Saturday, December 18, 2021

I Can't Believe It's not Buddhism: My Week Long Journey through Silent Mindfulness

Being the CEO of a technology company in the Cryptocurrency space is a brutal affair. There is really nothing like the 24/7 blast of information, scandals, new protocols, concepts ranging from NFTs and the metaverse to a constantly changing landscape. I’ve been in the industry for almost a decade and helped launch 4 ventures. IOG is the company that stuck for me and it has grown to nearly 600 people across more than 50 countries- not counting all the associations and vendors that we regularly engage. 

This journey has left its mark on me physically and mentally. Unfortunately, the culture of startups is about progress at any personal cost. Thus, one gains weight, finds burnout a constant concern, and can’t take time off. Compound this culture with the cryptocurrency moonboy, “what have you done for me lately?”, attitude and you’re off to a damaging lifestyle. Nothing is ever good enough. No accomplishment or launch ever matters. It’s always, “what’s next, what’s better, now coin X is better.”

Projects like Cardano were and still are the antithesis of this mentality. We’ve always chosen a systematic, patient, and refined process that moves publication by publication, release by release instead of chasing hype and the latest cycle. Our view is that these protocols will be as ubiquitous as the internet and be used by billions. This scale of adoption will take years to decades, not weeks to months, and won’t be a meme. Ultimately it’s the long game that matters. 

The challenge for me as the leader of IOG is answering how do I find clarity, peace, and strength in the chaos? How does one pace himself, not burn out, and converge to a healthy lifestyle in the office and at home? Furthermore, how does this pursuit become an institutional culture thus competitive strength?

I’ve spent quite some time reflecting upon these questions and we’ve been exploring different candidate solutions, but the most meaningful to me was the idea of building a mindfulness practice. For those who aren’t familiar with the term or have heard it, but really didn’t go deeper, it’s simply the act of increasing awareness, detaching from the future and past, and living in the present moment. 

Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn has spent a lifetime building out the corpus and methodology behind mindfulness in a series of clinics, books, and academic research first starting at MIT and later the University of Massachusetts with his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction clinic started in 1979. The easiest way of understanding the approach is that it’s basically Buddhism without the metaphysical and mystical components alongside a peer-reviewed iterative approach to application.

One can find thousands of papers published over the last forty years exploring the topic and legitimatizing its clinical efficacy from the treatment of chronic stress to depression to managing the trauma of war and cancer. Also, it seems to be the perfect approach for aspiring and actual leaders to address the brutality of life and business while maintaining compassion, empathy, and the ability to focus. Thus, I said that I should do it!

I started by buying devices like the Muse, signing up for apps like Calm, listening to podcasts, and reading some books. Then I began committing some time- abet inconsistently- to the effort. It’s incredible how hard it is to find 15-30 minutes a day in this hectic, dopamine-addicted world. The time is there, but conjuring the daily willpower necessary to commit to ancillary concerns never seems to materialize.  

Thus I decided to do something dramatic. I wanted to resolve two concerns concurrently. First, I wanted to address my addiction to digital devices, constant news, social media, email, and slack. I’ve been glued by my phone checking messages for years, and it’s put me into an endless cycle of shallow work, more difficultly focusing, and a feeling that I’m going through life on autopilot. There are excellent books on this topic ranging from the Shallows to Deep Work.

Second, I wanted to move beyond an intellectual understanding of meditation- any way that engages in systematically regulating our attention and energy, thereby influencing and possibly transforming the quality of our experiences in the service of realizing the full range of our humanity and relationship to others and the world (what the hell does that mean?)- to an experiential and eventually embodiment of the act like what Matthieu Ricard has achieved over a lifetime of practice. So I signed up for a megadose of meditation by going to a week-long silent retreat in the mountains of Colorado.

I had no idea what to expect or what I’d experience, nor did I understand the level of commitment and rigor it would require; however, I set up a healthy environment to pursue it. I didn’t take any digital devices (including my phone), appointed our Chief of Staff as acting CEO during my time meditating, and chose the week before Christmas as most business concerns slow to a glacial pace. Hence, I felt it was possible to completely step away and not need to be in the loop.

I arrived last week Friday afternoon at the Shambala Mountain Center. It’s a remarkably peaceful and beautiful place covering several hundred acres tucked away in the Red Feather Lakes area. The trees, snow, wind, sun, stars, and nature have all seemed to conspire to create an ideal setting to relax and reflect upon life. 

The staff reflected the environment with a laid-back friendliness and grace that one could imagine a center like this attracts. I got checked into a small room that reminded me of the Apa Hotel chain in Japan for its size and efficiency of space and then meet with the two instructors Dawn and Janet. They went through the program, rules, and process. 

We start sharp every morning at 7:00 AM and end at 8:30 PM. Sitting meditation, walking meditation, guided practice, aimless wandering, compassion training, yoga, and lectures. On day two, the class goes silent. Really silent. No one talks to each other and everyone keeps modest eyes, which means you also don’t look at each other. 

I added two additional practices to help push me through. First, I’d get up every morning at 5ish AM and then go outside in the wind and snow to meditate in gym clothing- eventually shirtless. My thought process was that s it would be the hardest part of the day, so everything else should be downhill. Second, after day three, I started a water/tea fast. Thus, I wouldn’t eat for four days. The removal of anticipation of food and the consistency of energy from fasting would help me be in the moment.

Sounds easy? Surely a week sitting, walking, and doing yoga ought not to be too taxing? Well, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first lesson I rapidly learned was how out of touch with my body I’ve become. My joints, back, even walking gait started to seem alien. So much pain in different and sometimes new areas. Sitting upright for hours following my breath, each ring of the standing bell brought another wave of dread to fight a personal battle with my body.

Then the thought swarm came: my thinking, ruminations, daydreams, inner narrative. These things would override the pain of sitting and invade any sense of attempting to detach by following my breath. I was amazed at how they were there all along, but somehow muted by life’s constant distractions, yet had their subtle impact. An invasion of mindlessness.

So many activities are actually infested with the thought swarm, from walking in line to brushing your teeth. The mind refuses to allow boredom nor void of thought. Something must narrate. Something has to shout. We’ve all experienced this inner dialogue, but a silent retreat forces you to move in with the swarm, have tea with them, and realize how batshit crazy they really are.   

Feel the breath enter the nose and follow it to the lungs, slowly exhale - REMEMBER CES IS COMING IN A FEW WEEKS IN VEGAS….VEGAS IS GREAT….DOLPHINS TEAM UP AND KILL SHARKS….SHARKS HAVE TWO PENI….- wait! What am I doing? Start over. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in. Breath- I REALLY WANT TO READ THAT BOOK OF TREES I JUST GOT FROM LIMA…MY FAVORITE TREE IS THE WEEPING WILLOW….-Damn It! Breath in.

This dialogue is the thought swarm. It’s endless, relentless, and impossible to control. The best you can hope for is to treat it with a dispassionate observation like cars driving by on the road as you sit on the hill watching them. Then you experience the external world. 

I sat silently in a room with more than 20 people on an uncomfortable pillow. Nothing to do; nowhere to go. Every noise gets amplified. Every stretch, adjustment, cough, and breath becomes heard. Thus, the thought swarm will focus on them. Judgment then comes. The thoughts wander and wonder. One begins to notice so much from hygiene to sinus problems. Again, I must return to the breath.

I wish battling the thought swarm was the apex problem of mindfulness rather it’s the guard at the front door one must pass in order to enter the building. The thought swarm writes on water leaving chaotic ripples. 

Once you plunge into the depths of your mind, you find what’s been left there throughout the decades. Lost love, demons, hate, unresolved feelings, anger, the toxicity of greed, aversion, and delusion, scars, damaged ego, the mutilation of one’s soul from years of self-criticism, simply put, fucking terrifying stuff. Like Nightmare on Elm street terrifying. 

Keeping a mindful attitude helps one explore this layer. There are seven basic, interconnected concepts that keep returning like a protective suit throughout the week: non-judgment, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Yet this suit is self-assembled, batteries not included, and takes years if not decades to fully construct, Meanwhile, leaving the thought swarm on the surface, one is now faced with the horrors of the depths. 

The real impact is that I had panic attacks, nightmares, cried, re-lived old pains as if they were fresh, and experienced so much doubt. It was like a marathon of emotions and battles. Every day was unique. Every demon had different tricks. I was left drained, somewhat defeated, and mentally exhausted just four days into this endeavor. I couldn’t imagine completing it. I was absolutely miserable covered in open pisonic wounds.

Yet I somehow found the strength to continue thanks to the group setting and the curiosity of where the practice would take me- like a mental Dante descending deeper into hell. To my amazement, the tools of peaceful abiding, the right attitude, and the commitment itself started to create distance from the demons and swarm. 

They still exist, yet they seem to be in a menagerie instead of opponents to tackle. I found my emotions stabilizing thus the capacity to go deeper into myself. 

The basement I found (admittedly the stone could keep falling down the well, it’s hard to truly know bedrock in the mind) was a calm emptiness. A sort of meta-silence that simultaneously acknowledged the ripples in the water, but felt no reaction to them like a noble gas. It’s a void that transcends time, boredom, direction, or the need for meaning. Just peace. Pain is not a punishment. Pleasure is not a reward. The narrative is as meaningless as politics is to the Sun. You can watch your own inner world with a clarity that’s hard to describe.

Upon reflection, no wisdom has been gained so far. Just the ability to descend into the mind and see what’s there. The second half of mindfulness is to develop a mindset that directs the power of awareness towards some productive end. In particular, compassion for oneself and others alongside a self-institutionalization of daily awareness in all things. The ability to take what I found at bedrock and mix it into the experience of life. No past, no potential spectrum of futures, just the present with the ability to observe, reflect, and find beauty. 

Trying this mindset, I started to notice so much beauty and found a degree of patience that I’ve never been accustomed to. Sitting in the dining hall while others ate, I drank my tea and spent what felt like a small eternity examining the salt shaker on the table. I’ve seen and used thousands throughout my life as have you. But have you ever taken the time to explore its form? Look at the little holes clogged and open. The curves and salt within. The small world contained in that shell. How the salt sometimes settles like tiny sand dunes.

Compassion coupled with awareness gives you the ability to imagine the lives and struggles of others. The salt shaker had to be made. Those who fabricated it are just like us. They live. They breathe. They have wives and husbands. Daily tribulations and triumphs laced with hope and aspirations alongside despair and loss.

 How often have you wished them safety, happiness, health, and peace? A meaningless object suddenly becomes a thread showing us how interconnected humanity has become. Something that could tell a thousand stories.    

It seems to take a lifetime to open to this perspective and teaching it is like selling water by the river. It’s too personal and experiential to truly be captured in a textbook. Kabat-Zinn’s definition of meditation that I wrote above is something I’ve ruminated on for the last seven days and still leaves me puzzled in its vacuous precision. 

I suppose this bewilderment is somehow connected to the foundations of pursuing wisdom like the old Buddhist Koans (My favorite is As the roof was leaking, a Zen master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub; the other brought a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the other highly praised). I learned that successful mindfulness practice combines these ruminations with meditation and reading, but I’m left without explicit guidance. 

Awareness in itself is the machine that produces the insight to find the right path. Thus one hopes that the way will organically show itself over time. But maybe I’m bringing a tub to the roof?

It was the most challenging week of my adult life. It was the most rewarding. Paradoxically, I learned so much and nothing. There was a great emptying of the mind, and the order that I’d carefully constructed has come undone.

I came to the mountains to find a way to eschew the stress of running a company. I left them with a path to let the stress live with the thought swarm and demons in a mental menagerie that I could observe but transcend reactions and feelings. In other words, I had the wrong expectations and goals. 

Non-striving, acceptance, letting goal, living in the moment and a focus on awareness seem to be on the surface a demotivation to do great things. Don’t all projects require the mindset of the future to come to life? And doesn’t the pursuit require pain and sacrifice to manifest?

Ironically, the awareness of the present and the ability to find beauty in all things somehow make the most meaningful goals possible. All things are a composition of investment of energy and effort from some system. Our capacity to take each moment and feel the pleasure and pain without attaching a narrative or deeper meaning translates to an ability to experience any possible moment regardless of its torment. The chain of these moments builds up to the goals that we set.  

Returning home, I felt a peace that I hadn’t known. I also felt newfound confidence to pursue even greater goals. Realistically a week cannot indoctrinate any mindset with permanence. But it can point the boat in a new direction and set the sails correctly. 

I wish everyone has a chance in life to take a week just to be aware. Take a week to dive into their minds and find the attitude necessary to take the present back. And find compassion where it is most needed- ourselves. 

Despite it being as silent as a monastery, the strangers I endured the retreat with somehow became friends. I felt joy for their success and sadness for their struggles. I miss the simplicity of a painful routine. I long for the ascetic labor of cultivating the soil for the seeds of wisdom to be planted and grown.

The final thought is one on love. There is a poem from Hafez that perfectly captures what mindfulness pursues: 

Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, 'You owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.

I hope the time I spent in the mountains will give me my moments back. And with them, work that can light the whole sky.