Religion in systems: why we believe in absurd concepts like time management (and the hands-on way to stop)

[The backstory on this post.]

There are plenty of different religions in the world, of course, and they’ve all got their own thing going.

The three big monotheistic players (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) actually have quite a lot in common.

They’re all of Abrahamic origin. They all teach a God who has a certain set of standards for humanity to follow. And they all include another divine figure who is God-butnotquite, or God-butkindofdifferent: Jesus the Christ, Mohammed the Prophet (pbuh), and the Messiah yet-to-be-determined.

Then there are the other big religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Primal Indigenous, African Traditional and Diasporic — and the list continues.

There are plenty of differences from one religion to the other. There’s at least commonality among them all: 
a set of rules based on a set of beliefs.

Maybe, in fact, if we throw in one extra phrase, this could be the definition of a religion? 
A set of rules based on a set of beliefs regarding spirituality or the divine.

I like that as a working definition of religion. Dictionaries usually have, as their primary definition, something about “the belief in a god or gods / and the system by which one worships a god or gods.” But that doesn’t really describe Buddhism at all. I mean, kind of. But not really.

Buddhism has a set of beliefs (the Four Noble Truths), with a corresponding set of rules (the Five Precepts).

Hinduism has the Five Principles and Ten Disciplines.

Islam has the Six Articles of Faith and the Five Pillars of Islam.

Christianity has the Nicene Creed and the Ten Commandments (borrowed from Judaism, and shared with Islam).

You get the point.

(And yes, I understand that describing religions this way is a vast and, most likely, an insulting oversimplification, that they are all more complex and nuanced, that many of them don’t claim that their rules are actually rules. Yes, I understand, but sometimes you have to simplify things in order to discuss them.)

Even if you are one of the 16% of people who are nonreligious, you’re living in a world culturally and historically created by the tenets of one religion or another.

You’re going to be influenced by the religions that are most prominent in your environment, whether you believe any of them or not.

The structure of all religions — the beliefs + the rules— has influenced all of us to a certain way of thinking.

Many of us grew up inside of a religion system; all of us grew up inside of societal and economic systems heavily influenced by religious systems. When you grow up inside of a system, you don’t see (for a long time, or maybe ever) that it is a created system, imposed by people upon reality.


You just see that system as reality. It defines reality for you, because you’re inside of it in the formative time in life when you’re figuring out how the world works, and what it is, and what your place in it is, and so on.

The rules of religions are equations: do X and you will get Y. Please God and you will get to go to heaven. Break a moral code and experience bad karma.

Systems based on, or influenced by, religions tell us that life works as a series of formulas. They tell us that if we put a certain element in, we get a certain product out. Of course, we all know that causative relationships exist: we can see them in nature, in relationships, in daily interactions and choices (like “put muffins in, get muffin tops out”).

But the nature of religious beliefs and rules is static. They are supposed to exist unalterably, untouched by either organic or contrived drama. This unalterable nature is part of their appeal: they give us stability in a world that, in our experience, we know to be unstable. We delight in the predictability. It makes us feel safe.

Feeling safe is great, but growing up in a system that presupposes simple equations as the foundation of all things is problematic. We tend to assume that these predictable, unalterable formulas exists in every area. We expect them. And we tend to underestimate or ignore the very real effects that the very real, unstable, invasive, messy world will have on these formulas. 
So we come up with ridiculous concepts like time management. 
First of all, we don’t even understand what time is, or if it actually exists.

Secondly, you can have a plan all day long for what you will do in the next 60 minutes of time (IF IT EVEN EXISTS), but you can’t plan, predict, or control what everything and everyone else in the entire universe will be doing in that same 60 minutes.

And thirdly, since you can’t plan, predict, or control any of the actions of any of the other beings in all the rest of time-space, you have absolutely no idea how their choices might affect what you plan to do (or not do).

Time management depends on a stable equation: If I put in Element A (a plan), then I will get back Product B (goal achievement, task completion). \

What’s ignored? All the rest of reality. If you, and time, could exist independently of everything else in the universe, then this equation would work pretty well.

But it doesn’t work that way, and we know that, but we keep applying simplistic formulas as if interdependence, connections, chaos, entropy, symbiosis, and, I don’t know, toddlers didn’t exist.

(Want to understand the futility of time management? Make your plan to manage your time. Then find a toddler who will hang out nearby and try to work that plan. It’s over, friend.) 
I see two big problems that result from trying to apply simplistic formulas to a world that is not simplistic, at all.

First, we become very, very frustrated. We feel like failures. We are following the rules of how the world works, as we have been taught them (Put in A, get B.) Only it’s not working for us. And we blame ourselves for the failures. We try new formulas, new methods, new tools to help us, and we end up running into the same frustrations and failures. It’s a bad set-up, but it’s rare that we step back far enough to see that we’re not the problem; the set-up is the problem.

Second, in a weird and self-defeating turn of events, we become aggressive toward people who go ‘round telling us that our simple formulas aren’t working, or who have the audacity to interact with the world in a way that isn’t based on the application of such equations.

They threaten us, without meaning to. When they say, or show, that the world doesn’t work the way we think it does, it threatens the stability of the system we have trusted our entire lives. We feel as if it threatens our very existence, because we understand the system(s) to be reality. If reality crumbles, so do we. Right?

Well, right, except that reality isn’t one of those systems. Or any of them. Or any combination of them. Reality is something different, something deeper and vaster, something upon which systems are built.

Systems come and go, always have. Reality tends to stay, sauntering along as it will, with very little disturbance, really. It’s only the people trapped in the systems who end up very disturbed.

Reality is messy, organic and orgasmic, muddled and connected, full of chaos and entropy and harmony and reciprocity and collaboration and accidents and serendipity and conflict.

The only way to understand reality is to experience it, and the only way to experience reality is to get out of the system and into the mud. To get very hands-on, to get very close, to get very insecure, to walk down the stairs of the tall, tall tower and down the path into the dark woods even though you don’t know what’s waiting there.

Maybe it’s something frightening. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s disorienting, and terrifying, and exhilarating, and maybe it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever known.

(Maybe it’s freedom.)