August 18, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 30: Becoming adaptable, mechanisms of personal change, and seeking rare knowledge

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

I.  Becoming adaptable

“Imagine you are walking through a forest. It’s a glorious summer afternoon, and the sun is shining brightly through the vibrant green leaves. Off in the distance, you see a mighty oak towering above the others. It’s so high that you can barely see the top. A few yards away is a tiny sapling, growing in the shadow of the larger tree.

"Odds are, you will see the larger tree as powerful, steadfast, magisterial, and the sapling as fragile and vulnerable. But when a windstorm comes, the forest floor will be littered with large branches. The oak tree might not be able to withstand the wind, rain, and lightning of a fierce storm. In the end, it will topple to the ground, yet the sapling will remain intact. Why? The sapling has been bending and shifting with the winds; pliable and soft, it stands up again when the storm has passed. Its very weakness is what has allowed it to flourish and prevail.

"We often assume—because this is what we’ve been taught—that to be influential we have to be strong and powerful like the tall oak in the forest. We have to assert ourselves convincingly and even bend other people to our will. But there is another recipe for influence to be found in Chinese philosophical texts such as the Laozi, also known as the Dao de jing. It derives from appreciating the power of seeming weakness, understanding the pitfalls of differentiation, and seeing the world as interrelated. Rather than think that power comes from strength prevailing over strength, we can understand that true power comes from understanding the connections between disparate things, situations, and people.” — From The Path by Christine Gross-Loh and Michael Puett (read my three takeaways)

The attitude toward apologizing is among the many differences between Western and Eastern cultures. America and the United Kingdom generally view apology as a weakness, an embarrassment, and something to avoid. In Japan, however, it's a form of social cement.

If we took 100 people off the streets of London and 100 people off the streets of Tokyo, the percentage of Japanese who are quicker to apologize and more likely to do so would be much higher. I have no data to support this claim, so this is my estimation.

I believe this to be true because of Japan’s apology culture, which derives from the philosophies that shaped the East, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (Taoism in the West). Apologizing in Japan is not just a reflexive phrase, but a virtue. Being polite and showing remorse is a way to take responsibility. In Japan, apologizing is often done by bowing; the lower the bow, the greater the remorse. Public figures, celebrities, and government officials are all subject to this practice.

While I am not suggesting that those of us who live in the West should bow after stepping on someone's shoe, I am emphasizing the importance of adapting to the environment rather than trying to stand firm. Apology aversion is but one example of the steadfast, confrontational nature adopted in the West. Of course, neither the East nor the West are perfect, nor is it my intention to compare them. The inception point of change, however, derives from understanding how cultures outside our homeland live, leading to novel perspectives on our own life.

Bruce Lee, who many know as a Hong Kong and American martial artist and actor, was also a lesser-known philosopher. Lee describes the process of adaptability as being like water in his book, Striking Thoughts:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves."

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

After watching an interview with Bruce Lee reciting this quote, it’s hard not to read it in his voice.

II. Mechanisms of personal change

“As humans, we can improve ourselves because we have the ability to monitor our initial (faulty) responses to things and then withdraw our (faulty) attributions of value and/or challenge our (faulty) priorities. First we monitor, then we make changes.

“In Buddhism, what we need to monitor is how contact with an object immediately produces a positive, negative or neutral ‘feeling’ (vedanā) – a basic reaction, which precedes anything we could call an emotion and is quickly followed by craving and clinging. Feelings constantly arise and cease in response to what we encounter.

“Learning to catch these feelings as they appear is a really important part of the Buddhist training. Normally they tend to slip by, and as a result unwholesome states like greed and aversion quickly pile up. Before we know it there is a whole baroque structure – a ‘mental proliferation’ – of thoughts and emotions, and emotions about emotions, to contend with.

"It all starts with a simple moment, a primitive apprehension of something we are experiencing as good or bad, which we’re not aware of unless we learn to pay attention to it. But even without properly entering our awareness this has the power to colour our thoughts and direct our actions.

"For instance, most of us have had the experience of meeting someone who ‘presses the wrong button’ for us, for reasons we don’t understand. If we don’t pick up on this ripple in our experience we might end up feeling suspicious and hostile, or otherwise acting out what the button has activated. But if we become more skilled at noticing that the button has been hit in the first place, we can cancel the activation. By training ourselves to spot the fluctuations of embryonic likes and dislikes as they come and go we can avoid being pushed around by them.” — From More Than Happiness by Antonia Macaro (read my three takeaways)

Though Macaro is writing about Buddhism training, becoming aware of our emotions the moment we feel them is something schools fail to teach. Our training has taught us to react instantly rather than observe, which often results in more suffering than the original cause.

We each have preset patterns of behavior that run when triggered. Macaro uses the metaphor of a button to represent an environmental trigger that causes an emotional response. Instead of simply reacting after the trigger, what if we could interrupt the launch sequence and choose a response? Once the fuse is lit, squashing the flame is safer than allowing it to cause an explosion.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Henry David Thoreau on the difference between sight and perception:

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

II. Haruki Murakami on the importance of seeking out rare and unusual knowledge:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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