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It’s 3/14: Happy Pi (?) day!

? is a fascinating number, often rounded off to 3.14, that is instrumental in determining the relationship between the width of a circle and the circumference of that circle, the area of the field the circle surrounds, and the volume of the sphere that the 3D version of the circle occupies. Quite possibly the only number widely celebrated with a day.

What has me writing about ? is that it’s part of an aha moment I had about how the mind functions, and some of the limitations of it.

Interestingly, ? is what’s called an irrational number, a mathematical constant, a decimal that goes on infinitely (or at least they haven’t found the end). This is fun because the that’s instrumental to what I’m pointing at about the mind: The way we try to take irrational, unexplainable concepts, and try to simplify them down to understandable and rememberable tidbits.

For any complex subject, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

We either already know everything, or we are wrong about some of what we believe. Therefore, when attempting to deeply understand something, we need to soften our pre-conceived notions. If we hold on too tightly to our immature understanding of what something is, we can’t really understand it’s fullness. Additionally, as we build our concept of something, the final piece is only as good as the foundation.

Back to ?. In a Qi Gong class, my teacher mentioned feeling our way down to the center of the earth. She lightheartedly asked if anyone knew what that distance was. I knew the formula for finding a radius from a circumference: ?d. To be able to calculate in my head, I rounded pi down to 3, and remembered that circumference was roughly 20,000mi. 3 doesn’t go into 20 easily, so to get a ballpark I switched it with 18, and came up a radius of “a little more than 3,000.” Just a rough guess. Fine for trying to visualize how far from the center of the earth I am in a Qi Gong class, but not going to work if i’m trying to put a satellite into orbit. For that I need to start with better numbers. What’s the actual radius of the earth? 24,901mi. What’s the actual Pi? A potentially endless decimal stored on your calculator.

So what does this say about how the mind works?

When thinking of something, our minds concept of that thing is not the fullness of the thing, even if we understand it quite well. All we can carry in our mind is the conceptual reduction of it.

When it comes to relationships, theres the actual person, whose rich history that makes them act the way they act, and there’s our idea of them. Even when we know someone quite well, what we don’t know about them far outweighs what we do know. Ever felt misunderstood, underestimated, wrongly accused? Relationships really break down when you relate to your idea of someone vs. the actual person.

We may have ideas of what someone likes or doesn’t like.

There’s what they like for breakfast. We might know some of the things they’ve enjoyed in the past, but we certainly don’t know all of the things they might enjoy. What someone liked once might not be something they like any more, and vice versa. Now try multiplying that by the complexity of human sexuality…

Expanding that further, there’s our concept of what different genders, cultures, groups, species, etc are. These concepts can be quite helpful in predicting things like shopping behaviors, but they are also just a rough approximation, and they’re the best the mind can do.

To really understand something, we have to first let go of the idea that we already understand that thing, and be really willing to listen and learn what is actually happening, and stop trying to force the irrational wildness of the universe into the limited resources of a rationally describable concept.

Arguably, the most complex relationship we have is with our own selves. Our identity is our concept of our self; it contains our preferences, what skills and defects we think we have, any story we have about being too much or not enough. Living as if we are this limited reduction of our vast potential is what keeps most people from achieving their dreams. When you let go of who you think you are, what youâ€™re left with is who you really are.