‘Forgive me Father, for I have sinned!’
This article is a confession for me. I’ve decided against writing this article in the popular format of “people are so ‘x’ these days, and I think they should be ‘y’”. How other people are is no longer a concern for me. Instead, I am going to share a discovery that I have made about myself as a result of my ongoing practice of cultivation. I hope that this will give my readers a little more insight into why we practice like we do and what kind of insights are possible.
First, some context. I am by nature an academic person. I was a straight ‘A’ student in school and finished with a university entrance rank over 90%. I have a good capacity to see and hear something and then near-instantly begin to tear it apart mentally and create an intellectual concept of how it works. Our current world values intellectual knowledge very highly, so this capacity of mine has served me very well for most of my life..
However, it is a double edged sword. I have become (perhaps always have been?) addicted to knowing; especially knowledge of the underlying concepts – the why and how at the root. This is an intellectual knowledge (an insane collecting of information about things)- of proofs and concepts and systems. It can be a great tool if used correctly, though at some point I created a mental perversion out of this tool.
My need to understand intellectually resulted in an addiction to collecting information about something instead of having a direct experience of the same thing – even when the option to have direct experience was available.
There was something of a laziness involved in this process, too – my mental mind is faster at building conceptual frameworks than my physical body is at actually manifesting these same concepts so it was easier and faster for me to just “understand” it rather than do.
The capacity for this kind of abstraction in the intellectual mind has its uses but also many limitations. Abstraction is essentially fantasy – when I build a concept in my mind it is entirely imaginary until it is lived. The problem that my practice exposed is that I was abstracting everything, but not really seeing the abstraction through to its manifestation.
At some point I had stopped using the abstracting as a tool to help me live in the wonder of the world and instead was just living in my constructed fantasy. I had built myself a preconceived idea about how I was, how other people were and how the world was and in the process had completely divorced myself from reality. Because this abstraction happened so quickly, it happened without me noticing it. Even entirely new events were quickly torn apart, analysed and categorised to fit into my pre existing boxes. Nevermind experience – what mattered was that I ‘knew’.
This fast and impatient knowing creates a kind of arrogance. I knew – and the often-not-so-subtle implication was that I knew it better than whoever I was talking to. Sub-consciously I looked down upon people who did not know…either with a fake sympathy – “oh those poor people who don’t know”; or a kind of looking down on the ‘stupid person who did not understand – and never would’.
This was all happening quite internally and sub-consciously of course. I wasn’t actively choosing to behave like such a giant ass (most of the time). I also suspect that the majority of it was camouflaged from others, manifesting to the outside world by subtle expression visible only to the very keen-eyed.
There was even a funny period after some choice reading… where I knew that I shouldn’t “know” – but on compulsion immediately began building a new intellectual box to accommodate this ‘knowing-that-”knowing”-is-not-knowing’. Quickly I was patting myself on the back for being so clever as to have worked it out (and at 30 years of age, too!).
It took a deep experience to start to actually deconstruct the created framework. One that came a fair while after the event of “knowing” about the problem.
Herein lies the difference between ‘knowledge’ and knowledge.
The former is entirely theoretical (even if it is correct; or at some level correct) but the latter is a visceral experience that is lived directly.
This experience of confronting my addiction to ‘knowing’ was quite horrifying. I felt this very ugly part of myself. I was faced with memories of endless reading of internet posts and arguing with strangers online and countless moments of explaining and lecturing like an expert on topics I had only just been exposed to myself(!). It was all an intellectual peacock dance – showing the world (mostly myself) how smart I was. I was even reminded of the countless times my father had said the phrase “you’re trying to be smart but you’re only halfway there” as he roused on me for being a ‘technically-correct-ass-hat’ (my words, not his).
Random internet quote man is talking about me
There was a surge of intense emotions that came with this confrontation. I felt that I had disturbed something that was buried very deep. Deep sadness, anger, and wild cackling at the absolute hilarity of it all came bubbling to the surface at random times (sometimes simultaneously), mostly during my practice. I had a number of weeks in a row where I felt quite flat due to the emotional turmoil happening just beneath the surface. There’s more to come as well. I am certainly not done peering into this mirror of penance.
To move forward required a birth of innocence in my life and my practice. I have begun to let go of my attempt at being an expert; to let my Teacher and tradition guide me in my chosen way. It’s time for me to stop trying to out-smart or ‘hack’ my practice and instead start to live it. Innocence does not have expectation of results. I feel more and more like a child learning to crawl without expecting to know how to run or knowing if walking is a thing that I can do. I don’t even care for standing, learning to crawl is pretty freaking awesome right now.
This burden of knowing which I have begun to put down has been a heavy thing to carry around.
There were so many things that I had to take care of when I ‘knew’ everything – endless contemplation of endless topics and the constant internal creation of scenarios with imaginary adversaries who I would explain my perceived cleverness to and a subtle-but-constant threat humiliation for not knowing enough (it all).
The feeling of not ‘knowing’ is incredibly light and has allowed real knowledge to begin to dance its way through me.
Not knowing where a particular practice leads gave me patience and ease of mind; an enjoyment of where I am right now rather than constantly yearning for the future. This even occurs in the physically demanding or difficult practices.
The extreme intent of trying to fulfill my fantasy (of how to practice cleverly and have a full understanding of what it did before doing it) actually blocked many practices from working effectively.
I have stopped (or at least slowed down the process of) putting my mental mind in opposition to my reality and all of my practices have been exploding with progress since this experience.
Done carrying this garbage, someone else can have it.
There is a seed of doubt that I feel I have planted in myself – and it grows: “how much do I really know about myself and my practice?”
Every time I have made some significant process I have looked back at the previous incarnation of myself – that guy…what an idiot, he knew nothing at all. Maybe the current me also doesn’t really know much at all? Huzzah! This doubt is experienced not as anxiety but rather as a somewhat curious mystery that I am caught up in.
As I progress I have less and less of an idea where my practices (or life) will take me; or what it means for them to be good or not. The nice thing about this is I also don’t care if they are good or not. My motivation for practice lies vaguely between following my chosen guide, doing things that I enjoy and a curiosity to experience the mystery unfolding. All of my predictions about how this was going to go have been horribly incorrect and I have grown tired of fantasizing about where my practice may take me.
It’s time to let go of my safety net and step into the darkness of mystery.
I should make it clear that I still have my history of remembered experience to draw on; my true and unique knowledge that has made me who I am today. The difference is that the fantasy that was twisting the details and exaggerating (or downplaying) things is loosening its grip which allows clarity to grow in its place. This is giving me a much clearer sense of who I am, rather than allowing me to dwell in who I pretend to be.
I still find myself in my expert’s fantasy very often but there is a feeling that I have cracked the stained glass of my intellectual filters and a piece or two has fallen out. I am now working on opening this most glorious window of not-knowing as wide as I can and fasting from intellectual perversion in all its forms with all of the will power I can muster. Thankfully I have an incredible group of friends and mentors helping me along the way, a tradition that specializes in this kind of thing and a Teacher to guide me through the perilous waters of my mind with untold knowledge of his own – I’m sure I would still be trapped in my golden prison without them.