There is a Zen phrase that says, “Not knowing is the most intimate.” I first heard it quoted in a yoga class many years ago. I didn’t get it, but it stuck with me. I would bring the phrase up in my mind from time to time, wondering what it could mean. At that point, certainty seemed like a good thing, yet this expression pointed to an entirely different foundation for wisdom. As the phrase worked its way into me, it became a friend. I started to see that “not-knowing” can bring one into curiosity, openness, and even joy; certainty no longer felt like such a great thing. When I got to live through the wild journey of not-knowing brought about by the death of loved ones and serious illness, I already had a sense that there could be some sweetness in not knowing, and this was a blessing. As the American Zen teacher Norman Feldman wrote: “When you train in being present and letting things come and go, you are training in not knowing.”* This is synonymous for mindfulness so now I cherish uncertainty, trusting the hidden roads it takes me down.
Yet for all the appreciation I now have for uncertainty, or not-knowing, in the day-to-day experience, there are still many moments when I find myself stuck craving for certainty. Don’t we all? The brain was designed to search for patterns so that it doesn’t have to learn things over and over again. Imagine how hard it would be to learn to feed ourselves if every time we saw an apple we wondered what it was and what to do with it? The habit of remembering our past experiences and assuming there will be continuity with future situations plays a very important role. But if we face our lives always certain of outcomes and significance, then we close ourselves off from most of the joy in life.
I’ve yet to find any simple, sure-fire ways to overcome the drive for certainty. There is, however, a simple practice I can share that can go a long way toward helping us notice when we’re stuck in certainty and some simple steps to get unstuck. Do you ever find yourself saying something like, “Everyone is against me!” “No one ever helps me!” or “There is never enough time!”? I do. What do the statements have in common? They’re all absolute statements, with words like always, never, everything, nothing, everyone, and no one. These have become magic words for me. When I use them, I now know that I’m stuck in certainty and not in the present moment.
In an interdependent, impermanent world, absolute statements are usually inaccurate. Impermanence and interdependence, or non-self, are at the core of the Buddha’s teachings and they aren’t meant to be revered or simply memorized; they’re meant to be applied to daily life. So when we think or speak in absolutes, we’re talking about ideas, past experiences, or the imagination. It’s almost impossible to describe reality in absolutes. We may come close but in the space between our perceptions and reality, an ocean of ignorance and suffering can arise. Disconnected from here and now, it’s easy to fall into stories, projections, craving, delusion, reaction . . . you name it. Grounding our thoughts in actions in reality, free from absolutes, can free us from a lot of suffering.
To know if I’ve disconnected from reality, when I notice that I’ve used an absolute, I practice what I call BRACE: Breathe, Relax, Ask, Correct, Explore.
1) Bring attention to the breath. This is a simple way to shift the mind away from thinking, giving us the space to reflect and see something different.
2) Relax the body and mind. Usually when we’re stuck in certainty, we get tense in the shoulders, around the eyes, or anywhere in the body. Taking time to relax the body helps to relax the mind.
3) Ask myself, “Is that true?” I have yet to find any absolute statement I’ve made that is true. Asking a question shifts energy and consciousness away from rigidity and certainty.
4) Correct the statement with the follow-up question, “What is a more accurate statement?” Specificity brings one back into the present, closer to reality, and generally cools off any agitation or pain.
5) Explore which emotions underly the initial statement and what they want to say. It’s often easier to complain or become frustrated than to actually feel a painful emotion like grief or sorrow. But once there is inner space, it’s easier to find the motivation for our thoughts and words and thus address our real needs.
Asking oneself, “Why do I always fall into this mess?” is very different from saying, “This is the third time this week that I’ve had to stay at work past 8pm. I have too many projects on the go and I feel overwhelmed.” Specificity can release an emotional pressure valve internally. And when we’re in conflict with another person, specificity can change “You never help me” into “You left me to do the dishes by myself three times last week and I’m feeling frustrated.” People often feel less attacked by specific statements than generalities that can be received as judgements of character.
It might take time to start catching yourself mid-sentence and using BRACE in real time. Fortunately, you can start now and apply it to the past. When was the last time you used one of the magic words? Were you stuck in certainty? Think of that situation and go through the five steps. Does this change anything for you? Think of a few more examples and use the process to put your mind in the habit of noticing absolute statements and how to reconnect with reality.
You can also apply BRACE toward the statements of others, but don’t tell them to breathe, relax, ask, correct, and explore. Rather, you can apply steps one and two to ground yourself, and then imagine what the answers to steps three through five might be for the other person to gain some understanding and to open your heart to compassion. In conversation and conflict, you can also simply ask for clarification or offer more specific statements to help you and the other person deepen understanding and keep communication open when it might slam shut. With some practice and creativity, you can bring BRACE into many areas of your life. The possibilities are vast.
Training to be present and letting things come and go is the intimacy of not-knowing, being intimate with all of life. It can take a lifetime or more to master it, but this needn’t stop anyone from growing in presence and openness, day by day, breath by breath. Even a little intimacy goes a long way.