Sometimes ago, there was this effervescent young lad who was having a group discussion with his friends; a bunch of nine to ten year old kids. A kid thought to be brilliant that all his buddies looked like they believed they could learn the world from him. His confidence had quelled theirs and it was there in plain sight for the eyes to see. He flowed freely like Nas would on a rap verse and you could tell he knew his game. Minutes later though, the topic switched from what it was and it was the natural states of matter this time. He went on to talk about matter being in three states – solid, liquid and gaseous states. Even today, many have grown to believe the same.
A kid picked his own opportunity to shine though and he pointed out that his friend was wrong. This kid went on to talk about the plasma state. In elementary school, we were taught just three natural states of matter and I knew this other kid had read beyond what the rest of us had known and had been taught in class by teachers blindly trusted to have all the facts.
This is not about being right or wrong though. This is about me, the confident 9-year-old, reacting to a friend, the other kid.
Most people would try to defend what they had been taught, especially when the other kids agreed the science teacher never spoke of a fourth natural state of matter. Somehow, I did not do that. Instead, I asked questions like I had known nothing. I also went on to ask the other kid if I could study with him. My friend had struck me as someone who would go after knowledge, old and new, and I could light my candle from his torch. This is Zen; though I did not know.
ZEN: THE STORY
Until I got to know about the story of the scholar Tokusan and the Zen Master Ryutan though, I never appreciated the humility I had naturally shown that day. If you have not, here is a perfect summary I found on the Facebook page of the Ground-Up Initiative (GUI):
A well-known scholar (Tokusan) comes to learn from a Zen master (Ryutan) over tea, but it quickly becomes obvious to the Zen master that this scholar is more interested in showing off his own knowledge than in learning; interrupting the Zen master with frequency, following each of the Zen master’s story with a story of his own and failing to listen to what the master has to say.
So the Zen master calmly suggests that they should have tea, and proceeds to serve.
He fills his guest’s cup and keeps pouring, so that the cup is overflowing. The scholar watched as the tea overflows from the brim of the cup, spilling into the tray, the table and the carpet until he could no longer restrain himself.
“Stop.” He cried
“Can’t you see the cup is already full?”
To which the Zen master replied with a smile;
“Exactly! Like this cup, you are already so full of ideas that no more can fit in. How can I show you anything more unless you first empty your cup?”A GUI Post
“Empty your cup” has since become a popular clause used to ask that you approach every session of enlightenment with an open mind. Not for brainwashing but for proper analysis and absorption of the information you will be getting from the other party.
When I have a conversation with people and we get to a point where I get defined as a freethinker to them, some directly say they want to end the conversation. I used to wonder why. I had to double-check the meaning of being a freethinker. A freethinker could be described as one who is a practitioner of freethought; a term defined as:
“an epistemological viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed only on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or dogma”Wikipedia
Why then should that be a reason for them to want to avoid having discussions with me? Because I have chosen to reason deeper and be more rational rather than subscribing to an authoritative principle or belief without evidence? To be a better thinker, I believe one has to regularly empty his cup and get it filled again with something new to feed the mind with. This does not necessarily mean you have unsubscribed from an original school of thought. Neither does it mean that you have subscribed to the new things you have learned. No; what it gives you is a bigger horizon from which to form a better and a more defined opinion on things you probably thought you had fully known. As a speaker, in fact, you should be glad when you come across ears that would listen to you!
In our everyday lives, we interact with people from different groups and homes. Yet, humans are often subconsciously stereotypical about people and groups – be it ethnic groups, religious groups, workgroups or peer groups. This is either based on popular perspectives or our past experiences from interacting with a few people from these groups; and on unpopular opinions from people who know them – which is to a shocking degree these days as people easily gossip and back stab.
However, this is not limited to our takes on people alone. Abstract things often have a meaning we have given them within ourselves too. Let’s pick love for instance. Many who have been hurt greatly once or multiple times may be adamant to change their view of love and trust; believing loving is terrible. Someone who has been lucky may try so hard to make them see it differently to no avail. Both of them judge from their own perspectives and both are as right as they are wrong in their own ways.
Until the unlucky one gets lucky and the lucky one gets unlucky, neither of them would be having the big picture with which to better define love. When that happens, they can then put the entire idea under a microscope and see reasons why it can be beautiful and disastrous at the same time. They can work on improving on their weaknesses while maintaining or building on their strengths afterwards. Even with the experience of both worlds, one can still fail at it woefully. Now imagine not having more than one view at all!
You can replace love with anything else – business, school, skills or life as a whole – and that will be the case too.
Like I tell my friends, no child has been truly born with a religion, a tribe or a culture. A child may be born to parents belonging to the Twi-speaking Ashanti tribe of Ghana but if that child is handed over to a Yoruba couple from Nigeria as an infant, the child will grow up learning the language and culture of the Yorubas. If naturally we think of our own traditions as superior, how foolish would he look if he looks down on others and is later told he was born of Ashanti parents?
I have not come across a religious DNA and neither is there a blood group or a genotype named after a tribe or race. So what have we truly brought to the world beyond appearance that can not be learnt?
If after a few years, and by choice, the child is willing to learn the ways of his biological parents’ tribe, the said child will have to be an infant again – a clean slate that can be written on. Only so can the child truly rid himself of barriers that may hinder him from learning.
This, however, won’t be as easy as it would have been if the child had not learned a thing before and this is the challenge we face on a daily basis in a world where learning can be a constant thing unless we shut our minds out for some reason that may, or may not, be the same as neophobia (the fear of new things). This is where being the master of one’s mind is key.
Just as you have to empty your cup so as to have some, or more, tea from the master’s kettle; to drink and not to wastefully overflow, you MUST be willing to unlearn so you can learn new things. You have to be teachable.
BE TEACHABLE: Be an Infant
The happenings and teachings that an infant is put through will shape the thoughts, beliefs and knowledge of the child. Life, being an everyday learning place, adds a lot more to the child daily into adulthood and until death. What this means is that with every new day, we have a chance to learn something new; a chance to see a thing from a perspective different from ours or that which we have been used to.
Having said that, you will agree with me that over the course of our lives, we have come across quite a few who have built a rigid wall around what they have grown to know; thereby shutting every other thing out and being practically unteachable. Some, interestingly, fancy going to the fountain of new knowledge to have a drink from it only to find out they end up having to leave the same way they had come. This is not because the fountain had dried up upon their arrival but because they had gone to the fountain without thirst – with no space to contain whatever they had hoped for. This can be down to many reasons and everyone has a funny one with which to defend himself each time. Right now though, let’s talk briefly on two popular excuses.
I have met a few people who tag themselves “principled”. That in itself is not a bad tag to wear when you look at it at first – you easily know what to expect from a principled person. If he does not take this today, he will sure not take it tomorrow and, somehow, you can trust this type of person to a higher degree than you would trust a man without a mind of his own. However, if the so-called “principled” person is pigheaded, he can be a disaster walking in a man’s body.
No individual can actually exist in isolation; not even in death. We will always interact with the universe; always. With no power to truly control how things go for us, should one be “principled” to a point where he approaches everything, especially learning and adjusting in a dynamic world, with his principles?
As much as I try to avoid religious talks, I have to do this here. I do know of someone who lost two kids and his wife to his church’s doctrine. They were told to never agree to blood transfusion or the use of drugs or herbs. Their faith in God was supposed to heal them every time and sicknesses were not seen as natural but of the devil’s making. As funny as that is, this happens around us today as well.
If medicine was approached with this mindset, the world should have ended already as it would have been a war against faith to even consider science and technology, not to talk of researches and the development of drugs. The doctor must have tried to educate him, persuade him or even yell sense into him but the individual failed to empty himself of his “doctrines” and learn in order to understand the situation on ground; even when his family was dying.
This person later met his religious leader feeding his own family herbs soaked in alcohol. May the souls of the dead rest in peace.
As I said earlier, there can be a million reasons why people find it difficult to open up their minds to new knowledge and ideas but there is only one way I can suggest that changes almost every reason:
TO BE TEACHABLE, BE HUMBLE
Picture a world where half the populace do not see themselves as “wise enough” or wise at all. Picture a world where a superior knows his bounds and can admit that a subordinate can teach him a thing or two. Think of a world where a white man does not see himself as superior to a man with a different colour of skin. Or a world where man does not believe he does not have to learn if he can pay his way through instead. How about a world where lovers can be down to earth enough to agree they are not perfect?
Have you thought of a world where parents and guardians listen to their children’s dreams and aspirations and admit they do not know it all? Or a world where an elected leader remains humble enough to listen to the cry of the masses when campaigns are over? How about a world where women are listened to and men agree they are neither greater nor deserving of the best things by default anymore?
I will let you think of how much one can learn if he is humble enough to set aside all he has known and try to listen more to a voice of a different perspective and idea.
A few years ago, I said to an elderly man who had too much to say with no will to listen;
“Listening is an act of humility; that it allows us learn clearly means learning is a thing of a humble mind.”
And then, there is this popular saying:
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”The Dalai Lama
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