Skepticism really isn’t that fun

Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra 1.25 tatra niratiśayaṁ sarvajña bījam

Here's a pic of my sister and my mom not buying whatever my cousin is selling on the other side of the table.

Here’s a pic of my sister and my mom not buying whatever my cousin is selling on the other side of the table.

For most of my life, I’ve been a bit of a skeptic. This peaked between the ages of 12 and 27. In my teenage years, I was afraid of looking dumb or seeming gullible so I wasn’t willing to accept most of what I was told. The stronger position seemed to be “Well, I don’t think so. That sounds crazy. That person might not be a reliable source,” or other vague arguments that allowed me to feel protected from the dubious world of misinformation. I didn’t want to be swept up into any trends or crazes and then have to be embarrassed when the social-jury deemed it ‘lame,’ and I didn’t want to feel duped when the new-fangled idea of the day was proven wrong. So, I just didn’t go along with much.

I remember getting into an argument about cutting boards with a friend who had spent two semesters in culinary school. We were at my grandmother’s house washing dishes after a really nice meal together and as we dried my grandma’s cracked and slightly moldy wooden cutting board, I said something like, “This cutting board is gross. My mom always uses plastic ones so she can put them in the dishwasher.” And my friend said something like, “Wooden ones are better. That’s what we use at school.” My defenses fired and instead of asking more or deferring to his experience I dug my heels in about the merits and clear superiority of plastic over wood. I argued about it for a long time. He said knives didn’t dull as quickly on wood. Wood had natural anti-germ properties. Yes, they require a little more care and attention, but it’s a natural material. I just kept insisting I was right and they were gross. The conversation ended and I left feeling like I won the argument but I also felt like a jerk. I didn’t even really believe plastic was better. I knew I was being annoying and not very nice but I couldn’t help myself. I was a dedicated skeptic.  (I’m still embarrassed as I think about this conversation, so thank you for letting me confess it here. Maybe now I can let this 20+ year issue lay to rest.)

I bring all of this up because I’ve come a long way. And I actually think that this piece of letting myself take in stuff without being afraid of getting duped or with so much skepticism is a big part of my personal growth and enjoyment of my life. Yesterday morning, I was sitting with my yoga sūtras notes imagining all the ways that YS 1.25 could feel true. Tatra there, referring to īśvara, the subject of the previous sutra niratiśaya – unlimited; without limits, sarvajña – all understanding bījam – seed. Instead of finding holes in the argument, I wondered what insight might come as I considered this very broad idea of Īśvara, a higher power. I looked for ways that I felt that power in my life. I wondered about the usefulness of allowing for the possibility that there is something bigger than myself and perhaps even a plan for me and my life. What does it feel like to consider something without limits? What’s the closest experience I’ve had to that? If there’s really an unlimited source of all understanding, do I have an experience of what the seed of that feels like?

These kinds of questions and this very personal exploration is an approach that feels so much better than arguing against stuff all of the time. It’s better, but it can also feel vulnerable to withhold judgment and stay open. There are times when asking questions and staying open is too hard and I go back to that old ‘strong and safe’ stance that goes along with judging, deciding, and dismissing, but life is definitely more interesting when I can stay open. It feels softer. I learn more. And, no doubt, it is much more pleasant to wash dishes with me.

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