The Gateway to Wisdom (#736)

“Most people are afraid of the unknown, so they develop beliefs about things to make them feel safe. I love the unknown, so I don’t need beliefs.” Mandy Evans

A few months back, the business consultant Robert Kausen asked me “How much time do you spend in the unknown?”

To my surprise, over the next few weeks I noticed exactly how much time I avoided not knowing, preferring instead to search through the vaults of my memory banks in search of a clever catechism I could pull out of mothballs long enough to impress some unsuspecting client or friend.

Then on Saturday, it was my privilege to sit in on a small group being led in Los Angeles by Genpo Roshi, a lineage holder in both the Soto and Rinzai Zen traditions and one of the few globally acknowledged masters of Zen Buddhism raised in the West.

During his morning presentation, he shared this story about Bodhidharma, the monk who brought the Zen teachings to China in the early 5th century:

When Bodhidharma first arrived in China, he was invited to visit the Emperor Wu of Liang, who was a great patron of Buddhism and had studied with his own teacher for many years.The first question the Emperor asked Bodhidharma was, “What is the essence of your teaching?”

Bodhidharma’s response was simply to say, “Vast emptiness; Nothing holy.”

Now as the Emperor was thought to be a God by his people, this was potentially very insulting, but he managed his anger and asked a second question.

“I have been a great patron of your religion and have built many monasteries – what merit has my generosity earned me?”

“No merit,” said Bodhidharma.

The now openly angry Emperor spit out his third and final question.

“Who are you to say these things to me?”

“I don’t know,” was Bodhidharma’s honest reply.

One of the differences between Bodhidharma and those of us in the room, Genpo pointed out, is that he was willing to admit he didn’t know who he really was, while most of us fill our lives with activities and goals designed to “prove” that we are who we say we are or aren’t who we fear ourselves to be.

This reminded me of a recent conversation I had where I asked a client what she wanted to do about a particularly thorny situation in her business.  Her response was “I can’t answer that question – I don’t know.”

Think about those two sentences juxtaposed like that:

1. I can’t answer that question.

2. I don’t know.

She had, of course, answered the question beautifully – it’s just that “I don’t know” wasn’t an acceptable answer for her.

What we usually mean when we say “I don’t know” is “I have searched the files and memory banks of my conscious mind and cannot find the answer there.”  What this prompts in many of us is more and more embarrassed re-searching, hoping against hope that when we look in the same empty file drawer for the fourteenth time, we will find what wasn’t there the first thirteen.  Or like doing repeated searches on your computer for a file that will never be found.

In fact, it seems to me that the reason we struggle to find answers to the questions that matter most in our lives – questions like “Why am I here?”, “What should I do with my life?”,”Is this the man or woman for me?”, and “How am I going to make it through another month, or week, or day?” – isn’t because we’re not smart enough or clever enough, but because the answers to questions like that don’t come preloaded into the storage compartments of our brains.

This doesn’t mean we can’t answer them.  It just means that the answers are unlikely to come until we are willing to stay in the unknown long enough to open up “the gateway to wisdom” – the space in us where we are open to insights, those revelations from I don’t know where that allow us from time to time to know the unknowable and glimpse that which cannot normally be seen.

This is true not just in our thinking but in our speaking.  Each time you open your mouth to speak without already knowing what you are going to say, you open up to the possibility of speaking something brilliant and never before heard which comes directly from your own deeper wisdom.  (Of course, you also open up the possibility of saying something”stupid”, which is why so many of us run from the unknown with all the panic and grace of a character in a zombie movie.)

So I’ll leave you this week with the same question I began with:

How much time do you spend in the unknown?

If you think you can’t answer the question, consider the possibility that you do know the answer, and that answer is in and of itself the gateway to wisdom:

“I don’t know.”

With love,
Michael

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