Sometimes we know something but we haven’t mastered it. We only know just enough to be dangerous with what we know. This applies to many aspects of life but also applies to our process of learning to live more mindfully. The key to mastering something is to practice it for a very long time.
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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 121. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about the idea of knowing just enough to be dangerous.
As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are. So let’s start out talking about the Zen koan from last week’s podcast episode. This koan is called Announcement, and it goes like this: Tanzan wrote 60 postal cards on the last day of his life and asked an attendant to mail them. Then, he passed away. The cards read, “I am departing from this world. This is my last announcement. Tanzan, July 27, 1892.”
This is an interesting one. I picked it because it’s a little different than most of the koans that I’ve shared before. For me, the very first thing to come to mind is, what would I be doing with the time I had on my last day? Would I be writing 60 postal cards on the last day of my life and ask them to be mailed out? The other thing that stood out to me was all it says is I’m departing from this world and this is my last announcement, name and date. To imagine him writing this 60 times, it was comical to me when I read it. A part of why it was comical is because I don’t know why someone would do that. I don’t know if there are cultural understandings of this that don’t make sense to me because of where and when I was raised versus where and when this story arose. I don’t know. But I thought it was interesting to share some of the thoughts that came from this in the Patreon group and the discussion that was going on in there. So I want to share a couple of these because I hadn’t really thought about it this way.
The first thought comes from Nancy who says, “I’d like to comment about the Zen koan announcement.” Then she goes on to say, “Wow! To come to the end of your life like Tanzan, this koan spoke to me about living a life with no regrets and making the preparations for your death.” Then she goes on to say, “I took a course a few years ago following Steven Levine’s book A Year To Live. We met monthly and prepared for our death as though we were all given the news that we had a year to live. It was a tough journey to go through but helped me to see what I was resisting and this truth that we all die. The result from this personal study was a greater appreciation for the life I have now and more at peace with death as I believe Tanzan was.”
Now, that’s an aspect of this that I haven’t thought about. She was impressed with the preparation that went into Tanzan preparing for his death. Because most of us don’t prepare for it, right? It comes as a surprise. And the only way we would prepare for it is if we happen to have a terminal illness or something that really gives us an advanced warning that it’s come in. I think in a way, if you can prepare for it, you’re one of the lucky ones. Most people don’t get to. They don’t get to say their final goodbyes. They don’t get to make peace with parents, or siblings, or loved ones. They don’t get the chance to go check off a few things from their bucket lists. They just live life thinking that they’ve got plenty of time, and then boom. They’re gone.
I hadn’t thought about this aspect of it with Tanzan. If he’s writing his announcements here that he’s departing, he’s obviously done his preparation. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective that it’s cool that he had the chance to do his last announcement to be prepared for his death. So that to me tells me that he had been thinking about it and perhaps thinking about it often to the point where it’s not this scary thing that it’s like, “Oh no. When is it coming?” So that’s kind of a fun way to think about that.
Then, the other thought comes from Stefan also in the Patreon group. He says, “Tanzan knew his time was due. He mailed the cards at the appropriate time, which was acceptance of his immediate fate. My feeling is that he simply felt his life was complete and wasn’t going to deny death or try and avoid it. Here it is. Why not embrace it? By embracing it, he didn’t leave his body with any suffering, at least over his death. And one could hope that if he was so in tune with his end that he didn’t have any suffering left in his life either. If this is true and he had no suffering left in his life, mailing these cards right before his death could have very well been his moment of realizing enlightenment.”
Now that’s a fun thought. Again, I hadn’t really thought about it from that perspective because I was kind of laughing at the whole concept of writing a departure announcement. In our day and age, we see this on Facebook from time to time, right? Where someone says, “Hey, here’s this announcement. I’m going to be leaving Facebook, and I want to make sure all of you know that I’m leaving.” We almost laugh at that because it’s like, “Okay. Thank you.” So I correlated those two thoughts when I read this koan and thought, “Oh, there’s Tanzan. Hey, thanks, Tanzan, for telling us you’re leaving.” But it hadn’t crossed my mind that we’re not talking about just a departure like … Death for a lot of people is a very, very big deal. And for him, it seemed like … I was interpreting it like maybe it’s not a big deal. It’s like, “Hey, I’m leaving. Just so you know. And here’s the announcement that says this is the day I’m departing.” And it wasn’t even like, “Let me tell you my final thoughts on this or that.” It was just a very simple thing.
The more I think about this koan, the more I realize I kind of hope that’s how it is for me. That if I knew today was my last day, I don’t know that I would have a whole lot left to say because … And if I did, why haven’t I been saying that up until now? I would like to think that I’ve been living my life in a way that if the end came and it was today or tomorrow there wouldn’t be a whole lot that’s been left unsaid, that people that I love know that I love them. And my announcement could be as simple as, “Hey, I’m departing from this world. This is my last announcement,” and then my name and the date.
So anyway, for me, this koan gives me a lot to think about in terms of my life and my preparations for death and how am I living my life with the knowledge that it could end at any moment. This was a fun one to explore and to discuss after getting some of the insight from members of the group and just playing with this a little bit more in my head. So that’s the Zen koan Announcement.
Now I want to jump into the topic that I wanted to discuss for today, which is just enough to be dangerous. Now, I think I would assume that many of you have heard this expression of knowing something just enough to be dangerous. I’ve heard this in the context probably most often referring to languages. In the context of learning two languages, there’s this expression that I know just enough to be dangerous, which implies that I know enough that I can start talking and someone’s going to think that I speak the language so then they’ll start speaking to me, and then I might not understand them because I didn’t know as much as I thought that I knew. So that’s where I think that expression … That’s where I hear it most in that context of language.
But I’ve thought about this recently because this week, or over the weekend, my youngest daughter, Gigi, who’s four, started to learn how to ride a bike. I took the training wheels off for her, and then my wife would stand down on one end of the road and I would stand kind of on the other and we would essentially help Gigi get going and then kind of veer her off in the direction of the other. Then the ones standing on there would catch her. Turn around, and we would do it the same, and she was learning to ride the bike.
Of course at that age it’s a very exciting thing. As soon as she realizes she can do that once, she’s like, “Okay, now let me do it alone.” It reminded me of how we have this tendency that as soon as we start to learn something and we did it once or twice and it’s working out, of course we think, “Okay, good. I got it.” And that’s that stage of knowing something just enough to be dangerous. And in this case, I was thinking with concern like, “Oh, let’s not let her just go all out because she may have mastered riding from my wife to me or from me to my wife. But what happens when she tries to go up the sidewalk, or when she tries to turn, or you introduce some new variable and that’s the moment when she knew just enough to be dangerous and can fall or get hurt?
I’ve experienced this in other aspects of life as well with teaching people to paraglide and to paramotor. Paragliding is a difficult sport to get into. Anyone who knows how to do it will probably tell you that it looks kind of easy. And I think a lot of people who get into the sport get into it thinking they’re going to learn and it’s going to be easy. But the truth is it takes a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of effort, and in some ways a lot of patience. Because people start to learn one aspect of it, then you start out learning how to kite that wing over your head. It’s essentially a giant fabric wing. And with the wind, it floats over head kind of like a kite would but you have to learn to control it. And that can be a frustrating process because you are fighting the wind, and that’s a battle you will never win.
I often tell students if you enter this with the mindset of wrestling with the wing and the wind until you win, then that’s the wrong mindset. You’ll never win that game. The wind and the fabric will always be stronger than you. The right mindset is to approach this as you’re learning to dance with this glider in the wind. You’re moving with it, and you lead and it follows. And sometimes it leads and you follow until you lead back and it follows you again. I think that’s a much more accurate way to think about it than wrestling and being strong and winning.
But what I encounter a lot in this space where I am where I’m teaching people to fly these things is that you start to learn and you enter this phase of knowing just enough to be dangerous. You think, “Okay, well now that I can do this, I’m going to try this other thing,” and you mess up once and you get dragged. You get dragged around. Or you change the variables. Someone will learn to fly here at the beach where there’s always wind and then they’ll go inland and have to take off in a field in a morning where there’s no wind. And suddenly they realize it’s not at all as easy as they thought that it was because it’s significantly harder to take off with no wind than it is with wind.
Or backwards, someone will learn inland and master that technique of taking off with very little to no wind. Then they’ll come to the beach where you always have wind and they struggle, and the wind just drags them around the beach and they can’t figure out what’s going on. I think what’s happening is they’re in that stage of knowing just enough to be dangerous. They may be comfortable with a certain set of circumstances where they fly and how they fly, but you change the variables on them, the wind speed, or the type of wind, or the terrain, or give them a new wing to try, things like that, and suddenly they realize they maybe didn’t know how to do it as well as they thought they did.
The key to transitioning from that, I guess if we could call it something we’d say from that amateur level to a pro level, it’s time. Time is the one variable that makes the difference. It’s people who spend the time, practice, practice, practice, they’re the ones who master something. I think we all get this theoretically, right? If you take a look at any athlete and you look at the difference between a professional athlete and an amateur, the difference is time. The amount of time that the professional has put into mastering their craft, it’s that they’ve been doing it much, much longer. Now sure, some people have natural skills and talents that will make them outperform the person next to them. Sure. But you reach a certain level where that’s not enough. That’s not going to cut it for you because you take two talented people and one’s been doing this 10,000 hours and the other one hasn’t, then you can guess which one’s going to win every time.
They say it takes anywhere from 6 to 10 years to be great at something. Or depending on how often and how much you do it, estimates come in saying that’s roughly 10,000 hours to truly master something. I think that that number will vary based on what it is that you’re trying to master. But the idea that you get out of this is that it takes a lot of time to be really good at something.
There’s a quote by Albert Einstein that I’d like to share here. He says, “Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason, mastery demands all of a person.” I think as we encounter things in life that we want to be good at, sometimes, especially in our culture and our society, there’s this desire for instant gratification. It’s like I want to be really good at paragliding, for example, so I’m going to go sign up for this eight-day training, which is how long we teach people. And they come out of it thinking, “In eight days, I’m going to be as good as someone who’s been doing this for eight years,” and it’s just not going to happen. It’s impossible. This happens with everything, right? I want to be good at learning a language, but I want to be good at it in very little time. Or you name it. Insert whatever into the blank there and you have the same problem or the same thing arises.
If we think about this in the context of practicing mindfulness, I think that’s absolutely accurate to say somebody who discovers mindfulness as a practice. Let’s say they have a chaotic life for whatever reasons. They may be going through difficult circumstances or they’ve just recently emerged out of some kind of a difficult scenario in life that really has them riled up. Then you start encountering these concepts and these ideas, and you start feeling like, “Wow. I am feeling more peaceful and more content. I want to continue to apply these things to my own life.” And there’s that moment where we become just mindful enough to be dangerous, which would be thinking that, okay, yeah, I’m pretty chill. This is all going to be good. Then you go to Thanksgiving dinner and the topic of politics comes up. And there you go exploding at uncle so-and-so and pushing away your cousin that you’re now never going to be able to talk to because of what you just said. Or things like that happen, right?
This happens all around the world where we become just enough, just good enough at something that the danger is that we think we’ve mastered it and we haven’t. I think that’s something that’s worth noting in the context of what we are trying to do with this podcast and you as listeners of the podcast. We’re all trying to be more mindful. We’re trying to become more better whatever we already are, right? We’re trying to live life in a way that’s more mindful, with more peace, with more contentment, with more joy. That’s a big part of why a lot of us put these things into practice.
And I think it’s worth noting and reminding ourselves quite often that it takes time to start to master these practices and these concepts, especially when we’re talking about a mind that is conditioned. We have habitual tendencies, and we’re fighting often years and years and perhaps generations or even societal norms that are deeply ingrained in us. And we’re trying to take these habitual ways of thinking and then just eliminating them overnight because why? Because I sit and meditate now or something to that effect. The truth is it takes practice and years, and years, and years to remove some of those layers of conditioning to finally stop, I don’t know, being self-critical, as an example, or to have to lash out anytime somebody criticizes me.
Or in my case, a big one that I talk about all the time is my tendency to want to avoid conflict at all costs. That’s a habitual tendency of mine, and it’s taken me years and practice to reach the point where now I can at least get it in my mind that, okay, I’m going to have a difficult conversation around a topic that’s going to be uncomfortable, but I’m willing to have the conversation now where before I wouldn’t have. And it may not be immediate. It may still take me two or three days of that topic festering and then I can bring it up and say, “Hey, I want to talk about this uncomfortable thing.” I can do that now, but that’s taken years of practice for me working on a form of mental conditioning that for me was habitual and still is habitual, but it’s a lot less habitual now than it was three, or four, or five years ago.
That’s been helpful for me to understand this concept that it takes time to master something, and that’s what I wanted to share with you in the context of the podcast and trying to live a more mindful life. Be patient with yourself. I mention this all the time. When it comes to meditation, the key is consistency, and that’s what I … If anything, that’s what I want to resonate with you in this message of today’s podcast episode is you do a little bit of meditation every day for 6 to 10 years and guess what? You’re going to see a big change and a big difference in your day-to-day way of living.
Now, if you meditate for four or five hours and you do that once every six months because that’s really hard to do, it’s going to be far less effective than doing five minutes a day for six years. So keep that in mind and be patient with yourself as you’re trying to learn to deal with the conditioning that you have, whether it’s genetic, or through societal norms and views, or family norms and views, or whatever it is. Just be patient with yourself, and continue to practice, and make consistency the key.
So that’s what I wanted to talk about in today’s podcast episode. That’s all I have for this podcast episode. But as always, I want to thank you for listening. And if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can consider becoming a patron and joining the online community where we discuss these koans and the podcast episodes and more. You can learn about that by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon.
Before I go, here is your Zen koan to work with this week. A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, “What is Buddha?” Tozan said, “This flax weighs three pounds.” That’s all I have for this podcast episode. Until next time.