In what’s called Lojong practice, Buddhists meditate on slogans. My favorite says, “Drive all blames to one.” This slogan promises an end to squabbles over who is right and who is wrong, suggesting a big clearinghouse somewhere to which we can drive all blames. Of course, if the slogan is to be of practical use, it’s worth specifying where that clearinghouse is.

Stephen Levine, a philosopher of death and dying, while consoling the mourning mother of a young cancer victim offered among other things, a story in which he depicted the mother and daughter as two disembodied immortal souls whose eternal home is in heaven. These two souls decided to come to life as a caring mother and dying child.

“And which of us shall be which?” one soul asked the other.

“Oh, I’ll be whichever,” said the other.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Now I don’t believe in an heaven in which all hurt is neutralized any more than I believe in a heaven in which we get our just rewards. Still, maybe driving all blames to one is like assuming here on earth that our roles are as interchangeable as this.

Don’t blame the people; blame the patterns, and the luck of the draw. Faced with uncomfortable differences between you and people who are better or worse off than you, say, “There but for the grace of God go I .” Drive all praises and blames to one.

Many of science’s greatest insights have come from an attitude that parallels this Buddhist slogan. From thermodynamics to evolution, from genetics to germ theory, we’ve come to recognize that you can’t explain the behavior of things by looking at the things individually; you have to look at populations of things. Prescientific explanations for illness blamed the evil fate on the victim. Scientific explanations focus on population effects. Disease statistics are population ratios, the scientific equivalent of saying, “Well, there’s one in every crowd.”

Among us systems theorists, talk about natural laws is in decline. Instead we look for patterns that emerge, the results of populations of interactions. Surface tension, for example, is not a law, not a command-and-control judgment imposed on water by some dictator of the universe. Rather it’s the product of the millions of micro-interactions between water molecules that in the aggregate make water stick to water better than to anything else. We call surface tension “multiply realizable,” meaning that the very same pattern can take shape in a multitude of media from molten lead to milk. We call it “substrate neutral,” which is to say, the pattern is the same regardless of what liquid medium or substrate it is expressed within.

By midlife, I think some of us have collected a list of human dynamic patterns that are substrate neutral as to who acts out which parts in them. We’ve been around the block. We’ve been on both sides of the track. We recognize that some days the bear will eat you; some days, you eat the bear.

If you’ve been the jealous partner but also been subjected to a partner’s jealousy, if you’ve fired someone and been fired, if you’ve been someone’s child and had children, if you’ve been a boss and been bossed, if you’ve adored someone obsessively and been adored obsessively, if you’ve dumped and been dumped, if you’ve been young among old folks and old among young folks, you can’t help but recognize that these are all substrate-neutral patterns.

So this clearinghouse to which you can drive all your blames? I think it’s the house of substrate-neural patterns. Becoming familiar with the patterns of human and natural affairs constrains our ability to blame people. Even when we’re very bothered by people’s meanness, our frustration is tempered by a sustained sense that it’s not them, it’s the patterns that live through all of us.

Caveats: I’ve never met a philosophy that can’t be exploited for ill instead of good. The attitude of substrate neutrality is no exception. We can, for example, selectively drive all blames to one in order to explain away our own bad behavior: “Hey, shit happens. If I hadn’t screwed you over, someone else would have.”

I’ve also never met a philosophy of life that doesn’t create a contradiction when applied to itself, and here too substrate neutrality is no exception. Blaming specific people instead of universal patterns is itself a universal pattern. My self-undermining advice is therefore to “Embrace all patterns including the pattern of not embracing all patterns,” and I mean it wholehalfedly .