Just Full of Facts

I like many of the tales in Shah’s Wisdom of the Idiots, but this one comes a little too close for comfort — which might explain why it’s a favorite. All you have to do is glance at the column on the left and see the works I’ve read in just the last four years, a small percentage of the total number of works I’ve read over the years, and realize I might suffer from information overload.

Like most people who’ve spent a lifetime reading, I have more useless facts in my head than I’ll ever use, no matter how many games of Trivial Pursuit I get conned into playing. Some people admire others who are able to remember bits of information, celebrating it in program after program on television. Though I’ve often benefitted from the kind of memory that can tell you exactly where on a page a fact can be found and can answer multiple answer questions quite easily, I have serious doubts about the benefits of remembering endless strings of facts.

This tale suggests how dangerous undigested facts may be:


A man came to Bahaudin Naqshband, and said:

‘I have travelled from one teacher to another, and I have studied many Paths, all of which have given me great benefits and many advantages of all kinds.
‘I now wish to be enrolled as one of your disciples, so that I may drink from the well of knowledge, and thus make myself more and more advanced in the Tariqa, the Mystic Way.

Bahaudin, instead of answering the question directly, called for dinner to be served. When the dish of rice and meat stew was brought, he pressed plateful after plateful upon his guest. Then he gave him fruits and pastries, and then he called for more pilau, and more and more courses of food, vegetables, salads, confitures.

At first the man was flattered, and as Bahaudin showed pleasure at every mouthful he swallowed, he ate as much as he could. When his eating slowed down, the Sufi Sheikh seemed very annoyed, and to avoid his displeasure, the unfortunate man ate virtually another meal.

When he could not swallow even another grain of rice, and rolled in great discomfort upon a cushion, Bahaudin addressed him in this manner:
‘When you came to see me, you were as full of undigested teachings as you now are with meat, rice and fruit. You felt discomfort, and, because you are unaccustomed to spiritual discomfort of the real kind, you interpreted this as a hunger for more knowledge. Indigestion was your real condition.
‘I can teach you if you will now follow my instructions and stay here with me digesting by means of activities which will not seem to you to be initiatory, but which will be equal to the eating of something which will enable your meal to be digested and transformed into nutrition, not weight.’

The man agreed. He told his story many decades later, when he became famous as the great teacher Sufi Khalil Ashrafzada.

So that’s the discomfort I felt when I finally graduated from college. I know that there were times when I was in graduate school when I just wanted to be “finished? with classes, doubting I was still learning anything worth learning.

That discomfort probably explains why I went nearly two years after I first retired without reading a single book, choosing to spend my time working in my garden or hiking or cross-country skiing in the mountains.

When I finally decided I wanted to start reading again, I chose to go back and re-read a number of books that I had found interesting years before. After that, I started reading books that I had bought during all those college years but hadn’t found time to finish. Four years later, I still haven’t finished all those books, though to be fair reading an old book has often led to buying new books that explore similar ideas.

I hope that taking time to write about everything I read helps to digest what I’ve read and put it in some sort of perspective. I do think my reading and my other interests have begun to dovetail.