Zen and the Art of Computer Programming

Is it true that programmers enter a state comparable to deep meditation while they are at work? Some claim that they do, but how do we know what they mean by this? In order to understand, we first need to decide what we mean by meditation, for it has been defined in so many different ways. One is the ability to rest in the here and now and it is usually understood that meditation will lead to a state of increased awareness and undivided attention. Since I run Song Of Life, I often wonder this.

Most often a meditator is seen as sitting silently doing nothing while, in the beautiful words of the Japanese Zen master Basho, the grass grows by itself. The meditator is not trying to hurry anything up. However, although a programmer may be sitting silently, he or she is certainly not doing nothing.

The meditation of which we are speaking is a little different. It is meditation in action. This is the sort of meditation that is found in the martial arts. The practitioner must be resting in his centre, absolutely at one yet ready to respond at any moment. The stillness is an inner stillness, while activity happens on the outside. In Zen Archery it is said that fundamentally the marksman aims at himself. In hitting the target he is reaching to his own centre.

Obviously, unless one is already in a state of meditation, one must start by doing something. It may be as simple as that silent sitting, focused on one’s own breath flowing in and out, or a more arduous activity like running or aikido. Runners talk of the meditative space as running in the zone. It has been described as a simultaneous feeling of release and elation, fully engaged, living in the moment and enjoying every moment. Running is all there is and the runner disappears. So, can the programmer also disappear and all that remains is programming? I asked some programmers about this.

Naturally enough, they disagreed with each other. It turned out the only thing they did agree on was the aspect of timelessness. They all said that it is easy to lose track of time when programming and time just seems to stop mattering. Said Tony Mobily, “Even when a terrible bug is affecting your work, there is an underlying calm and patience. In fact, an annoying bug is just like when you get lost in your thoughts in meditation. You discover it, you may even get distressed by it, but you keep on going.” Similarly, in the beginning the meditator will be aware of time, but in the end the intent is to slip into a state of Oneness where time disappears.

Of course, for this to happen intent must also disappear. As long as there is someone who is intending and a goal to be reached, that state of empty fullness where time disappears will not be happening.

Tony also said that programming leads to a space where hunger, pain, cold or warmth are still there, yet there is a “melting of your own body” such that these things no longer matter. One reaches to a state of tremendous clarity where programming is happening by itself. And Basho’s grass keeps on growing too! You remember Basho? However, there is another side to the picture. Other programmers say that their experience is unbalanced and predominantly left-brain. There is a sense of putting on blinkers in order to focus on “the mercurial but necessarily relentless struggle to create the detail of some all-important seeming, but not really that important in the scheme of things, algorithm where admittedly (as in pure maths or martial arts) an aesthetic sense of elegance is often an excellent guide. Meditation is something less free of content and yet, paradoxically, more lucid.” This quotation, elegant in itself, comes form Richard Ebbs. He added that sometimes it can be very stressful, especially when there is the time pressure of a manager breathing down your neck.

For us to reach a space where our experience of pain or pleasure no longer matters we need to move into a state of Oneness with existence, unless it is merely a state of being so numbed out by work that nothing matters any more! New research is showing that we move into a state of Oneness Consciousness when our brain activity moves from the parietal lobes to the frontal lobes. The parietals are an inheritance from our reptilian past, whereas the frontal lobes are a more recent development in human evolution.

It is the parietal lobes that give us our sense of separation and the ability to discriminate. We need this ability in order to walk through the door rather than through the wall or to touch the correct keys on the keyboard. However, in their normally over-active state they also give us the sense that we are separate from the world that we live in and from each other. We lose the essential awareness that we are part of an interdependent whole where most living beings will cease to exist if we fail to take care of our environment. We forget that if we destroy the quality of the air we need to breathe very little will survive on this planet. When we truly recognise that we are part of one global whole, we understand the experience Oneness and we do not want to harm one another.

When we enter the zone or fall into deep meditation, the parietals are relatively inactive and the frontal lobes become active. In this state, it is still possible to think and to act. In fact, thought and action grow more effective because they are not hampered by constant irrelevant thoughts and considerations. Does computer-programming also lead to this state? It is programmers who created the Internet, an amazing tool that may be able to heal the separation between human minds. Since the Internet has been in existence our understanding of the essential Oneness and connectedness of life on this planet has taken a quantum leap. Only in the last year or two have the general public and politicians in particular taken in the potential impact of global warming. How much longer this might have taken without the immediate spread of information that is possible nowadays and cleverly used by organizations such as Get Up and Avaaz that want to spread this awareness. Through the Internet our minds connected in the same way as our deeper consciousness appears to be connected when we go into meditation and experience a state of Oneness. The Internet has even been said to be an aspect of the divine just as Buddha or Jesus (well, everything is actually).

The Internet can be seen to raise the capacity for awareness (and also for unawareness when it is misused). In the same way free software can be seen as intimately connected with and arising out of compassion. The Buddha said that either awareness or compassion will arise first. Then the other will necessarily follow. Perhaps free software necessarily follows from the invention of the Internet as compassion arises from awareness. It is intended to benefit the community as a whole and leads to a deeper sense of interconnectedness as programmers develop each other’s work. It also benefits the individual who created it, which is great and does not take away from its wider impact.

So, we can see that our technology is not necessarily leading us away from our deeper selves. Still, it seems from my interviews that for most programmers their experience is the same as it is for the rest of us. They work away and the mind is at play. Once in a while the mind relaxes into that state of emptiness where it can continue to function without being caught in its habitual identification with the individual “I”. Perhaps it was only in this empty space that a concept such as the Internet could emerge, with all its capacity to unify us. In the same way, Einstein had to enter into a deeper space within himself in order to imagine riding on a light wave and so unlock the secrets of relativity. He said that it is only when consciousness jumps to a new level that old problems can be resolved and new insights discovered.

That’s enough for now. When next you are programming, or working away at whatever else you do, why not allow yourself to drop totally into the experience of what you are doing. Allow the dancer to become the dance, the runner to enter the zone, the cleaner to lose himself in the cleaning, the creator to become the act of creating. You will know when you are there, or rather here. It becomes clear that our innermost consciousness is nothing other than the absolute and ultimate reality of the universe. In the midst of all the activity of the world there is stillness, an emptiness that is also fullness, a peace that is beyond all understanding. This is worth finding.

With grateful acknowledgments to Richard Ebbs, Tony Mobily and the Oneness University for helpful insights.


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