Here’s something very hard and extremely simple at the same time. A beautiful paradox. But it’s not an idea, that’s the hard part in a sense. Because we’re oriented to wanting some static knowledge that we can claim as ours. But knowledge is actually very difficult to process or really understand. To hold the idea that I’m selfish, for instance, isn’t the same thing as really facing my own selfishness. Real intelligence is honesty, not intellect.
Sometimes self-knowledge is a false cover, confirming our tired old convictions. But real self-knowledge is critical self-awareness. No firm conviction can survive the irradiation of critical (or negative) awareness. After all, I’m only being honest when I recognize that I can’t actually know anything for sure. The world is infinite, and my brain only measures a few measly inches. So being certain is a way of lying to myself, saying “reality is here in my grasp.” What I grasp is already past-tense, static and artificial.
In a sense, reality is much simpler than knowledge, but we reject it as if it were nothing. Because in a sense it is nothing. No Thing. We can’t grasp reality, or claim it as ours without looking rather stupid.
A coherent relationship to reality isn’t intellectually rigorous. It’s more like riding a bike — surrendering to the imbalance of EVERY idea. Learning is a physical awareness of the subtle origins of movement. Because in seeing the imbalance of our ideas, we move towards balance. Only towards it, never arriving. There is no perfect balance, no static end-point, no final answer to anything. The world is too swift and large to be ridden that securely. It’s a bucking bronco.
Coherence, instead, is a perception of Incoherence, of imbalance. Just as in riding a bike or a bronco, we stay upright by constantly feeling the subtle pull of imbalance, and making constant adjustments, without any intention of finding some Final Resting place where we don’t have to move anymore. A bike that comes to rest, falls over. The joy of riding, of living, is to constantly adjust, never coming to conclusion. Never knowing for sure. It means living in a metaphoric state of mind, not in a literal state of mind.
This means that the person who learns is constantly feeling the subtle incoherence of every thought. Certainty, after all, is an absurd extravagance in a universe this large. In fact, we’re essentially dead if we’re not moving, learning, dancing in rhythm to a dancing world. So if we hold some expectation of finding an absolute truth, we’re essentially running away from life, hoping to end the dance and stop living. Because that desire for knowledge is a longing for stasis, for conclusion, which is a mechanical death. So this means everything we know is not reality, and never will be. It’s just a quick sketch of a world that is already changing before the ink of our ideas has finished drying. Our notions will always be wrong, always leaving hints of a wider and more lively world.
So thank God we’re always wrong! Otherwise there’d be no mystery.
So in a sense the person who learns is falling constantly into a state of uncertainty, which is how we explore this mystery. Falling constantly from his or her high horse of righteousness, becoming more like a fluid, losing his or her illusion of a solid and knowable Self. And this is an unexpected relief. It’s a joy, a chuckle, to never know ourselves or the world, to always encounter the unexpected. Or as Beckett said, with characteristic gallows humor: “And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life and never understand.”