What did taking off all my devices after six years and going to a silent vegan Buddhist retreat without technology do for me?
Well, here’s part of that story.
If you were to look at your life with enough perspective, you would realize that not only are you connected to everyone, but you also inherently function from a place that began in the eyes of compassion looking down at you with the warmest smile, the smile that only a mother understands.
And just moments after we see mom, we are then taken to a room where we are weighed and measured.
And we are measured at and measured to death for the rest of our lives.
Technology makes measuring easier.
My story is one of vast measurements.
They say knowledge is power, and yet knowledge is just agreed upon assumptions about data’s big brother: “Information.”
Knowledge and wisdom come from other, deeper places within our agreed-upon connected existence.
In #bigdata circles, it’s common to talk about “metadata”.
Recently I returned from a weeklong silent meditation retreat.
There were no gadgets, no devices, no sensors, no talking, no books, pens, paper and no looking at each other.
All vegan meals.
Hours of meditation.
It was life altering.
Coming back “online”, I notice that so much of our world is suffering, as I often say in my talks.
"Synchronicity joins something going on outside us with something happening inside us. In fact, synchronicity gives us a clue that there is no real separation between inside and outside, between internal and external reality. There is a continual interplay. In this sense, synchronicity is a spiritual event, one that shows the unity of the human, natural and divine reality."- David Richo
The power of synchronicity is untouched by our current level of technical understanding. I use memories from my self-combined with data to create powerful intersections between a few defined and fuzzy worlds.
I bring this up because I believe that capturing and reintroducing our lives to ourselves in a compassionate way to be incredibly powerful and life changing.
Quantum physics tells us that objects are altered without any visible cause and effect.
We experience quantum physics as we rewire the human neocortex with digital systems and make our lives "re-liveable."
Yet currently we do not use this technology to make us feel good about ourselves and our world.
The algorithms in systems only show us our “best selves,” and it only shows this “better self” to other people.
Maybe you deserve to see all of your life.
We are launching a product called Existence that will do this and will do it properly, in ways that only the world's largest brands have been recognized for.
Recently I'm came back online after being free of a phone and sensors for almost six days.
On the day I returned to connected life I was greeted with (outside of the enormous inbox, overflowing text messages, tweets, linkedin requests and twitter comments) was a photo.
One year ago that day I took the stage as an invited speaker along with Arianna Huffington, Naomi Judd and others, in Nashville forHealthways to talk about living with our data and living a meaningful life.
I returned a year to the exact day, from a meditation retreat where I serve as a leader in that company, creating software to help people live with the data of their lives in a more kind way.
Mettā Data, the friendliness you show data about yourself.
The irony is not lost on me.
In fact, I live with it every day.
The sheer amounts of synchronicity I experience daily is daunting.
Some days it can feel like a near psychotic state. The patterns of existence seemingly unravel for me, as if I am a puppet in a cosmic joke.
My mother use to say to me as a child, “Christopher, you have a horse shoe up your ass”.
A common leadership quip "Fortune favors the prepared mind." - Louis Pasteur
In the media, I'm known as the "world's most connected human." (In reality, the BBC called me that and everyone else just caught on.)
People who know me would share with you the uncanny ability I have to blend multiple worlds of outrageous coincidence and what borders on the metaphysical.
By using data to force perspective, something I call "perspective as a service," a feedback loop is created.
This loop is just a tiny type of "wormhole" that we may pass through.
The key to turning on powerful change--massive weight loss, dramatic personality shifts, smoking cessation, financial structural change, status realignment, etc--is very simple: the perspective feedback loop works exponentially within deep contemplative states.
I am in no way saying that you need or should become a member of the quantified self movement or start monastic training.
The trade-off for such a powerful transformation is not necessarily worth it.
Although I have been very public, it's under reported by the media that changing habits is really hard on a person.
If you just quit smoking, you lose friends. I lost friends when I stopped smoking.
In the past three years not only have I quit smoking, but lost 140 pounds and became a vegetable-eating, seed-munching, and silent meditation retreat-going human.
I don't even recognize my own face in the mirror.
I don't have the same friends, heck I ague I don’t have but a handful of impermanent friends on a countdown waiting to be voted off my island of flux by my own beating heart.
Hell, I don't even have the same home or furniture.
The level of impermanence at this rate of contemplation and data gathering feels lifted from science fiction.
The drawback to living life with so much data is the need for a totem or constant so that you don’t lose your mind inside chapel perilous.
If you’re a binge watcher of sci-fi television, you may remember the “constant” in the series “Lost”.
"It's called a constant. Desmond, you have no constant. When you go to the future, nothing there is familiar. So if you want to stop this, then you need to find something there... something that you really, really care about... that also exists back here, in 1996."— Daniel Faraday, LOST
In the movie “Inception” we are introduced to concept of “totem”.
“An elegant solution for keeping track of reality.” -Ariadne: [contemplating her totem]
All that being shared, I would like for you to consider the powerful narrative your life is and will continue to be.
If the narrative and data were only shared with you, and for only a brief moment you gave yourself permissionnot to judge all the things on your to-do list.
If only for a moment you chose to forgive yourself for that brownie or double shot of espresso.
When you suspend all judgment and striving and replace it with heavy dose of compassion toward yourself, you will find not only peace, but be warned the velocity of transformation that is not for the faint of heart.
Your “constant” or “totem” will literally become a constant feeling of compassion.
Forgiveness hastens the journey to the unaided or non-contemplative mind.
My retreat and the ensuing synchronous events have only made me see things with deeper clarity.
The retreat was interesting on a few levels.
First, because I was alone with 100 other people and no one makes eye contact or speaks, I realized how much we already do this in the normal world.
Today most homes, streets and places of worship are full of people not speaking to each other and looking down--we just call them smart phones, tablets or gaming consoles.
The awkward conversations we have with other "humans" about the technology we use.
No cashier can look you in the eye without talking about their "slow system."
We prefer the repeatable substandard service of an ATM over the pain of speaking to a, gulp, person, a real live person.
If we do get a person, we ignore them, blow up on them, or talk about a "system.”
We become the systems we use and we act like the systems we avoid, in this case, fast talking information syncing flesh algorithms avoiding slower joyful and sorrow laden humans.
This means you can't finish a sentence without someone answering for you like google autosuggest.
You can't see a doctor without a host of medical data in your mind.
We have weaponized information, depersonalized identity, and traded away physical ownership.
Crime is down because we don't own anything you can carry away, not because we are better humans.
Better humans would not make choices to "automate" and make "convenient" the people in their lives.
We don't have a privacy problem, we have a convenience addiction.
We don't have a smartphone attention problem, we have a self-avoidance crisis.
This is ONLY corrected through contemplation and analog technologies, hence why you see more and more stationery shops, journals, vinyl, watches, and anything else we can touch, see, taste, and smell.
We are living in the age of the senses.
We are living in the age of magic and the occult.
We buy things we can't see, with money we don't touch to share with people we have not met. We pretty much believe in magic.
I started the retreat process by going to Kauai to live in a cabin for a week.
I had to go to bed when it became dark, because there was little to no light.
My kitchen had no refrigeration, so I had to eat fresh every day.
Most places I couldn't get a signal.
I meditated everywhere I hiked.
Kauai taught me how to live like I grew up, in the 70's, with what we had and choice was not enriched with seamless invisible money.
I used the damn stars, sun and moon for direction. I used dry days to travel.
I used the wilds pigs as an alarm and the roving chickens as a guidepost to how far "away" I had strayed on my paths.
I used local people to learn about weeds you rubbed on yourself for bug bites, or rocks that could help deepen your meditation.
YEAH, I get it, sounds crazy....but you're reading this on a device that is literally out of the future, in the same year that Michael J. Fox goes Back To in 1985.
Don't tell me about the future--I've been there and it looks a lot more like "Her" than "You've got Mail," and feels a lot more like "Brave New World" than "1984."
We can't handle the future, because you don't care for us.
We spend all our time humanizing technology and in this absurd pursuit we have technologized humanity.
That uneasy feeling of dread everyday is the realization that we have no constant or totem allowing us to interact with others or ourselves with compassion.
When I finally got to my retreat, I admit it, taking off my sensors was scary.
I had years of body data that were about to just stop.
I had already learned very powerful lessons about listening to my body, but I had to put them all to the test now to come offline.
After the "container" is created in retreat and everyone goes into silence, the first skill you learn is how to navigate without the conditioned "thank you’s" and "pleases."
You replace it with this feeling of gratitude.
You feel people thank you.
As you eat your meals, in silence without looking at others, you also learn to look at your food, put your fork down. You realize that none of the food you ate is harming the planet, or ever had a face.
You then start to do things, like catch and release bugs. Spider fears go quickly when you watch the delight in their running away. Deer walk up to you because you're not a threat, turkeys gaze at you in groups that just say "poor human."
You become something different, and those around you on retreat transform with you.
You also perform a yogi job. In essence you do work for the good of the land. I did laundry. I always found folding clothing with my mother to be one of the times we just felt so close.
You also couldn't journal or read.
So going to your room meant sleep. You looked at everything.
Life just goes from slow, to KNOW.
You re-treat yourself to yourself.
It's not all sitting meditation, you also do yoga and walking meditation.
(In all transparency, the second day I missed my 5:30 "sitting" practice and made it out by 6:15.)
The scene on the land looked like the walking dead.
People slowly shuffling gazing at the ground, for a second I thought I was dreaming or everyone had been drugged, then I realized it's "walking meditation," so I just started my "respectful gaze" and started mindfully feeling the earth under my feet.
The Buddha after enlightenment said to Mara, "Not here Mara." In essence, when Buddha touched the earth as you see in many statues, and told his suffering mind, he was HERE, you understand the power of touching many worlds by actually living in one.
The trails are extensive and you are encouraged to hike. On such a hike I had an great anxiety attack and I thought I was going to die on the mountain.
Every anxious though hit me. I was 40 minutes from the retreat and alone. I had no devices and my only thoughts were of death.
I reached down and touched the earth and said "I know you Mara," slowly, as I then gave loving-kindness to the rocks and trees (May you also be happy, May you also be well), and it lifted.
I didn't need a device, I needed something more powerful. I needed compassion for that present moment of suffering,
I needed unconditional love for my pain.
As it lifted and I worked my way back down the mountain, I realized how fortunate I was and forgave myself.
Forgiveness is the act of abandoning all hope for a better past, and hope is the act of abandoning all plans for a better now.
By the third day I was weeping during metta meditation. The act of talking to myself as a child, my friends, family, peers, even people I don't care for and saying "May you also live with ease" and "May you too feel kindness" was too much for me to handle.
Compassion it seems is inescapably linked to suffering. The levels of suffering and compassion you can achieve toward yourself have a way of busting open the heart many of us have wallpapered and painted over with algorithmically generated versions of our Non-selves.
Returning to San Francisco I started my reintegration process.
It was hard.
I came back and immediately meditated for 40 minutes.
The road noise was too much and just city smells were sickening.
I jokingly said to my friend when we got a salad, "I can taste the hate in the dressing."
Everything was so intense the first day back from retreat. I didn't use my mobile phone until day three after retreat.
I only opened email in one inbox after about five hours.
I found even the most easy tasks mindboggling.
For instance, I had an earworm, so I went to listen to the song but found it impossible to "hear music" while opening a bottle. I had to pause the song to open the bottle.
By day two of reintegration, I went on a walk. I noticed that no one was looking at at anything. They all looked dead.
The gaze in people’s eyes were pinned squarely on some future state, past sin, or current overtasked chore.
Retail folks were the hardest to meet. They are conditioned to bark orders at you. Just asking someone about a good seat was met with a look of "Do you want to eat or talk?”
It's amazingly difficult to talk with people. I understand why texting has 11 different options: we create choice in communication to remove time.
We assault inboxes, weaponize schedules, over-saturate our attention, custom frame every moment for the perfect post, and relentlessly wonder what we are doing.
We have hundreds of applications tracking our position, but don't know where we are. We have thousands of data points on date and time, yet don't understand when something is happening.
We have never had more friends yet been more starved for love. We have never had access to so much of our history yet felt so short on compassion.
The reach of our humanity has gone past our potential to understand why we need each other.
We need each other.
It's kind of urgent.
Unfortunately the message is a bit more grim.
You need you.
You need to stop now and create a relationship with yourself or find someone to foster and help them get to know themselves. We need tinder / grindr / Christian mingle / for our own identity and we need it stat.
We are about two swipes from "No one in your area."
Trust the most plugged in person on earth: you are worthy of your own attention.
My last day of reintegration before returning home was Sunday, April 5, 2015.
While out on a walk, I saw a dog near a restaurant.
Each person who passed by stopped to pet the dog.
The dog just stared into their eyes and said "I love you, thank you for being with me".
Each person got a little softer as they backed away.
Unfortunately, the frost of a relentless future took them away just seconds after "BEING with the dog."
Dogs are interesting, they live in boundless compassion and they give us a teachable moment (every moment is teachable, but you have to be present for it--it's the present because its a gift :))
Remember, Dog is man’s best friend. Why? It's simple, they love us and for a brief moment we see the hope that we had as children.
The hope of just running in the grass, smelling amazing food, sleeping when we are tired and moving slow when our bodies ache.
They teach us to defend our pack, to bark at night and to howl for the lost pack member. They look at us with such compassion. Touch that compassion and take it back for yourself.
Love your racing mind.
Forgive your relentless task list.
Meditation is not about quieting your mind or becoming enlightened.
You meditate to notice your racing mind, and you make a choice to be kind in that moment.
Have you ever stopped to think about how much we care for our “smart devices” made of glass and metal and how little we care for the ones made of flesh and bone?
Our devices ring, clamor, and shout for your love and attention.
We quickly pull to refresh after satiating their voracious appetite for our moment-to-moment distractions.
Yet our minds are lacking clarity to recognize our own needs to slow down.
Our devices flash fullscreen alerts when they are running low on energy, and we race to an outlet and nestle them gently back to sleep.
Yet our bodies have become exhausted, torn, scratched and malnourished.
Our devices come with extended warranties, loss protection.
We buy cases, covers, and cords to protect our precious devices.
Yet our hearts have become bent, misshapen and unconnected.
Hurt people, hurt people.
Many people question the power of meditation or dismiss it instantly. “I don’t have time to meditate”, “I can’t stop my mind from racing”, “I’m too tired to sit still”.
There is a great myth in our culture about meditation I’d like to dispel.
Meditation is about noticing your racing thoughts, it’s about bringing attention to your exhaustion.
Meditation is the act of just noticing things, gently, as if you were walking slowly to watch a child delight in the magic of a new discovery.
Meditation doesn’t silence your inner critic, it lends a gentle chorus of other voices in support of the critic’s fussy ways.
Meditation is the constant challenge to notice everything about you, and hold it as if you found a wounded loved one.
- I challenge you to upgrade the ultimate mobile device, your body, by recharging it with rest and good food.
- I challenge you to maximized the ultimate storage device, your mind, by showing yourself how beautiful your lived experience is.
- I challenge you to expand the ultimate connectivity plan, your human-kindness by going to bed and considering how now would be if you had been a bit more loving toward your wandering mind, relentless schedule, and unwarranted need to show yourself no-mind.
- I challenge you to care, if only for a moment, as much about your heart as you do your devices, apps, and network.
We need to stop solving our human problems with technology, and start looking at our technology with our human-kindness.
Move slow, be kind, it's ok, this is the path of the Mindful Cyborg.