Category Archives: Buddhism


Lessons Learned: 2009 – Principles to Live By

The past year has been a tumultuous one — learning to raise a child, traveling all over the place, both by myself and with my family, finishing my Ph.D., starting a company and a couple of side businesses, and much more.

This year I finally started keeping track of lessons learned, not on a per-incident basis, but in the form of ‘principles to live by’ — things I’ve noticed forming a pattern over time. I’ll preface this list by saying that these principles apply to me specifically — I won’t say that they’re appropriate for everyone. However, they might give you something to think about in terms of your own best practices. None of this is original either, but out of all of the advice I’ve read, these things have really worked for me. Without further ado:

Brock’s Principles to Live By Based on Personal Experience

  • Don’t exercise until done with work for the day
  • Don’t drink alcohol until done with work for the day – yes that includes irish cream in the coffee and a beer if you go out to lunch with people and they’re having beers.
  • Exercise regularly, both strength and aerobic
  • Get enough sleep
  • Limit caffeine consumption to the equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee per day, and none after lunch
  • Eat enough fiber
  • Plan your day
  • Don’t plan to do any work while watching an infant/toddler
  • Plan to clean/tidy/play while watching an infant/toddler
  • Limit work hours – work expands to fill the allotted time
  • Batch
  • Emphasize the positive, deemphasize the negative
  • Don’t complain
  • Know your goals
  • Say No
  • Don’t buy it if you can rent it, unless you’re going to use it regularly
  • Don’t keep it if you’re not going to use it regularly or unless it’s very hard to get. Give it away or sell it.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt
  • Clean environment – clean mind
  • Keep an accountability partner
  • Where possible, never leave any preparation to the day of an event — things always seem to pop up that prevent last-minute prep
  • Avoid instant messaging. It makes it too easy for conversations to drag on. Use email for asynchronous and phone for synchronous conversation.
  • Act professional in business, and give the best you can at the fairest price you can. It will pay itself back quickly and repeatedly.
  • Wait for the upgrade. You don’t have the time or money to be an early adopter anymore.
  • Pack lighter. You can almost always buy something you need there.

Much of this learning has been done through and inspired by the “Think Try Learn” / Edison philosophy/platform, now at v1.0. I’ve learned some other, more specific things through that site, including how to really increase my strength and musculature quickly, and how true the “what gets measured gets managed” mantra is.

What have you learned this year? Do you have any “principles to live by”?

Inbox Census

Per Matthew Cornell’s Inboxes of Our Lives post, I decided it was time for an inbox census.

  1. Mailbox – this is outside and gets dumped into the next one before anything else is done with the contents
  2. Landing strip inbox – This is a letter tray. I throw in mailbox stuff and anything I find around the dining room that needs to be put away. This is emptied primarily into the inboxes in the office downstairs. Sort of a transitory inbox, like the mailbox.
  3. Shower slate – Yes, I have an inbox in the shower. It’s a plastic slate designed for use by scuba divers. Great for those ideas that always seem to hit you in the shower, far from most paper, pens, or electronic note-taking devices.
  4. My side of the dresser – We have a long, waist-high dresser in the bedroom. Typically my receipts and so on get dumped there. Now and then these go in the landing strip inbox and are processed from there. This needs revision so that there’s a proper inbox, plus probably a tray for the things that live in my pockets. This is also mainly a holding location.
  5. Desk inbox – This is one of the main inboxes, where all of the stuff from upstairs and that I generate at my desk ends up before it’s processed. Pretty conventional GTD.
  6. Computer desktop inbox – I have a folder on the Desktop on each of my computers called Inbox, which is symlinked to my home directory as well (mv foo ~/Inbox/ is handy). I’ve tried putting these on Dropbox so that I only have one inbox across all of my computers, but some of the files end up being pretty large, which clogs the Dropbox sync. So I don’t do that anymore. Important: any program that has an optional default download location, I set to dump files in this directory, not on the desktop or a ‘Downloads’ folder, which is totally a one-trick pony.
  7. Other computer inboxes – I have a number of shell accounts on clusters, my web server, and so on. Each of these has an Inbox, but it’s typically used only locally. For example, if I need to send some files to our cluster, I usually scp them to machine:~/Inbox/. Then I know where to find new files on each machine.
  8. Jott – I normally check Jott using Jott Express, on my computer. I’ve started using Jott Express to add new items as well, rather than writing them on pieces of paper and putting them in the paper inbox. The nice things about this are (1) I can add to it via SMS, (2) I can add to it via a voice call, which is transcribed, and (3) it’s the same on all of my computers, as it’s hosted on Jott’s servers.
  9. Work bench – Okay, this one is really sad to look at. Whenever anything needs filing away in the storage room, I throw it on the workbench. This makes the workbench useless for actual work. I need a big box on the workbench, or to put stuff away directly. I do like batching the storage room stuff, so I think I may go the big box route.
  10. Meditation notebook – If you’ve ever tried mindfulness meditation or the like, you’ve surely experienced the flood of things bouncing around in your head that you didn’t even know were there before. Meditation can be like going through David Allen’s trigger list, only better. A lot of teachers will advise you to just let the thoughts pass. That’s anathema to a GTD fanatic like me. Why let them continue to bounce around in your head (or — eek — disappear)? They need to be out! On paper or something! So I keep a notebook and pen nearby when meditating. When something important pops up, I write it down and go back to meditating. The thoughts don’t bother me any more, and I know that they’ll get into the system. I typically empty this one right after sitting.

I think that’s it. Clearly there are some inboxes that could use tweaking. I didn’t explicitly realize before that I had ‘feeder’ or ‘holding’ inboxes and ‘real’ inboxes, but there it is. Most of them arose because I find I’ll inbox (did I just verb that?) things more readily if there’s an inbox handy, rather than having to go downstairs or whatever. How many inboxes do you have? Any strange or otherwise interesting ones? How many are feeders?

Just Sit

As a learning exercise, and because it was something I wanted to have, I created a simple meditation timer application for Android called JustSit.

The name is derived from a quote attributed to Zen Master Unmon:

If you walk, just walk, if you sit, just sit, but whatever you do, don’t wobble.

This quote is a tongue-in-cheek admonition to focus on the task at hand. There are plenty of timers for Android already, but this one does something special — it optionally helps to shut out the outside world by silencing the phone’s ringtone and/or turning off all of the network connections.

There are still a few things I want to add to the application, namely, options for sounds marking the beginning and end of the meditation period (currently mandatory), and options for vibrating notifications or no notifications. I’d also like to allow users to select the sounds to be used — currently they are hard-coded. Finally, it would be nice to allow people to save various profiles and timings. Nonetheless, at this point I find the application perfectly useful for its intended purpose.

For now, I’m not putting it on the Android Market. I don’t feel like it’s been tested enough to withstand the brutal onslaught of the Market users, and I am waiting to charge a small fee in order to recover my developer registration. The application will always remain open source, and will always be available for free on the project website. However, the majority of users will neither know how to nor want to download and install the app from there, so I’ll make it available with the aforementioned ‘convenience fee’ from the Market. The ability to charge for apps is not currently available on the market, and one is not allowed to charge later for an app that is initially given away for free. I may post it to other Android application sites.

Please let me know if you try this and find it useful, and submit any feature requests or bug reports on the project Issues page.

Cognitive Distortions and the Five Hindrances (Post 1)

(This is the first in a series of unknown length on my thoughts on Buddhism’s Five Hindrances and their relationship to the concept in psychotherapy of Cognitive Distortions.)

I was first introduced to the psychological concept of cognitive distortions by Maria. Per the linked Wikipedia article, cognitive distortions are thought processes that “maintain negative thinking and … emotions”. Learning to refute them is termed “cognitive restructuring”.

On reading Maria’s old post, I was immediately reminded of Buddhism, and had in fact just listened to a series of podcasts on the “Five Hindrances”. However, there is no simple mapping between cognitive distortions and the hindrances. I’m tempted to try to make a Venn diagram on the relationship between the two sets.

My readings so far in Mind Over Mood have reaffirmed my suspicion that the two concepts are inter-related. Take, for example, this statement from the book’s introduction:

Mind over Mood teaches you to identify your thoughts, moods, behaviors, and physical reactions in small situations as well as during major events in your life … you learn how to make changes in your life when your thoughts are alerting you to problems that need to be solved.

The major function for me of meditation has been to find a baseline. Our thoughts build up during the day like layers as we work on something, are interrupted, hear interesting news, spontaneously think of things that were bugging us days ago. Sometimes we follow a train of thought for a while, based mostly on assumptions. Gil Fronsdal calls these bits of imagination ‘stories’. We create stories, often about the intentions of others, build up long conversations in our heads imagining confrontations and how other people in our life will react to what we say. Aside from getting lost daydreaming these stories, we tend to accumulate feelings about our imagined conversations and conversation partners, even though the conversations have never occurred. Gil usually calls the state we arrive in after this as being ‘caught’.

Here are some examples from of people building stories in their minds:

She’s tired of working at the coffee shop. She expected so much more for herself.

Her mother is a real estate agent, hawking million-dollar homes to the contemporary gentry. Her father is a entertainment lawyer. Her older sister manages her own ballet studio. Her younger brother designs computer games for a major software corporation.

And then there’s her. A barista at a small coffee shop. Between a tall Americano and double-shot espresso, her mind wanders—

I’m the failure of the family. They were embarrassed to talk about me at the wedding; everyone else is so successful and then there’s me, the coffee girl. I hate spending time with my family. I’m trying the best that I can to get back on my feet, but they will never understand. They’re too busy with the expensive details of their lives—

She calls out, “Tall Americano!” and offers a warm smile to the elderly woman who approaches the counter to pick up the steaming beverage.

(From The Things That We Hide)

A man walked past her on the sidewalk. His dark eyes darted to her face before snapping back to an invisible point in the distant horizon.

She saw his surreptitious glance.

He thinks I’m hot, she thought to herself. He wants to ask me out, I know it.

Her stiletto heels clicked loudly against the concrete catwalk and, after he passed her, she swiveled her hips with more panache to offer him a teasing view of her backside.

They all look back—what’s there not to like?

With a gentle toss of her head, her long hair floated over her shoulder and landed softly on her back, revealing more of her voluptuous figure. Throwing her shoulders back and pushing her chest out, she continued to sashay along the sidewalk while the crowd parted around her.

I’m so gorgeous that everyone wants to look at my delicious body.

(From Perception Spectrum.)

The interesting thing about the Perception Spectrum post is that it contains several other examples of stories that could be built from the same situation. I suggest you read the whole post and think about how the stories are being built based on assumptions.

In order to extricate ourselves from the state of being ‘caught’ in our stories, it’s helpful to understand how we feel when we are not caught. Meditation gives us practice at identifying our ‘stories’ (complexes of distortions?) in a controlled environment. Having practiced in a controlled environment, we find it easier to identify story-building that occurs during our daily lives.

Can you think of an instance in which you built up a story and later found it to be far from reality?

The Insidious Power of Marketing

I’ve started reading a blog called Get Rich Slowly. I’m not typically in a tight financial spot most of the time these days, but I’m trying to be more aggressive about (a) cutting costs and (b) actively saving more, in a savings account. In that vein, I posted a little while ago about my view that ads are often mental poison.

Today, I read a great post from Get Rich Slowly, entitled “Beware the Insidious Power of Marketing“. In it, he highlights a book called The Consumer Trap, which discusses product management techniques such as planned obsolescence, and talks about tricks retailers use to get us to buy more. In particular, he points out an example of how displays are placed to slow us down in grocery stores (from Why We Buy).

Supermarkets are just rife with tricks designed to get you to buy stuff that you don’t need or even want. As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, Fravia’s Anti-Advertisement and Reality Cracking pages detail a number of these. In particular, see Supermarket Enslavement Secrets. Essayists on Fravia’s site tend to use over-the-top titles, partly intended (I think) to “reverse” the benign views we tend to have of people’s attempts to trick us into buying their crap. The Supermarket page dates back to 1997.