Vipassana Meditation, Leica M10, Acceptably Beautiful Books
Dearest Explorers —
Hello from … THE OTHER SIDE.
I originally began this letter with 1,500 words on Vipassana meditation. But it felt way too top heavy. To balance things out I’m starting with the lighter stuff. Skip down below for Part 1 of Meditation Brain Dump.
The Leica M10
I didn’t want to love the M10.
But here I am, a month into having used one, and … it’s wonderful. Yes, it’s absurdly expensive, and that it exists at all feels miraculous. That’s it has sold so well feels even more miraculous. But it’s here and I’m glad it is.
A constellation of tiny changes collude to make it nicer than what came before. It’s lighter and thinner than the M240 / Monochrom 246 / 262 / M-D, but just as solid; you can still murder a thief with it. The interface has been simplified: Joy of joys, the frustrating S, C modes of the on/off switch are no longer. It’s either on, or off. (With a much, much nicer switch-feel than the Q.) Video has been removed. And this sensor … damn, it sings. It feels like it has slightly better dynamic range than the Q, and the high-ISO performance is certainly better than the Q. Converted to black and white, I feel like it can rival the M246, even at ISO 10,000.
It’s bigger than the Q, and obviously lacks auto focus. But it feels like one of the first truly future-proof M bodies. (Future proof in the universe of single-lens, single-sensor photography, that is.) It’s fast and bare bones. The real kicker is being able to slap a 50mm Summilux or Noctilux on it and turn the world into a dream. (You’ll need an ND filter for mid-day f/1.4 shots though, since it still maxes our at a 1/4000s shutter, contains no electronic shutter.)
I’m decidedly anti- optical viewfinder (once you’ve acclimated to the quality of the Q or SL’s EVF, it’s hard to go back), but the updated brightness and visibility of the M10 range finder somehow justifies itself, in spite of itself. It works best for 50mm lenses; go wider or longer and at low f-stops it’s a bit of a guessing game. But for how I shoot, it works. And there’s a fascinating, if somewhat artificial joy of mastering range finder focus. I’ve only fumbled a few shots — amazingly — because of missed focus at f/1.4.
In the end, though, it’s an affront to all that is good in the world that Leica makes you wait in line for months to plop down such a large sum of cash for a camera body. But you have to think of the company as it is: A fairly tiny artisanal maker of highly precise yet capricious image tools; William Gibsonian to the max. Framing it as such makes the tax they exact a little less difficult to swallow. Thankfully, the machine delivers the goods, feels great in hand, and is more fun to shoot with than an iPhone.
A Request for your Help
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I’ve been posting more bloggy-like stuff to my Instagram account. For example:
A first selfie? Probably. 17 years ago. Self-portrait of the artist dying of a summer cold. My first real summer in Japan. I had moved into a ~$300/mo rent apartment in Nogata, down the Seibu Shinjuku Line a few stops from Takadanobaba. 7th floor. Huge balcony. Shared squat toilet. A bathtub you cranked to produce heat. Roaches galore. I didn’t yet understand the dangers of sleeping with a blasting air conditioner, decades old dirty filters, and the relentless humidity of a Tokyo summer. I think I gave myself a mild pneumonia. It was early August, I remember the moment vividly: I had just finished the first season of the Sopranos (back when you could change the region on your DVD player a few times), had been up all night with a fever and throbbing chest, and for some reason decided to wander onto my balcony in this hallucinatory dream state to assess the early morning landscape. We were the tallest building and the views out back were unobstructed. I always liked the jumble of Tokyo — it’s an ugly city but an ugly city with its own unique fingerprint. Show me a tiny square of any part Tokyo and it’s somehow instantly recognizable. Inspired, I plopped my Nikon FM3a down on the ledge, posed (??), and this is what came out. I recently moved and part of my self-contract was to touch everything I owned — every sheet of paper and object. Selfies inclusive.
Used properly, Instagram is a fine tool. My main vector of engagement is Flume. (Since I deleted most all non-essential apps from my phone.)
Yale Publishing Course
One of my favorite weeks of the year is the Yale Publishing Course. It’s two weeks, actually, at the end of July / start of August — a week for Magazine People, and a week for Book People. Seven years ago I began lecturing at magazine week, but for the last few years have focused on books. I’ll be there again this year giving the opening keynote.
What makes the course so good? It’s like a permission bubble to hone your attention, spend a week disconnected from your day-to-day work responsibilities, and enjoy a few dozen lectures on everything from marketing to editing to business trends to app development to library management. It’s remarkably international, with attendees from around the globe. And this kind of diversity coupled with the wide range of topics primes the mind to make interesting connections otherwise never considered.
It’s kind of expensive (but not really considering the hours, food, and quality of talks), costs about an M10 worth of lucre, but even still, the course pays out dividends for years. There’s still a couple slots left for this year’s course. Select “Dean’s Discount” on checkout and mention my name for 15% off.
Acceptably beautiful books
I started a series last month called Acceptably Beautiful Books. Mainly as a way to create a Google/Twitter Unique String, but also as a tongue in cheek gesture — these books are clearly way more than “acceptably” beautiful. You can follow along here.
My engagement with Twitter (for the foreseeable future) will be largely parenthetical. The hot takes are burning my eyes, exploding my heart, dozens of times a day.
I’m taking a page from the wise Teju Cole:
“This is a time for protest and activism for sure, but it is also a time for subtlety, ambiguity and complexity.”
Post- 100 Hours of Vipassana Meditation
I’ve just now emerged from a silent ten day Vipassana meditation course. Sixty of us sat, legs crossed, meditating (ostensibly), for ten hours a day. One hundred hours of stillness and total silence.
Does that sound like hell? Let’s just say, fully committing to it was orders of magnitude more difficult than anticipated — physically and mentally. No books allowed, no pens, no paper. Phones and laptops were collected upon arrival. Just you and silence (and tweeting birdies galore) for ten days.
When we finished and the silence was lifted, I found myself chatting with a fellow meditator on a bench in the late afternoon sun. We began laughing. At what? Who knows. Life? Freedom? And I can say, unequivocally, it was the best laugh I’ve ever had, from some freakishly cavernous part of the back of the chest, tugging on the root of the spine, enveloping the whole body, making our eyes tear up. You could have shot me in the head right then and there and it would have been the most joyful death in human history.
It’s going to take me a little while to process that bit. I’m suspicious of people who extol moments of “pure” happiness. I don’t mean that in a nihilistic, burn-it-all-down, dire kind of way. I just think “happiness” is a weirdly intangible, ungraspable, fleeting target. A sugar cookie of a position. “I want to be happy!” Well, of course, dear — don’t we all. Through much trial and error I’ve found “happiness” is best and most sustainably acquired as a corollary of more concrete things: Curiosity, strong friendships, disconnection, exploration, self-challenge, creative output. All of which are at least sort of measurable. Do those things, surround yourself with good hearted, ambitious people, and you get happy for free. It’s a pretty damn acceptable deal.
But there I was in the sun — laughing, enveloped by HAPPY. Full HAPPY. Days earlier, decidedly UNHAPPY. Very distraught, indeed. But now happy multiplying upon happy. Happy born from happy. The two of us ricochetting, suddenly and for no discernible reason, happy off one another. And in the moment, recognizing: THIS IS CRAZY. But, wow, it was some scrumptious, succulent crazy.
Of course, the joy came from a concrete place, was a consequence of simply having completed the course. I didn’t think I would drop out, but by day three the struggle was real and mildly hallucinatory. Our meditation hall sat on a clearing cut from the forest in a valley deep in the mountains north of Kyoto. Every few hours you could hear the subtle whoosh of car tires in the distance. Suddenly I was inventing the lives of those drivers, mapping out where they came from and where they were going, their loves and losses. I would have paid a million dollars to have been in any of those cars, going anywhere they were going. Anywhere and anyone but the person I was sitting in that hall.
As Alain De Botton put it in The Art of Travel, “it seems we may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there.”
So making it to day ten — and not just making it but feeling like I had pulled more from the course than expected, had, indeed, succeeded — felt euphoric. Not just the accomplishment, but the ice-bathed mind, the focus, the sensitivity. Despite having wanted to run away on day three, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of: I don’t yet understand where I’ve been, but I want more of this.
And now I’m sat in a cafe in Kyoto, having just emerged from the compound, ridden back to the city with three other co-meditators, one who has done five — five — courses in the last six months. I’m alone and I feel like I’m going crazy in a wholly different, exciting way. With this newly sensitized mind I feel like I can taste everything with my eyes. There’s simply so much stuff in the world. Beautiful men and women, and bumbling foreign travelers with children white as bleached sheets with golden — nay, flaxen — pale hair, and very hip mugs and coffee paraphernalia lining the walls. And this cup of french pressed Brazilian beans — it’s like the Brazilian farmer himself is spooning a thick coffee syrup into my noggin’, coating my brain, dialing the world up six more notches, cranking the contrast on everything.
This is my fourth cafe of the day (ed: I’d go on to visit six) and a blind woman just sat down next to me. Three cafes earlier, on the other side of town, a blind man sat next to me. In both cases I was the only other customer. In both cases they entered alone. WHAT IS KYOTO TRYING TO TELL ME? Is this a benediction? I’ll take it, Kyoto, you strange city, you.
As you know, I’m interested in tools. And meditation is nothing if not, at its most base level, a tool to temporarily defrag the mess of a mind.
I first heard about this Vipassana course seven years ago. A friend of a friend had gone, and I filed it in the back of my mind as a Maybe Someday sort of thing. And then I had dinner with someone I respect tremendously, whose life is laden with responsibilities, who runs a huge company, and who has been successful not just by material yardsticks but also in terms of fostering a kind, generous heart — a bona fide, real McCoy, authentic paragon of Good Human; he has every excuse in the world not to be able to take ten days off, and yet he had just come back from a course and couldn’t stop imploring I give it a whirl. (I realize this is starting to sound like a cult.)
Then in February I saw Yuval Harari speak at Stanford. I hadn’t read his books, but a friend dragged me along. He was astounding. I then read his books. They were astounding. I then read this interview and saw that he structures his years around sixty (60) days of silent Vipassana meditation. If he could do sixty, I could swing ten. I applied the next day.
Vipassana is all about focus and presence and — if you will — truth, using the physiology of one’s own body as a training ground. The system is brilliant in its simplicity. I’ll get into more detail in the next mailing, but the critical quote from Yuval’s interview:
“It’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It’s so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It’s so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.”
I felt this tremendously, in spades, upon finishing the course. Having seen a sliver of what a focused mind feels like, I’m ready to dive back in — as I said above — for ten more days, tomorrow.
There’s a lot I want to write about the retreat. I’ll parcel it out over a few letters when I’m a little less manic, flush with more perspective, lest this thing hit 10,000 completely unreadable words.
I have thoughts swirling around on: media and network disconnection, the Detox Period, hyper-presence, the brain as computer, consciousness and AI, the perfect way to extract toilet paper from a roll.
And I want to share some of the intensely strange physiological experiences that I had during my ten days. Aside from the laughing fit.
(Is this interesting? Or is it just like someone describing a dream?)
Japan is now entering into its famously sweltery summer phase. It’s my least favorite time of the year — I’m just not good regulating against extreme heat and humidity. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how my fragile DNA survived to contemporary times. But here I am. I’ll be alternatively swaddled in cloth like a Bedouin nomad or hiding in my air conditioned studio, cowering from direct rays of sunlight. Which is good, because the next five weeks are Finish The Book weeks. Wish me luck.
Are you all well? I hope you’re well. Share some good news if you have it.
As always, thanks,