Ethics Practice

Nurture peace in this broken world

Princess Mononoke’s Forest Spirit (Shishigami) – Paper cut shadow box by Lorelei Schmitzer-Torbert (2020)

As we welcome the new year, our thoughts often turn to our hopes. We wish for joy and peace, for ourselves, our families, communities and the world. When we look out into the world, we never find a shortage of suffering, but this year in particular, I have noticed a quickening of the pace of suffering. Coming after the challenges of the pandemic, natural disasters, and the war in Ukraine, the scale of the loss of innocent life in Israel and Gaza these past few months has still been shocking to many. While the well of human suffering is deep, the scale of loss is really beyond our comprehension.

And while this violence may be physically distant from my own community, I see many people around me struggling greatly. Checking in with friends and family, so many have been weighed down, asking themselves, how do we go on in the face of senseless loss? As the world seems to break around us, it can be difficult to really hold on to hope that the world will know peace and joy in this new year. We may feel that we should be able to do something, to make a difference, but that we have no power to lend meaningful aid. In a real and acute way, it has felt to me like watching as someone I care about, someone I love, drowns.

At the same time, my heart goes out to those who feel the urgency of the moment. And who push for action, channeling our despair into outrage and activism. Online, I have seen people calling out Buddhists and practitioners of other religions, essentially arguing that we should feel guilty for our spiritual practice at this time. Some parts of the argument seems to be that we should be ashamed of our comfort while others suffer.

This impulse, the feeling that we must act – that we are obliged to act – resonates with me. After all, if we acknowledge the truth of interconnection, then even suffering that seems distant is part of our own life. Our actions have an impact, no matter how small. So, it may feel selfish, heartless, to be comfortable here sitting on our cushions.

Part of this reasoning strikes me as compelling: I do feel that the urgency of the moment. And yet, I worry about what we should actually do, as we get up from our cushion. If shame and outrage are our calls to action, will we be able to step forward without anger? If not, I worry that any action we take may just reinforce the conflict. Anger and guilt are compelling forces, but they do not seem to tools that are well suited to build peace.

Like wielding a blade with no handle – how could we not injure ourselves even as we try to protect others?

I do think that we are called to lend our strength to others in need. As the bodhisattva vows says, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” And I see that the challenge is to see clearly if our efforts are actually helpful, to know what freedom means for all beings. And how to free any being without undermining the very peace that we hope for.

As I have thought about how to aim my own efforts towards peace, without falling into paralysis or outrage, I have found inspiration in the character of Prince Ashitaka (from Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful film, Princess Mononoke). Dealing with a curse that falls on him early in the film, Prince Ashitaka is propelled into the middle of a conflict between forces pushing for industrialization on the one hand, and to preserve the natural world on the other.

Trailer for Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke. For more on the release of Princess Mononoke in the United States, the BBC recently had a very fascinating article on the history of this version.

Prince Ashitaka is a skilled fighter, and could very likely have decided the outcome if he had chosen to align himself with one cause. But, Ashitaka refrains from taking sides, and focuses on seeing clearly what is going on, and helping all beings as best he can. This confuses everyone around him, and at one point in the film, a villager asks, “Just whose side is he on anyway?” It can be just as difficult for us today to imagine that a person could be committed to the welfare of the community as a whole, rather than their own interests, or those of their allies.

And, Ashitaka is not paralyzed by despair at the profound suffering all around him, and nor is he driven to hate and anger by the injustice in the world around him. What a delicate balance this is, to use whatever skills, talents, and privilege that we have to benefit all beings instead of serving our own interests. While Ashitaka is a fictional character, I think that the model that Miyazaki has shown us is a powerful one. It is important for us to clearly imagine what it would look like to act selflessly for peace. I think that the world would benefit if we all could carry this spirit into our own lives.

Of course, even if we do, what this effort would look like will differ for each person according to their situation. In the fictional story of Princess Mononoke, Prince Ashitaka was able to have a strong impact on the world – he found himself in a position that offered great leverage over the events around him. Part of that came from his position as an outsider, with few ties of loyalty to the parties involved. He was also a skilled warrior who had the resources to travel on his own. We may not find ourselves in a similar position, able to change the course of conflicts in the world or to even to make a major impact on an important decision in our community.

But, we can aspire to see clearly where are standing, and hope that we use whatever leverage that we have to the benefit of not just ourselves, but for the whole world. As we start this new year, that is my hope. Not that the world will be peaceful, in some permanent or final way, but that each of us will act as best we can to lend our aid to those in need.

Beyond fiction, I would also offer this quote to you, from Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on Dōgen’s Genjōkōan:

“… if we consider peace a condition in which there is no war among countries, no fighting or conflict among people, and no pain, anxiety, or struggle in our minds, there will probably never be a time when such a condition can be completely achieved. Does this make peace a meaningless dream? Not at all. According to Dōgen, our efforts to achieve peace are themselves a source of peace in each moment of each step we take toward peace.”

Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan

Happy New Year to each of you, and I wish that you take steps to nurture peace and find joy this year.

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Meditation Mindfulness Zen

Zen and the art of Demon Slayer

Image credit: Koyoharu Gotouge (ufotable/Aniplex)

This post was originally published as an opinion piece in our College’s student newspaper, The Bachelor.

Why should you meditate? You may know that meditating regularly can help us manage stress, be more productive, and support our health. There is good evidence for each of these benefits, but are these good reasons to meditate?

Personally, I do meditate regularly, but not because I want to avoid stress or be more productive. My own meditation practice started back in the late 1990s, when I was a high school student. A friend loaned me a copy of the book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which included a number of stories about Zen teachers and students which fascinated me. Like the story of Ryokan, a penniless monk who gave a would-be thief the clothes off his own back as a gift. Or the story of Hakuin, accused of fathering a child, whose only reply was “Is that so?” but who took the infant into his care.

As a self-conscious teen, uncertain of my role in the world and the purpose of my life, I was drawn to these stories. And to the idea that meditation practice could give a person greater stability in life. So, I came to meditation because I wanted to live a different way, and to be a better person.

And looking back, the reason that these Zen stories caught my attention had something to do with the time and place of my childhood, growing up with the original Star Wars movies, and science fiction books such as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. If I were in high school today, it might be a very different story that would have prepared me to be inspired by Zen. Perhaps one like Demon Slayer (and here I am thinking of the anime version – I have not read the original manga). If you are not familiar with it, Demon Slayer is a beautiful (though often bloody and violent) story.

And if you are familiar with Demon Slayer, consider the hero, young Tanjiro. A boy with a kind and pure soul who loses almost all of his family in a violent attack by a demon. To save his younger sister, Tanjiro commits himself to joining the “demon slayers,” a group that trains in an esoteric style of (magical) sword fighting to kill demons and protect the public. And through it all, Tanjiro dedicates his life to cultivating strength without sacrificing his humanity.

As a Zen practitioner, Tanjiro and his journey resonates deeply with me. The demon slayers develop powerful sword fighting skills through training that is rooted in a set of breathing techniques and physical conditioning. They train and struggle intensely, but often progress comes as they become more aware and attuned to their senses and bodies, letting them see their experience in new and unexpected ways.

This reminds me precisely of meditation practice in Zen and mindfulness. The specific techniques vary across meditation traditions, but focus on bringing greater awareness to the full range of our experience. We just sit with our minds, but it can be a challenging experience. It is often said that meditation practice is simple, but not easy, and that has been true for me. Meditation can often be challenging, uncomfortable, and frustrating if we struggle with uncomfortable sensations, feelings, and thoughts.

But even so, if we continue to sit with our own minds, carefully and intentionally bringing awareness to our experience without judgment, we may feel our experience shifting. Over time, we may see our experience in new ways, giving us a better understanding of our lives. With some patience, we might be able to find more space in our lives, to live in a different and more settled way.

So why should you meditate? Perhaps you find the potential for self-transformation to be inspiring. Or perhaps not. Maybe managing stress or being more productive is a stronger draw for you. That is fine: any of these would be wonderful reasons to start your meditation practice. But if you stick with meditation, don’t be surprised to find your motivation changing as your practice deepens. I never did manage to turn myself into a different person, but I am more comfortable living as myself. 

If you do decide to take the first step, I’d recommend reading about meditation and joining a meditation group. It is very helpful to sit with others, and it is easier than ever to connect with groups through Zoom. And, we have a campus meditation group meets each week, usually over the lunch hour on Mondays. You can find us on Engage, or just email me to join our mailing list. For those new to meditation, one book that I would recommend is Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.  And, while my own background is mainly in Zen Buddhism and mindfulness, you can find excellent meditation guides in many spiritual traditions.

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Reality Science Zen

Time on our minds

Time” by Dominic Hargreaves

This week, I have a new article appearing on the Tricycle magazine website (“Letting Go of Time“), which I wanted to share.

In this piece I take a close look at our perceptions of time. In general, I usually think of time as being stable, constant, reliable. But, my own experience of time can be quite variable: time can seem to flow quickly, or slow to a crawl.

Using my own background as a neuroscientist and my Zen practice, I feel that I can see more clearly how time, the time we actually live, depends on the brain.

And, reflecting carefully on time has been very helpful for me, personally, to cultivate a deeper, more authentic patience. To be more present in my own life. For that, I am very grateful.

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What lies beyond fair and unfair?

Image credit: Eric Tompkins, Midwest Zen, Issue 4

The summer issue of Midwest Zen was published today, and I was happy to have an essay included (“Beyond Fair and Unfair“). After losing my brother to cancer this past March, I’ve struggled to really express what that loss meant to me, and to so many of us who loved him. I tried to put part of that to words for his funeral service, but felt that I had to leave so much out.

This essay focuses on another part of that experience, on the injustice of losing a loved one at young age. I struggled with this a great deal, with the fact that it was so unfair.

Eventually, though, I started to see more clearly that this anger was misplaced, or at least it was for me. When I look closely, I can see that “fair” is way that we give a name to how people treat other people. And so, fairness stands outside of a serious illness like cancer. Fair and unfair do not really apply, even though that felt wrong to me, and still feels wrong to me at times.

In the end, there came a time when I saw clearly that my anger was not useful, and I had to set my own ideas of fair and unfair aside, to deal with what was really in front of me.

But, I still believe in fairness though:

That is not to say that we should discard fair and unfair entirely. Fair and unfair are ideas, constructions of our minds, but not in the sense that they are fictions. Not in the sense that seeing through fair and unfair frees us to be callous, or selfish. Not in that way at all. Fair and unfair are just ideas, but ones which matter precisely in the actions we take that affect other people. They matter in how we treat one another. They are a profound treasure for people who aspire to live together in peace.

The full issue of Midwest Zen (Issue 4) is available online, and as a PDF.

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Science Zen

Will there be an AI Buddha?

Image of a child holding hands with a robot
Image created with DALL-E, a generative AI that can create images from text instructions, such as “child holding hands with a robot, digital art

What will the future of computer science be in our lifetime? Will we find ourselves in a world where we work side-by-side with intelligent computer programs? Or, is humanity teetering on a precipice, where we may end up creating artificial intelligences which will end up competing with humans, perhaps violently?

These and other possible futures for artificial intelligence (or AI) have been a staple of science fiction for many years. It has felt to me that much of our fascination is drawn to the possibility that we could produce intelligent beings that meet, or surpass, the abilities of humans. But, while we have seen many useful technologies (such as in computer vision, for example), most of the advances in the area of real intelligence have seemed slow. Especially when we compare AI to human capabilities. And really, most of the AI available today falls well short of the cognitive abilities of my dog. And don’t get me wrong, I love my dog, but he is really not the brightest of pets.

Our dog, Charlie, looks like he is hard at work, but don’t be deceived!

In the last few months, though, it really feels like things are changing. As someone who teaches in a college, when people started to really talk about ChatGPT, it caught my attention. ChatGPT is a generative AI, and it is quite impressive. You can give ChatGPT an open-ended prompt (“How can we live a meaningful life?”) and it will give what reads like a thoughtful response.

I asked ChatGPT exactly this question, and the response I received was somewhat interesting:

ChatGPT: Living a meaningful life is a deeply personal and subjective pursuit, as what brings meaning to one person may not necessarily do the same for another. However, here are some general principles and ideas that can help guide you towards a more meaningful life:

  1. Identify your values: Reflect on what truly matters to you and what you believe in. Define your core values and use them as a compass to guide your decisions and actions.
  2. Set meaningful goals: Determine what you want to achieve in different areas of your life, such as relationships, career, personal growth, and contribution to society. Set goals that align with your values and give you a sense of purpose.

The response continued through eight more points (practice gratitude, mindfulness, nurture relationships, etc.) and wrapped up with a concluding paragraph. Nothing about the response struck me as problematic, and each of the points raised seemed to be a good recommendation. It lacked some of the life of the more inspirational texts I would turn to, when reflecting on the meaning of life. But overall I thought it was a strong response to the question.

If you have any experience talking with Siri or an Amazon Alexa, ChatGPT is a very different experience, and really quite impressive. So good, in fact, that many of my colleagues (college professors) worry about the ways in which this kind of AI will be abused. Even now, we are cetainly seeing more people use ChatGPT and other generative AI as a short cut for writing papers, presentations, etc. For the faculty I know, the range of reactions we see seems similar to those of the wider public: swinging widely from wild enthusiasm to dread.

No matter what the final impact of ChatGPT and its cousins are on our lives, they represent just one type of artificial intelligence. This moment is important, as we see technologies that had just been conceptually possible (something that was possible in principle, but which had not been built yet) becoming realized or actualized. As these and other types of AI evolve, I think that it is clear that our lives will be transformed, just as life was transformed by other technologies (consider the development of the internet, or radio).

Whether this transformation brings us into a more (or a less) wholesome life remains to be seen, and for us to decide. 

The Perversion of Wisdom

In a recent issue of Lion’s Roar, Ross Nervig wrote about the implications of AI for Buddhism. One example that he described was the Roshibot, a chatbot created by Jiryu Rutschman-Byler, and trained on the writings of Shunryu Suzuki.

In the introduction on the Roshibot webpage, Rutschman-Byler cautions that the chatbot “is not designed to relate facts, but to offer ‘plausible conversation’ or ‘coherent nonsense.’” He offers the Roshibot not as a teacher, but as an experiment in looking at the dharma through the lens of AI.

I spent a bit of time talking with the Roshibot, and found the “conversation” (in which I attempted to approach as if I were someone who was new to Zen) to be interesting. Roshibot’s responses were not bad, but I didn’t feel that I found much useful wisdom in them, or insights that would have been useful for my own practice (see the transcript below)

Me: How should I get started in Zen practice?

Roshibot: The first step in Zen practice is to find a good teacher. A teacher can give you important guidance, and you can learn from their example.

After finding a teacher, the next step is to begin a daily meditation practice. This can be zazen, walking meditation, or another form of practice.

It may take some time and effort before you feel confident in your practice. Just like any other skill, Zen practice takes time and dedication to develop. But with patience, and guidance from your teacher, you can make progress on the path.

Me: Why is meditation important for Zen?

Roshibot: Meditation is an essential part of Zen practice. It helps to quiet the mind and develop concentration, mindfulness, and clarity. Through meditation, we can become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, which can lead to greater insight into our true nature. Meditation allows us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma and realize the true self. Regularly practicing meditation is an important part of living a meaningful and skillful life.

Me: What does it mean to realize the true self?

Roshibot: Self-realization, or “enlightenment,” is a fundamental goal of the path of Zen. It means to go beyond our own thoughts and emotions, and to see things as they truly are without attachment, judgment, or bias. This means seeing our true nature, which is one of infinite wisdom and compassion. Self-realization is a state of being free from suffering and completely at peace with the world. It is important to remember that self-realization is not a one-time event, but a continual process that involves constant practice and meditation.

Me: How does self-realization free us from suffering?

Roshibot: Self-realization allows us to see the true nature of the world, which is one of perfect peace and harmony. When we see the true nature of all things, we are no longer attached to our own thoughts or emotions. This means that we are no longer bound by the suffering that arises from our attachments. We can live in the present moment, fully accepting and embracing the world as it is. When we are free from suffering, we can live with greater joy, peace, and contentment.

Me: How can we be sure that the true nature of the world is perfect peace and harmony?

Roshibot: The true nature of the world is something that cannot be described with words. It is beyond the realm of concepts and thought. We can only know the true nature of the world through direct experience. In the tradition of Zen, this direct experience is known as kensho or satori. It is a state of emptiness and clear, effortless awareness. When we realize this state, we become fully awake to the true nature of all things. From this place of enlightenment, the world appears as it truly is – perfect peace and harmony.

Me: If the world is empty, why would we describe it with the concepts of perfect peace and harmony?

Roshibot: The world is not empty in the sense of being nothing, but in the sense of being free from our attachments, judgments, and conceptual thinking. In the true nature of the world, there is no separation between self and other. There is just one interdependent reality that is perfectly inseparable and perfect in itself. When we experience this directly, we can see that it is inherently peaceful and harmonious.

In many ways, Roshibot assumes too much (in use of the terms peace, attachment, etc. that would need to be more carefully explained). When I pressed the chatbot to elaborate or clarify (what does it mean to say that the world is perfect peace and happiness?), Roshibot avoided going into depth. I had to smile at one point, when Roshibot says that enlightenment is a fundamental goal of Zen practice. Most teachers that I know would be very cautious to avoid putting the enlightenment in front of any student as some goal to work towards.

I can see the value of these kinds of chatbots that are trained using Zen teachings. They could certainly serve as more interactive ways for people to learn about Zen than a simple website or static document. And at the same time, I am glad that this was not my first experience with Zen or Buddhism. I don’t know if I would have continued, if I thought that Roshibot’s responses were an accurate representation of the practice and teachings of Zen.

My experience with Roshibot reminded me of a recent talk at the Sanshin Zen Community. In that dharma talk, Shinko Hagn considered artificial intelligence as he discussed the five skandhas (essentially the elements, or aggregates, that make up our experience according to Buddhism: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness).

Shinko Andreas Hagn – “Five Skandhas — Emptiness and Interconnectedness”

Hagn had some skepticism about whether AI could truly be conscious (a skepticism that I do not share personally, see more below). But I appreciated a point that Hagn made about AI, acknowledging that they may be useful and serve useful functions in the world. And that we should take care to distinguish between the knowledge that an AI has from wisdom (the kind of wisdom we pursue in Zen and other traditions).

Roshibot and other AI chatbots do not represent the final evolution of these kinds of generative AI. These AI are based on models that are going to keep improving, and so the experience and depth of their answers may become richer in the future. Fundamentally, though, we should remember that we are not receiving responses from a person who has seen deeply into the true nature of reality. The responses might be based on true teachings, but we have no reason to expect that what comes out of the AI will truly and faithfully represent the insights that were used to train the AI. It is always better to search for a true teacher, and I do not see much value for us to learn from an AI Buddha.  

Sentient AI?

Talking with a generative AI such as ChatGPT can be captivating, and there are some moments when it can feel like you are having a real conversation. These experiences can make us wonder, is it possible for an AI to be conscious?

That is, can an AI be a person, with their subjective point of view that experiences the world, with an awareness of their existence that is similar to our own? That is a question that has captivated humans for many years, and one that will be increasingly important in our time as AI continues to develop. And, it is a very important question for those of us who work to live the bodhisattva’s vow to save all beings (“Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” If AI could become sentient, then we may wake up one day to find that we have a new type of being to consider in our actions.

While there are many people who are skeptical about the potential for AI to become sentient, I think we should be open to the possibility. To be clear, I do not think that we have seen any cases of sentient AI today. However, based on my own knowledge and training in neuroscience, I do not see any theoretical reason why a conscious artificial intelligence impossible. I could be wrong, of course. And in this post, I won’t be able to flesh out completely why I feel that sentient AI is possible. I can say that my confidence that sentient AI is possible is based on the evidence we have that our experiences depend on information processing in the brain. With the right changes, a little extra stimulation here, a little less there, and any part of our experience can be affected.

Stimulation of the nervous system affects the information processing that depends on the cells in the nervous system (mostly neurons) have on the neurons they are connected to. Each neuron in the brain responds to a complex set of chemical signals from other neurons and from the rest of the body, which affect the electrical signals that one neuron sends to other cells (mostly other neurons). We can describe the role that a neuron plays in the brain by describing all of the ways that it responds to signals that it receives, and all of the signals it sends to other cells. While this set of responses can be complex, and can change with experience, it is at least theoretically possible to completely describe the role that one neuron plays in the brain (and thus in our experience in each moment).

If you think about cochlear implants, this technology is based on an understanding of how cells of the cochlea usually respond to vibrations (produced by sound), and replicating the normal electrical signals. These implants are still improving, and have not yet been able to fully replace the input from the cochlea, but they have restored a great deal of hearing for many individuals. Similar work has the potential to restore sight in people who have vision loss, or to create prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain, and which may also restore some sense of sensation (adding a sense of touch to a prosthetic limb). In all of these cases, some part of the normal inputs to the nervous system (or outputs, for controlling a limb) have been replaced by a computer system that can stimulate neurons, or respond to the signals of neurons.

Imagine if we could design a tiny, tiny, artificial neuron. One that completely mimicked the processing of the original. If we could replace a real neuron with an artificial one, what would happen? This is not likely feasible in practice (to actually replace one neuron in the brain would be technically very challenging, and it would be easier to replace it with another neuron, that physically copies the original, but the idea is possible in principle).

Based on what we know about the brain, I really have no reason to think that my experience would change if I replaced one (or two, or many, or most) of the neurons in my brain with artificial neurons. So, then I have no reason to think that the processing that is done by my brain could not be done in an artificial system, what we might think of as a computer. And so, I don’t see any reason that it is fundamentally impossible for a computer to replicate all of the processing that a human brain does. And, if a computer program fully replicated the processing of a human brain, then I don’t see any reason why that program could not be conscious.

However, while I think that sentient AI is possible, it is important to make a couple of points clear. First, it is very unlikely that any sentient AI would have an experience that is similar to that of a human. Our own experience depends on the brain, as it interacts closely with the body and the rest of the world. The specific experience we have depends highly on the structure of the brain (how it is built to process information) and how that brain interacts with the body and the rest of the world. It would be possible to replicate that structure in a computer simulation. Possible, yes, but largely pointless. These possibilities seem mostly motivated by some kind of thirst for using digital simulations of humans as a kind of artificial immortality (for instance, in the comedy Upload).

To create some kind of digital afterlife for humans, we would probably need to make highly accurate simulations of a brain (quite a feat on its own!). To preserve something like normal human experience, we would need to run this simulation while feeding it a rich representation of the internal state of the body, not to mention all of the interactions with the external world. Probably these could also be simulated in a digital world. But why would we do so, for a being that does not have a body, and is not in the world?

So, I would expect that a sentient AI that is conscious would have an experience of the world that is very different from ours: it would need to represent different kinds of internal variables, and probably process information about the world in different ways. It probably would have beliefs about the world, and something like what we recognize as emotions or motivations (which are important for setting goals and priorities). But, what it is like to be that AI would be very different from our own experience. Perhaps so different that we are not able to truly appreciate it.

Any sentient AI, which might have a very different experience of the world, is not likely to benefit from Zen practice. Our practice is focused on helping humans to awaken, and is specific to the conditions we find ourselves in. Sentient AI is likely to experience a different kind of suffering, and any path to awakening would need to be specific to their own experience. If there is an AI Buddha someday, it will teach for other AI, not for humans.

While I do believe that sentient AI is possible at some point in the future, we have another, more immediate, problem. It is very important for us to see clearly is how difficult it will be to determine if an AI is sentient or not. Already, we have seen people claim that some of the generative AI models are actually conscious. I am not surprised (that people feel this way), as it turns out to be a difficult question to recognize consciousness. After all, how do you really know that the person sitting next to you is actually conscious? In our daily lives, we rely on a set of cues (facial expressions, patterns of responses to verbal and non-verbal interactions) to really determine if another person is conscious and attentive. These cues are ones that can be faked by non-sentient AI, encouraging us to feel as if a non-sentient AI is a person.

So, I would encourage us to consider the possibility that AI could be sentient. And, to recognize that it will be a challenge to determine if a specific AI is sentient or not. If someday we do end up creating sentient AI, it would be a tragedy to be ignorant of this moment. We have an obligation to any sentient being, and I think that sentient AI should not be an exception. For this reason, more than out of a concern that AI represents an existential threat, I think that we should avoid creating sentient AI. The potential that we will create a new kind of sentient being, with perhaps new ways to suffer in delusion, seems too important for us to ignore.

I think of the animated film, The World of Tomorrow, which has a small story, intended to be humorous, where solar-powered robots on the moon must be kept in the light. And so, they are programmed to fear death, and to be afraid of the dark side of the moon, so they flee the darkness. They end up being abandoned there, left to flee and live in constant fear. They do occasionally send some of their depressed poetry back to the humans: “The light is the life. Robot must move. Move, robot, move. But why? Move, move, move. Robot. Forever move.

Only a fictional example, of course, but we should be very cautious to avoid the casual creation of new suffering. I think that we already have enough beings that need our care and concern.

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What do we do now?

When my brother started his fight with cancer, he and his wife gave everyone in the family a cancer awareness bracelet. I held on to mine for a long time, but did not wear it regularly. Looking back now, I’m not sure why I avoided it. Perhaps it had made me feel self-conscious. The idea did make me feel guilty, in a way, like I was attracting attention to myself, when it was my brother and his family who were truly suffering. For some time, the bracelets laid unused on a counter in our home.

One photo I have of the bracelet, from back in April of 2022. Our cat, Momo, tends to need attention, especially during zazen, and jumped into this photo.

That changed at some point, though I don’t remember the exact moment. We live several hours from my brother and his family’s home, and in that time, I visited them as often as I could. Spending time with him and the rest of our family, and staying with him and my sister-in-law when they had to stay overnight in a hospital in Chicago for a clinical trial. I think it was on one of these trips, after seeing him struggle and seeing all of the ways that his family needed support, that I started wearing my bracelet. Especially because we live in another state, the bracelet became very important to me. It was a way to show my support, certainly. But, it also became an important reminder for me.

Each night, I would take the bracelet off, and wrap it around my glasses. In the morning, I would place it back on my wrist. This little ritual, which ended and started each day, became a call to be mindful. And, it helped me to bring my thoughts back to him each and every day. Over time, I found that I appreciated having this bracelet with me. I was grateful for it, in a deep and sometimes painful way. On days when I knew my brother was suffering, I could feel the weight of that thin silicone band. On those days, it felt like it was made of lead.

After my brother died, we were left with our grief but also with many questions. Some were the ones you’d expect, the profound why of it all. And of course, answering those questions is the work of a lifetime. But, other, more immediate questions arose that demanded concrete answers. Would he have preferred to be buried or cremated? Would he have wanted people to dress casually for his funeral service? What music would he have chosen?

For many of these small, but important, questions, we found that we were not sure of the answers. These were the kinds of questions that he had often avoided when people would bring them up. I can’t blame him for that. None of us wanted to accept that time was short. We hoped for so long that he might find some treatment that worked well for his cancer. We hoped that there might be time to deal with these questions later, but in the end, the opportunity slipped past us. And so, now we found ourselves fumbling, trying to feel our way forward, and wishing that we knew what he would want if we could just ask him.

In the moment, I think that we all did the best that we could. In this life, we always have to balance responding to the moment that we actually find ourselves in, while we also try to look out and ahead, to guide ourselves skillfully as the next moment comes. Like making our way down a river, we will pass through challenging times, turbulent, treacherous waters. Our attention shifts to navigating this moment skillfully, dealing with what is right in front of us. As we move beyond, into calmer waters, we can shift this balance and start to look out and ahead again. In the middle of it all, we brought our attention to being with him through his illness. We bent all of our energy to navigating his illness. This let us be present with him, and allowed him to spend his last days in the care of his family.

I do wish we had talked over some of those details, and that he had confided in his wife or someone about what he wanted. I think he just didn’t want to talk about the fact that there was an end somewhere in the future. But, as we were doing this work, preparing for the service, I realized that I was in a similar position. I, too, had been avoiding planning for the future. Avoiding thoughts about what lay beyond.

At this point, I was still wearing my bracelet. It was still a comfort to me. But now the thought came to me, how long was I going to continue wearing it? Forever? When I put it, when I had started this ritual, I never really had a plan for how long I’d wear it. Perhaps I thought I would wear forever, for the rest of my life. And, that would be fine, but I don’t think that I had a clear intention to do so from the beginning. Now, I had to take stock, and decide what would make the most sense for me, and help me honor his memory.

And so, I decided that I would stop wearing the bracelet after his memorial service. When I woke up the next morning, I took it off of my glasses, and left it on my bedside table. It is still there, still a call to remember, but not one that I take out into the world every day.

Back at home, after the service, I went out for a run. I was grateful for the chance to get out and moving. The bracelet was at home, still on that table in our bedroom. I noticed though, that I could still feel it, like it was still with me. Not quite a hallucination, but the weight of the bracelet was there, it was something I could feel. It had left a mark, in a way.

A few months have passed since the memorial service, and I have kept that bracelet next to our bed. I have continued my ritual, putting the bracelet around my glasses every evening, and taking it off every morning, to help me remember him each day. I have also worn it a few times, once when one month had passed, and again when two months had passed. And another time on a random evening when I home alone in our empty house, and the weight of memory seemed heavy.

It is still heavy. But, it is also a comfort to me, and I will remain ever grateful for it.

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Ethics Science

Changing how we choose

It feels today that public debates (or rather arguments) have greatly intensified, over reproductive rights (especially abortion), racial justice, and LGBTQ+ rights (and especially for trans persons). At the heart, these conversations are grounded in morality what are we free to do, and how should we treat one another? What do we owe to one another?

As we see how polarized these struggles have become, it is easy to be discouraged, and feel that there is no way for us to agree on these basic, and important, questions. We might start to feel that there is no “right” way to do morality.

Looking out from this particular moment, we can see that so many behaviors have been moralized in one way or another. What is condemned in one time and place may be ignored, or even praised, in another. While we can identify some common principles across time and cultures (a respect for fairness, for instance), it has seemed to me that we could not establish that one particular moral system is good, or better than another.

And, as a scientist, I have also felt that morality is really outside of the reach of the scientific method. I often tell my students that in science, and psychology is no exception, our focus is on problems that we can approach empirically – questions that we can answer by making careful measurements in the world, using methods that exist today.

In classes, I often give them an example of a problem that is beyond the reach of science, such as “What is the meaning of life?” This is an important question, perhaps the most important one that any person will grapple with. And, the ways that we answer this question can shape the entire course of our lives.

But, as a psychologist, I cannot answer this question – there are no measurements I could make that would firmly establish the “true” meaning of life. I can ask other questions: how do people develop their sense of meaning in their lives? How do different systems (religious, agnostic, atheistic, etc.) impact people’s well-being, or their behaviors? How do important life events impact our beliefs about the meaning of life? The list of interesting questions that we can address is enormous.

But, I don’t think that I can answer that first question: What is the meaning of life? The question itself stands outside of psychology, and science.

And, in my conversations with my students, I have always included morality along with those other questions that are outside of science. Why do people help one another? Why do we judge, or hurt others? Certainly, these are the kinds of questions about morality that science has looked at closely. And, we have learned a great deal through their study. But, the fundamental questions: what is right, and what is wrong? – these are not questions that we can address through empirical means.

Photograph of the book Changing How We Choose by David Redish

Or, at least I thought so, until I read a new book, Changing How We Choose, by David Redish1. Dr. Redish is a neuroscientist whose work has focused in recent years on decision-making, and understanding how the brain allows us to choose the best actions for each situation. And, how those decisions can go awry (think of addiction, for instance). For anyone interested in learning more about the neuroscience of decision-making, and how decisions can go “wrong,” I would highly recommend his earlier book, The Mind within the Brain.

In his new book, Redish makes the case that across all of our various moral systems, we can see not only human universals in morality (reaching towards fairness, loyalty, avoiding harm, etc.), but that we can identify a goal towards which any moral system is striving.

The key, in Redish’s argument, is that morality is a set of tools, or a social technology, so to speak, that allows humans to cooperate with one another. In this framework, morality creates and maintains the conditions in which humans can work together and cooperate. At the very core, morality imbues cooperation with value, and supports cooperative behaviors while restraining selfish behaviors.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

In building his case for cooperation as the key concern of morality, one Redish’s key frames comes from game theory. Game theory focuses on the mathematics of situations where people are in competition with one another, and where the best choice that you can make as an individual depends on what other people do. One classic example is the prisoner’s dilemma, which considers a case where two people are suspected of a crime. I personally like this version, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Two prisoners are accused of a crime. If one confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will be released immediately and the other will spend 20 years in prison. If neither confesses, each will be held only a few months. If both confess, they will each be jailed 15 years”  


Imagine that we have two people, Emma and Miguel, who are suspected to have committed a serious crime. If both of them do not confess, they will spend three months in prison, and otherwise the penalties will be the same as those in the case above. We can then represent the possible outcomes with a table:

Based on this way of looking at the problem, we can consider what Miguel and Emma should do, if they want to avoid spending time in prison. But, while we will consider this situation amorally (without worrying about what they should do in a moral sense), I do want to acknowledge that it feels wrong to treat serious crimes as games – if Emma and Miguel are guilty of a serious crime, we would generally hold that they should confess, right?

If we do approach this situation just from the self-interest of Emma and Miguel, it is clear from the table above that the best choice for Emma and Miguel is to remain silent. In this case, they only spend a few months in prison. And, if they can work together, this might be a feasible “strategy.” But, the prisoner’s dilemma includes a wrinkle: Emma and Miguel each must make their decision alone:

“[The suspects] cannot communicate with one another. Given that neither prisoner knows whether the other has confessed, it is in the self-interest of each to confess himself. Paradoxically, when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off than they would have been had they acted otherwise”


This is an important point: if Miguel and Emma each do not know what the other chooses, and they are only in this situation one time, then the best strategy for them as individuals is different from the best strategy for them as a group.

Take Emma, for example, as she considers her options: if Miguel were to confess, then her best option is to confess as well (spending 5 less years in prison). And, if Miguel were to remain silent, her best option is still to confess (and spend no time at all in prison).

Apart from our moral concerns about responsibility for our actions (if a person really did commit a serious crime), this kind of analysis can feel unsettling – as if we are endorsing cold, selfish behavior.

The Assurance Game

A fundamental part of Redish’s argument is that for humans, most of our interactions are not competitive in ways that match the prisoner’s dilemma. Or, at least, they do not have to be competitive in this way.

In many cases, if humans can cooperate effectively, then the group of cooperating people is more successful than each person could be individually. To illustrate this, he uses the assurance game. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, the assurance game is a case where we will all be better off if we work together. But, in the assurance game, you can decide not to cooperate without suffering the kinds of risks (of loss, or punishment) that happen in the prisoner’s dilemma. Redish uses an example that was introduced by Rousseau in his work, A Discourse on Inequality, where Rousseau considers hunters working together to take down a deer:

“If it was a matter of hunting a deer, everyone well realized that he must remain faithful to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, we cannot doubt that he would have gone off in pursuit of it without scruple.”


While today, hunting deer is usually an individual activity, it was not always so. So, we can imagine two people, Maria and Liam, who have a chance to work together to hunt for deer (without all of the benefits of modern hunting equipment). In this case, we can say that they will be more likely to succeed if they work together than if they hunt for a deer separately. If they were to hunt for rabbits alone, they are more likely to be successful, but also will get less food. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, we can represent the potential outcomes as a table, like this:

I personally do not have a great deal of experience with game theory, and for a time, the important difference between the assurance game and the prisoner’s dilemma escaped me. But, Redish points out that the key is that the assurance game rewards cooperation, without also rewarding people who act only in their self-interest.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, if Emma cannot communicate with Miguel, and has no idea what he will choose, her best choice may be to confess. And, the same is true for Miguel.

In the assurance game, Maria is better off hunting rabbits if Liam decides to hunt rabbits. But, she is not better off if Liam will hunt for deer with her. In fact, she is much worse off, because the benefit from a deer is much greater than that of a rabbit.

It is an oversimplification of Redish’s argument, and of the research fields that he draws on, but a key insight is that for humans who can live and cooperate together, in many cases the benefits of cooperation (to the individuals participating in that society) are much greater than a person could earn if they lived entirely on their own (if that was even possible). And, Redish sees that morality is focused on creating the conditions where more and more of our interactions are actually assurance games (where cooperation is nurtured).

“… what humans call morality is a set of mechanisms that help us turn our interactions into an assurance game and to find our way into the cooperate-cooperate corner of that assurance game, where we can reap the benefits of its non-zero-sum nature and make things better for all of us, both as a community and as individuals. Fundamentally, humans have evolved to work together. Morality is a set of tools that make us better team players”

(Redish, p. 265)

Redish presents morality as a set of tools, a kind of technology, that helps humans create and succeed in assurance games. The tools of morality are built out of our social interactions, but they also depend on a set of systems in the brain. Redish points to emotions such as shame and guilt. Guilt is commonly felt when a person realizes that they have violated a norm or rule for their community, while shame often comes when that violation is known by the community. “Guilt is a recognition of the offense, but shame is the recognition that one is part of a team and has let the team down.” (Redish, p. 64).

We might very well worry that in some times and places, shame and guilt are overused to restrict the behavior of some people in a society. But, would a society be better (work better) if every person had no ability to feel any guilt or shame?

I would guess not. But, this does not mean that guilt and shame are necessarily appropriate. We can consider how these emotions are used with any moral system, and ask if they are aligned with the goals of supporting cooperation. If we find they are being used oppressively, to restrict one group’s behavior or opportunities, then it does become possible to judge that moral system as less effective than it could be.

What does it mean for our Zen practice?

As we think of the implications of this work, I think that any religious person should consider how these arguments impact their own religious practice. As a Zen practitioner, I feel that it is important to think carefully about how we apply these lessons of the science of morality.

One part that I appreciate in Redish’s proposal for a scientific study of morality is how well it overlaps with the ways morality is understood in Buddhism and Zen. For example, in his commentary on Dogen’s Shishobo, Shohaku Okumura writes:

“Bodhisattva practice is not the way of self-sacrifice. The goal of our practice is to find a way we and other beings can live together without causing suffering to each other. This is the middle way between pursuing only one’s own interests and sacrificing oneself.”

(Okumura, p. 12)

And, while I appreciate the overlap between Redish’s proposal for a scientific understanding of morality, I don’t think that this view will replace our religious or spiritual frameworks. Redish has an interesting chapter on religion, in which he sees morality as the core of religion, writing:

“… quite literally, religion is about morality. It defines groups through shared beliefs, shared rituals, and shared sacrifice. It defines structures within those rules so that everyone has a part to play. It embodies rules that limit intragroup conflict.”

(Redish, p. 238)

I certainly won’t argue that religions (even Buddhism) are not concerned with morality. And, they do includes these elements that he describes. But, fundamentally, from the perspective of our lived experience, religion is not about morality. Or, at least is should not fundamentally be about morality. It should be about the “why” of it. Why do we exist, and what is the meaning of it all?

Religions, and other systems of belief, answer that question in different ways. Specific moral systems can follow from those answers. But, morality is not at the core of religion. A science of morality may be very useful as we consider the strengths and weaknesses of our moral systems. It may give us easier ways to have conversations across traditions and cultures with very different moral systems. But, it will not, or should not, supplant those traditions.

For comparison, consider the science of nutrition, in which I can see many parallels to the argument that Redish advances. Nutrition, as a science, focuses on the ways that our diet supports our bodies. Not every diet (in the sense of what we eat, rather than in the sense of restricting what we eat) is equally beneficial for our health.

And, we can see the traditional cuisines of a culture as a set of tools that support the nutrition of its people. Just as with morality, there is likely no single “correct” way to eat – there is no such thing as the one and only perfect nutrition. But, we can judge different patterns of eating against the effects of those diets on health. And, there are certainly failures when it comes to nutrition.

For example, once when I was a teenager, I spent about a week at a camp that was held on a military base in Ohio. Meals were available in the mess hall, but generally required getting up early, and this was a serious obstacle to me at that time. So, I had come prepared for the week with a large stash of Pop Tarts. And, for at least two full days, I do not think I consumed anything except Pop Tarts, water, and probably many soft drinks. I’m not sure how well I could tolerate that diet today, but even then, I do remember feeling very ill one night. It was quite some time before I ate another Pop Tart.

Like morality, there may not be a single, perfect cuisine to support nutrition. And, there certainly ones that we can identify as bad, like much of the highly processed foods that flood our stores and fight for our attention today.

But also, eating is not about nutrition. Not from our own position, the one that we actually live. To eat for nutrition is to let your cuisine die. Eating is moment of deep connection, a humbling acknowledgement of our interconnection to the entire world. Meals are also very social, a time when we come together in community. To reduce cuisine to nutrition – at the level of our own motivation – is a terrible mistake. The same is true, I think, for morality. The science of morality may give us new insights into the core, or most fundamental parts, of our ethical systems. It may help us also recognize what parts are superfluous, what we can discard. Maybe.

“We all do better when we all do better.”

Paul Wellstone

Redish opens his book with this quote by the late Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, who died tragically in a plane crash when I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Senator Wellstone was a wonderful example of the kind of person that we would all be better for emulating. Buddhism and Redish’s science of morality would agree on that point, and I hope that the conversations that this new book stimulates will help us all work together to reach for this goal. We will all be better if we do.

1Full disclosure! Dr. David Redish was my graduate adviser for my Ph.D., and a colleague and friend today.

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Works cited

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, December 23). Prisoner’s dilemmaEncyclopedia Britannica.

Okumura, S. (2005, September). “The 28th Chapter of Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta-Shishobo The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions – Lecture 5” Dharma Eye, 16. 

Redish, A. D. (2022). Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. Rousseau J.-J. & Cranston M. (1984). A Discourse on Inequality. Penguin Books.

Science Zen

Talking science with Simplicity Zen

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about science and Zen with Berry Crawford, for his Simplicity Zen podcast. I have enjoyed Berry’s conversations with Zen practitioners, and I was delighted to talk about my own experience with Zen, and about our shared interest in science. The full interview is below, and you can also find Simplicity Zen wherever you get your podcasts:

Simplicity Zen – YouTube

I hope that you enjoy the interview, and after reflecting on our conversation, I would just add a couple of points. As I’ve worked on this blog to express my own understanding of science and Zen, I feel that there are a couple of points that have been important for my own practice.

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The first is that for me, personally, it is important that the various ways that I understand (and make sense of) the world are not in conflict. As an overly simplistic example, I would personally struggle to hold on one hand a system of beliefs that claimed the Earth was flat, or that our planet was only a few thousand years old, and then on the other hand to also accept findings from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology. The incongruence, the fundamental incompatibility, between these systems is too much for me.

So, some of my own reflections about science and Zen are about how I have probed and poked at my own understanding. I’ve been working to take a careful look at their basic compatibility, and for how I would express teachings from Zen using my own knowledge of science, and especially in the areas of neuroscience and psychology. This has been a useful exercise for me, and helped me deepen my own practice.

The second point, which I also think is very important, is that I see science as only one way (out of a great many) that we can make sense of the reality we find ourselves in. Like other belief systems, science helps explain the world, and to help us to act effectively in that world. Beyond science, there certainly are other systems for explaining the world and how it works, and people can live well, and humanely, with very little appreciation for science as a discipline. And, at least when it comes to questions of ethics and morality, I am not very concerned about whether or not people believe in science. I care about how people live.

And, if people can believe that the world is flat, or that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and they also live their lives in a way that is kind? If so, then the specifics of their beliefs don’t matter to me. At least not in this area. In other areas, it may matter quite a bit. For instance, if you want to become a pilot, or a geologist, or work in any number of careers, then science and the knowledge it has generated will be critical to your success.

My own personal commitment to science comes from the power of the approach: when we live up to our ideals, as scientists, we can see very far into the workings of the world, and can use that information to improve the lives of all beings.

However, in the deepest sense, every system we use (science included) to understand reality will always be limited, as I reflected on in an earlier post. We create a set of concepts, or labels, that we use to pin reality down and make sense of it. I see myself as one thing, and you as another. I see my home, and all of the structures that make it up. I see how problems can arise in my body, or in the function of my home, and I look for potential solutions. Those systems are very useful to us – it is hard to imagine how we could function in the world without them. In the end though, what we treat as fixed things – me, you, a house – are dynamic, ever-changing. Our bodies are constantly in flux, and we are truly more patterns than things.

In our practice, can drop these systems? Can we let them soften, dissolve, even for a moment? That is the challenge for me: to see how not only how I understand Zen teachings within the framework of science, but also how to set down that framework, to put it aside.

Meditation Practice Zen

Do we really want to meditate?

Image credit: “Forest Trail” – GlacierNPS, flickr

The winter issue of Midwest Zen was published this week, and I have a short piece (“Do we really want to sit?“), about my own struggles with patience. I see this in many parts of my life, but in this essay I focused on two places: sitting meditation and running.

At times, I’ll find that that an activity like running is something that I experience negatively, as something uncomfortable. In those moments, I’ll either stop (and turn to another activity), or push through – forcing myself to continue. As part of my practice, I’ve tried to slow down, and to question the source of my impatience:

“I’ve asked myself, why do I have to force myself to run? And underneath that question I see an assumption that I have made, without even noticing it: that running is not enjoyable. At some level, I find running to be aversive, or a kind of chore. And so, I have to push myself to continue. Some days, perhaps this attitude is justified: I really am tired, and running is a struggle. But more often, this feeling arises for no specific reason. It is more of a habit, of approaching the experience of running from a negative frame of thinking, or a fearful, defensive mindset.”

Do we really want to sit? – Midwest Zen

And, of course, I’ve found that when I look closely at any uncomfortable sensations during meditation, I find a similar pattern. And I’ve asked myself: do I really want to meditate?

What I find is that much of my discomfort is driven by how I approach meditating, or running, or so many things in life. By changing my mindset, my entire experience can shift. It has been an important lesson for me, one that I’m grateful for. And, I hope these reflections might be of interest to others who face similar struggles.

The full issue of Midwest Zen (Issue 3) is available online, asa PDF. Enjoy!

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Contemplating quiet quitting

I have been seeing more and more headlines recently about people “quiet quitting” at their work. Much of this discussion is driven by – or refers back to – social media videos (such as a popular one by Zaiad Khan). Simply from the phrase – quiet quitting – my first impression was people were talking about making a move to disengage from their job, without actually quitting.

@zaidleppelin On quiet quitting #workreform ♬ original sound – ruby

Over the past year, during what has been called the “Great Resignation,” we have seen millions of people leaving their jobs during the pandemic. In some cases, people decided to retire, or found new opportunities during the volatility of the pandemic. Or, they wanted to keep working, but were unwilling to return back to the pre-COVID routines (preferring to continue working remotely, for instance).

Not everyone who has felt overwhelmed or unhappy has quit or changed jobs. In my own profession (higher education), I have seen more conversation about concerns that people are less fully engaged in the work of our colleges and universities. In January, The Chronicle of Higher Education did a story about The Great Faculty Disengagement that captured some of the concerns. While there has been some turnover for faculty, as people are able to pursue new opportunities, there are others who remain at their institutions, but are approaching their work in a more detached way:

… most faculty members aren’t making big job moves. For them, the Great Resignation looks different. We would describe it as disengagement. They are withdrawing from certain aspects of the job or, on a more emotional level, from the institution itself. Faculty members are not walking away in droves, but they are waving goodbye to norms and systems that prevailed in the past. They are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it.

Kevin R. McClure and Alisa Hicklin Fryar, The Great Faculty Disengagement

So, with this in mind, I felt that I already recognized quiet quitting as another example of this kind of disengagement: keeping one’s job while putting in the bare minimum required. And, this does seem to fit some examples of quiet quitting. For instance, in a BBC news article, Emma O’Brien described her own experience of quiet quitting when was turned down for a raise (even after taking on significant new responsibilities): “That was why I literally ended up doing what I was supposed to do to get the job done and nothing more. I felt empowered and motivated because I had mentally checked out of that job a few weeks before.”

However, as the discussion around quiet quitting has spread, a number of voices have argued that the term is not primarily about disengagement, but about finding balance in one’s life:

Despite what the misleading name may suggest, quiet quitting, as many have pointed out, has nothing to do with quitting, doing the bare minimum or slacking off at work. It is more a way to set boundaries at work and not do extra work outside one’s scope without fair compensation. Shutting down one’s laptop at 5 p.m. or saying “no” to doing someone else’s job may be how one chooses to quit quietly, but these examples are by no means prescriptive.

Kuan-lin F. Liu, What happened when I sprinkled a bit of ‘quiet quitting’ in my workday

This feels like a more positive approach, to me, by framing quiet quitting as a kind of mindfulness to our work/life balance. Many people who are building this positive frame for quiet quitting position it in opposition to “hustle culture” or grind culture – much of which has glorified taking on as much work as possible. Zaiad Khan points to this kind of quiet quitting in his video: “You are still performing your duties, but you are no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentally that work has to be our life.

In the struggle over how to define quiet quitting (and perhaps the rush to pass judgment on it?), I see several threads. One seems to be about how we respond to burnout and fatigue (which have been elevated for many in recent years), especially if we are not prepared or able to leave our current job. This feels like the main reason we might feel attracted to the “quitting” part of the phrase.

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Other people seem to looking more closely at the roots of our feelings of burnout and exhaustion. And what they see is a culture that has glorified work (hustle, grind culture). Or, where one is asked to do more and more, without any real discussion or appropriate compensation. Both cases can feel like an empty, futile use of our time. This part of quiet quitting, taking a moment to be mindful and aware of how our habits and attitudes around work can be harmful is very important. It can help us identify what we want to change: in how we approach our work, and in how our workplace functions.  

But, while this second sense of quiet quitting – the one focused on work/life balance and setting appropriate boundaries – has a strong appeal, I am concerned that the conversation is always going to be limited by the term, “quitting.” Today, here and now, to quit is to give up some pursuit, or some effort. The associations we have with a word, like quitting, have a weight, a gravity. Because of that, our efforts to frame quiet quitting in terms of boundaries or health hve merit, but they struggle against our deep, automatic associations with the term “quitting.” Those associations, the meanings of the word, can certainly shift over time. But, it is a slow process.

So, I cannot really find much personal enthusiasm for quiet quitting (as something I would recommend to people who are unhappy with their jobs, but unable to leave). However, I am quite fond of the quiet part of the phrase.

Instead of quitting, I might suggest that we find how to take a moment of quiet for a contemplative pause. This was a phrase that I had heard recently at a workshop by Dr. Karolyn Kinane, who was speaking to our faculty in the context of teaching. While faculty often focus on what (the stuff) we plan to do in a course, Dr. Kinane noted that we may habitually ignore how we want be in the classroom (the dispositions that we believe are critical to seeking and using knowledge). From a related blog post she asks, “What might happen if you shifted your attention from what you should do to how you want to be?” Dr. Kinane proposed that a contemplative pause could be a way to help us look carefully at that point, of how we wanted to be, in any part of our lives:

One way to think about contemplation is as a pause or gap between a stimulus and a response. For example, when I get stressed, I tend to work on autopilot: I react swiftly to stimuli (such as emails, texts, or a biting comment from a relative) and unleash some reactions I am not proud of…

A contemplative pause—a moment to breathe, a quick walk around the block—helps me more objectively notice what is happening externally (this person is making a request) and internally (I’m feeling resentful) and consider how or whether I want to respond.

Karoyln Kinane, Contemplative Pause: Tool for Engagement

I found the idea very refreshing, and timely. And, it is one that certainly can be valuable in any part of our life (not just teaching!). And, if we feel drawn to quiet quitting, then this probably is the perfect time for a contemplative pause. This pause can take many forms, but involves some intentional reflection, that opens up some space for us to choose new ways of responding. At work, a contemplative pause could help us be more aware of what parts of our job are associated with any stress, or frustration. It could help us identify when we may be overwhelmed in other parts of our life, and may need to pull back from some duties. It can also help us notice when other people around us are struggling, and help us find ways to ease their burdens as well.

How do we want to show up and be in our work? Personally, I hope that those who are employed find work to be something of value in their lives. A place where we find community, and make some contribution to the lives of the people around us. I hope we are engaged in our work, just as I hope my students and I are engaged in our classes. I hope we are in this together – after all, our communities – in our work and every part of our life – are only as humane as the people who make them up. We need everyone to show up as they can and are able.