So Far (1) – To Take or Not to Take?

Having recently observed my 65th birthday, I’ve been rather surprised at how often of late I find myself thinking about my past.  Perhaps there’s some sort of life-review process that gets activated with the passage across this iconic birthdate, upon which one officially becomes a “senior citizen”.  Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of the past making itself more present in consciousness, as our once seemingly infinite future begins its inevitable shrinkage into a much more finite size.

  Whatever the cause, this sudden spurt of memories has prompted me to take my blogging in a new direction.  In what I hope will become an ongoing series of occasional biographical posts, I plan to examine old experiences in the fresh light of my current understanding of mindfulness practice and Buddhist philosophy.  These posts will constitute a much more personal form of “engaged mindfulness” than the more conceptual entries usually featured in this blog.  I hope that they will be as useful and enjoyable for you to read as I expect they will be for me to write.

The series title “So Far” refers both to my appreciation for all that I’ve experienced and learned in life so far, and to my anticipation of all there is yet to experience and learn in the time that remains.  I still have so far to go….

“To Take or Not to Take”

I’ve never been very skillful at asking for what I want, but I’ve never had to wonder why that’s so. My mother, quite unintentionally, made certain that I would always know why.  She had a favorite tale about my early childhood, and for many years she told it over and over again to relatives, friends, and – much to my discomfort in late adolescence – to almost every girl I ever dated!

According to the story, when I was around two years old, my parents had some friends over to visit one Sunday afternoon, and there was a bowl of pretzels on the coffee table around which the grown-ups were sitting and talking (and no doubt smoking – it was 1951).  In the midst of this gathering, I toddled over to the table, reached into the bowl, and raised a pretzel toward my mouth. With my arm still in motion, my mother told me that I should not have taken the pretzel on my own, that the polite thing was to wait until I was offered one. And without a word of protest, I returned the unbitten pretzel back to the bowl.

This prompt and unquestioning obedience of mine must have impressed the guests, and it surely must have made my mother very proud of me.  I was such a good boy!

I actually have no memory of this event, and know of it only through having so often heard the story.  But here’s a related incident that occurred a year or two later, when I was around four years old, and that I remember perfectly well.

I was at a birthday party for a boy who lived just a short way down the block from the three-family residence where we rented our apartment.  When it was time for dessert, the boy’s mother brought out a large platter overflowing with chocolate-iced, cream-filled chocolate cupcakes, which happened at the time to be my favorite dessert.

Apparently it was the favorite dessert of all my fellow partygoers as well, for as soon as she placed the platter on the table, there was a stampede of shouting children, everyone with outstretched hands grabbing for those cupcakes and gobbling them down with a ferocious, gleeful abandon.

Everyone, that is, except me.  I stood frozen in front of the table, unwilling to take one for myself.

The boy’s mother noticed, and asked me what was the matter, didn’t I like these cupcakes?  I answered her, “Yes, I like them very much, I was just waiting for you to give me one.”  After all, wasn’t that what I had learned two years ago with that bowl of pretzels?

As she handed me one of the few cupcakes still remaining, she said, “You know, if you just wait to be given something that you want, you might never get it.”

Long before I would come to know what the term meant, I experienced for the first time in my life the uncomfortable sensation of cognitive dissonance.  I still, to this very day, remember viscerally the physical jolt I felt at those words of hers.  I had been taught – or at least, so I thought – by my parents that I always had to be polite and wait for food to be offered, that it was wrong to take it just because I wanted it, and that I might be reprimanded if I did so.  And here was this woman – a parental figure of authority – instructing me to do exactly the opposite, and to my immature ears it even sounded a bit like she was reprimanding me for not taking something that I wanted.

So, which was correct?  Take it?  Don’t take it?

I had no idea.

But, I had gotten my cupcake!  So, I simply went home from the party, forgot about the conundrum, and continued to abide by the rules of my upbringing.  As I grew older, the injunction against taking food before it was offered morphed into a more generalized inhibition about asking for anything that I wanted.  For many years of my adult life, I approached any situation that called for me to state clearly what I wanted much like that little boy at the party – holding back, waiting for the other person to somehow intuit what I wanted and then offer it to me.

Unsurprisingly, this strategy never worked out as favorably as it had at that long-ago party.  There was never any sympathetic woman or man on hand, puzzled by my behavior but ready to give me what I was too afraid to take for myself.  Instead, in my personal relationships there were repeated instances of unskillful communication resulting in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  And, over the course of my professional career there were repeated incidents of unskillful communication with supervisors resulting in missed opportunities and disappointing assignments.

For a long time in my adult life, I interpreted my poor communication in these situations as the product of what I called “my deferential personality”, and I traced it all the way back to the pretzel and cupcake incidents from my childhood.  I often engaged in the unskillful practice of “if-only” wishful thinking.  It would go something like, “If only my mother hadn’t forbade me to take that pretzel, then I would be a much more assertive person today.”  This thought was comforting in that it offered me an excuse for my poor communication skills, but damaging in that it gave me no incentive to change them.  In this interpretation, I was simply the victim of an unfortunate circumstance.

In recent years, my meditation practice has helped me to see the fallacy in that kind of wishful thinking.  The most helpful insight I’ve gained has come from beginning to understand the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination”, according to which each event in our lives can be seen as originating out of, and therefore dependent upon, everything else that has happened to us up to that point.  This accumulation of all the events making up our personal history is often referred to as the “causes and conditions” from which all things arise.

Viewing the pretzel incident through the lens of dependent origination, the fallacy of my wishful “if-only” thought is clearly revealed.  From this perspective, there was no “unfortunate circumstance” that shouldn’t have happened.  Rather, what happened in that circumstance was exactly what should have happened.  My mother’s admonition arose out of her lifetime of experiences, which made her place a high premium on what she saw as polite social manners on the part of her 2-year-old son.  And the little boy who obediently put that pretzel back did so because in his brief years of experience, he had come to place a high premium on being obedient and getting praised for it.  Parental approval was more satisfying to me than any pretzel could ever be.

I was hardly a victim in that situation.  I got exactly what I wanted – praise and approval.  The problem was not the incident.  Again, to cite dependent origination, what happened in that situation was the natural outcome of all that had preceded it.  This was the case both for my mother and for me.  The problem was that, in my youthful naiveté, I learned the wrong lesson.  My mother wanted me to learn how to be polite and exhibit what she considered to be good social manners, but what I mistakenly learned instead was that wanting things could get me reprimanded.

And so, continuing with the notion of dependent origination, it becomes very clear that my erroneous learning at the age of two contributed substantially to the making of the four-year-old boy who refused to take a cupcake that he really wanted, even in a situation where “polite social manners” were the last thing expected of him, and the last thing on display among his peers.

Looking back now, I’m fairly certain that my behavior at the party was the last thing that either of my parents intended for me as well.  And, just as I can’t remember the pretzel incident, they never knew about the cupcake incident.  I didn’t know how to tell them.  I even thought, at the time, that somehow they might be angry with me.

In terms of how it continued to play out in my later life, the conclusion my two-year-old self came to in that moment at the pretzel bowl – that it was always wrong to take what I wanted – was momentous.  But in terms of what dependent origination has shown me, it was nothing other than the natural outcome of all the causes and conditions of my upbringing up to that point.  Another two-year-old in a similar situation, but coming from a different set of causes and conditions, might easily have drawn a different conclusion – such as, always ask before you take a pretzel, or always make sure your parents aren’t looking before you take one without asking.  But my two-year-old self, with my unique set of causes and conditions, concluded that it was best just to never take one.

Likewise, the behavior that arose for me at the birthday party two years later was based upon the accumulation of the causes and conditions of my life at that point in time, including of course the pretzel bowl incident.  And so on, in each succeeding occasion where I failed to ask for something I wanted, I was acting under the accumulated weight of a lifetime’s worth of causes and conditions prompting me not to ask.

It was always unskillful behavior.  But for me to wish “if only that incident with the pretzel bowl had never happened” was even more unskillful – and totally irrelevant.  Everything that happened on that fateful (for me) day, and everything that happened subsequent to it, was simply a matter of the preceding causes and conditions giving rise to each new instance of unskillful communication.

So here I am now, with what feels like a more skillful understanding of my life-long pattern of poorly communicating my wants and desires, and with what I hope will prove to be more skillfulness in communicating them going forward, thanks to this new insight regarding dependent origination.

One unskillful tendency I still struggle with a bit is regretting that it took me such a long time to come to this insight.  I’m sometimes tempted to wonder how various situations in the past would have turned out if I had been more able to state what I wanted.

But dependent origination helps me with this as well.  It took such a long time because that’s how much time was needed for the appropriate causes and conditions to emerge such that I could arrive at the insight.

And with this understanding, I’m able to let go of all wishful thinking, and then I’m left with no regrets.

Well, actually, I do still have one regret ….

I never saw the birthday boy’s mother again.  My family moved away from the neighborhood not long after the party, and a year or so after that, the entire block was razed to make way for a neighborhood playground.  So she – and all our other neighbors – had to move away as well.  Our families never saw each other again.

When she handed me that cupcake and offered me her advice, she became my first teacher – a full year before I entered first grade in elementary school.  I wish it were somehow possible to let her know that, even now, some sixty years on, I still see her handing me that cupcake, and I still hear her well-meaning words.

I know that I won’t ever get to fulfill that wish, but I’m grateful that I get to keep the memory.



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Our Divided Minds – Part 2

My last post explored the eminent social psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s description of our minds as divided into two separate but cooperating functional units, to which he gave the simple names “System 1” and “System 2”.  Now, in this continuation post, we’ll move on to another highly regarded social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, and dip into his recent book The Righteous Mind to consider his views on our divided minds.

In contrast to Kahneman, whose focus is on the individual’s decision-making process, Haidt focuses on the individual’s opinion-forming process.  And, as he signals with the subtitle he has given to his book (“Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”), his attention is focused on the most polarizing opinions we can form.  Most of us all too easily lose our composure in the face of either a political sentiment or a religious conviction that differs strongly from our own.  Haidt wants to help us better understand why this is so, in the hope that by understanding the phenomenon a little better, we might begin to understand those we disagree with a little better as well.

Also in contrast to Kahneman, Haidt gives us a much more colorful pair of labels for his proposed dual components of the mind – “the rider” and “the elephant”.  Here is his description of how these two parts interact:

I call these two kinds of cognition the rider (controlled processes, including “reasoning-why”) and the elephant (automatic processes, including emotion, intuition, and all forms of “seeing-that”).  I chose an elephant rather than a horse because elephants are so much bigger – and smarter – than horses.  Automatic processes run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years, so they’re very good at what they do, like software that has been improved through thousands of product cycles.  When human beings evolved the capacity for language and reasoning at some point in the last million years, the brain did not rewire itself to hand over the reins to a new and inexperienced charioteer.  Rather, the rider (language-based reasoning) evolved because it did something useful for the elephant.

The rider can do several useful things.  It can see further into the future (because we can examine alternative scenarios in our heads) and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present.  It can learn new skills and master new technologies, which can be deployed to help the elephant reach its goals and sidestep disasters.  And, most important, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking.  The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.  

The model [is one] in which intuition is the main cause of moral judgment, and then reasoning typically follows that judgment to construct post hoc justifications.  Reason is the servant of the intuitions.  The rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant.  {pp. 53-54, softcover edition}

In a number of ways, Haidt’s model aligns well with Kahneman’s.  If we superimpose “the rider” over “system 2” and “the elephant” over “system 1”, we will find many consistencies.  For example, with regard to the first two of the useful things Haidt claims the rider can do – examining alternate courses of action and learning new skills – both are excellent examples of what Kahneman calls system 2 slow thinking.  And as another example, where Kahneman refers to system 2 as lazy and hence always eager to hand back control to the energetic system 1, Haidt’s metaphor makes it abundantly clear that the puny rider (system 2) is simply not as powerful as the mammoth elephant (system 1).  For Kahneman it’s lack of comparable energy, for Haidt it’s lack of comparable strength, but whichever term you prefer – system 1 fast thinking or the intuitive elephant – that’s what holds the upper hand.  Kahneman flatly declares that system 1 is running the show; Haidt says with equal bluntness, the elephant rules.

While these conceptual similarities make us comfortable with both theories, there is something a little unsettling about the way Haidt characterizes the two parts of the mind.  It offends our notion of human dignity to imagine ourselves as being controlled by an unruly elephant within, while there is hardly anything at all offensive in recognizing ourselves as under the influence of a neutral entity called “system 1”.

It’s this unsettling effect it has on us that gives Haidt’s terminology its effectiveness.  He wants us to feel that elephant underneath us, not just to know that it’s there.  We understand the difference between system 1 and system 2 in our head, but we feel the difference between the rider and the elephant in our gut.

Feelings are the critical component here.  Remember that Haidt’s interest is in understanding how we form opinions – in particular, how we form our moral opinions, our views on what’s right and what’s wrong.  And he is unequivocal in asserting that it’s our elephant that decides between right and wrong – instantaneously and intuitively.  Our rider rationalizes as best it can, often clumsily and inarticulately, and always after the fact, what the elephant decided without hesitation.

In short, Haidt is asserting that our moral opinions spring entirely from our instinctive, inborn feelings.  The reasons we come up with to explain these feelings are nothing more than our best attempts at justifying our views to others.  Haidt cites numerous cross-cultural studies and social psychology experiments in support of his assertion.  I won’t recount any of them here, but I will vouch for nearly every one of them as being thought-provoking, entertaining, and sometimes even a bit upsetting.  So, if you’re interested in more details, I encourage you to read his book.  You will not be disappointed.

My interest here is in exploring how we can use Haidt’s ideas about the roots of our moral behavior to become more mindful in the ways we engage with others, especially when it comes to politically or religiously charged topics where thoughtful conversation so often breaks down into emotional ranting and raving.

To begin with, we can keep in mind that one thing we all have in common is that we all have “divided minds”.  If we accept that each of us is a rider on an elephant, then we should be able to agree with the following four assertions:

1. Our own convictions about any moral issue – political, religious, or otherwise – arise from deep-seated feelings that we have little control over.

2. The same goes for the convictions held by others.  Whether we agree with them or disagree with them, their convictions are also arising from deep-seated feelings that they have little control over.

3. Much of what we say by way of explaining our convictions is based upon our compelling need to justify ourselves to others.

4. The same goes for everyone else.  They too have the same compelling need to justify themselves to us.

While it’s possible to read these four statements as an argument that the possibility of authentic communication between my self-justifying rider and yours is all but hopeless, I think there is an opening above, in point #3, for mindfulness to make a difference.

If we have the capacity to understand that much of what we say by way of explaining our convictions is based upon our compelling need to justify ourselves to others, then we also have the capacity to exercise the option of simply of not saying it.

At least, not right away.

Not until we have paused long enough for two things to occur.  First, pause long enough to be certain that we have truly heard and understood what the other person is saying.  Second, pause long enough to be certain that what we are about to say is as free from self-justification as we can possibly render it.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey argued that such a pause allows us to move from reacting to responding.  Applying this insight to what we’ve been learning from Haidt, we might say that such a pause creates an opening for the rider to respond before the elephant can react.  The elephant may always be stronger, but the rider can sometimes be smarter.

One way we can train the rider in us to be smarter than our elephant is to cultivate mindful awareness.  If we are not paying attention, the elephant will always get its way.  We have to be aware enough that we will remember in the moment that we need to pause in order to respond instead of react.

And of course, one way to cultivate mindful awareness is to practice meditation.  Especially vipassana meditation, where we focus our attention on the continuous stream of thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind as we are sitting in stillness.  What better way to become more aware of all the ego-centered, self-justifying opinions we cling to?

With such increased awareness, we can become more skillful at pausing, at keeping our elephants in check, at letting go of some of our self-justifications, and at responding to others instead of reacting to them.

The concluding paragraphs for this post come from Jonathan Haidt’s moving exhortation to his readers on the last page of The Righteous Mind ….

This book explained why people are divided by politics and religion.  The answer is not because some people are good and others are evil.  Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness.  We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning.  This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.

So the next time you find yourself seated beside someone from another matrix, give it a try.  Don’t just jump right in. Don’t bring up morality until you’ve found a few points of commonality or in some other way established a bit of trust.  And when you do bring up issues of morality, try to start with some praise, or with a sincere expression of interest.

We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.                                      {pp. 370-371, softcover edition}


You can read the New York Times book review of The Righteous Mind that got me interested in Jonathan Haidt’s work here

And you can find lots more reading and viewing materials on his work here.






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Our Divided Minds – Part 1

Two books I’ve read recently – The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – offer some surprising new insights into how our minds function.  Both authors are social psychologists renowned in their field (Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner), and each describes the mind as a divided entity, with two components  working in complementary yet vastly different ways.  Kahneman’s broad focus is on the mind’s decision-making process across all aspects of our life; Haidt’s is a more narrow focus on how the mind formulates our political and religious convictions.  Kahneman’s ideas enrich our understanding of the concept of mindfulness; Haidt’s ideas have the potential to enhance our skillfulness in engaging with others more mindfully.

Let’s start with Kahneman.

He identifies the two aspects of the mind as simply “System 1” and “System 2”.   Here is how he describes their individual roles and their joint functioning:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no sense of voluntary control.  System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.  When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.  Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero, effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.  {pp. 20-21, hardcover edition}

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake.  System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode.  System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings.  If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs.  When all goes smoothly, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification.  When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment.  System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.  System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior – the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night.   {p. 24, hardcover edition}

We might think of System 1 as the “automatic pilot mode” that efficiently guides us through our familiar daily routines.  Getting dressed, driving to town, shopping for groceries, conversing with family members over dinner – these and the countless other habitual behaviors that make up such a large part of our days – all are managed by this System 1 that has learned through repeated trials exactly what is required in each situation.

If we consider System 1 to be the mind’s automatic pilot, then we can view System 2 as the actual pilot, monitoring the cockpit instruments and taking control when situations turn from familiar to novel.  Planning a large-scale home improvement project, driving through the unfamiliar streets of a foreign city, pondering a mid-life career change – any unforeseen or non-habitual circumstance emerging in the course of the day calls upon the services of System 2 to devise a program of action that meets the requirements of the novel situation.

In this scheme of things, System 1 is our default mode of being – the “fast thinking” that Kahneman refers to in his title.  System 2 – or “slow thinking” – is invoked only when needed, and revoked as soon as the need is met.  System 1 does the easy work, System 2 does the hard work – an efficiently designed bit of neurological teamwork.

Very neat, we might say.  But, unfortunately, too neat – and not nearly as effective as we might think.

The problem, as Kahneman reminds us on more than one occasion, is that System 2 is lazy.  It doesn’t want to exert any more effort than it has to, and is always eager to hand the controls back over to System 1.  Too eager, in fact.  All too often, in keeping with its lazy disposition, it shies away from the difficult work of slow thinking, and looks instead for an easier, faster solution.

Kahneman refers to these shortcuts in slow thinking as “heuristics”, and identifies quite a few varieties of them.  What they all have in common is the tendency to substitute a simpler question for the more complex one actually being posed.  As an example, he cites the challenge of predicting a politician’s chances of success in a planned bid for higher office.  A reliable answer requires a large investment of System 2 slow thinking – studying the demographics, understanding the issues, assessing possible opponents, just to name a few.  But, Kahneman claims, we are more likely to shy away from the difficult effort of analyzing these unfamiliar factors, and instead base our prediction on the much easier task of looking at information that we already know, or that is readily available – for example, how successful was the candidate in her last election bid, or how charming was he in the interview we just saw on the morning news?  We arrive at an answer much faster and with much less effort, thanks to System 2 passing the task back to System 1 – but our prediction has much less reliability because we didn’t take the time and effort to answer the difficult but more relevant questions.

Taking into account this natural tendency of our mind to go for the easy solution, to engage in fast thinking even when slow thinking is called for, can help us move toward more effective decision-making – one of Kahneman’s stated goals in writing this book.  His hope is that, having learned about heuristics and the trouble they can cause from the many studies he reports on in his book, we will become more alert to those situations where we truly need to be in System 2 slow thinking mode, and more disciplined about resisting the temptation to slip back into System 1 fast thinking mode.

That’s a worthy hope.  But, is just knowing about the trap of heuristics enough to keep us from falling victim to them?  Remember that System 2 by its very nature is lazy, and will take any opportunity to hand things back to System 1.  To alter such a strongly programmed pattern of neurological functioning will take more, I fear, than a mere intellectual understanding of heuristics.

And here, where I believe Kahneman’s good intention falls short, is precisely where our understanding of mindfulness can push us forward and help us achieve his objective.

For mindfulness – the habit of being continuously self-aware and self-observing – is strikingly similar to what Kahneman describes as System 2 thinking.  Recall this assertion he makes in the excerpt quoted above …. System 2 is also credited with the continuous monitoring of your own behavior – the control that keeps you polite when you are angry, and alert when you are driving at night. 

And, as anyone who strives to cultivate the habit of mindfulness well knows, it is by no means our default mode of being.  That distinction, unfortunately, belongs to the habitual, automatic patterns of behavior we have acquired over the course of our lifetime – thoughtless speech and actions that resemble nothing so much as what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking.

Applying Kahneman’s typology to the concept of mindfulness, then, we see that our normal un-mindful state corresponds to his default fast-thinking System 1 mode, and that the more deliberate state of mindful awareness we achieve only with some effort corresponds to his slow-thinking System 2 mode that arises only when summoned by circumstance.

Thus, the System 1/System 2 dichotomy enriches our understanding of mindfulness by giving us a scientific framework from which to realize that the mindful state is not our natural way of being, to appreciate that it will always take a certain effort on our part to enter into and then sustain a state of mindfulness, and to recognize that our minds will naturally slip out of that mindful state at the first little breeze of distraction.

And, we can return the favor to Kahneman by enriching his too facile prescription for how we can become more skillful users of our System 2 capacities – the intellectual grasp of heuristics and their pitfalls – with the physical rigor of meditation practice, the most potent tool we have for developing mindfulness.

Think for a moment about the disciplines we bring to our practice of sitting meditation – physical stillness, concentration, and inquiry.  The thoughts and feelings that continually parade through our mind while we sit are manifestations of System 1.  They are fast, random, and often dazzle us with their appeal; they pull us away from our intention in meditating.  By contrast, the calm focus we aspire to while sitting has all the attributes of System 2.  It is slow, deliberate, and aware of but not easily seduced by distractions; it pulls us further into our intention.

We practice meditation on a regular basis for no other reason than to become more mindful and to bring that mindfulness into all our daily speech and actions.

It seems quite plausible that when we practice meditation we are coincidentally, if unintentionally, strengthening the System 2 part of our minds.  And furthermore, it seems equally plausible that, as a result of a continuous daily meditation practice, our strengthened System 2 grows less lazy, and more capable of resisting the allure of heuristics.

One of the great paradoxes with meditation is that, when we practice with the hope of getting something out of it, we actually undercut the practice by our grasping after some imagined benefit; but when we practice without hope of gain, we strengthen the practice by our very lack of grasping after something, and do in fact benefit personally from our practice.

Accordingly, I am by no means advocating that we sit in meditation with the intention of building up our System 2 strength.  That would be grasping – precisely what we strive to avoid in meditation.  Rather, I am simply proposing that a stronger System 2, one that actually does the hard work of slow thinking when called upon, may be an unintended gain that results from the discipline of meditation.

Kahneman would, I think, describe a person with such a strong, competent, and effective System 2 as a good decision-maker.

Another way to describe such a person would be, quite simply, as “mindful”.


The next post will take up the views of our second author, Jonathan Haidt, on our divided minds.

In the meantime, here is the review of Thinking, Fast and Slow that got me interested in Daniel Kahneman’s work …..


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Mindfulness Quotes and Comments

Every writer must, of necessity, be a reader as well.  Every one of the topics I write about in this blog has been informed in one way or another by what I have been reading on the subjects of mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism. It’s one of the cornerstones of my daily practice, and in this post I want to share a few favorite quotes on mindfulness from my reading over the past few years.

Insight always has the power of liberating us.  The energy of mindfulness enables us to look deeply and gain the insight we need so that transformation is possible.  ~~  Thich Nhat Hahn, “Peace Is Every Step”

What we need is a fundamental change in our orientation to life – toward a willingness to see, to learn, to just be with whatever we meet.  There is nothing more basic and essential than this willingness to just be.   ~~   Ezra Bayda, “Being Zen”

Instead of gathering many pieces of information seeking to gain knowledge, you should clear your mind.  If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.  ~~  Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

The source of wisdom is whatever is happening to us right at this very instant.  How we relate to it creates the future.  What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.  ~~  Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart”

The imperfect is our paradise.  May we attend with mindfulness, generosity, and compassion to all that is broken in our lives.  May we live fully in each flawed and too human moment, and thereby gain the victory.  ~~  Phillip Simmons, “Learning to Fall”

When we are just ourselves, without pretense or artifice, we are at rest in the universe.  In this ordinariness there is no higher or lower, nothing to fix, nothing to desire, simply an opening to the joys and sufferings of the world.  ~~  Jack Kornfield, “A Path With Heart”

Every thought, every feeling, no matter how mixed up it may seem, is wise at bottom.  Every thought, every feeling, has some Buddha message for you, if you can only get close enough to listen.  ~~  Norman Fischer, “Sailing Home”

Each of these quotes has its own unique beauty and wisdom, and I believe that each of them offers an insight that has the power to transform us.  For the past several years, each quote served as a masthead on one of the seven pages of a website I maintained for a consulting business I operated.  Having recently closed that business and now in the process of shutting down the website, I re-discovered them while archiving the site contents for possible future use.  I thought that they deserved a second online life here in my blog, and hence this post.

Over the next few months, I plan to re-visit the books from which these quotes originate, and will write in more detail about each of them in future posts.

In the meantime, I hope that reading and reflecting upon these brief gems of wisdom will be as useful for you as it was for me.  And if any of them particularly resonates with you, please feel welcome to share your thoughts via a comment.

Posted in Books, Buddhism, Mindfulness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Our Tragic Hunger for More

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

When young Oliver Twist makes his famous request for a second helping of the miserable food being served to him and his fellow orphans at the start of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, it’s all but impossible for the reader not to be moved by the simple humanity of his plea.  We all understand what it feels like to be hungry, and so we all readily empathize with Oliver’s hunger for more.

But in David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, as well as in the recent film adaptation of the book, we encounter the phrase “hunger for more” in a strikingly different context.  At the center of a sweeping plotline that encompasses several centuries of real and imagined human history, we find ourselves in a future post-apocalyptic world where humanity’s long forward progress has slipped into sudden and steep reverse.  Here we encounter a peaceful group of survivors who live as simple hunter-gatherers in a forested island community, dwelling in makeshift huts, under the sway of superstitious elders, and in constant terror of a marauding band of savage warriors who prey on them as much for the sport of killing as for the plunder of their food and belongings.  A small contingent of a dying race of humans known as “prescients”, descendants of the scientific elite that ruled the world prior to the apocalyptic event known simply as “the fall”, arrive on the island for one of their periodic trading visits to exchange goods with the peaceful tribe.  On this trip, however, the prescient group’s emissary, a woman named Meronym, has a more ambitious agenda.  She enlists Zachry, an overly nervous but otherwise capable adult member of the tribe, to guide her on a dangerous journey to the top of the island’s imposing mountain, where tribal lore says that the devil resides.  In fact, as the prescients know, this mountaintop is home to what is left of a long-abandoned intergalactic communications station, which they must re-activate in order to establish contact with another prescient civilization on a distant planet and arrange for their migration before they, and the remnants of the technology they have managed to preserve, pass away forever.

Over a campfire on the second night of their trip to the mountaintop, Zachry asks Meronym how else the fall could have happened, other than that the devil he so fears at the top of the mountain made it happen.  Meronym’s answer – that humans caused their own demise – elicits disbelief from Zachry.  In the stilted language used by his tribe, he protests ….

“But Old Uns’d got the Smart!”

“Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’humans, yay, a hunger for more.”

“More what?  Old Uns’d got ev’rythin’.”

“Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay.  Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ’nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil with crazed atoms …. “

What a stunning contrast!  On the one hand, we have the Old Uns’ “hunger for more” to which Meronym attributes the fall of humanity, and on the other we have Oliver’s request for more which strikes us as so reasonable, even heroic.  Is it conceivable that this most basic of human traits – the hunger for more of whatever is good and pleasurable – could turn out to be the most fatal of human flaws?

Quite possibly, yes, it is.

And not just because Mitchell makes such a compelling case with the nightmarish vision of the future he presents in Cloud Atlas.  There are more than enough warning signs right here in the present day.

Consider just a few:

– the growing trend toward luxury seating at concerts and sporting events, on airplanes, and most recently in neighborhood movie theaters.

– the unending stream of new social media sites, new movies, new reality TV shows, new tablet computers and smartphones, and new apps.

– the well-documented and long-lamented preference for large portions of food on our plates and oversized containers for our beverages.

– the rapid expansion of wealth inequality, as the incomes and assets of a privileged few rise disproportionately relative to the less-privileged majority.

Each of these four phenomena has its own unique aspect, and each requires its own separate analysis in terms of why it is occurring and what impact it is having on us as a society.  But in all of them we can recognize the underlying cry of “I want more!!” – a cry driven by an instinctive craving for self-aggrandizement, a cry completely bereft of the dignity inherent in Oliver’s noble plea.

Of course, Buddhist teaching has for centuries been calling our attention to the detrimental effect that indulging in this kind of craving for more pleasures can have on us as individuals.  Cloud Atlas calls our attention to the devastating effect such indulgence may have on us as a society.

There is a long and tragic arc connecting Oliver’s orphanage to Zachry’s mountaintop.  While those two places are the fictional products of their respective authors’ imaginations, the link between them lies in the very real human craving for “more”.

More and more, it seems, mindfulness demands a new human cry ….

“Please, everyone, we could all make do with a little less.”

Posted in Books, Buddhism, Fiction, Films, Mindfulness, Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Dismal Prospects: The Looming World of Wealth Inequality

A film I recently saw, and a book I’ve just finished reading, both have me contemplating the growing world-wide phenomenon of wealth inequality with a renewed sense of urgency.

The film is Elysium, a science fiction thriller set in a dystopian future in the mid-22nd century.  In this bleak new world, the wealthy few have fled the earth – ravaged beyond repair by unspecified ecological disasters – for a luxurious existence on Elysium, an artificially constructed world housed inside a huge wheel-shaped satellite orbiting earth like some monstrous metallic moon.  Left behind are the masses of humanity – abandoned to live on the remains of the dying planet’s surface, forced to subsist on the barest of necessities, and watched over by a corps of brutal robotic police.

Among the many deprivations suffered by these earth-dwellers, lack of access to adequate medical treatment is paramount – and it is this lack that drives the film’s gripping story.  When its hero, Max, a factory worker with a droll sense of humor and a fierce determination to survive, is accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation – in no small part as a result of the inhumane conditions in his workplace – he undertakes a recklessly dangerous flight to Elysium, where medicine has reached a state of near-perfection in which any disease can be cured by lying for a few moments in one of the healing pods that are a standard feature in every citizen’s home.   The problem for Max is that the security protocols in place on Elysium to protect itself from incursions by earth’s “non-citizens” have reached an equal state of near-perfection, making capture and even death a near-certain outcome for any such unwelcome visitors.

How Max deals with the challenges that arise as he pursues his quest, and whether or not he succeeds, will not be disclosed here, so as not to spoil the pleasure for any readers who plan to see the film but have not yet done so.

( If you’re still undecided about whether or not to see it, perhaps this trailer can help you make up your mind: )

The point to be made about Elysium is that its dismal dystopian vision of our world a mere 140 years from now is in fact manifesting itself in nascent forms right now.  By all reliable accounts, the wealthy few – those in the infamous 1% – are growing ever-wealthier, able to afford ever-more lavish lifestyles of privilege and entitlement, while the prospects for financial success and security continue to shrink for the rest – and shrink all the faster for those at or near the lowest income levels.  It barely taxes our imagination to entertain the possibility of this gap someday stretching across the heavens to an Elysium-like haven for the richest among us.

Turning now from the science fiction world of Elysium to the real world of today’s America, the book referenced in the opening sentence above is The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz.  Over nearly four-hundred pages of impassioned analysis of our contemporary political and economic landscape, the author argues passionately and persuasively that while wealth inequality, if it persists, will inevitably lead to the kind of societal breakdown envisioned in Elysium, it is decidedly not inevitable that we pursue this disruptive path.

Rather than attempt to distill the essence of his wide-ranging analysis into a few paragraphs, let me instead quote at length from Stiglitz’s inspiring closing chapter, optimistically entitled “The Way Forward: Another World is Possible”:

While market forces play some role in the creation of our current level of inequality, market forces are ultimately shaped by politics.  We can reshape these market forces in ways that promote more equality.

Our democracy provides two routes by which reform might happen.  Those in the 99 percent could come to realize that what is in the interest of the 1 percent is not in their interests, that we could actually have a more dynamic and more efficient economy and a fairer society.  We live in a democracy – but it’s a democracy that has increasingly not reflected the interests of large fractions of the population.  The people sense this – it’s reflected in the low support they express for Congress and in the abysmally low voter turnout.

And that’s the second way that reform could happen:  the 1 percent could realize that what’s been happening is not only inconsistent with our values but not even in the 1 percent’s own interest.  Alexis de Tocqueville once described a chief element of the peculiar genius of American society, something he called “self-interest properly understood.” It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest – in other words, to the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.  It’s a mark of American pragmatism.  Looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul; it’s good for business.

There are two visions for America a half century from now.  One is of a society more divided between the haves and the have-nots, a country in which the rich live in gated communities, send their children to expensive schools, and have access to first-rate medical care.  Meanwhile, the rest live in a world marked by insecurity, at best mediocre education, and in effect rationed health care.  At the bottom are millions of young people alienated and without hope.

The other vision is of a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been narrowed, where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness, where we take seriously the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which emphasizes the importance not just of civil rights but of economic rights of ordinary citizens.  In this vision, we have an increasingly vibrant political system. 

This second vision is the only one that is consistent with our heritage and our values.

And, I would add, this second vision is the only one that is consistent with the principles implicit in the practice of mindfulness, which in its most basic definition means seeing things as they are, with as little self-interested bias as possible.

The contrasting signs of this burgeoning inequality of wealth are evident all around us – high-end hotels and restaurants doing booming business on the same urban streets populated by scores of the homeless and destitute; privileged corporate executives commanding ever larger salaries and bonuses while discouraged long-term unemployed workers exhaust their insurance benefits and abandon their job search; gated communities of luxury condominiums nestled out of sight and proximity from their surrounding cities and towns where the housing is decaying, the stores are closing, and the infrastructure is crumbling.

These, and many other signs large and small, are all out there in plain view.  We just have to allow ourselves to see them as they are.  And then, contribute in whatever way we can to bringing about a reversal of this worldwide trend of rising wealth inequality.

Else, if we fail, our future may be playing right now in our movie theaters and on our home entertainment systems.  If we fail, our looming world may turn out to be Elysium.

Posted in Current Events, Economics, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What We Could Build

One of the more absurd episodes in last year’s U.S. presidential contest came about after President Obama made the following remarks during a campaign appearance in Roanoke, Virginia, in July 2012:

…. look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

That infelicitous phrase “you didn’t build that” was an instant flash point, igniting a veritable forest fire of heated debate (or, perhaps more accurately, hot air!) as to Obama’s alleged “socialistic” views with regard to successful individuals.  By isolating “you didn’t build that” from its surrounding context, conservative commentators launched an emotionally charged campaign of condemnation.  The culmination of this onslaught of unreason manifested as the repeated, ritualistic chanting of “We built that!” from the floor of the Republican convention in the days and nights leading up to the nomination of Mitt Romney.

Lost in all this mindless chatter, of course, was the common-sense assertion – clearly stated in the full context of the offending phrase – that we are all significantly influenced, for better or for worse, by the cirumstances of our birth and upbringing.

Yes, Obama’s speechwriters could have done a better job.  The sentences that gave rise to all the commentary would have been less open to misinterpretation had they read “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it in a vacuum.  Other people helped create the conditions in which you could build it.”

But, Obama’s”critics could have done a better job as well.  They simply had to take the trouble to read the full context of his remarks, and to comment accordingly.

This regrettable piece of political distortion came to mind as I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, his penetrating exploration of the social and cultural factors underlying individual success.  In this excerpt from his opening chapter, Gladwell states the book’s thesis with his customary eloquence and clarity:

In examining the lives of the remarkable among  us – the skilled, the talented, and the driven – I will argue that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.

What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what special talents they might have been born with.  And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how the individual reached the top.

I want to convince you that these kind of personal explanations don’t work.  People don’t rise from nothing.  We do owe something to parentage and patronage.  The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.  But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like.  It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who successds and who doesn’t.

Among the most compelling case studies Gladwell reports on in the chapters that follow are accounts of the surprising impacts that month of birth plays in the selection of Canadian high school hockey all-stars, that year of birth and geographic area of upbringing played in the career paths of technology entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, and that cultural conditioning plays in the core competencies of airline pilots.

In every case, the bottom-line learning is that these achievers didn’t build their successes in a vaccum.  Their parents, their teachers, their culture, and even such purely random circumstances such as the time and place of their birth – all played a part in the successful outcomes these individuals achieved.

Obama was attempting to assert no less – and unintentionally ignited a political conflagration.  And in fact, there was something of a critical backlash against Gladwell’s book as well.  A number of reviewers seized upon a few of the less compelling case studies, and exploited the modest weaknesses in those arguments to fault the book’s thesis in its entirety.

What is it about this simple assertion that provokes such resistance, bordering on hostility?

I suspect that those who are offended feel as if they are being personally attacked.  Perhaps they have constructed their sense of self-worth almost entirely on being perceived as strong individuals who need little if any help in achieving their success.  And then along comes an author like Gladwell or a national leader like Obama, pointing out that success is so much more complicated than the old Horatio Alger myth would have us believe.   What an affront to their self-image!  They didn’t “build it” all by themselves!  No wonder they get hostile!

What’s needed here, I think, is a more sophisticated understanding of the interconnectedness of everything.  None of us exists in isolation.  We are each and everyone of us deeply connected to countless others in a thick mesh of familial and societal groupings.   We continuously influence others and in turn are influenced by them.  From the most trivial of events occuring on the small stages of our individual lives, to the most titanic of events sweeping across the huge stage of history, absolutely everything that happens emerges from the complex web of human interactions that has been weaving itself together since the first humans walked the planet.  We each get to shape this web in some fashion or other by what we choose to do with ourselves while we are alive, and simultaneously what we choose to do with ourselves while we are alive is shaped by the specific time and place in which we happen to find ourselves in this very same web.

Buddhism has been pointing humanity towards this understanding of interconnectedness for three thousand years, but as President Obama discovered when he gave that speech a year ago, there’s a lot of resistance out there – most especially in today’s politically polarized America, where an extreme sense of personal liberty has taken root among a significant portion of the polulace.

But if it’s true in the personal sense that what we resist is what persists, then perhaps it’s also true in the collective sense.  The idea of interconnectedness that as a society we continue to resist is an idea that will persist until as a society we finally embrace it.

I’d like to think that here is a fitting mission for contempory Buddhism – to keep pushing us in this direction, to keep pointing out the undeniable truth of interconnectedness, until we cross some unknown tipping point where our irrational resistance crumbles, and we get down to the serious business of building a more compassionate society and a more sustainable world.

That would indeed be something to celebrate and chant about – “We built that!”

Posted in Buddhism, Current Events, Interconnectedness, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment