Mindfulness and meditation have become big business for tech-savvy entrepreneurs. But can you really unplug and reset while tied to an app on your phone? Companies like Headspace and Insight Timer say yes. But longtime practitioners, philosophers, and scientists aren’t so sure.
When I was 8 or 9, I became preoccupied with death. It wasn’t that I was afraid; I just like to be prepared. Would I know death was coming, like a knock at the door I got up to answer? Or would it be more like change—something I couldn’t perceive until it had already happened? And if it were like change, how would I be able to perceive it if I were already dead?
In other words, who was the “I” in the sentence “I died”?
The idea of death became like one of those Chinese finger traps: the harder I thought about it, the tighter it got on my mind. I went to our rabbi, then a priest, then some energy-healer types. I went to a Unitarian minister named Mitch, who looked for all the world like God, or at least the way God looks in paintings.
Eventually I went to a new-age bookstore in a shopping center a couple of towns over and bought some meditation tapes. (My mother was very supportive.) I’d load them into my boom box at night and close my eyes. I was a chubby kid, new in school, borderline friendless. For some reason, my lips were always chapped. Death was the least of my concerns.
It was during meditation—cross-legged on the carpet, watching my breath, listening to the voice of my guide—that I became aware of a second life humming under the one I was living. It was like electricity, or an aquifer: everywhere, but invisible, or at least easy to lose track of. It didn’t require effort, only attention. Then I had a realization that this—my breath, my body—was my first life, and everything else was just shadowboxing.
As for death, it wasn’t that I found my answer so much as that I became less concerned by the question. It was like sleight of hand: In turning toward the present, I lost sight of the future, which was good, because there wasn’t much I could do about the future until it came anyway.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Santa Monica, California, office of a popular meditation app called Headspace. Launched in 2010 by a former monk and a disaffected advertising executive, the app currently has about 35 million users in 190 countries, more than 1 million of whom pay to subscribe. It is highly visible and rigorously publicized: The ex-monk, Andy Puddicombe, has appeared alongside Ellen and Dr. Oz, and recently led a group meditation on The Tonight Show. (Jimmy Fallon, smiling gently and opening his eyes: “That was fantastic.”) In the course of researching this piece, I reached out to about 50 friends, family members, and friends of friends, many of whom were revealed to be closet meditators, nearly all of them using Headspace. It is hard to think of any monk current or former with better television coverage than Andy Puddicombe, outside maybe the Dalai Lama.
As we walk, my liaison asks if the office were what I expected. I said I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. The truth is that I’m trying to release myself from expectations, or at least remind myself that expectations are just another form of mental weather. The office were exactly what I expected: sleek but cheerful, with big, open spaces offset by brightly colored murals and furniture, like a factory decorated by a child. And in Santa Monica, no less.
Headspace positions itself as accessible and universal, meditation that meets you where you are. My first exposure to the company was about five years ago, when Puddicombe gave a TED Talk describing the benefits of “10 mindful minutes a day.” In avoiding the language of religion, many meditation apps—Headspace included—have instead embraced the language of marketing and self-improvement.
Though Buddhism is never mentioned, per se, the app’s teachings—designed and guided by Puddicombe—are essentially a mosaic of Buddhist ideas from a variety of schools of thought, given a cheerful spin: In a 2015 profile of the company, New Yorker writer Lizzie Widdicombe relayed an anecdote about Puddicombe translating a Buddhist tenet sometimes called “the truth of suffering” as “acceptance,” presumably because the truth of suffering would bum out most people.
Other concepts—the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind,” for example, popularized in the West by the monk Shunryu Suzuki, or the way mindfulness-based stress reduction describes the attendance to one’s physical state as “scanning” the body—are left untouched.
The app’s packs—available to subscribers for anywhere between 13 bucks a month to about $100 a year, or $400 for a “lifetime” subscription—are aimed at existential goals: One offers a guide for mindful eating, another for managing anger, another for college students coping with leaving home. On the app, Puddicombe’s delivery is clear and his language is elemental: One feels they can see the idea standing naked behind his words. And like a lot of good teachers, he has an unusual gift for framing his understandings as your epiphany: not so much a superior as a friend on the path.
Many of the sessions are introduced in the app by brief animations designed either to present a technique (body scanning, noting) or provide visual representations for emotional metaphors: anger as a storm, the calm mind like a blue sky. Simple, colorful, and inhabited by a series of anthropomorphic little creatures, the animations feel designed both to disperse the air of austerity surrounding meditation and, paradoxically, make it feel down to earth. In an email sent after my visit, Headspace’s editorial director for sleep, William Fowler, described the company’s broader visual identity—conceived of by designers Anna Charity and Chris Markland—as a reaction to images of “people sitting with their legs crossed, as though they were in perfect harmony with their minds.” The company made at least some attempts at an anthropocentric design: During my visit, I passed a framed drawing of what looked sort of like a person from a bathroom sign, sitting in a chair with things swirling inside their head—an early prototype. In essence, Headspace has provided meditation with a brand.
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.
Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.
The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.
In this rubric, science becomes a kind of cookie for the practice of meditation. “It’s too hard to ask someone who’s never taken the time to close their eyes and look inside themselves to do that,” Jones Bell says. Knowing meditation is good for them—in the way science circumscribes “good”—gets them to the table.
Headspace is particularly bullish on research. Since its inception, the company has conducted more than 60 studies in conjunction with partners in the medical and academic community, including the National Health Service. Jones Bell describes general findings—improved focus, decreased aggression, increased compassion—as “consistent with the general meditation research but specific to our product.” With Headspace, one always senses the bottom line looming somewhere.
More recently, the company has begun the daunting and implicative project of securing FDA approval of a Headspace prescription meditation app, such that it could be integrated into mainstream health care by, say, increasing quality of life for cancer patients—something that meditation generally has already been found to do. The notion isn’t just that meditation would be prescribed alongside conventional medicine, but that the meditation prescribed would be offered by Headspace.
Before leaving, I walk to the Lookout, an amphitheater near the coffee station where the company hosts group meditations. The meditations are twice daily, once around 10 a.m. and once mid-afternoon. Attendance is open but not mandatory. On the morning I visit, about 50 people are scattered across the risers, bathed in light from clerestory windows above. We take our seats and wait.
After a brief good-morning, the room falls quiet, and Puddicombe’s voice booms. (For group sessions, the company uses a rotating, stand-alone meditation called Everyday Headspace.) We focus and settle and breathe our deep, invocatory breaths. We turn toward our private country.
Listening to Puddicombe’s voice in that clean, bright room, it was hard not to feel that I was being addressed by my overlords. Benevolent overlords, but overlords nevertheless.
That meditation and mindfulness have entered the repertoire of global capitalism isn’t surprising: In the face of stagnant wages and an ever-deteriorating boundary between work and whatever we do outside it, why not shift the responsibility of finding peace to the individual? Put another way: Next time work makes you feel less than human, should you gently speak truth to power, or should you use mindfulness to self-regulate and maintain function in an oppressive system? And should you choose to self-regulate, are you tacitly thanking the oppressive system for giving you the tools of self-regulation to begin with? Furthermore, how much of this experience—this process of spelunking into my mind—should be comfortable and brightly colored? How much should feel good?
One of the sections of the Satipatthana Sutta, a foundational discourse of Theravada Buddhism, encourages the meditator to progress from an observation of the breath to considering the body as a butcher might consider a freshly slaughtered cow. We are dead. From here we see the bloat and the ooze, writhing worms and wild dogs. We are fleshless and smeared with blood, then a pile of bones, bleaching, rotting, crumbling—ashes to ashes. But even when Puddicombe talks about “difficult emotions” through the app, I am never far from the deathless animated cuties of Headspace’s HQ. I could use a cup of coffee, I think. I bet the coffee here is pretty good. I note the experience as thinking—“noting” being a meditative technique—and restore myself to the moment.
“And with the next breath,” Puddicombe says, “close your eyes.”
The supposition that people need science to explain the benefits of quiet contemplation has been following meditation around for about 50 years. In 1965, a molecular biology student at MIT named Jon Kabat-Zinn attended a lecture by the Zen priest Philip Kapleau. Kapleau, an American who worked as a court reporter before relinquishing his life to Zen (or maybe just reclaiming his life through it), had become an ambassador for Buddhism in the West; in 1966, he published The Three Pillars of Zen, a semi-fictional diary of an “American ex-businessman” named “P.K.” that more or less established our cultural archetype of the white-collar searcher. (Sample entry: “September 3, 1953: Quit business, sold apartment furniture and car. … Friends’ unanimous judgment: “You’re mad throwing up ten thousand a year for pie in the sky!” … Maybe. Or maybe they’re the mad ones, piling up possessions and ulcers and heart disease.”)
That P.K.—and Kapleau himself—had strong bourgeois credentials was essential: People reading The New York Times would sooner trust someone who had worked at the International Military Tribunal than Jack Kerouac or someone named Nancy who just thought India was really far-out. Or, you know, a monk from Southeast Asia.
Kabat-Zinn, the graduate student, went on to develop a program he called mindfulness-based stress reduction, which at first presented meditation as a pain-management strategy for hospital patients—another tool in a bin of many. Writing in his 2005 book Coming to Our Senses, he remembers lying on the floor of the faculty conference room conducting a group body scan, a technique in which participants shift their attention, part by part, through the body in order to jostle awareness both of our physical self and how that physical self connects to our emotional one—the literal pain in the neck that indicates the metaphorical one, for example. At some point, the chief of surgery opened the door, trailed by about 30 people in white lab coats. “Are these our patients?” the chief of surgery asked. “Yes,” Kabat-Zinn said. The surgeons went nextdoor.
Kabat-Zinn was careful to strip as much religion out of MBSR as possible so as to be able to navigate his ideas around cultural stereotypes and into the mainstream. “From the beginning of MBSR,” he wrote in 2011, “I bent over backward to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, ‘New Age,’ ‘Eastern Mysticism,’ or just plain ‘flakey.’”
Context may be helpful here. For most of history, the only people who practiced meditation were monks. Writing in the introduction to the anthology Meditation, Buddhism and Science, professors David L. McMahan and Erik Braun traced the inception of meditation as a popular practice to a single day in 1883, when Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw watched as his monastery—and all work contained therein—burned to the ground.
At the time, Sayadaw didn’t even really meditate; it was more of a theoretical crowbar used to pry into ideas—something he thought with, but didn’t actually practice. This was in Mandalay; the monks who did meditate were often in the country, already out of earshot of the city’s existential noise. Burma was in a period of massive unrest; within a couple of years, Thibaw, the final Burmese king, would abdicate the throne and take a steamer down the Irrawaddy River, ceding the country to British occupation.
Awakened to the possibility that the destruction of Buddhism itself might’ve been only a few fires away, Sayadaw went into the forest and started meditating in earnest. At the dawn of the 20th century, he refashioned himself as a public figure, an ambassador for Buddhism determined to spread the practice of meditation to the people, campaign as much about historical preservation as religious ethics. Sayadaw became revered; one British official observed that women would lay down and spread out their hair like carpets when he walked.
In other words, within the geologically brief span of about 80 years, meditation transitioned from an obscure pursuit of monks in the Burmese woods to something a guy named Jon might teach you on the floor of a Massachusetts hospital.
Given that Kabat-Zinn was on some level trying to Trojan-horse tenets of Buddhist introspection into a Christian culture passionately at war with silence, he did a solid job: As of 2015, the Journal of American Medicine noted that the proportion of medical schools offering some kind of mindfulness training was about 80 percent.
A research scientist and director of a lab at the Center of Mind and Brain at the University of California–Davis, neuroscientist Cliff Saron has been probing the intersection of meditation and clinical science for as long as such an intersection has existed. The image of people in lab coats fastening pasta strainers to monks’ heads to scan brain activity—that’s Saron in the early 1990s. And so on.
I want to volley with Saron a rhetorical question he first posed in a June roundtable for Mindful magazine: “Why do we need empirical validation for meditative experience, anyway? When it comes to the benefits of stopping and pausing, why can’t common sense prevail?”
Within two minutes of calling me, after I drop off my sons at school, Saron asks how close I’ve come to death. Not too close, I say. One of my best friends died when I was in high school, and I lost two grandparents in a fire, but everything else has been peripheral.
“Your parents are still alive,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“So you haven’t, in a sustained way, had to deal with incipient loss, or to ride the waves.”
“I guess not, no.”
“And you’ve been graced with the bend in the fabric of the universe that having a child is.”
“This is the level I care about with respect to meditation.”
Saron concedes that none of this makes for good bar conversation, which is where headlines like Bloomberg’s “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating” come in. Saron’s point isn’t that science is used to validate meditation as a secular pursuit, but that the science itself is often shaky and the media coverage of it even worse. (There seems to be a quiet correlation between the two: The more preliminary or insufficient the study, the more excitable the headlines.) Or, as Saron puts it, “We live in a culture that doesn’t treat the data as sacred, but often in convenient contexts bows down to the authority of the scientist.”
The conversation goes deeply into the weeds. We discuss the exhausting conditions of late capitalism and the movie Her (we are fans). We discuss apophatic theologies (those that define god through absences and negation) and cataphatic ones (religions that say what god is). We discuss the longevity and philosophy of the luxury pen company Montblanc. Saron apologizes for the digressions, then admits he is digressing on purpose. I tell him it’s fine because I’m usually wrong about what’s important anyway.
As for the meditation apps, Saron harbors a muted skepticism. “It’s a broadcast medium,” he says. “Things happen to people when they’re in relationships with other people, and those things can’t be simulated fully. Here the map and the territory may really diverge, because the information transfer is so much thicker in life.” (Fans may note that this is where we started talking about Her.)
One of Saron’s formative teachers, Joseph Goldstein, now teaches meditation through 10% Happier, an app launched in part by ABC anchor Dan Harris. “I kind of decried seeing Joseph on the app,” Saron says. Then Saron’s son asked him how he knew there wasn’t some 20-something sitting in front of their phone having as profound an experience with Goldstein’s teachings as Saron himself did four decades earlier.
Right, how would he? Still, I sense Saron acknowledges his son’s point primarily as an intellectual exercise. Practicing five, 10 minutes a day with your phone (what he calls “psychological Duolingo”), well—you get out what you put in. “They won’t stay at the table if they don’t find meaning,” he says.
He remembers Headspace approaching him at some point about making a video, but he declined. “What I have to say isn’t so much based on promoting meditation through scientific evidence,” he stresses. “I need to articulate in a nuanced way the limits of our work.”
The irony of seeking liberation through a device people are tethered to is too basic to dwell on, not to mention a little beside the point. (Just because you can kill someone with a brick doesn’t mean we should stop building brick houses.) The phones aren’t going away; the only thing we can control is our relationship to them.
Saron suggests I talk to a neuroscientist named Adam Gazzaley. A professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, Gazzaley is particularly interested in attention: how it works, how it developed, how it responds to the giant slot machine we’ve built around it.
In 2016, Gazzaley coauthored a book with psychologist Larry D. Rosen called The Distracted Mind. Part evolutionary history, part damage report, the book lays out in great detail what I suspect most people already fear: Attention is fragile; technology is making us anxious and bored; multitasking is a fiction we invented to insulate us from the truth that that isn’t how brains work. (Or, as the book puts it, “We convince ourselves that we can handle it.”)
Gazzaley isn’t a doomsayer, though he has been excitedly mistaken for one. He recently wrote an essay for Medium called “The Cognition Crisis”, for which he received a lot of feedback to the tune of “right on” by readers who appear to have missed his point that technology is a force for good.
For Gazzaley, a phone is just a tool and meditation a stay against the flood. “I see a lot of meditation practices, especially the traditional ancient Buddhist ones, as being exercises in attention,” he says. Neuroscientifically speaking, practicing focus in the way meditation does strengthens both selective attention (basically, your ability to keep your eye on the metaphorical ball) and metacognition (your ability to recognize when your eyes have left it).
One of the book’s foundational claims is that our drive to forage for food has evolved into a drive to forage for information. New information produces rewards, so we come to seek it habitually, even if it interferes with whatever goal we have at hand. What emerges is a kind of frictionless state, where you end up spending 12 minutes looking for keys that are already in your hand or typing “nytimes.com” into your URL bar only to discover you are already on the website for The New York Times. In other words, we are, on some level, evolutionarily geared against meditation.
I ask Gazzaley if sustained attention could ever produce its own reward. For example, maybe I’d enjoy making my sons’ lunches in the morning a little more if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to digest a podcast, answer emails, and figure out why the tree people haven’t come to take out the Rhus lancea stump in the yard, because that thing is already growing new chutes, and it’s making me nervous.
Gazzaley says that the data is minimal, but he harbors a similar hunch. He compares it to surfing and marathon running—the flow state. “The sustained activity of just running without any change in the information sphere around you—it’s pretty painful and unrewarding,” he says. “But this somehow shifts over time. There’s positive feedback in hormones.”
At the very least, attention brings us closer to the experience of the thing itself. Or, as Gazzaley and Rosen put it, “Those flowers you decide to pay attention to actually do look much redder to you and smell much sweeter than the ones you chose to ignore.”
If Headspace is uniform and top-down, the app Insight Timer is its opposite: a sort of clearinghouse for meditation of all stripes run by a network of about 1,500 teachers, most of them independent and unaffiliated with the app itself. (It can also function as a nice egg timer with skeuomorphic bells for those who like to ride alone.)
The design is simple and anonymous, with imagery—mountains, palm trees—borrowed from the paradises of desktop backgrounds and stock photography. The company doesn’t advertise or run clinical trials, and the balance of its meditations are free. Religion is featured but not mandatory, and not limited to Buddhism: Among the app’s 12,000 guided meditations are explorations of Sufism, Christianity, and Kabbalah. Using Headspace, one can easily feel that you and Andy Puddicombe are the only people in the universe. Using Insight Timer, which greets you with a large map charting everyone currently meditating on the app (as well as a tally of how many people have meditated today and a ticker of how many are meditating at that very moment), it can be impossible to feel alone. The first few times I use it, it reminds me of wandering into a good used bookstore: You’ll probably find what you want eventually, but you’re going to get lost in some weird stuff along the way.
The app was developed by a software developer named Brad Fullmer but is currently run by a man named Christopher Plowman. A software entrepreneur who made his nut developing a discount ticket-selling site called Tix, Plowman now lives in Bali, where, on a recent morning, he had just come in from seeing a cobra in his yard.
It is hard not to appreciate Plowman’s candor. On some widely trafficked social media platforms: “Let me choose my language carefully: I don’t like them.” (Later, he clarifies: “They peddle misery.”) On advertising, or lack thereof: “Stillness is the greatest magnet.” On his own company, which he seems to nurture with the loose hand of a parent consigned to the reality that one can give life but never control it: “It’s a very fragile idea, that you can give away meditation to everyone on earth while building a sustainable, profitable company.” Talking to him, I get the sense that he’s as curious about the future of Insight Timer as anyone.
Plowman sees his mission simply: “We’re trying to develop a platform to give meditation away for free to everyone on the planet.” Though Plowman says the company has always been lucky enough to depend on venture capital and recently raised enough to get them through the next couple of years, it has started offering optional courses for rental or purchase; you can also now “subscribe” to Insight Timer, making it easier to sync and use offline. The company has also made itself open to donations.
Plowman is proud of the company’s accomplishments, and unafraid to quantify them in a frankly competitive tone I find refreshing. “More time is spent meditating on Insight Timer than all other apps,” he says. When I speak to him at the end of August, he says that the app’s basic Learning to Meditate course had been rented or purchased by 200,000 people in the previous six weeks, and that the company still grows at a rate of 60,000 to 70,000 users a week. (As I write this, at 4:44 Pacific Time on Friday, September 14, 420,734 people are meditating.)
Plowman feels strongly about retaining the spiritual element of meditation, and, in an aside whose canniness I register only later, he notes that one good reason to excise spirituality is to better position your product for schools and institutions. In the course of charting user data and trying to discern exactly what Insight Timer actually is, Plowman has noticed that “People who come in with preferences set to secular and highly scientific teachings start to meander.”
Browsing the app’s most popular meditations, one gets a glimpse at the aggregate dreams and worries of people across the world. At the time of writing, six of the top 10 meditations on Insight Timer are designed to help people to go to sleep. Of those six, five are guided by women. The single most popular meditation, Jennifer Piercy’s Yoga Nidra for Sleep, has been played 4.4 million times. It is, in effect, the sound of someone quietly saying beautiful and encouraging things to you while you lay in bed. Many of the reviews for it note that the user didn’t make it to the end. In the period between drafting and editing this piece, I notice that both 10% Happier and Headspace have majorly stepped up their sleep-related offerings. This catches in my heart: How can we possibly handle the gift of being awake if we struggle so intensely just to get to bed?
Cliff Saron’s old teacher, Joseph Goldstein is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society and one of the pioneering ambassadors of vipassana meditation in the West. He’s also a prominent voice on 10% Happier.
Dan Harris adopted meditation around 2004 after having a panic attack while doing a segment on cholesterol medication for Good Morning America. (Looking back at the segment, you can sense something is wrong, but it’s no Boom Goes the Dynamite.)
The app is pitched as “meditation for fidgety skeptics,” with a zeal that can sometimes verge on self-loathing. Though 10% Happier is not the only app guilty of this, the constant refrain that meditation is totally normal and not weird only makes me wonder what these people are so ashamed of. But I also find it clear and easy, and I enjoy Goldstein’s lessons, many of which are delivered in conversation with Harris himself.
Goldstein wasn’t bothered by the app thing. “There were concerns that it wasn’t too Buddhist, or even Buddhist at all,” he says. “But from my perspective, the teachings are the same.”
This bears out: Reading Goldstein’s writing—2002’s One Dharma, for example—one encounters the same ideas you hear on the app, just with broader contexts and different names. And for those inspired to question whether such a rebrand constitutes unethical misuse, consider what Christians have done with Jesus. Would it help you to know, for example, that the Dalai Lama has his own app? Or that he wrote in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, that “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Buddhist of Buddhists, riding the wave.
Anyway, Goldstein meets a lot of people on meditation retreats who came because of the app, so it must be making some positive kind of wave. “I guess if I had a concern,” he says, “it would be that it would be unfortunate if people thought what was presented in a secular context expressed the full potential of mindfulness from the Buddhist perspective.” In other words, breadth wins.
Before leaving, I tell Goldstein I need him to help me resolve a question I’ve been chewing on. In his own teachings, he talks about “breathing and knowing one is breathing.” And I think I get that. But how do I square that with what Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn and others calls “the don’t-know mind”?
Part of it is just a linguistic glitch, he says—the word “knowing” already means dozens of things in English, let alone how many resonances similar words might have in Pali, or Korean, or Chinese. Plus, it’s just one of those things: Knowing something but also not-knowing it, not trapping it. I tell Goldstein I think I knew that. But talking about it has only made it weird. I think I can hear Goldstein laugh.
My own return to meditation started about six months ago. Over the past few years, I got married, bought a house, and became the father of two sons. But I quickly became barnacled. Life, or at least life as I had loved it—freedom, openness, and quiet connection—was suddenly subject to heavy planning, when available at all. Even my joys felt veiled by a heavy sheet of plastic: I saw the shapes, but they were abstract, hard to parse. Not only did I stay on top of my responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, tending, parenting), I became combustible for them. There were weeks when our marriage was basically a large chore wheel. I felt irritable and remote. Talking to a couple of friends on a much-needed break, I said the whole thing felt like being erased.
I think of a quote I like about the teaching style of the first woman sanctioned to teach Soto Zen in the West, Houn Jiyu-Kennett: “Not to lighten the load of a disciple, but to make the load so heavy that he or she would put it down.”
So, is it “working”? To invoke the refrain of Grecian skeptics, epokhe—I can’t say for sure what I should find convincing and what I shouldn’t. Music sounds better, and I think my timing has improved comedically, and I have come to see my wife and children as bulbs in a great chandelier: When one light dims, so dims the whole room.
But I’ve also shifted my exercise routine back to the Y, which I love (shout-out Lohse Family YMCA), and my younger son is finally sleeping through the night.
One thing I can say for sure is that when a stranger I met at a bar asked why I never played the viola anymore—an instrument I played passionately throughout my youth before quitting during my early 20s—I said “I don’t know,” then settled my tab, went home, and, for the first time in several years, played the viola.
There’s a good story recounted in the book One Bird, One Stone that goes like this: A Chinese monk moves to a small cabin in rural Tennessee. Next to the cabin, there’s a giant dead oak tree. One day, a neighbor comes by to warn the monk that the tree could fall on his roof if the monk doesn’t cut it down. The monk buys a hatchet and spends several hours each morning chopping away at the base of the tree. Neighbors come by offering chainsaws and power tools, but the monk declines. He becomes a kind of neighborhood spectacle: the old Chinese guy with the hatchet.
Eventually, the tree falls. So the cabin is spared, but the monk still has a giant dead tree in his yard. When the neighbors ask him what he’s going to do next, the monk turns to them as though the question doesn’t need answering and says, “make firewood.”
Later, the monk explains that this was how he’d taught meditation: You chop and chop and chop and “one day, an enormous tree falls.”
And while I appreciate the story’s climactic overtones and the zigzag way the monk lands the “firewood” punch line, I suspect the lesson—if one could frame it as such—would be to forget the tree and disappear quietly into the chopping.