Speaking on “Wonders of the Universe” on BBC television, Professor Brian Cox said, “That is the most beautiful place for a scientist to be: on the borders of the known and the unknown.”
It is exciting to hear a scientist describe a state which to the mystic is a familiar place. All the emphasis of modern education and life in general is on the rational acquisition of factual knowledge. We have such a need to find out, such a hungry need to know.
But most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses; there is much that we cannot know in that cognitive sense, especially the ultimate mystery, the nature of God. We cannot know what God is. Any attempt to define or describe God is to distort, to impose our own limitations of time and space. We can only describe our own experiences thus far.
And those are experiences that don't lend themselves to rational explanation. But to the mystic, indeed to any seeker after religious truth, there is another reality and another, intuitive, way of knowing. Most mystic experiences, as William James describes in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, have in general four common qualities, one of which is that they are "ineffable", that is, they cannot be described; and another that they are "noetic": that they bear an intrinsic quality of knowing. As the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing explains, both the process and the aim are clouded in mystery: "It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of stirring you to will and desire you know not what."
Unknowing should not be confused with doubt (though the two may co-exist). Unknowing is a not knowing of what, how or why, but it may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! We know from experience that something exists, but we may have no idea how to explain its nature.
Unknowing as a way We cannot know, either, what will happen. How many times have our plans been interrupted by the unexpected. "Life gets in the way." Daily life demands that we make plans of some sort, but we need to do so in an open and flexible way, admitting of the possibility that something may happen that we cannot predict. Acceptance that this is the reality leads to adopting unknowing as a way: going forward in faith and trust that what we need to do will be shown. Opening ourselves to risk and unpredictability in this way takes us to a place of vulnerability - but also of infinite possibility.
This is particularly evident when we find ourselves in a time of transition. We will often find that we have to wait for clarity. We are an impatient species, and the Spirit's time is often not our own.
Judy Clinton has written of this state, If we act too quickly out of our fear of being in "don't know" we only superimpose on our lives that which we have already known. If we can have the courage to stay in the not knowing state a new reality will come up out of the circumstances within which we find ourselves.
Beginner's mind - I have practised walking meditation for some years, walking slowly, meditatively, being aware of each part of my foot as it touches the ground. But only when I discovered a version given by Thich Nhat Hanh did the practice expand into meaningfulness. It begins:
Walk without a destination. Wander aimlessly without arriving, being somewhere rather than going somewhere.
Allowing my feet to take me where they will, allowing the body to take over, was a revelation. And so it can be in life. If we allow randomness a place in our lives; have, for instance, a day without a plan, open ourselves to unforeseen possibilities: that is a challenge that can bring riches.
It is in this place that I increasingly find myself. After a career of making decisions, including fourteen years running my own business as a literary agent, when faith found me in the mid 1990s, something revolutionary occurred. Instead of planning my next move, I sold my business without knowing what I was going to do. Grace enabled me to move into a way of trusting that what I needed to do would be shown - as indeed it has. Twelve years of busy social action ensued, overlapped and followed by the last ten years of writing and teaching.
The current stage in my life is more about being. About play, about spontaneity, about what Zen calls "beginner's mind". So far this way of being has found expression in two ways. The first is writing fiction: an entirely different process from writing non-fiction. In non-fiction, the basic content and premise are known. The book will change in the writing, to be sure, and there are times when one has the experience of being written through. Grace is at work in any creative act. But a novel may begin from an image, a character, a scene, even a phrase. And then, it seems, anything might happen. I had known in theory that, in the writing, characters may take over the book; I had no idea of the interweaving of things felt and observed, the detritus of conscious and unconscious life. I find I cannot make it happen, I have to allow it to unfold.
The second is in becoming a fool (rather than "clown" which is a limited concept and has all sorts of often negative connotations). I have become part of a community of fools. In the words of our teacher, Angela Halvorson Bogo,
The fool archetype takes us deeper into becoming who we are in essence, each moment and beyond social conditioning… Together we cultivate a field of joyful curiosity. In our innocence we make mistakes, trip over our selves and fall into the poetic one being we are.
There is no planning; we are asked to arrive fresh at every moment and respond to whatever happens. The unexpected is a gift to accept and to be acted on with joy. Again we try to work with beginner's mind: have no knowledge of anything, to behave as if from another planet, as if just born in every moment. Some fools work with dementia patients; others in children's hospitals. I don’t know where this work will take me, but, hard as it is, it seems to be where I need to be.
This is just one expression of living with unknowing, of living, as the American Quaker Thomas Kelly wrote, as if we are "walking with a smile into the dark".
Jennifer Kavanagh, 2014Last modified on