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.

8 comments:

yomamma said...

Hey Stuart, ya'll are just a gambler!

Well the one thing that stands out in terms of human evolution is Survival Strategy. why do we fight, fly, tribe ,mate, worship, think ,the brain is a conglomeration of tracts that specialize in different functions, some considered low some considered high, and they do or don't coordinate together depending on various conditions, but generally speaking the idea is to keep us alive to eat and mate another day.
I guess its considered good if you have the same beliefs and or way of thinking ( as you described, you get along great with people who think the way you do) So I guess when you get down to it it's looking for like minds, who's mind works the way yours does, reflects you back to you. that can help you survive mentally and other ways.
I would hazard to say that people groups tend to harbor certain ways , words, behaviors whether they consider themselves believers or rashies ( Rationalists). and it can get tedious in any case , but if it works in someway it will persist.
I'm not really sure we Are all one way or the other, but i guess we are binary systems? like computers, so we make choices. i read in the NY times science section that the brain just looks for a choice , it's programed to have a reaction of some sort, so i think that is why we don't always know why we do what we do, and we make up explanations after the fact.
so i think tribe equals survival, even if that survival is mental intellectual , spiritual. tribes insure survival of anything that has worked. .
I don't how well this Berkeley thing works though, sounds like another case of overworked political correctness. and it's rather obvious that many things in Berkeley not working too good, as a municipality that is. all the upper middles have time to worry about tribes and green plans while the homeless problem just gets worse and business goes down the toilet. do they have the luxury of perpetuating things that don't really work?

Stuart said...

yomamma said...
generally speaking the idea is to keep us alive to eat and mate another day.

Right, but evolution is always lagging in the past. That is: there are some survival strategies that worked great when we were primitive humans 1000s of years ago. Hell, they may have been developed long before that, when we were apes and such.

Those strategies may no longer be optimal for our modern situation. I'm sure that dear DNA will take care of it, but she does seem to take her time. Till then, it may be best to not blindly follow all those messages our DNA is sending us.

It's just like our lives as individuals. We develop strategies to get what we want and need when we're helpless infants. Turns out (my therapy friends tell me) that adults often end up following those same strategies, even when the time of their usefulness has long passed.

It's not easy to change those habits we developed when we were babies (or chimps). But it's not necessarily impossible. With some awareness, can't we sometimes respond clearly to our present situations, rather than being complete slaves to the past?

yomamma said...

no we don't have to be slaves, but it's good to know what you are working with, that it has a fine long past and there's nothing really wrong with it. it's better to work with your DNA than to think you can rewrite the code in one little lifetime. and why would you want to ?All this biological history has a lot of power and life to it , we wouldn't be having this conversation without it, we wouldn't be here. We learned everything we know trying to survive including language, socializing,contemplating why we are here. I don't think chimps really have bad habits because as far as chimps go they pretty much got it together, they are good at being chimps.
Anyway, strategies are not to be equated with bad habits , only if they don't work, and i think a lot of what we have does work it works without our even doing anything,we breath , wake up, wounds heal etc.. and that stuff is all rooted in old nerve pathways, sub-cortical reflexes.old primitive brain,.the stuff that helps us survive, but can be involved in bad habits . so don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
So do you need your friends who do therapy to explain about anti-social / outmoded behaviors that are hold overs from childhood?? you never had your own experience or insight into that ? you worked it all out?? i think consciousness is about becoming aware of this stuff,sitting with it, not relegating it to those who do therapy.

Stuart said...

yomamma wrote...
it's better to work with your DNA than to think you can rewrite the code in one little lifetime. and why would you want to ?

DNA has a job: to survive and replicate. It employs strategies which have succeeded in the past; stuff like the emotional pull to join into tribes with people who look like us etc.

It's not a question of rewriting DNA code. But we can wonder about our own job. DNA's agenda of surviving and replicating: is that the same as our True Self's job? If not, then maybe we don't automatically follow wherever DNA pulls us.

So do you need your friends who do therapy to explain about anti-social / outmoded behaviors that are hold overs from childhood?? you never had your own experience or insight into that ? you worked it all out?? i think consciousness is about becoming aware of this stuff,sitting with it, not relegating it to those who do therapy.

Nah. I wouldn't for a second say there's anything wrong with analyzing childhood experiences. Certainly go ahead with it if that's what you like.

It's going overboard, though, to say that "consciousness is about becoming aware of this stuff." We've got a pure and clear moment appearing right in front of us, right now. Responding clearly and compassionately to just-now is mandatory. Analyzing childhood memories is optional.

yomamma said...

no, analyzing is not exactly what i mean because you could get totally bogged down doing that. but if you are always clear a unfettered and in the moment ,more power to ya. I'm just talking about being with what is. knowing weather this stuff might be having undo influence,just as you might want to be aware of the DNA factor.
for example some of my emotions and feelings have a big influence on me , my life , my practice (such as it is) I don't have to be sigmund freud to realize it may be past stuff and i can't escape what hasn't been acknowledged ( another great Dr. Phil adage). I think many people have perfected a craft of blissing into the moment, and this is a bit troubling, i'm not saying this is you.

Isn't it the Buddha story that he saw and felt painful things, he didn't run from them, he had to have experienced them....

Stuart said...

yomamma wrote...
Isn't it the Buddha story that he saw and felt painful things, he didn't run from them, he had to have experienced them....

This is a great topic, especially since so many teachers and students in "my" Zen school either are therapists or do therapy.

When pain appears, one option is to run from it, deny it, pretend it isn't there. Sometimes that's all we can do. Like if there's a really distressing situation, repeat a mantra to distract the mind. But that's not medicinal, it doesn't get to the root, so eventually we look for something else.

The "Zen" practice is to just stay with the experience. To perceive it just as it is, with a mind that doesn't hold any idea about it. Like if I'm anxious, to not even mentally label or understand what it is, but to sit with whatever feelings and sensations etc comprise it, with a mind that doesn't know.

The "psychological" practice is to understand the cause and effect behind the feelings. Maybe I feel anxious in certain situations because they remind me of unconscious childhood experiences etc.

The Zen practice is before-thinking, the psychological practice is after-thinking. Maybe they're not in conflict, since they explore different realms?

This may be an important issue as Zen continues to take root in America. I think some of the Asian teachers who originally brought the tradition to the West had little interest in psychology, stressing instead just watching all thoughts and sensations appear and disappear without necessarily understanding them. But the newer generation of American teachers often are more interested in psychology, and some have even suggested that in time, Zen in America will be viewed and presented more like a therapy, and less like a religion.

yomamma said...

The Zen practice is before-thinking, the psychological practice is after-thinking. Maybe they're not in conflict, since they explore different realms?

Yes maybe different realms , but realms that do influence each other. In most life experiences we do some kind of after thinking. We have to be able to assess things and people , other wise we'd all be in cults and dating serial killers. If as you say these are two types of thinking ,before and after , I would think they are related in the sense that they are both thinking. but some might say before thinking is really being, not thinking, you aren't recoiling or reacting you are letting yourself experience whatever is , whether threatening or nice , not labeling as you say, so if you can do this hopfully you cut down on your amount of after thinking, because you've been able to stay present in the situation. There have been many times i have failed at this!!.

This may be an important issue as Zen continues to take root in America. I think some of the Asian teachers who originally brought the tradition to the West had little interest in psychology, stressing instead just watching all thoughts and sensations appear and disappear without necessarily understanding them. But the newer generation of American teachers often are more interested in psychology, and some have even suggested that in time, Zen in America will be viewed and presented more like a therapy, and less like a religion.

Well, Buddhism is very flexible and some would argue whether it is a religion or not. Psychology is part of the western mind and tradition i don't think you can come into another cultuter without considering some of it's preexisting traditions, especially those that may be compatible. I remember reading about Chogyam Trungpa's Buddhist psychology many years ago (74-75)and i think all that stuff is based in various types of Tibetan tradition all designed to deal with various mind types and habits, so I'm guessing people have been struggling with this subject along time. Also the buddhist terms such as Hell realm, Deva realm, Animal realm all these better describe psychological sates rather that actual vacation spots where unfortunate souls are either tortured or seduced depending on their level of sinfulness.
The theory that people could be influenced by repressed memories is an important one, that we take for granted now ,What you do with that is another thing, dwell on it , see it as a solidified truth or use it as a way to become free from compulsions and griefs that have had you in their grip ( Hell realm !!) anyway these memories are only important in so far as the energies they release for present life use, the realization they bring, not just as dry observations, to be intellectually catagorized. My understanding and experience is that knowing that it could be past content, is just part of the process.
I've enjoyed our conversation , hope you have a Happy Holiday, and i'll be seeing you around the blogosphere probably next year!

Stuart said...

Thanks, yomamma. Though I don't relate to the religious aspect of the Xmas season... I do appreciate it like the ancients did. I ride my bike in Berkeley nearly every day, so I'm thankful for the circular cycle that promises to bring back some more warmth and light before too long. And of course, The Season is a wonderful time to appreciate all the other beings we've connected with.

So thanks for sharing your insight this year, and all the best in 2008.