Buddha, the first behaviorist


Esther and I have been reading about the Kazdin approach to positive parenting.  (We have two really great kids.  We’re mainly hoping to train their parents.)  Kazdin, a Yale psychology professor, focuses on promoting desired behaviors – like picking up your messes and not whacking your siblings when they’re annoying you – with positive reinforcement, especially praise.


He’s a hardcore social scientist who has conducted hundreds of rigorous experiments over several decades.  The research demonstrates that his approach is better than punishment at producing good behavior, though Kazdin grants very gentle and brief forms of punishment – a mildly disapproving look, for example, or a well administered time out – a minor role in a program that’s otherwise all about encouraging and rewarding the “positive opposite” of undesired behavior.


Interestingly, some parents object to this approach out of concern that it somehow changes the “essence” of their child, even if they’re not thrilled about the way this “essence” is manifesting itself at the moment.  Other parents are skeptical for the opposite reason:  If you’re not getting to the “essence” of who my child is and what’s wrong with her, and if you’re not altering her essence, how could the behavior possibly change?  My child has become a bad kid.  You need to swap out some parts.


Kazdin observes that 100+ years of psychological theorizing and research (and, one might add, millennia of philosophizing about human nature prior to that) have yet to locate this elusive human “essence.”  There’s no empirically validated, consensus picture of a “thing” that corresponds to what we so casually, and confidently, refer to as the self.


Here I am, sure enough, but this self I refer to, on close inspection, is a stream of embodied functions, feelings, thoughts and actions.  There are reasonably distinctive elements and narratives that tend to persist (more or less) across time and contexts, but that proverbial god-in-the-machine I’m so sure is the “real, forever me” seems nowhere to be found.


Kazdin sidesteps this bottomless pit – this vast void – and focuses instead on shaping behavior; on how we present ourselves, whatever these selves may or may not be.  By doing so, he gets results that parents and children find deeply satisfying and which positively change their perspectives on themselves and one another.


Zen is both very different and not so very different.


Most people come to Zen practice mid-stream in a personal program of research into and theorizing about – a/k/a searching for – the self.  Zen meets us wherever we are in that process, at once taking it very seriously and making light of it.  Unlike Kazdin’s approach, Zen coaxes, cajoles and comforts as we explore the vast void.


Ultimately, we find ourselves in it, of it, and as it.  Distinct within, but not separate from, this vast universe we inhabit.


Our questions don’t get answered intellectually, but they do get answered experientially.  Intellectually, they simply lose their urgency, their attractive force.


That way of knowing and being is so meaningful.  And, it also brings us right back to Kazdin territory.


From this frame of mind, what matters is the here-and-now.  What’s here and now is conditioned by the past, of course, and our actions here-and-now partially condition our common future.  How we show up here-and-now matters.  It matters presently, and it matters to a future we hope to experience, and which we know others will experience.


From this perspective, our essence is nothing more or less than what we do, how we present, here-and-now.  We co-create this here-and-now.  So, as the Germans say, “mach es gut.”  This translates literally to “make it good.”  Figuratively, it’s more like “take care,” which is the same idea.


Some people who are new to Zen initially bristle at the odd rituals and chants that are part of the traditional liturgy, yet they’re a key feature of the “taking seriously and making light of ourselves,” of participating in/co-creating the here-and-now and making it good, and of transmitting the wisdom of all this temporally.  Same with the precepts.  Path and destination: one and the same.  We express and realize – we actualize – ourselves in/through/as these forms and practices, and as all we do.


Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as doings than as beings.


I shared the condensed version of this thought-stream with Josh recently.  He smiled, nodded, and said, “Buddha was the first behaviorist.”