Juliana Cherston
Feb 10, 2020 · 4 min read
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Part 1: Introduction to ‘Don’t Know’ Mind in Zen

PhD life is filled with an infinity of ways to allocate time. To my great surprise, once per week for a few years now I have found myself dutifully powering down the oscilloscope, saving the MATLAB script, or cutting collaboration meetings short, all in order to catch weekly talks and sits at the local Zen chapter, where people gather to ask one question, in its most profound sense:

‘What is this?’

In response to this ultimate question, Zen offers a seemingly very straightforward answer. Simply put - ‘don’t know.’ But this ‘don’t know’ isn’t meant in an agnostic nor a defeatist sense — instead, it’s seen as a way to coax the mind into letting go of its habitual patterns, so we can see what our mind is up to before we start making assumptions about the world.

Step 1: Sit on a cushion, and begin to breathe

Step 2: On the in breath, Pose to yourself a key question: maybe some kind of emotion is churning in you and so you ask yourself — “What is this?”

Step 3: On the out breath, respond to your question with a drawn out “don’t know.”

Step 4: Watch your mind.

Part 2: So How Does ‘Don’t Know’ Square with a PhD Student’s Job To, You Know, Think a Bunch?

As a graduate student, there is a pure and sweet relief that comes from entering a place where ‘beginner’s mind’ is so coveted. It is a source of calm to escape the world of academia where there can be a constant pressure to demonstrate deep skill, as well as a pervasive anxiety that one does not know enough. Of course, graduate students are often steeped in ‘not knowing’ — it’s usually part of our job to define and then address unknown questions. But still, the basic skills and tools that are core to a grad student’s progress must be studied, known, known well, known better, known deeply…

The ‘before-thinking’ mind, as the intuitive mind is sometimes called in Zen, offers roots that plant you in the present and can calm bouts of out-of-control mental spirals, the likes of which seize the mind and tug it into vortices of superfluous anxiety episodes that ultimately lead nowhere. As a PhD student, my job (or ‘correct action’) in each moment has gradually becomes clearer. My center-of-mass drops, and I cannot be knocked around so easily.

In an intellectual context, the ‘don’t know’ mind can create space for approaching even a late-stage PhD project with the freshness and humility of a beginner. What follows is an honesty about where more learning is required, and sometimes even an ability to see new patterns emerge in a body of evolving research. Crucially, one might also cultivate the mental agility to make fine course corrections in response to newly emergent patterns in a body of work, rather than hold onto a direction too rigidly.

This is all to say — Zen acknowledges intellectually driven inquiry as a powerful tool of the mind. Go ahead, think ! The wisdom that Zen encourages is simply not to hold or attach to thinking and instead to perceive it as one tool among many — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching thinking.

Let go or be dragged.

After all, at present, ‘don’t know’ is the most honest answer to a lot of the big questions we have, and, wouldn’t you know it, also reveals itself as a gateway.

Part 3: Wrap Up — One Last Time, How does This All Work?

So once per week or so, I cycle over to the Zen center in order to hear exactly the same message every single time (with some variety in the messengers). It is a place where I am not only free but also actively encouraged to come in with a fresh and clear mind and with none of the ‘understanding’ that permeates grad school. I simply sit on a cushion and ask, on the in breath:

‘What is this?’

‘Who am I?’

‘What is my job in this moment?’

‘What shape is my mental state right now?’

And then answer any one of these questions on the out breath with: ‘don’t know’. This is literally the entire practice and at times it can bring such relief. when I step inside the Zen center, everything feels complete. I practice in order to discover how to bring this attitude to every moment.

What exists underneath our intellectual knowing? What colors or forms might you ascribe to your present mind without using words or discrete knowledge?

This path towards honest inquiry can be ferocious and meandering and unpredictable. Ultimately, many do discover that looking the monster in the eyes has a tendency to reduce suffering in the long run. They also say that glimpsing this form of wisdom is easy, but keeping it is hard. Much of the struggle is in learning how to return over and over.

In the Zen practice I follow, we say ‘put it all down, only go straight don’t know, try try try for ten thousand years nonstop, and save all beings from suffering’.

Zen&Intellect

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