Radical Unknowing

Radical Unknowing

Radical unknowing: the recognition that in each moment all we have to guide us is our own intuitive heart, and yet there is no way to ever know where each step will land, whether it will lead us towards our destination, or whether our destination is even where we want to go.

I am reminded of the autobiographical poem, “Berryman,” by W.S. Merwin. In it, a young Merwin asks his poetry teacher how he can ever know if his work is “any good at all.” His teacher responds:

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Imagine you are walking through an unlit tunnel. It’s pitch black, and you can’t see your own hand inches away from your nose. You reach down and grab hold of a hand rail. Your hand glides along the cold steel, offering a sense of comfort as you warily make your way through the dark… Until you feel your hand slide off the end.

The rail just stops. Panic sets in as you reach your arms to the side and realize that there are no walls anywhere near you. You aren’t even sure anymore if you are in a tunnel or a giant cavern stretching out as wide as your imagination. You don’t have any rails to rely on, but you also recognize something even scarier: the rail you were using up until now was never connected to a clear path. The sense of security you once felt disappears into the abyss.

A dear friend recently told me that he didn’t like the word intuition. “I think it’s meaning has been diluted,” he said. I can relate to this. We often see it as some sort of character trait that we possess, a super power immune from the checks and balances of logic, reason, and evidence.

Where I live in the rural redwoods of northern California, there is a community member who is convinced that certain drum rhythms, especially the rhythms used in reggae, hip hop, and pop music, are of a “lower” vibration. Because he is so “sensitive” and “intuitive,” he can feel his energy drain just being around these sounds, and he has even gotten sick from it. I once told him that I did not have the same experience that he did, and his response was that I was not evolved enough to notice. (He claimed it was because I am an “intellectual.”) He proselytizes others so they too can awaken to these rhythm’s disharmonious nature. For him, ridding the world of this evil sound is a key part of achieving world peace.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I think many of us do this in less obvious ways. In my time working one-one-one with people, I have found that a major obstacle to receiving new information is when an “intuitive person” has access to otherworldly knowledge.

When someone “knows” something, it shuts off the possibility of being wrong. This is true regardless of where the information comes from, but “intuitive” knowledge often seems immune from correction. Instead of shaping and redirecting our inner compass to better fit reality, we create a list of justifications and beliefs to maintain our intuitive identity. This creates a mental wall that keeps us trapped in our own projections, imaginations, thought constructs, and isolated worlds. We stop listening.

But intuition is not a character trait. It is an act– the act of listening. We can’t listen when we know. Listening comes from a radical unknowing. When I am with another person or a group, it doesn’t matter if I am teaching, leading kirtan, or counseling, my goal is to let go of everything I know and listen. If an intuitive realization comes, I have two choices:

Option 1: I retreat into my mind by developing that intuitive hit into an entire story line. I am no longer listening, and I am not in tune. If I choose to believe my new theory, then I can now look for evidence to justify it. Confirmation bias helps build up my mental construct so large that I lose touch with the actual territory of the moment.

Option 2: I keep listening. There is an intuitive hit, and so I lean into curiosity. I check in. “I am wondering about…” This asking becomes another way to listen, as I take another sip from the relational moment. It doesn’t matter if my intuitive hit was right or not. Either way, the response serves to help me tune in more deeply. More information surfaces, and my being is calibrated to a deeper listening.

Sometimes this information is as subtle as the tone and quality of a voice, a shift in a chair, or the tension or softness in a face, all of which requires a deep listening. And then there are times where we are so in tune that suprarational information seems to come from no known cue at all. As long as we keep tuning, listening, and engaging in radical unknowing, we are deepening our capacity to draw from the moment’s bottomless well of wisdom.

But as soon as we “know,” we are in trouble. As soon as “intuition” becomes a character trait that we posses rather than a process of attunement, it acts as a barrier to listening.

Intuition is the moment-by-moment stepping into the darkness of radical unknowing.

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