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Searching for truth and the middle way in a post truth world with Susan Gillis Chapman


Just like the natural world the information ecosystem we rely on daily for important news and meaning making is under threat. The internet was supposed to democratize access to human knowledge and wisdom, Instead, once trusted gatekeepers of information and moral authorities have been replaced by millions of self appointed experts, online content creators and bots.  This has led to a proliferation of low quality information, propaganda, and sometimes bold faced lies. The truth is harder than ever to find and verify. Without shared truths the consensus reality we occupy falls prey to the proclamations of those with the biggest platform or loudest voice.

In this episode of Awake In Relationship I speak with returning guest Buddhist author and teacher Susan Gillis Chapman about the search for truth and meaning in a time when many of the stable ontological reference points of daily life are dissolving. In this discussion we explore the loss of knowledge keepers and the possibility of an experiential truth arising from contemplative disciplines like self inquiry, debate and mindfulness meditation.  We also talk about overcoming toxic certainty and how to create safe spaces for important conversations that restore a sense of shared truths.

Show Notes

If you enjoyed this episode with Susan Gillis Chapman on the Buddhist contemplative approach to understanding truth you might also enjoy episode 033 Rude Awakening: keys to mindful life transitions


Episode transcripts


intro  0:40  
Hello friends, my name is Silas Rose and you are tuned into Awake in Relationship. With the recent release of chat GBT 4 and the online kerfuffle that followed in terms of accolades and also dire warnings from people like Geoffrey Hinton, the so called godfather of artificial intelligence, who recently quit his job from Google to be more outspoken about his concerns around the velocity and direction of AI, calling the rapid desemination of this technology a bigger threat existentially than the climate crisis. Its a bold statement and a sentiment shared by others, including Elon Musk, who are concerned about our information ecosystem being completely overwhelmed by disinformation and deep fakes. So this beckons the question friends, how do we know what’s true? In the digital age. Without shared truths or consensual reality, dare I say our civilization starts to get a bit wobbly. It’s confusing time. So I wanted to invite back, a favourite on Awake In  Relationship. Susan Gillis Chapman, Buddhist author, and teacher to have a conversation about the search for truth and meaning in a post truth world. We discuss the truth as a felt experience achieved through discipline, personal inquiry, and contemplative practices, like shamatha and Vipashayana meditation, we also discuss the notion of toxic certainty, and how to create safe spaces for dialogue that restore a sense of consensual reality and shared truths. Stay tuned.
Silas Rose  2:40  
So Susan, welcome back to the show.
Susan Gillis Chapman  2:44  
Well, thank you, Silas, it’s really great to be back here with you.
Silas Rose  2:48  
Yeah. And so it’s really been a while, I think almost over a year, which is kind of hard to believe. And you’ve been busy. I know that you recently secured a new book deal. So I’m wondering when you can can share about that.
Susan Gillis Chapman  3:05  
Well, the I just heard back from Shambhala publications that they have selected a title for my book, which I think is kind of interesting. It’s going to be called which way is up? Oh, no. Yeah, so it’s a title. That’s both a question and invitation, you could say. So I’m happy with that. And my book is, I believe we’ve talked about it before the topic is really looking at the experience of groundlessness that occurs when something unexpected happens, and we used my cancer journal as an example. But it could be any of the different things that cause what we feel is normal to flip upside down.
Silas Rose  3:54  
Hmm. Yeah, you’re kind of drawing on traditional teachings from the Buddhist canon around around the Bardo?
Susan Gillis Chapman  4:07  
Yes, yes. So I’ve been trained in contemplative psychology where we apply these Buddhist teachings that are often associated with the after death, experience the Bardo and apply them to intervals of groundlessness that occur in everyday life. So yeah, I’m contemplative psychology. At least the approach that I’ve been taking is that these are our opportunities for transformation where we can really have an opportunity to interrupt what we thought of as normal. And even though there’s fear and groundlessness associated with that, we can have an opportunity to see something we hadn’t seen before. About, you know, who we are about, you know, just kind of letting our reference points fall apart, and taking a fresh look. So, you know, sometimes we experience these as traumatic. And, you know, I realize it’s slightly over simplified, but I feel that, for me anyway, the experience of trauma has been when those episodes happened, without the support of loving kindness, both externally, from my friends and people around me. And also internally, like not knowing how to bring self compassion to those experiences. But when we do meet them with acceptance and loving kindness, we can hold steady with the fear and learn something new.
Silas Rose  5:55  
One of the reasons I really love being in conversation with you is, we kind of share the same path for sure. You know, within Shambhala and we can kind of bop back and forth between the sense of personal path and then thinking about our path in relationship to the evolution and development of society. And I really feel that we’re in this kind of a strange place, post pandemic, post COVID, we’re really in kind of a cultural Bardo, which I think of as a post truth reality, or how do you relate to it?
Susan Gillis Chapman  6:45  
Well, I think because my cancer journey occurred alongside the COVID pandemic, I tend to think of that period as the actual Bardo. You know, when life as we knew it came to an end, and we had no idea where we were going and, and, and the so called post pandemic, to me is an opportunity to see the two ways that we reestablish normal at the end of a Bardo. And one is the kind of transformational option you could say is that we give birth to a new normal, that has confidence in the not knowing. And, you know, the discoveries, even a simple discovery that, you know, many people made about working at home, as opposed to working in the office, even though that meant the might be on the screen more, but still, they’ve reconnected with family, they reconnected with home environment. So there was a change there. The flip side is what happens when you go through that Bardo of the pandemic, without confidence or support for the not knowing for that groundlessness. And how people can be very easily persuaded to cling to what I call sort of a life raft of toxic certainty. So it’s, it’s not really a confidence at all, it’s a fake kind of certainty. That’s based on, you know, opinions and tribalism. And I think we see both of those happening right now we see you know, groups of people who learned a lot from the Bardo, around being more trusting in each other trusting in and also aware of our interdependence, how important it is to be aware that there are supply chains that support us that we have to be aware of. And then there’s also this other phenomena of this, maybe you’re alluding to as the post truth where there are, you fill in the gap of not knowing with a altered reality. Alternative Facts, is that word, alternative facts?
Silas Rose  9:22  
 it’s like there’s a solidification process that happens in the vacuum. And so I really feel like this conversation is kind of focused on that, and want to make sure that we’re kind of on the same page, we’re really talking about this notion of truth.
Susan Gillis Chapman  9:42  
So, you know, wondering what, what do we mean by truth? What is reality?
Silas Rose  9:48  
Yeah, essentially, I guess it’s a pretty big topic.
Susan Gillis Chapman  9:52  
It sure is. Yeah. Yeah. Well, I guess I can just speak for myself. You know, I had a rather unusual background. I mean, it’s not completely unique, but I was educated in a Catholic contemplative school contemplative convent. Unlike a lot of, you know, people’s experiences in Catholic education, this one actually encouraged curiosity about what is true, instead of indoctrination. And so in the school, I went to, like, we actually studied logic, we studied syllogisms, we studied a contemplative spirituality, where you investigate, what you start off with, what you’re told, and you use that as a springboard into finding out for yourself, whether you believe it or not. So, you know, I attribute that to the mentors that I had, who are really wonderful. And so I guess I learned early on that there’s both a trusting in the wisdom of what you have, you know, you can sort of test the quality of what other people know and what they offer to you. But ultimately, you have to look really deeply within yourself. And, and there’s methods for doing that, like you can use logic. But, you know, this kind of spiritual paths lead to Buddhism, which also had the same kind of invitation to truth test for yourself, and find within yourself the way of knowing that is reliable. And, you know, in the Buddhist teachings, there is, it’s interesting that the, the part of our mind that part of our awareness that we turn to, with this kind of curiosity, is open space, it’s the sometimes referred to as The Great Mother, the prajna, paramita, that we have this insight. But the only way we can access that insight is by leaping, from what we know into what we don’t know. And that’s the very space that that we have to learn how to swim in. And if we don’t, then we’re very, if we’re afraid of that space, then we can very easily grab on to an opinion, especially an opinion that makes us feel secure as part of a tribe. And what we do if we do that is we let go of the curiosity. And we start replacing curiosity with a false this kind of false certainty.
Silas Rose  13:01  
Buddhism is really considered a a non theistic tradition, I wanted to talk a little bit about what that means. And also often we speak about relative and absolute truth and how, how does that shape your understanding?
Susan Gillis Chapman  13:23  
Yeah, I think Buddhism is often, you know, sometimes what I hear the way you know, the media or other kinds of expressions go is that there’s, you know, people who believe in God and people who don’t believe in God, and people who don’t believe in God are atheists and sort of put into a category of people without a spiritual path. And what I think is often overlooked, is that the whole Buddhist tradition, over 2500 years, is a tradition where, you know, the teachings point to the fact that, that the human mind has great depth and great potential for complete enlightenment. And, so that we don’t need to rely on external, you know, an external God, that the, you know, the capacity for enlightenment is within ourselves. On the other hand, there’s tremendous devotion and gratitude to the Buddha and to all of the, you know, human beings who have made that discovery on their own. So I actually did find that the link for me the path, you know, the bridge from a Christian tradition to a Buddhist tradition was very easy, because my Christian mentor described God, the Trinity as The you know, God, the Father was the energy of Creation, which in the Buddhist tradition would be what I call it, we call the Dharmakaya, the energy of open space, the potential of open space to create, or to be the source of all experience. And then, God, the sun, being the, you know, the truth of love the truth of kindness and love and gentleness and compassion, and the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others. And in the Buddhist tradition, that would be the nirmanakaya. So it actually paralleled really well for me. And then, in the Christian tradition, I was taught the Holy Spirit was the energy that communicated between the two. And in the Buddhist tradition, that would be the sun Boga kya. Which is kind of how, how relative reality precipitates, you could say, from the dimension of complete openness into everyday palpable experience. So that I just wanted to mention that that, you know, there is a very profound way of, of understanding in many spiritual traditions that, you know, maybe they’re framed as theistic. But, in fact, there’s some, there’s a link, because that, you know, sometimes we call it mysticism. But it’s not about denying the truth of those. That power that often people associate with, in my tradition, it was God is love. But it’s more locating that within the human experience. That is what I call, you know, that’s what the non theistic tradition of Buddhism is.
Silas Rose  17:04  
So was there a contemplative aspect to your early training?
Susan Gillis Chapman  17:10  
Yeah, very much so. So we, we would go into retreat, and we would reflect and we did the, what’s now called the Lectio Divina practice where you, you know, take a phrase or two, from a spiritual reading, and you deeply contemplate and allow something to arise from within you, it was very compatible, it was almost, you know, very much the same as what I would do. Now. I just wanted to also add that, you know, studying logic, and I know, a lot of people, maybe in the past studied logic and relationship to debate, which is a very helpful way of challenging our belief systems in a non aggressive way, you know, that, you know, we can use logic to actually prove that a position is illogical. And that, that, for me, the dissolution of the, of the idea of God occurred one time when I was a teenager, I was just literally sitting in the forest. And at one point, I, it just, I was sitting in contemplating, and I realized that the notion of God as being perfect, this notion of perfection, couldn’t possibly exclude imperfection. And it was just a flash of insight, like, how could perfection ever exclude imperfection. And it was like, suddenly, the whole notion of God disappeared, like in a flash, because I suddenly saw that everything, had that, you know, perfection and imperfection was the nature of everything. So, so it was logic, you know, I was sitting there being logical, but the logic took me to the edge of, of what I call, I often give the example of the diving board, you know, they, you study, you practice, you test your truth, you, it’s like climbing a ladder, and then you contemplate and you walk to the edge of the diving board, but you have to leap into the space of not knowing. And then that’s where the Insight arises. And then you might find yourself floating or swimming. Or drowning. That’s true. Yeah.
Silas Rose  19:46  
Well, it just occured to me that in some sense, that’s kind of what’s happening is people are making that leap, but they’re not bringing a discipline to it.
Susan Gillis Chapman  19:58  
Yeah, we’ll just the word discipline always has a bit of a, you know, negative ring to it. But I like to think of it as discipleship, you know that you’re apprenticing with someone whose wisdom you trust? And so everything is, is what are you hitching your wagon to, as it were, you know, like, I, when I had that insight about, you know, perfection and imperfection couldn’t be separate. I didn’t want to leave it there, I wanted to find a teacher who could help me understand how to live that way. You know, what, what does that mean? And, and discipleship is when you take everything, you know, to the, to the degree that you can, and you find people who have that same understanding, and then you see where they go with it, and you trust you trust them, and then you test that out further. So I think what’s happening right now, the lack of discipleship is that we’re not hitching our wagons, necessarily, I mean, some of us are, and some of us are not, because I don’t want to be overly generalizing. But the the danger right now, is that the kind of loneliness of the pandemic, and the fear that came up from the interruption of what we know. And, and also that background fear that here’s a disease that can kill without, you know, for a long time, we’d had no sense of remedy. And suddenly, you know, no matter what your age is, you’re realizing you’re going to die, or could die, and will die eventually. And so all of those come together, like a perfect storm, you know, and then we’re not going to be hitching our wagon to the, you know, to somebody who has the highest wisdom at that point, we might just want an escape route, whatever that Escape offers itself to be. And so, you know, you can jump on to a movement to, you know, to use hatred, or to use any kind of toxic certainty us against them as a way of trying to, you know, yeah, manage the fear, and the groundlessness, and anxiety. So, I think it is a lack of knowing what a path is not having a path. And in order to have a path, you have to have someone who’s already kind of laid the foundations.
Silas Rose  22:55  
And that’s the challenge, there really is kind of an absence of what one might call moral authority, or, you know, effective gatekeepers of knowledge. And that people are essentially left to their own devices to figure out what what is true. And then, and then we add social media to the shit storm, or Telegram or other messaging apps where there’s millions, literally millions of self proclaimed experts professing the truth, it gets really confusing.
Susan Gillis Chapman  23:39  
Yeah, and, you know, I think having an authentic lineage or an authentic sense of path and direction requires having really big long term vision, not short term, you know, and that’s part of the problem that there’s karma, there’s cause and effect and that sort of, it’s sort of you see this in the climate crisis, you know, or you see this in the United States with a Gun Violence Crisis, that there there is a huge, huge, immediate, highly dangerous, threatening situation. And yet, there’s no you know, it’s like we’re running around in circles, just dealing with immediate political you know, reactions instead of looking at the long, long term effect. So, you know, spirituality I think, in general is it’s different than religion, you know, it’s it’s looking at the deepest possible, you know, looking deeply inward but also expanding as far as you can outward. In the Buddhist path, you know, the practices are, first of all, having A lot of compassion and intelligence for your own personal experience. But then, and you asked earlier about relative, you know, relative reality is never denigrated. But at the same time having, you know, discovering that we are part of something much, much bigger, and not over valuating the self at the expense of the larger picture. So, there is an investment both in, in widening the scope and caring about other people. And also going further into the long term consequences of, of our decisions today.
Silas Rose  25:44  
Bring things back down to the relative I think we are we all guilty on some level of falling into some degree of toxic certainty. And that can mean, you know, regards to politics or how we deal with our spouse. How do we, on a personal level interrupt their words?
Susan Gillis Chapman  26:05  
Yeah, well, I think maybe it’s hard to say toxic certainty. But we could say what Trump or che described his background anxiety that there’s this fear, like, the closer you look at your own experience, the, the more you can’t pin down a solid ground and a solid territory to who I am. And for intimate relationships, whether it’s a spouse, or our close circle of friends, or our pet, you know, it comes down to the fact that, you know, the toxic certainty or the, the what we generate from the background anxiety is this belief that we know who they are, and that they’re part of our territory. And therefore, we can, you know, they become part of a realm of hope and fear, or, you know, I like this about you, I don’t like that. We’re even a control pattern, you know, punishing for when you make me unhappy. And so the, you know, we’re all in recovery from these patterns, and the recovery is interrupted, I think, by the very simple human experience of pausing to listen to another person, whether they’re your intimate partner or a stranger or somebody at work. The moment that you really, truly set aside your own agenda, and listen deeply to another person, what you’re doing is essentially the practice of what we call in Buddhism, Tong Len, you’re exchanging your own self interest, and opening yourself to whatever that person is offering. And so that interruption is really huge. In terms of interrupting that kind of mindless domino effect, you could say, of just one pattern of self interest repeating after another. And we have to let go of who we think people are, and let them tell us who they are. Not just in words, but in being willing to be present with the kind of mystery of that human being and that relationship.
Silas Rose  28:31  
So to recap, this this kind of journey that you described, you know, from the contemplative Buddhist perspective, it’s really about essentially kind of letting go opening, progressively opening the space  and a direct experience of the truth as opposed to something that might be born a fixed logic. I’m wondering if it is actually even possible to arrive at any sort of sense of certainty about what truth is?  If even that’s even a goal.
Susan Gillis Chapman  29:10  
Yeah, that’s a really good question. Silas, thank you. Yeah. I think that one of the things I love the most about my, my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, my first Buddhist teacher, is the way that he integrated this very heady approach, you know, that we could think of as very heady, you know, the logic and the exploring what is the nature of truth, and he just dropped you down into your heart. And, you know, so he reframed it, as you know, this space is the tender tenderness of our heart. And, to me, that’s the most accurate way of you could say truth testing, because if we’re locked in a toxic certainty or if we’re locked then to logical debate alone, and there’s no heart, then it gets quite dangerous. It gets brittle, it gets frozen. But as long as there’s heart, and there’s love, and there’s kindness, and there’s caring, not only for ourselves, but for the other person or other people, then that’s a barometer for what is true. And I think, even though again, it’s not testable by logic, the confidence that we can have in that kind of truth, is filth in an undeniable way. And you know, so you, you experience that, for instance, when I was a volunteer for hospice, no matter what, you know, I had, I was in a hospice, where there were 16 rooms in the facility, and you go into each room, and there is a completely unique human being there. There was one time when there was a very well known politician, in one in a very wealthy person in one room, and two or three rooms down the hall, was a guy who just got led out of prison to come to the hospice to die. And, you know, when you’re with people, when they die, they can have their stories that can trigger all kinds of reactions, and you like, I like this person, I don’t like that I agree with this person. I don’t agree with that. But what it all boils down to is how it feels to be with this human being, at this time in their life, and the vulnerability that they have. And it just, you know, it’s true, it’s possible to try to shut it down, but, but the feeling that happens in that space, is a feeling of, of, of love, of, of kind of looking at the fear of death, and letting that go in order to be fully present with this experience of this other person. So, you know, from that point of view, I feel like, there is a way of having confidence, and it’s the confidence of trusting in the heart. And yet, you know, we don’t want the heart alone, like emotions. This is not the same as talking about trusting our emotions, that there’s something deeper than that. And, and that is what the space is. It’s this tender, heart of sadness, tender heart of joy, tender heart of being present, and realizing that there’s no barrier between ourselves and the other person.
Silas Rose  32:50  
That’s that’s a wonderful place to end. Susan, thank you so much for sharing with us your truth. I’m wondering if you can just let us know how people can find out more about you and your work?
Susan Gillis Chapman  33:03  
Well, I am slowly rebuilding my website. But I think maybe stay tuned. The book won’t be out until next year. But I think that exploring you know, exploring your own truth and your own heart, and looking deeper into spirituality, as a way of finding our way through these very difficult times. And doing whatever we can to engage in conversation and relationship with other people rather than forming opinions about groups of people and you know where they stand. I think all of that is the work I’m trying to engage in. Well,
intro  33:49  
we’ll keep talking until next time, be well.
Susan Gillis Chapman  33:53  
Thanks, Silas, thanks again for inviting me.



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