The three stages of trusting oneself

The three stages of trusting oneself
15th March 2018 Tim Malnick

From simplicity to complexity and back again:


“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes


What is it to truly trust oneself? There is a short text in the meditation tradition of Dzogchen (‘Great Perfection’) offering instructions on how to live. The practical and down to earth text suggests we must act with confidence, without questioning or checking back on ourselves. It says that if we act with this natural confidence things will work out for the best. It tells us that the real obstacle to acting with this genuine confidence is fear. I find it both inspiring and profound.

As I reread it this morning, the image came to me of Donald Trump. Here is someone who seems to act without self-doubt or self-reflection. He demonstrates certainty in his choices, even when – to others – he is simplistic, lying or deeply confused.

We all know people like this. People who seem to act with total conviction that theirs is the right, indeed the only way. People who express no doubt, self-critique or openness to different viewpoints. Surely, a sacred text expressing the the highest teachings of spiritual development cannot mean that sort of thing? When is simplicity and lack of self doubt a sign of wisdom and when is it a sign of foolishness? What is the path from one to the other?

There are three steps that explain the difference between genuine confidence and confidence as self-deception.


Step 1: The great confidence of the narrow mind:

When things appear simple, it is easy to be confident. For me Trump is the perfect epitome, almost a caricature, of this position. His certainty rests on a strong sense of egocentricity. He seems convinced that the world truly is precisely as he sees it. There is no space for doubt or critique, because this level of thinking allows no difference between the world as we perceive it and reality.

Developmental psychologists[1] describe this mode of adult consciousness. Not yet able to see that our view of the world is merely a perspective and thus necessarily incomplete and limited, we accept without question our senses, ideas and beliefs. We do not yet grasp that our concepts and worldviews are just a ramshackle conglomeration of repeated thought patterns. Susan Cooke Greuter terms this (in broad terms) the ‘conventional’ stages of adult development.

This mode of consciousness is what Wendell Holmes above refers to as the ‘simplicity on this side of complexity’. Life appears simple. Things are black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. A person operating at this level unquestionably believes (he or she would even say ‘knows’) that the world is just as they believe it to be.

There is a power and a confidence that arise from this narrow simplicity. It allows energy of thought and action to be strongly focused and directed. There is little dissipating of life energy through doubt or over reflection. So action can be powerful and people operating this way can come across as powerful and focused. But because their action is based on a very limited and inaccurate version of reality, the wider consequences of action with this sort of confidence can also be devastating.


Step 2: The weakened confidence of the complex mind:

As adults develop some (though by no means all) eventually bump up against the limits of this simple worldview. Realities of life, relationships and external events suggest that nothing is quite so simple. People are both good and bad, motives are mixed. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and each of us has a shadow – parts of ourselves that are powerful but less acceptable, such as our hatred, stupidity and pride etc. Cherished ways of life and cultural forces such as science, consumerism and democracy also have their shadows and blind spots.

This view is more complex and closer to reality. But it can weaken the direct and powerful direction of energy of the earlier stage. Cooke Greuter refers to this (broadly) as early post conventional thinking. The world is no longer quite as simple as we believed it. Amidst the new richness, complexity and relativity people can feel a little lost and bewildered.

Many of the people I work with experience this move from conventional to early post conventional thinking. Seeking answers they now have more questions. Seeking clarity they suddenly feel more confused than ever. Seeking meaning they experience a great uncertainty of direction, as old certainties fall away and everything (‘everything!’) is revealed as being open to question.


Safe uncertainty – living with continual questions:

This is the complexity Wendell Holmes refers to. For those I work with it it is anything but simple. One Masters student, a mature and senior manager, told me after two years on a programme that for the first 6 months she was puzzled about why my colleague and I kept so silent in the class. Why, she had wondered, did we hold back on giving her the answers? First she thought it was some sort of professional negligence. Then she became convinced it was some sort of clever tutor trick. Only at the end of the course when she had become sufficiently comfortable with her own new level of uncertainty and complexity did she consider that it was just because we didn’t actually know the answer, because there wasn’t one!

The family therapist Barry Mason[2] describes the shift between these first two modes as one from a position of ‘safe certainty’ – a dependable, certain, non challenging relationship to the world, to one of ‘safe uncertainty’. In safe uncertainty we must learn to keep our balance while opening to the ever changing and profoundly uncertain nature of situations and events.


The impotence of too much reflection:

At this second stage I notice people’s language changes. They become much more open to self-reflection. They question the way they see things and the assumptions they hold. They become more likely to ask and less likely simply to tell or direct others. There is great richness and a great opening up of possible conversations, directions and collaborations as people become willing to surrender their own conceptual certainties and enter into co-creative exploration.

However, I also notice a shadow and limitation at this stage. At this point people often become rather nervous about saying what they really think about anything! Language gets so wrapped up in inquiry, reflection and naming of assumptions that a certain tentativeness creeps in. It’s as though no one is any longer willing to say with confidence what they actually think. As if extra value is now placed on not being sure of anything at all. Think Donald Drumpf’s mirror image, the portrait in his attic! No certainty, no individual assertion. This can feel rich and yet somehow unsatisfactory and undirected.


Stage 3: Action beyond story – Eternal doubtlessness.

Which brings us back to this lovely text on action within the Tibetan view of Great Perfection. Here we return to certainty – but a certainty now way beyond the Donald Drumpfs of this world. It is important to understand why and how it is so different.

This is the simplicity beyond complexity that Wendell Holmes writes about. It is what Cooke Greuter calls ‘late post conventional’ thinking. The directness and simplicity comes not from grasping at an incomplete and limited set of concepts about the world (as in stage 1), nor from continually questioning and reflecting on one’s conceptual map (as in stage 2). Here, the simplicity arises from a deep seeing that no story of the world, whether simple or complex, has a fundamental reality to it.

At this stage we see any and all stories as simply chains of notions, popping into our mind out of nowhere. Most of us tend to believe them very strongly. We rigidly grasp hold of our stories and fixate on these chains of thoughts, these spider webs of inter related notions. This grasping and fixating makes them seem real to us. We then believe our action is in one way or another arising as a result of whatever conceptual conclusions we have reached.

At this third stage however, we see that conceptual thoughts themselves are nothing all that much. We begin to sense that skilful action comes from somewhere else entirely. The place it comes from we might call Life or Mind (in its deepest sense) itself. It is this that we can gradually learn to trust without hesitation.


What do we place our deepest trust in?

The simplistic actors of the first stage place their confidence in their personal thought, which proves such an unreliable and untrustworthy ultimate guide. Those at the second stage become preoccupied with questioning and reframing thought because they see that it is unreliable. But in questioning thought they are still very much concerned with it. At the third stage we increasingly allow action to arise from a place beyond thought. It leads to an entirely different type of simplicity, what the great teachers have called a state of ‘eternal doubtlessness’.

Most of us, of course, experience moments when we act and speak from each of these three levels. It is not necessarily an either or state. I am particularly interested in the subtle traps that people at stage 2 get into. I have noticed in reflection and inquiry groups over many years that a subtle fixation can start to take hold. Whereas in the conventional (stage 1) phase a person fixates on his or her particular conceptual view of the world, at stage 2 people can become fixated by the orthodoxy or dogma of ‘always having to deconstruct and question everything’. Behind this I sense a fear of taking a leap and simply acting. In some ways this fear is intelligent and well founded – since it reflects understanding about the limitations and damage of acting blindly from phase 1. But at some point it becomes necessary for each of us to take a leap into the bolder simplicity of stage 3.

This is a scary leap and fear is inevitable. The leap here is to no longer fixate even on the idea of reflection or inquiry, and to leap with a trust in something altogether deeper than useful thoughts. This is the space of no thoughts (or no attachment to our thoughts), what we could just call the flow of life itself.



[1] For example Susan Cook Greuter –

[2] Barry Mason (1993) Towards Positions of Safe Uncertainty. Human Systems: The Journal of Systemic Consultation &: Management. Vol. 4.