Not Knowing

 

A zen story says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” When we don’t know, our minds are open and curious — we draw closer to our questions, eating and sleeping them, walking them down the street. But as soon as we think we’ve got the answer, we break our engagement with the questions — case closed.

In Say Anything, a classic movie of my generation, released the year I graduated from college, the hero, graduating from high school, is reproached for his aimlessness by his guidance counselor: “All your friends know what they want to do next, Lloyd.” Cheerfully, Lloyd attempts to reassure her with a quintessentially zen response: “They think they know. I know that I don’t know, which puts me ahead.”

Not many of us have as much equanimity about not knowing as Lloyd; I know I don’t. An open mind sounds like nice place to visit — spacious, relaxed, airy. But who’d want to live there? Living each day with the truth of not knowing is a fearsome project.

I remember a zen teacher introducing a dharma talk, “You might think you chose to come here.” She then listed several of the innumerable conditions that had happened to enable our presence in that place at that time, and a few of the countless others that had allowed our presence by helpfully not occurring.

When we think we’re deciding to do something, it’s not only us deciding; ten thousand things are deciding our decisions with us — all the myriad causes and conditions of the world.

This insight particularly dismayed me because my life had long been driven by the desire to “do the right thing,” if only I could figure out what it was. Naturally, this determination was accompanied always by its shadow, the profound fear of doing the wrong thing.

The right thing is an elusive animal, visible mostly in hindsight. It’s something we invent afterwards, when we see how things turned out; it seems rarely to appear at the moment of decision. And things are forever “turning out” — the consequences of our actions play out infinitely. Miles Davis said there’s no such thing as a wrong note, because it’s the note you play next that determines whether the previous one was good or bad.

This is how life is; there’s rarely an objectively “right” answer, and one moment’s solution easily becomes the next moment’s mistake. But this also means that each moment offers the chance to redeem all the moments before it, all the moments that culminated in this one and are alive within it, not to mention all those yet to come.

Carl Jung advised that when we find ourselves facing a question to which the answer cannot be known, we should simply pick whichever belief is more helpful. I think it’s important to remember that we choose our beliefs, and that they might be wrong; fundamentalism is a cheap way out of a mystery.

So we must make from partial and contradictory information our best decisions for our own lives and others’. This is an undeniably appalling fact. Our consolation is that if the “right decision” is a chimera, the wrong one is equally a fiction. All we can do is know that we don’t know, and play our next note.

 

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