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Are You Using Knowledge, or Is Knowledge Using You?

Are You Using Knowledge, or Is Knowledge Using You? don Miguel Ruiz Jr.

Excerpts from the The Five Levels of Attachment: Toltec Wisdom for a Modern World by don Miguel Ruiz Jr.

I began my apprenticeship into my family’s tradition in San Diego, California, when I was fourteen years old. My seventy-nine year- old grandmother, Madre Sarita, was my teacher and the spiritual head of our family. She was a curandera, a faith healer who helped people in her small temple in Barrio Logan, a neighborhood in San Diego, with the power of her faith in God and love. Since my father was a medical doctor, the juxtaposition of the two forms of healing allowed me to see our tradition through different points of view.

Though she spoke no English, my grandmother gave sermons and lectures across the country. My apprenticeship began with translating my grandmother’s lectures from Spanish to English. For many years, I awkwardly stumbled over her words, and my grandmother would just look at me and laugh.

One day, she asked me if I knew why I stumbled. I had all sorts of answers: you are speaking too quickly, you don’t give me a chance to catch up, some words don’t have a direct translation ... She just looked at me silently for a few moments and then asked, “Are you using knowledge, or is knowledge using you?”

I looked at her blankly. She continued, “When you translate, you try to express my words through what you already know, what you think is true. You do not hear me; you hear yourself. Imagine doing the same thing every single moment in life. If you are looking through life and translating it as it goes along, you will miss out on living it. But if you learn to listen to life, you will always be able to express the words as they come. Your knowledge has to become a tool that you will use to guide you through life but that can also be put aside. Do not let knowledge translate everything you experience.”

I nodded in response, but it didn’t dawn on me until many years later what my grandmother was truly talking about. Throughout life, we constantly narrate or comment on everything we do, say, see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. As natural storytellers, we continuously keep the plot moving forward, sometimes missing millions of subplots that are developing on their own. It is like taking a sip of wine and saying, “It’s a bit dry; it has definitely aged well, but I can taste the bark. I’ve had better.” Instead of simply experiencing the joy and flavors of the wine, we are analyzing the flavor, trying to break it down and fit it into a context and language we already know. In doing this, we miss out on much of the actual experience.

This is a simple example of how we narrate life — explaining it but, more importantly, justifying and judging it. Instead of taking an experience for what it is, we create a story to make it fit our beliefs. During Madre Sarita’s talks, I had to completely shut down my thoughts, because if my mind’s commentary got in the way, I would miss out on her message. With this simple process, my grandmother showed me that if we only see the world through the filters of our preconceptions, we are going to miss out on actually living. After much practice, I eventually learned to close my eyes, shut out the world that existed outside my head, and translate every single word she said accurately.

Seeing beyond our filters — our accumulated knowledge and beliefs — does not always come naturally. We have spent years growing attached to them in various degrees, and they feel safe. Whatever we become attached to can begin to shape our future experiences and limit our perception of what exists outside our vocabulary. Like blinders on a horse, our attached beliefs limit our vision, and this in turn limits our perceived direction in life. The stronger our level of attachment, the less we can see.

Think about your set of attached beliefs as a unique melody repeating itself in your mind. In a way, we are constantly trying to force our melody — the one we have become accustomed to hearing — onto other melodies without realizing that often the melody is not our own, and perhaps it’s not even the one we want to be playing. If we continue playing only what we know, never opening ourselves to listen to the other songs flowing around us, we are letting our attachment to our particular melody control us.

Instead, choose to listen to other melodies playing. Perhaps you will contribute to them, adding a harmony or a bass line and just seeing where the music takes you. By letting go of your attachment to what you think the melody should be, you open yourself to the potential to create a unique and beautiful song of your own composition or a collaboration that can be shared with others.

From Self-Judgment to Self-Acceptance

I project onto the image of myself the values and attributes that reflect my beliefs. The more attached I am to my beliefs, the more difficult it becomes to see myself for who I am at this moment, and the less freedom I have to see life from a fresh perspective and perhaps choose a different path. As my attachments become more intense and more entrenched, I lose the awareness of my authentic self as it becomes obscured by the filters of my belief system. In the Toltec tradition, we call this the smokey mirror — the smoke that doesn’t allow us to perceive our authentic selves.

What gives these attachments their strength is conditional love. When you look in the mirror, instead of accepting yourself for who you are at this very moment, you likely start telling yourself why you are unacceptable in your current form, and what you need to do to be able to accept yourself: I must meet this expectation to be worthy of my own love.

The desire to obtain the flawless fulfillment of the archetypal model of each one of my agreements distorts my reflection even more. I begin to judge and evaluate myself according to the standards of my agreements, which have turned into the conditions for self-acceptance. I implement a system of reward and punishment to train myself to reach that archetypal model; this is known in the Toltec tradition as domestication.

The primary tool used to domesticate oneself is self-judgment. Using my archetypal model of what “I am Miguel” is supposed to mean, I see upon looking at my reflection all the perceived flaws or inadequacies, and my domestication springs into action:


  • “I’m not smart enough ...”
  • “I’m not attractive enough ...”
  • “I don’t have enough ...”
  • “I’m lacking this or that ...”
  • And so on ...

Self-judgment resides where self-acceptance wishes to be. Our attachment to these negative beliefs and self-judgments can become so normal that we don’t even recognize them as condemnations anymore; we accept them as a part of who we are. But at a very basic level, our selfjudgments are all consequences of what we believe about ourselves at our core — whether we accept or reject ourselves.

Of all the beliefs to detach from, this is the most important one: Let go of the attachment that you must obtain some image of perfection in order to be happy. And this isn’t only about appearances; it includes the way we think, the philosophy we follow, our spiritual pursuits, and our place in society. All these things are conditions upon which we accept ourselves. We think that in order to be worthy of our own love, we must live up to the expectations we place on ourselves — but we need to realize that these expectations are the expression of our agreements, not of our true nature.

Ironically, it is often at the moment that we have the opportunity to see our truth — when we are faced with our reflection, whether in a mirror or outside in the world — that the narrators speak the loudest. I know of people, myself included, who have refused to look at themselves in the mirror because the self-judgments were deafening. It is impossible for people — teens and adults alike — to live up to an illusion.

Of course, it’s easy to blame our media, our culture, or our community for perpetuating images of what it expects of us. It is true that we are flooded with commercials and archetypal images of heroes and heroines, beautiful damsels in distress and professional athletes, examples of ugliness and how not to be. But at the very core of it, there is no one to blame, because a commercial, like self-judgment, has no power over us unless we agree with its message. It is only when we willingly attach ourselves to these images and distortions that our happiness is compromised.

We do not need to take the blame for these self-judgments. We can simply become aware that they have been developing in our lives since childhood through the process of domestication. Once we are aware of our self-judgments, we can reclaim our freedom by choosing for ourselves to transcend the rewards and punishment model that has been imposed on us to eventually arrive at a place of self-acceptance.

We have a choice. That is our power.

When you look into the mirror, you are the only one who can hear your narrators; only you know what those selfjudgments are. They take whatever voice and shape you give them, but they are only the expression of something you’ve already said yes to. You can make the choice to detach yourself from the standards that create an unrealistic image of yourself by knowing that you have the power to say no. When you no longer believe in a self-judgment, it will no longer have any power over you. You can choose to view yourself from a place of acceptance based on the undeniable truth that you are already perfect and complete exactly the way you are right now.

From this point of view, you may still choose to make some life changes; but now the motivation to change is not because you hope to someday love yourself but because you already do love yourself. When the reflection is viewed from this angle, change flows in synchronicity with the trajectory of your life, and the possibilities are limitless. Suffering only occurs when we forget that.