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today’s lesson

In conversation with someone half my age, we run into a disagreement. “But I’m right!” she assures me. I cleverly indicate the flaw in her reasoning. She explains that,”to be right is the prerogative of youth.” Which reminds me of a twenty-something in California who ran for public office with the slogan VOTE FOR ME WHILE I STILL KNOW EVERYTHING.

On reflection, I claim to know something while realizing that I’m out of my depth. Fearful of being seen as ignorant, I fluff my feathers and insist on being right. “Not knowing” is a shaky place for me; it takes me way way back to being called stupid and unworthy. In Zen practice, not-knowing is not the opposite of knowing. In fact, explains Zoketsu Norman Fischer,

It’s beyond both knowing and not knowing or, to put it another way, it’s the real not knowing. When we know something and rest in that knowing we limit our vision. We will only see what our knowing will allow us to see. In this way our experience can be our enemy. True, our experience has shown us something about ourselves and about life. But this moment, this situation that faces us right now — this patient, this person, this family, this illness, this task, this pain or beauty — we have never seen it before.

What is it? How do we respond? I don’t know. I bow before the beauty and uniqueness of what I am facing. Not knowing, I am ready to be surprised, ready to listen and understand, ready to respond as needed, ready to let others respond, ready to do nothing at all, if that is what is called for. I can be informed by my past experience but it is much better if I am ready and able to let that go, and just be present, just listen, just not know. Experience, knowledge, wisdom – these are good, but when I examine things closely I can see that they remove me from what’s in front of me.

source: Fischer, Z. N. (2006). “Not knowing is most intimate.” Koan study guide. Full text.


2 responses »

  1. I am an oncology chaplain and this little story has mean’t a lot to me as I enter difficult situations with people.

    It should be taught in all clinical pastoral educational situations.

  2. thank you alan, for writing — and for the work you do.

    being with ill and dying people has shown me how little i know. and still i go on … pretending.

    humility is such an elusive quality.


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