On Deep Work

Kellen Evan


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. On this now fading vacation, I meditate on Deep Work by Cal Newport.

“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.”

As a best seller written by someone who possesses strong academic clout and wisdom, I am grateful for the words placed upon the pages. But my eyes, unfamiliar with the grand and pompous culture that surrounds American intellectual institutions, saw this book and the advice contained therein as strange.

Deep Work is similar to meditation, something which I love and have explored in-depth. As I experienced drastic personal shifts, I felt compelled learn more about where it came from: Buddhism.

Buddhism has the concept of The Eight-Fold Path. Each path is a precept which - when practiced together - can guide one to a full, healthy life, on the path towards enlightenment. One of the eight precepts is Right Concentration, or 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, meditation, is considered foundational to spiritual practice; it is 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 describes what’s known as 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.”

The more traditional approach to meditation is instead coupled to bodily sensation. One does not focus on a single, well-defined professional problem. They focus on their breath, feeling it flow over the triangle area beneath the nose, leading to the mouth. Or they may focus on the beating of the heart.

He 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 breathe or the heart. The eventuality is the experience of the dissolution of self and the revelation of the truth that lies beyond it. The goal of Deep Work is to produce 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 Productive Meditation: those words together makeup a radical paradox

Traditional meditation, in metaphor, is the act of sitting on the side of a flowing river. Each thing that floats by, perhaps its a fish, logs, bears, old partners — whatever fits you best; it’s your stream — is a thought. Some days the water may be fast. Sometimes it is slow. Sometimes what appears may be upsetting. Maybe it’s up-lifting. No matter; the idea is to concentrate on sensation and let what will flow by, flow by. And you witness it all as the observer, unattached.

The “productive” approach is akin to jumping on a piece of flotsam and riding it wherever the water leads. This is unwise; there are waterfalls, alligators, and much stranger things in the roiling flow of life.

When you take a step back from either method, you can see what you are practicing. 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” performer. 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.

Building this pattern, this dwelling on thought, is short-sighted. It builds a powerful, gnashing muscle that will always require something on which to chew. But yet, that is its purpose.

After over a decade of meditation practice, my internal dialogue is quite. I experience extended periods of time without an internal dialogue. I am capable of deep periods of focus and creating works of reasonable value. I carry myself with great energy and patience, live in equanimity, and have a deep creative well from which to draw. 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 your vessel. 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 may 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 becomes quiet. You no longer hear your thoughts. All you can hear is your heart. Your heart rate will slow, your breath will become deeper. You will feel a calmness; it is automatic. But you will lose it. Your mind will wander and thought 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 may quicken. The breath might 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.

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; they’re always changing. 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. If your heart beats slow and your breath deepens, you will surrender to life and all will melt away.

As the chapters of this book unfurled, I felt for the soul at the centre of this work. I have compassion from where it dwells. 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 define your place among the wielders of its tools. But there are others ways to live.

Deep Work support the feasibility of training the mind to a remarkable extent. But it does not support the investigation of impermanence. It does not resist selfish preoccupation. It promotes it. It does not reveal the benefits of surrender. 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 well worth exploring.

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