The concept or idea of “not-knowing” has a long history in spiritual teaching, going back thousands of years. In fact, Buddhism, Taoism, Neoplatonism and the mystic or esoteric teachings of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all consider the state of “not-knowing” as crucially important to a useful spiritual practice. Of course there are versions of all these religions that value and idealize “certainty” or “knowing” very highly, perhaps higher than anything else – evangelical Christianity and certain sects of Islam come to mind, and there are others – as a way of understanding existence to the point of violently imposing that understanding upon others. In these understandings or epistemologies, “certainty” becomes a method of domination. Furthermore, certainty also becomes a version of hubris. The ancient Greeks were well aware of the dangers of hubris, going back over 2500 years.
An Empty Cup
Conversely, esoteric teachings of these same major religious traditions hold not-knowing or unknowing very highly. A useful entrance into this notion comes from Zen Buddhism. A famous Koan tells of a wandering Student who encounters a spiritual Master in the woods. The following conversation ensues:
Master: “Where are you going?”
Student: “My pilgrimage is aimless.”
Master: “What is the substance or matter of your pilgrimage, what do you seek?”
Student: “I don’t know.”
Master: “Ah. Not-knowing is most intimate.”
Unknowing Is Just Right
Marc Lesser gives an excellent interpretation of this Koan:
The response, “I don’t know” feels radically honest. What do we really know about ourselves, our experience, our world? He’s not trying to say something wise or impressive. Maybe he expects some guidance or advice.
Instead, he receives a gift: “Not knowing is most intimate.” Not knowing is just right. Perhaps what he was looking for, he had all along, only he didn’t know it.
The word intimacy in the Zen world is a way of speaking about awakening or enlightenment. I much prefer the word intimacy. Awakening and enlightenment imply some special state of mind, some kind of mystical experience, far removed from our day-to-day lives. We might think that awakening or enlightenment will somehow remove us from our daily struggles and problems. Intimacy brings us closer, to ourselves, to others, to our problems.
Knowing can be an obstacle, can even be our enemy. Our knowing can limit our vision. Much like the famous illusion/image of a woman’s face – that some people see as an old woman, other’s see as a young woman. We think we know … How can others see something so different? Isn’t this how much of life is?
This moment – this person, this illness, this opportunity, this pain or beauty – what is it? … How can we not be caught or limited by what we think we know?
With not knowing, I am open, ready, willing to learn, to be surprised. I can see and hear others beyond my own ideas. Though my experience and knowledge are important, they can get in the way. When I let go of my own ideas, I can be present, humble. When I am humble, I am not afraid. I can enter this moment, engaged, moved, open – intimate.
A Lovely Paradox
Additionally, an example comes from esoteric teachings of early Christian mystics. The article in Wikipedia about this 14th-century anonymous text is worth reading:
The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowing) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”, at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.
There is a lovely paradox at the heart of this text: only by entering a state of unknowing can we begin to know God, however you may conceive that vision.
Putting It Into Practice
So, this week, consider all that ways that unknowing might be useful to us. How might unknowing inform the decisions we make about the course of our lives? How might unknowing be a place to begin a process of developing greater awareness of reality and all that is contained there? Unknowing leaves all doors open, all options available. Certainty closes doors and limits our perspective. Notice also how Not-knowing and Acceptance intertwine with each other. Only through a process of acceptance may I enter the Cloud of Unknowing and from there begin to dispel that cloud and allow awareness to build into my perceptions.
Acceptance is a simple enough idea but can be a challenge to master in practice. This week, we consider just what it means to accept, and how we might train ourselves to accept what is. Buddhism (and certain other spiritual practices) teach that if we do not accept what IS in our life now, we suffer. Another way to think about this is that when we suffer, we are, in essence, resisting what is in our life now. So in this formulation, all suffering results from some form of inner or outer resistance to what is.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
It is in the serenity of acceptance that we find both the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That wisdom eludes us without the serenity of acceptance.
Acceptance Vs. Resistance
Similarly, another way to think about acceptance and resistance is to imagine that we have arrived at a place and time in our lives when we are, in some sense, lost. Resistance to what is in our lives now is a form of being lost. Imagine being lost in the physical world. If I struggle against such a fact, if I am, say, lost in deep woods, I may never come out again. But if I sit quietly, and accept that I am truly lost, I may begin to see things differently. Once I stop resisting that I am lost, I may begin to see ways to become “un-lost.” I may see a path through the underbrush. I may hear sounds that lead me to safety. I may discover a great deal once I have accepted that I am lost and that struggling against that fact is useless.
A State of Openness and Receptiveness
Acceptance is thus not at all simply giving up to what is. Rather, it is a state of openness and receptiveness to what is happening to me now, and also a receptiveness and openness to what might be immanent – but not now obvious – in my current life-situation. Once we reach acceptance, the static of resistance fades and we can see and hear more clearly. We are also more likely to find inner peace more consistently if we can accept what is. So this week, where and what is our resistance? How does it manifest in our lives? What are we resisting now? What would it be like to accept what is instead of resisting it?
The time we spend in active addiction is all about destruction. Burning it all down. We burn through our stash and then we burn bridges while we look to replenish it and start the cycle over again. We destroy our good health, our relationships with family and friends, the trust others have in us, opportunities…the list goes on. And whatever the specifics concerning the roots of our addictions are, this impulse toward destruction is almost always the manifestation of unhealthy coping mechanisms. So while we’re trying to figure out those aforementioned roots and what to do about them, we also need to start learning some healthy ways to cope. Luckily, art therapy can help with this on both fronts.
How Art Therapy Works
For those of you who haven’t participated in an art therapy session, I’ll give a quick rundown of how it works. An art therapist will give a topic or assignment to a group, something along the lines of “paint how you are feeling today” or “draw a picture that represents freedom.” After everyone has had a chance to finish their work, we go around and discuss each piece, hearing from each artist. The group offers feedback, but no judgment: the purpose is to give audience to the artist and let them express themselves.
The Benefits of Art Therapy
The benefits of art therapy are numerous. For one thing, it addresses that destructive impulse head on. Rather than burning anything down, we are now taking time to create something. It also gives the artist a new voice to express themselves. This often leads to the articulation of things that would normally remain unsaid. Furthermore, a Drexel University study revealed that making art increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, thoughts, and actions. Scientists believe that there is a correlation between an underdeveloped or damaged prefrontal cortex and addiction. Art therapy, then, helps strengthen this part of the brain.
Barn Art Life
Art therapy is one of the many services we offer here at Barn Life Recovery, along with Tai Chi, meditation, martial arts, and more. In fact, we are now sharing (with our artists’ permission, of course) some of the art that has been created in our therapy groups. You can check it out here and be sure to come back as we’ll be updating it regularly.
Barn Life Recovery is the first treatment center in the state of California licensed to treat mental illness on an outpatient community-based level. We specialize in mild to moderately severe mental illness, co-occurring disorders and addiction. We accept calls 24/7 at (949)229-6853.
As fans won’t let us forget, the wildly successful Game of Thrones recently came to its conclusion. And as the media won’t let us forget, Kit Harington, the actor who played Jon Snow in the series, checked into a wellness retreat in Connecticut sometime in May after the show had finished taping. An unnamed friend of the actor told Page Six that “The end of ‘GoT’ really hit Kit hard … He realized ‘this is it — this is the end’, it was something they had all worked so hard on for so many years. He had a moment of, what next? He’s in the clinic predominantly for stress and exhaustion and also alcohol.”
We’re All People
It’s easy to forget sometimes that there are real people behind the characters, especially when we’ve watched these characters interact and grow over the course of 8 years. And while it’s tempting to say something like, “Aww, these people are rich…what kind of problems could they possibly have?”, the truth is that mental health is something that affects us all. It is certainly easier to be less stressed out when you don’t have money issues, but with the big checks and the fame comes an entirely new set of problems. Think about the huge backlash and negative fan response that arose after the final episode aired and then imagine working on that show and having to face the world afterward. A pretty frightening proposition.
Similarities Instead of Differences
Instead of thinking about the differences between Kit Harington and the average person, start to think about the similarities. In doing so, you’ll start to learn something about the nature of trauma and traumatic experiences. A stressful job. An impending termination of employment. Saying goodbye to friends and co-workers you’ve been around for the past 8 years. The feelings of emptiness that are bound to be a part of that situation. Being overwhelmed by the prospect of filling that emptiness. Honestly, it’s a little surprising that we don’t hear more stories like Mr. Harington’s after popular series finales. And I also know that if more people were willing to be open, honest, and accepting of mental health issues, we absolutely would.
Retreat and Re-Center
We are very happy to hear that Kit Harington is being proactive and taking care of his mental wellness. The Page Six article mentions that Harington is “undergoing psychological coaching, practicing mindful meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy to combat stress and deal with negative emotions.” These just a few of the services that we offer at Barn Life Recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, or if you need to take a step back and re-center, give us a call today.
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