Not Nearly As Clever As I Think I Am, Still Too Clever For My Own Good

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

The Master is her own physician.
She has healed herself of all knowing.
Thus she is truly whole.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 71, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, Lao Tzu addressed what I think is the greatest difficulty we have with understanding and putting his teachings into practice. It is that we rely on our intellect to grasp what he means, and then try to do what he teaches. We spent most of our time, yesterday, talking about the practice of not-doing. We are human beings, not human doings, after all. If you want to practice Lao Tzu’s teachings, your focus should be on being, not doing. Today, Lao Tzu explains why it is our intellect only gets in the way of our understanding. We need to know not-knowing in order to understand his teachings.

Today, Lao Tzu talks about what counts as true knowledge; and, what is only a counterfeit of the truth. So much of the time, I think Lao Tzu is misinterpreted as being anti-knowledge and anti-education, when what he has always only been is anti-presumption. He insists that our cleverness is nothing more than presumption. When he tells us that in the pursuit of knowledge every day something must be added, he is only warning us that there is no end to that pursuit. You will never know everything there is to know. It is a fool’s errand, if, you are relying on your own accumulated cleverness to increase your understanding of the way things are. Our knowledge of science has greatly expanded since Lao Tzu’s day, we “know” so much more than we did before. And yet, I just imagine Lao Tzu saying the same thing to us today about our presumed knowledge.

It is a disease. The more you know, the less you understand. If you want to truly know, to truly understand, you need to know not-knowing. Not-knowing, knowing that you don’t know, is true knowledge. Why? Because you can’t begin to move toward health until you first realize you are sick. That is what not-knowing is. The realization that you are afflicted with the disease of presumption. As far as diseases go, I think this is a lot like the disease of consumption.

Consumption (now known as tuberculosis) got its name because it seemed to consume the body of the afflicted. With presumption the effects are on the mind. The more you think you know the worse the affliction. Interestingly, I read that Hippocrates, the “father of western medicine”, advised his students not to attempt treating those afflicted in the final stages of consumption because they were only going to die anyway, and it would ruin his students’ reputations as healers.

No wonder the Master chose to be her own physician! You can be your own physician, too! At least with regards to presumption. It only begins with realizing you are sick. You have to move on from there to heal yourself of all knowing. That is, letting go of a little something each and every day. What will I let go of? Every time I think I know, I admit to myself that I don’t. One of these days, I will be whole. I just know it!

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