Not Knowing…


Each week I host a Mindfulness Meditation Group in the building where I work in Leesburg, Virginia.  We are a small but very solid sangha, and each week we gather to engage in breathing exercises, guided meditation, a short talk, followed by a longer sitting practice in silence.

The topics for the short talk have always come very easily – there is a wealth of material that I can bring to our group to help strengthen the practice and guide us toward personal inquiry.

This week I was stumped.  I tossed and turned topics in my mind like tumbling rocks.  Nothing “fit” and nothing resonated.  Each time I came up with an idea, it fell flat.  After three days of picking and dropping ideas, I finally said to myself, “I give up! I don’t know what to talk about.”

It hit me square in my consciousness.  Of course!  Not Knowing.

We all want to know.  Knowing gives us assuredness, comfort, stability and a sense of centeredness.

Knowing what time it is.
Knowing your blood type.
Knowing your likes and dislikes.
Knowing what works in your life and what doesn’t.

Not knowing creates a certain uneasiness.
Not knowing can create a sense of unsteadiness.
Not knowing can create a sense of instability.
Not knowing can create an insecurity in our deepest core.

We seem to have been taught by society that knowing is akin to certainty, and certainty is the only way for us to operate.  After all, this is how we’ve always done it.  This is how it’s supposed to be.  This is the way it is.

If we ask, “Why?” we might find ourselves up against a fair amount of resistance.  From others, from ourselves.  Questioning makes it seem like we are not accepting the status quo.

Perhaps we should be open to not knowing all the answers.
As the bumper sticker suggests, perhaps we might “Question Authority” after all.

Suzuki Roshi, who wrote “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” said:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities.
In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

From the Buddhist perspective, not knowing is a very powerful thing.  In fact it creates within us the capacity to be aware, to pay attention and be alert.

Have you ever been given directions to someone’s house and tried to go from point A to point B without a GPS?  Unheard of in this day and age, but not too long ago, this is how we found our way.  We were alert to the lay of the land, to the signs, cross-streets, markers; we paid very particular attention to what we were doing. And when we arrived we had a sense of personal satisfaction that we navigated the numerous obstacles to get to our intended destination  – and afterward, we would always know the route.

Our knowingness can create fixed ideas, notions, and judgements.  Our view becomes rigid and we can’t see beyond our own blinders.  Yet beyond the edges of those limiting shades is a whole universe waiting to be discovered.

When we engage in our mindfulness practice, on the cushion, behind the steering wheel, on the yoga mat, behind our desk – we can begin to see that we have many pre-conceptions, expectations and judgements that can cause us quite a bit of discomfort, if not suffering.  Pre-concieved ideas can easily obscure seeing clearly.

As we become accustomed to “knowing our mind” we can also recognize the patterns of our thinking.  You might even find yourself saying, “Wait – wasn’t I thinking this same thing yesterday?  Haven’t I had this tedious thought a million times already?”

Like the Buddha inviting Mara, the demon of illusion, to tea – we can invite those thoughts, judgements, and rigid ideas to our meditation cushion, and be willing to examine them.

If we are engaged in meditation, attending a sangha, engaged in a practice, we are more than likely seeking an opportunity for conscious reflection, understanding ourselves better, and perhaps having the desire to know our true selves.

Not knowing is fundamental to that reflection and desire because self-awareness is recognized from not knowing.

When we have this insatiable desire to know, to be right about what we know, we are often separating ourselves from others in a dance of distancing borne out of being a know-it-all.  When we feel that being vulnerable will be seen by others as “less-than”, we are missing the point that not knowing is actually “more-than.”

It’s more than most will admit to.
It’s more than playing small while playing safe.
The wisdom of not knowing is a profound acceptance of our human experience.

Gil Fronsdal has said that “a simple but profound way to practice not knowing is to add ‘don’t know’ to every thought you have.”

When we sit in meditation mindful of the activity of our mind, seeing clearly where it wants to go, where it will take us – before bringing our awareness back to the breath and being in the present moment – just gently say – “Don’t know…..”  It can make us feel like the rug is being pulled out from under our precious beliefs – and that’s a good thing.

While I was trying to think of a topic for my talk I felt I had to be relevant, interesting, if not wisdom filled.  I had the belief that I had to bring value to each person attending the meditation session. After all they were taking time out of their evening to attend, offering a monetary donation for the experience…

As I examined my beliefs that were driving me to create some kind of pearls or gems, I realized I didn’t know…. didn’t know what to talk about, didn’t know what to offer.  The more I reflected on that level of not knowing, the more uncomfortable I became.  The not knowing was challenging my pre-concieved notion of my own role.

Finally I had to ask myself, “What would be wrong with not knowing what to talk about?”

Would it make me less-than?
Would it create a bad impression?
Would it make people dislike me?
Would it make people not come back the following week?

I had no answer for any of the questions.  I simply didn’t know.

Accepting that fact opened my awareness to the possibility of using my experience as a topic.

Gil Fronsdal said, “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 freedom, then no knowing has served its ultimate purpose.”

We often find that the state of not-knowing can be a harbinger to moments that unfold to a discovery of enormous transformative power – and exceeds any expectation we might have held on to.

So may we all draw one less unnecessary line in the sand in our lives.
May we believe more in each other than in our interpretations.
May we open ourselves up to what is possible,
instead of clinging to what we or others believe is a certitude.

May we keep an open mind to our own ideas, and be willing to admit that at the end of the day,
we don’t always have to have all the answers.

May we give ourselves and others permission to not know.



Kimberley L. Berlin, LCSW, CSAC, SAP, is the owner of Compassionate Beginnings, LLC, a private therapy practice in Leesburg, Virginia. Her work focuses primarily on the treatment of addiction, as well as trauma, anxiety and depression. Her blog, covers topics related to addiction, spirituality, and “life”. Kimberley facilitates a weekly Leesburg Community Meditation Group through MeetUp. She is a public speaker, educator, and currently working on her first book.


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