What I Know and Don’t Know

Years ago, I recall sitting in a group with Jerry May while he was speaking about contemplative prayer.  With great fun, he shared a story about a Tibetan monk who when asked a question would respond:  “don’t know” and kept repeating “don’t know.”  I still chuckle when I remember this and am reminded that answers are elusive and take us out of the inner path of exploring, expanding and living into truth, perhaps being taken in directions we never imagined or even, at times, would want.

This has been a season of continued lessons of “don’t know” for me.  My dad died of Alzheimer’s disease in the fall of 2010. Around the same time, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia and went into a nursing home.  And now my mother has Alzheimer’s disease and is slowly slipping away from us.  I “don’t know” how this will unfold or what will happen… I “don’t know” how to understand or make sense of this…. I “don’t know” how to plan or prepare or how to hold all of this in my being.  I “don’t know” how to live with the constant sense of loss and the invitation to let go that is ever present.

But, there is a lot I do know.  And that is something that was revealed so poignantly when my dad was dying.  My dad had the wonderful gift of dying in his home of 25 years, in his familiar bedroom surrounded by family.  It was an amazing time that my mother, six siblings, spouses, and nieces and nephews and I shared.   This 11-day vigil was a time of telling stories, of praying, of reading to my dad, of looking at pictures, of listening to music, of just being present to him and one another.  As we remembered and told our stories or played his favorite music, we were led to a profound sense of love and unity.  There was so much I couldn’t understand, explain or control, but love was flowing everywhere.  And in the loving, there was laughter, tears, some sobbing—lots of letting go—but deep presence and healing.

We were in a space where everyone belonged, each was utterly valued and could be just as they are and love flowed freely.  My dad allowed for this possibility as he seemed to call it forth from each of us.  It all became whole in some mysterious way and we all knew his life to be so much bigger and powerful than he or we had realized. That sense of eternal connection was with us and we all felt it.  Abundant life was real and it was a mixture of joy and sadness, appreciation, vulnerability, brokenness—all being held by a roomful of family.

That sacred time with my family during my dad’s death deeply renews my commitment to community, whether named as sacred listening circles, group spiritual direction, quiet day or school of prayer.  Each circle is an opportunity to be present with our “don’t know” mind and to allow what we do know to surface—our deep belonging to one another, to our loving Creator and to all creation.

In community, amazing things happen, as we reverently allow each one to be who they are… just as we are… and even see that potential of wholeness and goodness.  It always feels new, fresh and miraculous.  And the more diversity, the more we have to celebrate our very creative and surprising God.  As Anthony de Mello wrote in his book, The Way To Love, “It is a sobering thought that the finest act of love you can perform is not an act of service but an act of contemplation, of seeing.  When you serve people, you help, support, comfort, alleviate pain.  When you see them in their inner beauty and goodness, you transform and create.”

May all our programs at Shalem nurture this deep knowing of our profound interconnection, one with another, and reflect this great and beautiful diversity and uniqueness.  And with our “don’t know” mind, may we truly cultivate this love and compassion for one another and our planet.

January 01, 2009 by Patience Robbins
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