I recently read of a man who was released from prison after being incarcerated for 37 years. DNA tests showed that he was innocent of the crime for which he had been imprisoned for his entire adult life. It seems the police wanted to close the case; they found a likely suspect and stopped looking.
A nightmarish as this is, we are all guilty of the same error; once we think that we know or understand something, we cling to a certainty and stop looking. Worse still, we stop seeing! Like the policemen who imprisoned the wrong man, we will massage the facts so that they support our belief.
Our desire for certainty, whilst understandable, severely limits the quality of our lives. We build and confine ourselves to the prison of certainty; in this way we reduce the quality of our experience and impoverish the quality of our lives.
The more I learn in almost any field of human endeavour, the more I realise the immense depth and breadth of my and everyone’s ignorance. The acquisition of knowledge tempered with experience has led me to the “wisdom of ignorance”. I try not to focus on the “why” but rather the “how”, that is to say, on the process of life − the often difficult and uncomfortable work of making my own path, which hopefully brings me closer to some sort of truth. (Note truth with a small “t” rather than a capital “T”.)
I try to hold any point of view lightly. Of course I am not always successful. I recognise in myself the emotional desire for certainty, but I have taught myself to be comfortable with the uncomfortable (and often exciting) feeling of not knowing. However, experience has taught me that any point of view can only be the best point of view in that moment and in those circumstances. If I find a better point of view then I must be awake or miss the opportunity of moving forwards.
Imagine that you walk through a forest in the daytime; you are quite likely to be lost in your thoughts, living in autopilot mode, and you will probably consciously experience very little. Now if by contrast, you walk through the forest in darkness then you are wide awake and very alert and aware; all of your senses are open, and you will notice much more.
This lesson in the Kalama Sutta attributed to the Buddha is something I have found to be very useful.
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But… when you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skilful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness for one and all — then you should adopt them and live by them.
Remember there is no relationship between certainty and truth. Be wary of those who are certain.