Thursday, March 3, 2016

Arrogance and Expertise

"Beginning Again"
- springtime in the desert -

Yesterday evening, I tuned into a CNN news report analyzing the implications of the recent “Super Tuesday” presidential primaries.  The program featured a panel of political experts who were supposed to “shine some light” on what is happening in the current political landscape of this country.

I watched carefully as each expert went on to arrogantly pontificate about his or her own particular point of view. One was sure that Hilary would eventually win, another was just as sure that Donald Trump was on his way to the White House – no one was listening to anyone else and each was unflinchingly certain that they had it right. After the panel was finished with their heated discussion, it occurred to me that not only did those experts not shine any light on the subject but they managed to seriously cloud the issues.

I’ve been thinking about the inherent danger involved in relying too heavily upon “expert advice,” and I have even come to the point where I become extremely cautious whenever anyone (including myself) is identified as an expert in any field.

In my own experience, some of the most unproductive meetings I have even attended were those in which various “experts” gathered together to solve problems—meetings of university faculty, conventions of ordained clergy and religious leaders, all experts in their own right. In many cases, like those TV political pundits, in these meetings each of the experts in attendance was quite sure that, because of their many years of education and experience, they were on the “right” track and had found the “right” way.

Interestingly enough, in the Buddhist literature, the goal of the path of wisdom is to become a “beginner” rather than an “expert.” A characteristic of mature wisdom is a “Beginner’s Mind.”

 One Zen master put it this way:

If your mind is empty it is always ready for anything.
It is open to everything.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s mind there are few.

In many ways I think Jesus was a Zen-style teacher. He sat little children on his knee and told his followers that, if they wanted to find deeper truth and greater wisdom, they should become like these innocent little ones with wide open hearts and uncluttered minds that aren’t already “made up.”

Throughout most of my life I was the designated “expert” - an expert in theology, an expert in the meaning of the Bible, an expert in all things having to do with church or religion. But, in a very real sense my expertise limited me, it gave me a rather narrow understanding of the bigger picture. My expertise led me to an arrogance that blinded me to seriously consider other paths of truth.

It wasn’t until the later years of my life that I realized I didn’t want to be an expert anymore, and when I did this, the world seemed to get a lot bigger for me.

Nowadays I often find myself turning to the wisdom of many diverse religious and spiritual traditions. I also find that when I read a book or a poem or a passage of scripture that I may I have read many times before, it is as if I am seeing it again for the first time.  

I sit out in my garden in the same place every morning - the same chair, looking at that same fountain, the same palm trees, the same sun rising over those same mountains, and I have a sudden “flash of insight.”  I am seeing it all fresh and new, seeing it for the first time again. My path of wisdom is leading me to become a beginner again.

If anything, the spiritual journey is paradoxical. When you follow a spiritual path, the more mature you are, the more you become like an innocent child, and the higher up you go on the ladder of wisdom, you realize how little you know. Every day, the journey begins anew, every moment filled with the fresh new possibilities and the surprises each moment has to offer.
As I sit in my garden on yet another beautiful early-spring morning in the desert, one more Zen saying comes to mind:

Treat each moment as your last.
It is not a preparation for something else.


  1. This is so true for me too. Not that I'm an expert in anything but the more I strive to understand, or cram in information, the less I see and experience. Take parenting advice books...the more I read the further I move away from my own intuitive wisdom, the less I trust my own experience and yet if I sit and watch and pay attention to my girls they teach me everything. xxx