Sunday, October 26, 2014

Not Zen 133: Regulation and Self-Regulation

"You want me to enforce your diet?"  Their guest scratched his beard.

"We feel it's worth a try."

The three men and two women sat around their dining room table.  It was where they held group meetings in their tenement, which lay on the border of the university.  In the dining room, they planned their menus in advance, transcribed their meal plans onto the group calendar, and arranged for purchases of food.

The five of them bought nearly all of their groceries from the local farmer's cooperative.  Their guest headed the purchasing program.  He pooled money from a row of similar tenements and bought supplies at volume discounts to keep everyone's costs low.  Since he controlled so much of their edible provisions, the housemates felt it made sense to ask him to help with their diet.

"I've been studying cognitive science," said one of the women.  "There are all sort of methods to help us with self-regulation.  But as individuals, we haven't been able to put them into effect.  For instance, each of us has foods we like too much and need to avoid.  But other members of the house like them too, so they buy them.  Then those foods lie around the house as temptations."

"So you're buying snacks," said the purchaser.  "And that's why you're gaining weight."


"Let's make a list of them, then.  I agree not to allow those in your house."

The purchaser left with his determination to help and a list in his hand of the forbidden foods.  The house meeting continued.  The oldest housemate, a graduate student in sociology, tried to get his partners to support one another.  He felt that they could help most by shaming cheaters.

"We need quick, negative feedback," he said.

"And positive feedback," said the psychologist.

"We need reward substitution," said the cognitive scientist.

The youngest woman, who was studying physical therapy and yoga, said nothing.  The discussion ended with each house member resolved to try a different strategy.

Although the list of forbidden foods started small, within a week the housemates discovered the need to expand it.  The house was devoid of their favorite vices but they found other high-calorie items to snack on.

A week after that, they added more to their list to avoid.  But the more the purchaser limited their diet, the more they ate outside of their home.  One of them started to wolf down fast food to satisfy his cravings.  Others pretended to go for walks so they could stop at the local convenience store.  The cognitive scientist visited her friends' houses in the neighborhood and ate their snacks.  The sociologist hid packets of cookies in his room.  The youngest woman increased her exercise and meditation but the others, generally, did not.

The food purchaser doubled his efforts to enforce the diet.  The housemates grew resentful toward him and toward one another.  Finally, the purchaser himself called the house and begged them to hold another meeting.

"This isn't working," he announced when they met.  "You guys are eating less from the farmer's co-op.  But you're clearly not losing weight."

"We're gaining a bit, as a household."

"This is like the drug war, man," he said.  "And I'm the cops.  It sucks.  Now you guys see me on the street and avoid  me."

"We should have known this wouldn't succeed," said the sociologist.

"Why?  It should have worked," said the psychologist.

"We tried to ban sweets.  But we've all seen how well that's worked with alcohol, marijuana, and other things in our culture."

"We're not part of that."

"I think we are.  Being part of a culture doesn't mean agreeing with everything in it."  He spread his arms wide as if to encompass the whole room.  "Look, the fact that we tried a ban means we took the idea from our culture.  But if a rule isn't backed up with a sense of morality that's universally held in the culture, then people feel no shame about circumventing the rule."

They fell into a long discussion, each with a view on their weight gains based on their backgrounds in sociology, psychology, cognitive science, physical therapy, and religious studies.

"All of the tactics we talked about are good ones," said the physical therapist.  "But they need to come from our own self-restraint, not imposed from outside.  Choosing an authoritarian approach is a barrier to self-regulation."

"But we used authority to reduce the temptations in our environment," the cognitive scientist pointed out.

"It's a right tactic," she agreed.  "But the authoritarian approach is self-fulfilling.  If people don't practice self-regulation, they don't have the emotional muscle for it when the time comes."

"That could be," the other woman allowed.

"It leads people to think that legislation or some sort of reference to authority is the way to go when, really, that doesn't work.  Mostly, we need to spend more time watching our own thoughts and actions.  We want a substitute for that.  But there isn't one."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Not Zen 132: Same Person

"This map is wrong," she muttered.

The city had changed the route of her march to the town courthouse. So here she was, as one of the march leaders, re-surveying the route on the morning of the event. Yesterday, her group had placed signs along the previous route. Today she needed to make sure her committee moved nearly a third of those signs to direct marchers onto different streets.

"This looks like kind of a rough neighborhood," one of her companions pointed out. He pointed to a tenement that had suffered a recent fire. Next to it, four men leaned against a neighboring building. They seemed to have all of their belongings with them.

"It's early morning." She kept walking. "No one will bother us."

As they passed the homeless men, the four demanded money. She ignored them. They didn't move to threaten her or any of her friends.

Half a block later, she and her team stopped to re-position the march signs. They discovered a roadblock had been set across their march route. Police had set it according to the old route but now it would be an obstacle. The march leaders been warned they would be arrested if they deviated from their route, so they stopped to debate the portable wooden barriers.

"Do we have the right to move these?" one of her companions asked.

"I don't think ..." At that moment, someone struck her in the head.

The next minute was confusing. She learned later that one of the homeless men had followed her group and had targeted her in particular. When he attacked, her friends tried to help. One of them called for police. She kept her arms up to keep from getting hit in the head any more. It worked. She couldn't escape the blows entirely, not even with the help of friends, but she could keep herself from injury.

The police who had set the barriers arrived in a minute. They subdued the homeless man. One of the officers asked her to sit down while he checked her arms and head for bruises. When he was done, he helped her to her feet.

"Do you want an ambulance?" he asked.

"No, I'm all right."

"I work this neighborhood a lot. This guy who attacked you is a problem. He picks on women. You don't need to press charges since I saw this but I have to ask, are you going to fill out a police report? Will you appear in court to testify against him?"

"If it will help."

Filing the report took her hours, much of it travel time to the station and back. It forced her to delegate the re-surveying of the protest march route to her companions. But when she was done, she felt she'd accomplished something. She headed to the march in high spirits.

The rally started out in the downtown park. The clouds, which had threatened rain earlier in the day, lifted. The afternoon turned warm. The orators at the rally gave short, impassioned speeches. Musicians drummed up a sense of movement and progress in the throngs. Then they all headed out.

As one of the organizers, she took her spot in the second row. From the rightmost position, she gave cues to the march leaders.

When the march neared the courthouse, their destination, they encountered a counter-protest. A group of nearly a hundred people blocked their path. Rather than confront them, the march leaders decided to turn.

She was never sure if they decided to turn because it was their original route or because of the informal blockade. They'd all been warned that if they deviated from the approved route, they would be arrested.

"I think this is deliberate," said a marcher next to her. "Our opponents want us arrested. The police are on their side."

"Are they?" she wondered. This could have been a coordinated, deliberate ploy by the authorities. It also seemed reasonable that it could have been an accident. Even the counter-demonstrators could have set up where they were because they were acting on old information. Who would have told them about today's change?

The march leaders pushed down a wooden barrier. Police on the sidewalks swarmed into the road to stop them. There were only a dozen officers at first. That wasn't enough to control the crowd if people fought. So instead, the officers moved to block the street. It seemed to be an indication that this wasn't part of their plan. But the march kept moving. Police reinforcements arrived.

"It's a set up!" one of her companions yelled.

The reinforcements came armed in riot gear. This force did look like they'd expected the deviation in the march. However, they didn't charge in with their weapons. The officer in charge shouted through a bullhorn instead.

"You're under arrest!"

One of the protestors tried to march through the police line and got knocked down. Others fled backwards along the march route.

"Don't resist!" she shouted. "Everyone sit down! Cooperate!"

"Don't resist!" others shouted. "Sit down!"

It turned out that many of those at the front of the march were willing to submit to arrest. After the initial group that fled, everyone else stayed. In a few minutes, police vans arrived from farther up the street. Officers began to cuff the protestors, hands behind their backs, and toss them roughly into the waiting vans.

One of the officer walked over to her. She recognized him.

"You're arresting me? You?" She had been furious with the suspicion that this had all been planned to go wrong. But as she sighted her arresting officer, she felt tears come to her face. She laughed even though she didn't think it was funny. "You're the one who saved me this morning."

"I remember." He knelt and cuffed her as he'd done to the others. It was hard for her to put herself in his place. He had seemed so nice before. Now this. She tried to get a sense of what it was like to work in his job.

"You've had a long day."

"It's normal for me, ma'am." He hesitated. His eyes swept the scene. "Now, I've placed you under arrest. I could carry you to the van. But will you get in under your own power?"

"Yes." Handcuffed, she walked in front of him to the line of police vehicles. When she got to her spot, she turned and hopped up backwards. The officer had to help her get her feet inside. She accepted his gentle push with gratitude. "I'm sorry to be such a trouble to you today."

"Not many people say that as we arrest them." He stepped into the van to help her onto the bench seat.

"It's been, well, a shocking day. I'm not sure why I'm apologizing but here I am. Sorry."

"I apologize too, ma'am. I'm the same person as this morning."

"Thank you. I think I may be slightly different."

"Ma'am, I know what you mean."

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Not Zen 131: Samsara

They met during a technical course at their local college. They sat near the back. When they were put into the same group for a project, they discovered that they had philosophies in common. Their main difference, it seemed, was that one of them felt motivated to study the technical aspects of medicine, even chemistry, while the other felt relatively unmoved. 

"Are you not here to meet your goal of healing others?" said the motivated one.

"I am not so attached to that." The other shrugged. He fidgeted with his pen. "And didn't you say that you had let go of your worldly attachments? Why do you hang on to this one?"

"My worldly life is many years gone but I deliberately reached out to find a transcendent goal." He smiled and stretched out his left arm as if to encompass the room.

"That is an attachment."

"It is." He dropped his hand, his expression serious. "I was aware that I was re-attaching myself as I did it. But consider your own life. You have no goals, neither small ones nor large ones. Why is it that you do anything at all?"

"Mostly, I act because I am forced." The younger fellow sighed. He closed his eyes for a moment. "To avoid starvation, I eat. To make a place to live, I work for money. On my job, I follow orders because it is that kind of a job."

"Listen to your answer." The older one leaned forward slightly. "You say that you do things because you are forced."

"My answer remains." He shook his head. "That is why I act."

"Does that make you happy?"

"Not really, no."

The motivated man stood up. He paced around his chair. A few other students in the classroom glanced over but they turned away soon, occupied by their own projects. The professor looked up from writing out an chemical equation at the front of the room. He nodded and smiled as he noticed the passionate conversation at the back.

"When I come to this class, I am happy," said the fellow. "When I learn, I learn with zeal. When I help others, I feel joy. All of the things we do here are in aid of my goal. I pick up my books with care. I tie my shoes each day with a great affection for the little bit of progress they represent. Do you do these little things with love?"

"Tie my shoes with love? I don't think so."

The older, larger fellow sat back down. For a moment, he scribbled on their chemical equation project.

"This speaks to why I chose to re-attach to my life with a transcendent goal," he said when he finished another line of chemistry. "Until you find such a goal as helping others, as healing them, as feeding them, as any other worthy goal, then you will never do things that you want to do. You will only do things that others want or that your body wants."

"There is no shame in it," said the other, defensively. "Many people live this way."

"Yes. It's not shameful. It's only being less than you can be."

The motivated fellow returned to his work. He'd been intrigued to learn of the younger man's similarities to him but their differences still seemed vast. He found his studies vital to his life, not because he enjoyed chemistry but because he felt that learning it brought him closer to understanding how to help others. To an unmotivated student, it was a meaningless exercise. To him, there was a connection to other, greater works to come. 

"Aha," he said. He set down his pen. "I think that this combination of water, carbon dioxide, and these nutrients gives us the chemistry of breath."

"The respiration equation. So you finished it."

"It is a fundamental thing."

"But it is a mistake to get so involved with it. People would be happier if they let go of their desires."

The project finished, they were free to sit back. 

"Some people place themselves in the worst of both situations, I suppose," said the older fellow. "They retain their worldly desires. And they have no goal beyond them. They are forced to do things for what seems to them to be no particular reason."

"Yes, that it how it seems to me."

"But you can let go of your worldly attachments and yet still be in the world. You can work toward enriching those around you, as ephemeral as we all are, and you will find yourself always reminded that every action is your own, every decision you make a moral one, vital to the trajectory of your life and the others you affect."

The other fellow shook his head. He picked up his pen and dutifully began to copy the equation.

"Here, take my copy," said the motivated one. He pushed the page across the desk between them. "I'll make another."

"Thank you."

"I'm sorry that you have no greater goal."

"And I'm glad that I do not." He tucked the finished equation sheet into his notebook.

"Without a goal, I think people are reduced to reacting to circumstances, always working for other people's desires, always doing things because they must and not because they love to do them." He took a fresh sheet of paper from his notebook. "Every act can be done with love, even the smallest."

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Not Zen 130: Incompetence

"This is where I am promoted beyond my competence," she said as she packed up her office. That day, she had been elevated to division chief in her state's transportation department.

Her former assistant said, "You'll be fine."

From the glances he gave her as he helped pack, she could tell he was worried.

She had never wanted a career. She had never wanted anything worldly. At the age of seventeen, she had joined her local nunnery as a novitiate. She'd lived with other nuns under an novitiate's vow. She'd traveled through her community with the sisters to do good works. In doing so, she met a man she liked. Although she had thought her infatuation with him was secret, he surprised her by proposing.

At the advice of the nuns and other novitiates, she left the professional ministry. She had intended to marry, raise good children, and work as needed. It was to be an ordinary life for her although, secretly, she hoped to return to her religious life.

In the eyes of her youthful self, the act of raising a family seemed simple. Soon she discovered that her work in the home was never done and that as he children grew she wanted to work out of the home to support them better. When she got a promotion, she still put in overtime so she could give to charity. She supported her extended family. She lent her money to friends to help them through crises. All of these choices led her to tie herself to her ordinary life more than she'd thought possible.

Three promotions later, here she was, packing her office.

She arrived to her new desk during lunch. That afternoon, she started in her role as the division chief with a series of interviews. She pulled her staff aside, one by one, to find out how things had gone wrong before. She accompanied them to their stations. She evaluated their work and learned who among them was capable of more.

"We've had three bosses here in six years," said a woman who worked at the front counter. Her movements seemed tired. "All of them failed. Two of them just gave up."

"I will not give up," she promised.

The next morning, she found orders on her desk from her supervisors. She let them wait.

Within a few weeks, she confirmed for herself that she'd been promoted beyond what she could manage. She'd seen that her staff had more than they could handle. With that in mind, she moved people into the roles that best fit them. She taught everyone to apologize.

Three years later, her old assistant visited.

"Everyone complains about your department," he said. "But everyone also says that performance has never been better. And you're still here. So I suppose this was not beyond your competence."

"I could tell you had doubts." She laughed. "In fact, it's beyond everyone's competence."

"No. You're doing it."

"I'm not, really." She folded her arms. "And no, I'm not managing with better staff or giving the old ones more responsibilities. They already had more than they can handle. All I did was teach them to drop their lowest priorities and to apologize for doing that."

"But everyone says service improved."

"I suppose it has. Once I told the staff they could do their most important tasks well and leave the rest undone, the only thing to teach was the apologizing. The staff are constantly saying that they're sorry they can't take on more tasks. But what they do, they do as well as they can."

"Your supervisors want to give your department more funds for the first time in twenty years. They wouldn't want to hear that you feel incompetent."

"Some jobs are beyond everyone's competence." She shrugged. "But still they need to be done."