• © Sheila Foster

Not Knowing is the Most Intimate

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey

~ Wendell Berry, (Collected Poems)

The first time I went to Crestone 25 years ago for a Gangaji retreat, I got lost in the woods.

It was a gorgeous sunny and warm spring day, and I was enchanted with the beauty of this forest of aspen. I caught whiffs of flowery scents, touched the trunks of some of the trees, communicated with the nature spirits, picked up little stones and small pieces of wood. I could see and hear all kinds of birds, as well as hear the scampering noises of small animals. Yellow and purple wildflowers, blue dragonflies, and buzzing bees were all around. I felt extremely peaceful and present, lost in my senses and the presence of such aliveness until the spell suddenly and rudely broke.

I looked around and realized that I did not know which way I came into the forest and I had no idea how to get out and back to my car which was parked on the road. The sun was overhead so I could not tell east from west, nor could I find a path to follow, as it was a pathless path that brought me there in the first place. An explosion of terror erupted in my body-being. I felt like I was two again, lost in a department store and could not see my mother. Panic sent a massive surge of adrenaline through me and I felt like running in all directions at once.

There were bears in these woods! Maybe mountain lions! Large creatures with big teeth!

The sun was moving high in the sky and my mind asked, “What if I can’t find my way out?” My fear-filled mind chatter was on high alert, my chest got very tight and I was panting, so, I just stopped, sat down on the earth, and breathed as slowly as I could. This quieted my mind and body. I tuned in and asked the Divine Mother for direction and then I just sat there, not knowing, not trying to figure it out. At least I could re-align myself and calm down, re-enter my body which I think was hanging in a tree somewhere nearby.

In my inner silence, I became aware of the distant sound of the creek behind me. I could not see it but I knew that the creek went straight back to where I was staying. I headed toward the beautiful, bubbling creek and followed it for a bit, and then heard a car go by in the distance to my left. This helped me orient and I then knew the road was not far away. I turned left and made a path by walking and within a few minutes I arrived at the road and saw my car.

This experience is a perfect out-picturing my life at that time.

I was deeply called to move to Boulder after my first visit or two. Close friends from Maryland where I lived then had pioneered the trail from Maryland to Boulder, and then both of my kids came out here to CU. Gangaji gatherings and retreats became a central part of my visits and essential to expanding consciousness and my spiritual life. I made plans to move to Boulder before my marriage ended and we sold our beautiful home and acreage in the Maryland countryside. I was willing to sacrifice so much that I held dear, especially my work and my students, and the home, healing center, and community my ex-husband and I co-created there.

I had no idea what would unfold with the women’s mystery school I had started in the mid-80’s, or with my thriving healing practice or the evolving work with the Sacred Feminine I began developing in 1980. I also knew nothing about what I would do regarding my work or the school, or where I would live once I got to Boulder. I was both excited and terrified to be consciously sacrificing such a rich and beautiful life that I thought was finished, for a completely unknown future, but I felt so deeply called that it was a choiceless choice and “No” was not an option. All of this happened more than 23 years ago and I have no regrets. I had thought that my work in Maryland and the mystery school, aka Temple of the Sacred Feminine was finished, and I was the last to know, or even imagine, that I would commute regularly for 22 years!


I see the so-called future as only an idea, a way of organizing our lives in this third dimension. In Reality, there is only Now, and it is utterly unpredictable, mysterious, and everything is always changing and sending us into the Unknown. The source and essence of Life is creation which is never static, and just as we conceive a child or a project or a vision of what is to be, we don’t really know. Often our creations are very different than we imagined they would be, just as our lives are.

There are countless times when change rises up out of still waters like an unexpected hurricane or life-shattering accident, or we simply come to the end of a road, a path, a relationship, an event in our lives for which we may have prepared, or not. We still don’t really know what is going to happen, despite any plans or plane tickets we have. How often do we expect or believe someone or something is going to be a certain way and it doesn’t turn out the way we imagined, expected, or hoped, and we are disappointed or hurt?

Knowing, I have come to see, is highly over-rated. It feels to me like a creation of ego to avoid or deny the discomfort, the pain, the shame, the anxiety, the fear and terror, that we have learned to associate and/or create with not knowing. Yet this myth of knowing and our attachment to knowing is constantly busted just about every day. Paradoxically, if there is something important for us to 'know' such as guidance, something important out of the blue, or some kind of spiritual 'knowingness', it will arise in the the space of not knowing.

The stories we tell ourselves about the unknown or what will happen if we don’t know, generate our fears. We grow up in families and schools where we are conditioned to know in order to feel safe or avoid unpleasant consequences. When I was a kid in grade school and high school, I was terrified of certain nuns because they were so punishing or shaming when we didn’t know the answer to a question. I can re-member and feel the physical sensations of shock, numbness, and terror in my face and small body when confronted by my second-grade teacher, Sister John Agnes, who shamed me in front of my class and I did not know what I did wrong—I nodded like I did when she yelled at me, “Do you know what you did?” but I still don’t know what I did that was so terrible in her eyes.

Things like this may have happened to you, too. We may have been traumatized for not knowing at one time or another. As a child in a highly dysfunctional family, I felt like I had to know what was going on for survival. I listened at doors and to phone calls, hid on the stairs, looked through desk drawers, eavesdropped as adults talked around the kitchen table because I felt it would somehow protect me from a repeat of the horrendous shock and trauma of being sent away again without being told it was going to happen or why.

This is Life having a human experience in duality. What comes, goes, and this cycle repeats itself so many times in one lifetime. Sometimes, like the buffalo who are now heading away from the possibly erupting volcano at Yellowstone, our bodies let us know change is coming. We may feel uneasy or anxious and not know why, or we are standing in the grocery store and our intuition sends us home immediately just in time to be there when the call comes telling us something has happened to one of our beloveds. In my healing work, a sense of that something is needed arises, “the stretcher from Grace” appears, and I cannot claim that it is the ‘I’ that knows what is being called for, but whatever appears is what I offer and often turns out to be just right for that moment. Guidance arises and emerges as words, intuition, or a felt sense, and I can follow this lead very easily as I trust it far more than I trust my egoic mind that thinks it knows. So often ego tells us to do this or that, then chastises us when we do, or hangs us up in conflict as it swings back and forth trying to decide. All that to say that we may have more access than we realize to right action from trusting what we do not consciously know. We have access to direct experience when we don't know.

The Underworld of Initiation

Life—the ordinary and extraordinary happenings that are the cauldron of our spiritual initiations, can bring forth enormous changes via the death of identities we hold dear. These are tremendous losses, some painfully obvious and many ambiguous. Sometimes we hang on for life because we don’t know who we will be without these long-held and deeply ingrained identities. We cannot know. These events can take us down to the marrow in our bones even while they are breaking our hearts open to freedom and joy. We go through countless deaths and rebirths in our lives, as well as that liminal time between the two when we have no clue who we are, who we will be, what to do, what’s going to change, how, or sometimes, if we’ll even survive.

In the Sumerian myth of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, she is outraged at every gate she must pass through to get to the Underworld to be with her pregnant sister, Erishkegal, as she is required at each gate to give up an article of her status and identity. The gatekeeper is not impressed with her status or her complaint. At each of seven gates he says, “The ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”

We often experience the Unknown as the underworld, especially in profound initiations. When there, we feel increasingly in the darkness of not knowing. It is the womb and the tomb, the cauldron of alchemy, for sure. We have no map and, if we should find one, it is still not the territory. Fear arises. The need to know what’s going to happen may arise in the midst of so many un-answerable possibilities. When we are hanging on the hook, dismembered for those mythical ‘three days’ as Inanna was, we may become desperate, panicked, exhausted, and finally surrendered to not knowing if the initiatory ordeal is ever going to be over, if we can survive it, or who we will be if we do. Life as we knew it is over. We can’t imagine life after. In my initiatory experiences, as well as the countless initiations of others that I have witnessed or midwifed through their time in the underworld, surrender to not knowing is the crucial moment and the key to the release from the hook, and the beginning of the new life—birth. All of our experiences of not knowing can reveal to us that we are the Mystery and that everything that happens—no exceptions—is Divine Arrangement, and everything offers us a path to awakening consciousness.

There is a Zen koan that says, “Not Knowing is the most intimate.”

You might consider taking on this koan, “putting it in your pocket” as koan master John Tarrant would say, and reflect on it here and there. The next time you are on the crumbly edge of the ground under your feet and don’t know what to do, where to go, take out this koan and play with it, see what happens.

We are living in times now when not knowing can keep us sane and grounded as well as in direct experience of what is, as it is, rather than our own stories or those in the news telling us what is. Not knowing what’s true appears to be the new normal when we see what’s happening on the planet, in the Cosmos, as well as within our own lives day to day. Things we could not imagine yesterday are happening today, as there is a mighty quickening of the Kundalini energy, the feminine energy immanent in all forms and manifestations. This quickening appears as the frightening things that disrupt, such as earthquakes, massive hurricanes, violence in the streets, and wars, as well as the beauty that surrounds us and the amazing great awakening of consciousness that is spreading through humanity. Everything in form is Kundalini Ma, calling us to attention, to come out of our trance states.

I feel this pathless path of not knowing as a gift offering direct experience, and I know this now even when it doesn't feel good. It's also precious to be able to surrender to not knowing. This can be a practice, a refuge, a portal to the spaciousness of the quantum field of all possibilities, to the Mystery unfolding before us and as us.

There is some comfort to be found in not knowing or having to know anything because when we can rest in that, we are not troubled by the ‘fake news’ of mind chatter. The gift I have found here is the refuge of not knowing offers comfort while waiting in the lounge of spaciousness until genuine guidance arises or Truth is revealed, inevitably, in the perfect moment. I consistently see that Divine Arrangement already has everything handled, despite appearances in 3D. If we are resisting this, or not happy with this, we might need to go to our hearts, deeply and directly feel what is happening there, without stories, as that is the ‘central bank’ of love and trust and access to the Mystery.