All my life I’ve been driven to be more, do more, live more. I believe I am this way in part due to my upbringing and culture, another part due to external forces (a.k.a. societal pressures) and the third part due to my own worst enemy – myself. Moving to Silicon Valley immediately after finishing college brought a different layer of ‘be more, do more’ known as ‘become someone known by something doing incredible’. The ‘otherwise you’re a nobody’ was the other side of the coin that most didn’t speak of. So whatever happened to ‘be happy by just being?’
As humans, we are vulnerable when we seek the never-ending pursuit of “success” as defined by our cultural norms and values. And the world is never a totally safe place. As Baldwin once said our society “creates an illusion of safety.” And so, we cannot control everything, but yet we try. Never have I faced those pressures more than in Silicon Valley. The fact that we’re all sold the belief to endlessly “hustle” for “success”, as defined by patriarchal capital, might actually be the most dangerous trap that is set for us.
As one decade was ending before the present one began, I found myself facing a level of stress that I had never experienced before, culminating in the articulation of words that I never thought I would speak, “I am officially burnt out.”
From 2010 to 2019, I had stayed true to my Type-A personality and racked up accomplishments enough to make any parent ecstatic. A C-level executive with a history of successes, a former startup founder, master networker, a TEDx Speaker, a Keynote Speaker, and soon to be Author.
As many tech folks in Silicon Valley have a ‘side-gig’ part of their life, and I was not to disappoint. In 2010, I had founded a Health & Wellness brand focused on my personal story of having severe food allergies and restrictions for the past 40 years. As it is incredibly important for me to share this story with others who suffer a similar fate, I would stroll from a day job into a night job of content creation. Blogs, videos, social media, I was a machine who was building a brand 24/7, gradually getting to the point of no return.
In the last few years, I started to experience a visceral feeling taking over my being. It was more than stress, it felt like a combination of physical and mental exhaustion, and a high level of ‘noise’ that was constant in my head which took over any peace that I had remaining. I started questioning everything in life, even my own purpose and felt like shutting down. No amount of resting on a beach was going to fix this. I needed the noise to go away asap, and my frown to turn upside-down.
Many moons ago, a dear friend suggested a meditation retreat in the Himalayas. He probably saw the path I was on and was foreshadowing. But this was not just any mediation, it was a silent meditation with a long list of stipulations that included total seclusion, 4am wake up calls, 13+ hours of meditation, two meals maximum per day and a vow of silence over the journey. It sounded like a cult to me, and something that would stress me out had I attended.
But here I was almost ten years after that conversation, feeling an inherent need for silence and trying to silence everything and everyone around me. The constant pressure to be more, do more had seeped into my psyche and a reboot of my system was crucial and imminent.
Then one night like an epiphany, I remembered this conversation. After some research, I found the Northern California Vipassana Center and made the decision that my wellness was more important than anything going on in my life, so I entered a ten-day silent meditation program, called Vipassana, in the hopes that it would eradicate my burnout.
Vipassana, which means ‘to see things as they really are’, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills and aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Of course, on day one I excitedly arrived on campus with a long list of things that I was going to ‘meditate on’ and be done with. I had even organized them by topic and day as if I was going to 12-step my way out of burnout. None of that happened.
What actually happened over the course was the learning of a different technique of meditation that resonated with me, and more importantly, allowed me a true awakening. Meaning I viscerally felt ‘woke’. The Vipassana meditation technique is an observation-based, self-exploratory journey that focuses on the deep interconnection between the mind and body and is realized through disciplined attention to our physical sensations. For the length of this course, I was asked to put any form of meditation that I had previously experienced to the side. We were taught about forgetting theories, prejudices, and stereotypes. Rather, it was about opening the mind to understand the true nature of life – experiencing what it meant to really be alive, and apprehending the true and deepest qualities of life, not just accept somebody else’s explanation. Vipassana is about a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens.
Certain tangible parts of the program I found difficult, such as 4 am wake up calls, and 10+ hours of meditation per day. Other parts of the program brought immediate solace – no cell phones, no computers, no music, no headphones, no reading materials, no journaling, etc. So what happens when you have nothing at your fingertips to play with besides your mind? A massive rush of every possible thought that could come into your mind actually does.
My first five days were incredibly painful, as I suffered through this rush of thoughts, ideas, concepts, and vivid dreams. These came to me all day and all night as I was meditating. Everything from ‘Did I lock the door to the house before I left?’, to “what does my forecast look like for digital sales in Q1?’. Anything you can imagine came into my head. I fought them, I prayed to God to take them away and even spoke to the teacher about why these thoughts were all over me. These thoughts were the crux of what had been burdening me down and I could not control them.
In a private meeting, my teacher gave me sage advice: having thoughts is normal, but during my time at the Vipassana the goal was not to address them but sweep them out of mind and address them at another time. If the thought wasn’t directly in front of me, then it didn’t matter. For example when I stressed about Q1 business goals, there was nothing in that moment that I could do about it, so why let it take over my mind and the moment? Sweep it aside and deal with it later when I am in a calm state. Just as thoughts arise, they too shall pass.
The technique’s fundamental approach is to observe, without reaction. Through observance we get acquainted and familiar with the universal law of nature, the universal truth of Impermanence. By entering the deeper recesses of mind, one brings out the Sankharas, which come out in form of physical sensations on the body, thus the Mind-Matter relativity is established. In the practice, one gets acquainted with the fact, which is also the goal of the practice, of the nature of sensation to Arise and Pass – whatever arises has to pass. Sensations are neither permanent, nor is it necessary that the sensation will repeat, therefore they change, hence the Law of Impermanence is evidently witnessed physically.
By the end of this practice I learned to smell acutely, to touch fully, and to really pay attention to the changes taking place in all these experiences. I was learning to listen to my thoughts without being caught up in them. The object of Vipassana meditation practice is to see the truth of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness of phenomena. We think we are doing this already, but it is an illusion. It comes from the fact that we are paying so little attention to the ongoing surge of our own life experience that we might just as well be asleep. We are simply not paying enough attention to notice that we are not paying attention.
After a grueling twelve days of practice I left a new person. Rebooted. Awake.
Now that 2020 and a new decade has begun, burning out is not an option going forward since I am utilizing daily the tools that I just learned. With a new focus and awareness on every moment, I now know that worry is worthless when you have the capacity within to win. Will I do more and be more? I think of it as ‘I will just be.’