No Trace

No Trace

February 25, 2020

I’ve always had a somewhat paradoxical relationship with religion; always the student, never the practitioner. Despite this, I’ve recently begun a Zen Buddhism practice — specifically Soto Zen. Partly this is because Buddhism in general, and Zen in particular, makes no pretense to many of the traditional markers of religion: no gods, no prophets, no supernatural elements, etc. Mostly, however, my interest stems from the way in which Zen talks of self-awareness. It’s a deceptively simple philosophy, commonly boiled down to being “in the moment”, yet I find that the writings of Zen monks often hold powerful and subtle meanings when read closely.

In this vein, I’ve begun reading specific chapters of the book I’m working on — Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki — much more closely and precisely than my normal pace. The chapter I’m currently studying is called “No Trace”. The “thesis” of the chapter is: “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.” Here’s the first paragraph:

When we practice zazen our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The thinking not only leaves some trace or shadow, but also gives us many other notions about other activities or things. These traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.

You will most likely agree that this problem has only grown more acute since this book was written (1970). Let’s consider what I’ve done even in the time since I started writing this post. I’ve let my dog outside, talked with a friend about his upcoming business trip, read a synopsis of the latest polling in advance of tomorrow’s South Carolina Democratic debate. I’ve switched background noise from music to a Fellini movie before settling on a Twitch programming stream.

To speak in terms of traces, my effort writing this post has consisted mostly of traces. To speak in electrical terms, the efficiency of my writing process is painfully inefficient. Most of the power I’ve generated through writing has been expelled into the “atmosphere”, a mosaic of habitual distractions that conspires with my thinking self to rob me of “strong and straightforward” effort.

Now, where does this mosaic come from? To a certain degree, this distraction comes because I want it to come — after a long day of work, focusing the mind can sometimes be as unnecessary as it is difficult. So there’s an extent to which “burning myself completely” instead of spitting effortful embers here and there is simply a matter of my taking my work more seriously. I suspect this is the context in which Suzuki wrote this chapter.

However, there’s a certain aspect of the mosaic that seems inherent in the work itself. Here I’m thinking particularly of software development, but to a lesser extent I believe this applies to writing prose as well. And it is extracting myself from this aspect of my work which seems much harder to accomplish in practice.

For example, let’s assume I’m working on a project and come across a bug. What do I do? I Google it, I StackOverflow it, or if I’m particularly lucky I’ll read about it in a technical book or blog post. I suppose if I’m supremely focused, or very stuck on a given problem, I can ignore the mental context-switching that happens when I begin my search. I find my solution, apply it, and continue my work. But what happens when I’m not? What happens when I begin researching the problem more, exploring its context to understand how it came about? Is that leaving a trace, or is that adding to the process of burning myself completely? Must I know everything about the field I’m working in to leave no trace? And if I must, is zazen incompatible with software development except at the most skilled levels?

No wonder everyone’s only hiring for Senior Developers. What’s the point of hiring a developer who hasn’t reached enlightenment?