Giving more time to each thing

Lately a lot of my dharma practice has been revealing restlessness. Even when I think I’m being calm and slow and contemplative, I still am giving more thought to my Instagram-mind, or my what-do-I-need-to-do-next mind. Most of all I’ve noticed that my inclination toward efficiency in all things leads me to always be doing more than one thing at once, and this is the source of many small sufferings (Buddhist philosophy speaks of “suffering” a lot, but the word is loaded in English and perhaps better translations would be “dissatisfaction” or “stress”).

Let’s say I’m cooking dinner. I may be carefully frying onions, trying not to burn them, but I also realize I want to prepare some (vegan) sausage, so I pull that out and start to chop it up, figuring that it’s relatively little effort to do that and watch the onions at the same time. And it is, but inevitably there’s another thing; I realize that the cutting boards are not where I want them to be; someone has left them dirty in the dish washer. Ok, no problem, I can wash one off pretty quick. And I can, but then another thing; my wife is texting me asking about some papers she needs for her work, can I go find them real quick? Of course I can, but then another thing… you see how it goes.

While I tell myself that I can handle juggling all these things – and I can, and I even take a certain pride in my ability to push each thing onto a mental stack, constantly sort and re-sort their priority, and pop off what needs to be done at each and every moment – each item on the stack takes a mental toll.

It’s a tension in my belly, a furrowing of my brows, a tendency to snap at others if I’m interrupted. It’s unhappiness at the way things are. It’s stress. It’s Dukkha.

I’ve started to feel this toll in so much of my day. Microscopic things, mostly. Wanting to sip some tea while listening to a podcast. Wanting to wash some dishes while cooking. Even wanting just to think about something, perhaps a future event, when I’m busy doing something else. The thinking might be the hardest one of all.

And the solution that I’ve come to? It doesn’t require a lot of thought to figure out. Pay attention to each thing that is going on. Give it my full attention and, if I need to do something else, then totally stop doing the first thing and move on to the other. Switching isn’t the problem, it’s my resistance to stopping, my resistance to switching that is causing the suffering.

That makes it sound so easy, though. “Just do one thing at a time.” It’s cliché. For cooking onions it might indeed be easy. The hard ones are the thoughts, the emotional reverberations, and the conversations that require some time to digest (and which ones don’t, I wonder?). It’s hard for me to treat needing to think about something as worth pausing in my activity.

I’m starting to look for the feeling of that tension arising, or for the thought of “I just need to…”, and to say a resounding “no” when it appears. Well, maybe not so harsh an expression, but certainly a firm one is needed, because it’s insidious. “Oh, just this thing, it’s not really that bad” is so hard to deny, to see through the illusion of the thought. And one reason, I believe, is that I worry that I’ll be judged for it, for being slow or inefficient, or that things that matter to me or to others will not get done.

But what’s more important? Getting things done or being at peace? That’s not a trick question, or meant to be rhetorical; that’s the question that I need to ask each time I encounter these feelings. In general, when I really force myself to look at it, my answer has been “being at peace”. So my practice has become trying to find ways to just do one thing. I’ll let you know if I still manage to get things done.

What it comes down to is that the experiences in my life demand more time than I want to give. It’s challenging to stay with one experience even when others are calling. I suppose that’s the point of formal meditation, and perhaps a significant part of the recipe for a contented life.

 

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash

 

Thoughts on Privilege

Today in my Sangha we explored the concept of Engaged Buddhism, particularly as it applies to race, gender, and class. We explored the most insidious aspect of privilege in our society: that those with privilege do not see it; we are blind to it. White people do not consider race to be a primary factor in their day-to-day affairs. Many people of color do. In fact, even the existence of the term “people of color” implies that the default race is White. Even if we “ignore race” (or any other characteristic), we are making a decision to perpetuate the discrimination that other people face constantly.

When I was young, I was bullied and insulted because I was considered a nerd. I couldn’t do a pull-up. I wasn’t interested in organized sports. I loved reading books and learning about computers. Because of these things I was considered an outcast among my peers and even many adults. My dream was always to fit in, and to that end I’ve worked my entire life to try and be one with the group, to gain the power that I felt I lacked. Of course, I didn’t see the privilege and power that I already held by the nature of my skin color, family wealth, and gender.

Since that time, nerds have become powerful. Computers and the Internet are no longer a niche in society. Their use is no longer optional. Most people in the West even carry a supercomputer in their pocket. We have achieved what might be considered an outcast’s dream: we have made ourselves indispensable to everyone. And we probably all think of ourselves as having won some great battle in the manner of the Great American Dream: with skill and talent and persistence, we were able to rise above our station and achieve that we which had been denied to us but which we richly deserved.

This, of course, is a fiction, because in most cases the only reason one is able to rise up and achieve something is when the culture allows that to happen. In my case, my whiteness and my other privileges made it possible for me to utilize the resources around me to get the things I wanted. I think the same is true for all of the technical elite of our current era. The danger is that we don’t realize what enabled us to achieve our status, instead believing it was our innate ability alone.

This incorrect view leads us to conclude that everyone has the same chance that we had. It leads us to blame those who are suffering for their own suffering. It leads to the idea that the poor are poor because they are lazy, that those convicted as criminals are evil, and that those who are in power deserve to be there.

Even within the open-source software world, the myth of the meritocracy is one example of this pervasive idea. It goes something like, “if we don’t see a person’s appearance, gender, real name, or class, and if contributions can be made by anyone freely without position or power, then surely the best ideas will rise to the top and everyone will be evaluated and judged only by their skill.”

What this concept fails to take into account is that an open-source project is a community of people, and all communities are bound by the same rules of privilege that exist in the “real world”. Contributing to a “free” project still means spending time, and it likely means spending money for a computer, special tools, and most importantly access to information. Does everyone have these resources available? Is everyone encouraged in their pursuits, supported by their families and communities?

If we treat “tech” as a meritocracy, then we might as well say that landscape painting is a meritocracy. After all, it’s just paint on canvas, and one need never see or know the identity of the person who painted a picture. But of course, amazing painters are not born, they are made through training and practice. This is not to say that different people don’t have different innate abilities, but that those abilities are only a small part of what brings about success. The rest is the often-invisible support of thousands of other people who open the doors to the skill which we think we earn.

So how do we work to change these things? How can we make a difference? If there was an easy answer to those questions, we’d all know about it already. But I believe the first step is to examine our experiences and always look for the support from others, the little forgiveness, the gifts of time and money and information; in short, to look for our privilege as it manifests. Only then, I think, can we work to dismantle the invisible architecture that separates Us from Them.

(Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash)

Micro-meditations

Recently at the Automattic Grand Meetup I led a short guided meditation and spoke a bit about incorporating micro-meditations into the life of someone who works with computers. That talk was inspired both by my own experiences with Vipassana (both in Cambridge and Burlington) as well as this fantastic talk by Nick Cox (aka: @everydaytype) at the 2013 Burlington Ruby Conference. I want to link to it here in case others find his words as inspiring as I did.