The wondrous don’t-know mind
I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryson’s classic book A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he adeptly explains scientific subjects. My brain has always felt like a sieve around math and science, but his engaging manner really helped me to understand and retain (for now!) some important facts. But then he ends the book with this striking statement:
“…we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distance we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”
In other words, as Lily Tomlin says, and as I’ve always suspected, “Reality is a collective hunch.”
It reminded me of the sweet four-word exchange with my teacher Anna Douglas on a silent retreat at Spirit Rock. On a note I pinned on the teacher bulletin board, I joyfully wrote “I don’t know!!!!” and within an hour she wrote a note back, “Hooray!!!”
Hooray? Yes! As it turns out, life is not a mystery that I have to solve, label, and file away. It is a gift that I can open with awe. Each and every moment.
This insight turned out to be a classic Buddhist concept, but as with all concepts, it’s different to read it on the ‘menu’ than to taste it for yourself. And that’s why we meditate and go on retreat. To be available for direct experience and insight beyond words.
The ‘don’t-know’ mind, as it is called, is not a celebration of ignorance or quashing curiosity. It is opening to the awareness of the infinite and ever-changing nature of life, beyond our capacity to fully understand, assess, describe, or calculate.
When we doggedly need to be right, when we feel we have to defend what we have been taught, when we think that who we are is a composite of all the knowledge we accumulate and that to question that knowledge threatens us; then we are weaving a tight veil that blinds us and deadens our senses.
Another insight I had on a different retreat was that I have nothing to prove, nothing to defend, and nothing to fear. When I feel I do, I might recognize that I am seeing through a veil of my own weaving, and I take time to pause, breathe into it, create some spaciousness, and hold myself with compassion. Or I might not and instead do something unskillful! I don’t know!
My students, many of whom have spent time in the corporate world as I did, say it is not safe to say “I don’t know”. It embroiders employers’ and coworkers’ veils of perception about us with assumptions and dismissiveness. We talked about our shared experiences, especially as women in predominately male work environments, and how challenging it is to be heard even when you know everything you need in order to do a spectacular job. So what are we to do? If at all possible, leave that toxic environment and give your gifts to the world in a more conducive setting! If that’s not possible, the ‘I don’t know’ mindset doesn’t have to be expressed in words. It’s a state of spacious noticing, non-defensiveness, non-striving, that is perfect for creative teamwork. I shared one thing I learned early in my corporate career: Women are playing gin rummy, while men are playing poker. As women we tend to look at the cards in our hand and notice what we’re missing, then we self-limit our engagement in the game. Meanwhile, men are taught to bluff regardless of what cards they’re holding. Neither way works very well, does it?
Acknowledging all that we don’t know, and understanding that we can’t know everything frees us to see more clearly and engage more joyfully in this vibrant moment of being.
We can see how little we actually know, and how detrimental it can be to cling to the idea that we do know. Here are a few examples:
The fickleness of perception
When you walk in nature do you let yourself settle into your senses, savoring the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of being alive? Or do you, like so many of us, feel compelled to identify a particular plant, bird, or butterfly? And perhaps launch a veil of negative opinions about your lack of ability to do so?
One of the things I learned more about in Bryson’s book was how taxonomy; the science of organizing, labeling, and grouping living organisms based on shared features; started with one person’s preferred perception of the world (Linnaeus in the 1700s). It is an imperfect system that needs to be continually adjusted as new information and species become known. While it has some benefits for studying and understanding, I’ve always felt ambivalence toward how it divides up the intrinsically unified and interconnected world of all beings. And, no surprise, the hierarchical divisions are skewed to make humans seem far superior, separate, and justified in rendering species extinct.
All this naming and claiming is a veil we drape between us and the rest of the natural world. Drop the veil! Allow your innate interconnection to be home, sensate, breathing, alive.
The unreliable witness
What do we really know even when we “see it with our own eyes”? A recent study showed that 75% of false convictions are caused by an inaccurate eyewitness statement. The idea that eyewitnesses are unreliable is a troubling. But understandable. If we all look through veils formed by our past experiences, prejudices, and emotions, then we will naturally see the same event differently. Add to that the fact that memories are malleable and can change with each retelling. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the people incarcerated for crimes they may not have committed.
We label to our detriment
Early on we needed to learn to label things as tasty or deadly, food or predator, healing, handy, good for shelter or falls apart in rain, etc. But at some point, we may have gotten a little carried away. Doesn’t it seem that some of this labeling has become compulsive and even destructive? We make quick judgments and file things away, never to review them again. Then we wonder why our words and actions are not well received.
For example, wanting to know for sure ‘what’ someone is, especially in regard to gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, is just a compulsion to mentally check a box and file the person away, or worse. The need to define and label may feel benign to the questioner, usually a person who is part of a majority, but for the person being asked, the ‘interrogation’ can be experienced as aggressive. And it’s likely that they have been asked the same question by many others, and each time it feels like a label of ‘different’.
It also sets up the expectation that everyone needs a label to explain themselves when, really, why should anyone have to do so just to satisfy some inquiring minds that want to know? So many people, especially very young people, are feeling pressured to claim a label for themselves. For some, it may be easy and obvious, but for many, it’s just one more confusing question. Adolescence is challenging enough without that!
Sans explanations, we invent them
Nowadays when something happens and there’s someone to video it, others halfway around the globe can ‘witness’ it too. Of course, it’s not a perfect system. We don’t know what’s beyond the edges of the frame, what ended up on the cutting room floor, or how the story is being skewed or even digitally altered. But as potentially flawed as it may be, our ability to communicate is far superior to that of our ancestors.
Imagine this: The year is 1816 and you live in England, and suddenly the skies are eerie but the sunsets are astoundingly beautiful; summer feels like winter, the crops are failing, and people are starving to death. You have no idea why this is happening, but you need to attribute it to something. What do you tell yourself? What do you tell others? What are others telling you? All kinds of speculation arises: There is a sunspot! The glaciers are up to something! It’s musket fire! It’s the apocalypse!
Many months later you learn that there had been a volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Okay, then. That explains it. Let’s move on. Maybe, but maybe you really bought into one of the theories going around. You’d woven it deep into the veil about this time and place, and once woven, it’s hard to let it go. So you find some way to justify it, to make yourself ‘right’.
If this sounds familiar, sadly it’s because there are always a lot of ideas about things going on in the world, and our opinions weave veils that entangle us, and we cling to those veils, even if it kills us or others.
Sometimes in this information age, we have too many answers! If we have to choose the best answer, we may be paralyzed by indecision. What if I choose the wrong one?
If that’s what’s up for you, you might ask: Will I die? Will I put anyone else in danger? And if not: What will happen if I don’t do anything? Sometimes it’s just not the right time to make a decision and we’re pushing too hard. Other times, that decision is long overdue. What to do? What to do? Often we may have a veil of self-doubt that makes it difficult to make a decision. We don’t trust ourselves. Examining that veil might lead to clues to why we are experiencing this paralysis.
At a certain point, it helps to remember that we just don’t know. One of Bryson’s most startling sharings was how little we know about where or when a giant asteroid could hit the earth, smashing us all to smithereens!
Hmm. Well, that does put things into perspective. Maybe some of these decisions we make might not matter quite so much as we believe. What matters is the intention with which we live, if we are cultivating kindness and caring for ourselves, our family, friends, community, the planet, and all beings. And if this moment is our last, may we savor it with wholehearted and clear-seeing gratitude that can only come when we let go of all those veils and their labels.