Monday, May 7, 2007

Of problems, paradoxes, koans and wisdom

This post was triggered by a comment on one of my previous posts (see making problems disappear ). The comment also contained a request that I discuss 'other problem solving methods that I know'. I must admit that while I do have a basic understanding about the problem solving methods (that can be used to solve the problems that can be solved in the usual meaning of the term 'solve'), I don't really have any thing special to say on that matter at this point. So what I am trying to do in this post is to talk about a couple of ideas related to problems and problem solving and link them to the basic theme for this blog - 'simplicity at the other side of complexity'.

A few months ago, I had written a post called U-curve and simplicity at the other side of complexity which mentioned that many phenomena follow a pattern that resembles a 'U' - shaped curve over a period of time. They start in one state (i.e. in a particular manner), then move towards the other end (i.e. the opposite manner/state) and then they come back to the original state at a higher level/plane. I feel that something similar might be involved in the case of many of the complex problems. It works something like this. The first stage is when one does not recognise that a problem exists. Here one does not (have to) do anything/exists in blissful ignorance. In the next stage the pendulum swings to the other side and the existence of the problem is recognised. This is also accompanied by a powerful desire (bordering on compulsion) to find a neat solution to the problem immediately. In the case of complex problems often these attempts to find a neat solution fails and this makes the pendulum swing to the other side. In this phase, the existence of a paradox (and not just a problem) is recognised and the nature of attempts to resolve the problem shifts from traditional problem solving to methods similar to making problems disappear. It is interesting to note that one of the definitions of wisdom is 'the understanding of paradoxes'. This in turn leads to approaches like wisdom-level consulting.

I have always been fascinated by Zen- especially the koans in Zen. Initially, I used to think of koans just as 'impossible problems' that are used to break the logical mind. Only recently I came to know that each koan has a more or less unique solution. The critical point here is that these 'solutions' make sense only at a particular state of awareness, which is reached by working on the koan for a long time. Of course, in this context, what is important is the 'achievement of the particular state of awareness' and not the koan or it solution per se.

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