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The Freedom of Not Knowing
We live in a time in which many people feel sure that others are acting in bad faith or with sinister motives. But what do we really know?
On its way from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the D train takes a dramatic journey over the Manhattan Bridge, offering a stunning view of downtown, the Hudson River, and, in the distance, the Statue of Liberty.
And yet, most of us are looking at our phones, grabbing that all-too-brief minute of cell service.
Some “spiritual teachers” might bemoan this reality of our digital age, and encourage you, the reader, to be more present and attentive to the beauty all around you. And, on a recent subway trip, I found myself doing just that, mentally scolding the people around me.
But then a wiser thought arose: how, actually, I had no idea what these people were doing or what they were going through, and really had no business judging them or their choices.
I mean, who knows? Maybe they were texting relatives in the hospital. Maybe they were setting up a date. Maybe they were playing Candy Crush Saga, or reading the news, or listening to music, or – anything, really. I had absolutely no idea where each person was going to or leaving from, whether their day had been filled with hard work or delight or indolence or grief. Who was I to judge?
This felt enormously freeing. I didn’t need to be all spiritual, to feel superior, or, for that matter, to feel sad about our distracted age. I could just.. not know. What a relief!
Ironic, too, that this identity as “spiritual” can become yet another way to divide the world into us and them, better and worse. They are phone addicts, but I am a meditation teacher who knows better. (Of course, beneath that desire lurks the fear that I, too, waste too much time on my devices. I’m projecting my own shadow onto others.)
This doesn’t mean that I can’t have opinions. On the contrary, in my journalism work, I am paid to have strong opinions. But it’s possible to both have strong ideological commitments and still refrain from judging and presuming things about other people. I still think that oppression is bad and science is good. But it’s also the case that I don’t really know what a given person really thinks, or why they think it. It might be better if I didn’t make as many assumptions.
We live in a time in which many people feel sure that others are acting in bad faith or with sinister motives. We often presume the worst, wherever we find ourselves on the ideological spectrum.
From a contemplative perspective, it can be really fruitful to explore that tendency a little more closely. What’s happening, in the moment that it arises? Personally, I’ve sometimes noticed a kind of misdirected anger. On the subway, I’m concerned about the way the internet amplifies chaos, violence, and anger, and so I misdirect that anger at the people looking at their phones.
I’ve also noticed a slightly nobler but still misguided sense that I am responsible for the well-being of others. There are positive expressions of this sense of responsibility: it’s one of the reasons I teach meditation and write about politics in the first place. It’s good to want to help.
But that well-meaning desire can easily slide into arrogance, since of course I know what’s best more than they do. Sometimes, that inability to live and let live even translates into the attempt to control the lives of others. Sometimes even to oppression.
Of course, my moment on the D train was a lot smaller than all of that, but it’s also true that large trends in our society are expressions of the human mind. And those tendencies of the mind often show up in small moments.
Yet in the moment that mindfulness becomes aware of an assumption, a judgment, or a presumption about others, there is also the possibility of freedom. In that brief instant of spaciousness, there arises the capacity to choose whether to feed those desires, or to notice and acknowledge them, but perhaps not hand them the microphone. In our contentious decade, this possibility offers me profound consolation.
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