Sunday, March 8, 2015

Learning Doesn't Require Agreeing

Temple wall painting of the Buddha
In today's society, too much emphasis is placed on evaluating whether we agree or disagree with peoples' viewpoints. Even worse, this evaluation is often used to determine whether a person has anything useful to say at all. Contrary to common platitudes about how "we're all able to learn from everyone", in practice many people act as if those they disagree with can have no correct views on anything and therefore can teach them nothing. This is most evident in the realm of news media and politics. In this arena, many people pick a 'team' (e.g., conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat) and agree with whatever positions their team stands behind and whatever spin of current events best promotes its goals. At the same time, they proclaim that everything the other team does is always bad.

This mentality can be clearly seen on social media. For example, each of us probably has a friend or two who insist on sharing their political views on Facebook. I've noticed that such posts are often followed by lots of comments from the poster's friends, all agreeing with the viewpoint. It seems to me that these posters are pontificating in an echo chamber, espousing views in forums where people share similar views. In such spaces, everyone agrees with each other and those who post a dissent of any kind are quickly, and virulently, slammed. As with the news media and political issues above, every minor issue is reduced to a means of showing that "I'm right (i.e., my team wins) and you are wrong (i.e., your team loses)".

In short, our society has become infested by a fear of alternate viewpoints. Even a disagreement on a minor issue is like ringing a bell in a boxing ring. Everyone comes out swinging for their team or party or "ism", determined to prove they are right and everyone else is wrong (and, by extension, that their wrong views are the cause of all difficulties in the world).

Without the 'weight training' of alternate viewpoints,
your mind becomes small and weak
While people naturally enjoy speaking with those they can relate to, surrounding oneself only with people and ideas we agree with is limiting. It's limiting because, most often, learning and growing occur when we are challenged by an idea or situation that doesn't fit neatly into our preconceived ideas or our comfort zone. In the simplest terms, it's the 'no pain, no gain' concept. No one gains pec muscles by lifting ten pound weights and never pushing beyond that level. Similarly, it's hard to grow spiritually or mentally if one stagnates within the same set of ideas and beliefs year after year.

Unfortunately, the echo chamber of stagnation is exactly what many people seek, treating contrary viewpoints as dangerous viruses that must be destroyed. The result an antiseptic mind-state where everything a person believes and thinks is right because they believe and think it. In this state, a person never challenges themselves, never learns where they have made mistakes, and never changes and evolves in light of new information, changing situations, or innovative points of view. Changing your mind is looked down on as moral relativism or "flip-flopping". Instead, one should "stay the course" no matter what happens.

Obviously, this is damaging in many ways. To a Zen Buddhist, such limited thinking related to practice creates complacency. Everything we're doing is right, and we never read books or hear speakers or ponder views that do not match our existing practice. We have no chance to learn anything new, because we do not listen. We evaluate whether we agree or disagree and that's as far as we go in evaluating a lot of ideas.

I was reminded of the value to be found from listening to people who we do not agree with after reading - and being impacted by - an article in Bodhidharma magazine. The article was "Are You Just Coasting?" written by Jim Willems and published in the Winter 2014 issue. Well aware of the potential danger of coasting as a solitary practitioner, I was eager to read the article to learn how I might be making this error. And Willems' premise is a very good one: that as we gain experience in meditation we can sometimes use it as a way to relax or cope with stress, which has nothing to do with disciplining the mind and training.

However, as I read Willems' well-written article, I found myself in disagreement with a good deal of his thinking about meditation. He consistently spoke about meditation having a goal and even  referred to an "ultimate goal". He also spoke of focusing the mind on a specific idea during meditation, such as "ending all suffering".  For me, this is all antithetical to Zen practice. Zazen and - more broadly Zen - do not have discrete goals or 'finish lines' that we seek to attain. Even if they did, the cessation of suffering would not be one of them since a tenet of Zen Buddhism is that we cannot escape suffering completely. I would even argue that enlightenment itself should not be sought after. Enlightenment is, instead, something that comes on its own, and it is certainly not the end-point of practice.

Critical thinking can be noise if it is undisciplined
So as I was reading Willems' article, I was engaged in an inner dialogue in my head: "Well, I don't agree with that." "Yikes, that just seems wrong." "Oh, I agree with what he says there." Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with critical thinking; we need it to function as intelligent people, Zen or no Zen. However, such thinking must be managed within a disciplined mindset or it becomes destructive. Given free rein it takes on a life of its own and we will listen to our opinions about reality - our assessment of it - more than we pay attention to what we have in the moment before us. Taking this to the extreme, our critical thinking can pre-set us to reject - or filter out - people whose ideas we disagree with and lead us to only accept information from the narrow band of people who seem to be in agreement with our beliefs. When that happens, we're clearly off the Path. And worse, we risk shriveling up into a narrow-minded fathead who does not think in any meaningful way about anything.

But if we open up, we stand to gain a great deal. For example, as much as I disagreed with Willems on many issues, I didn't stop reading his article because of it. As a result, I came across something of his that was incredibly impactful for me. It was the way he described samadhi: "With samadhi, we are single-pointed in our attention and our awareness is clear and sharp; our sense of intention is present and awareness becomes a fine tool" (italics mine). This description of samadhi resonated so much with me that I found myself considering it the next few times I sat in zazen. I worked on maintaining the single-pointed clarity of focus he wrote about (without invoking overt concentration on a particular object or idea). It helped me avoid coasting by making me think again about my zazen practice, which keeps it from becoming a rut.

So to return to the point of this post, agreeing with a teacher (or anyone) is not a relevant consideration in whether or not that teacher (or person) has something wise or useful to impart. If we are truly students, then we should not place limitations on where we find knowledge and wisdom. We should spend hold off on evaluating until we make sure we are listening.

Listening to contrary views can never be harmful, because the proper mind-state will never allow us to accept an idea that is unhelpful to us. More broadly, the quality of the ideas we accept and live by (in terms of ethics, truth, or whatever) depends much more on whether our conscious mind is disciplined than on whether we listen to someone who advocates something 'good' or 'bad'. By being open to alternate views and even seeking out ideas that contradict our own, we help ensure we have truly thought things through from all angles and that can only strengthen our understanding and, thereby, our conviction.

In contrast, if we make the mistake of treating ideas as potential toxins that we must vigilantly filter based on whether we agree with a person, we will most certainly avoid ideas that might be 'bad'. However, we will also sterilize our mind by not allowing in anything new to counter what we already know. This can only result in mental stagnation, and that is antithetical to Zen.

So put some yin in your yang (or yang in your yin)! Listen to or read something by a credible person that you disagree with in many ways...and, as you do it, do not think "they're wrong, they're wrong, they're wrong" all the way through. Instead, challenge yourself to find something in their words that is true and insightful. When I do this, I'm surprised at how often that is exactly what happens and how much I gain from the effort.

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