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Taking a Dim View of Opinions

April 9, 2012

“All beliefs are mistaken beliefs.” – The Bad Lama

Modern society loves opinions.  If you have a particularly outlandish opinion and can state it in extremely colorful language at high volume, you could earn attention, praise and wealth as a pundit, blogger or talk-show host. You could even become a candidate for high office! We are all encouraged to hold opinions about any and every matter that comes to our attention. Claiming that you do not have an opinion is like claiming that you do not have a head. Of course you must have an opinion!

Here’s an experiment to try: the next time you hear some juicy bit of gossip, (you can count most news stories as juicy gossip) notice how quickly you form an opinion. Notice the amount of verifiable information you’ve received.  Note that you have not actually witnessed the situation described.   Notice how strong your opinion is. See if you can let go of that opinion.  If someone asks what you think about the juicy gossip in question, try saying, “I don’t really have an opinion about that.”  Notice their reaction.  Notice your own.

We might gather information to bolster the validity of our opinions, but oftentimes information is secondary; opinion is primary (see talk-show hosts above.) Opinions  help us make sense of the world and guide our actions. But once we’ve developed and nurtured an opinion, we might find it very hard to change that opinion.  We begin to bend facts in order to fit our opinions, rather than changing our opinions to fit facts.  Soon, we don’t really see what is actually in front of us: we just see our own opinions.

For instance, there are a certain people in my life that I consider ne’er-do-wells. (Perhaps you have such a list, too.)  I feel irritated when I see these people. I expect that they will do something annoying, and they usually oblige me.  Then I feel irritated, but I also feel smug and satisfied: I was right about them! But once in a while one of the ne’er-do-wells actually does something kind and considerate.  Then I feel disappointed, because they’re not helping me maintain my poor opinion of them.

At their worst, opinions are simply fabrications with no factual basis.  (These should be called “fantasies”.) Other opinions might be based on what other people have told us (cultural bias) or on a very limited set of facts (leaping to conclusions), or on old facts that are no longer relevant (grudges). At their best, opinions are based on many verifiable past events and accurately predict future outcome. When this kind of opinion is developed and tested over time, it may be called a scientific theory, or philosophical framework.  In Buddhism it is called a view.

Scientific theories, philosophical frameworks and views are useful guides.  Like the finger pointing at the moon, they can show us where to look, and even how to look. But even the best guide is just a guide, not the experience itself. Sitting is the experience of here and now. The experience of here and now is beyond any opinion; beyond theoretical framework; beyond theology or system of thought; beyond view. Therefore, while different views may recommend different techniques to access the here and now, the actual experience of here and now doesn’t belong to any religion, or any philosophy.

You don’t need education or money to sit. You don’t need approval from an authority in order to sit.  Blessings won’t make sitting any better.  Curses won’t make sitting any worse. Sitting doesn’t contradict any philosophical or religious system.

Let go of all theoretical elaborations when you sit; make your sitting simple. Whatever you’ve done before in terms of meditation, just drop it.  Have a beginner’s mind – let your preconceptions go and just sit. Don’t worry about right or wrong: Here and now is just here and now. There’s no such thing as a “right” here and now or a “wrong” here and now.

Be careful about forming opinions, beliefs and theories about your sitting. It can be helpful to sit with others – group sitting can help you develop a regular sitting practice — but avoid comparing your experience with anyone else’s.  When we compare experiences, we may decide that we want to experience what someone else has experienced. (We really have no idea what it was that they experienced, but we still feel that we want that experience.) We fall into the trap of “better meditation” and “worse meditation.” Then, when we sit we may begin gathering information in order to form an opinion about our sitting.  That is not sitting, that’s tabloid journalism.

The Bad Lama advises that if someone asks for information about your meditation — “How long did you sit?” or “How was your meditation?” — just smile. Don’t talk about the experience of meditation.  Since the experience of sitting is beyond words, when we talk about our experiences, we may become unsure whether we are really telling the truth or not.

Here’s a zen story that presents a good example of refusing to hold an opinion about sitting:

Yao-shan and his teacher, Shi-t’ou, were practicing together.

“What are you doing?” Shi-t’ou asked Yao-shan.

“I’m not doing anything at all.”

“Then you are just idly sitting,” Shi-t’ou said.

Yao-shun replied, “If I were idly sitting I would be doing something.”

Finally Shi-t’ou said, “You said that you are not doing anything at all. What is it that you are not doing?”

“Even the ten thousand sages don’t know,” Yao-shun said.

Remember: When we sit, we practice letting go of opinions, beliefs, and evaluations. Try not to develop too strong an opinion about your practice of letting go of opinions.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Shaw permalink
    April 20, 2012 2:22 pm

    This is a great entry on a very compelling topic for me. It reminds me of a very heated conversation I once had with two of my sisters (both of which are extremely religious and steeped deeply in belief). I rarely see these sisters and we lead very different lifestyles. When this conversation took place, I had recently undergone a pretty radical shift in consciousness, and among the effects of this shift was me realizing that all beliefs are provisional, dangerous, and unnecessary.

    When I revealed to them that I didn’t necessarily believe their messiah existed (it isn’t important to me one way or the other), they almost had a nervous breakdown. One of the two sisters I haven’t spoken with to this day. I tried to explain to them that it doesn’t do me any good to believe or not believe in this mythology, and that it doesn’t take away from the richness of my experience or the profundity of my connection to the the spiritual world. In fact, holding a concept in between you and your directly perceivable reality will do quite the opposite; It can degrade your perception.

    People who hold very strong beliefs fear losing them (or even hearing them challenged) because they are the glue that holds their very worldview in place. The irony is that if they could set down their conceptual mind for a moment and observe these beliefs objectively, they could have a more direct and unobstructed view of their world, and ultimately feel more free and happy.

    -Jeff Shaw

    “I don’t need belief. I have experience.” – Joseph Campbell

    • April 24, 2012 2:47 pm

      Remember that your assertion of the non-importance of the Messiah’s existence is itself an opinion. Your story describes well how opinions can divide us. One teacher pointed out that more people are killed as a result of ideological disputes than are killed due to anger.

      You write “People who hold very strong beliefs fear losing them (or even hearing them challenged) because they are the glue that holds their very worldview in place.” I would posit that we all hold very strong beliefs, and that in any major life transition, when these beliefs are shaken, we are inspired with a fundamental kind of panic. It’s that panic that Trungpa Rinpoche suggested we get in touch with, that we learn to work with and that we let go of.


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