“If you were honest, instead of belief, your view would be I don’t know.”
-Michael Langford, The Most Direct Means to Eternal Bliss
"The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence."
Some teachings need to be taught over and over again. One that has stuck with me, and is a favorite of my teachers at The Power Path, is “Keep don’t know mind”. What this means, simply, is to cultivate a practice of keeping your mind in a place of not-knowing, or neutrality. Sounds simple enough, but the practical application of this teaching can be quite challenging. It was one of the first things they taught me (I believe it was a teaching that came to them from a Korean Zen Master), and I must admit, at the time, I didn’t fully understand what it meant.
Years later, this simple saying has revealed itself to me to have vast implications, many of which are finally seeping through the retaining walls of my mind in such a way that I can begin to meaningfully integrate them into my life. I have certainly not mastered this teaching, which is why I use it as part of my daily practice. It’s something I tell myself over and over again, something I need to hear repeatedly. I believe we all do. Why? Because so much of the time, we are not in a “don’t know mind.” Quite the contrary, we think we do know. Before we go further into that, I’d like to clarify what we are talking about by “knowing.”
In this case, we are not talking about knowing information, facts, stories, or trivia. It’s easy enough for most people to openly acknowledge how much they don’t know when it comes to that. It’s also not referring to intuitive knowing (which I’ve written about before here), which is that deeper part of you that is connected to your higher wisdom, that knows without needing to think or engage in any deliberative process. What we are talking about here is “knowing” in terms of deciding what things mean, why they happen, how we should judge or label them, form opinions about them, what conclusions we draw from them. For example, you may think you know that Trump would be a terrible president, or that Hillary would be worse, or that we’re all doomed because of climate change, or that it’s wrong to eat meat. Take any issue that you feel strongly about, and if you’re really being honest with yourself, you’ll see that you feel strongly about it because you think you’re on the “right side” of that issue. You think you've figured it out, you’ve drawn the correct conclusion. But have you really? How can you be so sure? Is it possible that more information, of a different perspective could be introduced that might make you see things differently?
There’s the story of a farmer who had a horse that ran away. His neighbors came over and said, “What a shame! That’s really terrible.” to which the farmer replied, “You never know.” The next day, the horse came back, leading seven wild stallions behind it, and the neighbors said, “How wonderful! Isn't that great?” Again, the farmer responded, “You never know.” Soon after, the farmer’s son was trying to tame one of the wild stallions when it threw him off, and he broke his leg. The neighbors came by and said, “I'm so sorry. That’s terrible.” The farmer said, “You never know.” Days later, some army recruiters came through, recruiting all the young men in the area to fight, but they were unable to take the son because of his broken leg. The neighbors said, “That’s wonderful.” And guess what the farmer said…
“You never know.” And on and on it goes.
Most of us are not like the farmer. We think we know, largely because we have been practicing this kind of knowing, which may be more accurate to call pretending to know, since childhood. We are conditioned and encouraged to figure things out, make up our minds, decide, have an opinion, take a stand, develop principles, form beliefs, and so on. We build a personality around this, and derive a sense of self from it, becoming convinced that this must be who we are - a collection of all our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. We see it as a weakness not to know, to change our minds, to be wrong, or to have no opinion at all. Look at the way politicians boast about standing on their principles, and look at how they attack each other for “flip-flopping” on issues. The underlying issue here is a deep investment in needing to be right, which is, in essence, the opposite of keeping a “don’t know mind”.
Giving Up The Need To Be Right
The need to be right is a need held only by the personality, or ego-self. It is a need that, at one extreme, people are willing to literally die for. In lesser extremes, it gives people a false sense of superiority, and also control, which is the food that fuels the ego. Ultimately, the ego wants to know itself as god (see: Trump), and wants to be right about all things, to decide how all things are, to be the ruler of it’s own kingdom. It wants to feel that it is the best thing in the world, and so it exercises this “knowing” indiscriminately, constantly engaging in a process of analyzing and evaluating everything that crosses it’s path - ranking, judging, assessing, approving, condemning, you name it - on and on forever it goes. This behavior usually becomes so automatic and unconscious that the thinker ends up thinking that it’s just serving it’s intended function, “just doing my job”, never stopping to consider that this may not be it’s intended function, or that it's tactics may not be appropriate or effective in governing the self in a healthy way. It cannot consider these things because it is too busy “knowing” that it’s “right”.
To question that undermines the whole operation.
In contrast, the “don’t know mind”, which does not emanate from the personality-self, but from the higher spirit-self, (we could also call it the heart-mind), does not care if it’s right or wrong. It has no interest in such labels or ways of thinking. It doesn’t even operate on that plane of consciousness. This isn’t to say that someone with a don’t know mind will never have a preference, make a choice, or take a stand for something, it’s just that they won’t cling to it or identify with it. In short, they won’t need to be right about it. They will be like the farmer, saying “You never know”, taking all things in stride.
Not-knowing is a neutral stance, or as Buddhism calls it, the Middle Way. It is being in acceptance of all things. As we are able to hold that space in our hearts and minds, we will naturally do what is appropriate in every situation we face in life, based on what is called for in that particular moment. It is what is meant in the Tao Te Ching, when Lao Tzu says, “The Tao does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.” The word “Tao”, if you’re unfamiliar, means something close to “the way of nature”, so from this we can see that in nature, there is no effort required, no need for principles, ethics, or any other guiding mandates to instruct a tree how to grow, or a bird to sing, or a dandelion to release it’s seeds to the wind. Everything gets done just the way it needs to, in perfect harmony.
Another one of my favorite books, A Course in Miracles, teaches that one of the fundamental steps in correcting the ego-self’s erroneous perception of the world is the understanding that: “I have given everything I see all the meaning it has for me.” It is not until we recognize that we do not know what things mean, only what they mean to us, that we can begin to unravel the ego's agenda and get to the heart of the matter. Until then, we are exercising a short-sightedness, a narrow-mindedness, and really, an arrogance, when we identify with the ego-self, and decide that we know what things mean, what the definitive truth is, what is right, what is best, and what God (or Tao or Great Spirit) has planned for everything. It's like your fingernail thinking it's controlling all the functions of your body, running your life, understanding your greater purpose. An absurd notion, of course, and yet, that’s how the ego-self functions. It’s literally insane.
We cannot see things as they truly are until we can cultivate our “don’t know minds”, move into our hearts, and align to our higher spirit-self. Once we are there, we will willingly give up the need to know, the need to control, and the need to be right. We will simply trust the process of life, and allow it to unfold, the same way a flower trusts that it will get all the sunlight, rain, and nutrients from the soil that it needs to allow it to blossom. We will see the perfection in all things, as they are. We will accept the whole world before us as it is, with no desire to change any of it. That desire is only held by the ego. The higher spirit-self can see thateverything is perfect, including all of the suffering, all of the "evil", all of the things your ego would label as bad, wrong, unacceptable, and claim to hate. The higher-self knows that it’s all by design, a design too big for any one of us to fully comprehend, and it’s all working together in every moment for the highest good and the highest benefit of all, if only we would let go and trust that. The ego will never trust it, and will tell you that this is a lie every step of the way, working endlessly to pull you back down into the world of duality, of love and hate, right and wrong, good and bad, etc. It will try to get you to fight against what is. It will try to convince you that you must decide, you must be right, you must control things that are uncontrollable. The good news is, we can transcend this way of thinking, and indeed we must, if we are to heal, grow, evolve, find solutions to our problems, and know peace in this world. We must accept it all, and one of the best ways to do that is to practice keeping a “don’t know mind”.
In closing, this is one of my favorite passages that sums it all up beautifully:
“The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.”
-Seng-T’san, The Third Patriarch of Zen