The only thing I know is that I don’t know!

For the past two winters in Wellington, Florida, I have had the privilege of studying under George Morris one or two days a week. Over this time, I have found myself consumed by the effort to understand what skills and philosophies lead those who are masters at their trade along the path to ‘enlightenment’. I use the term enlightenment cautiously, not in a Voodoo god-like way, but in the sense of a deeper awareness and understanding of the world as it exists. When I refer to masters, I mean those who are able to refine their craft beyond the basic level that is comprehensible to most others.

A typical day spent with George was as follows:

After he had worked out for an hour at a nearby gym, George and I met for breakfast at 7 am. From there we hit the road, venturing to many different barns where he would ride, educate, and mentor many of the top riders and horses at every level.  He usually started out by riding a few horses, then progress to teaching a few individual lessons, and finally wrap up his instruction with a clinic.  Following the morning’s work, we would head back to his house for a few hours – but only after his usual stop at Dunkin Donuts for a large hot chocolate with whipped cream! While George occupied himself with the editing of his autobiography, I was left to browse his library and read his books and the notes that he had jotted down on their pages. In the afternoon, we would head to the show grounds where I got to observe him as he walked and discussed the course with several riders, both those he was responsible for coaching and those he wasn’t. My favorite part of these afternoons was standing with him as his students rode.  He could see every mistake before it happened and every bad distance long before the horse took off. His understanding of the horse’s correctness to the jump was so well established by his years of riding and teaching that George knew what was going to happen before the horse ever did.

On one of the last days I spent with George during the winter season, he said something that had an enormous impact on my thinking. As usual, we met for breakfast, said our good mornings, and sat down. It was not uncharacteristic on such occasions for George to start the conversation by exhaling loudly and then delivering a simple but mind-blowing comment.  On this day his comment was, “You know what keeps me waking up every day?  The drive to continue to learn, the hunger to be better for the horse, the fact that the only thing that is confirmed every day is that I don’t know. The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” This is a classic example of George’s sage-like advice: spontaneous yet full of priceless wisdom.  Only after some time had passed and I had let his statement sink in did I realize how significant it was.

This statement of George’s that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” encapsulates much of what it takes to achieve self-mastery. This in itself is a complicated subject, but for now I will only discuss what the statement means to me.

Simply put, the day you stop learning is the day you think that you have ‘arrived’, that you have reached the pinnacle of your potential, that there is no need to continue studying, applying, and refining your skills. You have reached a state of stagnation from which there is no forward progress. There is no more desire to conduct experiments in hopes of bettering your understanding and improving your awareness. You have become mechanized and routine in your approach to dealing with all situations, and you have lost sensitivity for the moment at hand.  As a result, a person who has reached this ‘pinnacle’ tends to treat everyone as though they were machines, providing one-size-fits-all answers instead of tailoring his approach to any particular situation. A teacher who has himself ceased to learn will be unable to help others think, cultivate the desire to improve, and develop an awareness of their influence on their surroundings.

As George made clear in his statement, he has never stopped learning.  He often tells me during a phone conversation or breakfast that after a recent breakthrough with a horse, he realized that he has been doing something wrong his entire life. He laughs to think that for all that time he had been teaching it wrongly. He still has a hard time believing that others listen to him when he teaches because he has these seemingly constant breakthroughs, no matter how small they are, that revise his previous understanding of the horse.

Another thing that working with George brought to my attention is his voracious reading and his struggle to understand the many variations and details of classical horsemanship.  He will read a specific book many times over the years, whenever his mood or current interest inclines him toward it. Seeing some of the books he has gone through over and over again with countless underlines, side notes, and comments in different inks has led me to appreciate just how many times he has been through the same book with different insights resulting from his labors. Each time George rereads a book, he peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a new meaning.

Depending on where I am in my journey, George’s seemingly simple statement that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” takes many different forms, always presenting itself in a new light to reflect my current circumstances.  The sentiment behind these simple words is one that is embraced by masters in all disciplines.  The details of the “not knowing” may have slight differences depending on who is professing their ignorance, but the meaning as a whole is applicable to all areas of study and life.

Any masters who have reached refinement to the degree of enlightenment have seemingly simple, short phrases that are so straightforward that they seem trite or untrue to those who hear them. On a lifelong journey of learning, however, the continuous breakdown of these sayings reveals the complexity and deeper truth behind the words. It is only with examination and explanation that these phrases can become accessible and helpful to students at all levels. I hope that I can build an awareness of these phrases in others by explaining my thought process as I myself try to understand the deeper meaning behind them by writing about them.

I feel so fortunate for the mentors and masters I have had and will have the pleasure to study under. It is hard to imagine a life without them.

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3 thoughts on “The only thing I know is that I don’t know!

  1. Thank you for this wonderful insight. Which books in GM’s library stood out to you as either his or your most influential/favorites ?

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  2. My mom sent this post to me this morning. She is an consummate horsewoman and one thing she has always told me is “Don’t think you know it all kid.” This piece of wisdom was passed down to her by a sage horseman when she was a young woman. Thank you for reminding us all that we always have room to learn and be better, especially in the horse industry.

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