“Don’t Know, Don’t Need to Know”

  • On April 12, 2017

Thirty years ago I visited a Korean Zen Master in Berkeley named Seung Sahn. He would give a short dharma talk and then ask if there were any questions. When he sensed that a question was coming from the mind , which was often, he would playfully growl: “I hit you with stick! Only don’t know mind – go straight ahead!” Everyone would laugh. It was a very simple and powerful teaching.

What was he pointing to? Our attention is usually wrapped up with strategic thinking. The conceptual mind is trying to figure out what to do and how to best do it in order to be safe, comfortable, and loved (or at least not disliked.) Observe your thinking for a few minutes and notice what it gravitates towards.

Thinking is a remarkable tool that gives us science and the technology that allows us to to read an article like this one on a small screen. The human mind is a remarkable evolutionary development. Besides its obvious practical uses, we also love to think for the simple joy of discovery. We are inherently curious creatures.

We run into big trouble (also known as suffering), however, when we rely solely on strategic thinking in order to try to know and control that which we cannot – which is almost everything and everyone in our lives. In fact, we don’t even know what the next moment will bring – including our next thought, not to mention how our lives will unfold. I had no idea that my life would turn out as it has. Did you?

On a deeper level, we also don’t conceptually know who or what we fundamentally are or what this apparent world is, despite our common sense perceptions and beliefs. Are we really defined by our name, age, gender, race, class, nationality, childhood conditioning or beliefs? What is here prior to all of these constructed identities?

Or consider something as obvious as a sunset. The sun does not set, the earth turns. The image we see on the horizon is a reflection of the actual sun below the horizon, rather than the sun itself. And the light from the sun was emitted eight minutes and twenty seconds before it reaches our eyes. The sun we are seeing may no longer exist. My point? Nothing is at it appears. Realizing this can be unnerving.

Most of our efforts to know are a defense – an attempt to be in control. We believe that if we know enough, we will be safe from various threats from the natural and social worlds. This belief and our accompanying hypervigilance make us more anxious and stressed, not safer, especially since the saber-tooth tigers and cave bears are long gone.

Fortunately, there is a different kind of knowing, an inner knowing, that does not depend upon the conceptual mind and is not subject to the danger bias – our brain’s hardwired tendency to scan for danger. In order to access this other kind of knowing, we have to be willing to not know in the conventional way. This other way of knowing is sometimes called heart wisdom. My recent book In Touch is all about this sense of inner knowing. As we learn to sense and trust this inner knowing, our lives become more grace full.

Several years ago, a new addition to Seung Sahn’s admonition spontaneously appeared to me. I realized that not only did I not know, I also did not need to know. This realization became an informal mantra, helping me to unhook from residual tendencies to try to know and control what I could not. To realize that we don’t know is one thing. To really get that we don’t need to know catalyzes an even deeper letting go. It allows us to be more open and available, riper for surrender. When I share this insight on retreats, there is a sense of relief that radiates out from the listeners. The mind sees its limits and has permission to relax. There is more space for the way of Being to consciously unfold.

Don’t know. Don’t need to know. I invite you to sit with this insight and feel how it acts on you.


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