My self-regard has been swinging erratically lately. On half of my days, I’m extremely productive. On the other half of my days, I can’t bring myself to do more than basic tasks as I mentally berate myself. In short, I’ve been suffering. Worse, I wasn’t sure what was happening (”perfectionism”? “Inner critic”?) or what I ought to do to get out of my slump.
So when Arram called me from his solo, self-guided meditation and IFS retreat on Saturday, I picked up the phone, suspended my ordinary disbelief about whether meditation was a good fit for me, and impulsively asked whether I should just fly up to Washington and join him for the last week. He said yes, so I flew up two days later.
I’m writing this now, as I’m leaving, to solidify what I’ve glimpsed and how I’ve changed my mind.
Know that I’m a total beginner and that I’m writing this mostly for my future self, who is liable to forget most of what I’ve learned. I’ve still only spent 20 hours meditating in my life, and another 20 hours on parts work. Until this week most of that was characterized by frustration and doubt, as I’ve had countless conversations with friends who seemed to be getting much more mileage out of these practices than I was able to. I had grown to believe that these are tools for folks with more sensitive insides than me. This trip changed my mind about that. My insides are plenty sensitive, as it turns out, and there’s plenty in there for me to discover. I’m not sure what changed. Maybe it was the secluded setting? That I’d set aside all my other responsibilities for the week? Perhaps my ambient suffering needed to be high enough for this work to help? I’ve no idea.
So: how did my mind change?
The nature of my suffering
For one, I have a crisper understanding of why I’ve been suffering.
Ever since my late teens I’ve been unusually interested in productivity hacks. I find them so tantalizing because they imply a possible future in which I’m finally able to get everything done. In that world, I don’t have to make any difficult choices about what to leave undone.
I think this is actually a strategy to avoid the emotional pain of hard choices. Instead of accepting the reality that I’ll never be able to achieve everything that’s important to me, I double down on optimizing my life so that I might be able to achieve everything in some hypothetical future.
Unfortunately, living in a city as dynamic as San Francisco means the things that are important to me vastly outmatch my time and energy. There are too many cool people I’d love to get to know, too many interesting projects to tackle, too much life-changing content to consume and trips to take and events to join. And so I grew ever busier and more overwhelmed, and ever more interested in productivity and efficiency, and ever more avoidant of the pain of leaving important things undone.
I think that the solution lies in the direction of acceptance and equanimity. I have to accept the finitude of my life and productivity. I have to accept that there will always be loose ends and projects left undone. It’s painful to think about, but I’ll never be able to maintain a feeling of complete control over my life, a sense that all my loose ends are handled, that I’m not neglecting anything or anyone. I’d like to cultivate my skill at making peace with this discomfort and choosing to be present anyway.
Previously I wasn’t sure I ought to meditate. Now I understand that one of the goals of a practice is to dramatically increase my baseline equanimity. I had also thought that it required a lifelong commitment to practice. I no longer believe that, either. So I hope to establish a habit that helps me practice equanimity so that I can confront my own… um, mortality. I know, it sounds so intense.
Lost in thought
I think I was suffering in another way, too.
One of the reasons I was turned off by meditation in the past was that I thought it involved turning off thinking. My reaction: but I like my thoughts. I think my shower ideas are neat. And most of my best ideas came at random times — wouldn’t meditating mean I’ll have fewer of them?
I think that this is basically true, actually. Getting good at meditation would quiet my thought stream. But maybe the tradeoff is worth it. The other byproducts of meditation (namely: improved concentration, equanimity in the face of restlessness that would normally tempt me to distraction) would allow me to do a better job of thinking when thinking is required.
I misunderstood another thing. The source of suffering is not the thoughts themselves — the thoughts are innocent. Buddhism’s claim is that suffering comes from being lost in thought, from mistakenly identifying with my thoughts.
One way this generates suffering is that I’m constantly generating ideas for new things to do and new projects to take on. These usually lead to imagining a glorious future, usually involving a completely different life and daily schedule, in which I’ve successfully integrated the new habit or completed the task and am a better human as a result. This fantasizing usually increases my dissatisfaction with my actual life.
Remaining mindful as thoughts arise allows me to let them pass, without engaging with their content, if I so chose. One mantra I developed this week that I use to remind me that I am not my thoughts: “Who said that?” Saying this usually unblends me from a thought and returns me to mindful awareness.
I once read a joke saying that Attention Deficit Disorder would have been better named Intention Deficit Disorder, because it makes it hard to intend to do anything long enough to actually finish it. That joke hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt so seen that I wondered if I had ADD.
But during this retreat, as I practiced de-identifying with my thoughts, I found that I woke up each day with a clear and relatively unchanging sense of priorities. Mindfulness had made my internal compass steadier. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with me after all, and that my problem is rather that I’m constantly buffeted by new ideas about what to do with my time, and that by default I am captive to these thoughts.
The another way in which my thinking was causing suffering is simpler to explain. It’s that many of my thoughts would react negatively towards my other thoughts, actions, or emotions. This internal conflict consumes resources and generates bad feelings, and it’s mitigated somewhat by mindfulness.
I have open questions about this. What about flow states, in which you’re completely absorbed in thinking, but it’s pleasurable? Are those pleasurable because you’re not thinking about yourself? Does spacious awareness feel like it’s pulling away cognitive resources for anyone else, or is that a way in which my concept of awareness is immature (i.e., I’m actually just having a thought about being aware)? I’m not sure yet.
Meditation makes a big deal about equanimity, and now I see why.
There’s more ambient sadness in my 30s than there was in my 20s. I’m witnessing friends come to terms with their life not unfolding exactly as they imagined it would when they were younger. For me, I’ve been releasing my own dream of having kids at the same time as my siblings. I’ve been dreaming of that since we were kids, and it’s not going to happen. That’s sad.
Historically, I’d process this by focusing on the positives and practicing gratitude. This is well-intended, but it’s just suppression.
I spent much of this week learning and practicing equanimity. In practice, this looks like finding an emotion in my body and genuinely welcoming it. I’d identify all the little details to the associated sensations in my body: pain in my heart (where? What sides?), tightness in my shoulders (where’s the edge? How far up my neck or down my back?), etc — just being aware of them while imagining myself as a gracious host to the emotions. The attitude is that these experiences have exactly as much of a right to partake in my conscious experience as any of my other moods or sensations. I came to compress this mental posture into the word “welcome”, which became a kind of equanimity mantra. The overall effect is to feel at peace with your painful emotions, to not need them to change, rather than being aversive to feeling them. It’s similar to how you might be there for a friend in need, except you’re being there for yourself. (Note: friends are still nice.)
Even while writing this piece, I’m practicing equanimity: it pains me that this piece won’t be perfect, that I’ll fail to attain the concise wisdom of my role models, that I’ll write some clunky sentences or make a point that’s only weakly supported. I can learn the sensory signature of that feeling, and know it’s OK, it’s welcome to my experience, and that this is how it can feel for me to write sometimes. It’s helpful whether the feelings are large or subtle.
This is one of the most remarkable updates of this whole trip.
It was never my goal to change the feelings that I welcomed — that would make me rather unwelcoming, wouldn’t it? But I found that sometimes my gentle attention resulted in a subtle but unmistakable transformation in the experience. Tension would sometimes melt into neutrality, like a fist unclenching, and occasionally these feelings would even transmute into… joy?
It only works if I adopt a specific mental stance: I have to be non goal-oriented (I can’t want the feeling to change), genuinely welcoming, and not aversive to the pain. Occasionally it helps to assume a kind of wry amusement at how strange life can be — I mean, all this stuff is just so strange and interesting and kind of fun, and I can’t believe I am writing or have experienced this. From this place, and within a few minutes of relaxed concentration, a painful sensation often transforms, generally over the course of 30 seconds. I attended to painful memories and emotions 6-8 times this week and some kind of transformation occurred maybe 4-5 of those times.
I’ve felt this sensation a handful of times over the last few years, in IFS therapy with various therapists. It was rare and subtle and frustrating and worked maybe 25% of the time and usually required a microdose of psychedelics. I had concluded that I simply wasn’t good at parts work. But adopting this equanimous posture makes this technique much easier, more effective, more reproducible, and works just fine without any aids, at least for me.
I knew to try this because Arram had (re)discovered it this month on his retreat. He and other friends have been experimenting with combining parts work with mindfulness over the last couple years, and we think that this transmuting of is what Buddhists call pīti (”purification”). It’s also probably what Eugene Gendlin describes as the goal of “focusing” and what Internal Family Systems aims to achieve with its therapy strategy (although their strategy is much more cognitive and narrative-driven).
It feels like healing. Perhaps that’s why so many different people seem to have discovered and named it and devised systems for reproducing it. In reading more about it since the retreat, I’m a little surprised I found it so casually? My first experience was on the first day of my first meditation retreat, in which I was mostly listening to short guided meditations and reflecting in my journal about how to integrate my experience with my knowledge about meditation, and what I might try next.
I don’t want to overstate its impacts — I’ve only just discovered this and done it successfully less than 10 times — but the healing effects do seem to last. I tried it on an embarrassing memory that has been unpredictably jumping me and making me cringe for 15 years. I spent a few minutes finding a place of open awareness, set an intention to be equanimous, and brought the memory to mind, gently welcoming all the accompanying sensations and learning their character. Gradually, I felt the harshness and tension melt away, until my body felt more relaxed and neutral. As I’ve returned to that memory in the days since, my reaction is noticeably less pained (I tried it just now and my body reaction is like… fine, whatever). Interestingly, the associated memories that jump to mind have changed, too. Previously I’d hyper-fixate on the single moment of most potent cringe (no, I won’t tell you, and yes, it was embarrassing). Now, I remember (?) a new (?) memory from a few hours later, in which I laugh off the incident with the friend in question (oh right! He was my friend afterwards, for years!). Somehow, that second memory hasn’t occurred to me for 10+ years — so long, that I can’t be sure that I didn’t invent it. Was it inaccessible to me because I got stuck on that moment and couldn’t bear to think about adjacent memories?
I don’t know, but the fact that addressing the emotional pain while completely ignoring the associated narratives appears to have updated the narrative anyway, but as an emergent, lagging effect — that’s really interesting.
I wonder: what’s the relationship between this and parts work? Are there memories for which this doesn’t work, where more narrative-driven healing is required? I’m not sure. How long do these effects last? Is this even real? Am I brainwashing myself? Unrelatedly, I’m also really getting into yoga... am I going to become a crystals guy? If I ever grow dreadlocks, I give you blanket permission to cut them off while I’m sleeping.
Experimenting with equanimity
I’m interested to mix equanimity into activities that I normally find aversive. What if we organized a writing retreat, where we practice equanimity each morning and afternoon, and regularly confront all the ordinary but stubborn resistances of not knowing what to say, wanting to do more research, and being reluctant to ship? How might I mix this practice into the parts of my daily work I least enjoy? How might I notice aversions as they arise and give myself space to greet them? Would this result in increased concentration and productivity? I’ve paused once or twice while writing this post, and I must say I feel unusually smooth and flowy. But maybe that’s because I’ve been totally absorbed in this stuff for a week and feel peaceful and happy in general today. In any case, more of this feeling would be great.
Naturally, I spent much of my week experimenting with equanimity. It mixes nicely with intentionally triggering myself. I’d find a painful truth to say out loud (while alone in a house) and then try to welcome it. For example, I realized some aversion around these very practices. I tried saying to myself, “I don’t like meditating”. Finding I was only mildly responsive, I tried variations like “meditation is hard work”, until I found the one that was the most unpleasant to admit I believed: “All of this is just another set of tasks I have to do to feel OK”. I then welcomed the pain, and this time I did feel it heal a bit and relax, and this time the associated narratives changed — and the new thoughts were: “Actually, I’m pretty good at parts work and find it kinda relieving and fun sometimes.”
Even as I type this, I feel slightly in disbelief - can acts of minor healing be this easy? It remains to be seen whether piti translates into less resistance in my daily work and relationships. And even now, as I revisit this update a few days later, I notice that the association is not as strong as it used to be. Perhaps I have to revisit these updates multiple times?
Is it possible for me to heal ~all of the internal conflict that has made it so hard to get things done and enjoy my life lately?
There are people that have done (I think) variations of this, and their experiences in life do seem to be easy, joyful, productive, meaningful, etc. Sasha Chapin seems to be one such guy. He describes his experience as “smoothly transferring energy into the world” (want!!). KQ seems like someone who is remarkably better off a few years after integrating purification (she calls it parts work) into her daily routine and who regularly reports healing experiences that made me feel occasionally envious and even doubtful. DK and maybe AM also have the kind of infectiously positive, joyful energy that I now associate with those with very little inner conflict.
Integrating these practices into my life
Shinzen Young says the goal of a meditation practice is to dramatically increase baseline levels of equanimity, concentration, and perceptual clarity.
My goal is not to achieve enlightenment, but rather to build up a strong foundation of equanimity, concentration, and perceptual clarity, so that I can more effectively pay down all the technical debt I’ve accrued from my years of being harsh and internally conflicted.
I’ll know if it’s working if I increasingly feel like I’m living more effortlessly and joyfully.
I mean… I did just write these 4,000 words fairly effortlessly, in basically one sitting, with 95th percentile concentration and virtually no impulses to distract myself, so… that’s something. But every productivity hack works for the first two weeks.
So how might I integrate this into my life? I’ll experiment with starting my day with mindfulness practice (specifically: shikantaza), to build up my foundation, and/or I’ll end my day by welcoming any resistance or conflict that I notice. I’ll also experiment with noting these sensations throughout my day, particularly around my least favorite recurring tasks (like EMAIL). I’m also more interested in meditation retreats, especially non-painful ones that let you frequently reflect in a journal, and in talking with you about any your experiences or experiments: my email.
Here’s to hoping all this is actually real.
Postscript: I have no idea how to explain this experience
Another thing happened during my retreat that I find totally inexplicable, borderline magical.
I decided on day 3 to try a large dose of mushrooms — larger than I’ve ever done before (at least, larger than I’ve ever done on purpose. Long story). It was as safe a setting as I’ll ever find and mentally I was feeling confident, so it felt like a great opportunity to yeet myself and see whether I could glimpse that non-dual experience that Sam Harris kept talking about. No dice this time, by the way.
I looked at my mushroom tea and I detected and named my fear. I remembered my one very bad trip, during which I was curled up in a ball and lost in paranoid thoughts for 5 hours and forgot who I was and that I was not, in fact, naked and covered in filth. I sat with the fear of losing my mind and welcomed it, and the fear didn’t subside. I reminded myself that “openness to intense experience is the leading indicator of personal growth”, and that I tend to avoid intense experiences because of fear, and that I had decided yesterday that I wanted to try something different this time. I drank the tea.
I went to my scenic corner where I planned to meditate for the next 6 hours, alone in a big house, and sat upright in my meditation chair, and began shikantaza. After ten minutes I became confused about whether I was hot or cold. I took my socks off, then was indecisive and put them back on, then nervously took them off again, then arranged them behind my chair, then moved them in front of my chair where I could see them in case I was cold later. I detected fear, named it, and welcomed it. I noticed another reaction building, that I was afraid to name, and so I named it: panic. I noticed that my throat was constricted, and I characterized how it felt, that my breath was short, that my back and forearms were covered in sweat, that my shoulders and neck were tense and painful. Welcome all, I told these experiences, you have as much of a right to my conscious experience as all other sensations, although I was now struggling to remember what these words meant. An overwhelming wave of psychedelic visuals was building — carpet and wood distorting, crowding into my visual field, making it difficult to resolve the objects in front of me. I checked my watch: it had been 20 minutes. I was coming up much more quickly and intensely than I’d anticipated. The peak was 2+ hours away, and the intensity would be building for that entire period, coming and going in waves. I bent forward in my chair and my vision became completely clouded with psychedelic noise until I was completely blind. Welcome, I repeated mindlessly. This is a panic attack. Welcome. Then I totally lost track of my intentions or the meanings of words: my worst fear, realized, with the expectation that this was only the opening salvo of the trip and that it would continue to intensify. Welcome. I lost all sense of time and minutes passed.
And then, after a few minutes, I came to. My vision was restored. I realized that I was surprisingly lucid. There was no trace of trippy visual distortions. I looked closely at the carpet, at the clouds, trying to find any sworls or movement, but — nope.
I was still sitting upright in my meditative pose, damp with sweat, but breathing normally. I felt surprisingly unscathed, psychologically. Even more surprisingly, I realized that I didn’t feel particularly aversive to the next wave, to another intense experience. It was hard to imagine it being more intense, after all, and yet I’d apparently weathered it OK. Bring it on, a prideful voice inside of me crowed. (Welcome.)
And so I waited, but… no other experience ever came. I hadn’t yet realized it, but my trip was over, 30 minutes after taking a large dose. For the next 5.5 hours, as my disbelief grew, I experienced no additional trippy visuals, difficulty tracking goals, distorted cognition, or any detectable effects of the mushrooms. My trip was just… canceled.
I walked around, dumbfounded. I spoke with Arram, who was definitely feeling it. I called my friend Govind. I listened to a lecture on meditation and took detailed notes that, days later, I can confirm are completely cogent. I realized that a part of me was upset at being insufficiently amazed with this experience, and I agreed, so I went for a walk and listened to Debussy and enjoyed some of the most delicious chocolate I’ve tasted in a long time and admired the natural beauty of Orcas Island at sunset. I’ve asked myself since whether my experience was non-ordinary in any way, and perhaps my experience was sharper, more colorful?
I would understand if you didn’t believe me. I would have a hard time believing me if I hadn’t experienced it and (mercifully) if Sasha Chapin hadn’t reported the same phenomenon in his Deep Okayness post, although his experience was accompanied by more insight. My experience just felt abruptly, incredibly normal.
I don’t know how to explain it. It’s outside of my world model. Consciousness is weird.
Postscript 2: other trailheads I’d like to explore
- Shikantaza. At first I was offended by the concept of “do nothing” meditation. Now I understand that the practice is about practicing easeful awareness, which might characterize a flowy life. Letting go of all effort is a weird backwards move that I think I did successfully just once. I became aware of chatter, reflexively let it go, relaxed into simultaneous awareness of bodily sensations, sounds, and vision, and afterwards a thought popped up: “Oh, shikantaza”. And realized what was meant when AS said that you can only do it in a weird backwards way: you can only recognize, in retrospect, that the mental move occurred, because you can’t try at all to do it.
- Non-conceptual spaciousness. I think I’ve glimpsed this for some seconds a few times. A helpful cue was Sam Harris’ opener, “Feel your body resting in space, and quickly resolve it into a cloud of raw sensations”. There are analogous moves for my visual field, which I could perceive as a relatively undifferentiated field of light and shadow and color and static, and the sounds I was hearing, which on closer attention are composed of many individual parts, which are often detailed and surprisingly unrelated to their conceptual containers. It’s harder for me to non-conceptually perceive my thoughts, though. The closest I got was Shinzen Young’s instructions to note “see-in”, “hear-in”, and “feel-in”, and decompose thoughts into their accompanying literal stimuli, but the noting itself was still unavoidably conceptual.
- Non-dual experience. Experiencing my concept of self in its rawest form was something I was unable to perceive. I maybe imagined a shadowy head and shoulders sitting behind a sphere of conscious experience about two meters wide and centered on where I imagined my head, but that’s probably more conceptualizing? Next things to try might be seeing with no head. I’m motivated to pursue this because non-dual experience allows one to relate to others completely free of ego and neuroticism, apparently.