Knowledge vs. Knowing

In college, I first discovered the limits of knowledge. There was so much material to study, it was impossible to retain it all. I had to pick which buckets of information to focus on, and in more than one exam, I stared at questions to which I did not have the correct answers – or any answer, for that matter.

What I learned, however, was that even when you have little to no knowledge pertaining to a question, you can still have a go at answering it. Maybe you can derive a partial answer from what you do know or come up with a creative, out-of-the-box solution. Worst case, you can always take a stab in the dark and hope your subconscious will send up an idea that the corrector will look upon favorably.

Surprisingly, I often found answering the harder questions more fun. When you know you know the answer, you’re desperately trying to fetch it from the depths of your mind. There is nothing more frustrating than to know you have the information yet not be able to retrieve it. And for everything that was easily accessible, I would just scribble it down as quickly as I could, trying to save time for the remaining questions.

Once I had filled in everything obvious and given up on what I decided I could not remember, however, the blissful part of the exam began: Now I was free to dare, guess, imagine, and learn. There was no baggage of existing knowledge holding me down (at least none that I knew of), and I could take my sweet time in simply trying to craft the best answer I could.

In other words, I was no longer trying to pass an exam. The test had already taken place, and from here on out, any further points were a matter of fate. I was just learning, and, like most people, I enjoy learning very much. Or, as Bruce Lee sometimes called it, “knowing.”

One of Bruce’s greatest contributions in the realm of not martial arts but education was his distinction between knowledge and knowing: “Knowledge is always of time, whereas knowing is not of time. Knowledge is from a source, from an accumulation, from a conclusion, while knowing is a movement.”

In Bruce’s view, “knowing” does not simply mean retrieving previously gathered knowledge. It is its own activity, and it can happen even without the presence of knowledge. Bruce used the words “learning” and “knowing” synonymously: “Knowledge is of the past; learning is in the present, a constant movement, in relationship with the outward things, without the past.”

Bruce was a practitioner. He knew you could study the martial arts for decades in the abstract yet never be able to land a single punch. Knowledge sits in the realm of theory, but knowing can only happen in reality.

Bruce was also a student of Zen. He believed that true understanding only happens when the mind shuts down, not when we are deeply entrenched in thought, digging for facts. Knowing is being present. It is the state of perfect synchronicity with life. Call it flow, if you like. Just like a martial artist executing a sequence of movements perfectly, you are fully engaged with the material, eager to absorb and connect rather than trying to dissect it conceptually by bombarding it with your thoughts.

Unlike knowledge, knowing is not rigid. “The additive process is merely a cultivation of memory, which becomes mechanical,” Bruce says. “Learning is never cumulative. It is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end.” When you focus on learning more so than knowledge, you stay adaptable. You keep an open mind, ready to adjust to any situation.

Knowledge is cumulative. Intelligence is selective. Learning means only taking what you need to handle whatever is going on right now. No more, no less. It is a matter of effectiveness – dispensing with everything unnecessary – over efficiency – acquiring as much as possible and neatly organizing it.

In today’s world, knowing displaces knowledge by the day. There is ever more information being created at an ever increasing speed, and it is no longer feasible, nor necessary, to keep up, for new insights replace the old ones faster than we can remember either.

You can’t always “know” as in “have knowledge,” but you can always “know” as in “learn.” Don’t be obsessed with knowledge. Let old facts go freely so you can focus on learning in the present. When you’re in the habit of knowing, you can handle anything – even an exam full of questions to which you don’t have the textbook answers.