Wednesday, April 3, 2024 #39

 So many words, actions, debates, and even ‘creeds’ have been generated around the notion of ‘knowing’…that is that whoever is ‘in charge’ ‘knows’ the ‘right answer’ to any situation, and then, whether through a theory, or an experiment, or through the interpretation of some evidence, had induced or deduced the appropriate response.

We live in an empirical, literal, and apparently observable universe, while at the same time, we also live in a smothering ‘fog’ of ambiguity, uncertainty, knowing and ignorance. While championing the former, we deny, ignore, denigrate, avoid, and even go ‘sense-blind’ not only to the existence of the ‘absence’ of knowing but more importantly, its importance and implications.

“Not knowing” is emphasized in Zen practice, where it is sometimes called ‘beginner’s mind.’ An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgements…..How would you live your life if you had a clear sense of the uncertainty of the time and place of death—your own and others? Most people don’t know when death will come. We often live as if we were certain about things that are inherently uncertain. How would we live if we acknowledged our uncertainty?...A simple but profound way to practice not-knowing is to add ‘I don’t know’ to every thought….Like the bumper sticker that says, ‘Question authority,’ the phrase ‘I don’t know’ questions the authority of everything we know….The practice of not-knowing needs to be distinguished from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not a virtue: the confused person is somewhat lost and removed from life. With doubt, the mind is agitated or contracted with hesitation and indecision. These mind states tend to obscure rather than clarify. Furthermore, confusion and doubt are generally involuntary. Not-knowing as a practice, is choice meant to bring greater peace……Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not. As a Buddhist practice, not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate fre4edom, then not-knowing has served its ultimate purpose. (adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, February 10, 2004 on

 From the Tao Te Ching, Verse 71- Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. First Realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health. (

It is the compulsive need to answer the unanswerable questions that is, in Taoist philosophy, the mind’s great dysfunction. ‘The unnameable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.’…We’re accustomed to perceiving our world and all the objects in it by naming them. But what if we stop obsessively naming everything and instead just….rest in awareness? What the Tao Te Ching dos, time and time again, is attempt show us how we might see things if we could spend more time in awareness, and less time in naming. ‘Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.’ This, from the third verse, sounds positively heretical to the work-and productivity-obsessed modern mind. Perhaps if we were more aware, we would worry less, and could see better what actually needs doing. But the central thing the Tao Te Ching asks us to be aware of is not the world, but our self. Self-awareness….In the words of  David Foster Wallace, whose literary philosophy is a natural mirror of Taoist thought, the default setting for people is to be ‘uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out’. Not because we are physically alone, as we know loneliness hits heaviest in crowds. But because we are mired in a deep-seated and near-universal delusion. Despite knowing that we are part of a vast universe, on a massively complex planet shared with seven (nine?) billion other human lives, we continue with the truly insane perception that we are the centre of the world. (The Tao Te Ching by Laozi: ancient wisdom for modern times, by Damien Waiter, in The Guardian, Friday December 27, 2013)

In the West, where Christendom has reigned for centuries, we have oscillated between a pursuit of ‘knowing’ as embodied in the empirical, in the naming, and in the literal. As Karen Armstrong writes, in The Lost Art of Scripture:

In what has been called the ‘perennial philosophy,’ because it was present is all cultures until the modern period, it was taken for granted that the word was pervaded by and found its explanation in a reality that exceeded the reach of the intellect. This is not surprising since we are indeed surrounded by transcendence—a reality that we cannot know objectively….We deal with the world as it appears to us, not as it intrinsically is, so some of our interpretations may be more accurate than others. This somewhat disturbing news means that the ‘objective truths’ on which we rely are inherently illusive. The world is there; its energy and form exist. But our apprehension of it is only a mental projection. The world is outside our bodies, but not outside our minds. ‘We are this little universe,’ the Benedictine mystic Bede Griffiths (1906-93) explained, ‘a microcosm in which the macrocosm is present as a hologram.’ We are surrounded by a reality that transcends—or ‘goes beyond’—our conceptual grasp. (p. 4)

Following on the path of ‘beyond our knowing’ is a theological approach based on the notion that we also do not and cannot ‘know’ God…This approach is known as apophatic, claiming that God is ineffable, incomprehensible and inconceivable. References to God are only through negative attributes, such as atemporal, or immutable.

Armstrong posits a left-brain-right-brain distinction as the premise of our tension between our focus on the objective and empirical as compared and contrasted with the wholistic perception and the interconnectedness of reality….We shall see that when the left brain was less cultivated than it is today, what we call ‘God’ was neither a ‘spirit’ nor a ‘being’. God was rather Reality itself. Not only did God have no gender, but leading theologians and mystics insisted that God did not ‘exist’ is any way that we can understand. Before the modern period, the ‘ultimate reality’ came closer to what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called ‘Being,’ a fundamental energy that supports and pervades everything that exists. You cannot see, touch or hear it, but can only watch it mysteriously at work in the people, objects and natural forces that it informs. It is essentially indefinable because it is impossible to get outside it and view it objectively. Traditionally, the sacred was experienced as a presence that permeates the whole of reality—humans, animals, plants, stars, winds and rain….When people tried to access the ‘ultimate,’ …they were not submitting to an alien, omnipotent and distant ‘being’ but were attempting to achieve a more authentic mode of existence. We shall see that right up to the early modern period, sages, poets, and theologians insisted that what we call ‘God,’ “Brahman’ or ‘Dao’ was ineffable, indescribable and unknowable—and yet was within then a constant source of life energy and inspiration. Religion-and scripture-were, therefore, art forms that helped them live in relation to this transcendent reality and somehow embody it. (The Lost Art of Scripture, pps. 7-8-9)

Has the modern period, through a kind of obsessive, compulsive pursuit of profit, personal power and status, and the denial, avoidance, disparagement of not only the right brain, but the poetic imagination, fallen into a self-sabotaging trap of a constricting collective unconscious, or as Hillman would put it, anima mundi, that, if and when viewed as a ‘psyche’ of its own, requires the kind of transformation that once was considered only applicable to the individual?

From personal experience, the mainline churches have become so ‘dependent’ on and complicit in the corporate model, not only of organizational structure, but more importantly of the values of ‘growth’ in both numbers of bums in pews, and dollars in plates. In too many instances, clergy are regarded in a manner and perception that parallels the ‘franchisee’ of a fast-foot outlet…reporting dollars of growth and membership growth to a hierarchical authority, as a sign of the ‘success’ of that specific practice of ministry. At the same time, various ‘after-the-fact’ measures are both envisaged and proposed that are conceived as ‘routes’ to renewed parish health.

Theology, from this perspective, has given way to corporate marketing, under the rubric/guise of evangelism. In some heinous examples, personal profit has been grafted onto a theology of God’s wish that the individual become wealthy. A theology of personal-profit-salvation is not only an oxymoron; it is unsustainable.

Ath the core of ‘not-knowing’ lies a precipitate of humility, while at the core of evangelism and marketing is a promise of ‘salvation’ through a known surrender, submission and a different application of humility, a humility of certainty. Is that not another oxymoron?

Distinguishing the contemporary approach to culture, politics, and ecclesial operations, from the perspective of ‘selling’ based on a presumption of the cataphatic, that God can be known positively and affirmatively, can be viewed as antithetical to the apophatic, and especially to the notion of ‘not-knowing’. For some, knowing and not-knowing are complementary approaches, similar to the notion of the subjective and objective being complementary. It was Rollo May who wrote, decades ago, that one of the problems of being a human is that, at one and the same time, we are both subject and object.

The Benedictine, Bede Griffiths’ notion warrants reflection: We are this little universe,’ the Benedictine mystic Bede Griffiths (1906-93) explained, ‘a microcosm in which the macrocosm is present as a hologram.’ We are surrounded by a reality that transcends—or ‘goes beyond’—our conceptual grasp.

By elevating the psychological ‘ego’ to a place of supremacy, in our thinking, our conventional conversations, and especially in our perception of its need to be ‘accommodated’ and ‘fed’ and ‘nurtured’ and attempting to accomplish these ends through the literal, empirical, rewards of the extrinsic systems, are we in danger of failing to grasp our own insignificance?

Doubtless, it can be surmised that both Gandhi and Mandela never lost sight of their own ‘microcosm’ in which a hologram of the macrocosm was constantly evolving. The paradox of keeping our feet, mind, heart and psyche ‘grounded’ in the metaphoric ‘earth’ (as well as the literal earth), while also retaining a perception that transcends our capacity to conceive, perceive and grasp, is another way of echoing Rollo May. And, in that process, embedding a God in a vault of moralisms, legalisms, and even psychopathies, in the certain knowledge that we have grasped the reality of God, seems to be more evidence that we are caught in the grip of our own need to know. And not only to know, but also to enforce, to regulate, to diagnose, to criminalize and to cling to some illusion of power and control.

Does this ‘trap’ not suggest that we have replaced ‘God’ (deity) with our own need to sacralize our own perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and knowing? One has to wonder if “God” is really so ‘containable’ and ‘compartmentalizeable’ and ‘confineable’ and ‘constricted’….Are we perhaps ‘entombing’ “God” in the anxious synapses of our own neuroses?

While dismantling apartheid, and envisioning a protest modality of non-violence are historic, heroic and indelibly imprinted on the collective conscious (anima mundi) of the world, it also seems likely that the respective ‘agents’ of these achievements were both conscious and unconscious of a transcendent reality which made their humility and their self-effacement, and their clear-eyed perspective, commitment, dedication and persistence not merely feasible but authentic and also historic.


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