All posts by Robert M Ellis

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

Ten reasons why discussions fail

I’ve recently been involved in a discussion that still feels like the most depressing ever. It started with me trying to gather perspectives for the book I’m writing about S, a well-known Buddhist teacher (I’m going to deliberately avoid specific details and names here), by posting a question on a Buddhist forum on Facebook. I wanted to find arguments that his critics would use against him so as to make sure that I took them into account. But the critics only wanted to discuss one thing: certain practical shortcomings in the behaviour of that teacher, that they believed justified them in dismissing everything he might have said or written. They wanted me to agree with them, and regarded me as biased if I didn’t. Even after I’d quit the discussion of this on Facebook, one of the critics contacted me to continue it by email. What I find most depressing is that this was a very highly-educated, thoughtful person, an expert in mindfulness – but we nevertheless made no progress at all, instead having a protracted, ill-natured, tedious wrangle that ended up, not with agreement, but with him shutting down the discussion because he was bored with it.

This has stimulated further more general reflections about why discussions fail, even when everyone involved in them sincerely believes that they are pursuing ‘truth’, or ‘rationality’, or being ‘reasonable’, and when they do have some self-awareness of the kind you might expect from a regular meditator. Even the supposed experts fail. I am thinking primarily of text-based discussions on the internet, though many of the same points can also apply even in face-to-face discussions. I’ve come up with ten things that people do that cause discussions to fail – not based only on this example, but also many others that I’ve experienced, together with ongoing thinking about the difficulties in applying the Middle Way.

These ten are:

  1. Provisionality markers are ignored
  2. Impersonal points are read personally
  3. Language is essentialised
  4. Motives are ascribed, or assumed to be ascribed
  5. Unrealistic expectations are based on someone else’s position
  6. Unrealistic expectations of one’s own position inhibit learning
  7. Cognitive bias awareness becomes another weapon
  8. Helpful information is interpreted as condescending
  9. Analysis and reflective summarising are boring
  10. Mediating intentions are not adopted or respected

You might ask why these take a negative form, rather than ten ways that discussions succeed. The reason for this is that I think reasons for success are much harder to identify and generalise about, the reasons for failure being all in the end attributable to absolutisation as a general human tendency. Everything is grist for the mill of absolutisation. Nevertheless, reasons for success can emerge out of the avoidance of reasons for failure.

Here they are explained in more detail:

1. Provisionality markers are ignored

Provisionality markers are bits of language that can be used to try to signal that you’re talking provisionally, that you are just raising possibilities for other people to consider, you respect the autonomy of their judgement, and are not in any way trying to force them to adopt your perspective by absolutising. For example, the use of ‘seems’ or ‘appears’ to hedge what you’re saying. There’s a previous more detailed blog about provisionality markers, including lots of examples, here. The big problem that I find with using these, as noted towards the end of that blog, is that people routinely ignore or discount them, and thus I find that I have a tendency to over-rely on them. Sometimes I resort to putting them in bold or surrounding them with *asterisks* to try to draw people’s attention to them, but that’s more of a mark of my frustration than anything else. The only solution to this that I can envisage is either that more people are trained to use them, until a critical mass of social expectation is reached, or (even more idealistically) that they become unnecessary because everyone expects provisionality anyway. In the meantime, I will continue to use them just because they might help in some cases.

2. Impersonal points are read personally

We’re all probably familiar with the phenomenon of people ‘taking things personally’. What that seems to mean in practice is that people absolutise something as a threat to themselves that you merely offered as a possibility for their consideration. Nothing is actually impersonal, because our entire perspective is personally embodied, but impersonal language is nevertheless another way of being provisional, by prompting awareness of a wider context to what one is saying.  For example, instead of saying “You’re defending cruelty and exploitation”, you can say “There’s a danger that people who adopt this kind of view may end up defending cruelty and exploitation”. In the fruitless discussion I referred to above, I twice pointed out that something my interlocutor had taken personally was deliberately phrased impersonally, but he ignored this, apparently not believing in my sincerity in doing so. He believed that the context justified him in continuing to interpret it personally, but of course this all depended on the framing assumptions with which he viewed the context and purpose of the discussion (see 10). As with provisionality markers, I shall continue to do this just because it might help – but very often it doesn’t – unless, perhaps, more people are consciously trained in using it and accepting when others use it. The principle of charity is another approach that can help to prompt more helpful readings here.

3. Language is essentialised

A lot of people seem to have strong implicit beliefs that words have an essential meaning that one can look up in a dictionary. I’m not criticising the use of dictionaries: they can be useful prompts both to clarity and recognising the different ways a word is used. However, the use of a word in one particular sense may continue to send our thoughts down one particular familiar track, and make it impossible to communicate an alternative possibility. A typical example of this is people’s belief that ‘religion’ must mean absolute beliefs, which forces all discussion of the topic down certain unproductive and polarised tracks. Discussion may then fail because people are using words in different ways and fail to recognise it, or because they believe the meaning of the word is ‘obvious’ and assume that the attempt to use a word differently must have some discreditable motive.  To be able to think afresh, the recognition of a right to stipulation (defining a word for oneself) with a practically helpful motive, and an awareness of the need for clarification of language, are often crucial. That applies not only to big, baggy monsters like ‘nature’ or ‘religion’, but also often to words that can be used for evaluation, like ‘responsibility’, ‘reasonable’, ‘free’, or ‘right’. However, the attempt to do this in practice often runs into number  9 below – it’s tedious. For more on this point, see this previous blog.

4. Motives are ascribed, or assumed to be ascribed

A very common scenario in discussion is that one person feels or intuits another’s motives, believes too strongly in that intuition, and interprets everything they say in that light. A simple example might be if someone says something positive about someone you dislike  – say, Donald Trump. It’s then incredibly easy to assume that they’re motivated by support for or bias towards Trump, when actually this doesn’t necessarily follow at all from their remark. This tendency is hardly surprising given how much our embodied heritage involves sizing others up as a threat or an opportunity. In face-to-face discussion ascribing motives to others might have more justification, because body language contributes to our impression of others’ motives, but people even do this on the internet with people they know nothing about, based on a few ambiguous words. The full avoidance of this is really difficult, and I’ve often found myself that although I might have avoided ascribing motives too directly, assumptions about others’ motives can easily creep in. The reverse problem is when someone thinks you have unfairly ascribed motives to them, even though you were only offering a provisional point for their consideration about something they said. Trying to separate views from the people who hold them (avoiding ad hominem) is the traditional cure for this, but there’s understandably a lot of debate about how far it may actually be necessary to take more of the person into account when addressing their views. Again, we can’t actually be impersonal, but the use of ‘impersonal’ perspectives is a useful awareness-raising device.

5. Unrealistic expectations are based on someone else’s position

I’ve found myself doing this a lot, particularly having unrealistic expectations of philosophers, psychologists, Buddhists, and academics. Others might have such expectations about teachers (of any kind), doctors, priests or any other kind of profession or position of responsibility. Such signals about someone’s past experience and training often lead me to assume that they will be aware at least of the cruder biases and fallacies, and able to engage in a discussion with a fair amount of awareness. Because of these expectations I am then inclined to push them harder than I would others. But these are also often an unrealistic expectations – not because these kinds of training don’t make a difference to people’s ability to engage in productive discussion, but because they don’t necessarily make enough of a difference. There are a variety of possible reasons for that, whether it’s the limitations of their training, the possibly unhelpful elements in their traditions, or just their personal limitations. Obviously, it’s necessary to respond to the person you encounter and what they actually say, rather than just the labels, before inappropriate expectations lead to deadlock as the person fails to fulfil them.

6. Unrealistic expectations of one’s own position can inhibit learning

The flip side of having unrealistic expectations of others is having unrealistic expectations of oneself. Personally I can find that these are often based on formalistic assumptions about what I know. I can assume that I know about biases, for example, because I’ve studied them, reflected on them and written about them. But that doesn’t necessarily stop me being subject to them. At the same time, when I refuse to acknowledge to others that I’ve been biased in a particular way, I find that people often assume that’s because of a hypocritical absolute position, rather than because I’ve weighed it up and concluded that I’m probably not actually subject to that bias (false modesty is another trap). It’s very easy to continue to rationalise biases because one substitutes intellectual understanding for practical reflection, and that can inhibit me in learning from others. But embracing such apparent learning to placate others in their preconceptions can be just as problematic. Only the organic development of confidence (in oneself) together with trust (from others) seems to offer a way round the failure of discussion for this kind of reason.

7. Cognitive bias awareness becomes another weapon

I’m thoroughly convinced of the usefulness of being aware of cognitive biases, but there seems little doubt that the use of that awareness in discussion can backfire spectacularly. This can often combine with point 2: even if you mention the possibility of a bias in an impersonal way, or ask a question about it, people can easily assume that it is just another weapon in your ‘biased’ argument, directed against them. Because they don’t experience the bias directly themselves, but only experience their view and the reasons they can give for it, they are likely to reject the idea that they have the bias out of hand, and to interpret your language in a way that makes the very suggestion a threat to their ‘rational’ autonomy. Phrasing it carefully, so as to try to make it clear that you respect their autonomy and are just offering a possibility they might think about, seldom works. The effective raising of cognitive bias awareness in discussion seems to depend on prior relationships of trust, shared goals and a degree of psychological training and awareness.

8. Helpful information is interpreted as condescending

The offering of helpful information, whether that’s about cognitive biases or any other point, can also backfire and disable the discussion, even if that information is crucially necessary to help the discussion proceed anywhere productive. I find personally that I’m particularly subject to charges of condescension. Presumably my critics would tell me that this is because I’m condescending, but I’m often not even sure what that means, beyond indicating the defensiveness of the accuser. It doesn’t seem to be based on my use of language that makes claims of personal superiority or anything of that kind: it is just that most language is ambiguous, and people interpret it in that way. When one offers information one takes a risk, firstly that it won’t be interpreted ‘personally’ (see 2), secondly that the recipient doesn’t already ‘know’ what you’re offering, in which case you may be accused of ‘insulting their intelligence’, and thirdly that they can make some use of this information. But if you are telling people something they either don’t ‘know’, or theoretically ‘know’ but haven’t really applied, then you are unavoidably reminding them of their limitations, which may trigger a reaction due to dissonance with their view of themselves. Again, I’m not convinced that phrasing this carefully makes a great deal of difference to this problem, even though I will carry on trying to do so.

9. Analysis and reflective summarising are boring

There is often only one possible way that I’ve discovered out of a deadlocked discussion in which people are entrenched in mutual misunderstanding. That is to go through everything very carefully, line by line, making it totally clear what is meant so as to unpick misunderstandings. This is related to another practice often used in mediation, which is getting people to summarise and agree the positions of others so they’re not being misrepresented. Both of these practices, though, have the drawback of being tedious, laborious and time-consuming. Usually, in a discussion, people are not prepared to spend the time necessary to overcome the deadlock through sheer analysis, even if they are able to engage in it. This was the issue in the recent discussion I mentioned in my introduction. Although we did reach a bit more mutual understanding through such analysis, it did not go far enough before the other person called time on it. It’s only if people consider the issue important enough, or perhaps if they’re philosophically trained, that they’re often prepared to go down this route.

10. Mediating intentions are not adopted or respected

This last reason is in my view the most important and underlying one. All of the above causes of deadlock in discussion are due to absolutisation of one kind or another: we assume that our language, our interpretation of that language, our interpretation of others and ourselves, or our assumptions about the best use of our time, are the whole story. The Middle Way offers the perspective that merely opposing that absolutisation with its negative counterpart is unhelpful. Instead we need to avoid the absolutisation altogether, by re-framing the situation in non-absolute terms that avoid the polarising assumptions. Where there are two polarised sides to a debate, it is only through clear mediating intentions that I think we can achieve this, but if others’ perspective is that their view is just correct and their goal is thus to ‘win’ rather than to mediate, that mediating intention can be rapidly undermined. I’ve experienced that happening, for example, in trying to question the acceptability of personal attacks on political opponents in a group of people who I mainly agree with politically. It takes some determination and autonomy to stand up to the group pressure that’s involved here, particularly when everyone else is determined to see you as on ‘the other side’ in some sense (or alternatively appropriate you to their side). In my experience you can try to make your mediating intentions clear, even to people who in theory ought to be sympathetic to them, but the discussion will still fail unless to some extent they share them. They need, at least to some extent, to recognise that their own view may not be the whole story, and to trust you sufficiently to believe that you’re not just trying to convert them to the other side’s case by underhand means.


This list is written in a mood of some pessimism, in which it’s been brought home to me yet again just how difficult it is to make discussion work as a way of engaging with or resolving disagreement, particularly on the internet. I’m aware that many people will respond that these are precisely the sorts of reasons why they don’t engage in internet discussion.  I fully understand their reasons for doing so: there’s no doubt that it can be time-consuming, stressful and frustrating. Others will respond by withdrawing to echo chambers in which they only talk to those who will not challenge them. Yet, on the other hand is the reflection that many discussions on the internet occur that would not previously have occurred at all. This is potentially very enriching if one can use it wisely. Between fruitless and over-stressful discussion on the one hand, and echo chambers on the other, I still think there must be a Middle Way somewhere in which manageable amounts of challenge are to be found and progress can be made, with those who are sufficiently but not too sympathetic. But I must also admit that it’s often damned difficult to find that point of balance.


Picture: ‘Face Off’ by Aaron (Creative Commons: Wikimedia) 



How not to be a Conservative

A little while ago I purchased a book from a bookshop called ‘How to be a Conservative’ by Roger Scruton. I realised as I was buying it that I was feeling some embarrassment. It was a bit like buying a pornographic magazine. What if somebody saw me? What if someone thought I was a Conservative too?

Conservatives may put down this embarrassment to mere social conditioning. It’s true that my parents were liberal (which means middle of the road in England), and the majority of my friends have always tended more to the left than the right. But I don’t think that’s the only reason for my instinctive sense that being thought a Conservative would be shameful. As political polarisation advances, those on the left increasingly seem to see Conservatism, not as a coherent alternative political philosophy, but as a mask for the most unreflective exploitation. In the UK and the US at least, Conservatives are often seen as the epitome of narrow self interest. They are the allies of the big business and media interests who have brought about increasing social inequality, the stagnation of ordinary people’s standards of living, the starving of public services and the welfare state, and the galloping excesses of the rich as they plunder the world’s resources and exploit the ignorance of the poor. I think I can be excused for being concerned about any possible mistaken association that I support all that.

When I read Scruton’s book, however, I found, predictably, quite a different story. A fair section of that story I found quite coherent and in many ways in harmony with the Middle Way. Scruton is a thoughtful philosopher, but I did find him very uneven, sometimes slipping into the political prejudices of the Daily Mail (on issues like immigration and the EU) in a way that seemed to have no clear relationship to his overall case. The Middle Way Conservative case owes a lot to late 18th Century thinker Edmund Burke, and was discussed in Barry’s podcast with Amod Lele as ‘literal conservatism’. It recognises that human society depends on a complex inter-related web of relationships, institutions, cultures and values that has developed organically, not by planning. Revolutions threaten to destroy that rooted organic structure and all that is good in it. Over-reliance on the bureaucratic state can also destroy the deeply-rooted motivations and relationships of civil society, which are quite independent of the state. Scruton also stresses the ways in which our feelings of ‘home’ and of beauty and sanctity are rooted ones that depend on all these organic cultural relationships.

There are some important ways in which thinkers who have influenced me in recent years would agree with Scruton. Iain McGilchrist is a conservative who would stress the ways that the over-dominant left hemisphere can result in political dependence on an instrumental bureaucratic mindset. A more balanced relationship between the hemispheres is likely to result in more openness to the unplanned and unrationalised messiness of traditional civil  society and religion. The work of Jonathan Haidt also points out the way in which Conservatives typically draw on a wider range of values than do liberals and socialists: not only care, justice and liberty, but also loyalty, sanctity and authority. Liberals and socialists do have a sense of loyalty, authority and sanctity of their own (think of the authority of past Labour greats, like Nye Bevan the founder of the NHS, for UK Socialists), but they often have trouble acknowledging that these values have much of a place in politics. Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the importance of ‘skin in the game’. It’s too easy to have an abstracted position on the reform of society and the things the government ought to do, but it’s what we actually have a stake in that’s morally important.

Scruton’s presentation of conservative values involves a basic appeal to balance. Most of his book takes the form of a discussion of ‘the truth of…’ a range of positions: nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, internationalism, and conservatism. This effectively requires him to go through a sorting process in each case that involves thinking about what elements of each position are really compatible with a rooted, organic approach to civil society. For example, when he discusses ‘the truth in capitalism’ he points out the ways in which the free market offers a much more efficient way of determining the fair value of something in trade than any other. However, he also points out that the functioning of a free market depends on there being a stable society with certain basic moral norms, creating trust, on which that market depends. Scruton argues quite convincingly that some things don’t have a price and should not be sold, because to do so would corrupt the more basic structure of civil society on which the market relies. He also criticises the appeal to the free market of those who are passing on their costs to future generations by leaving a negative mark on the environment that will affect them.

There seems to be a basic compatibility between Burkean conservatism and the Middle Way. It is sceptical in a very embodied way, recognising our situated place in time and space. It also puts a lot of emphasis on incrementality – incremental, organic change is the only realistic and sustainable sort of change for humans. There is something highly integrative, too, in the conservative emphasis on the relationship between past, present and future. We delude ourselves if we think we can uproot ourselves from the past, and we bear a great responsibility to future generations. So why, in the end, do I also end up disagreeing with Scruton profoundly in many places? Why, too, does the idea of voting Conservative still seem as unthinkable as it has been all my life?

The main reason is that Conservatives are nowhere near conservative enough. Their appeal to a range of human values, where it happens at all, is far too selective and unreflective, and does often seem motivated by the interests of an economic elite under a very flimsy cover of conservative philosophy: as we have seen recently in the US, for example, in the flagrant voting through of tax cuts for the rich.

Objections to the ‘bureaucratic’ state are also deeply inconsistent, when Conservatives seem to have imposed far more bureaucracy on public services than any others, motivated by an overriding imperative to ensure value for money for taxpayers. Far from enabling genuine integrative growth in the realms of education and health, Conservative rule has imposed a crippling burden of bureaucratic distrust and disabling resource cuts on the professionals who work in these sectors. Far from enabling an organic balance of values to emerge, Conservatives tend to place a relentless emphasis on loyalty to the nation-state (as opposed to other levels of organisation) and fairness in terms of market rates (as opposed to many other sorts of fairness). In their dogmatic distrust of state power, they have often allowed corporate power and corporate bureaucracy to override the interests of workers. Far from respecting the sanctity of the environment, many Conservatives actively deny the threat of climate change, and are active in handing over protected areas to business interests. The trusted authority of the professional, the sanctity of the environment, the fairness of equity between employers and employees, care of the vulnerable – these all seem highly neglected values amongst Conservatives today.

There seem to be many different possible reasons for the ways that Conservatives have betrayed conservatism, but there seem to be two particular Faustian pacts that stand out. The first Faustian pact was with neo-liberalism, and dates back to the 1980’s and the era of Thatcher and Reagan. At first this may have corrected some excesses of the ‘bureaucratic state’, but it went on to to absolutise the power of the market rather than holding it in balance with other values. We have seen how destructive this has been. The other, more recent Faustian pact has been with nationalism. There is no reason at all why our sense of rooted loyalty, of ‘home’, of organic identity should particularly take the form of national rather than local, regional, continental or world identity; but Scruton, along with many other Conservatives, seems to simply assume that it must. The result of this way of thinking in the UK is Brexit, where Conservative breadth has given way to nationalist populism, and the visionary project to integrate a continent is under threat.

Can there be another political ideology whose application to practical policy is so shot through with contradiction and hypocrisy? No, I am in some ways conservative, just as I am in some ways socialist or liberal or green. But the best expressions of conservative philosophy seem to clearly recommend voting for left-wing or Green parties that attempt to rectify the imbalance of the ‘Conservative’ rule we have experienced. You would have to put this conservative on a torture rack to get him to vote Conservative.

Provisionality and the Raft

The New Year is traditionally a time for seeing things afresh, letting go of what burdens us and seeking new directions. But to be able to do that successfully we need a combination of a critical perspective on the old and the ability to imagine the new – in other words, provisionality. Provisionality is one of the key principles of the Middle Way. It is a quality that combines the critical capacity to see the limitations of a current belief with the imaginative capacity to be aware of alternative options. Alternative options, like genetic adaptations or alternative tools in a toolbox, enable us to address new and unexpected conditions with appropriate adaptation. In this article, which is adapted from the book I am working on about the Buddha’s Middle Way, I want to explore the way one of the Buddha’s most famous analogies reflects provisionality.

The simile of the raft is given by the Buddha in a discourse to some of his followers, to “show you how the Dhamma [teachings] is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”

“Suppose a man in the course of a journey saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge going to the far shore…. And then the man collected grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and bound them together into a raft, and supported by the raft and making an effort with his hands and feet, he got safely across to the far shore. Then… he might think thus: ‘This raft has been very helpful to me…. Suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, and then go wherever I want.’ …. By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with that raft?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“By doing what would that man be doing what should be done with that raft? … When that man got across and arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: ‘…. Suppose I were to haul it onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, and then go wherever I want’. …It is by so doing that that man would be doing what should be done with that raft.”  (Majjhima Nikaya 22:13-14. trans. Ñanamoli and Bodhi)

The traditional Buddhist interpretation of this simile treats ‘Dhamma’ as ‘Buddhist teaching’ and shows the practical justification of that teaching. It is seen as merely for ‘crossing over’ – that is, for reaching Awakening. However, such an interpretation relies on a discontinuous understanding of ‘Awakening’: is it so clear when we have reached ‘the other side’? It also underestimates the wide applicability of this metaphor, which makes a universal point about the need for provisionality in our beliefs. When a belief – any belief – has fulfilled its purpose in the particular conditions it was held, it is time to let go of it before it becomes a burden to us in new conditions. That this applies to the Buddhist teachings amongst other beliefs, however, is an indicator of their non-absolute nature, and that this metaphor is a Middle Way teaching.

The value of any analogy is that it obliges us to compare different situations that we might otherwise assume to be completely different. It is obvious how useful the raft is for getting across the river, and there is only a small degree of doubt that it would be an unnecessary burden after that crossing is completed. We could bring it along just in case there is another river – but for how long? However, it may be less obvious in the case of beliefs that we have become more deeply attached to: for example a religious teaching we have adhered to all our lives, a dying project or relationship, a misjudged investment, or patterns of speech and manners that cause unnecessary offence in a new country. All of these things are entered into because we have explicit or implicit beliefs about their value and benefit, but that value is also subject to uncertainty and change.

We may continue carrying the raft because of a lack of critical awareness of its ill-adaptedness for the new situation, but also perhaps because of a failure to imagine alternatives. When we arrive at the further bank, we need to be able to imagine ourselves managing without the raft. Perhaps, indeed, there are other items of equipment that would be far more valuable as replacements: a machete for the jungle we will then be entering, or a bag of food supplies. But to take these things we have to leave the raft. The anxiety we might feel about leaving it will need to be relaxed and set aside. Similarly, to be able to enter new territory in any other area of our lives we may have to gently set aside things that we have habitually regarded as indispensable up to that point: reputations, relationships, property, allegiances.

The provisionality of the raft metaphor is built on scepticism, for we would not have the critical perspective to recognise the contingency of the raft if we regarded it as necessary or absolute. As we do not know which beliefs we will need to apply this critical perspective to in advance, it is practically important to maintain a general awareness of uncertainty, of the possibility of ‘unknown unknowns’. We need this in relation to all our beliefs, however basic or embedded they seem to be, and whether they are positive or negative. When we arrive at the further bank we simply need the awareness to ask ourselves a question about whether we will need the raft any more (indicating awareness of its contingency) rather than to assume either that we will need it or that we will not. We may need to ask ourselves that question again and again in different circumstances. That same point is emphasised by a related analogy used in the Pali Canon that describes progress on the path as a sequence of relay chariots, each of which is only required to reach the starting point of the next .

In relation to our cognitive processes, provisionality requires an open feedback loop rather than a closed one. In a closed feedback loop (also known as confirmation bias), we continue to interpret our experience as confirming a belief that then provides a basis for interpreting our experience. If our belief is about the value of the raft for us, that belief continues to be reinforced for us by our experience all the time we are crossing the river. On reaching the other side, however, we may be so habituated to that closed loop that we continue to interpret our environment in terms of the value of the raft. We may then compensate for the unconscious cognitive dissonance this creates by rationalising: “Well, you never know, there could be another river soon, even though it’s not marked on the map”, or “I need to take this raft because it might be abused by criminals”. We might focus on slight possibilities and amplify them, all the time reflecting our own anxiety rather than a sufficiently aware response to the conditions. In an open feedback loop, however, we allow new information from our senses to influence and modify our thinking to adapt to the new situation. Our experience continues to determine our beliefs, but our beliefs do not entirely determine our experience.

This ability to adapt to conditions may sound familiar to anyone who has studied evolution. Of course, evolutionary adaptations take place over a longer period of time and are genetic rather than cognitive or behavioural in nature. Nevertheless, an organism that continues in its old habits and is not sufficiently open to developing new ones is the one that is likely to die out, just as the man who carries the raft may exhaust himself in the jungle and expire before he finishes his journey. The relationship to evolution also does not imply that our provisionality is only made valuable by survival or reproduction. Having provisional options could help to fulfil any of a range of goals, which may involve the fulfilment of our needs at a variety of levels. For example, we may need to cross the river for social fulfilment, for intellectual fulfilment, or through a desire for integrative development.

So, the raft is not just about Buddhism, nor is letting go an end in itself. The question is always whether we have considered with sufficient awareness why we are hanging onto our various rafts, and whether we have considered the alternatives. I hope that if you need to, you are able to leave your old year’s rafts by the shore.

For more about provisionality, please see the Introductory Video.

Picture: Log raft run ashore on the island Hallands Väderö: by M9axpe0900 CCBYSA 3.0

Talking to the family within

I recently attended a highly intriguing talk given by Matthew Harwood about Internal Family Systems Therapy. If that sounds like therapy for dysfunctional families, then that’s what I assumed at first too, but the ‘family’ is internal and consists in the different voices within ourselves. The assumption is that we can engage in an integrative process by careful negotiation with those voices. Harwood showed a moving video showing how the technique could be used to help someone with post-traumatic stress from the Vietnam War, but the method seemed to me to have huge potential going beyond formal therapy, and to potentially have a very strong relationship to the Middle Way.

To begin with, the voices were identified using a technique with elements of active imagination and focusing. You look for something in your experience that represents a particular feeling or perspective within you, which could be something you can imaginatively see, hear, feel or intuit. For example, you might have a feeling of anxiety, but also another voice within you that says you shouldn’t really have this anxiety and have nothing to be afraid of. To get closer to the source of such fear, a process of negotiation is needed with the different parts of yourself that may, with the best of intentions, be guarding you from it. The assumption is always that the parts of yourself have your best interests at heart, and should always be negotiated with, never forced. When asked they may well be willing to step aside, if they are in the way. If they’re associated with overpowering emotions, they may even tone them down a bit to avoid overpowering you.

One thing that I found very striking about this approach, and that reflects Middle Way Philosophy, is its assumption that there are no ‘bad’ desires or beliefs, only conflicts and polarisations between them. If one reflects that the different polarised parts of oneself are likely to make use of absolutisations (“You can’t do that!”, “Fear is inevitable”, “God ordained it” and so on) the widespread potential for this approach to help us work with absolutisations becomes obvious. By imagining the absolute belief as a person, or something like a person, that is attached to our desires and thus is not only made up of the absolute belief, we also give it the kind of respect it craves, and we then cease to dismiss it or idealise it in the way we might a mere abstraction.

The therapy talks, in the Jungian sense, about a ‘self’, which I take to be the integrative experience of ourselves beyond these polarising elements. This ‘self’ could be interpreted in an entirely provisional way, as the self that we have so far not identified any absolutisations or polarisations in. As soon as we identify something further within us that appears to be conflicting, we split it off from the ‘self’ and give it a separate identity and a separate respect.

This kind of inner dialogue will be familiar to any reader of Jung’s Red Book, which is full of such dialogues with archetypal characters. Broadly speaking I think we can interpret the Red Book as a similar integrative journey, though obviously one that is more complex than the example I watched on video of a therapeutic intervention with a Vietnam veteran. It seems to me that if we meet archetypal characters like Jung’s (for example, ones that feel like a hero, or a Shadow, or an anima/us, or a wise old man or woman) a very similar approach could be taken to that used in the therapy. If the archetypes are polarising or absolute, then they are obviously projections, and we’ll need to negotiate with them to try to avoid that projection.

The idea of ‘internal family systems’ can perhaps offer a reminder that whatever we do internally also has an impact on our external families, and anyone else we interact with. All of these external people will also have their internal parts, and we can interact with those parts as we do with our own, though of course less directly. So it is no coincidence that the developer of Internal Family Systems Therapy, Richard Schwartz, started off with external families. Surely not only the conflicts between family members, but also all those between people, depend basically on responding to each other in recognition that we are not just single entities?

For further information on Internal Family Systems Therapy see this page.

Picture: Dialogue by Mikhail Gorbhunov CCSA3.0

Second class practitioners? Kegan’s stages, Eternalism, and Secular Buddhism

In recent months I’ve been stimulated into a lot of new thoughts by reading Robert Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’. Kegan draws on the tradition of psychology that goes back to Jean Piaget, who first studied the cognitive and moral development of children and was able to isolate distinct stages in that development. But Kegan continues that development model into adulthood, isolating 5 relatively clear (though of course not totally distinct) stages. In each of these stages, it is a new level of awareness that makes the difference from the previous stage, by making what was previously taken for granted a new object of awareness. Using Kegan’s labels, the stages are as follows:

Infancy:  Objects not clearly differentiated

Stage 1: Impulsive Stage: Objects differentiated from each other, but not from self (early childhood)

Stage 2: Imperial Stage: Self recognised as acting in the world, and others as like me. Peer relations are bargains (late childhood, plus 6% of adults).

Stage 3: Interpersonal Stage: Others recognised as having perspectives different from oneself, and view of oneself is dependent on their acknowledgement (usually reached in adolescence). According to Natalie Morad, 58% of the adult population stay at this stage.

Stage 4: Institutional Stage: Truth believed to be formed by the self through reason, and to lie beyond the limitations of relationships, but nevertheless dependent on certain limited sources of knowledge (usually reached in adulthood – by about 36% of the population, often through university education or career demands).

Stage 5: Interindividual Stage: A recognition of differing sources of justification whilst recognising one’s own role in using them. ‘Genuine intimacy’ reached in relationships where independent judgement of each is secure (only reached by about 1% of the population, usually in later adulthood).

What is wonderful about this theoretical model is that it combines psychology, epistemology and ethics in a thoroughly convincing way. It is based on plenty of psychological evidence, and takes into account the complexity and vagueness of our transitions between stages, but nevertheless is able to identify the points of developmental stability that create each of the stages. It’s an immensely rich model, and I expect to be writing a lot more about it in the future. I will put links to some more resources about Kegan’s model at the bottom of this article.

What I’m interested in exploring here, though, is some thoughts about the relationship between the stages in this model, the Middle Way, and Buddhism. The relationship between stage 5 and the Middle Way should be obvious to anyone who explores them both. The Middle Way avoids absolutisations, and absolutisations usually mean taking for granted a particular source of information and its assumptions, whether those assumptions are positive or negative and whether they are found in a religious, political, philosophical, scientific, or whatever other context. At the same time, the Middle Way is not relativistic or nihilistic: it doesn’t assume that all sources of information are equally true. Rather, it’s the responsibility of each of us to make our own judgements about the justification of differing beliefs from different sources. At stage 5, people will start looking beyond the specific set of assumptions that are taken for granted in their starting culture, and look for value in very different approaches. They are thus more likely to be able to break down polarising assumptions (e.g. those of a specific religious tradition or scientific training) and move beyond the limitations of over-specialised experience. Nevertheless, if they’re securely in stage 5, that won’t make them feel hopelessly adrift. Their sense of confidence will be based on bodily experience rather than the absolute authority of particular sources.

Kegan’s stages make it clear why the Middle Way is valuable, and why its use is such an important element of the general human capacity to operate adequately in our changing environments, but also why so relatively few people seem ready to engage with it. If the figure of 1% at stage 5 is correct (which I have taken from Natalie Morad – she does not give a source), then we should not be surprised that most people are simply puzzled by the Middle Way and cannot see the point of it. For those not ready to move on from stage 4, it may seem flakey and over-vague, too reminiscent of the lack of rigour they associate with stage 3. For those still in stage 3, it will probably seem cold and impersonal, just a further puzzling stage 4 phenomenon.

I have recently been thinking about the role these stages play in the Buddhist tradition, where the idea of Middle Way has been preserved and passed down, even if it’s also been mixed with other assumptions. One of the things that’s always puzzled me in the Buddhist presentation of the Middle Way is the lack of even-handedness between the ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ that Buddhism identifies as the absolutes to be avoided. Eternalism is considered better, because it is closely associated with the role of lay as opposed to monastic Buddhism. The lay Buddhist, traditionally, aims not to practice the Middle Way but rather to conform to the absolutes of the law of karma, working to achieve merit within the just world-view created by belief in karma and rebirth, so as to gain a better rebirth in the future. Lay Buddhists are second-class practitioners, not generally considered capable of working towards nirvana just yet. But do Kegan’s stages provide a practical justification for this? Is it just that lay-people, caught up at levels 3 and 4, are simply not ready for the subtleties and insecurities of the Middle Way?

Only to some limited extent, I think. For one thing, we cannot assume that most monks or nuns are at level 5: many of them will have similar limitations. Nor can we assume that all lay people are not at level 5: there may be many reasons why they cannot ordain. For another, ordination can offer at best a very crude and discontinuous reflection of psychological stages. If one was to devise a social system that was optimally geared to helping people develop best at the stage they are at, it would not be one that separates people into first and second class practitioners for life, but something much more continuous, more flexible and less subject to potential abuses of power.

These thoughts about eternalism and the division between monastic and lay Buddhism have also led me onto another area of puzzlement in recent years – Secular Buddhism. The Middle Way Society originally arose from a group of people who met in a Secular Buddhist context, but Secular Buddhism is only sometimes, and somewhat incidentally, about the Middle Way (even though there are practical overlaps such as the use of meditation).  For a long time I used to engage in rather fruitless online debates with Secular Buddhists (at least those from the US-based Secular Buddhist Association) in continuing disbelief that they weren’t interested in the Middle Way, which seems to me such an obvious way of combining the strengths of both scientific/ secular and traditional Buddhist outlooks. But I’ve gradually been getting the message that most Secular Buddhists just aren’t interested, and usually won’t even get into discussion about what the Middle Way means, despite its prominence in Buddhist scriptures.

Kegan is beginning to give me a bit more of a general psychological explanation as to why this might be the case. With a few exceptions, most Secular Buddhists seem to be very much in a stage 4 way of thinking. In this case, it is stage 4, not based on traditional Buddhist ideology, but on naturalistic thinking that appeals to the results (rather than the methods) of science.  Many of them also seem to be trained in STEM subjects (sciences, maths, computing) where the basis of education often seems to be heavy on rigorous ways of proving presumed facts but light on imagining other possible perspectives. The chief intellectual publicist of the Secular Buddhist Association, Douglas Smith, is an analytic philosopher, with no evident interest in the ways that Buddhism might offer resources for questioning naturalism. The parallels with lay Buddhism are thus clear. Instead of karma and rebirth, Secular Buddhists of this kind rely on scientific results: but these provide a similar level of relatable security, and thus a basis of mass participation, for the latest generation of Westerners who do not want to accept supernatural beliefs but want an acceptable version of Buddhism.

So, if one concentrates instead on the Middle Way, is this hopelessly limiting oneself to a tiny elite? Well, I don’t think so, for several reasons – even though I can also see why people find the Middle Way a difficult concept to engage with. One reason is that the Middle Way provides a universality of perspective that is missing for those concentrating on stage 4. Stage 4 thinking is typically coherent, but polarised. Stage 4 religious thinkers are polarised against stage 4 secular ones, socialist or ‘liberal’ ones against conservative ones, and so on. It’s vital to encourage as many people as possible to move on to stage 5 for that reason, because it creates the conditions for a dialectical process in which people are able to reconsider their assumptions more profoundly. It’s not about being elitist, because it’s not about aggregating or using power, but rather about encouraging wider awareness. That’s where the critical universalism offered by the Middle Way becomes vital.

Another reason that I’m not too discouraged is that, even if Morad’s figures are correct, I can’t accept that the proportion of stage 5 thinkers is fixed, nor that the boundaries are particularly clear. I would imagine (but can’t demonstrate) that the numbers of stage 5 people are probably on an upward trend, due to rising levels of education, cultural diversity, religious experimentation etc. in the world as a whole. There may be many more stage 4 people around who can be coaxed on to stage 5 than 1% of the population.

A third reason why I think the Middle Way is not simply an idea for an elite is that it also forms a necessary part of our transition from any of Kegan’s stages to the next one. In the tricky transition stage, we cannot absolutise either the previous stage or the next one, but have to remain content with a messy in-between state for a while in order to actually make the transition. We have to let go of an old view of ourselves and others without grasping too hastily at the new one. In a wider sense, the Middle Way is simply a description of how people make progress and address conditions better, whether morally, epistemologically, scientifically, politically, artistically or psychologically. I suspect, then, that there are also ways of communicating it helpfully to people who are transitioning between earlier stages, even if they are not ready to engage with it so fully.


Some sources of further information on Robert Kegan’s psychological stages:

Natalie Morad’s article in Medium, part 1 and part 2

A very useful paper by Karen Eriksen giving more detail than Morad

David Chapman’s summary of Kegan’s model (it was from Chapman that I was first alerted to Kegan)

Video of Robert Kegan’s talk to the RSA (highly recommended):


Pictures: (1) Robert Kegan by US Navy (public domain). (2) Newari girls (lay Buddhists) by Krish Dulal CCBYSA3.0