Monday, March 28, 2011

the outer/inner limits

People with two brain cells to rub together can sometimes concede that there was a limit to what they knew or could know. They are smart enough to see that no matter how diligent or devoted anyone might be, there simply was no way to know everything. A certain modesty -- contrived and otherwise -- kicks in: There is a limit to what you can know.

When I worked as an apartment-painter in New York, I bought most of my paint from a particular paint store. Janovic, at the time, gave me less of a contractor's discount than I might have received elsewhere, but all of their sales people were former painters -- people who had often spent years on the job. As a one-man operation, I wanted to give my customers the best I could by way of work and by way of information and when I didn't know something, I wanted to be able to ask someone who could do more than read a label or spout philosophy or make a sale.

The most useful thing about the salesmen at Janovic was that they were capable of saying the three words that meant most to me as someone looking to build some integrity into his work. The words were, "I don't know." Those words were a short-circuiter of bullshit. They meant I could look elsewhere for answers without having to waste time coddling someone else's desire to look good ... and not delivering. The Janovic salesmen were knowledgeable and straight-forward and I appreciated it. They often had more experience than I had. But they were smart enough and confident enough to know that their street-smarts had limits. They were also smart enough to know that the truth brings repeat customers through the door.  People who know everything are a pain in the ass. And more than that, they were bad for my business which relied on customers' trust.

I imagine that the same principle pretty much applies anywhere. Knowing there are limits to what you know is not just some false-humility, tugging the forelock, toe-in-the-sand, looks-good veneer. It's just a simple truth. It is not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It requires no emotional gyrations. It's just a simple truth. There is a limit to what you can know.

But what occurred to me this morning is that if there is a limit to what you know, there must likewise be a limit to what you don't know. And I think it is as important to investigate the one as it is to investigate the other. No one can know everything. But likewise, no one can not-know everything. Not-knowing, by definition, means you know something -- so you can't not-know everything. There are limits.

The Korean Zen teacher, Soen Sa Nim, used to drum it into his students: "Just keep a don't know mind."  I think it was a pretty good encouragement and probably an even better experience, but it certainly wouldn't be a place anyone would want to get stuck.

What I know has limits.

What I don't know has limits.

Nothing fancy. Nothing to get worked up about. Isn't it just plain old stuff?

But if these ground rules are more or less accurate, don't you think a dollop of curiosity is warranted? Not philosophical, not religious ... just plain old curiosity? If what I know has limits and what I don't know has limits, is the one who knows such limitations limited or not? And, whether limited or unlimited, is the one who recognizes or creates limitations really all that unusual or weird or elevated or blissful or compassionate or enlightened?

Intellectually and emotionally, such a question is a ball-buster. It's nonsensically impenetrable. It's like asking "What is the difference between a duck?" And of course people have enough concerns without concerning themselves with what may be pretty worthy of their concern. But for those who can muster a dollop of curiosity, I think it's worth the price of admission.

Wouldn't it be nice to tell the truth just once?

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