Wednesday, 19 September 2012

On Examining the Evidence

There’s an aphorism often used in the matter versus spirit debate, and apparently loved by forensic scientists: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In other words, just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Evidence is defined in the dictionary as “an appearance from which inferences may be drawn; the ground for belief.” It comes from the Latin ex (out of, from within) and videre (to see, to perceive, to notice). We trust that our senses are giving us reliable information from which we can draw conclusions about reality. Perceiving is believing. And in some areas of life, that approach works.

We rarely question the evidence upon which our assumptions are built, however, particularly when it comes to what we believe about ourselves, others, and the world. We think we know how things are. Of course she didn’t love me. It’s obvious that they are hateful and ignorant. It’s clear that I’m a failure. And we keep a whole locker-full of evidence to support these assertions. Thoughts, memories, and emotions seem to back up our story. We’re reluctant to admit, or may not even realise, that our memories are selective; we edit, delete, and distort our recollections so that our alibis stand up to scrutiny.  

For years, I told a story about the jumper that my mother started knitting me for my eighth birthday present. It wasn’t finished in time, so she gave it to me for Christmas, ten months later. When I finally tried it on, it was too small. Further evidence, as if any more was required, that I was her least favourite, the one who didn’t matter. Recently, it came up in conversation, and we laughed about it. But you remember the other jumper I knitted you, don’t you? The grey one that you loved. I was jolted by the memory, realising that I’d forgotten all about it. It hadn’t fitted with my version of events, my notion of me as the one who got left out.

As a Living Inquiries facilitator, I’ve spent many hours with others closely examining the evidence that seems to back up our beliefs. I don’t belong. I can’t commit. I shouldn’t need. I’ll do it wrong, no matter what. I’m not enlightened. I’m not good enough. I’m insatiably needy. All deeply felt, seemingly utterly real and incontrovertible. We take the locker-full of evidence, which has often been sealed shut for many years, and take out each item, one by one. Words. Images. Sensations. Emotions. Not trying to prove or disprove, rationalise or debate; not trying to negate or deny or shun. Just looking, feeling, being with whatever’s there, in whatever form it comes.

Inevitably, after a while, it starts to become clear that the objects that we’re looking at – sometimes very painful, sometimes funny, often shockingly and wonderfully random – can’t possibly be taken as proof of anything. The identity that we’ve believed in so completely begins to fall apart as the flimsy, insubstantial nature of the evidence is revealed. Half-remembered fragments, vague or vivid images, energy in the body, powerful or subtle emotion – none of it adding up to a coherent whole. We’ve often spent years trying to hide, bury, or run away from the evidence, and yet when we really look, when we examine it forensically, it becomes apparent that it is totally benign. We are guilty of nothing. There’s no charge to answer. Utter innocence.

So, paradoxical as it may seem, it turns out that the presence of evidence isn’t evidence of presence, any more than the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. During the lovingly rigorous inquiry process, we leave no stone unturned. Everything is held up to the light, and recognised for what it is. Inevitably, we come to recognise that what we truly are is way beyond any evidence or belief. And at that point, the struggle ends. 

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