It’s interesting to see people shout out their views about guns in the wake of the recent gun violence (San Bernardino, California 2015). Some are pro-gun; others are anti-gun. And, each group thinks the best way to diminish violence is to adopt their view. It really boils down to “I’m right; you’re wrong.” Isn’t this way of approaching solving problems extremely elementary? Didn’t we learn anything in school about how to solve problems? Mental training requires waking up, realizing how the mind tricks us. What’s most important isn’t what we “know,” but our approach to knowing.

A solution isn’t choosing the pro-gun or anti-gun view. A solution comes from a third option, a synthesis of the two. A solution doesn’t eliminate one view. A solution takes into consideration both views and finds ways to satisfy important aspects of both. Pro-gun has to become a little more anti-gun; anti-gun has to become a little more pro-gun. This means each of us need to change our views.

This tendency to think “I’m right and you’re wrong” permeates everything we do. We might have conversations with friends. Are we having conversations to validate our view or modify it? If we’re thinking about how we disagree with our friends and how we want to “correct” their views, then we’re focused on validation. If we’re thinking about how their views could correct ours, then we’re focused on modification.

Similarly in climbing. If we’re struggling on a route, do we get frustrated? Frustration is a sign that we want to validate our expectations. “We should be able to do the climb” yet we can’t. Instead, we could be curious how to modify our approach. Asking “What is causing me to fall?” positions us for being receptive to modifying our approach.

By focusing our attention on validating our views we create an unsolvable problem. If we’re pro-gun or anti-gun and seek to validate our views, we never get to a place where the two groups can work together, outline the problem, and find a solution. If we’re seeking to correct our friends’ views, then we stay stuck in our own unknowing. If we get frustrated, we don’t find a solution to the climbing challenge.

Learning, by definition, requires modification, not validation. The pro-gun and anti-gun advocates don’t learn anything by validating their views. We don’t learn anything by correcting our friends’ views during conversations. We don’t learn anything about ourselves by getting frustrated on a route. Learning requires synthesis. Synthesis blends the two views into a better solution, better than either of the two views. It’s better because it takes both views into consideration.

  • If the goal is to diminish gun violence, then we achieve the goal by creating a society that wants to work together.
  • If the goal is friendship, then we have vigorous discussions while respecting each other.
  • If the goal is achieving a climb, then we stay curious to what’s shutting us down.

We don’t achieve these goals by focusing on them. We achieve them by focusing on solving the problem. We do this by staying connected with the situation. We work together, which requires us to change, which requires us to change, which requires us to change. Yes, I know, I said it three times. We change through modification, not validation.

The mind’s limiting desire to be right, requires us to label the opposite group as wrong. It’s an either/or proposition. Takuan Sōhō, the seventeenth century Zen master said “You should not fear your enemy, but fear your ally. From the beginning there is no enemy. You make your ally your enemy.” The pro-gun or anti-gun groups are not our enemy. We should fear our ally, those within our own group that keep us in unawareness, fearing modifying our views, fearing our own learning process.

Don’t be a victim of the mind. We can choose a third option. We can be “right” in how we approach solving problems. We can stop validating and start modifying. We can make our enemy our ally, learn from them, and synthesize a solution that’s better than ours.

It’s easier to look at others, labeling them as the problem. It’s harder to look at ourselves, understanding the problem originates within us. Let’s do something that’s harder, not easier. Let’s also hold others accountable for doing the same. Nobody gets a free ride. This is not about being tolerant of others. Tolerance means we know we’re right and others are wrong and we’ll just tolerate them, as long as they don’t interfere with our views. It’s about having a vigorous discussion, agreeing and disagreeing, and modifying, in respectful ways.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Tom Reed

    Arno, Spot on! I’m currently spending much of my professional life focusing on Deep Learning. A biologically inspired approach to using computers to help human understanding of perceptive and cognitive challenges. the concept of “training” is central to the successful development of a Deep Learning capability. in DL, effective training of models takes both correct and incorrect data. Lacking in “incorrect” training data creates bias in the algorithms that gives right answers, but only for the small number of conditions you train for (e.g. you lack generality of the method) and end up with a tool that can gives wrong answers for inputs that you have never encountered before. Insights come from synthesis. Bias is inherent but a roadblock to synthesis we must be aware of! You should cross post to linkedin!

  2. Jay

    Wonderfully put

  3. David Mathews

    I respectfully and humbly disagree with what I believe you are saying in this e-lesson. Respectfully because to whatever extent I have improved as a climber is largely due to your insights, observations, and encouragement. Humbly because I’ve been alive long enough (although not quite as long as you 🙂 ) to have experienced being wrong in one of my sincerely held beliefs and realize that I could, in fact, be wrong again.

    As I see it, you are proposing the Zen view of rejecting our Western “either-or” mentality of judging good and bad, right and wrong, “my way” or “the highway”. Of course, for many (probably most) things, I do believe that the Zen approach of “synthesis” is helpful in our growth, and superior to our ego-driven thought processes that you describe so well in your writings. It goes without saying that I believe this synthetic view is superior for growing as a climber, and in many other aspects of life.

    For more than two decades, I believed and attempted to live according to the belief that the “synthetic” view is helpful in ALL aspects of life. Again, it is this view that I believe you are promoting in your e-lesson. It is that view that I now soundly reject.

    I’ll give two different reasons to try to illustrate why after 20+ years I have rejected this. The first is logical inconsistency. If we are to ALWAYS reject “either-or” thinking, then we must reject either-or thinking when it applies to whether we are ALWAYS to reject either-or thinking. In other words, to say that we mustn’t “take a side” in a debate is in of itself taking a side. Now, I realize that for Zen adherents this argument could be construed as flawed because it is logical, and our approach to truth must transcend even logic, but I nonetheless find it compelling.

    Besides, there is a second argument that transcends the “logical” and that is also compelling to me. Rather using your current example of gun control, I think it will be clearer if we take a different issue with a little more historical separation from the present to add the benefit of historical perspective. From the founding of America onward through 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there were (at least) two “positions” regarding slavery in America. I believe very strongly that all of the attempts at “synthesis” of these two positions, be it the 3/5th’s compromise or the Missouri Compromise or whatever other compromise were ill-conceived. As Abraham Lincoln stated in his March 4, 1861 Innagural Address “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.” In other words, slavery (like gun control) was an issue of strongly held differing opinions, but in my estimation the solution could not be for the pro-slavery position to become a little more anti-slavery, and the anti-slavery position to become a little more pro-slavery. Indeed, I would imagine that you share my view and that of Abraham Lincoln when he wrote: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

    I freely and happily acknowledge that one’s approach to reality can improve the conditions even for the slave. But I will also assert that slavery is wrong, maybe even evil, regardless of how productively the individual in that situation chooses to cope with it.

    I could go on-and-on about this, but it goes to my core belief about reality that has developed over 55 years. There are some things that are “right” and some things that are “wrong” that transcend our opinion – either individual or collective, popular or not. The epistemological ramifications of this are profound.

    Of course, many (perhaps most) things do not rise to the level of representing a transcendent good. We must be disciplined to keep from judging as bad things that we just don’t prefer. Thomas Jefferson brilliantly prescribed how we should live regarding this situation: “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”

    I agree that the issue is oftentimes (maybe most of the time) getting the ego out of the way. But I disagree that this is always the case.

    I am interested on your thoughts on this.


    1. Arno

      Hi Dave, Thanks for your post. I respectfully agree with much of it. Perhaps a few clarifications. The theme of the lesson is working together to solve a problem. We all have a tendency to think we know the right answer and don’t challenge the method that leads to that “knowing.” Much of the rhetoric about guns and Islam recently labels one group as the problem and creates an unsolvable problem. Unsolvable because they state that to solve the problem we need to eliminate that group (Muslims) or go all the way to pro-gun views (let all responsible people carry guns) or to anti-gun views (get rid of all guns). How do we eliminate Muslims that are US citizens? There’s the Constitution, civil rights, etc…unsolvable.

      Concerning slavery, did we eliminate the group that was pro-slavery? Somewhat, I guess; lots of them died during the Civil War. But many survived and continued to live without being slave owners. What we really killed was the idea of slavery. Yes, we must fight for our principles, and sometimes that mean war and killing. But for many problems we should approach them respecting the other group, not totally eliminating what is important to them. The gun issue is a bit different than slavery. Societies around the world evolved beyond the idea that slavery was acceptable. I know there’s still some going on with the sex trade etc, but that isn’t legal.

      True, the either/or process shouldn’t be thrown out. We use it to make decisions. But that approach doesn’t help when we’re working together to solve problems. We all have a tendency to think in black/white and right/wrong. But what is black or wrong to us may be white and right to someone else. We can’t all be right or all wrong. If we’re working together to solve problems the we’ll position ourselves better for doing that if we approach the process knowing we’re all a little right and a little wrong. That keeps us open to working together.

      The Zen quote was to bring to light how we hold onto our way of understanding reality, looking for validation within our allies that agree with us. We can learn most from our “enemy” those that challenge our status quo. Concerning debating, in formal debating we do choose a side and work to prove it and disprove our opponent. That’s great for practicing our ability to speak clearly, concisely, and develop persuasiveness. But, to solve a problem in real life we need to listen more than persuade and be willing to modify how we see reality.

      Anyway, these are my thoughts on “reality” which also morph over time. I’m still learning certainly. Thanks for your post; have a nice December break from school. Stay warm. a

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