Weekly Head Voices #81: Middle-aged zen.

(Warning: This post has an extremely high backyard philosophy content. Will probably greatly offend any real philosophers, and a bunch of other people I probably have not even thought about.)

I recently became middle-aged. As part of the thank you I wrote for the many kind words people posted to my facebook wall, I made a short summary of the things I had learned over the past N years. I hope you don’t mind that I post them here as well:

… here’s what I’ve picked up over the past decades (only two things, I’m a slow learner):

  1. Relationships – the most important thing (and maybe even the only thing) in the world.
  2. Kindness – it really looks like we have unlimited quantities of this to give, but somehow there’s not as much of it going around as there could be. Let’s fix this!

Since that note (I’ve skipped a number of weekly posts here as you might have noticed; really really busy) I have also been thinking about the relationship between one’s happiness, one’s circumstances, and the plasticity of one’s self.

I’ll start this little story with me during a coffee-induced zen moment:

Zen is a real thing that you can read about on wikipedia, in a billion blogs and also in BookBooks. I don’t think that I’m deviating too far from the real deal when I use zen to describe any form of personal enlightenment, or that elevated state of self I should be striving for every moment of every day, but mostly forget to do because I get caught up in life as, ironically, I am not yet zen enough.

Sometimes, I find myself in a perfect little moment of warmth and humanity with close friends or family (and/or with a perfect coffee) and I am somehow able to observe and appreciate the moment in real-time from a spot somewhere outside of the conversation, for example while I’m walking to school with my daughter on a spring morning and realise that life in these simple moments is even greater than I thought. Sometimes I am briefly able to distance myself from some perceived life complexity, a distance from which everything actually looks pretty fine and then turns out to be exactly that. Was it that way to start with, did it change, or did I change?

I think being able to take a few (or a thousand) steps back in order to better see yourself and your situation is related to one of the few fundamental zen principles: Enlightenment through growing self-knowledge. I also somehow had in my mind that there was some connection between zen and the principle of mind like water, or mizo no kokoro if you prefer its prettier ring. In searching for this link, I stumbled onto this Bruce Lee quote:

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.

During those occasional and coincidental flashes of increased perception I mentioned above the quote, when I was both in the experience and outside, at a good distance, I was able to look inwards and see how I could best change me to suit the situation better. The better I suit the situation, the more it agrees with me. Harmony.

Let me restate that: Most often I am not able to change my environment. However, I am apparently able to train my ability to change me, which in many cases can lead to the same desired harmonious outcome.

So, sort of in addition to the things I’ve learned over the past years, here are the things I strive to have cultivated when I grow up:

  • Mindfulness, of me, the human beings I am fortunate to be surrounded with and all of the interactions between us. This includes the ability to take a thousand steps back, and to see clearly.
  • A mind like water, not to do kung fu fighting, but to be able to change and flow continuously to contribute more to harmony and happiness.

Because I’m not sure how else to do this, I’m ending this story with a photo of a beer that I took during a really sunny zen moment:

Have a beautiful and harmonious week fellow humans!

Weekly Head Voices #77: A South African state of Mindful.

I deliberately skipped a week, because it was one of those extremely taxing pre-vacation weeks during which I had several near-foetal-position-thumb-in-mouth-moments. Instead I’ll be writing about my vacation, with pictures, and a little bit of backyard philosophy.

This post is being written in a speeding Toyota Quantum 10-seater minibus (yes, it looks exactly like a taxi, we are currently the king of the road). Don’t worry, my co-driver has taken over. I’m not yet ready to attempt blogging whilst driving. (I do aspire.)

In any case, the week started with us flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and then making our way in this same speeding minibus to the Skukuza gate of the Kruger National Park, henceforth KNP. (This park is about 19500 square kilometres, almost half the size of The Netherlands!)

Due to a wrong turn-off (we blame the GPS), we spent an hour or two navigating pothole-riddled roads in pitch dark conditions in perhaps not the safest regions of my beloved country. It was one of those stressful but life-affirming experiences for which one is thankful but would prefer never having to repeat.

We spent the rest of the week more or less in the wild, mostly at a game lodge directly adjacent to the KNP. It’s quite amazing what being surrounded by the bush and all kinds of wild animals does to one’s state of mind. One by one, all of the incoming streams of information and internal lines of busy-thought are put firmly in their place, in some cases switched off with resounding clicks, eventually turning really-really-busy-you into mindful you.

Mindful you has time to think, and to focus. Related to this phenomenon, and partly due to it, there are two thoughts I would like to mention.

However, first those promised pictures! I tried to make a representative selection from the few hundred photos that I took.

I guess there’s a reason they call it the Crocodile River:

After days of searching for them, we finally ran into five young male lions during an early morning drive. Much excitement between the rangers and in our car, with the lions just outside of touching distance. The ranger told us that they see the car as a non-threatening animal, and that somehow us pink and soft humans sitting inside are not interesting, in spite of the large (about lion-sized) open windows:

Finally, I was very lucky to catch this dramatic hippopotamus face-off. You knew they were huge, but did you know they could move this fast? Watch them chase each other and then face off, concurrently marking territory by, uhm, spraying faeces around with their little wagging tails. Fascinating!

Still with me?! Here are those two backyard philosophy(ish) thoughts I promised:

You are turning into a cyborg.

We are all slowly turning into cyborgs.

We have our always-connected smartphones, our tablets, our laptops, and soon we will have heads-up displays always in front of our eyes (I called it in 2009, I think Google read my blog post). Probably due to our foraging nature and the accompanying neuro-chemistry, we find it incredibly hard to resist the call of email, of facebook, of twitter. What if something new and interesting appears? There’s a lovely dopamine shot waiting right there.

On top of this empire of connected technology, we build intricate systems to keep track of our time, our responsibilities and all of the odd bits of information that we come across. Heaven forbid that we forget anything! We open up as many pathways to capture as much as possible of our environment.

What happens when we are able to switch all of this off temporarily? Well, initially nothing much. Internally, business continues as usual. There’s no more incoming information, but our brains keep on going.

However, after a while things start calming down. All of the little thoughts fall away, leaving the big and important ones. Life starts coalescing, becoming more integrated again. Because all of the little stones are temporarily out of the way, it seems that one is able to move the really big rocks. It’s a strange and exhilarating experience.

So, busy-you makes way for mindful-you. Loads of small thoughts and some big ones make way for a few big ones.

With this, I’m not saying that we should fight the cyborgs that we are becoming. I think we should embrace our future. We need to be more knowledgeable and more connected to our fellow humans. We need to integrate with our technology. I do wonder how we can unite all this with being more mindful.

Is it possible to learn how to switch digital you on and off on demand?

South Africa, you are the most interesting place in the world.

(to me)

Before I left for Europe 14 years ago, I used to want South Africa to play more to its European influences, to be more European.

In the years since then, I’ve had the pleasure to live in one of the prettiest little cities in The Netherlands, and to spend vacation time in Italy, in the south of Spain, in the south of France, in Greece and in Sardinia (technically Italy, but I mention it separately because it was that awesome). I’ve also had the pleasure to spend work time in Germany, Norway and Sweden. Altogether, this is a not too shabby sampling of Western Europe.

What I’ve seen is beautiful, and it has been a superb growing experience making the connections between my European heritage and its various sources.

Exploring these connections has also helped me to better understand the African influences that have partially formed me, and are the foundations of South Africa. Added to this, I’ve had the distinct privilege of being a tourist in my own country together with Dutch friends. This was perhaps the most acute eye opener. I’ve come to appreciate that Africanness of which I once thought that it should be moved slightly more to the background.

So here I am now. SA is a fantastically interesting place. It’s a beautiful country, but, more relevantly, it’s currently in a huge state of flux. I’m happy to be able to play a small role in trying to redefine the strange little subculture that I belong to. I’m doing my best to connect more with fellow South Africans.

I am optimistic that the country will be able to define its own voice; that it will integrate everyone, even its seemingly out of place European children, in a uniquely South African cocktail.

Weekly Head Voices #70: Patterns in the sand.

(I just deliberately deleted the draft I was working on. It was not the best pattern.)

I want you to read this quote by Richard Dawkins, taken from the God Delusion:

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you?

How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place …. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

Do read it again. It’s a pretty mind-expanding realization.

However, reality is perhaps even more mind-bending than you might already think. I looked up the original work on this phenomenon by Aebersold, published in the 1953 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. On page 232 he wrote (emphasis mine):

But radioisotope studies have called our attention to much more  amazing facts on the day-to-day operation of our bodies. Medical men used to think of the human body as an engine that takes in food, air, and water mainly as fuel to keep running on. Only a small part  of the intake was thought to go for replacement of engine wear. Investigations with isotopes have demonstrated that the body instead is much more like a very fluid military regiment which may retain its size, form, and composition even though the individuals in it are continually changing: joining up, being transferred from post to post, promoted, or demoted; acting as reserves; and finally departing after varying lengths of service.

Tracer studies show that the atomic turnover in our bodies is quite rapid and quite complete. For example, in a week or two half of the sodium atoms that are now in our bodies will be replaced by other sodium atoms. The case is similar for hydrogen and phosphorus. Even half of the carbon atoms will be replaced in a month or two. And so the story goes for nearly all the elements. Indeed, it has been shown that in a year approximately 98 percent of the atoms in us now will be replaced by other atoms that we take in in our air, food, and drink.

Yes, you read that correctly. In a single year, 98% of your whole physical manifestation, your body, is completely replaced by other atoms.

This observation has led me to think differently about myself, and about you. I indeed used to think that we were a solid body of somehow consistent matter moving through life, constructed from millions of grains of sand somehow sticking together.

Now I see us all as nothing more than the continuously changing patterns that form briefly in the grains of sand of the universe. Winds blow grains of sand around, now taking part in one pattern and then in another. At some point, your body has contained parts of your best friend, and of your worst enemy. The patterns change continually; sometimes they fade away, and sometimes new patterns emerge. All of them are dependent on the same grains of sand.

Don’t dream big.

For months I’ve been walking around with this idea in my head. I was planning to turn it into a blog post titled “On not scaling”. It was going to be about deliberately choosing focus over bandwidth in one’s activities. One is often faced with the choice between scaling up (more work, more people, more things, more turnover, more for the sake of more) on the one hand, and simply not scaling on the other, instead holding on to one’s simple and linear way of doing a few things well. The former approach seems to be the one favoured and encouraged by modern society. The latter has become my preference.

I was still planning to write this post, when I ran into a TEDX talk by Jim Zemlin, whose claim to fame (at least for the purpose of his talk), is that he is technically Linus Torvalds’ boss. Linus Torvalds is the gentleman who created Linux. As you might or might not know, Linux is taking over the world at the moment: 1.3 million new telephones running Android (Linux) are switched on for the first time every day, 0.7 million new Linux-running TVs are sold every day, millions of machines at Google and Amazon run Linux, machines which run most of the web-based services that you know, almost the whole internet runs Linux, and many more embedded systems everywhere. Whether you like it or not, and as Jim Zemlin says, you probably interact with Linux multiple times per day in some way or another.

Through his World-changing creation Linux (and don’t forget the distributed version control system git), Linus arguably is one of the most concretely influential people alive today. With this in mind, skip to about 5:20 in the youtube clip (if you don’t have time, you don’t actually have to watch the clip, my summary of the relevant bit is right below):

When Linus first announced Linux 1991, he wrote I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. With hindsight, this is a fabulously humble quote. Linus was only interested in the awesome thingamabob he was working on; success and ambition were irrelevant. In the end, his creation changed the world.

From this, Zemlin draws a parallel with something the poet Robert Frost said:

Don’t aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally.

I think this is a beautiful life lesson.

Let’s not dream too big.

Just start.

We’ve all been there.

Faced with a daunting and complicated project (thesis, book, building a house, the list goes on), or a whole bunch of projects, you start suffering from an acute sort of brain deadlock, freezing like an antelope in the headlights of the rapidly approaching deadline pick-up truck, yeehawing redneck behind the steering wheel.

Perhaps even worse than the freezing, is the procrastination. You somehow manage to start moving, except that you’re pouring all your energy into everything but the work that you actually need to do. You manage record numbers of facebook / twitter / google+ posts, and you attain mastery of coin-knuckle-rolling (marketable skill #1), but the day ends with you having made no further progress.

"Procrastination" by Viktor Hertz on flickr.
“Procrastination” by Viktor Hertz on flickr.

Both of these responses, infuriating as they may be, are completely natural. The mountain of work seems too high to surmount on time, or there seems to be more complexity than we can cognitively contain, so we simply avoid it in one way or the other.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: Just start.

Well duh, you say, of course you need to start somewhere. However, what I’m proposing is slightly more subtle. It’s more of a humble and honest life philosophy:

When faced with a daunting project of any size, deliberately and explicitly forget about completing the project. Focus only on making a start. It can be a small start, even an half-hour of focus will do the trick. Pick the most meaningful thing to start on. Take a break. Then do exactly the same. Make another start, and take a break. Look back, remind yourself that that’s another half an hour of good work that is now DONE. Keep on doing this, and keep on telling yourself: “I’m just going to make a another start, nothing big.” By the end of the first day, you will have noticed that all this starting has resulted in output, but far less anxiety and debilitation. You should also have noticed that your attitude with regard to your project has changed for the better.

Continue to focus on starting. Practise picking the most meaningful or important thing to start on. Eventually, you’ll finish your project by starting on it enough times, and soon you will be that person: The one who gets their stuff done.

(This post is inspired by Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, by the Pomodoro technique, and by my own experience keeping on starting until stuff is done.)