Saturday, July 15, 2017

upon further contemplation

I'm guessing this won't come as a shock: the sweeping advice that more faith would've prevented my unbelief fails to dazzle me. From my standpoint it seems equivalent to the bullheaded instruction, "You should have never let yourself revise what you think, no matter what well-grounded information came along, or how implausible or problematic your preferred idea was shown to be." I knowingly discarded the beliefs after open-eyed judgment. If more faith is seriously intended as a defense tactic, then it has a strong resemblance to the ostrich's. (The inaccuracy of the head-burying myth can be ignored for the sake of lighthearted analogy...)

I'm more entertained, but no more convinced, by specific recommendations that would've fortified my beliefs. Contemplative prayer's assorted techniques fit this category. These are said to improve the follower's soul through the aid of quietness, ritual, reflection, and focus. The soul is methodically opened up to unearthly influence. It's pushed to develop an engrossing portrayal of the supernatural realm. It's taught to frequently note and gather signs of this portrayal's existence. The edifying periods of intense concentration might be guided by spiritual mottoes, textual studies, mental images, dogmas. Intervals of fasting and solitude might be employed to heighten attentiveness. Presumably, all this effort goes toward two interlocking goals. First is an inspiring appreciation of God. Second is often having in-depth, warm, productive connections with God, at both scheduled and unscheduled times. Zealous contemplators like to declare that they're "in a relationship, not a religion" and that they walk and talk with God.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't rashly accuse them of telling deliberate lies about the phenomena their techniques lead to. Aside from the embellishment and reinterpretation that inevitably slip in, I don't assume that they're fabricating their entire reports. Dreams aren't perceptible outside of the dreamer's brain either, but that doesn't imply that no dreaming occurred. When they say they sense God, I'm willing to accept that their experience of sensing was triggered in them somehow. If an experience roughly corresponds to the activation of a brain region, then purposely activating the region could recall the experience. Anywhere in the world, a whiff of favorite food can conjure a memory of home.

The actual gap is between the meaning that they attribute to their contemplative techniques and the meaning that I attribute. They claim that they're harnessing the custom-made age-old wisdom of their particular tradition to come into contact with their unique God. But when I reexamine their techniques in a greater context, I can't avoid noticing the many close similarities with sophisticated psychological training. I'm referring to training by the broadest nonjudgmental definition. We're social creatures who have highly flexible brains. We're training each other and ourselves, by large and small degrees, constantly though not always consciously, for a host of admirable or despicable reasons. Where they perceive specialized paths to divinity, I perceive the unexceptional shaping of patterns of behavior and thinking.

No matter the topic, a complicated abstraction is usually a challenge for psychological training. Extra care is needed to ensure that it's memorable, understood, relevant, and stimulating. A number of ordinary exercises and factors can help. Undisturbed repetition is foremost. Obviously, over the short term it stops the abstraction from promptly fading or being pushed out by distractions. But for the knowledge to persist, undisturbed repetition shouldn't be crushed into a single huge session. It should be broken up into several, preferably with evenly spaced time in-between. Each should build on top of the previous. Old items should be reviewed before new items. It also helps when the material is itself put in a repetitive and thoughtful form, in which parts of the new items are reminiscent of parts of the old items. Mnemonics, rhymes, and alliteration have benefits other than stylistic flourishes.

Better still is to supplement undisturbed repetition with active processing. Asking and answering questions about the abstraction forces it to come alive and be comprehended. The questions should be decisive and piercing, not vague, superficial, and easy. The aim is greater clarity. A clear abstraction appears surer and realer than a hazy one. Its familiarity increases as it's meditated on and reused. A secondary effect of active processing is to establish its links to other ideas. Its distinguishing characteristics are exposed. Its boundaries are drawn. It ceases to be a mysterious, remote, solitary blob. Instead it's nestled firmly in its known position by neighboring ideas: it's a bit like this and a bit unlike that.

If possible, the active processing should include personalizing the abstraction. A person may or may not be permitted to adapt it to suit themselves. But in either case, they can translate it into their own words and the symbols they find significant. And they can try to pinpoint informative overlaps between it and their larger perspective. Applying it to a their vital concerns instantly raises its value in their thoughts. Lastly, to the extent that it influences their individual choices, it accumulates a kind of undeniable role in their personal history from then on.

Personalizing an abstraction works because brains have an innate talent for pouncing on information that affects the self. Stories and sense perception are two more brain talents that can be successfully targeted. The brain already has skills for absorbing concrete narratives and sensations. A compelling story is superior at conveying the qualities of someone or something. Visualizing something abstract aids in delivering it into consciousness, regardless of whether the visualization is merely a temporary metaphor. Paradoxical as it sounds, attaching many little sensory details can sometimes be beneficial for retention. Vividness enables an abstraction to grab and hold a bigger slice of awareness. Excessively minimal or dull descriptions engage less of the brain. Although a concise summary is quicker to communicate than a series of differing examples, the series invokes sustained attention. The multiple examples present multiple chances, using several variations, to make at least one enduring impression.

For mostly the same reason, adding a factor of emotion works too: it's a "language" which is built into the brain. It marks information as important. It boosts alertness toward an abstraction. Meanwhile, the flow of associations pushes an understanding of its parts. The parts to be opposed—problems or enemies—are enclosed by a repelling frame. The parts to be welcomed—solutions or allies—are enclosed by an appealing frame. A thorough bond between emotion and an abstraction can last and last. Its potency could potentially rival or exceed the potency of a bond to a tangible object. Such objects can be hobbled by the fatal shortcomings of realistic weaknesses and complex mixes of advantages and disadvantages, which bind to conflicting emotions.

It so happens that all these considerations feature prominently in the contemplative techniques that would've hypothetically sheltered me from unbelief. That's why I conceded earlier that diligent practice of the techniques probably does fulfill the promise...according to the contemplator. When psychological training is carried out well, I'd expect it to be effective at introducing and reinforcing craftily constructed abstractions. The end results are that numerous stimuli spontaneously give rise to the cultivated ideas. The ideas become the lenses for observing everything else. Dislodging them to make room for contrary thoughts starts to feel, um, unthinkable. Contemplators see themselves producing subtler insight into the being that created them and provided them an Earth to live on. People like me see them producing subtler refinements of the being they're continuously creating and for whom they've provided a brain to "live" in.

However, contemplation is doomed to be a flawed source of proof because it has no essential differences from the "more faith" remedy I first criticized. It often functions independently of tested realities outside the brain's. When it's relying on imaginative modes, it operates separately from rigorous argumentation, pro or con. If I'd been more accomplished at it, would my escape have been longer and wobblier? I suppose. Yet I question that I could've fended it off forever.