I was struggling last night after struggling for a week with the increasingly frequent realizations that I know nothing. Not from a spiritual space of not-knowing or don’t-know-mind. Rather, this was more of a sub-grade freneticism of desperately wanting to know and frustratingly realizing how much I don’t know. And yet I continued to act—forging ahead without knowing. Forging ahead without knowing how much I don’t know.
Suddenly, I realize in hindsight how uninformed, and therefore how unskillful, my actions were. Perhaps more frustrating has been that I thought I was being conscientious, seeking the information I needed, and being planful before I acted. This is more than a thought; I was being conscientious and planful. And still, having done those things, there was far more that I did not know—did not even think to wonder about—before moving ahead.
I thought I was being mindful. I was, but it was limited by mindlessness. For me, it’s in the habit of pre-deciding that I’m sure of a fundamental piece of the picture. I investigate the other pieces. But with the fundamental understanding taken for granted a priori, the conscientiousness that follows means nothing.
A small example: my cat needed shots this month. I did some research and discovered my vet has a Thursday night shot clinic. It’s walk-in, and they don’t charge exam fees. This is a great idea to encourage people to keep their pets’ shots current. I called in advance to make sure the clinic was truly happening on that day and during those hours. I found out the prices so I could be sure I had the money for it this month. I brought Amelia over in her cat carrier. Amelia’s name was called, and the vet informed me that she’s not due until March. This pre-decided, fundamental piece of the puzzle—that she’s due this month—crumbled the whole structure of my due diligence.
I did not think to question what I was certain I knew. The certainty even obscured itself as something to question.
I spent several days in meditation last week with the frustration, confusion, self-doubt that arose from this event. The more I re-examined supposed certainties, the more I uncovered what turned out to be many similar such events. What can I trust that I know? I began to feel alone, so I began to feel frantic.
I meditated and journaled about ‘not knowing.’ I reached an insight about the difference between egoic not-knowing and spiritual not knowing. Egoic not-knowing has the frantic quality I referenced earlier—a desperate need to know as a pre-condition for calm. False ground. By contrast, spiritual not-knowing, is calm itself, the groundless ground I’ve described experiencing at the Grand Canyon, then at Enchanted Rock, and in meditation at times.
Still, I felt so alone and even let down in some ways: by myself, by meditation. How could I be so unknowing (and as a result so unskillful) when I’ve never been more present, more regularly in my life?
Then I found a poem called “Walk Slowly” by Danna Faulds, posted on Tara Brach’s Facebook page. It can also be found here. In it, Danna describes the moment we can take to breathe, to be still, to settle and soften. To notice the judgment arising, to realize it’s okay that we catch ourselves rushing ahead unskillfully with incomplete knowledge. That will happen, she assures us, and we can go back to the breath.
Reading this poem, I felt so grateful for its timing. For a short time, the mind had (successfully) convinced me of the futility of practice, of the isolated nature of this struggle. And with Danna Faulds’ words, she reminded me that others experience the same thing. I am fundamentally alone, but so is everyone else. In that, we are together. The third refuge (community), offered through the second refuge (the teachings), bringing me back to the first refuge (Buddha nature).