Time Greed and the benefits of slowing down

I just came back to work from a three-month sabbatical, and I wanted to capture some of the things I learned during that time. Part of my sabbatical was a meditation retreat where an important theme was paying attention to the forces of Greed and Aversion in our minds. Over the course of the retreat and in the weeks since I’ve come to notice that a large amount of my stress is caused by a strange type of Greed that I’ve been calling “Time Greed”.

Some Definitions

I capitalize Greed and Aversion here because they represent concepts that cannot easily be simplified into single words. It may be worthwhile to describe these concepts briefly, which I will attempt below, but please be aware that even these descriptions may not quite get at the deeper meaning. If you’d like to know more, look up the concepts of the so-called “Defilements” (another problematic translation) in Buddhist psychology.

Also it’s worth being explicit that even though these words in our language have a negative connotation, in this context they are not meant to be used as judgmental labels. This is a strong habit in our culture, to label experiences as “good” and “bad”, but that is just another form of Greed and Aversion at work. The practice of wisdom is to recognize when certain forces are present in the mind and to discern, through context, if they are wholesome (useful, kind, timely) or unwholesome (not useful, kind, or timely). There’s no need to do much more. If we really truly see that they are unwholesome, they will drop away by themselves, just like you’d drop a hot coal.

Greed, then, is characterized by the mental pull toward some object, thought, or experience. It usually manifests in the body as physical tension and in the mind as a strong desire. This can be anything from the desire for a sandwich to the desire for a different government and also includes very subtle desires like wanting someone to walk faster on the sidewalk. Taking actions when that pull is the motivation can sometimes cause results that end up causing even more problems, for ourselves or others.

The concept of Aversion is similar to Greed, but rather than being a pull toward some object or experience, it represents a feeling of pushing away. We notice this when we want something to stop or to change or to be fixed. That “I have to fix this” thought is very pervasive for me. It’s probably not too surprising to say that acting out of Aversion (sometimes even translated as Hate) can have consequences that are not helpful for anyone.

We can, however, want things (or want to change things) without Greed or Aversion being present. Altruistic, wholesome desires, possibly for the same exact things that trigger Greed and Aversion, do not have that same tension or mental pull. We can want something to happen but not become angry when it does not. It happens all the time. I’d like to pet that dog up ahead, but the dog turns off on a different street. I’d like to eat Indian food, but the restaurant is full and I have to get pizza instead. It’s not a problem. Desire, therefore, is not a problem. It’s our relationship to that desire that causes stress. Greed appears when a desire is held so tightly that it becomes a requirement for our happiness.

Time Greed

With those definitions out of the way, I can explain a bit about what I discovered. Unsurprising to me, I quickly noticed a lot of both Greed and Aversion appearing all the time in my daily life, in both gross and subtle ways. Usually the target of those forces was pretty obvious. I wanted lunch, I wanted someone to like me, I wanted an annoying noise to stop, I wanted someone to behave differently, I wanted to feel different, look different, or to have things I didn’t have. But pretty frequently I noticed a kind of pull toward something, and there didn’t really seem to be anything there.

In these moments, the only thing I could find that I was being pulled toward was a plan. What I wanted was for things to go a certain way in the near future. This usually manifested as a feeling of tension as Greed told me I needed to prepare for, or act on, the next step in my (often unacknowledged) agenda. “Time is running short! Hurry! Get on with it!”, the mind would say. I started to call this feeling, “Time Greed”, and the more I investigated, the more of it I found.

The neat thing about this practice is how little effort it takes. Noticing the feeling of Greed is just a habit of remembering. It’s not always easy to remember, but when I feel that tension, all I really have to do is acknowledge it, and maybe look to see what the target is about. Often, for the less tangled desires, just that investigation itself releases the stress. I see that I don’t really need that sandwich as much as I think I do, and the body and mind relax all by themselves. This has worked too, with Time Greed. I see that I probably won’t be fired if I am a few minutes late to work, and the stress just evaporates. Poof!

Naturally there are some times that I do need to hurry, but they don’t seem to be as often as Greed would have me believe. It’s been a longstanding mantra of mine when I find myself rushing to get a task done, and fumbling at every step, that “if you’re in a rush, slow down to speed up”. Now I can appreciate one of the underpinnings of that saying. Stress does not improve speed, or if it does, the risk and the suffering that come along for the ride are not worth it.

(Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash)

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.