Compulsion to Closure

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From Joan Tollifson's Newsletter:

Hello Friends Around the World,

Somewhere recently, I heard or read the phrase, “compulsion to closure.” I can’t recall how it was used by whoever said it, but it feels like a great description of our human difficulty in tolerating unresolvability and uncertainty, and our compulsive desire to pin things down, get a grip, secure a foothold, nail down the right answer, figure everything out, and know The Final Truth with doubtless certainty. This compulsion has obvious survival benefits in practical matters, but when it translates over into other realms, it easily becomes a problem.

This compulsion to arrive at the Final Truth is, of course, foiled again and again by life itself, which simply doesn’t seem to stay put in any of the neat and tidy little boxes into which we try to put it. And so, for as long as we are trying to find this kind of certainty, it is pretty much guaranteed that uncertainty and doubt will always be nipping at our heels.

That nipping produces a kind of anxiety in us, an uneasiness, which sets us up to be easily attracted to people and systems that offer seemingly comprehensive answers that explain how the universe works and that promise us the kind of safety, security and certainty for which we long. But for many of us, these answers never really satisfy us. And paradoxically, when we stop searching for certainty and focus instead on the immediacy of present experiencing, without trying to grasp or understand it, this anxiety vanishes. We don’t actually need any Final Truth.

Science handles human curiosity and the desire for answers in an excellent way, while belief-based religion and spirituality are prone to handling it in the worst possible way. The scientific method is based on testing things out, actually trying to disprove rather than prove a hypothesis—and if it holds up to all that scrutiny, then it becomes a working theory, like the theory of evolution, but even then, theories are always open to being proven wrong. (Of course, science—like all human endeavors—can be corrupted by such things as greed, ambition and politics, but eventually, these errors are uncovered and corrected by the very nature of the scientific method—and remember not to conflate science with technology.)

Religion, on the other hand, when it is based on belief, regards its ideas as Truths that cannot be questioned. In many cases, these Truths are believed to have been revealed by God. They are considered infallible and of divine origin. This leads easily to dogmatism, fundamentalism, fanaticism, magical thinking, gullibility, exploitation, holy wars, crusades, witch burnings, and generally lots of suffering.

But at its best, religion is not about belief. It is about direct experiencing and a devotion to the aliveness of this moment, here and now. It involves a direct exploration of this living actuality. My friend and teacher Toni Packer always stressed that she was not an authority, that anything she said could be questioned or taken further, that we should test it out for ourselves. She was always willing to look at a question freshly, to start from scratch. She was open to seeing something new, to changing her mind. She was like a scientist in her approach, but she was also religious in the sense that her exploration was not the objective (dualistic, subject/object) kind that science engages in, but rather, it was a nondual subjective (contemplative, meditative) exploration of our firsthand experiencing.

This living actuality can never be pinned down or grasped. It is moving and changing—never the same way for even an instant. And yet, in another sense it is immovably always right here, right now in this ever-present immediacy or presence that we can never actually leave. This one bottomless moment is infinite and eternal, without beginning or end, without edges or limits. It has no inside and outside. It is undivided and indivisible. There is infinite diversity and variation, and yet it all shows up as one seamless whole. There are apparent polarities, but they only appear relative to each other, and they can never actually be pulled apart.

Reality is simple. It is right here. Present experiencing, just as it is. The morning breeze, THIS cup of tea, the beloved dog trotting toward me, the green leaves, the blossoming flowers, the galaxies dying and being born millions of light years away—this whole amazing magic show. And yet, we can never really pin it down, get hold of it, or explain it in any final way. We ARE it. This indivisible present happening is both obvious and inconceivable. It never resolves into any final shape, it never departs from this present immediacy, and we are never separate from it.

So is it possible to be okay with not having any Final Truth? Can we live with the openness of not knowing, of groundlessness? Can we be at home with the absence of closure, and with the fluidity and multiplicity of dimensions in which life is presenting itself moment by moment? Actually, we have no choice. But in not resisting this, it may turn out to be enjoyable and miraculous, even when it apparently isn’t.

In case you missed Joan's insightful conversation with Sam Harris in his Waking Up app. Listen to an excerpt here

And here's Joan from her very popular talk from the SAND Conference entitled “The Freedom of Nothing to Grasp”


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