“Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”
Tao te Ching
As I gazed upon Modigliani’s masterful tableau, I was suddenly confronted with the vastness of what I do not know.
Here I was, a lifelong admirer of art, strolling through an exhibition of excellent painters… and I had never heard of any of them.
While completing my masters’ degree in history, I realized that the deeper you plunge into a subject, the more you realize how much there is to know (please don’t ask me anything about China). Human culture is so vast that it would take lifetimes to absorb even a fraction of it. But we somehow tend to forget about this in our daily lives, likely because we don’t stray very far out of our area of semi-expertise.
Seeing these works suddenly jolted me back into this awareness of how minuscule my knowledge truly is. I began to think about all the other things I don’t know anything about. Biochemistry… mathematics… nuclear physics… plumbing… Indian cricket players… the list just went on and on.
Standing there in front of Soutine’s work, and all the feelings of limitation it evoked, was a metaphor for my relation to the universe. My monkey-mind has convinced itself of its self-importance, when in reality it doesn’t have the faintest clue.
In a culture obsessed with achievement, status, and possessions, it’s hard to find time or opportunity to cultivate humility. We forget so easily that we exist only as a result of countless causes and conditions over which we had no direct control.
You have painted certain chapters of your life through your free choices, but can you claim to be responsible for the canvas and colors at your disposal?
Mystics from every tradition have told us that humility is the gate through which we must pass if we wish to attain knowledge of God. We must drop our ideas of what we think we know (and all the feelings of self-importance those create) and simply remain open to the unfathomable mystery that is manifesting through us.
A tiny drop in an infinite ocean…
An ephemeral leaf on the tree of life…
Spokes in a cosmic wheel eternally in motion…
Can we cultivate the courage needed to truly feel this?
God transcends all human categories and ideas, even the idea of God. Like the art on the wall, Its depth can only be experienced once we get out of the mind and into our hearts.
The humility needed to experience this can be cultivated sitting in meditation, when we attune ourselves to how amazing our body is. It can be evoked in nature, when we realize how harmony and order somehow arises out of the chaos and violence.
But it can also arise if we take the time to look at the paintings on the wall, and let their wisdom fully penetrate us.