In Buddhism there is a concept I've been fixated on lately: Prajna.
Prajna is clear seeing and discernment. It is a way of uncovering truth, of knowing. It's a dynamic wisdom that is said to arise when one begins to more clearly see one's tendencies to want to run away from discomfort, from unpleasant feelings and habitual tendencies.
The first thing that comes to mind is when, in a rare moment of parental freedom, I get the opportunity to visit my favourite cafe and enjoy a cooked breakfast all by myself - what a treat! I've found a table in the corner of the cafe and settle in with a book while I wait for my brekkie to come.
Then a complete stranger comes and sits down at the next table just that bit too close to me. They could have chosen any of the other empty tables here! Why come sit so close to me? The thoughts go on. What is wrong with this person? Can't they see I want to be left alone? Don't they care about anyone else's wellbeing besides their own? So selfish!
My automatic tendency is to want to get up and find a different seat away from the stranger.
I want to regain a sense of control over the situation, of power, of bodily autonomy - all by getting the hell out of there.
And by making the stranger an enemy of sorts.
I don't want to sit there and feel my uneasiness, my irritation, my impatience a moment longer. I don't want to pause and ask myself, why do I want to get away? What is going on at a deeper level?
And in immediately reacting on my urges, in doing the habitual thing, I miss the opportunity to learn to relax with my urge. To learn something in that moment. To see, wow I really have neglected this self-care thing for far too long. I am really desperate for some solo time. How can I make this a more regular occurrence? How can I make it so that I don't feel so antsy and fragile next time someone sits next to me?
When I'm able to cut through the habitual urge and ask myself these questions, this is prajna in action. This is the process of really knowing, of uncovering the deeper truth. When I manage to harness it (which isn't always by any means!) I almost always gain some valuable insight. I may still get up and choose another seat, especially if I feel my sense of personal space is being invaded. But I'll do it gently, rather than in a huff. I'll do it as an act of self love and self care, rather than in a way that projects contempt onto the other person, and makes them an "other".
After all, it turns out the other person has no idea what's going on in my little head, and just sat at the closest table they could find to send a text message while they waited for their takeaway. They are gone in less than five minutes.
Prajna & critical thinking
If your opinions were a floor mat, I imagine Prajna is like taking that floor mat outside, hanging it upside down and banging the crap out of it to clean it off, whilst whistling your favourite tune. And maybe doing a bum dance. Welcome to my brain.
The development of Prajna reminds me a lot of the scientific attitude of constantly challenging and trying to refute your own biases, rather than finding more evidence to support them. Cleaning that floor mat out regularly – and joyfully - rather than letting it accumulate dust and dirt. Prajna reminds me of that open-minded critical analysis. It’s not about black and white answers, but more about the power of questioning, of wise discernment. It’s about developing a great inquisitiveness that cuts through solidity, self-deception, and confirmation bias.
One way to sharpen this discernment, to unsheath the sword of prajna, is to meditate.
But I personally also find that journalling and embodied movement - yoga, strength training, embodied dance, bushwalking - all help me to get out of my head, into my body, and eventually to "see" more clearly in moments where I want to do the habitual thing. When I'm able to access it, the humble prajna I have cultivated puts a pause in my automatic emotional reactions. It slices through my unhelpful assumptions and biases.
These practices help me to pause in heated moments by taking a breath, or wiggling around in my body to create some space. I then have the chance to ask myself why it is I have the automatic reaction of wanting to blame the other, and flee when someone sits "too close" to me in a cafe.
It's not unlike the tendency many people have to blame everything that's wrong about this pandemic on a deep state, a global kabal, an unseen power that is controlling our every move. To flee the reality we have come to know, in lieu for something more easily graspable, simpler, as black and white as "us VS them".
To be sucked into the plethora of medical disinformation and conspiracy theories.
COVID Misinformation & Conspiracy Theories
We all want to reinforce our identity and our place in the world. To feel the security of knowing and holding "the truth" in the current climate of extreme instability. Maybe, to feel special and unique in holding such secret and profound knowledge. And yes, perhaps, to feel superior and smarter than the "others", the "sheeple"... and gain a sense of positive self-regard, relief and safety from that.
And we all want to feel safe, unique, and that we belong.
One of the easiest and most convenient ways for people to address all of these needs is to adopt any number of conspiracy theories and to get sucked down disinformation rabbit holes. This is certainly easier than spending weeks or months of one's own time developing critical thinking skills and then applying them to the current body of scientific literature.
It is much easier to dismiss the whole scientific community as just another part of the "unseen force" trying to get the better of us... and therefore not to bother with science at all (unless a study is found that reinforces a piece of misinformation, a phenomenon known as cherry picking evidence).
It seems like the conspiracy theories and medical misinformation surrounding COVID-19 are spreading faster than the virus itself. In our post-truth era of mass mistrust of the government, the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, and mainstream media, fake news is produced and consumed at an alarming rate. It is becoming increasingly difficult to source accurate, transparent, reliable information. And people are suffering because of it.
As a holistic health practitioner my goal is to apply modern scientific understanding to the time-honoured history of traditional healing modalities. The reason I'm studying naturopathy is because I believe that acknowledging and understanding our interconnectedness with nature is crucial to our wellbeing. I want to embrace both the biomedical scientific training I've received as well as the more subtle energetic aspects of our amazing bodies that I have a felt and sensed experience of, a sense that is backed up by modalities like traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.
I want to see the bigger picture, because at the end of the day they're all different ways of seeing and experiencing the same thing.
All that said, I support COVID vaccination. Given the mechanism behind vaccination, it seems very much aligned with naturopathic principles. Using your body’s innate ability to create lasting immunity to diseases aligns beautifully with the principles of harnessing the healing power of nature, and addressing the root cause. Vaccines also have the added public health benefit of reducing the incidence of disease.
Just to be clear, I wasn't always so sure-footed in my stance on this COVID stuff. It has taken months and months of researching and sourcing reliable experts who have done far better research than I can, and who I have come to trust. Virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, and the like. It has been eye-opening to learn how to better critically analyse scientific research cited by some of these sources and experts, and that despite being onto my third science degree there are still SO many ways I can improve my research skills.
I was definitely in the vaccine hesitant camp when COVID began. This was not an overly desirable trait as someone working in mainstream and allied health where it was just assumed I was pro-vax. Over time my confidence in the benefits of the COVID vaccine rollout has risen, although I still have a healthy skepticism of government, the pharmaceutical industry and the medical system. This has come as a shock to some people around me who've assumed that because I'm a holistic health practitioner and yoga teacher, I must automatically be anti-vaccination or at least vaccine hesitant.
People will make their assumptions, but they can be extremely limiting and isolating. Upon making my current nuanced but definitely vaccine-supportive stance public, the rejection and vitriol I've experienced from the anti-vaccination "love and light" hippy crowd has far eclipsed any shade I got from GPs and allied health colleagues back when I was vaccine hesitant.
As a holistic health practitioner I now embrace my role to provide accurate, transparent information to help my clients make informed decisions about their health. It has taken some serious cultivation of prajna to get me here.
Challenging cognitive biases
Prajna is knowing one's cognitive biases, and cutting through them by constantly challenging them and trying to refute them. In action it might look like looking deeper and asking, "Why do I believe this thought? What else am I not seeing right now? What else could be true?"
Prajna to me is critical thinking. Not reacting to the immediate thoughts and assumptions I already have deeply ingrained in my head... nor to the feelings of fear, powerlessness and the need for an enemy, all to simplify what is an extremely complex and disturbing phenomenon: a global pandemic.
In the context of a global pandemic in a post-truth era, unsheathing the sword of prajna means not being confused and bewildered by misinformation and conspiracy theory, despite how alluring they are.
As alluring as it is to become polarised in this matter, the importance of nuance in such a huge, complex issue as this can't be overlooked. It is so easy to be pulled towards one or the other extreme. Our emotions - our human urge to fight some form of injustice (whether that's anti-vaxxers or big pharma), our need to belong to a group, to have a solid identity, and to feel the security of knowing and holding "the truth" in the current climate of extreme instability and anxiety - are powerful AF. belonging, identity and fighting injustice are basic human needs and tendencies.
Conspiracy theories are well set up to capitalise on our basic needs and urges, which might explain why they are so very popular. What is needed is critical analysis.
Critical analysis: an antidote
Sometimes a person's identity becomes wrapped up in their beliefs. A strong belief - a conviction - can reflect the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of groups we aspire to belong to. Attacks on our convictions are attacks on our self-identity, and challenging that identity feels life-threatening. I remember feeling this way when years ago I was challenged by a friend on my previous vaccine-hesitant stance. I was so threatened that I cut her out of my life. Permanently.
Research has shown that when a person's identity is at stake, evidence can be interpreted much more poorly even by people with decent statistical literacy and mathematics skills. We can't do a rational assessment of the evidence when we are so heavily invested in the outcome being a certain way.
But as someone with Buddhist and yogic leanings, I'm somewhat familiar with the concepts of self-delusion, of Moha (Buddhism) or Maya (yoga philosophy). And as someone trained in science, critical thinking has personally helped me to steer away from self-delusion. Why? Because critical analysis helps people to avoid confirmation bias.
So what’s that?
I see confirmation bias as a form of self-delusion, of Moha or Maya.
Challenging our cognitive biases is one of the core tenets of the scientific approach – and it’s fundamental to the development of true wisdom and discernment, or Prajna. And it's difficult to do, because we are hardwired to delude ourselves... and the internet doesn't help.
Overcoming this bias requires open-minded, rational analysis of all viewpoints. But personalised internet search-engine results, influenced by our browsing history, severely curtail exposure to a diversity of views. As if our own mind’s tendency to want to prove ourselves right wasn’t already enough of a barrier to critical thinking, search engine algorithms further enable confirmation bias.
To me, confirmation bias is the antithesis of prajna. And unfortunately, confirmation bias is something I see a lot in the yoga and wellness community, especially in relation to making health informed decisions in the time of COVID. And it’s especially worrying given the high level of misinformation there has been surrounding COVID 19 vaccination.
Critical Analysis is Naturopathic
Thinking critically aligns beautifully with naturopathic philosophy. The original six guiding principles of naturopathic medicine are: the healing power of nature, identify and treat the cause, first do no harm, Doctor as Teacher, Prevention, and Treat the Whole Person. There has been a recent push to add a seventh guiding principle of naturopathic medicine to the pre-existing six - Scientia Critica (critical analysis).
Scientia Critica is the ability to critically analyse accumulated knowledge including scientific facts, knowledge about the self and values of the patient. It’s become more important as naturopathic practice further embraces evidence based medicine, as the body of scientific literature expands.
Over the last couple of weeks I've been trying to challenge my cognitive (mostly confirmation) biases by checking out other sources of information that run counter to my opinions. Sources I'd normally avoid, or even be repelled by. It's been an interesting personal experiment to say the least! Very tough at times to listen to and read certain viewpoints that challenged my standpoint on vaccination that at times seemed to be riddled with mis- and disinformation.
As a result of this (kinda painful) experiment I've slightly changed some of my original stances as a result of opening up to new information sources. E.g. I was convinced enough by my research to get the initial shots, but still want to find out more about the booster before getting it. Who knows, one day I may find some solid evidence showing that I was wrong to get the vaccine. I'm open to that. My stances continue to slowly shift as I keep gathering information widely and trying not to get stuck in echo chambers. That can only be a good thing.
I know this much: Doing this work has been challenging. But when I do, I feel light, and free. I don't identify so strongly with one viewpoint or another because I have the sword of discernment to cut through bullshit, including my own. As a result, my identity isn't so fragile and reliant on a single conviction that I feel the need to rage against any one person or institution when they have a differing opinion.
At times challenging my own beliefs - and finding so much disappointing but widely believed fake news - has sucked. But it's something I felt like I needed to do in order to feel like a decent researcher, a decent health practitioner, and just to feel OK in myself. And I will keep doing it. Because as Lee McIntyre, the author of How to Talk to a Science Denier puts beautifully in his writings, none of us are quite as rational as we think.
There is such gold to be mined in moments both ordinary, and in times of global upheaval. All of us have the option to react on our fear, anxiety, rage, and cognitive biases. Or we could take the opportunity to cultivate prajna, and discover a deeper truth.
A truth that may not be as emotionally stimulating as, "that person is an asshole, they are selfish and need to move away from me." A truth that may not be as elaborate and exciting as a perfectly orchestrated mass conspiracy in which there's a clear "us" and "them". But a truth that will actually set you free and bring inner peace. This is the reward of cultivating prajna: wise discernment that cuts through self-delusion.
Oppression isn't governments and health authorities telling us to take preventative measures to stop the spread of a virus - that's a public health measure, backed by science. Oppression occurs when we lock ourselves in an echo chamber of misinformation and misdirected aggression. We feel oppressed when we self-victimise and make the "other" evil and wrong... yet still rely on the very system we oppose to feed and house us.
Freedom doesn't come from governments lifting mandates, or sneaking around lockdowns, or producing fake check ins to get access to restaurants, or disrespecting people who wear masks, or yelling at people for supporting vaccination.
For me, freedom comes from unsheathing the sword of prajna and severing the binds of self-delusion. Freedom lies in the unshackled mind, and is felt in the heart.