CHAPTER 3: The Art of Forgetting, or, Epistemological Surrender
“For reality is the goal, deny it how we will. And we can approach it only by an ever-expanding consciousness, by burning more and more brightly, until even memory itself vanishes.” Henry Miller
“Was that, then, the way we do things? ‘Not knowing?’- was that the way the most profound things happened? …Was the secret of never escaping from the greater life the secret of living like a sleepwalker?” Clarice Lispector
“It is not easy to destroy an idol: it takes as much time as is required to promote and to worship one. For it is not enough to annihilate its material symbol, which is easy; but its roots in the soul. How turn your eyes toward the twilight ages- where the past was liquidated under a scrutiny which only the void could dazzle…?” E.M. Cioran
“So now we are going to investigate ourselves together…a journey of discovery into the most secret corners of our minds. And to take such a journey we must travel light; we cannot be burdened with opinions, prejudices, and conclusions. …Forget all you know about yourself; forget all you have ever thought about yourself; we are going to start as if we knew nothing.” Jiddu Krishnamurti
Now that we have witnessed the glories of rapture so easily destroyed by the irrelevancies of the mind, we must find a way to return ourselves to our once blessed state- a way to redeem our sacred spirits from the profanity of the day.
And how is this accomplished? How shall we undo, in one blinding second, what has taken a lifetime to build up? What is the task required of us in order to liberate ourselves from the shackles of lies, superfluities, misperceptions, and useless facts which merely cloud the purity of the rapturous mind? The task is simple: we need only reverse the process of our indoctrination; which is to say, the task is not to learn anything more, not to know anything more, not to remember anything more, but, on the contrary, the task is …to forget.
“We must only be concerned with wiping away…” J. Krishnamurti
In the end, it is not what we accept inside ourselves that matters, but what we eschew; in order to purge the taint from within, we must simply learn to ‘unknow’ ourselves and everything at every moment. We must rise out of context, out of the current paradigm, out of any idea we harbor of life, the world, or ourselves, for, as we shall see as this chapter unfolds, emancipation happens to us not from gain, but …from loss.
Friedrich Nietzsche declared: “The Will to Truth, which is to tempt us to many a hazardous enterprise, the famous, Truthfulness of which all philosophers have hitherto spoken with respect, what questions has this Will to Truth not laid before us! What strange, perplexing, questionable questions! It is already a long story; yet it seems as if it were hardly commenced. Is it any wonder if we at last grow distrustful, lose patience, and turn impatiently away? …[Now] we are learning to forget and not know…we have got disgusted with this bad-taste, this will-to-truth, to ‘truth at all costs’, this youthful madness in the love of truth; we are now too experienced for that…”
The simple fact is that we cannot be tangled in the ubiquitous web of delusions which the mind is akin to, and also be free. Hence the need is not to set about trying to understand our confines- because ‘understanding’ is our confines; we must not strive to know ourselves through the methods and jargon given to us, we must instead release those methods and all of their previous findings. We must extract ourselves from the lie of context.
“You must unlearn that which you have learned.” Yoda
To turn towards the bald, innocent, immobilizing unfathomableness, without any direction, guidance, or expectation; to forget everything anyone has ever said to stop looking for meaning, to remember nothing every instant, that is when the true life of wonder and miracle will again come upon us- when we abandon all knowledge of ourselves, when we lose the ability to recall perspective- when we forget everything.
Chuang Tzu relates a brief anecdote: “I am learning,” Yen Hui said. “How?” the Master said. “I forgot the rules of Righteousness and the levels of Benevolence,” he replied. “Good, but could be better,” the Master said. A few days later, Yen Hui remarked, “I am making progress.” “How?” the Master asked. “I forgot the Rituals and the Music,” he answered. “Better, but not perfect,” the Master said. Some time later, Yen Hui told the Master, “Now I sit down and forget everything.” The Master looked up, startled. “What do you mean, you forget everything?” he quickly asked. “I forget my body and senses, and leave all appearance and information behind,” answered Yen Hui. “In the middle of Nothing, I join the Source of All Things.” The Master bowed. “You have transcended the limitations of time and knowledge. I am far behind you. You have found the Way!”
It is through the emptiness that comes about from forgetting that we are returned to the great enigmatic whole. Or, more precisely, it is not we who are returned to the whole, the whole simply emerges- due to our absence; the whole, arises out of the hole.
Perhaps a little more information will clarify the matter. Let us dig deeper into this ‘forgetting’ business.
By ‘forgetting’ I am not speaking simply about the momentary loss of some object, or the name of some person, I am speaking of absolute amnesia, of a state where everything we thought we were, and everything we thought life was suddenly dissolves (dis-solves) away, and we are left with a blank-slate. We are gone completely, now and forever.
This essential fact is outlined in the anonymously written, unorthodox, mystical tract on wonder, The Cloud of Unknowing, which seeks to return us to our highest stature, not by coming to ‘know’ God, but by ‘unknowing’ everything. It states: “Well, where is the hard work then? Without a doubt it is in the stamping out all remembrance of God’s creation, and in keeping them covered by that cloud of forgetting… [For] if ever you are to come to this…cloud of unknowing [in which God exists]… you must also put a cloud of forgetting beneath you and all creation.”
To enter into the ‘cloud of unknowing’ first we must go through the ‘cloud of forgetting’ which requires us to totally leave the known, which means we must leave ourselves (or at least the sense which we now have of ourselves).
We must disappear without remainder. Nothing must be left of what we thought the world was, or who we thought we were; to forget, is to forget everything. Everything. It is a death. The mind must be abandoned completely.
“Surrender is an act of humility, an acknowledgement that life is a mystery whose depth the mind cannot fathom.” Dan Millman
We must surrender the knowledge we have been given, we must die to our own perspectives, we must die to any conclusion, assumption, presumption, or idea about anything we have ever had; we must die to the idea of ourselves. Only than shall we be empty, unknown, unknowing, and free.
Cioran announced: “To get back to the source of these expressions of the vague, we must make an affective regression toward their essence, must drown in the ineffable and emerge from it with our concepts in tatters. Once our theoretical assurance and our pride in the intelligible is lost, we can try to understand everything for itself. Then we manage to rejoice in the inexpressible, to spend our days in the margin of the comprehensible, and to wallow in the suburbs of the sublime. In order to escape sterility, we must wear Reason’s mourning…”
We must forfeit what we believe is our treasure. We must give up what we claim is our need. There is nothing we need to know, but everything we need to unknow. We must lighten the load if we are to fly.
The only way to return to the Mystery is to detach ourselves from the context of unmystery; to wipe the slate clean, over and over again, and to never get caught in the static drawing. This is to become completely ignorant of what we thought life was, or is, to lose all concepts, and to ease back through ignorance to the unimaginable Source of all that is.
“It is only when we discard all knowledge that we begin to know.” Henry David Thoreau
We then begin to ‘know’, though not in a conceptual, intellectual way, but rather in a more intimate, experiential, holistic, indefinable way; for conventional ‘knowing’ is ever confined to a limited perspective and cannot of itself encompass the whole.
Life, then, has more redemptive power as the Great Mystery (i.e. it returns us to our true selves) only when we see it truly, as it is- the one, great, all-inclusive enigma.
When finally we forget the false way of knowing ourselves and everything, and wake up (again) to the fact that we know nothing- that is when existence returns to its authentic state, and we return to our authentic way of ‘being’.
Jean Paul Sartre expressed this process, exultantly confessing: “I couldn’t remember…any more. The words had vanished, and with them, the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference men have traced on their surface. …It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of existence. I was like the others. …I said with them: The ocean is green, that the white speck up there is a seagull, but I didn’t feel that it existed. …And then suddenly existence had unveiled itself.”
Existence ‘unveils’ itself, when we lift the veil of our preconception- when we forget how we used to view the world.
“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” Lao Tzu
Freedom comes from a form of creative decomprehension; there is no valid symbology, understanding, nor thought which cannot not be gotten-out-of (i.e. escaped from, thus ‘unveiling’ existence in its nude reality) by acontextual intent; we are released from the trap of the mind by the unharnessable freedom of unknowing; we are released from our bondage by re-cognizing life as it truly is- inconceivable.
Complete ignorance is the only unbiased, unhindered cognition, producing the ‘no mind’ inherently necessary for the window of wonder to re-open; in such ignorance everything filters through the new openness, for there are no longer walls; the individual is redeemed back to unity through the spaciousness of their limitless mind. Which is to say- Absolution is …the absence of solution.
Lispector arrived at the same conclusion in one of her articles, when she wrote: “…there comes a moment of revelation about life, about myself, about others, about true art, and a sudden awareness that even the greatest of abstractions are not really abstract. The only drawback about such moments is that I forget them almost immediately. As if this were our pact with God: to see and forget rather than be struck down by knowledge.”
It is our need, our right, our privilege, and our duty to forget; though it is a vocation that gains us no wealth, success, nor applause. And yet it is the task of every earnest person, consumed with the affinity for reality- at all costs. And the cost is …everything; every scrap of belief, assumption, hope, or concern. In the end we cannot even take our worries with us, for these also are born from the mind, and these also must die with it.
“I maintain that your natural state is one of ‘not knowing’.” U.G. Krishnamurti
We must learn to constantly do-away-with, so as to constantly be living in the equilibrium of awe- which is intimate, in-tune-with, and aware of life’s inherent brilliance. This is the hallmark of forever confronting the unknown within, and all around us.
As the directives from The Cloud of Unknowing continue: “Be willing to be blind, and give up all longing to know the why and how, for knowing will be more of a hindrance than a help.”
It is therefore essential that the individual ‘unknow’ what he or she ‘knows’, ceaselessly abandoning the myth of knowing. The mind must learn to exorcise its contents at every moment, or it will continually be full when it should be perpetually empty.
Passages from the ancient kun byed rgyal po’i mdo continue this point: “…investigation and meditation are particularly pointless [for realizing] the manifestation of truth…and…the self-originating pristine awareness. …If no [theoretical framework] is applied…mind will shine forth as [it has been] from the beginning. …The eye which sees the no-object, sees the wonder. …Who separate themselves from what they hear and what people talk about, they will remain in a state of union with things and Reality, and will be inseparable from them.” [brackets are translator’s]
We must leave no stone unturned, nor any scraps of truth remaining by which the vain and deluded mind might sustain itself. We must forget what we are not, if ever we are to be what we truly are.
A comment by the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Kahn expands upon this theme: “All ideas have been learned from one source or another; yet in time one comes to think they are one’s own. And for those ideas a person will argue and dispute, although they do not satisfy him fully; but at the same time they are his battleground, and they will continue to keep his cup covered. Mystics therefore have adopted a different way. They have learned a different course, and that course is self-effacement, or in other words, unlearning what one has learned; and this is how one can become an empty cup… One may think that in this way one loses one’s individuality; but what is individuality? Is it not what is collected? What are one’s ideas and opinions? They are just collected knowledge, and this knowledge should be unlearned.”
J. Krishnamurti concurred with this idea, stating: “Thought can never bring about innocency and humility and yet it is innocency and humility that keep the mind young, sensitive, incorruptible. Freedom from the known is the ending of thought; to die to thought, from moment to moment, is to be free from the known. It is this death that puts an end to decay.”
Such is the case, that if we are to transform, like the butterfly, first we must enter the darkened cocoon as a confused, suffering, shivering, caterpillar; we must die to the tantalizing light, if ever we are to grow wings, break free, leave the ground, and fly.
“Here is manifest how the Way of Life is found only through a Death, and that, without the deprival of all other knowledge, Self-Knowledge itself is not to be achieved.” Hermetica
We must lose our balance in the world, grasping onto none of the holds that are bound to the limited, conceptual world. We must burn clean-through.
This threshold was crossed by Blaise Pascal who described himself as such: “I know not who put me into this world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself. I am in terrible ignorance of everything…” Here, in Pascal, we have a leading scientific and theological mind, humbly confessing to his total loss of grasp on the meaning of life, and yet that loss was the very wellspring of his inspirations and writings.
To develop this ‘consciousness of our ignorance’, is simply a matter of recognizing the profundity of being, of accepting that what we thought we knew is merely a smoke screen, a ‘fog of words’, blinding us to its immensity.
Osho speaks to this essential recognition, proffering: “You know that nothing can be known, you know that ignorance is primordial, you know that life is a mystery and is going to remain a mystery, and you know that truth is not only unknown but unknowable. You are freed from the illusion of knowledge.”
And so we must undo what has been done to us, and the only way to undo it is to forget; to become innocent again, to disappear from our own sight, for the further we continue to imbibe more facts, theories, and conclusions, the more, in the end, we will have to purge from ourselves in order to return to purity, innocence, and emptiness, which is our inherent nature.
“Because the human scene is entirely a misconception through misperception, any thought…must be relinquished in order that we may see the ever-present Reality.” Joel Goldsmith
Thus the attainment of ignorant wonderfulness is more a matter of ejecting the mind’s effluvium than of any effortful accumulation of understanding. All we need to do is be stoically aware of the impotence of the mind; to simply and completely accept that we do not understand the greater part of who, or what, or why we are.
It is merely a matter of understanding that we do not understand, that is all.
“To study ourselves is to forget ourselves.” Dogen
That is, to study ourselves is to dis-recognize ourselves.
The more we look into ourselves with sedulous, blank honesty, the more we lose the words we were given to describe ourselves; and the more we step out of our everyday habits and perceptions, the more we realize we have no clue about ourselves, except that we suddenly become a greater and greater mystery continually, at every moment. That is when we begin to see ourselves truly.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj stated: “You give reality to concepts, while concepts are distortions of reality. Abandon all conceptualization and stay silent and attentive. …[For] the spirit touches matter and consciousness results. Such consciousness, when tainted with memory and expectation, becomes bondage. Pure experience does not bind… Self-forgetting is inherent in self-knowing… Free from memory and expectation, I am fresh, innocent, and wholehearted.”
And Samuel Beckett synopsized this realization nicely when he wrote: “All has proceeded all this time in the utmost calm, the most perfect order…the meaning of which escapes me. No, it is not that their meaning escapes me, my own escapes me just as much. …Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end.”
“Because I know I shall not know.” T.S. Eliot
To be ourselves- that is the only thing we are after. It is very simple, and very hard. We open ourselves up by forgetting, we forget ourselves by studying ourselves, and we study ourselves by letting go of the mind and its shackles- by seeing life new again, without praise, disdain, right, wrong, bias, judgement, or expectation. “The mind which is not crippled by memory has real freedom”, declared Jiddu Krishnamurti.
And thus “The loss of memory,” admitted Anais Nin, “was like the loss of a chain. With all this fluidity came a great lightness. Without memory I was immensely light, vaporous, fluid. The memory was the density which I could not transcend…”
Kahn describes this experience as such: “A really musical soul is someone who has forgotten himself in music; just as a real poet is someone who forgets himself in poetry, and a worldly soul is someone who has lost himself in the world. And godly is the soul who has forgotten himself in God. …[Such individuals] altogether lost the idea of their own being, and in that way they deepened and became one with the thing they had come to give to the world. The key to perfection is to be found in forgetting the self.”
Every step of this re-awakening is death, but only the death of facts and labels, and these are already dead. Courageously dying in the mind is the only way to re-create an opening for the true and the real to occur, for nothing new will ever be born from a lie.
What we have called ‘knowing’ is so thoroughly erroneous that the only truth lies in the absence of all we know, not in the addition of further facts.
Writing about one of her characters, Clarice Lispector delivers one of her subtle observations about this process, stating: “Then by means of a very familiar lack of comprehension the man at last began to be himself in an indistinct sort of way.”
To be ourselves is to know nothing. In such a state of unworrying acceptance of ‘being’, without ‘doing’ anything about it, there it is that we shall find and be ourselves uninhibitedly.
“My dearest, you may recite or listen to countless scriptures, but you will not be established within until you can forget everything.” Astavakra Gita (16.1)
To become established is to ‘know that you shall not know’, it is to find and be the true mystery which we are, which is to accept our incomprehension without a shred of doubt, and to give ourselves up to the enigma of life completely, more completely, in fact, than if we knew all and everything from the moment we were born. Genius is not that which claims to know, but that which recognizes the unknowability of being. And the genius of our beings is ‘established’ when we take firm root in idiocy.
Henry Miller concluded his personal path when he wrote: “I grow more ignorant every day- purposely so!”
To purposely ‘grow more ignorant’? This sounds like shooting yourself in the foot. You’d have to be a complete idiot to attempt something like that. But, then again, that is the goal we are after here- to become complete, lucid idiots.
“Keep forgetting and don’t remember anything. It can happen.” Swamiji Shyam
As such, Clarice Lispector described her character’s iconoclastic idiocy, stating, “And soon, with the great pleasure that there is in the restraint of one’s own energy, he put himself once more into a state of ‘not knowing very much.’”
‘To forget’, then, requires only the desire to forget. We must have intent to undo. We must be the cleaners of the internal mess. We must be the fire which sunders everything to ash, and leaves a perfect hollow.
“And I pray that I may forget
these matters that with myself
I too much discuss
Too much explain.”
It is simply a matter of how serious we are; whether we really are willing to die as caterpillars, so that we might fly away as butterflies.
The truth of the matter is that to forget is to lose without thought of gain, and to gain without thought of loss. For the only thing we ever lose is the memory of what ‘has been’, we never lose the moment, for the moment always ‘is’, and it is our task to make each moment more and more important, more and more real, and the only way to do that is to lose all sight of the past, to discard the baggage we carry, to regain spontaneity, to see ‘what is’ as it is, not as it has been in the past.
U.G Krishnamurti adds to this categorical necessity; of this intent, he declares: “My motive is direct and temporary; …I am only interested in making it crystal clear that there is nothing to understand. …As long as you think, accept, and believe that there is something to understand, and make that understanding a goal to be placed before you, demanding search and struggle, you are lost and will live in misery. …So…there is the actual need to be free from answers themselves. The search is invalid because it is based upon questions which in turn are based upon false knowledge. Your knowledge has not freed you from your problems. …So freedom exists not in finding answers, but in the dissolution of all questions.”
Infinity lies waiting for us to perceive it, we must only polish the lens first in order to not see what is not there.
This is the via negativa path, the abandonment of all the mind’s securities, the jettisoning-over of all that we think we are, of all that we could, or should, or want to be, and thus falling back faithfully into the great sea of awe and unmeaning. Only then shall we be empty of conventional knowledge, open, pure, innocent, capacious, and ready for the impossible.
“The knowledge beyond knowledge is my knowledge.” Kabir
We begin to live completely in the moment, and in the mystery, without the hindrance of ‘what?’, ‘how?’, or ‘why?’, when we are free of the need to know.
We are infinite just as we are, only we are clogged with the detritus of all we are not.
And so we must “cleanse the doors of perception”, as William Blake suggested, and this requires cleansing the mind, for only in doing so do we re-awaken to life’s novelty and allow Beauty to flow uninhibitedly through us.
Thus Nietzsche was able to claim: “…the blissful ecstasy that arises from the innermost depths of man, ay, of nature, at this same collapse of the principium individuationis…[is] an insight into the Dionysian, which is brought into closest ken, perhaps, by the analogy of drunkenness. It is either under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which the hymns of all primitive men and peoples tell us, or by the powerful approach of Spring penetrating all nature with joy, that the Dionysian emotions awake, in which the subject vanishes in complete forgetfulness.”