Why the Best Meditation App Is No App at All

There’s a maxim of the smartphone age, probably popularized by the 2009 book by Chase Jarvis: “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” Fancy cameras are expensive and complicated, and we don’t have good reasons to carry them around all the time. They may be the “best” cameras, but if they aren’t with us when something memorable is happening, the camera on our phone is better, at least for the purpose of that specific shot.

So the constant presence of our smartphone cameras have enabled this golden age of photography. But what else has happened? We’ve become obsessed with photographing every moment instead of living in it and experiencing it. If we don’t have our phone with us to take a picture, the experience isn’t real.

Meditation apps are also a double-edged sword like this. They support and motivate our practice, but then they become essential parts of it, so we struggle to practice without them. Photography is an external technology; we have to rely on outside tools for that. But meditation is an internal technology, so outside tools can easily become dependencies that threaten our practice.

A timer is a timer, a chime is a chime. Those don’t create dependencies on any particular way to do it, and you can create your own ad hoc substitutes, like a number of breaths, or when the sun hits a certain point in the room. But most meditation apps have features more complex than timers, and those have drawbacks. Analytics motivate us, like fitness trackers, but then they create the feeling of wasted effort if we can’t get our points. More content-heavy meditation apps, like ones that guide you or use particular sounds or images, insinuate themselves into your meditation. They don’t teach a practice you can do without them.

But meditation is an app in itself — a mind app. Focusing on your breath, mantra, counting, body scan, lovingkindness, these are all meditation software that we can install. But they don’t run out of batteries. They don’t require good reception of signals beamed into your head from a tower. All you need to use them is your own mind.

Hello World: My New Blog About Learning to Program

One of my first Macs of my very own.

One of my first Macs of my very own.

I'm starting a new chapter in my relationship with technology. Today I'm launching Hello World, a blog about learning to program, which I have decided to do, by the way. This is going to be my new project in life, which means it'll probably be the sole focus of my blogging efforts. I've laid out my goals and reasons in the introductory post, "Computers. How Do They Work?"

I'm taking an IRL approach to the topic, to be sure, but I'm going to dig much deeper into the technology itself. I think anyone who's enthusiastic about Apple stuff will get something out of it.

You can follow along on Medium at hello.ablaze.co, by RSS, or on Twitter @hello_ablaze. Same difference.

Hope you enjoy!

I Hated Fitness Trackers Until I Got One: A Fitbit Flex Review

I am shocked to see myself typing this, but I’m in the middle of my third week wearing a Fitbit Flex, and I am in love with it. I have hit all my goals every day, including calorie I/O for a modest weight loss plan, and last week I earned the Penguin March badge. I wear the Fitbit to bed every night, and I seem to be sleeping pretty well. At 5:45 a.m., it silently taps me on the wrist to wake me up, and my partner goes on sleeping soundly, so she loves it, too.

You have to understand, I have abhorred the idea of the Quantified Self™ movement from the moment I heard of it. It’s always seemed to me to be the ultimate neurosis. With Nietzschean spite, I watched this strange set of nerds in my life abdicate their own internal regulations of their body’s rhythms and swear fealty to a set of hard numbers imposed from the outside. I catastrophized about their privacy and their sanity, imagining the crushing anxiety that must result from failing to meet one’s numbers. Weren’t these people already traumatized — as I surely am — by capitalism’s harsh, curveless grading? Through school, through work, through online-mediated social life, survival under capitalism is a constant rain of numbers we pathetic, illogical primates have to try and make add up. And now people want to give up the soft refuge of their very bodies to be branded like cattle and herded by health insurance companies!

I mean, I might have been right about all of that. But I failed to consider that fitness tracking might also have several benefits. Alas, as curmudgeonly people are wont to do, I formed my strident opinion without any first-person experience. Last year, when I got an iPhone 6 that was going to just go ahead and track my steps anyway, I decided to check the built-in Health app every once in a while and see how I was doing. I’m a big walker, and I usually bring my phone along for podcast listening, so my scores kind of impressed me. Eventually, I got a little app called Pedometer++ that presented the same data more attractively and accurately. Sometime after that, I began to discover a trend in the numbers: they were increasing.

By jove! The awareness that I could easily check objective facts about my exercise behavior was causing me to exercise more! For the first time, I was of two minds about the Quantified Self.

The Gadget Itself

Meanwhile, Apple Watch had been announced, and my lizard brain immediately decided it wanted one, even though I hadn’t worn anything with more computing power than prayer beads on my wrist since I was a kid. But concerned as I am with the spiritual costs of constant computing — distraction, disembodiment, overwhelm, and so forth — it didn’t take me long to realize I might have overlooked some potential downsides to wrist gizmos.

I noted that Apple Watch would enable me to leave my phone at home while exercising and still get my precious points, but interacting with it still seemed too computer-like to actually feel liberating. I imagined myself diddling with the little crown and squinting at the OLED in the sunshine. Then I tested some dumbwatches and realized I loved them just the way they were. Since that blog post, I’ve added one more watch to my collection — a digital one this time — and I’m wearing it every day. I love the timers, the alarms, the time zones, the battery life, and the lack of text messages. All that made buying an Apple Watch seem silly to me. I would certainly like a watch that shows the moon phase, the weather, Jewish holidays and prayer times and what-have-you, but I’m going to wait a few generations until it’s also better in every way than an old-school digital watch.

So with my watch needs mostly met, I recalled from my gadgeteur days that there was one well-loved fitness tracker that could bring me just the bits I wanted in the most minimal possible package: the Fitbit Flex. It’s a not-unattractive, water-resistant rubbery bracelet that displays no information other than five white dots arranged horizontally. I got the “slate”-colored wristband, shown here. The lights stay off until you tap the device twice, prompting it to show your progress toward your daily fitness goal, which by default is 10,000 steps. When you reach your goal, the Fitbit buzzes and flashes its lights in celebration. If you wear it to bed, it also tracks sleep time and “restlessness” based on your movements.

The Fitbit syncs with a phone app that allows for reasonably easy management of the device and its data — including logging food, water, and forms of exercise that don’t involve steps — but the device runs for days on its own. Best of all, you can switch into and out of sleep mode without touching the app, so I can maintain the no-screens-in-the-bedroom policy I’ve instituted since my watch took over alarm clock duty. And now, instead of that annoying digital watch beeping pattern that hasn’t changed since I was a child, my alarm is now a silent tapping pattern on my wrist. The Fitbit has a “silent alarm” feature that you set from the phone app, which is one of my favorite things about it.

Fitbit says the battery lasts five to seven days, and indeed I’m getting slightly over five. Apparently silent alarms drain the battery, which makes sense, so Fitbit recommends not setting more than one, although you can if you want. In order to ritualize the charging process, I set weekly reminders to charge on Monday and Friday mornings at 10:00 a.m., times when I’m guaranteed to be at my desk for the couple hours it takes to charge.

Besides when it’s charging, I take the Flex off to shower, as well as to do other things that require nakedness. It doesn’t know how to track that kind of exercise anyway. Other than that, I wear it all the time.

How It Feels

Now that I have this thing on my wrist, I’ve begun to understand how letting a device govern my bodily functions feels, and lo and behold, there are phenomena for which I failed to account in my ignorance. I didn’t realize that giving up responsibility for keeping track of my exercise would be a relief. It’s precisely because I don’t have to worry about whether I’m doing enough that I can just relax into doing it, knowing that my Fitbit will tell me the truth.

I used to talk a tough game about Quantified Selfers giving up their ability to regulate their own bodies, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was barely regulating myself! That’s what I discovered at my first physical exam in years a few weeks ago (right before I got the Fitbit), when I found out I weigh 14 pounds more than I did in my imagination. I probably haven’t weighed the weight I thought I weighed since I was 21. The difference was wide enough to startle me. So when I got the Fitbit, I used its weight loss plan feature to take me down 14 pounds on the second-easiest setting. The Fitbit app presented it in simple terms: I have a certain number of calories to eat a day, and it’s 500 fewer than I have to burn in a day. As long as I stay in my lanes, I’ll hit my target weight in a couple months. That’s a concrete plan. I can work with that.

That of course meant I had to start logging my food intake, which is the hardest part. It definitely threatens to take the joy out of eating, which is one of my most joyous activities. I wish it were possible to just take a picture of the food or something, but you actually have to enter the items in by name. The database of foods is pretty huge, and the calorie counts are in there already, but for more contrived dishes, you often have to break them down into their constituent ingredients. This can take a couple minutes, which is a drag.

I’ve devised a few strategies to ease the pain. If I’m cooking the meal, I log all the ingredients while I’m taking them out, and then I can cook and eat without thinking about it again. Otherwise, I try to log before eating, so I can at least enjoy the meal without having homework afterward. If I don’t have time to do that politely, I’ll just jot down a reminder of what I ate and log it in detail later. And I don’t log food on Shabbat. I do wear the Fitbit to track exercise, since I do lots of walking on Shabbat, but Shabbat is a time for eating joyously — and not for using phones or doing any kind of “writing” — so I just eat like a human being on Friday nights and Saturdays and try to walk a lot.

The main thing that pleasantly surprised me about fitness tracking boils down to this: I didn’t know until I tried it that you can feel the data. Now that I know precisely how much exercise I’m getting and how much food I’m eating, I’ve learned — quickly! — what the associated body/mind states feel like and can now sense quite accurately when I’m on or off target. I was probably enduring a lot of low-level discomfort from overeating or lack of exercise back when I was naïvely governing myself. But now that those states are associated with clear, measurable goals, I’ve learned to detect the somatic warnings and rewards, and that’s nice.

The sleep features also provide unexpected pleasures. I’m pretty into sleep, and I do intensive bedtime and wake-up rituals to help wall off dream time as sacred and separate from waking concerns. The tapping ceremonies for switching the Fitbit into and out of sleep mode have become part of those rituals. The silent alarm has changed my first waking sensation from a sound that suddenly floods the room to a subtle, highly localized touch, which is much more pleasant and less scary. All this makes the right wrist into a beloved spot on my body that is powerfully associated with dreamy consciousness. And on top of all that, it’s really interesting to study the minute-by-minute data about my movements during sleep and see how that corresponds to my dreams.

A Good Fit

The Fitbit is part of my life now. I don’t feel attached to it, though. Not yet, at least. The idea of going a week or two without tracking doesn’t bother me, because now I feel trained to do a reasonably good job of hitting the goals without the tracker. I’m sure bad habits would creep back in without it, though. The idea of someday switching to a tracker outside of the Fitbit ecosystem doesn’t scare me, either, even though I’d have to start over with my data, because I could just start fresh with a new plan, just like I did the first time. But who knows, maybe after years of self-quantification, my millions of logged steps will feel as important to me as the MP3s I’ve had since high school. But, realistically, I know none of those concerns matter at all as long as my body is healthier, and after three weeks, it already is.

There are some drawbacks particular to the Fitbit Flex, though, and other, fancier trackers can handle them. Those include cycling, calisthenics, and swimming. You have to enter these forms of exercise completely manually, because the device doesn’t know how to track them. But hey, if I ever get serious about any of those kinds of exercise, I’ll get a serious tracker. For now, it’s mostly long walks and hikes, and it’s not a big deal to enter a bike ride every so often. I let my occasional sit-ups and push-ups slide; nothing bad could come from the app under-reporting that little bit of exercise.

One feature I’d love for Fitbit to add is meditation. I wish the Fitbit had timers that worked exactly the same way as the wake-up alarms, but you triggered them to start with a tap signal, say three quick taps, a pause, and then three quick taps. So you’d set your preferred interval time in the app, and then when you tapped the signal, the Fitbit would start the timer and tap you when it runs out. This would be perfect for meditation, but it would be great for all kinds of other activities, too.

I’m not as interested in tracking meditation activity, but I wouldn’t be mad at Fitbit for adding it. There’s a very fine line for me here between helping the practice by tracking and destroying it, as I’ve stated elsewhere and still intend to write about at length. But the short version is, I have no problem with logging the frequency and duration of meditation sessions as long as the software makes no attempt to say anything about the quality of the sits. There is no app for that.

I’ll be sticking with the Fitbit Flex for a good long while, although I may want to add another wristband color at some point. I rather fancy the orange one. One smartwatch has definitely caught my eye, though: the Withings Activité Pop. Honestly, I kinda still want one of these. It’s just an analog watch with a second dial that tracks your progress toward your fitness goal. It runs on watch batteries, so it lasts for months, but it syncs with your phone, so even though it’s a watch with hands, you don’t have to set it. It’s completely waterproof and can even track swimming. It’s better than the Fitbit Flex at everything, in other words.

The problem is — and I know this is silly, but — as a watch, it’s not better than my watch! Even though the Activité Pop syncs time with the phone, I just prefer a digital face with the day and date, the timers and alarms and all that. So since I’m not going to wear two watches, I’m going to keep the watch I like on one wrist and the Fitbit on the other.

Smartphone Addicts: the “Bowed-Head Tribe”

This is an amazing neologism from China, which I will immediately start using in English:

Video: What is technology?

In Real Life: What is technology?

In Real Life: Searching for Connection in High-Tech Times. A book by Jon Mitchell available now from Parallax Press.

Posted by Jon Mitchell ๛ writing on Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Our minds are filled with powerful technologies, and we can reprogram them to be holy.

The Geek’s Chihuahua

I quite enjoyed this new mini-book by Ian Bogost, The Geek's Chihuahua: Living with Apple. It helped me crystallize my burning geek rage during the Apple Watch review-pocalypse (I turned sharply against getting one, for the record). Here's one of my favorite excerpts:

For better or worse, the businessman is the hero of contemporary culture. Our hero is no longer the rock star or the pro ballplayer or the actor but rather the wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. It’s no surprise that his manner would win out over Miss Manners in the public imagination. We rarely admit it, but we all want to be important, yet most of us aren’t. Smartphones let us simulate that importance, replacing boardroom urgency with household triviality. And even though they seem like populist devices, smartphones can never fully shed their origins as rapacious instruments of executive grandstanding. There will always be something rude about smartphone use, because smartphones allow us all to play the role of a cultural paragon we didn’t choose, one we may even despise, but one whose influence we can’t disavow. Rather than blackening our lungs like yesteryear’s handheld devices, today’s blacken our hearts.

You can see why I'm into this, I hope. Bogost totally gets the disconnect between the technological and sociological tentacles of the late-capitalist octopus, because he's equal parts a scholar of each. It's definitely worth picking up the e-book; you can get through it in a single concerted reading effort.

Just a couple times throughout the book, I found myself bristling at little jabs about Apple People. Don't get me wrong, the vast majority of them resonated, but I think there is something slightly more beautiful in the heart of a classic Mac child like myself, as opposed to a teen or adult who chose to become a fan later. I'll have to write more about that to convince somebody like Bogost that I'm not just being a lemming, which I freely grant that I usually am.

Check out the book on Ian Bogost's website

Meditation: There’s an App for That

Two students at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, Maria Weber and Nicholas Gifford, just completed their senior project, “Meditation: There’s an App for That”. It’s a multimedia investigation of the benefits of drawbacks in mixing technology into meditation practice. Check it out at modernizedmeditation.com.

Here’s the trailer video:

The project interviews a bunch of thinkers who fall all over the spectrum of loving and hating the effects of tech on meditation, including one with me. Guess where I fell? (I took it as a trick question, of course.) Here’s my section:

Great work on an important topic, Maria and Nicholas!.

Check out the project on modernizedmeditation.com

Why I’m Not Getting An Apple Watch

Over on my personal site, I've written a review of a $9 Casio watch that convinced me not to get an Apple Watch:

I want a watch that is totally useful, while at the same time reminding me that time is beautiful. Einstein said (I’m paraphrasing) that “what time it is” is exactly the same thing as “where you are.” I want my watch to remind me to be present with that. So it just has to have that… kinda… Zen… thing that Apple blogs always think they’re talking about.

But the thing is, the Apple Watch’s battery dies all the time, and it dings when Internet stuff happens, and those are pretty much the two exact reasons why I’m tired of using my phone.

Read more on Everything is ablaze!

IRL in Utne Reader

I’m thrilled that Utne Reader asked to publish chapter 3 of In Real Life as an excerpt in their March 2015 issue. That’s the chapter called “Technology and Spirituality” in the book, and to stand on its own, they’ve retitled it — very well, in my opinion — “Using Communication Technologies Mindfully.”

It’s tempting to think of the Internet as a place. We’ve learned to relate to it as a world on the other side of a window. We open the window, see this virtual world on the other side, and we can just barely reach through using these strange controls we’ve learned to manipulate. We can’t enter with our whole bodies and walk around the place—not yet, anyway—but in order to access the Internet, we do have to go there. When we turn our attention back to the physical world, we leave the Internet. It makes sense that the Internet feels like a place. That’s how we’ve designed it.

Even though we can just barely reach into this apparent world with the surface of our fingertips or the sounds of our voices, software companies have built features on the Internet that give it one of the most important qualities of our frequently inhabited places: other people. Even if we were skeptical of the Internet’s placeness at first glance, it’s impossible not to be drawn in when we see other people moving around in there, talking, and taking pictures. This sensation makes it easy for us to imagine the Internet as some kind of game full of other players, with rules much simpler than those of everyday life. (And for millions of players of massive multiplayer games, it is exactly like that.)

But clearly the Internet placeness is a metaphor. It may feel like everyone in a comment thread—or even in a virtual dungeon full of goblins—is in the same place together, but it’s not true. The others probably left their message an hour ago and are back to work by now. Even if anyone else is present at the same time, it’s not as though they’re in a room with you. They’re looking at a different instance of the same data rendered somewhere else. You’re communicating through a long, byzantine contraption from two different places.

But that doesn’t make your shared experience any less real. You’re both having experiences as real as any other. But the experience isn’t taking place in the Internet. It’s taking place in your body as you interact with the information on the screen. A real place provides an embodied experience. Even if you were in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment projected into a helmet, you’d still be in the same place as you would be if the power went out and the helmet blinked off.

Read more in Utne Reader

IRL in Midwest Book Review

I’m grateful to Julie at the Midwest Book Review for her kind review of In Real Life. Here’s what she had to say about it:

Ideal for the non-specialist general reader with an interest in the role technology is able to play with respect to enhancing the quality of our lives and our communities, along with the potential hazards to both if abused or misused, “In Real Life: Searching for Connection in High-Tech Times” is very highly recommended and would prove to be an enduringly popular addition to community library Self-Help/Self-Improvement collections.

Screen Time: The Problem Lies Deeper Than Your Phone

How different is the smartphone age from centuries past? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. All knowledge at our fingertips? Constant contact with people around the world? An on-demand economy bringing you whatever you want, wherever you are? Those are big differences.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: The human mind is still the scattered, anxious, easily distracted ball of nerves it has been since before anyone could imagine such a thing as an Internet. That’s a tough problem, and the frenetic pace of online life isn’t helping. But is the oft-bemoaned distraction, interruption, and alienation of the digital age a new problem? Hardly. It’s a familiar symptom of an age-old challenge posed by our minds, and merely restricting “screen time” or taking “digital detoxes” won’t solve it.

Technology amplifies our own nature. It only knows what we know. When we have a problem, we search our knowledge for solutions and experiment until something works. Whether or not technology works depends on our own understanding of the problem. If we don’t know what’s wrong, our technology can't fix it.

Smartphones were invented to solve many problems. But now that they’re here to stay, many people feel like smartphones have created new problems even while solving old ones.

Smartphones alienate us from each other, some say, because they tempt us into virtual environments, even when we’re physically present with others. Smartphones distract us, they say, because they buzz and beep and blink in ways designed to lure us back into their clutches. Smartphones destroy our attention span, it’s said, because they let us multitask constantly, pushing us into a frantic state that feels productive but actually makes us worse at everything we’re doing. Texting and driving is one dangerous example.

Do you see the common thread running through those so-called “new” problems? It’s us! We’re taking the bait! Devices present opportunities to distract ourselves and scramble our attention spans, but they don’t do it for us. We let them! Smartphones address many problems, but our lack of willpower was not among them. Technology companies consider that our problem, not theirs. Tempting, anti-social media alienation was not invented by Facebook. Remember television? The attentional black hole of mass media isn’t new, it’s just shifting to more convenient technologies, as it has been for generations.

Media technologies take advantage of basic facts of human nature: We’re easily distracted, novelty-seeking creatures. Smartphone and software companies profit off these facts, but they didn’t invent them. Maybe the case can be made that these technologies worsen our problems with attention and willpower, but regardless, merely restricting or abstaining from them will not cure us. We’ll still be distracted, bounced around by our impulses, often dissatisfied, seeking novelty. We’ll just miss out on the social activity that now exists online, alienating us further.

Fortunately, there are technologies designed to improve attention, willpower, and connectedness. In fact, they’re thousands of years old. They’re internal, spiritual technologies, gradually gaining popularity in high-tech societies under the banner of mindfulness, the latest translation of the Pali term sati, a lexical technology that changed the world.

Sati is the underlying principle of the meditation practices in Indian religion, which gave us Buddhism, which then spread across Asia and, later, the world. But Western religions have analogous concepts — for me, as a Jew, the Hebrew word kavanah, usually translated as “intention,” comes to mind. By now, mindfulness is a testable, scientifically rigorous concept employed in secular psychology and neuroscience.

What does it mean? Mindfulness is stable, clear awareness, which we can practice and improve. Just like regular exercise makes your body stronger, regular meditation makes mindfulness stronger. All mindfulness traditions prescribe more or less exactly that. Mindfulness is a necessary precursor for right action in the world, our relationships, and our work.

Mindfulness addresses our own suffering, helping us see what ails us, letting us unclench from our problems and be present with others. The Buddhist tradition, arguably the world’s leading innovator in mindfulness technologies, sees the source of suffering in a familiar set of ills: distraction, alienation, and dissatisfaction. Mindfulness practices pick up where smartphones and social media leave off.

Mindfulness practice should lead us to less screen time as an outcome, not merely a stopgap measure. Mindful technology use should result in smarter, more empathetic habits. Today, technology companies take advantage of how easy we are to distract. In a more mindful, self-aware future, they’ll have to do better if they want us to use their tools for our life’s work.


This post was originally published on Beliefnet.

New Solutions, Old Problems: My Talk on Technology at American Jewish University

I had a delightful time speaking to rabbinical and education students at American Jewish University today about In Real Life. The discussion was properly rabbinic, cutting quickly to the real conversation about values that I want to have underneath the one about the definition and workings of technology.

There‘s a tiny bit of talk that‘s specific to the audience of future Jewish leaders and educators, but I think it‘s widely applicable. The one reference worth linking for clarification is to the 1951 book, The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which is short and beautiful and accessible to anyone interested in the concept of a sacred day of rest, Jewish or otherwise.

Hope you enjoy it! And if you‘d like me to come speak to your group, please get in touch.

Download MP3 (12.3 MB)

The Integratron: A Spiritual Technology Making Waves in America

The Integratron is not a secret. The day we went to visit at the very end of 2014, they had to turn away over 100 people. America knows about the Integratron, and people are drawn to the remote location outside of Joshua Tree, California from far and wide.

What is it? The Integratron itself seems tickled by this question — and yes, I mean to speak of it as a sort of self-aware entity. The original story from its creator, the aircraft mechanic and wide-eyed ufologist George van Tassel, was that aliens from Venus transmitted the instructions to build the Integratron as a healing technology involving “intermittent magnetic fields” and “plasma” and “coronal discharges” and what-have-you. It’s an acoustically perfect domed structure made out of non-magnetic materials (including wooden ship beams donated by Howard Hughes, the staff told us), which van Tassel built on top of one of those alleged geomagnetic vortexes for the purpose of rejuvenating human tissue. All accounts indicate that van Tassel was quite earnest about all this.

Whether this was marketing genius or madness, the story worked well enough to raise funds and build the structure in 1959, and it’s more popular than ever today. Maybe it doesn’t even matter how serious the alien stuff was — this used to be the kind of kitschy drama needed to draw Americans out to such far-flung desert roadside attractions. The Integratron has gone through a series of owners since van Tassel’s death in 1978, and the language has changed. The Integratron website downplays the weirdo history and makes a more reverent pitch. And even that is a bit understated compared to what we got from the staff when we arrived.

So, what is it? You really do have to go there to find out. We stepped out of the car onto a sandy lot with a funky, ramshackle hacienda, a handful of bizarre open-air art structures, and the sleek, white dome of the Integratron itself. The property was full of people milling around in winter clothing. It was barely 40 degrees that day, prompting the staff to cancel the evening session, so ours was going to be cozy. The staff seemed a bit harried, but they were smiling, and they ushered us into the dome.

The ground floor was decorated with weird art and historical clippings about the Integratron, and opposite the door was a sturdy ladder leading up to a trap door in the ceiling. The white-bearded guardian of the ladder thanked us all profusely for coming and supporting the Integratron and its keepers. It was a surprisingly touching greeting. He encouraged us to watch our steps up the ladder, take off our shoes when we reached the top, refrain from unnecessary conversation, find a spot, and relax. “You’re just here to be here,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything else.”

Image courtesy of Integratron.com

The Integratron chamber is a magical attic. The vaulted, wooden, perfect dome culminates in an impressive acoustical ring 38 feet above the center of the room. If you stand in the center, tilt back your head, and speak up into the ring, you can hear yourself loudly and clearly, but no one else in the room can. If you stand against the wall, you can whisper back and forth across the 50-foot diameter to someone standing opposite you. It’s an absolutely spellbinding acoustic environment.

Portholes let in sunlight and the color of the sky. On one side of the room is an altar covered with religious icons, which I noted to check out after the session. On another side is a set of large, white crystal singing bowls.

The floor is laid out with wool blankets and pillows, and the 40 or so chilly people in woolen socks quickly snuggled up. An excited (nervous?) silence charged the room. After a short while, a musician took his seat amidst the crystal bowls. “Wow! Y’all are so quiet!” he said with genuine astonishment. He introduced himself and greeted us with a touching thank-you for coming. He was one of several performers that switch off facilitating the Integratron sessions, he explained. He called the experience a “sound bath.”

Each sound bath is different, because the performance is improvised by different players, but the effect is comparable. It causes all the bodies in the room to resonate harmonically. He didn’t go into quite the theoretical detail that some of the written material does about the sound bath’s effects, but he did explain that, as beings made of mostly water, our “bodies really like this,” and he assured us that it would “clear our chakras.” I smiled and mused for a moment about the spread of pseudo-Eastern spiritual vocabulary to American roadside attractions. This was one of the last rational thoughts I had for the rest of the day. The performer then demonstrated the sound bath, just to give us a sense of the volume.

A loud, clear, pure, unwavering, unending tone.

A ripple of awed, quiet laughter crossed the room as the demonstration tone faded away. The performer was just as excited as he asked us to settle in and get ready to begin what he called the “accelerated meditation.” The sound bath would last for about half an hour, he explained, and then he would let us come back gradually, at our own pace.

The sound bath began.

The sound has no edges. It is round and smooth. At times it condenses down to one sound, at other times it diverges into two or three, maybe more, all symmetrical and distinct, like a hall of mirrors. It moves through the body programmatically, scanning gently for roughness and smoothing it out. The sounds cause colors and patterns in the mind. It is indeed pleasant the way a bath is pleasant, and it feels as cleansing. Under these waves for half an hour, the trance becomes stable, whole, womblike.

When the tones began to fade out, a wave swelled in me, first loss and sorrow, then fear, then relief, then ecstatic joy. Silence sat patiently in the room as we all came to and sat up, one by one. I looked around and saw the afterglow on every face. Overcome with gratitude, I went to the altar.

Dozens of icons of all different faiths had been placed lovingly on the table. The sign explained that they were all offerings from guests; the Integratron itself had no particular spirituality or faith. Seeing no Jewish icons, I felt the need to leave something.

Days before, my father had given me a necklace with a charm shaped like a Torah scroll, which I was wearing around my neck, something he no longer wanted and knew I would value. I loved it as an icon, but it was a little overt for my style. With his permission, I left the Torah necklace on the altar, next to the crystals.

Leaving the Integratron, the indwelling gratitude remained. I thanked each of the workers, and I thanked my family who came with me, and each thank-you was received with a knowing smile.

Was this a religious experience? That question needs unpacking. It was for me, as a religious person, as for the many others who have left religious offerings in the Integratron. Religious language and symbolism are my preferred tools for integrating my experiences, but as one can plainly see on the Integratron’s altar, the many spiritual languages are totally interchangeable there.

The Integratron itself imposes no such language; I’m sure there are other performers who wouldn’t use the word “chakra,” like ours did. That was his own language. I happen to indulge in the word “chakra” here and there, so I related to it, but my brother, for example, definitely does not, yet he clearly had an analogous experience feeling the waves of the sound bath passing methodically through various focal points in his body.

My brother tests the Integratron’s acoustics with his jaw harp

Religious vocabularies are techniques for understanding ineffable, emotional, transrational experiences. The Integratron is an exquisitely designed technology for inducing such experiences. It does so directly through the body, bypassing rational filters, putting the mind in a position of pure, helpless reaction. “Accelerated meditation,” the performer called it before the sound bath began. Even as a Zen practitioner, I accept that label. The Integratron is an innovation in spiritual technology, and America is flocking to it to see what the buzz is about.

Can Technology Aid Your Meditation Practice?

Great post about the plusses and minuses of computer-assisted meditation by my college buddy, Zach Schlosser.

"Out of the basic scientific research into meditation’s effects has naturally emerged a wave of technological applications to help people learn to meditate or enhance their practice."

Quotes from me, Vincent Horn of Buddhist Geeks, and Mikey Siegel, co-founder of the Transformative Technology Lab. This post is part one of a two-part series, and the next post gets more into the ethics, risks and benefits of high-tech spiritual practice.

Read more on Sonima

Shabbat Shalom Week 14: The Sickness Unto Work

I’ve been sick as hell all week. I’m pulling out of it just as my mate is going under, so this Shabbos is just the midpoint of all the fun we’re having over here. I’m fortunate enough in just about every conceivable way that this does not happen to me often, so part of me got excited when my throat started to hurt. “This'll be fun!”, I told myself, clearly suppressing every memory of sickness from my adult life. “Finally, an excuse to pull up the drawbridge, watch cartoons, and sleep all day!”

But I’ll bet you know what actually happened.

Clearly, feeling as terribly as I was, parts of my routine would have to go. First on the chopping block was the 2.5 hours of praying and meditating over the course of a day. That wasn’t even a hard choice; it was actually a relief (that’s a post for another time). I would’ve still made the daily long walk if I were physically capable, but nope. Couldn’t concentrate well enough to keep up the pace in my books, wouldn’t have to cook because of the humongous cauldron of chicken soup my mate made. The IRL blog could also go; I’d been feeling weird about it lately, anyway.

“And maaaaaybe I’ll take a little break from work!”, said a noble, cute little part of my mind.

I informed my co-workers via the most zeitgeistily-named productivity app of all time, Slack, that I was ill, and we did the “Aw! Feel better!” “Okay, thanks!” dance. I know their wishes were genuine, because they’re wonderful people. But I also know they were quietly, uncomfortably shifting the work burden to the other shoulder, because I’ve been on the non-sick side of the team much more often, and I know what it feels like.

I made it until 10:09 a.m. of day one. I checked in from my phone. It wasn’t their fault I got sick the night before Big Important Public Release Day, right? I just wanted to make sure everything was okay. Sure enough, one colleague, very apologetically, asked if I could proofread the Big Important Public Release one last time, only if felt well enough. I figured that wouldn’t be so bad. I’d read the damn thing three times already. So I held my eyelids open and read the whole thing one punctuation mark at a time, gave the all-clear, signed off at 12:41 p.m., and went to sleep.

The next morning, I felt exactly the same way as I had the day before. However, now I was Behind™. The threat of getting further Behind™ increased my heart rate to the point that, after three cups of tea, two bowls of broth-only soup, and a double-shot of pseudoephedrine, I was ready to open my laptop on the couch and clock in. I don’t even remember how I got to this point, but I eventually found myself tackling a fatty pile of drudgery I had been putting off for a month and realizing, “Hey, I’m already completely miserable. Not doing this won’t make me less miserable. I’ll just do this now.” And I did it all in one day! My not-sick-anymore self is going to thank me SO MUCH for that!

Then I slept for 14 more hours, and after another day of work, which I have record of but seriously cannot remember a thing about even though it was yesterday, now I’m finally starting to feel better.

Everything will be so relatively great come Monday! I won’t be Behind™ at all! I’ll be behind on my praying and meditating, on my reading and writing, but I won’t be Behind™. Because thanks to the glorious future that is the present, it’s no longer a biohazard for one to keep working right on through any workaday illness one might contract. So when I came down with The Bug, I withdrew all my emergency energy supply from the things that make me ME and rerouted them to my job.

I’m not actually about to take a Big Stance against this. Maybe this is just maturity. Maybe it’s messed up, I don’t know. I’m just glad I have at least one complete day off a week that’s completely defensible.

Shabbat shalom,
Jon

Going Analog

I’m shovel-blogging again. It’s like I can’t help myself. I quit blogging because it makes me crazy, I decide to go do something else, and eventually that something else mutates back into blogging, and it drives me crazy again. This is the second time through the cycle.

I’m 66 posts deep on this blog now. Don’t even know how it happened. And sitting at my work station scrounging for things to blog about is starting to fry my brain.

The worst part is, I have plenty of good post ideas banked, but they’re ones that require real thinking and writing, and little link posts are just so much more expedient. I get why indie blogs are so fond of that format. When grinding out posts is the name of the game, aggregation is a great way to keep the volume up and the hours down.

But this blog is starting to feel too much like a day job or a client gig, and I already have one of those. Better to spend my desk time on my clients. I have a solution for inreal.life/blog, though, and it’ll make for better reading as well as writing. Plus, it’s a perfect IRL story in itself. I’m going analog. I’m going to write my daily IRL posts out longhand and type them up and illustrate them later. It should be interesting to see how the writing changes. (Never using the word “content“ on a personal project again.)

I take a walk through the neighborhood every day after work, and I often take notes on my phone when ideas pop up. I’ve written more than a few entire posts on my phone while walking, actually, but I’m not too proud of that. I just got my first pocket-sized notebook in a while, though, and a box of my preferred pens, so I’m going to write in there while I’m out on the walks. No tabs. No Twitter. No delete key.

I used to fill volumes of notebooks, maybe three or four a year. I still have them all in my office. My handwriting volume has dropped precipitously in the past few years because I’ve finally figured out digital journaling; I talk about the technique a little bit towards the end of the book. My digital journal is much better for tracking and tracing patterns of thought and activity in my life than paper ever was, but the paper had an indelibility that made me more honest, I think.

I need to do both kinds of journaling — and do them a lot — for the good of my writing as well as my sanity. What I don’t need to do any more than is absolutely economically necessary is sweat out short blog posts while sitting at my computer. So starting with this evening’s walk, I’ll be writing these posts by hand. That will make for better storytelling, and it will probably also lead to reflections on the acts of note-taking and journaling themselves, which will finally get me into blogging here about tips ’n’ tricks and workflows and such, which a fair number of emailers and commenters have asked me to do.

Shabbat Shalom Week 13: So, What Do You Do?

Last night I realized I am a huge bummer at parties. I don’t think this was always true, but it sure is now. Maybe it’s just Bay Area and L.A. parties. Well, it’s at any party where people lead off conversations by asking “So, what do you do?” I hate being asked that question, and last night I watched myself bluntly refuse to answer it, thereby shutting the whole conversation down.

My least favorite question used to be “How are you?” because it never feels like anyone actually wants to know, they’re just going through the motions. But when they ask “What do you do?”, they’re keenly interested. They’re looking for the quickest possible way to size you up. And I’m like, “I contain multitudes, dude*. Why do you care so much about the most boring part?”

*I use dude as a gender-neutral term because I am a feminist bro.

My work isn’t boring, that’s not what I mean. But we’re at a party! Can’t we lead with the stuff that makes us who we are instead of the stuff that stresses us out?

Much like “How are you?”, “What do you do?” has problems encoded into the language of it. Literally, the question sounds like it’s asking “How do you tend to spend your time on this Earth?” But properly acculturated Americans know it’s far more specific than that. In America, that question means “How do you earn money?” That’s the sphere of “doing” deemed meaningful in our common language, and people who go along with that feel to me like they’re infected with something scary and contagious.

The question is scary for me because I only have unconventional answers that cause skeptical or incredulous looks on people’s faces. I guess now I could also say “I’m an author” if I wanted to suddenly appear to the person to be wearing a tuxedo, monocle, and top hat emblazoned with the words “I AM AN ASSHOLE!” in all the most tasteless places.

The worst consequence of “So, what do you do?” is how predictable everything becomes after it. The conversation is doomed for five entire minutes, if it even survives that long. Whoever was asked first has to get through whatever prosaic, canned description of their job they’ve got stored in working memory at all times, and then they conclude with, “So what do you do?” and the other person, relieved to be talking again, gets to do their shtick now. If both parties are lucky, some commonality will be discovered through this mind-numbing ritual, and then a real conversation will start.

Last night, my stupid answer was, “Oh, I don’t like that question.” It was terrible. The person’s feelings were already hurt when she replied, “Oh… Why not?” Then I had to explain all the awful, cynical judgments I assume are behind the question, thereby revealing only how awful and cynical I am. And when she tried heroically to reassure me that “we’re all friends here,” I gave in and said, “Oh. I’m a writer.” And she said, “Me, too.” But she wasn’t excited to talk about it because I was The Human Bummer, and I wasn’t, either, because I was ashamed of myself, so the conversation died on the vine.

Later, I think I figured out how to respond when someone goes with the “What do you do?” script. From now on, I’m going to ask a clarifying question: “You mean for work?” That gives the other person a chance to either reaffirm that they want to know about your job or job-like-mode-of-economic-survival, or to check themselves and say, “Wait. No. What do you actually like to do?” I’ve also always been a fan of taking the question up one level of abstraction and asking, “Why do you do what you do?” There’s always an interesting answer to that.

The institution of Shabbat seems to account for all this discomfort at the intersection between the personal and professional spheres. People observing Shabbat refrain from all work, they don’t even touch money, wallets, or purses, and ample themes for conversation are provided by the weekly Torah portion. After a night like last night, I look forward to an evening of not being asked that tired old question. Let’s discuss the sweet stuff of life tonight!

Happy Friday,
Jon

Autoplay Videos Are the Enemy

I’ve long felt like some kind of aberration because of how I feel about online video. It seems absolutely insane to me that anyone would ever want to be surprised by an opportunity to watch a video. It’s such an interruption! You have to stop everything you’re doing and devote all your senses and attention to it. Apparently, the tech media-industrial complex thinks I’m wrong, if Facebook’s native video ambitions are an indication, and that must mean that the usage numbers say I’m wrong, too.

But at least I’m not alone. Rob Horning also seems surprised:

“Autoplay videos, to me, are trying to hijack my experience of time and slow me down to that of a video unfolding at its inexorable pace. When given the choice between reading and viewing video, I will always choose to read, because I control the pace. Watching video feels like a kind of entrapment to me; i get impatient having to submit to someone else’s idea of what pace ideas should be disclosed. … Autoplay videos are always inherently ‘out of place’; they are fundamentally unwanted. They are intruders. They are the enemy. When you watch them, you have, in a sense, become the enemy.”

Read more on Internal Exile

In Real Life Available Now in Print and E-Book

In Real Life is now available for purchase online in print or e-book form. It’s rolling out to more online and local bookstores on February 10, but it’s now in stock at all major online stores. Here are the links for your convenience:

If you can’t find IRL in your local bookstore yet, ask them about it. Thanks so much for reading! Let me know what you think of it.

Excitedly,
Jon

Gorgeous Mandalas Made of Sticks, Rocks, Leaves and Such

#morningaltars #art #trees #creek #bayarea #prayer #nature #impermanence #expression #dayschildkret

A photo posted by Day Schildkret (@creativeemancipator) on

Except for a couple selfies, a couple puppies, a couple inspirational quotes, and an overflowing plethora of hashtags, @creativeemancipator is like no other Instagram account I’ve ever seen. This guy makes beautiful mandalas out of found natural objects, fusing nature’s order and human order. It’s art that feels like a clever animal did it, which is true, and it’s true of all art, but very little art feels like that.

I’m sure there are some amazing, longstanding traditions around the world of making art like this, and I’d love to be educated about them in the comments. In the meantime, I’m just happy to see something like this popping up in the U.S. May there be much more of it!

And as for Instagram, I’m all for that, too. My usual pleas for mindfulness still apply, but I think this is a great way to make such art known to the world. For one thing, if you make it with a Leave No Trace ethic, Instagram will still let you put the memory of the piece on a map of the spot for all time. And if you’re leaving such a treasure somewhere, Instagram’s Photo Map will enable curious voyagers to come find it.

#morningaltars #impermanentart #windy #winter #skeleton #found #underthetree

A photo posted by Day Schildkret (@creativeemancipator) on

The creator’s name is Day Schildkret. He’s a mentor as well as an artist, that much I’ve gathered.

I have no idea how I found him on Instagram, but I’m glad I did.

Follow @creativeemancipator on Instagram