Knowing or Not Knowing? The Stages of Not Being William James

Knowing or Not Knowing? The Stages of Not Being William James March 17, 2012

Just back from my ritual dog walk in the woods, savoring it all. The Robins are back and I could hear but couldn’t see the Pileated Woodpecker. The Ticks will be out soon and then we’ll be consigned to walking in the neighborhood and wishing we were William James.


I woke up this morning wishing I were William James. I went to sleep last night in the middle of his essay, “The Will to Believe.” Reading his dense and brilliant prose, I feel the force of his mind. I underline the really good stuff and struggle to keep my own mind loose enough to follow his closely reasoned argument. The last thing I saw before my head hit the pillow was his bearded portrait on the black cover of his collected essays. Looking straight ahead, he is the embodiment of gravitas.

That’s an excerpt from my friend, David Dae An Rynick’s, lovely forthcoming book, This Truth Never Fails, A Zen Memoir in Four Seasons (Wisdom Publications), available this June. Click here for the whole essay.

I’ve been rolling around with a similar William James point since the Deep Spring Sesshin a couple weeks ago as I met Kyoki’s students in dokusan and we got to know each other. After reading David’s piece, I’m thinking of it as the unfolding of gravitas.

Seems to me that Zen practice opens in a fairly lawful manner.

When we come to practice we don’t know what we don’t know. After a while, the ego mask starts to crack and we begin to know what we don’t know. With some diligent practice, we might have a break through and for a moment or so know what we know. And if we continue with this wondrous work, we might stumble back to not knowing what we don’t know.

On a dark day it seems to be a circular process but on a bright day like this one, spiral-like. For the beginner, it can take ten years to really work around the block the first time. As time goes on, the length of the journey around the circle/spiral seems to shorten.

Let me offer you just a bit more about each stage.

When we begin we don’t know what we don’t know. How could we? The process of really being a beginner requires an openness of heart and willingness to be change. Some of us tend to cling to this beginning movement as if the idea “I don’t know” is all there is to practice. That’s a sad thing.

We’re offered the opportunity to actualize “I don’t know” and are sometimes just too scared to drop the idea of it and live it so go on singing a self-serving “I don’t know” dream song. We insist on not knowing what we know.

Being stuck here is not only false and unwise. If someone asks such a person, “How do I sit?” “How do I tie the oryoki knot?” “How do I love?” always responding with “I don’t know” is just unkind.

A good teacher and a Zen team (more on that next time) can be great help here and throughout. If we practice alone, we might not have the great opportunity of discovering how stupid we really are. And if we only have the limited range of sense input offered in cyberspace, we might also use our practice to shore up the walls of defense.

As we move along with wholehearted sitting/living, we might bump our head into the wall one day and clarify what we don’t know.

“What is mu?” is one helluva way of clarifying this point. Sometimes this part of the journey is accompanied by some real inner turmoil as the monkey faces it’s limitations and reintegrates.

Some fine day breaking through the haze of not-knowing will come and we’ll know what we know. Unshakeable verification.

Arrogance is the near-enemy at this point.

It is wonderfully refreshing to hear and see someone dancing in full confidence, full self expression. I still remember 30 years ago reading Rujing say something like “In the last 500 years, I’m the only one who’s really plucked the eye of kinhin.”

That’s gravitas – having a centerless center of gravity and moving from there.

But if the plumb line goes rigid we’re really dumb again and return to not knowing what we don’t know. Imv, that’s real Zen mastery.

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