"What is truth?" a disciple asked Nasrudin.
"Something which I have never, at any time, spoken -- nor shall I."

The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah

Day after day alone on the hill,
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still,
But nobody wants to know him,
They can see that he's just a fool,
And he never gives an answer,
But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head,
See the world spinning around.

Lennon & McCartney

We heard a philosopher on the radio describe "a culture of fallibility" as one of the conditions under which democracy can flourish. He was referring to a cultural agreement that nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Such a consensus allows, even requires, a measure of respect for the other party. It allows negotiation, compromise, and disagreement with a quality of civility.

Once we conclude that we own the truth, then everybody that disagrees with us is wrong, and we have a right to make them think like us. This attitude makes democracy impossible. And it leads to repression, holy wars, inquisitions and other unpleasantness. At the personal level, too much attachment to being right creates a rigid ego structure that can only get in the way of growth. It closes us off from deeper understanding of reality that can come with releasing our limited personal point of view.

Some of us are lucky enough to be constantly reminded of our fallibility. Being a bit of a fool offers many opportunities to become non-attached to rigid belief systems. Constantly having to revise what you thought you knew can be very freeing. Of course it can also be frightening.

The ego is like a psychological safety net. We develop this ongoing sense of who we are and what we can do to provide continuity and cohesion to this changing flow of mental states that seem to arise out of nowhere. Experiencing emotions and other mental phenomena without a stable sense of self can be quite unpleasant. Therapists who treat personality disorders will confirm this for you.

The ego is a tool to tell us who we are in the great order of things. It allows us to act purposefully and confidently in the face of a complex, confusing, perhaps incomprehensible world. When we cling too tightly to ego we become rigid. When we too abruptly release the ego we may experience fear, anxiety, even psychosis. Suddenly the world may not make sense, and we are not comfortable with that. The difference between a sage and a psychotic may be that the sage knows the world doesn't always make sense, and it's not a problem.

So how do we learn to accept our fallibility, loosen our grip on our tightly held belief systems, and free our mind to accept what is, instead of the illusions we want to believe in? Various thinking traditions have devised ways of handling this. Socrates used to ask a lot of tough questions that would take his students on an intellectual ride that landed them somewhere beyond their preconceptions. Rinzai Zen teachers offer students koans, seemingly unsolvable questions, like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Contemplating the koan may eventually move the student past confusion and self doubt to a more expansive sense of being. Sufis have collected many stories, often featuring Mulla Nasrudin, that contain a mind bending twist that pushes the listener to see the world differently. Strategic psychotherapists do something like this when they engage a client in a paradox that destabilizes the client's fixed view of themselves or a situation. By destabilizing a rigid system the therapist hopes to allow a healthier, more fluid solution to emerge.

We offer the following visualization exercise in the spirit of fallibility, hoping you will find something of value.


Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting atop a grassy hill. The sun is shining, so you are warm and comfortable. The wind is blowing ever so gently -- just enough to be refreshing. Down below lies all the world in its busyness, but you are not concerned about that now. Here on the hilltop you are alone with the grass and the clouds and the occasional bird that flies by. You have no worries, and you are smiling gently to yourself. Allow this little smile to move into your heart. Let it calm your mind and your soul.

As you sit here perfectly still, your breathing relaxes and you feel a wonderful sense of peace. You feel the weight of your body on the earth and feel like you are a part of the hill and the air and the sun. You feel completely at home in your body. Yet you can see yourself from a point of view outside yourself as well.

Look at this person sitting there so peacefully. See your seated, smiling self from all sides. Open your heart to this person. Acknowledge that you have limited information, that you sometimes make mistakes, that sometimes you don't know what's going on with yourself, and that sometimes you don't say the right thing. In the acknowledgment, reassure yourself that it is all right. Acknowledge that you are a human being -- and human beings make mistakes.

Now again visualize yourself seated comfortably upon this hill. Imagine that sitting in front of you is a person who looks to be a bit of a fool. Their clothing is rather odd and they have this funny smile on their face. You greet them and they greet you back. They reach out to shake your hand. Their hand is strong, but also gentle and warm. As your hands touch, you suddenly see that this is a very wise person. This is one who no longer worries about the mundane things in life. This is a person with deep life experience. You perceive that in their mind they have gone places you can not even conceive, and yet they are very humble. Their touch is quite human. In their eyes you see great warmth.

You begin to understand that they can see into your heart. They can see all of your flaws and failings. They can see things that you will not let yourself see. In spite of seeing all of your fallibility, this person expresses deep compassion for you. They see your struggles, and they honor you and love you despite your failures. They can see the limits of your perceptions and they invite you to share in their expansive world view.

Imagine that this great being in the guise of a fool reaches up and touches your brow with a finger tip. At this touch in the center of your forehead you find yourself completely at peace with yourself. You are very aware of your body and your breathing, and at the same time, all sense of thought falls away. Inside you are very quiet and that smile that you placed in your heart grows and grows until your heart is overflowing with love.

This love is like a light that shines from your core. It enlightens your sense of being, and it encompasses this wise person in front of you. It grows and grows and it is like a beacon shining from the hilltop. Your love and compassion flow to all those frail and faulty humans you know, and to all that you don't know. You understand that the light of love is infinite, so it need never dim. You see that as your tolerance and compassion touches every person you encounter, it fills each person and is transferred to everyone they encounter. Soon you are able to see the whole world filled with light and love. And wherever there is darkness you wisely know that the solution is more tolerance, more justice, and more compassion. You promise to remind yourself that in all of your fallibility you will carry an intention to be kind to yourself. You will extend that kindness to the rest of your world as well. And in doing so you trust that the love returned to you will surpass any expectation.

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© 2002 Tom Barrett