Newsletter - August 2022
Less Knowledge Is a Good Thing?
“In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.” (Lao Tzu)
Knowledge calls for analyzing things, separating them into parts, naming the parts, and adding them all together again. This is certainly useful to an extent. But the extent is far more limited than we think. The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 48) reminds us knowledge is a pursuit whereas dwelling in the Tao is a practice. And it calls for letting go of things rather than creating and adding them.
Knowledge is very useful. We use it to make what we call sense. We can also go further by using knowledge to predict and control the world around us. This has many useful applications. For example, we can dam rivers and create hydroelectricity, we can repair damage to the human body and prevent illness, and we can send a man to the moon and listen to the stars with radio telescopes. All very impressive.
Will we ever know all there is to be known? No, we won’t. Will we keep pursuing knowledge as long as our inquiring minds are active? Yes, we will. After all, it’s a big undertaking. Talk to any scientist. Before we can push back the frontiers of knowledge, we have to study what’s already known, to prove we’re on the frontier. Only then can we “boldly go where no man has gone before.” It’s a noble pursuit. But it’s a pursuit nonetheless, and one without an end.
Contrast this with the practice of the Tao. There is no pursuit. There is no “end.” If you like the image of an end, then the end is the beginning. If you like the image of a journey, then you arrive without leaving. But the mind has a tough time digesting these phrases, because when you think about them they don’t make sense. They aren’t solid building blocks that can be incorporated into the structure of knowledge. But what if they’re true nonetheless?
The quote suggests that the practice of the Tao calls for not merely letting go of the pursuit of knowledge, but also dropping the building blocks of which we are so fond. It even suggests we do this methodically, dropping a little more each day. What is going on here? Why do the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of the Tao seem to pull in opposite directions?
I think they pull in opposite directions because we typically believe that more knowledge is the answer to everything. We believe the way to understand something is to analyze it, study the (so-called) constituent parts, and then try to understand the world in terms of them. And there is nothing wrong with this. Often it works. As we have seen, the pursuit of knowledge has many useful applications. The trouble starts when we confuse what we know with everything there is and believe knowledge alone should guide all our actions.
What if, in some cases, thought and knowledge were not the solution but part of the problem? Perhaps even the whole problem? This quote reminds us that living in the Tao is a practice, not a pursuit. And it involves letting go of what we think we know. When we trust ourselves to the Tao, we act from beyond thought and knowledge. And when we do, we find that nothing needs to be forced. No interfering is needed. In fact, we don’t need to “do” anything in particular. Our actions simply become part of the flow. And so we become part of the flow.
An example that’s true for me is when I have simply let things go their own way and been surprised at how well they worked out. When I have done this, it’s typically for things I felt didn’t matter too much. But what about bigger things? What if I were to act from awareness rather than from what we call knowledge? This is an unnerving thought, isn’t it? But the keyword is “thought.” Do thought and knowledge really need to be part of the picture all the time? What would happen if they weren’t?
I think one message we can pick up from the quote is that knowledge has its place but that it doesn’t have to be everywhere all of the time. So how do we keep it in its place, as it were? Perhaps one way is to think of knowledge as a tool. In other words, as something we pick up and use when we need to, but when we’re done, we remember to put it away in the toolbox – and close the lid. After all, there’s more to living than making sense of everything and trying to predict and control it.
When we’re confronted with a problem, our tendency is to zoom in to analyze the details – believing the solution lies somewhere among the tiny moving parts. But what if we were to zoom out? What if we were simply to open ourselves to being aware of the big picture instead of the details. Perhaps even a picture so big that we lose sight of everything we think we know, including ourselves. When we stand this far back, the “problem” will likely disappear. Can we pigeonhole and name this big picture? Not really. It’s way too big. Here’s Lao Tzu taking a shot at it. “For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25).
What’s an example that’s true for you where more knowledge was not the answer? Have you found any good ways of letting go of the endless pursuit? For many people, some form of meditation helps. “In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.” What could we drop today?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book or as a paperback from your nearest independent book store, from White Cloud Press, from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)