I hesitated for some time before the blaring blank box of this post, through sip after sip of my steeping tea, and I am unsure what to say and I am certain I have something to say. It occurs to me that my hesitation is the point.
I have been thinking about doubt. I am reading what Mr. Feynman says about how hard-won uncertainty is the exact right place for science to begin, and it is this same uncertainty that finds so much resistance in the wider world, making for a modern society where science is irrelevant, save a few select applications. "The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer there is no need to gather any evidence about it."
We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified -- how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don't know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.
At the same time, the writing of artists and spiritual teachers on the essentialness of doubt has been jumping out at me. I nod to it; this idea is not new to me, and while I need to remind myself of it often, uncertainty is as true as true is true.
But I am amused to notice that I treat self-doubt as if it -- as if I -- were a different animal than all the rest.
In Bright-sided, Barbara Ehrenreich made a distinction that stays with me. Hope is a feeling, she writes, something we experience viscerally and that we cannot particularly control; optimism, on the other hand, is a cognitive stance. A chosen position.
It seems to me that the space between what is felt and what is chosen is where doubt grows. If feelings come and go outside our choosing, I'd say that moods are what we choose to pay attention to.
If I am feeling lonely, say, my attention to that feeling breeds a mood that is unsettled and sorrowful. Now, attention to how I feel is important, urgent even; god knows I have work to do here. But overindulgence of that loneliness exaggerates it into something that begins to have the solidity of something certain: I start to mistrust those who love me, and those who don't. I come to conclusions about them, myself. I discard doubt. I claim a cognitive stance.
The bar is set, then. The further it is from what first washed over me -- maybe a twinge at being left out of a dinner party, maybe the deeper hurt of betrayal or broken heart -- the unsteadier it is to straddle the space between what is felt and what is chosen. "Things fall apart. The center cannot hold." It is tempting to bolster the center simply by turning up the heat on our cause-and-effect narratve -- how I got here from there -- in a perfectly logical way.
The same formula plays out on a positive plane as well, with cheerier feelings of ambition and gratitude and bliss. "Equanimity" is a boring word, but it's one that speaks to something kinetic and beautiful: a narrow space between feeling and mood. A care with where we put our attention.
Our bodies have so much to teach us about equanimity! Think of the way orgasm brings simultaneity to our feeling and our attention. The same thing happens when our kitchen chopping knife breaks our skin. When we bodily feel things that are longer-lasting -- the weakness of a broken foot, or the warmth of a long night's embrace -- we learn to be alert to what's happening without giving it every second of our attention. We notice, we feel, we adjust, we let go. We cycle through this until our bone knits itself back together. Or until we we wake up with our lover, blinking in the morning light, and we part our skin from theirs, and we ease on into our day.
I've written before about experiences that have, I think, distorted my sense of scarcity and abundance. I think this connects to how my self-doubt often comes holding hands with shame. Maybe the fiction story I wrote isn't good -- and I am a poor writer, and worse, one with pretenses. Maybe I haven't spent enough effort in centering relationships with my friends and family -- and it's because I'm selfish and lazy, and I'll pay for it with my isolation. Maybe I shouldn't be feeling so much self-doubt -- it is an unappealing quality that is truncating my ability to be in love, alive in the world. Why am I not inking designs on my naked skin, and dancing in the woods, and writing fantastical strange stories, and running through sand, and kayaking rivers that I don't know at all but are familiar to me because they are rivers: I love these things, so why am I not doing them, right now, this night? What is missed? What am I missing?
I'm not berating myself. I'm laughing!
My feelings are real, but it is a funny thing how I enlarge my feelings into such broad unscientific, inartistic, un-spiritual conclusions that are, by nature, un-true. This is not to say that I shouldn't be precise and honest about my failings and regrets, but churning in self-doubt until it becomes shame is me grasping for certainty. It puts a glaring spotlight on my discomfort with my own vulnerable feelings, and reveals my eagerness to trade it in for a cognitive stance. The intellectual plane feels safer.
But if I stop thinking of my body as some kind of exception to the marvelous inhale-exhale of this world of nature, art, spirit, I might remember doubt as the perfect beginning. I might internalize Mr. Feynman's description of the act of science, and, by analogy, translate self-doubt into a question. Then, discussing "each question within the uncertainties that are allowed. And as evidence grows it increases the probability perhaps that some idea is right, or decreases it. But it never makes absolutely certain one way or the other."
Feynman's unexpectedly direct message to Anna goes on:
We do not know what the meaning of existence is. We say, as the result of studying all the views that we have had before, we find that we do not know the meaning of existence; but in saying that we do not know ... we have probably found the open channel -- if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain -- (that we) "hazard it." The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it "muddling through," and although this a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar -- ajar only. ... It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: "This is a solution to it all." Because we will be chained then to the limits of our present imagination. We will only be able to do those things that we think today are the things to do.
This, then, is the method, for science and for ourselves:
Doubt. Doubt fiercely and constantly. Boil your doubt into questions, asked with clarity and bravery. Percolate an idea, rooted both in experience and wonder. Pay attention to the questions and ideas of others. Play around with your intuition, trust it, even, but don't count on it: there's always the chance that something different than anything you ever knew is real.
Then: thoughtful and exuberant experiments. Be tactile. Be specific. Don't be afraid of boredom, or of rigor. Be watchful over whatever happens with your experiments: don't pay attention just to the good stuff and not just to the bad stuff. Be honest about your own power: how you are and are not capable of influencing what happens.
For all this effort, probably your experiments end in a 'muddle.' No matter, Samuel Beckett pipes up. The muddle matters too. Try again. Fail. Fail better.
It's almost joyful, isn't it? Let's play.