The Value of Not-Knowing

As a young man I enjoyed reading and studying. I was curious and wanted to ‘know things’: I wanted to know about people; I wanted to know about how the world worked; I wanted to know about how we could make the world a better place; and I want to know about myself. As an academic I continued to read, research and write with the ambition to know. Paradoxically, I came to ‘know’ that ‘truth’ (which at one point I hoped to know) is a slippery concept; a ‘mobile army of metaphors,’ as Nietzsche argued; ‘a social commendation’ in Richard Rorty’s estimation. That is, truth is a property of language and we apply the concept of truth to ways of seeing that we approve of. There is no God-like position from which to survey an objective truth; truth is always somebody’s point of view. This, for the philosophically inclined, is not relativism (since one cannot look across all knowledges in order to declare them equal), but rather acceptance of the positionality of knowledge.

With fiction writing I think we benefit from taking another step: embracing the value of not knowing. Whatever the situation that we face, when we accept that we ‘don’t know’ (what will happen, why people act in particular ways, what we should do etc.) we are open to what actually does happen in a non-judgmental way and are thus able to be with it in an open flexible fashion. To not know, to put aside our certainty about how things are, or how we think that they should be, is to be open to what is rather than impose upon it what we believe or hope or want it to be. This means stopping and calming ourselves, doing nothing, so that we can observe ‘what is’ without imposing our beliefs about ‘the way it is’ on the world. The great value of not knowing is being still with what is.

I love ideas and as an academic I engaged deeply and joyfully with them. I like ideas in fiction too. However, while philosophy starts with ideas, fiction starts with people. Observing the world of people and trying to grasp it emotional ‘truths’ is the core of fiction. Beginning our observations of people in their worlds and attempting to represent it (in numerous ways) with a ‘beginners mind’- a mind without preconceived ideas about what we are observing-strikes me as the most valuable way to go about writing fiction.

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I have adapted the idea of ‘not knowing’ from the late Zen teacher Bernie Glassman who defines it thus:

“Not knowing is simply not being attached to any particular piece of knowledge. In the same way, it is also not rejecting any piece of knowledge. You hear something and say “Ah! That’s ridiculous! Forget it!” If you hear something, try responding “Well, maybe that is possible also.” “Oh! That’s another way of looking at it.” Add that to your set of knowledge; don’t exclude anything. Keep adding, and don’t stick to one piece of information as if that’s the correct way. The state of not knowing is not being attached to any of the packages that you have.”  Bernie Glassman zenpeacemakers.org

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