Doubt Part 1: I Don’t Know

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”  Voltaire

 “We have to allow ourselves to realize that we are complete fools; otherwise, we have nowhere to begin.” ChögyamTrungpa


You know too much, yet understand too little. And it’s the same for me, and everyone you and I happen to know. This is our modern epistemic crisis: we are bogged down with too much data and an excess of certainty about things we really know very little about. We borrow second, third hand opinions and waltz around with them as if they were our own: Flouting postures of certainty that we have no right to. Or we retreat into simplistic ideologies and let others do the meaning making for us. And it’s not just the refuse of human guff we are sorting through on social and mainstream media, from conspiracy theories to anti-vax ignorance, we are exposed to an excess of informational input through the internet today that our mammalian brains were simply not evolved to digest.

Think about that for a moment, our brains are literally not up to the task of managing the constant stimulation that accompanies online life today, and the complexity it constantly points to but never quite grasps. We are in a sense reacting to it all or shielding ourselves from it. We are also incapable of grasping the weight of the new rules that govern the immense waste pile of human ideas, spluttering and folly that is the internet. Collectively we have only partial answers to these rules at best. All the same, as practitioners, such rules are a sort of initial means for grappling with our own struggles and the collective difficulties that we are pulled into by living in this hyper-connected, hyperreal age. One is to practice epistemic humility and question what we superficially accept as given. Another is to reclaim an oft derided human state known as doubt. For the practitioner, doubt can be taken as a practice space to be cultivated, inhabited and, when necessary, invoked. For Buddhists, it can be harnessed as a practical antidote to the solid sense of self that forever lingers in the background of our consciousness when we are far too sure of ourselves and the ideas we sign up to.

To inhabit doubt is to inhabit a space of not knowing that is undefended by beliefs and opinions. In this space the unexpected becomes possible and the precious opportunity to be genuinely surprised by life can be found. This is perhaps no different from the old adage to be an empty cup, or the archetype of the fool, but all the old wise sayings in the world can’t do the work for us. They easily become knowing tropes or mere performance of ideals; something which has always been easier to do than grapple with the real thing. Ideally, you figure this stuff out for yourself and build a path through your own experience and not the borrowings of others. You may even allow yourself to be shaken by life, seduced by wonder, and the lesser known face of the triad, be stunned by just how ignorant each on of us is.

What follows are a series of posts that respond to this living human condition. In alignment with the practical nature of this season on the podcast and here, I will offer up practice ideas too. Some of you may find them useful. Eventually, these posts will also appear as audio-casts over at our new home on the New Books Network.

Continue reading “Doubt Part 1: I Don’t Know”

83. Stephen Batchelor on Secularizing Buddhism

Today I speak to Stephen Batchelor, figurehead for Secular Buddhism, well known author, and Scot. I present the lovely man some of the critique aimed at his work in the book Secularizing Buddhism, and from my previous interview with Richard K. Payne. We also discuss some of his intellectual influences, touch on phenomenology, Gianni Vattimo, and whether Stephen is fixated on the past in his relationship with early Buddhism. Stephen was game throughout for what turned out to be a constructive and illuminating conversation.

Next up will be one of Stephen’s collaborators and philosophically informed secular Buddhist teachers, Winton Higgins, all the way from Australia.

Matthew O’Connell is a life coach and the host of the The Imperfect Buddha podcast. You can find The Imperfect Buddha on Facebook and Twitter (@imperfectbuddha).

It’s a changing world: The Imperfect Buddha Podcast is moving home.

So folks, the Imperfect Buddha Podcast has a new home, at least the audio does. We’re leaving Soundcloud, heading off to new pastures, crossing the pond. The new home will be at the New Books Network. Episodes will continue to be posted here at the site too.


It’s currently the home for intelligent conversations intended to raise the level of public discourse and provide something along the lines of public education for thinking adults. So, if you wish to carry on listening to this lovely little pod, go and subscribe over at the site, and take a look around at their other offerings.  

Our plan is to fire up the old podcast and bring you regular conversations and think pieces with a curvature towards the practising life and the application of the ideas and possibilities we have explored and will continue exploring.

Our next episodes over there will feature two interviews with folks from the world of Secular Buddhism; Winton Higgins and Stephen Batchelor, and two think pieces; the first Practice Item and the second, which is on practising with doubt. There may even be a third.

The podcast continues to be sponsored by O’Connell Coaching. Get in touch if you’re interested in engaging with the topics this podcast has explored and their impact on the practising life. Or perhaps you simply wish to start up a practice without the need to give up your critical faculties.


Practice Item #01

“It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.” Mr Nancy  (American Gods, by Neil Gaiman)

There’s a certain sense of absurdity in writing these posts. I can’t explain it yet, but I’m sure it’ll make sense as the process goes on. The premise is that each piece be an invitation to visit the Great Feast & that each be rooted in the world of practice. Don’t expect detailed, philosophical exposition of what are complex themes. You must head further into the Great Feast yourself and follow your curiosity for that.

This is the first practice item. Each of which is simultaneously complex and simple. Part of navigating them well involves managing this seeming duality and noticing how one or the other can be more prominent as we develop a relationship with it as a practice space; a practice space that is experiential, and rooted in quality thought, individual and social, current and historical. Remaining sensitive to how the prioritisation of one, or the refusal of the other, can be a practice of control and resistance is also worth reflecting on. And this serves as a nice take on an enduring feature of the practicing life: always take opposites as relational working pairs that should open to other possibilities. Take their formulations, friction, symbolic role, and absurdity, as part of the practice material that is not a problem to be solved, but rather a landscape to be explored. Please remember this whilst reading on for I am not in the role of truth teller or guru.

Finally, this piece is pretty long. It’s difficult to elaborate on a complex issue without saying quite a lot about it and even so I have been brief throughout on points that would warrant many more words. I have divided the text into sections and if you like the work here at the blog, you may find it easier to read it in stages. That said, the whole is more than the sum of its parts and reading it as such will likely prove more fruitful.

The choice is yours.  

Item 01: No transcendence – banished to the earthly plane

“Have you thought about what it means to be a god? … It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.” Jesus (American Gods, by Neil Gaiman)

Continue reading “Practice Item #01”