When I set out on this monastic engineering experience, I was more than a little nervous. I had no idea what was going to happen, but that was the point. To move outside my comfort zone and to spend a big part of each day focused on creating without any expectations, just so I could find out what would happen.

The biggest unexpected consequence of this experiment has been fantastic. Over the past four or so years my perspective has slowly improved. It’s almost as though I have picked up a new pair of spectacles and the world has become more vibrant and nuanced. Or maybe it’s more like I’m starting to perceive the world in extra dimensions? Little threads of design and influence woven through our society and history become more noticable each day. Imagine if one morning you could wake up as a mantis shrimp, and bam! - you suddenly see the world as a thermonuclear bomb of light and beauty.

As a kid my parents enrolled me in this Japanese tutoring system called Kumon. It was presented to me a bit like eating your vegetables: “This is something you need to do! It will help you get better at maths”. Needless to say, my relationship with Kumon was rocky at best. Each day, including weekends I spent 10-20 minutes completing little notebooks filled with mental arithmetic, and wow did it feel like a chore. I was so focused on ‘becoming better’ at Maths that I completely missed the real lesson of thermonuclear light and beauty.

An ensō circle drawn onto a correctly filled page of Kumon.

When you correctly answer all the questions on a page, the person marking your work draws a large circle. As a kid I just thought that this was a bit different, and must have been some “Japanese thing.”

Fast forward to my daily practice as an engineering monk and the best account on Instagram (europa_and_back) posted this gem:

“In the Japanese sōsho (草書) tradition, the ensō circle is drawn by hand in one fluid, swift motion. After the circle is drawn, one does not change it. Mastering the circle takes many attempts and drawing is spiritual practice that is usually performed once a day. In the tradition of the Studio, we may use a piece of cardboard, a pin, and a sharpie to achieve a sufficiently enlightened enso on our first try. After a circle is drawn, we do not change it.”

Well shit. A part of my childhood now makes way more sense. That ensō wasn’t just a “Japanese thing” but an important link to the philosophy that underpins Kumon. It wasn’t really about becoming good at English or maths at all, but was a system of daily practice to teach me how to focus my attention. The becoming good at something was a side effect of forming a ritualized daily habit.

So yeah. I have continued it as intergenerational ‘trend’ and I coax my kid into completing a Kumon booklet each day. Although this time around it’s not to teach her to ‘eat her vegetables’ and improve her maths skills. But rather I hope to teach her how to overcome inertia. How the adversity and daunt imposed by a body of work exists everywhere, no matter how ‘fun’ it may seem. If she can master her concentration and learn to focus energy into overcoming this mental inertia, she may succeed in becoming ‘enlightened’ in whatever fields that interest her.

So each day I practice drawing circles in one fluid, swift motion and my daughter rates the quality of my ensō as I grade her mental arithmetic. She gets really excited when I draw a fairly enlightened ensō, and starts to discover how to become a master of her own concentration.


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