The Practice of Not Knowing

Zoltan Tasi, "Penshurst Place & Gardens," Penshurst, United Kingdom via Unsplash


At times, I wish I had more funny things to say to buoy spirits. But this particular time doesn’t lend itself to humor. Nor is it a time for self-improvement. It’s a time of collective sorrow and grief and fear, a time for sheltering in place (those of us who can) and waiting for what is to come. We are told that staying home, saves lives. What if we considered our efforts to be present to ourselves, to be open to what is happening inside and outside, to be for the collective good as well?

This week brings Passover, a celebration of liberation. One of my friends wrote about how amazing it is, to celebrate Passover, while sheltering in place, hoping to be spared from a plague. We can imagine how frightened and vulnerable those humans must have felt. I am not a Jewish scholar, but I am pretty sure no one was telling them to practice “positivity,” or to consider this the “New Normal.” All that they were feeling, fear and faith, joy and terror, is treated as part of the sacred story. Our greatest stories are invitations to remember our own deepest humanity. We are very limited but also blessed.

The root meaning of understanding is to be in the midst of something, to know it by living through it. This global pandemic is not a time for personal lessons but for a collective knowing, a remembering of our humanity, our frailty and also our capacity for moments of joy and goodness. I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to make our practice one of noticing small moments. The sun is out today! Just for a moment, we may feel this as a blessing and a source of hope and joy.

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, “sati” or mindfulness literally means to remember the present moment.  All great spiritual traditions emphasize the power of remembering and recollection, each in their own way. When we are more present, a small moment may become huge, something cosmic and profound. A moment of feeling the sun may suddenly open like a lens and we remember that we are standing on the Earth and under the Sun, being given the gift of life.

We all long for this to pass, to be able to go out and see our friends and loved ones, for the danger and the dying to stop. Please remember that we are going through a time of collective trauma. This is a time to accept all of our feelings as they are. This is a time for not knowing, for being like little children or like our ancient ancestors. Here is a fragment of a letter Rilke wrote to a young poet, urging him not to try to be a busy, successful adult:

“And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn….”

Don’t try to understand with your thinking right now. Just let yourself sink down into your embodied experience and notice how it feels to be here.

The Buddha based his enlightenment on a memory from childhood.  He came to point where he realized that all his mighty efforts and sacrifice had not led him to liberation. According to the great story he split off from his fellow ascetics and collapsed by a riverbank, broken and despairing. A young woman riding an ox offered him food and he ate. That small act of goodness, of offering and eating food, caused a memory from childhood to bubble up. The Buddha remembered being a young child, sitting alone under a tree, watching his father and the other men from the village plowing the fields in a spring festival.

The boy who would be Buddha remembered the good feeling of being by himself in nature on a pretty spring day. He was alone yet not alone. He was secluded but also communing with life, the way it feels to be out in nature. According to the great story, the little boy saw some insects whose homes were being torn up by the plowing.  His heart opened to them. Secluded yet deeply connected to life, he felt joy and compassion at the same time, safe in his solitude yet also aware of other beings. This is attitude the Buddha took under the Bodhi tree to reach full awakening.

It wasn’t an easy night, heaven knows. The devil Mara launched assault after assault, alternating terror and desire, anything that might get the Buddha up off his seat and out the door so to speak. But the Buddha didn’t move. He slowly reached down and touched the Earth, asking it to affirm his right to be there. We belong here. We are limited and going through our own dark night. But we are also connected to that which is unlimited.

This is also Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Next Sunday will be Easter, a celebration of love triumphing over death. But first come the somber days when all seems lost. I remember one particular Good Friday, as a child.  It was a beautiful spring day, and I was lying outside in the grass, inside a circle of big purple and white lilac bushes. Who knows why, but I was singing “Thumbelina,” a big hit of the time. I remember the warmth of the sun and the scent of lilacs and the beauty of the sky and the clouds and the budding trees that arched above me. I remember feeling suffused with a love of life and an extraordinary sense of hope and promise.

My mother called me to come in the house and be still. Reluctantly, I went in and sat on the couch, not at all sure what I was actually supposed to be doing. My mother wasn’t much for explanations especially about religion, but she indicated that it was a kind of vigil. Why is it called Good if it is so Sad? She ordered me to sit down and not talk and eventually understanding would come…or not. In retrospect, her approach had a Zen-like simplicity: just sit. So I sat there, assuming a child’s attitude of not-knowing, marveling that I had just felt a connection to the future, and now I was supposed to feel a connection with an extraordinary event from the past.

I knew the basic story of Good Friday, of course. And I thought of it at first. I thought of Jesus suffering and dying and facing the darkness of the unknown. I thought of him giving up control, putting himself in God’s hands, and the great forces of love and compassion that came to help him. I wondered if this really happened. I wondered if it happened for ordinary people also. Did love come to you in your darkest hour? Maybe not in such a big public way but maybe in a small private way? I just knew I had to wait there and be open until I was released.

8 thoughts on “The Practice of Not Knowing

  1. A time of being not doing and yet paradoxically in just being we are actually doing, assisting in not spreading the virus, not adding to the pressure our healthcare and other essential workers face. We can do nothing but be powerless and yet in our powerlessness we are given the power we need to accept the situation as it is on a daily/momentary basis.
    Speaking with colleagues today what I heard was “when will the surge hit, will it be next week or the week after…….waiting, waiting, waiting”. All the preparations are made, hospital beds freed up, extra staff in place, step down facilities prepared, plane loads of PPE coming in to the country everyday and no one knows know what’s ahead. The tension is palatable, fear and anxiety etched on peoples faces and all we can really do 100% is be. Be at home cocooning, be at work at our jobs and trust as Julian of Norwich said “all will be well and all manner of things will be well”.

      1. Well, after all, she wasn’t in close contact with anyone, and she did have cats to kill off those pesky rats. ;-)

    1. I think one reason this quote by Julian of Norwich is so enduring is that she does not specify after death, does not affirm the expected dichotomy between good and evil. It becomes an invitation to explore: How can this be well? How can all things be well? This is not looking at the bright side. It is holding a question as a lamp.

  2. I like this quote by Thomas Merton: You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope. — Thomas Merton IEasier said than done, I know.)

  3. This is one of the kindest, most illuminating, and also most realistic things I have read during this pandemic. We live in Canada, but we are heartsick and frightened for our American family and neighbours. I am not working on my novel or improving my myself. I am trying to keep breathing. The practice of noticing small moments is a lifeline.
    So the sun is shining, the wild fawn lilies are in bloom, and our 7-month-old puppy has brought me a sock. The ancient yew tree which hangs over our driveway is still quietly standing as it has stood for the past 800 years. I have learned a lot from that yew tree.
    Thank you, Tracy, for being with us and managing to write so intelligently in the midst of all this.

    1. Dear Susan, Thank you for this kind response, and for sharing this image of sun, lilies, puppy, all under the ancient yew tree, who must have much wisdom to impart. May we all take root in small moments. May all be well, in Canada, here, and everywhere.

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