Dear Still Water Friends,
Can we hold our life as a pilgrimage of not knowing? Can we live a moment—much less each day—without filtering our experience through our conceptions and convictions so we do not miss the freshness of the moment and the fullness of the person next to us?
Nonknowing does not mean devaluing our learning and intellect. It means being open to the present moment without insisting that our preconceptions are right, without listening to the fear that propels us away from experience, without instantaneously labeling something good or bad. Thich Nhat Hanh calls not knowing “nonattachment from views” in the Second of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings: “We are committed to learning and practicing nonattachment from views and being open to others’ insights and experiences in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge.” Knowledge is critical and useful as long as we don’t let our knowledge get in the way of experiencing life.
One place I’ve been more at ease in not knowing is my work. I have spent my adult life as an environmental professional working with many different people on environmental issues: major pesticide and chemical companies; major environmental groups; lone environmental activists in war-torn African communities without electricity, running water, education, or health care; and the wealthy Kuwaiti government. This summer I had lunch on a Monday with the head of one of the largest environmental groups and, on Wednesday, with the Washington environmental leaders of one of the most conservative, privately owned industrial conglomerates.
My job has demanded that when I’m with these people, I don’t claim to know what’s right. I know what practices do harm, what’s illegal, what’s immoral. I disagree with some of these folks deeply. But I’m also open to the fact that I don’t know what’s best and that I may learn something if I truly listen to the person in front of me instead of just staring at the pin on their lapel or blouse. By not investing my own sense of self in there being “one right way” and by not demonizing or canonizing people, I can sometimes find places where people who view the world from very different political lenses might find common ground on environmental problems and their potential solutions.
It helps that I know I don’t know how best to protect the environment, be it through regulation or the free market, because I’m aware of deep flaws in both systems. This allows me to know a lot about environmental law and policy but not to be attached to defending a certain way of making environmental progress. I’ve had to let go of my deep belief in doing what’s most efficient and what meets my sense of what’s right and just. Instead, I’ve found that things often get done in horribly inefficient and often illogical ways but that they can still get done. This experience makes me an optimist that Americans will soon act in a concerted way on climate change even while I worry deeply about the risks already built into our climate system and that increase daily in the face of inaction.
In this way, my professional life has been somewhat of a pilgrimage of nonknowing. I wish I had taken my personal and practice life more as a pilgrimage, and moving through life that way is something to which I aspire.
I’m curious for us to share with each other this week what our edges are about not knowing. Does the difference between ignorance and nonknowing resonate? Does your path feel like one of a pilgrim or one of a warrior? Does it feel like both? Can it be both? How can we hold our deep convictions and yet remain open to the moment and to each other?
The Second of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and an excerpt from Most Intimate by Pat Enkyo O’Hara are below.
Guardrails on the Path: A Five Mindfulness Trainings Study Group will meet on five Wednesday evenings between October 28th and December 9 and is open to all who are interested, whether they have taken the training or not. Guardrails on the Path may be of special interest to those who are considering taking the trainings as part of our regional Five Mindfulness Trainings transmission ceremony on January 2nd, 2016.
I hope you will join us this week.
The Second Mindfulness Training: Non-Attachment to Views
Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing nonattachment from views and being open to others’ insights and experiences in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.
By Pat Enkyo O’Hara from Most Intimate: A Zen Approach To Life’s Challenges
What does “not-knowing” mean? Speaking for myself, I generally desperately want to know. On a certain level, I want to know everything about everything, but that desire is more than curiosity. It can also be a need to control and verify what we already know. These days, when medical news about various causes of illness and various medications or vitamins regularly seems to contradict itself, we see the result of too much certainty and too little open-minded curiosity. This is even truer in our personal lives. How often have we thought we “knew” what someone meant when he or she said or did something and then later learned that we were mistaken? How many relationships has such “knowing” before investigation harmed?
What gets in the way of our spaciousness, our not-knowing? What gets in the way of our experiencing each moment, of our being curious and interested in the possibilities that arise? Isn’t it our ideas about what should be; of what spirituality should be; of what should be happening to us, our friends, or the world? It is as if we have some superior view of life. But it doesn’t have to be like this. We can free ourselves of this arrogant, troubling habit.
Even an unpleasant experience can bring us to a place of not-knowing. For example, I am susceptible to arthritic pain. When it starts, I think, Oh, no! This is going to be really awful. In the next moment, I realize that I can switch and be with the pain—not fighting against it, not fighting against my idea of what it’ll be like and my fear of it. I don’t need to add those extra elements, those labels. I can be present, aware, of the shifting sensations in my hands and feet and how my mind colors these sensations. That is being truly intimate, truly at one with myself moment by moment.
When we are faced with physical or emotional pain, we don’t have to believe that we need to do something, that we have to fix the situation in some kind of way. We can be present to it. That is the way to be truly intimate: not knowing, just inquiring. Out of this most intimate inquiry, what to do or say just arises naturally.
Not-knowing is kind of like bodysurfing. I grew up on the Pacific Coast, and from the time I was five years old, I loved to be in the ocean and catch a wave. You’re there in the water and a wave starts sucking in, and it’s really big; it’s hovering over you, and you’re trying to swim fast enough to ride it. At the same time, you’re scared to death that you will catch the wave, because it’s so big and turbulent. Of course, that’s the fun and the excitement of it. It’s that mixture of excitement and fear that I recognize in so many other parts of my life, that kind of “Ah.” It’s an extraordinary release!
So I remind myself often, “Just don’t know. Just have that ‘don’t-know’ mind. Don’t always try to be so smart.” This life is not about being smart. That’s what trips us up all the time. We can benefit from being a little dumber; we don’t have to believe our every thought and doubt. We can allow them to be there, but we don’t have to believe them, we don’t have to stick to them. We can investigate them. We can just not know. A popular saying these days is, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
I encourage you to use the practice of not-knowing in your life. It doesn’t mean that you’re paralyzed or confused; it doesn’t mean that you stop making plans. It means you’re taking the time to open your mind so that you’re not following your preconceptions and suppositions. This is creative curiosity.