Category Archives: Buddhism


Ads are (often) mental poison.

Most of us really need very little to get by on. I am not talking about the minimal to survive. I mean to live a pleasant and fulfilling life. We need healthy food, things for preparing food, a place to live, furniture, toiletries, cleaning supplies, clothes, maybe a computer. We need exercise, but at the very least that costs little more than a pair of running shoes and a piece of floor on which to do calisthenics. It certainly does not require expensive machines that you’ll use twice and forget about.

How is it, then, that people end up with so much stuff? Is it because more stuff makes us happy? Well, beyond basic needs, not really, although people seem to think so. Some people like to collect things. Others keep stuff around in case they might need it later. However, I think a lot of things that people buy, they neither need, nor really want.

Why do we think we need so many things? Advertising. Aggressive, manipulative advertising. Ads that make you think that you’ll be happier, or stronger, or better liked, or sexier, or you’ll be more powerful, or your life will be easy and carefree if only you buy this thing! The odd thing is that even though we brush this off consciously, somewhere in our minds, it sticks.

I quit watching TV when I was about 12. I’ll still catch the occasional show via DVDs from Netflix, but the commercials are just nauseating (and an annoying interruption) when I happen to see them at a bar, passing by someone watching, or whatever. The same goes for Internet ads. I’m astonished when I see them at a cybercafe or on a friend’s computer. I use Adblock, so I pretty much never see them any more. My desire to buy things has decreased enormously because of it. However, outright ads aren’t all of it.

As part of my Zen practice of trying to be more mindful of my, uh, state of mind, I’ve gained a sensitivity to the impulse to buy. When I feel it, it now sets off warning bells in my head. I stop, and think about why I want to buy whatever, and whether that’s really what my rational brain wants. Often, it is not. So, what besides ads triggers this impulse to buy? Blogs that review items. These include (and I won’t actually name or link them) blogs related to my smartphone, those related to useful gadgets to have around the house, etc. Browsing my recommendations is also dangerous. Catalogs and circulars of any kind are a bad idea. I don’t surf certain geek-related tech sites and I don’t browse brick-and-mortar stores to kill time (i.e. while waiting for someone). Basically, I’ve sworn off “tech porn” and “consumer porn” as I call them. It’s amazing how much stuff I don’t know I need until I see it.

There are ways to go a step further than avoiding ads. I use Freecycle periodically. It’s also possible to find things you really need for free or cheap on Craigslist. (Disclosure: I found my apartment, my car, and my wife on Craigslist.) The reverse is also true — it’s easy to get rid of stuff you don’t need on these sites. It’s tempting to sell those things, but ask yourself: is it worth your time to post, sell, and maybe ship those items, or is it worth more just to have them out of your space and your mind? Some things will be worth selling, but most will not. A couple of good sites on living simply and avoiding ads include the unfortunately-named Live Simple and Fravia’s reality cracking section. The latter can be a bit… off at times but it’s still chock full of goodness.

Modified Meditation for GTD

I practice a modified form of Zen meditation. Typically thoughts that come up while sitting should be let to pass by, somewhere off away from your conscious attention.

This is complete anathema to the Getting Things Done methodology.

When I’m meditating, a lot of times things that have been bugging me, things I need to do or take care of, that have been hiding beneath my conscious level of thought come up. So, I do what any good GTDer would do. I write them down. I keep a notebook in front of me and write them down immediately, and then go back to meditating. This way I really get them out of my head, rather than trying to somehow forget or ignore them, and they’re recorded so that I can properly deal with them later.

Once my dictaphone arrives I may try leaving it recording while I meditate, and reviewing it afterward. That way I could simply speak rather than having to move my arms from the proper posture.

I noticed tonight, and have noticed on other occasions, that things build up when I don’t meditate daily. I may think that everything is out of my head, but when I sit down to actually meditate, all kinds of stuff comes forward. Today it had only been 4 days since my last meditation. I filled an entire page of college-ruled paper (one item per line) with items I needed to somehow address. When I went a week without meditating, I filled one and a half pages at the same density.

Part of me wants to keep track of how many items come up while meditating and relate it to my inter-meditation interval or minutes of meditation per week. I’m pretty busy right now, but I’ll probably do it at some point. From my sample where n = 2, it seems to be a nonlinear relationship. 1.5 pages for 7 days, 1 page for 4. I guess it could be linear, but the y-intercept is not zero. (I think it’s 1/3?) If I always have 1/3 of an idea in my head immediately after meditating, that could be valid.

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

Sorry for the clichéd title, I couldn’t help it. Here in Baltimore, there’s a “bike project” called Velocipede. There are two main aspects to this project.

  1. The Co-op
  2. The “Bike Shop”

The co-op part is that they have a full complement of bicycle maintenance tools, which you can use to repair your bike. There are also a lot of spare parts. By paying a monthly fee, or working 3 volunteer hours for the “bike shop” side, you get access to the tools. If you work additional volunteer hours, you can “buy” spare parts with those hours.

The bike shop part is that donated bicycles are fixed up and sold for cheap or given away. The fixing up is done by the co-op members.

This is a really great thing for me. Since getting rid of my car, my primary mode of transportation is my bike. In warmer months, I also have the racing bike to ride for training/recreation. Bike maintenance is great, because it’s something that you can really do for yourself, if you take the time to learn. I can learn by volunteering at Velocipede, working on cheap / crappy / donated bicycles with plenty of spare parts available. I also get access to the bike tools for my own use.

And finally, the reason for the title.

Bike maintenance, like a lot of manual labor, is really helpful to me for “centering” — getting myself mentally to a calm place, where I’m focused on the task at hand, and all of the busy chatter of my mind goes away. In fact, the “self” kind of goes away, and there’s only the task. Athletes call this “flow” or “the zone”.

I went to Velocipede the Sunday before last to sign up, and worked my minimum 3 hours for January. I took a donated wal-martish bike with a broken shift lever and sticky bottom bracket (the thing in which the pedals rotate), and got it ready to be given away. This involved:

  • Removal of the shifter cables and shifters because the shifters were broken and we wanted to make it a single-speed.
  • Fixation of the dérailleurs since we were making it single-speed. I found the right positions in the front and back, and screwed the set-screws all of the way down.
  • Rebuilding the bottom bracket because the pedal cranking felt really “gummy”. For this I took off the pedals, disassembled the bottom bracket, took out the crank, wiped down and degreased everything, and then put it all back together. Then, I realized I put the bearing races in backward, so the pedals wouldn’t turn. I took it all back apart again, flipped them, and put it back together. Nice, smooth pedal motion.
  • Replacement of the brake pads because they were in pretty bad shape. Worn almost all of the way down. I also had to adjust the brake cables. I found that if I loosened the cable at the brake, squeezed the brakes with my hand until they were in contact with the rim, and then screwed the cable back down, when I let go the brakes had just the right clearance.

I only really need to learn a few more key things, such as wheel trueing, headset maintenance, and proper dérailleur adjustment. The rest is just tightening and loosening screws, basically.

I’m currently planning to go again this Sunday, provided that the superbowl doesn’t start too early.

Back to Baltimore and JHU: Avoiding Burnout

My vacation and my trips to New Orleans and Seattle are are over. I arrived back in Baltimore yesterday, and made my way through the cold, wind, and rain to the lab today.

Hopkins has an “intersession” period at the beginning of January, affording me a brief break from classes. Assuming I passed Models of the Neuron (I still don’t have my grade), and that I pass the two classes I’m going to take this semester, this should be my last semester of classes. Finally. Anyway, for the moment I am free, and I have two more weeks free of immediate and pressing deadlines (i.e. homework).

I plan to take full advantage of this time to knock down Next Actions and finish some projects.

The flip side of this plan is that I am going to try to avoid burnout. In the effort to (a) settle in, (b) keep up, and (c) make a good first impression at JHU, I went full-throttle into the fall semester, working many days 08:00 – 22:00. In short order I found myself burned out but without enough free time to properly recover. I had a very good meeting with my advisor toward the end of the year, in which she suggested that I make time for exercise, meditation, etc.

I know those things are important, but it’s interesting how easily I push them aside when things seem “urgent”.

Thanks to my vacation, I am now well-rested and not a bit burnt out. In fact, I am eager to dig in to my work. However, I’m going to set a few priorities. Call them new years’ resolutions if you like:

  • Exercise – in addition to my daily bike rides, I’m going to continue swimming three times a week, and re-introduce weight training at home to my routine
  • Meditation – I’m going to try to give meditation a higher priority. 20 minutes per day. Surely I can spare that, right?
  • Dharma – I’m going to try to crank through some of the Audio Dharma and Zencast podcasts that I’ve accumulated. Listening to these before, during, and shortly after the Katrina debacle helped to keep me (relatively) sane. It also helps to keep me centered and mindful of attachment.
  • @Home projects – my @Home projects have barely moved in half a year. I’m going to devote some more home time to finishing some of those Next Actions.

Also, several people in my life are climbing on to the GTD bandwagon, and this is giving me renewed interest in streamlining and making more effective my own system. On the flight to Baltimore I spent some time with my treo, whacking the stupid out of my system and re-evaluating some of my stubborn Next Actions. I’ve already seen an increase in my ability to knock down the NAs.