Life as Experiment

From yale.edu

If it always works, it’s a demonstration, not an experiment.

That line appeared in a Yahoo group discussion about science curriculum recently, and it struck a chord with me beyond the homeschool science realm.  I’m highly critical, a trait I work hard to limit only to myself but spreads to those I love the most on a daily basis.  It’s not a trait I treasure, and I’m often critical of how critical I am of myself and others.  Productive?  Let’s see.

First, I’ll return to science.  The scientific method, illustrated on the left, dates back to the ancients in some form.  Years of scientists and philosophers (the line was thin between these back then) gradually shaped it into the process we know today.  We teach it to children when they study science, and it’s what scientists use to explore questions.  So what’s the scientific method doing here, on a blog about spiritual search and the ramblings of  my mind?

Explaining the experiments of daily living.

Because life is not a demonstration.  It’s an experiment.  It’s a long process of research, problems, hypotheses, experiments, data, conclusions, and new problems.  It’s a cycle that never ends.  If life were a demonstration, it would be far easier, although I’d have less fodder for writing.

In a demonstration life, we’d each have a manual for each situation and person in our lives.  In a demonstration life, we could gather what we need, looking at a complete list of people, practices, and principles before beginning, put those people, practices, and principles into action in the prescribed mix, and stand back and appreciate the results.  Think of the benefits of a demonstration life:  no pain without knowing all comes out right in the end, no trial and error, no critical thinking (or any thinking) required, stable relationships with family and friends, and peaceful satisfaction with life.

Perhaps I’m just missing the manuals.  My life is no demonstration: it’s 100% experiment.  Here’s the model:

  1. Research:  We research from birth on, watching how the world works.  As we grow, we research in a more traditional sense, reading the works of and listening to those who think they know how life works.  Our parents and teachers were our first sources of information.  Teens naturally push away from those sources as they realize their fallibility, expanding to their research sources.  Responsible research for adults requires critical thinking and evaluation of credibility of a source. Research can even just be observation, but done well, it is observation with conscious thought and an open mind.  Example:  I’ve read a fair amount on mindfulness as meditation practice and as a way of living.  I’ve observed mindful people, and they seem fairly content with their lives. Mindfulness practice appears to be a safe, effective way of cultivating inner and outer peace.
  2. Find a problem:  This is the easy step, and, so as not to be too depressing, should probably be reworded as “Find a question”.  Questions abound, and every day, I chase ones about spiritual practice, parenting choices, every day homeschooling options. This is the stuff life brings us that we need to deal with and the data we’re processing from all that research.  Example:  I’m feeling scattered during my day, frazzled and pulled in every direction, enjoying little and distracted constantly.
  3. Make a hypothesis:  Or, make and educated guess.  Take that research, that experience, and apply it to the question.  Example: Practicing mindful meditation daily might reduce that scattered feeling and increase my contentment with my life.
  4. Experiment:  Make your life the Nike ad.  Just do it. We experiment every day.  When a baby drops a cracker from his high chair, watching it fall, he’s experimenting.  When I change my route to work just to see if it’s faster/more peaceful/ less prone to back-ups, I’m experimenting based on a hypothesis.  Thinking about it alone is NOT experimental — experiments demand action.  Example:  I try consistent mindful meditation for a set period of time, perhaps ten minutes a day for a week.
  5. Compile data:  This takes objectivity that’s not easy in real life.  Look at what happened when you did your experiment, whether it was changing your route to work or greeting your partner with a smile and hug rather than a complaint at the end of each day.  Watch from the outside at the whole picture.  No judgements at this point, please!   Example:  My meditation period was more focused as the week went on, and I found I was more focused immediately after the time spent.  Much of the day was still filled with scattered thoughts and internal chaos.
  6. Form conclusion:  Still no judgement.  The conclusion refers back to the hypothesis, simply noting whether the hypothesis was supported or not.  Example:  Mindful meditation reduced my scattered feeling in the half hour immediately after my practice.
  7. Maybe find an answer:  Did you find your hypothesis fully hold up to experimentation?  Great.  That rarely happens in my life, however.  Generally, at this point, if I’m paying attention, I do find some part of an answer.  Example:  Mindful meditation helped a bit, although not to the degree I’d hoped.
  8. Maybe find another problem:  This is the chance to dissect the experiment and consider changes to make it more relevant to your questions.  It’s the time to examine all the variables, and unlike science, life has many that we cannot control.  Our lives aren’t in laboratories, and controls aren’t generally possible to have.  Outside of the lab, life is deliciously and frustratingly messy, so this process never ends.  Here’s the point to question again, generally not throwing the baby out with the bath water but instead taking what you can learn from that experiment and seeking the next step.  Example:  Perhaps I need to meditate longer each day, multiple times a day, or for many months before seeing benefits. Or perhaps living mindfully, staying in each moment with all my senses, might work better for me.
And so the circle continues: research, questions, experiments, analysis.  We do it all day, every day, sometimes with full awareness and often without.  Life, at least my life, is never a demonstration, turning out perfectly (whatever that would look like) with no loose ends.  Nope.  My life is an endless circle of scientific process in action.  And the self-critical part?  That can be quite helpful, at least in moderation.  Ability to think critically about oneself (in a healthy way) involves taking a step back from emotions and looking at the whole package that is self.  It can promote growth.  Critically evaluating what one sees and hears is just good, common sense.  Being critical of others?  This requires wisdom and discernment and a large step outside of the self.  It also requires restraint.  I’m working on appropriate use of that trait, via the scientific method.
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