By Tanya Shaffer
A few months ago, I had a discussion with a dear friend that turned into an argument. It started when he told me he was an atheist, and I told him I was an agnostic.
“Same thing,” he said.
“Is not,” said I.
“Is too,” said he. “You don’t believe in a deity; therefore, you are not a theist, which makes you an a-theist.”
“I neither believe nor disbelieve, which makes me an agnostic.”
From there things got a bit heated, which seems kind of silly in retrospect, but that’s the way we roll. Reflecting on the conversation later, I asked myself why this was important to me.
More than 20 years ago, I heard the Theravadin Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro speak in Golden Gate Park. He said something that struck me so deeply I wrote it down and have thought of it often over the years: Not knowing is most intimate.
Although I’ve been turning those words over within myself for decades, I never thought to research them until after my friend and I had this argument. With little memory of the context in which Ajahn Amaro used them, I’d always assumed he’d come up with them himself. But, when I searched the phrase, I learned that it is foundational to many Buddhist thinkers.
It comes from an ancient Chinese story in which a monk named Fayan goes on a pilgrimage and stays at a stranger’s monastery. The master at that monastery, Dizang, asks him why he’s making the pilgrimage. “I don’t know,” says Fayan, to which Dizang nods approvingly and responds, “Good. Not knowing is most intimate.”
The sentence strikes a powerful intuitive chord, but what does it mean?
When I think of the word intimacy, the first thing that springs to mind is sexuality. Nakedness. Trusting someone enough to reveal yourself, literally and figuratively. Showing the parts of yourself that others don’t see—the tender, delicate parts—and facing down the fear that your most exposed, vulnerable self might not meet with acceptance or approval.
Which isn’t to say you can’t have sexuality without intimacy.
You can approach sex as you can approach anything in life, really—from such a great emotional distance that your innermost self barely feels a thing. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Following the thread of my thoughts, I looked up the word intimacy. The first definition I found was “closely acquainted; familiar, close.” To achieve close knowledge of someone or something, you have to be willing to look with fine-grained attention, unclouded by bias or preconception, and see what’s truly there.
Likewise, to allow someone to be close or intimate with you, you must be willing to show yourself as you are, without pretense or defensiveness.
This need for ongoing openness on both sides is what makes it so hard to retain true intimacy over the course of a long relationship.
We humans are always changing. If we bring the assumptions of yesterday to the experience of each other today, we prevent ourselves from seeing what’s in front of us right now.
Staying intimate with someone becomes especially challenging when that person tells us something we don’t want to hear, something that contradicts who we think they are or who we want them to be. Imagine a friend confesses an act of violence they committed in the past.
How do you respond? A harsh or judgmental response shuts down intimacy, whereas a gentle and curious response fosters it.
Responding with openness isn’t always easy, and depending on the circumstance, it might not be what’s called for. But if fostering greater intimacy is the goal, curiosity and openness are the path.
What if we bring that same spirit of inquiry and openness to every aspect of our lives?
Another traditional Chinese fable tells the story of an old man whose horse ran away.
“I’m sorry for your bad luck,” said his neighbors.
The farmer shrugged. “Could be good; could be bad.”
The next day, the horse returned, bringing three other wild horses with it. “Such good luck!” said the neighbors.
Again, the farmer shrugged. “Could be good; could be bad.”
The next day, his son got on one of the horses, and the horse threw him off, breaking the young man’s leg. “So sorry for your bad luck!” said the neighbors.
“Could be good; could be bad,” the farmer replied.
The next day, the military came through, compelling young men to fight. Because the farmer’s son’s leg was broken, he was spared. “Wow,” the neighbors marveled. “Such good luck.”
I’m sure you can guess at this point how the farmer responded.
The farmer remained intimate, in the face of all things, with the unknown and unknowable quality of life. Does that mean he did not miss his horse or love his son? Of course not. It means, simply, that he watched each circumstance arise before him without endowing it with any meaning beyond the thing itself. This.
And this. And this.
That’s how life is. We never know what’s coming. You could be sitting in your apartment, drinking coffee and checking email, and a phone call could come, revealing that a loved one has died, or conversely, that you’ve gotten a dream job you’d long since given up on. I’ve gotten both kinds of calls: the ones that stop your breath with the shock of a loss, or with the astonishment of a win. I’m guessing you have too.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote:
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
That’s what I want too, but remaining intimate with life in all its uncertainty isn’t easy. It requires a commitment to opening again and again and yet again to things just as they are, no matter how painful. It requires continuously dancing with the possibility that everything you think is right could in fact be wrong.
I was raised between an avowed atheist mother and a father who believed in a higher power.
I inherited a skepticism of all things spiritual from one side and a receptivity to them from the other. The skepticism came more easily to me, but I secretly longed for spiritual connection. Maybe that’s why I got defensive when my friend called me an atheist.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to hear the quiet voice of possibility over the noisy objections of my inner naysayers. Hamlet’s immortal line, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” is another refrain that plays often in my mind.
[Uhhh, what?] The difference between this does not exist and this may or may not exist is fundamental to my way of being.
During my travels in West Africa (chronicled in my book, Somebody’s Heart is Burning), I had many conversations that went something like this:
FRIEND: But you must believe. God is there.
ME: I wish I could believe, but I can’t.
Many responded that faith was a choice, but that never made sense to me. How can you make yourself believe something you don’t? When I discovered Buddhism, I was drawn to it in part because no faith was required.
The Buddha said, “Go to your own direct experience and find what you know to be true.”
What a relief! At last I’d found a path that didn’t ask me to suspend disbelief, only to examine it. The invitation to look closely at my own direct experience created the possibility of intimacy, both with the world and with my own mind. The challenge was not to force myself to think a certain way, but to cultivate a sense of neutrality so that my capacity to engage with life exactly as it is would be clear and unbiased.
The physicist Richard Feynman said, “I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.” If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.
How much more intimate could we all be, with each other and with life itself, if we’re able to keep that door to the unknown ajar at all times, setting aside our preconceptions and attachment to our own viewpoints, and looking at all things through a clear, unclouded lens?
I therefore offer this agnostic’s prayer, to myself, to the universe, to the forces that continue to fascinate and confound mystics and scientists alike: Let me remain curious, flexible, and open to seeing what I have not yet seen and knowing what I have not yet known. Let me never abandon the realm of I don’t know.
Let me remain truly, deeply intimate with life.
Editor: J.L. Pendall
Tanya Shaffer is a writer, a writing workshop leader, a mom, a wanderer, a nature photographer, and a long-time meditator in the Vipassana tradition. Her plays have been produced by theatres large and small in the U.S., Canada and Taiwan, and she’s the author of the travel memoir Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa. She leads joyful, liberating workshops in a practice she calls Off-Leash Writing, hosts the podcast Off-Leash Arts: Conversations on Creativity, and writes Tanya’s Off-Leash Blog. The Off-Leash name has nothing in particular to do with dogs—though she has three of them!—but seeks to evoke the freedom that comes when the tether is cut and you find yourself completely in the present, alive to your senses, following your intuition whichever way it leads. Learn more about her antics at tanyashaffer.com.
Editor: J.L. Pendall