Inside Out

Sticky thoughts

Please allow me to share a beautiful Zen koan.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around the bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until the night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females”, he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?“.

“I left the girl there”, said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

There are two personal observations from a Ekido like point of view.

We establish principles like “We monks don’t go near females” in various aspects of our lives. Every principle starts as an opinion, and its hold strengthens as we keep repeating it in our coversations with self or otherwise.

Second, our identification with the principle is proportional to the feelings (and hence to the repetition). There may be a subtle virtuous loop at play here. The more we think about an idea, greater are the chances of that becoming a principle or law. Ideas which are fundamental (= non-negotiable) tend to appear frequently in our thoughts because of the associated good/bad feelings.

We get delighted when a principle is met. The principle strengthens. We feel distracted when a principle is violated. We devise ways to defend the principle. The principle strengthens.

Our friend, Ekido observed the principle getting violated by someone they respect. They felt an urge to defend the principle, and probably a fear that their principle could be wrong (since they saw a respected person violating it). They kept trying to find a resolution and finally sought an answer. Imagine how many times the principle would have repeated in their thoughts on that evening.

How would Ekido break the loop?

  1. Strive to live without principles or fundamental opinions
  2. Keep the opinions to their worth. Treat them as an idea with a lifecycle of birth, popularity and demise. See like a tree for some thoughts on this.
  3. If opinions are simple ideas or objects, why repeat them? If we don’t repeat or have a feeling associated, they never strengthen.

Earlier, we have discussed about an opinionated framework and the principle of Strong opinions, weakly held. I keep wondering how the author does it. If we call something as a Strong Opinion, can we detach from it easily?

The answer probably lies in the trick that the author tactfully delegates the validation of an opinion to something objective. That does not allow for any feelings, or premises for repetition. All judgments reserved until we have the data. Strong opinion is reduced to a mere hypothesis. And that allows us to adapt it according to empirical observations!


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