A surprising question about the the future got me thinking about problems we can never answer through thought.
A Surprising Opportunity
The doorbell rang, and when I went to satisfy my curiosity, a pair of gentlemen introduced themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They asked if they could leave a pamphlet with me that included information about their website.
I was scheduled to lead a discussion on the fifth of Frank Ostaseski’s Five Invitations, “Cultivate Don’t Know Mind,” the following week. Frank writes, “Don’t know mind is one characterized by curiosity, surprise, and wonder. It is receptive, ready to meet whatever shows up as it is.”
I was surprised by the opportunity to try this out, curious about what the pamphlet said, and wondered why it was important to these two men.
How Do You View the Future?
The pamphlet asked, “How do you view the future?”
I confessed that I make predictions with an appalling error rate. Last Thursday, for example, I had RSVP’d a Meetup for 7:30 p.m. that was 1.6 miles from my house. I had planned to walk, but in the morning the air remained smoky due to several local forest fires. The unhealthy air advisory was in effect until noon. It had been extended from noon Wednesday.
Late Thursday afternoon, I went outside and the air was still smoky, so I cancelled my RSVP. There was a wait list for the event, so I wanted someone willing to brave the smoke to have their chance.
Within hours, the sky had cleared.
With the caveat that I don’t believe my own predictions, I looked at the possible answers for the pamphlet’s question.
Will Our Future World Stay the Same?
I felt confident enough to eliminate the first of three possible answers.
At the moment, the world is constantly changing, so even if it stopped changing in the future, that would be a change. I rejected the option that our world would stay the same.
Will Our Future World Get Worse or Get Better?
Both gentlemen said that they thought things would get worse and offered the news as evidence.
I repeated a sentiment by On Being host Krista Tippett: “Journalism, the way it came down to us from the 20th century, is absolutely focused, utterly and completely, on what is catastrophic, corrupt, and failing. It’s not the whole story of us.”
Then there’s the challenge of determining what changes are for the better and which are for the worse.
The Perspective of the Chinese Farmer
British philosopher Alan Watts once told a traditional story about a Chinese farmer.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The farmer steadfastly refrained from thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage, because one never knows… In fact we never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune, we only know our ever-changing reactions to ever-changing events.
A Real World Koan
The concept of “don’t know mind” comes from the world of Zen. It’s a paradoxical anecdote or riddle used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke greater insight into the nature of reality.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
“When you can do nothing, what can you do?”
When it comes to the pamphlet question, we might ask, “What is always coming, but never arrives?”
The Eternal Now
“Eternity isn’t some later time,” said Joseph Campbell on the PBS TV series The Power of Myth. “Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out…the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.”
Thinking Versus Understanding
Apart from compulsive thinking about our past and future causing depression, it limits our ability to understand the present.
There’s a world of difference between what we think and what we know.
As Alan Watts put it, “You can only think of one thing at a time. But that’s too slow for understanding anything at all. Much too slow. And our sensory input is much more than any kind of one thing at a time. And we respond with a certain aspect of our minds to the total sensory input that’s coming in, only we’re not consciously aware of it.”
“Trying to understand the world purely by thinking about it is as clumsy a process as trying to drink the Pacific Ocean out of a pint beer mug.”
How to View the Present
While we have the luxury of thinking about the future, we have to live in the present.
But if we don’t know what to do, Watts argues, it’s important to know how to observe: not just what’s happening in our outer world, but in our inner world as well. We can learn to view our ever-changing thoughts, emotions, and fears as if they were clouds passing overhead.
“We observe life until we can transform ourselves into it,” said Watts. “We stop thinking and codifying life, and finally, we live it.”
Ten Minute Exercise
Alan Watts leads a ten minute guided exercise on YouTube to help Awaken the Mind and reduce ruminative thinking.
Here’s a cheat sheet:
1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Listen to the general hum and buzz of the world as if you were listening to music, without trying to identify or judge any particular sound.
5. Notice that you identify the sounds and continue to think automatically.
6. Listen to those thoughts as if they were part of the overall noise of the world.
7. Notice that both the outer sounds and inner thoughts are just happening.
8. While you are listening, notice that you are also breathing.
9. Whether you think about your breath or not, it still happens.
10. Notice that without making any effort you can breathe more and more deeply.
11. Be entirely content to be aware of what is happening.
12. When the timer sounds, take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel before continuing with your day.