Don’t Know Mind

Don’t Know Mind June 22, 2017

I’ve been working with a nifty little Zen Buddhist practice called “Don’t-Know-Mind.” The idea behind it is this: We constantly, and without even realizing it, invent stories in our minds to explain things we experience.

So, for example, in my rear view mirror I see some guy in a BMW who is zipping through traffic; tailgating, changing lanes, trying to get ahead, fast approaching. I think to myself “What a jerk,” assured that the driver is some rich yuppie who thinks he’s better than everyone else. I’m tempted to try to block his forward progress, perhaps by intentionally matching my speed with the car next to me so there’s no way around. Or a co-worker makes a comment that I interpret as critical of my work performance. I start to think: perhaps she’s telling the boss bad things about me. I’d better counteract by slipping in some subtle criticisms of her job performance the next time I meet with our boss. Or a friend hasn’t called in a while. He’s probably angry after that last conversation we had where we disagreed about politics. Well, tough luck. I thought he was more mature than that. He’s going to have to get over it and call me when he grows up. But I’ll continue to stew over it. Maybe next time he calls I intentionally won’t answer.

In each of those cases I constructed an entire mental scenario based on outside events or actions. And then I reacted based upon my internal mental scenario. But my mental scenario was not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. I also, in doing so, departed from the present moment of reality into my interior world of rumination and fantasy and projection–substituting the real for the unreal.

“Don’t-Know-Mind” means reminding myself that I simply don’t know. That aggressive driver? Maybe he’s late for work and afraid of getting reprimanded or fired. Maybe there’s been an emergency at home and he’s rushing to get there. Maybe he’s in danger of missing his flight. Maybe he truly is being a jerk because he is very impatient, which causes him great stress (which it would be unkind of me to add to). I don’t know. The co-worker? Maybe her comment wasn’t meant the way I took it. Maybe she is not as Machiavellian as I’m projecting her to be. Or maybe she is struggling with fear about her own job security and really needs encouragement and a little help. I don’t know. That friend who hasn’t called? Maybe he has something going on completely unrelated to our last conversation. Maybe he’s facing a challenge with which I could be helpful. Or maybe he’s away on vacation or caught up in family matters. I don’t know.

I’m finding that by practicing “Don’t-Know-Mind” it is easier to extend grace to others and it reduces my anxiety and cynicism. I say to myself “I don’t know” as soon as the mental scenario starts to arise. Then I’m able to let it go and get on with my life, and judge others a lot less.

Of course, there are many instances where we need to discern what is really going on and gather information and make determinations. But even then, beginning from a place of honest “I don’t know” might help us to be more holistic and humble (and willing to reconsider) in our discernment about things.

I’m no master at this. In fact, I know I’m barely scratching the surface of it. There is so much I have yet to learn about it. But I’m finding it useful.  Perhaps there would be less conflict and angst in the world if there was a bit more “don’t know.”

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  • Mike Dunster

    That’s an interesting (and helpful) way of reframing things, thanks for that. The reframing technique I use most (particularly when driving) is “don’t take it personally” – a person might be driving in a way I find annoying, but they’re (in all probability) not doing it to try and annoy me – it’s not personal.