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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

Blissful Ignorance

The Yoga of Unknowing

David Lane

Working definition of Intelligence: “A person who utilizes a variety of tools with which to solve a problem or puzzle or a conundrum within a relatively short period of time.”

Working definition of The Yoga of Unknowing: “The word yoga is a Sanskrit term derived from 'yuj” which has been variously translated as yoking together, binding together, or connecting together. Thus, The Yoga of Unknowing is a way of uniting with that feeling of mystery, that sense of infinite luminosity, which is the natural state of all humans who are seeking to know.”

We are ultimately a stupid species and the more we realize this truth the smarter we can become.

Nicholas of Cusa, the 15th century Roman Catholic cardinal and polymath, realized a profound truth in his studies which he codified at the age of thirty-nine in a remarkable Latin text entitled, De docta ignorantia, Although well versed in the science and theology of his day, Nicholas of Cusa understood that no matter how much knowledge he gained from reading or experience or contemplation, it would be infinitely lacking in comparison to what would remain to be known. His main thesis has an ironic import: to become educated is to learn how ignorant one really is.

In today's vernacular, it be can stated it thusly: we are ultimately a stupid species and the more we realize this truth the smarter we can become.

I think if we are honest to ourselves we have an acute awareness of our own limitations. Yes, we may be knowledgeable or competent in certain areas—whether it be in fixing a car, a meal, or a mathematical equation—but in a host of other fields we find ourselves floundering in our own incompetence. This, of course, is not surprising and should be expected. But what we too often fail to realize is that even in our chosen specialties there remains much we cannot comprehend.

Given the restrictions of our cranial capacities and the boundaries of our physiological anatomies (operating as they both do within a circumscribed environmental niche), it is transparently obvious that no matter how much information we can acquire in a lifetime it will be infinitesimal in its comparative range.

Therefore, is it not the height of human folly to believe, even for a nano-second, that our models of the universe describe reality as it is? Even though we have a tremendous advantage over other animals in trying to explain our place in the world around us, the fact remains that “the limits of our language use are to a large measure the limits of how we perceive” (to bastardize a famous Wittgenstein insight from his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).

David Lane, Blissful Ignorance

Thomas Gray, an English poet from the 18th century, once penned, “Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.” Today, in the 21st century his phrase “ignorance is bliss” has become widely used and is usually translated to mean “if you do not know about something, you do not worry about it.” Each of us can recall occasions where we seemed relatively happy and at peace, only to be sunk into sorrow on learning that a loved one was in injured in an accident or, worse, died unexpectedly. Here we wish that the tragedy never happened and thus we could live as we did before. But such is not life.

However, there is also a deeper wisdom in the phrase “ignorance is bliss” if it is capitalized and positioned differently. That is when we realize, along with Nicholas of Cusa, Socrates, Lao Tzu, Faqir Chand, and others notables, that acknowledging our unknowingness is the cornerstone to becoming wise. As Richard Feynman, the distinguished Nobel-prize winning physicist simply put it, “I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. ... I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe. . . .”

The original sin of humankind is not that the mythological beings Adam and Eve ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, but that we have invariably confused our neurology (our state of mind) for ontology (the real state of being), and thus consistently get tricked into believing that the maps we generate are the territory itself. Everything we mentally and intellectually generate to understand the universe we inhabit is defined by our neuronal architecture. Yes, we know much, but we never know all and therein lies the secret.

Socrates, according to Plato's account, was regarded as the wisest man in Greece precisely because he was acutely aware that he was ultimately unknowing. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides us with a nice summary and background behind this realization,

“In Plato's Apology, Socrates and his friend Chaerephon visit the oracle at Delphi. As the story goes, Chaerephon asks the oracle whether anyone is wiser than Socrates. The oracle's answer is that Socrates is the wisest person. Socrates reports that he is puzzled by this answer since so many other people in the community are well known for their extensive knowledge and wisdom, and yet Socrates claims that he lacks knowledge and wisdom. Socrates does an investigation to get to the bottom of this puzzle. He interrogates a series of politicians, poets, and craftsmen. As one would expect, Socrates' investigation reveals that those who claim to have knowledge either do not really know any of the things they claim to know, or else know far less than they proclaim to know. The most knowledgeable of the bunch, the craftsmen, know about their craft, but they claim to know things far beyond the scope of their expertise. Socrates, so we are told, neither suffers the vice of claiming to know things he does not know, nor the vice of claiming to have wisdom when he does not have wisdom.”

This “not-knowing” outlook has been described by Sharon Ryan as wisdom as epistemic humility.

Nicholas of Cusa writing centuries after Plato explains it further:

Both the precise combinations in corporeal things and the congruent relating of known to unknown surpass human reason-to such an extent that Socrates seemed to himself to know nothing except that he did not know. And the very wise Solomon maintained that all things are difficult and unexplainable in words.8 And a certain other man of divine spirit says that wisdom and the seat of understanding are hidden from the eyes of all the living. Even the very profound Aristotle, in his First Philosophy, asserts that in things most obvious by nature such difficulty occurs for us as for a night owl which is trying to look at the sun. Therefore, if the foregoing points are true, then since the desire in us is not in vain, assuredly we desire to know that we do not know. If we can fully attain unto this [knowledge of our ignorance], we will attain unto learned ignorance. For a man-even one very well versed in learning-will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.

Even the mystically inclined, such as Faqir Chand (1886-1981), though a master meditator for over seventy years, came to the profound realization that despite all of his elevated experiences in samadhi confessed, “Who knows what may happen to me at the time of death? I may enter the state of unconsciousness, enter the state of dreams and see railway trains. . . How can I make a claim about my attainment of the Ultimate? The truth is that I know nothing.”

At first understanding our native ignorance that no matter how much knowledge we gain in our life (or lifetimes, depending on your theological bent) will allow us full and 360-degree access to the deepest secrets of the multiverse can be disconcerting. But it can also be liberating if seen in the right light.

How so? Instead of presuming at each turn that we are in possession of how the world really works, we can open ourselves up to the obvious fact that we still have much to learn. By doing this, we consciously seek new avenues of information and thus our monologues become dialogues, our inviolate dogmas become partial contributions, and our resistance to being wrong turns into opportunities to change our mind. We move from unbending certainty to evolving uncertainty. Science, of course, is predicated upon this unknowing foundation and that is why it has become such a successful and progressive enterprise and why orthodox religions have tended to never alter course, even when their cherished myths have turned out to be less than accurate.

THE YOGA OF UNKNOWING

I bring all this up as a necessary preface for practicing a yoga of unknowing. We have all done this discipline before, even if not consistently and even if unconsciously.

When we were quite young, say two to four, the world we inhabited was filled with unfathomable mysteries. I remember my friends and I wondering where all the water in clouds came from, how rainbows appeared, and why worms seemed to come out of nowhere after it rained. A television was a magical box, hummingbirds were divine creatures, and sparkling stars fueled our imagination.

But we grew up and some of that magic went away when we started to know the name of things, mistakenly assuming that such labeling meant that we actually knew more about it than we did. Yet, even the simplest of objects holds secrets that remain hidden from our view. As the poet Alfred Tennyson majestically wrote in 1863,

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

The flower is physics, history, biology, math, and more all bundled up in a single gesture of nature. To fully understand all that it represents is indeed to grasp the infinite subtlety that prefigures life itself. Ah, but wholly grasp it we cannot, except as tiny granules of a much greater mosaic. In the very moment we think we “know” something, we realize anew that we have only touched a sliver of what is possible to be known. Niels Bohr, Einstein's longtime friend and intellectual foiling partner, understood this well when he introduced the concept of complementarity in order to grapple with the paradoxical nature of quantum mechanics. For instance, measure with confidence the momentum of an electron and the less certain will be your measurement of its position, and vice versa. It is as if nature were a cosmic tease, where one part is revealed and the other remains concealed. The quantum realm is a game of hide and seek, with the bewitching roadblock that nothing is fully uncovered.

There is a deep lesson here that when properly implemented can change our approach to education and indeed to how we relate to all those we know. The belief that we know something is often a form of clutching, a contraction, and a barrier from opening ourselves up to learning more, or, worse, to admitting that we may be mistaken, partly or wholly, in our understanding. The knowledge claim can be a wall of our own creation that we find impossible to scale, despite that we erected it ourselves.

Think of our current politics and the immense disconnect we feel on each side about the other's point of view. Think of religion (old and new) and how many devotees feel that that they have the truth whereas other faiths are either hell-bent or destined for another round on the wheel of samsara. Now think of the current virus pandemic. Watch how differing views take up arms (both literally and figuratively) to champion their position.

It is truly ironic that when we know very little, we think and act like we know much. This is the lot of humankind and this is our sad history from time immemorial.

The Yoga of Unknowing offers a pathway beyond this and it doesn't have to be taught. No teachers or gurus or masters are needed. It just necessitates acknowledging moment to moment what we already intuit to be the case. We are not very smart. Yes, to be sure, we may be quite competent in some specific areas, but in other realms we remain dutifully oblivious to what is happening.

There is a wonderful bliss that can be had when we remain within that realm of not knowing, where we don't push our particular model as the be-all and end-all. When we open ourselves to counter ideas and counter information, even when we are secure in our ideational thinking, we relax at the core of our beings and find that our channels of communication cleared of unnecessary static.

As a teacher for the past forty years, I am keenly aware of the hazards that are inherent in my profession. We, so-called philosophers, are supposed to be the professors of knowledge, sprouting forth pearls of wisdom. But there is always a student who will know something we don't or who can pose a question that goes beyond our expertise. How we respond in those moments reveals much. I know from which I speak because there have been several occasions in my career where I found myself reacting in ways that were counter-productive. It was when I came off flatfooted or, more embarrassingly, when I put that same foot in my mouth, that it dawned on me that students learn more when one is transparently honest about their limitations than with striking an unnatural pose of “knowingness” particularly when it is clear to be a sham.

So how does The Yoga of Unknowing work in practical terms? First, it starts with the feeling of letting go of any absolute pretensions. By relaxing into the space of “ah, I don't know much and that will always be the case,” then one sinks into that sense of mystery which is our natural condition. We came into the world not knowing and we will leave the world not knowing. The famous line from Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat underlines this perfectly, “Myself when young did eagerly frequent doctor and saint, and heard great argument about it and about: but evermore came out by the same door as in I went.”

If we are ever in doubt about how little we know, any object will disabuse us of our arrogance. What is a piece of paper ultimately? A hierarchy of information which includes a tree, wood, molecules, atoms, neutrons, electrons, all the way down to what Sir Arthur Edington opined was “something unknown is doing what don't know.” Everything is not what it seems.

If we can melt into that integrated mystery, then we imbibe that sense of awe that we had as children before we grew up thinking we knew something when we didn't.

The Yoga of Unknowing does have a very revealing caveat: While I am confident that “I don't ultimately know” I cannot then absolutely assume that nobody else does either since that would indicate I knew more than I actually did.

Sam Keen posits it in his own inimitable way when he ponders, “I think we have to trust ourselves in the darkness of not knowing. The God out of which we came and into which we go is an unknown God. It's the luminosity of that darkness and that unknowing that is, I think, the most human - and the most sacred - place of all.”

A drop in the ocean doesn't “know” the vast expanse, except to the degree that it is part of it and is sustained by it. It is as if we are on a tall Himalayan peak looking through a telescope and seeing a million stars in the night sky. We continually tinker with our magnifying apparatus and each time it improves we see yet even more stars. Where once there was just a million, now there are a billion, a trillion, and so on. Such is our knowledge, the more we know the more there is to learn. Infinity is never encompassed by that which finite. This is why Nicholas of Cusa uses geometry as a means to understand learned ignorance when he posits, “The circle cannot be squared since: the area of a circle is incommensurable with that of any non-circle.”

But these are just analogies and all the intellectual jostling we do are less persuasive than the very feeling we get when confronted with our stupidity. How does this unknowing gut sense help us? It frees us from our own conceit, the hubris that we are possessors of hidden keys to the universe that others lack. No, we are all dumb, blind, and mute in the face of the immeasurable vastness of space and time.

The Yoga of Unknowing is a way of waking up to what Rudolph Otto termed ganz andere and mysterium tremendum, where the numinous is all pervasive and yet wholly other since any vessel that tries to contain it is immediately shattered. We are those vessels and the more we understand our limitations, what Nicholas of Cusa called our ignorance, the wiser we become as a result. The mystic-mathematician also developed a unique Koan which in itself is worthy of repeated contemplation:

“The Unattainable is Attained through its Unattainment.”

Semyon Lyudvigovich Frank, the distinguished Russian philosopher, has provided us with perhaps the clearest articulation of Cusa's philosophy in his book, The Unknowable, wherein he states that human knowledge does not exhaust what remains to be known in the cosmos. Indeed, that is why we have progressive forms of knowledge and why science advances. Although there is no literary evidence that Issac Newton said the following, it does nicely sum up our intellectual endeavors:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

On the other side of the globe, the famous Zen Koan concerning tea is illustrative here and comports nicely with The Yoga of Unknowing:

“Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. 'It is overfull. No more will go in!'

Like this cup,' Nan-in said, 'you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?'”

Socrates on Unknowing






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