On Deep Work

Kellen Evan


Categories: Spirit Writing

Vacation reading is my favourite. When commitments disappear and the pace of life slows down, there are few things more rewarding than diving into new ideas. The ideas of this vacation came from Deep Work by Cal Newport, but they were not so new.

“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy." - Cal Newport, Deep Work.

Deep Work is similar to meditation. I have experienced drastic personal shifts through meditation. These shifts compelled me to learn more about its roots, those delivered to the West in the form of Buddhism.

Buddhism introduces the The Eight-Fold Path. Each of the eight paths is a precept which - when practiced together - guides one to a balanced life on the path towards enlightenment. One of the eight precepts is Right Concentration, known to most of us as meditation:

“Concentration is “right” when it connects with the other branches of the whole. It is “right” when it demonstrates the feasibility of training the mind, when it supports the investigation of impermanence, when it erodes selfish preoccupation, and when it reveals the benefits of surrender." - Mark Epstein, Tricycle.org

Right Concentration is considered foundational to spiritual practice as the soil from which your inner life will blossom. In a mechanical sense, Right Concentration and Deep Work are similar in their goals. But they are much different in how and why they are applied.

The author of Deep Work describes Productive Meditation: “The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally - walking, jogging, driving, showering - and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem."

Regular old meditation is coupled to bodily sensation or a benign fixed point. One may focus on their breath, feeling it flow over the triangle area beneath the nose, leading to the mouth. Or on the beating of the heart, or similar bodily sensations, or a fixed point a few meters ahead of the body.

The author continues: “Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls."

As mentioned, within traditional meditation, the process is the same. If the mind wanders, return it to the breath or the heart. The eventuality is that one will experience the dissolution of self and the revelation of the truth that lies beyond it. But Deep Work has a different goal: produce thoughts at an elite level.

In a book filled with impressive anecdotes about prolific professors and proficient accumulators of mass capital, the author thus concludes:

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will out produce you."

Returning back to Newports’s Productive Meditation: those words together makeup a radical paradox

Regular meditation, in metaphor, is the act of sitting on the side of a flowing river. Each thing that floats by – such as a fish, a log, some bears, an old romantic partner – is a thought. The water may be fast. It may be slow. What appears may be upsetting. Maybe it’s up-lifting. No matter, each day is new. The idea is to concentrate on the sensation and let what will flow by, flow by. And you witness it all as the observer, unattached.

The Productive Meditation approach is then in constrast like jumping on a piece of flotsam and riding it wherever the water leads. There are waterfalls, alligators, and much stranger things in the roiling flow of life, and this decision is perlious. You train yourself to flounder, to struggle, to wrestle the impermanent, to live in and place value in the ephemeral fading intellect.

When you take a step back from either method, you can see which muscles you are building. Productive Meditation is training your mind to think. Always to think, and think, and think, and think. But that’s the point — that’s how you become an “elite level” thinker. You will think with greater depth and clarity on a single object.

That is a sad point. It is a misunderstanding. Techniques of this nature do not use concentration the “right” way, a Buddhist might say. And why? Among other things, because the thought is not essential to the act of processing.

The thought process, the idea you follow, the voice that you use to unpack things, is but one small thing. As psychologist Carl G. Jung, who is featured in the introduction of the book, once stated: "…the ego (mind) is like a cork bobbing along in an ocean." This “productive” approach is for the bobbing mind. It will never reveal the ocean to you and you will miss the splendour of its vastness, where figures of legend have fallen into and returned with the ideas that shook our civilization.

Building this pattern, this dwelling on thought, is short-sighted. It builds powerful, gnashing teeth that will always require something on which to chew, and it will consume you on its hunt for ever-more knowledge. But yet, that is its purpose. Knowledge begets reward, and we are raised as productivity units.

Instead, know that the internal dialogue can be quiet. I admire my mind, but it does not drive me. We work together and the relationship is healthy. The techniques in this book run contrary to developing a mind this way. It reinforces the patterns of the ceaseless, anxious, scattered, and insecure mind, despite its promise of developing the opposite. You may develop the skill to produce more valuable output, but at what cost?

The mind is not the key driver of cognition. You receive guidance from a wider array of organs, vibrations, and creatures: the heart, the stomach, the totality of being, and the mind. When the mind is quiet, other forces will steer the ship. But do not take me at my word. You can explore the range of Productive Meditation on your own.

The next time you find yourself in a body of water, such as a bath tub, turn off the light. The darkness will light up the mind and thoughts will become more colourful. Try to follow a thought. It will be much harder than normal, with mind aflame in the dark. But you might get somewhere. You might think through to great insights and solve your deepest intellectual problems.

Now try more traditional meditation. Try to listen to your heart. If you submerge your ears under water you will hear it beat with great clarity: lub-dub, lub-dub. As you proceed with this practice, your mind will become quiet. You no will longer hear your thoughts. All you will hear is your heart. Your heart rate will slow, your breath will become deeper. You will feel a calmness; it is automatic. Everything will dissolve. But you will lose it, after a time, a normal part of practice, and the busy mind will return.

If you follow a thought you will not hear your heart beat and you will not hear your breath. You will hear only thought. The heart will quicken. The breath will become shallow. And you, rushing down the river will try to ride the thought - unaware - not connected to your body, your being, your spirit. Never finding the truth, always chasing.

If you focus on sensation, the thoughts come up. But you are not tethered to them — you are not them! You are on the riverbank. And thoughts will go by, always changing. Soon you will learn something more, something that includes all of the thoughts, the river, what holds the river, and whatever holds whatever is holding the river.

Ideas are growing and morphing and puzzles are being solved whether you perceive them or not, whether you try to cup the rushing river of life in your hands or not. You do not need to give your mind such scrutiny, boring into each thought. If your heart beats slow and your breath deepens, you will surrender to life and all will melt away, and you will accomplish things far beyond your minds greatest ruminations.

As the chapters of this book unfurled, I felt for the soul at the centre of this work. I love and respect the difficulty of the academic institution. I empathize about an environment so hyper-competitive, where output is synonymous with self worth. It must be an immense challenge when, surrounded by great minds of science, everything must reinforce the scientific paradigm and you are defined given how you wield its tools.

Deep Work supports training the mind to a remarkable extent. But it does not support the investigation of impermanence. It builds on the temporary. It does not resist selfish preoccupation. It promotes thinking for the your own sake. It does not reveal the benefits of surrender, instead it celebrates staying on the wheel.

Be careful traveling down this path. There are other avenues towards a meaningful life and other definitions of elite level contributions that are worth exploring.

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