Rumi Asks Us to Check Our Biases at the Door

If your aim is untrue, a self-centered aim, rather than hitting the target, the arrow will pierce you, hitting the center of yourself, as that was your true intent.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Rather than relying on others or societal safety nets to catch our missteps, if every individual were able to self-correct their behavior to one that was virtuous, what would our world be like? There would still be randomness; there would still be unpredictable outcomes. But how many issues are unnecessarily worsened by our refusal to see our own biases?

Every antagonistic action has an actor. Most harm is needless. Some hostile acts will be committed by the irrational, some by the malicious, but the massive bulk are by those who are neither. 

Most of us want to be good and to do good things, yet not all of our actions will be aligned with intent. We can chalk some of that up to ignorance. But much of it, we'll know better, we'd advise others against it, but we won't always follow our own advice. (Consider any relationship advice you have given.) Why is this?

We have more skin in our game. Where we see sensibly with others, with ourselves, we are more vulnerable to seeing what we want to see. Our bias comes from a place of self-protection: protecting our ego and our self-interests.

Rather than altruistic or intellectual reasoning, we use motivated reasoning — reasoning that is driven by an outcome I want and/ or belief I want to hold. Rather than basing my decisions on the evidence before me, I rig the game so the evidence leads me to the decision I want. Confirmation bias.

But Rumi Warns

In the poem "Who Makes These Changes," Rumi (1207 – 1273) writes:

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious
of what I want.

Just as true centuries ago as it is today. "I should be suspicious of what I want." If not I, then who? By then, it may be too late, and the damage will be done.

Open Yourself to All Possibilities

In avoiding bias, Rumi gives us advice on goals — as much of our bias comes as a result of our wants. Rather than setting an aim or a goal — which, even with the best of intentions, can go awry — open yourself to all possibilities. If we are open to all possibilities, we can rationally see the most probable potential. (Rather than be seduced by our desires.) Where would science be if every researcher started their experiment with a purposeful result they had in mind? None of it would be trustworthy. There is always a conflict of interest if there is always something you want.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
— Richard Feynman

Rumi advises us to be most suspicious, not of others, but of ourselves. It is not that goal-setting is useless or that all wants are inherently wrong, but much of it can be self-serving, disguised as something else. That blindspot is bias. That gap between expectations and reality is disappointment.

This is not unique to Rumi, this is the principle tenet of critical thinking — and a requirement for all critical thinkers.

The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.
— Leonardo da Vinci

Aiming at Yourself

If your aim is untrue, a self-centered aim, rather than hitting the target, the arrow will pierce you, hitting the center of yourself, as that was your true intent.

And much of this can be avoided, if we introspect. The virtuous are full of doubts, the immoral are certain — avoiding any introspection.

It is a human fallacy to believe we have, or can attain, absolute control. Some things are within our direct power, mostly our own thoughts and behaviors. Most everything else is intangible.

To think we are powerful enough to control all outcomes is foolish and brash. It can and will only lead to distress and frustration. Live a good life, work hard, and accept all possible outcomes.

However, do not mistake acceptance for passivity. What if there is wrongdoing, doesn't acceptance lead to nonaction? No. It is the opposite. It is denial and self-serving bias that leads not only to passivity but all too often, to the aid of wrongdoing.

There are those who say: If everyone acted on their own self-interests, the world would be a better place. They are so certain. However, I am not. Rather than their own self-interests, what if everyone acted as their own first critics? And rather than engaging in denial and certainty, engaged in introspection and suspicion of wants. What would our world be like? How many needless conflicts could we extinguish?

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
— Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Yes, good can fight evil, but that does not solve the majority of the wrong — which are misguided attempts at good. This can only be fought with reason. Good and evil are on the continuum of morals; right and wrong are on the continuum of reason. This level of clarity must be free of obstructions, such as bias and desires.

Clarity is the complete acceptance of what is.

The Locus of Control

Rather than looking within, it is easier to look for external control. It is easier to want a car than it is to control my wants. Then the external is not true control, but self-control is.

Much of life is beyond our hands. Rumi poses the question, "Who makes these changes?" Not always ourselves. Then what remains in our dominion? Only our thoughts, deeds, and reactions. And that is more than enough.

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