Posted inHenry's Messages

Wrongness and the Blues

February 23, 2015

Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so, said Shakespeare.

When we’re dewoman-77170_1280pressed, or despairing, depondent, down or we’ve got the blues, the blah’s, feeling browned off… we often tend condemn circumstances as being wrong, not the way they ought to be. And we tend to condemn ourselves as likewise being wrong, not good enough. I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that. We can do it quite mercilessly – this or that abysmal failure, this or that deplorable character defect. We tend to be convinced that we are right about these evaluations, and the force of that conviction is no doubt part of the power of the dismal feeling or mood.

For we can’t condemn anything – even ourselves – without a stern conviction that we know what we’re talking about. In other words, while telling ourselves how wrong things are and we are, we are at the same time convinced we are right to do so. We know what we’re talking about, when it comes to our lousiness.

Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so, said Shakespeare. It’s not what happens to us but what we believe about what happens to us that upsets us, said Epictetus, that inspiring slave-turned-freedman of ancient Rome. He thought himself out of bondage of many kinds, by deciding not to believe everything he told himself.

Being convinced we are right about how awful we are, and how wrong things are – what if the problem is not the things, and not even us, but our very conviction?

From early on in its history Zen started asking us to hold our convictions lightly, and not be so sure we’re right. Sosan the 3rd Chinese Ancestor said: “Discard opinions pro and con.” We could simplify that: discard opinions.

What would happen if we were not so sure of ourselves, and doubted our opinions and convictions? How would it be, to live without knowing how to interpret and evaluate each moment? How would it be, if at this very moment we were open to there being much more to it than we are aware of? Open to the possibility that our way of seeing things (including ourselves) might not be the only way?

Being wrong is one way of looking at the path of liberation offered by Zen: learning to be open to being wrong. To be wrong is usually right. To be open to our wrongness is very different from telling ourselves how wrong we are. It’s really the opposite. In one, we’re sure we are right about our wrongness. In the other, we’re open to being wrong about that rightness…. To know we are very likely wrong implies that – well, we really don’t know how good or bad anything is, ourselves included, or even what good and bad mean in the first place.

As Nansen told Joshu: the Way is perfect like vast space: how could it be a matter of good and bad, right and wrong?

Needless to say, he was talking about this very moment.

Right now, at this precise moment, just as we are, feeling and thinking just as we are, are we right? Or are we wrong?

By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.

Image: Woman, by Pixel Anarchy, CC0 Public Domain, from

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