Dai Sesshin, August, 2021

Tonight I head off to Sesshin and will be away from all email and phone contact until the 22nd of August. I will be doing a week of preparation then a week of Sesshin (beginning Friday week). I’ll post an update on how it went here.

Here is the approximate schedule we will be following. Zazen is meditation:

DAI-SESSHIN – TYPICAL DAILY SCHEDULE

First Night: Arrive by 6:30pm. Trainees to be dressed and in the zendo by 7:15pm

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7:30  Opening of sesshin (in zendo).

7:45  Sozarei (opening tea)

8:00  Daza (zazen)

9:15  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out)

10:15  Group meeting in the dining hall. Optional snack available.

10:30  Yaza (mandatory solo zazen practice, inside or outside) until 11:45pm.

12:00am  Sleep or continue practice.

Typical Day 

4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

6:30  Choka (morning chanting)  

7:15   Shukuza (morning meal)

8:00  Samu (work period, indoor and outdoor)

10:00  Daza (zazen)

11:00  Saiza (mid-day meal)

12:00pm  Suiza (free sitting)

1:00  Sarei/Daza (tea/zazen)

2:30  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

3:00  Kaiyoku (wash)

4:15  Daza (zazen)

4:45  Yakuseki (evening meal)

6:30  Daza (zazen)

7:00  Kaihan/Kentan/Daza (striking the han/zendo inspection by the Roshi/zazen)

8:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)  

8:30   Teisho (lecture)

9:00  Daza (zazen)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out) Afterward, optional snack followed by yaza (solitary sitting practice).

12:00am: Sleep or continue practice.

Final Morning

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4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

6:30  Sozarei (closing tea ceremony)

[Clean up, group informal breakfast at 8am]

Family puppies: Newton & Nimbus

After much nagging from Matt, Katie, and I, Mummy and Daddy finally got some puppies in October last year! They are called Newton & Nimbus! 🙂 These are roughly chronological of their first 9 months.

Some images + videos. Near the bottom are them playing with bubbles which is particularly cute.

At the farm where we got them from 🙂
At the farm we got them from 🙂


In our garden
On their first trip
They destroy everything in their path
Attention seeking with Mummy
My first Skype call with them. They were not impressed by me and mostly slept.
They sleep cuddled up 🙂
They enjoy destroying everything
Cuddling my sister
They found toilet roll…
No comment…..
They meet a football for the first time…
Chewing a toy bone together

Learning to sit with Mummy
Another day, another theft.
My first day with them. Playfighting! They bit my hand like a velociraptor.
Tug of war with me
He fell on the floor whilst doing tug of war with me…
Playfighting again
They love the fireplace
Matt giving them a clean after a walk
Nimbus is very handsome
Not sure what this face expression means but Nimbus does it a lot
Cuddling me whilst im on a zoom call
After playing tug of war
Dad taking them for a walk
Sleeping 🙂
On a walk behind our house
Nimbus with a football he destroyed at the Euro finals
Nothing is safe from them…
They still play fight even as grown ups….
They love bubbles

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen recently online – #1

Thought I’d gather some of the lighter side of what I read. Installment 1! Not all time on the internet is wasted….

I want to meet Stoffel, the genius Badger:

This is what happens when an underground nuclear test is done underneath a cow (don’t worry, the cow is fine):

Photographs 1991-2017

1990s

Wearing my monocular occlusion patch. The person kneeling is my mother.
Me with dad and little brother. My most charming facial expression.

2000s

School debating 2007
My favourite place to read, 2007
My sixth form in snow
Snow fights at school, 2009
At the Royal Albert Hall to see Elton John solo
2009, Elton John
A puppy we found
2009 On holiday in Greece
2009
On holiday, 2010
10 minutes after I found out I had an offer from Oxford University. On a beach in Antigua.
On a 4 day hike for the Duke of Edinburgh award

Oxford days – 2010-2013

Visiting Exeter College, Oxford, the summer before joining (2010)
2010 – The Oxford Fellows Garden of my college
At matriculation on joining Oxford, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi visited our college
A brain scan I had done for medical purposes
Studying for Oxford Exams, 2011
With my brother and father, 2011
With my brother, 2011
With family, 2011
Florence, 2011
Preparing for an Oxford ball, 2012
At a ball with close friend Joe Birch

At a lecture Kasparov gave in 2013, I interviewed him the next day (i’m front row on the right side)

Cycling in Bordeaux
Having dinner with Sydney Brenner
Graduation with the medics

1st part of PhD years 2014-2017

Ordering drinks at a bar in Oxford, 2014
With a good friend from Oxford days, 2014
I was incredibly fortunate to be one of 7 current/recent graduates and undergraduates to be included in the Oxford Honorary degree ceremony, Encaenia
The Encaenia Ceremony procession
Me top left
Receiving our round of applause from the heads of the university
At the Encaenia Ceremony, 2014
Walking through Magdalen College, 2014
At Exeter College’s 700th Anniversary Ball
The 700th Anniversary Dinner. I am on the middle table, 5 seats up
Another ball photo
With Eric Betzig’s Nobel Prize, 2015
Janelia
me at janelia
Child minding a colleague’s child. Syuta just scribbled in my notebook and is proud of the damage.
At Bailey’s leaving party, 2016.
Turl Street, Oxford, 2016
Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford
The Turf, Oxford, 2016
Broad street, Oxford
Cambridge, 2016. Kings College
Newton’s Study is the right hand side, Trinity College Cambridge
My brother did an undergraduate rotation at Janelia

At the Christmas party, 2015, dressed according to the cowboy theme
With Erina & Osceola. Erina was critical to ThalamoSeq
Outside the White House situation room, 2016
Front door of the white house

In an intensive care bed, 2017
My favourite photo – me in ICU

Florence, 2017
Pizza in Italy
Partying in Florence
2017, Looking after a hamster

Photographs, 2018-2020 [updated July 18th w/Videos]

2018

I visited Emory University for a conference on learning and memory, and one of the additional perks was a visit to their Gorilla behaviour research program at the local zoo 🙂
A gorilla from the zoo we got up close to 🙂 He/She was able to play video games in return for fruit reward. I have videos of them juggling but sadly WordPress requests I pay for an upgrade to post it…
Fruitcake from a monastery in Virginia 🙂
My brother and I had an article published in the Telegraph
at my home town, summer 2018. down that road is my old victorian school
A view of the Somerset landscape from my home town highstreet
I wrote my thesis partly in the forests behind my parents house. I put a chair there, and one day came back and found the chair had gone….
Presenting my thesis work with Anton at SFN 2018
An image from my thesis. This is of Thalamus, with different colours showing different gene expression (blue is a nuclear stain)
Misha’s kid asked me to teach him to play chess…. I told him he needed to get the king out of the way, so he picked it up and moved it off the board….Video below
Christmas party, 2018

2019

We discovered that if we put a bin over an air vent, it turned into a ghost
Virginia, Chongxi and I rescued a snapping turtle from the road, but not before we tested if it could snap.
My terrible impression of Australian Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, with the snapping turtle!
Virginia snapped me reading in Misha’s lab
I found a nest of snakes in the forests near my work, and went back each day to handle them 🙂 Some of them were huge!
Our boat trip on a summer course for theoretical neuroscience
At the theoretical neuroscience course at the champalimaud

I visited Auschwitz with my father in winter 2019.
I visited Auschwitz with my father in winter 2019.

Anton + I’s paper made the front cover of Nature Neuroscience
My thesis work won a prize 🙂
Some of my reading list, in my book cave in my parent’s attic, winter 2019
With Alan Kay at the British Library after we went to a Da Vinci exhibition (back when I was fat)
Me after having eye surgery to remove a surgical stitch from the eye 🙂
With my cousin and grandpa at his 89th birthday. Sadly he had a fall a few days later but moved into a care home on our road so we could see him every day 🙂

2020

On a walk in my home town, which is twinned with Terry Pratchett’s fictional disc world, hence the strange street names 🙂
Early 2020
A portrait of a personal hero of mine, Witold Pilecki, that I had drawn
The spot in the fields behind my parents house where I made lots of phone calls in mid March prior to entering my current job, these calls would later turn out to be key!
My first day walking into Westminster
The Cenotaph being guarded by a man with a lightsaber
The Palace of Westminster, the oldest intact parliament at almost 1000 years old
The backdrop to mass at Westminster Abbey is Isaac Newton’s grave
Downing Street decorated in Union Jack flags

Leaving Downing Street after a long evening, Winter 2020
We got a Christmas tree 🙂
A portrait of Ada Lovelace
At an early birthday party, putting out my candles with a scarf to be COVID secure.
The bells in Westminster abbey returned during a lockdown lull 🙂
Selfie with my lockdown bubble Ginny – this is our compromise between us having a photo and my stubborn insistence on not having a photo before she left for America on a rainy very cold night….
A Downing Street Christmas bauble 🙂

2020 – ‘Bunker years’ and the use of time: lessons from a year-long medical semi-isolation

Note: this was written originally in March 2020 for a different blog.

You are probably just beginning a long period of isolation.  I spent 2017 largely alone in my family home preparing for and recovering from a surgery to fix a serious illness, which ultimately took years to recover from fully.  I thought the lessons I learnt might be useful to others now.

What I found is that ‘free time’ vanishes like a pile of sand gathered through open, welcoming hands. You only realise it is gone when a few grains are left. Twitter consumes. 

Da Vinci’s words apply well: “Art breathes from constraint and suffocates from freedom.”. We may have dreams of how we will use our new found isolated freedom, but, if you are like me, your will will be captured by clickbait and the time will vanish without conscious countermeasures.

I suggest four simple habits and goals for the bunker:

  1. Create a virtual bunker: work via long-periods of deliberate isolation, not scattered, interruptible time (deep work).
  2. Create targets at different time scales, to provide milestones to move toward (distant stars) .
  3. Create a clear work/personal divide and ‘mindset changes’ via routines (organising the paintbrushes).
  4. Develop a non-work skill such as meditation to provide balance,  an escape from work, and fulfillment.

Create a virtual bunker: deep work

‘Evil is whatever distracts’
Franz Kafka

We structure our bunker time for maximum quality of effort. The divide between ‘personal’ and ‘work’ is unclear, and so we shift between the two modes both incompletely and briefly.

The Deep Work phrase comes from Cal Newport’s book of the same name. Deep work is a sustained period of isolated concentration, without distracting influences. Newport argues that we have lost the ability to do this, instead spending our time consumed by the ‘shallows’ of email etc, and our productivity has quietly collapsed because of it.

Newport tells of famous (and non-famous) achievements made by deliberately cutting oneself off from the world for a specified period of time: no internet, no email, no phone calls, no social contact. Historically, Carl Jung worked in a tower for almost the entire day, cut off from distraction. Mark Twain had an isolated hut for writing, and would be summoned for dinner by a horn. Today distraction is far worse than then.

The essence of deep work is that an hour of continuous undistracted work is worth 3-4 hours of distracted, fragmented time, or of eight 15 minute blocks of undistracted work. It gets you ‘in the zone’, keeps your mind on task. 

Crucial to deep work are two key things:

– Set aside deliberate blocks of time, say 2 hours, to work on something.

2 – Cut off all contact with the outside world during this time. 

This may sound simple (it is), but when did you last do it? Set your day to be composed of around 1-4 blocks of deep work, depending upon length (when I met Newport he suggested that sustained intense deep work of more than 4 hours per day is challenging, which matches GH Hardy’s advice in ‘A mathematicians apology’). When distraction comes, say you are in ‘deep work’ – a polite f-off to ‘whatever distracts’.

In my experience, this is far more important and useful than expensive productivity apps. It also acts as a ‘free organisational tool’, forcing you to  structure time and prioritise by picking your ‘deep work targets’ (see below).

To get a better sense of this, see this video which is an excellent summary of deep work by a youtube blogger who has interviewed Newport.

Something I have found very useful for ‘deep work’ is to play ‘coffee shop sounds’ – see this  example (on spotify/apple music).

Two useful apps – freedom & self control. Freedom shuts the internet off, self control blocks specific sites. It will educate you about how quickly you reach for the twitter dopamine hit. 

Note added 18th April 2021 – ‘E-mails ‘hurt IQ more than pot” – CNN

Create stars of varying distance: ‘compass-like’ targets at different timescales

“He whose gaze is fixed on a distant star will not falter.” Leonardo Da Vinci 

It’s easy to lose sight of the distant star indoors, especially for the infinite labyrinth of the internet at our single-click-away disposal. Deep work without direction will lead to piles of semi-finished things. Time becomes amorphous without targets at different timescales.  

This sensation only gets worse without active countermeasures. What I found in my bunker year was that without clear weekly targets, weeks blurred into one another, and nothing ever got ‘done’ – books were left half read, essays begun and half forgotten. I did many things, but never finished them: I was a slave to momentary wills. Weekly targets give you clear ‘weekends’.

Targets must be used to create a sense of timescale, a sense of time as a resource to be used. Targets act at different timescales. I was fortunate enough to be educated in the Oxford tutorial system. A ‘hidden routine’ in this system is the weekly essay, which gives you a target and a ‘focus’. The weekly essay gave you your ‘local purpose’, the ‘stepping stone’ to the exams and, more importantly, to being a scientist.

Without this weekly essay as a PhD student, I found myself wandering. I lacked the productivity of my undergraduate stays, spending much time dithering. I only realised what I was missing in the final year of my thesis: clear weekly targets, very few in number. This is a difficult thing to do as cleanly as when a mentor sets them, but it’s a skill I have since consciously worked on. In essence, this is about being mindful of the goals you have, rendering them explicit, rather than simply aiming for vague notions of productivity.

The Oxford term system also provides a mental scaffolding of time – I can still remember what I was doing each term of Oxford, and I used to be able to remember individuals week (3rd week), because they were placed within the structure of 3 terms with holidays. Each term is 8 weeks, with long vacations, meaning you have a total of 6 divisions to the year. It is likely we will be bunkered for a year on-and-off: divide that time up. I follow the oxford system now using an Oxford diary.

Likewise, without clear daily targets, it is easy to find yourself at lunch having done nothing but ‘deep work’ on whatever came up in the morning’s emails. Setting targets is a simple way of prioritising. For this, ZenHabit’s MIT’s is very useful: Zen Habits on MITs – identify 1-3 of the most important tasks for the day and structure your time around it. Note that having a long conversation with someone often is an MIT – today I tried to sneak a call in and ended up with so much to follow up on that I had to schedule a deep work session on it. 

Your work time therefore becomes a hierarchy of targets. 

Pick daily, weekly and termly targets, and remind yourself of them daily. I put the weekly targets in my diary so I see them everyday. Think in the future – where do I need to be? 

A nice phrase is ‘a year is shorter than you think, 10 years is longer than you think’ – I read it on twitter some time ago and can’t find the source, but it is not original to me.

The painter tidies his paintbrushes: habits, routines, and the structuring of time

States of mind are something that we find ourselves at the mercy of in our isolation, as it is easy to get ‘stuck’ in a mindset without external cues to nudge us out of it, or even point out that we are in a maladptive mindset. We assume what 16th century zen master Takuan Soho calls right-mindedness, that our mind is free to deal with what it needs to deal with, rather than stopping in distraction. Yet our state of mind depends greatly on surroundings, and we usually only realise we have gone astray some time after it happens.

Monasteries use chanting, rituals, daily schedules to keep the monastic mind focussed upon its higher calling. They also use the physical environment, a topic for a later blog. Our work environment, for better or worse, sculpts this also. You may find, as I did, that the sudden removal of  the cruxes and stimuli of our work mind reveal the very existence of those cruxes and stimuli. Freedom reveals the benefits of constraints. The trip to work in the morning tunes the mind for what’s to come. Seeing the boss reminds you of the importance of deadlines. Travelling home at night helps ‘switch off’ – somewhat reduced by the curse of chronic connectivity.

In the eastern arts, the frailty of will is recognised and deliberately honed. In Zen in the art of Archery, Herrigel tells of a master of painting preparing for and executing a painting in front of pupils:

“A painter seats himself before his pupils. He examines his brush and slowly makes it ready for use, carefully rubs ink, straightens the long strip of paper that lies before him on the mat, and finally, after lapsing for a while into profound concentration, in which he sits like one inviolable, he produces with rapid, absolutely sure strokes a picture which, capable of no further correction and needing none, serves the class as a model. A flower master begins the lesson by cautiously untying the bast which holds together the flowers and sprays of blossom, and laying it to one side carefully rolled up.

………But why doesn’t the teacher allow these preliminaries, unavoidable though they are, to be done by an experienced pupil? Does it lend wings to his visionary and plastic powers if he rubs the ink himself, if he unties the bast so elaborately instead of cutting it and carelessly throwing it away? And what impels him to repeat this process at every single lesson, and, with the same remorseless insistence, to make his pupils copy it without the least alteration? He sticks to this traditional custom because he knows from experience that the preparations for working put him simultaneously in the right frame of mind for creating. The meditative repose in which he performs them gives him that vital loosening and equability of all his powers, that collectedness and presence of mind, without which no right work can be done.”

I can try to distill this down into two simplest parts: first, have strict work hours, and non-work hours. Second, when you are to work, try to have a consistent place for it, and a routine to start/end the work. For me, it is to shut everything else down, remove all distractions for the task at hand, and set a timer. Then I think for several minutes about what is to come, which acts as a ‘work meditation’ akin to the organisation of the painter’s studio Herrigel describes.

I also recommend spending 25 minutes in the morning on a planning/tidying session. For example, today I took out my small notebook, reviewed my projects page of my notebook, and identified three priorities. I then simply thought about those priorities, visualising how i would do them, what I would need etc. When it came to do them, my mind was ‘ready’.

Deliberate rest is an important concept, relating to the divide between personal and work. Being on an iPhone looking on instagram is not rest, it is a reward seeking behaviour and stimulating. I strongly recommend setting strict ‘work hours’ and ‘personal hours’. Experiment in the benefits of cutting yourself off in the evenings, deep-work style.

Develop a skill: meditation, drawing etc

The single most important thing I did in my year of isolation, except for having a huge operation and eating lots of food to recover, was to begin meditating. The meditation that I focussed upon is Hakuin’s Nanso meditation, about which much of my book is centered, as well as more standard ‘clear the mind’ meditation. 

An exceptional piece of writing on meditation comes from Dogen, effectively the father of the Soto school of Zen: ‘recommending zazen to all people’.  I say more about this in the long-form version.