Embracing the Joy of Unknowing

By Bob O'Hearn on Tuesday April 19th, 2016


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.

Consciousness itself can seem like a limitationConsciousness itself can seem like a limitation.

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.

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 only “inner voice” now is silence.The only “inner voice” now is silence.

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 ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understandThe ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understand.

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.”

Buried emotional traumas and old psychological wounds need to be brought into the light of the conscious process of recognition.Buried emotional traumas and old psychological wounds need to be brought into the light.

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.”

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.”

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.

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

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3 Responses to Embracing the Joy of Unknowing

  1. When I witnessed my father suffering from dementia I was consoled by an understanding. The understanding I had was developed over many years of study in how the human brain develops from birth, or before birth the developmental stages of brain growth. I can best explain this as a tree shaped collection of electrical brain patterns being formed by the inputs of sensory perception. From the first rhythmic beats of our mothers hears to a blazing sunset at the special care home the inputs from our senses create the special collection of patterns which become our concepts of the outer world. When brain disease is at play the collections of patterns can be disrupted from what can be describes as the new growth tips of the tree like structure or it can by the older interior long term memory or trunk part of the tree like structure. This would explain why a person suffering from an advanced Alzheimer condition can have very clear recall of distant memories of distant events and less of more immediate events. The collection of core memories which constitute the formative constructs of a person’s mental development are more deeply etched into the collection of patterns than anything recent.
    When my sisters stressed how she “didn’t understand what was happening” to dad the best explanation I could come up with was to explain how his wires were mixed around. If a person were to take the cover off their computer and sprinkle iron filings on the motherboard and attempted to send an email it would have the same results.
    I do realize the reference in the article deals with “the mind” and not so much “the brain.” However, in the physical state of being to which we have been enslaved to ignore the functional development of the brain in relation to the proper working of the mind would be like trying to understand how a bird’s wings allows it to fly without acknowledging the part played by the air around the wing. This would put into question your mention – “discard the programmed descriptions or stories about reality that constitute the known.”
    Your special collection of synaptic patterns is unique to you and is what has allowed you to constitute the “known.” It is temporary in terms of “time” , which is also a construct developed by relationships co produced by the senses. The reality that time does not exist outside the constructs of the human mind/brain is hard for some people to grasp but it is a reality. To suppose, while still shackled by our mortal coil, we are able to dismiss our thoughts as interference to spiritual freedom is denying the roots of our existence and development in the real world from which all our experiences derive.

  2. For me translating “witnessing” into “everyday life” is a great challenge, particularly when it involves interacting with other people. Another way to make “me” go away for awhile is to not be the witness, but rather become what is being witnessed. I read somewhere, (probably something posted by Uplift), that this was the primary meditative practice of the Buddha. The ego dissolves into, “I am this and that and the other thing too”, which is different than watching thoughts go by without attachment. As you become everything you dissolve. The leap of faith here is that by being open to being what ego labels as ugly or evil, will empower the creation of beauty and the countering of evil and I will not become lax and sinful as ego warns I will. I think my missteps on the path are more generated by my judgements as to how well or not so good, I am doing to be a good person. For some reason I find it satisfying to think that the Universe is perfect and I can dissolve into that perfection if I don’t believe the Universe could use some help in the countering evil department or I could help it with increasing It’s conscious awareness of itself. It is so difficult for me to simply witness what other people say. I rush to judgement positive, negative and feeling the need to think more about the thoughts and actions of others, so I can be prepared to think the right things and do the right things when things need to get done. If I recognize that they all are me, I become less full of myself. It often feels that doing the right thing is flowing through me rather than because of something I am actively doing or resisting. To think of the Universe as a never ending story helps too. What “I” experiences as ugly or evil is created by the “freeze framing” “I” must do to make those judgements. I like to think that this experience is just a property of the Universe that I am one with. It also seems to feel right to think of the Universe as being something that can’t be broken into parts and labeled, such as I am doing here with these words. All attempts to do so are arbitrary and claims that one set of words describes “the way things really are” comical, (in a good way). Perhaps the best time to appreciate the “I” is the “I” that is aware that it was away for awhile by itself or interacting with others. I am not a spiritual teacher or devote practitioner of any kind and am not trying to make any argument here. Just sharing some reflections thinking that the wise teachers and devoted practitioners are me too and them I. I have gratitude for all of the wise words of others served up by Uplift for comment. It is great to be one with Uplift.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your words, ‘so I can be prepared to think the right things and do the right things’ was like a lightbulb moment for me. Letting go of judgement, therefore, perceived control has been a challenge for me.

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