Doing by Not-Knowing

By Jill R. Gaulding

there’s something to be
known about not-knowing,
which I would tell you
if I could
—John Brehm, “Something and Nothing,” in No Day at the Beach

After sterilizing my hands and walking into a room on J6 (the hospital floor for patients with more serious conditions), I could see a small form lying flat on the bed. Carol1 had the blankets pulled up high, leaving only her head exposed. Her head, crowned with tufts of gray hair, lay at an angle on the pillow. Her eyes held an angle as well: one was turned toward the far wall, while the other turned to look at me as I approached her. “Hello, Carol,” I said, “I’m Jill, the chaplain on rounds.”

After a brief exchange, Carol indicated that she would like me to stay, and I pulled up a chair so that we could talk face to face. She extracted her left arm from under the covers, and I held her hand, gazing into her face as we began talking.

In response to my open-ended questions, Carol began to tell me what was on her mind. There was a lot on her mind. Much of what she had to say was hard to follow—perhaps falling into the category of old stories, or confusions arising out of dementia. I mostly sat in silence, listening carefully, holding her hand and continuing to gaze into her eyes.

Eventually Carol reached a topic that seemed to be a focal point. On this topic, she was emphatic: she didn’t know. “I don’t know!” she said repeatedly, sounding troubled. What didn’t she know? Apparently, her diagnosis or prognosis, among other things. She gestured toward the whiteboard hanging on the opposite wall, as if to demonstrate that it failed to clarify matters, despite the patient information written on it. “I don’t know!” she said again, and I thought to myself, “I don’t know, either.” I had not studied Carol’s medical chart before rounding on J6, so I would not have been able to educate her about her diagnosis or prognosis, even if it were my role as a chaplain to do so, nor did I know anything about the confusing ideas she’d shared earlier.

Knowing things was a
big deal to me when I was younger. Leaving high school, I thought I had a choice—in itself, a great privilege—between pursuing a career in knowing (that is, understanding the world) and a career in doing (that is, changing the world). At the time, this meant to me the choice between science and activism. I chose science, at first, and began studying cognitive science at MIT, as an undergrad and then as a graduate student. When my PhD program began to seem too esoteric, too far removed from pressing social problems, I thought I’d chosen wrong. I left the program, went to law school, and became a civil rights lawyer. “Now,” I thought, “I can do things to help change the world.”

Somewhere along the way, though, I realized that my notion of knowing versus doing was too simplistic. I couldn’t do law without knowing law. And it turned out that knowing cognitive science was also useful; in fact, I spent several decades, both as a practicing lawyer and as a legal academic, working to change anti-discrimination law so that it could better reflect what cognitive science was teaching us about things like implicit bias.

Recently, in another turn of my spiral career path, I came to Harvard Divinity School to seek more knowledge. I was curious about the way that Buddhist doctrines—so surprisingly in sync with modern cognitive science—might inform social justice work. And because, in a secret corner of my heart, I had developed the desire to become a chaplain, I also wanted to learn about chaplaincy. What did one need to know to do chaplaincy well? A lot, it turns out. My three-year program at HDS and several units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) began to teach me, among other things, about the uses of ritual, theories of spiritual distress, models for analyzing verbal interactions, and even a typology for the different kinds of silence that can arise in patient encounters.

Meanwhile, my Buddhist
practice was deepening. I joined a sangha—the Greater Boston Zen Center—and began sitting regularly, listening to dharma talks, going to teacher interviews, and working on koans. All of these things led me to realize that, in the words of the poet John Brehm, “there’s something to be known about not-knowing.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn famously gave these instructions for meditation (and for Buddhist practice, generally): only don’t know. Many Buddhist teachers urge their students to practice don’t know mind. Frank Ostaseski explains that don’t know mind is characterized by “curiosity, wonder, awe, and surprise.”2 Jack Kornfield says, “Practice don’t know mind until you are comfortable resting in uncertainty, until you can do your best and laugh and say ‘Don’t know.’ ”3

Buddhist ethics, too, emphasize not-knowing. In the sutra book of the Greater Boston Zen Center, the first of the Three Pure Precepts reads, “Not knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe, I vow to cease from evil.”4

In one of the best-known koans in the Blue Cliff Record, Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, meets Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, a devout Buddhist. Emperor Wu asks Bodhidharma about the merit he’s accrued through building temples and making donations, and Bodhidharma answers, “No merit.” Confused, the emperor asks about “the holy truth of Buddhism,” and Bodhidharma answers, “Vast emptiness. No holiness.” Finally, when the emperor asks, “Who addresses me thus?” Bodhidharma answers, “I don’t know.”

A koan from The Book of Equanimity picks up this thread of not-knowing: an abbot asks a scholar where he’s going, and the scholar answers, “On pilgrimage.” The abbot asks, “What’s the purpose of pilgrimage?” and the scholar answers, “I don’t know.” The abbot observes, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

I don’t think I had
the abbot’s observation in mind as I visited Carol, the patient on J6; I probably hadn’t yet encountered that koan. Nonetheless, I knew enough to simply sit for a while with Carol’s not-knowing, and my own. Even that sitting, that shared silence, was intimate. I could feel a sense of curiosity, wonder, awe, and surprise arising in me. I felt comfortable resting in uncertainty. Finally, I laughed and said to Carol, in a celebratory way, “I also don’t know!”

We repeated, “I don’t know!” and “I also don’t know!” several times, and then I said, “It is okay not to know.” Indeed, I suggested, it brought us together, into a sort of sacred space of not-knowing. I suggested to Carol that we could hold that space together, and she smiled. As I got up to leave the room, she suddenly announced, in a surprisingly lucid voice, “You didn’t make a hole in my heart.”

Out in the hallway, deeply touched without fully knowing why, I cried a few tears before sterilizing my hands in preparation for my next visit.


  1. A pseudonym; all identifying details have been altered.
  2. Frank Ostaseski, “What the Dying Teach the Living,” The Long Now Foundation, April 10, 2017.
  3. Jack Kornfield, “Practice: Don’t Know Mind.”
  4. This wording follows an adaptation by the Zen Peacemakers.

Jill R. Gaulding, MDiv ’20, has served as a cognitive scientist, civil rights lawyer, law professor, and co-founder of Gender Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization. She is currently working as a chaplain for Chaplains on the Way, a nonprofit that supports individuals experiencing homelessness. While at HDS, Jill took Chris Berlin’s Buddhist Chaplaincy and Compassionate Care of the Dying courses.

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