Two recent events have helped me to see how easy it is to mistake familiarity with real knowledge.
I'm not a huge Beatles fan, but I have always liked their songs and I've followed Paul McCartney through the years. He has a kindness in his face that makes him likable to me. I was quite surprised recently when I dreamed that I was on a date with him in NYC. The date was a lot of fun, we were laughing and visiting different places, spending a day exploring. I felt quite awkward, however, as the day went on. I began realizing that I held opinions about Paul's life and character that I had picked up over the years, things that I was suddenly embarrassed to discover while actually in his presence. I thought I understood the nature of his relationship with Lennon, and how he felt about his life pre- and post-Beatles. This assumed knowledge was getting in the way of actually getting to know him! I shared with him what I was feeling, and my awkwardness suddenly at being with him, realizing I know nothing about him, and at the same time, discovering that I thought I knew a lot about him. We laughed, and he told me that he encounters that all of the time--that he considers that sort of false knowledge one of the costs of fame. Once I told him what I was feeling, I began to discover that it was easier to set it aside, and went on to learn about the real man.
When I awoke, I was surprised and shaken up. Using my normal dream analysis tools, I realized that I have always seen Paul as an example of a fully alive and creative person, and that my message to myself was that I was just starting to encounter my own creative core. That was exciting, and seemed to be a personal growth milestone. But I was equally disturbed to realize that so much of what I hold to be true about the world around me is based on assumptions I've made. It's as if I've been connecting the dots of some real information, perhaps, but still not based on real knowledge, first-hand knowledge. I realized that the things I'm familiar with are the things that are most at risk for this sort of false knowledge and intimacy. I carried that feeling of my assumptions crashing against reality, like waves crashing on a cliff, with me for several days.
The second event is something I have observed over the last few weeks. My parents purchased a building nearly 30 years ago to use for a family business. The building is estimated to be more than 150 years old, and started its life as a one room school house. In the 1930s, it was purchased and turned into a residence, and then in the 1970s, my parents converted the residence into a professional office building. Recently, they sold the building and the land to a huge corporate conglomerate who wanted it for the location of a chain retail establishment. This is a big event in their small town, and required many meetings with the zoning commission and the city council before it was approved. The surprise event was the public outcry against tearing down that historic building. People who don't know my family attending the public meeting to express their outrage over the loss of a building they had become used to seeing. Some even claimed that the building was on the National Register of Historic Buildings, which would mean that it could not be torn down. I watched these events unfold with a detached sense of bewilderment, since none of these people had ever been inside the building, they didn't know us, and they had the facts wrong. They had mistaken familiarity with real knowledge. After additional statements from my family, the plans were finally approved, but the loss of this building remains a sore spot in the town's collective consciousness.
I'm grateful that these experiences have helped me to see myself in a different light, and have cast a shadow of doubt on the truth of my knowledge of things around me. In a sense, I want to toss aside everything I hold as knowledge about the world around me, to see the world with fresh eyes, and only have knowledge based on personal experience. I suspect this kind of purity can't be obtained by making such a decision, but can be facilitated by intending to see the world in a new way, a real way. I have noticed that I question my knowledge occasionally now, that I will evaluate its reliability by asking myself how I came to believe something was true, or came to have this knowledge. These questions raise the awareness of the issue, but I'm not really prepared to analyze everything I think of. There has to be another way to reach this goal.
In fact, the thought of discarding this false knowledge lets me see just how chaotic my world would be without it. It is my assumptions about patterns that allow me to live in a predictable world, where I can plan and set goals, and live in an orderly world where things progress. They also keep my assemblage point focused very close to its current location, since new knowledge only refines what I've already assumed is true about the world.
In The Art of Dreaming, Castaneda talks about traveling to other realities as the result of a significant shift in the assemblage point location, and how foreign and disorienting these other locations are for him. In the past, I've had significant experiences that have allowed me to remain in this reality and yet to begin to incorporate a bigger world and universe into my ever present awareness. There are some myths surrounding Castaneda's death, with some people believing that he actually took his physical body with him to a different assemblage point reality. I'm not prepared to make that kind of a break with reality myself, but I am curious to explore how I can get past my own assumptions of reality and encounter reality first hand. It seems like an interesting way to live.
As uncomfortable as I felt on my date with Paul, I've started to embrace that awkward feeling as a gift, a new awareness that my thoughts are not in synch with the reality around me in those moments. It's as if I've started to develop a false knowledge detector within my stomach that lets me know when my mind pulls me away from experiencing reality for myself. After living 42 years, there are many things I'm familiar with, and quite a few that I actually have first hand experience with. Perhaps now I am beginning to distinguish between these two.