Waking Up to Our Ignorance

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Photo by Vlad Tchompalov

The word ignorance has a very negative connotation, but it really is just a state of unawareness – of not knowing. We all experience it at different times and in various aspects of our lives. Ignorance can arise from a lack of exposure, confusion, or even from deluded thinking. The problem is that, especially in the presence of strong emotion, it often leads to unwise action, which causes suffering for ourselves and others. Fortunately, ignorance isn’t permanent and there are antidotes, but we have to be willing to acknowledge it before we can change it.

There is some interesting research showing that the less we know the more confident we tend to be and vice versa. In our ignorance, we don’t even know enough to recognize our own incompetence – we fail to see our unskillfulness. We even have a name for this; the Dunning–Kruger Effect.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge… – Charles Darwin

Human beings tend to misperceive the true nature of things, including ourselves. We have relatively short lives and in US culture, we prefer to learn things through first-hand experience, so much of the wisdom we gain is lost when we die. Our senses are fallible and our unexamined emotions color our perceptions. We layer beliefs, expectations, and assumptions on top of our observations in order to explain them and fit them into a coherent whole. This includes ourselves and the world around us. We find ourselves grasping at and clinging to things that support our version of the story and ignoring, pushing away, or fighting against things that do not. This creates further confusion, unwise reactions, and suffering.
Feeling Tones and Suffering

…myopia repeats throughout history… Every discovery…, no matter how significant, must compete with the traditions, assumptions and financial incentives of the society implementing it. – Michael Hobbes

One way our ignorance shows up is the failure to see the impermanence of all things. We live as though our identities, relationships and possessions will go on and on, forever. We try to hold onto things that we think will bring us happiness. We think that if we can possess and keep them, we will be okay, end of story. When things inevitably change, this causes disappointment and dissatisfaction. So, in our ignorance, we go searching outside of ourselves for ever more.

Ignorance also manifests as a failure to recognize the causes and conditions that come together to create and perpetuate suffering. In keeping with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we don’t know enough to be aware of our own role in this harmful cycle. We often believe that the majority of “good” or “bad” things we experience come from something outside of us. Because we don’t realize mind is both cause and condition, we don’t look inward and we don’t consider a new approach. Even if we did, we’d have no idea where to start.

Since ignorance has its origins in the mind, this is where we need to turn for its antidote. We must get still and quiet long enough to look deeply inside ourselves. We learn to do this through a consistent meditation practice. Meditation becomes a controlled laboratory in which we can observe patterns and habits with fewer filters and less distraction. We also have to be willing to be with all that arises – even the experiences that bring us discomfort – observing with curiosity and resisting the urge to immediately react. If we bring a beginner’s mind and suspend judgment, we can gain some objectivity about what we observe. With patience and diligence we may begin to develop insight, clearing away the obscurations that keep us in ignorance so that we can respond with greater wisdom.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. – Confucius

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