I’m fed up with knowing. There’s too much certainty in our world. I’m not thinking here of the knowing of experts. I respect expertise. I’m thinking of the knowing that solidifies too readily into identity. The knowing on which polarisation feeds.
I’m susceptible to it myself. Over the past years, as the Government pursued an extreme version of Brexit with no effort to secure losers’ consent, I turned from grudgingly accepting Brexit to opposing it. And the more the left proved incapable of addressing its antisemitism, the more I detached from my lifelong affiliation with Labour.
But, broadly speaking, I prefer to wear my certainties lightly.
I was celebrating my birthday as the decade drew to a close. Not long now till I’m 60. Yet I can’t recall a time when I’ve been less sure of my convictions. In the election just passed, I’ve never voted with less confidence nor been so uncertain about the meaning of the result. And the more concerned I have become about the climate crisis, the less prospect I can see of the human race finding a way to mitigate its impact on the earth.
The problem with knowing is that it shuts down thinking, blunts discovery, inhibits connection. The cancel culture that sees JK Rowling, someone with long-established progressive views, demonised as trans-phobic, signals a culture that has become so disjointed it can’t even mediate nuances of difference.
But, already, I’m getting too political. My original idea for this blog was to write on diverse topics, approached through the theme of not knowing. Its gestation occurred at a retreat in 2016 at which I meditated on the cultivation of not knowing as a stance for mindful living. Then the Brexit referendum happened. Then the election of Donald Trump. And I lost my intellectual moorings. I wondered whether musings tenuously inspired by Buddhist philosophy might be too whimsical for the times.
As it turns out, the question of not knowing has become more urgent in the years since then. The challenges we face look, if anything, more complex. Surveillance capitalism, the gaming of democracy, social care, housing. To affect to know in the face of intractable and shape-shifting problems is to wallow in ignorance – and in ignorance of one’s ignorance. As, for instance, when people suggest that technology will sort out the climate crisis. This is blind faith masquerading as knowledge. From where is the calibre of management to be found to co-ordinate this salvation? If it existed, wouldn’t it already have engaged societies around the world in transforming their ways of life?
Instead of facile certainties, might we entertain challenging enquiries? Might we embrace not knowing and move into a state of discovery? To do this necessitates a certain amount of unlearning. Not knowing is founded on the precept of beginner’s mind, as if seeing things for the first time absent the heuristics that cause our minds to impose meaning on sense data in an instant. It has taken us a lifetime to develop those mental shortcuts. They serve us well for the most part, but they can make us myopic and they are deeply embedded in our psyches, shaping how we interact with the world. If we are to be able to cultivate not knowing, what we need to do first is to unknow – to deconstruct our certainties the better to open our minds to fresh experience.
Unknowing is, by no means, simply about how we free up our thinking to address difficult problems. It concerns how we experience ourselves and construct our identities. It is about opening to the expansiveness of what it is to be human, not closing it down into restrictive, tribal affiliations. Not knowing, though we may not realise it, is the baseline condition of being human. From our first breath as infants, we are in a perpetual process of encountering the new and reframing what we think we know. Knowing is efficient, it enables us to act in the world. But we get too attached to our certainties to see what is really before us.
Unknowing is the discipline of stripping away our denials of the existential fact of not knowing. It’s a deconstructing of our mental clutter, the better to engage with each other and with reality more fully.
Some years ago, I took a portrait class in which you sat across a table from the person whose portrait you were drawing and never took your eyes off them. You could not see what marks you were making on your paper. The point of the exercise was not what you drew but who you apprehended. I realised how rarely we ever take in the people around us. Our eyes see the form of a human face and our minds fill in the portrait before we have really taken the trouble to observe the particulars. What a privilege it was truly to study someone’s face. It was an uncomfortably intimate experience to pay them the respect of noticing them. If you tried this on the Underground, you would be considered deviant.
Unknowing has the quality of this uncomfortable intimacy. It’s not just an intellectual challenge, it’s an emotional and relational one.
I spent much of 2019 in a state of foreboding about the shaky foundations of our way of life. Nothing much has changed to dispel this. But I approach the new decade with a degree of equanimity. We need to find new ways of understanding, of relating to each other, of being in the world. I don’t know what they are. But in this blog, I hope to explore some possibilities. There will be half-formed thoughts, questioning of shibboleths, expositions that I may not ultimately believe.
If, as the Zen saying has it, not knowing is the greatest intimacy, then unknowing is the path by which we reach it. Will you join me on the journey?