Posts by Brendan Lawlor

“The Zen Programmer” by Christian Grobmeier

zenprogrammerPerhaps you are a programmer, or you work in the software industry. If you are reading this blog, it’s pretty sure that you have some interest in meditation or buddhism. If these statements are true for you, then it’s also quite likely that you’ve heard of Christian Grobmeier, his blog, and his 10 Rules of Zen Programming. His book The Zen Programmer, which has grown out of his programming, his blog and his practice, is a personal story of burnout and recovery. It describes the kind of mistakes we can make in our programming careers, their consequences, and how we can find a new way of doing our jobs that does not require us to pay with our peace of mind.

This is not a very polished book from a stylistic point of view. The English can be a little quirky as the writer is a fluent but non-native speaker. I personally enjoyed hearing Grobmeier’s German cadences coming through the pages. The unexpected turns of phrase can even act as mindfulness bells to the reader. But for all that, the book does flow. It has direction and it engages from start to finish. All this without losing its sense of being a collection of blog entries. In part this is down to Grobmeier’s unpretentious language and his straightforward message. I imagine his writing technique is informed by the famously sparse nature of Zen aesthetics.

It will raise a smirk, or perhaps roll some eyes, to suggest that programmers live a dangerous life! We don’t fight fires (at least not real ones) or deal with armed sociopaths every day (though perhaps a few unarmed ones). But every occupation has its hazards, and software development is no different. Programmers work in abstractions. Not the standard everyday abstractions that we all lean on to navigate this world – but another layer again. In order to code, we push abstractions beyond a point that is normal, healthy and useful in everyday life. And because we do it all day every day, we are in danger of living further away from direct experience than most people. Grobmeier points out the various stresses and strains involved in working at the software coalface every day. Although most or all of them are common to other professions, he frames them in a way that software developers can recognise. And then he explains how these factors can lead to burnout.

After a few introductory chapters explaining what the author means by Zen Programming, the body of the book contains a great number of sections with high-minded titles but very practical content. Titles like Egoless Programming, You Cannot Separate Your Mind from Your Body and Karma Code might seem to indicate self-indulgent philosophical conjecture, but instead each of these headings is followed by some very simple advice that can be put into practice by anyone. Egoless Programming, for example, points out the difficulties of doing code reviews, and points out how much easier and more enjoyable this process would be if we could avoid identifying ourselves with the code we produce.  Karma Code points out the dangers of hiring ‘brilliant jerks’ – something every developer (except perhaps ‘brilliant jerks’!) can relate to.

The book closes with a section that reiterates Grobmeier’s original post on the 10 Rule of a Zen Programmer. The ‘rules’ combine productivity advice of the kind you will find elsewhere (Focus, Keep a Clear Mind), tips on how to stay mentally healthy when practicing software development (There Is No Career Goal, There is No Boss) and some salutary warnings on how not to be a pain in the ass for your colleagues (Shut Up, There Is Nothing Special). Each one has value and they complement and balance each other nicely.

Zen Programming can be practiced without becoming a buddhist, or learning the bamboo flute, as the rules stand up to secular scrutiny and are accessible. I believe that the more developers who grasp Grobmeier’s message and put it into action, the happier and more productive our work environments will become. And for this reason, among others, I recommend this book.

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How to make enemies

toy soldiers

I’ve been making a lot of enemies lately. People I don’t even know. A guy passes me on the street and looks a little too fashionably dressed and carefully coiffured. I pass a negative judgement (“what a poser”) and the world looks a little nastier. When cars overtake me at unnecessary speed I resent the fact that such idiocy exists and again the world has a few new enemies in it. A lady wearing expensive clothing and a fixed look of disgust on her face stares through me from the passenger seat of a car, and I feel my own face begin to crinkle in disgust. She’s one of them.

For every enemy I add, my world gets darker, more lonely, more frightening. I can feel it happening even as I am doing it. But when I step back and take a moment to consider what’s going on, I can see that the only thing happening is that I am painting the world black. I’m not making any discoveries about some outside reality – life continues all around me as before. I haven’t identified my enemies, I’ve created them.

I’m constructing my own reality and I’m doing it in an unskillful way. I’m feeding the wolf of hate (to use Rick Hanson‘s image) because some part of me believes that I am protecting myself from the things and the people I don’t like. But I’m not. Instead I’m just creating more things and people to dislike and surrounding myself with them. I feel like I’m under siege.

Yesterday, with the help of my Wildmind sangha, I started to break that siege. Yet another potential enemy approached me on the street: A young man with big shades and bigger hair, designer clothes and matching scowl.  I caught myself in the act of creating a new enemy and the phrase “Is this what I want to fill my mind with?” – suggested by a friend in the sangha – arose. Into that famous ‘gap’ between stimulus and reaction I introduced a new thought, aimed at the approaching youth – “may you be well”. I began to remember the stomach-churning pressure to fit in and look good that comes with youth, and I felt a wave of sympathy for him. The relief was instant. I can still feel it now as I write. There is more space in my experience. More warmth. More colour. The world continues to do what it always does, but I don’t have to paint it black.

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Hugging strangers

Free hugs

There’s a frightfully corny saying that you’ll find on postcards and posters for sale all over Ireland: There are no strangers, just friends you haven’t met yet. I say corny, but only because I’ve seen it so often in the context of overpriced woolen jumpers, stuffed leprechauns and tee-shirts with alcohol-related humour. The fact is, for all its corn, I think the saying contains solid gold truth.

I was walking to the supermarket the other day, in a city far away from woolen jumpers and leprechauns, and I started to pay attention to the few other pedestrians I encountered along the way. Many of the faces I saw expressed emotions that ranged from neutral to the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote about in Walden. My own expression was probably not particularly joyful either, mind you, not because I was sad but because I was among strangers and joy is something we reserve for our friends. But the thought crossed my mind that any one of those faces could in principle be a member of the Wildmind sangha.

I don’t actually think there are any other people in my sangha living in my city, but even if there were, I wouldn’t recognize them. I haven’t met any of them, and know a few only through their profile pictures. And what would happen if I suddenly came to realize that the person I was passing on the street was a member of  that group? I’m pretty sure that our neutral expressions would transform into delight and we would greet each other like long-lost friends.

The thought crossed my mind that all of the people I encountered did belong to a group of friends – just not mine. And for every person that passed me, there was at least one long lost friend who would have embraced them in delight on seeing them. I’m not suggesting that hugging random strangers is the way to go (though I really love what the Free Hugs Campaign do). But simply keeping in mind the fact that all strangers we meet are friends to somebody, can change the way we see them as we pass them in the street on the way to the supermarket. It can release a hint of that joy we feel when we meet our friends. And I don’t know of anyone who has too much joy in their lives.

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Meditation for software engineers

buddha head and computer

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of technologists and software developers on the Wildmind Community and among Buddhists generally. I don’t think it’s just by chance. Coders tend to have life habits that make us susceptible to certain problems of mind, but yet may predispose us to the skill that can address these problems: meditation. I’d like to outline those problems, highlight why we might be predisposed to meditation, and make a suggestion as to how we can improve our practice.

Although software engineering is a craft – not unlike carpentry or gardening – it’s a craft where no manual labour is involved. The raw material is pure thoughtstuff and the end product is invisible. So we are obliged to live most of our working lives in the world of abstract ideas, never laying our hands on our work. Another useful way to describe software development is that it is an editorial process. We are always working on a draft, building it out and then honing it down, over and over until we have something that is fit for purpose. And then we start again for the next release. This is a creative process and for that reason it’s intense and personal. We begin to identify with the code we produce. A third characteristic of this kind of work is that we spend a great deal of time trying to solve problems – either by studying an overall solution to a customer’s needs, or by debugging our first attempts at that solution. We move from problem to problem and use the same skillset – logic, experience, concentration – to work through each one.

Let’s look again at this combination of factors: we spend much time in abstractions; the work is intense and creative but requires collaboration with other intensely creative people; and we approach the world as a series of puzzles to solve or problems to fix. This internal regime of mind can lead to problems both inside and outside the office.

Abstractions are necessary for navigating a complex world. Without the ability to generalize from particulars and build up a mental model of reality, we could not function as human beings. But for long periods of time this is all software engineers do. We begin to mistake our abstractions for reality (whatever that might be), and in fact we fall in love with those abstractions and identify with them as completely as we identify with our hard-won solutions to complex engineering problems.

Meditation can be a process by which we return to direct experience. Some kinds of sit allow us to observe our thoughts and other mental constructs as they come and go, while we guide our attention to simpler sensory experience such as sound or the tactile sensations of the breath. By experiencing this first-hand, we can rediscover the limited nature of our abstractions and so use them better. An abstraction that is no longer fit for purpose – because things have changed over time, or because it was too simplistic – is a liability in code and in life. In code, we know that we must re-shape these structures to deal with new requirements, and we know that even if this can be a painful process, we will get into ‘technical debt’ if we don’t do it. The less identified we are with the old idea, the easier we can change or discard it, the better our code will be, and the happier we can work. Outside the office, we need to let go of old abstractions and make way for new ones all the time. We can do this if we practice agile self-development: discard ideas that have outgrown their use, confront the pain of change as early as possible in the knowledge that if we don’t, we will get deeper and deeper into emotional debt.

People who don’t work in the software trade and only have TV and movies to go by have been taught to believe that nerds are solitary creatures who work alone (in basements) and usually have personal hygiene issues. Many offices have examples of this stereotype and if this is true of your office, you’ll know who those people are precisely because of the fact that they stand out as exceptions. Most software developers are of course perfectly normal and sociable – and this is just as well because any software project of any reasonable size needs a team and that team will have to embody communication and emotional skills if it is to deliver. Software development is a high-pressure team sport. When deadlines are looming (that’s what deadlines always seem to do – they loom!) tempers can become worn but the need for tight collaboration becomes even more important. It’s crucibles like these that demand of us the kind of qualities that a constant meditation practice can help to develop: steadiness, patience, the ability to not take things personally, and the capacity to deal with stress without exploding or imploding.

Finally, there is our approach to problem solving. This is a very transferable skill in the sense that we can use it outside of the workplace. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it doesn’t become the only tool in our box. Life is not a software project, or if it is, it’s the worst-managed project in the history of engineering: The requirements are never clear from the start and in any case they change by the minute; the interfaces to other modules are completely inconsistent and come and go as they please; there are multiple clients, managers and bosses; the team itself changes every other day and nobody ever really agrees on a design. You can apply all the logic, experience and concentration you like, but you’re still just firefighting. The kind of problems that life throws at us cannot be traced and debugged. And more often than not, they can’t be solved either. They have to be accepted – even loved. Try that approach in the office! There is no issue tracking system that allows a problem resolution status of Accepted and Loved. In the similar but opposite way, what we find in our todo list outside work cannot always be set to Resolved or Reassigned. And yet we very often act on the habit of our working hours, and try to fix everything that comes our way, or pass it along as somebody else’s problem.

But if our choice of career can bring all these problematic ways of thinking, it also brings with it the basic tools we need to mitigate them, and first among this is concentration. I’ve recently heard a good metaphor for what goes on when an engineer is mentally working on a solution: we are building a house of cards. Each layer is built upon the one underneath, but in a gentle way so as not to destroy what we have carefully constructed so far. This is why interruptions are so frustrating. When somebody taps you on the shoulder when you are in the middle of house-building, the cards can come crumbling down in an instant. Sometimes it’s not another person who taps on our shoulder, but another thought. What will I have for lunch today? Why don’t I check the online news? In order to be productive, we have learned to some extent the importance of extended periods of concentration, and how to maintain them. When you walk around the average software house, the reason you see so many headphones and earbuds in place is not because engineers are anti-social. They are just defending themselves against the crazy but widespread policy of open-plan office space, with all the noise and distraction that this entails. Concentration, which is central to meditative practice, is something that we know how to access.

Another positive predisposition to Buddhist meditation that engineers may have is an openness to certain fundamental concepts that underpin it. One of these concepts is anatta, or no-self. Bodhipaksa has described this beautifully in Living Like a River and in many blog posts. One of the most helpful images he has used is that of the car with hundreds of people inside scrambling for control of the steering wheel. There is no single driver, but a decentralized – even chaotic – process of control-passing from one process to the next. This concept is deeply counter-intuitive to many people who encounter it for the first time through Buddhism. But to anyone familiar with computer architecture, it makes perfect sense.

An engineer’s tinkering curiosity will serve well when meditating. We’ve used the system of consciousness for long enough – sooner or later we’re going to want to understand how it actually works. I’ve heard Shinzen Young make an analogy between meditative concentration and the microscope, in the sense that if we learn how to concentrate we can look more deeply and in more detail into our experience. He might just as easily have used the idea of the symbolic debugger. Meditation can be the tool that permits us to understand how our minds work and follow its loops, uncovering problems in the software and allow us to refactor as we go.

So we have some factors in our favour, but I think we can take things further. There is a change we can make in our in order to transfer our professional skills onto the meditation cushion. As a group, we need to become emotionally smarter by learning the skill of self-compassion.

There is a phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome that is quite prevalent in Silicon Valley and other centres of engineering excellence. A lot of people walk into these cathedrals as employees and feel unworthy, less smart than their peers, and expecting to be uncovered as frauds. These are smart people who are carefully selected, but yet feel that they have slipped through by mistake and that sooner or later they will be found out. I don’t know to what degree I personally suffer from this syndrome, but I’ve seen something strange happening when I’m trying to solve a problem: I feel physically and emotionally unwell until the problem is solved. When I examine the source of that stress (using mindfulness meditation as the debugger) I find fear. The fear that I am not smart enough to fix the problem or solve the puzzle. The fear that I will be found out. This fear becomes the overriding motivation to solve the problem, but paradoxically it creates obstacles and only delays the inevitable solution. I wonder how many of my colleagues go through the same thing. This isn’t a very smart way to manage one’s emotions, inside or outside the office. A more kindly approach would serve better. If we can be more gentle with ourselves then over the long run we will end up being more productive, easier to work with, and happier.

The Wildmind Community is almost half-way through 100 days of daily meditations on Lovingkindness. If you find the above description of the life of a software engineer to be accurate, or if it at least sparks that engineer’s curiosity in you to experiment with meditation, then consider this an invitation to join us.

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The neuroscience of conditioning

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

Sometimes the best confirmations of the dhamma come from sources that have nothing to do with Buddhism. On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is just such a source. Hawkins is an electrical engineer and entrepreneur whose interest in Artificial Intelligence has convinced him that the key to developing AI lies in understanding the brain. If that sounds a little obvious, it’s necessary to say that much of AI research – even on neural networks – has ignored the biology of the brain. As the name of the book suggests, this is not about consciousness or experience at an abstract level.

It’s about human intelligence and how that distinctly human (well, mammalian)  part of the brain – the neocortex – makes us as smart as we are. What I propose to do here is pick out some of the main points that Hawkins makes and show how they relate to the kind of things that we might notice in ourselves as we peer through the microscope of meditation. In particular, this book offers biological explanations for our ingrained habits – the conditioned responses that arise in us despite our best intellectual intentions and endeavours to behave otherwise. The closer we understand the nature of the mind, the better we can work with it.

The neocortex is structured in a uniform way in its entirety, regardless of function or location. That structure consists of 6 hierarchical layers, each as thick as a business card. Those 6 layers are further interconnected across sections of the neocortex to form hierarchies of hierarchies. Signals come in from the sensory neurons – like the nerves coming from your eyes or ears – in a rapidly changing fashion (both spatially and temporally) but as these chaotic signals filter up through the hierarchies, they stabilize and solidify. For example, input from the optic nerve (one million sensory neurons) is a firehose of light, colour and line shape changes due to the ever changing nature of the photons hitting the retina, and also the constant eye movements (saccades) we involuntarily make to scan our field of vision. By the time it filters through several layers of neocortex, this cacophony of electrical impulse has become something stable like, for example, a face.

It might even be your Aunt Susan’s face. If it is Aunt Susan, then effectively the memory of Aunt Susan’s face is encoded high up in the hierarchies of the cortex, and can be triggered by Aunt Susan no matter what the lighting conditions or angle of view are. The important thing to notice here is that the brain has an invariant representation for a vastly changeable (to all practical purposes infinitely changeable) set of input signals. But here’s where it starts to get really interesting. The flow of signal is not only upstream from the optic nerves to the memory of your aunt’s face. It’s also (perhaps even prevalently) back downstream. If higher layers are starting to see things that correspond to Aunt Susan, they feed this back down the line, and hone the incoming signal to check for Aunt Susan-ness. This is very efficient, as you can imagine, as it involves a narrowing of the search as early as possible. It’s a little like what happens when you type in a search term on Google and you are offered increasingly specific choice to select from. (For more details see the book’s wikipedia entry, or read the book!) This way of processing signals is elegant and much faster than a computational approach, but it comes at a price: At a very biological level, we decide what we perceive based on what we have already experienced. If that’s not an recipe for habitual reactive behaviour, I don’t know what is.

So if this is the way our brain works, how does it effect our everyday life, and how can we use this understanding to work better with our minds? On Intelligence has nothing to say about this, and what follows are my own – hopefully rational – extrapolations from Hawkins’ conclusions. His model of perception explains why changing habits through a conscious, intellectual application of will can be so frustratingly difficult. The processing described above takes place long before the filtered sensory signals reach our consciousness. The key interpretations of what we are experiencing are made long before they reach the ‘selfing’ processes of the brain, and so the the ego can really only dress things up as best it can – to claim ownership of that interpretation. But by that time, those interpretations have already begun to send signals to other centres of the cortex, including our motor neurons. In this way, habitually-wired reactive thoughts and actions are triggered. Our conscious ego, always behind the curve, tends to either justify the resulting behaviour in some way, or in general to tell some story about it. Brute force application of will is our favourite way to try to change those habitual thoughts and actions, but it can never reach into the depth of where those habits come from.

If this description invokes a certain hopelessness, and calls into question the notion of free will, then I think there’s no harm in that. I think it is probably hopeless and pointless to believe that we can impose our conscious will on activities that are upstream of the consciousness process. We can certainly modulate and moderate some of the grosser behaviours that we perceive to be in need of change. But we cannot by sheer intellectual will simply decide to be, say, more compassionate individuals from one day to the next. So what can be done?

Surrender. First and foremost to the nature of your own mind. You can’t work well with a system if you don’t have some understanding of how it operates, and the science is telling us in an ever-clearer way: we are not who we think we are. Our minds are not a centralized command-and-control system. Control is distributed across thousands of drivers (to borrow an image from Bodhipaksa), each struggling to grab the steering wheel. We are bags of competing habits, so let’s give up all hope and pretense of being in charge and let’s look instead to work with what we really have. Instead of trying to pull imagined levers and throw non-existent switches, we can plant seeds, in the form of new habits.

Incidentally, Buddhism has been saying the same thing for a very long time. The cognitive function of recognizing Aunt Susan’s face is called sañña in Pali, sometimes translated as perception. It is one of the Five Aggregates (khandhas) and is described by Bhikku Bodhi as follows:

The characteristic of perception is the perceiving of the qualities of the object. Its function is to make a sign as a condition for perceiving again that “this is the same,” or its function is recognizing what has been previously perceived. It becomes manifest as the interpreting of the object…by way of the features that had been apprehended.

The sign referred to by Bhikku Bodhi, corresponds to Hawkins’ invariant representation.

Once we surrender to this unintuitive and perhaps emotionally difficult way of understanding the brain, we can work with it instead of against it by gently initiating new regular habits – without any grand expectations – and see where it leads. This is where the blunt instrument of conscious intellectual will comes into play. The will is just another process struggling for control. It arises and falls away like everything else and we cannot expect it to change our habitual thinking and behaviour. But our will can help us to initiate new habits and support them in their infancy. In those moments when it is available, we can use its direction and energy to take the micro-actions that, in the long run, can rewire habits.

We can decide to ‘feed the wolf of love‘ day in, day out as Rick Hanson suggests, and then let that work its own way through deeper and mostly unseen habits. And we can introduce meditation as a life habit. One of the most important habits that I’ve built up recently is the habit of daily meditation. Thanks to the 100 day challenge in the Wildmind community, I can say that the habit of sitting has become strong and has very little trouble grabbing the steering wheel at least once a day. I have found over the years that meditation itself has the effect of rooting out old useless or harmful habits. A few of them have just fallen away. Others put up a fight and fade in and out over time.

So what might be learned here? I have come for now to this conclusion: A better understanding of how our minds work tells us that there is no self there in control, but there are features to human intelligence that can be harnessed in order to favour certain drivers over others. The way to bring about positive change is to plant seeds, water them regularly and be patient. If that sounds a lot like love, I don’t think  it’s a coincidence.

On Intelligence can be bought on

(I’m very grateful to Bodhipaksa for reviewing this article and bringing my attention to Bhikku Bodhi’s definition of sañña.)

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An uncertain refuge

Google-Plus-LogoI remember the day I realized I was an atheist. I was sitting on an S-Bahn in Stuttgart, reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker for the second time – this time paying more attention. I finally came to know that for my purposes there was no credible need to believe in the god I had been raised to worship. The ties were already very loose by then. Dawkins just helped me to be honest with myself.

There has always been some kind of searching going on in my life (if you are reading this blog then there is no need to explain that idea). I had tried out Buddhist meditation a few years previously and found it to be good thing. But then I started travelling, living a whole new life with lots of money and lots of fun. Meditation had given me a kick start, and now I had moved on. The moment of realization on that S-Bahn brought me to the conclusion that there was no need to seek any more. Silly me.

The question about whether or not there is a god takes up a lot of space on YouTube these days, but I’ve come to see it as a bit dull. Once you’ve answered the question for yourself – in whatever way that works for you – the really interesting questions remain: How do I live well? What is the nature of mind and experience? And who the hell is asking, anyhow? I’ve never been comfortable calling myself Buddhist as it has too many associated assumed beliefs to which I don’t adhere and which I don’t wish to defend. But something has moved in the years since The Blind Watchmaker, and again I find myself forced into honesty.

On the 44th anniversary of the moment I started breathing air, and at the end, more or less, of the 4th year that I have returned to observing that breath in Buddhist meditation, it seemed like as good a day as any to acknowledge what has changed. I still choose not to call myself a Buddhist. But there remains the realization that I have already taken refuge in the Buddha – as much in my own presumed Buddha nature as in the historical seeker and scientist Gotama.

I have already taken refuge in the Dhamma – it describes in a very satisfactory way the things I experience in life, and much of what I read about in the sciences.

And now in the past few months, I have taken refuge in a very special Sangha: the Wildmind Community.

These are not refuges into which one flees in fear to avoid uncertainty, but towards which one gravitates in hope and confidence but with some trepidation. Whatever word I might or might not use to describe myself, there is a path ahead of me now that I cannot imagine leaving.

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Relaxing into your sit

Relax 4I often forget the importance of physical relaxation at the start of a sit. Softening the eyes, relaxing the jaw, and letting that relaxation run downwards through the rest of my muscles. Today I was more attentive to this process and found myself running through it several times during the course of the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness). The physical relaxation triggers a softness of attitude in general and feels like what Pema Chodron describes as “taking off the armour”.

After the eyes and the jaw, I used the outbreath to relax the chest and abdomen, imagining the same wave of relaxation I felt in my face now moving down the front of my body. Then the shoulders and arms. Then the back. The outbreath has a lot to offer. Again there is something softening in its effect.

I live in a city by the sea so most of my sits are against the backdrop of traffic noise and seagulls. Once my body has relaxed, and with my eyes already closed, I allowed the sounds to come and go, and pay particular attention to the sounds giving way to silence – even just momentarily. It occurred to me recently that the silence into which birds, cars, people and all the other sources of sound return to is the same vast, unified pool of silence. And I try to relax my mind into this idea, and ask it to neither hold on to, or push away, anything it hears.

Physical relaxation is not a one-way street. When grasping or aversion arises when I’m meditating (as it did today) my body told me what my mind had failed to notice. I found my eyes, jaw and shoulders had all tightened up again. So I ran through the relaxation routine a number of times. In this way, my body acts as a dashboard: letting me see indirectly what’s happening under the hood, and allowing me to take corrective action.

Relaxation, the out-breath and a return to silence seem to me to be physical correlates of surrender and acceptance, and I plan to use this dashboard as a matter of habit before each meditation, and during, as required. On a general note, the regularity of sits during this 100 day challenge allows me to feed the understandings gained during one sit back into the next, and build up a practice that is based on my own observations as well as the advice of others.

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“Journeys on the Silk Road” by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters

journeys-on-the-silk-roadMarc Aurel Stein was a superstar of his time. When he returned from the Taklamakan and Gobi desert in central Asia after a successful expedition that lasted from 1906 to 1908, weighed down with treasure in the form of ancient documents, the newspapers in London were full of his exploits. Today, almost nobody has heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until I read Journeys on the Silk Road by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters. Morgan and Walters have travelled from their native Australia to England, Wales, India and China in order to retell Stein’s story and that of the document most associated with his explorations: the Diamond Sutra from the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas — the oldest printed and dated document in the world.

The book can be read from a number of different points of view. One such perspective is the insight into the last hurrah of colonial exploration, which Morgan and Walters call The Great Race. The first third of the book introduces us to a Stein who is always looking over his shoulder looking for signs of his French, German and Russian rivals, as he struggles first with bureaucracy and then with the desert to reach his goal before they do. He has heard rumours of a store of ancient texts in a long-forgotten waypoint on the Silk Road, and wants to claim them for his adopted England (Stein is Hungarian-born but became a citizen of the United Kingdom). Stein’s ambition and single-mindedness typify the attitude of the Western powers of that time towards the cultural heritage of the rest of the world.

Title: Journeys on the Silk Road
Author: Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters
Publisher: Lyons Press
ISBN: 978-0762782970
Available from:, and

Another way to read the book is as a story of Stein, the man. But we are only offered glimpses of him. He is somebody who lived for the adventure of travel, competition and discovery. He was meticulous in his preparations, dapper in his appearance, frugal in his lifestyle, but prone to taking unnecessary risks with his own life and the lives of those in his pay. He wrote an enormous number of letters and multi-volume books recounting his expeditions, but he seems to have hidden himself behind an official language of reserve and distance. For example, on the return leg of the Diamond Sutra expedition, he lost a number of toes due to frostbite (the result of an unplanned detour up a snowy peak). His letters from his sick-bed were written with a stiff upper lip that would have impressed any natural-born Englishman, but there are indications from other sources of a deep and lasting suffering on Stein’s part. Another example of his tendency to whitewash is the fact that he never wrote of his fourth and failed expedition to the Chinese desert. In many ways it would have been more interesting for its depiction of the changing times and the end of the Great Race, but for Stein it was something to be hidden from view. Stein was a lifelong bachelor, and although he struck up some important friendships with men he worked with, there is no insight into whether those relationships were built on anything other than a shared interest in adventure.

One issue occurs to the reader before the authors eventually explicitly deal with it — the ethical considerations of what Stein and others like him were doing. In today’s China, he is remembered as a ignoble thief who bribed and cajoled the monk in charge of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas until he got the documents he wanted. Note that Stein understood very little about the contents of what he discovered and it was ironically his French rival who was engaged to analyze the texts once they were back in London, that first appreciated the significance of the Diamond Sutra. But it could also be said that even if this was a typical cultural smash-and-grab of its time, the alternatives might have been worse. Once word of the find reached Beijing, those documents that remained behind were ordered to be sent to the capital. But they were inexpertly packed for their journey and fell foul of the dampness of the climate outside their desert cave home, as well as falling into the wrong hands as they made their long trip. If Stein was a thief, perhaps he was the right thief at the right time.

What we can say about him with some amount of confidence is that he was a fascinating if not always very likeable person who seems to have been driven by a thirst for adventure and a desire for recognition.

A third key to this book is the Diamond Sutra itself. Each chapter in the book begins with a quote from this Buddhist text — a nice idea, but in the end it felt a bit contrived as I didn’t see how the quotes had an immediate relevance to the contents of the chapters. However, the history and significance of the Diamond Sutra are dealt with well, and would certainly provided a good overview to a reader (like me) who has very little knowledge of Buddhist scripture. The authors look into the distant past with a discussion of how the script might have come to be in the caves and the historic figures associated with it. And they zoom forward to the present day, describing how the Sutra is being preserved and digitized, and even going so far as to interview the 14th Dalai Lama on the contents and importance of the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra famously ends with a verse about impermanence:

All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.

Morgan and Walters point out the positive irony in the fact that a document that teaches impermanence has survived so long, against so many odds, and is now safer than ever and available to the world through the internet.

In summary, the book was not what I was expecting. I had ideas of fast-paced adventure and breathless story-telling. But Stein was no Indiana Jones, and the book itself is not written in a style that sweeps the reader along. The subject, however is undeniably fascinating and the book is well researched. The authors don’t intrude with their judgements on Stein and his times, but instead outline the facts, present the various arguments, and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. I recommend it to readers interested in the historic context and also to those intrigued by the Diamond Sutra itself.

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