Claxton, Guy. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.
U.S.A.: 1997. ISBN 0880016221
Pages 4, 5 and 6
The individuals and societies of the West have rather lost touch with the value of contemplation. Only active thinking is regarded as productive. Sitting gazing absently at your office wall or out of the classroom window is not of value. Yet many of those whom our society admires as icons of creativity and wisdom have spent much of their time doing nothing. Einstein, it is said, would frequently be found in his office At Princeton staring into space. The Dalai Lama spends hours each day in meditation. Even that paragon of penetrating insight, Sherlock Holmes, is described by his creator as entering a meditative state 'with a dreaming vacant expression in his eyes'.
There are a number of reasons why slow knowing has fallen into disuse. Partly it is due to our changing conception of, and attitude towards, time. In pre-seventeenth-century Europe a leisurely approach to thinking was much more common, and in other cultures it still is. A tribal meeting at a Maori marae can last for days, until everyone has had time to assimilate the issues, to have their say, and to form a consensus. However, the idea that time is plentiful is in many parts of the world now seen as laughably old-fashioned and self-indulgent.
Swedish anthropologist Helena Norberg-Hodge has documented the way in which the introduction of Western culture has radically altered the pace of life in the traditional society of Ladakh, for example. Until ten years ago, a Ladakhi wedding lasting a fortnight. But their lifestyle rapidly altered following the introduction of some simple 'labour-savings' changes: tools, such as the Rotovator, to make ploughing quicker and easier; and some new crops and livestock, such as dairy cows. Compared to the traditional yak, cows yield more milk than a family needs, creating a surplus which can be turned into cheese and sold to bring in some extra cash. While there is no harm in taking life a little easier, in encouraging families to accumulate a little 'wealth', unfortunately this apparently benign aid package' also gave the Ladakhis a new view of time – as something in short supply. Instead of the Rotovators and the cows generating more leisure, they have in fact reduced it. People are now busier than they were: busy creating wealth -- and 'saving time'. Today a Ladakhi wedding lasts less than a day, just like an English one. Within the Western mindset, time becomes a commodity, and one inevitable consequence is the urge to 'think faster': to solve problems and make decisions quickly.
Partly the decline of slow thinking is to do with the rise of what the American social critic Neil Postman has called 'technopoly' -- the widespread view that every ill is a problem which has a potential solution; solutions are provided by technological advances, which are generated by clear, purposeful, disciplined thinking; and the faster problems are solved, the better. Thus, as the Ladakhis have recently joined us in believing, time is an adversary over which technology can triumph. For Postman, technolopoly is based on the beliefs that the primary, if not the only goal of human labour and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by 'experts.'
In such a culture, time spent exploring the question is only justified to the extent that it clearly leads towards a solution to the problem. To spend time dwelling on the question to see if it may lead to a deeper question seems inefficient, self-indulgent or perverse.
In contemporary 'Western' society (which now effectively covers the globe), we seem to have generated an inner, psychological culture of speed, pressure and the need for control -- mirroring the outer culture of efficiency and productivity -- in which access to the slower modes of mind has been lost. People are in a hurry to know, to have answers, to plan and solve. We urgently want explanations: Theories of Everything, from marital mishaps to the origin of the universe. We want more data, more ideas; we want them faster; and we want them, with just a little thought, to tell us clearly what to do.
We find ourselves in a culture which has lost sight (not least in its education system) of some fundamental distinctions, like those between being wise, being clever, having your 'wits' about you, and being merely well informed. We have been inadvertently trapped in a single mode of mind that is characterised by information-gathering, intellect and impatience, one that requires you to be explicit, articulate, purposeful and to show your reasoning. We are thus committed (and restricted) to those ways of knowing that can function in such a high-speed mental climate: predominantly those that use language (or other symbol systems) as a medium and deliberation as a method. As a culture we are, in consequence, very good at solving analytic and technological problems. The trouble is that we tend, increasingly, to treat all human predicaments as if they were of this type, including those for which such mental tools are inappropriate. We meet with cleverness, focus and deliberation those challenges that can only properly be handled with patience, intuition and relaxation.
To tap into the leisurely ways of knowing, one must dare to wait. Knowing emerges from, and is a response to, not-knowing. Learning -- the process of coming to know -- emerges from uncertainty. Ambivalently, learning seeks to reduce uncertainty, by transmuting the strange into the familiar, but it also needs to tolerate uncertainty, as the seedbed in which ideas germinate and responses form. If either one of these two aspects of learning predominates, then the balance of the mind is disturbed. If the passive acceptance of not-knowing overwhelms the active search for meaning and control, then one may fall into fatalism and dependency. While if the need for certainty becomes intemperate, undermining the ability to tolerate confusion, then one may develop a vulnerability to demagoguery and dogma, liable to cling to options and beliefs that may not fit the bill, but which do assuage the anxiety.