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October 10th, 2019
Tinkered Thinking generally tries to stay away from topics like religion, politics and the current topic of tension, but in this case, it’s proved useful for a discussion of meditation to delve straight into the core of religion.
As a contextual suggestion, these ideas and this method of inquiry is heavily influenced by the writings of William James, particularly his seminal work “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. It’s also useful to be familiar with Vipassana as a practice or as it’s popularly referred to: Mindfulness Meditation.
James is often referred to as the father of American Psychology and a pragmatic philosopher. His method primarily revolved around an evidenced based approach, as opposed to Freud and Jung who relied heavily on the use of symbols.
This episode emphatically makes no claim about the nature of god or gods as they might actually exist or not exist and begs anyone of religious affiliation to pay close attention to the exact focus of the point being made here.
The key to this connection is about the behavior of people. Not any divine truth that might exist separate or outside of that person.
Between the years 1924 and 1932 a series of experiments were carried out at the the Hawthorne Works, which was an electric factory outside of Chicago.
The company had commissioned a study to see if workers would be more productive with higher or lower levels of light in the working environment.
Something pretty funny happened during these experiments. Any time a change was made, worker productivity went up. Didn’t really matter what the change was. But then the study ended, and guess what happened. Productivity slumped.
The nature of the change didn’t matter. What mattered is that the workers felt like they were being watched.
Pause for a moment and think about your boss sitting behind you at work, watching everything you do. Does it change the way you feel and the way you act?
In psychology this has come to be known as The Hawthorne Effect, or The Observer Effect.
There’s another similar concept that evokes the same effect. It’s called Foucault’s Panopticon.
Imagine a prison that is built like a donut. It’s a giant circle with the center cut out, and each cell that houses a prisoner has windows on the outside of the donut and the inside of the donut. Inside of the donut is a single guard tower. Think about how efficient this is. Instead of having a whole bunch of guards patrol a whole bunch of hallways, you can have a single guard in a swivel chair see every single prisoner from that watch tower.
Now, imagine this watch tower has one-way mirrors for it’s windows. So the prisoners can’t even see if there’s a guard in the watchtower.
The effect is exactly like changing the lights at the factory of Hawthorne Works:
Prisoners behave because they feel like they are being watched.
And if you think about it, as a prisoner, you have to default to the assumption that you are being watched, otherwise you pay the price.
William James, who sought to understand the religious experience by studying the behavior of religious people eventually had a heavy influence on the writing of the main text for Alcoholics Anonymous.
For those who are not familiar with the text, it is quasi-religious. God is mentioned quite a bit, but it purposely adheres to no single religion because alcoholics are present in all religions. It would be self-defeating to have a definition of God in this context that is too narrow because than the chance to help people becomes limited.
At the end of the main part of the text there is this important line:
Abandon yourself to God as you understand God.
This particular line is extremely smart and nuanced in a way that is not immediately obvious.
At first, the thought is: oh, well, yea, they have to say that because one person might understand God as Yahweh, and another might understand God as Allah. So that makes sense.
But the nuance and brilliance of this linguistic construction goes far deeper than mere catering to different religious denominations.
Let’s focus on one word from that statement.
The statement is: Abandon yourself to God as you UNDERSTAND God.
The key word here is understand.
Such understanding is paradoxically limited to the neural workings of a person’s brain. Ultimately, God is something we imagine.
Now, that’s a statement that is potentially ripe with offense. But before we entertain such offense honestly, can we first ask what’s so wrong with our imagination?
It is the source of all the modern marvels that surround us.
And regardless of what a person imagines, a religious person has to come by the idea of God somehow, whether this be the writings and teachings presented in a traditional religious setting or some sort of divine experience. Some how a person comes upon this notion or feeling or sense of god. And then they carry that around with them, or somehow access anywhere and at any time they need.
In a moment we’ll return to this idea that God is somehow carried around by religious people, or somehow accessible from anywhere at any time.
But we’ll take a momentary detour in order to approach the idea from a different direction:
It’s often said by atheists and agnostics that you don’t need a god to behave morally.
So what do you need to behave morally from the point of view of these atheists and agnostics?
Certainly it must go without much question that moral actions require a certain moral perspective. With religious people, that moral perspective is provided by God. God is watching you, observing every action for the ‘final judgment’. This religious, god-fearing person presumably has access to this perspective through religious writings and teachings. But where exactly does the message of those writings and teachings exist while the person is going about their daily life?
These teachings and rules exist in memory and as part of the person’s operating system. In a sense, they learn about God’s perspective and then carry a simulation of that perspective around with them. They imagine that god is watching them and judging their actions, and by virtue of the laws they have memorized, they scrutinize their own behavior and options for future behavior in accordance to this imagined perspective. Of course it would be pompous to claim they actually have access to God’s perspective, because then you’d be inhabiting the perspective of God…
Strip away all the religious language and paraphernalia and what are we left with?
This is a self-reflective perspective. This is a mechanism that enables a person to pause at the threshold of impulse and assess options.
This is a moment of mindfulness.
Sure, this sort of mindfulness might require an opulent narrative, and a name of sorts has been attributed to the perspective, but it carries the same reflective pause and potential edit of behavior that comes with an instance of mindfulness that is advocated by the practice of Vipassana, mainly through mindfulness meditation.
The very idea of god, regardless of it’s cosmic and divine veracity, makes a person behave differently.
Just like the empty watch tower in the middle of Foucault’s Panopticon.
Just like the change in lighting at the Hawthorne Electric Factory.
Just like a person practicing mindfulness during a moment of anger.
All four of these instances are achieved by exercise of the exact same cognitive mechanics.
It’s an act of self-reflection that results in changed behavior.
What’s rather surprising is that we engage in this behavioral edit all the time, but in the instance of Vipassana practice we are explicitly aware of the mechanics, and in the panopticon, and the factory, the same is achieved without being conscious of it, and with the religious person, the reflective gaze is imagined as an entirely different being of sorts. Even if it actually is an entirely different being, the result is still very much the same as with the factory lights, the panopticon or the one who practices mindfulness meditation.
There exists one crucial difference though. The one who mindfully develops this ability through meditation does so consciously and is not bound nor controlled by anything external as with the panopticon, the factory lights, or even the dogma of any religion.
When the mindful individual reflects on the options of their behavior and asks: what is best for me to do?
… this question risks no pollution from out-dated dogma, nor the self-censor of some roll in a corporation, for example.
The one who practices mindfulness through meditation has a degree of freedom that is impossible by the other examples of self-reflection.
We can illicit this point with a different example.
News outlets can all be categorized on some kind of spectrum from progressive or left to right, or whatever. This means that everything that comes out of a news outlet is tailored to fit the category that can be applied to that news outlet. Now imagine an individual journalist working in this news outlet. Whenever they write a piece for publication, they do so while imagining the perspective of their boss while they write. If the piece they write doesn’t pay enough heed to the perspective of their boss, then they either have to redo the piece, or at the very worse, their job will be at risk. The incentives are in the exact opposite direction: to tow the company line, and represent it as the boss wants. The journalist is performing a kind of self-reflection while writing and editing, but it is a perverse and constrained kind.
It is a self-reflection that is dictated by a mind that is not their own.
And suddenly this evokes the writings of George Orwell. The journalist’s self-reflection is hijacked, and potentially polluted. Perhaps their own perspective is perfectly in line with their boss. But if their income is dependent on this fact in practice, how can such a journalist be sure?
As Upton Sinclair once wrote:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
We might rephrase it for the journalist and say “It’s very difficult for a journalist to think for themselves when their salary depends on their ability to think like their boss.”
Incentives suddenly emerge as a an important determiner for the nature of self-reflection that occurs in an individual.
For the religious individual, the incentive is probably family and community. These incentives are incredibly strong, indeed perhaps the strongest, since, what’s more important than our closest relations? Difficult to say.
And for most people the answer is simply: nothing.
But let’s apply this troubling issue of incentives to the meditator who seeks to practice a mindfulness that is without dogma.
The incentives of such a person are far more pure. Such incentives are authentic, because they are genuinely original. The incentives arise from within that person as opposed to some external source like an old book, a tradition, or a tower, or some light fixture, or everything the boss has said over the years.
Be sure to note, the word Vipassana, while it might sound like some sort of eastern hoo-doo, is just a word that refers to a practice that seeks to look at reality as it is. In some sense the word telegraphs a notion that explicitly eschews dogma.
At the end of the day, everyone has a different name for god. The reason for this is because every one has a unique perspective. The reason why god has accumulated so many paradoxical adjectives and descriptions, from ineffable, to unknowable, to ubiquitous and yet unseen, is because the situation of all our genuinely unique perspectives trying to communicate with one another is itself a paradox. Every other perspective of every other person is intrinsically unknowable because you can’t put yourself literally into their place and have their experience, otherwise you would be that person.
Call it the Hawthorne effect,
or cite Foucault’s Panopticon,
or rattle off any of the endless names of religions that exist…
In the end, the name you give god is determined by how much freedom you can handle.
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