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February 2nd, 2023


The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.


Click here to read Part IV

Click here to start at the beginning



Part V: Buddhist & The Buffalo 



The villagers in the Huainanzi parable perceived everything that happened with a very narrow focus. This limited their ability to see any potential good arising from the bad and vice versa.On the other hand, the Father had a very wide perspective, granting him the ability to have a kind of ambivalence in the face of good and bad events. At first glance it seems obvious that the Father has the superior perspective, but this Is incorrect. Both the father and the villagers make grave mistakes, albeit wholly different ones. And the solution to these grave mistakes is hidden in the perspective of the other.


The mistake of the villagers is already obvious: they lack the ability to take a wider view of potential future circumstances like the Father can. The Father’s mistake is that he’s stuck in the mode of having a wide perspective.


For example, the Father, with his wide and wise perspective never follows up his peaceful declaration with a question like: “how can I use the results of this event to further benefit my situation?” He just waits for the future to unravel more. He’s completely passive. That question about further benefit requires a narrower focus on the present, like that of the villagers.


Neither the narrow perspective nor the wide perspective is superior on their own, though that’s exactly what the parable leads us to believe. If the goal is mental peace and equanimity, then sure, a wider perspective is better. But this is also a perspective of passivity, of non-action, and the Huainanzi parable dictates that things inevitably even out.


Acquiring leverage is passive - it’s the simple act of being able to see when something in your circumstance can be leveraged. But to use that leverage is an active pursuit - something the Father never does, and using leverage requires a narrowing of focus.


The resourceful person first uses a wide perspective to survey as much of the territory of potential as possible. But once a hidden lever has been spotted, the aperture of attention changes. The resourceful person narrows in on that one lever and actively seeks to use it.


We might write our own parable about the difference of these perspectives:



The Buddhist and the Buffalo 


On a rare hill on the great plains sat a buddhist.


Out before him, the buddhist saw a wide plain and from over the horizon came a stampede of buffalo. 


“How focused they are,” thought the buddhist. “Single-minded. Many are like one!”


Since the buddhist was sitting on a hill above the plain, he could look and see where the buffalo were headed. He sees they are headed for a cliff.


“They cannot see where they are going! So narrow in their focus! Single-minded in their pursuit!”


The buddhist watches as the buffalo all run off the cliff to their deaths. 


“If only they could see what I see, they would not plunge to their deaths!”



Just like the Huainanzi parable it seems that the wide perspective trumps the narrow one. But the same problematic dynamic exists: the buddhist does nothing. At least the buffalo are going somewhere.


But let’s add one last line to the parable:



“On the horizon from where the buffalo came, the Buddhist sees a couple figures riding on horseback. They near, following the same trail that the buffalo took and the Buddhist sees they are Native American warriors who chased the buffalo off the cliff.”



Talk about leverage. Those Native Americans have now fed their tribe (perhaps a few tribes) for a very long time. The Native Americans achieved this by cultivating a perspective that can move between that of the buddhist and the buffalo. The Native American starts with the wide perspective of the buddhist to see what is possible about stampeding buffalo, and then narrows in on a design and a plan of action to leverage that knowledge. The key insight for the Native American is to ask “Instead of waiting for buffalo to randomly run off a cliff, why not try to direct them to the cliff?” The answer to that question requires a narrowing of focus to actively carry out the plan to test that hypothesis - something that the Father in the Huainanzi parable never does. The Native Americans were able to embody a passive wide perspective in order to see a hidden lever. And then they narrowed perspective to actively create leverage.


While the wide perspective can provide a kind of peace and equanimity, it’s unmatched if paired with the narrow focus for dedicated efforts. But, when narrowing in on some design we run the risk of becoming the buffalo - chasing some hidden leverage to our own demise. This is  related to the sunk-cost fallacy: spending too much time actively pursuing something that isn’t yielding the predicted result. This is also exactly what we mean when we say someone is narrow-minded. We see a person whose perspective is stuck. Their aperture of focus cannot expand to a wide view of what is going on. Without the tempering effect that comes from a wide perspective, narrow perspectives can quickly look like crazy points of view. It’s certainly crazy for the buffalo to run right off a cliff. But do we call the buffalo crazy? No, we recognize they have a limitation that they can’t fix. And yet we hold it against people when we see their perspective as a narrow-minded. Should we? Or is it more useful to think of such people as actually blind to a wider perspective?


Perhaps the most difficult aspect of human interaction is contained in this question: How do you get someone to change their aperture of focus?


The only tool that seems remotely capable in this dimension is the Question. Asking people thoughtful questions, similar to the tradition Socrates tried to lay out seems to be the only way to gently help people change the aperture of their focus. But it seems on the whole we are more content with the hopeless strategy of simply talking (or yelling) at people.



The antidote to both the sunk-cost fallacy and halting a pursuit before it’s too late is to have the ability to zoom out to a wide perspective to survey the territory again and check whether the current efforts still make sense. The aperture of focus is best when it can quickly narrow and widen, switching from one perspective to the other.


The Huainanzi parable concludes with the line:


Bad luck brings good luck

And good luck brings bad luck.



The parable is trying to tell use something about how good and bad luck are inextricably linked, and by the end of the parable, this line feels like a profound and equanimous truth. But question the parable for a moment in light of our Native American warriors. Is there a deeper insight about wide and narrow perspectives that can subsume this trite idea about the inevitability of good and bad luck?


The Huainanzi parable draws a link between good and bad luck. The parable of The Buddhist and the Buffalo draws a link between perspectives. And when it comes to luck in The Buddhist and the Buffalo, what can we say?


Certainly the buffalo weren’t lucky. Their perspective was too narrow. They fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy (literally). They ran till it was too late.


Our buddhist is equanimous. He gains nothing, he loses nothing. He’s just a passive observer like the Father in the Huainanzi parable.


But what about the Native Americans.


Are they lucky?

Click here to read Part VI

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