The art of not knowing – Beginners Mind
When I did my coach training at Barefoot Coaching, one the key points Kim Morgan the CEO made, was that as coaches we needed to develop the ability to stay with not knowing. When we can stay ‘not knowing’ then we can be curious about the client and what will evolve. If we ‘know’ then we are in danger of putting out meaning, our interpretation, our influence onto the client and therefore prevent them in becoming who and what they really are.
The idea is that if our mind is full of what we think we know, then we have no space to explore, investigate and discover.
Most of the time nowadays, I live me life like this. I am pretty good at not knowing what will happen next, I don’t spend a lot of time in the future unless it is planning things I want to do.
I have never been, I don’t think, a catastrophic futurist; I don’t create stories about the worst that can happen, all the calamities awaiting. I don’t know why that is. Luck? Upbringing? Meditation? Choice? I can only postulate.
Luck; yes my mum’s side of the family are very ‘can do’, and ‘get on with it’. Upbringing; my mum didn’t catastrophize and I went to a school which was very positive. Meditation; well yes I think that helps to bring you into the present moment and to see the thoughts and stories just passing through (read here for more about meditation). Choice; yes that too. When first love killed himself there was a choice point where I decided to live life to the full.
However, I do Pollyanna futurize, in that I have had romantic dreams about relationships, of how the would be, about how he could be, about how we should be, that stopped me seeing things are they are or were. So this is what I have to pay attention to, not the doom filled future story, but the fluffy, bunny, Disney fairytale where everyone is lovely and kind and everything will end happily ever after.
So what do I know about not knowing (the irony).
I know that trying to know, is a survival mechanism. That in order to thrive in our caveman/woman days, we had to try and predict where the best grazing, the best foraging, the most dangerous predators would be. I know that we try to know, in order to keep ourselves safe and that is a useful skill up to a certain point.
I know that trying to know can lead to anxiety. When we create catastrophic futures, we increase cortisol and Adrenalin and all the negative affects of stress (watch my video to understand more)
I know that we have always had prophecy and soothsayers of some description, whether wizened old people with chicken gizzards (think Macbeth’s witches and Julius Caesar’s Ides of March) or stockbroker future markets and trading.
What are these things really? Magic? Voodoo? I think instead it is the ability to read patterns and complex information, to read the temperature in the kingdom, senate or boardroom and to be able to weave together logical and visceral information to see what might be ahead. So, actually these things are very much in the moment, based on ‘not knowing’ because in fact, the soothsayer, witch or stockbroker has to keep an open mind, be the antennae for the information in the ether in the moment and to make sense of it.
Physics acknowledges the principle of uncertainty:
What this means is that whilst we think we are certain on one thing, another thing becomes less certain, like trying to press tomato pips or catch mercury. Certainty is slippery. And oh we want certainty at this time. We want to know when lock down will end, when a cure will be found, if we are safe, what our future holds. But the more we try to fix upon a future certainty in one direction the more other certainties slip away.
Buddhism has the concept of Beginner’s Mind. Shoshin (初心) comes from Zen Buddhism and it means approaching life and our experiences with openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, as a young child might, looking at a bumble bee for the first time.
Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master said: “Keep this ‘don’t know mind.’ It is an open mind, a clear mind.”
It has never been more critical to have an open mind. In this period of hibernation we are all loosened from the systems we usually act within. We are physically distanced from work, from wider friends and family and whilst there is a loss with this, there is also an opportunity. Bion, Satir and other systems psychologists hold that we are not as we are, but as we appear in the system, the roles we play, the thoughts we have in relation to the system of people around us.
You know that thing that happens when you go back to your parents’ house and find yourself acting like a much younger version of you? That’s the family system pulling back into old and familiar roles and ways of being. At work, you might be ‘the organised one’, ‘the one who is always late’, the one who says things no one else will say. That’s you within a system.
And now these systems are less present in our life and so we don’t have to be those roles, we don’t have to think those thoughts, live those lives. If we project into the future based on these, we will get more of the same. If we can stay with not knowing and open curiosity then who knows who we might be, how the world and the systems within it might be reinvented.
So how do we stay with not knowing, or Beginner’s Mind?
– Meditation helps us come into the moment, out of the future and past and allows us to see our thoughts and feelings anew (I’ve written about meditation here and put lots of meditations for you here).
Seek to be like a child
– pay attention to small things, you have the time now. Watch the clouds, pay attention to bird song, delight at what the water looks like as it pours from the tap, blow bubbles and watch the rainbows fly.
Change your language
– use words like ‘I don’t know’, ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’, ‘who knows’, ‘I wonder’, ‘I’m curious’, ‘I imagine’. When we use this kind of language we allow out brain to conceptualize uncertainty and to make clear that anything we are thinking is imagined, possible, but not certain and fixed.
Step away from stories
– (unless you know they are stories, and books and films). We story tell when we say ‘this is how it is going to be’, when we speak with false certainty. ‘I’ll never get work’, ‘I’ll never get through this’; these thoughts frighten and paralyze us and Pollyanna thoughts such as I am prone to, anesthetize us. Not knowing allows us agility, curiosity and flexibility.
Notice shoulds and musts
– for these are part of the story telling which fix our-self, the world, others with a pre-ordained pin. Instead investigate vigorously and curiously.
Avoid the binary
-heroes and cowards, right and wrong, good and bad, success or failure, lonely or with friends. All of these are rigid and lack the complexity which is the human experience. Right, wrong, good, bad are all relative, we know how to be lonely with friends, or befriended whilst alone. Every hero has the capacity for cowardice, every cowards is at some times a hero. Avoid these kinds of over-simplications. Life is a web of complications and complexities.
Remember you are not alone
– no one knows. Honestly. Not the scientists, the doctors, the politicians, the most confident of your friends and the most robust of your neighbours. No body knows what next, because, what next isn’t here. Mathematical models and curves are stories just like any other, policies are documents based on information, personality, dogma and current trends and may prove useless, or brilliant, only history will tell.
Not knowing is helpful
-because the scientists who are working at vaccines are experimenting and working out what works and what doesn’t. The NHS staff are working out what each patient needs and what works. Each family, every household, every individual around the country is constantly experimenting with new ways to live.
Not knowing is how life is
None of us know. We can’t. We are small and mortal and if we pretend to know more than we know then we miss the curiousity, exploration, experimentation, creativity which can actually make a difference to how life is.
Focus on what you do know
If all this uncertainty feels too overwhelming, focus on what you do know.
You do know where you sleep, what you feel today, what the weather is like right now, how much money is in the bank right now. Make sure you are accounting for all your skills and all your resources. I’ve been teaching meditation in schools, for over 30 years but it has only been through all this that I have suddenly realised it is something I could share more widely. What can you that you have forgotten? Baking? Sewing? Gardening? Playing an instrument? Sketching?
Also what resources have you forgotten about, whether it is the dried chick peas at the back of the cupboard or an old address book. I made some salt-dough yesterday for the first time since the kids were small, for me, not them (they are, of course, ‘too old’ for that now’, but I loved squishing and making; I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.
Not knowing is an art. It takes practice to keep coming back into what is known, and remaining curious and it isn’t always easy, especially when we are scared. But it is a skill, which I have found to be really useful, which allows me to appreciate the moment much more and not get caught up in drama and games.
If you haven’t found the meditations yet and would like to try (and a few psycho-tips) they are here.
If you fancy joining me live…keep a note of the sessions on here.
Look after yourselves.
Please forward this to anyone who you think would find it useful.