One Never Knows: A Zen Priest’s Meditation on Not Believing Everything You Think

One Never Knows: A Zen Priest’s Meditation on Not Believing Everything You Think October 26, 2018




So, eleven days until our American midterm elections.

I notice as of this moment the geeks at Fivethirtyeight currently give the Democrats five out of six (84.4%) odds of taking the House, and the Republicans basically the same five out of six (82.5%) odds of retaining the Senate.

I find how I read each of these stats and my emotional response to them. First, my general comfort with the one, feeling pretty confident. And with the other thinking well, just a couple of things go a bit differently, and, how its possible for it to go, as I see it, in a more positive way.

I think of me as being at the more rational end of our human spectrum. But watching how I can read these two nearly identical statistics so differently, well, it makes me worry for the species.

Or, at the very least, hope my self assessment is wildly off.

But, let’s say for the sake of argument I am somewhere at the more rational end. And how I can so easily see things the way I want them to be. Does that mean we are screwed?

Of course we’ve known for a very long time how we humans engage the world and make decisions through a number of lenses. The ideal, at least my ideal is “reason,” where we gather and weigh information coolly and make our decisions based on the facts.

Of course actually its much messier. I think we have three principal ways we tend to think of our decision making as reasonable. We can go with our gut, believing we can intuit what course needs to be followed. Of course it’s rational, I thought it. Closely related to this is reasoning out of our empirical understanding, weighing things against our personal experiences. Beyond that we can draw upon the experience of others and weigh things against principles that have been derived over long experience of many people.

And, maybe, just maybe there’s a fourth way.

I did, after all, notice how I am seeing two statistics that are near identical in two substantially different ways. And it hints at what we can do, if we want to see as clearly as possible and act in ways that might actually be more useful than not.

Number one: Find ways to step back and get a little space. For me it is rooted in my spiritual disciplines, which can be summarized as sit down, shut up, and pay attention. Now, my purpose in taking up these practices is not to improve my decision making skills. But, it does in fact have a salutary side effect. And, maybe its worth looking at these practices as a sort of survival tactic. So, maybe its taking up Zen meditation. Or, another practice with similar side-effects is Vipassana. There’s a totally secular adaptation of Vipassana that’s worth investigating.

Number two: Don’t believe everything you think. As you begin to see the patterns of your thoughts, engage them with a little bit of skepticism. As we watch our thoughts as they arise and fall away we see patterns emerge. Identify them, and with that notice your fall back positions. Try on the thought, that just because you thought them doesn’t mean they’re anything but habitual assumptions. Give yourself some space.

Number three: Cut yourself and the world a little slack. This world we’re in, and we’re completely a part of it, is a play of causes and conditions, situations arise and fall. And in the moment it’s all terribly important. But, then there’s another moment. I think there are situations that demand our attention and our actions. And. And, it all is temporary. It might help to remember you will die. We’re all temporary. Precious. Beautiful. Worthy. And, temporary.

Doing these things won’t stop you from reading those statistics the way you want them to be. But, they might create the conditions where you notice your biases, and with that your opinions actually can move in the general direction of reasonable. Might even be of some use to your life and the world.

In the Zen universe we call this not knowing. In the Zen way we call this beginner’s mind.

It might have applications for all of us…

One never knows…

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