Sunday, May 26, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 355: People Have Theories

People Have Theories

A theory is a model of how reality works, like the theory of gravity. People get attached to their favorite theories, even ones they don't formalize in writing. In fact, people might get most attached to informal, unspoken views. They mistake their assumptions about how things work for their reality. Some people die unhappily and, to them, unexpectedly because their theories missed something critical. 

Maybe they viewed the world through their ethnicity, as in "I didn’t expect that guy to shoot me because he looked like someone from my tribe." Maybe they viewed the world like a game, as in "I thought I'd get another chance."

Nowadays, these assumptions get called cognitive bias. We all, as humans, are likely to recognize how aspects of an event confirm our theories. We do this more than we notice elements of the same incident that contradict our expectations. The mental habit has been called other things, too, and so has the act of unlearning biases. Unlearning has gone by labels like 'letting go of preconceptions' and 'embracing the paradigm shift.' 

For long periods of time in many cultures, spiritual leaders played down the concepts of cognitive biases and unlearning. Those leaders asked people to 'endure' or to 'hold fast' to wrong worldviews. Still, the idea of unlearning has a respectable history. 

Seeing Things As They Are

As soon as people lived long enough to need to unlearn things, discussions about the need must have arisen. 'Unlearning' came to be held in high regard by some people, at least. 

Daoism is a tradition with a prominent focus on 'seeing things as they are.' Living in perfect harmony with the universe is the stated goal. In order to live in harmony, one needs to understand the world and accept it for what it is, not as what one wants it to be. Sometimes this view on living has made for good scientific observations. Long ago in China, Daoists became prominent scientists. Daoism always had a more mystical side to its philosophy, too, as expressed by the term 'ziran,' which means freeing oneself from obstructing biases and acting in a spontaneous, natural fashion, without effort. 

Stoic philosophies were lost to western traditions for centuries after Stoicism was banned. When the religion was popular, though, it used multiple terms to address 'unlearning' concepts. The Stoics valued ataraxia, the trait of not being disturbed by the external world, and apatheia, the peace one achieves by giving up the passions of life. Stoicism also recognizes pathos, which refers to emotions resulting from mistaken judgments. Giving up mistaken judgments is a vital step in the Stoic concept of becoming an ideal person.

Buddhism promotes the practice of vipassana. The term refers to seeing things as they really are and it has its own, dedicated style of meditation. The meditation may have drifted from its term a bit and from its implied unlearning of bad assumptions (although I don't have first-hand experience with it). Nevertheless, the term vipassana reflects the importance of the 'unlearning' skill and a long tradition of honing it.

Zen Buddhism, in a slightly separate tradition, expands the 'unlearning' concept as far as 'unasking' a question. By unasking, a Zen practitioner indicates that the question, regardless of its answer, is not a productive one - the answer cannot give any useful insight. 


Some ways of letting go of cognitive biases are simple.

One way is to envision a different bias. It goes like this: if you are convinced people are stingy then, for a while, convince yourself that people are generous. Observe, inside yourself and in your worldly circumstances, how the change in your approach changes the world. If you normally think of yourself as short, regard yourself as tall. If you often think your neighbors are fussy, think of them as careful, hence their beautiful yard, fence, or mailbox. Put your different view into your actions. 

The important thing is to be at least a little bit in control of your biases. Of course, envisioning a different bias in order to loosen the hold of a deeper, more ingrained one is just the mental or spiritual equivalent of warming up. 

Another powerful method of re-learning is increasing your ability to focus. With practice, some people get very good at this underrated skill. Likewise, you can train yourself to observe without judgement. To start, it's as simple as questioning the part of you making those judgments and asking, perhaps, "what did I really witness?" In many professions, possessing sharp observation skills is essential. (Think of an air traffic controller or a detective without them.) In others professions, the skill goes unrecognized even though it conveys a significant benefit. (Imagine the results when nurses or doctors increase their powers of observation.)

There are essays and books on these strategies but personally I find that another good way is to relax and deliberately lose focus. Let observations occur naturally. Maybe, as you regard those observations, you'll let those slip away, too. 

Any approach to improve un-learning or re-learning skills is valid to try. Because we all need to improve. The reason why 'seeing things as they are' is an esteemed practice in Daoism, Stoicism, and Buddhism is that clear outward sight and clear insight are related. And they are both a bit too rare. One of the reasons people have a hard time noticing things and understanding them, of course, is that people are attached to their theories.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 354: Poem - True Love, the Scam

While I was sitting at a wedding, listening to the vows, I started writing new vows in my head. A few whispered words from my wife made me decide on a particular poet. I tried to write for myself in that style. So for me, the ceremony was entertaining but I ended up with this confusing set of vows in my head.

I hope someday, someone will get married to this. 

True Love, the Scam

Would you take this spouse to bed?
Will you take this ring to wed? 

It might seem selfish, could be dumb
But I've liked my lonely freedom.

Would you be the lock and key? 
Stay together and still be free? 

If somehow I could be free
I would keep the lock with me.

Would you love their long pea coat? 
Would you love them in a boat? 

Boats may cause me to be sick.
Coats are itchy and too thick. 

Would you together make a house?
Can you, can you, be a spouse?
Will you shout a love primeval?
Would you dare a love illegal?

Well, if you give, to me, the ring
I think I'll dare most anything.

For damn, I am.
Damn, I Am.
In love.

Yes, I love you here and there. 
I will love you everywhere.

I will love you in a box.
I will love you. You’re a fox.
I swear my love upon a star.
I will love you near and far.

Say, I have fallen for the scam.
I am in love, damn me, I am. 
And I will love your long pea coat.
And I will love you in a boat.
And I will kiss you in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a plane.
And in the car. And in a tree.
Your kisses are so good, you see!

Yes! The box unlocks
And we'll be free
And I will love you more, you'll see.
Holding hands till we go gray
We'll increase our love each day.
I can love this stupid house.
I can be, with you, a spouse.
Yes, I love you here and there.
I will love you everywhere.

I do so like
this true love scam.
Damn it,
Damn it,
Damn, I am.
In love.

-- Eric Gallagher, 2024 (at Megan's wedding to Nate)

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 353: Biomythography - Note 93: Strange Bedfellows, Part V

Strange Bedfellows, Part V

On a spring day in downtown Northampton, I wandered the sidewalks from shop to shop. I don't remember why. I may have stopped in at my work, which was a bar and restaurant combination on Bridge Street, the main drag. Even though I didn't have a shift there that day, I sometimes dropped by to say hello. There were at least three package stores, including Serio's Drugs in the downtown, but I don't remember bothering with them. I lingered at the book shops, as always. 

The weather was cool but, as I marched between the shops with my backpack on, I worked up a sweat. (It's likely that I bought a book and was carrying it, maybe several.) One of the women from work had recommended a local novelty shop two blocks up a hill on King Street. I'm pretty sure it was during my hike there from one of the bookstores that my thoughts about ny social life kicked in. 

I was seeing another lesbian. And the affair was probably going to be brief. It made me think. 

Two years before, back in college, I knew rationally that not everyone was bisexual. However, a lot of women (and probably the men) seemed to be fairly try-sexual, for sure. That's not what college is about, of course. It's mostly the classes. But college is where my last two years of girlfriends declared themselves to be bisexual. My relationships with them seemed like accidents, bits of random friendliness and luck, and they were some of the best lovers in my life.

Now I was starting to wonder if I had a pattern and if the root of it was something in me. Was I doing things, however unconsciously, to get into these somewhat-transitory relationships? Were the nature of my affections due to this area of Massachusetts? I had seen goth women, hippies, and jocks here, but all of them were interested in other women. Being lesbian or bisexual, either one, seemed awfully popular.

I spotted the novelty shop up the hill, fresh blue paint on the outer walls and sky-blue trim around the windows, probably puzzles and toys inside. Along one of the storefronts along my way as I passed, I spotted posters for upcoming concerts.

Being mostly single and mostly bored, I stopped for a moment to read about the bands and clubs. Next to one of the posters was a gay pride flyer. It was advertising a gay-themed bookstore coming soon. Books! And a store I hadn't visited! Admittedly, from the date on it, the place wouldn't open for more than a month. Maybe it wouldn't carry the trashy science fiction I liked best, either, but it would still be worth a look. I had been collecting "Dykes to Watch Out For" volumes and I was still missing one. What better place to continue the search than a gay-themed store?

That got me to thinking about lesbians again and why they were such a presence in my life. I glanced above the bookstore flyer. There was another photocopied sheet taped up with the others and it read, "There is no hell."

As an atheist, it made me smile. 

And then I realized I had gotten here because of religion and politics. Those weren't the only reasons but I had discovered in college how nice it was to be accepted. And the most likely people to accept me as an atheist, without disdain or even comment, were lesbians and gay men. 

No one here shouted 'commie' at me for not going to church. No one thought my taste in prose or poetry seemed odd. I could hang out with whomever I wanted, at least when I could persuade people to ask me over. Admittedly, my presence had been confusing for some of the gay men in the Northampton and Amherst social circles. A few women, too, had said they didn't consider me eligible because they thought I was gay. Others had an opposite reaction, for which I was thankful. 

There was a wonderful sense of relaxation for me when hanging out with all these people who didn't want anything from me and, of course, sometimes didn't want me around at all, which is also a fine thing at times. And sometimes they did want something. And sometimes it was me, which could get touchy in the social scene but usually fine. 

The pattern in my life was due to my atheism, for sure, but not only that. My life couldn't have brought me here to this town without the acceptance of people who were also on the outside of conventional society, even more on the outside than me, really. We all benefited, in a way, from the various forms of ostracization that pushed us together. The pressures from the larger world brought us to this place and our acceptance of one another completed the pattern.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 352: Poem - Dirt Beds

In the Dirt Beds

"Here's my row of pythons," she says.
Hand like a blade, she gestures to the open-air terrariums.
"The smaller row is the rat snakes."

They are raised mounds of dirt, really,
eight long rows, dry brown, littered with rocks.
One of her guests grunts as he picks his way between the raised beds.
His eyes scan the ground.
He notices a single reptile showing itself,
a colorful red, black, and yellow model
that his host swears is not venomous.
Wait, he thinks, and points a finger toward
a brown snake with a flat head, further down a different row.
He sees a green, reptilian figure rising, too,
from one of the holes at the tops of the mounds.
He notices a patterned snake, brown and tan, all the way at the end.
It appears to be sunning itself.

There are a lot of them out, he thinks. He just hadn't noticed.

"In these rows," his sister-in-law continues as she turns a corner.  
"I have kingsnakes and hognoses. There, with the ditch between them
are the homes for greensnakes and boas."

Her smallest guest is a boy of seven,
a book-smart child in a white shirt.
He sweeps his hand to the end of the far row.

"What are those mounds over there?" he asks.
Next to him, his older sister,
blue shirt, dark hair, dark jeans,
turns to study the earth.

"I keep a few indigos next to the greensnakes," she says.

"For the color?" asks the girl.

"Yes!" The answer comes with a laugh.
"They look nice. They're harmless."

Finally, the girl's mother, the host's sister,
raises her blonde ponytail
and puts a hand on her hip.
A moment ago, she was running her hand through the ditch
and now she pops a lump of dirt,
a puff of gritty smoke, dust on her pants.
Another hand goes to her other hip.

“Have you ever thought of growing something else
on this property?" she remarks. She lifts her head
to indicate the land beyond the fence.
"I mean, maybe corn, or a few fruit trees."

"No apples in this garden," the host replies.
Her eyes narrow suspiciously on her sister.
Her arms fold across her chest.
"Just snakes."

-- Eric Gallagher