the difference between knowledge and experience

there is a very significant difference between knowledge and experience. most of us hear about something and feel like we “know” it and that’s-that. the problem is what does it mean to “know” it anyway? this was first brought to my attention by an aunt of mine. i was noting a very nice poetic refrigerator magnet with some stuff about child rearing. i said to her, “wow, this is really neat.” like it was meaningful to me. i couldn’t get over how well written it was. anyway, she said “oh that. that’s been around a long time, everyone knows that.” and it struck me quite poignantly, that if everyone really knows this, then why is the world so messed up? why aren’t we all raising independent, well-adjusted, healthy, thriving, kids?

clearly she didn’t mean everyone literally, but the point remains. i began thinking and i am usually reading stuff and finally i put many different things together to arrive at the following essay.

Knowledge is a tool and experience is a part of you. experience is the father of behavior, or one of them. (there is actually several factors that create behavior, but that is the subject of another post, probably called “the internal and external world context”) knowledge is a useful tool, but like all tools, being able to put the tool down is what makes it useful. sounds paradoxical huh? in the tao te ching, it says, “profit comes from what is there. usefulness comes from what is not there.” and as an example it says “cut doors and windows in a room. it is the holes that make the room useful. shape clay into a vessel. it is the space inside that makes it useful. thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub, it is the center hole that makes it useful.” laotse was talking about people and emptiness. about the uncarved block. but the knowledge essay here is also apropos. the point about knowledge and usefulness and tools is that knowledge is only useful if you can let it go and are not attached to it. i worked at a porsche-audi dealer for a year. the mechanic i worked with had a huge toolbox worth $25,000 of tools and toolbox. there were so many different size and shape wrenches. there were tools for everything. what makes those tools so useful? the fact that he can put them down. doesn’t make sense to you? well what if we taped one of his hands around a 3/4 wrench and the other around a phillips screwdriver… how useful would those tools be then? what use would he be? how much work could he do?

here’s another analogy. lets say you’re on a deserted island. you never knew any different. lived there all your life. you’re about 25 now. i fly down in a helicopter and jump out, with a shovel. you’ve never seen one before. you’ve been living in the tall grass, laying down. i show you how to dig with it momentarily and then give it to you and fly off. you start using the shovel. you dig a cave out of a hillside and suddenly you’re not wet when it rains. you dig a fire pit inside the cave and suddenly your fires don’t blow out and you can leave them burning at night without worry they will spread. you cook fish over the fire by holding the shovel over the flame with the fish on it. after a while, you do everything with this shovel. you can’t live without it. a year later, i fly down again and jump out and offer you an axe. another thing you’ve never seen. only i motion that you have to give me the shovel if you want the axe. what do you do? you don’t do the trade. know why? you’re too attached to the shovel to let it go. if i showed you what the axe was capable of, you might make the trade. if i showed you, you could build a hut on stilts out of logs. you could build a canoe and a paddle. but the point is we are all like this. we learn things and become attached to them. we think knowledge has inherent value. IT DOES NOT. knowledge HAS NO INHERENT VALUE. it is a tool that only has the value we assign to it. if i have a hammer, i could build a habitat for humanity home with it. that makes the hammer “good.” but i could also wait for someone in an alley and beat them over the head to steal their money and get high. that makes the hammer “bad.” really the hammer is neutral. its neither. really there is no good or bad. (subject of another post) but the point is no tool is inherently positive or negative. they are what we do with them. knowledge is exactly the same. never pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. this is what “intellectuals” do. every talk to an intellectual? THEY DONT KNOW HOW TO LISTEN. they are too busy thinking about what they are going to say next to actually listen to you. their minds are so full of knowledge they don’t know how to listen with fresh ears. to empty themselves and listen.

there’s a story in Joe Hyams’ “zen in the martial arts” about a guy who had studied for a few years and then went to study with a master. the master started to describe his art and the guy interrupted and said “oh, yeah, ive studied that before, its like this…” then the master tried to show him something else and the guy interrupted again and said “oh. ok. i know about that from another school i went to, its like this…” this went on for awhile. finally the master said, “why don’t we have some tea?” so they went to have tea and the master poured. he was pouring the guy’s cup until it was full and didn’t stop. the tea started spilling all over the place and the master still poured. the guy finally yelled “hey! stop! you’re spilling the tea everywhere.” the master kept pouring and said “and why is that? why is it spilling?” the guy said “because the cup is full.” the master said, “yes. exactly. and you are the same way. every time i try and teach you you can’t learn because you’re so full of your own knowledge you have no room for my teaching. you must empty your cup. empty yourself and then you will be ready to learn.”

these are the traps of knowledge. arrogant intellectualism and inability to grow or learn more. remember though, that knowledge has its place. it is a USEFUL TOOL. knowledge obviously helps us live in so many ways. the development of the written word and recorded history is one of the biggest advancements our species has made thus far. the tao te ching says “knowing ignorance is strength, but ignoring knowledge is sickness.” as always, you must marry yin and yang; the opposites.

regarding experience. experience is a part of “how” we are. knowledge can be turned into experience over time. it travels from our heads into our hearts and then deeper. this process of turning knowledge into experience will be the subject of another post. think of a child. a toddler. this toddler has never experienced hot or fire or whatever. you tell the child “don’t touch the burner on the stove because its hot and you could get burned.” the child is learning to talk and when you ask him to repeat what you just said he says “i shouldn’t touch the burner because its hot and ill get burned.” or maybe more simply “the burner is hot.” now, what do you think will eventually happen if you go away? he will touch the burner. or he will touch the fire or something else hot you tell him not to touch. but once he touches it once, he will never touch it again. (assuming he is not developmentally disabled or something) the point is, experiencing the burning sensation is all he needs to never do something again whereas having the knowledge that something could burn him is not enough. by the way, after you told him not to touch the burner because its hot and he could get burned, and he repeats it back, THAT IS KNOWLEDGE. if you give him an oral or written exam (assuming he can read) he will answer the question appropriately, e.g. “could hot things burn you?” he would say “yes.” you could word it other ways, it doesnt matter. he has the knowledge that hot things burn or at least hot burners can burn. but knowledge is not enough to alter future behaviors over time. experience is. this is the big difference between the two. experience changes future behaviors.

this is how we are. we pick up a self-help book and read it and get a buzz out of it. we say “oh yeah! that makes sense, i feel great about this. this is what i needed to learn.” and this buzz lasts for a while. but eventually we are right back where we started. why? because knowledge is not enough. knowing something simply does not cut it. you think about it and keep “trying” to do stuff with it, but its a losing battle. you must experience that which you know and then it will be a part of you and you will no longer have to think about it to make it real in your life. experience is part knowledge (mental) and part feeling (emotional). experience is perception and attitude. these are the things that guide our thoughts and thus our behavior. knowledge is only the beginning. after you’ve first heard of some Truth, you are now ready to begin the real work of absorbing it and making it a part of you, an experience. i will discuss experiences more in the upcoming essay on the internal and external world context.

Knowledge is a prison. it might be a really nice prison with really modern decor and all the conveniences you could want and it might even be pretty expansive, but it is still a prison to the extent that you are attached to your knowledge. the reason is that attaching to knowledge like the guy with the full cup means you are no longer learning. you are done. you’ve just set your boundaries. you can go no farther. experience is what you’re looking to gain. you need to feel what you are learning. there’s a saying “education is what is left behind when what was learnt has been forgotten.” i have to find out the person’s name who said this. it is true. what does this mean? what’s implicit in what they said? that education is experience. your experiences in your education are what stick with you while the knowledge is forgotten.

Lastly regarding experience, I said it was part emotion or attitude. The best word to describe the heart-centric component of experience is “appreciation.” in another post I while better define attitude and appreciation, but I would like to share a story about Jack London’s “to build a fire.” this short story had a profound effect on me in that it brought this idea of the emotional aspect of experience into specific relief for me. Its the story of a guy who goes on a hike with his dog on a bitterly cold day somewhere in Canada (Yukon Territory?) and eventually freezes to death. He stops halfway to eat and tries to build a fire and can’t and he dies. Its a great, short story worth reading. The point is, the narrator claimed he “knew” how cold it was but didn’t understand or wasn’t wise enough to know the trip was ill advised. I don’t remember exactly how the narrator described the guy’s lack, but it hit home to me that the guy didn’t appreciate how cold it was. He didn’t “appreciate” his human frailty and the immense power and danger of nature. He “knew” it was -40 degrees or whatever, and just figured he’d dress really warm. The point is that if he survived his ordeal, it’s a sure bet he would never try something so foolhardy again. Not because he would “know” more but because he would “appreciate” the situation. He would not have made that trip on that day unless he had no choice. This is the same as the little boy burning his hand. Experience changes our future behaviors. Its what causes the current behaviors. (among other things)

i hope this was worthwhile. be careful about reading self help books and listening to motivational people. im not advocating you dont do this, im just saying its not enough. its not the thing. you need experience not knowledge. I will build on this further in the upcoming essay on internal and external world context.

About J.A.P.

intending to live a life free of regret, learn the Truth/truth and align with it. focused on spiritual development and having fun. maybe something i have to say here will help you on your path of growth and living in peace and joy.
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2 Responses to the difference between knowledge and experience

  1. paresh says:

    Dear J. A. P.
    I resonate very well with your writings.
    I would like to know more about process of turning knowledge into experience. Can you say more about this?

    warm regards

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