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Wisdom & knowledge

Wisdom in the mind is better than money in the hand.

Look at the sign that was on the wall of the classroom in China where my daughter Melanie was teaching this summer (left). It’s got a Chinese ring to it, and yet it’s a universal message. Still, it bugged me. Schools are places of knowledge, not wisdom. Wisdom cannot be taught, only found within oneself (which is why it’s also called insight). The sign on the wall implies that knowledge is equivalent to wisdom, which it’s not, or that it necessarily leads to wisdom, which it doesn’t.

What’s the difference? For example, knowledge tells me all about my bad habits — they hurt me; I’d be better off without them. That knowledge, however, doesn’t change those habits one bit. They might even grow stronger. That’s why trying to quit smoking, lose weight or become more tolerant can frustrate the hell out of you. Knowledge is a way of objectifying the world and our place in it. To learn how to be objective, we go to school. Knowledge tells you what to do, but not how to do it. For that, you need insight.

Insight is subjective; it comes from within. It’s intuitive. We don’t learn to be aware — we just are; whatever we pay attention to is reflected in our minds. Insight can’t be learned but it can be trained — by cultivating attention. That’s why we start by watching the breath and letting go of thoughts.

Look into the eyes of newborns. They know nothing, but they’re full of attention. As they start to accumulate knowledge, everything changes.

The more we learn, the less attentive we become. Knowledge brings illusions of control; it reaches critical mass in our teens, when we think we know it all and can do anything. That’s when we begin in earnest to ignore the simple joy of being. Now the human mind becomes a bottomless pit demanding to be filled. We forget what was once obvious: that it’s already filled with the light of awareness.

That’s why, when we start watching the breath, knowledge struggles against the light. “Am I sitting the right way? I’m no good at this. Why am I bored? Shouldn’t I feel blissful?” Similarly, we might study mindfulness, attend spiritual conferences and meet great teachers — but never stop and let go. It’s as if we can’t move forward without first finding the right answer, but being isn’t a problem; it needs no explanations, no solutions, no answers.

Mindfulness is hard because we tell ourselves it is. In reality it’s child’s play — literally. Just acknowledge that the chatter is not mindfulness and that the bits in between are, and they’ll gradually become more frequent.

Make no mistake, we need knowledge. It’s indispensible for work, to raise a family, to play and relax — but it becomes a control freak, threatened by insight. It portrays insight as boring, which is why people laugh at meditators, and why we beat ourselves up when we don’t get it ‘right.’ We just sit there doing nothing. What a waste of life!

There’s room for both knowledge and insight. In fact, only with both do we become whole. Understanding this helps us move forward, towards allowing insight to do its stuff. The difficulty is that, as adults, we insist that everything is processed through the filter of the objective mind. Trusting your insight is a leap into the unknown; or rather, into the forgotten.

Go on — let go!

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2 responses to “Wisdom & knowledge”

  1. Robert S.

    “Knowledge speaks; Wisdom listens” — I’m told the author is Jimi Hendrix, believe it or not!

    I also like the idea behind these two:
    “Humility and knowledge breed wisdom.” ~ Anonymous
    “Knowledge cuts up the world. Wisdom makes it whole.” ~ Brazilian proverb

    It is not just the mental effort, the will, which we certainly must learn to exercise to quiet ‘what we think’. It is also the ego-damping. In that silent listening for synthesis and inspiration, we become acquainted with the possibility of humility.

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