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Being Wrong

Being wrong is one of our biggest fears. We associate it with humiliation* and a kind of ego-death. In her TED talk, author of “Being Wrong,” Kathryn Shulz, asks people what it feels like to be wrong, and they respond that it feels terrible and embarrassing. She corrects them- they are describing what it feels like to realize they are wrong. In fact when people are wrong, ie believing a falsehood, it feels to them like being right. Being wrong feels like being right.

Truth be told, we are wrong a lot. How many times have you taken something personally that had nothing to do with you? How many times have you been certain of your doom, then you found the keys, made the plane, or caught yourself mid-fall? How many times have you drastically underestimated the time it would take for you to do something?

Our brains are nowhere near objective instruments. Our perception is rife with false beliefs, biases, projections and distortions. We can get scared and mistrust our sanity, or we can begin to hold all impressions more loosely, like a scientific hypothesis that may well be disproven. This is a more childlike way to view the world- back when our brains were sponges and we could learn anything. It is the same mindset that allows us to learn and grow as adults: innocent, curious, playful, experimenting. Alan Alda said,“Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.” How can we live so open to the world that we let it transform us?

It helps to realize that “knowing" is overrated. We think we know who someone is, or what something is, and we stop taking in the rippling, shimmering, dynamic mystery of our beloved, or the oak tree. Let “I don’t know” be my mantra, and let me break that addiction to being right about everything.

In her wonderful book, Schulz notes how obsessed we are with being right about everything- from traffic directions to ice cream flavors, to sporting stats; we wouldn’t just kiss anyone, but we are happy to be right about the most petty, insignificant things. This being right is empty. It may feel satisfying in the short-term, but it really separates us from others, by posturing as better-than. That separation is painful and it takes tension to sustain, energy to defend. Being right closes our minds. Wondering opens our minds. All “your answers questioned!” Osho promises.

I went through a pretty rough patch for a couple of years, just turning around in 2020. I witnessed neurosis after neurosis turn innocuous mole hills into staggering mountains. I could tell I was creating my own suffering but was at a loss as to how to stop. One gift of this time, and other periods of suffering, is in the humbling it brings. The words humble, humiliation, and human, all spring from the Latin word for ground, humus. As my high horses stumbled and vaporized I got closer and closer to the earth, and all beings. My only conviction, “I know nothing.” While it’s not skillful to go into complete collapse and self-negation, there is some wise middle-path here, where we use the relentlessly humbling experience of being a human to get really close to the ground and look up at the noble grasses, the wise chickadee and patient snail. We get to be ordinary, part of the great order of things, part of a harmony so vast our human minds can’t begin to grasp it. Our old strategies and acts are not working so finally we begin to give the reins over to a greater flow. Hopefully, we get to be like the starling who instinctively tilts left, simultaneous with her thousand-fold tribe, part of great murmurations in the sky. Hopefully, life begins to move though us as breath through a reed flute.

I thought I wanted to be right, to be good at things and get lots of praise and validation. If only.. then I might feel more solid, more safe. And I have done a lot of that and been handsomely rewarded. But whenever I start contorting myself to please others, I get all twisted up in my head, weighing infinite perspectives and searching for some imaginary right thing to do. It feels horrible, like having the brake and the gas pedals down at the same time- an inner battle. I feel like an imposter, and harden in my shoulders, chest and solar plexus. The only relief is to get out of the way, and let something bigger than me dance on through. It’s always a leap of faith. Every time I feel like a baby bird falling out of the nest, madly flapping my puny wings, and I then begin to feel the wind of something bigger slow my tumble, and begin to float me along.

It’s ironic that I feel the most myself when some mysterious unfolding is in the driver’s seat. But it makes sense! As Michael Singer pointed out, the poor little mind— we have demanded it get everyone to like us, know everything, be right all the time, be good at everything, get all the things we want, and avoid all the things we don’t want. No wonder it is miserable! It is much happier in service to something bigger. We think we want to control everything, but even deeper, in our heart of hearts, we want to give it all away in love, as love, in doer-less doing, with no ownership, no me/world distinction. Just an empty vessel for the breath of God. Not resisting, not clinging, not making a story about it, not making a “me” out of it. Just dancing, just playing. Not knowing, not needing to know.

The funny thing is that as much as we avoid it, realizing we are wrong is how we wake up, and how we grow up. “Oh! I thought I was this solid, separate self that is in constant danger and needs advocacy and protection! But I was wrong! (Big sigh of relief.) I experience myself now as fluid, porous, infinitely interconnected oneness!” Or growing up, “Wow! I thought I was this victim that gets screwed over and over, who is entitled to have everything be how I want. But I was wrong, hallelujah! I am fully responsible for my experience and feelings. I am empowered to choose another way. I once ached to get what I deserve. Now I am now wondering what I can give, how can I help?” What relief, what tenderness and wonder in those tastes of freedom from “the prison of self-concern,” as Thomas Merton calls it. What a gift to realize our mistake.

Making mistakes is how we learn. I heard a story about Zen Master Suzuki Roshi once (which I cannot find on the web). This is my memory: A student was awestruck at the grace and completeness with which the Master performed a tea ceremony. The Roshi was completely present in every moment, one with each pour of the tea, and breath and sensation. Responding to the praise, Suzuki said, “You see me doing it right now, but what you cannot see is the hundred times I did it wrong before today.” In his awesome video on mistakes, Trevor Ragan talks about how, as children, we only learn how to walk by making a thousand mistakes. And these mistakes don’t phase us at all- in fact most stumbles are even celebrated as a game.

I marvel at how intolerant of mistakes I have become since I was an open little one. I hate sucking at things (like surfing), and tend to only do things I am naturally good at. What a small world that can make! I am beginning to sense into another way of being. It is scary and awkward to venture out into territory where I am a clumsy novice. It’s also exciting. I am exhausted from having to be jaw-droppingly amazing at everything. With those kind of standards, even if I hit it out of the park, I am still only breaking even. I often opt for paralysis or distraction instead of risking failure.

I was at a meal with friends last year, and I knocked a glass onto the floor of the restaurant. It exploded shards and water everywhere. To my astonishment, my friends, a very wise couple, instantly cheered me, clapping and shouting “Yay! Good Job!” It wasn’t sarcasm, they were celebrating my mistake, as you might cheer on a baby wobbling to her feet.

What would that be like, to not just tolerate, but celebrate mistakes? To be liberated from the need to be right/not wrong, good/not bad? To be free of the need to know? How would it feel in the body? To not have a way you have to be, to have no idea of yourself to live up to? As a thought experiment, a glimpse practice, try these questions on, and soak in the felt experience of the space they open. What would it feel like to be free of the need for love, appreciation and approval?** What would it be like to be free of fear? If you are getting a taste- know that that is you- your true nature, underlying all the noise and motion and habits, already whole and complete, missing nothing, lacking nothing, always here.

“Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing

there is a field- I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.” - Rumi

*Caroline Myss calls humiliation the number one human fear, and asks, what have you not done- what life have you not lived- for fear of humiliation?

** The genius liberator, Byron Katie says, “if I had a prayer, it would be this: God, spare me from the desire for love, approval, or appreciation.”

-Thanks to David Kovalenko for the awesome pic of the plane in the trees.

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