“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki
I’ve always prided myself on knowing a lot. When I was a kid I participated in Quiz Bowl teams which filled me up with a lot of facts and probably more that one would ever need to know about the Battle of Hastings. If I didn’t know something, I looked it up and acted like I knew the whole time. Having knowledge was part of my identity. I didn’t consider myself great looking or particularly charismatic so I thought I could have value in being a smarty-pants, know-it-all.
When beginning a yoga practice, my smarty-pants side began to feel threatened. Many of my teachers talked about embracing the unknown and living in the moment, and my first instinct was immediate resistance. They would say, “You don’t know what could happen.” And my instant inner-reply would be, “Bullshit!” Yet, there’s that other part of me that was like an intrigued, hesitant whisper. While I spent so much of my time identifying and being a smarty-pants, deep down I knew I was the one who was bullshit. Knowing everything, getting it all right were hard crosses to bear. I sought out certainty and knowledge for comfort, value, and social currency; yet, I became very confined by them. Pursuit of certainty is exhausting because there is none unless you are able to get really good at lying to yourself.
I am beginning an advanced teacher training, and this weekend we were tasked with watching a video recording of ourselves teaching a class. While I was watching myself, I became keenly aware that there was much I did not know. I don’t mean this in a self-degrading way; I just noticed that despite all of my knowledge there was this undeniable presence of all the things I didn’t know. This not-knowing, thankfully, doesn’t bring about the same feelings it did in my youth. Instead of frantically trying to fill a void, I feel curiosity, openness. One of my favorite Zen teachings talks about this:
“Attention!” Master Dizang asked Fayan, “Where have you come from?”
“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Fayan.
“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Dizang.
“I don’t know’” replied Fayan.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Dizang.
( – Book of Equanimity, Gerry Shishin Wick, trans.)
Not knowing is the most intimate.
When we enter this state of uncertainty, we can allow the coloring of our past judgments and experiences to fall away to be open to new possibilities. Not-Knowing is a Zen practice, and it isn’t the same as confusion or doubt, which are involuntary states. We practice Not-Knowing by answering thoughts with “I don’t know.”
Does that person like me? I don’t know.
Am I a good teacher? I don’t know.
Who am I? I don’t know.
Admitting we don’t have the answers isn’t meant to diminish us. I find the practice keeps me open. When I’m getting stressed out over planning for a class or when I disagree with criticism given to me, if I can admit that I don’t know, my load gets lightened. Circumstances appear less threatening, and a space is left for change. Instead of being self-righteous and closed in my absolute knowing, I become curious, unfurled in a way.