Saturday, November 7, 2015

Learning mindfulness through “Penn and Teller: Fool us” magic show

I was introduced to the popular magic show “Penn and Teller: Fool us” by our son Kabir. In this TV show, the young and the old magicians perform their best tricks in Las Vegas and try to fool the mighty magic duo Penn and Teller. In case you have not seen already, I urge you to check out the video clip above in which Shawn Farquhar, a world champion in card magic, fools Penn and Teller. In this article, I would like to explore how this magic show can help us understand a seemingly unrelated area – mindfulness.

Let’s bucket the audience of this show (including those watching it on TV) into three categories. First, “This-is-real” category: These guys – perhaps mostly kids – might confuse the magic act as if it were happening for real. If a man gets cut into two, they might get frightened. My wife remembers carrying Kabir out of the theatre while watching Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone because he started crying. My parents tell similar stories about me. That’s This-is-real category.

Second, “Fooled-but-aware” category: These guys are enjoying the show and they have no clue how they are getting fooled. However, they carry awareness that they are getting fooled while the drama is unfolding. For example, they don’t cry when Penn acts as though a knife has entered his chest.

Third, “Not-fooled” category: Penn and Teller and many other magicians around the world also enjoy the drama but most of the time they know exactly when the sleight of hand is doing the trick. If they get fooled, as in this case of Shawn Farquhar, they are more aware what they don’t know. Just to summarize, the three categories are: This-is-real, Fooled-but-aware and Not-fooled.

Now let’s imagine another magic show called “Perception and Thought: Fool us” which is run by two fictional characters called Perception and Thought (P&T). Between the two Thought is the real magician. Perception is more of an orator and showman. Thought is working mostly behind the scene. Sometimes he turns a rope into a snake and adds a scary music in the background. Sometimes he turns a person from another religious community into an enemy and plays villain-is-coming type jingle. While working backstage Thought has access to a vast amount of memory most of which nobody else can see. There are times when Thought is not doing much though and Perception is just showing things as they are – the table, the chair, the mountain, the trees etc. I guess you get the idea.

Now most of us when we are not mindful we belong to the first category - This-is-real. We treat the drama put up by the duo Perception and Thought (P&T) as real. For example, when the boss shouts, we get upset, when kids throw tantrums we get irritated, when we read about war, corruption and rape we get angry-sad etc. We follow what Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI rule – What You See Is All There Is.

When we are mindful, we are more like the Fooled-but-aware category. When boss looks angry or upset, we consider the possibility that it could be just our imagination – as Thought might have fooled us. Or when boss shouts at us, we consider the possibility that he might have had a bad day and not because he is a bad person or because I am incompetent. Since a mindful person carries awareness that Thought may be fooling him, he doesn’t hold onto an opinion too strongly. He carries an openness to change the opinion if such evidence shows up.

A mindfulness Master is more like Penn and Teller. He is also entertained by the show like others but differs from the first two categories in following ways. First, he is extremely alert while watching the show. Second, he knows exactly when Thought is playing the tricks most of the time. Third, he carries deep appreciation and marvel at what is possible in the drama of life. And fourth, he is willing to share his knowledge of the Thought-tricks with those interested.

Now, how can we use this metaphor for learning mindfulness? First, we can learn from Fooled-but-aware category of audience. As most of our attention is consumed by the drama, perhaps we can keep some attention for the awareness that  Thought may be fooling us. When it comes to defending a belief, perhaps we can consider the fact that part of the belief may be Thought created. That may help us keep the door a little open while listening to others.

Second, like how magicians are learning from Penn and Teller, we can learn from spiritual masters as they explain the places where Thought plays the tricks. For example, in this skype call, when Nick asks Eckhart Tolle, “If I don’t worry about things, how will I pay my bills?” Eckhart suggests him that the question itself might contain an error. That means Thought has played some trick even before you create the question, perhaps introduced an incorrect assumption of necessity i.e. worry is absolutely necessary. The challenge here is to figure out who is an authentic spiritual master and who is not. And wisdom of crowd is not always trustworthy.

Third, you can use the technique that magicians are using in today’s YouTube-world to learn. In the video clip above, Penn points out that it wasn’t difficult for them to spot the deck-switch. Well, we can do the same by running the video in slow motion and see when the card deck gets switched. For example, replay the video between 2:35 and 2:40 and see how Shawn might have brought out a brand new deck from the pocket. Of course, Penn admits they have no clue how Shawn got Penn’s card in the new deck.

Similarly, as David Bohm points out in “Thought as a system”, we can do the same by pressing the button when we are relatively undisturbed i.e. bringing out the thought ourselves that creates negative emotions in us. For example, we can think about boss while he is not in front of us and watch the chain reaction in our body-mind. Watching the Perception & Thought show while a negative emotion is arising is like watching Shawn between 2:35 and 2:40. We can press the button again and again and see how the whole process functions especially in slow motion.

In short, we can use “Penn and Teller: Fool us” metaphor to learn mindfulness by being Fooled-but-aware, by learning thought-tricks from spiritual masters and by pressing the button that springs negative emotions and watching the show in slow motion.

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  1. awesome video. I really enjoyed it, will look up more shows.
    I think I would prefer to stay in the most fun category for me viz. fooled but aware.
    I have no desire to know how the trick was performed as I am afraid that will kill the romance.

    1. Ravi, glad you enjoyed the video. I agree. It is great to be in Fooled-but-aware category. But sometimes we don't have much of a choice. Insights aren't pre-planned. Many of us would have loved to stay with the belief that Santa Claus comes every X-Mas and gives prizes. Perhaps it is hard to not learn about some things. But, hey, why not just have fun until an insight ruins it?