“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”
“It is safer to trust nobody.”
“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”
If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause.
Sponsored by the University of Eastern Finland, this study of 1449 subjects with an average age of 71 found a striking correlation between high degrees of cynical distrust and subsequent incidences of senile dementia. Those who looked at the world though cynical eyes, the researchers discovered, were three times as likely to develop dementia than those who did not. * “If that’s really true,” a friend in his sixties quipped, “I’m going to be babbling any day now.”
To be sure, the Finnish study has yet to be replicated, and it only demonstrated a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship. But whatever its validity, this disturbing study might prompt us to examine elements of cynicism in our own outlooks–and, if we so wish, to cultivate a counterbalancing alternative. And toward those ends, the practice of Zen meditation has something substantial to offer.
When we practice zazen (sitting meditation), we sit in an aligned, relaxed, and resilient posture. Bringing our attention to our breathing, we feel the life force within and around us. Depending on our method, we may choose to count our breaths, recite a mantra, explore a koan, or merely rest in “choiceless awareness.” If our mind drifts into worries and dreams, we bring it back to our breath. If we begin to slouch, we correct our posture. After ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes of this practice, we may notice that our breathing has deepened and our minds feel clearer. In classical Zen teachings, this process is likened to mud settling to the bottom of a jar, leaving the water still and clear.
Should we direct this poised clarity of awareness toward the external world, we may find that our vision of the day’s events, global, national, and local, has also become more balanced, impartial, and inclusive. Reading or watching the news, we are likely to encounter reports of petty and large-scale violence, corruption, greed, exploitation, and inhumanity generally. Far from shielding us from those social realities, the practice of meditation may make us more aware than ever of what Zen teachings call the “three poisons” of craving, aversion, and ignorance and the suffering they engender. But by deepening our outlook, meditative practice can also make us acutely aware of the complexity of human motives, which include not only greed and hatred but also loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and the desire to relieve others’ suffering. Resolved to “welcome everything” into our awareness, while putting our preferences in abeyance, we may be less inclined to reduce the human condition to a single, cynical view.
By the same token, if we bring a balanced awareness to our inner lives, we might discern a complex amalgam of thoughts, feelings, motives, and habits of mind. If one of those components is an habitual cynical distrust, we might look into what the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “roots and fruits” of that attitude. Snide comments and cynical posturing can be entertaining and win us social approval. Could a desire to entertain or gain social acceptance underlie our expressions of cynical scorn? Or might their origin lie in our life experience–in some deep hurt or emotional trauma, which our cynicism serves to mask? Merely by bringing awareness to the roots of habitual cynicism, we can mitigate its power. And even as we examine the foundations of cynical distrust, we can also contemplate its “fruits”: its probable effects on our own lives and those with whom we come into contact. If we habitually say “Yeah, right” to any sentiment that expresses optimism, or hints at a vulnerable naivete, what impact is our attitude having on our fellow workers? Our friends and family? Our children and grandchildren? And what, in the long run, is its legacy likely to be?
Cynicism is sometimes viewed as the obverse side of moral idealism. Idealists, as they age, become bitter and caustic cynics. In contrast to other aspects of the aging process, however, such a change is not inevitable. If a cynical outlook is harmful to ourselves and others, why cherish or nourish it? With the help of meditative practice, there are changes we can make, and salutary things we can do.