Not Knowing


I write this, humbled, having failed in my commitment to weekly posts. I hope to make them up to you this week, and share everything I’ve been learning in the whirlwind that has been the past few weeks.

One thing that has made writing difficult recently is that I am reading Kathryn Schulz’ book Being Wrong. It’s made me hesitant to be certain of anything I might want to recommend to others, or even for myself. It’s made me wonder about things I have ever recommended to anyone in the past. It leaves me wanting to be more thoughtful about the way I talk about things, and reconsidering the purpose and value of everything I share.

“Our sense of certainty is kindled by the feeling of knowing – that inner sensation that something just is…” and we, by virtue of the need for reference points to function as human beings, cannot ever believe that our knowing does not match up to reality. There is the logical necessity, captured by what she calls the Cuz It’s True Constraint, of thinking that our beliefs are grounded in the facts, not to mention the egoic and socially constructed aversions to wrongness and error that equate it with incompetence at best or evil, at worst. Many experiments have been conducted to test this rule (actually called the First Person Constraint on Doxastic Explanation) and the descriptions of the results are mindblowing. I highly recommend the book, or at least watch the TED talk.

In Being Wrong, Schulz convincingly explains why knowledge is “a bankrupt category and that the feeling of knowing is not a reliable indicator of accuracy.” I’ll be getting to the hopeful parts of the book soon in my reading, that explain how uncertainty and being wrong is intimately connected to creativity, imagination, and connection.

I have to admit, that I, in theory, already had the understanding of the lack of an absolute truth before reading this book, and recent political and world events have further challenged my  understanding and created a lot of discomfort. This book is ripping away any last vestiges of sacred ground of ‘knowing’ I have been operating from. I have to admit that it’s possible that everything I think I know or will ever think I know, is likely to sooner or later be shifted or changed or abandoned as just plain wrong.

One of the most recent examples of this is having to do with something called exposure therapy. In my professional career I first thought it was good logical theory, then came to believe it was stupid, cruel and retraumatizing practice, and now in a recent training, it’s been reframed and I’m learning ways to tailor it that could make it incredibly effective and powerful tool. I am at once incredulous and sheepishly curious. How can something I was so certainly against, be actually valuable? Can anything ever be certain again?

Upon this new discovery, I notice the drama queen that is egoic consciousness having a fit and wanting to say, “Screw it, then. If nothing is real, who cares? What’s the point of doing anything, then, if I can’t know anything for certain, and it’s probably going to be wrong and embarrass me later? How can I ever know the right way to help anyone?”

And there’s another part, the small still voice, that says, “You do the best you can. Hold all of your beliefs lightly. Be gentle with others and yourself, and never assume you really know. Be with yourself and others in appreciating every moment of the journey exactly as it is.” And the more I contemplate this way of being, the more I can feel the softening of my armor, and the greater ease toward self and the world that feels like the inevitable result. If I can never know, then everything becomes possible – a wide open world of wonder.

It’s interesting how we always think we know – the way I thought I knew what it means to rest in groundlessness, free of assumption or the constraints of conceptualization – and then discover what it really means, after the rug is pulled out from under me. I rest in the great relief of this new understanding, and try to hold it lightly, knowing there will eventually be another, wider understanding that makes this one later seem rudimentary and obtuse.

For now, I will enjoy this new experience of gentleness, of tenderness, of sudden softness toward everything, and both notice how long my heart has yearned for this understanding, and marvel at the strange and wonderful way it was finally revealed.

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a personal coach and licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, direct pointing, awareness skills education, and meditation instruction.
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