It’s liberating to realize that you don’t have to have an opinion about everything. It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to withhold judgment, wait, and let things play out. It’s even okay to let the other guy be right once in a while.
Wisdom is a fluid way of being in the world, not a rigid position paper. Conflict is fathered by certainty. Peace is mothered by patience.
As the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
On one hand, it’s important to carefully discern between truth and falsehood. We gain little by leaving truth-claims unexamined. On the road to knowledge every step counts.
On the other hand, when we elevate our momentary assessment of the moving target of reality to the level of dogma, we distort reality to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable. We trade in the messiness of the real world for a conceptual cage of our own making. Lost in the rarefied air of our own self-serving thought constructs we slip further and further away from the fact that reality is a vast, interdependent field of energy, matter, and consciousness too fluid and fast-moving to ever be reduced to a simple, fixed set of truth-claims.
We have become masters at accumulating information. We’ve mistaken information for knowledge. Not everything can be Googled. Just because you can provide a link or a YouTube clip does not mean you understand. In fact, there may even be an inverse relationship between information-accumulation and insight. Sometimes too much knowledge clogs up the works, clouding our natural, unadorned insight. As Laozi wrote in the Daodejing, “The more you know, the less you understand.” Clarity is the fruit of emptiness. A busy mind is barren ground.
When the Oracle at Delphi declared that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens it sent Socrates on a quest. He didn’t believe he was wise, so he set out to interview everyone with a reputation for wisdom to see how he measured up. He quickly realized that while these allegedly wise men had lots of opinions, they knew no more than he did. In fact, their endless opinions obscured their insight and impeded their ability to learn. The damage caused by their habit of mistaking unfounded beliefs for facts far outweighed whatever actual knowledge they may have possessed. This led Socrates to conclude that since he knew nothing, and admitted it, he was in fact wiser than all of these supposed wise men. From this ancient tale we get a clear message—humility and the admission of ignorance are a sign of real wisdom. As the Zen saying goes, “Don’t seek enlightenment. Just get rid of all your opinions.”
When we move past rigidity of thought we open up to infinite possibility. As the complex and fluid phenomenal realm unfolds before us, we stay in the present moment, keenly aware and awake to what is revealing itself. All energy, consciousness, and matter connects together into a single field of awareness of which we are an integral part. In the language of the mystic Meister Eckhart, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Individuality slips backstage while unity consciousness steps front and center. Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “What you are looking for is what is looking.” All of this is true, according to the Hassidic tradition of Judaism, because “The creator and the object of his creation are a unity inseparable.”
This is why reducing the whole of reality into tiny conceptual boxes is an act of violence. The fluidity of not knowing allows everything in, while the arid rigidity of conceptual categorization blocks everything out—we never get at things-in-themselves, only our thoughts about those things. This is why Laozi wrote in the Daodejing, “In the pursuit of knowledge everyday something is added. In the practice of the Dao everyday something is dropped.”
In a famous Zen story, a learned professor of religion and philosophy went to visit a Zen master. When he arrived the master set the table and began to serve tea.
“Why have you come to see me?” the master asked.
“I have come to learn about Zen,” said the professor. “I have studied all the world’s religions and philosophies. I have learned the languages and read all the books. I am known as an expert the world over. There is very little I don’t know. But Zen eludes me.”
As he was speaking the master poured tea into the professor’s cup. When the cup was full he kept pouring. The tea brimmed over the rim, spilled onto the table and into the professor’s lap.
“What are you doing?” the professor cried as he leaped up.
“Your cup is already so full,” said the master. “There isn’t room for anything else.”
If, as these ancient sources show, emptiness is an essential quality of wisdom, then how do we attain it? By letting go of the illusion that we are in control, and renouncing the delusion that we have to solve every problem, iron every wrinkle, heal every wound, and right every wrong. Far from the philosophy of acquiescence or apathy, this open-hearted stance is a starting point for genuine growth and healing. Our actions are purer, stronger, and more effective when we work without attachment either to our own ideas or to a specific outcome. We should not work to see our own narrow ends met—we should work collaboratively with others and with the energies coursing around us intending simply to do good. Krishna calls this “working without attachment to the fruits of work.” In this consciousness of renunciation we become instruments through which the highest good manifests itself. The Daoists call this effortless-effort or wu-wei. You don’t have to know the final destination before taking the first step. You just have to move in the right direction and let the rest take care of itself.
Otherwise there’s a danger. If we instead seek to impose on the uncarved whole of the world our narrow, cookie-cutter conceptual framework, we give up any chance at genuine wisdom. When we build a limited and limiting worldview full of answers and inflexible doctrines, we have lowered ourselves into a well from which we can only see a tiny piece of the sky. And from our narrow view we see alternative perspectives as the enemy. We live in perpetual conflict with one another and, ultimately, with our own, truer self. This is no small thing. The whole world pays the price for this parochial narrow-mindedness. In his 1933 essay “The Triumph of Stupidity” Bertrand Russell wrote, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And I think we all know what happened to Europe, and to us all, in the dark years following 1933. It is a mark of wisdom to have doubts. It is a sign of danger to have none. Certainty is both the refuge of fools and the bludgeon of bullies.
Certainty is the seed of conflict. Unity is born from humility. As we learn to move beyond conflict into the consciousness of peace, we turn again to the words of Rumi, and this time include the next line: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com