Do Closed Minds Protect Brains?

I remember when I was in middle school, during the 2000 elections, a friend of mine whose father was a political science teacher was arguing with another friend about who to vote for. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but the first friend ended up saying, “Well, my dad says you shouldn’t have such an open mind that your brains fall out.” We’d thought it was clever and we laughed, and it seemed like good advice. And the dictum has stuck with me for the past ten years: Don’t open your mind too much or your brains will fall out.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, comparing it to the Chuang Tzu, which seems to advocate the opposite. It states:

Everything has its ‘that,’ everything has its ‘this.’ From the point of view of ‘that’ you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’ — which is to say that ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other. But where there is birth there must be death; where there is death there must be birth. Where there is acceptability there must be unacceptability… Where there is recognition of right there must be recognition of wrong… Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a ‘this,’ but a ‘this’  which is also ‘that,’ a ‘that’ which is also ‘this.’ His ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it; his ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it. So, in fact, does he still have a ‘this’ and ‘that’? …A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness. (Burton Watson translation)

In essence, when one considers that everything has a positive and negative aspect, and that all opposites are drawn from and depend on each other, everything gets murky. The mind is opened to see social and political dichotomies as limited in scope, and one realizes that one knows nothing, can distinguish no dogma as being intrinsically better than another, even if one chooses a particular side over another. It’s like free-falling into a chasm: there’s nothing to grab onto to stabilize oneself. All those things that thrive on opposition — political parties, international disputes, religious debates and wars — lose their certainty, their concrete alignments. They become just themselves.

And while it can be a scary experience, it’s an experience of truth, I think. Where would the two major political parties be without each other? The Democratic Party is defined by the Republican Party through their differences, and vice versa. If you took away one, the other loses its meaning as well. They rely on one another for meaning — not only for defining, but creating each other through the discovery of new differences. It’s the same with all opposites, from laws and law-breaking to beauty and ugliness. And (if we’re honest with ourselves) when we look at issues and parties and ideals from a neutral perspective, we begin to see that what we might perceive as a total “good” contains an element of “bad” and, in the “bad,” one can usually find some good. And it’s hard to tell what the effect of any given decision will be because people are so unpredictable and complex. Sometimes choosing a side is nothing more than ignoring a portion of reality.

The Chuang Tzu has a famous parable:

When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said, ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted. There was no change in the reality behind the words and yet the monkeys responded with joy and anger. Let them, if they want to. So the sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in Heaven the Equalizer. This is called walking two roads.

Another part in the same section states:

If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher? …But to fail to abide by this mind and still insist upon your rights and wrongs — this is like saying that you set off for Yueh today and got there yesterday. This is to claim that what doesn’t exist exists.

It’s logical and useful to open one’s mind fully to consider a situation indiscriminately, seeing how the points in opposition relate, rather than relegating one to “good” and the other to “evil” along some moral paradigm. But it requires a detachment, a destabilization of self, which is hard to do, especially when the situation is much more dire than acorns. Still, I don’t think considering all possibilities, withholding judgment, and choosing not to staunchly pick a side is the equivalent of letting one’s brains “fall out.” It’s letting one’s mind breathe — not through a sliver, but through a wide, gaping hole. Because we don’t know everything, even when we consider seemingly simple, everyday things. We can’t always predict the best course of action and what might seem a terrible idea in the beginning might eventually prove to be beneficial in the end, at least in some way. And we can’t honestly say that we know a person’s motivations or usefulness, so how can we judge anyone but ourselves? And can we even judge ourselves?

Which isn’t to say that I’m always open-minded. But I really do try. I try most of all to understand people — all people, even the ones that others don’t want to understand — partly because I’m curious, but also because understanding breeds compassion, and compassion breeds peace. And peace is good. It feels better, healthier, to let go of the burden of picking a side, of sticking to one’s guns all the time, of always having something to say. It’s a relief to just be, isn’t it? And what of all the good that can be accomplished by not clinging to ideals or categories, by allowing other people to just be as well?

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