“Intellectual black holes can also lead people to waste their lives. In some cases, true believers may be lead to abandon friends and family and throw away real opportunities, all for the sake of furthering their belief system’s hypnotically attractive, if bogus, cause.”
Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole, Stephen Law
If we are to integrate the Buddhadharma within the West we need to know and understand what the Western traditions were doing. The Middle Way Buddhist view, in my opinion, is able to incorporate the type of role of the mind I have outlined. It can act as a protection against the fundamentalist temptations for making our metaphors concrete and confusing the end of industrial civilization with the end of the world full stop. On the other hand, there is a reason a number of wise people have warned that there are real psychological dangers involved when Western people adopt Eastern religious and mythological teachings wholesale. The West, for the most part, lacks the social context that goes along with the Eastern teachings. Establishing Buddhadharma in the West entails these types of cultural changes too; the types of mythic penetration of the culture we see in the traditions of, for example, Santa Clause and Easter Bunnies.
The slow growth of reason in the human being’s mind is fraught with dangers and detours. None of us escape unharmed. We all start out as fools, about to walk right over a cliff and not even noticing that this cliff is real. It is a cliché to say that young people do not really think they are going to die. I suggest they have bought a childhood version of our culture’s background mythology, in our case Christianity. They really believe if they were to die – in a flaming car crash, or an overdose, or a romantic suicide, or any of the number of other classic expressions of adolescent angst – it would just be going to heaven. They have no mental capacity, as yet, to comprehend the more adult understanding of the mythic message.
The adult understanding has god and nature not so separated. It is closer to the god of Spinoza, the god of Einstein. The adult understanding accepts that people really die and that dead means dead; it accepts the evidence of the senses. The working of guilt and shame, regret and sorrow are no longer seen as little problems that can be healed with a quick kiss or a band-aid. The real pain in our lives is just there, a natural element of the circumstances of our day to day lives as they have unfolded through the years.
In a way we could say the adult no longer gains any nourishment from the types of magical thinking on religious subjects that the child indulged in. Though in adult pain there will be songs to comfort, and whispers in the heart of all those we have loved and lost (the real angels of the Christian tradition) there is no more looking for that instant karma or that one final conversion experience that will save their soul once and for all. All the quick fix escapes are dead ends; you can run but you cannot hide. The mind forms its measures of happiness and sorrow from the moment to moment realities it has experienced. If most of those experiences are dark and painful, the mind at the end of that life will also be dark and pain filled. This is the danger all parents fear for their children and a large part of what all the moral rules are designed to “save” us from.
When relatively healthy adults convert to a religion, they know not to allow their new found faith to completely upend their internal reasoning ability. This is why even the most enthusiastic first world convert to Christianity does not typically go out and immediately give away all they have, even though Jesus clearly teaches that is what the rich man should do if one really wanted to follow him above all else. The center of reasoning in the adult has been developed and cannot be so easily dismissed entirely. The adult understands that whatever is real within all this god talk, it must be integrated with the reality of daily life. What looks like hypocrisy might be simply this integration of reality and the ideal that comes so naturally to an adult mind.
The adult has enshrined whatever bit of rationality they have within their cognitive structures. The evolution of the mind assures that the adaptations to the environment required for survival take precedent over enthusiasms that threaten the integrity of the body. Children, of course, lack this development and that makes them easy targets for religious manipulation. Bomb vests anyone?
The tales by which these psychological realities are communicated speak in the language of metaphor, the only language capable of capturing the nuances of the heart. When those same stories are given to children they are planted into a consciousness that is still developing its reasoning ability. The child has the most important task of all living things; it is learning what is real and how to adjust to that, learn from that, and work with that to satisfy it’s inner craving to continue to exist. In the broadest outline this is what reasoning is and what it is for. Reason develops, in part, by learning to trust the evidence of one’s own experience. This process is very difficult because it entails nothing less than a complete revolution in the center of consciousness. The child lives in a cognitive world of newly acquired vocabulary, words received for the most part through hearing conversations and the many stories we share with our children. In some cases the evidence from our senses corresponds to that of the words and tales, and at other times the words and tales seem to be describing events that run counter to our every experience.
Anthropologists have long pointed out that the telling of religious tales occurs in every known culture. These tales have so much in common the depth psychologists have made a strong case that there is an archetypal effect in our consciousness we all share. These likely arise from how awareness experiences the structure and organization of the human brain as it responds to the biological and social environments it regulates and participates in. Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought has found that humankind’s religious tales do not just consist of any old peculiarities but very specific ontological contradictions. It is as if the various inferential modules within our brains get into paradoxical cross talk. For example, when encountering a corpse one part of the mind that recognizes animated, goal seeking behavior as a characteristic of living things understands this is no longer applicable to this body. But this understanding is in contradiction to another part of the mind that had habitually inferred characteristic behavior from the person now deceased and still expects that to continue. We experience our loved one as dead, and yet not dead. Many psychic phenomenon concerning ghosts and visitations from the recently deceased may have their roots in such cognitive architectures. The tales that capture our imagination are not, as Boyer point out, about a table made of chocolate but of a table that felt sad when we left the room…
Religious tales break the rules of reality, this is what causes them stand out in our minds and gives them their staying power as they are passed down generation after generation. It is as if by tripping up the mind’s evidence processing clusters these tales engage the mind’s imaginative clusters. They nourish an opening up to the speculative what-if from which flows the poetic vision that so captures the romantic and mystic. It is also the speculative what-if capability of our imaginations that give us much of our humor. It is said that only mankind laughs, no other animal is known to enjoy the release of pent up nervous energies and cognitive cleaning that comes along with a full on, no holds barred belly laugh. I think in general we have yet to fully appreciate the power and necessity of learning to laugh for healthy adult functioning. In particular we underestimate the need to learn to laugh at ourselves so that we can laugh with the gods.
Fallible human beings make mistakes all the time. Big ones, small ones, annoying ones, silly ones; our lives are almost defined by the dance of constant correction that we engage in. As mentioned last week, there is an interplay of the author and the editor in everything we do. Compassion for oneself begins when in our hearts we are able to laugh, or at least gently smile, at the tragic and the comic dramas of our own life stories.
One of the most difficult tasks of childhood development is that which consists of the recognition that the rational, evidence based clusters of the mind’s cognitive apparatus must be made central to the cognitions that will guide the rest of their lives. We must learn to surrender to that which makes the real seem real. It turns out this is just not so easy for a number of different reasons. Try to imagine the internal territory of the young mind. We have learned to think in words which we acquired from our environment and are becoming comfortable with claiming them as our own internal voice. We are working hard to understand what works and what doesn’t, what is real and what is not. We are trying to speak the truth using these words, truth being where what is real meets with what we speak about. To do this requires that we understand the nature of words themselves so that they can be used correctly as a tool for expressing and hearing true things. But as a young child, before reasoning has fully developed, we do not yet grasp the nature of these tools.
Many of the words a child has learned lack a real world referent; they are the magical words of the imagination. These are the words like ‘gods’ and ‘ghosts’, ‘vampires’ and ‘angels’ and all the other rumored beings that you cannot shake hands with, or as it is often said, that cannot be put in a wheelbarrow. Then there are a whole host of words that have a referent in the direct experience of the physical body but are describing things that can be seen only indirectly by the senses. These include all the psychologically powerful and important words describing emotional and feeling states, which remember are arguably the most important signals a social primate receives from its early environment. We have already touched on the importance of knowing the mood of the primary caregivers as a vital part of a child’s survival strategy.
What this all adds up to is that the child is gullible, or as we like to say, is innocent. Growing up includes the rather harsh lessons involved in wising up.
We soon learn it is easy to be fooled at every level of our being; we can be fool by our senses, as we are with every optical illusion; we can be fooled by our own mind, as when we discover what we had been thinking was right turns out to not be the case; and then there is the whole basket full of deceptions that happen during interactions with other people. That basket, as was mentioned, is critically important to a social primate. It is what makes life so difficult and interesting at the same time, namely, we can be fooled by our habitual social expectations. Finally we can be fooled by the very nature of words themselves. They carry an implied authority because we have accepted their use and ultimately arbitrary meanings (c-a-t has no direct relationship with a cat) on the authority of those that taught them to us. We are claiming that authority for ourselves as we begin to shape our own sentences and thoughts, though we are not yet the masters of these tools we think we are. Given all this it’s safe to say the development of the ability to reason is highly motivated.
To be continued…