I was watching this video the other day, and it really got me thinking.
(Don’t fear the length of the video : the actual talk is about an hour long, followed by 30 minutes or so of Q&A, and for some reason, the whole video starts over.)
Anyway, the main point of Sam Harris in this talk is that we, as human beings, don’t have any idea or power over what the next moment will be. We can experience the present, remember it, but we are absolutely unable to predict the next thought that will pop into our head or what our next move will be.
He is not talking about predicting the future (a car will appear from this side of the road, someone will come and talk to us), but really about what is happening within us. We claim that what makes us is our free will, but we don’t control much things. We can only push in one direction (I decide that I am going to write), and hope that 1) it is what will happen and 2) it will be a stone in the construction of our self as we want it to be. My brain got really challenged by this idea.
Well, that’s the case every time I listen to him. Onward.
I am currently kind of obsessed with the lean principles and I immediately linked the two together. If you take Scrum, for example, you can find this notion of limited control transposed to a team. Briefly, scrum is a software development method that follows these parts :
- A brief planning stage. The team decides what they will build (a new feature, for example).
- A “sprint”. A phase of intensive work, that can go from a couple of hours to several months. During that phase, the team creates what was agreed upon in the planning stage.
- A review of the sprint. The team assesses how it went, if there are improvements that can be made to the workflow, how the new feature looks compared to what was planned, … They then plan the next sprint.
With this method, we set only one very simple goal for the team, we work, and we check if this action was indeed helpful to the whole project as we want it to be.
We can find this lucid acknowledgment of our limited ability to make reliable choices about the future and to control our environment. Indeed, Scrum practitioners don’t plan for months and dozens of features to come, but only one small, close goal, and they reflect often on the process to spot its weaknesses. That way, there is no extended period of time where lots of decisions are made on the go. Scrum separates times for decision-making and times for action. This method is getting hugely popular.
Let me shift gears and show you that this deep observation can be found in most “zen” schools of thought. Yin and yang, for example, have three properties :
- They are opposed whilst each of them is carrying the seed of the other one
- They are interdependent. There can’t be one without the other.
- Each of them begets the other one.
These properties can be found in an infinity of elements of the universe; life and death, day and night, health and disease, … We have seen these phonomenons hundreds of times in our lives, in various places, and they feel natural, obvious. It is clear that there is a solid observation of life and nature behind these three properties.
Likewise, most meditation techniques are about being aware and not categorizing thoughts or feelings. It is, in a way, about getting as aligned as possible with the operating mode of the world. Nothing in nature makes an itch a bad thing and a caress a good thing. We are judging each sensation on our own, but this categorization is not pre-existent in nature. Meditation is just about getting back to this unprocessed state. Once again, real attention was payed to nature when these methods were designed.
I think that people and methods that have the lucidity and humility to identify an operating mode in nature or human beings and accept it for what it is, as disturbing as it can be, are much more likely to succeed, because they will adapt to it, rather than push against it.
We live following hypothesis about how the world works, and the closer these hypothesis are from the reality, the less efforts we have to produce to get our enterprise to succeed. If we are perfectly aligned with the way nature works, there is absolutely no friction, and every single one of our efforts is rewarded by results.
But it takes attentive, equanimous observation to build such a lucid hypothesis.
All of these methods are based on a deep and extensive observation of nature. And they are benefic to every human being. Meditation, for example, is an amazing tool to give to our brain; so many people feel relaxed and energized when practicing it. Chinese medicine is mainly about maintaining balance and harmony, which requires a high understanding of the functioning of the human body. On the other hand, Occidental medicine is all about curing apparent symptoms, which means reacting to something that appears on the surface.
I believe that everything we do that is based on a deep observation of how things work has a high chance to succeed. Here are a few practical examples :
- Touching stories. These are often stories with characters or situations very close to what we have already experienced as an audience. Most of the time, the author has gone the extra 10 miles to research how a certain situation feels like. In 1976, Alex Hailey wrote a book called Roots, in which he describes a crossing of the ocean on a boat during a hurricane. To write that part of the book, he actually went on to do this risky crossing. His book was a huge bestseller and was adapted on television and as an audiobook.
- Lasting relationships. For a meaningful relationship to last, you have to listen to what is going on for each person involved, without any bias.
- Business and communicating your ideas. Likewise, if we stick to our own point of view when explaining why our idea is so great, we will not get very far. If we examine what our idea means not just for ourselves but for everyone, we can talk about the benefits for the other people, the way they would see it, and thus become much more compelling.
My experience of meditation, chinese medicine and other “zen” movements has proved their incredible value and flexibility. I firmly believe that the observation of nature is one of their key elements. Finding everyday other real-life experiences that work particularly well and are also based on observation strengthens this belief and expands it.
What about other areas ? Try to find one big thing in your life (or one that obviously doesn’t work quite well), observe its globality without any bias, and see if you can change it (or yourself) to align it with the constraints that will not move.
P.S. : if you don’t know Sam Harris, I highly recommend you listen to his talks. He is truly mind-expanding. And if you are interested in meditation (as a beginner or an advanced practitioner), an amazing talk he gave is Waking Up with Sam Harris.