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The Skeptics

Recently I've been reading about the original Skeptics - a group of philosophers who flourished in the Hellenistic period (roughly from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. through the 3rd century A.D.). Along with the Stoics and Epicureans, they engaged in a kind of practice that today might be called therapeutic, one aimed at character change and the relief of suffering. The Skeptics were particularly concerned with the sort of suffering that arises from being entangled in beliefs and judgements. Their technique was to engage any particular belief in a kind of cross-examination, and they practiced showing that whatever reasons we might have for holding onto a particular belief, there were equally plausible and weighty reasons for believing it's opposite. So whenever someone became aware of making a particular judgement, the practice was to look at all the reasons for affirming the opposite judgement as well, so that all judgement came more and more to be seen as just judging - the way we do when we label thoughts. And when they practiced this rigorously, there would come a moment when there would be a complete suspension of belief or judgement that they called "epoche," a not knowing or pure skepticism. Without judgement, there was just the world of sensation or appearance. What I want to emphasize today though was that moment of "epoche" or suspension of belief was INVOLUNTARY, the byproduct of their practice of opposing belief with their opposites. And the same is true for us. It's not good to try and suspend our judgements, be less critical or angry than we are. That's a big danger in spiritual practice. We think we're supposed to be compassionate and non-judgmental, so we put on a facade and try to act that way. That may be useful up to a point -it's good to know that we can control our actions and behave well regardless of how we feel inside - but unless we're completely honest about how angry and judgmental we really are, and willing to sit with those thoughts and feelings and label them carefully over and over, we are never going to engage them in a meaningful way. We can't will the change, we can only be honest, pay attention, and let any change happen as it happens in it own time. One of my favorite stories is about an encounter between George Fox the founder of the Quakers and William Penn, one of his disciples. The Quakers were complete pacifists at a time when gentlemen all went around wearing swords, almost the way today we would wear a tie. And William Penn was a very worldly gentleman doing his best trying to practice this new faith. And so he came to Fox and asked if really should give up wearing a sword. And Fox replied, "Wear it as long as you can." In other words, see it for what it is, and keep that awareness honestly in front of you and let it operate on your conscience. This is how we should practice, carefully attend to the sword of anger and judgement that we all carry around, feel its sharp edge and its weight, stay honest and clear about just what it is and how we use it.ĀThen one day, all of its own accord, we will find that it has become too cumbersome to carry anymore and it will drop off on its own.