Captains Of Our Souls

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-10-15 12:00:00 No comments

This piece is worth an end-to-end read, but I want to chomp out these bits and focus on them.

The scientists persuading terrorists to spill their secrets | News | The Guardian

... Miller argued that counsellors were having precisely the wrong kind of conversation with their clients. Addicts were caught between a desire to change and a desire to maintain their habit. As soon as they felt themselves being judged or instructed, they produced all the reasons they did not want to change. That isn’t a pathology, Miller argued, it’s human nature: the more we feel someone trying to persuade us to do something, the more we dwell on the reasons we should not. By insisting on change, the counsellor was making himself feel better, while reinforcing the addict’s determination to carry on. ...

Implicit in Miller and Rollnick’s critique of traditional counselling was the uncomfortable suggestion that counsellors should turn their professional gaze upon themselves and question their own instinct to dominate. Instead of thinking of himself as an expert sitting in judgment, the counsellor needed to adopt the more humble position of co-investigator. As Miller put it to me, “The premise is not ‘I have you what you need, let me give it to you.’ It’s ‘You have what you need and we’ll find it.’ The patient must feel “autonomous” – the author of their own actions.

Emphases mine.

For the first year or so when I studied Zen Buddhism in a serious way, as opposed to just reading about it, I took the time to learn about the difference between Buddhism (and Zen) as it was actually practiced vs. the pop-bullshit version of B(&Z) that everyone thought they knew. It was ... well, I was going to say enlightening, but that's the easy joke. It was sobering, is more like it.

The first thing you learn is that you don't achieve self-mastery by twisting your own arm. You can't make your mind quiet any more than you can, say, float to the ceiling by holding your breath. What you can do, though, is give yourself constant and systematic opportunities to allow your mind to get out of its own way. Do that often enough and a lot of the noise in your head goes away on its own, because you learn to notice all the more when you're provoking it in the first place.

Many people, when they are first learning to sit zazen, take the wrong approach — they try to smother the thoughts in their heads and replace them with "emptiness". They are trying, in the words of the first bolded quote, to persuade themselves to do something, and they end up simply dwelling all the more on the reasons not to. They end up only mobilizing inner resistance and defeating the whole project.

What does work is a strategy that takes a longer period of time, and can be less immediately rewarding, but is more fruitful in the long term. You sit there, and get used to the idea that thoughts come and go of their own accord — good, bad, ugly, indifferent, whatever — and you learn to pay more attention to the fact of their coming and going than the contents of those things themselves. Eventually, thoughts stop being emotional facts, and start just being thoughts. What peeves people is that a) they have to do the work themselves and b) they have to do it for quite some time before they see results, but I blame society.

The other thing I learned was how the student-teacher relationship is meant to work in Zen. Ideally, it's meant to be more of a collaborative environment than a sacerdotal one. The teacher has been to a few places and knows a few things, and shares what he knows in an environment where you are encouraged to follow along in your own way. But the teacher's authority begins and ends with that sharing. He's not there to tell you how to live your life; if he acts like he does, get the hell out of there.

What the teacher's meant to do for his students is a lot closer, then, to the second bolded section above. His job isn't to give you anything, but to show you how to unearth what you already have within you and put it to work.

I'm inclined to believe teachers of any creative or spiritual discipline need to work like this. They can give advice, provide examples, demonstrate how things work, but at the end of the day, it's all about getting the student to work collaboratively with the teacher to unearth what's inside them.

Finally, I think this second point — "You have what you need and we'll find it" — is something that people can actualize within themselves. If we can be divided against ourselves so strongly as to be our own harshest critics, there's nothing that says this Other Within cannot also be a collaborator and co-actualizer.

Tags: Buddhism Zen psychology