“Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power.”
- Rene Descartes
I’m not sure when it happened, but things have changed. I remember the days of my father coming home from work to read his afternoon paper. It was his chance to check in with the world, something he, like almost all Americans, did only once or twice daily. Flash forward a few decades and most people get their information from a wide array of sources in nearly constant, bite-sized chunks. The degree to which we’re tethered to our communication devices, to our streams of information, seems absurd to some. Yet it’s also extremely valuable.
I am what is often referred to as an “early adopter,” someone with a strong urge to learn about and utilize new technology. I’m an early adopter because I believe it helps me in my career, and because I like to toy with new gadgets and services. I run a media company, and all media runs through tech, even newspapers. Because of my job, my daily routine is always in flux but it has become increasingly intense as I latch on to more new technologies. The most recent ramp-up began five years ago when I got a first-generation iPod Nano. I quickly began listening to CNET.com’s podcast, Buzz Out Loud (BOL), which discusses the tech stories of the day. From there I began following various blogs and news outlets, and things exploded. I started consuming voraciously, reading 600-800 tweets a day, listening to 20 hours of podcasts a week and building a list of online followers. I created a specific, hand-curated list of people and tapped into their mind-streams. I had become fully plugged in.
Then the question became: how hard would it be to unplug?
When I first heard about Paia Mediation, my initial thought was, Good, Paia sounds like a great place for something like that. I’d never really thought about mediation and assumed it was one of the many “new age” offerings that often cross my path but that I rarely engage. The only experience I’d had with meditation came from TV and film, which means I knew that you sit on the floor, legs crossed, completely still. Frankly, this didn’t sound interesting, especially given my kinetic personality.
Then a challenge flashed on one of the seven screens I check incessantly. “Can Tommy Russo Sit Still For Thirty Minutes and Not Think About Twitter?” read the e-mail subject line. The message was from Katie McMillan of Paia Meditation. She was inviting me to experience a session with Cheyenne Ehrlich, a meditation practitioner who leads monthly workshops titled “An Owner’s Manual for Your Mind.” The challenge sounded fun, but what really sold me was Ehrlich himself. Though he’s been involved with meditation his whole life—he was raised in a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center—he’s also worked on successful Internet startups and has a degree in computer science from Vassar. I may not understand meditation, but clearly Ehrlich and I share some common interests. Maybe my fast-paced tech world and the world of meditation aren’t so far apart after all.
So I decided to take the bait. What I found surprised me.
I met with Ehrlich at his studio in Paia, above Simmer and Green Banana. After dispensing with the pleasantries, Ehrlich began to ask me simple questions to get me thinking about how the mind works. I didn’t see any sort of pattern to his questions, and though I could tell he was leading me somewhere, I didn’t know exactly where.
What Ehrlich was doing, I later realized, was guiding me through my own notions about the mind. Concepts like how thoughts suddenly appear, and how you can choose to react to them or let them pass. In the end, Ehrlich helped me establish a simple framework for how my mind works; it really was akin to, as the workshop title suggests, an owner’s manual for the most important piece of equipment any of us will ever use.
Once my manual had been created, Ehrlich explained some core ideas. Our eyes deceive us. (I loved this part, being a fan of both the philosopher Rene Descartes and the Matrix films.) Human vision can only detect a narrow band of light. Ehrlich calls this an “incomplete rendering” of reality. Then we have our thoughts, or “mental activity.” And finally, the part of the mind that you’re referring to whenever you say, think or write the concept “I,” which Ehrlich terms the “observer.”
This is when I had to stop Ehrlich to explain what was really on my mind. For the past 10 days my wife and business partner Jen Russo and daughter had been on a Mainland trip, and I’d been putting in ridiculous hours on my new startup venture. While reading through Cheyenne’s bio (and Binging the hell out of him) I’d learned about his strong ties to the Web startup community. I confessed that, in addition to the dozens of Web services and bits of communication I constantly process, all I could think about was sharing my startup idea and getting his feedback. He listened and coached and shared his thoughts. But what was most impressive was how he was able to help me put all that aside for a moment. I spent about a half-hour completely still. For me, that’s a big deal.
I can’t say I mastered the technique. In fact, I can say I didn’t. Meditation is often referred to as a practice, and it takes practice. But I definitely got close. I had several moments where I felt disengaged from my thoughts, and experienced flashes of thoughtlessness—not in the negative way we often use that word, but in a profoundly positive, calming sense.
I don’t know how much I’ll integrate meditation into my daily life. I certainly don’t plan to unplug permanently—or even temporarily—from technology and information. But the experience was a good one; I’ve definitely felt better since my session with Ehrlich. I’d even go so far as to say that things have changed. And this time, I am sure when it happened.
For more info about Cheyenne Ehrlich’s monthly meditation workshops, call Paia Meditation at 264-6909 or visit www.paiameditation.com