Don't Know

Practice of the Week
Don't Know

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in each of these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guiding slogans to live by.
“Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know. 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." - Shunryu Suzuki

Once upon a time, a scholar and a saint lived on the same street, and they arranged to meet. The scholar asked the saint about the meaning of life. She said a few words about love and joy, then paused to reflect, and the scholar jumped in with a long discourse on Western and Eastern philosophy. When the scholar was finished, the saint proposed some tea, prepared it with care, and began pouring it slowly into the scholar's cup. Inch by inch the tea rose. It approached the lip of the cup, and she kept pouring. It ran over the top of the cup and onto the table, and she still kept pouring.

The scholar burst out: "What are you doing?! You can't put more into a cup that's already full!"

The saint set down the teapot and said, "Exactly."

A mind that's open and spacious can absorb lots of useful information. On the other hand, a mind that's already full—of assumptions, beliefs about the intentions of others, preconceived ideas—misses important details or contexts, jumps to conclusions, and has a hard time learning anything new.

For example, let's say a friend says something hurtful to you. What benefits would come from an initial attitude that's something like this: Hmm, what's this about? I'm not sure, don't entirely know.
  • First, you'd buy yourself time to figure things out before putting your foot in your mouth. 
  • Second, you'd naturally investigate and learn more: Did you hear correctly? Did you do something wrong you should apologize for? Is something bothering your friend unrelated to you? Did your friend simply misunderstand you? 
  • Third, she'd probably be more open and less defensive with you; a know-it-all is pretty irritating.
The great child psychologist Jean Piaget proposed that there are essentially two kinds of learning:
  • Assimilation — We incorporate new information into an existing belief system.
  • Accommodation — We change a belief system based on new information.
Both are important, but accommodation is more fundamental and far-reaching. Nonetheless, it's harder to do, since abandoning or transforming long-held beliefs can feel dizzying, even frightening. That's why it's important to keep finding our way back to that wonderful openness a child has, seeing a cricket or toothbrush or mushroom for the very first time: child mind, beginner's mind... don't-know mind.


For a few minutes, or for a day, a week—or a lifetime—let yourself not know:
  • Be especially skeptical of what you're sure is true. These are the beliefs that often get us in the most trouble.
  • In conversation, don't assume you know where other people are headed. Don't worry about what you're going to say; you'll figure it out just fine when it's your turn. Remember how you feel when someone acts like they know what you're "really" thinking, feeling, or wanting.
  • Let your eyes travel over familiar objects—like the stuff on a dinner table—and notice what it's like during that brief interval, maybe a second or so, after you've focused on an object but before the verbal label (e.g., "salt," "glass") has come into awareness.
  • Or go for a walk. Notice how the mind tries to categorize and label—to know—the things around you, so it can solve problems and keep you alive. Appreciate your mind—"Good boy! Good girl!"—and then explore letting go of needing to know.
  • Ask yourself if it's important to you to be a person with the right answers, the one who knows. What would it be like to lay down that burden?
  • This may seem a little cosmic, but it's down-to-earth: Look at something and ask yourself if you know what it is. Suppose it's a cup. Do you really know what a "cup" is, deep down? You say it's made of atoms, of electrons, protons, quarks. But do you know what a quark is? You say it's energy, or space-time, or sparkling fairy dust beyond human ken, or whatever—but really, do you ever, can you ever, actually know what energy or space-time truly is?? We live our lives surrounded by objects that we navigate and manipulate—spoons, cars, skyscrapers—while never truly knowing what any of it actually is. And neither does anyone else, even the world's greatest scientists.
  • Since you don't really know what a spoon is, do you even know what you are? Or what you are truly capable of? Or how high you could actually soar? Consider any limiting assumptions about your own life . . . how you've "known" that your ideas were not very good, that others would laugh (or that it would matter if they did), that no one would back you, that swinging for the fences just means striking out. What happens if you apply "don't know" to these assumptions?
  • Notice how relaxing and good it feels to lighten up about needing to know. Take in those good feelings so you'll feel more comfortable hanging out in don't-know mind.
May you know less after this practice of not-knowing than when you began.

And therefore, know more than ever!

For Journaling

Questions to reflect on in your journal:
1. Can you identify some beliefs that you cling to more tightly than you need to?
2. When have you, in conversation, assumed too quickly that you knew where another person was headed?
3. What limiting assumptions about your life do you make?
4. How does it feel when you lighten up about needing to know?

Rick Hanson on not knowing:

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

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