The Bicep Curl of the Brain

The following are my notes from a conversation between Peter Attia and Tim Ferris (77:00).

Summary

  • If you’re reading a proof and you don’t understand it, assume that the person who is presenting it doesn’t know how to present it to you; find someone else. This idea can be applied to meditation. If you’re bearish on meditation or “every time I try meditation it doesn’t work for me” try a different app, try a different guide, try a different book, try another way. Keep going till you find someone who can walk you through how to do this in a way that resonates.
  • You don’t go to the gym once and come back with six-pack abs. Commit to meditation like you would a workout program. If you want a taste for what meditation can do, commit to ten days.
  • The bicep curl of the brain is not the cessation of thought, it’s the recognition of the thought that then allows you to go back to the breath or whatever the focus is… don’t be discouraged that you keep having thoughts. That’s the exercise. The exercise is acknowledging it, recognizing it, and going back to the focus.
  • An exercise analogy: Some people who exercise actually get a pretty good “state” out of it. In other words, even if exercise provided no benefit they would still do it because of the “state” or “feeling” it gives them. But for many people that’s not the case. However, exercise is still valuable: if you spend an hour a day exercising, its really about what exercise it doing for you the other twenty three hours. So if you’ve tried meditation and have found it un-pleasurable or un-interesting that’s okay. You’re not doing it for what you experience in that twenty minutes.
  • The repetition, doing a bicep curl, isn’t the twenty minute session where you sit perfectly without having a single extraneous thought occur. The repetition is when you get distracted and something comes up and you bring it back to the breathe. So you should be happy when that happens, because that is the work. The work isn’t doing it perfectly every time.
  • Once you understand what the bicep curl of the brain is during meditation, its freeing.

My Rough Transcript

With lines that really resonated in bold.

Peter Attia (PA): If you’re reading a proof and you don’t understand it, assume that the person who is presenting it doesn’t know how to present it to you; find someone else. I think that really holds also for meditation. There are just going to be some people who guide, in a way that you’re willing to be guided and so you shouldn’t be put off if “every time I try meditation it doesn’t work for me”. There were many apps I went through which just didn’t resonate for me. Just the way they talked about it didn’t make sense for me. But when you find the ones that do. And there are several that do for me including Sam’s Waking Up, the way Sam explains it really resonates with me. And there are others that do so the same, Jeff Warren, on Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier, I just love the way he explains stuff. I would say to anybody listening to this who is feeling bearish on meditation, try a different app, try a different guide, try a different book, try another way. Keep going till you find someone who can walk you through how to do this in a way that resonates.

Tim Ferriss (TF): I’ll just mention two others since they’re very easy to test. Another is Headspace the ten in ten program, I think is a very very well done format for beginning this. ten min a day for ten days and its quite well done. Calm for some people that like the background nature sounds for instance, I’ve used that app, many of my friends really find that to be, with a female guide, their preferred mode of meditation. And then you can meditate in silence, you can consider taking a TM [transcendental meditation] course, which I did, which really served to kick start a lot of meditation because it cost money, so I had that sunk cost working in my favor and its effectively four lunch breaks over four days and you have to meditate in between those sessions. So you have homework and you will feel like a doofus if you don’t. You have someone holding you accountable, you have a teacher. I pushed this off for so long. And then one day Chase Jarvis said to me, Tim, you can afford it, it worked for me, what is the downside if it doesn’t work for you? And I didn’t have a good counter argument so eventually I acquiesced and I had the first hand experience of what meditation could deliver. Which is in some ways as equally difficult to describe as a psychedelic experience. You’ve had your first session where you have completely lost any rumination or compulsive thinking about your to do list and it might just be the last five minutes of a twenty minute session and you just find this serene peace which you haven’t touched on in the last twenty years and now you get it: “Oh if this is something I can call upon reliably, this will be a superpower.” You don’t go to the gym once and come back with six-pack abs. Commit to this like you would a workout program. If you want a taste for what meditation can do, commit to ten days.

PA: There’s a great book out there called Altered Traits. I don’t actually enjoy meditating that much. It’s work. I can’t remember if it was Sam Harris or a different guide who made this point, which was, actually I think it was Jeff Warren. He described it as the bicep curl of the brain is not the cessation of thought, it’s the recognition of the thought that then allows you to go back to the breath or whatever the focus is. That’s not a particularly profound or difficult to understand concept but it’s exactly what I needed to hear which is don’t be discouraged that you keep having thoughts. That’s the exercise. The exercise is acknowledging it, recognizing it, and going back to the focus which in this case can be the breath or the sound. So it’s not about that state that you may or may not achieve. Just as some people who exercise… You and I we love exercising. We actually get a pretty good state out of it. If exercise provided no benefit I would still do it. Just because of how I feel when I do it. But for many people that’s not the case. But exercise is still valuable. If you spend an hour a day exercising, its really what it’s doing for you the other twenty three hours, so the next thing I would say: to anyone listening to this who has tried meditation and found it un-pleasurable or un-interesting, thats okay; you’re not doing it for what you experience in that twenty minutes.

TF: I would also add, and this just occurred to me because I think in some way you’re alluding to this, in my experience, having observed hundreds of thousands of listeners and readers. Attempt or not attempt, succeed or not succeed, with different forms of mediation, its very important, and this applies to many many different things, including physical exercise, as I’m concerned, but, the good program that you follow… lets lower it even further… the consistent program that you follow is better than the perfect program that you quit. So if you’re struggling to following a mediation program and you’re committed to doing it daily, which is a very important commitment in the beginning, keep lowering the bar, if you think twenty minutes is too much? Do ten. Ten too much? Do five. If concentration meditation is too difficult, use a guided meditation. And I recall, there are two things that I recall having been said to me. I think Tara Brach mentioned the first I could be misattributing, I think it was Tara Brach, her book Radical Acceptance ties in to everything we’re talking about beautifully. It had a huge impact on me and it has had a huge impact on many people. It’s the type of title thats gonna scare off a lot of people. There is a little bit of woo but it is an incredibly good book, Radical Acceptance, if you have any type of emotional patterns or thought patterns that seem to control you as opposed to the other way around, this is a worthwhile book. And her guided mediation is really good, we were chatting, had her on my own podcast, and Tara said, “The repetition, doing a bicep curl, isn’t the twenty minute session where you sit perfectly without having a single extraneous thought occur. The repetition is when you get distracted and something comes up and you bring it back to the breathe. So you should be happy when that happens, because that is the work. The work isn’t doing it perfectly every time.”

PA: It took me three years to understand that. Three years of frustration, of am I doing this right, why can’t I stop thinking. And just all of this misunderstanding, but boy, once you get what the bicep curl is, its freeing…

TF: And it makes the pass/fail bar lower which for many of the people who most need meditation… which by the way, I think has a branding problem. It should be called “emotional non-reactivity training”, or something that sounds very appealing to type A driven people, “emotional non reactivity conditioning program”, there you go, or just “warm bath for the mind” might be appealing to other people, but meditation as such is a word that’s become so overused and unfortunately could use a rebrand, but for the time being, meditation and a successful meditation session, should in the beginning be as easy as possible to fit in to you life. You need to stack the deck, particularly in the beginning and TM is very good at instilling this; for me at least, they said if you say the mantra once, in a session, that is a successful session. You have twenty minutes to say a two syllable session once. That is a successful session. And you might even drop it further. This is the goal, this would be miraculous, but if I just sit for twenty minutes with my eyes closed, that’s a successful meditation session. And sometimes I’ve honestly wondered how much of the benefit comes from some of the mental practices vs just sitting still and breathing with my eyes closed.

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