#001: Breath-Focused Meditation

Welcome to Meditate With Max! In this first episode we’ll explore the breath, the foundation of most meditation practices. It can be very difficult to start a regular meditation practice, so I hope this helps you on your way.

If you like the style of meditation, please feel free to subscribe for future updates, or share it with friends you think might benefit. Ratings and reviews on iTunes or Google Play are greatly appreciated! Feel free to send along any questions or comments.

11 minutes.

What Is Your Quest?

What is your name?

What is your quest?

What is your favorite color?

I’m reading Designing Your Life right now, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. These guys have taken industrial and product design theory and applied it to personal development, and to figuring out how to live the life we want. This resonates deeply with me because, 1) I love to take an analytical look at things like this, and 2) I’m working on my own book that has a similar goal, at least in part.

So what’s with the Monty Python questions? Basically, as they talk about in the book, two of those questions are fairly easy to answer, and the other is really hard. What is my quest? Why am I here? What Holy Grail am I seeking in this life?

One of their main points is that we shouldn’t stress too much about “figuring out” our quest. This goes hand-in-hand with a lot of the mindfulness work and therapy I’ve been doing lately. We need to get out of our heads. We’ll be happier when we aren’t trying to think our way through every life experience or situation. The same goes for finding our quest.

Instead of sitting down for a day (or a month, or a decade) to try to “solve” this one, we can gain insight and wisdom by approaching it from different angles, and by trying things out, by noticing our feelings. The five principles they set forth in the book are:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Bias Toward Action
  3. Reframing The Question
  4. Awareness
  5. Radical Collaboration

Or, in other words, consider a new approach, try it, look at the issue from another angle, be aware of how it’s going, and ask for help. Pretty solid advice. You’ll have to read the book to really dig into specifics on each of these suggestions, but maybe for now tuck that question away in the back of your mind.

What is my quest?

Aaaand, here you go:

Peak Technology

Technology has been on my mind in a big way lately. I’ve been noticing how much space it takes up, and I’ve started to cue in on how it affects my decision making. If you’ve read other posts of mine, you probably know I’m skeptical of a lot of the new technology we’ve created in the last ten years. This has coalesced into a theory (I’m probably not the first on this one…) I call “Peak Technology.”

Think Peak Oil, but with technology. Basically, that at some point technology will hit the top of the curve, and start to decline in either its usefulness (by making us perfectly happy) or will start to become actively bad (and maybe kill us all).

With Peak Oil, there is a finite quantity of oil on the planet. We don’t know how much oil there is, and in fact there may be more than anybody thinks. Even so, if we continue our oil consumption, at some point the Earth will run out of oil. It might be in 50 years, 500 years, or 5,000 years. A peak in supply occurs when difficulty in accessing new oil causes production to decline. Or, instead of peaking on supply, we might curb our use and peak on demand. If we switch to other fuel systems, oil production will decline. In combination, the fact that there will be a peak in oil production isn’t really the question. It’s just a matter of when.

With Peak Technology, there isn’t strictly “production,” “supply,” or “demand,” but a corollary can be drawn. I would argue that in some way, the purpose of technology is to make our lives better. I would also argue that there is a limit to how good our lives can be. It might not be anything any of us have ever gotten close to experiencing, but it is there. Let’s call it living in ecstasy every moment of existence. And perhaps that existence is nearly permanent. I don’t actually think our brains are capable of that kind of experience, but it seems like being fully enlightened and blissful for 1,000 years is at least a benchmark for how good life could be.

At some point, maybe in 50, 500, or 5,000 years (or 50,000,000, if we want to colonize the galaxy), technology could get us there. At which point, more technology won’t really be useful. Further advances would require nearly unlimited resources for increasingly incremental gains. Even if Moore’s law is true and processing power continues to double indefinitely, at some point it will so far surpass our own minds that we’ll either be overpowered or we won’t notice the difference.

These are rosy, although kind of weird, scenarios to think about. I’m sure the future will be stranger than any of us can predict. But these are theoretical “peaceful endpoints” for technology. There are a lot of other scenarios which are more troubling, and perhaps more likely.

For instance, technology may advance to the point where it surpasses our own understanding of how it works, and decides we aren’t worth keeping around (the “Technological Singularity Theory”). Or, it may become so powerful that a few rogue individuals could effectively wipe out humanity (perhaps one corporation spending $1B USD to spray aerosol into the upper atmosphere and trigger a massive ice age).

Or, as I’ve been thinking may be happening as we speak, technology may simply begin to make our lives worse, not better. Instead of bringing us toward that blissful existence (if that’s even what we’d want), it will trap and enslave us, make our brains victims to their own greatest anxieties. I believe social media is already having this effect — making us more depressed and less connected to other humans.

Now technology is controlling world politics. Here’s a great article my friends over at Scout, a new technology journal, wrote. Basically, big data, predictive analytics, fake news, and bots were used in a coordinated way to convince people to vote for Brexit and Trump. We’re being manipulated by people with more data than us, a better understanding of the internet than us, and a good grasp of psychology. Right now they’re tipping close elections, but I don’t see a limit on what this powerful, efficient, and person-specific propaganda could do. From the article, talking about “likes” on social media:

According to Zurich’s Das Magazine, which profiled Kosinski in late 2016, “with a mere ten ‘likes’ as input his model could appraise a person’s character better than an average coworker. With seventy, it could ‘know’ a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes, Kosinski’s machine could predict a subject’s behavior better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves.”

Perhaps this is just a dip in the curve. Maybe we’ll find our way out of technology addiction and manipulation, and truly embrace it for peaceful betterment. But whether it’s blissful world peace, massive destruction, or insidious propaganda and control, peak technology is real. The question is whether it is a far-off dream of science fiction, if it’s right around the corner, or if it already happened.

Noticing Smartphone Addiction

The other day I listened to an interview with Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off, about technology addiction. Smartphones feature prominently in the conversation as a driving force in our increasing distraction and disconnection from our own bodies and from our loved ones. If you can find an hour, take a listen.

Nancy makes one point which resounded with me in particular: We often leave a smartphone on the table when we’re meeting with a friend, and it hurts our connection. I’ve been vaguely aware of this as an issue for a while, but she describes it very precisely.

When the phone is on the table, we’re telling our friend, “you’re not enough.” We’re willing to be interrupted by something else that might be more interesting, important, or urgent than what we’re doing right now. Maybe that’s true. If we’re waiting for a call about a birth in the family, or about whether a house sale went through, we can let our friend know how important that is. But usually we’re just getting text messages from someone we’re going to see later, emails about work, or meaningless push notifications from an app (Life Pro Tip — turn them all off). Those all can wait.

A simple solution is to leave the phone in a bag during the conversation. Even having it in a pocket can be distracting, unless your phone is fully silent and non-vibrating.

I started to realize that this isn’t only an issue when we’re sitting with someone else. It’s just as much an issue when we’re by ourselves. I usually leave my phone next to me, screen up, when I’m working on my computer or writing in my journal.  Now I’m telling myself, “I’m not enough.”

It’s not enough for me to sit with myself, to focus on a specific piece of work I care about. I’m willing to be interrupted by anything that might come my way. That interruption, that distraction, has become more important than my connection with my work and my awareness.

This bums me out. I’m not sure another way to put it. I’ve had conversations where I’ve expressed this idea that technology is making us less in some way, and I’ve gotten a lot of push back. There is resistance to the idea that something new and useful could be worse than what we had. Intrusive technology, it seems, is inevitable. I do think there are responsible and healthy ways to use technology, but I also think that everything about how it is designed is to keep us from using responsibly. We’re driven to distraction, addiction, and dissatisfaction. Marketers and app-creators want it that way.

Of course there are exceptions. Of course technology does good things. But for the moment I’m going to revel in being a curmudgeonly luddite and dream about going back to a landline.

 

 

10-Day Vipassana Meditation Course, Round Two

I just got home from my second 10-day Vipassana meditation course, as taught by S. N. Goenka. I took my first course (each course has the same material every time) three years ago, and wrote about it here. So I knew what to expect of my external reality. In short, it’s a really intense silent meditation experience, with all sorts of physical pain and mental challenges. And I pretty much got what I asked for.

After my first course, I felt compelled to really lay out the minutiae, but this experience felt less about the details and more about a few overarching thoughts that I came away with. Some mundane, some important, some powerful. So instead of detailing every pain and joy and confusion of the experience, here are a few of the big take aways.

  • Food and eating are beautiful things. We should always give them care and attention, and appreciate when we get to share meals with other people.
  • Technology has really done a number on our attention and appreciation of the present. This is something I worry about a lot. It felt so peaceful to be disconnected, and I didn’t miss anything that happened in the world despite having no media or phone access.
  • We are not addicted to things, we’re addicted to the sensations those things create in our bodies. These sensations are subtle, and must be listened to carefully to be heard. Next time your smart phone vibrates with a text message, just notice your reaction to it. That is where the addiction lives.
  • Walking slowly outside for even just a few minutes without other distractions can be so centering.
  • It feels great to take an 18 hour fast (early lunch, no dinner, no snacks). We did this every day, and I gained a lot of mental clarity. Granted, we weren’t doing much physically. I want to do this more often.
  • A lot of pain in our bodies is referred from injuries in other parts of the body. I found that the searing shoulder pain I experienced after sitting for several hours was completely relieved when I brought attention to relaxing my psoas muscle in my low back/hip.
  • A lot of pain in our bodies is the physical component of mental and emotional discomfort: stress, anxiety, depression, worry, fear.
  • Waking up early is fantastic. We got up at 4 a.m. every morning on the course, and now I’m going to try to keep it going with a 5 a.m. wake up as long as I can. I love looking at the clock at 8:00 having already been up for three hours.
  • It’s nice to go slow, be early, and welcome delays. Got an hour to kill at the mechanic? Wonderful time to sit and reflect.
  • Our miseries come from inside.
  • Sleep works to rest the body and rest the mind. These two things don’t actually have to happen at the same time. I spent a lot of time awake in the night, unable to sleep, despite the early wake up time. Lying still and focusing on sensations in the body, rather than on thoughts or anxieties, allowed me to be fully awake and functional in the morning. It turns out it is the anxiety and those thoughts that hurt us the next day, much more than the simple lack of sleep.
  • Keeping my eyes closed all day gives me really vivid dreams.
  • To move beyond unwanted (or badly wanted) thoughts, we don’t push them away or crave for them, but instead observe and acknowledge them. The meditation technique teaches us to slowly learn not to react to those thoughts. They will likely never go away, so we have to learn to live with them.
  • All of these ideas, and important ideas in general, can be intellectualized, but they must be experienced to be fully understood.

People are always wondering if I would do this course again, or if I recommend it to others. It’s hard to say for either. I wouldn’t want to do it again in the next several months, but I could see the refresher being invaluable in a couple years or more. And I’m tempted to recommend it to everyone, except that it is such a difficult experience. If you’re curious, and better yet, committed, then I absolutely recommend it. If you suffer from anxiety or depression or addiction, again I recommend it. But if you are going because someone convinced you to, and you aren’t fully committed yourself, then maybe you should think again and strengthen your intention. I do believe everyone is capable of completing the course, and that nearly everyone will be able to gain benefit from it by sticking it out to the end. It’s a hard road to get there, though. Nothing good is supposed to be easy, right?