Weekend Reads: July 24, 2021

Meditation, "A QAnon Fever Dream," and the Collapse of South Africa

Hello all,

Here are some of my favorite reads over the past week. I’ve been heads-down on a lot of work-related travel and catch-up, so it’s mostly been light reading that’s come across my desk, though I am working through a book mentioned below.


“When Buddhism Goes Bad: How My Mindfulness Practice Led Me to Meltdown,” by Dan Lawton

This piece is fascinating, especially to anybody on the periphery of the “mindfulness” movement (read: industrial complex) that has taken root in the last couple of years. We are constantly sold on the bill of benefits from meditation: lower anxiety, better productivity, closeness to the “Divine” (whatever you define that as — I don’t think the problems with mindfulness stop with “Buddhist” or transcendental mindfulness). But you never hear of the downsides: psychotic break, PTSD, generally losing control over your mind.

When you think about the sheer complexity of reality, much of what Lawton describes here makes sense. Our minds have to filter out an immense amount of sensory input in order to make sense of the world and avoid complete and utter meltdown. I’m reminded of Aldous Huxley’s observations in The Doors of Perception. Huxley is writing about his experience with the psychedelic drug mescaline, but the concept seems to apply. You can think of the mind as including a valve. On one side is sensory input and on the other is perception. Some psychedelics open that valve right up and now your mind is flooded with the sensory input that it previously was filtering out for you. Lawton’s negative experience with meditation seems similar. After looking inward too much, he inadvertently opened up the valve of sensory input and is now ultra-aware of it at all times — at least with psychedelic use, you typically know what you’re getting into and expect it to wear off.

Some select quotes:

The problem, I explained to them, was that I couldn’t stop being mindful or aware of everything that was going on within my mind and body, and the awareness felt like it was choking me to death. After a day of trying alternative meditation approaches, I left the retreat.

As I navigated life with meditation-induced PTSD (nb: Zak’s highlight), I also felt betrayed. While I had heard cursory mentions of difficulties during meditation, the primary framing had been positive. I remember clearly a senior teacher answering a student’s question of how much they should meditate.

“Well, how happy do you want to be?” he had quipped.

Previous to his outburst, Britton had described meditators who had lost the ability to feel their bodies, lost emotions for their children and, in one particularly troublesome occasion, lost the ability to recognize the meaning of a red light. 

“It might be wise to look through the keyhole before letting in whoever or whatever is on the outside,” she snapped back.

Vipassana International, the meditation organization that Britton says triggers the most adverse effects, flat-out denies meditation ever goes bad. With 13 retreat centers in the United States and 207 across the globe, Vipassana International likely serves more meditators than any other organization in the world. On its website, it specifically answers the question of whether or not Vipassana meditation can “make you mentally unbalanced.”

The answer given: “No, Vipassana teaches you to be aware and equanimous, that is, balanced, despite all the ups and downs of life.4

That answer likely feels cruel to the family of Megan Vogt. Vogt, a 25-year-old Pennsylvania woman with no history of mental illness besides anxiety, committed suicide in 2017 in the aftermath of a 10-day Vipassana retreat. According to media reports, she left the retreat in a psychosis, barely recognizable to her family. On the way home from the retreat center, she tried to commit suicide by jumping out of her car and eventually spent time in a psychiatric ward.

Ten weeks later, she jumped off a bridge to her death.

Some things to note before dismissing his experience:

  • This guy had been doing meditation regularly for years.

  • It took him more than 15 months of medication and therapy to get to a place to write this piece.

  • He cites a few clinical sources on this being a bigger problem than people think.

In my own experience, the number of people I know who have pickled their minds on meditation is getting up there with the number of people I know who have pickled their minds with psychedelic drugs. Both are often started with the hope of curing something like anxiety or grasping at some spiritual goal. And both are sold by multi-million dollar and multi-billion dollar industries who want you to believe that they will be cure-alls for you. In reality, playing with your mind is one of the most dangerous (if not the most, short of brain surgery) things you can do on your own and you should be deeply skeptical of somebody selling it to you. Caveat emptor.

“The German Experiment that Placed Foster Children with Pedophiles,” by Rachel Aviv @ The New Yorker

A friend of mine described this piece as “a QAnon fever dream.”

(For the blissfully uninitiated, QAnon is a loosely affiliated Very Online Group that believes that we are ruled by a cabal of pedophile elites. There are many variations on it but that’s the core idea.)

After World War II, West German officials placed foster children in the homes of known pedophiles. The results won’t surprise you. Turns out putting children in the homes of elite-connected pedophiles will result in years of secret abuse.

There are a few factors going on here to result in something this downright evil and horrific being OK’d:

  1. A general reactionary spirit against the perceived sexual conservatism of the pre-WWII and WWII era. This is the era of the Sexual Revolution after all. The German Green Party (also known for promoting Germany’s idiotic anti-nuclear energy stance) went as far as supporting the acceptance of pedophilia during this time.

  2. A simultaneous reaction against strong-jawed and conservative fathering. Like most weirdos who write books about human sexuality, the doctor who promoted this idea to the Berlin Senate had a problematic upbringing. He was largely reacting against his own lack of love in his relationship with his father.

  3. The political need for West Germany to look progressive and free-er and better managed than East Germany. Homeless children roaming the streets hardly make for a good case against East German communism.

  4. General bureaucratic incompetence. Once a program starts, it becomes mindbogglingly difficult for it to end. This one went on for decades without anybody really knowing, besides the poor young children caught in homes with pedophiles.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but this piece can be hard to read at times.

“Boiling the Frog in South Africa,” by Helen Andrews @ TAC

If you, like me, have been wondering “WTH is going on in South Africa?” (for a point of reference, their riots have killed more than 330 people — the 2020 American urban unrest killed 25-ish people), this piece exposes some of the dynamics well. We have a portfolio company that works pretty closely with companies in South Africa and even before this unrest, the stories they would relay were insane. Imagine driving down the highway and getting shot at with assault rifles because you’re driving a nice car. Or that people will follow you into your gated compound to carjack you. Or the high-powered weapon attacks on bank trucks:

The country is a mess and getting worse by the day. Helen Andrews sheds some light on why this might be. The explicit plans of the ruling party are simply to tax a very small minority a lot to manage the country. But that very small minority, even though they make most of their wealth from natural resources that can’t be moved, have decided to pack up and leave.

I’m reminded of old articles you can find from the beginning of the 20th century that ask what countries will be the major superpowers by the end of the 20th century. Usually the list looks something like this:

  • The USA

  • Russia

  • The UK

  • Argentina

  • Maybe Brazil or France

The things they have in common? They all have large sources of natural resources. But it turns out natural resources alone don’t make a country rich. You need well-functioning institutions like government that defends people’s rights, courts that actually work and don’t selectively punish people or enforce laws, and some kind of regime predictability. Argentina, Russia, and Brazil didn’t have those. Despite losing most of its empire, the UK held on to quasi-superpower status pretty well.

No books or podcasts for you this week. Hope to have something next week.

Product Recommendation

I can’t help but recommend a product this week. I saw Sar Haribhakti talking about Cometeer on Twitter and was intrigued. My friend Joe sent me an invite and I placed an order. It’s weird but outstanding coffee. It comes in a small, metal pod and you melt the frozen ball of hyper-concentrated coffee in your mug. It makes fancy-coffeeshop quality coffee at home. Worth a try if you like coffee and you can skip the waitlist and get 50% off on your first order here.

(nb: I do get some kind of referral award, but not money.)

Hope to have a book recommendation or two for you next week.

Until then.