16 April 2011

Ignorance is Bliss

We have all heard this saying before, but we mostly think of ignorance as a choice-less state. A place which precedes knowledge and is somehow defined by easiness, light-heartedness, even a hint of (mental) simplicity. To be ignorant, one needs no effort at all. The ignorant, another preconception convinces us, feel no pain.

Let me show you a different side to ignorance.

I thoroughly believe that Socrates was right when he said that to acknowledge one’s ignorance means to become wise. To perceive ignorance is to open up questions that lead to new understandings. Quite paradoxically then, the more ignorance we perceive, the more chance we have of becoming wise. My question then is not if ignorance is worthwhile, but how easy it is to be ignorant. My guess is: it is NOT.

It takes courage NOT to know. It takes more courage to admit to NOT knowing. Everything we do (our daily social rituals) and every thought we think (our mental interpretation and construction of the world) is to a large extent modelled and labelled in advance: if it wasn’t, we would quickly become neurotic. Habitual, ritualistic and even mechanical behaviour has its rightful place in our lives. Good habits can save us time, contribute to our health, support and nurture social relations. The skill of brushing our teeth, the recognition of a magpie in the park, the capacity to formulate a written argument – these are all useful knowledges. And although we exerted effort in acquiring them, they soon become an effortlessly running software of our mind.

Recently, I have acquired useful knowledge that has to do with personal transformation. It is a model of the journey that a person goes through from point A to point B in order to achieve a goal or change. It resembles Joseph Campbell’s ‘the hero’s saga’ where a person confronts all sorts of adversities, travels through dark and unknown worlds only to reach to the other side, transformed. This journey starts with a rupture, a sudden blow that shakes the hero’s world so that every certainty and security is lost – the hero is all alone, afraid and knows NOT what to do. Models can be useful guides through what is going on inside and outside of us. They serve as points of comparison with other people’s experience so we can feel appreciated and supported. The problem with models, though, is that they label experience. For example, for a sudden chill in our gut they say fear. People then learn the word fear and use it even when they are completely disconnected from the experience. Or they might expect that every fear for every person is the same. The biggest trap with models is that they freeze the process of experience into a product of language.

When I learned the ‘hero’s saga’ model, believe me I was one little happy puppy. Why? Well, because I believed that from now on, just by knowing the model, there would and could NOT exist an experience for which I wouldn’t be ready. Whatever the blow life had for me, I was there, waiting, armed with the knowledge of my model of transformation. The first step – insecurity and uncertainty – was what I was certain of. The point of that first blow, however, is to create uncertainty and insecurity all over again.

At the moment, I am experiencing a kind of a rupture again. It came out of nowhere. One moment everything was calm, I was on the top of my world, and then WHAM, it hit me again. So what the hell is with me that I can’t learn and use the model once and for all? Why am I never ready for the breakdown?

Ignorance is bliss, but it’s oh so not effortless. It takes courage and effort to suspend all knowledge and reliance on old schemes and models. The point of rupture is to break down the old. It is called rupture because we MUST NOT be ready for it. It is its purpose to surprise us, to break us down, to grind us to the ground, to take everything from us, to make us think it’s the end of the world. And the only thing that the model can teach us is precisely this: when the rupture comes, even the model is destroyed. Does it get easier with time? Yes and no. If we suspend the knowledge and consciously choose ignorance, we stand a chance to ease ourselves into the pangs of rupture. The rupture will rage on but we might find a quiet spot in its axis. If we let the limits of our old world disappear, our new dwelling might become bigger. If we forget to label the feeling in our gut as fear, we might just reconnect with experience itself. If we scrap the model for a moment, we might just enjoy the ride.

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