Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Morning yard
I am reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who wrote the book as a letter to a fellow monk when he was in exile during the difficult years in Vietnam. The book was recommended to me by Howard Rheingold. I'm still reading the book, but it is a wonderful little book about why and how we meditate.

There is one interaction at the beginning of the book between the monk and a man eating a tangerine. The monk tells the man to focus on the tangerine segment that is in his mouth rather than focus on the next one before. I think this mode of focusing our attention on future rather than the present is a very common "affliction" of our times. I think that Continuous Partial Attention that I've blogged about is also another example of this "not really here" syndrome.

It also reminds me of a story that I often share. I arrived at a Tai Chi lesson once and everyone was bustling and sort of in a hurry. My Tai Chi teacher explained that one definition of "the end" or "our goal" is when we die. He mused how much of a hurry we were all in to get to the next thing. He suggested that we spend too much time worrying about being more efficient and quick and that maybe the most "efficient" thing to do was just to die right now. In fact, most of us probably don't want to die just yet and all the stuff in between is can be viewed as an inefficient path to our death.

So much of our life is focused on making things more efficient and efficiently efficient that we might spend our whole lives shaving a yak. In fact, I think we probably need less efficiency and more meaning. On the other hand, if you're happy shaving yaks or hacking code, I think that can be meaning. I think the trouble is for people who aren't happy because it's just not efficient or perfect enough. There are always little things, little people, little events that "ruin" the moment, the day, our lives. Our days end up as a endless series of annoying events.

One things about meditation and going "meta" is that even some of the most annoying things become cute, quaint, funny and irrelevant, if not enjoyable.

This morning was a particularly beautiful morning with the chirping nightingales and the morning dew. As usual, our two dogs came running over to me and licked me and barked and tried very hard to prevent me from meditating. Then Mizuka's mom heard the dogs bothering me and actually increased the distraction by whispering very loud to the dogs trying to get them off of me.

For a moment, I got a pang of discomfort. It was the feeling of despair, the feeling of trying to blame someone else for my failure to meditate. It had the feel of minor displaced aggression - the tendency for primates to lash out and bite the nearest creature for a pain from an unrelated source such as an electric shock or a stubbed toe. However, I identified this simple and base reaction and laughed at myself and my human condition.

I remembered the monk writing about how it was easier to practice meditation at home than in a pagoda. The challenge comes when trying to be focused and mindful in the presence of distractions. If we want to practice and learn meditation, it was important to challenge ourselves. As I laughed and enjoyed this "human moment" I thought about the book again and this blog post started to come to mind. Then I realized that it was you, my friends on the Internet, who were now getting in the way of my meditation. At that moment, I promised to write this blog post after I had finished my meditation and my chores and that I didn't need to figure it out right then. With that promise, I stopped thinking about this blog, the Internet and the book. After that, I slipped into a nice space.

So here we are. I've completed the promise to myself. I was "there then" and I am "here now". ;-) This post reads a bit like the ramblings of some new age hippy. My apologies. It's a bit weirder than I would normally post, but I figure I should probably be respectful to the spirit of the promise with the "meditation me" so that I'll continue to trust my requests for deferred yak shaving during my meditation.


i don't think this is weird at all, but then again, i am a weirdo ;)

i have been doing things to improve my mindfulness and "being in the moment" lately. running and playing the guitar are two activities during which my mind remains especially clear. i think i need to do more though, because my mind is a rather spastic monkey at the moment.

so, your new agey post has encouraged me to practice sitting. thanks hippy!

Joi, this is a beautiful piece.

The dog part reminded me of an experience I had many years ago. I was sitting with the Dharmadathu group in Northampton. Feeling very calm, grounded, and, well, accomplished as a meditator. Silly me.

All of a sudden, a giant black dog bounded into the meditation room. He ran over and licked me cheek, slobbering all over me. It was such a disruption. My meditative state was broken. Then a little child burst in, running after the dog, giggling, "Shunya!".

Shunya, of course, means The Void. What a good name for a black dog. How exquisite that emptiness could plant a slobbery wet kiss on my face, and I would be annoyed by it.

We should all grateful for the opportunity to practice. But we also should be grateful for the bounding black dog of emptiness.

I must be a weirdo too cuz I liked this post. Be wary though. When a person goes too 'meta', meanings start to unravel, leaving the person not only detached but unable to attach without a struggle. It's no wonder monks practice sympathy to stay whole.

What? Did you say something Brother Don?


Totally agree with you Don. I think that the key is a balance between being down-to-earth/engaged and being "above it all". Many monks are completely out of touch and are sort of social "nothings".

Thich Nhat Hanh was the founder of some schools as an outgrowth of "engaged Buddhism" and was trying to deal with the war and the reconciliation. His letter was to help his monks who were dealing with their schools being burned down and students being killed and raped.

Along those lines, being disturbed by your dogs is pretty "pastoral" and probably not worthy of consideration in the same context of what these Vietnamese monks were dealing with. However, Thich Nhat Hanh uses very normal examples like eating tangerines and washing dishes to illustrate his points so all of us can "get it".

Your 'pastoral' example was, although rather wordy, still good and resonating. I doubt even Thich Nhat Hanh could have captured it with even his power-tangerines. ;-p

go, go, hippy joi!!
try meditating while commuting on the train - that's what I do! (when I'm not typing away at my laptop, that is!) ;)

Joking aside, have you ever read Seneca's essay "On the shortness of life"? I think you'd really get a kick out of it. One great line from it is:

"There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn."

"Our days end up as a endless series of annoying events."
Indeed. I've often described my work life as nothing more than a series of uninteresting problems that need to be solved (or as a tennis match against ten opponents). In my case I think it would take YEARS of meditation to find all those annoyances mildly amusing. Problem is, I don't have enough time to meditate. I have to keep working!

Thanks for reminding us to "savour the moment" from time to time...

yes Thich Nhat Hanh in the house
i have had the fortunate opportunities to sit with him since the early 90s including a wonderful winter spent in residence at plum village in the south of france
and via retreats and books

one of my favorite mediations in daily life that he suggests is the bells of awareness

at plum village when the large bell i rung the whole community stops what they are doing and comes back to their breath
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests
we can do this when our the phone rings, when the blackberry pings and even when the car behind us honks
we do not need to anwser the phone on the first ring
but rather can come back to the present moment
in this way we can be present both for ourselves and to whom we are about to speak

i find this practice helps me be even more aware and on top of my game
as opposed to fighting with the constant distractions that beckon me in my techno-organic life

thanks joi for bringing this out

Howard - that's brilliant. Thank you.

Joi, I have enjoyed reading this post very very much. For one who also meditates and has experienced similar situations to the one you describe there is nothing to say other than thank you.


I liked reading this and I dont think you are a hippy or new age. For one you dont smell bad, for two you are not a sucker.

Of course I also get stuck in the expectations of destination, so I like the bit about hurry up and die. I'll try to remember that one next time I get all pissed off at someone for being human.

I'm not into meditation, but this post really rang true with me.
It's like when I'm rushing to get ready for work. My 2-yr-old starts bugging me and making me late. I'm just about to get annoyed before I remember why it is that I'm in such a hurry.
I want to arrive early, so that I can get home again before my son goes to bed and we can spend some quality time together.
Hello?! Focus on the present please!

Thanks to evoke this missing (or forgotten) Link.
I could hardly have less efficiency but I’ll try about ‘more meaning’.
It seems in our lives, we take a long ride to reach to ourselves.

On being "above it all": the late Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote:

So much sufferings in Nirvana castles.
So joyous to sink into this world.


Though I have to say, your post is the first time I've heard of "Yak Shaving" other than the Ren and Stimpy episode. I do so enjoy learning a concise term for something I've previously had to explain with long sentances.