July 3, 2023

Addiction to Knowledge: Why we need to Learn to Live Now.


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There is a Zen parable many people are familiar with, about a Westerner seeking enlightenment going to an Eastern Zen Master.

Once upon a time, a Westerner comes desiring teaching, and he continues to ask question after question seeking information, so the Master suggests they have a cup of tea. As the Master starts pouring the tea, she overfills the cup while spilling the tea seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s going everywhere. At this point, the Westerner gets frustrated and he shouts, “Enough! Tea is spilling all over, can’t you see the cup is already full?”

The master stops pouring and says, “You are like the teacup. So full of knowledge that nothing more can be added. Come back when your cup is empty and you’ve got a mind capable of receiving anything I have to teach.”

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

While I think this parable demonstrates a common problem many seekers have during their spiritual journey, there is another aspect I’ve found to be true for myself that isn’t typically explored in this story: the addiction to knowledge.

Constantly acquiring new knowledge can seem like a positive trait, just like exercising frequently, or working hard at a job. These are often praised by our modern society, however, all things can go too far in excess.

It’s easy to see on a physical level what can happen if we overdo exercise, because our body will not have time to repair itself. While some exercise is good for us, too much is not; and of course, everyone is going to have their own personal limit.

We can also use these activities like acquiring knowledge, constantly exercising, or spending 60-80 hours per week working as distractions from being present. Since these things are not typically looked at as “vices,” generally no one will call us out as having a problem with addiction.

I’m not saying working or learning are bad things, but when out of balance in our lives, they can be destructive. Anything taken to excess can become an addiction.

But much like any addiction, we can use these activities to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of just being with ourselves and our thoughts. If we are constantly running from one thing to another, it’s easy to miss reality, but it also causes us to skip the most important thing: this moment.

For myself, I used knowledge as a means to escape myself. If I was constantly learning, I could justify it to myself by saying I was doing something good for myself. While learning, I was able to avoid my negative feelings, which might seem like a good thing, but I was only pushing them down temporarily.

Spiritual knowledge was my favorite thing to acquire, and so I would read book after book trying to figure out the secret to life, thinking if I just had another insight I would suddenly get it! However, the irony was that because I kept putting off my life for the next “hit” of information, I was missing the only thing that is real: here and now.

It wasn’t until I became comfortable with being uncomfortable that I realized how much I was running from the present moment, using various techniques to escape from my feelings. I thought I could just live in my head, and feelings were something to be avoided at all costs (except the ones I judged to be positive, which I would then reminisce about long after they had passed).

I thought I could figure out life and that I just needed more information from some future realization, but in fact, this was the one thing that was causing me to miss out on life.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard

It’s actually so simple, it’s hilarious—in that as long as we believe there is something missing from life, we will continue to perpetuate that reality. The mind loves a problem to be solved, and so it will continue seeking one.

Thinking that we can somehow think ourselves out of a problem is like trying to bite our own teeth, or pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps—choose whatever metaphor you’d like. But we cannot use the mind to overcome a mind-created problem.

The best we can hope for is that we reach a point where we’ve acquired adequate knowledge that we can finally say “enough,” and realize it will only get us so far in life.

Usually this comes as either achieving the level we previously thought would make us happy—or conversely, we become so unhappy with our lives in the pursuit of knowledge that we cannot take it any longer.

The seemingly positive route may look like us getting a perfect score on some important test for school, or getting kudos for our smarts from someone we admire. The negative route could cause us to become depressed and wonder what the point of life is any longer when we become disenfranchised with never finding the secret to life.

Either way, the end result is the same, which is that we no longer think the answer lies in more.

For me, it was a bit of both. Perhaps because I’m stubborn, it took me longer to realize than I needed. I had achieved a level of worldly knowledge that I had desired and felt good for a little while. But when that didn’t bring lasting satisfaction, I gave up hope of ever finding contentment.

No one has to go through this though, and all we need to realize is that nothing external is ever going to give us what we really want. When we can accept reality and not try to push it off for some perceived better future moment, or by reminiscing on some imagined past, we realize life isn’t so complicated.

It’s easy to live when we don’t overthink it. It’s been said a billion times in a million different ways, but all we have to do is live in the present moment, and life will take care of itself. The right thought will then arise of its own accord without forcing it.

So what did all this spiritual knowledge ultimately get me?

The realization that I don’t need any more.


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