We humans are a curious lot. We have questions and want answers. But Zen reminds us to not simply answer the questions: Zen questions the answers. It challenges our certainty with paradox and our opinions with, ‘Are you sure?’
Hakuin Zenji used the phrase ‘Great Doubt’ to describe this process. Great Doubt isn’t satisfied by superficial answers that put an end to inquiry. Great Doubt asks us to let go of the certainty that separates us from humility, connection, compromise, and awe and to rest in the present moment - the only place we can encounter and respond to our lives.
Current scientific research helps us understand why Great Doubt is hard to practice. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes how humans evolved to think fast (immediately and unconsciously reacting to the environment) as a survival technique. Slow thinking (deliberately holding our minds open so that we can understand and respond) was a luxury early humans couldn’t afford. Slow thinking used too much time and exhausted precious caloric resources.
Meditation trains us to think slow: we hold steady while fast thoughts race by, waiting until slow thinking insight arises. Slow thinking meditation helps us foster Great Doubt.
So when you find yourself rushing to answer questions, try using Great Doubt to come back to the present moment, pull the rug out from under your certainty, and question your answers.