As an antidote to being subsumed by the narratives of modernity or simply for psychospiritual cleansing, there is abundant benefit to taking refuge in not knowing. It feels like washing the windshield. Suddenly we have fresh eyes. A creative anticipation lurks in the silence.
Not-knowing sweeps away the clutter of mind. Every reflexive operation predisposing us to ‘know’ or at least plan for what comes next is interrupted. Even memory is temporarily irrelevant. It’s no longer necessary because we touch a deeper ground pre-existing the prevailing catechism. Memory is no longer called upon to verify the ongoing assessment and classification of every situation.
Knowing is the reification of possibility. Anthropocentric knowing suggests the world itself manifests as the consequence of human knowing. This is the definition of the Anthropocene—that all knowing has ultimately come to reside in the human. Struggle as we might, that bell is proving exceedingly difficult to un-ring. But in not-knowing, maybe we can put one foot outside our own box, even if for just a moment.
Not knowing opens undiscovered or forgotten lands, abundant and uncharted territories in which a single being is not the center. Perhaps there is no center, nor any boundary, only a kind of gateway we seek but too rarely find. And that’s the point. It’s freeing to not know, to imagine oneself in a rich and compelling un-network connecting everything without having to be anything at all which implies a different quality of responsibility. We are invited to allow ourselves to be affected by the unseen, to enter a limitless ubiquity of everything as subject. Being shaken from whatever we thought we were doing and being drawn into a provocative, gestating, undefined space is seductive. Aha!
It seems there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question which had preoccupied them for so long: ‘Where is the sea?’ they asked. The wise fish answered, ‘If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you will discover that you are already in the sea. You need look no further than where you already are.’
— Carolyn Gratton, The Age of Spiritual Guidance
So, it is. Not-knowing is a way of slowing down enough to see where we already are. If we can allow our vision to soften and detach from whatever is repeatedly and without reflection capturing our attention, whether sensation, perception, feeling or thought, even for short moments, we might discover a new quality of animation, not to mention connection, among all things.
When was the last time you encountered someone determined to ‘not know,’ if that isn‘t a contradiction? When was the last time you–-a fellow explorer in the field of not knowing—locked eyes with a fellow not-knower? We can only imagine such a moment as spontaneous combustion, sharing a unique view in which we remain engaged yet uncommitted, neither to self nor to other, neither to being nor doing, an intermingling of presence and absence. It would likely be a moment of witnessing, yet not adopting every impulse to hold anything, noticing without retaining or examining, without even labeling. Holding all that is real without declaring any of it to be true…or not true. This is a tiny island in the middle of a vast ocean, stillness within a sea of motion.
We’re used to connecting with others over what we know, finding common ground. We’re used to establishing agreements about what we know, forming alliances, partnerships, romantic, economic, political, and spiritual relationships defined by what we agree is true…and not true. We naturally align and become tribes of knowing. It’s what we automatically seek to define and to categorize all those relationships. Everything comes to hinge on reinforcing and sustaining those agreements: all progress, growth, every framework of discernment, even love itself is restricted to the parameters of agreement. And we habitually behave as if the well-defined shark of knowing determines the entire context in which we swim.
Could it be otherwise? What becomes of love in a field of not knowing? Does love find greater freedom in that field? Why yes, it does. Would we notice when we lose, or relinquish, our ground? In that field of not knowing, is there any ground at all? Would we more likely experience the preconceptions we apply to relationships? What if we weren’t so quick to define water, instead allowing ourselves to marinate in a realm of dissolving assumptions? What if we weren’t so quick to believe knowing and believing are the only currency of being with each other? I mean, look around. How is that working out for us?
Certainty about what we know is the root of conflict. We, humanity, are being driven over the precipice by those who know and who never pause to not know. I’m not suggesting we deny science. But just consider, even science can inadvertently be conducted according to discernible biases about what is true. Only at the fringes do science or philosophy speculate on the existence, possibly even the agency of the unseen. Not knowing becomes a peek into a domain operating under different rules which are not so easily discerned, let alone tested. Yet we know intuitively they are entirely real.
Not knowing dissolves presumed boundaries. It becomes a portal to trans-corporeality, an intermingling of bodies, minds, and natural phenomena. We become each other for a moment—or perhaps our natural state is momentarily revealed, at least until the knowing mind intervenes. We enter an uncommon relationship that doesn’t make sense. And at this historical moment, attempting to make sense in the usual ways makes no sense at all. We should likely infer the parameters of this unknown territory have always been accessible beneath the awareness of the One Who Knows. We can become the one who doesn’t know – adopting wholly different terms of relationship that have always been available were we to ever let go of knowing. Not knowing is Rumi’s field beyond right and wrong. It lies beyond Yeats’ widening gyre. It might as well be the field beyond truth and falsehood. It’s the undiscovered realm beyond is and is not, the underappreciated spaciousness of mind, released from restrictions imposed by being So Damn Sure, which is what makes living with uncertainty So Damn Hard.
Truly realizing not knowing becomes a meditation on Belief. Every voice tugging at the mind to give up this quixotic adventure arising from belief becomes a constraint against discovering and exploring the freedom of not knowing. Not knowing implies a certain trust and fearlessness to remain present in a state of greater uncertainty than we have ever known. It also offers perspective on the routine uncertainties of our current predicament, making them more palatable, even mundane by comparison.
None of this implies the disappearing polar ice caps aren’t real. They are indeed. It is the reflexive struggle against uncertainty generating the pandemic rise of fear and anxiety just now. Not knowing allows us to befriend uncertainty. We are not in control. We never have been, no matter how we cling to that myth or struggle to recover it. Anxiety and fear are functions of belief. Knowing and doing, like yin and yang are intimately and irreversibly entangled. Not knowing is a sanctuary in which we may release ourselves from impulsive doing to allay anxiety and fear. The sanctuary is where we can exercise non-doing, waiting for doing to arrive.
Can doing arise from non-doing? How will we know? Can doing exist in a field of not-knowing? Yes. I will say enthusiastically that doing arising from not knowing is not like any doing we’ve done before because it emerges in a pervasive field of uncertainty. Such doing can have multiple effects, not least of which will be a confidence in our evolving friendship with non-doing.
If we choose to remain in not-knowing, will we do what needs to be done? Will we even know what needs to be done? At the very least, finding our way in a field of uncertainty may lead us in directions never contemplated, and possibly more fruitful than the rote repetition of what we’ve always done. I don’t have the basic practical measures in mind, but rather the deeper personal existential choices. We will know what must be done because whatever doing arises from not-knowing will be enacted in a context of Presence. Presence being a fragile, tenuous domain lying between past and future.
All belief, all knowing arises with memory of a past and a vision of a future. Presence barely exists in the field of doing, at least not in the fullest sense because attention is focused on a destination. Presence dawns in the act of fully relaxing into not-knowing, allowing the past and future to fall away. We are here. We don’t need to believe in anything. We are available for not doing. There is no place for anxiety or fear to hide here. This is sanctuary.