Choosing What Counts

Some people I respect have recently [and not so recently] noted the huge problems with the Law of Attraction’s reductionist “thinking causes getting” ideal. Essentially, the Law of Attraction confuses correlation for causation. There are plenty of quite reasonable ways in which thinking good thoughts correlates with having good things, not the least of which is that having good things certainly improves your odds of being able to think good thoughts.

Thinking good thoughts as a precursor to practical efforts can be a helpful step in the process of getting good things, for that matter, but putting it that way obscures the hard truth that it may require sacrifices, it may even require more power and resources than you have. That can be helpful if your primary problem is psychological overwhelm, which is true for enough people that the Law of Attraction stays a very popular meme. I admit, reminding myself to focus internally on what I’m actually trying to accomplish is often useful  for helping me get stuff done.

What’s ridiculous is treating thinking good thoughts as sufficient in itself in a world where even concerted effort isn’t guaranteed to be sufficient. For one thing, it treats every individual as a completely independent entity, as if we don’t all interact with each other and affect each other, much less the rest of our environments. Even if you want to ignore the down side of those effects, that people not only get in each other’s way, but build entire systems to do so, it ignores the requisite positive: Where are all those nice things supposed to come from?

No, there are more pragmatic approaches to this question. We need something that accounts for the difference between individual efforts and systemic effects.

My Mom, an engineer and thus a troubleshooter, used to tell me, “You get what you count.” This isn’t quite the same thing as what you focus on, but it’s related. Her point was that whatever we use to measure success is what all our efforts will adjust to maximize, no matter what that has a side effect of neglecting or adversely causing. On the one hand, if we have too many measures, especially conflicting measures, we may never get anything done. On the other hand, if we have only one measure, there’s no way it can possibly cover all our real needs, and we end up hurting ourselves and each other.

It’s particularly problematic when we focus on what we don’t want. The absence of a thing is not directly measurable. If you can’t measure directly, you need to measure indirectly by measuring the effects of its absence. If you choose your gauge on these terms, you will often end up with methods that cause more problems than they solve. Behaviorists point out that punishment is all too often negative reinforcement instead, and that the solution is positive reinforcement. In other words, if we focus on the behavior we want more of, and reward it, we’ll get more of it.

I’ve often heard magic practitioners say we need to focus on the positive because “the mind doesn’t recognize ‘No’.”

No.

Granted, there are full grown adults who prefer to ignore when they’re told “No”, but pretty well everyone over the age of two understands the concept of “No” even if they don’t understand why. The problem with focusing on the negative can be put several different ways, depending on the context:

  • To focus on “Not Blue” is to apply your focus to everything except blue. That’s diffusing – the object of focus is both infinite and lacking center. That’s the opposite of focus. Magically speaking, this is ineffective because you’re not actually focusing your Will at all. Practically speaking, this is ineffective because you are trying to do too much at once. If nothing else, you need to be better organized if you want to get anything done.
  • You can’t push on empty space, you can only push on the material around the empty space, to make it bigger or smaller. If you apply your focus to the empty space, you’re applying your focus to nothing, and the thing that’s actually within your power to move, to change, remains unmoved. Magically speaking, this is ineffective because you are applying your Will to nothing, and thus wasting your effort. Practically speaking this is ineffective because it fails to recognize what is and is not within your control.
  • If you are focusing on the presence of something you don’t want directly then you are by definition not focusing on whatever is necessary to prevent the negative from growing or recurring, much less on what will make it go away. At best you’re not changing anything. At worst, you’re reinforcing exactly what you don’t want. Magically and practically speaking, this is counterproductive effort. You’re applying Will and effort. You may be making things happen, but the things you’re making happen don’t contribute to your goals.

Now, sometimes fixing this is as simple as defining your positive focus as “Make X go AWAY”. As upset as the statement may sound, that IS a positive statement in terms of logic, in that it doesn’t contain a negating operator. However, bad things going away is not the same as good things being present, so “Make X go AWAY” is rarely sufficient for accomplishing a larger goal. Even in medicine, where it’s a pretty useful to think in terms of making a disease go away, it’s still not sufficient for making a person actually healthy.

That’s the problem with polarized, so-called “black and white” thinking. If we trap ourselves in the false dilemma of “choose A or Not-A” we deprive ourselves of viable options for acquiring B, C, Q, or Z.

Regardless, there’s no guarantee an individual will get more of what they’re measuring. The choice of what to focus on or measure has no bearing on access to resources, power, or authority. To really see what this choice of metric causes, for better or worse, look to the systemic level.

My Mom’s examples were usually about how the choice of metric affects large-scale efforts:

  • In wars where success is measured by how much territory is gained, soldiers are rewarded for being good at [re]claiming territory. In wars where success is measured by how many opponents are dead, soldiers are rewarded for being good at killing people. She observed that the Vietnam war was run the latter way, and that this was a significant problem (though certainly not the only problem).
  • Similarly, the “War on Drugs” rewards officers and agencies not for the number of drug-free children able to safely traverse their neighborhoods, but by the amount of drugs and other implicated properties seized, the number of people convicted of drug-related crimes, and sure enough, our prisons are full of people whose worst crime was smoking pot in the wrong place, and the black market is alive and dangerously thriving, because the officers and agencies need them to continue supplying their metric, in order to “succeed”.
  • Less violently, but no less dangerously, we’re seeing similar complaints today that, by measuring students and schools by test scores rather than their comprehensive understanding or subsequent life stability, societal contributions, and contentment, we have maximized our teaching methods to mold students into standardized test takers instead of functional adults.

It’s obvious THAT these things are broken, but for some reason it’s not always obvious to people WHY they’re broken, or at least, it’s not obvious how to fix them given the need for the solution to work on an impersonal, systemic level. Local programs to patch the problem in any given area can work beautifully within their scope. It’s always easier to do good for people you can personally meet than for abstract strangers clumped in numbers on a page. But the scale of solutions don’t match the scale of problems, and they never will as long as the larger systems are built around measuring the wrong things.

–Ember–

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About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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7 Responses to Choosing What Counts

  1. i enjoy your blog very much. thanks for sharing and writing your thoughts so well

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  2. Lon Sarver says:

    The War on Drugs and standardized testing in schools share the same flaw in what they count: They favor easily concertized, short-term metrics over broader, long-term effects. This is because goals are set with next quarter’s budget more firmly in mind than anything else.

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  3. tanisharose says:

    I was recently reading ‘True Refuge’ by Tara Brach wherein she writes “Whatever you think or do regularly becomes a habit…the more you think about what can go wrong, the more your mind is primed to anticipate trouble. The more you lash out in anger, the more your body and mind are geared towards aggresion…”
    How do you think meditation and ‘mind training’ fit into these paradigms?
    Tanisha

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    • EmberVoices says:

      I think they are leaning on the same truths from different angles, if that makes sense.

      Meditation in the Buddhist sense isn’t about focusing on the positive, or choosing the right way to measure things. That would be a judgement, and much of what I understand at least Zen Buddhism to be focused on is stripping away all those kinds of valuations in favor of perceiving as directly as possible, without interpretation, what is actually around you at any given time. What I’ve always found slightly confusing is how you’re then supposed to decide what the appropriate response should be, if you’re not supposed to assign value to anything… But of course, Buddhism absolutely does have values, and thus encourages evaluation. What it really aims for is to avoid personal habits and prejudices from getting in the way of adhering to the larger ideals.

      To that end, I think many forms of meditation are very useful for helping us step out of the kind of thought habits that get in our way, and yeah, that can combine with the awareness that what we measure by individually, and especially as groups, affects how we do things, allowing us to choose the best metric and from there the most useful focus. Not just once, but over and over again, whenever such questions arise. Because repetition is what makes the habit.

      You’ll notice, I have the sometimes awkward habit of analysis. It’s very useful to me. It also annoys the hell out of people on a regular basis. Meditation has helped me have other options for how to approach the kind of interactions that would otherwise prompt analysis. It gives me the option of just looking and thinking “This Is.”

      -E-

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