Just so you know, amongst all the folks I have worked with in coaching, and met in practice spaces, clever folks who know it all are the least likely to change or commit to any practice that might disrupt their identity. When reality knocks, they usually close the door.
Why is this important to mention? Isn’t it obvious? Epistemic humility is directly related to a willingness to be wrong and to listen in order to learn. Knowing relates to power to role to identity to meaning. It can be difficult to set all that aside for a moment without turning it into yet act of self-serving knowing.
Remaining open to the capacity of others, of all stripes, cast and experience to show or tell of things we may be unaware of is a discipline that requires renewal. The capacity to do this could be understood as a fundamental characteristic of being present to life: a far more admirable goal than merely being attentive to the so-called present moment.
Let’s move on.
In my previous pieces on doubt a piece was missing which sets up a fundamental recognition in the practicing life. It connects to the point made about foibles, individual proclivities and the need to build a path through your own experience. This understanding combines a non-prescriptive take on a/the path, or a/the way, and the need for it to always be rooted in a/the calling the individual feels and perceives, and that is central to his or her life. This is more of the baby. Some will have a knee jerk response to such wording but it may be misplaced in this context. To speak of an individual’s feelings, perception and calling is simply to ask what is real to them, salient, and demanding attention in a given context or phase of life. And it is asking how practice must respond to each. This is not to sacralise these three aspects or make the individual the crux of meaning to which the world must be subservient. The context is far larger. Ultimately practice must work on our real world conditions and not an ideal of the human.
Where do your own pressing thoughts, feelings and perception lead you in any given moment? How does each operate as a field of practice?
The characteristics are almost always specific, contextual and emerge from your own personal history. I am obviously not referring to the mundane plethora of material that makes up our day-to-day subjective experience, but rather that which calls us in, moves us towards new or attention-demanding question, desire or experience. Saying this is not claiming the truth is somewhere deep down inside or that your inner voice has the answer. Rather, you bring your own experience to practice, and the two must make room for each other. To merely impose practice on the complex matrix of materials that make up you and your world is to render practice a form of survival strategy, straight jacket, or mere identity formation.
It personally took me a while to figure all this out.
For many years I felt pushed and even persecuted by unrealistic expectations, and images and styles of practice that I felt alien to. The 90s actually left me with a mix of New Age utopian ideals of ultimate goals and perfect, complete awakening that I had to achieve or be stuck forever in cyclic existence. What’s more, the Tibetan Buddhist groups contradicted the Zen groups, who in turn contradicted the Theravadan groups in their ideals of practice, and I ended up forcing myself into all manner of technique and image of practice all the way through my twenties, whilst trying to figure out which was the right practice for me, and which lot of Buddhists had the best answers to my questions.
The dissonance I felt and lack of attraction to certain practices, books, or notions was eventually understood to be a form of communication; no, not from some higher power, but from what we might loosely call alignment between the three and their resonance with the world I was saturated by and struggling in. Some teachers consider the embrace of a calling in mystical terms, which is fine, others an emergent property of a true path that we must find and that already exists. I am not against such interpretations necessarily, but I would frame the dynamic as simply an aspect of our basic humanity, which some feel compelled to investigate, along with the potential results of the tension that arises as an individual becomes increasingly conscious of him or herself as a being in a world that is beset by change, suffering and joy, and that offers myriad ways for engaging with the practising life as a response.
Gut instinct, attraction, curiosity and desire are personal as much as shared and to ignore one of these two aspects is to do great damage to the practising life. These personal experiences are also a condition of the time and place you emerge and grow in and in a sense we reflect the world as we are reflected back at ourselves through the world. Their specific configuration within us is what marks us out as thinking animal and not robot, or mere facsimile of another human, or product of their desire. Some folks overcomplicate this. I like Gandhi’s take on it, “I reserve the right to give full expression to my being in this life.” That does not have to be narcissism, or more of the cult of the individual. It can be a form of self-respect instead, and a refusal to determine our existence by the demands of whoever is dominant in our lives, or whatever ideology is ticking away as the megalith determining discourse in a given context or age.
This observation is as important today as it was in any previous decade.
I am spending more words on making this point than I normally would. Mainly because I have met so many practitioners and clients who suffer needlessly trying to meet the expectations of tradition, social group, colleagues, family, fellow practitioners, intellectual other, or teacher in a way that undermines their own sensibilities and right to build their way through their own struggles. There is no need to undermine yourself in this way unless you are genuinely overly confident, an intellectual narcissist, excessively wrapped up in yourself, or poor at listening to others. The cult of the self is an obstacle to honest appraisal and the path and in most cases makes folks unteachable.
This is clearly not what I am calling for in these posts.
It is often the case that good people lack the confidence to recognise they have equal right to occupy the Earth as much as those more certain, vocal individuals, and not resign themselves to being mere bit players in those folks’ worlds. The narcissistic turn is a by-product of anti-intellectualism, anti-clericalism and the sacralisation of the self as at heart a consumer. Old Chogyam Trungpa gave us one of the first decent criticisms of this in Buddhism in his seminal work, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
The first step for most of us is to be far more honest about just how little we know. This recognition is where this whole series started out.
Can you or I really appreciate just how ignorant we are? Can we accept the consequences of this recognition and allow their articulation to effect change in us?
It is as much a feeling as it is an intellectual recognition. Start off by stating it. Owning it: you know far less than you realise and this ignorance shapes the contours of your perception, feeling and thought. Reflect on how. Come to know this. For, in truth, we need to be more ruthless and brutal with the degree to which we find comfort in our assumptions about our epistemic capacity. Because it’s ignorance at root and intrinsic to the human condition, we are necessarily unaware of its full extent. Therefore, discovering and addressing our ignorance is a forever project, which is fine. We can embrace our ignorance as the start of something, an opening perhaps, not a condemnation or statement of inadequacy.
My suggestion for undertaking this process, or reacquainting yourself with it, is through a simple practice of invocation.
This is not a call to undermine the understanding you have built over a lifetime lived up to this point, or wallow in a state of empty headedness. It is rather an invite to question directly what you hold to be true, or have borrowed second hand without serious deliberation, and to do so as an experiential practice. One intelligent approach is to begin by creating an opening through an ongoing, appreciative investigation of where your limits of knowledge lie and how they shape and hold together your sense of self and limited vision and experience of the world. This is not initially an invitation to pick up a book and try to resolve the problem of your ignorance; this is not another project to take on, but rather an attempt to embrace the limits of knowing that is a fundamental condition of our humanity.
When we posture up, puff our intellectual chests out and show off our knowledge as if it were complete, satisfactory and owned in some way, we are shut off from the possibility of learning something new, of being surprised by circumstances, and breathing new life into a current state of understanding on any given topic, including ourselves.
What I am proposing is in part a modal shift in looking for transparency in how we use the state of knowing as a posture to maintain a sense of self. In our hyper-real age, this has become an acute human condition for the peddlers of self on social media. Fortunately, even for the more deluded and narcissistic, approaching the limits of our understanding can be done with care, not unlike a small child poking at the edges of its physical environment, or a cat pawing at a new object to see what’s inside.
We do not need to destroy our efforts to relate well to the world, and even dysfunctional behaviour is a person’s half-decent attempt to relate well to their world.
Doubt can seem an odd sort of companion at first. It takes many different forms and when debilitating it has the power to rob us of our will, undermine confidence, and keep us from making needed change. It can take the form of suspicion that ranges all the way from chronic distrust to a good nose for bullshit. You are no doubt familiar with many of these aspects. These more tangible forms of doubt are not what I necessarily want to explore as the basis for practice here. But rather the notion of doubt as a mood or state that can be invoked to disrupt identification with ideas, beliefs and ideological commitment, and undermine misplaced certainty in each. As well as consider the possibility that this mood can become a useful practice companion and powerful disrupter of identity and the posturing self. As companion, doubt can signal the tangible characteristic of a state of not-knowing that opens us up to new kinds of thought, new kinds of bodily experience, or ways of being with others. The encapsulation of the experience of, “I have no idea”, can act as a release of the stance of the one who knows, softening the harsh, often cruel forms of being that emerge from being overly defensive of beliefs and practices, or overly assertive of convictions and an identity deeply rooted in each.
States are generally best invoked with a specific purpose in mind. We are creatures of habit and our subjective states are the same: habitual points of reference that we linger in, invoke through routine, and typically manage as the familiar. It can be very useful for folks to develop the capacity to invoke a variety of states or learn how to resist drifting into the familiar when it takes the form of over-indulgence, destructive anger, selfishness, cynicism, idiot compassion, and so on. Some meditation techniques can help with this; some more functionally, others dysfunctionally. In Buddhism, what are described as negative emotions can be seen as part of a story about the dangers of associating into the wrong states and being driven around by them. Whether you view these as fundamentally individual or collective, self-generated or imposed by society, in the practising life your choice remains the same and it is, perhaps, the most essential of practice questions: to change, or not to change. The choice is yours, though life does tend to force us into change all the same, and in response a practitioner is best equipped to face their existence if they at least believe they can choose to change and choose how to react to change that happens to them.
In what follows, there may be little that is new. For some there may be some useful insights. For some, it may sound like your run of the mill meditation practice. The materials should remain familiar: We are drawing on pre-existing resources after all.
What changes in many respects is the context and the vision of practice within which the practice is held.
We are first of all acknowledging our condition as part of the largest group possible; humanity, where functional and dysfunctional are the inevitable routes that folks take through traditions and when grappling with perennial questions that drive a person towards the practising life in the first place.
Allegiance or alignment with a given tradition thus come after a commitment to our place in a far greater field of meaning: our species.
So, how does it look?
We are going to treat doubt as a feeling-state first. When inviting doubt in, you generally have two choices: invoking through feeling, or invoking through dialogue. Like many contemplative practices, it helps to enter a space conducive to invocation first. For some, this will involve meditating on the breath for a period, for others going for a walk, for others stretching or doing physical exercise, for others releasing built up tension through shouting, kicking a bag, or crafting, creating, art, writing and ____ :fill in the gap if you have your own thing going on.
Feel free to share in the comments if it’s unique.
What follows in the next post is preparative and will be posted soon after this post so that the interested can give the practice a whirl.