An Interview with Tara Brach, Conquering FOMO, and What Successful Meditation Looks Like

I have said before that I often think of my life in terms of before and after a 10 day silent meditation retreat I spent in western Massachusetts. Hyperbole aside, I still find ways to maintain a focused practice and I recently found this interview between Tara Brach and Tim Ferriss to be a great refresher on why I meditate. 

There's a strong quote in the interview that resonated with me: "Often times, the people that need meditation the most are the people who might also be most likely to quit because they like doing everything successfully." I am not shy to name my addiction to overachievement and this quote from Tara acknowledges the truth that meditation is not something to conquer, but instead a way of understanding how to categorize and employ a framework of living. 

I discovered four categories of insight from the interview:

(1) The Trance of Unworthiness:
When Tara first started getting involved in meditation (she actually lived in an ashram for ten years after college), she went through a lot of the same things I myself go through and the things I hear my friends go through in our present day Western culture which is the question: 'What else can I do to relieve myself of anxiety and stress?' The short answer? Relax more. Tara describes this relentless desire for self-improvement as the trance of unworthiness. And it comes from a mindset that lives in a world of scarcity and not one of abundance and self-love. 

(2) Balance
In my conversations with peers, another problem that is posed is this: What is the balance between acceptance and pushing the boundaries to increase progress? This refers to either self-progress and self-optimization in the personal life, or progress within a specific job function or company. I've thought long and hard about Steve Jobs' accomplishments and what he had to sacrifice to fulfill those, for example. Here, I enjoy Tara's pull from Carl Rogers: "It wasn't until I accepted myself just as I was that I was free to change." 

(3) What does successful meditation look like?
Okay, a bit of a paradoxical question, but my point is that for those of us who want to live a life not removed from civilization (i.e. I don't see myself moving to the mountains of Nepal anytime soon), what is the end goal? To this, I enjoyed Tara's point: The goal isn't to live life without any pleasures or desires (materialism, satisfactions, etc), but the goal is to be aware of when there is tight gripping and control of those objects, rather than the other way around. There is a difference between thinking of Buddhism and mindfulness as an ideal state of being without any desire, and thinking of Buddhism and mindfulness as a state of awareness of what those desires are. 

As an aside: I found some really great pointers in the interview geared towards giving a better way to meditate for the first time. Around the 1:30 mark. 

(4) Having tea with Mara
In Buddhist mythology, there is a popular story that describes the Buddha going out to have tea with Mara. In the Buddhist mythology of Buddha's awakening, one night Buddha sits under a bodhi tree (later known as the tree of awakening). Through the night, the god mara (Mara represents all the forces that create misery. Think jealousy, greed, desire, etc) attacked him. Instead of reacting with emotion, Buddha employed a practice of presence mind thinking so that every arrow, so to speak, was turned into a flower petal. Over the course of Buddha's life, Mara kept showing up. And the Buddha’s reaction to Mara was always to employ an attitude of calm and chill, despite more explosive cries from the guards and the caretakers who would sound the alarms with Mara's presence. In those moments, Buddha would go up to Mara and say, “Hi Mara. Good to see you. Why don’t we go have some tea?"

Okay, two takeaways from the story: 1) Awareness: Buddha sees what is happening in this moment. He has a capacity to acknowledge what is here. Instead of fighting what is here in the moment, there’s an ability to create space for it and find a way to live with it. It’s a way of being with ourselves that is intimate and full, not part in part. 

Both of these together are radical acceptance. And with this, when we respond to the world, we get to respond to the world with our full selves and with our full potential. We aren’t in a reactive mode. 

“Between stimulus and response, there is space. And in that space is your power and freedom.” - Viktor Frankl

(5) Dealing with FOMO (fear of missing out)
I will keep this one short. There's a way to feel fear without being driven by it. There's a way to say that you're going to take a step back and take a sabbatical. This is the exact kind of relationship we can have with FOMO if we want to feel more liberated.

"The hero and the coward feel the same t hing. It's what the hero does that makes him different." - Mike Tyson

Tara ends the interview: "Ask yourself: What am I unwilling to fear? To become fearless, you first have to feel the fear."

Life advice upon turning 25, built from experiences shared with you

I should start with a disclaimer and acknowledge that age 25 is still considered to be in the nascent stages of maturity. I don’t disagree with that. But a lot of the times, we say the words we need to hear. So if you can, treat this less as a diatribe and more as a reminder to myself of how I intend to live the future days (and quarter centuries, now that I can say that).

I hope this list will grow over time. To that end, if you are a close friend or family member of mine reading this, please continue to share with me, and I will do the same. The list below, of course, is a reflection of your presence in my life. Thank you.

Another disclaimer before I start: I have never been afraid or shy of platitudes. 

1) "Work hard, be kind, and good things will happen to you."
This was stolen from Conan O'Brien's speech on his last episode of The Tonight Show. In moments of overwhelm and when I feel like I can rationalize myself onto either side of a decision, I revert to Conan’s simplification of…everything. At the end of the day, if you can work hard and be kind, good things will happen to you. 
Thank you Amanda, for bringing me to Team Conan at an early age. I think I was 12 when I first saw Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. My conscience has never been innocent since. 

2) "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom." 
I appreciate the entirety of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water speech and I return to it periodically to remind myself that the hardest moments to maintain a sense of selflessness are in the mundane - the trips to the grocery store, the boarding of an airplane, driving in traffic. 

3) Make decisions.

4) Before making a major life decision, ask myself this: What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
It is incredible how much clearer this can make decisions. 
Thank you Emily S., for being my big sister. 

5) Learn how to say yes. Then learn how to say no. 
A lot of my time in college and my first couple of years after college were spent saying yes. It’s a fairly easy thing to do in a place like New York City, where there are no shortages of events, activities, and people. But saying no is simply another way to reserve your energy for saying yes to the things that matter most. 
Thanks Dan, for showing me the power of essentialism. But I’m still waiting for my ficus tree. 

6) Never let the amount of time it takes to accomplish something stop you from doing it. That time will pass anyway.

7) Complain less.

8) You can remove a lot of anxieties by distilling your to-do list to the one true thing that needs to be accomplished on any given day.

9) Confidence is being able to say I don’t know, but I can try to find out. 

10) Friendship is like anything else in life. The more effort you put in, the more you get out. 
Thank you Dan, for letting me make a video on your birthday that makes fun of every habitual Dan-ism. And thank you Phil, Tony, and John for making that video with me.

11) Read more.
There are so many good books and each one of them has unique ideas and worlds. In this weird way, books are the most affordable ways to have experiences.
Thank you Michael R. for teaching me how to read critically. 

12) Find your own metrics of success.

13) Find a way to have an impact on the inequities our systems have set up. 
I used to think that tackling systemic inequities and inequalities were the kinds of problems that took centuries of years and masses of people to re-correct. But adopting that kind of thinking sometimes overlooks the many ways to make smaller contributions, like volunteering a weekend, becoming a mentor, donating wisely, or becoming fully informed on an issue.
Thank you Amit and Anish, for engaging with me every week on these challenges.

14) Some of the best advice that’s ever been given to me came from people who were really good at listening, not necessarily at speaking. 
Also not a bad way to think about business relationships and identifying areas of collaboration across multiple stakeholders. Not being able to listen well means not being able to identify and name the situation. 
Thank you Erika, John C., Matt, John T., Frank, and Yu-Im for showing me what this means in our work. 

15) Take calculated risks. 
Sometimes the riskiest choice is the one that seems the most safe. When I left Google, I remember asking myself, “If I can't make jumps in my career now, then how else was I going to teach myself the excitement and joy of new adventures?" What seemed to be riskier was depriving myself of experiences because of fearful decision making, especially this early in the game. 
Thank you Todd for the healthy hunger. And thanks, Jon A. for leading by example.

16) Try not to take yourself too seriously.
Thanks Charles, for not being ashamed of having the goofiest laugh on record, from the age of 12 when we first met until now. 

17) As much as possible, try to employ a mind of realistic optimism. 
Recently I was at a show - The Together At Last Tour with Pete Holmes and Rob Bell. Early in the first act, Rob Bell described three different frames of mindset. The first was naive optimism, the mind that sees the world glass half-full while turning a blind eye to the many challenges of the world. The second mindset was one of defeated pessimism, the mind that allows cynicism to override action. The third mindset expressed a hybrid of the two - realistic optimism, the mind that acknowledges all of the bad, but chooses to stay hopeful. The example given in the show was a meeting between Desmond Tutu (who has witnessed apartheid at its worst) and the Dalai Lama (an exile of his own homeland) where upon seeing each other for the first time in years, they hugged and laughed for entire minutes at a time. Rob Bell finished this story outlining how both of these figures have seen more of the bad than we might ever, but they still choose to live with realistic optimism. 

18) Focus on doing one thing at a time. Less multitasking.
Even with the small things. Brushing your teeth. Washing the dishes. Waiting in the elevator.
Thank you Tomas, for bringing a practice of daily meditation into my life. 

19) Say I love you to friends and family more.

20) Commitment is continually willing to try harder.
Thanks B.

21) F = F
Fat = flavor. Perhaps the biggest bang for your buck cooking tip. 
Thanks Julian for bringing me into the kitchen.

22) Don’t look at a phone or desktop for the first hour of the day.

23) A lot of success is keeping calm and coming up with a plan.
Try not immediately reacting to the disaster, and see what fixes itself organically. Because disasters always happen. Additionally, the really good people are able to define next steps instead of wallowing in the resistance. 

24) Savor the Beginner’s Mindset and the road to learning new things.
The other way to read this is to emphasize the process, not the product. The happiness of pursuit, not the pursuit of happiness. 
Thank you Mom, for putting me in more extracurricular activities than necessary while growing up, for showing me how to teach myself, and for showing me how to pick my strengths and weaknesses. But for the record, I still think I could have made it to the NBA. 

25) Spend some time strengthening weaknesses. They don’t have to be as well developed as your strengths, but don’t make them liabilities. 
Growing up I loved playing point guard and using my quickness to drive into the lane for quick lay-ups. But I was only able to do this with my right hand, which effectively cut off half the space on the floor for me to work with. I never got as good at shooting lay-ups with my left hand, but I eventually built up my left-hand weakness so that it didn’t give defenders an easy way to shut me down.
Thank you Dad for the shooting drills in the driveway and the hallway.

26) The days are long, but the decades are short.
Stolen from Sam Altman, my inspiration for this post. Each night, if possible, take a couple minutes to think about all the great things that happened that day.