Saturday, 31 August 2013

Not Knowing

by Madhuri

Extracted from the 2012 Annual Ashram Newsletter
The admission: I want a safe and predictable universe.

The solution: Finding a glorious Truth that is permanent and creates a feeling of underlying joy.

The problem: Life is made up of certainty and uncertainty.

The next step:  How do I live with not knowing?

The dilemma:  One of the great declarations of the Kena Upanishad is ‘If you think that you know, know that you know not,’ and yet paradoxically the burning need to know makes us strive forward along the path (The Upanishads, translated by Swami Prabhavananda & Christopher Isherwood.)  In the place of not knowing I have observed myself getting into difficult waters because it is incredibly painful not to know. Instead of this being mysterious and exciting I instead feel more like Arjuna at the start of his epic dialogue with Krishna - The Bhagavad Gita - sunken with grief and despair. The gaping silence at the end of a question is a space in which the mind feels like it is dying. I have been troubled, like many spiritual seekers, with often paralysing questions such as: ‘How can I live fully when I know I am going to die?’; ‘Is spirituality merely another distraction to make the unpredictable nature of life bearable, or does it point to a profound truth?’; ‘Why has God placed me in a realm where I must inevitably lose everything I love?’; ‘How can I act in life if all actions are meaningless in the face of eternity?’; ‘Is God cruel and playing a sick joke?’ I am speaking of questions that create states of mental agony so cavernous that it is difficult to be alive in these moments. As Manu Bazzano, a contemporary philosopher, succinctly puts it: ‘A sword hangs over us, held by a fine thread’ (Bazzano, The Buddha is Dead, 2006.) It is an unnerving state of affairs!

However the spiritual texts encourage us to stay in this empty space at the end of a question.  For example, I take inspiration from Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad.  He stayed outside the house of Death for three days and nights waiting for Yama, Lord of Death, to answer his burning questions.
 In comparison I watch my mind scampering to find a solution after just three seconds let alone three days! Lost in a habitual rush to refill the unnerving gap created by not knowing, I have often neatly solidified a half truth into an ‘answer’, just because it feels better.

However there are times when a question comes from deep within and then it has its own incredible momentum. Ramesh Balsekar says that we do not ask the question, the question arises. In these moments, answers cooked up by the mind feel like a sticking plaster over a mile deep wound. Here the mind is suddenly aware that it is trying to bridge the universe with a match stick and it humbly stops its game, red-faced and exhausted. I now recognise this state as fertile ground for insight because there is something about complete uncertainty that alters the normal functioning of the mind. Swami Nishchalananda says that meditation is about creating space in order that ­insight can arise. It is only insight that can help heal these wounds. ­Otherwise the mind goes around and around and the answers to life’s deeper questions simply do not arise at the level of the thinking mind.

The Insight:  It was a glorious moment when I realised that angst and confusion is a perfectly valid response to this rather peculiar existence. I resonate with Rumi when he says ‘sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment’. After a particularly excruciating few hours of mental turmoil the insight arose that I am not meant to know the answer to some of life’s questions. Somehow it removed a weight from my heart. I could stop striving for the impossible. I could trust rather than know. From a deep place I accepted that this universe is a mystery and that was simply and beautifully ok. Life no longer feels like an unsolvable puzzle that I am hopelessly compelled to keep trying to crack.  This allows me to see that anxiety and bewilderment are not unhealthy ­mental states from which I need to liberate myself, but can be gateways to insight. Indeed emotions that are too lukewarm ‘never threaten to undo the self; they safeguard it in a limbo where loss is never fully experienced, and thus never resolved(Bazzano, The Buddha is Dead, 2006.) Therefore pain is no longer a sign of failure in my spiritual practice but as miraculous and as necessary as joy. 


Why is this? I don’t know! But I feel that each time I get acclimatised to the sickly altitude of not knowing, my heart softens, I embrace more and, most importantly, my sense of awe and love for God increases.

Swami Nishchalananda says that without ignorance we would not exist as embodied beings. Accepting ignorance as an essential part of this life is an incredibly tender and liberating perspective to have towards ourselves and others. Bazzano also celebrates ignorance when he states that we find ourselves in a universe, ‘where nature has thrown away the key, where the code is unknown, and we have no other task but to delight in reality’s ambiguity’ (Bazzano, The Buddha is Dead, 2006.) No other task but to delight. Swami Nishchalananda teaches a profound practice from the Vijnana Bhaivara Tantra in which we are asked to reflect on everything as a revelation of Reality. It is extraordinary to catch a glimpse of both sadness and joy revealing Reality in equal measure.

Conclusion: The spiritual path is a curious mix of knowing, at times with such wonder and at other times being immersed in the pain of not knowing. I have moved from fighting against not knowing to a prayer that I may always be bewildered, and that I may always celebrate the unfathomable mystery of God. I experienced tumbling into the void of my own eventual nothingness and then, by God’s grace, a fire in my belly that told me I was going to live anyway! Mary Oliver expresses this exquisitely when she states ‘clearly I am not needed yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value’ (Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, 2007).  It is a daily adventure to live with this dual realisation. Ignorance and insight are deeply interlaced strands in the tapestry of life. Tennessee Williams, the American playwright, stated that life is an unanswerable question, but added a word of encouragement: that we should also ‘believe in the dignity and ­importance of the question’  (The Meaning of Life by Richard Kinnier. 2010.) Amen to that.

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