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.

4 thoughts on “Just Full of Facts”

  1. Reminds me of how when Joseph Campbell was asked,”What kinds of spiritual practices do you do?”, he said, “I underline books.” I don’t know if you underline books, Loren, or whether you see anything spiritual about your reading, but I am inspired by how beautifully you attend to words (and birds) and I am still very grateful for the day I googled a line from a Mary Oliver poem and found your writing. Thanks for stopping by my blog, too.

  2. I can’t remember not underlining books, though I imagine it must have started in high school when an English teacher required us to cite passages to back up our opinions.

    Though I don’t have any religion per se, I’ve always considered myself “spiritual,” and most of my reading feeds that spiritual side.

  3. The assumption that learning is like eating (consuming knowledge)might be faulty. Once full of either, we tend to stop. While “he who kisses the joy as it flies (Blake)lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” When I ask myself what is worth knowing, I have hard time giving or getting an answer. I’m not sure knowing anything is the point. I tend to favor seeing. That’s what draws me to poetry. I’d rather be an eye. (The Sufi tales are great, Loren.)

  4. I’m assuming you’re not an INTP on the Briggs-Meyer scale, Mike.

    We INTP’s like to try to integrate what we observe into our “world-view” before we move on.

    Undigested facts just pile up like so many unread books, taking up space and making us feel guilty because we still haven’t gotten to them.

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