That Which We Already Know: We Have a Place

From That Which We Already Know. This passage is from Chapter Four of my forthcoming book.

Included in the assortment of Christmas ornaments that my family unpacked each holiday season was a set of six sturdy aluminum foil snowflakes in those anodized metal colorings now so familiar to us all: blue, green, red, violet, silver, and gold. They unfolded from the flatness of their latent state into eight-pointed wonders for which I took personal responsibility. Perhaps because of their size—they were about as big around as dinner plates—they usually ended up becoming my personal bedroom decorations. I’d climb up on the stepladder and attach their strings to the plaster ceiling with asterisks of masking tape that occasionally required a supplemental strip or two over the course of the holiday season.

Cover Artwork

I liked to watch them as I fell asleep. They’d spin one way when the furnace kicked on and then gradually unwind once it kicked off again, over and over again. I recall my parents having a holiday gathering one time that lasted much longer into the evening after I’d gone to bed. Light from the living room filtered into the hallway and underneath my bedroom door to set those snowflakes flickering as they spun. Murmuring, likewise, filtered in to where I lay, making me feel warm, cozy, cared for, and protected. I had a place. All was as it should be. And as I drifted off to sleep that evening, I likely settled into a state of mind not too far removed from that oceanic state of undifferentiated oneness that a contented infant might enjoy while lying in her crib watching a brightly colored mobile spinning slowly above her head.

Childhood has the potential to foster feelings of security and belonging unlike any we will ever experience. When else but during childhood do we feel as though a place has been created for us alone or that people who are so much wiser and more powerful are watching over us and lovingly considering our every need? Oh, if we could only carry those peaceful feelings into adulthood! The innocence of childhood can’t last forever though. And our parents can’t be there for us forever either. Besides, we eventually come to realize that they’re not as smart or strong as we’d once thought, despite their loving us much more than we could know.

It’s understandable that some would want to keep these feelings alive for as long as possible by maintaining belief in a personal and parental God—a beneficent, omniscient, and omnipotent being. If we play well the role of the obedient child, then surely God will continue to play the role of watchful guardian, won’t He? But life doesn’t always proceed as we would like. Bad things happen even to the obedient. We might be inclined then to reason that God is teaching us a well-deserved lesson—guiding us along as a caring, albeit stern, parent might do.

There are times, however, when innocence and goodness are met with such brutality and injustice that no amount of rationalization can bring us to accept it as being part of God’s grand plan. Child victims of war, disease, starvation, and abuse—these all-too-common realities strain to the breaking point our belief in a beneficent and omnipotent God, just as our belief in the infallibility of our parents was eventually strained to the breaking point. We might then be tempted to peel away our idea of a personal God from the harsh realities all around us. We might declare that he still loves us even as he foregoes interceding in the injustices wrought by a world ostensibly of his creation. In this way we might continue feeling loved for the remainder of our days. And with that sense of love might come a modicum of peace. But the absolute sense of security that we enjoyed in childhood will remain forever in our past. The potential for injustice will always be right around the corner. Crime, disease, financial hardship, disaster, and accident will always be waiting in the wings.

How then do we reacquaint ourselves with the wisdom of our childhood—the wisdom that allowed us to settle unhesitatingly into that calm sense of wellbeing? Of course, you may question my use of the word wisdom here. Perhaps the aphorism that ignorance is bliss is more appropriate from your point of view? Yes, we were ignorant of our parents’ inability to truly keep us as safe and sound as we thought we were. We were ignorant of all the ways that our world could come crashing down around us. Alright then, let’s step back and explore the nature of that ignorance.

Before the age of twelve or so, children are unable to engage in deeply abstract or hypothetical thought. We think of the world in mostly concrete terms. Our world is what we can apprehend with our senses, and life takes place primarily in the here and now. The finality of death is beyond our comprehension. Selfhood, likewise, is a concept not fully grasped. Think of how a young child, if pressed, might describe herself: “My name is Amy. I’m five years old. I have a dog named Charlie. I like peanut butter and jelly. I like to draw and read books.” It’s only after the emergence of self-awareness that we come to possess well-developed answers to the questions of who we are, what we’re here for, and where we go when we die. The funny thing is, though, despite our answers becoming more and more developed and articulate as we grow older, they are not necessarily any more accurate. Perhaps they’re even less so!

Socrates was wise because he knew full well the nature of his ignorance. This wisdom of not knowing is something that adepts of the Zen tradition are quite familiar with. In order to really see in the “Zen” sense, one must let go of words, concepts, and ideas regarding the so-called knower and the known. Only then can real seeing take place. This abandonment of conceptualization extends even to that which we take most for granted—ourselves. The Zen monk, Bodhidharma, for instance, was once asked who he was by the emperor of his day. Bodhidharma famously replied that he didn’t know!

Rooted in techniques of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness practice has shown great promise in the treatment of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addiction, and so forth. It’s effective because it gets us back into our body and out of that place where the real suffering takes place—our head. When we’re more in tune with our body, focusing on our breath or the coming and going of bodily sensations, we’re not worrying about the future or regretting the past; we’re simply present in this moment, living out the reality of our existence, much like a child.

Some of the most profound wisdom we can live by urges us to be less sure of what we know, to loosen our iron grip on our sense of self, and to live more fully in the here and now, away from the schemes and concerns that so consume us. In this way, the blissful ignorance (innocence) of our childhood is actually an expression of embodied wisdom—that which we already know.

Lest anyone be confused by what I’m saying, I’m not advocating that we eschew all abstract thought and conceptualization in order to regress to some idealized childhood state. We’re adults now and we must stand right where we are and keep on living, however fallen we may be. We need to think clearly and deeply from time to time, and our ability to do so should be nurtured and celebrated. Ideally, we might come to know our minds so well that we’re able to use them as an artisan uses his or her collection of tools. When it is skillful and appropriate to chisel away on something, then we do so. When it is skillful and appropriate to refrain from chiseling away on anything, then we refrain from doing so.

Can we ever again know the feelings of security and belonging that we hopefully knew at least at one time as a child? Can we use our minds so skillfully as to dispense with all our unproductive mentation, from the mundane to even the deepest existential ponderings? And what if we do? Will we then lose some of what makes us human? Or will we once more become acquainted with the reality of our truest life?

Copyright 2014 and 2022 by Mark Robert Frank


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