Unity & Diversity

Mathew Syed’s book ‘Rebel Ideas’ has some fascinating things to say about creative thinking and problem solving.

His main idea – and one that is current in evolutionary psychology – is that as a species we do better when we collaborate and cooperate. With simple straightforward problems we’ll do fine with giving the task to the person best qualified to deal with it. Where we run into trouble is when we treat simple and complex problems in the same way; complex issues need diversity brought to them.

Syed’s first major example (and he gives many fascinating examples from science, politics, and business) is the CIA in the period running up to 9/11. He says the CIA underestimated Al Qaeda and mis-read signs of the growing power and influence of Osama Bin-laden. The CIA was filled with largely white, highly educated men who although they were bright and dedicated had strong similarities in their class backgrounds and education. Therefore, they approached problems in similar ways, covering the same ground, and missed crucial signs of growing danger that were outside of their range of experience.

When Bin-laden came to the eye of western intelligence agencies he was not taken seriously for quite a while. He gave speeches from a cave in traditional robes and had a long white beard. He was dismissed as unsophisticated and unthreatening; not capable of causing the west much trouble. The significance of the traditional touches and appearing in a cave (as the birthplace of Mohammed) would have been instantly recognisable to Arab Muslims were they had been represented at different levels of the CIA. However, they weren’t.

What the lack of diversity created within the CIA was a homogeny of ideas, leading to a high degree of consensus but very few alternative ‘out of the box’ views and suggestions. Had there been more diversity of gender, race, religion, education and experience and a culture of broader collaboration, at the very least more information would have been available from a greater variety of sources, with a wider interpretation of the ‘facts’ and allowing for more solutions.

So how is all this relevant to me, to you reading this blog?

I’ve been wondering whether there are parallels in how we relate to simple and complex problems within our spiritual lives, both through the institutions many of us are involved with and how we practice within them.

If the management structures or leadership hierarchies of our spiritual communities are too closed to the ideas of the wider community or the world beyond that, they will function as an echo chamber. ‘Tradition’ and a reluctance to change how we do things can end up minimising opportunities for those outside the leadership to contribute. This can potentially cause the whole community to become more rule-bound and ossify and harden.

Running a spiritual community takes a lot of skill and something of a flair for organisation as it’s a complex organism. We all enjoy harmony, and a group with similar views and life experiences is more likely to provide a feelgood consensus, but not necessarily make good decisions. Diverse groups where discussions might be a bit bumpy en-route to learning how to skilfully disagree and actively listen have been shown to collectively make intuitive leaps to creative ideas that weren’t even in the ring before.

James Surowiecki in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ says ‘groups that are too much alike find it hard to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogenous groups become progressively less able to investigate alternatives.’

Unifying around ideals, teachings and practices is essential for a spiritual community, but diversity keeps it alive. Spiritual practice happens over decades, and we are in for the long haul, so it’s important that we keep things fresh.  While there are many things that are helpfully stable, that doesn’t mean things don’t change over time.

 In our movement, as in lots of different Buddhist traditions, we teach the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation practice that was taught by the Buddha. The structure is recognizable from two and a half thousand years ago, but the way it is taught has changed subtly even over the 35+ years since I learned it. It has been changed by thousands of people practicing it regularly, finding ways of making it their own, emphasizing directed attention or relaxation for example. It has been changed by the society changing around us; the growth of secular mindfulness backed up by scientific research, a greater openness to meditation in the west. The reasons people use the Mindfulness of Breathing range from seeking greater well-being to an anti-dote to depression. Enlightenment is no longer the main reason to practice.

There will be many different phases and incarnations as a healthy group grows and develops. Keeping a diverse range of people with different relevant skills and life experiences involved at all levels of complex decision making will ensure the organisation considers a wide range of creative and imaginative options.

And then there is the whole area of unity and diversity within our own practice – I think that deserves more words than I can spare here so let’s keep that for another time.

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