The Limitations of Knowledge, Part 2

[First off, don’t forget to participate in the Mad Men DVD giveaway.]

Yesterday I posted about my personal experiences with the limitations of knowledge alone as a tool for self-improvement, when I let myself be a victim of a slick sales pitch, even though I already knew about every last one of the sales techniques the hustler was using.

I’ve recently been exploring spirituality. As a recovering Catholic, I’ve had a serious lapse in my religious and spiritual life, so I wanted to find some form of spirituality that worked for me. Within the past month I read two books about spirituality, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castenada and Naked Buddhism by David Deida, and both books discussed the limitations of knowledge and logic and did much to illuminate the topic for me.

Here’s a description of Castenada’s Don Juan book (note: this Don Juan is not the womanizer of legend, but a spiritual teacher. The honorific title “Don” is a term of respect given to elders that goes before the first name):

This book is the first in the original Don Juan Teaching’s trilogy, with the second being “A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan” and the third being “Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan”. While the late Carlos Castaneda stated on many occasions that this is an account of real events, it is seen by most people including myself as a novel of fiction.

In the book(s) Don Juan — or Juan Matus — is a seer, a shamans, a sorcerer of the Yaqui Indians in the state of Sonora, Mexico. These Indians are descendents of the Toltecs. The book describes the five-year apprenticeship of Castaneda to Don Juan in the early 1960s. These five years are a quest for knowledge and Indian spirituality. They use peyote and other traditional Indian herbal drugs to free themselves of any preconceptions and to cross gateways to the mysteries of “energy,” “clarity,” and “power.” The drugs only serve as a means to an end, not as the end in themselves. Some people claim that while Buddhists try to reach enlightenment through meditation, Hindus through yoga, Christians via prayer, Don Juan reaches it through mind-altering drugs.

The part about the four obstacles all men must face is what’s most relevant to this discussion:

Don Juan tells Castaneda that there are four inner obstacles he must overcome: fear, clarity, power, and old age. These four elements are both obstacles as well as necessary preconditions.

1. Fear
If we give in to fear we will never conquer it. We must not run away. We must defy our fear. To become knowledgeable [=enlightened] we must first be afraid and then we must overcome the fear. [There is only one thing we must fear: and that is fear itself.] Once we have vanquished fear, we are free from it for the rest of our lives because, instead of fear, we have acquired clarity — a clarity of mind which erases fear.

2. Clarity
And thus we will encounter our second enemy: Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds. It forces us never to doubt ourselves. Clarity will give a false sense of knowledge and stop us from continuing the path of knowledge [=enlightenment]. [Clarity will enable us to see. We will see anything and therefore we will lose modesty. We will think we have reached the end, the highest level. We have not yet realized that there is more. Despite the fact that we can see with clarity there are things beyond our scope, outside our vision. There are still things to learn.] We must do what we did with fear: we must defy our clarity and use it only to see. [We must stay humble and remain with a desire to learn, become knowledgeable, become enlightened.] Once we have overcome our second enemy, we will arrive at a position where nothing can harm us anymore. We will have power.

3. Power
But we will also come across our third enemy: Power! With the power available to us we will feel invincible. We command; we make rules, we are masters. But this also can lead to our downfall. Power can turn us into cruel, capricious men. We have to learn when and how to use the power. [Anything we do affects other people or the environment and we are responsible for them as well.] We have to come to realize that the power we have seemingly conquered is in reality never ours. Clarity and power without control is dangerous. [We have to control the power or it controls us.]

4. Old Age
Now the last of our enemies will attack: Old age! We have to overcome the desire to rest. This struggle will never end. [We will never be perfect. But it is our responsibility to use our powers/talents, instead of being idle.]

The second obstacle, Clarity, is the one I want to discuss. Don Juan is talking about the exact trap I touched on in the last installment of this series.

Clarity or knowledge is something that must be achieved, but it’s not the end of the journey or even the halfway point. It’s only an early step. To reach the next step, Power, the second obstacle Clarity must first be defeated. How do we do this? That’s where this quote from the other book I was reading, Naked Buddhism, comes into play (emphasis added by me):

Everybody knows the truth about something. For instance, most people know that it is unhealthy to eat too many sweets. Of those who know it, less feel the truth while they munch a box of cookies. Fewer still change their behavior, once and for all, on the basis of knowing and feeling the truth.

It is much harder to live the truth than to feel it or know it. Knowledge is easiest. The mind is more malleable than the emotions or the body, and so the mind is relatively swift to change. You can hear something and immediately know the truth of it. Then you can tell it to others. You can write about it. You can create a whole philosophy around it. And still not much changes in your life. You can know the truth – for instance, exercises improves cardiovascular fitness – and then still sit on your butt.

After your mind has grasped the truth, your emotions are next to change over time. Often years of suffering are necessary before the truth of something sinks in deep enough for yor tears to flow and enthusiasm to grow in response to how true something is. Yet even highly developed emotional intelligence – your capacity to feel the truth with great sensitivity and nuance – is not sufficient for real growth. The last part of you to be transformed by truth is your body. Being more solid than your mind or emotions, your body changes last. You will know what you are supposed to do, and you will feel the truth of it, long before you are willing to live it with your body. You may know that you can’t afford a new dress or another trip to Las Vegas, you may feel the truth making you nervous and queasy, and yet you may not be ready to live the truth – so you plunk down your credit card and go through the usual motions, as guilty as you may feel. Your body’s habits – the motions you go through – are the most stubborn, the most rigid, and the least yielding to truth.

So for a man to defeat the hubris that comes from knowledge or clarity and proceed to the next phase of his personal journey, he has to next master feeling the knowledge he has, then he must master how to properly physically act on said knowledge while he’s feeling it.

Too many people gain knowledge or clarity and become hideously overconfident. They learn some political and economic theories, become well versed in international affairs, read up on evolutionary psychology, some social psychology, some relationship advice and then become cocky and superior and start bashing the “sheeple.”  They brag about having access to “the red pill” or the true reality. Maybe they even write a blog about their self-professed expertise in human nature and sexual politics. They feel that the willingness to embrace ugly truths makes them infallible and invincible.

As Don Juan showed, knowledge is not only a much smaller step in the quest for self-improvement than we like to think, at times it’s even deceptively counterproductive to self-improvement because it makes us overconfident in our rightness, resistant to change, and even emotionally and spiritually lazy because we now feel secure in the notion that most of the heavy lifting has now been done. It can make us stop our journey prematurely.

Changing your mind is not enough by a long shot. As Deida says, you have to feel the truth next and eventually live the truth in order to effect true self-improvement. You can read all the books about writing you want, but unless you emotionally embrace the writing life head-on, then physically make it your reality by actually creating something, you’re just engaging in intellectual masturbation.

Same for enhancing your knowledge by reading tons of self-help books but not actively putting the insights into practice in real emotional and physical situations. Intellectual masturbation. Reading language books all day long, but not feeling the nervous sensations that come from being immersed in a foreign language environment and physically conducting a conversation in that language? Intellectual masturbation. Reading on how to be a better man or woman, but not working on discovering how it actually feels emotionally to enact such change and physically living life as a better man or woman? Or reading books on fighting and memorizing katas, but not ever emotionally exposing yourself to the adrenaline rush and fight-or-flight anxiety that comes from a real fight? More intellectual masturbation.

This is why despite my logical understanding of sales techniques that I just read, I still fell for the hotel employee’s sales trick in yesterday’s blog post. I only gained an intellectual grasp of the sales concepts I just read. I was still not used to accessing that knowledge while I was feeling myself being exposed to them. And since that emotional step was missing, the last step of acting on my knowledge by physically resisting the sales hustle, was even less likely.

The limits of only grasping the knowledge and logical clarity of a situation without the emotional or physical grasp is why hindsight of a problem is often 20/20, but while we’re going through said problem we’re totally caught off-guard, even though we “know” better. It’s because hindsight only requires engaging the problem logically, while actually going through the problem requires not only logical preparedness but also emotional and physical preparedness. It’s also why when you watch a friend playing a game of chess or a video game, you can easily see everything he should be doing and are unable to understand why he keeps messing up. But when it’s your turn and you feel the emotional roller coaster and have to physically react, you suddenly make the same mistakes or perform worse. Or the armchair quarterback who can’t understand how his favorite athlete can make such boneheaded plays, even though he himself makes boneheaded mistakes at his own job when facing a mere fraction of the pressure and level of scrutiny his favorite athlete faces while he works.

This is because being a spectator, again, is an arena where logical understanding and engagement suffices, whereas being a participant requires emotional and physical mastery as well. It’s also why sports analysts make such a big deal about playoff experience when predicting how a team will perform in a playoff series. They know that knowledge of how to play the sport is only part of the equation. The athletes must also be able to handle the emotions that come with feeling pressure, then be able to physically execute the right plays.

Or when you know a lot about relationship dynamics and social psychology in a logical sense, and can even use it to your advantage most of the time with partners you don’t care about that much, but once you’re involved in the disorienting effects of love and limerance, especially if you’re not used to those feelings (this is especially true for men), you get so short-circuited at the emotional stage that you end up acting against all your accumulated knowledge and physically act out the opposite of everything you logically know you should do.

No matter how much logical clarity about relationships you may have, the intense emotional maelstrom of love kept you from ever reaching the second step of feeling the truth of your knowledge, which in turn prevented you from ever reaching the third step of taking the correct physical actions within the relationship. It’s also why after love wears off and we’re no longer in the midst of the emotional storm, we can suddenly see everything clearly, even though it’s too late. Because as mentioned before, for hindsight knowledge and logical clarity are enough.


  1. Know the truth (mental)
  2. Feel the truth (emotional)
  3. Live the truth (physical)

And even that much growth only gets you to Don Juan’s third obstacle, Power. How to defeat the pitfalls that come with that obstacle is a whole other struggle, which we won’t get into here.

Next, the conclusion of the series.

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