“trained satisfaction”: self-limiting of inquiry

During my theory and methods class on Wednesday last, I was finally able to formulate a succinct phrase for something that I’ve been thinking for decades. The phrase, as you may have intuited by now, is “trained satisfaction.”

Discussing the relation between sociology of religion, psychology of religion, and anthropology of religion, I was trying to present the role of theoretical entities as explanatory. Although this is overly-simplistic, in relation to these approaches to the study of Buddhism, society, the unconscious, and culture are each have a boundary effect, (sometimes) bringing inquiry to an end, foreclosing on further inquiry. We are trained to be satisfied by an “explanation” that says “that’s a social factor,” or “the unconscious processes of mind work that way,” or “it is the effect of culture.”

It is of course the case that each of these three have themselves long been objects of critical inquiry within their respective fields. They are here intended to simply exemplify the dynamic of trained satisfaction in which an explanation that grounds itself on accepted theoretical commitments closes off further inquiry.

The same thing is found in folk use of mystificatory religious explanations—again, grossly simplifying:

Why did Grandma have to get cancer and go to that horrid hospital, Daddy? I love my grandma, but hated seeing her in that place. And why did she have to die?

It is all part of God’s plan, Bobby. We may not understand His will, His reasons, but we can be sure it is all for the best.

In contemporary Buddhist thought, it seems that one of the functions of the concept of karma is to serve as a limiting boundary to inquiry. Similarly, dharma, or perhaps better Dharma. And consider the trained satisfaction implicated by any interaction that includes claims of “the Buddha said…” or “Lama XYZ said…” or “Zen Master PQR said…” or “Ajahn JKL said…” or, most mind-numbingly (literally since the goal is to stop thinking) “Buddhism says…”

Trained satisfaction therefore also supports authority and power structures. It constitutes one dimension of the strategies by which obedience is instilled. And though my examples here draw from religious and social scientific examples, the dynamic is also at work in the so-called “hard” sciences as well.

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