Practice vs. Study: The Willingness to Get Wet

Jumping In With Both Feet

A great Zen teacher sends a student to the river to learn all the water has to teach. So the student does what she’s told and sits by the river. And there on the bank, she spends many watchful days and nights, listening to the river’s constant babble. But even after a week’s diligent research, she feels none the wiser.

Just as she’s about to give up and leave, a monkey excitedly skips past her, and without hesitation, jumps into the water! Stunned, the student watches as the monkey spends hours, swimming and splashing about. Confused and upset, the student returns to her teacher in tears: What is it the monkey knew that she did not?

With a sigh, the teacher responds: “You only studied. Whereas the monkey was willing to get wet.”


The Sanskrit word prajña comes from the roots pra, meaning “fulfilling” and jña, meaning “understanding”. And it’s insight that cannot come from a book or learned second-hand. Often referred to as “wisdom beyond wisdom”, because it’s a knowing that goes beyond intellect. In fact, it requires us to not know at all. Thus willing to be surprised.

And so study alone isn’t going to do it. In fact, our thinking mind will only get in the way. Because surprise isn’t something you can prepare for. I mean, the very definition of surprise means you can’t know what’s coming. 

For example, I have a simple technique for helping students feel what it’s like to float their legs up in a handstand, with only a little assistance from me. I love it best when the most skeptical volunteer, for no one is more surprised than them. Unfortunately, it only works the first time. Because once anyone knows what’s coming, the brain takes over and the magic is lost.

Which isn’t to say that we cannot create the kind of conditions that allow for surprise. We can. And actually, we do! You see, it requires a method with predictable rules, but allows for unpredictable surprises.

In other words, allowing ourselves to know and not know, at the same time. 

Sound familiar? It should. Because we have that method. Trouble is, we’d much rather know than not. So we rarely leave open that empty space and instead, fill it with more information. And not all of it actually helpful or true. We fill it with expectations, with judgment, with ideas of correctness and ‘shoulds’, leaving very little space for us to be surprised.

Then again, not everyone likes surprises. Nor are all surprises as pleasant as realizing you can float your legs up into a handstand. Like the pandemic, for instance. The degree of uncertainty and unexpected change left even the most steadfast feeling a bit anxious and shaken.

Like most, I did my fair share of speculating, pontificating, and trying to predict, to no avail. So then I tried giving the pandemic (and me) some kind of purpose, by being über productive, which was honestly pretty exhausting. Though I doubt I was unique. This is how most of us cope with uncertainty, by either trying to know or trying to control. In fact, if you look around, you’ll probably still see a lot of people clinging to one or the other, possibly even both.

Eventually, I threw my hands up in utter exasperation. I finally admitted to myself that I had no idea what I was doing nor where this was going, and I was just going to have to live my life as it was and deal with whatever came when it did. I realized I’d been worrying about nothing, as it was nothing that I knew.

Which is kind of funny, right? That after a few decades of a yoga practice, it took a global pandemic to actually convince me to let go. And yet, I think it often takes something that big to help us loosen our grip.

What did surprise me, however, was how much easier navigating became once I stopped trying to know anything for sure. Once I opened myself to the moment allowed myself to be more spontaneous, I could finally start living again.

And as it turns out, I’m a much better swimmer than I actually thought. We probably all are. But first, we need to get wet.*

*This is an excerpt from June’s issue of THE PATH, which includes a monthly journal, practice inspiration, and a live gathering on the last Sunday of each month. You can read the rest by downloading June’s journal below.

THE PATH 06 || June’s Sage

The Wisdom of Nothing

Inside this month’s issue:

  • Āvidya // The ignorance of certainty.
  • Prajña // Knowledge you cannot get from a book.
  • Understanding // Wisdom from under where we stand.
  • The 6 Practices // Generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiasm, contemplation, and emptiness.
  • Emptiness // The importance of space.
  • Śruti and Smriti,  // Like two wings of a bird, the fundamentals of chanting.
  • Making Sourdough Bread: A practice of sitting. 
  • Space in the Garden:  How to grow tomato plants vertically.