Monday, December 24, 2007

More on Ken Wilber

Back in June I posted some thoughts on author/philosopher Ken Wilber. Today I found myself at Wilber Watch, a blog dedicated to an open-minded assessment of his work. I'd surfed there from Integral World, where a new posting What Good is Half a Wing? critiques Wilber's views on evolution.

From my tiny exposure to Wilber's work, here's the issue as I see it. Wilber tries to integrate the world-views of science and religion. In the process, he attacks the view that evolution is driven by random mutations. He equates "randomness" with a claim that our existence happens by accident. He mocks this view in his blog with statements like:

Also, as you point out, referring to random chance really means "I have no idea what is going one here"--and that is really what, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I call the "philosophy of oops," as you rightly note. This is a huge hole in the mere chance and selection argument.

In the same post, Wilber offers as "the alternative" his view that the evolution of our world must be driven by a force which he calls "Eros."

I say: originally, there's no spiritual and no material, only our just-now experience, beyond words and thoughts. We create distinctions like spiritual/material or scientific/religious with our thinking, and then can struggle forever to integrate or balance the two. But if we put down the thinking that creates the split, then the sky is blue, sugar is sweet, and a dog goes "woof!"

After reading and pondering this debate, I added this comment to the newest posting on Wilber Watch:

I've just read the posting that anony commenter #3 points to. In it, Wilber writes:

... my point lies in a different direction, which is what these critics miss: the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe.

Is Wilber saying anything here? Or is he just playing with words? That is: "self-organizing force intrinsic to the universe" means that there's something that causes this experience we're having. That has no meaning unless we examine what that "something" is. Do we know?

Metaphorically: if you're drinking water, it doesn't matter whether you call it "water" or "aqua" or "H-two-O." Those are just different names that don't touch its nature. What is "Eros" other than a name?

Scientists will say that this "something" is "randomness." That's a name meaning we don't know the first cause. A true mystic will say exactly the same thing, that the fundamental cause is a complete mystery. If the mystic calls it "God" and the scientist calls it "randomness," that's no real difference.

For Wilber to call it "Eros" makes no difference either... except that he claims that "Eros" is something he does understand. He has ideas, his "theory of everything," that he claims does capture the fundamental cause with his thinking.

So that's the real point. Do we believe that Wilber's thinking mind has really captured a knowledge or understanding of why there's something rather than nothing? Or is he just too arrogant or too frightened to face the mystery, and instead (like a religious fundamentalist) opts to grasp some speculation and pretend that he knows what he really doesn't?

As Socrates told us long ago, the mark of true wisdom is to understand that you don't know.

Like myself, I believe Wilber has done some serious Zen practice, and for at least one moment, experienced immersion in that unknowable thing. After such an experience, the true direction of the Zen tradition is to recognize that it's not a thing that can be held by thoughts, knowledge, understanding.

Rather, it's something to be recognized fresh in each moment, in this moment, in our just-now experience, before-thinking. And we can also lose it at any moment when we miss that experience in favor of some idea, some "theory" about it. Isn't that what Wilber is making a career out of doing?
Merry Buddha's Enlightenment to all, and a Happy Winter Solstice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tribes, Part 2

In Berkeley where I live, there's lots of enthusiasm for what's called Identity Politics. This means forming tribal alliances based on the circumstances of your birth, stuff like ethnicity, gender, and skin color. In elections, about 80% of Berkeleyites have supported the proposition that government should categorize people based on "race" etc. The Jewish identity I wrote of in my previous Tribes posting is similar: an identity based on the group I was born into.

It feels morally wrong to judge others, positively or negatively, based on accidents of birth. But leaving morality aside for a moment, what's the practical effect of this world-view?

I play a decent game of low-limit poker. Poker isn't a game of cards, it's a game of people. It may be possible to live much of life without judging others, but in poker, it's mandatory to judge your opponents all the time.

One option is to judge people based on ethnicity or gender. Women tend to bluff less than men; Asians tend to bluff more than non-Asians. This type of information is better than nothing, but it's inefficient. For instance, a successful female player will confound men's expectations by playing the opposite of how most women do.

Alternately, you can pay attention to what a person has chosen to do. You can get information from just about anything someone does: how they dress, the posture they sit in, how they handle cards and chips, how they make small talk, etc. This gives much better insight. As the great American guru Dr. Phil has taught me, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." You get closer to the heart of someone by considering the things they've chosen.

Maybe we could say that there are two types of tribes. There are tribes we're born into, and tribes we choose. The poker analogy hopefully explains why I find tribes based on choice so much more interesting.

Adopting a belief-system is one type of choice. These days, I don't like holding any beliefs. The world is always changing, and beliefs are a hindrance to adapting to each new challenge and opportunity. The Zen group I practice with could be considered a tribe. I can handle that one, since the group is 100% defined by what we do together. Quite pointedly, I can practice with this group, without thinking like anyone else, or believing in anything.

Inside or outside the Zen group, the main thing I appreciate in a friend is an open, questioning mind. Maybe it's OK for most people to follow the herd, to adhere to unexamined beliefs or conventions. But those aren't the people I find most interesting.

Questioning seems more and more natural to me. When we emerge from the womb, we know nothing, so what else can we do but question and be curious? As we grow, though, we start to believe in something. Consciously or un-, we draw a line, and allow our wondering, doubting, curious mind to go only so far.

I'm drawn to people who keep their beliefs small, and their questioning big. This has some connection to humor. Everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor, but we differ in how widely we allow our humor to wander. In other words: if I believe in something, if I treat it as sacred, then I sure can't make fun of it. But when I throw away beliefs, then nothing is sacred (which is precisely the same as everything being sacred), and then humor is everywhere.

Here's a Jewish story I learned as a kid. A gentile approached the great rabbi Hillel, saying that he'd convert to Judaism, but only if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah (Jewish scripture) while standing on one foot. Hillel responded with a version of the Golden Rule: "That which you hate, don't do to others." He said, "That's the entire Torah. The rest is simply an explanation. Go and learn it!"

Great story, huh? I appreciate Hillel's words, maybe moreso than the people who taught me this story did. When we look for direction in life, all we need is the intention of being kind and helpful to other beings. Everything else can be thrown away. Nothing else is sacred; the rest of it -- beliefs, traditions, ideas, opinions -- is just a playground.

On a recent visit to my home town, I talked to friends that I hadn't seen in decades. Even if they had no understanding of Zen or Buddhism or meditation or anything like that, I still felt that our minds could meet. It was because they'd maintained that same attitude towards life; we could share our wonderment at how mysterious it all is. We could share the joke of how absurd it all is.

Maybe I could define my current tribe as those people with whom I can share deep questions and humor about life. I won't say this is good or bad... but at least the borders of this tribe are porous. Unlike tribes defined by ethnicity or dogma etc, anyone is free to join my tribe any time, whenever they open their minds.

I've gone off on a tangent, and haven't gotten to what I originally was going to blog about: the sticky issue of how to deal with people who are attached to tribes. I'll get to that in an upcoming post. I'll also explore why so many of us get drawn into tribes defined by superficial factors like ethnicity and unexamined beliefs. Does our DNA, our genetic predisposition, make us behave like herding animals? Even if that's so, maybe humans can go beyond those biological tendencies.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Tribes, Part 1

I was playing video poker in Las Vegas, sitting next to some stranger. I could see he was a knowledgeable player (a rarity in casinos), so I struck up a casual conversation. We chatted about gambling strategies, since that was the only obvious thing we had in common. Then, out of the blue, he asked me, "Are you a member of the Tribe?"

My mind stopped. It was a total "What the fuck?!" moment. I had never heard that expression before, and didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. What shadowy society was he referring to?

Turns out he wanted to know if I was Jewish. In fact, that is how I was raised. My family didn't hold any particular religious beliefs, attend synagogue, or follow any of those tricky rules like keeping kosher. And yet I was taught that it's vital for me to maintain something called a "Jewish identity."

Surely everyone faces this issue in some way. Either you were encouraged to feel a part of an ethnic group, or religion, or sub-culture, or political affiliation, or extended family or clan, etc. Whatever I say here about my tribe, please translate it to whatever tribe you come from, so we can all relate.

There were soccer games I missed when I was a teenager, because my mother wouldn't allow me to play on a Jewish holiday. Then as now, rationality dominated my thinking, so I tried to negotiate. I'd tell her that I'd fast or feast or pray or whatever you're supposed to do on that particular holiday... I'd just do it the day after the game. What difference could it make?

No go. These memories persist, because I was so struck at how Mom could hold values with such fervor, and yet have nothing to support them in the way of reasoned explanation. I chalked it up to something that I'd probably understand when I became an adult, and I'm still waiting.

In my 20s, I spent 5 years living in ashrams with famed guru Swami Muktananda. There I experienced a different tribal identity. We constantly reinforced in each other the idea that we were a special group. A chosen people, if you will. We had access to a higher truth, or spiritual experience or some such, that set us apart from the common masses.

This dynamic resulted in us believing, on thin evidence, some outlandish things (e.g., the perfected, God-like status of the Guru, his magical energy and miraculous powers etc). It didn't matter that each of us individually didn't have the direct experience to support our beliefs. It didn't matter that the beliefs were rationally problematic. Since everyone else saluted these same beliefs, repeatedly spoke about them, and were applauded for doing so... surely they must be true.

I wonder if the power lay in our attraction to being part of the tribe, moreso than the content of what we said or did or believed. Indeed, many of my fellow travellers eventually left Muktananda's group, but straight-away joined up with another tribe. Maybe a different guru, maybe a group sharing some psychological or political belief-system. Some rejected spirituality entirely, then became members of an "anti-cult" tribe.

Here's why tribal dynamics strike me as so profound. The great question of life is "What am I?" It's my practice to watch my thinking, observe the different ideas about what "I" am, and let each one pass by without clinging to it. But if one does hold some idea of who they are, won't this inevitably lead to some sort of tribal identity? If I hold a thought of who "I" am, then that itself defines the group that's most "like me," as opposed to the outsiders who are less "like me."

A tribal identity must be the counterpart to some idea of self, and Buddha's great insight was that "self" is nothing but a mass of insubstantial thinking. Maybe identification with a group can be a stepping-stone towards breaking free of ideas of self. We start with the smallest sense of self: attachment to the body. The first step is to expand this identification to include your family. Then it gets still larger, becoming loyalty to your community, then to your country. If the circle keeps expanding, maybe it'll eventually embrace all beings, and the us/them separation will disappear.

I dunno. In any case, if the circle that defines your tribe stops expanding, and you get stuck at, say, intense patriotism, the troubles that arise from tribe vs tribe are well known.

I'm certainly not saying that tribal identity is a bad thing, but rather that its benefits and curses are both extreme. Consider some of the great ills of society: sick people with no one to help them, poor people who can't afford a home, old people left to struggle alone. If you look at close-knit tribes like the Mormons, the Amish, or ultra-orthodox Jews, these problems are in some cases completely solved. The community always, without fail, helps any member who needs it.

Yet the price is high. The very reason that the community sticks together is their shared behavior and beliefs. What if you're a non-conformist, or a free thinker? Then tribal life is hell. In any such tribe, it's like everyone is spying on each other, making sure that no one strays too far from the norms that define the group.

I went camping with a friend, along with his llamas (the animals, not those Tibetan guys). We hiked to the middle of nowhere, with the llamas carrying our gear. We set up camp at night, and tied up the llamas to a tree. I asked him what would happen if one of the llamas got loose, and he said that it wouldn't run away. Their herding instinct was so strong that one wouldn't go anywhere without the other. Ahh, herding instinct. I suddenly understood human beings much better.

If you look at the progression of evolution... ants, birds, sheep, llamas, chimps, us... it seems that each step moves away from group cohesion, towards more diversity, individuality, independence. Likewise the direction of our growth as humans, from kids entirely dependent on the family tribe, then the peer group tribe, then maybe sometimes to standing on our own feet. Likewise the direction of human history, away from tribes and kingdoms controlled by autocratic rulers, towards more individual liberty.

In religion: maybe traditions like Judaism and Catholicism, which emphasize group unity based on birth, rules, or beliefs, are on the wrong side of evolution. Are people moving away from monolithic groups, towards more individually-motivated spirituality? In politics: perhaps it's not an accident that Communism, with its ideal of "the People" moving in lock-step towards a single goal, has now entered the dustbin of history.

When I'm with a friend or family member, there's nothing more important to me than how I relate to him or her. It's all about how I feel about each of them as individuals, rather than shared membership in a tribe. But isn't much of the world driven by group loyalties? It makes me curious, since I don't quite "get" tribalism. There are, for instance, people who declare a strong Jewish identity, to the point where they passionately express the opinion that anyone who was born Jewish should feel that same way. This attitude isn't universal in the tribe, but it's not uncommon, and it can be extreme.

It's not that tribalism is a personal problem these days; friends and family don't give me grief about being too Buddhist or not enough Jewish. But it's been a bit of an issue in the past. And certainly among people I know, there's been big suffering generated when they didn't embrace the level of Jewish identity that their relatives desired. Is there any way to mitigate this type of suffering?

Kindly translate all this to your own situation, and let me know if you relate. Next time, I'll have more to say about the nitty-gritty of how I navigate inter-tribal interactions.