Accumulating Knowledge

As someone who thrives on meeting new people and new ideas, I have found the past year and a half incredibly challenging. Throughout all of this uncertainty, however, I have found solace in a small group of individuals from a variety of countries. This group has allowed me to participate in thoughtful and engaging conversations with people from New Zealand, Scotland, Germany, Finland, and Sweden — along with people from other areas of the United States.

This band of individuals began as a book group. Each week, we would gather to read and then discuss sections from David Bohm and Jiddhu Krishnamurti's dialogue, The Ending of Time. Being a transcript of a free-flowing exchange, The Ending of Time covers many concepts. Despite being a noteworthy physicist, Bohm questions many assumptions of modern society — including the importance it gives to the accumulation of knowledge.

Placing more emphasis upon the accumulation of knowledge, than the process of learning itself is rife with inherent dangers. Much of the information we accumulate is highly contextual and only valid within a limited domain or specific set of circumstances. As new situations crop up that we are unfamiliar with — which they invariably do — our reliance upon accumulated information can quickly become more of a hindrance than a help.

I think to a certain extent we have to drop our knowledge. You see, knowledge may be valid up to a point, and then it ceases to be valid. It gets in the way.

Both Bohm and Krishnamurti call attention to the possibility that accumulated knowledge may actually hinder our ability to learn new things. This proposition directly challenges one of the core myths of the modern Western mindset. The idea that more is always better speaks directly to the materialist mindset of many modern minds. I find it fascinating that both Bohm and Krishnamurti seem to have realized that this materialistic mindset has the potential to permeate all aspects of a culture.

From this perspective, the signature of a materialistic mind could be viewed as the desire to accumulate in any realm, with the pattern being essentially the same in the physical, mental, and spiritual realms. The idea that simply accumulating knowledge is distinctly different from learning is a recurring theme throughout many cultures.

Both Zen monks and Sufi mystics speak to the importance of “letting go” or “emptying out” when one is intent upon learning something new. Somewhat intriguingly, both cultures use metaphors associated with food and nourishment to get their points across.

The idea that “nothing more can be put into a pot that is already full” is attributed to the mystic branch of Islam known as the Sufis by author Idries Shah. Joe Hyams, the author of Zen in the Martial Arts, tells the story of a Zen master who invites a university professor to tea:

A university professor meets a Zen master and tells him how much he has always wanted to explore Zen. After this conversation, the Zen master invites the professor over to his house for tea. The professor gratefully agrees. After a time, it becomes apparent to the Zen master that the professor is more interested in talking about himself than exploring the intricacies of Zen. At one point in the conversation, the Zen master reaches over to refill the professor’s cup. Rather than stopping when the cup is full, the master continues to pour, causing the cup to overflow. The professor, who is unable to contain himself, finally says “Stop! Can’t you see that no more will go in?!” To which the Zen master replies, “You, like this cup, must empty yourself of your ideas before you are ready to receive my teachings.”

I have always been intrigued by the power of myths to shape our worlds. Many of the most powerful myths operate behind the scenes. Instead of being hidden, these stories remain outside of our awareness because of their ubiquity. Even if they make their way into our awareness, questioning these myths often seems silly.

Who could question the idea that knowledge is a good thing, and that the more knowledge one accumulates, the better off they will be?

Is it possible that one of the keys to continuous learning is setting aside this knowledge so we can explore things just as they are?

These are the types of questions that both Bohm and Krishnamurti ask us to contemplate throughout The Ending of Time. In many ways, this book represents an invitation for all of us to explore our experiences more fully, outside the encumbrances of our ideas. If we are able to do this, paradoxically by “doing” less, might we end up deepening our relationships not only with ourselves and others but even the world around us as well?