April 19, 2020

If method matters more than we commonly think with respect to output, then what of input? If how you do a thing matters as much as what you do, then what about what you take in or take onboard, before you take action?

Lately I’ve been thinking about life’s inputs, outputs, and methods. In learning, there is what you read or try (input), then what you write, or say, or do (output), and how you go about the two (method). And then there are outcomes, which are maybe a second order evaluation of outputs. I once tended to focus on outcomes, even though they were, at best, tenuously tied to the actions that produced them.

This week I was trying out the idea that only the method matters. If that were the case, you could investigate anything, and it would yield insights. In a sense this is the view of vipassana meditation. Though most instructions begin with the breath, the practice can in principle take any object of experience, including emotions and thoughts. It’s the quality of attention that counts.

But no teacher would recommend that a student start by trying to observe their thinking or strong emotions. Attention, unmoored as it is in the untrained mind, would be too easily swept away, and the student would lose metacognitive awareness of phenomena.

So the input does matter, if only to the ease with which one can generate the right kind of attention. And it certainly seems to matter whether we spend a few hours reading philosophy versus scrolling through social media. But I suppose the question remains whether you couldn’t learn something, even from the worst inputs, with the right kind of concentration and analysis.

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.