D8F93EB2-0BE3-42C6-86E4-A25F0AF182AD‘All Pervading’ (detail) – George Frederick Watts, 1887 – WikiArt


Beat on that thick cloud of unknowing
with a sharp dart of longing love,
and do not give up, whatever happens
~ The Cloud of Unknowing (Anonymous)


Habit is a driving force in our lives, yet it doesn’t have good reviews: it is an object of critics. It is making us dull and repetitive. It is non-creative, indolent, designed for our self-protective needs. It is born out of fear, uncertainty. It is a shield for what we feel bullies and thwarts us. Habit is thereby blocking our sensitivity and vulnerability. It debases love. But habit is not the real culprit in this affair: it is a victim of the one more fundamental propensity for knowing.

Humanity is steeped in apparent knowing. We all have a posture of knowing. To know is the great pretension. Games are invented to praise and reward the people who know. The injunction to know is overwhelming. It is the believed road to success and wealth. Not knowing is a humiliation. We could take pride in knowing anything, in being ignorant, in the most ridiculous things, only to save us from being suspected of not knowing. For knowledge is believed to be gold. But although conceptual knowledge is indeed of great value in our society, the posture of knowing is nevertheless the greatest impediment to seeing who we truly are, and how to live our lives free and happy.

We don’t speak here of knowledge in the sense of conceptual or relative knowledge. Most of the knowledge necessary for our body and mind to function in the world is valid and necessary, of course open to mistakes and misinterpretations, but is not what we are discussing here. We are investigating fundamental knowledge, or knowledge as essence, the primal act of being.

We all love to know, but to know is to be small. To know is to stay within the limits of the known, which means being the prisoner of thought. To know is to open the door to a flow of conditioning. To know anything is the beginning of belief, accumulation, aggregation into a self. Our apparent self was created out of knowing. It is made of the residues of knowing, and will impede our looking at anything with a fresh stand. But there is a knowing made of not knowing, a knowing that is non-localised, pure in the sense that it has no referent as knowledge or the thing known. It cannot be spoken of, cannot be made into an idea or theory. It is a knowing so absolute that it can only be lived in not knowing, in no time, in no space.

You have to be not knowing. That’s how you make creativity thrive. That’s how you can be surprised, and where wonder springs from. That’s how you can bow to life — in not knowing. It is your permission to love, the stamp of happiness and peace of living. It is your universal passport, the one with which you embark for new magical lands, no matter where you go: down the pavement in your street, down the thousand times trodden alley, where you meet anew your family and landscape, your brothers and sisters, every one of these never met before strangers you cross — the many fellow travellers of your heart.

But should you be knowing, and all is gone. Should you be knowing, should you have this little wee pretension, and you will tread alone and amongst strangers. Knowing is your death procession and the reason behind your tears. To know anything about who you are will lock you down behind the bars of a cage of your own. Knowing will show you its vicious manners, pushing you down the dark alley of loss and unhappiness. Knowing is a teacher in striving and seeking. It will make you run ceaselessly from one object to another, from one hope to another, from belief to identification, forever begging your happiness to passing strangers.


ED3FD3CC-1E3D-43D2-9A75-B38D4DB1F57A‘Dweller Within’ – George Frederick Watts, 1886 – WikiArt


But if you go down this road for long enough, you will begin to notice that your knowing was never really here, never truly effective. Your knowing is of your own invention, is your fake pretension. You make it up, because you were told to. You were told that you had to be knowing, if you wanted to be a ‘somebody’. So you have been trained in knowing. You followed its course, pushed further its fantasised advantages. You have become a knowing devotee, a religious bigot of the god of knowing. Knowing is now your second nature, your unnoticed addiction.

But look further. Isn’t knowing an impossible task? Isn’t knowing an unreachable goal, the last pretension of your illusory self? You can never succeed in knowing. For the offsprings of it are hopes, beliefs, regrets, sorrow, all ready to breed many and more of the same, rendering you like a self which you will forever strive to free yourself from. Are you not tired of this constant knowing? Are you not by now willing to release this unbearable tension or load? This so barren injunction? For you can never truly know anything. Be sure of that. Know that as your only possible knowledge.

And look around now. Look how all your many avenues of knowing have blocked the open door to the one supreme knowing of your dreams. This ultimate knowing is not seeking to reach, attain, find, obtain, or even understand. It is a knowing made of not knowing. Or rather, the absence of the movement towards knowing is revealing this very pure and primal knowing towards which all your previous, numerous attempts at knowing were in fact directed. This not knowing, this silence, stillness, absence, has nevertheless an all-knowing and all-pervasive nature. It is a contemplative unknowing knowing. It is supreme knowledge, non-accumulative, not limited, not divided. It is a knowledge of one. The point where all possible knowings gather in unknowing. The point when knowing becomes impossible, undesirable. The point when unknowing is the only possibility.

So let all your knowing die and recede in not knowing. This pure light of unknowing is your natural state. This is how a sweet bud at dawn gathers enough power and abandon to unfold and reveal itself naked as a flower. This is how the faint chirp of a robin can make its voice heard in the morning dew, amongst the thriving of a whole universe. This is how you can be realised as — not a body, not a thing, not a self, but — the subtle, unidentified, loving, unknowing knowing of this unique experience of being alive. The unknowable life of just being.



Text by Alain Joly

Paintings by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)



George Frederic Watts (Wikipedia) 
The Cloud of Unknowing (Wikipedia) 

– Other ‘Essays’ from the blog…


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4 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Knowing

  1. After, sitting in silence I suddely had the realization that most people are usually three or four questions away from “I don’t know”.

    What is that? A Chair, What kind of Chair? A wooden Chair. What kind of wood? I don’t know.

    What is that? My Coat, Whats it made of? Leather and Cotton, What kind of Leather, what type of Cotton? I don’t know.

    I’ve also discoverd telling the truth and saying “I don’t know” to social issues or when it comes to other peoples beliefs or concepts saves a lot of grief!

    Thanks for the wonderful writing


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