Tag Archives: confidence

Confidence and the conditions of life

There’s a dominant tradition in our culture that there are certain absolute assumptions we have to make to think about our experience at all. This is ‘metaphysics’ in the sense that many philosophers use it: but this is not just a matter for philosophers, as this tradition also affects our thinking about everyone’s immediate practical beliefs. If you see this dominant tradition in the light of embodied meaning and in a recognition of the specialised roles of the two brain hemispheres, though, it can be recognised as narrow, unnecessary and unhelpful rather than inevitable in the way it presents itself. I want to argue that the conditions of our experience and thought are not absolute, and that the assumptions we make about it, though pervasive, are embodied ones. They are a matter, not of necessity, but of confidence.

What are these absolute assumptions that we are supposed to be making? They are assumptions about space and time; about our own existence and that of objects and others; about numbers, maths and logic; about causality and the regularity of ‘nature’; and perhaps even about our freewill and values. I cannot sincerely doubt the existence of the table in front of me, it is claimed, nor even that when I communicate with others (as I am doing now), these others have minds. Once absolute assumptions are supposedly established in this way, it becomes easy enough to apply them to other areas by further reasoning. For example, if I can’t help assuming absolutely that nature is regular, it’s a short step to assuming the independence of ‘facts’ or even values based on an appeal to ‘nature’. Dogmas line up in mutually supportive positions with a click.

To show this whole approach to be basically wrong does not need convoluted reasoning so much as a little reflective bodily awareness. Take a short walk across the room, or whatever space you happen to be in now. What is ‘space’ as you’ve just experienced it? It’s something you move through and relate to through your body. What is ‘time’? It’s experienced in relation to your pulse, which may have raised slightly as you moved from a sitting position to walking. What are the ‘existent’ objects you encountered? The ones you presumably avoided bumping into in the space you traversed. What are ’causes’ as you experienced them? The movement of your muscles set off by nervous impulses, which in turn led you to move across the room.balance beam gymnast

As you move across the room you were, I hope, confident in these assumptions. From long practice of walking you were confident in your ability to stay upright, avoid obstacles, traverse space and reach your immediate goals. These are not abilities we generally reflect upon. We take them for granted as part of our embodied experience, but nevertheless they have a basic meaning in that experience rather than anywhere beyond it. Our early childhood experience helped to form that confidence.

Nevertheless, embodied confidence is not absolute. Indeed, the reason we can be confident is because it’s not absolute. That’s because it involves not just a representation in the left hemisphere of the brain (which may seem to be absolute at a particular moment) but also an alertness in the right hemisphere (which specialises in responding to new stimuli). It’s just possible that as I walk across the room, I may encounter an unexpected obstacle: perhaps it could be something as mundane as a child or pet’s forgotten toy that I might slip on, or perhaps a sudden and unexpected weakness in my body may stop me being able to walk across the room in the way I expected. My body retains the capacity to respond to such surprises. Of course, the biggest threat to my experience of time, space, existence and so forth is death, and that may also come unexpectedly, removing all these taken-for-granted conditions at a stroke.

I am justified (again in an embodied, not an absolute sense) in my day-to-day confidence. However, if I insist on absolutising that confidence and turning it into metaphysics, I am not at all justified. The conditions of time, space, existence etc. may or may not be absolute in any sense beyond my experience – but since I can only experience things through my experience, I have no possible way of knowing. These things may just be constructions of ours, or they may not. However, it seems obvious that the absolutisation of them is just a construction of our left hemispheres.

This matters because it provides a constant basic reinforcement of our tendency to give a disproportionate and absolute status to the facts or values we believe in and identify with at the moment. Perhaps I believe that my love for my partner will be eternal, or that Tories are the scum of the earth, or that Buddhism is the ultimate true religion. We may have some evidence from experience to support any of these sorts of beliefs, but to absolutise them and make them a basis of conflict, we wheel in metaphysics. These truths, we assume, are self-evident. Well, I’m afraid that whatever your ‘truths’ are, and however self-righteous you are feeling about them, they are subject to sceptical doubt, Staying in touch with that doubt is important for arguing your case confidently rather than dogmatically.


Picture: gymnast on balance beam by Volker Minkus (CC-BY 3.0)

Meditation 14: The hindrance of doubt

There are two possible senses of ‘doubt’, just as there are two senses of ‘confidence’ as its opposite. Doubt can be a disabling paralysis preventing us engaging in actions we have decided upon, or it can be a liberating questioning of views that have previously been understood dogmatically. How do you tell the difference? Well, disabling doubt is disintegrating and disempowering, but liberating doubt is integrating and empowering. Disabling doubt is a voice making negative dogmatic assertions that undermine you without justification, whereas liberating doubt is balanced and merely makes us aware of our degree of uncertainty as embodied beings.

This distinction between two types of doubt is found in the traditional Buddhist discussion of doubt as a hindrance in meditation. Doubt as a hindrance is a translation of the Pali term vicikiccha, and is something every meditator will have come across regularly. Unfortunately this is sometimes badly translated as ‘sceptical doubt’, which can only be based on a major misunderstanding of scepticism: I much prefer the translation ‘disabling doubt’ which tells you about its practical effects. Sceptical doubt as I understand it is liberating doubt, enabling us to let go of attachments to dogmatic claims wherever they are found.

The way I experience disabling doubt in meditation is as a loss of confidence that meditation is worth doing, or is worth persisting in. For example, I could sit for a while, find myself going round a spiral of distractions, and conclude “There’s no point in sitting here any longer – I’m just wasting my time.” Or  maybe I don’t even start in the first place. Perhaps I get up in the morning, feeling a bit groggy, and “Oh, it’s obviously not worth trying to meditate this morning – I’ll never get anywhere.” At this point I also hear the voice of past meditation teachers from somewhere in my superego saying “Ah! But that just goes to show that meditation is the very thing you need most!”, but, if the disabling doubt is disabling enough, I will of course ignore them.Doubting Thomas Johann Jaritz

How do I know that this disabling doubt is not liberating, sceptical doubt? A case could be made. Perhaps I am hanging onto an idea that I should be meditating every day, regardless of the evidence. But perhaps it really isn’t very useful to try meditating at this juncture. Meditation is not a panacea for every situation, as you need a basic degree of starting integration to make any progress with meditation in the first place. Perhaps this doubtful voice is just saving me the trouble of wasting my time when meditation would indeed be fruitless? Perhaps I am also attributing dogmatic authority to the voices of past meditation teachers?

Of course, this is possible, but I think there are also some ways to spot disabling doubt when it tries to assume the mantle of liberating doubt. One, that I’ve already mentioned, is that disabling doubt is negative dogma. It won’t be open to real examination of the question of whether meditation would be useful – it will just be offering rationalisations to support a feeling of not wanting to meditate. If it’s liberating doubt, you should be aware of arguments on both sides, and be in a position to weight them up. Ask yourself whether that’s really the case. Another way of spotting disabling doubt is that it will probably be accompanied by quite a negative emotional state: a retractive, shrinking away from things.

The traditional Buddhist answer to doubt is usually ‘faith’ – involving at least an element of unconditional commitment to metaphysical claims, such as the Buddha’s enlightenment. Interpreted in this way, I don’t think that approach is any help at all. At best it is a way of experiencing group pressure to conform and do the things that the group does, symbolised by their metaphysical commitments. You might decide that some group pressure will help you stick to your commitments, but this will just be repressive if the commitments themselves are made under group pressure, especially if this is reinforced by appeals to tradition.

Instead, I’d suggest that, yes, we do need to commit ourselves to meditation practice, and follow it with some sense of discipline, in order to make it work. If we allow ourselves to re-assess that commitment every time we meditate, regardless of the mental state we are in, it will undermine the practice. However, in order for meditation practice to be justified by experience rather than group pressure and dogma, we do need to review it regularly and thoroughly. Is it really worth doing? Is it really making progress? The answer ‘no’ has to be a real possibility if you are really asking these questions, rather than just going through the motions to satisfy a group that claims to be open and critical but isn’t. If you know that you have thought through your commitment to practice for the time being, it makes sense to suppress (not repress) any contrary impulses for the moment, and just sit down and meditate regardless.

My personal experience is that sometimes I have answered ‘no’ when I asked myself if meditation was working for me. At that point it wasn’t. But I have always come back to it, because if I don’t do it then I miss it and notice the effects. By allowing doubt free enquiry in the appreciation of uncertainty, I am reasonably confident that my commitment to meditation is founded in experience rather than dogma.

Index of previous meditation blogs

Picture: Doubting Thomas photographed by Johann Jaritz  (Wikimedia Commons)