The Curiosity of Not Knowing
I was delighted when Therese asked me to write a guest post. I have long admired the matching of her photography talents with her thoughtful reflections on her photos. She suggested that I link one of her photos to some aspect of my blog.
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The reason I picked it is that this photo drives me crazy! When I first saw it in her post titled Everything is Interesting When Viewed from the Right Angle, I couldn’t figure out what it was. My mind tried out all sorts of ideas, but nothing clicked into place. I felt uneasy and even a bit insecure, thinking everyone but me would be able to identify it. Even after she told her readers what it was, I still couldn’t “see” it, and that made me even more agitated.
We’ve all heard that nature abhors a vacuum. Our minds, I think, abhor not knowing. Most of us have had the experience of mis-identifying something that we see or hear. For example, one time I heard a noise in the distance that I immediately classified as a train, but a few seconds later I heard more clearly that it was a dog barking. How on earth did my mind register train when a barking dog doesn’t sound anything like a train?! The story is told of the man who sat up all night terrified of the snake sleeping in the corner, only to see with the dawn’s light that it was a coiled rope. At least a rope is more like a snake than dog barking is like a train.
Our minds are not comfortable just resting in not knowing. Any answer seems better than no answer. Our minds would rather grasp quickly at a wild guess, and then correct the perception when more information becomes available. I wonder why that is. Why is pausing in uncertainty so terrifying that we would rather be ridiculous than unsure? What happens in that nanosecond between the stimulus and the attachment of a label? It must seem a dark and scary place for our brains to want to move through it so quickly.
In mindfulness training, that nanosecond is called the gap. In A Course in Miracles, it’s called the holy instant. An entire universe of possibility is there, an eternity of wonder. The price of admission? Tolerating the groundlessness of uncertainty.
How do we do that? In her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron suggests becoming curious, curious about whatever our experience is. Maybe we feel confused, angry, afraid, happy, excited, bored. Before we start putting labels on our experience, before we start judging it, before we start telling ourselves stories about it, we can pause, perhaps just long enough to take a breath, and pay attention with open interest and curiosity.
So take another look at that photo. If you look at it without trying to label it, without trying to figure it out, what do you see?
Therese is right. Everything is interesting if we pause and look with an open mind.