Knowledge as a Tool

“Are you using knowledge, or is knowledge using you?” This thought-provoking question was directed to him by don Miguel Ruiz Jr.‘s grandmother. It ended up, twenty years later, being the basis of his book, The Five Levels of Attachment. In it he explains that as our level of attachment to a belief or idea increases “who we are” becomes directly related to “what we know”.

In a number of recent posts, I have discussed the value of tools: mentors and coaches, books, videos and audios, and so on. However, there is a danger that we become ‘attached’ to these tools and the information they provide. As don Miguel Ruiz Jr. puts it: “who we are” becomes directly related to ‘what we know’.

In the introduction, he tells the following story that really hits home:

“Though she spoke no English, my grandmother gave sermons and lectures across the country. My apprenticeship began with translating my grandmother’s lectures from Spanish to English. For many years, I awkwardly stumbled over her words, and my grandmother would just look at me and laugh.

One day she asked me if I knew why I stumbled. I had all sorts of answers: you are speaking too quickly, you don’t give me a chance to catch up, some words don’t have a direct translation…She just looked at me silently for a few moments and then asked, ‘Are you using knowledge, or is knowledge using you?’

I looked at her blankly. She continued, ‘When you translate, you try to express my words through what you already know, what you think is true. You do not hear me; you hear yourself. If you are looking through life and translating it as it goes along, you will miss out on living it. But if you learn to listen to life, you will always be able to express the words as they come. Your knowledge has to become a tool you will use to guide you through life but that can also be put aside. Do not let knowledge translate everything you experience.’

I nodded in response, but it didn’t dawn on me until many years later what my grandmother was truly talking about. Throughout life, we constantly narrate, or commentate on, everything we do, say, see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. As natural storytellers, we continuously keep the plot moving forward, sometimes missing millions of subplots that are developing on their own. It is like taking a sip of wine and saying, ‘It’s a bit dry; it has definitely aged well, but I can taste the bark. I’ve had better.’ Instead of simply experiencing the joy and flavours of the wine, we are analyzing the flavour, trying to break it down and fit it into a context and language we already know. In doing this, we miss out on much of the actual experience.”

An absolutely wonderful book, with a great message for me! Listen to life!


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