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!

Drown in the now. [Weekly Head Voices #42]

Carrying the portentous number 42, this edition of the Weekly Head Voices owes it to the sometimes nerdy expectations of its readers to offer at least a small part of the answer to life, the universe and everything. In other words, #42 is 100% backyard philosophy.

Water, and bridges, and paths, taken this morning especially for you. You should start feeling all pensive now.

I’ve had a really brilliant week. When it started, one of the slightly more zen voices in my head proposed a little experiment: What would happen if, at the start of every episode or moment that I found myself in, I would consciously and explicitly remind myself to be fully and exclusively in that moment, to focus on the now. I could only agree that this was an intriguing question, and one worth attempting to answer.

The hardest part was remembering to do this every time. However, once I managed to get past that hurdle, the seemingly simple and low-level act of sub-vocally reminding myself to dedicate my undivided attention to the moment currently at hand resulted in more and more sustained periods of focus, which gave each situation, even the seemingly straightforward ones and especially those involving social contact, significantly more depth. It was almost like flipping a big bass boost button on my daily experiences, with all primary and secondary senses arriving in glorious multi-dimensional technicolour.

If your brain is like mine, constantly shooting off in five different tangents at the smallest instigation, I can only recommend this self-reminder trick. There are other times when such tangents are useful and should be stimulated, for example during planning or creative sessions, but more often being fully in the now is what you should go for. This goes diametrically against the grain of our evolved information foraging compulsion and the associated multi-tasking (that we turn out to be really bad at), but is worth the mental effort many times over.

I’ll end this short post with a musical conclusion:

Drown in the now… A beautiful and apt title for a song with some of the most spacy lyrics you’ll come across, at least until the next time you do some Crystal Method.

Kids, have an awesome week, filled with pure Now.

p.s. Jorik, in an uncontrollable attack of the WABs, just pointed out a spelling mistake in this post. It’s portentous, and not portentious. :)

I like nano-sabbaticals. [Weekly Head Voices #39]

This past week I was away from work, doing a nano-sabbatical in my secret lair.

Example of some random evil lair. Mine is exactly the same, except that it's not in a hollowed-out volcano, doesn't have my face on the outside and is not near the sea.

I thought I was being original by dubbing my week-long self-imposed working isolation a nano-sabbatical, but google knows better. It turns out other people call their week-long sabbaticals nano too. ¬†Durn. In any case, as you will recall I also went away on a month-long micro-sabbatical in 2009, but this time I wanted to experiment with spending almost a whole work-week focusing on a single task, trying to finish a survey article I’ve been working on for almost two years. The week is now over and the article is not ready for submission yet, but it has become a completely different and much improved animal during the past week. I’m a happier person too!

I would like to share with you some of the high-level conclusions I’ve drawn from this experiment:

  • Over the past years, I’ve had to get used to multi-tasking. Switching to focus mode was quite a challenge, as my reflex is to switch, switch and switch. Judicious application of pomodori, killing of browser windows and general self talkings-to mostly helped. I have it mostly under control, but I’m sure I could push up my effectivity further with more practice.
  • I did manage to work quite efficiently from day one, but only by the end of the second day did I find myself in the right frame of mind for writing this kind of paper. It’s one of those cases where you can work really hard, but if you’re not in the right frame of mind, you’re not being effective.
  • At the beginning of the week, I had configured a vacation email auto-reply, keeping the exact reason for my absence vague. The idea is that I would act as if I were on vacation, that is not responding to email and not taking care of any other work-related issues. Still, I couldn’t help taking care of the bare minimum of important matters, which acted as an extra distraction. I think for any sabbatical, nano to mega, it’s important where exactly you draw the line. During my 2009 sabbatical, I had the strict rule that I could only do normal work-related things during the evenings, which worked quite well.
  • By the end of the week I was completely embroiled in interesting article-related issues, with very little else interrupting my concentration. It was refreshing having almost all thought-processes dealing with one topic, instead of bouncing between too many concurrent projects.
  • I truly love the process of writing, even if it is scientific writing, which requires a different attitude regarding the structuring of one’s text and the willingness to rewrite a piece of text as many times as it’s required to get it exactly right. There’s nothing like looking at a single short sentence that concisely communicates the thought just so.

On the nerd front (skip to the next paragraph if you’re feeling non-nerdy): eclipse, texlipse, mercurial, jabref and dropbox make for a beautiful LaTeX editing workflow, on Linux and Windows machines. There’s nothing like continuous LaTeX builds for the gainful utilisation of the idle and overpowered CPUs in your workstation or laptop.

There will definitely be more weeks like this one just past, and perhaps even a real sabbatical in the not-too-distant future. It is unfortunate that multi-tasking has become so de rigueur in modern life. There is a whole lot to be said for the zen of pouring oneself into just that one important thing.