On Not Knowing

I recently hung a piece of artwork in my office, made my my friend Debbie Millman.  In a simple black frame, matted in white is a large page of what looks to be notepaper, and written in Debbie’s wonderful script in a corner of the notepaper are these words:

this, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

All lower case, and in the corner, as if the artist is whispering, even though her hand is strong. 

I bought the piece on a whim.  I had been having trouble working in my office.  In fact, I had been having trouble spending time in my office at all.  Some inner shifts in my psyche had made it difficult to write in the place where I have always written.  And so I had moved my whole operation downstairs to our library, where I have spent the last number of months curled in a big chair, my laptop on my lap.  (A masseuse recently asked me if my work station was ergonomically correct and I burst out laughing.)  I have been comforted by the thousands of books that surround me in the library, and the view of fields spreading out in the distance.  But still, whenever I have been in my office, my eye falls on Debbie’s piece:

this, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

I have spent my life wanting to know.  Needing to know.  Love, health, success, happiness – I have grasped at these the way we all do, thinking that if I only do just the right thing, think hard enough, do well enough, I can will all my desires into being.  So why, then, do I feel a a profound sense of comfort each time I glance at Debbie’s words?  comfortable. not knowing.

This afternoon I unrolled my yoga mat for the first time in a very long time.  Something about these inward shifts in my psyche, along with a shoulder injury, have made it difficult to practice each day the way I have for nearly twenty years.  And so when I stood on my mat and began my practice, there were poses I couldn’t do.  My body didn’t want to twist quite so far, my hands most definitely did not wish to meet in namaste behind my back.  I did manage to stand on my head, but my shoulder twinged and I thought better of it.  My practice definitely was not pretty.  I was glad there was no mirror in which I would see just how out of alignment I really was.  But do you know what?  As I continued to move through the asanas, as I listened to new music on Spotify, as the fire crackled in the fireplace, it occurred to me that this was the yoga.  this, just this

Nothing, not a single thing in my life, has happened the way I thought it would, the way I thought it should.  Actually, scratch that.  Some things have gone the way I thought they should — at the time — and those have always been my greatest mistakes, er, opportunities to learn.  Marriage, motherhood, my writing life, my teaching life, my closest friendships, my house in the country – each of these grew out of not knowing. 

That little word – comfortable — strikes me as the key.  That softening.  That ease.  Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  My favorite Sabbath prayer.  If I can continue to open my eyes to what is – this,  just this – I will not miss the miracles.  None of us will.  And even though the news is grim, the world is haywire, and life is relentlessly challenging, miracles are always everywhere.  

  • lemead

    Amen. I think this may be the work of my life. The work of many of our lives, if I had to guess. Thank you for holding a candle. xox

    • Danishapiro

      That’s just what it feels like, Lindsey. I’m sure for you too. xo

  • Martha Dyson

    I have been in long stretch of unknowing and not five minutes ago I wrote in my journal and that I am tired of unknowing – that I just want to know. And then I opened up facebook and there was your post on Jena’s timeline. “If I can continue to open my eyes to what is – this, just this – I will not miss the miracles.” Yes. Yes. Thank you!

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome!

  • Deb Ast Geary

    Appreciating your wise words from my, erm, not ergonomically correct work station 🙂

    • Danishapiro

      Good to get up once in a while and stretch, Deb:)

  • Drew Ingber Garfinkel

    forgive the syntax and such for now. this is conversational in nature and im on the subway, no time too edit

    im not sure what you mean. As i age, my ‘comfort,’ which im guessing you’re referring to a psychological acceptance of the truth, is more robust. or, i just get that things happen and i don’t mentally push back with the urge to change or dissect or control the ‘things.’ But.. “this, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.” I take as the artist/author (Debbie) thinking something (ONE thing) is SO disturbing, good or bad she really doesn’t want to break ‘her’ reality, with reality. But, shes not my friend and you might know something I don’t.

    wait…. as I read this, I realize. You’re looking ….for comfort….by the books, massages and realizations, stretching on the floor. Fire crackling, setting a scene. But, how can you practice for 20 yrs and not realize that it’s always all in your head. It;s not the breathing, moving,sweating or the endorphins. As someone who dissects yourself min by min….how is this?

    The best part is, the piece made you think. It led you somewhere, Haunted you a bit. Kudos to (Debbie)

    Anyway… for me, the pivotal thing with her piece is…. ‘This’ She says it twice.

    So, is there a THING I just dont want to know? What is it? Haw many are there… and WHY don’t I want to know? This frightens me. I am an information machine, almost autistic in a way. So why are there things I DO NOT WANT TO TOUCH in my head??? scary. for me anyway. not to know. because information is everything.

    Sorry to drone, and in no way perceive me as negative. its not my intention.

    I’m in the city.. but my daughter up in washington today, says it a beauty out. Hope you’re shoulder is better today. Sit in a chair outside.

    • Danishapiro

      Precisely the opposite, Drew. Not looking for comfort. Perhaps, for acceptance. It’s a lifetime’s journey. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

      • Drew Ingber Garfinkel

        I haven’t really read enough of you’re work. I took the wrong tack. What should I start with. I carry Kindle on my phone…. 45min here and there on the subway. It took a Year to finish the five books of Game of Thrones. It was an assault on my visual cortex, and 85,000 tiny iphone 6plus pages. I meet Chuck Klosterman (writer w S and S) for breakfast at our local urban diner. I promised him I would read his favorite work next. “Eating the Dinosaur.” I met him at a Shoot I did for a band. He was following them for research. But… I will be in a Book Hole within two weeks!!!!!!!!! HELP. Where do I start with you’re work? I’m an atheist Jew with parental and self worth problems, and a never ending shame I can’t explain, or excuse.

        • Danishapiro

          Hmm… Hard to say. Either Devotion or Still Writing? Thanks for asking.

  • “…Lord, fill my eyes with seeing and my mind with knowing.”
    Nothing is more difficult than the relinquishing of the control we believe that comes with knowledge.
    Thank you, as always. Your timing astonishes me. x

    • Laretta

      Beautiful!!! “Nothing is more difficult than the relinquishing of the control we believe that comes with knowledge.” Let me count the times I’ve thought that if I could just understand I could make everything better. Not. As Dani so eloquently stated, more often we just need to sit, and let the feelings flow through us. “this, just this.”

      • Danishapiro


    • Danishapiro

      Of course you know that Sabbath prayer, Elissa:) And so true. xoxo

  • Carey Miller

    There is one part of Proverbs 3:5-6 that has always resonated with me: “Lean not unto thine own understanding.” To me this asks us to trust in the bigger picture that we can’t see and can’t know. I agree with Lindsey that for many of us, this is probably the work of our lives. You and I met briefly in LA when you were on your Devotion tour several years ago, and I continue to follow your work. As always, thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks for writing, Carey! That’s such a beautiful Proverb. I’ll be in LA on tour again in April and May, so I hope to see you on the road.

  • Mary Lamb Lucas

    I am just now reading this on March 13, but it resonates in my every pore. Especially the part about thinking hard enough. Ha! I have a little wooden sign in my therapy office that I found decades ago after having a dharma discussion about embracing Don’t Know Mind. My sign says: “I don’t know”. thank you, Dani

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Mary Lamb!

  • Sharon Day

    After pacing around this morning, barely awake, a blizzard gathering outside the window (background to my own inner gathering of heaviness, longing, density, and sad memory-imaginings ricocheting in gusts) I follow a pin-light that catches my attention: What does Dani say this month?

    I assume I will go there to distract myself from the storm.

    Instead (thank you) the opposite.

    What I needed. Not what I expected.

    Thank you.

    • Danishapiro

      Just seeing this, Sharon. I’m so glad. You’re welcome:)

  • What serendipity, and I’m so glad to have found you. Thanks to Hob Osterlund, whose work was excerpted on Cornell Lab’s All About Birds in an article called Impossible Journeys Of The Laysan Albatross, for ending his piece this way: “As author Dani Shapiro says in her book Still Writing, ‘We cannot afford to walk sightless among miracles.'” I followed your name as well as the quote to discover this beautiful prayer in its longer form, and to discover you, your blog, your books…there is so much to know and learn. I have signed up for your newsletter. I see you’ll be in NY next week with the brilliant Maria Popova — sadly, I won’t be there to see you both. What a treat that will be for your audience. But I will definitely see you in Darien later in May, and I’m sure that will be a treat as well. By then, I’ll have read more. There’s so much I do not know but I know today is a good day for me. I’m
    happy to have found you.

    • Danishapiro

      This is wonderful, Meg. I’m glad you found me too!