Thursday, August 19, 2021

When to Dance Between Two Opinions

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Artwork: Static Orb, by Tommy Arnold

When to Dance Between Two Opinions

Earlier this week I referenced a book I’m reading called Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. The author is Bruce Tift, a practicing psychotherapist and Buddhist. In the foreword of the book, the publisher recounts her first meeting with Tift in which she asked him how he reconciles these two disparate and often irreconcilable approaches. He replied: “I alternate between a Buddhist approach and a psychotherapeutic approach without any hope of resolution.” That caught my attention.

The author outlines three possible models of “dialogue” between the two views:

#1: Simplistically, we might assume there is just one truth, and the dialogue is a way to test our theories in order to discover which is true. #2: Or we might assume that most theories are useful approximations of what's true in some ways but that they have their own limitations in other ways; so the point of the dialogue is to come up with a synthesis or integration that combines the best of both. #3: Perhaps an even more interesting use of dialogue is to investigate our experience of standing in the middle, with no fantasy of resolution. What is it like to have no ground to stand on, no theory to identify with? To use theories for practical purposes rather than as positions to take?

The author eventually settles on the last option, noting the advantages of the resulting mindset:

We develop the capacity not to take refuge in any one position. As a result, we end up in this open middle ground where there's no support for personal identity and no objective confirmation that we're ever doing anything the "right way." Obviously, from an egoic point of view, this can be quite disturbing, especially at first. But the benefit is that we are able to just show up without a preconceived formula about how to live our lives. We begin to experience the reality that every moment is fresh. It's open. We don't know what's going to happen, and we don't know the right way to do this or that.

The most important shiur I gave last year was Of Wolves, Men, and Methodology. The main point of the shiur was to highlight the pitfalls of unwarranted reductionism - the attempt to take a complex phenomenon and to reduce it to an oversimplified thing, believing this to be The Truth.

Even though I gave this shiur and reference it constantly, I didn’t realize until I read Tift’s words that I was still falling prey to a reductionist way of thinking. I now see that I’ve been clinging to approaches #1 and #2 in my conception of what truth-seeking looks like, and that I was blind to #3. It never even occurred to me that there may be merit in “[investigating] our experience of standing in the middle, with no fantasy of resolution.” I had viewed “standing in the middle” as a necessary evil en route to one of two outcomes: either eliminating one view as false or arriving at a synthesis. I didn’t consider the possibility that deliberately not seeking a conclusion, or even an integration, might bring us the closest to truth.

There are certainly times when the desire to hold on to two mutually exclusive views inhibits our truth-seeking. In such situations we must goad ourselves to keep moving forward in our investigation, asking ourselves: “How long will you dance between two opinions?” (I Melachim 18:21). But I am now beginning to realize that there are also times when our need for certainty, identity, and other forms of psychological security push us towards unwarranted reductionism under the guise of intellectual diligence. In those situations, we must resist the impulse for security, allowing ourselves to remain in the space in between, with all the discomfort of doubt and uncertainty. A wise woman said: “Any fool can engage in action, but only the wise man can wait.” Any fool can force a conclusion, but only the wise man can wait.
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