6. My 40 Years of Zen
Of course, the first thing I'm offered on arrival is a Bulletproof Coffee served in a mug made to look like a chemistry-class beaker.
There are subtle ads for Asprey's products around the house: Bulletproof snacks, vibrating plates that activate your lymphatic something. The 40 Years of Zen branding is around, too, the zero on "40" resembling a power symbol.
Dan Harris, the ABC news anchor and meditation apologist, called his book about the practice 10% Happier, but the staff here is at least up by 15, which is just aggressively cheery enough for me to feel disconcerted. It's hard to tell how performative the earnestness is, and whether they're the most or least well-adjusted people I've met lately. Maybe this is just how people treat you when you're pretending to be in an elevated tax bracket.
Me and my two cadres sit in the living room and are introduced to the staff who call themselves sherpas for the journey. I stare out of a window for 20 minutes while getting a baseline EEG done and have my optimal breathing rate (5.5 breaths per minute) measured using a heart rate variability monitor.
Soon, we get to the core of the program: the neurofeedback. In a converted garage there are five smooth, white pods resembling oversize pebbles, each with a reclining chair and a plush blanket inside. At Biocybernaut, the chambers are more like closets with desk chairs and Ikea furniture, but the function is pretty much the same.
Conductive EEG paste is smeared on our scalps, electrodes are attached, and we enter the pods. We put on headphones and listen to the sound of rain and try to make the sound louder. The feedback is responsive: The moment I open my eyes to jot down notes, it dims to a quiet, and the more I focus -- though I'm not sure on what -- the heavier the patter.
A presentation follows, emphasizing how the exercise was all aimed at generating alpha brain waves. "We're Going to Get You There Faster" appears on the slides as we discuss meditation.
By day three, it's dawned on me that I've been ambushed into something resembling group therapy.
There's Bulletproof-friendly lunch from the private chef, a smorgasbord of supplements ("Let's get our supps going!" says the facilitator) and more time in the pods.
Then they walk us through their "reset process." In a nutshell, we're to scrape through all of our life's traumatic events, try to viscerally relive them in the pod, activate our alpha waves on demand and replace negative emotions with gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance.
Afterward, a plasticky banister leads upstairs to the debrief room, where there are four chairs facing inward, four tissue boxes and no canopy. Over Pukka tea, a naturopathic doctor asks what we thought about in the pod and follows up with a lot of "why" questions. By day three, it's dawned on me that I've been ambushed into something resembling group therapy.
There's also acupuncture, brain training using pulsed-electromagnetic-field therapy and another form of neurofeedback using a 21-channel EEG cap.
In some of our twice-daily, 90-minute pod sessions I fall asleep or can't focus. Other times I end up in conversation with myself about memories I haven't considered in years. It's not unlike the thoughts that bubble to the surface during intense meditation anyway, but here the reconstruction is intentional and systematic. I get better at finding the spot where the sounds get stronger.
On day five, I see my final brain scans. The amount of time my brain is in "synchrony" between left and right hemispheres has gone up about 15 percent, apparently. I can see how my alpha brain wave production spikes during a certain neurofeedback session, but it doesn't seem on average much higher. I am assured that it always goes up within a week.
I was told at the outset that participants feel more "space between your thoughts and emotions" by the end of the week, and I do. But how much that's to do with the neurofeedback and faux therapy I've gone through versus the simple act of disconnecting from nearly everyone but my smiling sherpas and Airbnb hosts for five days while eating fresh cauliflower bread is impossible to tell. If I had truly expected to emerge feeling like I'd mastered four decades of meditation, I'd have been disappointed.
I sit on the outside deck with a fellow participant.
In the year and a half since selling his gaming company, Lincoln Brown has tried a different self-improvement scheme every month. He's boiled down his growth to seven key areas.
"There are probably 40 things I've tried, of which 25 I've seen value in," he says. Those include Wim Hof breathing, DNA testing, food-sensitivity tests and 14 different supplements. He wears an HRV monitor on his wrist, does CrossFit (and founded an affiliate) and sticks to a pegan (Paleo and vegan) diet. When it comes to biohacking, he told me later, "I've probably covered 95 percent of what's available."
He has done neurofeedback before and says he can't recommend 40 Years of Zen. "I thought there was a 25 percent chance it was going to be really worthwhile, but if it was, it's so valuable. I thought that it's certainly worth the 75 percent risk. It's not," he says. "I'm very driven by things that I can measure, and I haven't been able to discern or ascertain exactly the measurable impact of being here yet."
Two months later, though, he told me he'd unexpectedly realized its benefits. By way of example, Brown said that the night he flew out of Seattle he must have answered 50 emails on the flight, at "80-90 percent capability," all while watching Black Panther on the airplane's monitor. "It really caught my eye that I was able to [find the] mental capacity to do both," he said.