Imagine a world in which everything is known and under control. It would be a flatland. There would be no amazement, no wonder, no edge. I believe that just under our skin, we intuit that we know next to nothing about our lives at all — where we came from, who we are, where we are going, and why. To avoid the anxiety this can arouse might just be why we keep ourselves so busy and preoccupied.
To trust the unknowing is easy to say, but how much more convenient it often is to fall back on what we know or what others know — or say they know. It is far simpler and easier to live by pre-digested belief and information rather than by faith.
Religious beliefs, political beliefs, social beliefs, cultural beliefs — we all have them in one shape or another because we live in a relational world in which we are formed in part by our culture and early experiences. We all have core beliefs about ourselves and the world — it’s a safe place, or a dangerous place. I’m a bad or a good person — that were formed so early they now direct our outlook on life automatically without our conscious participation.
Yet behind those beliefs is the stillness, the presence that we are, the great mystery of being. That presence does not reside in our intellect, our will or our memory. Who we are cannot be pointed to in time or space. We are nowhere to be found. Who we are cannot be known at all. This knowing presence can only be inhabited, there where nothing and no one ever is. Thomas Merton wrote these lines:
“There is no where in you a paradise that is no place and there
You dare not enter except without a story.
To enter there is to become unnameable.”
By paradise, he does not mean some state of bliss divorced from the immanent world. He means a place of deepest clarity and stillness — unnameable, and therefore unknowable, beyond the reach of language and knowledge. Yet this presence that we are is itself the source of knowing. We ourselves are the Mystery, then. And the deeper we penetrate a mystery, the more mysterious it becomes. Just look and see. Look into the question of who you are, not with ideas or answers, but with a felt sense of the ever-receding ungraspability of you.
When we know this as a felt experience. When we inhabit and trust the silence that words may lead to but cannot reach, then we become intimate with ourselves in a way that is not possible when we remain content with our stories and memories of who we like to think we are. Our edges soften. We become a kindness to ourselves and to the world.
“Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?”
Asks Mary Oliver in her poem, A Summer Day. She does not ask casually. Her question arises from a genuine sense of unknowing — from sheer wonder. “The questioning that emerges from unknowing differs from conventional inquiry,” Stephen Batchelor notes in his book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, “in that it has no interest in finding an answer. Perplexity keeps awareness on its toes.”
Who made the world? Who made this hand traveling across the page in the slanting light of an August afternoon? I look and I wonder and I sit back and I gasp as I realize that I do not know what a single thing is. What this is before me that is known as a table and who this is that sits breathing softly by my side, her legs crossed and her eyes down? It is a wonder we are here at all and a greater wonder still that I can wonder at it, and yet the more I wonder the closer I feel, the more intimate I feel, to this throbbing wild and passionate world. I wonder, and I come alive as the world comes alive before my eyes. Can we wonder the world alive, in spite of all that we think we know about it already? In spite of everything?
You can order Roger Housden’s new book, Keeping the Faith Without a Religion, here.