Zen or Kaizen

In my early twenties I used to be pretty calm about life in general. There were definitely a few things in life that I could get hugely worked up about, but my general take on life was that I aimed to be at peace with any kind of situation (a.k.a “being zen“). But the older I get, the more I feel that this idea clashes with the idea of “striving for better” (sort of like “kaizen“, a.k.a. Continuous Improvement), and I wonder if I’m being dishonest to myself when I aim to “be zen” while also striving for better.

Some banal examples of this are creature comforts: if I’m already happy with decent headphones, why would I want to have better ones? If, ultimately, I’m content with living in a two bed apartment, do I really need a three bed house? Other examples are more fundamental: if I have enough money to take care of myself and my family, do I really need that new job with the higher salary and the fancy job title?

I find that it is difficult to go all-in on something if you’ve already convinced yourself that you don’t need it. Though, out of all these examples, I think the job example is the easiest to justify, because having more wealth will benefit you and those around you. The amount of wealth you’d need for that statement to hit diminish returns is likely beyond most of us. Fancier headphones or better quality coffee are probably a bit harder to justify.

Once you start striving for something seriously, it’s difficult to go back. A two bed apartment might feel huge when you first buy it, but if you used to live in a three bed house you’ll notice the size much more. If you’ve experienced fantastic headphones you’d absolutely notice the lack of fidelity in cheaper models. Lifestyle inflation is a real thing. If you truly want to be zen, you have to make peace with your lifestyle deflating as well.

I believe it is possible to both be content with everything and also strive for better at the same time, but I think you have to deceive yourself a little in order to accomplish that. Being truly zen about your situation means not striving for better, and striving for better means you cannot be truly zen. Doing both means turning a blind eye to that dichotomy.

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Values, applied.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of my all-time favorite books. I've recently revisited it and decided to start reading its sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. It's been an interesting journey.

I found myself almost completely agreeing with the ideas expressed in Zen, so I expected Lila to be a confirmation of those ideas and something that would be an easy read for me. That turned out to be completely not true. I had trouble reading past the first half of the first part of the book because I simply didn't like what the author was writing. The book seemed to casually put science and scientific development in a subservient position to the book's 'grand theory of everything', and that kind of offended me. The previous book was very clear about the things it presented, and it presented no conflicts with the existing ideas I had. But Lila needed a bit of mental adjustment on my part before I was able to read on. Later on in the book I realized the issue is not as extreme as I described it here in this blogpost, but the way it's written does pose a bit of a hurdle to overcome.

The metaphysics of quality is hard to accept. The subdivision into four kinds of static quality and one dynamic quality seems arbitrary to me still, even after having read one and a half books. I find the subdivision very useful, and can find real-life examples in my life that make (more?) sense when put into these categories. But even Pirsig himself mentions that his theory is another way of looking at the world, not necessarily the way. As with all theories, if it's a proper theory it should be able to make predictions about future situations accurately if it's to hold up. I don't quite yet see how it'll be able to do that for me personally, or how it will benefit me.

The theory does provide some lovely explanations about my own life. I can think about people and experiences in terms of quality and it makes sense. I know someone who always watches incredibly bad movies that I can't watch without cringing, yet this person does not notice at all. Yet despite that lack of static quality this person does have an immense amount of dynamic quality, which is I think what draws other people to them. It's nice to be able to give this trait a name, and  I think this name satisfies the properties better than any other word I could've come up with.

Traveling can be phrased in words of the theory as well. Particularly my cycling trips: when I first started doing cycling trips, everything was new. Every day was a new experience, with nothing planned and I never knew what would happen that day. It was absolutely at the cutting edge of experience. Pure, dynamic, quality. As time went by though, that dynamic quality turned into a pattern. I learned what I liked about the trip and optimized for that. I circumvented the stumbling blocks and became better at doing cycling trips, but at the same time the novelty was gone. I knew the country, I knew the routine, I had a pretty good of all the possible events that could occur to me on any given day. Dynamic quality had turned into static quality. It is by no means a bad thing, but it's also something that's no longer evolving. It's a comfortable, fixed pattern. But it's not the same as dynamic quality. To get that feeling back I will need to find my beginner's mind again. I think I will have to visit a new country, or countries, to rediscover dynamic quality on cycling trips.

Girlfriend trips can be phrased in this terminology as well. Whenever I'm traveling together with my girlfriend it feels like she acts as a tether, or an anchor, to the static quality that binds us together. The things we both like, the things we both want to experience are the common factor between us, and it tends not to vary even when we are traveling. It's the thing that binds us together, which, although it evolves, it evolves slowly, so I would call those values static. For me this means that when she and I are traveling together, I feel very much at rest and at peace, comfortable in my static quality. I think it's more difficult to discover dynamic quality that can be enjoyed as a pair, but when you do, that experience is all the more intense.

For example, yesterday we arrived at a new place and had to go out for food in the evening. It was getting dark and it was Sunday, so not many places were open and we were in an unfamiliar environment. The situation was something that I found quite enjoyable, since everything felt new and dynamic. I'm not sure my girlfriend was in the same mindset as me though, because it's very easy to get hung up on the static quality patterns that we're used to.

But sometimes, when the moment is right, we find ourselves in a situation that maximizes dynamic quality in a way that pleases both of us, like when we saw the eagle rays when diving. Swimming under water against the current was something neither of us were used to, and the environment there was sufficiently different from a regular dive that it forced us to recognize the dynamic quality of the situation. Because we share the same static values that brought us into that situation I think we were both able to enjoy the dynamic quality of it in the same way. That's what made it powerful.

I'm not quite finished with the second book. Perhaps it'll turn everything on its head in the end and what I just wrote might make no sense. But it feels like a good addition to my mental world image. Let's see if it'll hold up over time and experience.

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Just a day

I don't like that a lot of my blogposts start with 'I'. Today I didn't do a lot. I woke up late and had to take care of silly things such as getting accommodation in London. I remember last summer when I moved to London there was a fairly large choice of temporary accommodations on AirBnB, all of them seemingly average. This time the situation went from "they all look average and they're all expensive" to "they all look shit and they're expensive". It took me quite a while to dig up something that looked decent, but a bargain it will not be. There's no bargains in London.

Just as I was about to go out for dinner the already dark sky lit up and a summer thunderstorm erupted. I went out anyway and ate the best sushi I had in years. This followed by some shopping and I'm back in my hotel room, looking outside at the rain again.

My day-night rhythm has been 'classic' as of late. That is to say, it's like my jobless days when I went to bed at 4AM and woke up at 12PM. Incidentally, that seems to be the best rhythm for my days in Japan. Going to bed late means I can call people in the UK when it's early evening, and waking up late means I avoid a lot of the blazing summer heat.

I just realized that I only have 4 days left in Japan. My last day in Japan I will stay at Narita (city) as my flight leaves quite early the next morning, so this Sunday will be my last full day in Atsugi. I still have so many things I want to do. Going to Izu for hiking, doing a random train trip, visiting Odaiba and Shinjuku in Tokyo, climbing OoYama again, cycling to Enoshima, visiting Yokohama, exploring Tokyo more. The weather did limit me a bit in my motivation to do all those things, but all in all I'm very happy with my stay here. I did things at my own pace and enjoyed myself greatly. Now it's time to slowly start thinking about stepping out of the nexus and continuing my real life.

If anything, what I learned from this trip is that Japan is right, accessible whenever I want to go. Nothing will change very quickly. In the case of Holland, even after seven years of not living there, not much has changed. The feel of the place is still the same, and that will never change. Both countries are there for me if I want them, and that's good to know. One month of rest has done me a lot of good, and I feel extremely relaxed right now. I'm sure that will change again once I get back to London and resume my work, but given that the last time I started my job in London I was able to keep my zen for several months, this time will go even better. A holiday is a holiday. You put your life on hold while you have fun elsewhere. But in all honesty I am ready now to go back and resume my life. Time to make things happen again.

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It all makes sense now

I've been worrying a lot about what path to take next, not being able to decide, but today it suddenly all made sense. I'm going to give up on cognitive science for now and maybe (probably) pick it up again two years later. Right now I'm going to focus on finding an interesting job in an exciting new country. What kind of job and which country it will be is still undecided though. Because my standards for a uni were too high (foreign country, cheap, on short notice, etc. ) I had a lot of trouble finding my way, but now that I've decided to focus on getting a job somewhere else I've basically solved all my problems in one swell foop. If I get a job in a foreign country first, then it won't matter so much to me where I'll find a uni. I get to save money for a while which should help finance the whole thing, and I'll have a long long time to prepare myself to enroll into whichever university I end up choosing. Yay me. I'd apologize for writing this post which is probably only meaningful to myself, but then again, you are reading my personal blog. Muhahaha.

Side note: Android API: almost as bad as the iPhone API!

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Did you ever feel completely at peace with the world? I'm sure everybody has at one point experienced this in their life, and I'm sure that many people experience this daily. It's hard to describe the feeling exactly, but it's a state of pure optimism and relaxedness. Based on this description I guess that potsmokers and godworshippers may also reach for this feeling. For me, it's been particularly hard to grasp this feeling. Usually it comes to me when I am on the way to somewhere, like the last time I went to Tokyo to do some visa-related stuff, or when I'm waiting for someone, in particular at Hon Atsugi station, observing the people walking by, or when climbing up the stairs to my room late at night and suddenly realizing that I'm in Japan, thousands of kilometers away from home. As you probably know my now I'm quite interested in human brains, so I've been analyzing why this happens for quite some time now, and I'm trying to reproduce the feeling. So far the results I'm getting are not consistent. Switching perspective seems to work the best. I found that listening to music helps. For example, switching from calm, mildly depressing music (like the House MD soundtrack) to something active and uplifiting (virtually any anime soundtrack will do, Eurobeat in particular works very well for me) . Strangely enough the other way around works too. I guess my brain just needs a strong stimulus to activate it, be it negative or positive, that doesn't really matter. Another nice brain exercise is to switch perspective in time, remembering events from the past years, and then suddenly switching to a projection of what you think the near/far future will be like for you, personally.

And then I remembered self actualization. When I started to write this post I did not think about self actualization at all, but while writing about this particular feeling and the method used to create it I realized the connection. I see this as proof that it's important to write down your thoughts from time to time, as you may find things inside your brain that you didn't know were there.

Realizing and understanding completely your own past, present and future, and being at peace with what you see.
Gentlemen, the year 2010 is approaching! I'm so excited I can hardly sleep!

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