The Cloud of Unknowing
“Not-Knowing” Vs. Certainty
The concept or idea of “not-knowing” has a long history in spiritual teaching, going back thousands of years. In fact, Buddhism, Taoism, Neoplatonism and the mystic or esoteric teachings of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all consider the state of “not-knowing” as crucially important to a useful spiritual practice. Of course there are versions of all these religions that value and idealize “certainty” or “knowing” very highly, perhaps higher than anything else – evangelical Christianity and certain sects of Islam come to mind, and there are others – as a way of understanding existence to the point of violently imposing that understanding upon others. In these understandings or epistemologies, “certainty” becomes a method of domination. Furthermore, certainty also becomes a version of hubris. The ancient Greeks were well aware of the dangers of hubris, going back over 2500 years.
An Empty Cup
Conversely, esoteric teachings of these same major religious traditions hold not-knowing or unknowing very highly. A useful entrance into this notion comes from Zen Buddhism. A famous Koan tells of a wandering Student who encounters a spiritual Master in the woods. The following conversation ensues:
Master: “Where are you going?”
Student: “My pilgrimage is aimless.”
Master: “What is the substance or matter of your pilgrimage, what do you seek?”
Student: “I don’t know.”
Master: “Ah. Not-knowing is most intimate.”
Unknowing Is Just Right
Marc Lesser gives an excellent interpretation of this Koan:
The response, “I don’t know” feels radically honest. What do we really know about ourselves, our experience, our world? He’s not trying to say something wise or impressive. Maybe he expects some guidance or advice.
Instead, he receives a gift: “Not knowing is most intimate.” Not knowing is just right. Perhaps what he was looking for, he had all along, only he didn’t know it.
The word intimacy in the Zen world is a way of speaking about awakening or enlightenment. I much prefer the word intimacy. Awakening and enlightenment imply some special state of mind, some kind of mystical experience, far removed from our day-to-day lives. We might think that awakening or enlightenment will somehow remove us from our daily struggles and problems. Intimacy brings us closer, to ourselves, to others, to our problems.
Knowing can be an obstacle, can even be our enemy. Our knowing can limit our vision. Much like the famous illusion/image of a woman’s face – that some people see as an old woman, other’s see as a young woman. We think we know … How can others see something so different? Isn’t this how much of life is?
This moment – this person, this illness, this opportunity, this pain or beauty – what is it? … How can we not be caught or limited by what we think we know?
With not knowing, I am open, ready, willing to learn, to be surprised. I can see and hear others beyond my own ideas. Though my experience and knowledge are important, they can get in the way. When I let go of my own ideas, I can be present, humble. When I am humble, I am not afraid. I can enter this moment, engaged, moved, open – intimate.
A Lovely Paradox
Additionally, an example comes from esoteric teachings of early Christian mystics. The article in Wikipedia about this 14th-century anonymous text is worth reading:
The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowing) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”, at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.
There is a lovely paradox at the heart of this text: only by entering a state of unknowing can we begin to know God, however you may conceive that vision.
Putting It Into Practice
So, this week, consider all that ways that unknowing might be useful to us. How might unknowing inform the decisions we make about the course of our lives? How might unknowing be a place to begin a process of developing greater awareness of reality and all that is contained there? Unknowing leaves all doors open, all options available. Certainty closes doors and limits our perspective. Notice also how Not-knowing and Acceptance intertwine with each other. Only through a process of acceptance may I enter the Cloud of Unknowing and from there begin to dispel that cloud and allow awareness to build into my perceptions.