The taboo against not knowing

Alan Watts wrote an excellent little book called The Book – On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. [Full text.]

And one of the sub-taboos here is the taboo against not knowing.

If others are like me, we know – at least somewhere – that we don’t know. I don’t really know anything. Any story is just that, a story.

I know that for several reasons. My stories about the world is different in kind from the world itself. They are overlays, interpretations, ways of helping me orient and function in the world. Others, including folks that seem reasonable and insightful, have different views from myself and each other. The views of others grow out of their own background and experiences, and that is the same for me as well. Reality often shows up differently from my stories, including stories that may have seemed accurate and true at some point. It seems that I can always find a grain of truth in the reversals of any story.

And maybe the most simple of all, I cannot know that any story is true even if the world seems to conform to it, others tells me it is true, my own stories tells me it is true, and it feels true. In spite of all of that, I cannot know it is true. Life can always show up differently, and often will.

With more peripheral and daily topics, it is sometimes easy to admit I don’t know, for instance when I am with others who admit they don’t know and there is a shared receptivity there. And sometimes it may be less easy, especially when I am caught up in taking a story as true. (Caught up in fear, reactivity, defending a view and identity as true, and so on.)

Yet there is also a whole group of stories that may be more hidden and less obvious to me, and the most basic story here is of a separate I. Through repeated investigation, it may sink in that I don’t know even here. What do I take myself to be in immediate experience? Is it content of experience? Does it come and go? Where is it located? What is it made up of? How does it show up in each of the sense fields? Is that really what I am?

As usual, this can co-exist nicely with conventional views. I know several things in an everyday and conventional sense, and make use of that knowledge in a practical way. Yet I can also recognize, through investigation, that I really don’t know anything. And I can bring that investigation into those areas where I take something as true, maybe even without noticing at first, including taking a me, doer or observer as what I am.


Initial outline…

  • taboo against not knowing
    • in our culture, pretend do know – sometimes even to ourselves

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