20 October 2013

A stay at Plum Village, Mindfulness Practice Center, off-season

Already when I started meditating a little more than a year ago, I heard of the concept of "meditation retreat" or "going to a monastery" and I found it so fascinating that I also wanted to do it. Since I had hoped that my girl friend at the time would come with, I had delayed my trip, but this month I finally made it. During the last year, I had already found that meditation has helped me a lot, but I also sensed that there is a lot more there to attain. So I went to Plum Village very enthusiastically last week: to deepen my practice, to find fellow practitioners, to meet monks and nuns and generally see what it's like. And it was wonderful!

Since there’s a lot which happened inside and outside my mind, I’ll just focus on few topics here and describe them with a bit of detail. (The link above already contains a lot of the overall basic information…) One important thing to keep in mind is that during summer-retreat season there’s lot’s more people and also all the families with kids, so the atmosphere is probably quite different from what I experienced off-season: less people and more of them had previous experience with Plum Village or where staying for a longer period of time. 

Daily Activities: the sample schedule of a "normal day" applies only to three days out of four in the week, because 

  • there is a reduced schedule on arrivals and departure day (the monks do "mindful work" either receiving or seeing off guests or doing stuff around the village), 
  • there are two "Days of Mindfulness" (Thursday and Sunday when I was there) where monastics and visitors all gather in one of the hamlets to hear a lecture (see below) together, share a formal lunch, and have mixed Dharma sharing (also see below). On Sundays there are also a lot of visitors coming just for the day (which I think is a really good way to spend a Sunday) and to my surprise even Thursday had a lot of external visitors.
  • and finally there is one lazy day.
First of all, why people go to retreats like this:
  • to pick up positive energy from nature, the calm and silence, mindful being (eating, walking, rituals, simple work), and all the wonderful people around (lay and monastic alike).
  • to deal with specific or unspecific problems in their lives. Buddhists would call it “deal with suffering”, but the term really doesn’t matter.
  • to figure out what they want to do with their life. Instead of travelling around the world, travelling their inside world, so to say. Although I met several people who actually travelled Europe or the World and included one or more weeks at the monastery in their travels. Many of them had already done retreats in one of the Plum Village offspring practice centers (for example at EIAB in Germany, AIAB in Hongkong, or Plum Village Thailand) or retreats held by travelling monastics around the world (for example in Toronto or Malaysia).
  • to develop their character, become more skillful, become a better person.
  • and again, do all this learning and growing in an environment which is very relaxing, laid-back, and free from stress. Not just external big stress, but also all the small stresses of human interaction, especially if you decide to do it as a silent retreat.
During my last year of mindfulness I had known several “kinds” of meditation, but they were all basically sitting meditation only differing in what I do with my thoughts I what I focus my attention on. (Notable exception: cycling meditation where I focus on the movement of my feet in order to stop my thoughts going wild.)
At Plum Village I discovered a whole lot of new meditation practices:
  • The first and most important practice is breathing with the mantra “I have arrived. I am truly home.” to remind ourselves to be in the present moment, to feel our feelings, whatever we do. This practice spans through all of our daily activities which we want to conduct mindfully, keeping in touch with our breathing.
  • Walking meditation: appreciate nature, appreciate our breathing of fresh air in nature, imagine to walk with someone holding their hand (ex: someone who has died, someone who is far away, someone who is in difficulty).
  • Sitting meditation: enjoy sitting there! enjoy your breath. watch your thoughts, watch your feelings and you impermanent they are and how they disappear.
  • Working meditation: do simple tasks around the village (like cleaning, picking up fruit or nuts, making jam, carry things around, …) and do them mindfully, that is work silently and with your attention going to your work or your breath whenever you notice that you’re thinking of something else.
  • Mindful eating: recite the five contemplations (or your own katha). eat in silence for at least the first 20 minutes. concentrate on the taste of the food. (even if it becomes boring! overcome the boredom and start sensing something deeper!)
  • Listening meditation: one of the most important and difficult applications of mindfulness in practice! listen to someone without judging, without formulating your own answers, without reacting emotionally. instead just concentrate on listening. when you feel your own thoughts or feelings arising, just ask yourself: what kind of feeling is it? when did it start appearing? and then go back to listening. (or notice your breathing, if you need calming down.)
  • Listening to the bell: whatever we are doing, the bell calls us back to feel our breath, our body, our feelings, and our purpose, so we don’t get distracted by what’s going on around us.
To close the circle, all those forms of meditation serve the purpose of bringing mindfulness from the pure (sitting) meditation sessions out into your life, especially when dealing with other people and the emotions caused by this.
I think that during the themed retreats (up to three or four weeks, dates announced each year), which are led personally by Thich Nhat Hanh (“Thay”), all those kinds of meditations are explained in the Dharma talks. I came for stay in-between seasons and there was only short introduction to the village’s practices on Saturday morning (and a mini-short personal intro when I signed in on Friday). Those non-themed stays are thus more for people who have some previous experience with mindfulness and meditation. If you need more info just ask any monk (or if you are female, any nun) during the not-completely-silent times of the retreat. When I was there, many of the lay guests where long-term stays (many of them aspiring to become monks) so I could also ask them.
Dharma lectures (or Dharma talks) are giving by Thay himself when he is present at Plum Village. At my visit he was travelling on his North America Tour and holding a themed retreat on “Finding our true home”. I think the retreat had a Dharma talk or Q&A by Thay every day, while the ordinary (non-themed) retreats only have Dharma talks on the Days of Mindfulness, that is, every Thursday and Saturdays, when there are also guests coming for just this one day. So during my stay, we viewed video-recordings of Thay’s sessions given the same week at Deer Park Park Monastery: one lecture and one Q&A.
One of the most transforming aspects of the practice are the Dharma Sharing sessions. I don’t want to describe them in detail here and just say that they are a wonderful occasion to practice deep listening (or mindful listening meditation) and to connect profoundly with other participants of the retreat. (Links: Purpose of Dharma Sharing, Rules of Dharma Sharing, Another list of Guidelines for Dharma Sharing)
Finally, one aspect I want to shed more light on is the “Noble Silence” and the Silent Retreats. Generally, Plum Village is both a place to relax and have fun as well as practicing complete silence and I think that their house rules provide a very good compromise for that:
  • Noble Silence for everybody is every day from the (silent) evening meditation (8pm in the Fall schedule) until after breakfast the next morning (7pm). This notably includes the morning meditation (except of course the chanting and reciting during the ceremony) and all the free time in between which people use to walk between meditation hall, bed room, wash room, and dining hall. Since the schedule is always quite stable there is really no need to talk to anybody else or even wait for anybody else. Everybody just silently goes their way. If you really want to say “Hello” or rather “Good Night” and “Good Morning” to someone then just silently fold your hands and bow. :-)
  • I have to admit that I sometimes broke this noble silence in the evening to ask if any of my six room mates needs to go to the wash room before I take one of my rather long showers. But otherwise, it worked quite well and especially in the morning I found it awesomely refreshing to be awake for two hours (5:30 to about 7:30) and be around nice people without need to talk to anybody.
  • Self-chosen Noble Silence was also practiced by some people to different degrees. For example, some people (including all the aspiring monks) did all their daily walking around as walking meditation in silence. If they wanted to talk to somebody on the way, they’d just stop walking and gave that person their full attention. Some others simply chose to not start conversations and stay away from group conversations so they’d get a lot of silence for themselves.
  • One nice example was a long-term staying musician who answered all my questions on where to find the lines and notes of the breathing songs and then, when my questions became unspecific and chatty, he told me that he is “actually trying to do three months of silence”. (For the curious: the songbook is A Basket of Plums and you can listen to the songs online, too.)
  • Dharma Sharing and communal singing or of course exempt from noble silence, although someone could of course choose just not say anything during Dharma sharing and just use it to practice listening meditation!

To sum up, my stay at Plum Village was awesome, relaxing, and inspiring. And I met some people for whom it was very healing, too! One thing the stay inspired me to do is to visit the German Plum Village spin-off before I start paid work again. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism also hosts some monastics and is located in an old hospital within a park in the small town of Waldbröl (which is between Cologne and Frankfurt, or in higher resolution for the Germans: between Bonn and Siegen). I also want to connect with Sanghas in Berlin and generally with practitioners in Germany. But I think that after a while I’ll probably enjoy going back to the original Plum Village because it still seems to be the original thing!

PS: Here's a very interesting report of Plum Village during Summer Camp time with 800 visitors staying there!

19 October 2013

Now is the time -- Audio recordings from Thich Nhat Hanh's 2011 tour in Taiwan in English and Mandarin Chinese (中文, 国语, 普通话)

This post is a just a handy link list to all of Thay's talks of the 2011 Taiwan tour which are posted on http://tnhaudio.org. Each link goes to a blog post with a summary and online listening. For your convenience I also put direct links to the audio here. You can even download all recordings at once. Note that all talks contain the original English with Mandarin translation interleaved.

Thay's tour in Taiwan started with a public talk at Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung entitled "Every act of mindfulness is an act of resurrection" (download mp3 audio).

And here are the recordings from the retreat itself:
PS: if you don't have the patience to listen to everything, the Q&A can be an interesting practical application and summary in one. ;*)

Please enjoy mindfully. :-)

9 October 2013

Creativity in Programming: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good Thing about being creative in programming is that creative programmers can come up with solutions which exploit some of the specifics of the unique problem or its context to create a solution which is either simpler, or more efficient, or more robust, or more usable, or provides some additional functionality at no or little extra cost (in effort, complexity, or performance). This is why having an especially creative developer on the team can be a big advantage in many situations. In order to best use this advantage, you should make sure that the creative programmer (or, for simplicity, all programmers on your team who are interested) has access to as much specific information as possible about the problem, the context, the business case, the constraints and, of course, the users.

The Bad Thing about creative programmers is that when they have to do non-creative work, they might easily get distracted by some creative ideas and lose focus on the thing that they need to get done. To mitigate this problem, it is important to establish a clear goal for the non-creative work ("this and that needs to work, don't care about anything else for the moment"), motivate them by explaining clearly why this goal is an important milestone (and necessary before other more creative things can be started), and put a less-creative type on their side to help them keep the focused on the goal (for example by regularly asking how it's going and by helping with some small and especially difficult or boring sub-tasks).
Also note that if a lot of the work done in a team is inherently non-creative that's demotivating for many or most programmers, but the most creative types will be affected most strongly. If several people in a team are affected by this, you definitely need to find better tools and platforms to get the busy-work out of the way. If only one person is affected, then this person should consider switching to another area inside or outside of their current organisation.

And finally, The Ugly Thing about creative programmers is that they might sometimes choose an individualized solution where something standard would be more appropriate which can, for example, lead to not adhering to coding standards or non-use of established patterns. To mitigate this problem coding styles should be enforced: as much as possible automatically (source formatters, linters, compiling with high warning levels, and other pre-commit sanity checks), but also socially with design review, code review, or pair programming. Note however, that problems in this area will be much less likely when the creative programmers can make Good Use of their creativity as explained above and when they are less exposed to the Bad Side of it as also explained above.

This is written from personal experience and you are welcome to contribute your own thoughts or experience. Thank you for reading!

6 October 2013

a hobby that gives a sense of meaning... and progress

I always had sense of ambition about me that I couldn't explain or even understand myself. When I quit my first job to start working on a PhD (which I later abandoned), some coworkers expressed their non-surprise mentioning that they had sensed some kind of ambition in myself which I hadn't even noticed myself.
What I had noticed, however, is that I like a lot to accomplish things and my work in all the previous jobs has rarely provided me with accomplishments that made me really happy. Conversely, in my free time I am really having trouble to find activities which I enjoy so much that they "charge up my batteries" and compensate for stress I have at work. In fact, I have been looking for interesting hobbies to do ever since my first job and I only had slight success. Two things that worked, but only for a while were sailing (while I learned it and made a lot of progress) and building my own bicycles (but when I had four bicycles, this was enough and I stopped :-).

Currently meditation and personal development is my main "hobby": I meditate since more than a year and I can still feel progress. Additionally, the benefits of meditation radiate into my life and help me with work, relationships, and the things that need to be done for daily life. I also read more regularly now, books about happiness, meditation, finding and reaching goals in life. Those books make for meaningful "edutainment" because they inspire me to new ideas and also to try out new things in my own life.

It actually took me a long time to find this field of interest which both provides me with meaning and accomplishment. I remember that my first "hobby" interest starting in 2004/2005 when I was looking for my first job were trains and public transit systems in general. After many years of reading and thinking about this topic, I found that it just didn't provide me with any suitable way to contribute. I am not the kind of person who's an "activist" for anything and getting a job in the rail or transit industry wouldn't be much different than working in IT (with the additional hurdle of not having matching degrees). As a side note, I even worked at Berlin's public transit company for a while (in the IT dep't, unsurprisingly) and concerning the day-to-day work it wasn't so much different from my previous job in IT for banking.
Because of this, I consciously decided to look for other pastimes which better allow me to accomplish things... and at first I easily found that in the domain of bicycle making. It was really a good experience to "make" my own bicycles. Even though most of the making was just to screw pre-made parts together, with wheel-building from hubs, rims, and spokes being the most exiting part. And it's even better to ride those bikes regularly (or have friends and visitors ride them) and thus be reminded of having build them myself, which gives my a great sense of meaning in the world.
I also read a lot about bicycle gearing, especially epicyclic gears (also called "internal gears" which are usually "hub gears", although not all variants are in the wheel's hub). I had fun disassembling gears to see how they worked. Count the teeth of cog-wheels to calculate the resulting gear ratios. And I "invented" some new gearing mechanisms. But alas, I am not the person to actually go produce such new things (or have them produced or even get the design to a point where it can be produced) and I am even doubting that there would be many people interested in buying such a thing. In any case, this hobby also seemed like a dead end and so it was about a year ago when I decided that I wanted to go back to one of my early-youth pastimes and start again to program computers as a hobby -- but to cut a long story short. This didn't work either.

It is therefore that in the recent weeks (and especially after doing the "realise2" strengths test) I have come back to the viewpoint that it's probably best to have a hobby that is quite separate from work. I think that I could be actually quite happy doing programming for money, if I having something energizing (which uses my other strengths!) on the side and as a hobby.

So some weeks ago, I decided that reading on personal development and blogging about how different books and theories and practices relate to each other. (See my last post for an example.) And since then, I had the pleasure to play the "Jeu du Tao" (exists only in French, see taovillage.com) and to participate in a volunteer-organised self-development workshop and this made me realise how much fun this is and also how deeply meaningful it is to help each other in such a way. I find that this kind of activity uses a lot of my favorite skills:

  • learning and understanding (through listening and asking good questions), 
  • logical analysis (finding contradictions or synergies in people's self-perceptions), 
  • creativity (finding good questions which are both revealing useful things and are confirming/probing what has been found and are of course non-offensive so that a trusted relationship is created)
  • even more creativity (to come up with "homework" exercises and experiments for people to test their believes and get to know themselves better)
And there are many activities in this field which I could try and which seem like very energizing and meaningful activities to me:
  • teaching about self-improvement, happiness, and personal development (most people don't read books, yet many still want to learn, so there's lots of potential here!)
  • participating in self-improvement self-help groups
  • doing one-on-one coaching to help people reach their goals (or find good goals!) or just get out of stuck situations
While this also may sound like a job description (for some kind of "community counselor" or an employee counselor in a large company), I think it makes a lot of sense to do this as a non-commercial exchange-based activity, because:
  • a lot of people don't want to pay for such services because they don't trust people who are taking their money (fearing that the coach is more interested in keeping the clients coming than actually solving their problems)
  • many people feel better talking about their personal issues with like-minded others instead of a professional. 
  • participating in group-sessions with peers helps each person not just to learn, but also to contribute back, giving them a sense of meaning and more motivation to stick 
  • I think that in a way, sharing your personal challenges and life aspirations is just like sex in that many people prefer doing it with a person they know well and who has the same stakes in it, rather than with a paid professional. Most of the world's personal advice is probably asked of and given by friends. You can understand my mission as making those friend-to-friend conversations more effective by adding some psychological knowledge and practice to them.
Of course I am not saying that the whole business of commercial coaching, counseling, and psycho-therapy is wrong. I simply think that there is also a need and purpose for a non-commercial peer-based alternative.

So that's my new hobby! I'll let you know how it goes :-)

4 October 2013

Personal Development from inside out

Recently I heard a talk by Shir Nir of the Handel Group on Personal Coaching. What he explained was very consistent with my own experience in trying to better myself and also mirrors principles from cognitive-behavioral therapy and meditation. The key message is that our actions are triggered by our thinking (be it conscious or subconscious) and our thinking is shaped by our character. Instead of saying "character" Shir Nir actually makes a distinction between our traits and our believes which are two very different parts of our personality.
Personality traits are something that is basically inherited or formed in early childhood and almost never changes. It is things like being introvert or extravert or being heterosexual or homosexual. Although I used those very well-known dimensions for examples, the spectrum of traits is really much much broader and many traits have no name in common language or no precise name at all! Traits are very important, however, since it will always be easier to do this in accordance with your traits than "against your grain". So one very important part of personal development is to get to know yourself better and on a much more detailed level than simple categories like "introverted" or "hard-working" or whatever cliches our culture has to offer. Chade-Meng Tan in Search inside yourself calls this "high-resolution perception" and I find this term really appropriate. One key still to develop such a perception is to not categorize or judge experiences, but just see them plainly for what they are. Vipassana meditation is one method of learning this skill. Another method (or an additional method) could be to get feedback from many people with different perceptions and take each of those perceptions as a part of the truth without judging or categorizing it. (As you notice, this already requires the skill that you want to train, so some amount of meditation would probably be needed to get you started in the process.)

On the other side are your believes and this side is even more complicated. People usually separate believes into the categories of true or false and all your own believes are just what you consider true. However, many important statements are actually neither completely true or false and some are actually quite self-fulfilling: if you believe that you have a certain ability (or don't have it) then this influences your behavior in a way that makes your belief true. (Interestingly, positive believes (like "I can do this") are more likely to be true, since you will do that thing and then see whether you do it well or not. Whereas negative believes like "I can't do this" are much more self-fulfilling because you'll likely never sincerely try to do the thing.)
Trying to change your believes all by yourself is very hard because since you believes are just the things you assume to be true, there will be a lot of things which are really true (1+1=2, earth is round, ...) mixed up with things that might or might not be true. And what's more, of those believes that might be possible to change many are quite irrelevant to your goals. It's really hard to find one or two believes which are both possible to change and worth changing! Once you have found such a belief, then all you need to do is imagine a world in which this belief would not matter or its opposite would be true. Then you'll ask yourself what would be good actions to take in this world (actions that are not harmful in your current world, but beneficial in the other world) and you write down those actions and resolve to try them out. It's important to write down actions because in your day-to-day life you don't live in a parallel universe, so it would be very hard to remember those actions exactly as you planned to do them in the imagined world.
Once you've done the actions and see results that are beneficial to you, then your believe will start changing by itself. (This is not from Shir Nir's talk, but rather my naive understanding of cognitive-behavioral therapy.)

I think that the environment which you are in has a big influence on your believes and positive environments (like, for example, great company culture) can make a big difference in your life. However, this difference is also fleeting because you'll lose some or all of its beneficial effects once the environment changes again.

To create lasting change, in my opinion, there are only two ways: one is to have a really great personal coach, whom you trust and who uses the right method (and who understands you personally and who fits your style and whom you can afford, ...) and the other method is meditation. Meditation of course takes much longer, but it also creates very sustainable results. Meditation basically helps you become your own personal coach! Of course you can profit from having a meditation teacher, but in a way this is more like a train-the-trainer relationship. With meditation, it's always you who stays in control and you who's responsible. For your personal development. And for your life.