Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is a hybrid. It’s self-helpy and, without being very specific about what we’re supposed to do, it embraces the curving paths by which human decisions are made. It is also a kind of business book in the knock-up-the-side-of-the-head genre—books that, like koans, are supposed to spin your preconceptions around. The value of the book is that Gladwell is interested in the sudden leaps of understanding that happen in the human mind and in what those leaps say about how to act in our culture.
The phenomenon of acting before thought, and without preconceptions, is known to most athletes, as well as to meditators, jazz musicians and artists. Blink explores how one might apply this idea in a wide and interesting variety of settings.
Here’s the gist of it, by way of one of his prime examples. The Getty Museum was offered an ancient Greek marble of a standing youth, a kouros. After extensive tests confirmed its authenticity, the Getty purchased the piece for $10 million. When art curators looked at it, however, their first glances told them it was a fake. It emerged that the documentation for the piece was faked and the piece itself was likely to have been faked. The spontaneous reaction to the piece was accurate while a thorough examination had led to the wrong conclusion. The art curators appeared to depend on a kind of thinking whose workings are below the usual levels of consciousness. It looks as if there really is a kind of thought before thought forms.
Gladwell has another great story about the Pentagon analysts being defeated in a war game by a much weaker strategist who didn’t share their assumptions. The Pentagon people turn out to be as clueless as you always feared they were. He also quotes a psychotherapist who can tell within a few minutes of watching a couple argue whether their marriage will survive.
Conversely, he also shows just how often snap judgments are disastrous, since they can be informed by deeply held prejudices. When assessing musicians auditioning in person, judges will choose women far less often than they do in blind auditions. Gladwell recounts the Amadou Diallo story as a stinging refutation of the power of snap judgments. The unarmed black man stood in a doorway at night and pulled out his wallet; four white policemen saw a gun and shot him.
Gladwell believes that quick judgments are based on what he calls thin slicing—you look only at the relevant data and the decisions you make are handled below the threshold of consciousness. The lesson of the disasters, he says, is that quick judgments need to be trained. This is not a remarkable idea, especially in the arts. T. S. Eliot, for example, spoke about educating the unconscious with a diet of great poetry so that at least the initial phase of writing happened without a lot of conscious construction. Surrealism is based on a similar idea.
Well, does this tell us anything interesting about consciousness? Here’s the case that it does. Meditation resets the mind to zero, which allows the quick impression to be free of preconceptions. There is a Tibetan story of a yogi who sees a mouse on his shrine one day and bursts into laughter and attains enlightenment. In Zen, Hsiang-yen was sweeping the garden when he knocked a pebble into a bamboo. “One tock” he said, “and I have forgotten all I knew.”
This territory is more or less where the meditator starts. Although Gladwell doesn’t really enter it, he gestures towards it. A judge listening to music needs to be as unprejudiced as possible by preset thoughts. She needs just to hear the music. That pure meeting with a piece of the world is much valued in the meditation tradition. A koan goes, “Quickly, without thinking of good and evil, before your parents were born, what is your true face?” I’ve actually used this koan as a primer for improvisational performance. Gladwell has the story of a cop who was able to act without preset judgments. Even when a gun was pulled on him, he read the situation so that he didn’t have to kill the man in question. Quickly, (there is no time at such moments) without thinking of good or evil (without constructing an apparatus about what should be going on), before your parents were born (meditation brings a sense of the primal, the innocent, the first day of the world), what is your true face?
Sometimes remarkable things become possible in a moment without preconceptions. A friend of mine was living at an American Zen temple in the mountains when some dignitaries from Japan arrived. One of them sat next to him for a formal oryoki-style meal, an elaborate procedure involving nested bowls, chopsticks and ritual hand gestures. My friend, who had never really mastered the ceremony and had settled for fumbling through, had a moment of surprise when the visiting dignitary began to imitate him, mistakes and all. He decided to enjoy the situation and began, without thinking, making spontaneous variations on the traditional form. The visitor immediately smiled and followed. My friend noticed that the visitor was mirroring him in real time; there was no lag. Since even my friend didn’t know what he was going to do before he did it, this was surprising. My friend enjoyed it without explaining it to himself, but it was remarkable enough for him to remember and tell people about. Martial artists depend on this kind of thing; it forms the core fantasy behind movies likeCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
I notice that I depend on it too. Being able to really hear a note of music entails a certain forgetting at the conscious level. I am better at hearing when I don’t expect things. Then I notice that I’m better at talking with a friend if I don’t know what will happen. Meditation might be the kind of training in thin slicing that Gladwell speaks about. Taking the idea further, I notice that most of the thoughts my mind presents to awareness are not interesting or true. I experiment with whether I need any of them at all. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts—I can still play chess. And it’s not about passive receptivity; it’s that action comes from a different place. The relationship to the dominance of conscious thought can utterly change. What might it be like if we moved into a kind of accurate surrender to circumstances that meant we no longer relied on our prejudices? The Chan and Taoist people call this way of action not doing.
I like my life better when I’m not doing, and not so interested in the ticking over of my conscious analyses. Fitting things into a conscious thought structure can seem like a parlor game, fun for a while but gradually becoming a compulsion that I would be just as glad to dispense with. And when it is dispensed with, the world is alive, the true face or the original face, as the koan puts it, emerges