The older I get the more I am certain that the amount of what I don’t know far exceeds the amount I think I know. I am learning to find this strangely comforting although that has not always been the case.
For most of my life I didn’t want to be caught not knowing or unprepared, especially as an innocent child in grade school. I didn’t want to be put on the spot or singled out, forced to buy time so I could come up with some lame excuse for not knowing the right answer. Most of all I didn’t want to be publicly scolded.
I learned to be an eager student, the one with the answer. I wanted to be praised for being right, smart, in the know. I grew addicted to that praise for my self-confidence. I learned to suppress the right but kinesthetically wild answer that would pop intuitively into my mind, and choose instead the tame, rote, cerebral, and rational answer, the answer the teacher expected to hear, the one that would earn me a gold star for that day.
If I learned anything from years of public schooling, it was that the gold star comes from knowing — not only knowing the right answer and more importantly knowing the game. It was all so scripted.
Can you imagine when as children we innocently raised our hands, confessed that we didn’t know the answer and then heard the teacher say, “Oh good for you to be honest about not knowing. How wise of you that you know that you don’t know. How courageous of you to share that with the rest of the class.”
Of course not. Not the stuff an average, overburdened elementary school teacher would recognize much less applaud. More likely we would be labeled as stupid, unengaged, apathetic, not caring, lacking potential or motivation. If there were any spirit left in us at all, it’s no wonder we might have unconsciously chosen to bury it and shield it with boredom and restlessness, even if that put us at risk for being labeled as retarded or disruptive, branded with some psychological alphabet soup that would justify being held back a year and stigmatized as not being college material. For myself, I buried my restlessness and different style of learning and endless doodling and drawing in my notebook.
Rare was the teacher who would praise that garden of not knowing, who would point out that soil which has lain fallow, or which has not been planted with the same crop by the same method year after year, has the greatest potential to yield fabulous growth.
Mrs. Croft comes to mind, an elderly woman who taught advanced algebra and trigonometry in high school in 1968. What I was doing in that class I will never know because it was nerdville before nerds was even a term, and with my overabundant need for kinesthetic learning, I was no mathematical nerd. No calculators, no computers, but lots of slide rules and pocket protectors and scratch paper and pencils. Mrs. Croft didn’t care so much if we got the right answer. She wanted to see our scratch work, our process, our thinking. She would give partial credit if we demonstrated that we were on the right track and she would dismiss simple errors in arithmetic if we had grasped the larger concept. I can see now that she was showing us that hanging out in that garden of not knowing was rich and rewarding.
Dr. Abell, who taught anthropology from a wheelchair, was also familiar with the garden, and encouraged us to not only create the rules for his class but also to create a class project which that year turned out to be an experiment in free-form education. He encouraged our wild ideas and our different ways of knowing. Students taught teachers, interned at Congress for a week, and lived with inner-city families during a student exchange with a ghetto school in downtown DC. Dr. Abell recognized the potential in our fallow soil and empowered us to till, plant fresh seeds, water, and mulch, and then watch what sprung up from being open to not knowing the outcome of the experiment.
These two teachers among many others, remind me that we are all living a grand experiment — the earth and all its creatures great and small, winged and legged, rooted, burrowing, or floating, pitted against the so-called unlimited brilliance of the primate brain in its quest to get out of the garden of not knowing and lock himself (male pronoun intended) into the safe house of knowing, even if that knowing, that addiction for certainty and control and dominance, wrecks the experiment entirely and renders humans extinct.
All the major conflicts that are plaguing humanity, including climate change, the pandemic, authoritarianism and other political divisions, and the overarching desire to “get back to normal” — especially for those of us who were profiting from the old normal — are a direct result of locking ourselves out of the garden of not knowing. We will not solve these interlocking problems using the old worn tools of certainty, resistance, control, and dominance. Nor will we resolve them by insisting on left brain, rational, linear, and cerebral ways of knowing to the exclusion of other ways of knowing, ones with which Western culture may not be so familiar.
So how do we teach ourselves to be comfortable with not knowing? First we must acknowledge our own upbringing and schooling in regard to not knowing in the expected way. See and feel that the state of not knowing can feel unmoored, untethered, unrecognized, and unacknowledged in Western culture. Recognize that other ways of knowing, such as right brain, holistic, intuition, indigenous, and body-based learning are rarely taught beyond kindergarten, if at all, much to the detriment of humanity and the crises we presently face.
We will have to liberate old tools and create new ones, but before that is even possible, we must first stop, be still, and open ourselves to feel the rich potential of going fallow, resting, silencing our inner chatter, listening, being receptive, dialing down the interference so that we can return to and replenish the garden of not knowing. This is a tall order for many, I realize, especially for those of us who have bought in hook line and sinker to a life marked by busyness and the quest for power, money, and status. It can be vexing to realize the answers will eventually come, but we don’t get to know when or how. Our impatience and our anxiety with not knowing will scare the answers off like an agitated pack of yapping dogs. We will have to learn how to ground that impatience and anxiety by stopping or at least turning down our mind chatter, sinking our own roots into the garden, allowing the answers to come when they come and not a moment sooner.
There are many practices and traditions that can help us with this grounding — meditation, music, massage, artwork, breathing, walking, martial arts, being with animals, nature, digging your hands into the garden, etc. The support you need to enter the garden of not knowing is everywhere around you if you would just look and open to it.
Ironically enough, the past couple years of the pandemic and our floundering response to it can be seen as an opportunity to reevaluate and reassess our lives and how we operate. For example, many people have chosen to not go back to work, at least not in the same way, and not on the same terms. This will increase the discomfort and uncertainty of many, no doubt, but in the long run, this timeout that some would say has been forced upon us has the potential to lead to much more personal and community satisfaction in finding a sustainable way to live in world where change is an unassailable fact. As much as some of us would like, we cannot stop change. Resisting it takes much more energy than going with it, opening to the possibilities and new perspectives that it brings. That means letting go of certainty, previous plans and habits and desires. I’m not saying it’s easy; but I am saying that unlocking our own prisons and allowing ourselves to enter into the garden of not knowing is necessary if we want to survive.
In this time of rest and self-reflection, it might be a good idea to take note of the people in your life who have encouraged you to take your time, to be okay with not knowing the answer at least four right now, who trusted you and your timing and the wisdom growing in your garden.
It would also be a good idea to take note of the people who have dissed you for not knowing the answer, who have undermined your inherent right to take the time you need to figure out what you need to figure out. How did they do it? I remember being told that I was too much — I wanted too much, I laugh it was too loud, my movements were too exuberant — that somehow the essence of me needed to be reduced, shrunk into a smaller space that didn’t take up as much room or demand as much attention. Growing up in a family that was marked by disability, I was expected to be the normal one, but I didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t know that there were different styles of learning — none of us knew that back then. My style of learning and teaching is rooted in the body: as a kinesthetic learner, I learn by doing. No wonder that my garden of not knowing up included living in the Mojave Desert, carving stone with a quiet mentor who allowed me the space to learn on my own and to listen to the stone.
No wonder that my return to the garden of not knowing also led me into the world of martial arts, in which a quiet state of not knowing is essential for handling incoming attacks. The state of not knowing in the dojo is not blank or void or minus in any way; It is a present, balanced, alert, relaxed, potential-filled neutrality that is able to perceive the big picture in all directions, the incoming forces, the options, and the best resolution, in a nanosecond. That ability has to be practiced and cultivated. I have written extensively about this in my book Aikido Off The Mat.
And the fruits I’ve harvested from my garden of not knowing? Intuition. The permission to write. Many many pieces of artwork. Dancing with the mystery. An enduring and joyful marriage over almost 40 years. A satisfying part-time career teaching English and creative writing to incarcerated students across the nation. Increased trust in my body messages, especially the ones telling me that I needed to stop Western treatment of cancer, specifically for glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, which I write about in my book Bowing Into Sensei Glioblastoma. At present I am cancer free and have outlived my prognosis.
May your spirit embrace the mystery.
May the garden of not knowing guide you to be a lifelong learner.
I have your book on my desk for daily reading and I read your words here as you post them, oftentimes copying them in my journal. I just wanted to let you know there is someone out here reading and listening and drinking it all in. Thank you.