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?
Moving from How to Why
In previous blogs, we offered some techniques for dealing with some of the things life throws our way. From flowing to forgiveness, and from meditation to contemplation, these are strategies offer a path to a better way of life. However, these posts speak to the question of how to live life. This week, we want to address the why. What is the point in learning how to live if you don’t feel like you have something to live for? It is impossible to live a positive life if we just aimlessly wander through it. Inevitably, we need to address our search for meaning.
The Search for Meaning is a War
Meaning in our lives is a hard-fought spoil of war. The war rages between what others have deemed “meaningful” in your life and what the essential “you” has deemed meaningful. Often times, burdened by the meaning of others, we all trudge onto the field of life in a search for meaning of our own choosing. It is a search for something that “matters” to us. Something worth living for and fighting for. Something that makes each day a crusade to manifest what matters most to us. We are not settling. We are actively seeking.
Existence Precedes Essence
A clue in our search for meaning lies in what we do. A famous French philosopher once said that “existence precedes essence.” In other words, there is nothing extrinsic to us that will define us. Only our actions define us and it is through our actions that we find meaning. Poets find meaning in words and fashioning them to say what cannot be said. Similarly, the compassionate find meaning in helping others. Hedonists find pleasure in all that there is to enjoy and more. On the other hand, ascetics derive joy from less and less. To these folks, the meaning is found in reduction.
Get Out and Explore
The search for meaning and finding a meaningful path are essential to our development as human beings. This week at Barn Life, we are exploring all different kinds of meaningful lifestyles. The sky is truly the limit. There are endless examples of lives well lived. There are examples throughout history and right in our own backyards. People who have found their purpose and calling are everywhere if we look. This week we will open our senses to allow for the world to work its magic on us. Try on new hats. Go someplace different. Talk to someone you never talk to. Lift up a rock and see what’s underneath. Peel back the layers. The clues for a meaningful life are everywhere. The menu is full. Order something. Try it.
Contemplation, Meditation…and Now What?
We’ve gone over contemplation and meditation in our previous blogs. But how do we translate the peace of mind we have learned on the cushion into our day-to-day lives? To illuminate the path, here is an example, one that should resonate particularly with those of us who have suffered from substance abuse issues. It happens a lot. We do something messed up and waste a bunch of your time and everyone else’s time. By the time we sober up to what we so exquisitely shattered, we quickly start to repair the damage. Like a cat who fell off the sill, we scramble to our feet as quickly as possible and hastily strut away with some salvaged grace, almost as if no calamity had transpired at all. In such a hurry to save face, coupled with the feeling of “getting on with it already,” we foolishly rush in where angels fear to tread.
Flowing With the Current
There may be a flow to things and a way of tuning into the language of this flow. A way to ally yourself with the very current that propels us all forward and back and around again. It is so easy to finally identify the source of discomfort and quickly fall into the trap of remedying it like, chop, chop c’mon right now. But discomforts are a timid sort of prey. If you spring too fast on them, you’ll spook them. Practicing stillness in the midst of change and confusion is a powerful tool. In no time, our discomforts will be eating from our hand and rolling in ecstasy at our feet. Not being in too much of a hurry has its benefits. There is a reason “stop and smell the roses” is a cliché. It’s because it’s true. Time and time again. We can be in such a hurry we brush past the sweet smells of bloom and then curse that too, too busy world for its foulness.
Letting Go of the Wheel
This week’s theme is about taking that sacred, quiet moment and keeping it for yourself. A small moment to just take it all in in one big gulp. If that sentence didn’t make sense, read it slower, especially between the two “ins”. Flowing with life infers letting go of the wheel for a little bit. Trusting in the celestial pacing of things. Try to identify moments in your life where “rushing in” to get involved – even with the most angelic of intentions – led to a uniquely worse set of circumstances, all thanks to you. Think back in life to the moments when one more play on the bench may have been the better bet. Instead of trying “to be” this week, let’s try “not to be.” Try not to be in a hurry to fix things. Practice listening and letting go with humility and awareness.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein
From the Inner Realm to the Outer Realm
Last week, we began to move from the inner realm to the outer realm. From philosophy helping us to understand our place in the world to the idea of a community and how we interact with others. Those of us in recovery who have spent some time among the twelve-step community know that resentments can wield a terrible power. Fortunately, we have a weapon against resentments: forgiveness. Forgiveness is not giving up nor is it admitting defeat. Forgiveness is about taking power back and making a conscious decision to let go of resentments, pain, and anger.
The Power Resentments Have
Some people are not ready to forgive and rightly so. What about victims of sexual assault and violence as well as people who have suffered physical, emotional abuse and unearned shame? Is it not appropriate to feel rage due to events that have happened directly or indirectly to us? However, our suffering has the power to consume us. Suffering and resentments can control our entire worldview and biases. When we look objectively at how our resentments have power over us, we can see how we engage in belittling ourselves and in turn increase our own self-loathing. We can even convince ourselves we deserve it. Even worse, we can act upon anger and allow it to dominate our actions and perceptions of the world. However, forgiveness can begin the process of emotionally disconnecting ourselves from the events and pain that we have used to define us.
Forgiveness: A Personal Statement
Forgiveness is not about forgetting or even making a statement that what happened to create the resentment is acceptable. It is about making a personal statement that one does not want to be emotionally controlled by the events, memories and perception of self that resentments create. There are many ways to forgive. However, the least helpful is giving the terrible advice of “Just let this go.” Well, how? How do people “let go” how do people forgive?
How Do We Let It Go?
For some it is a mere acknowledging that the incident(s) occurred, facing the emotions that arise and stating forgiveness. Others need rituals or prayer to assist in maintaining the intention of forgiveness. Unfortanutely, though, forgiveness can act like the tide of the ocean or the changing moon. Our resentments can creep back in, even after we have made the conscious decision to forgive. In this case, one needs to repeat the action of forgiveness. We take a little more power back until the resentment has eventually been drained and the individual is free from that resentment.
It is our job to help foster forgiveness However, it is not our job to push someone to forgive when they are not ready. Those individuals may still need to be further defined or come to a better understanding. Perhaps they need to acknowledge lessons to be learned from the experience before they become willing and ready to forgive. Even if that lesson is to realize how much damage and influence these resentments have had in our lives. Only then we can pose the question “Are you ready to let this go?”