Nick Seaver – TRANSCRIPT
A few years ago, my wife and I did something a little crazy, or really sane, depending on how you look at it. That was just 18 seconds of silence.
That wasn’t a glitch of me freezing. What if I told you my wife and I spent 18 months in silence? Not because we’d had some epic marriage argument. We actually chose to do this. So why in the world would anybody do this? For most people this sounds like a nightmare. As the saying goes: “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I don’t like to go there alone.”
We live in a culture where silence and solitude are literally the worst form of punishment. Once you’re in prison, you have to do something bad there to get put into solitary confinement. It’s just kind of crazy, if you think about it. Alone in a room you’re actually really safe.
No wild animals, no one can attack you, no car accidents. So why is it so scary it’s an ultimate form of punishment? It’s because we’re left alone with our own minds. We’re left alone in a bad neighborhood. A friend of ours who spent time in the Himalayas described the life of a family there. This 16-year-old boy would wake up, leave the yurt, and sit and watch over the yaks.
And watch the yaks. When he got bored, he’d take out his flute and he’d play it. And then he’d go home at night. And that was the busy season. Most of the year was all about huddling around the fire and trying to stay warm.
Now think about that boy’s daily life, living the way people have for thousands of years, compared to the average 16-year-old today. And in that boy’s culture, the highest calling actually includes choosing to put yourself into solitary confinement in order to train the heart and the mind, which they think of as a single thing, in the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. There were a couple of differences between what my wife and I did and ordinary silence. First, we were part of something called the “Shamatha Project”, which was the first major long-term study on the effects of meditation. Second, we were going into that bad neighborhood with a program to clean it up, specifically through meditation.
If you’d asked me 15 years ago if this is something I’d ever do I would have said, “No way!” My wife and I were your typical, overbusy, striving professionals, living in New York City. We started this when we stumbled on this article by Daniel Goleman, in 2003, and the book he’d just written, “Destructive Emotions.”
I was familiar with Goleman as a thought leader in the business community. And these pieces described an amazing partnership that was coming together between scientist on the one hand, with cutting edge technology, and Buddhist monks on the other, practicing ancient forms of meditation. And if the early science was right, the premise that he was pointing to was quite profound.
We’ve built a culture based on distraction and doing, doing, doing, and the pendulum has swung too far wide. We’re so anxious to change everything around us – our car, house, neighborhood, politicians iPhone, spouse, TV channels, appliances – and some of this is good and important, except that we’ve forgotten the most important thing in the middle of it all: everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing them-self. Or to take it to another level: personal change, on a scalable basis, is the real building block of lasting social change. I’d like to invite you to try a short exercise with me: this is a 30-second simplified version of a classic meditation called mindfulness of breathing. The goal is to focus your attention on the sensations of breathing around the belly.
Let the breath be natural – don’t try to control it – and you can sit comfortably as you are, with eyes open or closed as you’d like. Ready? Set Go. So, was anybody here, who is not a meditator, actually able to keep their focus on the sensations of breathing around the belly the whole time? That’s normal. Psychologists have known for a long time that within seconds focus begins to scatter.
This is such a seemingly simple exercise, but when you try it, it turns out to be so hard. The mind has so much potential. It’s like we’ve been given this high-powered telescope that should be looking into deep space, except that it has a lousy tripod, so it’s wobbling all over the place and fogged, and smudged, and picking up all kinds of unwanted signal noise from TV stations. And it’s the telescope we’ve had strapped to our foreheads since before we were born. It’s everything we know, so we take it for granted.
We don’t stop and ask, “Is it buggy?” “Can it be improved?” When my wife and I started to practice, we tried to sit for ten minutes. For me it was torture, but we kept at it, and over time, we started to sense there was something really powerful here. We spent time in the presence of highly experienced practitioners. These were like the Olympians of mental training. They’d spent tens of thousands of hours training the heart and the mind.
And their presence was really striking. Maybe you’ve heard of the flow state Athletes call it “being in the zone,” jazz musicians, “in the pocket.” It’s that experience of total engagement, where you lose your sense of self, distractions fade away, and everything flows naturally at the height of your skills. They seem to live, not in a temporary flow state, more like a permanent flow trait, with a kind of warmth and kindness, a radiant joy, and a humility that was very different from anything we’d seen before.
How many people feel like they’re really at their best, in a kind of flow state, at least half the time? The premise in that Daniel Goleman piece is that the reason we’re so rarely at our best is that we’ve left the heart and mind untrained. We have fitness in our culture for the body, but we don’t yet really have fitness for the heart and the mind. It was easy for my wife and I to dismiss these “Olympians of mental training.” Maybe they’d done something that was impossible for us. But over time, we saw friends transformed by the practice, we read commentary from across the ages, a lot of it secular, some spiritual, Eastern, Western, different corners of the globe, different centuries, and they kept coming back with the same results.
There was an interesting body of science starting to build. In 2006, we saw a posting for something called the Shamatha Project, this first major study on the long-term effects of meditation. The teacher, Alan Wallace, was exceptional and, on a whim, we applied, completely forgot about it, and many months later, we both got emails saying, “Congratulations, you’ve gotten in!” And it caught us just in the right moment. My wife was looking to change her work, I was wrapping up a work project. We’d saved up just enough money, we could do something like this, and we could live on very little.