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Before Wealth of Nations there was The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which Adam Smith outlined the basis for the society within which any institution, including economics must be embedded.  That "basis" is simply the ability to imagine ourselves from another persons perspective and the interaction between persons as an "objective outsider."  Smith called this inner outsider the "disinterested bystander" and felt that it was the basis for "sympathy" (empathy? compassion?) which is the basis for morality and society.  This "disinterested bystander" became one of the basic building blocks of Pragmatism and thus of Symbolic Interaction Theory.  We have the capacity, if we will use it, to separate ourselves from our needs, wishes, biases (and even our culture and our perceptions) to see the world more nearly as others see it and, perhaps, more nearly as it is.

I don't know if Smith invented the notion of the "disinterested bystander."  Certainly the author of The Cloud of Unknowing would have been able to understand it as would any Neo-Platonist, and perhaps the Cynics as well.  When Socrates said that all he knew was that he knew nothing, he was perhaps edging toward the notion that most of what we think we know is deceptive and dillusional and until we know that, our knowledge is not much good.

But all of this was implicit thousands of years ago in the Buddhist concept of Mindfulness.  If we truly empty our minds, the things that might pour into that emptiness would astound us.  If we could suspend our cultural and idiosyncratic filters, our hopes and fears, our certainties and doubts, we could see more clearly what is before us and what we should do..

I am not sure that this could be or should be a permanent condition.  As one contemporary Buddhist says: "after the extasy there is the laundry,"  After the tornado, there is the damage control, the drying out, the mourning, and  the furniture rearrangements.  But the ecstasy and the tornado both give us a new stopping point, and thus, perhaps, a new starting point.


I have struggled to "get" mindfulness.  Adding the idea that "we detach ourselves from our egos by observing the way our minds work. (Karen Anderson, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, p.105) helps me to grasp one important aspect of mindfulness.  I try to be my own "disinterested bystander." watching my "monkey mind" do its little tricks inside its cultural cage. while wishing, with compassion, to return it to the wild.

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bobby1933
bobby1933

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