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May 11, 2007

Zeno, Buddha and Program Development

It is the end of the school year, when bodies rebel against indoor confinement, when final exams are nervously taken and mostly passed, and edgy students sleepwalk across campus in not-so-fresh T-shirts. It is finally spring time in Colorado, or so I was told by less than reliable locals. My thinking naturally drifts from the every-day and mundane things like reporting, grades and budgets to observations on human lives and relationships. I was thinking about overinvestment in beliefs.

Many people, from Zeno of Citium to Siddhārtha Gautama, AKA Buddha, argued against excessive attachment, that is, essentially, clinging too closely to anything: desires, ideas, thoughts. I am always extremely suspicious of passionate beliefs people have about anything. I cannot help but wonder, why are you so attached to it? What makes this link between a person and a belief so strong? What is the story behind it, and what does this attachment replace in your life?

OK, let’s assume we have a disagreement among colleagues. Let’s just say some people believe in A, while others believe in B. And it is so happened that B people seem to prevail, because there are more of them. But then A people have hard time accepting the outcome, because they have strong belief that the B people are wrong, and A is the only way to go. Keep in mind that we do not really have any positive knowledge of whether A or B is correct; we simply don’t know, and won’t know until we actually experiment. Knowing how education works, one must admit there is an extremely high probability of being no great difference between A and B. In education, there are no strong effects. In such circumstances, you would expect relatively low level of discontent. Instead, you hear exaggerated claims about certain ruin that awaits our programs, etc. Why is that? How do people grow so attached to A or to B, so they cannot let those ideas go?

The answer is in the phenomenon of switching motives: the disagreement appears to be about a certain issues, but is in fact about something else. The participants may or may not realize the deeper motives for disagreement, but the real ones will never be discussed in public. There was a long history to this disagreement, a history in which one side’s victory gradually became another side’s loss. The history is more about power, respect, mutual suspicions, retributions, real or perceived injustice; it is the history of skirmishes and small victories and defeats. So, the meaning of A/B dichotomy becomes excessively rich in human relationships, and their residue. At some point, it becomes very difficult for people just to say, “OK, whatever”, because all of the relational connotations of the decision.

What is the lesson here? A purely philosophical one was known well to both the Stoics and the Buddhists: do not let yourself be attached to any idea too strongly, especially to a fairly trivial one like A vs. B. Such an attachment will only hurt, whether you end up in a losing of a winning camp. Such attachments will distort reality, create anxiety and generally make people unhappy. They create a need that can never ever be satisfied.

There is also an organizational lesson: Let disagreements be resolved quickly, so there is no time for people to grow strong attachments to competing ideas. Do not create situations where people who are in conflict will be able to latch on ideas to justify their personal animosities. Where there is already mistrust, all A vs. B and C vs .D disagreements are surely to take semi-permanent, exaggerated significance. Resolving them becomes very costly to institutions, because small disagreements grow into huge issues over which people resign, leave or feel alienated. All of this is both unnecessary and damaging to an organization, not to mention personally hurtful and distracting.

And now something completely different. As we were dancing at yesterday’s party, I thought this Russian’s rock-n-roller has some nice lyrics:

I fear all infants, I fear all the dead
My fingers carefully feel my face again
My insides’re cold from the spasm of dread –
What if I am just like all those people, plain?

All these people who live just above me,
All these people who live just below me,
All these people who snore in the room next door,
All these people who live under ground floor?

I would have given anything for a couple of wings,
I would have given anything for an extra eye,
For a hand with exactly fourteen long fingers,
To breath I need very different air.

Their tears are salty, and laughter is rough,
Nothing for all is ever enough,
They like to see their faces in morning papers,
But yesterday’s papers are thrown to waste

All these people who make little babies
All these people who suffer from constant pain
All these people who shoot at other people,
But who cannot eat food without salt.

They would have given anything for a couple of wings,
They would have given anything for an extra eye,
For a hand with exactly fourteen long fingers,
To breath they need very different air.

—Vyacheslav Butusov, lead singer/song writer, Nautilus Pompilius

1 comment:

  1. Yes, you are right: people are rabidly passionate about their respective religious beliefs because all are equally probable or equally improbable. They are passionate because they want certainty which, alas, is not given to man in the nature of things. This search cognitive certainty and the predictability about the world around is in turn a quest for biological security. The Indian savant rightly said so long as death is there religion will be there. Unlike animals, which do not seem to feel insecure in the presence of other species each of which perhaps has a different worldview, individual human beings have haunting questions for which there are no certain answers. Anyone with a modicum of philosophical education and/or reflection knows this. But he wants the security of the certainty of his beliefs. Religion which arises as a bulwark of certainty and thus a fortress becomes a prison because people are afraid of coming out of this prison clung to as a fortress. Science, on the other hand, is an open highway, where everything is axiomatically provisional.

    I have the personal experience of failure in my attempt to draw out a doctoral student of mine--he is in his late fifties now and completed his Ph.D. just two months ago. I had asked him to work on the model of Professor Dillon's book, 'Jesus as a Teacher' but with the founder of his religion in the place of Jesus. He did commendable work but all my attempts to draw him out of his traditional worldview even as a hypothetical excursion failed. I tried to get him see the Buddha's view of religious 'beliefs' as but provisional instruments to transcend beyond the frozen, reified worldviews smuggled into us during our childhood. No, I made no sense to him. His consciousness--why, for that matter his whole psyche--was frozen, reified.

    My own understanding of the Buddha's view-rather, position--is that we must reach back to the roots of our pristine, infantile consciousness which William James rightly described as a blooming buzzing confusion and yet sanguine and serene unless troubled by internal or external sensory distress-- and anchor there.' Don't ask any questions about the future or the past but live in the spontaneity of the perennial present'. 'Float with the flow of consciousness'. Any belief--even scientific belief-- is superfluous.