06/11/2011 11:44 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2011

The Freedom of Not Knowing

Is life worth living without a goal?

Do we ever really know where our lives are leading or what we are doing? Our culture places an enormous premium on the accumulation of knowledge and the development of strategies to achieve our personal ends -- including our spiritual goals as well as our career ones. And there are many good reasons why it is right to do so. Scientific knowledge, self-knowledge, specialized knowledge: all of these can deepen our understanding and relationship to life and to each other, and give us tools with which to be useful not only to ourselves but to the culture at large. Knowledge is enriching, powerful, and often inspiring. Strategizing can be a rational and intelligent use of our time and resources toward a particular end.

As a culture, we like to think we know a great deal, and that our knowledge is taking us on an ever-improving trajectory. We know so much that we can be forgiven for thinking that with enough commitment, resources and time we shall eventually solve every human problem and break every code that nature has to offer. We are cracking so many genomes and developing so many spiritual practices that surely we are on the verge of a new dawn, in which humanity's capacity for wisdom will outweigh its capacity for foolishness. Surely we know better by now than our forbears ever did.

We like to know because knowledge seems to give us control -- over ourselves, our future, even over our environment. But is the accumulation of knowledge, either inner or outer, really the answer to our deepest questions? Of course, it has a role, but the older I get, the more I have come to wonder. I have come to wonder at the remarkable fact that I am sitting here at all, typing words into a screen without knowing whether I will be here even the next moment; whether some imminent failure in my apparently healthy body is about to launch me into some unexpected chapter. Or to an abrupt end of my story. What keeps me upright? I really don't know. Nor do I know what today holds; I don't even know much about this moment I am living now. I don't really know what the purpose or meaning of my life is, or even if there is one beyond what I am doing and being in this very moment. Then, what and where is the reason in love? Globally, are we moving toward greater wisdom or ever more foolishness? I don't know. I just don't know.

Over time, I have come to see all this unknowing not as a defect but as a gift. It fills life with a freshness, with unexpected possibility, and a wider, more open sky. I now welcome the fact that I don't know much of anything at all; especially about those things that so many of us fret over daily: Who am I? What am I doing here? What am I meant to be doing? Harvard has no answer for questions like these. Most of us have felt like Hotspur at times, when Shakespeare has him say, in "Henry IV Part 1":

"A plague upon it!
I have forgot the map!"

But as the mythologist Joseph Campbell reminds us, "We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." Not having a map can be interesting, even inspiring. It can offer a space in the mind for the unexpected, even the undreamt of, to swoop in and take us by surprise and perhaps lead us in an entirely new direction. It can awaken us to new ways of seeing and being. It may not be culturally correct, but it is alright -- even wonderful -- not to know who and where you are.

Not having a map, however, needs trust. Trust that not knowing what we should be doing or where we should be going has its own intelligence and value. Trust that where we are now is where we are meant to be, whatever it feels like. Otherwise we would be somewhere else. Here is our starting place. Right here is the thread of our lives leading us forward; not in our thoughts, not in our hopes or fears, but in the momentum of life itself moving through us. But the inherent wisdom of life, the organic intelligence of it as shows up in our particular and personal circumstance, needs an open space in the mind, free of strategizing and scheming, to reveal what it knows.

Once, in the early 1970s, a penniless refugee from the Chinese Cultural Revolution came to my door in London. He had my address from some advertisement I had placed in the local newspaper. He didn't know why, he said, but when he saw my name he felt a prompting from his deceased grandfather to make contact. His family had all been killed during the revolution, and the night before his escape to the West he had a dream in which his grandfather was showing him the stepping-stones that lay across the local river.

"At night you can only see one stone at a time," his grandfather's voice had said. "Your life will be like this. Trust it."

Since then, I have often felt his grandfather was speaking to me. All I know now is that I am on my way, one step at a time, following the wind and a still beating heart; and that is enough to be grateful for.

After all, as Helen Keller said, "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."