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An important university professor went to Japan to be enlightened about Zen. The Zen master received him and served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor couldn’t believe the Zen master’s carelessness and said: “Stop, it’s over-flowing. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” the Zen master said, “you’re full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

We tend to think we’re open to learning, but really we’re full of our own “knowledge.” We think we know, when we really don’t. One of my favorite saying of Socrates is his response when the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him the wisest man in Athens. Socrates said he’s only the wisest to the degree that he knows that he doesn’t know.

Socrates was considered a nuisance, always bothering people, wanting to discuss truth, love, and important topics about life. Most people wanted to be left alone to do their daily work, but Socrates would get them involved in conversations, delaying them.

Saying that he doesn’t know seems like he’s being humble. But Socrates wasn’t being humble; he was being aware. He knew the importance of keeping his cup empty and his mind open. The ego likes to say “I know” using its “knowledge” to feel important. Learning requires saying “I don’t know.”

Take, for example, climbing movement. We initially learn to climb rocks based on how we walk and climb a ladder: moving one foot and one hand at a time. We “know” this style works until we hit a plateau. To rise above the plateau requires awareness and the willingness to say “I don’t know.” Then we’re open to letting go of the old style and experimenting with moving in new ways, such as moving two hands then two feet. We empty our cup so we can become aware of new ways of moving. We learn that it’s more efficient to move two feet, then two hands.

Even elite climbers fall victim to this “I know” tendency. Perhaps they have a natural tendency to move slowly. Climbing this way works for them. They “know” climbing slowly works because they have evidence of redpoint successes to prove it. Climbing slowly works until they hit a plateau. To rise above it requires awareness and a willingness to say “I don’t know.” Then they’re open to letting go of the old style and can experiment with climbing more quickly.

We empty our cup so we can become aware of new ways of climbing. Once we’ve practiced the opposite of our natural tendency, we can find balance between the two styles.

We all have a tendency to gravitate toward our comfort zones. If a climbing style “works” for us, giving us evidence of end result successes, we think we know. That “knowing” fills up our cup, closes the mind, and shuts down the learning process.

Saying “I don’t know” isn’t weak; it’s powerful. It leaves room for learning. We’re more aware of new information we can utilize, practice, and integrate into our climbing. We constantly look for emptying our cup so we’re receptive to learning.

Like Socrates, be a nuisance with the mind; don’t leave it alone. Instead of falling into unconscious routines, investigate truth, love and important topics about life. Acknowledge that we don’t know. We empty our cup to see what will flow into it.


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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Rick

    Where do you go to learn what you Don’t Know you Don’t Know? This is a favorite question of mine. It’s important not to be open to learning something specific and missing the intended lesson. Matching the subject with the who what where and when is often an adventure on its own and the results are typically quite revealing. Thanks for reminding me that I can apply this to climbing as well.

    1. Arno

      Hi Rick, Thanks for your question and observations. “Where” do you go? All learning occurs in the present moment, so “where” would be “here,” wherever you are now, in this moment. To learn what you “don’t know you don’t know” requires awareness, which comes through observing and paying attention. The “order” for learning begins in the outside world, via our senses, then comes into our being, the mind. This approach is more objective. Most of us do the reverse. We begin in the mind and project our current way of knowing onto the world. So, order is important: the world first; our mind second. Then, we can subjectively determine who, what, where, when… a

  2. Jes

    I especially like the learning tip, which has a lot to do with listening. Some humans have a tendency to stop listening long before the other person has finished speaking, because they’re already forming their answer to what’s being said. I know it as “Already-Always” listening… we’re often already and always forming our opinions and responses instead of actually being present and in the moment with that other person and what’s being said. The empty cup image for me is the ability to empty our mind and be truly present in conversation as well as in learning!
    And here I am relating the e-lesson to something I already knew! Ironic.

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