Podcast transcript 0021: Not knowing

Link to podcast episode.


Over the past two years or so, I’ve developed a meditation practice and have spent a lot of time sitting. Now most of the methods and techniques that have benefited me, and some of the people I learn with, come from Buddhist traditions, and increasingly that’s put me into a weird and totally self-imposed position. You see, I found I had a lot of pride in thinking of myself as a humanist, somebody who doesn’t have a lot of time for superstition or ghostly stuff. I’ve held the position that the world is busted, but not for any particular reason, and that we — I’m talking the big “we”, humanity — have the opportunity and the resources to make it a wonderful place if we can get our act together.

This process of learning from and engaging in a religious tradition felt like a huge step backward for me. I knew this feeling wasn’t correct, I knew it wasn’t very kind, but I couldn’t quite tell what do with it. Was I strip-mining a beautiful religion for parts? If that’s what I was doing, was that OK? Surely the world would be better off if we finally got rid of religion, but here I was learning from one – and learning things that made my life demonstrably better. Well, what about the cultural angle? Is it cultural appropriation to pick up these books and practice from them and keep the parts that make sense to me, ignoring the rest?

I didn’t know.

And what I’ve increasingly come to discover is that it’s good to not know, or more precisely, it’s good to not pretend to know.

I see this with clients, when engaging in the uncertainty that can come with changing processes or undertaking a lean transformation. Nobody ever got in trouble for saying “yes” (at least at the time they said it). Some people figure out how to say “no”, and those people tend to be more effective. But it takes a lot of backbone for somebody to answer questions like “how will this affect our jobs?” or “will this change make things better or worse?” or “We’re already running way behind, will this help us catch up?” — to answer some of those questions with the real answer, which is often: “I don’t know.”

Making it OK to not know the answer, and to try to discover the answer together, is a basic expression of lean and continuous improvement principles. When I coach and otherwise help people through continuous improvement activities, it’s in large part about exploring and being OK with uncertainty, first by understanding it as much as we can, and then by using it to make things work better.

But for some reason I wasn’t able to connect that insight with the part of my life that is oriented around meditation and introspection. And I recently read a book that made the connection for me between the value of saying “I don’t know” to complex questions in complex workplaces and the value of agnosticism more generally. The book is called “Buddhism Without Beliefs”, by a teacher called Stephen Batchelor, and I’d like to share a short passage with you now. In this passage, Batchelor mentions the 19th century British biologist T. H. Huxley. If you’ve encountered Huxley before, it might have been associated with his nickname “Darwin’s bulldog.” 

OK, here’s Batchelor in “Buddhism Without Beliefs”:

The force of the term “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” … For T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as: “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it the “agnostic faith.” 

First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (called “dharma practice”) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (called “Buddhism”) much in the same way that the scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”

And it’s Brian again. This passage – and indeed the entire short book – gave me a lot of comfort. Agnosticism – the respite that comes from following one’s reason as far as it’ll take you, but no farther, and not worrying about it overmuch – is a way of thinking that makes me want to get moving and keep moving and learning and getting better.

So itt’s good to know. It’s OK to not know. And it’s great to want to find out, and to rest when you’ve discovered as much as you can.

Knowing, not knowing, and being curious about the rest. This works for understanding the systems we use every day. It works for understanding ourselves.

Well, that’s what I know about this topic. What’d I miss?

Thanks. Talk to you again soon.