Three Powerful Words: ‘I Don’t Know’

You Gotta Be Willing to Ask


Some years ago, I was hanging out with my supervisor and therapist, Gloria Taylor. I had just come through some major issue or another, and we both thought I was ‘done’ with it. I said, “Well, I feel clear and content. But I sure wish I knew why it happened in the first place.” Gloria replied, “Spend six months not knowing.”

Now, being the smart guy that I am, saying “I don’t know” was pretty scary for me. I thought I was almost betraying myself by uttering such heresy. I made myself very uncomfortable over this whole idea, while at the same time intriguing myself. I decided that I would give it a try, and am still doing it, eleven years later.

So, what, exactly do I not know?

I do not know ‘why’ things happen. I do not know ‘why’ I react to some things and not others. I do not know anything about anyone other than me, and I only grasp the edges and corners of me.

I suppose you could say that ‘enlightenment’ has everything to do with exploring the inner workings of our mind, in a gentle and focused way. In other words, to look at our looking, to see our seeing, all without attaching meaning to it.

I recently read a line that went something like, look at the working of your mind instead of judging the external object or the situation. ‘Normal’ is precisely this: to put the responsibility for my thinking, feeling, and judging on what is happening outside of me, and who is ‘doing it’ to me. What happens is that my mind then fills with imagined stories, I feel hard done by, and nothing changes as far as finding peace goes.

From this, I conclude that my work is to gain self-experience (learning to watch my mind without attaching to what it is doing,) and then to communicate my experience to others (only if they ask) so that they might be encouraged to self-reflect also.

Buddhism makes much of the idea of emptiness. Westerners hear that word and get upset, equating it with annihilation. The concept actually refers to being empty of desires and aversions, definitions, explanations and other mind-games. In Zen, this is accomplished by learning to sit still, shut up and to watch one’s thoughts flit by, arising and departing from no-where.

I don’t know’ is an interesting mantra. I believe that people make it difficult to adopt because we think that living and relating is about having pat explanations and defenses for their own reality, while precisely reading people’s minds.

For example, couples often fight about what isn’t happening. Typically, I hear, “That isn’t what I wanted. After eight years, you should know what I want.” Thus, it appears people think that love somehow equals psychic ability. And the person’s mind fills with a whole load of ‘hard-done-by’.

Here is an example of how this happens: a woman, in college, meets a series of men, and in each case, when invited to go out, ends up either fighting the guy off, or having sex, begrudgingly, with him. These experiences are bothersome, so she pops up into her head, externalizes the experience (making herself a victim), and develops a belief: The only thing men want is sex.

Some years later, a male friend invites her over, or out to dinner, or whatever. Because of her past experience, she assumes the guy wants sex. So, she refuses the invitation, and tells the guy off for ‘propositioning her.’

OK. Something’s a little odd here.

Let me try an analogous idea. You learn to drive. You approach a corner, and you have the right of way, and the cross traffic has a stop sign. Time after time, the cars with the stop signs stop their cars. Now, ask yourself, would you therefore make a rule: “All cars always stop at stop signs?”

Not if you want to avoid accidents, you wouldn’t. Your rule would be: “Stop signs mean stop. In my experience to date, people have always stopped. I will therefore assume that they will stop, but will also approach each intersection with caution, in case this situation is different.”

What this means is that I do not discount my experience — I accept it for exactly what it is — a storehouse of past behaviours and impressions. What my experience is not is an infallible predictor of future events.

We want infallibility because most people hate uncertainty. Change, difference, is scary. So, we tell ourselves stories about present events, and try to fit them into patterns we have already established.

Back to our other example — the woman with the invitation. What, specifically, does she know about the intention of the person asking for a date? Precisely nothing. Now, the goal here is not to discount her past experiences. Rather, she needs to remind herself that “I do not know” about this experience. So, (if she is wise,) she will ask.

It is really not all that complicated. “I have some reservations about going out, and I’m curious as to your intention in asking me.” In other words, rather than simply assuming, she can ask, and also establish her framework for the evening.

The work here is to recognize that the stories we tell ourselves in our heads are not true, right, or accurate. They are ‘just stories,’ and we concoct them all the time. Silliness is this: thinking that just because you think something, it is actually ‘so.’ Your story says volumes about you, how you see yourself and your world, and has absolutely nothing to do with what is actually going on.

Darbella and I have been together since 1982. I would say that both of us are predictable regarding using good communication, being relatively unflappable (in Buddhism, this is called equanimity), dealing with our own dramas, etc. So, for example, if Dar comes home looking ‘off,’ my question to her is, “So, you look to me to be a bit off, and I’m wondering if anything is up for you.” I can make educated guesses as to ‘what’s up,’ but really, why bother? She’s right there, and I can ask her.

Asking Darbella about her life-experience does not mean that I don’t love her (or whatever other horse shit people shovel around asking versus ‘knowing.’) I ask because, at the end of the day, I really haven’t a clue as to how her day has gone. How could I?

I suspect the real reason we don’t ask is that we are afraid of looking stupid, or we are afraid of the answer we might get. So, we make guesses, and, hilariously, get mad at people for not agreeing that our guesses are what’s really up. This ploy is all about trying to persuade someone that I know more than he or she does about what they want or need.

I would suggest that you watch yourself around this one. Notice how often you plunge ahead as if you know something, when you haven’t a clue. Any time you have been all-knowing (as opposed to curious,) you are clueless. Admit it.

So, be open. Tell the person you are communicating with that you are guessing something about them, based (always!) upon your experiences. Tell them so that they get a sense of how you process your current experiences. Then, ask the other person what’s up for them. Give them space and time to reply, and then let them know what you think about their actual request, or thought, or intent.

In other words, operate from “I don’t know, and I am willing to ask, and hear your response.”

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.