The Stick and Carrot Show

Originally written as a series for The Dragontree

In this series on meditation (read Part One, Part Two, Part Three), I’ve tried to be gentle on you.

They say people can be motivated by the threat of a stick or the reward of a carrot, and I really want to believe the carrot works better than the stick, but I’m not so sure. I used to live near a church that had a billboard with movable letters and they changed their message every few weeks. Most of the signs were friendly and in good humor, such as, “50 Shades of Grace – every Sunday.” Or, “Staying in bed and yelling, ‘Oh, God!’ does not constitute going to church.” But then, they must have gotten a new writer who felt the community had a brimstone deficiency, and one day it read, “Repent for your sins or burn in hell.”

I actually called the church and asked them, “Is this really how you want to lead people to God? Through fear?” The woman I spoke with was quite nice and seemed to understand my viewpoint. The next day they graciously changed the word “burn” to “smolder.”

Honestly, the negative message – the stick – got my attention more than previous ones did. I think an actual stick, called a keisaku in Zen temples – to whack us when we nod off – might be useful. But we have a long history of psychological sticks (the threat of hell, foremost) that primarily served to disempower us. They led us to believe that “god-fearing” was a good quality, but from what I’ve seen, fear leads mostly to self-preservation, not philanthropy.

Perhaps the problem isn’t the stick, though. It’s that those who wield it (and those who cower beneath it) are missing the point. Last summer I got to watch my daughter playing the game Operator at camp. Kids have no idea what an operator is these days, but they still love the game. One child starts it off by whispering something like, “The ladybug sat on a leaf,” to the next child, and ten kids later it ends up as, “I farted on Miss Johnson’s head.” It seems that essentially the same methodology has been used in the transmission and execution of many spiritual teachings. Hence the fire and brimstone.

Sure, you can use a stick to dominate people. But, I think the value of the stick approach is to highlight what’s not working – i.e., a “hell” of your own making – with the intention of waking one up to something better. And there’s plenty of stick material out there without the need to resort to pools of fire.

So, enough carrot. When it comes to meditation, here’s the stick:  Our trend of material overconsumption – from Black Friday, to giant food portions, to so much plastic that there’s a swirling mass of it in the Pacific Ocean the size of the continental U.S. – is perfectly paralleled by a trend of mental overconsumption. In an effort to turn our minds into foie gras, we mustn’t miss any opportunity to read something while sitting on the toilet, or to cook a meal with a television in the kitchen (ideally with the capacity to watch two channels simultaneously).

When I first started learning about videography 20 years ago, I was taught that you should change the camera angle every ten seconds so the viewer doesn’t get bored. Nowadays, the standard is half that time. The problem is, hyperconsumption and hyperstimulation are addictive. They infringe on almost everything. And life without our addiction starts to seem bland. The sweetness of simplicity is endangered, and real life is insufficiently data-rich to hold our attention. So, we invite the iPad and cell phone into the bed, and on the hike, and into the massage, and to the concert, and to the wedding, and to the birth of our child. . .

Therefore, perhaps the best reason yet to meditate is this: the practice of a mental fast in the midst of this all-you-can-eat buffet is almost revolutionary. It’s so different from our M.O. that it has the potential to change our consciousness in a big and positive way. There’s something there, that we only notice when we look beneath all the noise, that calibrates us, heals us, and reminds us of what we are.

The Chinese philosopher, Zhuang Zi, wrote:

Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things. The Way [Dao/God/Spirit] gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.

Be well (and quiet),

Dr. Peter Borten


Copyright 2017 by Peter Borten. All rights reserved.