Getting Unstuck

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Getting stuck is something we are all familiar with. Whether it is in the pursuit of business affairs or in life in general, we come across moments where we are not sure how to proceed; how to move forward in a positive and productive way. This often happens in areas where creativity or innovation are required.

In the book, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle maintenance, Robert M. Persig discusses two approaches to solving problems where we are looking for a solution- how we can get unstuck. One way to get unstuck is to follow the scientific method, the other is to take a Zen approach.

The scientific method however is only useful for situations where you have some previous experience. These are situations you encounter that are similar to something you have encountered before. In such situations, you apply your previous experiences to get out of your present situation. The other approach however, the Zen approach, works in situations that lie in unfamiliar territory- in uncharted waters such as in areas of creativity, originality, inventiveness, imagination and intuition.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a highly formalised method of inquiry. It is a disciplined approach to solving problems that is highly structured. It seeks to create hypotheses and then methodically test them to establish their validity.

The approach to the scientific method is to answer 6 logical questions that can be broken into 6 categories. The 6 categories are addressed in strict order before arriving at the final conclusion. This is a very disciplined and objective approach that relies on observable inferences and deductions.

Step 1: Statement of the Problem

Step 2: Hypothesis As To Cause Of The Problem

Step 3: Experiments Designed To Test Each Hypothesis

Step 4: Predict Results Of Each Experiment

Step 5: Observed Results Of Each Experiment

Step 6: Conclusions From The Result Of The Experiment

It is critical that in Step 1, only what is positively and absolutely known should be stated. No assumptions should be made here. What should be stated are observable facts that are the cause of the inquiry.

The statement of inquiry is a question that should lead the inquirer into establishing a set of hypotheses that are possible explanations to what is being observed. The hypothesis are then followed with a set of experiments.

The objective of experiments is to prove or disprove the proposed hypotheses. It is important to note however, that an experiment is never a failure simply because it fails to prove the proposed hypothesis. Bear in mind that hypotheses are simply that- proposed explanations for observable phenomenon. 

An experiment is deemed to have failed when it fails to prove a hypothesis one way or another. When it fails to establish that a hypothesis is either valid or invalid. Another important consideration for experiments is that they should be designed to test only a single hypothesis - nothing more, nothing less.

There are two pitfalls to the scientific method, if we can call them that. The first is that it leads to ever more increasingly diverse hypotheses that lead further from the truth and into chaos. In other words, as you find explanations to explain what is going on you discover increasingly more explanations. The other pitfall, which is the focus of this blog, is that in life there are never clear-cut yes-no answers. This is the “mu” dilemma.

The “Mu” Dilemma

Yes or No - this or that - one or zero, are the elementary two-term-discrimination on which the scientific method rests and all human knowledge is built up. We are so accustomed to this logic that we fail to see that there is a third possible logical term equal to yes and no which is capable of expanding our understanding in an unrecognized direction.

The Japanese have a term for it, “Mu” which means “No Thing”. Mu simply says no class; not yes not no; not one not zero. It is nonetheless an equally valid outcome as it states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given. “Mu” begs us to “unask” the question. To dig deeper for alternative questions to ask.

When the context of the question becomes too small for the truth of the answer, “Mu” becomes appropriate. It is an indeterminate state that has no meaning in terms of the existing answers. “Mu” answers are not irrelevant but create an opportunity for a better understanding of the situation and are great sources of growth.

The Zen Method

The Zen approach to understanding being stuck and getting unstuck is to think of being stuck as the zero moment of consciousness. Unfortunately, the scientific method is only useful for situations where you know where you have been- where you are building up on past experience.

The scientific method is good for testing the truth about what you know but is incapable of shedding light on where you need to go unless where you need to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Unfortunately creativity, originality, inventiveness, imagination, intuition are completely outside of this domain.

If therefore you want to do anything without getting stuck, the structured and objective approach of the scientific method is not enough. You need a sense of the quality of what you are doing. You need a sense of what’s good to carry you forward.

In the Zen way of thinking, being stuck is also the best situation you can find yourself in and this is a situation that should be actively cultivated. In this situation, your mind is empty, you have a hollow-flexible attitude of beginner's mind. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be better off than when it is loaded with ideas. 

This is one of the objectives of meditation. It is interesting to note that from a position of getting stuck, your mind will not remain there indefinitely and it will freely and naturally move towards a solution. Being stuck is the psychic predecessor of all real understanding.

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