By Sherin Fitzer
I got 99 questions and no answers to be found.
The following is a list of just a few of the questions that have arisen since I received a cancer diagnosis last year:
- “Why Me?”
- Is the surgery going to remove all of the cancer?
- Should I get chemo?
- I am getting chemo; did I make a mistake?
- Why did this cancerous lymph node show up in my abdomen right when I was going to be released from chemo?
- My money is running out. Should I get disability?
- When should I go back to work?
- Am I going to live the rest of my life without cancer?
- Will cancer come back somewhere else in my body later in life?
- Will I continue to have to cope with one form of cancer or another for the rest of my life?
I have no answers for most of these questions. I did knock out the first question, “Why me?”
“Why not me?”
The other “Why” question left my mind fairly quickly, “Why did more cancer appear?”
“Does it matter?”
The doctor could not answer why it appeared. He actually said he was shocked. Knowing why would not help. We moved on and decided what needed to be done next and I was put on a new regime of chemo.
I have had other times in my life when I really thought I had to know the reason for something—why it happened. A man I was seeing once left me without a word. I was sure I needed to know why and that that would make some sense of it and therefore help. I drove the poor guy crazy until he gave me a reason. Guess what? It did not help a bit, he was still gone. I was still devastated and we never got back together. So much for knowing “why.” Now I am cautious about asking why. I make sure I really want to know and try to figure out if knowing will help anything. For example, if a project fails it may be good to know why so you can find a way to improve it.
Don’t Know Mind
Zen Master Bon Soeng describes Zen’s basic Don’t-Know Mind teaching: “We want to know, we think we know, we think we’re supposed to know. There’s all of this bias toward knowing, but we don’t really know. We (Zen) have this radical teaching—how about admitting the truth that we don’t know and go from there. If we really live that, it changes everything.”
I have a masters degree in English, but never took any teaching courses. I was offered a job teaching college English at a prison and just went in and flew by the seat of my pants. Don’t Know Mind (I did not know that this is the principle I was operating by) was of great help.There was a sense of freedom when I began. I had never been told what I could or could not do, what worked or did not work. As the years went on and I thought I knew something, that freedom of mind went away. I began to have thoughts like “Oh I can’t do that; that did not work last time.” Or after having contact with more English teachers I was informed of techniques that should or should not be used. It hurt the quality of my teaching.
Suzuki Roshi says that, “A beginner’s mind is wide open and questioning. An expert’s mind is closed.” Bon Soeng expands: “So this Not-Knowing actually gives us life. It gives vibrancy and energy to the world we live in. This kind of I-Know shuts everything down and we get stuck. Yet all the signals from everything around us say we’re supposed to know. The competition is who knows the most, but look at the result.”
From the time that we are children we have been indoctrinated to want to know. The bedtime stories our parents read us had a clear beginning, middle, and end. We always knew what happened and often it was, “And they lived happily ever after.” If you observe adults exiting an ambiguous film or play you can see how much not knowing disturbs them. “Well what the hell was that?”
“What happened to him/her?”
“Did they die?”
“Did they get married?”
“That ending sucked.”
When I was younger I felt similarly. As a film fan I have learned to love and embrace these films. What a gift. It is okay not to know—in films and in life. I am not sure exactly how I arrived at Don’t Know Mind concerning the cancer. I have has a lot of time to sit and think. Yes, I did worry. Yes, I did want answers and still sometimes do. They are not to be had. Maybe I just got sick of driving myself crazy. No matter what happens everything will be all right.
I would like to leave you with a practice to help you achieve Don’t Know Mind. This excerpt is taken from the book, The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield.
Use this practice to bring wisdom to a situation of inner or outer conflict. Initially begin by sitting, and later you can practice in social situations.
Sit quietly and easily, focusing on your breath or body. When you feel settled, bring to mind a time 10 years in the future. Recognize that you don’t know what will happen then. Feel the not knowing and relax with it. Think of the earth spinning through space with hundreds of thousands of people being born and dying every day. Where does each life come from? How did it start? There are so many things we don’t know. Feel the truth of don’t know mind, relax and become comfortable with it.
Now, bring to mind a conflict– inner or outer. Be aware of all the thoughts and opinions you have about how it should be, about how they should be. Now recognize that you don’t really know. Maybe the wrong thing will lead to something better, you don’t know.
Consider how would it be to approach yourself, the situation and the other people with don’t know mind. Feel it.
You don’t know you are not sure. You have no fixed opinion. Allow yourself to want to understand anew. Approach it with Don’t Know Mind. With openness. How does Don’t Know Mind effect the situation? Does it improve it, make it wiser or easier? More relaxed?
Practice Don’t Know Mind until you are comfortable resting in uncertainty; until you can do your best and laugh and say, “I don’t know.”
Editor: Dana Gornall