Saturday, October 19, 2013


Once a month I attend the town council meeting, whether I want to or not.  I sit in the back and take notes but not the kind of notes a person would take for minutes.  Instead I’m taking the kind of notes I learned long ago as a discussion group observer.  I’m watching the “meta-level.”  The kinds of interactions.  This is something I believe in and that I think should happen far more.  Court observers, nursing home visitors, school monitors and the like keep us in touch with each other in a way no television observation or written interpretation ever could.  

I’ve already been thinking about the issue raised by James Flynn (terrific TED Talk!  ( which is relevant to thinking about “intelligence” differences between populations.  But I don’t connect it to intelligence.  Instead I’m thinking about it in the way I learned in the second cycle of my own education at the U of Chicago Div School.  The main difference I’m trying to pin down and figure out is expressed in those classes as “thinking from inside the theological circle” versus “thinking from outside the theological circle.”  This is also relevant to politics:  “thinking from inside the party” versus “thinking from outside the party.”

The concept comes from the beginnings of the study of religions, plural, sometimes called “comparative religion” or “history of religion.”  Sometimes called anthropology.  The idea is that if you are “inside” the circle of believers, then you have the faith, you believe it is true, you act on it and feel that it is quite real.  If you are studying this faith from “outside,” then you are noting facts and objective observations.  (There is always some question about how much anyone can ever achieve “facts” or “objectivity” at all about anything which is an issue that never arises from inside the circle.)

There is also some similarity to the typology of moral thinking, which ranges from “rule-governed” behavior (the Ten Commandments, the Code of Hammurabi) or “aretaic” virtue, in which one chooses a hero and does what they would do) to moral decisions according to principles, which may be derived from origins, goals, or situations -- far more difficult and not guaranteed to bring any two people to the same conclusion, though they will be able to defend their conclusion.  Morality that is rule-based is often very emotional, because it was learned as a youngster or under duress, like boot camp.

What I see at the town council meetings is heavy reliance on rule-based thinking, meaning that they tend to believe that a law is a law is a law.  But they will split hairs over wording, implications, interpretation without going to the underlying goal of the law.  Then concrete examples of the impact will pop up in discussion and the talk moves to a more principled give-and-take.  The problem is that some instances won’t be represented because the people aren’t there and other laws come down on us from the state or federal level where we had no input and no ability to give feedback -- not even money to buy attention.

Back again to the circle idea.  Being in the circle is sort of like being in love.  (Why do we say “in” love instead of “on” love or “under” love, like being "on" drugs or "under" a spell?)  We think in terms of topography -- the cerebrum is laid out that way.  Neurons that handle a foot are here and neurons for an ear are over there.  If the brain is mapped, it looks like a little person except that parts with more neurons are bigger.  Watch people in cafes and those who are trying to convey abstracts are soon drawing little maps on the paper napkins.  (One HOPES they are paper!)  

So INSIDE the state of love means feeling enclosed by something sheltering.   It’s not a place in the brain, but it IS a state of mind, a particular mesh of those little colored fiber-lines that computer graphics show to depict connections among neurons.  If you fall OUT of love, the pattern of connections will shift to different hubs.  The goal of the religion scholar (for instance) is to be able to shift from being “inside” the believing circle and thus knowing how it “feels,” and then being “outside” that circle to observe how it fits into a larger complex and how its inner dynamics work.  The goal of the marriage counselor is to re-affirm that feeling of being “in” the marriage but to step outside it also, so as to find the dysfunctions and threats.

This skill is in large part the function of education, though education at present seems to be inside some kind of circle that prevents them from stepping outside.  The same is true of a certain kind of writer, who knows how to enter that enchanted state in which the words flow and the story unfolds, but then cannot step outside it at a different time in order to see structural problems.  And conversely there is a certain kind of arid educated person who cannot step INTO the enchanted circle to participate in the constructed world.  They want it to obey the rules of freshman comp.  Show them your heart and they criticize your grammar.

Some speak of “meta” levels of thought but “meta” -- which is formally defined as thinking about thinking -- can be either “feeling about feeling” or “reasoning about reasoning.”  If a person is a scholar, what matters is reasoning, but if one is in psychoanalysis, what matters is feeling.  Graphically represented in filaments, the configuration will be quite different.  What interests me is how to shift from one configuration to the other -- how to go from inside the circle to outside the circle, and then back in -- which might be the more problematic.  Writer’s block, for instance.

When dealing with people who live in circumscribed contexts -- small towns, tribes, cops, gays -- it is very hard to get them to the meta-level because stepping outside the known familiar world feels dangerous to themselves and others.  They will feel as though they are being abducted by aliens and be highly suspicious of motives.  They will get “homesick” for their familiar circle, their comfort zone.  How can “meta” thinkers figure out how to get past that?

I take “liminality” with its scheme of crossing the threshold to go “into” liminal space and then crossing back out into ordinary space/time, to be relevant.  While inside the intense, numinous, sometimes communal, context, the energy and opportunity are present for deep change.  It is a “deep experience,” a conversion.  We learned at UU Leadership School -- by experience -- that this is scary and problematic even for people who weren’t there.  One man demanded afterwards,  “What have you done with my wife?  This woman is a stranger.”  His impulse was to force her back into her old self.  I take what happened as evidence that she was able to shift underlying concepts learned early and taken for granted.  Now she asked questions or maybe had new answers.

This shift in concepts can happen on a group-wide basis -- a whole congregation, maybe a whole nation.  But there are always people who don’t make the transition, can’t leave the safe circle of what they assume is absolutely true.  Realizing that the world is a construct, that a person is a construct, that running on autopilot is a captivity, that people can look at them and what they do with no particular emotion and analyze them in a kind of social algebra, is terrifying.  But realizing that life is a negotiation, that you don’t have to stay trapped, is to be set free beyond your known limits.

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