Editing Text As a Form of Meditation or Martial Arts Kata
Let me show you how to use text editing as a form of meditation or martial arts. I explain the mechanics of the tool and how it can be used to access the subconscious, like meditation and martial arts. Learn how to use text editing to access the flow state and improve your writing skills.
Unlocking the Power of Writing: Get Into the Zone Even When AI-Assisted
By Michael Levin
Saturday, May 6, 2023
My blog isn’t for everyone. It’s the sausage factory. It’d the channeling device. It’s how ideas are made. It’s where I go to get into that transcendent zone or flow place that makes us find what our subconscious is trying to tell us. Sure, your dreams are doing that too, but how many people have concrete expressible-in-words take-always from your dreams? If you’re lucky, you have some residual nagging feeling that may marginally help you with your waking-hours decisions. But for those who appreciate the practical application of subconscious dredging, I’m your guy and this is your place.
First, I’ll show you how it’s done. Sure there’s plenty of “focused” writing software with full-screen filter-out-the-noise modes. But how much are they charging you for that? And you need to stop thinking about the mechanics of the tool while you use it, so if you spend time mastering it, what if it goes away or you switch platforms or they decide to charge more or any number of other things that’ll remove your access from a proprietary tool? So there’s a tool and practice and making the apparatus of writing fade into the background sort of component to it. That alone is a show-stopper for most folks.
If you read this and still think “Just use Word” or “Just use Docs”, then you know not of what I speak, and move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Next up is withing that tool, the whole structured disciplined writing style is next. It’s a kind of ritual. Those who meditate and have a focal-point or an Om symbol, mantra, yadda yadda cosmic vibration of the universe and all. Well, in the same way Bohr’d quantum physicists can sweep away the real (and still quite unknown) underlying nature of reality to shut up and calculate, resulting in all our wonderful modern world, so too can the aspirational writer needing to find their flow shut up and write. It’s all just going through the motions without really understanding what the eff is going on… Just like science!
In martial arts, it’s called kata, or “form”. A kata has you starting out standing in some starting position, and then proceeding to step through a number of moves, usually fighting some imaginary opponent. The moves are all pre-determined and you’re supposed to do them in a certain order. There’s usually a beginning and an end. You can do the kata over and over again. It’s good to visualize your imaginary opponent. By practicing and mastering it, you’re internalizing tools into your body, learning the language of body motions.
We go through a similar process as katas, but automatically with learning to walk and talk. Spoken language is one of the best examples because we’re born without it and through no special effort, the child picks it up from the environment. The basics like actually having vocal chords, tongue, lips, etc. are all born into us, but then we start layering on new tools, programming ourselves. We layer-on the language of our parents and peers.
With martial arts, you’re similarly born with your arms and legs and have picked up walking (another equivalent to spoken language), but the kata is layered on top to expand your language of motion. Kata’s by the way are sort of the opposite of fighting in martial arts, called sparring. Both sparring and kata are important and the subject of tournament competitions.
Kata’s it would seem are for their own sakes, but over time you start to understand that it actually improves your sparring. Not only that, kata improves your every movement in life. There’s deep channeling in kata’s just like there is in other evolved-over-time practices like meditation and yes, you guessed it, writing!
So there’s a certain kata to writing. It’s something you’ve got to train yourself to do every day (or as close to it as you can manage). It’s not easy and takes discipline and there’s a thousand legitimate reasons most people will fail. Getting over that hump is precisely what the first, or introductory, katas are for. Lower your ambition-level. Lower your expectations. Just load a file and type “Hello World” and save it. Do that every day.
That’s a writing kata. Forget journaling at first. Forget delving into the deep recesses of your mind, thinking about thinking about thinking about… that meta-state is your enemy! It will derail you every time and is precisely the opposite of the zone/flow that is to be had, which is a valid prize, which many people enjoy the benefits of every day, in writing.
Over time, you work through more and more advanced katas until your motions are beyond those that seem possible to the uninitiated. I talk about vim a lot, but have you ever really watched someone using vim? I don’t think there’s a lot of good vim video out there. It’s mostly the techbro community trying to use it as a secret weapon, stuffing it with every plugin and making it the latest playground for posturing.
Nope. I could probably be just as effective in the “vi” program from the 1970s if I really trained myself. I like some of the modern amenities of the updated versions, vim and NeoVim. But when push comes to shove, my deeply ingrained vim muscle memory will help me be productive in vi just as quickly as it helped me be productive in NeoVim (overnight).
So, what’s the vim writing kata? Well, vimtutor is build into vim. You can just type vimtutor in most Linux command-lines and start learning it. It is a great introduction to the Linux command-line, the one true computer interface that will last you your entire life. This is unlike the mouse, touchpad and touchscreen gestures that will change from platform to platform. Their saving grace is that they’re so easy to learn, you can re-pick-up the app skills. But not so with writing skills utilizing a keyboard. Pointing devices optional (and arguably even detrimental).
Vimtutor will take awhile, as introductory katas do. It must be practices and repeated a lot, as introductory katas are.
The one key principle in life that is not layered on, mostly because today the proprietary vendors of Microsoft and Google are trying to get you to use their “easier” writing tools, are vi, vim and NeoVim. If you don’t want to just get good at tools then have them fade into the background but want to think about tools for the rest of your life while still having the power of an eternal internalizable able tool, then emacs may be for you. But that’s for another time. We’re just doing text martial arts here, not full-on reality-bending.
So, the one key principle is that of modal editing. I guarantee you you’re not going to like it, right up until you can’t imagine the world without it. I’ll give one very modern example to show you what I mean.
AI is butting its way into our lives. Have you noticed? It’s for better and for worse. But let’s say we want to develop its better uses and you want to invite it into your writing life. Well, if you’re a programmer, coder, developer or whatever then you probably use VSCode and you can use the Copilot plugin to get a sort of autocomplete that’ll have you believe it’s a sentient being that’s got your back. Wow, what an advantage!
Wouldn’t you like to have that advantage in our everyday writing too? Sure there’s the spellchecking, grammar and thesaurus aspect of it, but there’s also the actual processing of thought. Miss something? Start writing a list and see what Copilot suggests next. It’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself without a little bit of research, but now you can do it without taking your hand off the keyboard and interrupting your flow.
Yup, at first Copilot was throwing me out of my groove. I was like, “I don’t want to think about that right now, I’m trying to write!” But then I tied keyboard shortcuts onto my function keys representing dimmer and brighter to turn copilot off and on (respectively), haha! I make myself laugh.
And then an even more built-in and automatic solution occurred to me. I realized the “modal” writing style of vi/vim/NeoVim which is so objectionable to newbs getting started actually means that I can just hit the escape key and then I’m in command mode. Copilot shuts right up in command mode.
Let me explain. So you’re typing along with Copilot on and are about to come to a stop in your tappity tap taps and don’t want your thoughts predisposed with an Copilot suggestion when you stop typing. You just make your (completely automatic for vim-users) pinky-tap on the escape key as your final keystroke and you’ve slapped that zipper across Copilot’s mouth.
I mean how both modern and awesome is that? You can have your AI and make it shut-up too! That’s because in vim/vim/NeoVim, you’re not always in text-editing (a.k.a. insert) mode. You’re in command mode, which is where you can do all sorts of things like move around, delete, copy, paste, etc. But you’re not typing. So Copilot shuts up.
I think the importance of such subtly and nuance, and quite how far ahead NeoVim users have been catapulted into the future, is lost on most people. That’s not surprising, because the advantages of vi/vim/NeoVim is lost on most people too.
Think about it this way. Microsoft invested $10 billion dollars into OpenAI. For an investment like that, you’d think that you’d have an exclusive on what text editors to integrate it into, namely Microsoft’s own VSCode. But nope, two others got it. One is this strange proprietary wildcard called JetBrains, previously IntelliJ which serves the Java community.
The other is the free and opens source NeoVim, for which there is absolutely no financial incentive for Microsoft to support. Nobody’s paying to get NeoVim support. It’s just there because it’s the right thing to do. Think about that. Microsoft as the owner of Github could easily have made this amazing Copilot feature exclusive to VSCode.
Anyhoo, that just about wraps up what I want to say in this writing session. I’ve emptied out the stuff nagging my subconscious, at least on this topic. It led me to wonder why in the heck JetBrains got Copilot support. Did they pay Microsoft/Github, or is there a story here similar to NeoVim? I’ll pay closer attention to that and watch where Copilot goes next. I also need to check out Amazon’s Code Whisperer at some point.
But there you have it. Writing is like thinking if you let it be. You can encode your thoughts to bits like water flowing onto paper. It just doesn’t come naturally or right away. It takes practice, and even though it may seem intimidating, daunting or even too technical when you watch someone in vi/vim/NeoVim at first, it’s not. It’s just that they got their text-katas down.