A Case for Confusion
- The status quo, dominant culture of our society was not built to and cannot bring about liberation and justice for all people.
- What we practice with our lives — our habits and actions — often reinforces that status quo culture, even when we don’t mean for it to.
- Our opportunity is to become more conscious about what we’re practicing and make choices about how to practice in more liberatory, disruptively self-compassionate ways.
- Creating collective liberation — out in the world, for all people — starts with, and in fact depends on, our own inner liberation.
That is the heart work we’re doing here.
Published: March 1, 2018
A Case for Confusion
“All life begins in the dark.” Chani Nicholas
In 2016, my wife and I sat on opposite ends of our worn, black couch, tears blurring both our visions as we asked the question that had become the most angst ridden moment in our day and of our then-14-year-relationship: “can we just stay married today?” Angie and I had hit a barrier in our marriage that seemed insurmountable. Was, in fact, insurmountable. We had discovered an aspect of marriage on which we were not aligned — about which we not only thought and felt different things, but we were two different things. The issue had no middle ground. Compromise was not an option. We were both certain of our truths, and they conflicted. There was no path forward we could walk together. I remember how utterly confused I was, sitting on that couch — looking at this woman I’ve loved and been in love with for nearly two thirds of my life. The world as I had known it simply didn’t make sense. How had we gotten here? How was it that divorce was imminent — had become a daily consideration — for two people so deeply in love? The confusion was consuming. The ground was groundless. Everything I thought I knew — about marriage; about my marriage; about my relationship; about who I am as a partner; about my self — evaporated.
The kind of confusion I’m talking about isn’t a momentary pause or scratching of the head. I’m talking about the world-stops-working-how-you-thought-it-did confusion. There’s-no-way-out-of-this-intact confusion. And, as it turns out, it was a blessing learning how to rumble with it.
I have a teacher who says: “always argue for a state of absolute confusion.” For 34 years of my life, I wasn’t ready — and couldn’t have understood — that message. This month’s practice is about learning to feel — to tolerate. Even to want and actively pursue — confusion. On purpose. As a practice. And, in doing so, learning how to note and dis-arm our certainty.
The Practice of Certainty
“I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.” Gerry Spence
A spiritual teacher in my life used to tell me: “for anything you believe with absolute certainty and conviction, there are 10,000 people who believe the opposite and are even more certain and convicted than you.” For a while, I took that to mean: I need to sharpen my knives of moral conviction. But I had missed the point entirely.
Certainty — while a super awesome fist pump for our ego — is also a barricade. A closed door. Certainty — and its cousin, knowingness — often equate to impenetrability. Let’s look at how certainty functions, as a practice. When we are “certain,” we feel confident; protected; clear; absolved; unshakeable; safe; in control. (Are you already noticing why we tend to be so invested in being “right?”—in being certain?) But when we are certain, we also need a concept of right and wrong. To be certain is to be “right.” To be certain is to: “I rest my case.” To be certain is to typically be OK not deeply listening to other truths, because we’ve determined we don’t need them. The practice of certainty is, when we strip it down to its most elemental features, a preference and practice of: closed over open; criticism over curiosity; agreement over insight; reinforcing our world view; defending instead of welcoming.
What makes us human — what makes our time on this planet so remarkable — is experiencing connection, and connecting deeply to a sense of shared humanity with the other beings around us who are also traveling 1,037 mph on a tiny blue blob suspended by invisible nothingness in an infinite galaxy. And yet certainty prevents us from tapping in — truly; meaningfully — to that sense of shared humanity, because certainty often functions as a barrier. As a wall between two people, two worldviews. In certainty, we stop reaching for open understanding and connection with others, because we prefer the safety and stability of our preferences, our modalities, our opinions, our beliefs. To be truly open would require that we suspend and give up those aspects of self (and lay down defense, critique, or rebuttal) in order to be moved, changed, made different by, or connected to the new person, concept, or idea in front of us.
In Do The Heart Work, I encourage a self-reflective process of inquiry that asks emotions, thoughts, and behaviors: what is your purpose here? I slow down and take the time to inquire: how am I using this emotion? What am I really practicing? When I personally examine how I have and do use certainty in my life, here’s what I see. I use it to:
- Feel less insecure, which is to say — to try to establish safety and control
- Establish hierarchy, to feel superior — to feel “right” (which needs a “wrong” to exist)\
- Win or dominate — usually arguments
- Strengthen my ego
- Decide whether or not to listen to someone
- Appear strong / all-knowing. Especially as a woman.
- Have an excuse not to be vulnerable.
None of these intentions, motivations, or practices is inherently bad. But if my goal in life is a deep connection to and fervent protection of a sense of shared humanity that compels me to care for myself and others (and caring means ensuring we have a world with equal access to justice and resources), it strikes me that certainty: a) has historically been the thing that prevents equality, care, and justice (in fact it’s been used as a tool to justify war, oppression, atrocity, and genocide); b) functions at a micro-level to close, assert, and regain control. Certainty is not a position of openness. It’s not a position of connection. It is a stance of defense.
How We Benefit from Practicing Certainty
“We learn to be right and to make everyone else wrong. The need to be right is the result of trying to protect the image we want to project to the outside.” Don Miguel Ruiz
One way to answer the question: “what is this emotion/behavior’s purpose here?” is also to ask: “how do I benefit by practicing this thing? What do I stand to gain?” And with certainty, the rewards and benefits are incredibly compelling:
- A sense of security — a sense of comfort in believing we’re right.
- A sense of pride, for knowing the answer.
- Justification to blame or attack others, because the certainty of our rightness means their wrongness.
- When we are certain, we don’t have to change — our minds, values, beliefs, or opinions. Because we’re certain. And even though most people say they want to be challenged or they value learning and growth, for adults that means a blow to the ego. For adults, true learning means we have to be willing to risk our sense of Self — to reimagine who we believe we are. Certainty gives us a valid excuse not to have to do that sort of deep inner work. It lets us off the hook of change and growth.
- Self assurance and confidence.
- The ability to make swift decisions in a culture where time is of the essence.
The list goes on … It’s no surprise that we’re as attached to certainty — to knowingness — to rightness as we are. And it’s also been a practice in our culture for hundreds of years — a value and concept we’ve been trained to master. In a culture that has chosen to justify egregious acts against humanity in its past (and present), I personally believe we’ve learned to need and value a culture of certainty because it gives us a sense of absolution. If we are right about this concept or belief or religion or argument, our actions (no matter how oppressive) can be justified.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” Suzuki Roshi
For the rewards we think we’re getting, the costs of practicing certainty are significant. Even if our intentions are benevolent. Even if we don’t realize what we’re really practicing with our certainty (defense; control; attachment — to ideas, to being right, to our opinions). Which currency do you pay for your certainty?
- A struggle to be seen by and to see others; a struggle to connect deeply
- A tendency to critique and judge; to become hyper critical
- A struggle to tap into child-like wonder and curiosity
- A struggle to tap into deep joy
- Defensiveness and argumentativeness
- A lack of adaptability to change
- An addiction to “this is the way things [or I/our team/this company/etc.] have always been”
- A struggle to feel emotions and feelings
- A lack of hope
- Insecurity; a belief that your worth is linked to your “rightness”
- The need to explain yourself and your intentions, to exhaustion
- Strained relationships — folks who are hesitant to be with you, or hold back when they are with you (my wife calls this “walking on eggshells” around me)
Certainty’s Relationship with Racial Equity, Justice, and Liberation
“It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states, or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.”
― Joanna Macy
I spend a great deal of time with white folks in my line of work, doing the inner work of UNlearning the ways all white people have been conditioned to (consciously and unconsciously, individually and collectively) move toward power, control, and capital. I also spend a lot of time with diverse (in: age, socioeconomic background, race, religion, gender…) activists. And time and time again, I see certainty not only shut down connection, but often reinforce oppressive cultures, behaviors, tendencies, and beliefs.
For white people, certainty tends to function in racial and social justice spaces in a few ways:
- I may use my certainty about my intentions to justify/explain/or negate your feedback about my impact.
- I may use certainty about my convictions to demean, belittle, shame or attack yours which are different, or your lack of awareness and “wokeness” (which used to be my own lack of awareness and “wokeness,” but I won’t tell you that.).
- I may use certainty about my opinions to reinforce my unconscious racial arrogance. I will believe it’s totally appropriate and no big deal (you’re being too sensitive) for me to touch your hair; or ask you “what” you are; or call your boundaries “PC” and “uptight.” And I will probably do all of this while playing the “good white person” card, because I’m not able to hold the feelings and confusion that come with sincerely acknowledging my own relationship with racism. And because I have a black friend, and that makes me certain that I’m entitled to have all these unconsciously racist opinions and leave them unchecked.
For activists, broadly, certainty tends to function in racial and social justice spaces in a few ways:
- I may attack you with my certainty.
- I may condescend to you, and use my certainty of moral conviction to other you, to insinuate that you’re stupid, and/or judge you (especially on social media). I may weaponize my certainty, and use it to inflict shame or alienation.
- I may use my certainty as an excuse not to have to hold multiple truths, and generally to crusade for my “rightness”.
- I may use my certainty to not listen — to technically hear what you’re saying, but only with the agenda to use my certainty as an argument for why your opinion is wrong.
These lists aren’t mutually exclusive. The what of what’s on the list matters, but it’s not as poignant as the how which is similar: to defend, attack, negate, or separate/disconnect. And defending, attacking, negating, and separating from a sense of shared humanity are critical ingredients of oppression. We cannot rid the world of shame by shaming; violence (even if it’s emotional, psychological, and linguistic — and not physical) does not eradicate violence; alienation will never yield togetherness.
A Case for Confusion
“To transition we must enter a state in which we are no longer what we once were, and yet we are not who we must become. We have to be willing to stand in the open gap and momentarily risk being nothing.” Jim Manton
If certainty functions more often than not as a barrier to deep connection and a sense of shared humanity, confusion has the potential to break us wide open. To soften us. To create space rather than closure. To create intimacy rather than distance. To disarm rather than defend.
I believe that to live in America, and especially to be a white American, is to perpetuate — usually unconsciously with benign and even caring intentions — white dominance and superiority. What I mean by that, when we lose all the jargon, is the practice of simple, daily behaviors that function to exert control, acquisition, and power over. I want to examine the tendencies, personality traits, behaviors, beliefs, and values in myself which, when stripped to their bones, are really just attempts to control, acquire, or establish my power over. I know that I do these things hundreds of times a day, in micro behaviors — often in relationships with my family, or in my marriage, or as a caregiver to my nieces/nephews, or at work. Moments that seem to have nothing to do with race, or racial justice, or oppression and liberation. But I believe that how we do anything is how we do everything. And I also believe that life is a practice (not practice, but a practice). I want to be conscious about what I’m practicing and particularly of how I’m using my beliefs, behaviors, values, thoughts, and feelings. Especially if I’m using them as weapons and walls that strengthen the fallacy of separateness rather than as tools that bring me into deeper connection with and love toward those around me.
What’s true for me is that, more often than not, my practice of certainty is a tool of defense. I use it to disconnect from you. I use it to create distance and separation — even if that’s not my intention. And if that’s NOT what I want to be practicing, I have to make a choice to practice something else. I’m suggesting confusion as an antidote to certainty. When we are confused, we are open — we are in wonder — we are in “tell me more about that!” enthusiasm — we are in growth — we are in vulnerability. It’s difficult to try to stand in confusion and power over at the same time. It’s hard to control when you are surrendered.
It’s worth noting that curiosity is also a really valuable practice and closely connected to confusion. But the sort of confusion I’m arguing for — total surrender to not-knowing, to wonder, to your world being turned completely upside down and broken apart by what you hear — is beyond curiosity. Curiosity is a helpful tool and practice — and, it’s easy to make academic and safe. It’s easy to be curious on the periphery and still maintain that sense of distance. In confusion, there’s no safe ground — nothing on which to stand or defend.
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” Mary Oliver
Life is a practice. So let’s look at a few ways you might work to train in your capacity to be with and learn to preference confusion in exchange for certainty.
- Read about and practice “the beginners mind.” In Buddhism, we sometimes call this the “not knowing mind.” The danger here is performing a beginners mind. Your practice is to really adapt it. How would I show up, what sorts of questions might I have, if I approached this topic/person/experience as a complete novice?—As if I’m meeting this person, this idea, this place for the first time in my life?
- Practice the mantra (working toward believing this, with sincerity): “not always so.” What I think is not always so. What I believe is not always so.
- Practice seeing and acknowledging multiple truths and tensions. (They’re always there — we just often choose to ignore them.) Make scenarios and situations more complex by asking: “how else might someone feel? Who isn’t present here? Whose truth is getting preference? Whose voice is missing? What if I believed the opposite of what I currently believe? What if I came into this as if I know nothing about it?”
- Practice the skill of deep listening. Google. Go.
- Practice messing up. Yep. Practice failing. And learning to observe how it makes you more open, more receptive, more confused.
- Practice asking (sincere) questions when you’re temped to give an answer (try to unlearn answering, espousing, being the “expert” in as many places of your life as you’re able).
- Practice blows to your ego. Practice vulnerability; “looking stupid”; asking for help; humility; positioning others to shine in the spotlight.
- Practice inquisition about how you use your conviction, your commitment, your certainty. Study it like a bird watcher who is constantly open to seeing, who is trained to look in discrete places, who waits in stillness for the opportunity to observe and make note.
For 34 years of my life, I practiced certainty. And mastered it. I knew a lot of things. I had a lot of opinions. I had a healthy, confident, solidified sense of self. And 2016 blew all those things up. Because they kept me at bay. They gave me the fallacy of protection and control, when the reality is that nothing — no place — ever has ground beneath it. I am in control of nothing, no matter how much I long to believe I am. “Can we just stay married today?” turned my world upside down, and those tears and conversations on the couch taught me the value of confusion. Had we been certain — had we clung to certainty in order to feel safe — Angie and I would not have made it through together. My marriage thrives on and in the essence of confusion — the willingness to have no idea, and the choice to go there anyway without any of the tools of defense or safety or certainty that usually make us feel safe. My aspiration has become this: that there is no feeling, no thought, no belief I will cling to so tightly as to separate or disconnect me from my wife — or, from you. I will meet you anywhere. But it requires that I lay down my certainty. That I surrender to and am willing to be (and look forward to being) completely confused and un-knowing. That is the defenseless path of possibility — discovery — awe — openness — and connection.
Sometimes I fantasize about being interviewed by Oprah (that’s normal, right?). We sit on those plush, wicker chairs in her backyard with a cup of hot coffee, and she gets to the moment that everyone dreams of: “What do you know for sure?” she asks. I want to be able to say to her — with complete truthfulness; with total sincerity; with utter emptiness — “not a damn thing.” Because I’ve lived a practice of being open rather than closing off. Because I’ve learned to become soft when the status quo says I should harden. Because I have given myself to confusion rather than certainty. Because I choose the wide open field of connection instead of the locked door of control.