Joy of Unknowing

bird mirror

“To know that you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

~Sri Nisargadatta

If you want to enter knowledge of the Tao,

The entrance is called “Not Knowing”.

~Chuang Tzu


Mind cannot be used to grasp mind. The more we try to grasp mind, the more we realize that we are only grasping air. Actually, if we search for the mind, we will not find any such entity. All we will find are thoughts, and even if we try and fixate on a thought, it will be like trying to hold on to smoke. In fact, if we were not so attached to the concept of linear time and could achieve a birth-to-death overview, we would recognize that our attempts to hold on to any aspect of life — relations, possessions, dreams, ideals and beliefs, and even our self-images — are just as much of a futile endeavor as attempting to grab empty space.

Based upon various conditioning factors, we tend by habit to identify with thought energy. In the process, we develop the conviction that what we think is what we are. In this way, consciousness itself can seem like a limitation, contracting down into various afflicted self-images, such as “I am not worthy, I am too fat, I am not smart enough, or rich enough, or spiritual enough”, or the opposite, such as “I am better than my peers, I am prettier than the others, I am more enlightened”, and so on ad infinitum. All such manufactured images are based on thought energy with which we identify, and which become our prison cages as we do so.


However, if we take a step back and just let thoughts come and go without attaching any personal significance to them, it becomes apparent that we are not the thoughts, but the witness of thoughts. We are not the passing traffic, but the space in which the traffic flows. This primordial space need not become anything other than itself, but simply abide as itself, regardless of the passing parade. Nor need we – we are complete just as we are, and need not be dependent on any temporary neural stream of thought energy to contract our infinite being and squeeze it into the cramped fictional narratives of “me and mine”.

Once we have been able to relax our attention to the point where we are no longer impulsively being drawn into our thought-stories, but stabilize instead in the position of pure witnessing, we can inquire even further. For instance, if we turn our attention around and try to cling to or grasp this witness, we discover that we can’t do that either, any more than we can grasp any other dreamy fabrication of consciousness. The witness cannot grasp the witness, just as the eye cannot see itself. In this direct recognition, the witness (which is still a form of mental construct) falls away too. It represents a slight grasping at an identity, a subtle obstruction. In reality, there is no separate “awareness” that is witnessing experiences.

Tao face

What remains when all grasping falls away is pure aware spaciousness, the motionless timeless background. It is our true nature — prior to, during, and after thoughts, memories, sensations, perceptions, and all transient self-images arise and dissolve. It is here where we can come to rest, in this ineffable stillness. The only “inner voice” now is silence. In silence, there is no need for some conceptual understanding. Indeed, when only awareness remains, who is there left to understand? Hence, the great Korean Zen master Chinul wrote: “Simply knowing that there is nothing you need to understand is in fact seeing the [true] nature.”

Just so, trying to “figure it all out” by using the analytical intellect may earn one a philosophy credential, but that is nothing like directly seeing one’s true nature. The best service that the intellect can render is to point to who and what we are, but we must leave all notional constructs behind if we are yearning for direct recognition/realization, in the same way we can appreciate and utilize a bread recipe, but we would never confuse the recipe for the bread itself. Facts and information will never amount to true intuitive wisdom, but merely create more hamster wheels.


This why the Zen sages, among other Realizers, recommend practicing with “don’t know mind”. Of course, this does not mean that one somehow refuses to discriminate in the objective world, indulging in blatant ignorance and confusion. The intellectual faculty is an amazing tool, and completely necessary for ordinary navigation in this psycho-physical realm, but the proper utilization of “don’t know mind” reaches beyond the domain of the story-making mind. In that sense, it is not anti-conceptual but trans-conceptual.

Practicing with “don’t know mind” simply entails the recognition that no conceptual understanding, regardless of how seemingly profound, amounts to truth. Indeed, in the spiritual process of awakening, the presumption of knowledge is more often a hindrance, a superimposed fantasy of interpretation on perception and experience, and ultimately constitutes just more excess baggage one needs to discard, if they are serious about waking up. This is also why the Advaita sage Nisargadatta says:

“Everybody is trying to understand the meaning of all this. You are not understanding because you have all the swaddling clothes of “I-am-this-or-that.” Remove them. The ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understand, so when we try to understand, we are only indulging in the acrobatics of mind.”

Wuhan Acrobat Group - a new girl sculpture 1

Nevertheless, it is not enough to merely glimpse one’s true nature. The sincere aspirant must return again and again to the depths of direct insight and recognition until the effort itself becomes spontaneous. In the process, the transformed intellect can now serve in assisting us to integrate what we have learned, to the point where we are able to fully embody the awakened vision in all the ways we live and relate.

What we may discover in this process is that it is one thing to see our true nature, but another thing altogether when it comes to applying that recognition to all the afflictive states we have become habituated to (and not just from this life, but lives reaching back beyond memory, that nevertheless still impact and even afflict us with unresolved conflicts). Buried emotional traumas and old psychological wounds need to be brought into the light of the conscious process of recognition, where they can be dissolved by the grace of our awakened regard.

Beyond this process of insight into our true nature and progressive application in every nook and cranny of our lives, is there more to be discovered? Again, Sri Nisargadatta gives us a pointed clue when he notes:

“Whatever spiritual things you aspire to know are all happening in this objective world, in the illusion; all your activities, material and spiritual, are in this illusion; all your activities. All this is happening in the objective world, all is dishonesty, there is no truth is this fraud.”

Perhaps intuited in glimpses along the way, coming to terms with the illusionary nature of all phenomena can still prove to be a challenge. Once again, ordinary knowledge can usually only muddle things, adding more complication and contradiction. The western teacher Adyashanti put it succinctly when he said, “All true knowing arises out of the unknown and is an expression of the unknown.” Certainly, we have learned by now that resort to logic and human reason will not really serve us well in this passage. Only by once again letting go and falling into the unknown can we paradoxically find our footing on this journey. Here, mystics such as St. John of the Cross suggest: Beyond human knowledge and understanding, in order to come to union with the wisdom of God, the soul has to proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing.”

Rather than being some kind of negative experience (as the intellect might perceive it), living in the unknown can provide us with an extraordinary source of freedom and happiness. To really see things as they are, to recognize phenomena as empty of all solidity and yet luminous in its fragile beauty, is actually enormously blissful and satisfying. Really, to play in the dream, having recognized it as a dream, is true enjoyment! The magnificent medieval ecstatic Blessed Angela of Foligno expressed it perfectly when she wrote: “The joy of the saints is a joy of incomprehension; they understand that they cannot understand.”

True freedom from limitation only manifests when one is able to thoroughly inspect, see through, and discard the programmed descriptions or stories about reality that constitute the known, and not just for a moment’s respite, but continuously. This involves a letting go of all clinging to provisional meanings (that are typically second hand anyway), all fixation on conceptual identities that we take to be who and what we are, all solidified positions, and all conditioned filters on experience that keep us misdirected and entranced. If not, then our life will merely amount to a manifestation of what the mind thinks it knows – a circular game of self-confirmation, grasping at the false security of the known, the accepted, the expected, and always avoiding the unknown, the only “place” where real freedom has the spaciousness to awaken and thrive.

By stabilizing in such a liberating attitude, our entire life and being, with all its relationships and perceptions, is literally re-wired to accommodate more and more light. The potential, our potential, is limitless. This light energy is the natural inheritance we all share, but habitually tend to suppress, in favor of reliance on the duller consensus vision of the pack, which will always attribute the most import and value to the safety and security of the known. What most frightens us, it seems, is the unknown, and yet we are also a curious animal, and so there will always be those among us willing to take that step out of the crowd and head off into the rare atmosphere, on pilgrimage to parts unknown. As it so happens, those may very well be the regions that reveal our true nature and condition, in all of its incomprehensible majesty.


 Dizang asked, “Where do you go?”

Fayan replied, “I’m on a pilgrimage.”

Dizang said, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?”

Fayan said, “Don’t know.”

Dizang said, “Not knowing is the most intimate.”

~Record of Fayan Wenyi


About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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38 Responses to Joy of Unknowing

  1. Candace says:

    Letting go of the desire to know has led to an amazing freedom!

    Thanks Brother!

  2. z ... says:

    Hmmm….so very true, so very true…yet so very beyond be even if I try
    “Rather than being some kind of negative experience (as the intellect might perceive it), living in the unknown can provide us with an extraordinary source of freedom and happiness. To really see things as they are, to recognize phenomena as empty of all solidity and yet luminous in its fragile beauty is actually enormously blissful and satisfying. Really, to play in the dream, having recognized it as a dream, is true enjoyment! The magnificent medieval ecstatic Blessed Angela of Foligno expressed it perfectly when she wrote: “The joy of the saints is a joy of incomprehension; they understand that they cannot understand.”
    Thank you so much for the Joy of Unknowing !


  3. marcel says:

    “we have learned by now that resort to logic and human reason will not really serve us well in this passage”

    Yes in this context, “known” means knowledge of things, or knowledge of concepts, or just concepts, this “the known”, conditions the next known, and the next known etc etc just like thoughts condition another, thus knowledge is temporary and arises due to knowledge (conditions) naturally what is known cannot condition what is not known, hence the letting go, the surrender. The Unmanifest and manifest are not-two, hence there is no (and has never been any) arising or cessation of knowing, there is only what Is. The mind is used to grasp at things for knowledge, which is natural, including the spontaneous sense of seperation, yet when we hear of things which are prior to mind, or beyond its grasp (like non-seperation) through the medium of scriptures or speech, the mind tries to understand what “not using the mind to understand” means, but when we look, we dont see any mind, so the view ends, and right there is the inexhaustable potential of our inherent knowing, which is our original nature. Just like the nature of seeing is the Unseen, the nature of knowing is the Unknown, and like water and ice, “not-two” To become conscious of this entire play, instruments or sky-flowers come into being, the so called appearance of “birth”, this is the beauty of maya, it is not seperate from what Is, nor can it be said to be not. There is only what Is, and you are always That.

    Thank you for your blessed writings Brother, and to allow me to express myself whenever moved to do so (through this limited conditioned vehicle)

    “don’t fret, You Are”

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    Thank you so much for expressing your understanding, Brother! Yes, when we look, we don’t find any mind — how wonderful! This is a great clue, but rather than relaxing into that, most of us panic and run back to the safety of the known. They do not realize that by doing so they leave their own home. Most of us are runaways.

    Streams of images
    reflected in the mirror mind –
    all arising and dissolving,
    season after season,

    The habitual reactions:
    grasping or avoiding, then
    fixation, identification, stress.

    Just as attention moves
    to dwell on any image, any
    smoke and shadow puppet-time
    play in this haunted house of fantasies,
    there is an ordinary ecstasy that begins with
    simple recognition and ends in grateful release.

    Non-dwelling is bliss!
    Non-abiding is happiness!

    It is not the fruit of enormous effort,
    clever strategy, or fortunate circumstance.

    Nor is it dependent on any image of itself
    that may appear in the looking glass of mind
    as each season follows season, and this
    round world spins in space.

    In the midst of the vast unknown
    it shines as heart-bright light, streaming forth
    in every direction, illuminating the ten thousand things,
    each one of which is composed of that same light,
    each one revealed in its jewel-like essence
    by the sublime functioning of our
    true heart’s innate wisdom.

    If one looks attentively into their mind,
    seeing nothing but the spaciousness
    of their own timeless innocence,
    liberation is not far away.

    The mind that clings to nothing
    can resume its natural disposition.

    Each season with its flow of images
    is then revealed to be a gift to taste
    and not a place to dwell.

    Springtime — behold uncountable
    brilliant blossoms miraculously
    sprouting on bare branches.

    I stand in the rain and
    hold up my hands.

    Summer — colorful fruits
    ripen in the golden sun.

    Their sweet juices drip
    down my chin.

    Autumn – withering leaves
    scatter and decay across
    the cooling forest floor.

    I ponder the impermanence
    of all my cherished images.

    Winter — descending silently
    from a hovering sky, I alight on
    this world like a snowflake and melt
    back into myself, energy returns
    to its root, and everything
    rests in peace.

    Throughout the seasons
    one image follows another in the
    alternating play of birth, life, and death.

    Although I freely share in all of it,
    I am also its silent witness, and beyond
    even that, where no image can ever reach,
    nor holy text convey, suffice it to say:

    I Am.

  5. marcel says:

    Thanks Brother! This reminds me I need to revisit the translation and add some “feel” to it 🙂

    Yes grasping and rejecting as habitual reactions, reminds me of the ancient fear of the world, even that fear of the known world was a better option then the fear of the unknown.
    But on taking a good look, I saw that what I called the world was merely a superimposition of mind making it my private distorted version world, fear itself is something alien to me, and yet we grasp at it as if its ours, it’s fascinating, but wonderful indeed when we discover “non-dwelling”, now all is ever fresh and open, no more desire to attribute it to anyone in particular, it’s enough to know that I am, and this phone call, this primoridal message in each of us the same.

    Thanks again for the wonderful poem!

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Beautifully said, Brother! Indeed, non-dwelling is bliss — it cuts through the noise and reveals the potent silence of our own true nature. It is the antidote to hope and fear, grasping and avoidance. It is the essence of true compassion in action, because it frees attention from the self-obsession, rendering it available to life and relationship. It is the gift that never ceases giving. It depends on no religion or philosophy, answers to no messiah, master, or guru, and requires no initiation or special rituals or rites.


  6. marcel says:

    Wonderfully said Brother, thank you and Blessings!

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “The natural mind is without knowing or not-knowing; happiness or anguish.
    Bliss arises from this totally relaxed state.”

    ~Chogyal Namkhai Norbu

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “Unless Knowledge dies, Ignorance does not die. Knowledge and Ignorance are Siamese twins born of Illusion. They are both born, and both die, at the same time.”

    ~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    “In this luminous unknowing the complications of so called life are resolved and replaced by the single body of life with all its rising and falling, its arms, feet, computers, trees, buildings, births, deaths, noses, feet, sexing, singing, cancer, car crashes, intestines and hair … a single body of empty awareness. What a humor, and for so long I wanted to know and all along what I wanted to know was to be found in the negation of all knowing.

    I am not embarrassed by my utter lack of knowledge. I am not some sort of knower. I am an utter ignoramus; you just can’t get stupider. I have looked and cannot find enough separation from any ‘thing’ to know what ‘it’ is let alone what it is. And in this realization of non-separation the ‘knower’ has disappeared along with alienation. That odd separation between awareness and appearance simply vanishes and a with it the complications and bullshit of partial knowing ….. bits and pieces like ‘birth’, ‘death’, ‘subject’, ‘object’, ‘other’ gone and in their place a simplicity of spontaneous immediacy.

    If you negate all that is not the absolute reality then what is left is directly understood to be the real and this real turns out to include every ‘thing’ you negated but now resurrected as unutterable mystery. Things become meanings not knowledge. Alienation of ‘a knower’ becomes intimacy. Certainly this body will fall away, a hair falls off the arm of this body but the body does not grieve. In unknowing awareness appearance has crossed the horizon line of birth and death.

    ~Traktung Khepa

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    “As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw.”

    ~Shunryu Suzuki

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “Only two kinds of people can attain to Self-knowledge , those whose minds are not encumbered at all with learning, that is to say, not overcrowded with thoughts borrowed from others , and those who, after studying all the scriptures and sciences, have come to realize that they know nothing.”

    ~Ramakrishna Paramhansa

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    Not-knowing isn’t the lack of knowledge; it is the natural foundation on which knowledge rests and dissolves.

    ~Ha Chi Ming

  13. “What remains when all grasping falls away is pure aware spaciousness, the motionless timeless background. It is our true nature — prior to, during, and after thoughts, memories, sensations, perceptions, and all transient self-images arise and dissolve. It is here where we can come to rest, in this ineffable stillness. The only “inner voice” now is silence. ”


  14. Bob OHearn says:

    Having never left the house you are asking for the way home. Get rid of wrong ideas, that is all. Collecting right ideas also will take you nowhere. Just cease imagining.


  15. Bob OHearn says:

    “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.”

    – Pema Chodron

  16. Bob OHearn says:

    if you are holding something,
    if you make something,
    if you are attached to something,
    then your mind mirror is dirty,
    and it does not reflect clearly.
    if your mind is clear, there is nothing in it.
    everything is reflected, just as it is.
    when red comes, red;
    when white comes, white.
    if somebody is happy, i am happy,
    if somebody is sad, i am sad.
    this mind is complete freedom, no hindrance.
    put down I-my-me and don’t make anything,
    don’t hold anything, don’t attach to anything.
    only go straight ahead.
    don’t know.

    ~ seung sahn sa-nim

  17. Bob OHearn says:

    Bahiya Sutta, The End of Suffering

    “In the seen, there is only the seen, in the heard, there is only the heard, in the sensed, there is only the sensed, in the cognized, there is only the cognized. Thus you should see that indeed there is no thing here; this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself. Since, Bahiya, there is for you in the seen, only the seen, in the heard, only the heard, in the sensed, only the sensed, in the cognized, only the cognized, and you see that there is no thing here, you will therefore see that indeed there is no thing there. As you see that there is no thing there, you will see that you are therefore located neither in the world of this, nor in the world of that, nor in any place betwixt the two. This alone is the end of suffering.”

  18. Bob OHearn says:

    I think of beginner’s mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. “I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?” Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgment, just asking “What is it?”

  19. Bob OHearn says:

    Truth can only come to the mind that is empty of the known. It comes in a state in which the known is absent, not functioning. The mind is the warehouse of the known, the residue of the known; for the mind to be in that state in which the unknown comes into being, it must be aware of itself, of its previous experiences, the conscious as well as the unconscious, of its responses, reactions, and structure. When there is complete self-knowledge, then there is the ending of the known, then the mind is completely empty of the known. It is only then that truth can come to you uninvited. Truth does not belong to you or to me. You cannot worship it. The moment it is known, it is unreal. The symbol is not real, the image is not real; but when there is the understanding of self, the cessation of self, then eternity comes into being.

    ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

  20. Bob OHearn says:

    “The godhead is never the object of its own knowledge, just as a knife doesn’t cut itself, fire doesn’t burn itself, light doesn’t illumine itself. It’s always an endless mystery to itself. ‘I don’t know’. And this ‘I don’t know’, uttered in the infinite interior of the spirit, this ‘I don’t know’, is the same thing as ‘I love’, ‘I let go’, ‘I don’t try to force or control’. It’s the same thing as humility. And so the Upanishads say, ‘If you think that you understand Brahman, you do not understand. You have yet to be instructed further. If you know that you do not understand, then you truly understand, for the Brahman is unknown to those who know it, and known to those who know it not’.”

    ~Alan Watts

  21. Bob OHearn says:–36586

    The field of psychology was brought to an immediate halt this week as disillusioned and weary practitioners of the discipline reportedly concluded that the mind could never possibly hope to study itself.

    Abandoning more than a century of clinical research, theoretical developments, and observational studies, psychologists worldwide announced that their entire professional lives had been utterly worthless, as the human brain could never comprehend its own workings, let alone understand its own understanding.

  22. Bob OHearn says:

    “The natural state is a non-state of not-knowing, non-concluding. When there is knowing, there is a state. But your real nature is not-knowing. It is a total absence of all that you think you are, which is all that you are not. In this total absence of what you are not, there is presence. But this presence is not yours. It is the presence of all living beings.”

    ~Jean Klein

  23. Pingback: The Conscious Process – Bob O’Hearn | Creative by Nature

  24. Bob OHearn says:

    All that you are attached to, all that you Love,
    all that you know, someday will be gone.
    Knowing this, and that the world is your mind
    which you create, play in, and suffer from,
    is known as discrimination.

    Discriminate between the real and the unreal.
    The known is unreal and will come and go
    so stay with the Unknown, the Unchanging Truth.
    All which appears and disappears is not real,
    and no nectar will come from it so don’t cling to it,
    and once you let go do not turn back to it.

    Stay as Eternity in your own Being.


  25. jamiem333 says:

    What an amazing piece! And the comments section; What a great way to start the day. Thank you Bob ❤️

  26. Happy says:

    How can one subscribe to this blog via email so as to get notified whenever an article is posted.

  27. Nonetheless, it’s very important to know what you have available advance which means
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  28. Bob OHearn says:


    “How lovely it is listening to the rain! … Is there anything outside of this? It seems that nothing else needs to be said or done while listening to raindrops gently tapping on rooftops and windowpanes.

    People hearing me say this frequently ask, “Is this really all there is—just listening to the rain?… Is that what meditation at Springwater is all about—just listening to birds and raindrops? Is it really all, or is there something more?”…

    It isn’t the content of the listening (such as birdcalls) that matters, but rather it’s the quality. Likewise in seeing, it is not what is seen that is of importance but the amazing fact that in the wholeness of seeing, the seer may disappear altogether! Do you see what I mean? In complete seeing and hearing the “me” is no longer the driving center, creating a dualistic world. Instead of the experience of “me” and the flower or me and the birdsong, there is just the wholeness of what is heard and seen (touched and tasted)—too marvelous to describe in words: it is the ending of separation! …

    There is a physical difference in this bodymind when there is openness, hereness, nowness…When the deeply habitual self-referencing—the comparing whatever is perceived in others to “my” performance, “my” idea, “my” accomplishments—begins to slow down and clear the space for simple awareness, a new way of seeing and hearing unfolds. Everything seems to have changed, yet nothing has really changed, except that all of oneself is open, receptive, present, and truly loving. This cannot be practiced—it springs into life as whole and complete being.

    Wisdom, lovingness, and compassion come with abeyance of the ego, the “me.” …our habitually conditioned way of thinking about ourselves, and together with that the emoting. Thinking, “I’m no good,” or “I’m not as good as others”—this mobilizes a flood of emotions, stress, and tension, whereas a slowing down of this way of thinking about myself (with no self in operation) calms down emotions, stress, and frustration. Test it! Test it out!

    Nothing more needs to happen except—to see clearly! That has its own amazingly gentle and wise action. It can be totally trusted…

    So why not discover that source of goodness and well-being within us? It does not depend on other people telling us what we are. It depends on nothing. It’s just in-touch-ness with the source of all living and dying, which is totally trustworthy!

    Of course, I can hear some of you say, “I don’t have contact with that source. Can you tell me how I can get it, establish it, and keep it?” And the response is, “Always start from not-knowing. Don’t start from knowing.”

    Can we start from the depth of not-knowing—the womb of darkness that is the source of living and dying? It opens eyes and ears. If I do not know, then I am open to what is going on, maybe hearing something never heard before and seeing something never seen before simply because I am here without knowing. Amazing silence that does not know.”

    —Toni Packer’s last words in the last chapter of her last book, The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing.

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