Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Reflection on Reflection

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece called "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" in which the author cited some research that demonstrated that reflection (in the New Year spirit of self-examination) was not always useful. (It's a short article, so you might as well follow the link and read it rather than have me try to summarize it here.) My friend Kenny sent it out to a bunch of people, trying to strike up an online conversation, and here is my reply:

I find it interesting that all the discussion of the article is dedicated to thinking about feeling. That is, does it make you feel better to think about feeling? It seems the author has already given primacy to feeling over thinking, as if feeling good is the only measure of validity and value, and that one's feelings are the only thing worth introspecting about. There isn't even a glimmer of the suggestion that maybe you should think about doing good deeds because it's the right thing to do . . . good works are evaluated strictly in terms of whether they make you feel good. It's a very common bias in modern American thinking, and deadly to the soul. What could be worse than being enslaved to your feelings?

We don't need the New York Times to tell us that people who are less reflective are happier. Sure, ignorance is bliss. The more interesting point of the article is the one that surely caught Kenny's attention: action, rather than reflection, is more useful for changing one's being (and, incidently, one's feelings).

(Replies to this email message from others are attached as comments to the post, just to keep things organized.)


Blogger The Thin Man said...

Kenny's response to my comments:

God bless you for that one, Georg. Those are *exactly* the two points I wanted to bring out, and that I was hoping someone other than me would say. First, that the assumption in the article is that the "metric" of introspection is not whether it helps us change into better people, but whether it helps us feel happier by 3:00 Tuesday. Second, that the Aristotle quote gets at the heart of the matter,
which is that you have to *do* and not just think.

Those are the two points I will be desperately hoping students pick up on when I use this in SKS. And the reason I want to use it in SKS is because, no matter how much we talk about action, I'm afraid a lot of the students come away thinking of SKS as the naval-gazing club.

Of course, the implication for modern therapy is pretty staggering. Can you imagine a world in which it is *assumed* that therapists are not doing their job unless they get you off the couch and actually doing something? I'm sure some therapists feel that way today, but I know first-hand that some don't.

5:28 AM  
Blogger The Thin Man said...

A response from Kelsang Nyema, a Buddhist nun friend:

Well, action is fantastic unless we don't understand how our own mind works.

What the action got absolutely correct is that the wrong kind of analysis simply increases our self-absorption, and the more self-absorbed we are, the worse we feel.

However, merely extending ourselves outward -- whether through action alone or through failing to understand what's happening in our mind (Georg's "ignorance is bliss") -- is no permanent solution to our problems and no spiritual path. I understand what you are driving at with avoiding "paralysis of analysis" and I agree with the article that self-centered introspection leads to more problems, but action without a clear, non-superficial understanding of our motivations or intentions is a recipe for disaster. Even doing "good deeds" alone often leads us back into self-centeredness, because the intention behind the action is frequently still selfish. Then we find ourselves performing many "good deeds" without improving our mind, without making spiritual progress, and ironically feeling more hollow in the end.

The problems we experience arise from actions as do the good fortunes we experience -- true. And spiritual progress requires action -- also true. Yet action does not arise independently of the mind. Action arises in dependence upon intention, and intention comes from the mind. Therefore if we wish to perfect our actions, we cannot do so if we do not perfect the mind. If we wish to perfect the mind, we must first understand the nature and function of the mind. That does require a kind of analysis or introspection -- just not the kind that they're talking about in the Times article. I'd say we must be wary of both the extreme of action and that of analysis.

... By the way, Georg, what's wrong with wishing for happiness? Isn't happiness the primary wish of every living being? Isn't even the pursuit of enlightenment the pursuit of a supreme and permanent happiness? Maybe you meant that most people just go about finding their happiness in a misguided way?

Anyway, those are my 2.5 cents. :-)

Happy New Year,

K. Nyema
(ie, the nun formerly known as Rachel Medlock)

5:30 AM  
Blogger The Thin Man said...

Kenny's response to Nyema:

Nyema, you are amazing. Actually you have always been amazing and you are just getting more so. Georg articulated perfectly what I had been thinking, and you took it a step beyond.

I guess I should admit that I don't agree with your closing remark about happiness, unless you are defining happiness in some radically different way from how I define it. But your point about action arising from the mind, and a clear understanding of the mind, is so right on target.

At the same time, I would say that in my experience, people rarely get a clearer understanding of the mind through analysis and meditation *alone*. It is analysis and meditation, *coupled with* action, that leads to clearer understanding. And yes, there is a paradox here, because the actions are necessarily *not* springing from a clear understanding, and they may be misguided on every level. But somehow, actually doing those misguided actions, and then thinking about them, and then doing more, and then thinking about them, gets you somewhere that just thinking doesn't.


5:31 AM  
Blogger The Thin Man said...

My response to Nyema:

Yes, Nyema, all beings wish to be happy. But I’m not sure that happiness is what they want the most . . . there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people will gladly hold onto all kinds of things that clearly bring them unhappiness. In fact, C. S. Lewis wrote a whole book (The Great Divorce) crammed with people who, when offered eternal salvation and happiness, refused it because they would not surrender their attachments to their works, or the pride, or their attachment to their children, etc. People literally create their own hell by choosing the things that will not make them happy.

Nor, I think, should you want happiness the most. Augie has a thought experiment which he often poses to students: I have in my hand a pill that is a most amazing drug, one that will produce in you an ineffable state of happiness . . . but will leave you a permanent drooling vegetable, completely oblivious to your surroundings, utterly dependant on the ministrations of your family. Do you take the pill? Almost everybody, even those who claim to want happiness the most, will not take the pill. We desire something more than mere personal happiness, because deep down I believe that we instinctively know that we are more than merely our “personal” selves. What we crave even more is the TRUTH. I always loved the fact that Rose, when asked whether he was happy, would usually reply, “I am BEYOND happiness.”

I think Kenny has the right idea about introspection . . . introspection needs to be about what you DO, not what you FEEL. And experience has shown that it is much, much easier to act your way into introspection than to introspect your way into action. If you run an experiment (that is, ACT, then introspect on the results of the action) you will learn much more than if you introspect in a vacuum and then try to guess what to do. Kierkegaard wrote several books trying to convey why no amount of introspection can generate perfect action – only a “leap of faith” will get you there. And Nyema is correct that the leap can only come, ultimately, from purity of intention. More than anything, you just have to want it more than anything else. And where does that purity of intention come from? Nyema (I think) would maintain that it comes from understanding the mind . . . but I think it comes from Somewhere Else altogether, before mind and before action.

5:33 AM  

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