The other day I was witness to something awesome. A blowfly had just entered my room and I was feeling mildly annoyed. From out of nowhere my cat came, jumped and snatched the fly from the air. My sense of awe at this feat of poetry in motion was only slightly marred by the crunching sound of said blowfly in the jaws of my cute and adorable apex predator.
It brought to mind a lecture by Alan Watts that I had been listening to a while earlier. In it he mentioned that the objective of the Zen archer is to release the arrow without thinking. The big hangup here of course is how do you purposely do something not on purpose. How do you think about not thinking?
It is like being told to be spontaneous, the ghastly results of which can be viewed on national television with jarring regularity. Anyway, for a blog supposedly about programming and other worldly ventures things have started getting far too woo-woo.
So lets bring this back to programming. Serious stuff where thinking is the norm. When we are stuck we programmers think our way out of it. Or we use Google but that is just asking their AI to think about our problem. Voracious application of our intellect will solve all our problems for us. And when we get really stuck we use the scientific method to think ourselves out of any hole.
So when stuck on a particularly difficult piece of code this is what I try. I think, I Google and I try to concentrate. And the result is a headache, time wasted and no result. I want to think up something new, I need an idea!
So let’s explore this. Alan Watts tells us that thinking hard is like straining to see an object in the distance. You frantically pull at muscles around the eyes, squinting like a madman. And it has no effect whatsoever, the eyes work best when you don’t try. Just look, your eyes will work fine. So how does it work? How do we get ideas, solve problems?
“The ultimate test is always your serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.” Robert Pirsig.
Whether it is programming, fixing a motorcycle, or releasing an arrow, the secret is not thinking about it. And you can’t do that just like you can’t lift yourself up by your bootstraps. And if you can’t do it you might as well stop trying. And then magic happens. You give up and all of a sudden, at the weirdest time, lightning strikes. You jump from your bath running naked through the streets shouting eureka.
So cheer up. Have a coffee, have a bath. There are methods for getting out of your own way and doing more creative work. But they only work if you don’t try them.
Meanwhile my cat is lying in the sun looking smug. When she lies she lies. When she walks she walks. And when there is a blowfly she crunches.
Thanks for reading this far. If you liked this you might want to explore these sources. They helped me and were the inspiration for this blog post.
For more on Alan Watts you might try listening to this
Try reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
For some tips on getting out of your own way try listening to Josh Waitskin on the Tim Ferriss podcast
And, of course, Eureka!
Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash