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.