face was no longer scrunched. It was no longer working to keep them away. They stood no chance. I learned the power of positivity. I learned mental resolve. I learned resilience. I learned the value of work. I learned understanding. I learned to question. I learned to be curious. In an instant I gained the wisdom of a lifetime. I no longer had anything holding me back. I could grow unbounded. I learned the most profound lesson of my life. I am great. I have greatness within me. I could feel the neuroplasticity of my brain. My brain was rewiring and I could feel it. My thought patterns were changing. My perspective was changing. I had more questions than anyone has had in the history of time. I felt powerful. I didn’t feel like the world was at my fingertips. I felt like the universe was at my fingertips. I will change the world. I understood people like I never had before. There’s this notion that the subconscious processes many many times more information that the conscious mind. I felt like a small part of my subconscious had become conscious. I could think so much faster. So much more effectively. I felt powerful. No words will ever do justice how I felt. Ayahuasca is medicine.

Friday morning we did group share again. Many of us had experiences the night before that tied things together. Our lives were finally being resolved. Our journey’s coming to an end. Closure. After group share several of us tried 5-MeO-DMT. 5-MeO cured someone at the retreat of PTSD. I experienced eternal peace. It was hard to understand the feeling. I felt calm and collected. Content with all things. Apathetic of the future. Forgetful of the past. Present. The experience was far less intense than my last Ayahuasca journey but because of it I decided to forgo the final ceremony.

My life now has purpose. I don’t know what that purpose is yet.  Faster than light travel is possible. I suspect I will be part of that solution. Whether it is or not, I know that I will put my stamp on humanity. This idea scares me. What does it mean? I know I’m capable of executing on this. I’ve found that people laugh when I share this idea. I’m sure there’s skepticism. Even with my own conviction I find myself skeptical. It’s hard to integrate this idea. The best way forward for myself and all humans is to make sharing ideas easier. Ideas are the cornerstone of humanity. I have many ideas but I can never have enough.

What are your ideas? What do you think?

 

[1] This is my understanding of how Ayahuasca works interacts with the body. There are two active ingredients, DMT and a MAO inhibitor (MAOI). DMT ingested without a MAOI inhibitor will not be absorbed by the body, the DMT isn’t bioavailable. This is because the MAO enzyme destroys the DMT. Much of the DMT in a first dose isn’t absorbed because the MAOI in the shot hasn’t had time to inhibit the enzyme. When given a second dose, you’re given a lot less because the MAOIs from the first dose have had time to take full effect. My second dose was a quarter shot. If any of this is wrong, someone please correct me.