When I Practice Not-Knowing Instead of Trying to Figure Everything Out

When I Practice Not-Knowing Instead of Trying to Figure Everything Out January 4, 2017

Suitcase Unpacked

I’m really worried about the 100 days following January 20th. As if there weren’t already enough things to worry about in my personal life and the rest of the world! My way of reacting to this kind of stress is to try to Figure Everything Out. I read, watch videos, familiarize myself with schools of thought on politics, economics, and activism. I discuss how to respond as a the leader of a religious community with leaders of other religious communities. I ask myself how I really feel about this or that issue, and contemplate the best way work for positive change.

The books pile up, the hours online get sucked into a time vacuum, and still I’ve only scratched the surface. I don’t have time to actually do anything. My luggage from Christmas vacation remains unpacked even though I’ve been home a week already. Figuring Everything Out seems like an impossible task. When I examine my mind, all I find is the exasperating spinning symbol you see on computers for, “Wait, can’t do anything for you right now… processing…” But I refuse to give up.

Then I remember the Zen teaching of “not-knowing.” Usually without realizing it, I cling to vague hope that if I can just sort everything out in my mind, if I can just decide what my opinions are and what to do about them, we’ll all be in the fast lane to utopia. Of course, I never manage to sort everything out. Even when I decide on something to do, life proves to be infinitely more complicated than my ideas about it. Recognizing and accepting this is part of practicing “not-knowing.”

“Knowing” is how I draw a conceptual boundary around something and then label it, or stash it in the appropriate box. Does this item go in the “good” or “bad” box, the “liberal” or “conservative” box, or the “mine” or “yours” box? To mix metaphors awkwardly, when I “know” something, I think I’ve got a handle on it – that is, I have some degree of control over it. I understand it and don’t have to think on the matter any more.

Ha! “Not-knowing” is when I breathe deeply and settle into the reality of my life, where my most well-researched and eloquently-conveyed opinions are no more than my best responses at a given point in time. I think of myself like an artist portraying the beauty of a sunset with a swath of color, or a poet conveying the wonder of romantic love with words, and give up the hope that I can actually capture reality. “Not knowing” is leaning into the next moment, wondering what I’m going to find. Alive, present, ready. What a relief.

I don’t want you think, however, that when I practice “not-knowing,” I’m opting out of the struggle with the lame disclaimer, “I don’t know and can’t know so I’m not going to bother to pay attention or try to change anything.” That’s ostrich-with-its-head-in-sand not knowing. Willful ignorance. I’m not practicing that. I still read, watch, study, discuss, decide what stands to take and how to affect positive change – but without holding on to the tremendously burdensome delusion that the world is the same as my ideas about it.

I have to remind myself to “not-know” many, many times every day.


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