Is There A Similarity Between Systems Thinking And Buddhist Thinking?


Saturday, 8.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them? – Buddha

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing down the bones for the umpteenth time and stopped at the bit where she talks about her Zen Buddhist practice.

Ego is that thing in people, she writes, that tries to see the world as permanent, solid, enduring and logical. But it’s not, instead it is impermanent, ever changing and “full of human suffering.”

Full of human suffering? Yes, but there are some good bits too, aren’t there?

I haven’t looked this up but the word I remember being used that’s translated to mean suffering is dukh, or dukha – something that I understand as sorrow. Perhaps actually closer to regret. Are there many people out there filled with regret? It seems pedantic but when you think about regret rather than suffering the ideas appear much closer to other ways of thinking out there.

Real suffering is often out of one’s hands – and we shouldn’t even try and minimise that. Regret, on the other hand, is part of everyday life. Studies show that we hate regret, so much so that we will give up a chance of winning something big if there is also a possibility of losing out.

For example, if you played a game where you and another person could get a some of money – say $10. The rule is that the other person gets given the money and then they have to give you some. But they can only keep the money if you both agree on the division. If you walk away you both lose the money. How much are you willing to take?

Now, logically, you should be willing to take anything over zero dollars. But the chances are you won’t – one will seem insulting, you might want two or three, perhaps even five. The reason you don’t take the one and walk away is driven not by logic but by emotion – the fear of losing out, the regret that comes from being taken advantage of.

Time after time you will find that decision making is less about a prize and more about minimising risk – which is another way of saying don’t do anything you’ll regret later. Yes there are some people that take big bets – usually with other people’s money – but the vast majority of us would prefer a secure outcome to one that has a chance of going wrong.

This is where the permanent, solid, enduring and logical branch of thinking only works with simple things, like stones and elements and machines. That’s the positivist school that deals with physical things, things that are non-living, things that are predictable.

Life, by definition, is not permanent. It ends, is ever changing and what you want to do is get through another night without feeling like you did something wrong. The idea of structuring your situation so that it minimises the chances of things going wrong – minimises the potential for regret – while allowing for the possibility of growth and development is much closer to the holistic approach that is aimed for in Systems Thinking. That’s how the real world operates, in the relationship between parts creating a whole rather than in the parts themselves.

Goldberg reminds us of this earlier in her book. It’s about the practice – whether it’s sitting meditation or writing or business or anything else you do – the challenge you will have is dealing with the real world out there and the people you meet. And it will all come down to the actions you take and how they make you feel.


Karthik Suresh

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