What we don’t know

I’m been feeling inadequate and overwhelmed by the pain and confusion that periodically sweeps through my family and for which the latent threat of a breakdown is never far below the surface of our lives. It’s a dynamic that has seen five members of our extended family die from alcoholism. How I would love to know what to do to help those who are still alive. Recently I’ve recognized that everything I’ve tried in the past is coming up empty, and that my own dysfunctional efforts have contributed to the pain.

So it’s not an idle question to ask whether I need to know more; or do I need to recognize that I don’t know what to do and to pray that some deeper kind of knowledge will intercede? These are certainly not mutually excluding alternatives; but when I recognize that the knowing currently operating in my life is inadequate, is it not time to look more deeply into the entire structure that governs my consciousness?

What we ‘don’t know’ can’t hurt us; as long as we respond to that ‘not knowing’ as an invitation to look for a deeper knowing that is already present, even though we can’t identify it in the same way that we identify the contents of our thoughts. Or, in an effort to be honest, perhaps I can only say that I hope that a deeper, greater kind of knowing is present in the world and that I can learn to trust its presence.

What clearly can hurt is the kind of knowing that has solidified into conceptual structures which we can no longer question because our sense of ‘reality’ is founded on them. Such certainty about the “way things are” isn’t itself the confusion and meanness that drives a lot of human behavior, but it surely helps create it.

I don’t know what else to say about my recognition that I don’t know how to affect what happens around me, other than to be open to the fact that my automatic responses have not helped. I just hope that new understanding can come from that recognition.

In the hope that knowing more about knowing, as it manifests in our society, can help support my individual balance, I’d like to now look at what kinds of knowledge are showing up in our world.

Valuable knowledge can be found in ancient traditions, which have been trying hard to deliver a message: that our technological society is coming very close to delivering a knock-out blow to our planetary home.

An evolving ‘knowing’ is stirring at the heart of our society among those who have awakened to the preciousness of the natural world and our dependence on it. Sometimes it seems that this knowing is powerless to influence the course of events which are fueled by power and wealth and established inertias, but a breath of hope has entered our world as more and more people understand how human behavior is threatening our planet.

I don’t think many people would dispute that it is useful to know more about ourselves and our world; and that the more we know the better. But less obvious is how ‘not knowing” (and knowing that we don’t know) is at the heart of another kind of knowledge that can bring health and healing to ourselves and to our world.

There seem to be two different kinds of relationship we can have with knowledge—each with their own benefits. One is to expand what we already know along the lines established by that existing knowledge. The other is to try to fathom the ‘not knowing’ that pervades every moment of our lives. Both those relationships to our ‘knowable’ universe involve their own characteristic challenges.

The chief challenge of attempting to contact a greater kind of knowing through what we already know is that our prevalent ways of knowing involve placing our perceptions and ideas into categories, in which everything is already defined and co-referring. And once we place an experience into this system by assigning an identity with those already ‘known’ characteristics, then we replace an actual experience with something already familiar to our minds. And how can the mystery in which we live be truly ‘known’ if we believe we already ‘know’ about it?

The chief challenge of trying to contact the mysterious with a stance of ‘not knowing’ (and thereby invoking a kind of knowing that might be at home in this mystery), is that when we feel we lack knowledge about something (ourselves and our surroundings) we tend to close down and feel demoralized. After all, if we don’t know something, and don’t know how to alter that condition of not knowing in the ways through which we usually acquire knowledge (in a dance among knowable fact, knower, and an act of learning), then we are likely to just feel incompetent.

But the recognition that we lack knowledge about our lives and the purpose of our lives is far more amenable to new knowing than starting with what we already know. The reason is simple: what we don’t know is infinite, and the realm that is unknown to us is also infinite. And acknowledging that we haven’t yet encapsulated this vast and living realm within the net of our conceptual thinking can open in us renewed hope as we step forward into the future.

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