Strange as it may seem, I like to think of myself as a fool. Whenever I remember my essential foolish nature I immediately relax, usually with a smile on my face. Knowing I’m a fool, I no longer have to live up to some image of an efficient, successful, mindful, wise, compassionate being. I can just be me, someone a little weak of will, just now caught up in the mundane dramas of my life and times; someone who often believes in the illusion of a self that, even if it were real, is certainly not ideal. Knowing I’m a fool, I can also take comfort in the observation of the Taoist rascal Chuang Tzu, who says, “Those who know they are fools are not the biggest fools.”
Recognizing myself as a fool is usually accompanied by a sense of forgiveness and compassion, similar to the reaction I have when I remember the First Noble Truth. I feel clear about who and what I am dealing with in this life and no longer have to try so hard at perfection, striving to turn water into wine.
A simple exercise in foolish realism is to look at yourself in the mirror, not with an eye to grooming, but with an eye to seeing who’s there. First check out your personality: “Give us a smile, then. And how about one of those looks of gravitas that you can put on at a minute’s notice?” After looking at myself like this for a few minutes, I almost always start to laugh, no matter what expression I am assuming. They all look like masks.
Next I look beneath the personality and check out the self-conscious primate, not that far from the jungle really, still driven by barely conscious instincts, so full of purpose and importance, and trying hard to look dignified in spite of my protruding ears and nose. Then I look even closer and notice the outline of my skull, waiting to make its appearance as soon as the wind blows my face away.
Foolishness goes hand in hand with me through life. I had to laugh at myself during a recent meditation retreat after reflecting on the irony of what I was doing, sitting on my zafu. I realized that I had spent the first half of my life in school developing the ability to think, and now I was spending the second half of my life learning how to ignore my thinking. What was I thinking?
I also remembered that as a teenager I had tried to cultivate a personality that would make people like me. I would experiment with facial expressions in the mirror, working on a good smile, a sly come-hither stare, and the look of sincere interest that Andrew Carnegie recommended for winning friends and influencing people. After having built a personality (or at least dressing up the one I was born with) and walking around with it on display for half a lifetime, in the past few decades I have spent considerable time trying to disidentify with that personality. I say to myself in meditation, “That’s not me! He’s always babbling. And he’s such a faker!”
I have long ago convinced myself of my own foolishness, but if there is anything I’ve learned from meditation, it is not to take myself too personally. I am not my fault. What it comes down to is that I am foolish just because I’m human, and the truth is that we are a species of fools. The Buddha realized this and proscribed an intensive course of self-examination. The poet Gary Snyder wrote that we are “a gang of sexy primate clowns,” which also captures the essence.
For instance, looking back through history we find that every few centuries all that we know about the world gets overturned, and yet we continue to believe that our latest “facts” and stories are the final word. Once upon a time everybody knew that the Earth was flat and stationary. Isn’t it still obvious from where you are sitting right now? And how many humans prayed fervently to Isis or Zeus or Jupiter with the unshakable faith that these gods not only existed but cared deeply about us? How many human generations did it take before a few of us looked at the apes and asked, “Could we possibly be related?” Don’t you wonder which of our postmodern stories about ourselves and the world will be overturned in the near future? As the folks at the Firesign Theatre once said, “Everything you know is wrong.” As the Tibetan yogi Thaganapa says, going even deeper, “To see truth, contemplate all phenomena as a lie.”
Our biggest mistake, however, and really the only thing that makes us into fools, is that we don’t acknowledge our foolishness. Although regarding ourselves as smart and clever may have some evolutionary benefits, it is also a cause of our suffering. For instance, it was a very stupid idea to rename our species Homo sapiens sapiens, which literally means “twice-wise,” or “twice-knowing humans.” According to the scientists this means that not only do we know, we also know that we know. Of course, that sets up an ideal that hardly any members of our species can achieve or maintain, at least for any length of time. Meditators know how difficult it is to be twice knowing, which may, in fact, be another name for mindfulness. We have discovered how tricky it is to make knowing itself the object of knowing. As someone who has personally struggled with twice knowing, I think maybe we’d all be better off if we let the designation sapiens sapiens simply mean that we have to learn something at least twice before we know it.
When all is said and done (and it never is), I think the best thing for all humanity would be to celebrate our foolishness. Our most important holiday would then be April Fools’ Day, one of the few festivals that salutes all humanity, regardless of religion, skin color, nationality or political persuasion. We could even have a Fools’ Day once a month on the fool moon. Just imagine how good it would feel if we all got together once in a while in large public gatherings and admitted that we don’t know why we are alive, that nobody knows for sure if there’s a higher being who created us, and that nobody really knows what the hell’s going on here.
Here’s a very simple Fools’ Day ceremony that can be performed in local communities or with groups of friends. It’s the TV cartoon dad Homer Simpson’s forehead-slapping ritual, accompanied by a loud, collective “Dooope!” This ritual is somewhat reminiscent of the one that Jews perform on Yom Kippur, when everybody beats their breast and confesses to everybody else that they have sinned. Only here we would be confessing our foolishness to each other.
Let’s practice, okay? Get your palm spread out and ready. Now, all of you who thought that after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended things would get better in the world—slap your forehead and say “Dooope!” Now, everyone who put money in the NASDAQ in the late 1990s, slap that forehead and say “Dooope!” Okay, everybody who thought that a meditation practice would solve all their problems, slap it right on your third eye and say “Dooope!” Okay, one more time, everybody who thinks that they will some-day get it all together . . . “Dooope!”
Embracing our foolishness, whether collectively or individually, is a practice of liberation. Don’t think of it as defeat or in any way demeaning or mean-spirited, but rather as a bemused acceptance of our predicament. On the fool’s path (headed for the cliff, of course) you are free to stick out your tongue at the gods, let your hair grow wild, speak in rhyme, and stumble along without any idea of where you are going. Feel the freedom? It’s a fool’s paradise, and at the very least, you are fool enough to know it.