Digging Deeper for Ideas (2)–Playing with Syncretism

May 31, 2007

For people who believe their current perspective is sufficient, there is no incentive to dig deeper. Their ideas remain static. However, new ideas and insights are always arising. The simplest approach, especially when the new ideas have opposing elements to the current perspective, is to ignore the ideas or push them aside. However, something is lost and, ultimately, success will be limited.

There are several methods that use opposing ideas in order to achieve more innovative results. One is the Dialectic Method (Thesis –> Antithesis–> Synthesis), which was previously discussed (see Digging Deeper for Ideas—Stealing from Hegel).

Syncretism is another antidote to simplistic solutions. Syncretism is the attempted reconciliation of contradictory ideas or principles. The result may preserve the differences, using opposing elements as appropriate. Thus, the resolution may not be an unambiguous statement, but a fragile system that simply works better than the ones that served as the foundation.

The process holds fewer certainties, but more opportunity for innovation. Syncretic solutions are not merely looking for compromise on the common elements, but using the opposing elements and building bridges to them. Internal contradictions are permitted.

In references, the syncretic process is usually described for large issues that evolve historically over time. As a consequence, the underlying principles are not often considered for resolving conflicting ideas at work or at home.

Below, two examples of global scale syncretic issues are briefly described in order to give a flavor the applications. Then, a method to use the concepts of the syncretic approach to analyze everyday problems is outlined.

Two Classic Examples

(1) In the area of world political systems, a static idea is that the American model of democracy is the best system to be exported to other countries. This transition is “accomplished” by sending experts to teach the people about democracy and hold elections. The results of this naive belief are obvious.

The static approach neglects the fact that people in these countries have lived for centuries in different cultural conditions opposed to democracy. A new government must also reconcile the opposing elements of the cultural heritage with the principles of freedom. For example, India has a participatory democracy, but the political process is different from America since the major parties represent traditional religious faiths. It works in its own way.

(2) There are syncretic possibilities for the practice of medicine on the global scale. Western and Chinese medicine each have demonstrated strengths. However, there are significant differences. Their descriptions of the functions of the body are in non-reconcilable concepts. Also, Western medicines are relatively recent, developed in the laboratory, and evaluated in defined clinical studies. Chinese treatments, such as acupuncture and herbs, evolved over centuries by observation and experience.

Currently, the two disciplines are practiced separately. However, the current approach to medicine will change as information and expertise in both disciplines becomes more common. What form will medicine will take, particularly in developing countries, remains to be seen. From a static view, the western standards could be retroactively enforced on the Chinese methods. However a syncretic approach, which allows contradictions and preserves the differences of the two disciplines, seems to hold most benefit for patients.

Playing With Syncretism—Application to Everyday Problems

The principles can be applied to problems which routinely arise and can lead to better solutions.

One method to take advantage of these differences is to analyze the opposing ideas with a set of questions based on sycretism.

—-Why does each approach have merit?

—-What do the two approaches have in common?

—-What are the specific non-reconcilable elements of each approach?

—-Under what circumstances does each opposing element provide an advantage?

—-How can the advantages of both opposing elements be preserved, even in a fragile structure?

—-Do the new proposals preserve the advantages ?


Such questions are rarely asked since there is a bias to force a solution.

Working with these questions requires both a re-examination of one’s preferred approach as well as considering the problem using a different framework. However, without really much use of time or energy, a different, perhaps better, result can be obtained.


The Monk Challenges His Teacher

May 25, 2007

A young monk went to a private instructional talk with his Zen teacher. The teacher and monk sat, on the floor, directly across from each other. After they sat in silence for several minutes, the monk asked “What do you see?” The teacher replied: “I see a buddha.” Silence again for several minutes, then the teacher asked: “What do you see?” The monk gave a quick response: “ I see a useless bag of bones.” The teacher said nothing, but placed his palms together and made a deep bow to the monk. The period was over and the monk left.

The monk was exultant. He had bested his teacher in a one-to-one exchange. He could not contain his excitement. Later, in the day, while working in the kitchen with a senior monk, he retold the story of the exchange in a triumphant tone. It was a sign of his progress on the path.

The senior monk simply smiled: “No, it was the teacher who has taken you. When he spoke, he showed what was in his mind, and when you replied, you revealed what was in yours!” The young monk had no further response.


Our everyday experience suggests that there is an objective world, with distinct objects, an inside and an outside.

The teacher suggests that everything that is seen or experienced is our own life. The possibility is shown to the young monk for the first time. Then, there is no inside or outside, or even an objective world.

The teacher’s response comes to each person. “How do we experience the world? How can that experience be refined”. It is a crucial question, driving to the heart of the matter.

As with all open ended stories, each individual has a unique response.

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (usefulzenwords.com)

Meditation, Science, and the Western Perspective

May 16, 2007

Each person who begins a meditation practice does so for their own personal reasons. However, for those who pursue it in a serious way, the direction of meditation is to deepen awareness so that the individual can be fully present and respond appropriately to the experience of the present moment.

Meditation methods of various traditions are similar, but may emphasize different techniques. In Zen Meditation, for example, there is emphasis on a still body posture, attention on the breath, and an awareness of the activity of the mind. As thoughts and distractions arise during the meditation period, these are acknowledged, released, and the attention returned to the breath. This simple but difficult practice has had profound affects on lives of people since well before the time of the Buddha, over 2500 years ago.

In a recently published article, “Mental Training Affects Resource Use” (Synopsis, Full Article), Richard Davidson et al. at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated the effects of meditation on attention by the western scientific method. Below is an excerpt from the Author Summary:

Meditation includes the mental training of attention. One of the major limitations of the attentional system concerns the ability to process two stimuli. When the second (stimuli) is presented within a half second of the first one in a rapid sequence of events, it is often not detected. (Missing the second stimuli) is thought to result from competition between stimuli for limited attentional resources.

We measured the effects of intense meditation on performance. We found that three months of intensive meditation enabled practioners to more often detect the second target with no compromise in their ability to detect the first target.

These findings demonstrate that meditative training can improve performance on a task that requires trained attention abilities.

The paper describes both measurements of electrical charges in the brain as well as a detailed mathematical analysis. These results may help the understanding of the physical function of the brain and be an advance in the neurosciences. In a related newspaper article (NY Times 5/8/07), the author said that this was the first study to examine how mediation affects attention.


Perhaps it was the first study, but countless people who have meditated have seen such beneficial changes in their own lives by direct experience. There is a tendency to give formal studies more weight than one’s own experience. However, if such studies encourage people to try the practice for themselves, they have a larger impact than to the science

Western Perspective: Finally, it is important to be aware of bias of our Western culture. These findings document by western methods the benefits that have been previously known to much of the world. There are many examples of methods that work in the world, that have not yet been documented in the western sense. One example is Chinese Medicine (see Common Sense, Carpal Tunnel Treatment Options and Acupuncture ). The important point is to recognize the bias and use information and judgment in considering these methods.

Managing Multiple Projects—A Jugglers View

May 14, 2007

“Too many balls up in the air”

People like to use the juggling analogy to convey the impression that they are not just busy but on the edge. It makes for good theater.

Jugglers do put on a good show. They also give the impression that they are on the edge of chaos, but it is also part of the performance; they are in full control.

If you want to benefit from the juggling analogy, a better place to look is in the methods that they use to develop their skill. Those lessons can be applied to managing multiple tasks or projects.

Juggling skills require:

Confident and focused attention.

A heightened sense of awareness is needed to be able to react to the immediate situation. Both the mind and the body need to be in a comfortable position. Jugglers develop these skills.

Excess tension and distraction leads to dropped balls and mismanaged projects.

Following only on the critical activity.

It is impossible for the juggler to follow the complete track of each ball. The juggler though looks through the top arc and makes the required adjustments in the movements to catch and throw based on these observations.

Similarly, in managing multiple projects, identify the key elements and put the attention on those elements, delegating the others.

Anticipating and controlling an upset.

On occasion, the juggling sequence is interrupted (perhaps by a mis-thrown ball) and the juggler sees that he will have to stop. Since he anticipates this, he can choose which balls to catch.

When an upset occurs with multiple projects, all of the projects often suffer, similar to balls being dropped and bouncing in all directions. However, if the right priorities are known, the appropriate actions can be taken to minimize the effect on the most important projects.

Systematically Developing Skills.

Anyone who has picked up three balls and tried to juggle them, finds that it doesn’t go well at first. There is a learning curve. But as their skills develop, adding one ball at a time and an impressive skill develops. There is alot of effort though just picking up balls from the ground during the practice.

Learn to do one project well, then add another.

Jugglers’ underlying skill is real, developed by practice. The frenzy of the performance is an act. That skill should also be the goal of people managing multiple tasks. Sometimes though, the manager’s frenzy is real and the underlying skill is an act. Without the developed skills, projects, like juggling balls, are dropped.

Recognizing Flawed Concepts

May 2, 2007

It was four years ago that Bush was photographed with the “Mission Accomplished” sign in the background. This photo opportunity marked the high point of the rhetoric. It was for others to suffer and continue to suffer the real consequences. However, even with politics aside, his concept was flawed from the beginning.

Incompetent conceptual planning brings failure at any scale—international, business, or personal. The flaws can initially be masked by rhetoric, emotion, or fabrication. However, sooner or later, the consequences are there for all to experience.

Even though the planners are often adept at disguising it, such incompetence is not difficult to recognize if there is an evaluation of a few key points.

Early recognition of the flaws can help to either correct the project before it gets underway or, at least, minimize the consequences to yourself and others.

These points can be used as a reality check both for politics and personal projects.

Three Points to Check

Clear Thinking

Clear thinking is missing if:

  • There is little expertise or experience in understanding the situation. (Further, it is worse if those with expertise are excluded.
  • There is fuzzy or deluded thinking. (One symptom of deluded thinking is that the ideas have not been tested by others.)
  • The proposal is a response to emotional issues or hidden agendas.


Flexibility is missing if:

  • New information is not considered as it becomes available.
  • Key assumptions may prove to be wrong.
  • Unforeseen events can not be accommodated.
  • There is no provision for making changes as events unfold.


Perspective is missing if:

  • The concept is based on an individual perspective, usually viewed as superior
  • The concept does not account for the resources or different sensibilities of the different groups.

The difference in perspective can be seen by example. Consultants can not just instruct people who have lived under an authoritarian rule to hold elections and become a democracy. Cultural roots are much deeper and difficult to change. Such an approach is naive and simplistic.

All of this sounds like common sense. However, in the heat of the moment, it is too easy to barrel ahead without a reality check. These considerations can be used to slow down the process, ask a few explicit questions, and then proceed. It can be used to evaluate our leader’s ideas as well as personal projects.

A related post: Recognizing Incompetence Early–Pretending to be a Manager /