Alex Jones and Great Doubt

Sometimes when I read something by some revered spiritual teacher of the long dead past I feel like I’m reading the preserved blog posts of some ancient Alex Jones.

Alex Jones, in case you don’t know, is probably the most out-there of the current crop of conspiracy theorists who occupy space on YouTube and elsewhere. He started a thing called Info Wars. Jones doesn’t just believe the Sandy Hook shootings were faked by a government trying to turn all of us gay, he also believes the entire freaking universe is a fake.

I attempted to watch a video where he tries to explain his theories of what the universe really is, but I just couldn’t take it after a minute or two. The universe, apparently, is a false hologram with tension points in which gravity is bleeding in. Scientists are proving it! It’s all coming out! There’s a war trying to destroy humanity’s free will. The elite are gonna build machines to transcend the… Oh good lord! My brain just melted a little.

There’s nothing all that new about Alex Jones. There have been guys like him for a very long time. I’m pretty convinced that a lot of the most revered saints of the past were just ancient Alex Joneses whose stories got polished over the years to remove most of the uglier bits. The main difference is those ancient guys couldn’t blame it on aliens with holographic computers. The best they could come up with was gods and celestial beings. I imagine one day theories about 12-dimensional holographic computers will sound as quaint as stories of 87-armed goddesses and fairies who live in mushrooms.

One of the most interesting aspects of Zen philosophy is the idea of Great Doubt. I wrote a foreword to a book called Great Doubt, Jeff Shore’s translation of a long essay by a Chinese Zen teacher called Boshan back in the 1600s.

I would imagine that Alex Jones thinks he’s practicing Great Doubt when he doubts even the reality of the universe itself. But he’s really still stuck in small doubt. Specifically, he’s stuck in what Boshan called the Disease of Speculation.

Like Alex Jones, Buddhists understand that what we are perceiving isn’t quite what’s actually going on. But they also know there is no sense trying to guess what it really is. Because we are already perceiving things about as well as we can. So, we just deal with that along with knowing that we aren’t quite able to get it right.

Some folks who are troubled by small doubt get into doing drugs like ayahuasca, DMT, or whatever else is fashionable these days, or using intense meditation, visualization, trance state or other such stuff to try to get a glimpse of the real deal beyond this illusion. To which I’d say, maybe… m~a~y~b~e you might (might!) get a wee-tiny bit of a new perspective that way. But if you think that is more real than what you normally perceive, then you’re just being silly.

Cuz that’s just small doubt. That’s when you get the first part right. You grasp that the way most of us are taught to understand and perceive the world is mistaken. But then you get seduced by your own brain farts into believing you’ve discovered the Final Answer.

Great Doubt, on the other hand, is when you dare to doubt even your own conclusions.

Great Doubt is tough because it can never be resolved. It’s perfectly normal to want to resolve your doubts. The classic cliché example is trying to figure out if that shape you see on the sidewalk at three in the morning is a piece of rope or a deadly snake. Life is full of situations where you don’t know what the deal is, but you have to decide if it’s one thing or the other before you can proceed.

This works in lots of cases, but when it comes to something big like the very nature of reality itself, there’s a problem. And the problem is that our human perceptive and cognitive systems just are not up to the task of resolving that one. Sure, we can continue to refine our observations and calculations to an amazing degree. We are a long way from exhausting the possibilities of that. But the ultimate answer will forever remain out of our reach.

The Disease of Speculation is when you try to figure it all out. It’s not always and forever a bad thing to speculate. Scientific speculation has led to some incredibly valuable discoveries and will continue to do so for a very long time. And that’s fine.

But for meditators, it’s a trap. I often see my own mind doing this during zazen. The wheels inside my head get started turning over some problem and attempting to resolve it. What’s funny lately is I’ll catch myself doing this and, as soon as I do, the problem I’ve been working on is revealed to be nothing at all. The brain is just running through some ancient figure-it-out program with no specific object it’s even trying to figure out.

I think a lot of us get stuck in this one without even knowing it. We think we’re working out some actual problem, when, really, it’s just the brain going through some routine phase, simply doing what it always does. Only we introduce some object into the mix and then imagine that’s what we’re trying to solve. This is why puzzles and mystery stories are fun. It feels neat when the brain does that.

The problem is when you start believing the solutions you come up with are in any way final. Most of them are no more relevant than that Sudoku book you bought to keep yourself busy at the airport. But if you’re an imaginative, creative guy like Alex Jones, you can spin all that stuff off into a fable that could get you a zillion hits on social media. Then the danger becomes even more acute because the feedback from other people will have you believing your own bullshit even more strongly. Pretty soon there are books being written about you and temples erected in your name.

Have you ever told a story that you weren’t quite certain of, and then a few days later that same story comes back to you from someone who believes it’s an established fact, but you know it’s just that thing you made up? It’s kinda like that. Only if you’re Alex Jones, you start believing it must be true because now you’ve heard it from somebody else. Humans are funny that way.

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