You Know Nothing

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)

Lao Tzu has been explaining to us how to put his teachings into practice. Yesterday, he told us that means we have to quit trying to practice them. Instead of trying, or doing, we simply need to be. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, he told us that we need to quit thinking that we can possibly know or understand the meaning of his teachings. Once again, he recommended, not-knowing knowing. And, by that, he means knowing that we don’t know. In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu continues on this theme of not-knowing.

“I know, I know…” These were the words that I uttered to my father anytime he was trying to teach or show me how to do something. I frustrated my father greatly with my presuming to know anything he wanted to teach me. Why would he get frustrated? Because, by uttering those words, and by believing they were true, I short-circuited any possibility that I would learn. How could I learn? I already knew.

I did, in fact learn a variety of lessons from my father. But only later in life. While I was still young, I was, pretty much, a hopeless cause. But, late in my father’s life, I came to appreciate what was probably the most valuable lesson he had taught me: My presuming to know was a disease. I was sick, beyond belief. I wish I could say I learned the lesson much earlier. I sometimes bang myself on my head, wishing I had never uttered the words, “I know, I know,” to my father.

If you want to know the most profound and helpful words you will ever utter to someone who is trying to teach you, they are “I don’t know.” There it is. Yesterday, I called that our launching point. That is why, in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu begins by saying not-knowing is true knowledge. Knowing that we don’t know. Get that settled first. Then you can proceed to learn.

The Master gets this. That is why she has healed herself of all that presumption, all that thinking she already knows. She is her own physician. And, you and I, too, can be our own physician here. We need to start practicing saying, “I don’t know.” Go ahead, say it, “I don’t know.” That, my friends, is the wisdom that we will need, if we are ever going to put into practice Lao Tzu’s teachings. If we are going to learn the art of simplicity, patience, and compassion, we will simply have to begin with a big heaping portion of humility. Otherwise, we are going to be sick for many years still to come.

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