Friday, May 1, 2009

"I don't know"

I have been a loyal reader (fan girl) of Zen Habits for about a year now. I've found Leo's articles to be in close keeping with philosophy from Cuong Nhu, the martial arts style I have participated in for the last 14 years. Zen Habits provides good reminders for being more positive and productive, and sometimes gives me those head-smacking "Oh yeah!" moments of clarity through the fog of my own over-thinking.

This morning I read the most recent post "Are These Three Words Ruining Your Life?" by contributing writer Jonathan Mead, and while I believe that pretty much everything written here is a great idea, I am inspired, for the first time, to respond with my own philosophy of the words "I don't know."

Let me start by saying I love to teach, not only Cuong Nhu, but any subject I feel fairly well versed on. I love it. It charges me. I am passionate about it. I've taught Cuong Nhu for 10 years to people ages 8-70. I've seen a lot, taught hundreds, experienced a lot of egos, and seen much humility, openness, patience and love. I've been knocked down (on purpose and not) and mostly picked back up. Sometimes I have to drag my butt to class to teach because I'm tired or uninspired that day, but I go and by the end of class, I'm so happy I went. Teaching inspires me because I love to learn, I like to help people. And wow, teach a class of people about how to move their bodies and stretch their brains at the same time, challenge them physically and mentally, and you can learn a lot about human nature, including your own.

In Cuong Nhu we have a philosophy called The 10 States of Growth. So as not to reinvent the wheel, here it is, quite simple and strong:

The Ten Stages of Growth
By Robert First (currently 6th Dan in Cuong Nhu)
Every learning process starts as a clean slate, an empty cup, NOBODY and begins by being a LEARNER. Any learning process takes time and hard work, thus one becomes a WORKER. When you work at something and really want it you will fight for it, evolving into a FIGHTER and when you fight for something you will be an ACHIEVER by definition, and to achieve is to be a WINNER. When you're a winner you teach others to win also and you evolve into a TEACHER. A good teacher will naturally be a LEADER and blaze the path for others. A leader must plan and understand therefore becoming a THINKER and in essence a thinker begins to understand with more depth and understanding without ego,thus evolving into a PHILOSOPHER which is like evolving the ego from a liquid state to a gas,which can take on all shapes and situations. This egoless state is enlightenment, "the greatest person is NOBODY".


Many years ago I was observing one of my younger instructors and I noticed he had an answer to every question a student asked. I listened and heard a lot of quick, short answers given in an authoritative tone. I agreed with some responses but not as many as I disagreed with. I felt the instructor was too hard in his thinking. I also sensed fear - something to this day I am not sure he'll readily admit. Let's face it though, when placed in a position of authority who likes to say "I don't know" if asked a question?

I'll go out on a limb and say to most people admitting "I don't know" gives an impression of weakness, of doubt. I say it's a strength. To be able to shed your ego and admit that you don't know something is very difficult, but if it leads to a place of knowing then you've grown at least twice from the admission. To force yourself to think, to challenge yourself to learn, to open your mind and grow your awareness of others can be life altering and quite fulfilling.

There have been times in class where I knew a good answer to a student's question but I have specifically said "I don't know, let's figure it out" or "I don't know, let's find out." The first allows for the student to analyze the situation and hypothesize the answer. It opens the door for a discussion and in turn, helps that person grow. I have been pleasantly surprised too over the years at how much I have learned by putting aside my response and opening my mind to other ideas. The second engages the student differently. You are openly putting yourself at the same level of understanding as him (or her!) and, in essence, saying "we're all human, let's grow together."

By responding with "I don't know" to questions like "What do you want for dinner?" is a display of vacancy in a conversation and a form of bad communication. I agree with Jonathan Mead that you should perhaps look at the situation from a different perspective and answer with something "you'd like to have" in an effort to be more engaging. What I take away from that part of his article is the choice to change your perspective and become more active in a relationship. Much good can come from this type of interaction.

The bottom line, for me, is that I think it's ok and a healthy ego check to say "I don't know" sometimes. If it is completely within your power to learn the answer and you are passionate about the subject - then saying "I don't know" puts you on the path to a higher understanding, towards enlightenment. It's my opinion too that to "know" all the time is to not grow - and for me, that is not acceptable. Besides, the path towards knowledge isn't about the destination, it's about the journey and milestones you mark to get there.