Friday, December 12, 2008

Zen, Intentionality, Presumption

First, a Zen koan that I came across long ago (in my own words now, as I can't find it on the internet):
A man is rowing his boat on the river. An empty boat is floating nearby. The empty boat, driven by a rash current, suddenly hits his boat. The boatman changes the direction of his boat, and quietly moves on.


A man is rowing his boat on the river. Another boat, being rowed by a woman, is nearby. The second bat, driven by a rash gesture from the woman, suddenly hits his boat. The boatman becomes full of rage and in anger, shouts and screams at the woman.

This seems profound at a first reading. After all, if all acts which disturb one can be considered "acts of God" or "acts of Nature", then this stance can lead to peace in humanity. (As an aside, do check out the definition of "Act of God" in the New Devil's Dictionary.)

So, what is wrong with the koan? Modern psychology has a well-researched notion of Intentionality. Early in its life, a child develops the capability of understanding that others have intentions, and then of discerning what they are. In the light of our understanding of intentionality, we can clearly see that the boatman is angered not about the boats brushing each other, but at what he presumes is a malicious intention (or carelessness) of the intentional agent that he sees in the other boat.

I am not justifying the anger or the response of the boatman. Obviously, his reaction is silly and he could have addressed the situation better by talking calmly to the woman and asking her to be more careful or to row at a little distance from any boat.

What is curious is that while savagery determines a brutal response to any harm which comes to us via an intentional agent, spirituality (e.g. Zen) advocates a solipsistic response (or a non-response) where other minds don't exist, where it is all one consciousness (that is, ours). Some spiritual teachers (e.g. Jesus Christ or Mohandas Gandhi) even advocate turning the other cheek etc., in the belief that suffering for others will shame them (it may) or make the world better (it doesn't).

The reason why most people are savage or bitter in their reactions to non-optimal actions of intentional agents is, however, slightly complex. Our knowledge of other minds is sketchy at best. It is usually presumptuous. When we encounter a harmful incident, our intentionality-computation circuits start working. Many times, they give us wrong ideas about what the other person really wanted. If we are "good", we may conclude that the other person was callous or not heedful enough. If we are "cynical", we assume malice in the other and our natural aggression is provoked. In either case, we want to teach the other a lesson. The more malice we presume (or, as we would like to think, we "perceive") in the other, the more forcefully we want to reprimand or punish.

I am currently reading a reasonably interesting book titled "Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high". In Chapter 6, "Master my stories", the authors say:
As it turns out, there is an intermediate step between what others do and how we feel. That's why, when faced with the same circumstances, ten people may have ten different emotional responses...

What is this intermediate step? Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. That is, we add meaning to the action we observed. To the simple behavior we add motive. "Why were they doing that?" We also add judgment - "Is that good or bad?" And then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with an emotion.

The authors provide a methodical way for unraveling our story-driven responses:
Notice your behavior. (Am I in some form of silence or violence?)

Get in touch with your feelings. (What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?)

Analyze your stories. (What story is creating these emotions?)

Get back to the facts. (What evidence do I have to support this story?)

This is similar to the actualism method for becoming free from one's conditioning. But while the authors of the book are interested in making us act out more effective and less stressful responses and to feel the right emotions (instead of the wrong ones), the actualism method aims at the total annihilation of the affective faculty.

(Image courtesy www.elenaringo.com)

3 comments:

srid said...

You need to be careful in interpreting Zen koans. These stories are supposed to invoke illogical intuition to bring about an ASC.

Amit said...

"I am not justifying the anger or the response of the boatman. Obviously, his reaction is silly and he could have addressed the situation better by talking calmly to the woman and asking her to be more careful or to row at a little distance from any boat."
________

Not sure if you've experienced this, but in my experience in living with others, when I asked them politely and nicely to do something (clean their dishes, not leave smelly shoes in common areas), it was met with not doing any of the actions requested. However, whenever I've been angry (and sometimes, I fake it) and expressed that anger regarding such issues, it has been met with swift compliance. Perhaps the people I live with are unique in such behavior, but at least for me, showing anger results in a positive outcome from others. So, anger probably has some evolutionary role to play.

Anonymous said...

What is curious is that while savagery determines a brutal response to any harm which comes to us via an intentional agent, spirituality (e.g. Zen) advocates a solipsistic response (or a non-response) where other minds don't exist, where it is all one consciousness (that is, ours).

This interpretation of this koan is presumption based on your intellect. It actually might mean exactly opposite to it, or not even related to what you think it is. Keep chewing, it's something you are best at. (Na, it's not a personal attack that you may again presume. It really is something you are good at)