Too Smart For Your Own Good

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-09-03 12:00:00 No comments

Like a Fool, Like an Idiot (Zazen Yōjinki, Part 4) « Nyohō Zen

A karate teacher I met years ago came from Okinawa and was trying to give us American students a pep talk. He said that to be really good—at anything —you have to be a little stupid. It’s the same idea. He used the example of digging post holes. It’s repetitive work—there’s a tool you stick in the ground to pull up the dirt, and that makes the hole. You just do it again, and you do it again. He said, there’s a particular kind of mind that can do that, that can say, “I’m going to wake up today and I’m going to dig post holes, and I’m going to do that until the end of the day, and then tomorrow, because it’s my job, I’m going to wake up and I’m going to dig post holes again.” Smart people, he said, can’t do that. They’ll overthink it. They’ll ask themselves in every gesture, why am I doing this? Why am I here? What does this mean? What does this mean about me? What does this mean about my life? If you’re thinking that way, you can’t do it for a day, much less for a lifetime.

To dig really deep—into Zen, into an art, into a relationship, into your work—you have to be able to just do something over and over and over again, without asking why. This is true from the moment of waking up. If you’ve ever heard the alarm in the morning and lain in bed thinking, “Why? Why do I even get up in the morning?” then you’re being too smart for your own good.

Some of the linked post goes into countering the notion that Zen is anti-intellectual because of sentiments like this. I'd use a different word, counter-intellectual. It's not that Zen is about thought being useless in all cases; obviously we need it when we have to build a bridge or diagnose a disease. It's that when it comes to certain deeply personal matters that we weren't thought into in the first place, thinking will not get us back out of them again.

The other thing that makes people nervous about ideas like this, me included, is something I have spent a long time trying to figure out how to put into words. It's that this business of "beginner's mind," to use Shunryu Suzuki's fine turn of phase, is something that we have to apply to ourselves from the inside. It's not something we can demand of others or impose on them from the outside. It's one thing to say, "I need to just dig a hole and not think too much about what I'm doing," and another thing entirely to say "You need to just dig a hole and not think too much about what you're doing." The former is discipline; the latter is dominion.

There needs to be space in everyone's life to do this kind of deep digging that is not about intellect and not about belief, either. By and large, society doesn't provide us with much of a way to seek these things in a structured fashion. It does for the most part leave us alone when we want to go find it on our own, but it doesn't help much.

Tags: Buddhism Zen intellectualism philosophy psychology