A collaboration between Arthur and Leah
The Paradox, Enigma and Oddity of Not Knowing
Leah Houle commented to me during one of our deep discussions that there are some things that we just don’t get to know. The notion took me by surprise: here was a perspicacious wisecrack if I ever heard one. It seemed to free my mind of something, but I could not quite put my finger on it. So I requested that Leah write an extended treatment, which appears below.
How much time have I spent in useless pondering and manic cogitation with “Why this? Why that?” To accept that there is a “not knowing” can calm the mind and bring one to the here and now, to the next step, to mindfulness, to awareness of the moment and best of all, to a quieting. The phrase actually knocked me awake a little more.
Then came to mind an Edward Teller documentary which contained an example of the constant human endeavor to master and enslave what is hidden in the natural world, an endless fight for knowledge. Dr. Teller offered that he was carried forward in his research toward the hydrogen bomb by the goal of manifesting the bomb itself. But he was also motivated by his fascination with the prime rubric of science which is to go beyond what is known toward knowing all that can be known—the Faustian bargain yet again. While Teller was propelled towards what can be known, he did understand that there was a great unknown. He once said, “When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
Two topics came to my mind that further unpack “not getting to know”: First, The Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers and next, the Copenhagen Interpretation as a conception of conduct of psychotherapy.
Regarding the three tenets, these were first developed by Roshi Bernie Glassman in 1994. Since then, “they have been studied and practiced by many people, including non-Zen Buddhists, and presented by many Zen Teachers.” (SOURCE: https://zenpeacemakers.org/the-three-tenets/)
Here are the bare essentials of the Three Tenets:
- “Not-Knowing—letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others, and the universe.
- Bearing Witness—to the joy and suffering of the world.
- Taking Action—that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness. The third tenet is Taking Action. It is impossible to predict what the action in any situation will be, or the timetable for when it will arise or what might result from it. The underlying intention is that the action that arises be a caring action, which serves everyone and everything, including yourself, in the whole situation.” (SOURCE: https://zenpeacemakers.org/the-three-tenets/)
So it seems that, indeed, one starts out “not knowing,” but can end with a plan, commitment and action. But this is indeterminacy as a strategy.
The Copenhagen Interpretation is a conception of conduct of psychotherapy; this is based on one of the assertions of quantum mechanics that all reality is ‘observer-created.’ As such, “the counseling process is characterized primarily, if not solely, by the helping relationship that exists between the counselor and the client. . . . the moment to moment interaction between counselor and client becomes a reciprocal basis for change within each of them.” SOURCE: Belkin Gary, S. (1988). Introduction to counseling third Ed. USA: Wm C.109-113.
Belkin summarizes the counseling implications of the Copenhagen Interpretation (indeterminacy principle and uncertainty) in the following statements:
1. “A client in counseling or a patient in psychotherapy is different from the person he or she was before treatment in that the ‘reality’ of the world of the person-in-treatment depends (in part, at least) upon the observations and reconstructions by the counselor / therapist.” SOURCE: Belkin Gary, S. (1988). Introduction to counseling third Ed. USA: Wm C.109-113.
This statement links into the concept of impermanence and the Glassman tenet of not knowing; the client may not understand this, but if the counselor accesses this concept, the strength of their co-created observations and reconstructions can positively affect the client.
2. “A client’s explication of his/her life and problems alters the life and problems as they were before the explication. The act of reconstructing and articulating parts of one’s existence changes the very nature of that existence. In other words, the subjective reconstruction of one’s subjective past leads to a second-tier subjectivity, rather than to the objectivity one might hope for.” SOURCE: Belkin Gary, S. (1988). Introduction to counseling third Ed. USA: Wm C.109-113.
This statement points to the importance of the Glassman tenet of simple non-judgmental bearing witness, which means we give up applying our subjective mind-set to our subjective memory. Bearing witness requires present moment awareness.
3. “The processes of therapeutic growth exhibit both indeterminacy and uncertainty. As a client changes, his/her needs for growth are never the same as they were before, and consequently, growth goals (‘cure’ so to speak) for any client can only be determined probabilistic-ally (rather than mechanically).” SOURCE: Belkin Gary, S. (1988). Introduction to counseling third Ed. USA: Wm C.109-113.
Taking action, Glassman’s third tenet, arises he says from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness, but within a context of intention toward the compassionate and beneficial for self and others.
Similarly, the action taken by client or therapist may be indeterminate or uncertain, but is driven by the intention of caring for the client in their situation.
So let me end with the odd or paradoxical result here, that one really does get to know a lot in therapy; however, it amounts to the “probabilistic subjectivity of the moment” and “it is only what is happening at the time that matters.”2 Even though this momentary probabilistic knowledge toward healing has the quality of indeterminacy and uncertainty, it settles down to knowledge enough for taking action with intention going forward. If there is the quality of an infinite progression of uncertainty, so be it. That is life.
You Don’t Get to Know
Why we need to know: Our earliest drives are to be understood by our caregivers, such that they can fulfill our infant needs. As we grow, our young minds seek to know more about the world around us. “Why is the sky blue?” “How are babies made?” It is inherent in our evolutionary growth that we comprehend ever more about our world for the sake of survival. As our tiny minds develop and begin creating a separate sense of self, we begin to put pieces together in a subconscious attempt to control and manipulate our world. If we can understand how things work, we can cause them to bend to our will. This enforces our sense that we can control our environment to suit our pleasure. This is an important step in our growth, since human beings are social animals that must learn to work together to survive. We must understand and be understood to achieve our needs and desires. This is all very natural and inherent in our incarnation as a human being.
How we do get to know: We can go far with these elementary understandings of our environment. Knowing how and why things work, the causes and effects of actions and situations, helps us make decisions that move toward our goals. We often come across obstacles in that path. If we can successfully remove these obstacles, we move forward and our concept of understanding leading to control is reinforced. If we can’t, we feel tortured. We end up feeling like if we could understand it, we could fix it, and control our lives.
Some things we don’t get to know: For most of us, at some point in our lives, we will confront something that we cannot comprehend. “Why did my partner leave me?” “Why did my child get sick?” We may hear, “It is God’s will.” “It is part of a bigger picture.” So we seek to understand God, or the Bigger Picture. Unfortunately, what we seek to know in these incomprehensible situations can never be known or experienced in the ordinary sense, since it is not outside of the ‘self’ to be objectively observed.
Sitting with not-knowing: But what we are left with while we continue our daily existence is, ultimately, “You don’t get to know.” The brain that has been conditioned to know and thus control cannot see beyond the simplest cause-effect series. And it will always, upon deeper and further inspection, land us at the door of the same unknowable is-ness of the universe. Fortunately, there is a sense of peace that comes from resting in that not knowing. It has been called the Ground of Groundlessness. ( Chodron, P. (2000). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Shambhala Publications.) The understanding that we cannot intellectually know the most important things in life can embitter us against our world or bring us joy. If we approach ‘not-knowing’ oppositionally, believing that we cannot control and therefore will be hurt by the world, we grow bitter. But if we can approach not-knowing complementarily, from the understanding that we are not separate from our world, the same not-knowing can give us a deep sense of trust and surrender that enables us to find joy in even the most difficult things in our life.