The deadline for our Learning Reflection Papers has crept up on me. Has it already been one month since the Core Chaplaincy Training retreat? On Sunday, I pounded out the LRP on the segment delivered by Dr. Merle Lefkoff on Complexity, Spirituality and Compassion. The Science of Surprise and black swans appearing when you least expect. The Theory of the Black Swan (authored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb) is of an unpredicted and undirected event which is then rationalized by hindsight. It reminds me of one of the most powerful books written in Psychology by Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails. Following one of those planetary catastrophes predicted by messages from aliens, Festinger and his research pals noticed that the failure of the event lead to some interesting backwards engineering – or forwards propping. In this specific case, the group who had predicted the end of the world gathered to wait for salvation. When the predicted end didn’t happen, they announced that it was because they had gathered, full of faith in the aliens’ intention to destroy Earth, that the aliens had changed their plans. Thus was born the concept of cognitive dissonance – how we change past thought history to cope with things not going the way we expected.
I used to sneer at this kind of cognitive reverse engineering. As I did at sweet whispered nothings which had the effect of derailing a hot date in my youth. These days I’m finding it harder and harder to see the line between things I don’t expect and things I didn’t predict. Ultimately, they both have to do with a form of blindness. I don’t expect things because I’m blind to the causes and consequences of my actions. I can’t predict things because I haven’t yet allowed the data into my consciousness. Either way, the blindness has its own consequences.
What does this have to do with practice? May be nothing. I might be procrastinating on writing the next LRP on the shadow side of the paramitas. Or, maybe I’m starting to consider the metaphoric Black Swan Event when I come up against moments that turn out to be acts of generosity, virtue, patience, love, stability and wisdom. I understand that Taleb meant events of global and cultural consequence however missing such unpredicted and undirected moments in our practice lives can also have wide-reaching impact. And, I fear that when the realization hits of the true nature of the act I received, my backwards rationalization may not do service to myself or the other.
Would mindfulness be enough to notice the growth of a Black Swan? Taleb, in his 2010 revision, added a section on how to avoid Black Swan Events (getting fired may be a Black Swan Event for the employee but guaranteed it wasn’t for the corporation). So perhaps, the sweet nothings I disregard or the assumptions I make about intentions and a common humanity could stand a bit of scrutiny.
Thank you for practising,