Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Reasons and Excuses

Reasons predict behavior.
Excuses are words thrown together, usually after the fact to explain behavior.

This is the difference: If you can predict someone's behavior, you have found the reason for it. No matter what the words are, if what someone says doesn't accurately predict future behavior it is an excuse.

This was triggered by Kevin's response to the last entry, which I think was a response to Mac's and if it was, it was a useful misunderstanding. That said, I'll take advantage of it, cause that's what I do.

Kevin: "There is nothing, I repeat, nothing heroic about throwing yourself away just for the sake of throwing yourself away thinking you'll wake up recycled in paradise. This is just whimpy escapism taken to an extreme."My life sucks. My job sucks. My salary sucks. My lifestyle sucks. My arranged-marriage wife sucks. Hey, I know! Let's strap on an explosive belt and go blow up a pizza parlor full of unarmed kids for God!"

Two pieces of this are relevant: "throwing yourself away thinking you'll wake up recycled in paradise." And " blow up a pizza parlor full of unarmed kids for God!"

No one really does this, and we do ourselves a great disservice when we let ourselves believe that the words people say accurately reflect what is going on in their minds.

What follows is a theory- it is how I believe people work. It has worked very, very well for me. You can talk at maybe 200 words a minute. The voice of you talking in your head isn't much faster. However if you were to describe what you see in a single eye-blink, depending on your memory, it would easily take a thousand words to describe the incoming information. Every decision you make involves variables that never enter into your thought processes, every conversation not just involves words but also body language and memory and a nebulous network of association.

Ever seen a mother get in a near wreck? Expertly applies breaks or gas, steers and throws out an arm to keep her child from pitching forward. All in a fraction of a second she does things that might take minutes to plan. One of the major parts of martial arts training is that you can't make anything work while you are thinking about it.

Your whole brain works like this. You best laid tactical plan, the essay you wrote, what you had for dinner or whether you always say, "I don't know honey, you choose," all of these are decisions made with one of the fastest supercomputers ever designed that weighs thousands of options, history, clues that your conscious mind will never access and presents the answer to you as a done deal.

The entire time, there is a voice in your head talking. Our mistake as humans is thinking that the voice in our head is important. That it is us. It doesn't even really contribute to this process.

One of the goals of deep meditation is to still the voice in your head. From the age of about thirteen on this was one of my disciplines. When I went to college I did not speak words in my head at all. There was no inner voice. It was no bar to learning, no bar to testing. I did pretty well and I was lazy about the same things I would have been lazy about if I had been talking to myself (like doing homework before the last minute) and I was obsessed with the same things I would have been obsessed with (like judo).

It did not become a problem or affect my life in any way (it did, actually. I made decisions faster than almost anyone else and would finish a test, whether in calculus or organic chemistry or psychology almost a full twenty minutes before anyone else. I also moved faster. And it isolated me from other people: they seemed to chatter and I found it annoying and most found something disturbing -or, occassionally, attractive- about my stillness) until I decided I wanted friends. Understand that I don't get lonely and really can't grasp the idea of desiring to be around people. College was the first time that I was exposed to people who were interesting as the people that they were instead of merely as an entity to study or maneuver around. I wanted to talk and listen.

The huge deficit was that I couldn't talk about myself. For a large part of my life I hadn't thought of myself in words so putting things into words for other people was hard. After years of meditation to still the internal voice, it took another couple of years of meditation to bring it back.

The purpose of the voice is to allow humans to communicate. It enables society. It is a giant excuse making machine. One of our problems is that we take it on faith that what we say in our heads (and what others say to us) are our real reasons.

It's horseshit, obviously. Anyone who pays attention knows, for each individual, how much of what they say accurately reflects what they do or who they are. The ones that are close, we admire, the ones that don't we call hypocrits or worse. It never occured to me that what someone says is who they are. They are what they do, and in their actions you will see their real values and beliefs. Yet almost everyone believes that they are what they say they are.

A case from over a decade ago: a mother would leave her baby locked in an apartment for days at a time in a shitty diaper with plates of peanut butter sandwiches and bowls of milk on the floor. She was afraid that her new drug-dealer boyfriend would reject her if he knew that she had a kid. The police found out when someone reported the smell. When she was arrested for child neglect she couldn't believe it and was outraged that anyone would imply she didn't love her baby. She knew she loved her baby because she felt love when she held him.

So, bringing it back to Kevin's post. Does anyone really believe that this incredible supercomputer that we think with is conned into believing that there will be a post-mortem reward in paradise? No animal would be that stupid. And no one blows up kids because their life sucks.

Look at the problem. Do the math. Who are the people doing these killings? They are not poor and disenfranchised people who saw their parents and children brutally murdered by American Business Interests. This isn't a Batman comic. They are overwhelmingly priveleged, upper middle class or rich, educated and often raised in the society they attack.

Because we assume that we would never kill without extraordinary cause (if the Iraqis bombed my house I'd kill them so they must be killing us for that reason) or they must be crazy (the after death reward thing- I know, it probably sounds anti-religious to call it crazy but however you label it it is a label we use to keep believing that the people who do this are different from us.) Yet the actual terrorists rarely have direct ties with people dying and were pretty secular until just before the bombings.

Again, do the math. What are the comparables? What group of well to do american kids blow people up? I'm going to skip school shootings for now because there is a bigger, more obvious group that is pretty much like us. The military.

We know what the deciding factor is in getting young soldiers to engage in combat. Unit cohesion. Solidarity. Teamwork. Belonging.

We know that a need to belong to a group (except for a very few individuals) is one of the most powerful motivators- and isolation is one of the greatest fears- of the human animal. Is it predictable? Yes, predictable enough that it is the core of all military training in every country and every paramilitary group in the world.

Do suicide bombers blow themselves up because they are going to heaven? Or because living on the edge of two cultures, not really feeling they belong to either, one culture has an absolute, no questions, sure-fire road to being on the inside.

Sure, you're dead... does that make sense. It doesn't make sense, but it is predictable. It is how recruiters (whether of cults or terrorist organizations) choose their initiates. If belief in paradise were a reason and not an excuse, true believers would be dropping like lemmings- not suicide, exactly, but not taking any precautions whatsoever in anything. The belief doesn't match the behavior. They can spout all they want, but the behavior is true. If people did it because their life sucked it would be far more common. The religious beliefs and despair aren't predictors, they are excuses.

They are what the people say, not just to others but to themselves, to make it seem a good idea. That doesn't mean they don't believe it. Like most people they believe their own words, but that doesn't make them true or make them reasons.


Anonymous said...

If belief in paradise were a reason and not an excuse, true believers would be dropping like lemmings- not suicide, exactly, but not taking any precautions whatsoever in anything.

I don't think this is correct. You also have to account for the fact that most of the ways you can die are either really painful, embarrassing, degrading, or some combination of the three. Other confounding factors include the effect a person's death will have on others, and how to determine who actually is a true believer.


Mark Jones said...

Until I read this I'd never thought about meditation as a means of changing your awareness permanently. I'd always thought of it as "silencing that internal voice" while you were meditating; as a respite, not as a permanent transformation. That's a novel idea for me.

Matt Withers said...

Powerful post. Wondering if you've ever used meditation as a tool for ambush training. For instance, meditate with a certain signal set (alarm, train, airplane passes, car horn or other environmental options) at which point you would immediately spring out of meditation into a preset action? Does that seem like a useful way to train moving from stillness to action as relates to conflict?