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Embracing the Joy of Unknowing

By Bob O'Hearn on Tuesday April 7th, 2020

Letting Go of Your Thoughts to Become Your True Self

To know that you do not know, that is true knowledge. – Sri Nisargadatta

Mind cannot be used to grasp mind.The more we try to grasp the mind, the more we realize that we are only grasping air. Actually, if we search for the mind, we will not find any such entity. All we will find are thoughts, and even if we try and fixate on a thought, it will be like trying to hold on to smoke. In fact, if we were not so attached to the concept of linear time and could achieve a birth-to-death overview, we would recognize that our attempts to hold on to any aspect of life — relations, possessions, dreams, ideals and beliefs, and even our self-images — are just as much of a futile endeavor as attempting to grab empty space.

Based upon various conditioning factors, we tend by habit to identify with thought energy. In the process, we develop the conviction that what we think is what we are. In this way, consciousness itself can seem like a limitation, contracting down into various afflicted self-images, such as “I am not worthy, I am too fat, I am not smart enough, or rich enough, or spiritual enough”, or the opposite, such as “I am better than my peers, I am prettier than the others, I am more enlightened”, and so on ad infinitum. All such manufactured images are based on thought energy with which we identify, and which become our prison cages as we do so.

We are the Witness of Thoughts

However, if we take a step back and just let thoughts come and go without attaching any personal significance to them, it becomes apparent that we are not the thoughts, but the witness of thoughts. We are not the passing traffic, but the space in which the traffic flows. This primordial space need not become anything other than itself, but simply abide as itself, regardless of the passing parade. Nor need we – we are complete just as we are, and need not be dependent on any temporary neural stream of thought energy to contract our infinite being and squeeze it into the cramped fictional narratives of “me and mine”.

Once we have been able to relax our attention to the point where we are no longer impulsively drawn into our thought-stories, but instead stabilized in the position of pure witnessing, we can inquire even further. For instance, if we turn our attention around and try to cling to or grasp this witness, we discover that we can’t do that either, any more than we can grasp any other dreamy fabrication of consciousness. The witness cannot grasp the witness, just as the eye cannot see itself. In this direct recognition, the witness (which is still a form of mental construct) falls away too. It represents a slight grasping at an identity, a subtle obstruction. In reality, there is no separate “awareness” that is witnessing experiences.

We are not the passing traffic, but the space in which the traffic flows.We are not the passing traffic, but the space in which the traffic flows. Image: Chuttersnap

Stillness and Silence

What remains when all grasping falls away is pure aware spaciousness, the motionless, timeless background. It is our true nature — prior to, during, and after thoughts, memories, sensations, perceptions, and all transient self-images arise and dissolve. It is here where we can come to rest, in this ineffable stillness. The only “inner voice” now is silence. In silence, there is no need for some conceptual understanding. Indeed, when only awareness remains, who is there left to understand? Hence, the great Korean Zen master Chinul wrote: “Simply knowing that there is nothing you need to understand is in fact seeing the [true] nature.”

Just so, trying to “figure it all out” by using the analytical intellect may earn one a philosophy credential, but that is nothing like directly seeing one’s true nature. The best service that the intellect can render is to point to who and what we are, but we must leave all notional constructs behind if we are yearning for direct recognition/realization, in the same way we can appreciate and utilize a bread recipe, but we would never confuse the recipe for the bread itself. Facts and information will never amount to true intuitive wisdom, but merely create more hamster wheels.

The “Don’t Know Mind”

This why the Zen sages, among other Realizers, recommend practicing with “don’t know mind”. Of course, this does not mean that one somehow refuses to discriminate in the objective world, indulging in blatant ignorance and confusion. The intellectual faculty is an amazing tool, and completely necessary for ordinary navigation in this psycho-physical realm, but the proper utilization of “don’t know mind” reaches beyond the domain of the story-making mind. In that sense, it is not anti-conceptual but trans-conceptual.

Practicing with “don’t know mind” simply entails the recognition that no conceptual understanding, regardless of how seemingly profound, amounts to truth. Indeed, in the spiritual process of awakening, the presumption of knowledge is more often a hindrance, a superimposed fantasy of interpretation on perception and experience, and ultimately constitutes just more excess baggage one needs to discard, if they are serious about waking up. This is also why the Advaita sage Nisargadatta says:

Everybody is trying to understand the meaning of all this. You are not understanding because you have all the swaddling clothes of “I-am-this-or-that.” Remove them. The ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understand, so when we try to understand, we are only indulging in the acrobatics of mind.

The only “inner voice” now is silence.The only “inner voice” now is silence. Image: Andrei Lasc

Buried Emotional Traumas and Old Psychological Wounds

Nevertheless, it is not enough to merely glimpse one’s true nature. The sincere aspirant must return again and again to the depths of direct insight and recognition until the effort itself becomes spontaneous. In the process, the transformed intellect can now serve in assisting us to integrate what we have learned, to the point where we are able to fully embody the awakened vision in all the ways we live and relate.

What we may discover in this process is that it is one thing to see our true nature, but another thing altogether when it comes to applying that recognition to all the afflictive states we have become habituated to (and not just from this life, but lives reaching back beyond memory, that nevertheless still impact and even afflict us with unresolved conflicts). Buried emotional traumas and old psychological wounds need to be brought into the light of the conscious process of recognition, where they can be dissolved by the grace of our awakened regard.

Beyond this process of insight into our true nature and progressive application in every nook and cranny of our lives, is there more to be discovered? Again, Sri Nisargadatta gives us a pointed clue when he notes:

Whatever spiritual things you aspire to know are all happening in this objective world, in the illusion; all your activities, material and spiritual, are in this illusion; all your activities. All this is happening in the objective world, all is dishonesty, there is no truth is this fraud.

Living in the Unknown

Perhaps intuited in glimpses along the way, coming to terms with the illusionary nature of all phenomena can still prove to be a challenge. Once again, ordinary knowledge can usually only muddle things, adding more complication and contradiction. The western teacher Adyashanti put it succinctly when he said, “all true knowing arises out of the unknown and is an expression of the unknown.” Certainly, we have learned by now that resorting to logic and human reason will not really serve us well in this passage. Only by once again letting go and falling into the unknown can we paradoxically find our footing on this journey. Here, mystics such as St. John of the Cross suggests: “Beyond human knowledge and understanding, in order to come to union with the wisdom of God, the soul has to proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing.”

Living in the unknown can provide us with an extraordinary source of freedom and happiness. Living in the unknown can provide us with an extraordinary source of freedom and happiness. Image: Milos Tonchevski

Rather than being some kind of negative experience (as the intellect might perceive it), living in the unknown can provide us with an extraordinary source of freedom and happiness. To really see things as they are, to recognize phenomena as empty of all solidity and yet luminous in its fragile beauty, is actually enormously blissful and satisfying. Really, to play in the dream, having recognized it as a dream, is true enjoyment! The magnificent medieval ecstatic Blessed Angela of Foligno expressed it perfectly when she wrote: “The joy of the saints is a joy of incomprehension; they understand that they cannot understand.”

The Definition of True Freedom

True freedom from limitation only manifests when one is able to thoroughly inspect, see through, and discard the programmed descriptions or stories about reality that constitute the known, and not just for a moment’s respite, but continuously. This involves letting go of clinging to provisional meanings (that are typically second hand anyway), all fixation on conceptual identities that we take to be who and what we are, all solidified positions, and all conditioned filters on experience that keep us misdirected and entranced. If not, then our life will merely amount to a manifestation of what the mind thinks it knows – a circular game of self-confirmation, grasping at the false security of the known, the accepted, the expected, and always avoiding the unknown, the only “place” where real freedom has the spaciousness to awaken and thrive.

By stabilizing in such a liberating attitude, our entire life and being, with all its relationships and perceptions, is literally re-wired to accommodate more and more light. The potential, our potential, is limitless. This light energy is the natural inheritance we all share, but habitually tend to suppress, in favor of reliance on the duller consensus vision of the pack, which will always attribute the most importance and value to the safety and security of the known. What most frightens us, it seems, is the unknown, and yet we are also a curious animal, and so there will always be those among us willing to take that step out of the crowd and head off into the rare atmosphere, on pilgrimage to parts unknown. As it so happens, those may very well be the regions that reveal our true nature and condition, in all of its incomprehensible majesty.

Dizang asked, “Where do you go?”

Fayan replied, “I’m on a pilgrimage.”

Dizang said, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?”

Fayan said, “Don’t know.”

Dizang said, “Not knowing is the most intimate.”

– Record of Fayan Wenyi

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

 

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13 Responses to Embracing the Joy of Unknowing

  1. Excellent. The first few paragraphs are sumptuous and perfect, which includes, for me, the mentioning of our buried trauams. And so this is a BIG thumbs-up, even if most of my commentary is querying something:

    However, just a little suprise of your downplaying of logic and ‘knowing’: I find that -in this multi-varied / multi-layered reality, even if it, being phenomena, is ultimately dream, not a ‘graspable
    reality apparently, it is such a Felt dream, we still have an inner child, we still understand the beauty of connections here…
    And there is such a reality of the climate cirsis – how are we going to survive and have any human relations in any tranquillity in a few years if we don’t, radically, deal with it?
    There is this pandemic curently…
    I think althuough ‘life’is so much ‘easier’for the Essence of ourselves just to consciously relax into ever deepening and widening ‘rings of being’, life here is still tricky, in that we see and feel more, a lot more, and there are all these international crises…
    I like to be in both worlds… which is similar, but not quite the same as the ‘Bodhisattva’ ideal in Buddhism. When I suggest this ‘responsibility’ to people suffused in the simplistic spiritaul reality (the sort that deny and some like me would suggesta re by-passing their HUMAN-nature), they resist or don’t wish to dialogue about it, as if I am clutching-on to a few toes, or even a whole foot, or limb of illusion and calling it real. But I intutively respond that I, and huamns like me, are -instead, – being a truly Complete Being – both fully human and Beyond…
    I feel some of us are born with these necessities to fully realise the Silence and Awakening beyond all ‘this’ – be bathed in Unknowing; but also to mainfest our full humanity and work in the ‘real world’ of human and also non-human realtions. What is there to stop us? Surey there is no fear of what is there? Some might feel to leave the world as it is (it is always going to be ‘screwed’!)… Well, yes, but if we do not challenge our way of being in this world right now, then there wil be no more world, no more us, no more of our children realising their beautiful potential and Joys as human beings!
    This is not saying ‘hey – we need to get political’, so much as the only sane & healthy thing we need to do here, is get radical! Let’s show the courage and commitment necessary…
    This is not meant to be a rant, by the way – although this can be healthy too! 😉

  2. Hello Veronica,

    I so understand where you’re coming from. My journey consciously began in early childhood and I am soon to be 60. When I give this idea to my mind, it has a field day! (What am I doing wrong? What’s the point? What’s taking soooo long? I’m 60 for God’s sake!!! How will I ever serve others if I remain asleep? If this is really just a game, it’s not fun anymore! Yada yada yada! (fill in the blank).

    Each journey home is Sacred, magnificently unique and I bow to yours, just as I now know to honour mine.

    As Life’s Loving Intelligence whispers its pointings, I have come to see and be grateful for the thought forms that have brought me here. The very concepts I no longer need, have provided the understanding necessary (in my case) for the mind to feel sufficiently safe to surrender its control. All of my seeking has brought me here, to this very moment of deeper seeing. Each step, a unique expression of this masterpiece, known as my journey.

    When the mind at last tires from the search and its inherent contradictions… an inexplicable shift occurs, a “falling away” of all thought forms including this very one I’m attempting to articulate. 🙂

    Each of us, a Divine expression, an individualized outer play of Consciousness, gloriously says YES to the game and embarks on its journey to awakening, whether conscious or not. Although mine has often been uncomfortable, to say the least, I rejoice in the ride, for it has opened me up to experience a profound peace and joy, a knowing beyond words.

    Trust that your heart’s genuine yearning is carrying you on your sacred path to full remembering. For most of us, it is a gentle progressive opening/loosening/softening. In the perfect unfolding of our Divine Design, there comes that pivotal moment when a seemingly insignificant tidbit of information hits us at our very core… a deeper seeing occurs and we recognize we are already HOME. The game is seen… and in my particular version of the game, the seeing was followed by an immediate and joyous cosmic outburst of laughter rising from deep in my belly.

    Until this inevitable moment, I was able to recognize how I have progressively and gently been softening/loosening my need to control.

    Once we are exhausted of searching, perhaps the only “doing” might be to remember WE ARE ALREADY HOME… May we Breathe this innate knowing, from our very core… and without searching, may we allow Our Sweet Sublime to reveal itself.

    You are not alone, for we all walk together, reflections helping each other remember.

    Thank you for this blessed moment.

    💖

  3. Absolutely clearly and beautifully put forth. As on who relies heavily on ‘understanding’, figuring things out, …. this is a treasure of wisdom.

    These concepts are also taught by Dr Joe Dispenza. Two painters painting the same story but in their own way.

    Thank you, thank you.

  4. “The witness cannot grasp the witness, just as the eye cannot see itself. In this direct recognition, the witness (which is still a form of mental construct) falls away too” into the groundless ground. Thank you for this task – I cannot grasp the witness – with nothing left to cling to I am free, to tiptoe in the sky.

  5. This understanding goes with the recognition of our true selves. We are infinite Beings within and guiding the human body thru intuition. Thoughts that are created and recorded thru fear is not knowing the oneness of our true selves.

  6. Articles are filled with concepts which I have not be able to go beyond. Oh yes I am aware of more concepts surrender,acceptance, be in the now, go with the flow, stay with the uncomfortable feelings, be aware that you are aware of these concepts. On and on. It seems to me that something is amiss in humankind’s persistence investigations. My investigation has bee going on for over fifty years. The end results have been only more wonderful articles. Ok you say don’t look for a result. Well it has occurred to me that perhaps the mind has just makes more concepts to give humans a reason for our existence.

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