It's funny (I mean, interesting) when you read a book and only one sentence sticks with you. I figure that if I remember it after many years, that sentence must have a significant meaning for me.
A meaningful sentence I recall from one of Huston Smith's books came from a Zen practitioner: "I have a new koan: I could be wrong."
I'm wrong all the time. So I can totally identify with this sentiment.
Lately I've been enjoying using a similar idea as a sort of mantra when I'm going to sleep at night and find that my mind is overly filled with thoughts of what be coming next in the world of politics, my own life, and other aspects of reality I care about.
It feels really honest and refreshing to silently repeat those words inside my head. Don't know replaces the guesses, predictions, suppositions, hopes, anticipations, and such that otherwise would be rambling around my psyche.
Now, I'm not saying that looking into the future is bad. We human beings have a marvelous ability to create visions of what might be that are far beyond what other animals are capable of.
It's often useful to fashion scenarios of what Time may bring us after the present moment. However, predictions of what will happen beyond a few minutes, or even less, often are widely off the mark.
That's why don't know appeals to me so much.
Those two words remind me to remain open to anything and everything, really. No matter how confident I am that this or that will occur, the universe typically doesn't operate precisely (or even generally) in accord with my view of what will be.
Naturally don't know applies to grand cosmic anticipations as well as small mundane ones.
Religious believers, of whom I used to be one, typically have a clear sense of what will happen after they die. Heaven, God, afterlife, soul travel, reincarnation -- whatever it is, something predictable awaits.
But actually, they don't know. No one knows. Which is to say, as the above-mentioned Zen practitioner said: We all could be wrong. And likely are, when it comes to supernatural suppositions.
A related idea is wu chi, a Taoist term for the emptiness from which fullness flows. In Tai Chi, which I've practiced for about 13 years, wu chi is the poised, balanced ready position that precedes movement. I talked about this in the above-linked post:
I first heard the term, wu chi, used by my martial arts instructor. Warren said that he had told his own Tai Chi teacher that, after several decades of training, he had finally realized that there is only one move in Tai Chi. “Oh, very interesting,” the teacher said. “What is it?” “Whatever flows from wu chi [the empty state of rest in Tai Chi].” “Ah, I think you’re on to something,” said Warren’s teacher.
The idea is that when one is in a state of wu chi, it's easy to move in any direction.
This is a subtlety of Tai Chi that I'm beginning to appreciate more deeply. Even when one move directly follows another, there's a balance point, a pivot point -- the moment when one move is essentially finished and the next move hasn't quite begun.
That point is akin to don't know. In an actual fight, you wouldn't know what your opponent is going to do. So you should be ready to respond flexibly to... whatever.
Hence, the beauty of wu chi.
Everyday life isn't a battle, but it shares the quality of unpredictability. It makes sense to be ready for anything. Or at least, many things that we don't expect will happen, yet certainly could.
Is this a coherent philosophy of life? I'd say so. It's just different from what we usually think of as providing a philosophical foundation for ourselves. Here's how I put it in my wu chi post:
There’s nothing quite like wu chi in Western philosophy or religion. By and large we in the West adore positivity. We want to be filled, not emptied. We want to acquire, not divest. We want to become more, not less. We want to be raised up, not driven down.
Even when we claim to aspire to a state of lowly humility and egolessness, the envisioned end result is to be elevated: saved, enlightened, God-realized. I’m not saying that people of the East are less prone to ego, but at least philosophies such as Taoism and Zen—when unencumbered by religious trappings—present to spiritual aspirants a goal of inner emptiness.
For several years I wrote quite often about wu chi and wu under a blog category, Wu Project. Feel feel to browse through the posts. Or, not to.