Monday, 5 November 2012


Our default behavior as animals is pain-avoiding and pleasure-chasing.  [1]

Asceticism is roughly gaining the skill to control your animal nature. If we can rid ourselves of “if only” thinking and let go of desire (the theory goes) we accept and love the world as it is.

Tibetan Buddhism makes a life-long study of controlling our animal nature and doing no harm. But leading a human life is more than just being happy and doing no harm. This is a zero sum life. Life should be about actively creating good in the world.  [2]

To improve the world, step in and make the improvements that you have to power to when you see something that could be better.

And so we have a conflict:
  1.  A good life is one that is happy and improves the world.
  2.  To be happy one must accept the world as it is
  3.  To improve the world one must not accept the world as it is

How does one act to improve the world, without being attached to the result?

If you throw yourself 100% into something, do your best with no reservation, then even if you fail to make the change you envisioned you can’t feel bad because there was literally nothing more you could have done.

What if you chased the wrong goal? Similarly, if you can honestly say that you chose the goal you did because it was the single most important thing you could be doing, you will not feel ashamed for having done what you thought was right.

And so, to improve the world without being invested in the result (ie to remain unshakably happy in any outcome) one’s behavior must have a certain pattern:
  1. Be honest with yourself about the state of the world and your own power to change it
  2.  Decide what is the most important improvement you can make with one immediate action (for a loose definition of “one”)
  3. With no hesitation or distraction, and a sense of urgency and ruthlessness [3] do that one action completely and thoroughly
  4. Evaluate the outcome. Watch the result and learn.
  5. Repeat


This is the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen. It is interesting to note that through only thinking about leading a good life, we have arrived at the central principles of agile software development. [5]

It seems rather surprising that thinking through the nature of happiness and action in the most abstract way led to a concrete suggestion on how to develop software. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised: developing software is, after all, a subset of “everything that you do”

When you exercise regularly in a variety of ways because you want to be healthy and happy you become better in many physical ways. You look sexier, you can lift heavier things, you get tired less easily.

There is a temptation to exercise solely for one of these improvements.  Perhaps you’ve seen someone who lifts weights just to get big. People that meditate because of stress, or follow Zen practices for professional success are similarly stunted. Focusing on improving just one thing improves that thing without improving anything else, and that is wasted effort.

If you continuously look to improve the whole of your life, the benefits you gain will similarly bleed into every aspect of your life.

[1] -  This is the “id” in Freudian psychology, also called the pleasure principle.  If I had to word in this framework the behavior of free will I would say that humans should be stagnation-averse and kindness-enthusiastic.
[2] – Thai and Tibetan Bhuddists would argue that being an example or teacher is a solid improvement to the world, and I would agree. That is why I am sharing this with you J
[3] – at least this is how Zen actions tend to look
[4] – “the state of the world” includes the state of you. Sometimes the best action you can take is gaining some knowledge or skill to improve your power to effect the world or the accuracy of your world-model

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