Snapping and Zeno's Paradox
- By Chuan Zhi
- Oct 15
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Religion always presents us with extraordinary paradoxes. Is the person's experience going to diverge and take him into infinity's stratosphere or is it going to converge to that nice, desirable finish line? Luck has a lot to do with limits: that sane boundary. Consider a fraction. We know that the larger the denominator, the smaller the value of the fraction. 1/10 is much smaller than 1/2. In a valid religion, that foundational denominator will grow, just the way the opportunities on the Path increase with each step upwards. There is greater learning and awareness and self-control, and the ego diminishes as the soul expands.
Around puberty, the young male of the Ananda tribe of central Australia is taken from his mother, isolated in the wilderness and deprived of food for a prolonged period of time. He is kept awake at night in a state of constant fear by the eerie, whirling sound of the bullroarer, a native hunting device, until the combined physical and emotional stresses reach their maximum effect. At that moment, the elders of the tribe converge on the terrified youth wearing grotesque masks and covered with vivid body paints and proceed to subject him to a painful ritual of initiation into manhood. If he survives the ordeal, the young man emerges from the ritual in a drastically reduced state of mind, his awareness continuing at a level only sufficient to allow absolute adherence to the strict laws and taboos of the tribe. The adult Ananda tribesman may spend his entire life in this altered state the natives call Dream Time. He will stand on one leg for hours, completely motionless, in a waking trance so deep that flies may crawl across his eyeballs without causing him to blink."
The quiet snow and sub-zero temperatures outside contrasted nicely with the crackling warmth of the fire inside. It was a setting for being pensive.
A section of the day's newspaper lay on the hearthstone; and when I picked it up to prevent it from being struck by a few stray sparks, my eye caught a small headline: Cult Brainwashing Claimed. In the few short paragraphs that followed I learned that a mother testified in court that her twenty-seven year-old son had sustained serious psychiatric damage in a cult he had joined the previous year. Outside the courtroom other parents, gathering in support of her case, cited their own children's sad experience with this local religious community. One disconsolate father asserted that his son, who had contributed years of free labor to the group, had required long-term hospitalization for repeated psychotic episodes following his expulsion from the commune. Evidently, he had become seriously mentally ill while living in the compound; and the cult leaders, rather than have him treated at their expense, chose to abandon him on a street corner with a suitcase and a bus ticket.
It was an old story. The names would change, but the situation was always the same. People would join religious movements expecting to attain liberation, but instead would become mindless slaves.
While I was thinking about this sad situation, there came a knock on my door. A sangha member who lives across town had read the same newspaper account and, despite the snow and uncleared streets, had come wanting to discuss a problem. His daughter was in the process of joining a religious group. He was alarmed. Was it a cult? And if so, did I think his teenage daughter was in any danger of going "over the edge." She had never been particularly religious before, he said, but after attending one of the group's introductory meetings, she was very enthusiastic and announced her intention to become a member. She was scheduled to attend the group's first three-day "mind raising" session in a couple of days. He was worried and spoke with urgency.
"So you want to know if they'll try to brainwash her and get her to snap?" I asked, referring to that peculiar sudden change … rational one minute and irrational the nex.
He nodded, "Yes, snap." Then he shook his head. "I just don't understand what this 'snapping' is all about? What's behind these cults and new-age groups that make them so dangerous?"
We were using the term popularized by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, co-authors of the 1970's book, Snapping, that detailed many of the techniques cult leaders use to affect personality changes in their followers. Their numerous interviews with ex-cult members and leaders provided new insights into the fragile machinery of the human psyche, especially when it was subjected to the jolts of brainwashing. It was an important subject, and he was right to be concerned about his daughter.
We went into the living room and sat near the fire with a pot of hot tea. I asked, "Have you noticed any personality changes in your daughter?"
"No … well, she just seems very happy and excited."
"Okay," I said, "so there's no real problem right now." I tried to console him. "What you need to do is understand the how and why of snapping, the delicate progression of events and the necessary conditions that enable it to occur. If you can recognize danger early enough, maybe you can act to avert it." I put another log on the fire. This would take some time.
"Let's use an analogy. Consider what happens to water when it freezes." I said, gesturing towards the outside snowscape. "If the conditions are right, a drop will suddenly crystallize into a highly organized structure and become a snowflake. But if the conditions are different, if, say, the temperature drops below a critical threshold, the water will freeze into an amorphous solid - devoid of any kind of structure. Instead of the snowflake's exquisite geometry we see a kind of chaos. In both cases it's a sudden transition, but the outcome depends entirely on the conditions of temperature and humidity. It's the same sort of thing that can happen to us when we subject ourselves to the conditioning of a spiritual practice. We may suddenly become like the snowflake, attaining a new, higher, level of order and awareness, or we may become like a blob of ice, our minds dulled and chaotic."
"What kind of conditioning techniques do these people use? They've got to be bizarre."
"Not always. Their methods are pretty much identical to the methods used in all religions, although," I added, "they may use them more drastically. Chanting, fasting, sleep deprivation and prayer are common practices in all religions: they serve to induce an expanding, meditative state. But these cults are aiming not for meditation, but for a tangential state -- the suggestive state associated with hypnotic trance, a state of contracted consciousness. And not only is there a difference in the motivations of those who administer the methods, there's a difference between students, too. Not all people will snap. For those who do, it's impossible to predict how or when. There simply are too many variables."
"Spiritual practices stimulate the growth of awareness, of self-control, individuality and independence; and that growth is experienced in sudden expansive leaps. It's only when spiritual practices are forced upon us, or when we force them upon ourselves when we're not ready for them, that they reduce awareness rather than enhance it. We might then experience those same sudden leaps of consciousness in the opposite direction, becoming dulled to our environment, confused, unable to think or act for ourselves, suggestible. Long-time cult members are often described as having become like zombies. Not dead, but not alive, either. The un-dead. And I guarantee that they didn't glide imperceptibly into that state. There were levels of degeneration into insanity or mental slavery."
"But why is it that people go along smoothly and then suddenly snap?" he asked.
"It's not so smooth as you might think. Sudden change is the norm rather than the exception. It's easy to make the mistake of thinking that we evolve in a continuous fashion, slowly changing and adapting to our environment and experiences. But, in fact, nothing about reality is really continuous. It only seems continuous because our brain processes information from our senses in an apparently continuous way - eyes see things moving smoothly from place to place, ears hear continuous sounds - but nature works very differently. What appears continuous in the macrocosm is inevitably a discontinuous process at its microcosmic source. Our modern computers wouldn't exist if this weren't the case - they rely on quantum physics, instantaneous transitions of electrons from one energy level to another. Trees wouldn't grow - they rely on chemical reactions initiated instantaneously by light quanta that convert the sun's energy into chlorophyll. And the ocean wouldn't give moisture back to the sky because water molecules wouldn't be able to change from a liquid to a gas. Change always depends on sudden transitions from one state to another, but since they are instantaneous, our senses don't recognize them as such: we only detect the results of the transitions.
"And consciousness is the same way. It expands or contracts in sudden, discontinuous leaps. Parents often observe this in toddlers who suddenly, overnight, will display an awareness of self, using words like "I" and "me" or they'll suddenly speak in full sentences when, just the day before, they spoke only phrases. People who truly meditate talk about their practice taking quantum leaps forward. Their awareness increases as their egoism shrinks."
I paused and we sat in silence for a short time. "Cults operate on a different principle from legitimate religions," I continued, "principally because they're governed by the will of a leader who doesn't seek the enlightenment of his followers, he seeks only power over them. He doesn't want their liberation, he wants their servitude. A cult leader will generally prescribe the same disciplines to every member of his congregation, regardless of each person's spiritual readiness to follow them. They may be legitimate spiritual practices but when given to a novice, there can be disastrous consequences. A monk may disappear into a mountain retreat to live for months with little food and sleep to ponder great truths, as did Hsu Yun and many other masters in the Chan tradition. But they did this after many years of monastic training under the guidance of many masters. But cults, after stages of suitable allurements, will shock their followers into a state of mindless submission by subjecting them to non-stop indoctrination - tense, exhausting days and nights in which the only food or sleep they receive are given as rewards for obediently reaching the "right" conclusions. They may even refuse to allow them to visit a bathroom so that they have to urinate or defecate in their clothes in public. Under such stresses their followers eventually crack … snap. That's when you hear about cases of sudden psychosis or schizophrenia."
"But why would people allow such a thing to be done to them?" he asked in amazement.
"People submit in accordance with a natural herd instinct," I said. "At work in any group - but especially in a cult - are three powerful archetypes: the hero, the friend, and the enemy-shadow. Think of them as the lead stallion, the fellow horse, and the predatory mountain lion. The novice projects the hero archetype on the cult leader raising him to the status of a super-hero or god. At that point, he will do anything for the leader. The leader knows the dynamic of herd-existence and uses it to his advantage, invoking the counter-balancing archetype, the enemy-shadow, in his subjects: anyone who questions the intentions of the cult or threatens it in any way is considered evil, a villain who often, in their eyes, deserves to be killed. There are so many tragic examples of this phenomena throughout history: Hitler's Nazi cult led his followers to mindlessly kill millions of people; David Koresh's Branch Davidians, through their devotion to their leader, were led to their death in Waco, Texas, despite pleas from family members to leave; and James Jones' People's Temple cult led over nine hundred people to their death in a mass suicide in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. These are extreme examples of the results of group behavior when the herd-instinct is at work, but these forces are at work in almost every group. Geese will fly in whatever direction their leader takes them. Native Americans used to slaughter buffalo by steering the lead bull in the direction of a cliff. The rest of the herd would follow, stampeding to their deaths. You can see this behavior also in families, political organizations, companies and corporations, churches - anywhere people congregate in the name of a common cause or objective. However, in an authentic traditional Buddhist monastery, masters closely observe the development of each new monk, and they are always ready to intervene if he gets into trouble. In a cult there is no such supervision."
He thought for a moment. "She says these are really good people. Maybe they are legitimate. But how do I know? How can I, or she, tell if they're really ethical? Maybe they're just after money? Do you think she'll be asked to pay a big initiation fee? Is that how I can tell how much mental-danger she's in?"
"No," I said. "Usually they don't begin by requesting money. They go the other way and try to convince people that they're legitimate because they do not ask for money. Later on, they'll use their members for free labor, as you read in the newspaper article. What would the point be of asking for a hundred dollars on Monday when, by Friday, they can have the person doing $500 worth of work for free -- for weeks and months to come. So you can't gauge a cult's opera by the overture. You just have to watch and listen and see how things develop. If it becomes necessary to intervene, you'll have to do that. Intervene."
"Intervene?" He didn't like the sound of that. "You mean,get her out and get her deprogrammed?"
"Right now your daughter is under the illusion that she's in control, and that's her biggest danger. The best thing you can do is to remain vigilant. If you tell her not to go, she will go just to defy you. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to talk to her gently and try to elevate her awareness while you keep open the lines of communication. If you object to her decision, you'll shut yourself out. Just ask questions without being judgmental. Let nature take its course until you can better determine where that course is heading."
He didn't think he could be so passive. "I can't stand by and watch her become a victim."
"But you don't want to help to push her over the edge, either. We're all on a path, an infinite series that ends at some vanishing point on the horizon. Your daughter's path has intersected with this group or cult, but the outcome isn't known. There's nothing certain. In fact, the group could be beneficial. You must let things run their course a little and not allow yourself to obsess over imagined outcomes, good or bad.
"A drop of water falling from the sky follows its nature as a drop of water. It's not trying to become a snowflake or anything else. It has no will of its own. Yet it follows a path that leads it toward its destiny. If the temperature and humidity are right, it will become a snowflake. True spiritual practices are like this. We submit ourselves to a religious regimen and follow the spiritual path up a great mountain. As we grow along the way, the path seems to grow with us. It provides us with more methods, more teachings, more guidance, more understanding... and as we climb higher and higher, it gives us more of a wonderful view. The path itself, then, is our guide: in Buddhism we call this path the Dharma."
My friend was now standing in front of the fire rubbing his face. "Well," he said, "my wife says we should rely on my daughter's judgment. She's got a logical mind, and in the past, at least, she's always demonstrated a free and independent spirit."
Again, I cautioned him. "We often think that we have free will, that we are in control of our destiny and that, when the time comes, we will be able to decide for ourselves to stay or leave, to play or pass. Things sometimes seem logical, but they are not logical at all. We can apply logic to logical situations; but what do we do when we are confronted by a paradox?" I gave him an example.
"Around 400 B.C., Zeno confronted this problem in his famous Racecourse Paradox which kept mathematicians and philosophers busy for two millennia.
A runner starts to run a 100-meter race. Can he ever reach his destination? Good question. Now, in order for him to run 100 meters, he must first run half of it. That leaves him half to go: 50 meters. He runs half of that, and now has 25 meters to go. He runs half of that, and he still has 12.5 meters to go. Whatever distance he covers by half, he still has the remaining half to cover. Half of the half of the half, and so on. He can never reach his destination because he always has that next half to go. Yet we know that the runner will reach his destination. Still, it wasn't until we had the tool of the calculus that we could penetrate this paradox and solve it.
"Religion always presents us with extraordinary paradoxes. Is the person's experience going to diverge and take him into infinity's stratosphere or is it going to converge to that nice, desirable finish line? Luck has a lot to do with limits: that sane boundary. Consider a fraction. We know that the larger the denominator, the smaller the value of the fraction. 1/10 is much smaller than 1/2. In a valid religion, that foundational denominator will grow, just the way the opportunities on the Path increase with each step upwards. There is greater learning and awareness and self-control, and the ego diminishes as the soul expands. The person's "fraction" shrinks until it reaches the limit of zero. The series converges. All is well. But what happens if the denominator shrinks, if the person is not supported with a strong foundation. Well, divide one by .01 and you get a hundred. Divide it by .001 and you get a thousand. Divide it by .000001 and you get a million. The smaller you make that base the larger the value of the fraction - and there is no boundary! It zooms into the stratosphere, totally out of control. It enters infinity, beyond the reach of any sane or sound boundaries.
"We can't count on logic to apprehend every concept that is presented to us. And we can't count on luck. When it's necessary we employ rigorous methods, in this case, intervention. That's what masters in a monastery do when monks get into trouble. Parents have the same role toward their children as masters have toward their disciples. So, keep those lines of communication open. Become aware of the different levels of inflation. You may not be able to predict when your daughter will make the next step towards irrationality, but if you remain aware, you will be able to note the step she's currently on. Does she change her friends, her dress, her diet, her fields of interest and study habits? Is she secretive or overly defensive about the group? She lives in your house so you have rights of inquiry. Look through her bookshelves. Has religious propaganda replaced academic texts? These are red flags that should alert you. If or when she goes into a danger zone, you'll have to act."
It was a lot to think about but he seemed much calmer than when he came. He thanked me and assured me that he and his wife would be vigilant and would not, as the process was unfolding, act to alienate their daughter. They would keep the lines of communication open.
Snow was still falling heavily as he headed out the door, toward his car at the curb.