Quiet Encouragement for the New Year.
The monk Fayan was going on pilgrimage.
Master Dizang asked, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “On pilgrimage.”
Dizang asked, “Why?”
Fayan said: “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
-The Book of Equanimity, Case 20
Not-knowing is most intimate? How can not-knowing be intimate?
It seems like everyone I’ve talked with the past week wants, in some shape or form, better relationships in 2019. Some want to relate more effortlessly with partners, family, co-workers, or friends. Others yearn to create some new, healthier relationships.
Inquiry and Intimacy
Intimacy, by definition a deep sense of closeness and familiarity, would seem the opposite of not-knowing. So how exactly can not-knowing result in deeper intimacy?
Here’s the thing: when you don’t know, you’re open. There's curiosity, and potential. Your mind–your knowing–gets out of the way, and you can be clear and unobstructed.
When you don't know, there are all possibilities.
When you think you know, there is only one: the one imbedded in your mind. It becomes difficult to see beyond the fact that this sucks, that she's being stubborn, that he's being a jerk, or that you're going to miss the important meeting because the MTA is a disaster.
When you don't know, there’s the opportunity for it to be something else. Maybe he's suffering, or she has a great solution that doesn’t, yet, make sense to you. Maybe missing the meeting is the best thing that could happen. Who knows?
You actually don’t know
Imagine the monk Fayan, deeply honest with himself, realizing he doesn't know why he is driven to seek. His directness was profound. Master Dizang recognized this and encouraged it, understanding how not-knowing would help him remain alert, curious, and open to possibility beyond his imaginings.
Master Dizang encouraged not-knowing because when someone actively practices “don't know,” they get progressively closer to life as it actually is, not as we think it should be. From there, we develop a real sense of peace, because–well–we really don't know what all this is about, or where it is going, or how things will turn out, or what is actually bad, or what is actually good.
So we open up. We can open up because we don’t know.
Not-knowing is power
This not-knowing is surprisingly powerful and, counter-intuitively, a source of great freedom. When things go wrong: don’t know. Win the lottery: don't know. When you fail: don’t know. When your loved one pisses you off: don’t know. When the meeting goes super well: don’t know. When the meeting doesn’t go well: don’t know.
Such is the intimacy, and the possibility, of not-knowing. And this is how not-knowing profoundly connects us to others, to our own life journey, and to ourselves. We become open to ideas about people and things that are beyond what we think we know.
Not-knowing is requisite for proper meditation
Not-knowing is major tenet – a major value – of Buddhism. You cannot meditate, you cannot be mindful and fully aware, if you are stuck in “I know.” When you know, you are mountains and rivers away from right now, away from your life.
To be mindful is to not-know. Not-knowing is a (if not the) key to living in the present moment, the here and now.
“In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added.
In the pursuit of wisdom, everyday something is dropped”
-Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching
A Chinese Fable
There’s an old story of a man whose only son goes off in search of fame and riches, and doesn’t return. This was a devastating loss. The son was (and often still is) the source of pride, stability, and standing. His neighbors grieved for him, saying their how horribles and so sorries.
To this, the old man simply replied, “Don’t know.”
To everyone’s surprise, one day the son came back, and with him brought a pack of wild stallions. The old man was suddenly rich and, more, his son had returned. The neighbors rejoiced, “how wonderful!!”
The old man simply replied, “Don’t know.”
One day, while the son was trying to tame and ride one of the stallions, the horse bucked the son off his back. The son fell, breaking his leg. The neighbors cried, again, “How horrible!”
The old man simply replied, “Don’t know.”
The next day, the emperor declared war, and the conscription officers came to take all the able-bodied young men to the front lines, but – as he was injured – did not take the old man’s son. The neighbors, jealous that he got to keep his son, when theirs were sent to certain death, lamented “How lucky for you!
The old man replied, “Don’t know.”
Traps of knowledge.
How often do we all fall into his neighbors’ traps of knowing what’s good or bad, right or wrong? How often do we conflate an occurrence with some greatness, or luck, or tragedy, or hell?
We do this with everything from medical diagnoses to green lights. But, when we do this, we’ve decided we know the fates, and then can’t be open to the myriad other possibilities available. We can't get close to life as it is; we're too caught up in our version of it.
Yet, when we don’t know, we live this ever-changing life with grace, composure, confidence, and peace. And with a real joy, no matter what this unpredictable existence brings next. Peace, even when you're pissed off.
But, while such peace and joy sounds wonderful, the practice of not-knowing is not natural. Especially not in our western knowledge-based value system, where what you know is deeply tied to your worth and success.
It takes work. And trust. It takes a leap of faith to live in today's world from a place of not-knowing. So I encourage you: for 2019 shift into not-knowing just a bit. You don't need a major shift, it's enough to just open the door to not-knowing.
Practice for a few minutes each day being still & present, fully in the moment, not-knowing what the next moment will bring:
Sit up tall and firm. Pause.
Notice your breath.
Get still. Become more focused on right now.
Stay anchored in your breath.
Observe what arises, but don’t attach to anything.
Meet everything that comes up (a thought, a pain, etc) with “don’t know”
Go right back to the breath: back to the unknown, present moment
As you make time each day in 2019 to take a breath, catch your mind, and open to a world where you may not know what’s next, or the answers, or who your partner is, (or your mom, your bff, your hot neighbor, your annoying co-worker …), you’ll see how much more intimate you naturally become with others, and how much closer you can be with life.
You can do this.
With practice, and encouragement, you can shift into not-knowing. Simply dedicate time to sit in still silence just three minutes each day. It can change your whole 2019. In more ways than you can know. As you do, you will shift into a real peace with life that few know, and even fewer live.
Wishing you an un-known, intimate, and truly peaceful 2019
PS: Even folks with the greatest intentions rarely find the time to sit each day, even if for just three minutes. If you need help building, or maintaining a practice, do reach out. It is the most important thing you can do for yourself. And the world.