Sunday, November 18, 2007

On a prayer

"Love God, then do what's obvious." I think it was St. Augustine who gave that advice when asked how to deal with hard moral choices. Seen from the right angle, the answer is obvious.

Physicists use the same technique to crack very hard problems, but call it something different. "Reframing" is what my last two posts called it, or context-shifting. Whatever it's called, it works.

Today I'll consider that as one type of "prayer" and look at how it can help us get through the day.

I'm drawing heavily as well on my 1965 dog-eared copy of "A Teacher's Manual - Ten Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity" from Campus Crusade for Christ, Bill Bright, ed., but this is not a technique that can't be used by Jews or Moslems or atheists.

Summing it all up is a quote in Ten Steps from Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, which I recall as this:

"Work, work, work! From early morning to late at night. Some days I have so much to do I have to spend the first three hours in prayer!"
I'll put that next to a quote I probably mis-remember the words of as well from President Abraham Lincoln, a former logger. "If I had ten minutes to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first five sharpening my axe."

And finally, my quote from Charles Schultz's cartoon dog Snoopy: " Did you ever notice, that if you think about something at 2 AM, and then again at noon the next day, you get two different answers?"

Why's this work? Well, humans have a very limited mental capacity, given the problems we're trying to solve. If there are, say, 10 factors involved, and they interact, we have about 100 direct interactions, each of which has 10 more second order interactions, each of which has 10 more third-order interactions, etc. The mind boggles. Mathematicians might make a 10 x 10 grid or array of numbers, a "matrix", where the number in the ith-row and the j'th column tries to capture how those two items interact.

There is a trick, however. If the problem is "rotated" to a new set of coordinates, a new reference frame, these numbers all change. For many problems there is a "best" set of cordinates, a best way to look at them, for which all the numbers off the diagonal "go away". All the complexity vanishes. The problem reduces to 10 items that don't interact, and can be solved easily. The answer is obvious. There's not quiz, but for completeness for those who want to follow this trail, the coordinates are called "eigenvectors" and the numbers are "eigenvalues".

So, one way a physicist cracks a hard problem is to describe it in any convenient reference frame, then mathematically rotate that frame around to this best frame, and only then actually doing what most people think of "solving", that is, plugging in the numbers, which at that point looks "easy" because, at that point, it is!

There are many kinds and many purposes of prayer, but one kind is this kind - an activity like that used by Martin Luther, to effectively rotate the problem, or the viewpoint, or the viewer, around to where it's obvious how to proceed. I use this technique every day. I don't know how I ever got along without it.

It does require "thinking globally and acting locally." You have to let go of the "accidental reference frame" you are immersed in, with your local issues and concerns, and seek to realign yourself with the Big Picture, God's reference frame, and that set of values. If you can do this "letting go" and "dying to self", you can re-pent, that is re-think, that is "turn and be healed." Not too surprisingly, it's hard to "rotate" something if part of it is stuck, even a tiny part. You have to truly "let go" or sigh and "submit" to God's will, not your own. Then it works ... sometimes. But when it works, wow, does it work! Amazing solutions you'd have never thought of come popping into your head -- most of which involve having to rely on or trust or forgive other people, which is the thing your own ego was hoping to avoid.

Some solutions allow everyone to win. Let me rephrase that. Some solutions require that everyone win, and won't work if you try to "win" at the "expense" of others. Some egos have a hard time with that and walk sadly away, muttering that such an outcome isn't "winning" in their mind.

Well, as I said, there's only one lifeboat Earth, with several hundred holes in the bottom, and it really is no solution at all to just "fix my end of the boat" so that "I'm floating higher than them now!" Tis a short-lived victory dance. Worse if your solution involved speeding the rate at which "they" are sinking. That reminds me of the current mortgage / credit disaster, where some people thought they'd get rich by defrauding poor people and the world's bankers -- then discovered that "things are connected" on a larger scale than they were paying attention to.

Following up on my last several posts, note that this solution technique doesn't involve anything that's on your desk, or in your workspace -- it involves changing the invisible but profoundly important context in which you are operating to one that works better.

For Christians, this often involves reading the Bible, or reflecting on memorized passages of Scripture, but I have to stress that this is not an analytic activity in the sense people usually mean. This doesn't involve classic logic, of finding one verse that says "A implies B", and another verse that says "B implies C" and then computing that this means A implies C, or any sort of detailed symbol or word processing activity. The big step here is not "content processing" that science and reason is so good at, it is "context processing" that science tends to forget exists.

Nothing in this approach depends on whether it was "7 days" or "7 billion years" it took to create the Earth. Those details wash out, and are not worth fighting over, in my mind. Attacks by Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists don't matter. What matters is aligning your own spirit and "getting with the program."

As with Snoopy, once this is done, the very same effort to tackle the very same problem that didn't work before, suddenly works. In fact, it works so well that the answer is "obvious" and doesn't require any further computational struggling at all, once you "see" what is involved and going on.

Done in a group, this is a key component, I think, in what the Baha'is call "consultation", which is an effort to apply rational thought after first establishing a spiritual framework and keeping that in place. Like filling the area with water, formerly "heavy" logs, too heavy to lift, suddenly become buoyant and can be moved by a child. That's the desired outcome of the process.

Similarly, when Baha'is talk about "spiritual solutions to economic problems" I think immediately of this kind of effect. We are blinded to perfectly good, immediately available solutions by our attachment to accidental local frames of thinking, and constraints involving "competition" and "winning" or "exposing weakness" or "exposing helplessness." It's an advanced social version of the urban legend tendency, taken too lightly, of men who prefer to drive all day, lost, rather than stop and ask for directions.

In fact, let me wrap this up with an equally sexist joke, about a very serious problem we have that has to be addressed. Three travelers, two men and an woman, come to a raging river.
One man looks, and says "No problem, I'm strong!" , ties his belongings in his shirt, revealing his muscular arms, and tries to swim heroically across, but is swept away. The second man says, "I can beat that with technology!", grabs a local rowboat and tries to row heroically across, but is swept away. The woman watches them being carried downstream and says "Oh, for God's sake!" and walks across the bridge.


I think we're being swept away, as a society, surrounded by help we refuse to see.

(credits - "If prayer doesn't work,there is always satellite" by Carol Mitchell
"Teamwork" photo from "Ollieda" )

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