Finding peace in “don’t know mind”
Imagine you’re standing in front of a blank white wall, 100 feet tall by 100 feet wide.
Drawn in black on the wall is a circle, as big as will fit on the wall. This circle represents all possible truth that exists in the universe.
Now, I hand you a fine-tip pen and ask you to draw a point within the circle that represents what you know, relative to everything possible there is to know.
Being wise, you’ll tell me it’s impossible to do; the dot of what you really know compared to everything that can be known would be so infinitesimally small that our strongest microscopes wouldn’t be able to detect it.
Now ask yourself this: If I asked you to draw a circle representing what you believe or what you think you know, would that circle be larger or smaller than what you really know to be true?
Much, much bigger, right? For some of us it would be as large as the existing circle.
And can you tell me why this is so?
That blank white wall is utterly terrifying to us. We desperately want to know. We need to know. We think we should or are supposed to know.
But we don’t have a clue.
It’s ironic: Uncertainty, not knowing, is the most fundamental component of our reality that we swim in, and yet it’s what scares us the most and what we reject the most vehemently.
It’s like a fish being terrified of water.
We simply don’t know how to orient ourselves to and deal with uncertainty and impermanence.
To defend ourselves against the terror of uncertainty we develop rigid, fixed beliefs.
There’s so much we don’t know, so much we can’t know, and everything is constantly changing. But if we create fixed beliefs in our minds, those beliefs can give us a sense of permanence and knowing.
Never mind whether or not those beliefs actually align with truth. Never mind that our interpretations of scriptures, experiences, or observed phenomena are not the same as truth, but are merely beliefs. Never mind that our beliefs could be nothing but delusions.
We cling to our beliefs for all we’re worth; if we lose our beliefs, we lose our bearings. We don’t know up from down, right from left. We’re free-falling into the gaping void of “I don’t know.”
And so it is that we dig in our heels and argue with each other over our beliefs. At the extremes — which is far more common throughout history than we may care to admit — we physically fight and kill each other because of differences in beliefs.
- “I have the right to own whatever guns I want.”
- “The government should regulate guns.”
- “Animals should never be used for testing.”
- “Abortion is evil.”
- “A woman has the right to choose what to do with her body.”
- “America is the greatest country in the world.”
- “Rich people are greedy and should be forced to pay their fair share.”
- “Rich people are producers who build the economy and should be incentivized and protected.”
- “God is a spirit, one God in three persons.”
- “There is no god.”
- “People are born with original sin.”
- “The world is flat.”
- “The sun revolves around the earth.”
- “White people are superior to black people.”
- “Non-muslims are infidels.”
(If I’ve hit on one of your beliefs, or a belief that conflicts with your own, pay close attention to how you feel. Do you feel yourself tightening, constricting into defensiveness?)
In our desperate desire to know, we become dogmatic and fundamentalist. We debate and try to prove ourselves right and others wrong, while patting ourselves on the back for “defending truth.”
As Yann Martel says in his breathtakingly insightful novel, Life of Pi,
“There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless…”
Reality and truth need no defense. The only thing that needs defense is our beliefs, and we defend them because of the terrifying possibility lurking in our subconscious mind that we could be wrong.
Zen Buddhism offers a refreshing escape from the defensive and clinging fundamentalism of belief. They call it “Don’t Know Mind.”
Zen Master Bon Soeng explains,
“There’s all of this bias toward knowing. But we don’t really know. We have this radical teaching: How about admitting the truth that we don’t know and go from there. If we really live that, it changes everything.
“Don’t Know Mind doesn’t mean stupid. It means What Is It? Suddenly our eyes are open, we’re vibrating with energy because we wonder, ‘What?’…rather than, ‘Oh yeah, I know that!’
“So this Not-Knowing actually gives us life. It gives vibrancy and energy to the world we live in. This kind of I-Know shuts everything down and we get stuck…
“We fill our minds up with all this stuff, and it gets stale and dead. Not knowing is what opens us up and comes alive…
“Clear it away. Return to zero. What do we see, what do we smell, what do we taste, what do we touch? Everything is truth. What we know blocks the truth. Returning to not knowing opens us up.”
Not knowing is only terrifying if we believe we’re supposed to know, or that we have to know in order to function.
But we don’t need to “know” anything to enjoy the giggle of a child, to marvel at the awesome beauty of nature, to create art, to be honest with ourselves, to trust our intuition.
We don’t need to “know” anything at all to smile at a stranger, to offer compassion to a friend, to feed a homeless person, to donate to an orphanage.
Functioning at our highest and purest levels of humanity, from all that is good, decent, kind, and compassionate in us, requires not an iota of knowledge, but rather a deeper consciousness beyond what the mind can perceive or conceptualize.
In fact, we function better when we drop all mind-induced beliefs and conceptualizations and simply be with what is.
Rather than being terrifying, not knowing can be wondrous, magical, and peaceful. As we rest in “Don’t Know Mind,” the fear subsides, the hardness of fundamentalism relaxes. We become softer, more open, more relaxed, light-hearted, more curious, more teachable, kinder, and wiser.
In short, we become as Christ taught us to become: as a little child. (Think about it: What do children need to “know” to function as the pure and magical beings that they are?)
Is this absolute truth? I don’t know. But does that matter?