From a young age, many of us are afraid to be someone who doesn’t know. Maybe we are so scared to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable, so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we don’t have a clue. Studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they make up answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing. This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say. We all know that feeling; usually, halfway through, when we realize we have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would be to say, “ I don’t know.” Instead, we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, still hoping no one will notice.
To act as a “knower” is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. tends to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities. We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions; our world gets smaller and smaller. Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.”
To be clear, the “not knowing” I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt, and it is not “knowing” in opposition to “not knowing” as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska or even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths. When I say, “I don’t know,” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity as in, “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”. For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express, and it is coming fast.
So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply be willing not to know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.
First, there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good, or this is bad, or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas; it can create curiosity and allows openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.
The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.
“Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell. The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a tangible, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. I want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities. To throw in another metaphor, one or two just aren’t enough for this place. The moment we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”
I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.
I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”
Namu Amida Butsu.