in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 27 December 2013

‘Mind the Gap!’ – Mindless Thoughts at Christmas...

I finished today a contribution to a new book on ‘unknowing and professional practice’ by a friend and former student of mine, Steven D’Souza. Steven is an engaging lecturer who works between the business world and the world of mindfulness, meditation and unknowing (you can find more about his work on His skill lies in crossing the boundaries between the two and I am looking forward to reading the whole book when it comes out next year (I shall post details here when they become available). In the meantime here is my extract for some ‘mindless thoughts’ at this time of year. I will write a little more about that in the next few days...






The Way of Unknowing


The way of unknowing is a way of speaking, a way of acting and a way of being that has a historic pedigree in Western culture. Writing to his brother at the beginning of the 19th Century, the English poet John Keats talked about the need for the poet to develop a ‘negative capablility’ in their approach to their task. That is, a state of being where we are: ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (Keats 1970:43). Yet, Keats himself was only the latest of a long line of ‘unknowers’ who had developed this skill from the medieval world and beyond. The ‘masters’ of this school were found particularly in the University of Paris in the 12th and 13th Centuries. These scholars worked with a mysterious text known as the Theologia Mystica and ascribed (apocryphally) to the disciple of St Paul of that name mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Dionysius’ way of unknowing was straightforward: anything we can say of God, cannot, by definition, be God. God, as Creator, cannot be defined by us, creatures. Therefore an impasse or abyss gapes between what we want to say about God and what God is in God’s self. Now this may seem to be a rather esoteric, and best forgotten, medieval theological nicety... however Dionysius’s views have never really gone away from the Western mind because, as the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it, our language is always referring to that which is beyond language but cannot grasp. Language and discourse, suggests Wittgenstein, is a choreography between what is said and what is not said, or rather, what is said and what is shown. Our intellects can grasp only one half of the equation and for full reality to be present both the known and the unknown – the said and the shown – must be present.

          Nowhere is this better illustrated for me than in my work as a psychotherapist. Whenever a client comes into the room I have two choices: either I try to fill their discourse (and mine) with all the expressions of my learning, erudition and training, or, I try (and this is more difficult) to enter into the place of unknowing where the discourse of my client can begin to show itself in harmony with my own unknowing. As Wilfred Bion, the British Object Relations analyst, put it:

When we are in the office with a patient we have to dare to rest. It is difficult to see what is at all frightening about that, but it is. It is difficult to remain quiet and let the patient have a chance to say  whatever he or she has to say. It is frightening for the patient – and the patient hates it. We are under constant pressure to say something, to admit that we are doctors or psychoanalysts or social workers to supply some box into which we can be put complete with a label. (Bion 1980:11)

Rather than being the erudite professional, Bion exhorts us to:

Discard your memory; discard the future tense of our desire; forget them both, both what you knew and what you want, to leave space for a new idea. (Bion 1980:11)

He suggested we must have the courage and humility to step into this ‘space of unknowing’ when we engage with others. A place that requires us to put aside our memories, our need to control, our need to define – all the whirring chatter of the ‘monkey mind’ – and allow ourselves to be present for the other before us. In my own case this would be a matter of putting to one side the associations and thoughts that arise when the person enters the room and rather listening to the present moment and what that person is bringing to the encounter in the here and now. This can sometimes take a surprising turn and one of the key tasks of the ‘mindless therapist’ is to be surprised! The surprise can come mentally in an idea, picture or even tune that comes to mind, or physically in a sensation or emotion that arises. Before the session begins I always do a quick self-scan or self-check to ascertain where I am myself emotionally, physically and psychologically. In nine times out of ten, when a new or surprising feeling, thought, physical sensation or emotion occurs during the session I can be pretty sure it has been influenced by the presence of the other before me. This may take the form of a tightening in the head or shoulders, a sense of anger, fear or lethargy, even a picture or striking memory that has not occurred to me for some time. All the classic material referred to by psychologists as ‘transference and counter-transference’, but by practising the presence of unknowing these sensations, feelings and thoughts can be thrown into greater relief so that we are then in a better position to isolate them and work with them in a more conscious way with our client. Once they arise we have the choice to share them with the client or keep quiet... making the decision of what to present and how is probably where the skill of the therapist lies, and I must say that after nearly 20 years of practice this is one area where experience comes to our aid. As the Germans say, it is a ‘finger tip feel’.

          In summary, then, I think the mistake would be to see this path of unknowing as a way of ignorance. Nothing could be further from the case. The medievals called it the way of stulta sapientia, literally ‘learned ignorance’ or ‘foolish wisdom’: yes we must train in the skills of our profession, whether it be a business manager, doctor, nurse, psychoanalyst or teacher, but, and this is a big but, we must learn to know when to keep silent - when to let the demands of the ego quieten and the unknown element of showing reveal itself. This art of when to speak and when to keep silent makes the difference in the refined art of interpersonal encounter. As testified in the examples of this book, this moment can be a moment of extraordinary revelation and insight. In a world saturated with information, false ‘knowing’ and the blinkered opinions of ‘specialists’ I would suggest the time for ‘learned ignorance’ has returned... no more so than in the highly stressed and driven worlds of commerce, transaction and business.



Bion, W. (1980)    Bion in New York and São Paulo. Strath Tay, Perthshire: Clunie Press

Keats, J. (1970)     The Letters of John Keats: A Selection. Ed, R. Gittings. Oxford: Blackwell


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