I alone know nothing


I've been thinking about knowledge, and how oppressive it can be. A phrase came to mind today, after soiling my hands in conversation with people who suppose they know something: 'I alone know nothing.'

I've just looked through the Daodejing to remind myself which chapter has a similar sentiment, it's chapter 20, which, like chapter 19, urges you to discard learning and become free of worries. Chapter 20 is interesting because it speaks about other people having various qualities, which initially sound desirable, but then contrasts them with what 'I' possess, the first-person sage who is speaking, who has none of this. At first it seems self-deprecatory, then it seems almost sarcastic. It talks of other people being bright and intelligent, and 'I alone am obscure'; it talks of other people being meticulously discriminating, yet 'I alone muddle everything together'. I think I understand this chapter much more today, sitting here thinking what is to be learnt by dialogue with those who think they know it all.

Over the years I have had a battle going on inside of me, the Zen and Daoist preference for discarding knowledge and learning combined with a great and seemingly unsuppressible drive to acquire knowledge, to learn things. This may have come to an end recently. I wrote my book on the Yijing half out of love of knowledge and half to get rid of what I had accumulated in my head. It seemed to work better than I thought it would, since lately I have felt quite ignorant on the subject, much like when I looked back through an old textbook of mass spectrometry from my chemistry degree ten years on and found it was voluminously annotated in pencil by a former self who obviously understood all this stuff at the time and was actually deeply interested in it, which I was.

At first I thought it a shame to have so much accumulated knowledge drain out of my head, and I suppose if it was important it would still be there to be called upon, but it's like trying to remember what you were doing yesterday, or the day before, what does it matter? So when anyone asks me I usually say 'I don't know, that was yesterday, I don't retain this kind of useless information'.

Years ago I wanted to reach such a state of being in the moment, but gave up. Yet I seem to have reached it anyway. Now I am starting to understand how the sage can be a sage. He simply doesn't have to try. At all. 'I alone know nothing.' Other people know it all. It's then, after you've come through such a process as I have briefly described, that you start to realise the deep truth in cryptic words. 'I alone am obscure.' And realise that the talents you have formerly used, all the scholarly apparatus, the cross-checking and referencing, though serving some sort of use sometimes (if you're going to research a subject you may as well do it properly rather than in a slapdash manner), are not things you wish to make use of any more, save should the need arise occasionally. That you don't wish to define your existence by what you know, which is ironic given my own single-minded quest for knowledge all this time. It's just that there's something that's come of its own accord.

Utterly aimless, oh, just as if I had no place to go home.
Others have more than enough,
I alone seem to have lost it all.
I have the mind of a fool,
So chaotic, confused.

– from Daodejing 20

Then you see why the sage retreats from the world of people. There is a vast gulf that opens up between him and the world. The constant chatter of those who think they know something would become oppressive to him, but the Dao leads him away. Oh, one can be set apart like this when walking in a crowd, a mountain hut is not a necessity just an image of its ideal. As they say in Zen as a put-down to those who say they cannot meditate unless there is pristine peace and quiet in their surroundings: 'Do you just want to hold an uncrying baby in your arms?' Similarly, in the clamour of contending one can learn not to contend any more, and simply move on, like water, not engaging, pooling in places where people don't like to be (Daodejing 8).

It is deeply satisfying when sentences you've read hundreds of times start to really make sense, make sense because something has happened to you, some deep change, that reveals their meaning as if it was never actually hard to understand, you just weren't in the right place yet. All because I was fool enough to engage in conversation with people who think they know it all, but know less than I have discarded.

Others have a purpose,
I alone am foolish and uncouth.

– from Daodejing 20


I have a sense that I will triumph in the end. I've had it for a long time. I get it in particularly moving moments, something touches me deeply, anything can trigger it, a moment in a film, a paragraph in a book, just a passing thought that expresses it. What I mean by triumphing in the end is quite simple, it's discovering that all along I have been doing exactly what I should have been doing, all along there was never a moment when I was not fulfilling exactly what my destiny was supposed to be. And I glimpse it and a hard lump comes to my throat and sometimes I burst into tears, there it is again, that grace, that almighty grace, and while tears are still streaming down my face I try to grasp its essence, what it really means, and I can't. It is as if I have caught up with myself at last. And a serene peace descends. Yes, all along, I was not deceived, I knew it, and I know it again. Such moments flood into my life as if into the whole universe itself. The beauty of fate, how was it organised, how could it be… yet it is.