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109. Meditation for the Curious Skeptic
Hosted by Chris Castle, with guest Andrew Lenards.
Meditation can take many forms. While it may conjure up cliched images of people sitting on cushions and chanting, in actually, many different groups, from the Harvard Business Review to medical professionals, are exploring the ways in which various mindfulness practices can help us manage stress and improve our well-being. This episode will take a cursory look at mindfulness from the perspective of a practicing software developer.
Chris Castle, a developer advocate at Heroku, is joined in conversation with Andrew Lenards, a 20-year programming veteran and meditation coach. He believes that meditation is the practice of familiarizing one's mind with its various states.
Concentration is the ability to place attention on something for as long as desired. Clarity is about identifying the sensory experiences in your body. Equanimity is about accepting the state of the world around you. In programming terms, mindfulness becomes a sort of monitoring and observability tool for our bodies.
Andrew suggests that curious listeners focus their attention on sourcing materials from secular sources. As well,the benefits of meditation can only come after quite a bit of time. The inclination of most starting practitioners is to quit before investing to see the benefits. Even if you feel like you're doing it "wrong" or feeling your mind get distracted, the core tenant of the practice is to not judge yourself. This in turn will help bring about the calmness which meditation can offer.
Links from this episode
- "The Mind Explained"
- Niksen is a methodology focusing on "doing nothing"
- Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction
- "The Art of Noticing"
- Search Inside Yourself
- “99% Invisible” podcast
- Meditation information on Andrew's site: lenards.us and Afternoon Idle - 15 min guided meditation via a YouTube live stream
- Breathe (iOS / Android), Headspace, Calm and Ten Percent Happier are just a few apps which can help your meditation practice
Chris: Hello, and welcome to Code[ish]. I am developer advocate, Chris Castle. Today we have a pretty interesting episode, I think — Meditation For The Curious Skeptic. I have my guest here. Andrew Lenards. Can you share a little bit about yourself, your background, and why you're interested in this topic?
Andrew: Sure. I write user interfaces right now. I've been coding for about 20 years. In my current role, I'm a tech lead and that puts me in a people and mentorship role. Part of how I feel like I'm effective in doing that is I spent a decent amount of time meditating and practicing mindfulness to the point that I've become a certified mindfulness meditation coach. That puts me in, I guess, a little bit of a hybrid situation. I'm in a role now where I do both coding and wellness, remote wellness teaching in this coaching role.
Chris: So let's jump into it. What is meditation from the perspective of like, "Why should I care about this thing? Help me ... I'm a busy person, my time is short, what is this meditation thing I keep hearing about?" Yeah, maybe just start with kind of the basics of what is meditation.
Andrew: Meditation, when we just use that term, it's interesting because it probably, now we're at a point where there's enough consciousness in kind of North America and such that you kind of have a notion or at least you have an idea of like, "Yeah, I know what that is," but meditation is actually a very wide category. It would be sort of in essence, comparable to sports or music. When I tell someone I meditate, that's not remarkably helpful in sort of locating me within the actual practice, traditions, and things along those lines. So it's helpful to at least kind of point out that what has become popular at least in the United States and North America is a particular flavor of meditation; that is, one that is somewhat simplistic or simple in a good way, straightforward, and it involves this idea of mindfulness.
Andrew: So when we're meditating, we're bringing about or we're training in some way, concentration, which we can think about is our ability to place our attention where we want for as long as we want. Or another way to think about it, as whatever we deem important, we can place our attention and hold it there.
Andrew: Then clarity is really, we can extrapolate a little bit that this is sensory clarity. I'm able to real-time track what's going on in my body, my sensory experience. Then the benefit of this is that I'm now sort of using more of what's available to me. I'm not just using my cognitive abilities, I'm being able to tune in to the other aspects that are available to me.
Andrew: Then the last one is equanimity, and this is an idea of not pushing or pulling on our experience. When some people hear equanimity, they think it's like, you're going to be that yoga teacher person who has the very calm talk, "Nothing will bother me, don't harsh my mellow." It's not that. It's this ability to be like, "Right now, things suck and I can be okay with that," sort of to a certain extent. Or, "Right now, things are awesome and I know this isn't going to last." So that gives us this idea of this ability to push or pull on what's kind of going on.
Andrew: So it's these three skills, concentration, clarity, equanimity, that we bring together in this type of meditation. That's the predominant meditation form that we're really seeing.
Andrew: Vox explained, did a thing on Netflix about the mindfulness, the modern mindfulness movement.
Chris: Yeah, I was just going to ask about that. It's in the news or it's in popular culture a lot these days, and so yeah, why don't you dig into that a little bit.
Andrew: Well, it's not just in the popular culture too. It's appearing in places like the Harvard Business Review and we're seeing it in contexts that may not have been the context for where the traditions have come from. The mindfulness movement episode that Vox did was really helpful in pointing out that it's a narrow band of the practices that are actually kind of moved into and become popular within North America. The aspect in that they interviewed Dr. Richard Davidson, who's done a ton of research, he's the head of the Healthy Minds Institute at University of Wisconsin. They're looking at kind of what are the habits or patterns of healthy minds. There's this positive psychology movement, this idea of not just studying the dis-ease or what is not going well for people, but looking at what is going right, like focusing on outliers. That's kind of one, hopefully reverent shorthand for the positive movement.
Andrew: What would Dr. Davidson is kind of pulling into the neuroscience space is what do healthy minds look like? So we put them in FMRI, this is the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology that's available. We put someone in FMRI, they're making deductions about based on the flow of blood within the brain or the flows within the brain, what that corresponds to for the different connections. We're not working with a map of exact certainty, but we can begin to look at what does the structure of a healthy mind look like? Then what is the structure of a meditator, somebody who's, in their terminology in their research, an Olympic meditator. This is somebody who's got 10,000 hours or more.
Andrew: Then finally the Harvard Business Review and others, I think that as knowledge work becomes more and more prevalent, there's a desire to look at what does good knowledge work look like or what does knowledge work look like for people who are able to be resilient and then also not necessarily burnout, perhaps. So we start to see the research organizational research around like, what's the cost of transition for replacing a software engineer or replacing a tech lead or replacing an interaction designer or a UX professional. So that desire to see how do we create a culture that supports individuals being fulfilled in knowledge work in a way that's beneficial for the overall organization, I think that's part of the driver kind of behind a lot of those.
Chris: It's interesting. So you say knowledge work, which to me means people that sit at a desk and use a computer for their job. It makes sense for that, because so much of that work, it's not just like, "Oh, I'm just a typer. I don't ... I'm typing all day." It's more that like, "I'm spending time thinking all day," whether it's writing an email and figuring out how to craft it, the email in the right way and kind of simple and clear, or whether it's like writing code or something and kind of designing on the fly what the structure of this software is going to look like. Those are things that are very cerebral and so it makes sense to do work that helps my cerebellum, my brain,
Andrew: The interesting thing though, right, is the specialization point is very interesting because it sort of forces us to work to our strengths, which for a lot of us is interpreted as everything from the neck up. That puts us in this sort of inherently imbalanced situation. Then so much of what we do in order to come together to solve problems is people oriented. If I'm in my head trying to relate to you, it's going to be a low fidelity or digital experience when it could be an analog experience where I could be bringing in all of the input that is within, from a standpoint of perspective taking and empathy and things that I'm able to get out of the body when I kind of am showing up in a way that's skillful. I know, at least for both of us ... my father is an engineer, I believe your father is an engineer as well, and so I was very much raised with this ethos of Spock as being someone to strive kind of for, to a certain extent,
Chris: The perfectly rational being, yeah.
Andrew: Yes. So the interesting thing that we see in psychology, there's this individual that in the psychology literature is referred to as Elliott. He has lost the ability to feel emotion. So we would think of this as like, "Oh, this guy is awesome," right? It's documented in the literature that he has an intense time being able to make decisions or do sort of, these are natural things. There are a lot of things that we're emotionally drawn to that we may not realize the emotional draw in those components. So bringing in this idea of being able to be aware of how I'm showing up in the world is remarkably helpful.
Andrew: Mindfulness becomes this sort of, developer perspective, this monitoring and observability tool for us. Just like having logging in my system is not going to magically solve all my problems, mindfulness becomes a way for us to begin to see what's behind that angry email or what's behind why I hate every time this person reviews my code. Then we can begin to use that as raw data to help us pull that into other situations. We tend to not yell at logs or ... in my worst situations, I've yelled at a log or two ... but when we get a log file, it's one of these things of, we're probably going to trust it maybe 90%, 95%. but the log then becomes helpful in that I can now take that log to another member of my team or I can bring that to a therapist or a mental health professional, like this idea that I can bring the "mindfulness" log of like how I'm feeling or what's showing up for me. I can bring that into these other contexts. Mindfulness isn't solving the problem, but it's sort of surfacing these patterns and then we can use that surface then to kind of look at how would we bring some ability to be more skillful around it.
Andrew: Ultimately, the benefit for me was I showed up for my team in a way where I was less like a jerk, I was less likely to fly off the handle, and I was more stable.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. Not only not negatively impacting the people around me, but ideally, and especially as a team lead or someone who's managing other people, you're helping to get the best, or help that person perform at their best as opposed to they're maybe on guard, if they're kind of unsure how you're going to show up at any point.
Andrew: For sure. For sure.
Chris: Yeah, so kind of going along with that skeptic theme, one thing I remember being curious about when I was learning about meditation and mindfulness and I'm still learning about is, is its connection to religion. You know, there's the Buddhist faith which meditation is kind of very, very deeply tied to. There's people that, that are very drawn to religious and kind of spiritual experiences and then there's some people that are very skeptical of that. So I'm curious, what's your understanding of the relationship between meditation and the religions that it's kind of tied to, or maybe even not tied to?
Andrew: I think this is a super important thing. My introduction to meditation was finding out that Google was training their engineers to meditate. I found this out as a result of kind of watching their YouTube channels and I was like, "Why are there Buddhist monks there?"
Andrew: One perspective to begin with would be that that mindfulness is sort of a human birthright and that quality of awareness that we're talking about is something that is drawn into the practices of religion in a way that helps shape and create the significance of those religions. That may not be a super popular perspective, but that's one framing of that. Because of that, the power of that quality, the power of presence, the power of being here, kind of "in the moment," we kind of conflate these two things together. We have this sort of experience of mindfulness and bringing them together with whatever the faith tradition is.
Andrew: There is sort of a "wisdom tradition" that comes up. This is borrowing from a fellow coach of mine, Brent Oliver, but I'm repurposing it in different sports speak. One way of looking at this in a concrete way, about the meditation mindfulness and religion aspect is if I teach you to skate, have I taught you to play hockey? Again, bringing in this idea that the system that I'm trained in, the unified mindfulness system that I'm trained in as a coach, it's very skills-based. We use Buddhism as hockey here, which I'm a significant hockey fan. If I teach you to skate, you're not a hockey player. You could be. There's a lot more the hand-eye coordination and all these other sort of physical aspects that go along with it.
Andrew: The hope, at least from a positive benefit to everyone, that if we teach you to skate, you can figure out if you want to be a speed skater or a figure skater or a hockey player, and then you take that core skill and turn it into what you want to do to alter and improve how you show up skillfully in whatever it is that you're endeavoring to do.
Chris: Maybe another way to approach it or another way to think about it is that's fascinating to me is like this thing that is very, very old and tied to kind of the fuzziness or non-scientific-ness of religion has kind of been proven by science or proven to have some benefits by science.
Andrew: Yeah, the science is very important, but the ability to kind of bootstrap a meditation practice, I think, is being aware of some aspect of the science and then having someone that you kind of know and respect that it's worked for.
Andrew: I had an individual that he works for one of the big, high respected tech companies, and you could tell he was still stressed, but he was handling the situation kind of in a way that was like, "Oh, this is working, this is worth looking into." Ultimately, it's your exploration of it, of whether it matches or .... I would offer the sort of David Epstein perspective in his book, Range, that you may want to go through a sampling period and then you find out if it's something that's of interest and then quit fast.
Andrew: I say that with all reverence to the fact that I'm a coach and I do guided meditation and all these other sort of things. But for me, other people noticed that it was working for me before I was satisfied with what was going on. That would be the only caveat I'd offer for folks.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, for me, it's actually, I feel that pressure in the Western world, Western business world, Western culture, to like, yeah, how do I make myself more efficient? How do I get more done? I also sometimes don't want to be efficient. Or I guess I'm starting to learn the benefit of sometimes not ...
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Being sort of the American mindset, there is a milieu of the Greek thought and sort of Protestant work ethic, and that is sort of baked into part of our context, right? Niksen is this idea, N-I-K-S-E-N, of deliciously doing nothing. This is something that the Dutch are sort of playing around with, a sort of notion of being able to productively not do anything.
Andrew: If you can tell me straight-faced that you've been beating your head against a problem and going and taking a shower or going for a walk could help you at some point, then you can say like, "All right, you go all the time." Like just, there's no giving up, you know? To me, when we start looking at how do I operationalize this or like, "That's great. What do I do with this?" It's kind of building into your day these sort of pauses, right?
Andrew: I had a colleague who is just amazingly productive. Basically, he said he time sliced. He held up his little tomato timer. He time sliced, and so he gave himself 25 minutes on and five minutes off, and that five minutes off to him was as important as the 25 minutes on.
Andrew: That that gave him a little bit of a distance.
Chris: Yeah, that's interesting because I find that during my work day, I'm kind of subconsciously striving for getting into that flow state where you kind of like lose track of time, you feel like you're very productive and then afterwards I feel happy or fulfilled in some way. But it's hard to get there, and so sometimes I'm kind of spending the whole day striving for that and I never really get there.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a chance that the timer didn't get reset when he was in flow state.
Andrew: I think we got to be real about this for a second. When you get into a flow state, I'm going to encourage you to enjoy that and be in that to a certain extent, because the residual resistance to getting back into it is just sort of remarkably frustration inducing kind of situation. The thing for me is when I'm in and out, in and out, in and out of that, how can I be skillfully, moderately productive? If I can help keep myself kind of in this band of moving along and I can trudge along, then hopefully those glorious flow states will come along at some point. Yeah.
Chris: Yeah, it makes sense. Let's switch to some practical, like how might someone get started exploring meditation or mindfulness for themselves? What are some kind of recommended or curated resources that you would share with people if they came to you and said, "Hey, how do I learn about this more? How do I get started?"
Andrew: To start out with, if you're kind of in that we talked about, the skeptical camp, you can look for secular meditation materials. You just include the word secular. What that's basically acknowledging is that they're removing the cultural, the religious cultural context from it. So you'll find MBSR materials, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction materials is definitely a place to start. I would encourage folks to consider looking at maybe what you might consider mindfulness adjacent or meditation adjacent activities that are an easy way for you to begin training those skills, to use that skills mindset and bringing those in.
Andrew: You may want to start with something like, Rob Walker wrote this amazing book called The Art Of Noticing. He offers up these different things for you to begin to look at the world around you in a different kind of way. The things are, you know, what's a sound map of your neighborhood, looking for where are letters, where are numbers, kind of as you move in and about your space. To me, from a coaching perspective, now you're kind of out moving and you're beginning to sharpen your noticing abilities. That noticing ability then becomes really helpful for you when you try to do formal.
Andrew: Those are to me, low barrier of entry kind of places for folks to begin. You'll find a lot of guided meditations. If you like my perspective, you can get guided meditations for me for free at lenards.us, so that's an option. No ads or anything on there. This is just a ...
Chris: And you do ... is it every Tuesday? Or is that every weekday, you do something?
Andrew: At least for January, I've been doing what I refer to as the Afternoon Idle, I-D-L-E. This sort of your purposeful pause in the middle of the day. It's on my YouTube channel and I just do a guided meditation. It's a 15-minute meditation. The goal is to make it accessible to folks that may be new.
Andrew: Then probably the most interesting thing now is that we have sort of app-based. There's a whole area of research around app-based intervention. You'll find ... like Breath by Dr. Jud Brewer is one that will take you through breath work perspective of just doing deliberate inhales and exhales. The rationale behind this is that accentuating the exhale actually releases the brake on the vagus nerve and shifts you into a rest and relaxation mindset, or it puts the parasympathetic system online. The breath is again, sort of adjacent to meditation, can be beneficial in that regard.
Andrew: For some folks, if you've got issues, like now we're in the grip of COVID, if you have issues around the breath, then it may not be for you. There are a lot of other apps that will kind of bring you through kind of a guided beginning and get you kind of from not knowing anything to being a little more on the bearings and kind of where to go.
Chris: What are some of the common pitfalls that people run into that maybe caused them to kind of bump out and stop their learning of meditation or mindfulness, or to get frustrated by enough to be like, "Oh, that's not for me, I'm going to do something else." What are some of those things to look out for and be aware of, that you are going to hit these speed bumps, you are going to kind of bump into these things and that could be okay, or it could be not okay?
Andrew: To a certain extent, from doing coaching, this shows up for people in different ways. Part of it is patience and perfectionism. So there's a 1600s quote from Blaise Pascal, which is something to effect of all of humanity's problems generate from our inability to be alone in a room by ourselves. I say that not to kind of mock where we're at or any kind of social commentary for what technology has done to our attention span, but I mentioned that it's from the 1600s because this has been kind of a challenge for a significant amount of time.
Andrew: I think that that helps in maybe, or my intent in sharing that is to help in the imperfection that that is sort of part of the acknowledgement of doing this.
Andrew: I think the thing that comes up most often, and I, from an anthropology perspective would love to know how this sort of seeped into our consciousnesses as adopters, but the idea that that thoughts are the enemy or that we need to stop thinking. That's often the biggest hindrance to folks. That's partly because when people talk about meditation, especially when they're from an outside context, they talk about emptying the mind and things along the lines. What they're pointing out to people that have yet to start meditating is this is something that may be, "may be," available to you after some large amount of time. But just like getting in and out of a flow state is a dicey endeavor, getting to the point where you've meditated long enough that you may have sort of thoughts sort of like slow down or sort of cease is remarkably dicey.
Andrew: So when someone talks about that early on, as a way to entice someone to get into the practice, it sets up this situation where if I'm thinking, then that's a problem. Can I put them in the background and allow them to be there in the same way that, you know, the sky is not angry about there being clouds? Is the poetic sort of thing, right? Like the sky doesn't like, "Beat it, clouds," and they go back to our sort of skills framing of all this that helps us to strengthen that equanimity perspective, it's just sort of allowing things to be where they are and being able to know kind of just getting yourself to the point where you can sit down and do the practice, that's a win right there.
Andrew: I have a colleague who's an Agile coach and a senior software engineer, Rob Meyers, has always said to me the notion is frequency over duration. We want to try to sit in formal meditation more frequently as opposed to like, "Oh, I didn't sit yesterday.So I'm going to sit twice as long as I did the day before." It's sort of that notion of being able to kind of be okay with starting out at two minutes or three minutes or going along those lines of starting sort of small.
Chris: Cool. Well, let's kind of close it up, but did you have any closing thoughts or ideas or things ... maybe you've been speaking and you noted something you wanted to share with folks.
Andrew: The last thing I would offer is that you may see this as a kind of J-shaped curve. I don't know that enough people tell people that. When you start out, you may start noticing a lot more of kind of what's going on from your inner weather. That can actually be a little bit of a de-motivator at the beginning, so that's this is J-shaped curve where it brings me down a little bit. What that then leads to is sometimes people will sort of stop and be like, "Yeah, it's not for me." That's okay, but the idea that this is a J-shaped curve, that you may want to try to extend your experiment a little bit further just to see if you can get through that gully is something that I would just kind of offer because I, at least experientially, have seen a lot of folks kind of ... I don't want to oversell the benefits of meditation or mindfulness meditation, which is why I love the logging analogy so much. But it is often sort of sold in a way of the sort of these sort of benefits.
Andrew: To me, it's far more important, especially with like what I experienced from my colleagues, to be just forthright and be like, you may experience this, you may not. But knowing that there's this potential for you to be a little bit of a down and discouraged about the fact of how much I'm thinking or how hard it is for me to stay on, it's very much in this sort of fitness goal perspective. Like I lost a lot of weight and I started out at 350 pounds and I got down probably, let's see now, about a hundred something pounds, 120 pounds, and I used my weight to up my advantage. I did body weight exercises, and I used this thing that was potentially a weakness to my advantage. So I would offer that the thoughts and the distractedness give you an increased amount of opportunities to practice with bringing your attention back. Then every time I bring my attention back, it's an opportunity to not be mean to yourself. To do that with care. It's not this judgment around you're not doing it right or things along those lines. That would be the thing for me that I haven't included yet but I would leave people with.
Chris: Cool. Thanks very much, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you.
Chris: I appreciate you spending time. Thanks, everyone, for listening, and we will hear you see you next time on Code[ish].
A podcast brought to you by the developer advocate team at Heroku, exploring code, technology, tools, tips, and the life of the developer.
Director, Developer Advocacy, Heroku
Chris thrives on simplicity and helping others. He writes code, prototypes hardware, and smiles at strangers, helping developers build more and better
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