Monday, January 22, 2018

Beware the Near Enemies (In Life & Tech)

I’ve been in the tech industry since I was just a wee lass.

Last year, I took a break from tech, and decided I wanted to understand the inner circuity of my mind.

I eventually found myself on a 4 month Buddhist retreat, where I had ample time to study my mind and the Buddhist philosophy of mind. I learnt some ways of thinking that I find useful now that I’m back in the tech industry, and here I want to introduce one of the most powerful concepts: “near enemies”.

First, some background. Disclosure: I am just a Student Buddhist, so please feel free to research further everything I discuss here.

Buddhism has a set of virtues called The Four Immeasurables. When a Buddhist takes the Bodhisattva vow, they dedicate their entire life to cultivating those virtues. Here’s a summary of them:

  • Loving-kindness: wishing well towards all beings.
  • Compassion: recognizing the suffering of others and wishing for them to be free of suffering.
  • Empathetic Joy: rejoicing in the joy of others, even if it is not your own.
  • Equanimity: even-mindedness and serenity, treating everyone impartially.

Buddhists and lay people alike can cultivate these virtues by special meditations and daily-life practices. Stanford actually offers an entire course for compassion, Compassion Cultivation Training, a secular version of the Buddhist techniques. (I’m now taking that class for the second time!)

They all sound really lovely, right?

So here’s the thing: whenever you train in these virtues, you are also taught about the “far enemies” and “near enemies” of each one. The far enemies are fairly straightforward: ill will is a far enemy of loving-kindness, cruelty is a far enemy of compassion, jealousy is a far enemy of empathetic joy, and paranoia is a far enemy of equanimity.

But the near enemies are things that look so close to what you’re trying to cultivate, but are actually fundamentally different in a dangerous way.

For example: the near enemy of loving-kindness is conditional love — selfish, sentimental attachment — when you wish well for others only when they make you happy. It’s like when you say “I love ice cream.” You are not wishing well for the ice cream, you are wishing for the ice cream to bring your mouth pleasure. Ever used “I love” that way with humans? I have!

So when you learn the Four Immeasurables, its crucial that you also learn the near enemies, because it is so incredibly easy for us to confuse the near enemy for the real thing. Those near enemies feel similar emotionally and rationally, but yet, they’re not the real virtue at all.

Here’s a diagram of the Immeasurables and their enemies. If you research them, you may find slightly different enemies from various translations and teachings. Its interesting to find those and consider them as well.

On a personal level, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to remember the near enemies. For example, I’m always working on reducing my anxiety and being less emotionally reactive (being more equanimous, a word I can rarely pronounce). However, I’ll admit I often fall into the near enemy of disassociation and indifference. Thankfully, since I am aware of that near enemy, I can realize when that’s happening and apply the antidotes.

Awareness is always the first step.

Near Enemies in Tech

Okay, so how does this relate to the tech industry?

We’re a very data-driven industry lately. We have to be, because when we’re making products that operate at a global scale, we need a way of zooming out on our thousands or millions of users, and understand how they’re using our products.

So we end up picking metrics: the numbers that we want to put in our graphs, the numbers that we want to go up-up-up, the numbers that we base our idea of success on.

Many of us work for companies that measure user “engagement”, the number of times users engage with our product each week. We think of that as a good measure because we think, well, we are making a useful product, so the more users use it, the better it is for them!

But more often that not, that user engagement number isn’t actually telling us how much usefulness a product is adding to users’ lives — that number is a near enemy, a number that looks deceptively close to our hopes and dreams, but could be closer to our fears.

I’ll give you a specific example from my career. At Khan Academy, I created the computer programming curriculum. I wanted to give students the joy of creativity from coding. Each week, I reported how many minutes students spent in the programming playground of our site. One week, it went way up! Amazing!

But, actually, that was the week that someone put a clone of Flappy Bird on Khan Academy, and students were just playing it nonstop. Oops, my metric was measuring addictiveness! Not what I wanted to achieve at all.

That was the point where I realized that I needed to get much more specific with what I was measuring, like recording how often they successfully fixed a bug in their code or how often they provided a helpful answer to another student’s coding question.

It’s a lot harder to measure what we’re really trying to achieve for our users, and that’s why we often settle on the easy numbers, the approximations.

As I saw for myself, we must be careful about blindly optimizing for simple engagement metrics. This table from shows how user happiness and regret correlated to time spent in an app:

Ideally, we could measure very specific metrics that truly capture usefulness. Or perhaps, when we come up with metrics, we can think very hard about what non-desirable outcomes they might accidentally measure (what ways that metric might mislead us), and then make sure we also measure those counter-metrics alongside them. Basically, each metric has near enemies, and those get recorded alongside it.

Andy Matsuchak gets into other great ideas around this in his post on Exalting Data, Missing Meaning.

There’s another place in tech where I find the concept of near enemies very relevant: company values. Each company comes up with a set of values, a bunch of feel-good words like Respect and Collaboration.

That’s great, but what do those values really mean?

What does it look like if you’ve achieved that value? And what is the near enemy of each value? What do you need to look out for, to make sure you’re not just achieving the superficial version of the value?

That seems like a fascinating discussion for a company to have, one that would yield real insight into each employee’s interpretation of the values.

Beware the Near Enemies

I imagine that many of you already had a concept like “near enemies” in your head. I love the Buddhist terminology so much that I want to put that phrasing in your head as well, because I think it captures so well how easily we can fall into the near enemies, plus how dangerous they can be.

May you be aware of the near enemies both in your personal growth and product development, and may that awareness guide you back onto a path towards your true goal. Thank you for reading!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Get Your Hands Out of Those Pockets If You Want to Engage With This World

I’m beginning to grow suspicious of the harmful effects of wearing pocketed clothing items.
It started with hoodies. They’re so darn comfy, right? But I noticed that when I wear a hoodie, I feel like I’m in my own little cocoon, and I have no particular desire to let anyone else into my cocoon. I become more withdrawn, cuz hey, I’m happy in my cocoon. Everyone else can go away.
So I stopped wearing hoodies in social situations.
Then there were pocketed dresses. Designers finally figured out that women want pockets in their dresses (equality with pants!), so more dresses come with pockets these days. I started wearing pocketed dresses to teaching gigs, thinking how nifty it’d be to keep a whiteboard marker in my pocket. It was indeed nifty, but again, I noticed something: I used way less body language when explaining concepts. See, once my hands made their ways into my pockets, they really had to want to come out. They didn’t deem it worth it most of the time, as they highly value warmth. My teaching got worse as a result.
So I stopped wearing pocketed dresses for teaching gigs.
Then there are jackets. I taught improv to a bunch of high schoolers yesterday, and it was their very first time doing improv, so they were understandably shy and resistant. The hardest cases? The teens in bomber jackets. Their hands were clearly very accustomed to resting inside those pockets, and it was a matter of great will to get those hands out in order to pass a clap or catch a sound ball. I injected new games on the spot designed specifically to get their hands out of their pockets, to remind their hands that indeed, the world outside the pockets is a fine place indeed. See, even if the mind and majority-body of those teens wanted to improv, their hands had to overcome an awful lot of inertia to get them fully engaged in it.
I don’t get to tell other people what to wear, of course, but if I was any sort of strict improv teacher, I’d institute a no-pockets rule, AKA a hands-out-and-ready-to-engage-at-all-times rule.
So: pockets. Lovely inventions for storing things, absolutely. Surprisingly effective at decreasing our desire to engage with our whole body in the world though.
And thus concludes a blog post about pockets. 😀

Coding: A Hobby for the Waste-Adverse

I love creating things and I’m a high energy individual. I can spend all day creating things, enjoying both the process and the output.
For most of my adult life, I’ve channeled my creative energy into coding. I studied Computer Science in college, and went on to jobs at Google, Coursera, and Khan Academy. Even in my year of “recovering from corporate life” between Google and Coursera, I spent my time coding web apps and browser extensions for fun and no-profit. ☺
This past year, I got back into other forms of creativity. I learned woodworking and laser cutting, making signs and jewelry out of wood. I worked on a Burning Man art project with a team, turning a giant gumball machine into an LED ring dispenser. I ran art events with my partner, showing other people the joy of painting for fun. I adore the sensory aspect of those forms of creativity —the smell of wood when I sand it, the gooeyness of paint — the feeling of using my body in the creative process.
This summer, I finally returned to coding as my full-time form of creativity. And actually, there’s a big part of me that breathes a sigh of relief: the part of me that doesn’t like to accumulate excess and create waste.
To create things that live outside the digital world, I need to acquire the supplies, shape them into the thing, and then discard or donate the unused part of the supplies. Sometimes, I can “reclaim” the supplies, like when I pick up driftwood on the beach, but then I still need to acquire the tools, like the woodburning iron, power drill, etc. I also need to find a place to store the newly created item or someone to give it away to. I sometimes sell things on Etsy, but then, I need to acquire the shipping supplies.
To create things that live in the digital world, I only need my laptop, electricity, and a bit of disk space. I can share things easily with others (without needing new disk space!), and if I’m done with them, I can delete things to reclaim that disk space. I can acquire “supplies” by a quick download, and easily delete supplies I no longer need.
Isn’t that great? It’s great! A way to use up my creative energy without excessive accumulation and waste! Phew!

This post is not a declaration that everybody should stop creating physical things, or even that I will stop creating physical things. This is also not a thorough analysis of the overall sustainability of a world of digital technology.
This post is simply an observation of a benefit of coding that I hadn’t truly appreciated before. Thank you, coding.☺

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Morning Practice

(Spoiler alert: it’s not just meditation.)

Each morning, I sit in front of my altar and go through a sequence of practices, each of them important to helping my mind and body prepare for the day. I got into the habit of morning practice while on retreat at the Nyingma Institute for Tibetan Buddhism, and I’ve been doing my own morning practice in the four months since graduating. I’m able to keep up the practice only because I can so clearly see the difference on days that I don’t manage to do it.

I am sharing my morning practice because I want to encourage others to experiment with their own morning practice, to consider what practices can help you feel the most balanced and open as you enter the day.

The Setup: My Altar

I’m happy that I went through the effort to create an altar area in my bedroom, as the visual reminder helps me establish and continue my practice. My altar is filled with imagery that inspires me: a Buddha statue in the center of a sand-filled star, lit up by a glowing candle, surrounded by sea shells from local beaches. My altar also has photos and statues gifted from friends, and handmade engravings of the Buddhist compassion prayer.

If you have the time and space to create an altar, let it be one that inspires you — whether that’s shiny stones, spiritual figures, photos of friends, or doodads collected over your lifetime. That important part is that it gives you a sense of beauty and balance.

At the foot of my altar, I always have a meditation cushion, a blanket, a lighter, and a tissue box.

The Prerequisite: Waking Up Early

I find it far easier to do my morning practice in the early morning before my roommates have awakened. I tried many times to do it during the hustle-bustle of the morning rush, and I just can’t relax enough when I have the niggling worry that they might need me for something.
Setting my Intention

I start off with reciting my personal intention statement, three times. I recite the same intention each day, and it reminds me of what I strive for in my interactions with others:
“I intend to be warm, friendly, open and loving, while honoring my interests and respecting my boundaries.”

Sitting Meditation

I sit in the Tibetan style, my eyes partially open with a soft gaze towards my altar. I count my breath each time I exhale, counting 10 exhales before I start back at 1. For each cycle of 10 breaths, I shift my gaze to a different sea shell on my altar. On my 7th cycle, my gaze will rest on the center seashell with the candle light gleaming through it, and that is how I know I am done.

Often, the goal of meditation is to focus on a single object, just the breath or just a particular object. In my meditation, I focus on multiple objects at once, because it is the way that I can pay the most attention to what is happening in my mind without it wandering completely away. It works well for my purposes.

“Cleansing Breath”

This is a highly beneficial practice from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga that helps me acknowledge my aversions, attractions, and ignorance.

With tissue in hand, I first think of something I’m averse to or afraid of (like an awkward conversation or a tricky task), place one finger on my right nostril, inhale, and then blow out through my left nostril. Then I do that for 2 more things I’m averse to, 3 times on the other nostril for things I’m desiring, and 3 times from both nostrils for things I’m uncertain about.

It may sound weird, but hey, this one weird trick — it works! When I fully acknowledge the things that are gripping me — whether it’s a grip of desire or disgust — I am less under their control. I can detach myself from them. When I acknowledge the things I’m unsure of, I find I don’t put so much energy into defending myself, both internally and to others. I can just say “Actually, I don’t know!” and be okay with it.

If you’re interested in practicing Cleansing Breath, I recommend reading the full description in Tarthang Thulku’s Kum Nye book. You could also try journaling the 9 attractions, aversions, and ignorances.

Neck Stretches

This is where my practice gets physical, and is inspired by both Kum Nye and Mask Theater class warm-up. I basically stretch my throat and neck in a mindful manner. In Kum Nye, it’s considered important in opening the channel from the head to the heart chakras. In Mask, it’s important to enable our characters to express themselves fully.

First I rotate the neck in 4 axis: top to bottom, left-ear-to-shoulder to right-ear-to-shoulder, and left to right. Each time I rotate, I notice a new thing that my eyes have rested on, to increase my mindfulness.

Then I do a slow neck roll, 3 times in one direction, then 3 times in the other direction. If any part feels particularly “juicy” or “crunchy”, I spend a little more time there. This is similar to the Kum Nye practice “Lightning thoughts”, where your neck roll is as slow as possible and you observe the thoughts popping up.

“Bending in the Four Directions”

Now I’m well prepared to get up on my feet and bend my entire body! This next practice is also from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga and a great example of its power. When you do Kum Nye poses, you go through them very slowly and often hold them for many minutes. That way you can take the time to truly experience the sensations happening, and even try to develop a friendly relationship with sensations you may label as uncomfortable or painful. Kum Nye gives you the time to develop mindfulness around your bodily sensations, and can prepare you for more mindfulness in the “real world”.

In this practice, I slowly raise my arms up to the ceiling and bend to the left. I count for 21 breaths, and return to the center.

Then I bend to the right for 21 breaths. If I feel myself getting distracted, I challenge myself to bend further. I return to the center and stretch upwards.

Now my favorite/most dreaded part. I bend forward from the waist until my arms are parallel with the floor. I reach my arms forward while jutting my hips back, and count for 21 breaths. The concentration needed to hold the pose is often strong enough to clear my mind of distraction.

From the bent forward position, I bend my knees and swing my arms up to center. I stretch backwards slightly, staring at the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, counting for 21 breaths.

I return my hands to center and slowly lower them, noticing the sensations going through my hands, arms, and body.

The Compassion Prayer

This prayer comes from the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism, and there are many variants of it. I recite this version three times:
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be free from fear and anger
May all beings find peace and joy
May all beings have a mind at ease

Closing Gesture

We always close sessions at the Nyingma Institute with either a closing gesture or closing chant, where we dedicate the merit of our practice to all the beings that may benefit from it. While I go through the gesture, I think of my roommates, colleagues, neighbors, locals, and then imagine extending it to everyone in the state, country, and world.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What is the difference between ambition and discontent?

I am honestly trying to figure this out right now.

“Ambition” is defined as “desire and determination to achieve success.”.

“Discontent” is defined as “dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances”.

Is it possible for one to desire to achieve success, if they are not dissatisfied with their circumstances?

Or, to bring this out of abstract realm and put my skin in the game: is it possible for me to desire to achieve success, without a dissatisfaction with my circumstances?

It seems theoretically possible. I could think “Well, things are alright right now and I’ll be content if they stay this way, but it’d probably be better if I was able to improve this thing, so I’ll try that out.”

Sometimes I do have that mindset. But after I put thingX on my TODO list and the fantasy of finishing thingX taunts me, my mindset soon turns to “Gosh, I just won’t be satisfied until I improve this thing! And look at all these other people and things taking up my time, preventing me from getting thingX done! I really really want to get it done!”

My preference for achievement turns into a desire, and that desire turns into an obsession, and that obsession turns into anxiety.

Why does preference turn into desire? Why can’t I avoid discontenment?

Let’s take a tangent into etymology land, to see what it yields.

The word “content” comes from Latin contentus, meaning “contained, satisfied”, as in “their desires are bound by what he or she already has.” Thus, the state of discontent is when your desires reach outside what you already have. You must achieve that thing outside of you in order to become content again, and hope that you can keep that thing inside your bounds.

The word “ambition” comes from Latin ambitionem, meaning “a going around”, as in the act of going around to solicit votes — “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity”. Apparently in its early uses, ambition was always used pejoratively, and the positive sense is only from modern times.

I must say, that was a very interesting detour. So much is contained within the etymology of those two words.

The original meaning of ambition is certainly one that’s bound to end in discontentment. If my desire to achieve things is literally to become popular, then the bounds of my desires are reaching far outside myself — to a possibly infinite extent. Once I’ve gained the favor of 100, why wouldn’t I want to gain the favor of 1,000? I cannot be content — I cannot be self-contained — if my desires depend on the votes of others.

But we could argue that the new meaning of ambition is a different one, and that you can have a desire to achieve success not because you personally need the good favor, but because you recognize a problem in the world and you see that you have the capabilities to fix it. That seems reasonable.

Now let’s go into a Buddhist critique (from an amateur).

Desire is suffering. Desire is a form of attachment. Attachments are dangerous because of how strongly they stick to the mind. They make it hard to see truth, they make it hard for the mind to be free and open to all the possibilities of the world, they constrain the limits of the self.

Desire can be contrasted with preference. You are attached to your desires, you are not attached to your preferences. If the world changes such that you can’t follow your preferences, you can just go with the flow.

What if ambition could be a “preference to achieve success”? What if I could prefer to achieve thingX, but not be bothered if it can’t happen for some reason? That does seem nice, as it’d mean never spiraling from desire to obsession to anxiety.

The risk to it is that, in actuality, I might be able to achieve thingX, but I let some other false belief get in the way of that achievement (like a subconscious belief that I’m not capable). If I am not driven by mad desire, then I may miss out on potential personal growth.

That means that I must be very honest with myself. I have to admit everything that affects my ability to achieve thingX, and question how real those obstacles are. I also have to admit when I no longer think it’s useful to achieve thingX. Finally, I have to admit when a preference has turned into a desire, and when that attachment has clouded my other admissions.

It sounds hard, especially when desire is the standard modus operandi. But I do think it may be possible, to cultivate a form of ambition that is compatible with a sense of contentment.

Thinking through this has been most helpful. Thank you for reading.

Monday, April 17, 2017

I stopped listening to music

…And I didn’t miss it.

I spent the fall on a 4-month retreat at a Buddhist institute in Berkeley. We did a lot during that retreat — meditating, Tibetan yoga, group discussions, work practice — but music wasn’t an integral part. The closest we came was our daily chanting and one workshop on mindful listening.

I wouldn’t actually notice the lack of music until I came back into the real world for visits each Sunday. Then, when a song came on, I would really hear it. I’d often find myself dancing or singing along to it. My body and mind found it such an entertaining novelty.

There were after-effects, though. Song lyrics would stick in my head and stay for days, pulsing through my head as soon as I woke up. My mind would try to understand the lyrics, to figure out what they meant for my life and how their values should be applied. I didn’t mind that for a few songs where the lyrics cohered with the rest of my life, but for many pop songs, that was very much not the case. Pop song lyrics are based on romantic fantasies, oversimplified idealized worlds that rarely exist. It doesn’t serve my mind well to hold my own life up to the expectations of pop song worlds.

I became more careful about what songs I exposed my mind to. When my partner made playlists for our housework, I asked him to prefer songs without lyrics. If I got cravings to dance, I put on beautiful instrumental music or simply danced without music.

Now that the retreat is over, songs are actually a big part of my life — but they are songs that I am singing to myself. They’re either made up songs, like lyrics about hungry cats set to the Muppets Blue Danube, or they’re songs from my childhood, like the entire Lion King soundtrack.

As it turns out, my mind already has enough songs to keep it entertained for this lifetime. I am certainly open to hearing new songs, but I will no longer go through effort to go out and find them.

If you’re curious about how music affects your mind, try spending two weeks without any or just two weeks with non-lyrical musical. Notice how your mind feels, and notice how it feels when you bring it back into your life.

Regardless of how your mind responds, it is an interesting experiment to try and you will learn something about your mind and music.

Enjoy the silence! :)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Avoiding concept overload on the BART

Lately I’m very interested in how I can reduce the number of “concepts” my mind encounters each day, particularly nonessential, value-laden concepts. My interest started when we were challenged to spend two weeks of a Buddhist retreat in “non-conceptual silence.” I enjoyed the effect of that on my mind so much that I continued the challenge in my post-retreat life.

I find that the BART commute is particularly challenging, as it involves walking past many billboards and advertisements, plus it’s a tempting time to use my phone to wander mindlessly around the internets, bumping into concepts at every turn.

You see, when my mind latches onto concepts, it can swirl around them for hours, even (and especially) those it can’t do anything about. For example, there’s a series of ads at Powell Station that make fun of “dreamers” in order to elevate “doers,” in the name of promoting a freelancing startup. When I see those ads, my mind goes into a critical mode of deciding if I agree with the value judgments of the ads, weighing arguments on both sides. My mind then remains judgmental for a time after that, leaking that state of mind into unrelated social interactions and work discussions.

I have seen how much my critical state of mind is correlated with negative judgments of myself and others, so I aim to avoid entering that state of mind unless I am in an actionable situation. One way I can do that is by steering my life to detour around all the nonessential, value-laden concepts.

Thus, I present my strategy for enjoying the BART with minimal concepts.

Walk with wide angle vision

We were taught wide angle vision multiple times during the retreat, and it is still one of my favorite tools. Basically, we have two kinds of vision: acute vision and wide angle vision. In acute vision, our eyes focus on a point, then focus on the next point, etc. In wide angle vision, our eyes aren’t focused on a particular point and see more on the periphery.

You can get your eyes into wide angle vision by raising your hands up in front of you, then moving them to each side while watching both of them with both your eyes. Your vision will have to become wide angle to be able to see both at once.

Then practice walking around like that and notice how it feels. When I use wide angle vision outside, I actually notice that the trees bounce in my vision in a different way than before — that’s how I know that I’ve properly employed wide angle vision.

What does this matter? Interestingly, when my eyes are in wide angle, it seems to bring my mind into wide angle as well. Before, my eyes would jump to things in the scenery- an aggravating sign, a decrepit building, and my mind would circle around those things, trying to figure out how to fix them. In the Mission neighborhood, there’s a lot that could use cleaning and fixing, and it’s hard to convince my mind that it can’t do it all itself. In wide angle, my mind sees the big picture. It doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to what’s in my scenery, but it does mean that I don’t fixate.

Journey to the land of no billboards

When I’m waiting for the BART, there are usually ads opposite the platform, big billboards with screaming fonts. I discovered that BART doesn’t install advertisements at the ends of the tunnel, where the final cars open their doors. Now I always walk to the ends (as long as I’m catching a long enough train) so that I can enjoy staring at the texture of the wall instead. ☺

Catch the breeze of incoming trains

I adore the feeling of wind against my face, like when biking down a hill. Did you know that you can get that for free at BART stations? When a train is about to come in, just position yourself near the tunnel entrance they’ll emerge from, and then face that entrance. Enjoy the whoosh!

Play the consonant game with posters

A voice coach once taught me this technique for improving articulation: go through a piece of text and clearly pronounce only the consonants in each word, then go through the text and speak it normally. I practiced it during BART rides to my voice lessons and discovered that I really enjoy doing it.

Now I do it on the BART when I find myself standing in front of the emergency instructions posters. They have such a delightful array of consonants, and so far, nobody’s called me out for my strange mouthing in front of them! ☺

Meditate the minutes away

When I’m on the verge of busting out my phone or getting lost in thoughts, I meditate instead (on my good days). I do Tibetan-style meditation with half-open eyes, which is convenient for keeping track of BART stops and admiring the texture of BART seat cushions. ☺ I typically count breaths, up to 21. I may also count cycles of counting breaths, so that I can challenge myself to do 7 cycles of 21. If I have my prayer beads with me, then I also have the option to do a cycle of chanting.

What do you do?

Let me know if you try any of these out or if you have any techniques you’d like to share for enjoying your train ride.