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What if?
April 28th, 2016

“What if?”, © 

Our capacity for auto-conviction is large. This can be a strength or a weakness. We generalise abusively from a few examples to grand rules, this can mean efficient learning, it can also mean unexamined prejudices and unrealistic expectations.

A key to separating strength from weakness is cultivating awareness of these ‘discernment’, ‘grasping’ and ‘generalisation’ processes: to know that we're generalising, and to know the bases of the rule we draw, so that we might enquire into the appropriateness / usefulness of the drawn rule in another context! The awareness allows to question, beyond the ‘I feel like it’ or ‘that's what feels right’.

It is known that expertise comes with familiarity, and basically with having seen a sample large enough to draw ‘rules’ that are less caricatural than most observers with a small set of observations would draw. And to have integrated such rules so that they become ‘intuitive’. There's nothing inherently wrong with ‘I feel it's the answer’, but it doesn't allow to improve if we cannot pin-point how we came to be wrong, whenever we are. In accordance with this, the Japanese culture has long promoted introspection and awareness in the search for perfection (be it in calligraphy, pottery, poetry, flower arrangement… or drawing swords!): being an expert still goes hand in hand with paying attention to the situation at hand, rather than blinding oneself by arrogantly assuming that one knows ‘everything’.

The quality of attention even when one ‘knows’ is what distinguishes the highest masters. It's also what allows them to correct any flaw arising early on, before it takes significant proportions. This is totally compatible with what the Buddha describes as ‘right effort’: a zeal for the non-arising of unarisen evil unwholesome states (as well as a zeal for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states, a zeal for the arising of unarisen wholesome states, and a zeal for the increase and fulfillment of arisen wholesome states).

And so a key aspect of buddhist practice, in which some qualities or factors, and wisdom, ought to be ‘perfected’, is to remain vigilant, to pay attention, to one's practice! And a pertinent question to do so is ‘What if?’.

So… what if I'm over-generalising here? Maybe projecting some well-known past into a future, while missing that my practice itself has changed the context and therefore might change the unfolding? [Quite obviously, the fact that I couldn't do something in the past doesn't necessarily imply that I cannot now, most notably if I trained specifically in the meantime in order to become capable! ]

So… what if I'm caricaturing a difficulty, making it an unassailable big and hard ball? What if I'm confusing what I feel (which is influenced by what I expect!) with what's actually happening in my body? What my body ends up tense, not because of external factors stressing it, but because of my unexamined mind triggering a fight-or-flight hormonal response (even in the absence of physical danger to fight or flee)?

So… what if I'm doing body-scan but forgetting that my mind highlights some phenomena and ignores others, thereby biasing any auto-diagnostic? Sometimes I'll convince myself that a pain is unbearable even though it's perfectly manageable if I just sit through it; at other times, I'll convince myself that a pain can be ignored, when I'm actually damaging my body and should wisely move, letting go of unwholesome stubbornness…

There's no predefined answer to ‘what if?’ We cannot presume whether it will confirm or infirm a previous conclusion, but it's a tool to examine, to learn, to expand the awareness and therefore the understanding of causality.

It's OK to ask ‘what if I'm right?’ and ‘what if I'm wrong?’, but these are still caricatures of a black&white world.

It's usually more helpful to find nuances, additional information that might tweak an approach without invalidating it completely. So ‘what if I'm exaggerating?’ and ‘what if I missed some useful information?’ might be more promising than ‘what if I'm right/wrong?’

A recent example I came across with a student was in dealing with the view ‘something is wrong with me’, on a medical level… and making a big, hard unassailable problem that entirely blocked her horizon.

Given the symptoms described and the environment she lives in, an ‘easy’ question though was ‘what if it's not ‘with you’, but with the environment?’ i.e. ‘what if you're not sick as an individual, but suffer from a peak of pollution?’ There's no immediate or easy answer to such a question, but it highlights that some possible causes for the observed symptoms were highlighted by the mind and others ignored… and, unsurprisingly, the mind focused on ‘me, me, me’ and ignored the rest: ‘what's wrong with me?’

Self-preservation may seem an effective default strategy, with no downside if we're wrong (‘false positive’ signal): when we make sure we're healthy, we're not creating risk if we already were healthy. It might seem so but, really, it's an ignorant delusion! By wasting our attention on the wrong object, we might ignore what actually creates a risk, and we might ignore it long enough (an ‘enough’ which might be pretty ‘short’!) for the risk to materialise… and then we're taken off-guard, because we were focusing on the wrong risk all along, and we respond in a sub-optimal, ill-informed way! There's no wisdom in planning a response to a non-existent risk, while being blind to an actual risk! So a wise, unbiased diagnostic is the most constructive approach, without self-indulgent biases and preferences, without belittling some risks and magnifying others (e.g. considering a 4/1,000,000 risk as a 40% risk), etc. If what we need is to change the environment and have some fresh air in the countryside, staying in a polluted town to see a doctor to determine what's wrong is worsening rather than helping the situation! There's no easy answer: “see the doctor” is not one either! [Another classic example is that people's heart rate is faster when a doctor listens to it… which doesn't help doctors with diagnosing heart conditions! No easy answer!]

Many students forget that, as they progress, they gradually learn to cultivate an equanimous “open awareness”… but that, no matter how useful opening up to a wider perspective is, sometimes the appropriate approach is not to take an ill-defined problem in its entirety but precisely to decompose it into smaller, better-defined parts! What if the form of meditation you rely on today isn't the most appropriate to your context? What if, instead of cultivating equanimity to all thoughts that arise, today you need to examine the said thoughts, discern those which are caricatural and treat them as such (letting them be, but not taking them too seriously prior to further nuances being asserted)? What if today you need to pay attention to the nuances between perceptions, sensations, feelings, thoughts, conclusions, views? What if today you need to pay attention to the nuance between the body informing the mind, and the mind informing the body (both channels possibly counting on hormones as a communication medium… and therefore possibly tricking themselves, creating self-perpetuating stress-worry-stress loops)?

Sometimes, as an antidote to complacency, “what if I die tomorrow?” is a good motivator to get back into practice, or to make the phone call or the apology we know we need to do but keep postponing anyway…

But at other times, “what if I'm not dying (right away)?” is the more useful question. Letting the fear of death dictate our responses, and letting it blind us from others, isn't particularly helpful to anyone, least of all to ourself! Even if we're dying (i.e. the answer to the “what if” brings a nuance, but doesn't invalidate the initial diagnostic), the fear of death might prevent us from appreciating whatever good there is between now and our death!

So… what if we missed a nuance? “Keep paying attention”, “don't-know” (as Korean Seon Buddhists would say)!

A question that has proven helpful to many is “what is this?” (this experience, this life, this reality…). It's a call to pay attention, rather than a call for definite answers. It points that definite answer might well be true in a moment but unreliable the next, and that attention and iteration are more constructive than certainties to deal with life: there's no reliable “user manual” for life, even if many books have been written on the topic! This ‘many’ is itself a strong hint that there's no reliability in them!

But sometimes, in spite of knowing that this hwadu is a call to pay attention, the brain does nonetheless grasp a definite answer, a ‘certainty’, and clings to it. In such a circumstance, “what is this?” can be used recursively: what is this answer? What is this certainty? Is it as certain as it appears to be? Etc. But an alternative can also be used: « what if our answer now blinds us from on-going changes, becomes outdated no matter how right it ‘was’, blinds us from opportunities now arising? »

There's this line, starting the Dhammapada, that most translators struggle with, about “the mind precedes the worldly phenomena, is their chief”.

Partly, it is a problem only because too many people confuse some ‘objective’ world (I probably should use more quote marks!) with the ‘perceived’ world: they turn a sentence which indicates that one's anticipations and expectations bias one's perceptions into some grand causality on rebirth.

Partly, it is made difficult by turning ‘chief’ into a sort of controller, what's in charge and dictates (like a law), rather than simply the foremost, the most important, the one we hear most loudly… But if I say that we automatically pay a lot more attention to whatever goes on in our head, than to whatever goes on in the world, there's nothing highly metaphysical or surprising! The mind is the ruler of phenomena, as we look ‘up’ to it whenever it makes itself manifest, not as a God that can dictate what the world actually is based on its will!

But what if I'm missing something here?

Insterestingly, even if one stays partly blind due to preconceptions, prejudices, fears, etc., answering to “what if I'm right?” (a question already described as less than optimal) should still help to get out of a mind pointlessly going round in circles, and to kickstart action!

OK, I'm going to die (we all know so, no?), nothing I can do about that, so then… “now what?” What else can I do? Who do I want to be between now and then? Can I improve whatever legacy I leave, no matter how small the improvement is? Can I bring a conflict to a close? Can I breathe slowly and let go of the panic? What if I can reconnect with my better, generous, loving, « self-less “true self” », free from the conditionings, social programmings or societal clothing, etc. that impede it and turn it into a manifestation of passive-aggressive self-obsession (presently freaking out about the existential fact that everyone dies, ‘me’ included)?

For the avoidance of doubt, “what if?” is not to get lost in mental fabrication about hypothetical worlds where we wouldn't have to face what we have aversion to, about hypothetical worlds where the past would have created a different present… “What if?” is to reconnect with our potential here, in this world, while we're here, now! “What if?” is to escape the mental caricature of problems, blinding us from present options, blinding us from present potentialities. Hence the suggested long form (What if my present perception / conclusion is not all there is? What if I missed a nuance?) and the explicit call for attention, not for more and more ‘planning’.