Science, Buddhism, and GTD

When I realized that I was essentially a Buddhist (without even deciding to be, mind you) and a scientist something snapped and it all came together.

In my view, Buddhism and scientific inquiry are two sides of the same coin. While scientific observation and testing deals with the outside world, Buddhism deals with the world within. Both approaches seek to understand what is through careful attention and observation. An often-suggested approach in Buddhism is to seek to have a mind like a child.

What is a child’s mind like? Do you know any two or three-year-olds? What word is so often on the tip of their tongue?

It is: why?

When you let go of something and it drops — why?
When the sun comes up in the morning — why?
When someone sees a wobbling star way out there in space — why?
When we shock the heart and it stops fibrillation — why?
When I’m in a bad mood and I want to lash out — why?
When I’m happy and I feel on top of the world — why?
When I’m impatient and I get that twisty feeling in my stomach — why?
When I’m obsessed with figuring something out — why?

You probably get the picture, but there’s more. There’s a twist. Neither one works if we ignore what we find because it’s not what we think is true when we seek the answer. We have to make a completely earnest effort to get as close to the truth as we can, and if there’s no objective truth to an issue or no clear-cut answer, to find out as much as we can about it and act accordingly.

The bad mood thing is a particularly good example of the power of Buddhism (for me in particular, Zen) and the harm of clinging to what we think we know. I’m sometimes in a bad mood, but I don’t know why. I may attribute it to anything that annoys me at the moment, but addressing those annoyances doesn’t eliminate the problem. It becomes clear after a few attempts to fix things that even though I think I’ve found the problem and fixed it, I have not. To rage on that the problem is unfixable when I’m fixing the wrong problem is folly, and it’s oh-so common. This is when two things have to happen:

  1. Recognize the state of off-centeredness
  2. Take a moment to sit and observe one’s thoughts

The first bit requires some practice beforehand. If you’re not used to having a quiet mind, it’s hard to notice when you’ve deviated from that state. (click — just remembered where Getting Things Done fits here) With regard to the second bit, it seems impossible, in the arena of one’s own mind, to make objective observations. However, after a little practice by meditation, it becomes possible to do just that. Depending on the type of meditation you practice, the approach may be different, but the results are similar. If you can arrest the active part of the mind, the part that is in the thoughts, and just let thoughts arise from the subconscious or wherever, then you can observe. The mind is pretty good at finding patterns, and if you sit back and just pay attention to the thoughts that arise for a few minutes, usually a pattern emerges. Once you know what the problem is, it’s a lot easier to fix it.

Back to the Getting Things Done bit. I had meant to post about how Buddhism, Science and GTD are interrelated months ago, and couldn’t figure out how to write about it. I lost the epiphany I’d had about it. I gave up and decided to just write this post on science and Buddhism, but then it clicked as noted above while writing. An underlying principle in GTD is that if your mind is clear, you can properly recognize and deal with new input. Really Science and GTD are linked by Buddhism, as such:

Science <— Buddhism —> Getting Things Done

What Buddhism and Getting Things Done have in common is their ‘rest’ state. There’s a saying in the GTD community that, “If it’s on your mind, it’s not Getting Done.” In GTD, everything that you need to do or be concerned with should be out of your head. When it enters your head, you dump it to a capture device, and process it later. Then you make sure it’s in your system in such a way that you will see it again when you need to. I won’t get into the details just now. In Buddhism, all of the “other stuff” of your life should be out of your mind. Your only concern should be what’s often referred to as “The Now” (as compared to the past and the future).

The neat thing is, GTD actually facilitates living in The Now. By removing all of those thoughts that bounce around in the head, reminding you of things when you don’t need to be reminded and so on, the mind is cleared.

It is then possible to (a) be in the moment and (b) focus with full intent, clarity, and creativity on what you’re doing. In fact, that sentence is nearly redundant, because (a) and (b) are practically the same thing.

I think there’s a particular synergy in these three things, and now that I’ve finally laid it out in words I hope to have more observations about this synergy to share in the near future. Questions? Comments?

7 thoughts on “Science, Buddhism, and GTD

  1. Kodjo

    I don’t call myself a Buddhist, though I’ve been practising Zen meditation for several years—recently lapsed (maybe a Zen atheist, to distinguish myself from a lot of the religious beliefs that are associated with Buddhism). What you say here resonates well with my own experience.

    A question for you: I find maintaining a daily or even bi-daily schedule of sitting v demanding. It is something I only managed for a good part of a year, though I maintained fairly steady meditation for longer than that. However, with the exception of the occasionally sitting and a couple of disconnected weeks when I had time and space, I haven’t sat regularly for nearly 18 months.

    But I also found sitting to be pretty central to the Zen thing. The intellectual mindset is one thing, but while I’d read a lof of Zen material, and had tried to cultivate a Zen mindset for many years, actually sitting had a huge impact & on going on my capacity to actually move beyond merely an intellectual application of the idea (not a bad thing in of itself, but reallly not the same thing as what I experienced after I began sitting).

    I guess the story is it is a bit like physical exercize. It took me over thirty of my forty years before I committed to regular exercise, which really is something worth doing. I guess I need to come to the same realisation with sitting.

    Anyway, I guess where I was going with this, was how long/often do you meditate, which I now recognise is a silly question. Why would I want to know? Presumably as some kind of test, which is pretty stupid. I guess the real question I was asking was how do I maintain my own sitting schedule, & I think the answer is by wanting to.

  2. brock Post author

    I actually don’t sit that much, but it depends on how I’m feeling. I listen to a lot of podcasted Dharma talks, which help to keep me mindful in general. I kind of mix mindfulness mediatation (in which you focus on what you are thinking) and Zen (in which you try to let it go, kind of). Not at the same time, but one at some times and the other at others.

    Sometimes I need to sit more than others. In St.Louis, I kept very mindful, had a lot of quiet walking time to myself, and didn’t have much to throw me off-center.

    Since returning to New Orleans, I’ve noticed that I need to sit a the very least once a week, and probably should do it more, for at least 10 minutes. I’ve experienced a pretty centered state, so I can tell when I’m off, and spend some time sitting accordingly.

    I don’t think it’s all that silly a question. As you seem to point out in the last paragraph, it seems to vary person-to-person, and I could probably benefit from a more regular schedule, but for me the as-needed approach is working for now.

  3. Molly

    I find this connection between Science and Buddhism very interesting. It is certainly something that has crossed my mind, especially when considering the intersecting fields of art, mindfulness, and science.
    I enjoyed your comment re: the search for truth. I myself have thought that this requires a suspension of belief, along with all of the attributed attachment and desires, if one actually cares to get as close as possible to what is really happening. Of course, this also requires admitting to oneself that any truth obtained is probably only relative to one’s own brain and powers of perception, not caring, and trying to do it anyway. So that brings us to the ignorant nature of a “pure” search for truth – complete detachment, including release from all previous understandings, assumptions, and skepticism. So truth, in essence, seems very different from knowledge to me. Knowledge of the physical universe and the self is also important, but distinct. Like knowledge is your hand closing artfully around a cup, and your complete awareness of how it works and what it will accomplish. Truth is your awareness of your hand in space.

    Maybe I have taken this too far. Just some thoughts. Anway, interesting post. Thanks.

  4. Rob

    Cool observation. I’d like to add a dimension to it that my friend Andy inspired me to think of:

    Andy always referred to a big underlying ability within intelligence is to ‘suspend variables’. I think that Buddhism and GTD both cultivate that. I look at the outside and inside world and make my notes. I organize these then, I process these notes and make decisions and then just do.

    Science is applied intelligence, setting up a premise and then controlling the situation to verify what you think happened did happened. Or what is actually is…but I think that is where science begins to trail off.

    Cool write up.

  5. Brock Tice Post author

    Rob, thanks for the comment. Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by ‘suspend variables’? I know that one thing measured by IQ tests is how many things a person can hold in their mind at once, and that generally the number is higher in those with higher IQs. Is that related to what you’re saying?

  6. Jeff

    Thank you for the post. This really gave me some good direction. I’m essentially looking at the thing but as it relates to my work which is design.

    I’ve taken your device

    Science Getting Things Done

    and adapted it to…

    Design Getting Things Done


    Also, your piece reminded me of this quote:

    Act without doing; work without effort.
    Think of the small as large and the few as many.
    Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.

    Your post was written in 09, how have things progressed for you?

    Thank you!

  7. Javi

    Great post! Nice to see how these three valuable approaches to reality are connected.

Comments are closed.