Saturday, August 12, 2017

Embracing Uncertainty

"Darkness and Light"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

It’s “Back to School” season out here in the region where we live and I’ve been thinking about the “almost ludicrous” way in which we have come to envision the process of education in our culture. We imagine students sitting at desks opening up their brains for teachers to pour knowledge and information into them. We often think about the educational process as an “acquisition of knowledge” and the more “schooling” one gets, the more knowledge one acquires. The ultimate educational goal, of course, is to acquire enough knowledge so as to become an expert in your field.

But of course there is a serious drawback for anyone who seeks to become an “expert” in any field. In fact, the Zen masters teach that the goal of wisdom is not to become an expert but rather to become a beginner, to develop a “beginner’s mind," never limited by a mind full of existing answers but always open to explore many questions:

If your mind is empty it is always ready for anything.
In the beginners mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s mind there are few

This “Back to School” season is probably a good time to rethink what education is ultimately all about. The more you learn and know should lead you to a deeper wisdom about just how much you don’t know and how much more there is to learn about everything in life.

I recall an article in the New York Times about a new trend in some medical schools that are now teaching prospective doctors about the vale of uncertainty in their profession. In fact, many schools now offer a course called “An Introduction to Ignorance” required of all incoming med students. The course is designed to help students realize that, while they may think they are in school to learn all there is to know about the human body, the opposite is probably true. Medicine, like all scientific knowledge is quite limited and filled with more questions than answers.  When you learn to embrace and value uncertainty you see these questions not as roadblocks but as doorways to further exploration.

I enthusiastically read a brief description of this course in “ignorance” that describes the practice of medicine as:

..feeling around in dark rooms,
bumping into unidentifiable things,
looking for barely perceptible phantoms.

As I see it, the process of all “education” (regardless of the field of inquiry) necessarily involves  “feeling around in dark rooms” and “embracing uncertainty” might well be be a highly cherished virtue in any school that is doing what it is supposed to be doing.

It also seems somewhat odd to me that while some “medical schools” are moving toward helping their students to foster a “beginner’s mind,”  many religious people nowadays seem to be striving for a greater degree of “expertise” in their spiritual journeys. In this age where there seems to be so much chaos in the world, many religious people seem to be clinging to their tried and true, sure and certain answers about who God is and what God expects.

And yet, “God” is the ultimate mystery. In fact there is nothing about “God” that can ever be figured out, never any clear-cut, immutable answers.  “God” is the mysterious transcendence that cannot even be named let alone known or defined.

Personally I think every church, temple or mosque along with every seminary and school of religion in the country should follow the example of the various schools of medicine and offer people a course about the value of “embracing uncertainty” on the spiritual quest:  “An Introduction to Ignorance.”

People sometimes feel as if they have failed when their quest for God leaves them with more questions than answers and perhaps even doubts about what they already know. I say they have progressed into the next phase of their journey. They are growing into a “beginner’s mind,” in which there are many possibilities.

Many centuries ago, St. John of the Cross described the spiritual quest in this way:

If a person wants to be sure of the road he treads on,
he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.

These words of Saint John may well be a great motto and a guiding mantra for this “Back to School” season.

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