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  • Evan Heymann

I Need to See That I Do Not Know


I remember, at the age of 17, feeling deeply comforted to finally discover that there was someone, or some group, who understood what I felt so alone in sensing – that the way people speak with one another, especially when the stakes are high, simply does not work. 


Double face image

My father had handed me a tattered copy of P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, widely considered the definitive explication of Gurdjieff’s ideas and, in those beginning chapters, I read his diagnosis: while people implicitly believe that they understand one another and that they speak the same language, they do not. And furthermore, that as we ordinarily are, we cannot.  Even as a young boy, I had been interested in this strange phenomenon, at one point drawing a crude diagram of a disagreement I’d overheard from the next room. In the middle was a circle which must have represented the “issue at hand,” and from the combatants on either side there proceeded arrows, both of which flew wildly past the target. 


... while people implicitly believe that they understand one another and that they speak the same language, they do not. And furthermore, that as we ordinarily are, we cannot. 

Along the same line, Gurdjieff gives as an illustration the word man. Every person, he says, unwittingly attaches to this word his or her own special, idiosyncratic meaning. And while there is, of course, enough overlap of ideas and associations to distinguish a man from a camel, there is not sufficient precision here to use this signifier in the service of meaningfully complex or consequential matters. The naturalist, the spiritualist, the lawyer, the doctor, and you and I, Gurdjieff says, unconsciously conceive of man in subtly but fundamentally different ways. And so from the outset we are primed for misunderstanding.


In Gurdjieff’s view, the problem of language and communication is part of the bottleneck in our developmental path; it is both a cause of our confusion and a symptom of our collective insanity. But the evolution of man’s consciousness seems so remote from our daily struggles. In fact, it may be that the squeeze and desperation of our moment affords us almost no space in which to sense our place in the larger scale. Either way though -- whether by inspiration from above or through a grounded sense of duty to our fellow man -- we know we are called to change. To at least try. For who will deny that the quality of public discourse, and indeed even private discourse, degrades by the day? Who will deny the role this plays in our shared sense of accelerating toward calamity? And who will deny that if we wish to solve our most pressing problems, we need a new way of communicating – indeed a new way of being? 


... whether by inspiration from above or through a grounded sense of duty to our fellow man, we know we are called to change.

But not to despair. As always with the Gurdjieff teaching, it seems, a dire pronouncement yields to an opening. We can try something.  


Here I take inspiration from the work of Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan, educator and author of A Sense of Wonder When I Do Not Know, a treatise on education that champions cultivating in children a state of not knowing, the open and receptive state of wonder. (This, of course, being completely antithetical to the typical experience of children in our public schools today, which tends only to recognize not knowing as a temporary embarrassment on the way to final assuredness.) 


It was during my own time as an educator – a high school English teacher in schools near Boston – where I facilitated experiments in this direction, friction against the crush of right answers, right thoughts, and intellectual cul de sacs. On a chosen day, I would begin class by writing the word cat on the board and drawing a large circle around it. I’d tell the class we’d be running an important experiment, and ask, "Does anyone know what this word means?” Of course, they knew I was up to something, but invariably some brave and exasperated soul would give a confident, “Yes.”


“Ok, great,” I’d say. I’d feign starting to write something on the board, and then take a dramatic pause. “Wait. Are you sure you know what that word means? Exactly what it stands for and what it doesn't?” 


There was always at this moment a subtle shift in the room, as some students – of course, each in their own way – seemed to have a brief encounter with the unknown. 


Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula

But what happens, precisely, to account for this sense of shift? It is a different sensation. Or, perhaps more exactly, the beginning of sensation. A facile “I know,” for me at least, is a rote thought; however, when I’m faced with the reality that I might not know, I experience a new sense of gravity in my body. It drops, lowers from my head to a vague place in my torso –  and now I am a little bit more here. 


A facile “I know" is a rote thought; however, when I’m faced with the reality that I might not know, I experience a new sense of gravity in my body.

The activity went on. I projected images superimposed over the circle, the progression of which was intended to cast ever more doubt onto the belief that one really could know what a cat is: first a house-cat; then a minimalist line-drawing of one; a jazz-man; and, of course, the 55 million year-old Miacis, precursor to the feline, which is definitely ambiguous. 


We had seen the borders dissolve, so with the students’ assent, I would then erase the solid line which had enclosed cat, replacing it with a sparse, perforated line. 


While the explicit lesson here was to demonstrate the illusory nature of the boundaries around words – and surely this: a deep realization – I’ve come to believe that the experience of not knowing is where the real gold lies. 


... when I do not know, I am open, and when I am open, I can see more clearly.

In fact, I believe it is precisely in this state -- the state when I do not know -- that a vital secret lies in plain sight: when I do not know, I am open, and when I am open, I can see more clearly. Here the paradoxes intrinsic in life can be embraced, embodied, and lived. I can see, for example, that I am not right and you are not wrong, and yet that this experience does not lead into a nihilistic relativism, but toward the wisdom and compassion so desperately needed to face our moment. But cat is a playful example. Are we ready to contend with the signifiers that comprise New York Times headlines, words that come freighted with life and death?


We need to practice, at least sometimes, the shift from head-centered assuredness – one that says, “I know” -- to a more whole-bodied state of not knowing, one that wordlessly waits, sees, and hears, knowing there is more, both to give and receive. 


Quick: Do we know what a human being is? Of course we do.  


And yet, no. In a deeper sense, we do not know. 


We need to practice, at least sometimes, the shift from head-centered assuredness – one that says, “I know” -- to a more whole-bodied state of not knowing, one that wordlessly waits, sees, and hears, knowing there is more, both to give and receive. 

Experiencing once again a movement of sensation from the head to somewhere lower, we can actually see that we do not know.  We can see that a word like human is a signifier for something we do not understand – ourselves: some thirty trillion cells, ever-changing, each of unknowable character – and just like words, nebulous, with indistinct boundaries, a swirl of energetic tributaries with histories and influences as immense and complex as the very cosmos of which we are perhaps just one particle. 


I need to see that I do not know. 







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