Monday, November 05, 2007

Constructing Reality

When I retired from a all-too-brief career as a university lecturer and set out to see the world, I expected to spend my twilight years in hedonistic abandon, taking photos of exotic places, sampling strange foods, and exercising my mind through the consumption of mystery novels. I imagined a little hut on some forgotten beach and a maid, waitress or nurse (perhaps three-in-one?) to serve my every need. What I did not anticipate was intellectual stimulation. I thought I had given that up along with the boxes of academic books that had gone to friends and Goodwill. I had been "caught with my constructs down," as George Kelly would say.

Kelly (1905-67) was a psychologist whose seminal work, The Psychology of Personal Constructs, has been much praised and cited. I had never heard of him until last month when Pandit Bhikku dropped his name into a conversation and said he thought Kelly's concept of constructs had much to offer a dialog between Buddhism and psychology. Yesterday he elaborated on this in a talk for the monthly forum at the World Buddhist University in Bangkok. According to Pandit, constructs are filters, templates or ideological frameworks through which we interpret the world. "The world is real but our frames are creative. Reality is experienced from one or another of these perspectives." Suffering (dukkha spoken of by the Buddha), he proposed, might result from constructs that conflict with the real world. And the fiction of a permanent self, deconstructed by the Buddha, might be a combination of temporary constructs, which, according to Kelly's theory, enable people to anticipate events "by construing their replications." In other words, we act in the world based on our models of how reality works; dysfunctional models lead to unfortunate consequences.

The primary postulate of Kelly's theory of personal constructs is: "A person's processes [experiences, thoughts, feelings, behavior, etc.] are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he [this predates non-gendered language] anticipates events." From this, in his schema, follow 11 corollaries or consequences. Some of this seems abundantly obvious. Humans anticipate the future based on experiences in the past, and these plans are colored by a variety of influences, notably language and culture. The frames through which we perceive reality exclude the unknown and unfamiliar. While Pandit and perhaps Kelly want to argue that reality is real, both concede like Kant that humans can only know phenomena, not the noumena that perhaps lies hidden behind things and facts. The Mystery, if such exists, lies behind the screen.

Pandit gave a number of examples of the cognitive dissonance that can result when our experience of reality does not meet our expectations: the "nice" monk who picks his nose, the meditator with the injured knee forced to sit cross-legged by an unbending teacher, the taxi drivers who alternately construct him as a monk (who can ride free) or a farang (who must pay extra), the noise in the bathroom that can be either benign or a scary spider. Certainly the dukkha that is dis-ease or anxiety can result from unsuitable constructs or unmet anticipations. But is the self simply a bundle of constructs? Kelly seemed to believe that personality was the product of a system of constructs. Apparently he had been called a Zen Buddhist for the absence of an abiding mind in his theory of how the mind works.

The idea of a screen between this bundle of perceptions that is "me" and the "world" with which "I" interact is familiar. I'm not sure what role it plays in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the reigning spirit of psychology these days, but it sounds similar to ideas from gestalt therapy. I was remind of Alfred "The map is not the territory" Korzybski and his theory of General Semantics that I found so interesting when I was in my twenties, and was not surprised to discover through research today that Kelly acknowledged his debt to Korzybski's ideas. I was also reminded of "paradigm," the buzz word of the 1970s, and of hermeneutics, or the study of interpretation, all of which have fascinated me and stirred my curiosity. Someone in the audience saw a connection to Neuro-linguist Programming (NLP) which I've always consider a kind of therapeutic fascism. Kelly, it seems, sought a scientific theory of how humans construct meaning through trial and error, and wanted to turn his patients into scientists who can test their hypotheses (constructs) in the world and follow those with the best predictive power.

One problem that occurred to me was caused by the apparent broadness of the definition of constructs as presented by Pandit. It seemed as if any plan or idea could be called a construct. But if the definition of a construct is too general, then everything becomes a construct and the theory loses its cutting edge. Kelly apparently believed that one's constructs are infinitely flexible and that they can be changed at will. But I wonder how flexible we humans actually are in changing our constructs. Our frames/perspectives/cognitive categories/constructs may not be hard wired, but they are often attached with super glue.

Could Buddhist emptiness, and Hindu non-duality, be the absence of constructs? Pandit posed this question to the gathering . If our self is simply a set of changing constructs, can we let it go through meditation practice and experience the emptiness of a construct-free existence? But this would mean you CAN have direct experience of reality and not just by means of constructs. I think this is a good question and wonder what Kelly's answer would be. From the little I've read, I expect he would answer that the human mind is a construct-making mechanism, and without constructs the mind would cease to exist. That perhaps only happens at death. This inquiry into the nature of enlightenment, with perspectives from Buddhist scriptures and secondary literature, might be very fruitful.

The gathering filled a small seminar room on the third floor of WBU, a center for the teaching of Buddhism in English located at the back of the lovely Benjasiri Park next to Emporium mall. Pandit can be seen here talking to Phra Bart, an American monk from Wat Luang Phor Sodh, a meditation center associated with the WBU several hours from Bangkok. Between them can be seen the bald head of Chris Stanford, a Canadian scholar in charge of programs for the WBU, talking with Daniel Henning, a professor from Montana and author of Buddhism and Deep Ecology.

It shouldn't be so strange that I would find the intellectual half of my soul here in Bangkok after thinking I'd given her up back in California. Gauguin, after all, did not give up art after his move to the South Pacific. Besides mulling over the theories of Kelly, I have been gobbling up recent literature on the renaissance of atheism in light of the rise of dangerous religious fundamentalism in American and the Middle East. The God Delusion by biologist Richard Dawkins was a fascinating read. He illuminates materialism with Darwin's evolutionary insights and has forced me to reexamine my faith in the beauty of Mystery if not of God. Next up: Christopher Hitchens' best-selling God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Later this month we are organizing a seminar on atheism and Buddhism to discuss the ideas in these books and in a collection of recent documentary films. I am looking forward to my month at Shantivanam in India where I will have time to reflect on the changes in my attitudes toward religion and spirituality.

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