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Knowledge vs Experience

 Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? Should they argue in unprofitable talk, or in words with which they can do no good?        Job 15:2-3

I am a life-long lover of knowledge and learning. There are usually several books on my nightstand and other reading materials scattered throughout the house with which I actively engage. My interest in the spiritual nature of creation has dominated my curiosity since early adulthood. I am not as interested in organized religion as much as in the connection between spirit and body, the point where the tangible and visible merges into the ethereal and invisible. That point seems to be a nexus from which magic arises.

A thirst for knowledge in the written word, however, cannot provide the experience the words describe. By overly focusing on head knowledge, we neglect our other two centers of intelligence – the heart and the body. It is common to focus on one of the three and have only a partial life experience because of it. Too often, I anchor myself to head knowledge at the expense of the rich, emotional life of the heart and the visceral, sensual life of the body. I reach a point where my learning stagnates. For a well-rounded life experience, I know I need also to feed my heart and body, and book-knowledge alone cannot make that happen. This manifests in modern-day religion when we confuse God’s living, dynamic Word with the words written in the Bible and other spiritual texts. If we do not allow God’s Word to permeate our mind and heart and body, we come to know the words on the page but never the living experience the words describe.

The anonymous 14th Century mystic and author of The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, “I encourage you, then, to make experience, not knowledge, your aim. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but this humble feeling never lies to you.1” This author makes a not-so-subtle accusation that knowledge lies to us, but experience does not. It is not that knowledge provides something that is not true, but rather that head knowledge only provides part of the truth. We miss a lot when we live in our heads. One illustration is the difference between reading about the fragrance of a rose and actually holding the thorny stem between our fingers and smelling the flower. The former is only a description of the actual experience – perhaps not a lie, but certainly not the whole truth. There is another slap in the face to knowledge-obsessed folks like me from this author: “Knowledge leads to arrogance.” This is illustrated in the passage from Job. We can actually obtain an intellectual grasp of written materials, so we feel we have mastered them, that we own them, that we know everything about them. In reality, we cannot master, own, or know much about anything in its essence. The more we experientially learn about something or someone at its core, the more we realize there is actually very little we can put into words. One of my teachers, Jim Finley, says that we can say a lot about someone we do not know well. But once we’ve known someone for a very long time we do not know what to say about them. Words cannot contain such knowledge. Deep and sustained experiences humble us.

The fact is that head knowledge is a collection of words, and words are metaphors with no immediate contact with reality. Words represent something, but they are not the thing itself. While they are important and necessary, words provide only partial truths. Head knowledge without heart or body knowledge is an intellectual exercise subject to becoming shallow and deceptive. Bodily experience without intellectual context or loving guidance from the heart can lead to all sorts of heathen, abusive tendencies. Living from the heart without intellectual context or bodily grounding leaves us in emotional turmoil, paralyzed by the seeming insensitivity of the world around us. A contemplative life actively works toward the integration of mind, body, and heart.

A contemplative life, then, is a balanced life. It experiences what is with the head, heart, and body, requiring that we sometimes pause to allow one or more of the intelligence centers to catch up. In my case, my head jumps ahead of my heart and body when I am not intentional about being present with the entirety of my being. The purpose, meaning, and beauty of human incarnation is found in the total experience.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

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