Contemplation: witnessing

Paul Donner asked in a comment earlier this week about what I, foolishly perhaps, called the "voice" that your "core" can find in silent sitting and, further, how to distinguish between truth and ego (projection) in such realization, and to give examples of insights and their impact on my life.

Phew. Those are some great, tough questions and I feel very vulnerable writing these lines. Vulnerable to the point of putting off writing this post day after day. 

Not only are these experiences highly personal. But they are also wildly open to interpretation. Modern/rational society is uncomfortable going so deep into the self - because it isn't rational in the empiricist sense. And post-modern/pluralist thought, overly critical of the power structures of organized religion, is quick to deny any hierarchy in actualization. I would indeed ask that you realize that language is key to thought and that all experiences communicated are thus subject to the misunderstandings inherent in communication.

So here it goes.

Perhaps the second most powerful experience of sitting in meditation/contemplation for me has been the experience of what many commentators call "the witness." The best way I've found to describe what it's like is the following:

You're sitting and doing what most practices recommend: initially you focus on your breath or a "sacred" word that allows you to come back to the present. Thought arises, sensation occurs - and you bring it gently back to the here and now. So you're sitting there, just being. Over time (and I mean days, weeks, months), fewer thoughts and emotions and things arise, and you get better at letting them go. You don't drift as much. So far, so Headspace.

But this next bit is powerful for me. As you're sitting there, just being fully present, complete in the now, you gently... take a step back. And now you're contemplating yourself, just sitting there. And it's a very powerful, out-of-body, away-from-all-the-stories-you've-made-up-about-yourself experience. This is important: it's a powerful experiential shift in consciousness or awareness.

And then, of course, the interpretation of what the heck that was starts. And, frankly, that's above my paygrade but I will say this: I believe that part of you that's witnessing is probably as close to "authentic" or "soul" as we can experience in this meatbag. And isn't that a wonderful (and yes: comforting) thing.

How do I know this isn't ego or projection? How do I know that's "truth"? Well, I certainly know that it isn't empirical truth. It may not even be rational truth. But it very clearly is relatable, experiential truth. And if you look at similar experiences that other practitioners have had, I am certainly not alone in my delusions - if that's what they are.

As to what impact it has had on my life: I believe more in an irreducible "Being" principle than I have before. And I won't hesitate in calling that Being "soul" and to propose that everyone has this thing. It's just a matter of dropping the less important stuff. And that means, if we can all experience this reduced form of what it means to "Be Alive", there are significant concordant implications of empathy, compassion, connectedness and, really fundamentally, ethics and morals that result. 

Thanks for hearing me out and - keep practicing.

P.S. Did you read closely? I said "second most powerful experience...for me." Stay tuned. 

The need for silence

Last week I wrote about crazy startup schedules and what is, in my view, their main driver: fear. Since it's Sunday, I thought I'd introduce the antidote: silence.

Silence, and in particular sitting in silence for habitual periods every day, has enormous benefits. For one, silence is the only tool that is able to create discernment in a very loud and very fast world. Secondly, it throws you back on your core - mind, spirit, soul - and asks the fundamental question of who you really are. Thirdly, if you listen in silence long enough, this core will find its voice that you can take back to the world with you. And it lets you gaze at what is in wonder.

For the thinking person, there is no way around giving at least tentative answers to the big, unbearable questions demanded by our existence. The path starts out easy - there are immediate and recognizable benefits from sitting. But it becomes steeper as you go, until you get to that sheer cliff or that abyss and you start to realize that you have to climb or jump and then that it isn't really a mountain and there isn't a path and there isn't an end to this and let me just go back to check Facebook please and thank you. The dark night of the soul awaits. 

All great wisdom traditions advocate sitting in silence: Buddhism with meditation, Christianity with contemplation and centering prayer, Sufi Islam with muraqabah, Judaism with hitbonenut, and many others. You may be more attracted by something more seemingly secular, like using Headspace or learning Westernized Zen. Just note that while the latter two do change consciousness, the interpretation of what has changed is pretty much left entirely up to you. Which seems a pity given that so many have come before us and have thought long and hard about things. 

Neuroscience has made some startling discoveries about what meditation or contemplation do to our brain, in particular the anterior cingulate cortex. Recent findings suggest these changes seem more pronounced when intermingled with faith (crucially: what that belief is is not important). 

Do understand that I'm not saying that you need silence so you can improve in order to function well as an executive - I'll leave that to the quantified-self content marketers and neo-liberal self help gurus. You need silence for a life well lived, to be happy, and most importantly to be your authentic self. 

Have a good start to the week.

Music Saturday - Khatia Buniatishvili

I've decided to post non-startup related stuff on the weekends. So today I'd like to give you this wonderful rendition of the (somewhat overplayed) second piano concerto by Rachmaninov. I'm a romantic at heart. The pianist Khatia Buniatishvili is a young French-Georgian. Not only is she immensely technically proficient, but she plays with perfect temperament and immense heart.

Her latest full album has the concerto conducted by Paavo Järvi, which you may prefer. I do like seeing her play, though. 

What's on your agenda? Fear

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the crazy packed schedules I see in the startup world. Don’t get me wrong: hard work is good. Hard work is what life asks of us, sometimes. But I wanted to add a bit more on that topic.

What’s the root of the most out-of-control agendas? Something that we don’t talk about enough in the business world: fear. 

- Fear of failure (and thus a fear of being rejected, never being enough, not being worthy, etc.)
- Fear of uncertainty (and thus a need for control, etc.)
- Fear of forgetting something (and thus obsessive behaviours and manias)
- Fear of missing out (and thus an accompanying underlying dread of the unknown unknowns) 

Fear is pernicious. It makes you bungle other things: 

- Less focus: you need filters on what’s important – if everything potentially is, or if some things are suddently perceived as very threatening, it’s hard to stay focused
- Less delegation: uncertainty erodes our confidence and makes us seek control, making it harder to delegate
- Less trust: the more fearful we are of our environment, the less we’ll trust the people in it
- Less self-care: fear makes us unaware of our own needs, because threats are perceived as more important to deal with 

The hardest-working entrepreneurs I know are seen as uncaring. They’re heads-down in their work. They often know that business is about people, not things. But fear makes them forget.

At this point, I was about to write: “life is too short to live it in fear.” Do you see how subtly harmful fear is? I’m telling you how managing fear is important by trying to scare you!

Fear is a habit. It was useful when you were about to get mauled by a mountain lion and the adrenaline saved your skinny butt. But in startups, fear sucks. I’ll write more about dealing with it (as an ex-super-high-anxiety person, I’ve learned a thing or two).

For now, manage by walking around, even if it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of that. Your people need (to see) you! When you have a one-on-one, don’t glance at your computer or phone. Ask for personal background stories. Write thank you notes. Nail the basics.

Crazy startup schedules

Being a founder is hard. And the first thing to go is time for family and friends. I know you don't intend to leave behind a string of broken promises, but you're caught in the middle of this very dynamic system that often seems like it depends entirely on you.

Product issues. Upset customers. Fickle employees. And by the time you've finished everything on that to-do list, another dozen items have piled up. Not least yet another update call with your (sometimes clueless) investors. And all the while the emails keep piling up. Oh, and there's another ten Slack notifications (Dear Stewart Butterfield, it was supposed to make things _better_).

One of the analogies I take from sports coaching is: no professional athlete works 24 hours a day. Pacing is a critical part of training. Setting impossible expectations for yourself is debilitating - you feel like you're not making progress. And you just can't put in a great performance when you're exhausted.

Stop chasing the urgent and focus on the important. Give yourself time to breathe. Find breaks to re-energize. Go home to tuck in your kids and keep the romance alive.

I encourage founders to be clear on what they're not going to do. That often creates a significant amount of space in their heads and in their day.

Take that, Michael Moritz.

Constantly learning

“Everyone is your student and your teacher.” - iPEC Foundational Principle 

I got in a silly fight recently. Someone was making financial demands while their company was in a highly precarious state. I got emotional, I swore. The other co-founder took the brunt. 

And then something funny happened. He appealed to my empathy. He asked me to see things from their perspective. That the reason for their ask was that they were stressed and worried and scared. 

It totally changed the energy of our exchange. It helped me address the concerns and move the conversation forward. 

I trained for this. I am supposed to be the coach. But I’m not perfect and life (and building companies) is messy. 

It got me to thinking about one of my favorite foundational principles of the coaching program I went through: “everyone is your student and your teacher.” How true. 

I’m grateful for the lesson. Let’s hope I don’t need to learn it again and again. 

Screen fatigue

I read today that ebook sales have fallen for the second or third year in a row. I'm not sure that data is totally correct, but the big growth days in ebooks seem over.  

I love my Kindle. But I still buy physical books, too. And when I have the choice, I prefer not to read on a screen. 

Screens are too present in our lives. The car keyfob has a screen. The odometer is a screen. Your watch has a screen. That wine list the other day came on an iPad (yes, we asked if it has Angry Birds). 

Screens have been the dominant human-computer interface from the beginning. But they're starting to be so ubiquitous that they're being used in ways that are unnecessary. They're a strain on the eyes. They demand focus because they move and they're colourful. 

We are seeing more and more companies trying to change screens or do away with them altogether. I'm hearing rumors that bone induction tech will be big - a quiet voice in your head, when you need it. 

Contextual computing is already here. If we could let it sit in the background while we are living real, human lives, that would be amazing. 

Humble curiosity

"To the extent possible, we wish to re-frame the language of our time." - via Fr. Thomas Keating, in an email from the organization "Contemplative Outreach"

This line hit home in an unexpected way. So much of the misunderstanding, miscommunication, resistance and antipathy in our lives comes from language. Some of the biggest issues I have faced in organizations have been hidden "negotiations of language", rather than a genuine disagreement about things. 

The way we show up under stress has everything to do with our limbic system: it's fight or flight. And to be honest, in most people the stress response is flight. We avoid situations that make us feel powerless. We think of ourselves as a victim. We lead apathetic, lethargic lives "of quiet desperation."

Because when we stand up for ourselves, it tends to make things worse. Conflict breeds conflict, in a never-ending cycle of emotional and physical violence. 

The only way out, I've found, is consistently showing up with humble curiosity. The best book I've read in this context is by Edgar Schein, called Humble Inquiry (Amazon). Its subtitle, which apparently all books need nowadays, is "The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling." Isn't that a wonderful thing. 

I don't manage it every time, but I'm getting better. The next time you're triggered, just... ask, gently. 

Flying while standing still

We woke up in a hotel at Gatwick airport this morning, en route to a friend’s birthday halfway across the globe. 

We are traveling with our firstborn, who is 20 months old. My wife is 28 weeks pregnant. We did not sleep very much. 

I used to be a high anxiety person with a quick temper. This is the type of situation that previously would have triggered all of that. And it would have made a stressful day much worse, for everyone. 

This year I’ve committed to a consistent, intense meditation/contemplation practice. I hope to relate some of the experiences. But even the sporadic, relatively shallow practice I’ve adopted over the last years is helpful. It very much feels like life spins around me, and I’m at the center - calm, collected, joyful. 

Making decisions

Much has been written about the bounds of rationality. A colleague at Sunstone has a chart up to remind himself of the most common cognitive biases. Another gave us all a copy of a Kahneman book for Christmas a few years ago. The initial investment decision is a crucial one in our business - you're going to be working with that company and in that industry for years. It's not a decision to take lightly. 

Founders call me sometimes when they have hard decisions to make. And then I tell them the quip of the three brains (originally taken from Laloux' Reinventing Organizations): did you know that we actually have three brains? The nervous systems in your heart (intrinsic cardiac) and gut (enteric) are actually quite independent from the one in your head. Discovered by Auerbach in Germany in the 1860s, science kind of forgot about the brain in the gut. Until it was rediscovered in 1990 by Michael Gershon, a US neuroscientist (and others). 

We see our entire lives through our modern/rational ideology. It's almost impossible to take those glasses off. We've been taught to treat the world, our selves, other people and our organizations like things. 

But thankfully the self isn't entirely rational. Decisions are complex and we have billions of years of evolutionary history to help us. Hence I ask anyone to do this very simple thing before taking big decisions: get your head, heart and gut to align. That means checking in with your rationality, but also your emotions and your intuition. 

If you don't have alignment, see if you can hold off, or frame the decision differently, or check your premises. Once you have alignment, go deep within yourself to your witness, the grounds of your being. And check there whether what your doing is serving your overall purpose.