Monday, February 11, 2013

Faith, or, Mind Fasting

In my last post I explored the religious concept of "asceticism" and suggested one way of understanding it that could be of use for modern people, even atheists.  I would like to suggest that another term, "Faith" can be of equal use if given a slightly different understanding.

Let me introduce this idea by suggesting that modern people find themselves in a strange sort of bind, one that probably never existed even 30 years ago.  That is, modern education and media give people the illusion of an almost Olympian view.  Part of this is the 24 hr news cycle that allows someone with cable television or access to the internet the ability to fuss about news all day long.  It also allows someone who is a little more directed the ability to see endless blog postings and journal articles on almost any subject---and from almost every different perspective imaginable.

At the same time, people find themselves living in a huge complex world where we are more and more at the mercy of forces that we have no direct control over.  Our technology is so complex that almost no one understands how some of our most commonly used machines (such as the computer I am writing this blog post with) operate.  Our system of government is so huge, and the laws governing its operation so complex, that almost no one knows how the decisions that govern his or her life come about.  Finally, almost everything we use comes from a complex globalized commercial system that not only means we don't how to make stuff, we don't know how to fix it, or even where it was made in the first place.

The net result is that we can see a lot more stuff going on than we used to while at the same time we feel a lot less control over out life.

Contrast this with the world I grew up in, only forty years ago.

At that time there were only two pipelines for information:  newspapers and the CBC.  A copy of the London Free Press showed up six days at week at the farm.  The mail man also delivered copies of the Winnipeg Free Press and the Family Herald.  In addition, we listened to the CBC radio news at noon.  If we were interested, there was also a CBC television news at night, although I rarely remember seeing it.  (Probably I had to go to bed before it came on.)

There are two things to remember about this.  First, the newspapers and CBC were subject to Editorial control.  That means a person who had a lot of experience in the news business had to make a decision every morning about which stories would or would not make it onto the page or in the newscast.  Space and time was limited, so there was a genuine filtering-out process.  Moreover, there was a belief that certain minimal standards of accuracy had to be met in order to keep the support of the customer.

Secondly, these media were delivered to my family at a set time.  If my parents had wanted to learn more and immediately, it wouldn't have mattered.  They had to wait until the newspaper was delivered or the signal was sent over the airwaves.

Both of these aspects of the news meant that people were able to keep a certain sense of balance and calm in their lives that does not exist with the plugged-in "news junkie" of today.  First, people who are looking for evidence of a preconceived notion weren't able to seek it out.  Editorial control stopped the positive feedback loop of "confirmation bias".   As a result, there were no people living in "echo chambers".   Secondly, because people had to wait between news delivery, there was an imposed period of time where people were able to spend time in reflection and contemplation of a world that had nothing to do with what the media was saying.

This last point deserves special emphasis.

Because the world was a simpler, smaller place people had the experience of having more direct control over their lives.  In a small town, people had more influence over decision-making.  In a simpler time, there were fewer regulations governing what someone could or could not do.  (To cite one example, I just had a hot water tank changed in my home.  You used to be able to turn your tank heat down in order to save gas and prevent burning yourself in the hot water.  Now it seems that the government has found that the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease can grow in cooler hot water tanks, so plumbers have to install mixer valves and encourage people to keep their tanks set on "hi".  One more complexity and one less thing the home owner can do for himself.)   Rules and regulations fence us in more and more as the years go by, which gives everyone a sense of increased helplessness and impotency.

So paradoxically, while modern technology has given us the illusion of omniscience, the complex society that supports that technology repeatedly rubs our noses in the fact that we have precious little control over almost everything.  We have the vision of a God and the power of a worm.

Cassandra taken into slavery
The ancient Greeks had a myth that dealt with this sort of situation.  It involved Cassandra.   She was supposedly the daughter of the king and queen of Troy and was so beautiful that Apollo fell in love with her.  As a "gift" he gave her the power of prophecy.  But because she rejected him, he cursed her by ensuring that no one would ever listen to her warnings.  She is the personification of powerless knowledge.   She knew that the Greeks were hiding in the Trojan horse and begged the Trojans not to bring the statue into the city.  But they didn't listen.  She lived to see all her family killed and ended up a slave in the household of the Greek hero Ajax.

Of course, the Greeks weren't the only people who understood this sort of situation.  All through human history wise men and women have been able to see problems that they had no control over.  Roman philosophers no doubt understood that rampant corruption and internal politics would inevitably weaken the army to the point where the barbarians would be able to sack the Empire.  Men of science understood that the church was causing great harm by silencing and murdering men like Galileo and Bruno.  No doubt many people of sensitivity have been consumed by helpless horror while watching holocausts happen to people around them---not just the Jews, but also American Indians, slaves, Armenians, and so on.

There is a famous prayer that directly accesses this issue.  It is attributed to an American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, but he seems to have wondered if he had come across from some other source and forgotten where.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Reinhold Niebuhr
(Variations are often used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  It is also, I think, sometimes falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.)    A similar viewpoint has been offered again and again in human history.  Consider the following which is supposed to come from a "Mother Goose" rhyme.

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

And this 8th century Buddhist text:

 If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
(For further info, check out the Wikipedia article on the "Serenity Prayer".)

What I think we are dealing with is a somewhat more sophisticated version of the Christian ideal of "faith".  But the faith in question isn't of the "turn off your brain and believe every stupid thing you are told" variety, but rather of the "this seems so horrible, but we need to believe that somehow God will somehow make it 'all right' in the end".    If it were the former type of faith, then there would be no need at all for the serenity prayer, because people wouldn't get so concerned in the first place.  It's the cognitive dissonance between feeling that God is both just and all powerful, yet there being horror in the world, that leads people to want to appeal to things like the Serenity Prayer in the first place.  

I would suggest that for people of discernment the idea that "Trusting that You will make all things right" just doesn't "make the nut".  I would suggest, however, that the version from Mother Goose and the Buddhist Saint might suffice, but only if they added in some extra bits.  It is logically true that fretting over things you cannot change is simply not worth the effort.  But just telling people that this is so is not sufficient to actually get them to stop fretting. 

The Daoist sage Zhuangzi does offer a practical suggestion to how to deal with this problem, however. He suggests that we adopt a specific meditation technique known as mind fasting.  He introduces this concept in Chapter Four of his book through the mouth of the sage Confucious.  

Confucious said, "Make your will one!  Don't listen with your ears, listen with your mind.  No, don't listen with your mind, listen with your spirit.  Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things.  The Way gathers in emptiness alone.  Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.  (from Chapter four of the Zhuangzi.  The Google Texts version.) 

 The point he is trying to make is that there is a way of controlling the sorts of things that your mind chooses to fixate upon.  It is a learned skill, however, and only comes about if a person works at learning how to control what his mind does or does not choose to focus upon.  This is just like the ascetic who chooses to do a food fast and control what he put into his mouth.  In the same way, a sage learns how to control what he does or does not put into his conscious mind.

This takes two practical forms.

First, a person can choose to avoid looking at certain types of information that serve no useful purpose but instead cause worthless agitation.  In the case of modern people, this can take the form of a "new fast".  This involves refusing to look at websites, television or listen to radio that is part of the so-called "24 hr news cycle".  If someone chooses to do this, I would suggest that they very quickly realize that almost all the news that they have routinely consumed in the past has almost no real importance.  Indeed, most of it is trivial, sensational crap, much of which is irrelevant and or factually wrong.

Laozi makes a similar point in the Dao De Jing when he says:

Colors blind the eye
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart. 

Secondly, beyond turning off the avalanche of mind churning crap, people can learn to pick and choose what it is that they decide to think about.  This is the process some Daoists call "holding onto the One".  This is a process of reminding yourself that you are alive, that you are a human being and that you have the ability to pick and choose what it is that you are thinking about.  And moreover, that you choose to think about things that are of benefit for you, not things that cause you needless distress.

Please note, this is not the same thing as praying to a non-existent God that all things will be "made right" by some sort of miracle. It is instead, understanding how the human mind operates and refusing to allow it to run wild and make your life miserable.  The Dao is the sum total of "how the world works", not some old guy in the clouds.  But in many ways the end result is similar.  It is possible to live a life of value and worth, a life that benefits your fellow man, but one that doesn't involve constant mental anguish, if you learn to control the mind through fasting.

The similarity comes from the fact that deciding to learn the kung fu of Mind Fasting or Holding onto the One, is very similar to praying to "God" to give you faith.  On a practical level, they are both practices that you have to work at and which you get better doing with experience.  On a theoretical level, however, there is a world of difference.  The Dao as I have described it above, integrates perfectly with the modern worldview whereas the God of the Bible is an absurd holdover from the bronze age.  In doing so, I am trying to separate the practical value that "faith" has offered people for generations from the nasty ways in which the term has been used by ecclesiastic authorities to violate and abuse.

Unfortunately, as long as faith is defined by submission to a non-existent God, the religion leaves believers wide open to manipulation by ecclesiastic authorities who abuse their trust.  The Pope gets to decide what God does or does not want us to take "on faith" (simply because there really is no God who can step in and tell people directly that the Pope---or anyone else---is wrong.)  This means that the emphasis is not on learning how to control how our minds work, but rather on what we do or do not choose to focus upon.  The Daoist version, in contrast, is on learning how to control the mind and leaves what it chooses to focus upon up to the individual.

This is the difference between outside discipline and self-discipline.  It is analogous to the difference between an army recruit who is chased through boot camp by a drill sergeant and ordered to exercise and eat a certain type of food, and, a martial artist who freely chooses to exercise and eat right.  Unfortunately, for many people who would dramatically benefit from mind fasting, the church's attempts to impose their definition of faith on them in their youth has "poisoned the well" and keeps them from benefiting from this useful discipline.  This is why so many people who could really benefit from developing a "faithful" approach to life recoil in horror from the suggestion.  As a result, I would suggest for people who simply cannot accept the ideal of "faith" should instead be exposed to the concepts of "mind fasting" and "holding onto the One" instead.