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.
We’d been trying to have kids for years, and that was really stressful, but it let us do this kind of crazy seeming thing. Everyone around us thought we were nuts – our friends, our work colleagues. We thought we were a little crazy, and were worried about how we’d support ourselves coming out this. Our fertility doctor thought we were crazy. Our family looked at us like we’d grown antennae in our heads, and tried to convince us not to do it.
And in 2007, we put everything in storage, drove to the Rockies, and found ourselves living in this lodge, with 35 other people just as crazy as us, practicing up to 10-12 hours a day. The scientists had built labs in the basement, and for fun we got to try all kinds of cool new styles like this hat. That’s an EEG cap that they used to measure our brain activity while we meditated, and did a bunch of psychological tests. As subjects, we couldn’t know exactly what they were testing for, but they seemed to go for everything. They took blood, saliva, measured perspiration, respiration, there were interviews, there were even hidden cameras we didn’t find out about until afterwards.
And then of course there was the silence. So why all this monastic silence? The answer is these practices are really hard. When you’re in retreat like this, you’re basically taking apart and rebuilding aspects of the mind. It’s like mental surgery, and silence is like the clean room. One of the things we’re trying to do is let the mind settle out like a snow globe.
Even a minor conversation can stir it up, like shaking up that snow globe. So I have to admit: we weren’t in total silence for 18 months. We spoke with the scientists for their work, with our teacher every six weeks or so, and we took a couple short breaks, like this one, when my parents came for the weekend from New York One of the questions they asked was, “How do you know these practices work?” We ended up having the most amazing weekend with them, open and connected in a way that was very different. And they understood at a deep level what we were trying to do and why.
So the question became moot somehow, but it’s a good question. When you’re in retreat, in the mountains, isolated, practicing 10-12 hours a day, you lose perspective. It’s like swimming in the middle of the ocean. You think you’re swimming in the right direction, but it’s hard to know how the tides of the mind are carrying you. And then something happens, and it’s like you catch sight of shore.
And all of a sudden, your little village that used to be everything you once knew is a little speck far down the coastline. This is the last photo I ever took of my Dad. A couple of months after my parents’ visit, a small miracle came to us: we found out we were pregnant with twins, and then, a week later, my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. I launched out of retreat, leaving behind a newly pregnant wife, going back to New York. And first of all, going from here to here was an exercise in contrast.
And this was my first chance to road-test these practices. It was a completely different experience. In situations like this, they say one of two things happens: either you fall into and get consumed by anger, grief, despair, or you go into denial. What opened up for me was a kind of third way: an ability to feel these emotions, but not fall into them, so I could keep the heart open, maintain resilience, and be supportive to the people around me, in a way that I couldn’t have come close to before. And the responses were really meaningful.
The same people who’d tried to convince us not to do this 18 months before were now asking how to start their own practice. Viktor Frankl describes it beautifully when he writes: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I want to be clear. I’m not holding myself up here as anything so great. Far from it. If anything, these practices have shown me how much work there still is to do, but they’ve been a big help for sure. So what were the benefits? There’s a long tradition of not talking in detail about any change you might have experienced, but what I can talk about is what people like us have experienced generally, which is no longer anecdotal, thanks to a large body of science.
This slide shows the number of mindfulness meditation studies published in peer-reviewed journals since 1980. And the findings are interesting, and right on top of what the commentary has said for ages: improvements in focus, memory, health, happiness, emotional resilience, emotional intelligence, reduction in a variety of disorders, including ADHD and depression, improvements in kindness and compassion, measured in a number of interesting ways.
All of this has been driving more and more press – that’s the cover of this month’s Scientific American – and it’s been going mainstream. Athletes have been tuning into it, schools. How many times a day does a teacher say, “Pay attention,” but they don’t teach you how? There’s an epidemic of ADHD in this country and drugs being handed out. Few people realize that meditation is actually more effective in most cases. British Parliament’s been holding meditation sessions to kick off policy proposals.
It has been moving into prisons, into the army, into the military, both for stress in the field and for post-traumatic stress disorder. And companies have been training their employees. It’s been amazing for us seeing how fast all of this has gone mainstream. But in something gained there’s the risk of something lost. These practices come out of traditions that have as their foundation ethics and a positive motivation.
Can they keep going mainstream and maintain that core authentic aspiration? And the big question with all of this might be, “So what? Who can take 18 months?” But that’s not what really matters. Studies are showing that ten minutes a day has a big impact on the brain, on the body, and how we experience the world. I’m a long way from that mountain retreat now. Like many people here, I have a busy job, a long commute. Happily now we have twin daughters and I worry about their growing up in a world so full of distraction, in ways that aren’t so good for the heart and the mind.
And they’re old enough now and they can join us in the practice. So I’d like to ask you all to try this: ten minutes a day, the gift of silence for training the heart and the mind. Here’s the average American’s day. Here it is with ten minutes of meditation. That’s one percent of our day.
We can do this. And that one percent is the seed of change for so much. Few of us in our lifetime will start a revolution, although this might build into one. Few people can move around the world, or start a foundation, but this is something every one of us can do now. And as we do, it becomes the family of something much bigger.
It all starts with an instinct for that freedom that Viktor Frankl described so beautifully, of heart and mind, and then an aspiration to let that freedom ring outwards to friends and family, prisons, schools, community, city, nation, the world. So please, for ten minutes a day, as the saying goes: [Don’t just do something, sit there] Thank you.
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