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On stopped clocks (Stopped Clocks series #1)

Is that clock right?

(Note: I wrote this before the events at the US Capitol on January 06. After some time to gain more clarity on what happened there, I will probably consider those events in a similar vein to the essay below.)

They say that stopped clocks are right twice a day, but we need to ask three questions about this saying:

1. how is a stopped clocks right (if it is)?

2. what keeps the stopped clock from being “more” right?

3. what should we, who are (presumably) more right, do differently given that this stopped clock is sometimes right?

Several years ago I went to a meditation group meeting at a local library. I was a bit at loose ends socially and thought that meeting some new people or trying something new might be good for me. I was expecting the standard breath meditation, maybe a bit of “Om” recitation, a bell, maybe some candles. What ended up happening, however, was something much more interesting.

I don’t remember the name of this group and can’t seem to find them online. Long story short, they played their hand pretty quickly, and that hand was aliens. The woman leading the session was very nice and didn’t seem “woo-ey” at all, but as we settled in to the session, she described how the world is in spiritual peril but our friends from outer space are here to help. The goal of the evening’s meditation was to visualize a hole in the top of the head to receive the transmissions of extraterrestrial healing, and then to visualize that healing as a beam of light emanating out into the world through the forehead. The leader of the session reminded us gently that when we lost concentration on this healing energy, we were to silently think “Om” and return to the transmission.

We did this for about 45 minutes. I went along with it and found it relaxing, if not world-altering (for me, anyway). After the session, the leader mentioned that the group meets at a house twice a week to meditate together and invited all those at the meeting to join. That the group met regularly wasn’t strange, but she followed up her invitation with something very interesting. Another of the participants, who had been all in on the alien stuff from the start, asked if people attending these meetings should bring snacks or anything to share. The leader responded that no, these meetings were strictly business – obviously long-time members knew each other and sometimes socialized outside of the sessions, but the sessions themselves were totally purpose-driven. The point was to heal the world, and that’s what the sessions were for, period. She mentioned that a guy had been coming to the sessions religiously, never missing a meeting and seeming to take it very seriously, and none of the other participants even knew his name. He was just there to do the work. He would show up, say hello, sit down and get to meditating, then say goodbye and leave. Performing this meditation in a group, according to the leader, made it more effective. If I remember correctly, it had to do with the signal coming through more strongly when meditating as a group.

So what’s the point? While this experience was one of the stranger ones I can remember happening to me in a library, it is an excellent example of a situation that calls for interrogating a stopped clock. Let’s go through each question individually.

1: How is the stopped clock right (if it is)?

This example presents some challenges because it relies upon belief not only in the existence of extraterrestrials, but also in their benevolence and superior wisdom. Modern UFO stuff has a lot in common with the theosophy of the 19th century, including the concept that there are beings superior to humans in wisdom and/or understanding of the world who want to impart spiritual wisdom to those with ears to hear. This is not the part that is sort of right. What is sort of right, instead, is that the world is facing tremendous conflict and that this conflict both calls for and potentially responds to active effort on the part of people working as a group. For the stopped clock, there is a problem: spiritual poverty leading to violence, destruction, etc. This problem has a potential solution: the superior spiritual wisdom of the aliens. This solution can be applied: group meditation channeling the “good vibes” in a workmanlike way, which will help enlighten the world, leading to an end to strife.

Of particular interest here is the last element: the “workmanlike” effort at effecting this change. While the leader of the session was clear that at least some of the people in the group did know each other and socialized, she was equally clear that this was not expected of anyone participating. Like the nameless regular, there was no requirement that anyone make this practice a part of their social life or commit more time than that required for the group sessions. It was work, not a “hobby.” One could show up, do the work, and leave. I will return to this point, which I believe to be crucial, in a moment. For now, let’s turn to the next question.

2: What keeps this stopped clock from being “more” right?

This one appears, on the surface, to be easy. The problem is, again, obviously The Aliens. I am personally agnostic on the existence of extraterrestrials, although I assign it a fairly high probability. That being said, without proof positive of their existence (and benevolence, superior wisdom, etc.) this is an obvious candidate for this particular example’s impediment to being “more right.” The real impediment, however, is not just the aliens, but rather the practice itself. I don’t doubt that systematically trying to exude “good vibes” has a positive effect. So does being considerate, polite, charitable, etc. But, and this is important, these positive things don’t necessarily have material effects on a large, persistent scale. Channeling spiritual wisdom may make others feel good, but it won’t, by itself, feed them, or clothe them, or take care of them when they’re sick. “Thoughts and prayers” only go so far.

The clock stoppage here is that this practice doesn’t do anything in material terms. More specifically, it doesn’t operate on terms that are agnostic on or even opposed to belief in the aliens and their wisdom. A no-strings gift of food or medicine works regardless of who makes it, or under which auspices. The recipient doesn’t have to share the donor’s beliefs for the donor’s work to have a positive effect. My channeling good alien vibes, on the other hand, can only have a positive effect if other people know I’m doing it (barring for the moment the possibility of some kind of “spooky” effects we can’t identify, test empirically, or scale up systematically). I have a hypothesis about the popularity of this kind of “good vibes” practice as opposed to more materially effective practices that I will tackle more fully in another essay. For now, let’s turn to the last question.

3: What should we, who are (presumably) more right, do differently given the way that the stopped clock is right?

Now that we’ve established that the stopped clock is right twice a day and we know how it is right twice a day, we need to think about how this might affect our own efforts toward our own, more right, goals.

As we saw in question one, this meditation group takes a systematic approach: 1) something is wrong, 2) there is a way to alleviate or fix what is wrong, and 3) that way is practice X, performed in a disciplined, group setting that is not necessarily a significant part of the participants’ private lives. The only thing missing from this formulation is a step between 1 and 2 detailing why the problem exists. This lacuna represents an important absence for two reasons: first, filling it is difficult and requires rigorous, dispassionate analysis, analysis which will have to be ongoing as situations change. Thinking clearly and systematically requires distance and time along with effort. It also requires tolerance for error, failure and the wholesale abandonment of reasoning and practices that can be shown through experience and reason to be ineffective. Channeling good alien vibes, because it can’t be measured, can’t be shown to fail or succeed. And the absence of proof positive of alien involvement means that practitioners of this meditation must take it on faith that these wise extraterrestrials can help by mysterious means. They take a passive approach, literally acting as “channels” for extraterrestrial vibes, rather than collectively deciding on an approach. Identifying this passivity leads to the second reason for the lacuna’s importance: the lacuna can give the game away. I’m still working on this idea, but my preliminary thought is that this kind of lacuna is probably one of the keys to distinguishing between clocks that are only right twice a day and those that are more reliable.

Conclusion: Starting the Clock Again

So what does this mean for those who are “more right?” What would a materially effective version of this “woo-ey” practice look like? All we have to do (but this is not so easy, as it turns out) is take the structure of this meditation/channeling practice, bring it “down to earth,” and slip in the missing second step. At the abstract level, this might look something like the following:

1. A problem X exists.

2. This problem is caused by Y (with the proviso that the causes can and will change)

3. There is a way to alleviate X (again, with the proviso that methods may need to change as well)

4. The alleviation of problem X can be effected by practice Z

For those keeping score at home, this will be immediately apparent as the structure of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist thought. Much of what is sometimes called “Western Buddhism” (though it is not limited geographically to the “West”) actually betrays itself by sneakily “stopping the clock.” That is, it abstracts the problem it claims to be in a position to solve from empirically verifiable reality, and then removes the second step in the systematic approach, closing the loop and leaving the otherwise effective method eating its own tail.

As an example of a “more right” version of this practice, maybe something like this:

  • A group that meets regularly, not individuals
    • Individual action is clearly important, but the group itself should act as a group. This takes on a particular salience now in what I like to think of as the digital “culture of exhibitionism.” For now, it might be best to just say that many hands make light work and institutions can outlast their founders.
  • This group is purpose-driven, that is, it tries to avoid turning the work into a “hobby”
    • If there is a social element to the practice, it takes a back seat and is not a requirement for membership, which is defined by the work itself.
    • The group’s work will feel like work. Sometimes it will feel like pleasant, purposeful work, the kind of work that leaves one feeling tired but happy. Other times it will feel like a burden, but like a burden worth bearing. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, the language of the anarchist planet Annarres has a word that means both “work” and “play” at the same time. There is another word, kleggich, that translates to “toil,” something that is universally (and correctly) avoided. A significant problem here is that most of the pleasant work we now do is directed toward “hobbies.” The kind of work imagined in this “more right” practice reads to us, under current circumstances, as kleggich, toil. This will need to change.
    • Another significant problem here, one that I will address in another essay along with the group question, is that of social media. All I will say here is that it is effectively a Faustian bargain: yes, these networks help spread the word, but they also create incentives that detract from the actual work itself. My inclination, for reasons I will elaborate in the same further essay, is to avoid them.
  • This group knows why it is doing what it is doing, that is, it maintains a collectively articulated theoretical framework that answers the question of why the problem exists in grounded terms
    • It’s important to note that a working abstract theory is necessary to get the stopped clock moving again. Without active theorizing, however abstract it may be, the material work will tend to “dissolve” into vague platitudes and other bullshit. The map is not the territory, but an accurate map is still necessary when exploring. Continually ensuring that the map is as accurate as possible is crucial.
    • Also of note: any theorization must remain aware of the fact that others, even those whom the group may be trying to help, will not or maybe even cannot buy into their theories. The important thing is the work, not that everyone join the group (again, more on this in the next essay). A good litmus test is to ask whether the results of a particular theoretical position will speak for themselves in terms of action, regardless of whether or not outside observers buy into the theory. If the results won’t speak for themselves, the theory isn’t good enough.
  • This group is actively trying to obviate itself.
    • The alien meditation in the example cannot be obviated because it cannot be demonstrated to have failed or succeeded. Its practitioners can only lose interest and move on to the next thing. This proposed group, on the other hand, would know when it had achieved its goal, and disband at that point. People could stay in touch, obviously. It’s difficult to work together with others for any significant length of time without forming connections, but these connections are ancillary to the work itself. Once it’s done, the group no longer exists. The horizon for the group’s ultimate dissolution may be infinitely distant, but it should be kept in mind.

This has been an initial stab at a spiderweb of thought I’ve been batting about for a while. I think I’m on the right track here, but still need to do some thinking. I’m envisioning a series of further essays on this theme addressing some of the impediments to putting this kind of approach into practice including:

  • the popularity of “good vibes” practices
  • the lacuna of how/why giving the game away
  • the problem of work, toil, and “hobbies”
  • the problem of social media platforms

I don’t pretend to have the last word on this, and would welcome any comments or suggestions.