The Joy of Not Knowing

Buddha images are covered in saffron robes during sunrise at the ancient temple complex of Ayuthaya (Ayudhya) 85 KM from Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Clay McLachlan

When I began practicing meditation 30 years ago, I discovered the concept of not knowing, which is at the core of the Buddha’s teachings. The idea is that if we take a break from the habitual thought loops that keep our minds spinning like an out-of-control top, we can actually meet the present moment with clarity—and react accordingly, instead of out of our preconceived notions of how things should be.

Zen masters refer to this state as “beginner’s mind.” And Pema Chodron, an inspiring Tibetan Buddhist teacher says, “Not knowing is the most important thing of all.”

Still, the mind rebels. It’s human nature to want to know—especially during times of grave uncertainty and fear, such as the rise and fall of Covid or pacing by the window at 2 am when your kid was supposed to be home by 11.

On the bright side, I’ve found that the more I can practice beginner’s mind when the shit isn’t hitting the fan, the better I’m able to stay with it when it does.

For me, one of the greatest benefits of the practice has been its effect on my writing. In the past, working as a journalist, I felt that I needed to know everything about my subject before I put pen to paper. But writing my first novel, What Jonah Knew, has been an entirely different experience. For one thing, when I started the book I had no idea how to write a novel. Knowing that I didn’t know actually helped me to learn—through more drafts than I have fingers and toes.

Yet, even more important, once I got the general drift, was sitting down at my desk each day without trying to orchestrate every last element in my story. To not know. Even if I had a plan in mind, the work was always better when I didn’t force my idea of what should happen next and let my characters lead the way. Those aha! moments were a source of wild joy that kept me going.

Of course, not knowing what comes next can be terrifying too. At times when my characters went mute and I was at a loss, I took long walks, praying that eventually somebody would start talking—and most days, someone did.

In the end, writing, especially fiction, requires the same kind of courage and blind faith as practicing not knowing in meditation—and in life itself. As D.H. Lawrence said, “When one jumps over the edge, one is bound to land somewhere.”

What Jonah Knew, Coming July 5, 2022 LEARN MORE

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