Zen and constructivist thinking
Gash H. (2016) Zen and constructivist thinking. In: Lasker G. E. & Hiwaki K. (eds.) Personal and spiritual development in the world of cultural diversity. Vol XIII. International Institute for Advanced Studies, Tecumseh Ontario: 23–27. Available at http://cepa.info/2692
Table of Contents
Paradigms and approaches
The person experience interface
Scope of constructivism
Thinking and spirituality each evoke many interpretations. Constructivist thinking focusses on a systemic and rational approach that includes an analysis of meaning in terms of constituent operations. Central features of religious thinking depend on an absence of agreed mechanisms to establish consensus. Insight, novelty and humour however, depend on flexibility in making meaning. Zen provides a perspective facilitating a flexible orientation to cognitive categories allowing access to systemic properties of the person-experience interface.
Key words: Zen, constructivism, systemic thinking, religion, cognition
I decided to write this paper following suggestions made last year at our conference by George Lasker. As I was part of the group that proposed our symposia on Spirituality and Personal Development, George’s suggestion is most welcome.
Words are opportunities for interpretation. I was very aware of this in discussions about spirituality over a decade ago. Each person I asked had a different meaning, an alternative set of connotations and of its impact on them as individuals. Personal representations of thinking are similarly diverse and psychology texts I used as a graduate student explained a variety of the approaches taken. I remember in particular my classes at Buffalo with Edgar Vinacke who wrote the Psychology of Thinking (1974). During my introduction to Chinese religious thinking I formed the impression that there were two main approaches, the ways of Tao and of Confucius.
In a short paper it would be hard to do justice to the wealth of scholarship concerning the histories of these Oriental beliefs and ways of being. However, my approach is to seek psychological insight rather than provide historical analysis. Nor is this to deny the variety of other religious traditions in China including Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. Rather, my plan is to emphasise features of organic systemic thinking that are central to Zen, noting in passing that the Confucian approach places more emphasis on thought products that provide guidelines and rules of conduct.
The main aim of this paper is to juxtapose systemic elements in Zen with aspects of constructivist psychology to explore some implications for constructivism in order to become more alert to the meaning, connotations and influence of Zen in psychology. There are clearly commonalities, in particular both Piaget and Zen emphasise balance as centrally important in cognitive activity. A question for a constructivist though, is where best to focus attention to achieve balance? It might be to consider moving from noticing differences “or perturbations” towards a focus on the “coincidence of opposites” for which we remember Nicholas of Cusa or the “middle path of Buddha” (Hiwaki, 2015).
Paradigms and approaches
Psychology has examined thinking in a variety of ways including memory, attention, language, problem solving, creativity and thinking. Each approach focuses on different aspects of thought and forms a body of research with its own coherence. This is common to human activities with each domain developing its own way of structuring experience with its particular forms of language and ways of organising experience. One difficulty for the initiate arriving in any domain is to construct the domain-specific constants. In cognitive psychology, approaches that focus on process rather than product are notoriously difficult for initiates. For example, there is Piaget’s theory of equilibration via assimilation and accommodation. I recall a colleague saying that when he finally understood Piaget, his students no longer understood him! I think the issue is paradigm construction, and once a thinker has developed a novel viewpoint his work becomes like a new art form with its own constants, assumptions and processes. This paradigm allows a new perspective on experience, but one that stands apart from previous accounts. The difficulty of communicating about Zen precisely is well known and so Zen is easy to misunderstand! I suspect Zen initiates experience difficulties similar to those experienced by people getting to grips with writers discussing deep systemic features of thinking processes like Hegel and Lacan. It is a matter of balancing new meanings and experiences with the ones already acquired in one’s life.
Constructivism has its own approaches and assumptions. As a paradigm it fits within the family of organismic approaches that in the 1970s were contrasted with the behaviourist approach dominant in American psychology at that time. I have previously described features of constructivist approaches at this conference including its systemic nature and its insistence that what we call rational thought provides a viable model of reality rather than a true match. The viability of what we know is guaranteed by the iterative experimental processes of the mind. These two features of thinking, I think, show an affinity with Zen. At least that is what I hope to show now.
The person experience interface
In a recent article Hugh Gash (2014) described a key feature of Radical Constructivism as having put aside the possibility of attaining truth by matching knowledge with reality, a view echoed but hidden in Piaget’s aphorism: “intelligence organises the world by organising itself”. So while common sense epistemology and traditional education assume truth arrives by adjusting what we know to reality, a constructivist epistemology abandons the possibility of any direct comparison between knowledge and reality and proposes instead a dynamic iterative experimental emergence of viable models of experience. One consequence is that the person-reality interface disappears in constructivism and is replaced with a person-experience interface. A corollary is that in a “truth-based” paradigm error is a problem, whereas within a constructivist paradigm error may be just another way of looking at experience and interpersonal difference invites discussion. However, this perspective is often taken to mean constructivists collude with a deep relativism. This is not a viable interpretation because of the comments above concerning the experimental person experience interface.
Key features of Zen include its desire to understand the meaning of life without being misled by language and logical thought.
“Zen’s stance of “anti-philosophy” maintains among other things that reason in its discursive use is incapable of knowing and understanding in toto what reality is, for example, what human beings are and what their relation to nature is.” (Nagatomo, 2015, section 4)
Realising that language may not capture experience well implies sensitivity to the difficulty of understanding words. This resonates with constructivist thinking where our responsibility for our actions thoughts and interpretations is recognised. A corollary is that constructivism entails an ethical relation to others depending on our awareness of the other’s responsibility for their own systemic interpretations (Gash, 2011). For me this requires a gentle approach to others and is close to the Zen idea that enlightenment comes not from studying scriptures or taking part in rituals but rather from finding answers by living a holistic perspective (Nagatomo, 2015).
In any discussion disagreements may be threatening. This is especially so when the issues impinge on core values. A solution may be reached through examining the basis of the disagreement, recognising that two parties in argument may have different assumptions and constructions of key ideas. Discussion may give insight into the reasons for the disagreement and provide an opportunity for mutual understanding, or alternatively it may be that the two parties cannot come to an agreement and may choose to disagree. This analysis of difference is very logical and reasonable. Given that one or both parties may feel passionately about their point of view such reasonableness may be unreasonable! Zen advocates standing back from such differences suggesting mindfulness of the other and the other’s point of view.
Both Zen and constructivism prioritise experience and the willingness to let go of our fixed ideas. Such “conserved” ideas are important in that they enable viable intercourse with experience and with each other. But if we can let ideas settle quietly, maybe there is another way: a middle path, an alternative vision.
Scope of constructivism
Constructivist research is often about mathematics, science, and educational programs. As its foundations are better understood in wider audiences, it may be that constructivist ideas can play a broader role in understanding human behaviour and interaction. The journal Constructivist Foundations has a role in the dissemination of constructivist ideas. The ethical implications mentioned above have the potential to facilitate mutual respect and human understanding in a world where human populations are expanding and conflicting in ways that shout for resolution and harmony. Recent constructivist discussions on religion open the possibility of examining non-rational knowledge - defined as being without criteria with which to establish a common understanding (Quale, 2015).
In contrasting rational and non-rational knowledge, the emphasis in Zen on being open to uncategorised experience offers a space to consider our relations with ourselves and our worlds and categories. Novelty may be experienced when existing mental categories are inadequate. In a recent review I suggested that non-rational knowledge may arise when there are interpersonal discrepancies in interpretation (Gash, 2015). Novelty suggests that part of the experience may be beyond “agreed criteria”, a “wow” factor. I wondered (ibid.) how such discrepancies lead to the emergence of necessary new criteria allowing the non-rational to become included in the rational. Irving Sigel (1968) proposed a model for such development called distancing. Sigel’s concern was the development of representational competence in pre-school education. He proposed forms of open ended questions as means to help children distance themselves from the immediacy of novel experience and construct conceptual representations. Examples include asking open-ended questions to describe pictures, to interpret or to sequencing events, or to propose alternatives or to evaluate outcomes.
Moving to other experiences of novelty, people are faced with crucial existential questions in the face of conflict. Their reaction is often emotional and while time may heal, the process of moving from the immediacy of the emotion to accommodating the experience involves distancing. Psychological work with trauma victims involves this type of process. I believe that a central feature of such work is the openness to experience in Zen.
Returning to interface, we each live in language and in relationship. Do we live as if this is our destiny in spite of having choices? The relationships that we have constructed with ourselves, with our peers and families, with our small social circles and our larger social groupings are all the results of our previous experiences constructed through our lives in each of these contexts. No wonder we believe this is our destiny, it is hard to change. This is what we know. We can lose sight of how it may be otherwise. One definition of the sacred refers to the wonderful possibilities in relationship (Bateson & Bateson, 1988). Zen also emphasises being open to possibilities, and being a frame of mind shares with the Holy Grail in Christian iconography the idea of a journey in consciousness to seek the Self (Farthing, 2003). Such are the invitations to the sacred, the unspoken experience, and the unnamed truth where infinite possibilities lie.
Some experiences have an urgency that requires immediate action, and others require less urgent action. At the same time in private moments of reflection or in social encounters, we have all wondered “what if” and we have all had insights, we have thought about our choices, we have all had dreams and epiphanies.
This is what is treasured in Zen. This is why Zen is attracting so many at this time. It is the invitation to reconsider categories. In my society religion has recently often lost the plot, in some cases abusing people through prioritising power so as to conserve institution rather than relationship. In other cases tradition is so valued that what is lost is the ability to capture the freshness of approach needed to frame the possibilities, the hopes, and values of a more vibrant relation to ourselves, our peers and our social networks. Zen offers the promise of pre-conceptual experience. While such experience is irrational it is clearly intensely sought after in contemporary Ireland and especially by young people many of whom value music in concert and festival, artistic creativity in film especially and others have embraced a drug culture with all the uncertainties entailed. But it is a first step on a road to change as we need more than opportunities to see things freshly, we need new solutions to problems.
Paul Downes (2015) wrote a psychological analysis of pre-conceptual experience with metaphors evoking diametric and concentric spaces signalling respectively analysis and division or acceptance and inclusive thinking. In art of any sort the novel presentation provides opportunities to experience freshly and reflect on the existing categories and interfaces. Choice is enabled. So what Zen points to is not a religion or a philosophy (NAGATOMO (2015), web reference) but rather a gentle reminder that examined experience offers choices inviting new interfaces new relationships and a new vision of what is really important in our lives. This is why people have turned to Zen, to music, to theatre to drugs to conferences – seeking new ways new ideas – a better way.
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Sigel, I. (1968) The Distancing Hypothesis: A Hypothesis Crucial to the Development of Representational Competence. Paper given at the annual meeting of the APA in San Francisco, CA. Available at: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED024466.pdf
Vinacke, W.E. (1974). The Psychology of Thinking. (2nd edition). New York: McGraw Hill.
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