Are You Sure? MLK, Thich Nhat Hanh and Self-Reflection

This winter marks ten years since I released Soul Force, a full-album tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. In the ensuing decade, it’s interesting to note the shift in my worldview. Of course, along the way there has been a decade of parenthood, physical struggles and triumphs, profound world events, and so on. The takeaway is that I now have stronger convictions to which I’m less attached. Huh?

It’s not easy to explain, but I’ll try. There has been a deepening of my sense of commitment to goodness, to love, to peace, to justice and so on. I have stronger opinions of what all of that means . . . and a greater detachment from those opinions. I mean, really, what the @#$! does any of us actually know so definitively that it’s accurate 100% of the time? So more and more often I ask myself “are you sure?”

When the time came to go out on a limb and release my singer-songwriter EP last fall, I wanted a name for the “band” (in quotes since on these recordings I played and sang everything). Anyone who’s spent time with me is probably eye-rolling at the thought of how often I respond to a funny turn of phrase with “that’d be a good name for a (band, song, album).” Yet in this instance I wanted something with a little more dignity and relevance. I kept coming back to “Are You Sure?”

The reference is to something life-affecting I read in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh back in my 20s. He suggests writing those three words (“Are You Sure?”) on a piece of paper and placing it somewhere obvious so you will look at it every day. Getting unstuck from rigid perceptions, he explains, is fundamental to our achieving “right thought” and liberating our minds.

For those unaware of him and his work, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who has authored something like 75 books (not a typo) and has been a world leader in applying those principles both for helping Westerners understand the principles of mindfulness and in addressing inequality, war, violence and other difficult real-world issues. Now in his late 80s, he is currently defying the odds by regaining at least some of his capacities after a massive brain hemorrhage in the fall.

If I wanted to tie this into the holiday celebrating the birth and life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it would probably be enough to simply point out that Dr. King was an admirer, who actually nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 for his courageous peace activism amidst the Vietnam War (breaking protocol by speaking publicly about the nomination and the need for people to pay attention to his work). On a much deeper level, though, this “are you sure?” principle relates directly to our personal and societal need to re-examine and scrutinize embedded perceptions that may not all be completely valid.

As I’ve contemplated writing this, I’ve thought of all the exceptions I can list (things we should not subject to the heresy of “are you sure?”), but on closer examination I’m not sure that I have found any exceptions. That is because on closer examination, it seems that any kind of scrutiny of our perceptions will lead to one of two conclusions: either the perception in question could use some refining (which, insofar as that makes it more consistent with reality is a good thing – the reality is there whether you face or avoid it), or the perception remains intact with no harm done from the examining.

So am I saying that we should reconsider our most basic beliefs? Question that our God is real, question that we are attached to our parents, question that love is better than hate? Well, yes and no. I am not calling these principles into question, but I’m confident that contemplating these things doesn’t threaten their strength and validity . . . and it’s a slippery slope from refusing to scrutinize basic tenets of reality to refusing to scrutinize outdated and unhealthy perceptions. 2 plus 2 has equaled 4 every time I’ve checked, but that doesn’t mean does any harm to periodically check again. A case could be made that it’s simply impractical to question everything all the time, and on some level that’s true – if we literally did that with every perception all the time, it would be overwhelming. I am not, for example, stopping as I type this to consider whether English is the proper language for the essay or whether I’m using the correct fingers or whether I should instead be getting up to pee (. . . well actually, hold on a second . . .). However, we can tell when something is stirred up enough to warrant that examination, and in those cases the extra time and effort it would take to ask ourselves “are you sure?” is no greater than the time and effort it takes to dig in our heels to maintain that our perception is the correct one.

This is true regardless of your politics or faith or any other identifying traits informing your belief system. It’s pretty obvious that my own politics are to the left and that my own faith is pretty open-ended. But I never stop questioning whether my perceptions are right.

Part of why I’m presenting this idea in the context of MLK is that I’ve recently found myself debating the state of race relations in the USA with greater frequency. I stop to contemplate every argument I hear from the other side, even if I’m offended. Those who feel otherwise (spoiler alert: I personally keep concluding that people of color have not gotten a fair shake) have accused me of being closed-minded and I’ve considered that too – IS my approach closed-minded? It may be that in the context of debate the proper protocol is to stand my ground and not show “weakness” of convictions to someone who appears unwilling to consider other ideas. Am I sure that this is the correct protocol? Well, no, and I’m even less sure that closing off my own mind to these other ideas, as much as they may offend me, helps anybody – if I’m frustrated by others’ closed-mindedness, I have a responsibility to do better.

As such, it’s worth making the distinction here between rigidity of beliefs and confidence of energy and actions. I am aware that on an in-the-moment basis, there are any number of scenarios in which it is useful or even necessary to act from a place of assuredness. I’ve spent my adult life aware of this in the context of playing music – it’s important to scrutinize things when practicing, but it’s important to let that go and just play when on the bandstand. Heck, even in my limited success on the tennis court, it was always pretty clear that the tinkering I did while honing my game had no place in the stay-focused world of actual competition. When your child asks “do you love me?” that is not the time to stop and question the metaphysics of the question. When somebody is drowning and you have the chance to pull him out of the river, that is not the time to contemplate what mortality really means. From doctors to teachers to soldiers, there are many people who need to be decisive in the moment. I would say, though, that people in ALL of these positions DO benefit from introspection and examination of principles, best practices and so on. Certainly as a physically disabled person, I have learned to run, not walk (unless, of course, my body hurts too much to run – it’s a figure of speech, work with me here) away from any doctor whose approach is closed off to new information, instead relying on “I’ve seen x number of patients in my day and I know what’s right.” True wisdom does not preclude continued learning and self-examination.

So the $64,000 question is WHY we resist this. I’ve narrowed it down to three things.

1 ) It’s easier to hang on to our existing set of beliefs and perceptions than to re-route. Likewise it’s easier to file away the logical conclusion we’ve made in the moment as being correct than to consider the less-likely alternatives.

2 ) It feels better to appear (and feel) authoritative about things. Confidently stating the expert opinion at the party (or in the classroom or on social media or whatever) makes you “bigger” than

3 ) It can be scary to imagine the chain reaction if one of the chips should fall from our belief system. What else may crumble as a result?

So, in summary, convenience, ego, fear. I can relate to all of them. I like to make my judgment and get it over with, I like to sound smart and I like to feel like I understand (and thus can work within) the ways of the world. I like to think that I’m a good person and it’s thus completely tempting to simply craft a worldview that logically brings a rational person to that conclusion. I have yet to meet a person sufficiently enlightened for these motivations to be completely inert.

I recently thought of an interaction from a few years back with my SFAM (sister-from-another-mother) Rachel Green. She’s now a wonderful mental health professional (click here to check out her current work) but one among her diverse earlier-in-life resume points is a lengthy stint as a touring singer-songwriter (fans of my work may recognize the name as the composer of “The Dance,” which I recorded on Turtle Steps). I was reminiscing about my first time hearing her perform – it was at the WNPR studios in the late 1980s when I was a freshman in high school. I remembered the original songs she performed, plus a couple cover songs including Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Rachel gently pointed out that she never performed that song . . . and I clung to it – “No, you definitely did.” And so it went for a little while until she graciously conceded that maybe she was remembering wrong. With some further reflection I realized that, of course, she was right – she did Chris Smither and Tom Waits covers that night and the Joni Mitchell moment I remembered was something and someone entirely different that I had managed to conflate with her concert. What is interesting to me is how determined I was to be right, on a level that superseded my determination to be thoughtful, accurate and so on.

But here’s the thing – in that setting it’s kind of stupid but ultimately pretty harmless, as are many trivial arguments that people have, clinging to strong opinions about the relative merits of this movie or that sports team or who is the greatest-ever guitar player or what have you. It’s not always that harmless. When we stay stuck in perceptions that lead us to judge others or evaluate the world around us, that can lead to delusion, intolerance and just plain old grumpy isolation. Looking back at my childhood (and based on “information” coming from a whole host of different sources), here are some perceptions I had:

- Black people are “other”
- Polish people are stupid
- Being nice to others is a good thing
- Gay people are weird
- Ugly people are to be mocked (and hopefully I’m not ugly)
- Girls are nicer than boys
- Stupid people are to be looked down on
- Violence is wrong
- Eating vegetables is healthy
- Eating meat (including fast food) is healthy
- Getting drunk is bad, but kind of funny
- Physical exertion is dangerous

I could go on, but you get the idea. I look at this list now and see a jumbled mess of things that are true, things that are false, things that are gross oversimplifications or misrepresentations of phenomena that have some germ of truth to them, things that are true under very specific circumstances, things that are offensive, things that are untrue but kind of humorous and so on. I haven’t the vaguest idea who I would be if I had taken these things for granted on an ongoing basis. And I also see how some of these perceptions (particularly the more prejudicial ones) were products of a world that was still limping along the path to greater enlightenment. We still are of course, though we’re getting farther. If I had been born a few generations earlier, my perceptions of minority groups would have probably been a lot worse, while most young people I meet today are brought up with a more progressive view than I had.

BUT that is possible because of the courage of so many people along the way who were and are willing to question the status quo of their perceptions. I’ve written plenty on this blog about the need to fight for love and justice and equality, but it’s important (as both Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King did so much to teach us) to remember that this springs forth from our own personal journeys to living in an inner world of just, compassionate thought.

As an adult I think my perceptions are more accurate, wiser and more humane. But if I came to that place of greater clarity through ruthless examination of my perceptions, what would make me think that I can STOP doing that now? Quite the contrary, my integrity and sanity depend on perpetual questioning. AM I a good person? DO I treat my kids as lovingly as I should? IS my commitment to my work what it could be? ARE my actions sufficiently in tune with my stated desires to see a just, equitable world for all? DOES my day-to-day life mirror my public persona? ARE my conclusions coming from the message and not from my feelings about the messenger? DO I have the talents (and limitations) that I and others think I do? DO I know what I’m talking about? IS this entire essay actually worth a reader’s time?

It’s a lot easier to indignantly say OF COURSE and scoff a little and get on with my day, maybe even conflate rigidity of thought with self-esteem (whereby the questioning can be dismissed as unhealthy self-doubt). And I won’t lie, sometimes I do. And then I hear Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice asking “are you sure?” and I think of Dr. King and all those who refused to accept the inner or outer status quo so that my children could live in a better world. And I dig in and reconsider – it is the least I can do.

One ResponseLeave one →

  1. Mo Sila

     /  January 30, 2015

    Thought provoking and immensely helpful. Thank you.

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