The Yellow Brick Road of Not Knowing

I’m at my wisest when I am in a state of not-knowing. At those times, I experience myself as open to experiences of various sorts, such as to nature, to other people, and even to my horses, who represent zen to me. My experience is in soft focus and slow motion. What is happening has not happened before. What I have learned in the past and know intellectually is in suspension. Only when I reflect back on this state of not-knowing do I intellectualize my experience and gain knowledge. Perhaps knowledge is experience reflected upon and intellectualized.

Unfortunately, these states of not-knowing are rare. They require a sense of safety and trust, of relaxation and openness. If other people are involved, they have to be willing to engage themselves in the moment along with me and let go of rational thought and anxieties.

As I think about states of not-knowing, I realize there are various types. Some are a bit of nirvana while others are thrilling and sensual, while still others are gripping and suspenseful. There probably are other types as well, but three is enough for now. Sometimes the nirvana-like situations envelop me without my consent. For example, while driving a coastal highway in the west of Ireland, my consciousness shifted on its own. I was alight in the puffy pink clouds that arose above the coast. Or the time I was doing yoga and everything stopped except for the rainbow-colored waterfall that flowed within what I later learned was the chakra between my eyes. I knew nothing but that waterfall. Or the day I walked Third Beach in Newport, R.I., and experienced the unmediated joy that I was going to live after a operation for a tumor that could have been malignant. In each of these times, I was in what I would call heaven. I was wise during those moments. I was the unmediated me, with nothing between me and the experience of something I believe is mystical.

Being with my horses is zen. Nothing else exists but the rhythms between me and them—their huge eyes, soft breathing, and furry ears. Anxiety, the pressure of time, guilt based on actual or imaginary transgressions. These do not exist. Then I am wise.

I like the state of not-knowing when I’m with other people. This happens sometimes happens with friends. We talk, and we do things together, sometimes without talking. We are outside of our own concerns and anxieties, emotionally available to each other and out of the constraints of time.

I’ve also had this experience with lovers. The experience is like zen. During those times of not-knowing there’s a flow and a sense of being outside of time and of myself, soft and aloft. Even the sexual pull that arises between me and a lover is a form of wisdom. I give myself over to the experience which can be a highly emotional intense gratification, but wisdom all the same because these experiences have not happened before and they happen only in the moment. Reliving them is not the same as being in them.

Another form of not-knowing arises when I’m in the more formal roles of professor and researcher. When I work with students on their projects, I have to put myself in a state of not-knowing in order to understand what they want to do with their projects. When I get a sense of what they want, I can make suggestions about which yellow brick roads can get them to Emerald City. In other words, I have to start with not-knowing, get a sense of what they want, and then suggest how they can proceed, again not knowing if they will take me up on my suggestions. I am most unhelpful when I think I already know what they want. Role-based not-knowing has its own pleasures, but it is not the same as the transformative experiences of nirvana and zen that I have described.

A final state of not-knowing that is quite common in my life is the not-knowing I experience when I conduct research interviews. My research topic is violence and how persons cope with adversities. I also seek to identify and understand the belief systems that guide their thinking, emotions expressions, and actions. I know a lot in general about violence, human development, research methods, and myself. I know nothing about the person I am interviewing. Being in a state of not-knowing means I am listening and can hear them. The only way I know how to do this is to put myself in a state of not-knowing.

Knowledge, then, is a form of knowing. It is information that people have that can be put into words. People construct personal knowledge systems when they reflect back on their own experience. We construct more formal knowledge systems when they absorb what others teach them.

Wisdom, on the other hand, requires not knowing, of being emotionally and psychologically open and available to others so that others feel safe enough to express their most sensitive experiences. We are wise when we respond with knowledge connected to experience and when we offer what we know as tentative, subject to revision.

What I have written so far can be extended to mean that wise people can put up with anything, including disrespectful, abusive, and violent behaviors. Being in a state of not-knowing does mean my defenses are down, but it does not mean that my senses are dead. Threats to my emotional and physical integrity prick me into another state of mind: high alertness and instant appraisal of the threat. I can stand up for myself and for what I believe is common decency. I can appease by being silent or not resisting. I can retreat. In no way does a wise person let others get away with behaving badly.

There are many strategies for responding to bad behaviors while maintaining not-knowing and emotional availability. My preferred approach is to understand those who are behaving badly. That is why I have spent more than 25 years interviewing persons who have committed violent acts. I have been in a state of not-knowing for decades in regard to violence. At times I feel stupid and embarrassed about being stupid. I joke about being a slow learner. Yet, I am a slow learner. I have yet to write a comprehensive theory of interpersonal violence although I have written bits of it over many years. I am now in the process of writing up a comprehensive theory. As I inch along with my descriptions, explanations, and analyses, I continue to experience not-knowing. I believe that not knowing will be key to any theory that I finally construct.

One of the most surprising discoveries of this research is how little I knew about myself. In fieldnotes about an interview with a man who had murdered and then raped a college student at a university where he also was a student, I wrote

As he talked, an image of a bullet hole between his eyes came unbidden into my mind. I thought I had shot him though I had not moved as he told his story. I was sick at heart. Later, I was enraged over what he had done. Anna [not her real name] was nothing to him, an object maybe, but not a human being, not a young woman at the brink of her adult life, with a future to look forward to.

In an article, I reflected upon the unmediated experience

I remember feeling surprised at the image and then detached. I may have experienced a smudge of satisfaction that he was dead, that he deserved it, and that a bullet between his eyes had stopped his earnest narration of horror. These are themes that I have seen repeatedly in the narratives of the perpetrators I have interviewed.

Much of this writing is an account of unmediated experience. As I reflected up the experiences, I believe I learned something important, something I call wisdom. I learned about the violence in my own heart. Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago wrote “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a part of his own heart?” I did not know about the violence in myself and how satisfying violence can be. I saw that I too have ideologies that justify violence. I did not know this until I put myself in a position of not-knowing. I certainly was not looking for this kind of self-knowledge, but there it was.

Wisdom arises from reflecting on unmediated experience. Accepting what we learn from unmediated experience may be a yellow brick road that might get us to wisdom, however temporarily. Stupidly envelops up when we think we know something and we do not. Arrogance characterizes certainty that we know something when we do not. Wisdom arises when we are open to experience and emotionally available to others.

Not knowing can be difficult. There is something about certainty that is safe and comforting.  Not-knowing and being able to enjoy  uncertainty and ambiguity leads to capacities for creativity, self-acceptance, and availability to self and others. A friend who recently celebrated her sixty-second birthday said, “It used to be hard for me to admit that I am wrong. Now I can. I’m not perfect. I’m a flawed human being.” Wisdom is not only the province of elders, but it can take many years to know we don’t know and celebrate it.

About the Author

Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. Her books and articles are available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. This article first appeared in 2009 at the Second Journey magazine at


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