The Cloud of Unknowing and the Quest for Answers


My great friend Ken Moselle was, and still is, I suppose, very fond of the following poem:

Fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly,
Man gotta ask himself why, why why?

Fish gotta rest, bird gotta land,
Man gotta tell himself he understand.

“Dad,” said the boy in ancient Greece, “what is that blazing orb in the sky?’

“Why son, that’s Apollo’s fiery chariot.”

That’s an answer. It just shuts people up.

In my opinion the greatest barrier to knowledge is thinking that you know, and I am quite sure that I am not alone in holding this view. I think The Apology of Socrates treats this theme far better than I could and I recommend it as a great read.

So thinking that we know is a barrier to wisdom and understanding. So now I think the second greatest barrier to wisdom and understanding — and to eternal, life-affirming joy — is the need to understand. The grasping, gotta go out and seek understanding point of view.

I think that rather than go out and seek knowledge, the fruit and nuts model, we should increase our capacity for understanding. Then I think the knowledge will come of its own accord. I think knowledge is kind of like rain, so rather than go out looking for it, it’s better to shape a vessel with the greatest possible capacity.

Ever leave a question open in your mind and go about your business for a day or two and come back to find it answered? I have. And how.

So this big long wind-up is to recommend a book called The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s kind of a meditation manual for monks and nuns written in the 14th Century. Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of Wikkipedia (Wikkipedia Rules!):

“Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love … and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.”

The author suggests to novices in meditation that they place the cloud of forgetting beneath them and the cloud of unknowing above them, and to experience love and joy. (I’m summarizing blithely here.) The book also reminds us how important this spiritual seeking (without seeking) is to the well-being of the universe. I happen to believe this also, but I cannot come up with any definite proof of the proposition.

For us who live in the world, I think this means stop seeking answers, especially simple ones. I think it suggests we should go out and experience: live and love and and observe and learn and enjoy — in short, do everyting except form conclusions, just like Inspector Maigret of the Police Judiciaire.

As George Kennan so aptly pointed out, “The truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse.”

I think we should get used to a world without clear answers, where we have to muddle along the best we can without any blinding bolts of insight from above. Or any fiery chariots.