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conservative imagination

Odd though it sounds, a crisis faced by Thai monks, experiments on London cabbies, and a beautiful Russian-émigré scholar on Sherlock Holmes tell us what not to expect from the modern world, but show how we can become more effectively imaginative conservatives nevertheless.

Put together, these three truths may suggest something of a personal agenda, even a New Year’s resolution.

No one who has been to Thailand forgets the sight of saffron-clad monks going from house to house collecting food in their begging bowls (indeed the so-called Monk’s Vegetables dish on  Western Thai or Chinese restaurant-menus means mixed, since a begging monk collects a dollop of whatever each household is cooking that day). But nowadays, reports The New York Times, a “temple’s abbot dials a local restaurant and has takeout delivered…’ Values have changed with time,’” one abbot reflected.

Thai Buddhists can become monks for a lifetime or just a few weeks, often coming and going to monasticism throughout their lives, yet their numbers have more than halved since 1980 and the survivors are mostly old. “’Consumerism is now the Thai religion,’ said Phra Paisan Visalo, one of the country’s most respected monks. ‘In the past, people went to temple on every holy day. Now, they go to shopping malls.'”

Last year, The World Bank upgraded Thailand from being “a lower-middle income economy to an upper-middle income economy,” with growth surging at 9% in the mid-1990s to a still-healthy 5% a decade later. Poverty fell from 21% in 1997 to 8% in 2009. Thailand is one of the great economic successes; due in part to a hard-working culture, new markets through globalisation and intelligent development programmes (often conceived of and spear-headed by their king, who is an accomplished scientist). Aid donors and major development agencies have largely taken the South-East Asian country off the “drip-feed,” acknowledging that it needs little or no external help. But newfound wealth poses distractions.

It is not that Thailand suffers some frantic Gadarening rush away from faith, but,

…in Baan Pa Chi…villagers describe a paradox. The monastery now has plenty of money, unlike decades ago, because locals and villagers who have moved to cities donate cash for new buildings, ornaments and statues, believing that they can “make merit” and improve their karmic status. But the monastery feels empty on most days. “People used to leave their children here,” said Anand Buchanet, a 54-year-old construction worker who as a boy was a novice in the temple. “Now, they just leave stray pets.”

Some Thai Buddhist clerics add an optimistic gloss even as temples lose monks and worshippers, noting that, “You can get dharma in department stores or even over the internet.” They hope to make their religion more “relevant” to stressed urbanites and youngsters educated increasingly in secular state schools. But a Western conservative need not be too imaginative to see where this leads, and one is reminded of every sincere but oleaginously trendy vicar set on making Christianity “hip.”

Religious communities will continue to become depopulated and atomised there, and as participation falls over a generation or more, donations will drop. While today’s wealthier Thais are too busy to attend the temples, they remember before and donate generously; but their grandchildren will feel no such impetus. Slowly, a new religion of materialism becomes entrenched. The proposed stop-gap measure, getting Yuppie Thais to meditate at home, seems a slender reed and ignores any role for community to sustain faithful habits.

conservative imaginaton

Matthieu Ricard

Cut to Matthieu Ricard, who is one of my neighbours here in Kathmandu. The son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel, with a doctorate in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute, he took up monastic Tibetan Buddhism almost 40 years ago and now often translates for the Dalai Lama. He co-authored an important study on brain function that contrasted Buddhist monks with the rest of us. They showed photos of burn-victims that make ordinary folk recoil in disgust, but the brains of the monks registered sympathy immediately; monks who spent decades in meditation directed precisely at building compassion.

The results of his experiment, another on improved logistical capacity among London taxi-drivers, and a host of subsequent similar research seem conclusive (technical papers are available here). How we use our brains, over time, changes how they work both physiologically and in qualitative terms of the thoughts produced; in other words, we can alter the priorities of the brain’s circuitry and the cognitive results. Ricard’s monks had trained their minds to bypass normal feelings of revulsion and cut straight to empathy; cabbies who tested normal initially, after years of navigating London’s quirky streets can solve problems of logistics and optimise applied time-and-distance solutions much faster than we can.

So the brain, while not a muscle, behaves like one, and certain repeated exercises build strength and improve results. Reading introduces information and exposes one to new ideas, while contemplation facilitates insight, another task entirely. As Saint Padre Pio observed, “Through the study of books one seeks God; by meditation one finds Him.” Pio answers, more or less, T. S. Eliot’s anguished question, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Acquiring wisdom may be more of a meditative function than merely downloading and assimilating data, and the two tasks may require separate exercises.

conservative imaginaton

Maria Konnikova

Into this steps Maria Konnikova. A Muscovite child-immigrant who graduated cum laude from Harvard and is completing her doctorate in psychology at Columbia University, she has an imminently forthcoming book on how to think like Sherlock Holmes. In The Scientific American, she wrote:

It’s easy to see Sherlock Holmes as a hard, cold reasoning machine: the epitome of calculating logic…But Holmes has one element that a computer lacks, and it is that very element that both makes him what he is and undercuts the image of the detective as nothing more than logician par excellence: imagination.

… Over and over, Holmes faults those who lack imagination. In “Silver Blaze,” he dismisses Inspector Gregory’s attempts at a solution to the mystery of the missing horse and murdered trainer, telling Watson, “Inspector Gregory, to whom the case has been committed, is an extremely competent officer. Were he but gifted with imagination he might rise to the great heights of his profession.”

But Gregory and Inspector Lestrade, and so many others, miss seeing what Holmes perceives, because, she explains, “Logic gets you part of the way; imagination, the rest.”

In one story, empathetic Holmes imagines himself in the place of a horse. Meanwhile, he often pays “attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence;” for example, with the famous dog that did not bark in the night.

Citing fascinating psychological studies in problem-solving, she deconstructs certain elements of imagination, and it can become second-nature through an exercise regimen of contemplation, whether replicating Sherlock’s famous “three-pipe problem” or Ricard’s monkish meditations.

The two are not identical of course; Ms. Konnikova looks at how Holmes trained his mind in detection, while Ricard’s monks short-circuit natural revulsion to create a default-position of empathy and compassion. Padre Pio used contemplation to make Christ’s presence permanently immanent to him; burnishing, as it were, his receptors to the divine. Russell Kirk smoked cigars in the stillness of his library and took long solitary walks along snowy country roads. But whether one wishes to build secular imagination or moral imagination, or both, literature and religion and science all seem to point in the same direction.

She concludes that, “The difference between a Holmes and a Watson is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable.” The question is how.

conservative imagination

Pope Benedict XVI

What Christians have always called contemplation, and what the rest of the world tends to call meditation, is largely the same thing but with different variants and expectations. At its simplest it creates stillness or so-called mindfulness that polishes our receptivity; by stopping temporarily one’s chattering mind, the world around us (or the Holy Spirit) gets a word in edgewise. Often a stint of this enables subsequent deeper contemplation on a selected topic, spiritual or practical.

It need not require a mat or a cushion: Sherlock played his violin to still his mind, and then it seems he smoked his pipe while cogitating on the latest murder case. One bets that Pope Benedict says the rosary or repeats prayers in order to build the stillness and focus that he then deploys to dissect modern problems and to find insightful solutions. He does not, one suspects, just repeat prayers.

In either case, you can bet that neither Holmes in fiction, nor the Holy Father in fact, spend all of their waking hours “multi-tasking.” While that may provide a temporary “ego-kick” from material accomplishments, multi-tasking alone is ultimately self-defeating; running the engine without fuel or a periodic tune-up. Lacking creative nourishment, the multi-tasker eventually resembles the misfortunate described by Dorothy Parker: “deep down, he’s shallow.”

Moreover, a very effective way to kill imagination dead is to keep a television or radio playing in the background. I normally own neither device, but staying once in a furnished flat I conducted an experiment; after a few weeks of television news each morning I found myself a-characteristically devoid of ideas by the time I reached the office. When silence was reintroduced, imaginative ideas returned aplenty. Silence permitted me partial meditation, but I digress.

If conservatives want to become imaginative or imaginative ones more so, scheduled contemplation is how to do it: not just meditative stillness exercises or repetitive prayer, but directed rumination to follow.

It may be, as the Thais suggest, that shallow materialism and a loss of faith are the inevitable handmaidens of prosperity. But if they are not, then the solution may well be found in contemplation enhancing conservative imagination – and you may be the one to do it.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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Published: Dec 27, 2012
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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2 replies to this post
  1. I think that’s right, but the issue highlights a problem familiar to conservatives today. It seems to me that the unregulated free market (as we see in Stephen’s Thai example) has done as least as much as Socialism or ‘left liberalism’ to undercut the value and time given to the pursuit of contemplation. Where ‘time is money’, where job security is non-existent and where one can never rest because there always have to be new markets to be found, how can we justify cultivating the necessary time and space to ‘be still and know that I am God’?

    This, for me, is where the genius of Russell Kirk (and Sherlock Holmes) lies – that he locates the things that matter – goodness, beauty and truth – on the imaginative plane rather than the economic. He had a shaping vision, and that is what the West needs more than anything today. Because ‘without a vision the people perish.’

    All the best,


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