Is it True?

The wisest amoungst you, human beings, is anyone like Socrates who has recognized that with respect to wisdom he is truly worthless.

The Oracle at Delphi, Apology

If I had to boil Socrates’ project down to a single question, it would be:  is it true?  Faced with drinking hemlock – an herb that causes death through paralysis of the nervous and respiratory systems – most of us would freak out.   I know I would.  But Socrates kept questioning, even in the face of death. He asked:  is it true that death is a bad thing?

To his accusers and followers, Socrates must have sounded like a crazy person.  Of course death is bad.  Everyone knows that.  But Socrates’ never accepted the conventional wisdom. “No one knows,” he declared, “whether death may not in fact prove the greatest of all blessings for mankind.”

Is it true?  It’s a simple question.  But it’s also a radical tool of transformation.  It’s a tool I used when preparing this post.

One hour ago, I was walking on the beach brainstorming ideas.   Suddenly, I noticed a huge black Labradoodle sprinting toward me.  It was one of those perfectly groomed Malibu-beach-dogs – the kind that gets regular sessions of puppy-acupuncture and spa treatments.  So as the dog barked and snarled, I stayed calm, thinking there was no way this glamour-dog was going to hurt me.  Then, out of nowhere, it lunged toward me, sinking its teeth into my rear end.

“WHAT THE @#?!” I yelled as I kicked the dog away.  My left butt cheek felt like it had been shot with a poisoned arrow, and when I looked down, I saw that the dog had ripped a four-inch hole in the back of my pants.  It even ripped through my boxers and into my skin.

So there I was pissed off, my rear exposed to the world.  All I could think was:  “that dog shouldn’t have bit me,” “that dog needs to be on a leash,” “the owner should be fined.”

But then I had the Socratic thought:  is it true?   Is it really true that the dog shouldn’t have bit me?  The reality is that it did bite me.  And what good would it do to continue believing that “it shouldn’t have bit me”?  Believing that thought would only lead to pointless rage and frustration.  The kind you feel after an argument with your boss or spouse.

So I questioned the thought – “the dog shouldn’t have bit me…Is that true?”

To do this, I like to use a process created by Byron Katie – a kind of new age female Socrates who lives in Ojai California. She has a powerful thought experiment for Socratic questioning that consists of the following four questions and what she calls a turnaround:

  • Question 1: Is it true?
  • Question 2: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • Question 3: How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  • Question 4: Who would you be without the thought?
  • Turn around the concept you are questioning, and be sure to find at least three genuine, specific examples of each turnaround.

So when questioning the thought “that dog shouldn’t have bit me,” I reflected on these four questions and then came up with a turnaround: “That dog should have bit me.” How is the turnaround true? Well, that’s what happened and the dog clearly enjoys biting people. It also gave me a good story for my blog post.

Then I considered another turnaround: “I shouldn’t have bit that dog.” How is that true? Well, I didn’t literally bite the dog, but I did yell profanities at it and I kicked it away. I also had some unfair judgments about it – that it was a shallow Malibu-glamour dog. So in a way, my actions were just as “bad” as the dog’s.

This questioning helped me shift from resentment to curiosity and even laughter at the sheer absurdity of it all.

The insight of Socrates and Byron Katie – we suffer when we leave our thoughts unquestioned. But when we question our stressful stories, we can begin to let go of our suffering.

Responses

  1. P.J. McMahon says:

    Great story, you would never think to question something that’s obviously very wrong. I think about the resentment I used to feel toward old friends that let me down, or the failures of my own past. If I ask myself ‘is it true?’ were those things really that bad? Answer; not really, they helped shape me into a better person. How did I react to those thoughts; not very well, I would get angry or feel sorry for myself. How do I react now, I’m at peace, knowing everything happens for a reason, and because I have veared off the superhighway of bad habit/thinking.

    • Nate says:

      This is a really interesting and tricky issue. Thanks for bringing it up. I like to think that there is an objective moral reality where things are right or wrong. For example, we could say that it is objectively wrong that your friend lied to you. In this way of viewing the world, things happen “to you” and you are at the effect of the world.

      But in my experience, I prefer to see everything as happening “for me.” This shift helps me get out of feeling like a victim — like everything is happening to me — and opens a space for curiosity. In this space, I can start to ask, “Wow, how is it that my friend’s lie was actually a good thing?” Or “where am I lying in my life?” These kinds of questions shift responsibility away from the other person (who I have no control over anyway) to me. Once this shift happens, I can let go of all the anger and resentment (which serves only to create tension and stress in my body) and look at how this experience can help me grow.

  2. James Raj loves Pepperdine says:

    This is a really interesting way of looking at life in general. It comes back to the school of thought that regards “Everything happens for a reason” as the core principle and law of life. How are we supposed to know what should and shouldn’t have happened? How do we know if that girl in high school wasn’t supposed to break up with you for another guy? How do we know that if she didn’t do that, life would be better now? How do you know life wouldn’t be worse…what if she turned out to be a crazy woman who you married and then left you after 20 years of marriage for another guy? The pain from that would be much much worse than what you went through in high school. In the same way, the situation of this dog bitting you applies. Yes, we think it “shouldn’t” have, but what if the fact that it did bite you was for a reason? If it wasn’t for that bite, this blog wouldn’t be posted. This site wouldn’t have caught my attention. I wouldn’t tell everyone about it. My friends might not know about it. But, because that dog did bite you and you blogged about it, now I’m going to post it all over my Facebook. This website could become HUGE for that very reason- we just don’t know. While at the moment that things like this happen, they might seem like the worst thing in the world, but in reality, they were thing that were SUPPOSED to happen. It comes down to the question of chance..IF things were different..your life would be different. You might not meet the people you have meet, you might not love the girl you currently love, you might not have the dream job that you currently have. It took me about 20 years of my life to realize that in the “big picture” of life, everything happens for a reason..whether big or small. These experiences make you who you are…yes, things could be better, but if you’re actually able to get on a computer and read this post, remember that things could be much much worse. So, my philosophy as of late is to take life and it’s experiences in stride..don’t think what SHOULD have happen, think what is happening RIGHT NOW. Live in the moment, experience life as it comes at you…as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is an experiment, the more experiments you make, the better”. And if your experiment is successful, then when you’re in the moment of death, you can look back and instead of regretting it, you can appreciate it for what it was and just having the opportunity to have even enjoyed LIFE for that long.

    • Nate says:

      Hey James,

      This is great stuff. I agree with what you are saying. In my philosophical training, I reached a point where I realized that there are limits to human understanding (I suppose Socrates helped me see this). Who knows whether everything happens for a reason, whether everything is random, or whether (as Descartes thought for a moment) an evil demon is in our heads trying to deceive us. The way I see it, we cannot know for sure.

      That’s where I end up going with the pragmatists (people like Emerson, James, and Rorty). I have no idea whether everything is for me or against me (very smart people have been trying to work this out for the last 2,000 years and there is still no definitive answer). But I do know that if I believe life happens “to me” or that life is a series of disappointments and problems, then I suffer. But if I believe that there is a perfection to everything that happens, I notice that I am much more free.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

  3. Sasha says:

    I believe that what has already been said is spot on for the most part. The “Is it true?” practice seems a more eloquent way to look at the glass as half full. If we take experiences and memories which at first glance seem horribly detrimental in every single way and apply this “Is it true?” line of thinking, then we can shift from stress and negativity towards seeing silver linings. Every seemingly bad experience will at the very least teach us about the world and shape us into who we are to become. Most have other positive consequences as well. Even more, eliminating this sort of unecessary stress is likely to have physcological and physical health benefits so that we can ultimately live longer, happier lives.

    So what’s the downside? Allow me to assume the role of devil’s advocate for a moment. This “Is it true?” practice seems to embody the spirit of the ancient Stoic way of looking at the world. Their goal was not to make things happen the way you want, but to actually shape your desires to match what really happens. This, according to them, is the only way to be happy. This, of course, runs directly contrary to the way most Americans are taught to think of accomplishing through pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Rather than thinking in terms of hard work and determination to accomplish what you wish, and subsequently achieve happiness, Stoics attempted to align the world with their desires in a different manner. Rather than changing the world to conform with their own desires, they advocated changing their desires to conform with the world, as our own internal desires are what we have the most control over. This is essentially what we are doing when we ask “Is it true?” What we must guard against, however, is taking using this practice into a realm it does not belong. It becomes easy to become complacent or lazy when we give ourselves permission to start saying that such and such bad thing happened because it was meant to, because that is really what we wanted, or because it made us better people. Obviously we cannot change the past, and should not dwell too much over the “what if’s” of life. But when we shift from thinking in terms of life happening TO us as a victim towards life happening FOR us, we must be careful not to openly allow life to happen TO us.

    For example, by not realizing that a pampered dog also has teeth and a temper, you made an error which is now in the past. Instead of thinking negatively, you must ask “Is it true that the dog running me down was a bad thing?” and you can even begin to desire for the less-than-loveable pooch to have done so. But what you cannot do is say to yourself “It’s a good thing that laberdoodle bit me…I’ll do the same next time.” The “Is it true?” practice seems extremely helpful when looking at things we cannot(or could not) control, but when we are faced with a situation which we actually CAN control, even if we only have partial control, then we must not remain disengaged from life. One of the main ideas which is professed over and over again by pragmatic philosophers looking to actually live life is that we should fully engage in every moment. To do so we must recognize the situations in which we can actively participate in the world, and not necessarily think that every outcome of our experiences is meant to be and completely out of our control, but to do our part to influence the world in our own unique way. Next time you see a well-groomed dog running towards you, for instance, you will surely either flee, or run up and play with, or call animal control…but you will not wait for the canine to bite you again. Last time it may have led to the positive result of this blog entry, but next time you will surely grab life by the horns and actively choose what to do, rather than stoicly retreating into submission and being happy to always simply align what you desire with what happens in the world.

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