We’re All Buddhists Here
Most software developers are Buddhism idealists (in parallel with any other theistic or atheistic beliefs or traditions they may have).
I don’t mean the four noble truths, reincarnation, or any of the theological or even philosophical underpinnings of the dharma, but rather that we like the idea of meditation and zen.
We aren’t trying to achieve a state of mindfulness or being at one with your breathing or heightened sense of self. Instead most are seeking nothing more than “thinking without distraction for a short while” (which, I should state again, is not at all the traditional meaning of meditation, which more accurately could be called “clearing your mind of thought”, but when discussing this idea with developers it is the simple ability to think clearly that is the goal).
Committed, focused thought is remarkably hard to achieve when we’re a click away from Facebook and Reddit and Hacker News and learning how to create a library in Rust and fixing that minor bug we just remembered that suddenly is a shameful pox on our very existence…
The ability to actually think, with focus and dedication, for any period of time is an extremely rare event for most of us. If you try to force yourself into it, the gnawing distraction of all of the things we could and should be doing clouds any attempts at thought.
Take a moment and clear your mind and think with clarity and purpose (tough, right?): Where do you find your zen? Where do you actually spend more than a fleeting moment thinking about anything?
The Thinking Hour
My moment of Zen used to be during the commute. Driving took so little mental effort, the routine so robotic, that the drive saw me processing through personal and professional relationships, project quagmires and technical complexities, opportunities, life plans, etc. It brought a certain clarity to the day, and gave actions a sense of planned purpose that otherwise was missing.
I could only achieve this effect if I was driving, by myself, and the commute was long enough. Add a passenger, or make me the passenger (including on public transit or conceptually a self-driving car), and instantly the options of distraction, even if purposefully shunned, eliminated all clarity of thought benefits.
It had to be an exercise that took long enough, where distractions weren’t possible and where some minimum level of focus was required. If I could read email and respond to texts during the drive — if it weren’t irresponsible and dangerous for other people on the road, say if my car were self-driving — it would have ruined it.
The radio morning shows were terrible, and I’ve yet to hear a podcast that isn’t ten seconds of content fluffed up to sixty minutes, so I often drove with just some classical music on CBC Radio 2 playing quietly in the background.
I hated the time wasted commuting, and the guilt about the environmental consequences, but I always enjoyed the period of thought. The concept of spending that time being angry listening to sports radio (Ebron did not commit an OPI) or an audiobook sounded terrible to me.
Then I started working at home and lost the benefits of the commute. I tried to find surrogates by forcing myself, but laying in a hammock, in a warm bath, etc, always ended up being an exercise in focusing on things I should be doing instead. It was futile.
I, like probably all of you, poured over Tricycle articles on meditation, deep thought, and so on, to no avail. All of the singing bowls and gongs couldn’t relieve my brain.
We have a very large lawn and a long driveway. Mowing the lawn is about an hour long exercise on a riding lawn tractor. I put on the ear protection, fire it up, and for the next hour I’m Hank Hill driving in concentric squares. When the winter rolls around I’m pushing a snowblower 180 feet down a lane, back and forth and back and forth, followed by shoveling accessory areas.
These were my zen. I didn’t realize it, or their importance, at the time, but I did know that I liked doing them. That I always finished the exercise feeling relaxed and relieved.
Occasionally I’d try listening to music during the process, however the feeling that I needed to be alert for screaming voices as I operated dangerous equipment had me revert to nothing more than ear protection.
I hadn’t realized just how important this was to my mental well being until this summer rolled around. We had an extended drought, and for a good three months there was barely a dribble of rain.
The grass went into hibernation. Mowing wasn’t necessary.
I had no Zen. Stress levels rose. The sense that I was operating without a plan increased. A panic of time flooding away rose. Months passed.
But the rains returned (spoken as Morgan Freeman). The grass grew again.
On my first outing back on the (15) horse(power) it hit me like a tree branch in the face, the relief as pent up considerations were processed and prioritized was enormous. I was thinking through family considerations, personal projects, considering career moves and options, etc.
I hadn’t done this in literally months, and the sense of purpose with direction was overwhelming.
This was my zen. It was a period of time where I was essentially captive with no options for distraction, and where I didn’t have to focus on social niceties or with any deep concentration on the physical activity. It was the only time during an entire week when a thought continued for more than a few seconds. I’ve briefly achieved something similar before while cooking (during time intensive periods where focus and attentiveness was required, but complexity is minimal), and even in online first person shooters where my play is essentially autonomous.
I realized just how critically important this is to my progress and well being.
Disconnected Manual Labour
There is a glorious segment in the third season of House of Cards where some Tibetan Buddhists are creating a mandala. A mandala is a sand or coloured stone paint-by-numbers where you use a chak-pur as the implement.
It’s a beautiful practice, and one of the most appealing aspects of the exercise is that it’s then destroyed (sometimes prematurely), treated as a philosophical (if not mystical) representation of the transitory state of life. It isn’t kept as a fingerprint or ego exercise to shackle the future.
I imagine that being involved with creating a mandala, at least after you’ve achieved the basic skills of performing the task and using the chak-pur, is much like mowing the lawn: A time of just the right amount of focus (neither too much or too little, the chak-pur slowing the process enough that it isn’t just shaping some sand into an area) to have the ability to really think. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
I find the same meditative benefit to other manual tasks. Chopping firewood, for instance. Long hikes on trails I already know. When I was a teen I would get up before the sun rose and ride my bike 20km to a beach, and then home again. I’ve always imagined this is the draw for people who run regularly, using it as a period of thought and contemplation.
Knitting and other tasks, once some level of competence is achieved, must fulfill the same purpose as well.
Seven Tips For A Better You
So here’s where I provide the easy solutions and trite pablum to make it seem like I’ve soundly wrapped everything up and made you better person for having read this.
I’m not going to do that. Instead I offer up that you should consider your own hobbies and activities, and determine what your thinking time is, and whether you’re robbing yourself of it.
And if you don’t have one, pick up some sort of hobby or pursuit to provide it (there’s a whole potential business domain around this, as an aside. There are many people who would pay for the privilege of doing manual labor just to give them a purposeful reason to do something and retain the mental capacity for deep thought). I’ve worked in several offices with “quiet thinking areas”, but no one ever actually used them to think (they universally became “make cell phone call” areas), and even if people tried, for most simply having no distractions does nothing to aid focus and might actually impede it.
Sitting with your eyes closed simply doesn’t work for most of us.
EDIT: A timely post appeared on Wired today – What Gives With So Many Hard Scientists Being Hard-Core Endurance Runners? And to avoid the appearance of following a herd, my post went up at 5:37am (the dog woke me early), while their’s went up at 7am.