We all know that age-old phrase 'ignorance is bliss' but how many of us have actually stopped to think about what that means?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines 'ignorance' as a 'lack of knowledge, understanding, or information about something.' What this seems to negate, however, are the connotations that come with the word: arrogance, rudeness, bigotry.

When I think about what it means to be ignorant, I am faced with two options: one, the definition as stated above; the other, the act of deliberately ignoring a person, cause or situation. The second is unfortunately common in the world around us.

However, it is not always what is meant by the term. As stated above, it is just not having knowledge about something.

There is literally no excuse in being ignorant anymore. In a time where we have the world at our fingertips, you can find the answer to virtually anything in under 30 seconds. Of course, we all have things in our lives that we are ignorant about. For instance, I have absolutely no idea about the rules of poker. None. I couldn't even pretend.

The difference between this and a lot of the ignorance present on Earth is that (I hope) I never end up hurting another living thing through my ignorance of a 'kicker.'

See, getting less and less ignorant with every Google search I carry out.

In a recent read, Buddhism: Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen spends 152 pages introducing his readers to the basic concepts and practices in the Buddhist tradition. Not seem like enough? With Hagen's concise and engaging writing, it was. Sure, I don't know the ins-and-outs of Buddhism like I would like to just yet, but as an introduction it really does do what it says on the tin.

'Ignorance is not the inability to see, but the act of ignoring what is really going on in favour of what we imagine,' Hagen states.

Think about it: once you believe a thing is what you think it is, it is difficult for your concept of that thing to change. First impressions are important:

  • 'I don't like Gemma; she gave me a dirty look when we met at Sarah's party three years ago.'

  • 'Oh, you don't need to worry about asking Luke to do that: he's never minded when we've given him extra tasks to do before.'

  • 'I'm not very good at swimming: I nearly drowned when I was three and haven't really felt comfortable in the water since.'

The fact of human life - of all life - is that everything is subject to change. And yet, sometimes split-second impressions last a lifetime. This is deeply unfair and concerning.

Our natural ignorance, our ignoring what is really going on in favour of what we imagine, is blinding us to a whole host of opportunities that could be really beneficial and life-changing for us.

Your best friend had a Tinder disaster five years ago? You don't meet someone who would be great for you because you wrote off Tinder. You ignore the fact that there are literally thousands, if not millions of couples who have met and had wonderful relationships owing to a successful swiping of right. You are ignorant to the opportunities that are out there for you.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Tinder is for everyone. But I hope you see my point.

Hagen also goes on to say: 'the confusion we find in the world is not actually in the world; rather, it appears as the result of ignoring our own actual experience in favour of relative truth.' In Zen Buddhism, 'relative truths' refer to things that we believe to be true e.g. 'a foot is twelve inches, oranges contain vitamin C, Mount McKinley is in North America.' Whereas, Absolute Truth, or Ultimate Truth, deals with direct perception: what an individual actually sees and experiences: 'Ultimate Truth can't be conceptualised or imagined. You cannot hold Ultimate Truth in your mind at all. You can see It. You just can't hold It as an idea.'

Confused? Me too. A bit. But I'm working on it.

I am applying this to ignorance because I honestly believe that people become ignorant owing to a lack of will to accept that things always change. They have to. Without change, we would all still be crying to show we're hungry, women would not be able to vote, my cats would not have worked out the concept of a patio door. And whilst I can find myself incredibly sad when there are no Pringles left in the cupboard - and I often catch Lyra looking out of my back door, working out how to escape and catch the birds that often perch on the fence - I am fairly certain that change is an inevitable part of life on Earth.

I have a task for you:

Think about your grandparents or someone a couple of generations older than you. Anyone will do as I'm sure this activity will work regardless. If not, change the person. If this doesn't work for you at all then you have the wokest nearest-and-dearest ever and that is amazing. But anyway...

Think about a time when they have said something, maybe a whole phrase or perhaps even just a single word, that you know we should not say anymore. You know they don't mean to be racist/antisemitic/homophobic/transphobic e.t.c. but you know that times have changed and they haven't quite got the memo yet.

This, despite there being no malice or ill-intention behind it, is by its very definition: ignorant. This is fine, it's cool, it is how we respond to ignorance that is the important part.

Possible responses to being called out on your ignorance:

  1. Getting on the defensive. "Oh come on, you know I didn't mean it like that." This is totally and completely pointless. It doesn't make you appear any less ignorant nor let you off the hook. Stop doing this.

  2. Genuinely apologising and correcting yourself. "I am so so sorry, I didn't mean to offend anyone." OK to a certain extent, providing it is followed by...

  3. Doing your research. If you do nothing to learn more about your ingrained ignorance then you are not going to remember to avoid it in the future. This could be listening to a podcast, reading a book or even just a couple of blog-posts. Learning about people's truths can cause life-long change in your perceptions of the world - in your Absolute Truth - and thus prevents you from being ignorant about that particular topic again.

One thing we all need to understand and appreciate right now is that being ignorant does not make you a bad person. We all have brains that are only so big and we can't possibly know everything there is to know. The problem is when people are faced with their ignorance and proceed to do nothing about it. That's when it becomes dangerous.

On top of all of this, for natural worriers or people living with anxiety, ignorance can seriously exacerbate their sense of unease. If they don't know something for certain, they may feel inclined to invent an awful alternative reality. Even if they do know something, the tendency to convince themselves that the world is ending can tend to crop up. Therefore, 'ignoring [their] own actual experience in favour of relative truth': what they believe to be true.

Believe me, I've been there. Often. This week, even.

Like my incredibly wise friend Laura puts it: 'that's feeling, not fact.' And it'll bleed you dry.

This problem can then be made ten times worse because the practice of 'checking' in attempt to remove one's ignorance can also introduce feelings of stress or the worry that they're being needy or getting on other people's nerves. There really needs to be some work done around reducing the stigma of open and honest conversation between friendships and professional relationships as well as with a romantic interest or partner. If people were more comfortable with checking-in with people they weren't as close to, ignorance might not actually lead to the extreme levels of anxiety it often can.

But that is a blog-post for another day.

Regardless of the type of ignorance we're faced with, whether it be from being misinformed on an important topic or from feelings of worry, I'm sure we can all agree that it is negatively affecting lots of our lives. Often several times a day.

  • 'Why is he not calling me back? He said he would; it's been three days.'

  • 'Why did I not get that job? I was obviously stupid to even apply.'

  • 'Why do people care if I use that word? I never use it when someone like that is around.'

Steps you can take to work out if ignorance is posing problems in your everyday life:

  1. If you don't know something, are you inclined to look it up?

  2. Are you comfortable with the amount of things you don't know?

  3. Do you tend to worry that you have upset another without clear evidence that this is the case?

  4. Are you in the habit of ruminating on something without actively checking if it is true?

  5. When was the last time you put sincere effort into learning something new?

By simply trying to tackle your ignorance head-on, either by improving your knowledge, asking someone a potentially tricky question or using your direct perception to actively see what is true and what isn't, we can immediately cut down on the negativity caused by ignorance in our every day lives.

That is why I challenge you to do this. The next time you realise you are totally ignorant about a situation, fix it. I'm not saying you have to become an expert in farming potatoes if this doesn't interest you (although that is definitely what I will be Googling once I have finished writing this post) but by introducing the concept of actively seeing the world truthfully and negating the ignorance around us, I am certain we will all be able to live happier and healthier lifestyles with the knowledge that we are trying.

In the meantime, anyone for poker?

All quotes featured in this blog post come from Buddhism: Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen. For anyone interested in learning more about the basic practices and beliefs of Buddhism, I would recommend this as the perfect introduction.

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