Reflections on 2019: Year of the Pruning Sword

Due to travelling, I have not had the time to make this annual reflection before the close of the year. No matter. It remains fitting to take a few moments to review what has transpired in the passing year—the new millennium is entering its twenties as I am just newly settled into my thirties. In general, 2019 has been a year in which I have prioritized building myself up. Strength, mental capacity and emotional maturity are all ways in which I have grown and I will describe these briefly in what follows. Most important of all is the manner in which all this growth has been brought about. I have adopted a more intentional approach to the steering of the course of my life path. For that reason, the image I’ve chosen to associate with the year is of a sword, both because it can be used to prune a plant and guide its growth towards its advantage, but also because of the metaphorical significance of the sword, as I will describe below.
First, and since I love plant metaphors so much, indulge me as I proceed to use one once more as I find it particularly apt for the year we have just finished. You see, I myself am like a plant that has seen more than a few seasons, but has still much development ahead of it. Growing in an overgrown patch of woods it must compete to reach the radiant beams up above. So, year after year it self-augments with width and height, and repeats the cycles of blooming, budding, and fruiting. And as the forest around it grows, it comes to get crowded by the nearby greenery. In order to ensure survival, it must navigate the path that reveals the greatest patch of open sky. Like our nascent tree, I too must utilize a strategy for best allocating my resources to my growth patterns; some branches need to be pruned, and others nurtured. This captures the essence of my attitude towards life that emerged during this year.
The thought first revealed itself to me during transit while I was sitting in Glasgow airport awaiting my return flight home after a bewildering experience at my 1st CHI conference. I had just presented a paper that has paid back dividends for me since then—my cycle of laboring heavily in the delivery of this paper and then receipt of the subsequent rewards mirrors that which transpired half a decade prior with my first paper. Indeed, these two papers have come to be the defining milestones of this early part of my career. In any case, the thought in my mind at that time concerned itself with the tradeoffs that one must make as one navigates life’s waters, necessitated by the inherent finiteness of the world. Resources are limited, and one must allocate them differentially across an array of dimensions, a process that creates the uniqueness of each person’s makeup. The difference between people’s core competencies mostly emerges from what they have chosen to focus on and how they have allocated mental and physical resources over their lives. I came to realize just how important it is to develop the right mental habits to cultivate those modes and faculties that will be most beneficial in the long run. It behooves me to do so consciously and wisely, with foresight and strategy. This train of thought came to the forefront of my ponderings at that particular juncture, in recognition of the fact that I had just stopped meditating after a good 2 months of maintaining the 2 hours per day habit, but sacrificed it in order to network and improve my career prospects. Though it is a bitter pill to swallow, it allows my life to achieve a greater harmony across the various strands that are important, and corrects the imbalance of leaning too heavily on spirituality and denying all else.
Speaking of meditation, I began the year having just moved into my newly acquired home and watched the clouds deposit large quantities of snow upon it for an extended period of time. This was in the weeks leading up to the February Vipassana retreat that I sat, which made driving my car to get there a particularly hazardous ordeal. It was, however, an apt way to prepare for the retreat as I was stuck at home for a number of days and spent that time in solitude and quiet, though it was also fraught with the difficulty of my cravings unleashed by that boredom and loneliness. But, as always, the retreat was a wonderful and much-needed re-grounding. The primary emotion that I took away from it was the feeling of confidence and love for the Buddha for having given us this wonderful gift of Dhamma. This is the meaning of the Pali word Saddha and I left the retreat feeling inspired and resolving to cultivate this confident faith in his teaching in order to avert the relapsing into old habit patterns that deviate me from the path.
This year, more than any other before, I redoubled my efforts to monitor and analyze the shifting patterns of my behavior over the year, and I commenced this by journaling to document those patterns both before and after the retreat. As occurs every year, this year witnessed a gradual decline in the quality and quantity of my meditation habit. This time, however, I have a detailed log of the process that also illuminates the time it took and yields insights that can be learned from. It took two months for the meditation habit to collapse completely. In that time, I documented several factors that contributed to this, namely 1) drinking in social occasions even if just a beer or two, 2) enhanced awareness of the deep ocean of misery around me and the urge to intoxicate that it engenders, 3) fatigue that causes me to miss the evening meditations and sleep later and thereby also miss the morning ones too, which ultimately leads to a slowing and eventual halting of the built-up momentum, and 4) cravings, mainly manifesting in the form of lust and intoxicants. My journal entries come to an abrupt halt on May 9th after a fateful event that occasioned this phase transition, and which involved the two latter cravings. In short, the lesson that can be gathered from this year is that meditation suffers when assaulted by what are often logistical complications, or more insidiously by intoxication, whether prompted by aversion or craving. Therefore, this reinforces what I have already known, namely that my practice will never truly take deep root until I begin to live the life of Sila, committing myself to abstinence from lying, stealing, killing, sexual misconduct and intoxication. But also, the lesson may be that perhaps I work too hard and would benefit from setting a bit firmer of boundaries between work and life, or else have a career change that is more accommodating to the life of the spirit.
One more positive development in my meditative life was that I was able to maintain a weekly group meditation with a fellow co-meditator, which helped to carry the torch forward through the tough months that followed the dissolution of my daily meditation practice. In addition to this, I strove to keep a complete record of the days on which a meditation happened, as well as records of the status of my various other habits of interest, so that I may be able to similarly extract helpful insights that will enable me to take an active agency over the contour of the trajectory of my life. For the first time, I scrupulously maintained this record for every single day of the year.
This development of the quantified life is what powers the main theme of the year, that is, to live an examined life because its converse is not worth living. That quote that is attributed to Socrates was always within thought’s reach all year long, and gave thrust to all my activities, such that they not be conducted in the darkness of closed eyes, but rather in the full light of day with wide open eyes. It resonates also with a novel I read in my childhood called “The Sword of Shannara”, wherein those who held the magical sword would be confronted with a self-truth so raw and potent that it caused their minds to break. Only the main character was strong enough to wield the sword, and used it to fulfill an epic hero’s quest. This is the metaphorical significance of the sword image for the year. It came to me several times during the year as a symbol of my at times brutal confrontations with truth, and vicious battle I constantly wage with denial in all its forms. The sword cuts those all away, and in so doing, provides a clear vision of truth—instantiated in my scrupulous self-examination processes. But the other side of an increased knowledge of self is a series of more effective actions in alignment with life goals. Thus, it is also used to cut away the unprofitable shrubs and branches that must be pruned swiftly and decisively in order to focus efforts on the right path. Again, this is the primary characteristic of the year, in that I have taken agency to develop my ability to live with purpose.
Powering this examined life is Python. I made the decision early in the year to transition all my data analysis from Matlab to Python, and this proved to be a massive game-changer. It is such an elegant and powerful language, and is also in such wide use that learning is has undoubtedly improved my value in the tech job market. It is also powering my personal analyses of the metrics that I am recording about my life: the aforementioned record of the habits that I want to monitor, such as how much I meditate, but also financial information. In fact, I am currently building a large and sophisticated python application to unite all the various financial information about my life to help me do planning and understand the performance of my investments better, as well as to compute projections and other important financial quantities that I am both learning about and implementing.
In terms of career, this theme manifested mainly across three strands. Firstly, I began the process of interviewing for jobs at other companies in order to begin moving up towards the next rung. I interviewed first at one big tech company and didn’t get the job and then at another, and as I write this I am still awaiting their response. I am excited about these opportunities but also feeling uncertain about relocating. At my current job, I am also experiencing lots of growth and taking on more responsibility in a way that feels natural as I have grown into the role over the past 3 years that I’ve worked here. At the same time, my financial sophistication is growing as I continue learning about money and how to invest. I have also started to become much more interested in real estate now that I have learned how the process works. Finally, I have begun to visualize what I want to do for the world, and that revolves around the concept of vertical farming, the idea for which came to me all of a sudden after having remained dormant since I was first introduced to the concept.
I have always been interested in the uniquely meditative act of nurturing plants. Since my childhood when I watched and learned from my grandfather who had large farms in my native Lebanon, I have always been inspired by the simplicity and harmoniousness of the occupation. Over the years, I have made small and subtle movements towards actualizing my desire to farm. The first of these was at my Santa Monica apartment that I attempted to beautify that was met with a harsh crackdown by the landlord. That event soured me to the whole affair, and it took a few years for the latent desire to emerge again, that time at my 2nd Redmond apartment. That attempt was also unsuccessful, however, mostly due to negligence on my part. I was finally able for the first time to reap the fruits of my labor this year when I grew some cucumbers, tomatoes and jalapenos, as well as some mint and thyme plants, on the side patio of my house. The feeling of satisfaction arising from eating vegetables that I had grown myself, having watered and cared for the plants over the course of a few months, was unparalleled. It awakened in me a strong need to keep doing this and planted the seed of that motivation inside my mind. This seed would later come to germinate when I was inspired by the concept of vertical farming as it was presented in a video I watched until I became utterly captivated by the idea. What so captured my mind’s interest was the unique blend of technical skill and the simplicity of a life of farming that it entailed, and also the potential for squeezing higher efficiency out of the system through clever optimizations. It struck me that this was a compact solution to several world problems related to the climate crisis as it is more land efficient allowing farm land to be reclaimed by trees and more water efficient enabling conservation of that resource that is likely to become ever scarcer in the coming years and decades, but also in that it encourages the eating of plants instead of animals, which will also be healthier due to the avoidance of using pesticides. My dad and I took the first baby steps towards realizing this dream by building a few prototypes of the concept and began planning for continued development of this technology. My current intention is to maintain this as a hobby on the side as I develop the idea and research the market. As with all things, it’ll take time for it to come to fruition.
Finally, a big milestone for our family occurred in 2019, namely the birth of my nephew Jake Joseph Samad. This has been a momentous occasion as he is the first of his generation in our family, marking the milestone of becoming solidly a part of the middle generation. He is a gem of child and is already exhibiting curiosity and development at an astonishing rate. May a giant of human arise out of this man-cub, and may he grace the world with ingenuity and compassion as we enter into the depths of this century.
In these and various other ways, life continues its procession. We come into this world staggered, and must navigate from our entry point till our exit. In these momentary existences, we pick up much from the world, but the truly wise among us are those that have learned to also give back. May I walk wisely, and may all beings be happy.

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