On Unknowing, by Pamela Travers

Travers in the role of Titania in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1924 (Wikipedia)

It is not ignorance. Rather, one could say, a particular process of cognition that has little or no use for words. It is part of our heritage at birth, the infant’s first primer. And the young child lives by it, gathering into its growing body and aboriginal heart a cosmography of wonder.

“The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown,” says Thomas Traherne of this period. “I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious gold; the gates were, at first, the end of the world.”

But soon the cluttering mind takes charge and obscures. Unknowing with information. For the ego, while presuming to ape what D.H. Lawrence called the “truth of truth,” is avid, rather, for the truth of fact, relevant or irrelevant, and swells up, bloated, like the frog in the fable, as it records its dossier, the story of its ego-life. It has a name, if not a meaning, for everything and dares without compunction at any moment or on any subject to declare: “I know!”

But what if, in a momentary lapse in its knowing, it should stumble upon Unknowing? On Jalal-uddin Rumi, for instance:

Sell you cleverness and buy bewilderment,
Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is

Or maybe it happens on a  passage in The Four Quartets.

What you do not know is the only thing
you know,
And what you own is what you do not own,
And where you are is where you are not,
Leading to a condition of complete
Costing not less than everything.

Will it have the courage, or even the wish, to pay the price? Throw overboard all the information that Unknowing does not need? Let go and set itself to listen so that the condition of simplicity may arise?

That is not the way of the mind though it is ready to make use of all the Unknowing that, over the aeons, has become manifest.

For instance, it is from Unknowing that all the myths, and, one may say, all religions issue forth and reveal themselves. Not invented but, as it were, summoned.

It is back into unknowing that the mind-stuff of all the burnt libraries of the world repair. Never a page left to turn, but what the spirit of man has once conceived it can conceive again. All that is lost is somewhere.

Destroy the world, you men of the atoms, and Unknowing will retain the pattern. “Trust that which belongs to the universe itself,” says the Tao, “From that there will be no escape.”

Unknowing, if one can be open and vulnerable, will take us down to the very deeps of knowing, not informing the mind but coursing through the whole body, artery and vein–provided one can thrust aside what the world calls common sense, that popular lumpen wisdom that prevents the emerging of the numinous.

Unknowing needs that a man be in a certain state of grace, playful, artless, inwardly aquitted of opinion, not at all as children are but rather as fools or saints.

One thinks of Ryokan of Zen, playing hide-and-seek with the village children, secreting himself behind a woodpile, monkish sleeves drawn over his head. The game was soon over and the players called home but Ryokan still stayed hidden and when found next morning by a brother monk who asked him what he was doing, an eye peeped out from under the sleeve.

“Hush! Don’t speak so loudly. The children will find me!” said Ryokan.

Or again, when thieves ransacked his house, Ryokan was at pains to thank them for leaving him the moon at the window.

We, too, in the West, have our quota of fools–Kasperle, walking forever through the world, his old grandmother on his back, the crocodile always at his heel, the abyss always before him. He lives with danger, safely, like the Fool of the Tarot, that zero of the pack, the nought, the nothing what, when added to any other number, inevitable exalts it.

And we must not forget St. Francis who called the ass and the mouse his brothers and sang songs with the birds. Nor St. Catherine of Alexandria, the saint invoked by learned men, those mighty scholars who, being ignorant of the Unknowing, have need of such patronage.

And what about the fairy tales, diminutive kith and kin of the myths, in which, coming as they do from the same ancestral stock, Unknowers abound? Think of the third of those ubiquitous three brothers. He is always the simpleton, the one who, aware that he has little wit and needs help, is humble enough to accept advice from the frog, the dwarf, or the little old woman which the elder brothers have spurned. And help never fails to come to him from the cauldron of Unknowing, the treasure, the princess, the cup from the well of the Water of Life.

But it is not only story or in calendar that Unknowers are to be found.They appear among us in the streets and in the fields, their feet are upon the mountains–lunatics, lovers, and poets in their train; Blake seeing angels preening their wings in the trees, and singing songs on his deathbed; the Sufi camel-driver whose very toes cried “Allah!”; the centipede, who, when asked by the one-legged man “How do you manage all those legs?” replied “I do not manage them.”

Such as these are natural Unknowers. But now the question arises–how can anyone intentionally attract to himself an epithet so impressive? What will lead us to that condition of complete simplicity?

We cannot wipe the mind clean of its knowing, as one would wash a face, for, indeed, paradoxically, we need that knowing. It is an essential part of living and not to be despised. Only when the mind attempts to usurp the whole realm of consciousness, of which, after all, it is but a fragment, are the possibilities of discovering Unknowing overlaid and lost.

The world belongs to silence and stillness. Unknowing, itself being empty, can be approached only in moments of emptiness which the ego-mind mistakes for boredom and hastens to assuage that condition with ever more and more learning. To it the phrase “I do not know” is one of self-reproach.

But for one intent on seeking the Unknown, that “I do not know” is the door to it, the “Open Sesame” which to pronounce costs nothing less than everything. So, he drops from his busy awareness into the stillness whence life springs, into the void within him.

Only by such means can he come upon fullness, the fullness that the mind, with all its acumen, cannot even envisage. Thus, self offers itself to Self, as once Odin on the tree of Yggdrasil, and he knows without knowing whatever is useful to him–that there is manna in the wilderness, that the stone dances, and the rain it raineth every day.

Thus provided, such a one can lay himself down contentedly between the paws of the lion.♦

–Pamela Travers, “On Unknowing,” PARABOLA, Fall 1985, “The Body.”  This issue is available here.

By Pamela Travers

P.L. Travers was a consulting editor and contributor to Parabola since its inception in 1976. Her writings include the Mary Poppins series and What the Bee Knows (Arkana, 1993), and she has written extensively on myth and story. She died on April 23, 1996 at her home in London. Peace, dear friend.