Certitudes, and how to skilfully move beyond them

by Winton Higgins

We’re all born equipped with the evolutionary factors of greed, hatred and delusion, which have helped us survive and thrive as a species – but they’re counterproductive now. That’s not the end of the list of evolutionary factors that once helped us, but now hinder us. Another is our craving for certitude. Our primal ancestors really needed to know, for instance, the intentions of the armed band coming towards them, or just where to head for the riverbank before they went over the waterfall. They also wanted to know what would happen to them when they died. They hated uncertainty and ambiguity in such situations, and for good reason.

That hunger for certitude continues unabated – a kind of risk aversion, perhaps. Or a security blanket to dampen anxiety. Fundamentalist religions live by this hunger, as do all manner of religious and secular fanaticisms. We need to identify the goodies and the baddies – don’t bother our heads with ambiguities and shades of grey! We need to know what the after-death options are too. Tell me exactly what I have to do to get to heaven!

The more thoughtful answers to these demands can sound an odd note, such as the phrase from one of my favourite texts, the order for the burial of the dead in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,’ it says. Well, the hope but might be sure and certain, but what about the outcome?

Conventional Buddhism peddles certitudes, too. For instance: we’re all going to be reborn, no risk! And if you give generously to the monks and live in some approximation to the precepts, you’ll have a fortunate rebirth. Eventually, after many such rebirths, you’ll be fully enlightened and won’t ever suffer again.

But just as Gotama, the Buddha, himself identified greed, hatred and delusion as our major obstacles (or poisons, as he called them), he also taught his followers to overcome their yearning for certitudes. Steer clear of certitudes and truth-claims based on so-called revelations or esoteric knowledge, he kept reiterating.

Our lives are made up of contingency – we can’t predict much of the experience that awaits us just around the corner. Learn to swim in the sea of uncertainty which is your true home! Embrace the wisdom of insecurity, as Alan Watts suggested in the title of his 1951 dharma book.

 

So, how do we abandon our certitudes, and our hunger for them?

The answer to this question is baked into the practice. For the Buddha, our actual direct experience has primacy. We are sensible, sensitive creatures – we’re endowed with our six senses. The world they touch is our world – our experienced world, our life-world (in the modern philosophical term). Gotama called it our ‘domain’ (visaya), our place (loka). We should stay within it, never engaging with speculation about other supposed worlds or states of being. Such speculation leads only to frustration, inauthenticity, and misguided practice.

On and off the cushion, our experience is unpredictable. When we pay attention, on or off the cushion, this is precisely what we get from our experience: unpredictability, the stuff of our lives. On retreat, for instance, we may have an expansive, luminous experience, and think we’re really getting somewhere. But the following sit might be a painful dog’s breakfast. And here’s the takeaway: we can’t possibly know all the causal factors that throw up the experience we actually get.

Some meditators and meditation teachers have taken this advice to heart, but then gone on to draw a strange conclusion. If our experience is all, and teaches us all, we don’t need to bother with the rest of the Buddha’s teaching – the dharma. How convenient! Fortunately, there are two compelling reasons why we should still have the dharma at our fingertips.

 

First reason: the task-based ethical path

As Stephen Batchelor has shown, the dharma constitutes a task-based ethical path.

The four tasks (downgraded to ‘the four noble truths’ in conventional Buddhism) provide the cornerstone of dharma practice, and the Buddha laid heavy emphasis on the ethical foundations of meditation and the getting of wisdom: see not only the five precepts, the path factors of authentic (sammā) intention, speech, action and livelihood, but also his detailed suggestions on such matters as authentic speech, in which he emphasises the importance of tact. As dharma practitioners, the overarching virtue we should cultivate in our lives is care (appamāda).

Ethical practice transforms us, thus changing the way we manifest in the world, and so also transforms our experience as we access it in meditation and in everyday life. Ethical practice pushes us into a feedback loop – an upward spiral towards becoming what the Buddha called a ‘true person’: someone transformed by ethical-cum-meditative practice, who has creatively realised her or his human potential.

In the absence of dharmic understanding (in particular, dharmic ethics), the cultivation of mindfulness of our experience can still have an effect. It might make us more successful corporate leaders, more docile employees, more effective soldiers, or just more placid and contented individuals. But this falls well short of becoming a true person.

 

Second reason: we need to interpret our experience

The Buddha had a lot to say about meditation and how to approach it, especially in his discourse on the four ‘focuses of awareness’, the Satipatthāna sutta. But he didn’t tell his followers what to experience, or provide them with any meditation techniques. Experiences can’t be made to order any more than dreams can. And meditation is not a technical exercise, so prescribing techniques is simply counterproductive. Now some insight meditation teachers and many practitioners follow the Buddha’s example and cleave to non-formulaic, non-technical approaches to insight meditation.

This move makes familiarity with the dharma more – not less – essential, as the discourse I’ve mentioned exemplifies. We invite our mind-body to willy-nilly reveal its present contents (the sati, or mindfulness aspect), but we also need to make sense of what is being revealed (the sampajañña, or ‘clear comprehension’ aspect). The Buddha ran them together in one word, satisampajañña: awareness with clear comprehension.

Generating this embodied attention and clear comprehension is what insight meditation is all about. Even the sati aspect includes putting our experience into a temporal context, that is, bringing our recollection to bear on what is happening right now, in order to see the patterns.

There are plenty of concepts and dharmic lists in the Buddha’s discourse. They’re not there to tell us what experiences to have, or what conclusions to reach. Rather, together they constitute an heuristic matrix that equips us to explore and probe our experience, to make sense of it – to gain insight into it, and ultimately to attain freedom in whatever experience arises for us. That includes the freedom to choose what sort of person we aspire to become.

 

A simple message

Yes, direct experience has primacy, and rules out truth-claims, not least certitudes. But we need the dharma at our fingertips to cultivate the ethical path to self-transformation, and to make sense of our direct experience as we relax into uncertainty and navigate that path.

~ This talk was given to One Mindful Breath on 26 April 2017