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Re: The 10 rules of a Zen programmer

My response is to the original post found here: The 10 rules of a Zen programmer.

Some preface. I’m a big fan of reading. On  slow days I can get through around 250 news articles, scientific journals, white papers and blog posts. Some of them deal with space, AI, technology, and algorithms, surrealist fantasy or humor, or pieces about lifestyle and workflow. I’m very careful to first cultivate articles that grab my interests. Today for instance, I read about positive results in the quantum superposition of very large particles that are subjected to the dual-slit experiment. I also read an extremely down-to-earth article that solidified what I knew about Fourier transforms. I try to keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as I can. But even so, a lot of signal eventually turns to noise, and I get particularly excited when my jaded eyes come across one piece that sticks out above the rest.

I am not going to comment on each rule the author Christian Grobmeier touches on, who already does a great job expressing in the article. You should read his article first. Just like the title suggests it is tailored loosely towards programming and Zen Buddhism (of which Grobmeier practices,) however the author does not mandate or imply you have to be a programmer or spiritual for these rules to apply to your life. I would recommend the reading regardless of your beliefs, occupation or skill set.

Just as a disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Zen outside of what was mentioned in this article, so forgive me if I make improper assertions. I am also using bullets because these points do not actually correlate with the enumerated rules that Grobmeier lists in the article; I am just collecting and commenting on themes I have noticed throughout. Here goes:

  • If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Christian didn’t use these words, but he expounds upon this dad-like maxim with several additional concepts. Firstly, he explains that if your job detracts from your life—and that is to say if you have a job that you dread and gives you no opportunity to grow, and you are also one of privilege that can find a new job that has more positive qualities—you may just want to consider finding a new job. At the same time, when you are tasked with something you hate, try not make a scene over it. “[Zen monks] have stuff to do like cleaning the toilets. Or working in the garden. Or as a Tenzo, they cook.” The key part is in the next sentence: “They do it with all the care they can get. Whatever they do, they do it without suffering and they are (or should be) happy, because every second, even the second where they are cleaning toilets, is a second of their life.” Even the simplest of jobs done with great care. That is a great theme.
  • Focus, intent. If you need to work, work. If you need to sleep, sleep. Both are important, and you should never mix the two. Don’t work 12 hours and then go back to work 6 hours later on little sleep. If you are falling asleep at your job you might want to go home and rest. When you are working, though: focus. Working for you may entail constant interruptions from phones, chat messages, notifications. This is not focus. Focus with a deep passion like it’s your first day of your new job. Focus on one task as if what you are doing is your magnum opus. Focus like what you’re doing is more important than checking your Instagram feed.
  • Death of the ego. This is a common theme in some theological and meditative practices. By meditating you increase your awareness of the direct interconnectedness of everything. You become more empathetic, and less selfish. This isn’t just some new-age trend. Meditation is healthy for you. We’re finding it might even make you less of an asshole. Western culture can be very competitive rather than collaborative, so maybe try to work meditation into your routine. Fierce competition in society is very poignant and evocative of some of the culture today. It is important to note that peaceful cooperation usually tends to lead to a higher rate of success and lower stress all around. (Aside: I know I have another article supporting this but cannot find it at the moment, sorry.)
  • Awareness. Every word you say and action you take has a consequence. Someone who is especially aware can carefully craft their work in a way that is artful and strikingly beautiful. Act on this awareness by doing everything with care, as I mentioned earlier.
  • Flow. Situations change. People lose their jobs, people are born, people die. You are not excluded. Accept it as part of the flow, and be less concerned and caught up about the transient. Especially things that you cannot control. This does not mean “do not mourn” or “do not be sad”, but be more accepting of the highs and lows (and the possibilities of future highs and lows) of day-to-day, year-to-year life.

One last point that I’ve extrapolated from this article: be aware of the beauty and sacredness around you. Grobmeier expresses this in a charming way, first briefly flirting with Nihilism and then bringing you right back to the serenity of Zen:

“You live alone and you’ll die alone. World goes on, even without you.”

“A flower is beauty. But it’s just a beauty (sic) flower – nothing more. There is nothing special around it. You are a human who can program. Maybe you are good. There is nothing special around you. You are of the same kind as I am or all the others on this planet.”

“After (hopefully) a long time you will die and everything you have created will be lost. Even pyramids get lost, after a long time. Do you know the names of the people who build up a pyramid? And if you do, is it important that you know? It’s not. Pyramids are there, or not. Nothing special.”

“Don’t be too sad when the winter comes and don’t be too happy when spring comes back. It is just a flow.”

The exact opposite of the rat race. The antithesis of leaving a legacy, of being the top person in your field or being famous. Grobmeier accepts the flow, the inevitability of life and death. But Grobmeier is ok with it. That sounds pretty Zen.

Edit: Moments after posting this I found several other comments debating the use of the word Zen and some of the concepts discussed within the article. So take this post as a derivative of the original and understand that I am not interested in arguing the semantics. As with anything your encounter take it all with a grain of salt.

Also, drastically and absolutely adhering to any life philosophy comes with its own set of exceptions and caveats (no one actually does that, do they?)  So I found the original article both positive and inspiring and that is why I wanted to share it—even if others will continue to debate the accuracy of details on the internet it does not discredit the original work at all, in my mind. Cull the good from it. Cheers.

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One thought on “Re: The 10 rules of a Zen programmer

  1. Thank you so much for taking so much time to writing such a long response. I appreciate it. Your blog post let me understand how you looked the “10 rules” and give me a different angle. I have nothing to add on the content itself but wanted to let you know that I liked it. Also many thanks for all the credits.

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