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The demon of certainty and the curious heart

Certainty is the most dangerous demon of all.
By James Ishmael Ford
9.27.10

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Locked mind

(© Paul Pantazescu/iStockphoto)

When Jon Stewart announced that he was sponsoring “A Rally to Restore Sanity” on the Mall in Washington, D.C.—together with a counter demonstration, “A March to Keep Fear Alive,” by his faux nemesis Stephen Colbert—he offered some suggestions for signs people might want to carry. One read, “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.” Another read, “I am not afraid of Muslims, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Immigrants, Gun Owners, Gays.” But it was “9/11 was an Outside Job” that particularly set me to thinking.

I’m a big fan of a pop-Buddhist psychological model that boils the human experience down to three things—and their “flip,” what they can be with attention and care. In Buddhism these things are called poisons or demons. In classical Buddhist idiom they’re identified as greed, hatred, and delusion. The thesis is that you and I—and, well, everybody—are all psychologically constructed out of a mix of greed and hatred and delusion.

The first two are more or less straight ahead. The greed thing points to how human beings are caught up in constellations of grasping: I want; I desire; I need. The hate thing points to those constellations of aversion: I have been wronged; I am angry. But for the longest time I wasn’t sure what the delusion thing is supposed to be.

The actual technical term in Buddhism is avidya in the Sanskrit texts and avijja in Pali texts. Those who speculate about etymology tend to think the Indo-European root is likely weid, which means “to see” or “to know.” What kind of knowing is delusional? As I’ve looked at my own life, and at the lives of my friends, over many years of thinking and feeling and doing, at some point the light dawned. This ignorance thing, this delusion thing, is the constellation of certainties.

Now these are natural things, greed and hatred and certainty. They serve us. And they’re two-edged swords. Some animals are fast, some are strong. We’re smart. A big part of that smart is an ability to see patterns. We viscerally, deeply need patterns. And, sadly, if we don’t find them, we are strongly inclined to create them. I suggest that the claim “9/11 was an inside job”—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, starting with the fact the perpetrators have published to the world that they did it—is a very good example of this delusional quality of the human mind, this life where everything is certain, everything has a reason, and we—I—know it. Whether it is so or not, whether it is healthy or not.

All of these are powerful forces within our lives. One could argue that the stock market is driven in turns by greed, the grasping constellation, and then by fear, another classical version of the aversion constellation. If one pulls back one can discern how capitalism itself is driven by greed, while socialism in its more classical forms can be seen as driven by resentment, one more aspect of the aversion constellation.

A simplistic view, yes. The human condition can’t really be reduced to three things, or even six. But there are some truths here, if we look with open minds, open hearts, through the lens of a little self-reflection. If we look at how we act as human beings, we can easily see that while there are other things going on, we are in fact often driven by these forces, too often unconsciously.

And, of course, that’s when they become dangerous.

The demon certainty is the most dangerous of all. It is often the hardest to discern in our dealing with others. It becomes common sense. It becomes what everyone knows. It becomes, if we are not careful, the very air we breathe.

At the church where I am minister, First Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island, we are much taken with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. We host a discussion series on race that attempts to look at our own hearts and at the community around us to see how racism is a cancer on the body politic as well as within our own souls. We also are deeply concerned with immigrant rights. In June the congregation sent me out to Phoenix, Arizona, to witness for human dignity and against the cruelty of SB 1070 on their behalf. We will energetically oppose legislation based on SB 1070 when it is introduced here in Rhode Island in the next legislative session. And we will continue to champion marriage equality until Rhode Island joins four other New England states in legalizing same-sex marriage.

We are energized. We are committed. And yet it is very, very easy for us to turn a stand for love into something else.

We need to remember those demons, those poisons, and how they are not someone else’s demons, not someone else’s poisons, but ours, yours and mine.

Those of us who want to be of use, to help in this world of hurt, must attend to our own hearts even as we engage in the contentious work for justice. We, too, have as constituent aspects of who we are endlessly rising grasping, endlessly rising aversion, and endlessly rising certainty.

But there is good news in this, hope for us as human beings as we engage the matters of life—our own as individuals, our own within our communities, our own as citizens and as fellow creatures on this planet. These completely natural things, grasping and aversion and certainty, also have a “flip,” another aspect of the same energy. Here greed becomes generosity. Here hatred becomes clarity. And, here certainty becomes curiosity.

I suggest when we’re on our game, our liberal faith is about paying attention to who we are as ordinary people living in an ordinary world. And, through that attending to who we are, we discover these other aspects of our human condition. We find rising from deep within us some mysterious well of life-giving waters, a desire to be of use, to do some good. We find within ourselves discernment that sees all of us, including our actual selves, you and me, as marked by foibles and yet so full of possibility.

What drives it all is an endless well of curiosity.

It was curiosity that drove our Unitarian and Universalist forebears to question the assumed world, the certainties of their ages. Today it can be our inspiration as we walk on this lovely, hurt world, seeking a way that is equally informed by reason and compassion, that can best be found when we discover the curious heart.


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