The problem with “I know”

maxresdefaultThere is an old story  – with many iterations – of a Zen master who was asked how to obtain enlightenment by a routinely vague character; usually someone of importance or stature.

Here’s a version:

Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away.

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

How many times have you been telling a story or explaining a point and the other person’s response is a bland, soulless “I know”? Like: OF COURSE, you figured out quantum mechanics and my pithy interest in the topic (and my interest in sharing it with you) is common knowledge that only a fool would repeat! Well Duh!

It’s a one-way street. A closed door. A slap in the face. A punch in the gut. It makes you feel a little yucky and desperately undervalued.

  • It’s rainy out: I know.
  • You shouldn’t eat that: I know.
  • We have to be there by 8:00: I know
  • Don’t climb on that dead branch because you’ll fall out of that extremely tall tree: I know (true story and I didn’t listen to my uncle and I snapped, crackled, and popped all the way down)

Saying “I know” is a dead end: but not for the person telling the tale. For the person saying “I know”. You have effectively blocked yourself from leaning into a potentially interesting conversation, learning situation, or most important, providing space to someone who is sharing something they find valuable.

What would it be like to remain silent? Or better yet, ask questions. Get curious and find out what’s driving the desire to talk about the subject. And for the non-quantum mechanic talks (i.e. it’s rainy, watching what you eat, being on time), how about the fact that all of these things show that a person cares about you?

But you don’t need that, right? You got this. You’re a badass mother-trucker!

Deep breath.

Sometimes, I know you know. But I just want to talk. You are meaningful to me… and I want to be near you. I want to hear your voice. And, maybe I’m feeling small and I want to be heard. I stay locked inside all day and want to get out and stretch my legs.

Answers are a commodity that can easily be summoned from the interwebs and your smart relative who seems to have learned and done everything already. Went to Peru and did ayahuasca? Oh yeah, I flew first class to Peru, had sex on Machu Pichu and did ayahuasca three times (at once) while finishing my dissertation on how to be the most awesome person in the whole world!

I know.

William Shakespeare said that “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” When Chaerephon asked the oracle of Delphi who the smartest person to ever live was, the response was that it was Socrates due to what is now known as the “Socratic paradox”, something that Socrates intimately understood about himself. “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

“You don’t learn much when you’re talking” – Jack Nicholson

So listen up!

Because I think I know something about knowing nothing: life is much more of an adventure, more fun, more gregarious and transforming when you stop being right and start being open. Notice the difference there: the opposite of ‘right’ is not ‘wrong’.

This is all for you. The gift you give someone with the space you allow for their thoughts and dreams to manifest and bloom is such a wonderful place to play.

Be the silence that listens. Only then will you know.

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