In his book “How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life”, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet outlines the three stages of practice.
- Concentrated Meditation
As is true with most of the Buddhist philosophy, these ideas are directly transferrable to almost any discipline. As one small piece of evidence, Bruce Lee has the following to say \[link\] about his study of martial arts:
"Before I started studying martial arts, a punch was just a punch; a kick was just a kick. After I started practicing martial arts, a punch was more than a punch and a kick was more than a kick. After I understood martial arts, a punch was a punch and a kick was a kick."
This has been one of my favorite quotes for a long time. It resonates deeply with my beliefs about epiphanic learning. Only recently, I discovered that this quote is an adaptation from Zen (I’ve heard it’s from the Diamond Sutra, but I can’t confirm. Perhaps it’s nothing more than Chinese Whispers (a la the Burke quote)):
"Before I started practicing Zen, a mountain was a mountain and a river was a river..."
When we first consider a new discipline, we take the discipline at face value. Computer programs are just a bunch of text in an editor. To oversimplify, each line is just a command that we give to the computer, and we keep typing them until we’ve instructed the computer to do everything we want it to do. As we get deeper into the craft, we apply Phaedrus’s scalpel (ZAMM). We slice the concepts mercilessly into categories, dropping the remains into buckets until we’ve created a complicated web of a system in our minds. We use this system to expand our understanding of what the practice of the discipline entails.
Finally, at least in my experience—but I’ll continue to say “we”, we reach an epiphanic moment. The moment usually comes at a time when we haven’t learned any new facts or been given any new special insight from a 3rd party. Suddenly, we understand. And, again the discipline becomes a set of simple steps as it started out in our minds.
These three stages directly correlate to the Dalai Lama’s stages or practice:
Morality is the act of discovering that there is a need to “practice”. In programming, this is the moment we discover that it is “immoral” to simply type commands into an editor until we are finished asking the computer to do everything we want it to do. We realize that this is not how “quality” is achieved. For some of us, this phase comes quickly as we enter a new discipline. For others, it may never come. It all depends on perspective and motivation.
Next, we move into what the Dalai Lama refers to as “Concentrated Meditation”. With our new found desire to strive for quality, we start slicing and dicing, analyzing our decisions and the decisions of others. This stage is the breeding ground for complexity and, surprisingly, zealotry. We create or adopt our taxonomies and make a commitment to them. We may move from dogma to dogma, but we do so with a religious commitment and sometimes manic zeal.
Finally, we reach “Wisdom”. This is the epiphanic moment. At this time, we understand that our conceptual frameworks and complex categorization were only a path that led to the enlightment of simplicity. As programmers, this is the moment when we realize that objects are just objects and functions are just functions. Ultimately, it’s all text in an editor.
The same can be applied to karate (ask Bruce), music, software methodology, and happiness itself.
Having experienced these epiphanic moments in multiple fields and circumstances, the most frustrating thing about them is that I find myself right back where I started. The concepts are no different from when I first looked at them. My simple minded assumptions turned out to be true. But, somehow I had to change for it to “click”. Something like Beginner’s mind, I guess.
Is it possible to skip the second stage? I used to think so. But, I’m starting to have my doubts. I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to skip it the first time around. But, why couldn’t my epiphanic moment as a saxophonist translate to any other discipline or craft? After all, at this point it’s not about learning facts or consciously piecing specific concepts together. Might this be a discipline-neutral skill that can be developed through practice?
(I’m a bit drugged as I write this. Had a wisdom tooth removed. So, as the buddhists would say, please be compassionate.)