Letting Go

Last month I went on my first meditation retreat with Michael Grady and Larry Rosenberg at IMS (the Insight Meditation Society) in Barre, MA. Because I wasn’t able to write while I was away, I took some time afterwards to verbalize the parts of my experience that I thought were worth remembering. Then I turned that journal entry into this blog post, so that I could sum up my experience and let it be a point of reference to someone other than me. Here it is:

I spent 5 days in mostly silence, doing a lot of meditating and trying to keep my mind on the present moment. Before I left for the retreat, while I was spending time in DC, I was having good experiences with being more in the moment. I had been writing a response for Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge when I started to come to terms with the fact that I was becoming very focused on finding out “the truth” about life, or about complex situations, and it was causing my thought process to become unclear and fragmented. So I started shifting my attention from trying to figure out what is ultimately “true” to focusing more on what is “true enough”, what I can gather from my direct experience. In the formative words of Terrence McKenna, I started making a shift from being a faerie, maneuvering through some metaphysical “superspace”, into being a monkey with the world in front of him, trying to sort out what was what. It was an important step in a process of grounding my attention, and it felt both energizing and edifying.

So going into the retreat I had experienced some serious letting go, and seen the corresponding feeling of liberation that accompanied that change in attitude towards my experience. I tried to bring that way of relating to my life with me, so that I could feel what effect it had if I kept with it. I wanted to try committing to just letting go and seeing what life was like uninterrupted.

I spent the first couple of days of the retreat going back and forth between simply trying to let go (and be entrenched in my experience of the moment) and doing what I thought of as “properly mediating” or “meditating the right/best way I could”. It was difficult. I felt at odds with myself and confused, the physical relaxation that usually came with my meditation practice was missing, and replaced by an underlying feeling of being stuck. I was jumping back and forth between two concepts of how to feel liberated, and trying to make the best of my time on retreat. Then, I started remembering how I felt during my last week in DC, and recognizing that during this week I felt really deeply at peace, and I even felt that my interactions with other people changed as a result of that feeling.

So I started to try and really bring that state of mind and relationship back to my experience. I focused less on verbal concepts and started to try and maneuver nonverbally using my feelings to dictate what was working in terms of being in the moment.

Also, the way I was focusing my vision seemed to be guiding me towards or away from this state of mind. Sometimes my vision would be really focused and guiding. It almost felt like physically opening my eyes more fully or focusing on one spot more with my vision was helping me shift more into a state of letting go.

As I became more in tune with my intuition, I started to realize that my ability to feel liberated, deeply happy, and at peace (with whatever was happening) relied on my ability to let go of excess thought and fully experience my life in the present. In a way, this is simple, but in practice this process did not always manifest itself easily. It required me to reach a sort of “sweet spot” where I was in the current of my changing experience, but not holding onto wanting to be in the moment so much that I didn’t notice that the current is still moving. This required me to do two things. First, I had to deeply trust my ability to recognize what was right and wrong in this respect, and let go of my feelings of doubt. Second, I needed to realize that it was a lot more effective to let go of what was not working than to move towards what was working. Because once you let go of what is not working, everything is already working much better than it was before.

It felt like there was a current or stream that made up my life and my surroundings, and it was always there. And the problem was that I was either trying to get out of it, thinking that there was something better somewhere else, or I was trying to stay right where I was and not go with the current, thinking that I needed to be in one spot. The truth was that the only thing that really worked was to be in it and to let the current take me with it. This is what it means to be present.

Still, I was going back and forth between my intuitive understanding of this and the formal guidance I had been receiving and repeating to myself. Don’t get me wrong, the formal guidance is great, and it acts as a way to verbalize some of these same concepts so that they can start to be realized experientially. But, in order to further let go, I really needed to commit, like a leap of faith almost. As long as I kept focusing on what to “do” with regards to my meditation I was trapped in the infinite reminders to “do this” and “not do that”, reminders that I wanted to hold on to so that I would never forget exactly how to get and stay where I wanted to be. This method of instruction never seemed to get resolved, I never felt like I had finally remembered enough instructions to stop telling myself instructions. And the instructions themselves were getting in the way.

Those moments that I was using to give myself further instructions were missed opportunities to actually be present. So my practice became noticing when I was perpetuating my thinking, and realizing that only letting go in those moments (and there were a lot of moments) would make me free and connected to my experience in life, as a part of this strange universe. I recognized that I wanted to be more connected with the current, for good reason; and telling myself how to operate tended to be a bad way of doing that. While engaging in walking meditation (when I would walk very slowly, usually back and forth) I started to really feel like I could commit to the present moment and let go of thoughts of the past and the future all at once. I would ask myself “where am I going?” and be aware of the fact that there was really no place other than the present moment, the flow of the current. I had prolonged periods where I felt deeply that there was nowhere that I needed to go and nowhere that I needed to stay. Afterwards, even things that I used to consider hindrances to my meditation were just a part of my experience like everything else. I could think, even fantasize, or regret, and that would be okay, as long as I was with it, experiencing it, not trying to escape it or change it in order to experience something else.

Throughout this time it was apparent that this was the way to diminish any suffering that I was creating for myself and be free to live and enjoy my life fully. So I made my only intention to cultivate that state of mind and build that ability to be present. I tried to experience it and come back to it as much as possible.

The idea of committing to “now” at all times proved useful, because it allowed me to acknowledge the fact that the present moment is all that I am ever going to have. In some sense, the current of my life is always available to be experienced more fully, and therefore there is always room to be more fulfilled in each moment of my life. Even if I thought of something in the future that I wanted to do well in, I recognized that it too would benefit from my ability to embody this sweet spot, where letting go doesn’t compromise attentiveness and attentiveness doesn’t compromise my ability to let go.

I almost felt like all the meditation instructions I had ever received and was continuing to receive were designed to put me at odds with myself to the point that I felt the need to drop it all at once and stop picking it back up. I was told, and I told myself, to not do anything, just sit and focus on my experience, but even in that, there were implications and questions, so I had to stop telling myself anything at all in order to really be free, and that didn’t require a strategy or method, just a sort of commitment. Eckhart Tolle talks about how thinking is an addiction, and relates thoughts to entities that don’t want to die, and want to become bigger and more secure. I think this is a useful reminder of the nature of our thoughts.

I had heard that probably the most universally accepted and prevalent of the Buddha’s teachings was about three qualities of our experience: impermanence, imperfection, and impersonality. The Buddha said that if we could deeply and truly understand that our experiences were always impermanent, imperfect according to our wants, and impersonal (not indicative of an intrinsic self or essence) then we would be completely free.

He also said that reconciling deeply with one of these qualities will inevitably lead to the experience of the others, so in one sense its all part of the same understanding. I think this is an important teaching, and I think this retreat showed me how reconciling with change or impermanence can act as a gateway to understanding these other characteristics and being more free.

Two quotes came to mind and I think they beautifully sum up the mechanisms of unnecessary suffering and potential liberation that I became aware of.

 

The first comes from Ajahn Tuhn, who rephrased the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” based on his own experience. He said:

“The mind that goes out in order to satisfy its moods is the cause of suffering.

The result of the mind going out in order to satisfy its moods is suffering.

The mind, seeing the mind clearly, is the path to the cessation of suffering.

The result of the mind, seeing the mind clearly, is the cessation of suffering.”

 

The second is a quote from Ajahn Chah, who had once been to IMS, more than 30 years ago. He said:

“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace;

if you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace;

if you let go completely, you will have complete peace”

Book Review: “Lying”

Book review on “Lying”

 

Hey, all. So a couple weeks ago I read a really short, but really formative book called “Lying” by Sam Harris. If you have three or four hours to dedicate to reading this year, I would recommend dedicating them to reading it (40-50 pages).

Even though it’s short, it’s amazing how much of an impact it can have if you actually take the thesis to heart. Sam’s argument is incredibly convincing, and his point of view on lying is uncompromising. He reveals that even in the instances where it seems to be most obvious that lying is the right thing to do, it’s still the wrong option. And its not just the people that you lie to that have to deal with the consequences; most of the burden of being less than perfectly honest is carried by you, whether you know it or not.

Sam’s focus is mostly on what people call “white-lies”, the types of lies that even the people with the best intentions tell, thinking they are doing the right thing. His argument is challenging and engaging throughout the book, because he constantly brings up situations that seem to call for a lie, and then proceeds to go in depth into how lying can make things worse.

Until I read “Lying”, I didn’t really recognize how many opportunities I missed when it came to being completely honest with people about my beliefs and attitudes. I accepted my level of truthfulness as ethical enough and functional enough to get me by, while unknowingly cutting myself off from the possibility of having interactions that were more deeply personal and meaningful.

There’s something liberating about committing yourself to simply being truthful, no matter what. It implies a certain acceptance of the way you are, and the way things are, in any given moment, and when I can remember to do it, it makes a big difference in my life.

Plus, Sam gives poker players a pass from lying in the 6-minute audiobook excerpt, so its all good.

It’s here: http://www.samharris.org/lying if you want to buy it, or if you think you want to read it but aren’t sure you would buy it let me know and I’ll just send you the PDF in an email (he gave permission to share after buying a copy when it was first released)

 

I Like to Rhyme

Ever since Jacques showed me some of the crazy rhyme schemes that Del tha Funkee Homosapian and the rest of the Hieroglyphics crew have come up with over the years, I’ve been really interested in the intricacies of hip hop verses, and curious how much of this “conscious hip hop” is actually sub-conscious. I mean, no matter how consistent Del is, or how convinced Jacques is, I refuse to believe that some of the stuff he’s writing is purposefully connected (Jacques’ gonna hate this lol).

Regardless, its beyond doubt that some rappers have accomplished incredible feats of web-weaving in their verses, and even throughout entire songs, and as much as I would bet that the writers themselves don’t realize what they’re doing consciously, I would be even more confident that 99% of their fans don’t notice it consciously either. Still, that is sort of the beauty of hip hop, or the beauty of any kind of craft. The more you put into it, the more likely you are to get something out of it, and even if its not recognizable and describable, it’s still there and it still resonates with people.

Just take these three verses from Shad’s “A Story Noone Told” for example. I broke down and color coded Shad’s lyrics in each verse. In the first verse (after the intro) I showed all of the rhymes that I saw, most of which Shad is definitely conscious of. In the second verse I showed all of the slant rhymes that I saw, most of which I think Shad was conscious of on some level, but more so his intuitions were handling. I guess thats what you call flow. And in the third verse I did basically the same type of color coding as the first one, except I was a little strict about what I considered to be purposefully connected.

The most amazing thing is that Shad performs all these unbelievable linguistic gymnastics to make an interconnected rhyme scheme, but he does it in the context of a comprehensive story thats actually interesting and worth listening to.

If you’re interested, I recommend just listening to the song first. Also just note how many of the syllables in the second verse fall into a color code.

Screen Shot 2013-10-20 at 9.57.30 PM

 

 

 

It Is Always Now

I want to share a 5-minute snippet from Sam Harris in his lecture “Death in the Present Moment”

I think Sam Harris expresses this truth exceptionally well, and it is more useful to take another listen than to hear me expound on it. However, I will say I think Sam Harris is right, in that there is probably nothing more important to understand about your mind than this if you want to be happy in this world.

I will also add that the ability to drop your problem and appreciate the intrinsically good experience of life moment to moment is a skill that can be honed, like any other, and the benefits of learning and developing this skill are unique in terms of how fruitful they can be in our day to day lives.

Five Things That I Would Ideally Never Forget

I once heard Tommy Angelo say that “there are some things in life that we can never be reminded of too many times”. I think I always felt that to be true but I had never really thought about it until I heard Tommy say it, and the funny thing is that there are a whole lot of Tommyisms that fit in to that category of “things that are worth remembering over and over again”.

So I decided to start making a short list of things that I’m better off remembering. On one level, it’s feels good to remember them as concepts and say them to myself, but that doesn’t really do them justice. Ideally I want to be able to feel these ideas.

1) “If you don’t get it here you won’t get it anywhere”  (footnote at bottom)

In other words, the only real moment is the present moment. We have all these ideas of what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, but the past and the future can only ever exist in a different “now”, and it can be useful as a reference sometimes, but usually it takes you away from the “now” that is right here.

If I think that I’m finally going to be able to be at peace in the “future” i’m probably forgetting that the future is going to be a “now” just like the one I’m having at this moment. While I’m in that future “now”, I’m almost definitely going to have another idea about the “future” after that or the past before that, no matter how good my life situation is. It’s basically a cycle like this and if I can’t get myself to experience the now right now then I won’t be able to experience it later either

2) Mind your surroundings (zoom out)

We’re surrounded by an extremely vast amount of space. First we can feel ourselves, sitting right here, in the room we’re sitting in, surrounded by all the things that we’re looking at, the furniture in the room, the things outside our window, then we can feel the empty space around us, the space that needs to exist for all of those pieces of furniture and things outside to have a place to rest in. If we keep zooming out, seeing our neighborhood, our city, our state, our country, our planet, and then switch our perspective back to our body, it can feel really pleasant to know that all that space is out there and we just exist within it

3) Nothing is ever permanent

It’s hard to live your life and feel this at the same time, but when you can, then you’re seeing clearly and you feel more alive. Everything is changing, nothing is ever staying the same. This includes my body, my mind, my feelings, my ideas, my beliefs, and everything around me, and my state of mind, which is one of the reasons I want to write this blog post, to help myself remember

4) Why am I doing this?

I want to be able to remember to ask myself why I am doing things. Especially things I’m doing a lot of the time. Sometimes I’ll have a good reason and sometimes I wont. Usually it takes a series of questions to get to the root of the answer, and if the end of the chain of questions doesn’t make me realize that the thing i’m doing either makes me happy or something else would make me happier, I’m definitely not going deep enough with the “why” questions.

For example: Why do I play poker? I play to make money. Why do I want money? I want money to give me the freedom to do the things that I like to do. Why don’t I do something else to make money? Because poker gives me more freedom during the workday than other things could. Why do I want freedom? I want freedom to do things I like to do. Why do I want to do things I like to do? Okay, I’m done with all the questions, these are getting stupid

5) There is no “right” or “wrong” way to be

Aspiring to be “right” to act “right” to act the way you “should” act in a situation instead of the way that comes the most naturally to you is largely a fruitless task when it comes to your happiness. There is no “right” that goes beyond how you feel. It can take a lot of unnecessary energy to try and live up to your definition of what the “right way to be” is.

 

Thanks a lot for reading this. Let me know if you thought it was too short or too long or you liked it or didn’t like it or you want to talk more or anything like that.

(footnote: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP2ISUThbcQ taken from a good dialogue outro at 3:15.. Arrow of God by Cyne, which definitely gets honorable mention on my top 100 favorite hip hop songs by the way..)

 

Hip Hop Classics

100 hip hop classics

My 100 favorite hip hop songs in random order. Not trying to highlight Street Talkin’ or anything, but I was definitely jamming to it while I took the screenshot. Also, you might need to scroll to the right to see the whole list.

Enjoy

 

Arriving in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

I’m writing the beginning of this on the plane again; a wise man once told me that he only reads during the first and last 20 minutes of plane rides. Not his wisest words but it’s a pretty funny concept. We just left Dubai and Oman. I really liked the beginning of our travels. It was a good mix of spending time with family, meeting new people, discovering the city, and enjoying it. While I was there I took a lot of time to read, reflect and meditate, probably because the internet wasn’t working (which is almost always a blessing in disguise)… I’m probably on my computer too much for my own good. Anyways, I got really enticed by an idea and as usual I assumed that my whole life would change overnight if I implemented it into my day to day life (it don’t work like that keed). It was a mix of inspiration from Haseeb Qureshi (ex-poker player’s) blog www.haseebq.com, and my interpretation of concepts from meditation and this book I’m reading called Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I recommend both of the those.

Haseeb wrote on the subject of “trusting in the process” in poker and in life. Making the best decision over and over in the moment and then just trusting without gauging or checking that you will be rewarded in the process. He compared poker to climbing a mountain and wrote

“You start climbing, scrambling, kicking and scraping your way up this treacherous mountain with your eyes fixed on the peak, because that’s where you want to be in the end. But that’s not how you climb a mountain. The only way to climb a mountain, as any climber will tell you, is by looking where you are. By finding a rock to reach for, another for footing, and one by one, moment by moment, to climb. To climb, and to throw yourself into climbing. Looking up or down is irrelevant.”

Haseeb’s metaphor is drawn up for poker but I think the concept is good for everyday life and general happiness. Sometimes I find myself going through things and focusing on the finish line instead of the stretch of concrete in front of me, and it takes me out of the moment, making me susceptible to being resistant or irritable when the flow leading up to an event is interrupted or different than I expected. Sometimes consciously or subconsciously, I think we project what the memory of an event is going to be before we even fully experience it. But that isn’t how good memories are made. It’s best to be focused on the present, moment by moment and let the rest flow naturally.

I was reminded of all of this while I played a game of golf here a couple of days ago, and I think I like it better as an example than the one about climbing a mountain, especially because it focuses on a target that you want to hit over and over rather than a goal that you can either reach or not reach.  Let’s say you’re golfing and you’re teeing off on the first hole of the course. If you want to play your best, you can’t look at the hole while you shoot, even though that is the target you’re aiming for. You should know where the hole is but you really need to shift your focus to hitting the ball right in front of you now and getting closer to where you want to be. Now let’s say that you made it on the green in x number of shots. It’s not going to do you any good to think about how many shots it took to get there or how many it might take to get in the hole. The only thing worth focusing on is putting right now. Now let’s say you’re teeing off for the last hole of the course and you want to know your score. It does you no good to check your results and avert your attention. You might see your score and think, “okay I just need to make par on this next hole and I can still tie” or something of that matter, but the way to play your best and score your best is to be focused on doing your best in the present moment, and to trust in the process along the way.

Poker forces me to think about stuff like this, which is probably one of my favorite parts of the experience, but for anyone completely uninterested in poker I hope this helps with your putting.

Banana Day

It’s been a strange Christmas day. I woke up this morning at dawn, after a short one-hour nap, to the thought of spending the next 15 hours dressed up as a banana, surrounded by people I didn’t know and would likely never meet. This thought actually energized me to get out of bed, probably because it was so out of the ordinary.

Last night, as Asad and I were getting ready to pack up and fly to Dubai, I jokingly brought up the suggestion of wearing a banana costume for the duration of the trip. Pretty standard for us to joke about something like this, most of our humor revolves around absurd ideas and imaginary situations. Asad responded, as he sometimes does, with a wager or self-sacrifice in an attempt to make this imaginary situation into his future reality. He offered to buy my flight from Dubai to Malaysia if I went through with it and never took off my banana hood (unless it was mandated for security reasons). I barely thought about it and snap accepted, it was clearly a great deal.

Here’s Asad’s documentation and captioning of the whole event:

Excitement

Excitement

Boredom

Boredom

Fatigue

Fatigue

Shame

Shame

Success

Success

Looking back, I might have done it for free. This is fun. I use the present tense “this” because I’m still sitting in my banana suit as I write this (the plane is about to land). There are a couple of nice and unexpected lessons to take away from today. Firstly, on the surface, I learned that there’s no reason to not do silly and dumb stuff like this. It cheers people up and surprises almost everyone and reminds you that there’s no reason to not do silly and dumb stuff. To go a bit deeper, I learned that it’s nice to be put into a position where you get looked at differently. It reminds you that you can always be yourself without having any sort of reaction to the thoughts or reactions of others. You don’t even need to react to the thoughts or reactions of yourself. I was confronted with a lot of positive, negative, and even neutral reactions to the way I looked, and I found it especially easy to remember that other people’s immediate thoughts, and your own, are just thoughts. They are snippets of brain activity that are constantly springing up all over the place about a million different topics. There is no need to do any more than to observe them with a half smile.

My favorite parts of the experience were that I frequently forgot I was in a banana suit, I easily disregarded the fact that I might look ridiculous to some people, and I constantly felt that I could act naturally and have fun while wearing a banana suit for no reason other than to have fun while wearing a banana suit. Ain’t nothin wrong with that.

Merry Christmas (or Chrimbus) to all.