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Not Knowing

Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

(From The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats)

We want to get to below discursive thought to the place where mind—not your mind or my mind but mind itself—is original, fresh. . . . At the back of every word we write is no word.

(Nathalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life)

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.

(Rebecca Solnit,  A Field Guide to Getting Lost )
“Not Knowing,” detail, by Ratnadevi, mixed media

One of the prompts frequently used in writing workshops is the half-phrase “I know . . .” followed, after a few minutes of free writing, by “I don’t know . . .” The advice is to keep the pen moving, not crossing anything out, to lose control and “go for the jugular.” (Goldberg 2005, xii) This kind of writing practice is designed to loosen up and outmaneuver the inner censor; to gain access to the hidden, juicier parts of the psyche and become enthralled with the intimacy of actual experience, rather than reiterating tired, preconceived ideas. Rereading the introduction in my aged copy of Writing Down the Bones, I notice what I underlined 30 years ago, when I was seeking encouragement from this more experienced writer/artist/meditator: “I had to get slow and dumb (not taking anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects. . . .” (xxiii) Thank you, Natalie!

For me, Not Knowing is far more than a warm-up for more considered and carefully crafted literary output, more than an innocent, frisky child-phase prior to respectable, savvy adulthood. Not Knowing, even in its negative formulation—similar to Keat’s “negative capability”—is an inspired and positive way of being human, implying qualities of honesty, receptivity, openness, and prejudice-free largess of spirit that we could do more with in this divided and stressed modern world. I could have made “openness” the title for this piece, since, on the whole, being exposed to positive terms has a more beneficial effect. But we are firmly primed to reach—more or less irritably—for “fact and reason,” and an important aspect of this quality that I am interested in is the undoing of this tendency.

After a period of trying too hard, I frequently experience it as a great relief to let go of the need to know what I think and what I should do, of that burden of identification with “me.” Reminding myself of Not Knowing in meditation practice drops me into deeper layers of peacefulness and bliss: in communication it frees up curiosity and allows attunement, embracing it in an emergency situation can help one to stay calm, and in a creative project it opens up a larger array of possibilities to draw from and invites synchronicity. Most aspects of my life are improved by Not Knowing, and I have a hunch that this might be true for the planet as a whole. What tries to claw back certainty and control, again and again, is fear. And what nevertheless steers me into the direction of Not Knowing is boredom with the repetitiveness and tidiness of the known.

Like this morning, when I felt some resistance to my morning routine of stretches and exercises, it seemed tedious and pedestrian. “Not Knowing,” I said to myself, and my legs started to swing in more unusual circles, making my spine arch and twist in ways that led to astonishing head positions. Very soon I started to feel engaged again, plugged in to ever-present life energy, flowing like the unpredictable eddies in a wild stream. In tandem with this piece of writing, keeping my theme in mind—or in hand, rather—I doodle with pastels and pencils, letting words and shapes emerge of their own free will, as it were.

I take inspiration from Willow, my Buddha-daughter, who is discovering how to write. Seemingly arbitrarily, she will jump to the bottom of the page or write a word backwards, or she’ll invent hierographic shapes. Sometimes she wants to know the “right” way of spelling, but mostly not. The size and color of her letters change constantly. Precision and chaos alternate as she hums and whistles and sometimes gets up to give physical expression to her meaning. She draws a house with straight lines and neat windows, a face in each box: her family. Next, she lets an amorphous, squiggly shape pour onto the paper from a deliberately loose wrist and proclaims this also as a house, on a different planet. Who might live there? During my own write/art experiments, I discover that the last three letters of “know” make “NOW”—of course!

Palm House at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. From

On a blustery winter walk in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, I bump into an old friend from many years ago. Let’s call him Mike. As an ordained leader within a traditional Buddhist school, Mike has been running regular meditation meetings for a number of years. We talk amicably about a range of topics: how fed up everyone is with online meetings during the pandemic, how we manage to make a living. He asks about my book and I tell him of the recent launch event and ask whether he might mention it to his students. His face darkens a shade and he says that he has issues with “mindfulness” and with Western Buddhism trying to integrate the Dharma with Western concepts. “It’s the death of Buddhism,” Mike says, conceding that his is probably a minority view. He looks at me expectantly. As a member of the Triratna order, formerly the Western Buddhist order, how will I rise to this challenge? We stand at the gate of the garden, keeping our hands warm in our pockets; he wears a pert, cardinal-red knitted hat, mine a softer shape, slate blue. The trees around us are vigorously answering the wind and the ground is strewn with broken-off branches. I take my time, recognize a part of me already halfway to retrieving a ready-made view, and I also sense a weariness, a decrease in vitality. I don’t want to do battle. I want to stay open and relaxed. “I have a reluctance to present you with a view,” I decide to tell him truthfully. “I am practicing to treat views lightly.” Mike instantly turns to leave, and after a couple of steps mutters over this shoulder, “Of course, that is the way.”

I have been mulling over this exchange, which reminded me of one of those stories of baffling repartee between Zen practitioners. My attitude reflected traditional Dharmic non-attachment to views, but there is the fact that Mike chose to leave abruptly. Could I have done something more skilful toward staying connected, staying more curious about his experience as well as mine? I could have reminded myself more explicitly, for example, that the expression of anger is often a doomed attempt to have some need met; a plea for connection. I might have asked him whether he wanted some support for his view. But actually, was it really my task to help him, uninvitedly, to clarify what’s behind his adversarial attitude? I chose, instead, to take care of my own need for ease and authenticity. And there is another thread here, considering whether my stance could have an element of copping out. When is it important to take a position, to nail my colors to the mast? Much Not Knowing here, and therefore much opportunity for learning.

But I feel attracted to the idea that the Not Known doesn’t always have to be turned into the known. Maybe sometimes there is greater benefit in being lost. The activist and author Rebecca Solnit says: “The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” (Solnit, 6) She describes losing oneself as a “voluptuous surrender.” I do remember that moment in the garden as delectable, like a child jumping off a wall into waiting, bigger arms. I just wish my friend had stayed to play.

Divisions in our world are rampant: between pro- and anti-vaxxers, between extreme right- and left-wing political factions, between those who drop litter and those who pick it up. Few stop to consider the conditioning and knowledge that underpin our views and how they serve us. The more there seems to be at stake, the more we find proliferations of views and identification with them.

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax talks about the practice of “radical uncertainty” that “gives us space to discover how to serve.”* We can be active in areas that we care about most: for example, lobby for the reintroduction of beavers, boars, and wolves to natural habitats to create the conditions for many other forms of wildlife to thrive. We can support Trees for Life and similar charities. Or we may feel called into the “Greater Mandala of Uselessness”**—we might practice the arts, exposing ourselves to the thrilling uncertainty of not knowing what to say or draw.

While honoring the obvious usefulness of certain types of knowledge for survival—such as which plants are good to eat and which are better not to touch—we continue to make friends with uncertainty, accepting that much of the knowledge we access is selective and provisional. In meditation, we don’t have to tidy up the inner landscape first in order to see results. We can relax into the messiness of lived experience and honor its wild beauty and fertility; fallen trees harbor more life-forms than standing ones. We can feel like environmental writer George Monbiot in an ancient Slovenian forest, where the knowledge that there were wolves and lynx, even if he couldn’t see them, “enriched and electrified” every moment. “The forest seemed to bristle with possibility.” (Monbiot, 192)

Perhaps the greatest of all ancient mind treasures are the teachings, or non-teachings, of Mahamudra, the subtle, in-depth exploration of Not Knowing:   

Without involvement, great bliss never ceases.

Without labelling, luminous clarity is free from obscurations’ shrouds.

Beyond intellect, no-thought is spontaneously present;

May these effortless experiences flow without interruption.

(The Mahamudra Prayer, the Third Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje)

* Online seminar with Frank Ostaseski, run by Upaya Zen Centre, 2 June 2020.

** A term used by Sangharakshita, the founder of Triratna, to encourage being rather than doing.

*** Mahamudra literally means “great seal” or “great imprint” and refers to the fact that “all phenomena inevitably are stamped by the fact of wisdom and emptiness inseparable.” (Wikipedia)


Goldberg, Natalie. 2005. Writing Down the Bones. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2006. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. New York: Penguin Books.

Monbiot, George. 2017. Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, and Human Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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