Newsletter - October 2021

Knowledge versus Understanding

 

“The more you know, the less you understand.” (Lao Tzu)

 

How so? Doesn’t more knowledge lead to more understanding? Actually, more knowledge leads to more knowledge – which is certainly useful in its own domain. However, the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 05) suggests that understanding is something different. It’s what you experience when you empty your mind of knowledge and all the thoughts that go with it.

 

Typically, we think the way to understand something is to find out about it. To do this, we analyze things into what we like to call their constituent parts. We give these parts different names and investigate how they’re related to each other. Then we connect all the parts together again into a structure that we call “knowledge.” We now have lots of parts, lots of names, and lots of relationships. We can even become quite proud of our knowledge. You can quiz us and find out how much we know.

 

Is this a useful exercise? Sure it is. Along the way we can use our knowledge to predict and control certain aspects of our natural world. 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. But is knowledge the same as understanding? Lao Tzu suggests not. Why not?

 

Knowledge works by separating things into parts; and it can be very useful at the level of the parts. But when we put all the parts back together again, do we now understand the whole? No, not really. All we get is knowledge about the sum of the parts – which is not the same thing. What if it’s a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts? What if the whole were something so big that we could never get to “know” it however hard we tried?

 

The Tao Te Ching suggests the only eternal reality is the Oneness/Wholeness that is everything, all together, all at once, including you. Can we name it? No, not really. Lao Tzu takes a shot at it when he says “It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25). Understanding begins when we let go of separating things into parts and let go of the pursuit of knowledge. This is why Lao Tzu says “The more you know, the less you understand.”

 

I studied sciences as I was growing up. I enjoyed it very much. I liked the basic approach of analyzing things into parts, coming up with hypotheses as to how the parts worked together, and then dreaming up experiments to test whether one hypothesis or another provided the best explanation for the results of the experiments. For me, building knowledge this way was indeed how you “understood” something. I think this is why I have a tough time with Lao Tzu’s quote.

 

However, I think what he’s pointing at is what we become aware of when we let go of thought. When we no longer stand separate and apart from whatever it is we’re observing or thinking about. I think he’s saying that’s where understanding lies. “Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?” (chapter 10).

 

An example that’s true for me is when I trust my awareness of something without needing to know why. For example, like anyone else, I can often tell when someone else is upset, or happy, or sad – and respond to them without first analyzing the situation or needing knowledge about the reasons why. Do I find it easy to trust my awareness? Not always. Do I make mistakes? Sometimes. Would it be better if I first gathered knowledge before responding? Most likely not. Just being there and responding is all that’s needed. That’s understanding in action. “The Master views the parts with compassion, because he understands the whole” (chapter 39).

What’s an example that’s true for you? When has more knowledge not been the answer to understanding something? Or when might you have understood something without being able to explain why? Do you find it difficult or easy to trust your understanding?

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:

 

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share this newsletter.

 

Francis

 

(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.)