From Unknowing to Knowing
If “unknowing” leads us to non-judgment, then “knowing” leads us to judgment. If we think we know something, we start judging everything and everyone around us in the light of our “knowing.” Our “knowing” or “certainty” coupled with the inevitable judging that goes with them always leads to suffering. The Buddha said that “a day spent judging another is a painful day. A day spent judging yourself is a painful day.” Conversely, time spent unknowing, in non-judgment, may lead to a cessation of suffering.
Judgment Closes Doors
Knowing may involve an opening up to new possibility, but more often knowing takes the form of a certainty that closes doors and makes our world smaller rather than larger. What is a judgment that always accompanies certainty? It is a decision we make about the inherent nature or quality of communication, a thing, or a person. It is a decision of right or wrong, bad or good. An assumption. Judgment always has, or is part of, some agenda. What if we were able to drop all of that, and let things be as they are? What then?
Criticism = Judgment + Demand
Probably one of the most personally corrosive things to emerge from a state of knowing and its judgments is criticism. What is criticism? Well, it is an essentially emotional statement that contains a judgment and a demand. All criticism is made of these two things, although often the judgment and demand are camouflaged in some way. It’s also worth remembering that self-criticism, while occasionally useful, is more often as corrosive to our progress and growth as any criticism we might make of another person.
Converting Criticism into Effective Communication
A plain, albeit relatively mild, criticism might sound like this:
“I really wish you would wash the dishes every day. You are such a slob for not doing it!”
The demand: wash the dishes. The judgment: you’re a slob. Simple enough. Think about how it works as effective communication, though. Not well, most of the time. Inevitably the object of this communication will become defensive, even hostile and my criticism of them will not only be an abject failure in achieving my goal – consistent washing of the dishes – it will likely make things worse between us. A better way: dispense with the criticism and do something different. More effective communication might be: “When you don’t wash the dishes I feel angry, sad and dismissed.” I talk about myself, not about the potential object of my criticism. This seems simple enough but it can also be quite powerful in getting my partner, say, to actually listen to what I’m saying, and is less likely to provoke defensiveness or a fight.
So how do we experience our “knowings” and the judgments that follow from them? Is judging pleasant or unpleasant? How does constantly judging everything and everyone help or hurt us? M. Scott Peck once observed that “The quality of our judgments determines the quality of our lives.” While this is true, it’s crucial that we are all deeply aware of our inner experience driving our judgments and how we can communicate our judgments in a way that they can actually be heard and considered seriously. This week, explore judgment in all its manifestations and what it might be like to judge less and observe more, including judging ourselves. Does more judgment really result in more suffering? Is the converse true? Consider if judgment and criticism make us more distant from other people, more alone, or if less judgment and criticism bring us closer to others and to ourselves.
“Not-Knowing” Vs. Certainty
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.
Training Ourselves to Accept What Is
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.
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer is yet another clear statement of this idea:
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?
Answering the Call of Self-Mastery
Let go of whom you’ve become and grasp what you can be.
What does it mean to live up to one’s fullest potential and highest conceivable good?
Life is constant change and if you float with it, the sailing is much, much smoother.
Inspired by Lao Tzu, the librarian sage priest of ancient, idyllic China, the ideas above express an invitation to answer the call of Self-Mastery. Mastery of one’s own “self” is a twist of words. The self, as we all think about it, is formless. Our concepts of our selves’ are more of “a feeling” or a “kind of sense” of who we are as individual people. When people call your name and you respond, a “self” somewhere in your mind wakes up and sends a message to your tongue. “Yes?” Your self responds. Self is a storm up in your head all over the place.
How Does One “Master” Something?
So, ok, how do we master something as formless as a self? It’s just an idea. Let that simmer a second or two, we will come back to it. Let’s ask a different question. How does one “master” something?
Ever see The Matrix? There is a scene where Neo, the main character, is quite literally “downloaded” entire styles of Martial Arts as well as complex languages and all other sorts of information and knowledge, with the push of a button. ZCHWERP! Done. You are a master, my son, in less that 2 seconds! Please exit through the gift shop! Huh, uh we wish mastery was that easy. I mean what would be the best way to make mastery a little easier and better and more…marketable? Shorten the amount of time it takes! Bingo, but wait a second, if we shorten the time it takes to master something doesn’t that contradict the definition of mastery? What is the definition of “master” since I just brought it up? As it turns out, there are a bunch:
A master is an original thing of which copies are made. Like a master key or a master file.
A master can also mean something that controls something else. Like a master cylinder or the master ring that controls all others.
To master can also mean to exhibit control over another person. Like a lord of a kingdom or a master of a ship.
One can master a skill by repeating it like a master carpenter or a master artist.
Time Is the Secret
Mastery seems to imply an ability to utilize something at the highest possible level of skill. Time affords us this blessing. Only time can provide us the moments we need to improve upon our selves. A therapist or martial arts master cannot whisper into someone’s ear the secret word and whoosh they are transformed. There is no secret code or secret knowledge that will transform you in the moment. Save but one. Time is the secret. Keep doing it and you will master it.
Wanna know how to get good at something? Do it.
What about how to be great? Do it more.
Wanna know how to be a master? Do it over and over and over.
Time seems to be the secret sauce here. To master something is to learn it thoroughly. Repeated exposures. Repetitions. Familiar ground.
The Real Meaning of Kung Fu
I swear, and I am biased toward all things Asian, but the Chinese always come up with the best words for this stuff. They call it kung fu. Most of us think this means martial arts. It doesn’t. It means “an accumulation of time and effort.” That’s it. Self-mastery in a nutshell. Time combined with where you place your effort. Where do you place your effort and what do you do all day? Do you repeat certain things day after day? What sort of stuff happens to you all day? What do you engage in and what do you seek? Which part of the day are you most happy and which parts are the worst?
Self-Mastery Is The Highest Calling You Can Aspire To
Having a clear sense of how your time in a day is spent is VERY, VERY important. It will add up to who you are. Your self. And that self will be the self we are referring to when we say self-mastery. You become an expert of you. You know you like the back of your hand. To be a master of self is the highest calling you can aspire to. Exploring who you are, what you like, what you love, what you live for, what you would die for, what you will do whether people pay you to do it or not. What do you do when no one is looking? What do you do when no one will know? One person will always know. You. Serving that master will never end poorly. All of your experiences…boons. Every moment…treasures.
“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason, mastery demands all of a person.” – Albert Einstein
The Old Nourishes the New
Last week we explored beginnings. This week we prepare for the end.
Some say that to start something new, you must first “let go” of what has become familiar. A new perspective sprouts from an old perspective. Like fertilizer, the old way nourishes the new way. Note: endings and beginnings are interchangeable points on the same circle. All beginnings are endings and all endings become new beginnings. Something new always sprouts from something decayed. It lives, comes to an end, and gives way to something new. It is no surprise that the Hindu goddess Kali is given credit as the great destroyer and the great creator. She is lovingly referred to as the Dark Mother and in the wake of utter annihilation, new possibilities spring forth. Kali provides liberation or release, called moksha in Hindu, from old ways and old thinking. Though liberation sounds liberating, most of us shun the crucial step that precedes it: uncertainty and fear.
Doing the Unstuck
Identifying habits and behaviors that merit an end is the first step. To make it a bit easier, we may even begin to think about some new habits and behaviors that get us excited about the forthcoming change. Endings are a little easier when something inspiring is in the near future. But look out, our old friend FEAR usually rears his scary head at this time. Fear of letting go or of change. Fear of a future that may be worse than now. What if my ending begets a difficult new beginning? These fears are a good starting point. Fear leaves us stuck. Helping clients get “unstuck” is the goal. Replacing fear with trust. Trust in ourselves. Trust in a future that we can look forward to despite the growing pains that come with change.
The Appointed Time
Kali literally means “appointed time” in Sanskrit. The appointed time is the time we select to make a change, to engage in the process of ending and beginning and to flow with this current of time. Preparing for this appointed time is our goal this week. The appointed time of our endings and new beginnings. That time is now.
Rocky Starts and Face-plants
Beginnings are rocky. In fact, beginnings are beset by difficulties. Easy beginnings are not beginnings at all by our definition. Want proof? From the ordeal of birth to those first unsteady steps to taking off the training wheels – there is nothing easy or amusing at birth. It’s bloody serious business entering the world. Not for the squeamish at all. Learning to walk ends in a high-speed bumbling face-plant most attempts (graceful and lovely are not adjectives that spring to mind). Riding a bike for the first time free is as amazing of a feeling as one could ask for. However, it’s often followed by a very abrupt and high-friction situation no one asked for. Riding a bike, in the beginning, is about as unsafe as you can be, perched up off the ground on two shaky wheels downhill…then the rock you never saw becomes starkly noticeable as you face-plant (remember walking?) into the pavement. A familiar feeling, the face-plant.
New Beginnings Are Not Without Hardships
The Chinese have a word we do not have. It’s called “chun.” Chun means “difficulties in the beginning.” Make special note to the fact that “difficulties” has an “s” at the end. There is not just one difficulty lurking ominously for the beginner, but many. So many. Makes a fellow not want to try new things, that’s for certain.
Chun’s Indomitable Spirit
Chun has a few secret meanings too. Chun is the image of a tiny green sprout popping up from the ground. This sprout was a seed just a few days ago and had to undergo the daunting task of being born. Now it is racing toward the sun whilst simultaneously grow roots to attach itself down to get water. Furthermore, the sprout has to dodge any obstructions that may be in its way as it pushes upward. But the sprout won’t know about the obstacle part until he gets there…and that’s just way the cookie crumbles. All that effort to get born could be all for nuttin’. Blam, obstacle. However, chun is not deterred by these obstacles. Chun just grows slowly and keeps moving around, over, or through the obstacle. One way or another. This is an old word with lots of secrets.
Bringing It Together
In closing, in the beginning of things, basic principles come before specific goals. We cannot head off in a direction before we establish our principles for heading off in the first place. Our principles are what we believe and practice. Once we have established our principles then we discuss goals and plans. So, the beginning is about setting up what we practice. Who we are. Which is never easy. Then goals. Then freedom.
“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
– Margaret Atwood