Central theme in my meditations and writings at the moment is Not-Knowing. I am influenced by The Zen Peacemakers Sangha, whose tenets are:

  1. Not-Knowing by giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe
  2. Bearing Witness to the joy and suffering of the world
  3. Taking Action that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness

Buddhist meditation teachers often say that the practitioner should not judge, or have opinions about others, either positive or negative. I think that the moral position of Not-Knowing goes even one step further, because when I have the choice of either judging or not judging, that implies that I have an understanding about the other. In taking the position of Not-Knowing, I do not even pretend to understand, because usually understanding comes with preconceptions, e.g. labels or categories that you impose on the other. Therefore, Not-Knowing is more free.

In the video below, the psychotherapist Harlene Anderson explains this concept in a way that accords a lot with my experience.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Today, I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This film is a tribute to the dedication of a man to his art, or craft. The daily practise gives life meaning, without it, your life is empty, no matter how rich you are. Strive for improvement, regardless of the nature of the career, sport or art you have chosen. Pick an art, stick with it (because, essentially, the exact art you choose is not the most important, but your dedication to it makes you passionate) and every day strive to improve your mastery of this art. Be it selling, technical engineering, sculpting or as in Jiro Ono’s case, making sushi. Dedication generates passion, not the other way around.

Picture of Jiro Ono

Other reactions to this documentary
Lessons From a Master
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: The Making of a Great Shokunin/Leader
Best of Unprofessional Cookery: Jiro Will Put All Yáll To Shame

Inspiring retreat

The retreat was great. I was with a group of Dutch and Belgium people, as well as practitioners from Taiwan, Hongkong, Austria, Germany and Finland. I missed my daily dose of coffee (a bad habit to drink it, I know) so I was a bit sleepy now and then. The location was the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Waldbröl, 60 km from Cologne.

Vietnamreis 176

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), our teacher, was in great shape, despite his 83 years. Listening to his Dharmatalks gave me some new insights because Thay explaines the subjects a bit differently every time.

One day we hiked in the country and woods for a couple of hours and picnicked in the back yard of a small farm house. Of course, the hike was in silence and concentration.

The main building of the (EIAB) is being renovated, therefore the big meditation room was located a tent and the buffets for food and drinks were also in tents. All the (vegan) meals during the retreat were enjoyed in silence.

I know a number of the people of the Dutch Sangha who were there and I also met people from other retreats, which was very nice. I held many conversations that warmed my heart.

Every day, I shared my experiences with a ‘family’ group of about 24 people. The sharing of the group members was deep and intense and gave me some more insights.

All in all I am very gratefull for this experience. (Fotos will follow shortly)

Lenghten Your Attention Span

Timesonline has published a good article about how we Have Forgotten How To Concentrate.

Good work comes from patience
Image courtesy of ~Oryctes~

A lot of computer desktops present the user with a large number of distractions. Our attention spans seem to suffer from this multitasking and short ‘byte size’ texts. A good viral video should have a length of 3 minutes or visitors of the page will not finish watching it.

The book The Art of Concentration covers the subject of focusing on the here and now and thereby delivering more quality.

If you can read Dutch, I can recommend the book Op Informatiedieet by Guus Pijpers.

Here are some of my personal tips:

  • Keep a notepad close to your work area. When you get an idea about something unrelated while you are working on a certain task, like “that reminds me, I should e-mail John”, write it down on the paper page. I find that a simple notepad with a pencil works best for me.
  • Eliminate sound distractions, like background music. It is possible to block the sounds, but when you do this, you might notice that this ‘filter’ consumes energy.
  • Sit in a place where people cannot find you easily.
  • Meditation practise definitely lengthens your attention span, and so is reading books.
  • I set a timer for 25 minutes and after that, reward myself with a 5 minutes pause. This is further described as the Pomodoro Technique.
  • If you have trouble getting into your task: simply start and do not work too fast, take your time!

Internet usage definitely is addicting. A quote from the Times article:

Yet it takes, on average, 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption. Email is addictive because it brings reward: an invitation, a joke, some attention — simple lab-rat science. If I ate food, say, like I checked my digital portals, I’d think I had a serious problem.

Have We Forgotten How to Concentrate?

A personal comment on Seneca

After reading the first part of the article of Tim Ferriss about the letter of Seneca to Paulinus entitled “On the Shortness of Life”, I decided to read the entire Seneca text. At a quiet Sunday morning, I sat in the garden and started to read the English translation. I had some trouble with the old school English, so I turned to the Dutch translation, since this is my native language.

The short summary of the letter from Seneca is: do not waste your time. Seneca in this text does not explain extensively which activities would not constitute time-wasting. In stead, he devotes a large number of paragraphs to explain why he thinks a great number of people are spending too much time on chasing money, power, fame or easy sensual pleasure.

I have to make an income, so I work. Would Seneca consider this a senseless activity? To me, it is a necessity.

Seneca argues that if you do not give in to distractions, your life seems longer. I agree with this completely. It is what my zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls: “Achieving more by doing less”. For me, this means: do not waste too much time with zapping the television or chatting (as I did) with a number of people on the Internet. What I find remarkable is that if you are zapping TV channels or senselessly surfing the Internet, time seems to fly by and at the end of the evening, I used to ask myself: “where did the time go?”

Picture courtesy of Uwe Eischens

Once you stop with things like that, other, more meaningful opportunities open.

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.

In the letter of Seneca, the author stresses that you should not let others claim your time too much. The example that Tim Ferriss gives is that if somebody would ask you to give him $ 100,-, you would kindly decline, but when somebody invites you to a 2 hour meeting that has no interest to you personally, you would be much more reluctant to decline.

This is definitely something I can relate to. As a young IT specialist, I was known within my family and friends as the guy they could call if they had some problem with their computer. This has cost me a lot of time back then, and I also found out that people would take my help largely for granted. Then one day, I decided that I would stop playing the free help desk, helping nobody anymore, save a few close relatives. I also like the T-shirt that says: “No, I will not fix your computer!” and I think that if you are a physician, people would also ask you medical details during birthday parties or receptions and you would also have to maintain the “no help-policy” for your own protection.

But what, according to Seneca, constitutes the beneficial ways to spend your time? I know from Googling about his work, that this would be a life in reflection, practicing philosophy and reading books of wisdom. This is what I miss in this letter, because here, Seneca does not write much about why these activities are good for you.

As a practicing Buddhist, I believe in mindfulness (being attentive to what you do), concentration (focus on one thing) and insight (that comes when you practice mindfulness and concentration). Focus on the essentials, daily meditation and keeping your balance give a feeling of calmness and having more patience with others. I do not know if this has any resemblance to the ideal activities in Seneca’s mind, though!

Day of rest great way to recharge

Day of rest
Photo courtisy of Nicolas Valentin

Tina Su from the blog Think Simple Now has written a great post about how to organise a day of – what I would call mindfulness to regain focus and spend quality time with yourself. By scheduling a clarity day like Tina suggests, you can ‘reconnect with your inner self’.

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of a Spiritual Day or a Clarity Day, in which you spend the whole day disconnected from the information world and the many distractions of modern life, and start to connect within yourself.

If this sounds too mystical, don’t get caught up with the words, they are just linguistic symbols to communicate ideas. When you really get into such a day, it can become a source of great bliss and understanding of one’s self. During these times, we can experience tremendous personal growth, peace, and satisfaction.

Find clarity in one day

No sense of achievement? Make a closed list every day

Too many things on your mind

In her article on the Huffington Post, Linda Stone argues that time management, with all it’s never ending lists, causes feelings of helplessness and overwhelm. At the end of the day, the lists seem to get longer, in spite of the fact that you have crossed-off several items. This is how she puts it:

In the cases where people reported managing their time, they more often reported experiencing burn-out, they didn’t know how much longer they could go on at their particular job or lifestyle. There was often a sense of helplessness and overwhelm. The endless list, the one that gets added to and never completed, at the center of it all, left them with a heavy heart and a burdened sense of tomorrow.

Linda argues that the answer lies in managing your attention, not your time. You can do this by making a closed list at the beginning of the day and only put things on this list that you intend to really do. Also, an important part of Linda’s solution is switching off all the distracting technology, like IM, Twitter and cellphone.

The book Do It Tomorrow

Mark Forster also recommends (among other things) to trade in you to-do list for a will-do list. In his book Do It Tomorrow he writes that:
Open lists are demotivating, because:

  • They tend to grow
  • New items can be added
  • Difficult to clear

Closed lists are motivating, because:

  • They tend to get smaller
  • Nothing new can be added
  • Relatively easy to clear

Mark recommends to make a do-able list for 1 day and stick to it as much as possible. If you get new tasks on you desk or in you e-mail, put them on your list for tomorrow. Besides this idea, Mark offers a lot of other insights and techniques in his excellent book.

So what do I use?
So, is the rejection of the open list the end of time management, as Linda puts it? Not according to Mark Forster and I agree with him. If I make a task list for a particular day, I feel much more motivated to finish this list. One of the big disadvantages of Getting Things Done (GDT) is that it stimulates procrastination. I still use all the context lists of GTD, but I also use the task diary of Mark Forsters system, so I combine both. I digitally copy the tasks that I intend to really complete on that day from my context list to my task diary, and stop adding to that dated list during the day. This works great!

Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Wilco Jansen, coordinator of development at Joomla. Discussing interface design, he referred to this talk by Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of the book Paradox of Choice. His argument is that if we have more choice, we often feel more constrained. I watched the video this morning, and found it very interesting!

Click here for a larger video.

Reclaim Time for Yourself


One of my favourite blogs has a good article by Shane Magee about how to maximize time for yourself by creatively adjusting your daily schedule.

Sometimes it seems like your life just isn’t your own anymore – work, family, and other obligations swallow it up to such an extent that we often look back and wonder where all the time went! No wonder, then, that many of us feel as if life is just passing us by, and we can do no more than helplessly watch. However, with these tips and a little willpower, you can create time to center yourself and face the world with renewed enthusiasm.

Five Hints to Reclaim Time for Yourself