What do we really know? We have opinions about all kinds of things: politics, other people, ourselves, the weather, global warming, China. For many of us, though, it can be hard to admit to ourselves that we really don’t know much. We believe a lot of things. We think a lot of things. We don’t know a lot of things.
We’re often afraid to admit to others that we simply don’t know. We protect our ego structure by defending it when we feel that one of our opinions has been attacked. We often don’t consider whether that opinion was relevant in the first place, whether we should have embraced it with such open arms. We live in our own bubble in which so many untrue things are considered true.
Many people live in a bubble of religion. God, whom they’ve likely never heard from or seen, is believed to exist on faith, meaning without evidence. Any religious or mystical experiences they have are attributed to God. Other possible reasons for those experiences are given little thought.
There are bubbles of politics as well, where the beliefs and opinions are held so tightly and dogmatically that it’s impossible for reality to get through. There is so much that is not known in life, yet we desperately want to cling to our ideas about everything. We can’t abide not knowing. We can’t admit to ourselves and others: “I don’t know.”
So much of human life is uncertain and shrouded in mystery. If we’re not able to be honest with ourselves about what it is possible to know, from our subjective, human perspective, we will live a life of persistent delusion. And in that delusion is quite a bit of suffering, because we chase phantoms like God or salvation, or even enlightenment. We fail to investigate, and as J. Krishnamurti said, be a light unto ourselves.
Too often we simply believe what other people tell us is true without questioning it, without really getting honest with ourselves about what we know and whether something is just hearsay or the truth in our experience. To investigate deeply requires a certain kind of humility and openness. We don’t come to premature conclusions, but instead live the questions, as Rilke said. Live the questions, and at some point, maybe, an answer comes, but until then, we are honest with ourselves about what is known and unknown.
I don’t think true wisdom can be known without this humility and openness to question everything. So then, how do we live? Lightly, holding our opinions loosely, or maybe not at all. There’s no need to have an opinion about everything. It is only tradition that we do, in order to have something to talk about with each other. But there’s no need for it. If we have strong opinions, it’s OK to state those and acknowledge them, but there’s no reason to make idols out of them. They’re not worth defending. Maybe analyzing in conversation, but not defending.
Some things, however, are knowable to a great degree, and are much less matters of opinion than others. For instance, if the sky is blue today, it’s simply blue. It’s not a matter of opinion. If there are two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen in a single water molecule, that simply is what it is. We know it from observation, from the collective minds of generations studying the chemical makeup of water.
There is much less certainty, for instance, about who are are, why we’re here in the first place, how to find meaning, etc. We may have strong opinions on these matters, but we must be honest with ourselves about the fact that they are just that: opinions.
Only with an attitude of openness and humility can we cultivate true understanding and wisdom in our lives. We can listen to the words of others, and find resonance with them, but let us be our own guides, and reach our own conclusions in their due time.
Let us not jump prematurely into the safety we find in knowing, but allow the questions to sit with us as questions, acknowledging our limitations, and being open to whatever we find, however challenging or surprising. Thus we learn the wisdom of not knowing, and find ourselves in alignment with the truth of our own experience.