Discover more from Layman Pascal
Dharma as Education for the Meta-crisis (Part III)
The “Way” Extends, Refines & Integrates Skill-Development
Canadian psychologist-philosopher Jordan Peterson has an interesting riff on the notion of the archetypal hero. He suggests that the figure of the hero is not simply a person who dominates by ascending a local hierarchy but, rather, it is the person who gains skill in negotiating multiple types of hierarchies. The hero exhibits generic skill. The hero is a meta-gamer.
The symbolic hero, therefore, is convergent with wisdom’s trajectory toward improved general understanding of reality. He or she is not just standing against dangers and defeating rivals. There is also this accumulating integration and demonstration of basic flexible capacities that apply across may different domains of engagement.
When we hear about a prize-winning boxer who beats his wife, we want to say, “He’s not a real hero!” What we mean, when we say that, is that he has learned how to operate well in a particular domain but cannot abstract those skill well enough to apply them in the qualitatively different circumstances of another domain. The narrowness of his valid skill-set turns him from a hero to a monster.
(The young Buddha was called Siddhartha. Siddhis are supernormal ranges of empowerment. Artha are “arts” and skills. Siddhartha is the supra-skillful one. A meta-gamer?)
In this article we will be examining how Dharma involves the cultivation of generic learning skills adapted across increasing numbers of integrated domains. When we say that Dharma is education for the metacrisis, we mean that the accumulating and emergent problems of trans-modernity provide the contemporary scale of integrated domains (“world”) to which our developmental learning skills must adapt us today.
And when we speak of proto-skills, we mean specifically those basic capacities for self-refinement that become increasingly clarified as we extended our learning schemes across thematically distinct zones of complementary engagement.
We might even say that locally successful Dharma ceases to be dharmic in the degree to which is it isolated from other form of possible Dharma. A building full of breathable air will soon become toxic if it is cut off from the outside. Developmental education “develops” toward broader ranges of integrated reality
Hacking the Self-Game
In the last article of this series we considered the difference between a normal course of adaptive skill development in an evolutionary niche and another trajectory of learning — one that begins with a meta-like feedback, or reflective intervention, which hacks the set of circumstantially-pressured skills. This second trajectory progressively deviates from the first and begins to show up as a whole pattern of skill-acquisition that is (a) more general (b) ongoing (c) intentional.
It is also integratively-oriented. That means it implicitly wishes to emphasize the production of coherent excess experience (“successes”) based on the harmonious integration of multiple concerns, perspectives, subskills, domains, etc.
That orientation of development involves something like self-hacking.
Presumably all “brains” — at every stage of animal development — have the ability, among their other biologically provided instincts, to wiggle their own patterns of behavior and understanding. In humans, though, this particular option appears to be exaggerated. We are notably good at performing a meta-operation upon our own learning procedures. And this is reinforced by teacher-mentors and wisdom-traditions both sacred and secular. To face the metacrisis we wish to leverage this capacity for meta-learning. That means getting much better and more clear about competent self-hacking.
As children learn to walk, they start to experience a subjective quality of success associated with the complex balance and flow of actions involved in ambulation. Once they can reliably access this supervenient quality (the “get it”) then it can be emphasized internally as a kind of “handle” on the process.
This is perhaps the most basic life hack.
What it does is to turn the experiment of complex action (distributed over many different subsystems) into a momentum of integration which, as it stabilizes, starts to count as “one” skill that can be deployed in relational engagements with a co-adapting world. The sense of empowerment, confidence and intensified understanding that accompanies this emergent skill is the extra gestalt coherence — spread over the cluster of harmoniously integrated subskills. Skill, integration and understanding are linked to a common developmental process.
A great deal of human learning is still done circumstantially and mechanically. This “animal” approach is wonderful and can be very effective up a to a point. Beyond that threshold, both in quality and diversity, lies a terrain that tends to emerge only for those who are getting better at coupling the feedback processes of meta-skill with the regular set of inherited pre-educational capacities. This allows them to extract, refine and intensify the patterns that produce success in any particular learning domain. They get better at learning to learn.
This meta-coupled skill set, which may be minimally present in animals but certainly is very obvious in humanity’s best learners, innovators and sages, involves a set of dharma-like proto-skills — split attention, intentionality, qualitative comparison, self-awareness, recontextualization, evaluation, navigation of self-adaptation through selection of niches, etc.
The emergence into our personal and collective awareness of this developmental emphasis in skill development occurs as a result of abstraction — we generalize insight into the developmental proto-skills (the meta-coupled proto-skills) through successful gain of skillfulness, in varying degrees, across diverse domains.
Thus we find wisdom (and spiritualized degrees of understanding & being) in places where diverse domains and skill types are integrated. The dancer Nijinsky combined emotion and physical performance so well that he “felt like God” while impressing his contemporaries with his mastery of the form. He understood dancing in this manner. Nietzsche seems to have combine musical aesthetics with deep cognitive scholarship to produce the uniquely transcendent wisdom of his later writings. The Greek mystic Gurdjieff taught a doctrine of the “harmonious development of humanity” by combining emotional, mental and physical education in equal balance. Whenever we examine Dharma — whether traditional or idiosyncratically emerging — we find multiple domains and skills sets being combined to produce both superlative states and increasingly clarity about the common proto-skills involved in developmental across multiple genres of engagement.
The broader our experience of learning the more insight we gain into the generic underlying protoskills. The emphasis of these protoskills in activities constitutes the germ of the dharma — regardless of the type of activity.
The better we grasp the principles of learning to learn the more we can deploy them in any activities. From sitting in meditation to making love, from being content in this moment to trying to change the world, from learning a new skill to pondering information you’ve learned on a particular topic.
The Nondual Dharma of Integration VS Regressive Successes
The principle of Dharma is that of wholistic integration. Readers of my writings will know that I definite “spirituality” and “religion” as essentially the activity of the production excess or numinous surpluses of coherence, within our individual subjectivity and our culture, respectively. The degree of production of coherence is based on two things (a) how well you do it (b) how many types of things you do it with.
Words like Dao and Dharma always have a twin meaning. In their languages, they both specify ways for individual people to get things done (my Way) as well as an idealized set of insights and practices (The Way) based in the collective attempt to understand how nature, god or reality gets anything done at all. Successful local dharma (a Way) creates integration and surplus experiential coherence (the spirit of the process) in tandem with skill development or education rooted in the deployment of meta-fied protoskills.
This can be done well or not so well.
It can also succeed in ways that are likely to generalize across many potential future domains and larger scales OR in ways that tend to capture future efforts — inhibiting natural dharmic expansion or deepening.
Dharma is not a set of teachings and beliefs. It is a process, with implicit trajectory trend, that sometimes generates teachings and beliefs as side-effects or reproductive bodies — analogous to how mycelial processes generate mushrooms. The dynamic “process” feature of Dharma is anchored in nonduality. It is a primordial insight of nondual, or transdual, minds that Being and Becoming are not-two. Their difference is rooted in their mutual identity. Change and Changelessness are not fundamental alternatives. They are descriptions of a common reality.
In dharma practice you recurrently encounter variations of this underlying insight. It happens every time that your developmental exercise of learning or skill-building gives you access to an insight that appears to transcend the moment of your local circumstances. It happens every time you realize that a basic skill-structure applies simultaneously to multiple domains — playing a role in integrating those domains but also showing forth a pattern of voluntary non-reductive integration that looks eternal.
Dharma is dynamic, not just static. It is conversational, not just authoritative. It is organic, not just scriptural. It is embodied, not just believed. The consistency of the Dharma resides in the organizational power of its reiterative application to individuals and societies. Dharma is dharma-fication. And dharmification exists only so long as we continue to apply it to deeper, broader and more thematically diverse ranges of relational experience. This is the WAY and not just the FACT of the wisdom. What does that look like? It looks like expanding integration — which is the sign of healthy dharma process.
If a successful dharma process — successful embodied meta-learning — does not continue then it begins to looks regressive. The stasis of partial success. We all know the archetypal tale of the sage whose one-pointed contemplation of absolute truth is his excuse to neglect his body, heart, wife, children, society, etc.
He uses one point of dharmic success — the skillful application of developmental protoskills — in a justification for not extending it into other areas. Those other areas are non-absolute! They would require deviation from the successful application of Dharma that has already been attained in this thinking, feeling or being. He may even repel other areas of dharmification, using his current level of skill’d insight and practice as a conceptual leverage or an emotional cudgel to drive off extensions of the practice into other areas. However that process of extension is the living form of the Dharma. It is the same in secular education. It would be weird and degenerative if you dismissed 5th grade math based on your great success in 4th grade art class.
We do need to specialize, of course, but the pattern of the process that makes successful specialization possible is also the process that extends specializations into the integration of new qualities and ranges of experience. And we will need to get a lot better at this extension if we are going to extend our learning into the strange, multifarious novelty of the emergent metacrisis facing our world.
So the dharma is evaluated not just in terms of what it says about the world (in which it appears, to which its developmental skills adapt people) but also in terms of how well it scales upward or outward into more worlds.
Einstein learned more about physics when he understood how the local (on Earth) patterns of Newtonian calculation were an authentic local approximation of a different, more universally applicable vision of gravity. The practical and technological benefits of that increase of wisdom, that extension of learning, that increase of integration-range, are still serving humanity well today.
From the Buddha’s 8-fold path to the Tantric inclusion of sex, celebration and transgression, from St. Paul’s comprehensive instruction for every aspect of early Christian life to the weird drive of enlightened gurus to get involved in your diet and clothing choices we see holographic facets of the common Dharmic impulse to extend its developmental insights into more domains and bring those domains into greater functional alignment — producing more of the surplus coherence that is the experiential “spirit” of interactive coordination. And the “Way” starts to sour if it holds to a puritan, insular, fragmentary, uncooperatively specialized fixation on its local successes.
A simple example is the Roman Catholic church. It has oscillated through phases. At times it has expanded by integrating unique “saints,” establishing diverse monastic traditions, enfolding pagan customs, taking over popular concerns, enlisting the greatest artists of the day, starting to express trans-national governance over the squabbling kings of Europe, etc. This flexible integration and extension of their collection of insights and practices is assimilating (learning from) diverse types of engagement. The plant is healthy. It is unfolding its algorithm, its developmental skill set, in adaptation to a larger sense of reality. However it also goes through phases where it withdraws, divorces from the ethical concerns of the current epoch, “purifies” its membership, draws up lists of what to reject, turn against organic education, justifies only the solidification of what was already understood, turns poisonously upon its youngest and most vulnerable people, etc. It oscillates between wisdom and unwisdom without quite seeing the difference. Hence the historical ambiguity about whether it is form of high Christian dharma or an exploitative, entrenched and perversely regressive institution.
All forms of Dharma, in ourselves and in our societies, risk a degenerative stagnation if they are not sufficiently clear on the whole of developmental protoskills or are not willing to continue “learning” in foreign-feeling domains that are the key to higher scales of integrated reality.
Developmental Learning as Intentional Adaptation to a Worldspace
Dharma — learning to learn, etc — is the WAY that we extend skill-building insight into further domains. That involves recursively clarifying proto-skills through abstraction from their more generalized applicability. When you look back upon what worked in two different areas, you can get a more clear insight into the basic educational principle that supported your understanding in both cases.
Although this can happen in any worldspace (a psychologically and sociologically meaningful ecological niche), we have speculated that it intrinsically favors the emergence of “higher” worldspaces.
You may be able to deploy an impressive level of learning and skill-building by yourself in the forest, or within the ethnic bubble created by your local cultural wisdom tradition, but the world today faces accumulating and emergent problems that are not locally fixable. The metacrisis, in particular, is operative (appears clearly) at the transmodern scale — even though people suffer from it at every scale.
Developmental learning extends the natural adaptive skill-building proto-procedures that enable organism to elicit the workability of their evolutionary niche of relationships. Try saying that three times quickly!
The currently privileged niche, with which we must adaptively skill-build, is that one in which the metacrisis appears. We could say that metacrisis itself names the scale and complexity of reality at which adaptive skill-building is currently and urgently needed. It is the symbol of that need. It is the orienting horizon of the Dharma today.
In the book Zen at War there is a description of how many of spiritually advanced Zen training systems in Japan were easily converted easily into death-dealing agents of the Imperial-Fascist Japanese aggression in World War II. They deployed their capacity at learning by “understanding” how to existentially succeed as “selfless” kamikaze warriors against all the nations of the Pacific. They really did extend their protoskills into new domains but the extension was insufficient. It stayed with the local ethnocentric worldspace. On a planetary scale, Dharma cannot stand for one culture against another. Today Dharma pits cultural integration against cultural antagonism. It trying to use its methods to adapt to the pattern of the current world to produce individual capacity and existential contentment along with harmony-producing social strategies that convert crisis into sacred opportunity.
That’s the target-niche of our adaptation. And it is roughly the same thing you will hear from innovative and critical thinkers within the educational systems of countries around the world.
The hero adapts himself or herself to skill-building exercises across multiple significant games BUT they must be the games that are right for the times — for the scale of the times.
Continued in Part IV…