Not Knowing & Junk Art

In my fifth grade art class we had an impromptu discussion yesterday about how school is filled with the expectation that the students "know things," and how that can make them afraid to be ok with "not knowing." The pressure to know is intense in school. “Knowing stuff” is what school tends to be all about, and it begins to work its way into how the students relate to all of their experiences, encouraging them to practice authority, certainty, prediction…. and expectation.

Some of my students had come to class with a fixed opinion about something we had never done. But how can you know what it will be like, if you’ve never done it? I ask. You are cheating yourselves out of a chance to have an adventure, a discovery.

If you come to class thinking you know what will happen, or what you will or won't be able to do, then your mind will be filled with that idea, and you won't have room to see what is really there. The students are intrigued.

"Not knowing" is the greatest place to be if you want to learn, I suggest to them. Or to hear a friend talk, when they are sad, or to hear what someone is saying when you are in a disagreement. Or to see what is right in front of you. It is totally open, and everything can come in. (“Ugh,” I hear the voice in my head (that tireless inner critic) say, “I am making this sound so hopelessly simplistic.”) But the students, often inattentive and fidgety at the end of the day, are riveted by this idea. “That’s like junk art!” one boy says, “You never know what you’re going to make, and you always get something awesome.” Junk art is when students make things from the household "junk" and scraps people bring in – corks, bottle caps, egg cartons, scrap wire, etc. I have shelves full of this kind of stuff for them to work with when they finish their assignments, and every few weeks I let them spend the whole class on this. The announcement that it is a junk art day sends them into a euphoric frenzy.

We wonder together whether you could go through life as if it were junk art, open to the possibilities of what is all around you and letting go of expectations and fixed ideas about things… a shoe box becomes a haunted house, a bottle cap is a wheel on a race car. What would your life be like if you brought to it the same open eyes and delight and absence of preconceptions that you bring to junk art…. and also the willingness to mess up and readjust without fear of failing? cool, they said, can we start now?

Easy to say this to students - that “not knowing” is a place of wisdom. But to truly practice this in daily life? For me, it’s really fucking hard.

I’ve been conditioned to try to know what’s up.

To have beliefs and to stand by them, righteously.

And I want a roadmap.

I was at a training last year where this theme kept coming up: we feel deeply hurt if our parents didn’t give us a roadmap, didn’t serve as good role models for how to be healthy adults. Basic psychology tells that the pain form those childhood betrayals by our parents or mentors can keep informing the present like an insidious subtext and keep us stuck. We come from childhood with a lot of junk. Issues, conditioned fears and doubts, anger. But what if we could see the junk as a treasure, not something to just throw out. What if we could look at it with child-like, inventive eyes and transform it, make art out of it? And what if the fact that we don’t have a roadmap lets us look at the whole terrifying/beautiful scene, not just the road we’re supposed to follow?

I had been thinking before of junk art as a metaphor for that aspect of practice where you work with difficulty (and stuckness) itself as the vehicle to waking up, rather than seeing it as a roadblock. The trash is the gold. It gives you something to work with, and the more painful the problem, the greater your opportunity to really shake loose from your stuckness, undo your conditioning.

In vasrajana buddhism, it is said that you “eat the poison” and it becomes medicine. You transform the gritty junk of everyday life into the path toward awakening. You don’t run away from it or rise above it, you go straight into the heart of it, you eat it.

I like the connection the students make between “not knowing” and junk art. If not knowing is fertile ground for junk art, then maybe not knowing is just as powerful in helping us transform difficulties and the “junk” we bring from childhood into the art of awareness and aliveness. The not knowing is what gives the quietness and openness to be able to observe myself and what’s around me without a script, without judgment. And it is that clear observation, without a desire to judge or figure out or solve, that offers the possibility of becoming awake, present. From dharma teachers I have heard over and over that observing pain or difficulty with honesty and without hope of solving, is what sets you free… to be here, now.

Pema Chodron writes:

“This is not about problem resolution. This is more open-ended and courageous approach. It has to do with not knowing what will happen. It has nothing to do with wanting to get ground under your feet. It’s about keeping your heart and your mind open to whatever arises, without hope of fruition.”

I wonder what it would be like to just let go and find a way to be ok with not knowing? To be ok with not having that road map, not judging myself and others and my messiness and reactivity? What would that feel like? What if that did not instill fear but the thrill and curiosity my young students feel toward junk art?  Children go to that place more easily than we do, because their whole world is still a gathering and a not knowing. Somewhere along the line I was taught that it is important to “know”… know what I am doing, know why I feel what I do, know what other people are thinking. But what would it be like, if I could really be present to what was in front of me without pre-conceptions and expectations?

I am asking because i feel so far from being able to do this. The more I pay attention, the more I see how my reality is funneled through the frame of my assumptions, expectations, predictions, and narratives about myself and others.

But the more I notice this, the more I long for presentness and what is Real.

Isaac comes up to me with a scrap of cardboard, a cork, a shred of fake fur he found on the floor and 4 pony beads. We set to work with the glue gun, and I ask him what it is. Chuck Norris on a skateboard, of course! He tells me they are making a series of trash warriors. Heh...  trash warriors    - I love that. :)

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