Meditation: Practice in Not Knowing
The path to certainty lies through not knowing
Posted Sep 05, 2011
I've been working in my psychotherapy practice lately with a woman, "Kathryn," who is trying to sort out what to do about her marriage. While she is committed to her husband, "Ray," she is also feeling trapped and unhappy. Over the years, they have seen several couples counselors, but it hadn't helped very much. Part of what's happening is that Kathryn really doesn't know what she wants, and as a result she's never been clear in telling Ray what her concerns are. Sometimes, in our session, she imagines what it would be like to be single. There is much that appeals to her in that. At the same time, she truly loves Ray and doesn't want to hurt him or abandon him. There is much she values in their relationship. She is intensely ambivalent: she wants both to live on her own and to stay with Ray.
If you've ever felt ambivalent, you know how painful and confusing that can be. It's not a vague sense of feeling wishy-washy; it is feeling pulled intensely in two different directions. Kathryn swings back and forth between the two extremes of wanting to be alone and wanting to be with Ray. She runs long fantasies about both. She has internal dialogues between the part of her that wants to leave and the part that wants to stay; she makes lists of pros and cons; she keeps her mind very busy. She also keeps herself very busy with tasks and obligations as a way to escape the pain of her ambivalence.
What we have been working on, and what Kathryn and many like her find quite difficult, is staying present with the experience of not knowing. That's the truth right now: she does not know what she wants to do. When she invites herself to just notice what she feels in the present moment, she discovers that what she's feeling is uncertain, confused, groundless. Sometimes she quickly veers back into one or other of the two poles of her confusion. But sometimes, she is able to just be present in the moment. Often, when she does that, she can simply relax and be where she is. Many times, it is a relief just to accept the truth of the situation: she doesn't know.
Many of us grew up with an emphasis on knowing. In school we were graded highly for knowing the right answers. In politics, leaders who don't know, or who are deliberating about what position to take, are dismissed as indecisive or "waffling." Changing their minds is equally regarded as some kind of weakness.
From the point of view of Buddhist psychology or mindfulness practice, not knowing is seen to be the truth of how things are. We don't know what the next moment will bring. Having an open mind, or as Zen master Suzuki Roshi put it, a "beginner's mind" or a "ready mind," is regarded as sane and good. How can we respond to how things are if we are already sure we know how they are?
In meditation practice, we learn how to be present with not knowing. Each moment is appreciated as unique and fresh. We let ourselves sink into the present moment-this very moment. Each breath is a new moment. We let it be what it is, and then we let it dissolve and become open to the next moment. The more we practice mindfulness, the more obvious it becomes that we have only the present moment. There is no place else to be. The past is gone; the future is unknown.
Meditation practice is a powerful method of making friends with not knowing. Paradoxically, when we become at home with not knowing, then we are able to be more clear about what we really do know. The path to certainty lies through not knowing, through uncertainty.
I suspect that Kathryn will find some clarity about what she wants to do when she allows herself to rest in the present moment, in not knowing.