W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

Piet/Steven Dialogue

Ways of Knowing, Types of Mind #1

{This is the beginning of a long discussion recorded in Berkeley on May 3, 2005. It raises WoK's central issue, "ways of knowing," as this may (or may not) be found in contemplative traditions, ordinary work-a-day life, and the practice of science.}

Piet: yesterday I reported about my encounter with “is.” Last night I continued to work with that … the best comparison is with the way I'm doing research. It's difficult to describe because we don't really have a vocabulary for such things. It is like holding an idea in your mind, and trying to look at it from different sides, to see where it wants to go. So you sort of look around it, but also sort of follow it, and swallow it. I’m trying look into a deeper level there, behind it. It's difficult.

Normally we can talk so easily about the weather, or about people we meet, or about everything else, because we have this enormous toolbox of words and set phrases and colorations which we can apply. Here I have a very clear picture of what I want to say, but how to convey it is not that easy. I think this is something which is part of the task of starting a science of the subject—to come up with vocabulary.

Steven: we face a similar problem in trying to convey the nature and conduct of contemplative practice.

Piet: yes. Just like, as I mentioned before, when you start talking about objects, you talk about the motion of objects, and you talk about the amount of motion, but then you have to discriminate between momentum and energy. Similarly, we'll have to talk about how to grapple with ideas, and the different aspects of dynamics involved in holding a thought or a notion in your mind, and both the more clunky and the more fluid ways of dealing with cognition.

Steven: Well, regarding the level of ordinary thought and ideas … people have been working on the task of describing the introspective landscape for thousands of years. Even scientists like Wilhelm Wundt were working on that up through the early 20th century or so. And I'm claiming that the contemplative traditions that I'm interested in are going beyond what is involved in more ordinary kinds of consciousness and perception, thought and so on.

However, the odd fact is, I have a better understanding of how to talk about these allegedly more advanced things that, at least from the traditional and technical spiritual point of view, are considered particularly insightful and apt, than I do about more ordinary stuff kinds of intellectual work. I really wouldn't know how to describe the latter in a way that would break any new ground. Although I agree with you that if science moves in the direction you predict, it will end up having to do this.

Piet: this relates to the motivation for my own practice ... like yesterday I talked about exploring other dimensions, or other degrees, of freedom by consciously trying to go in and out of the more normal way of cognizing things, or traveling between the more normal way and the more open, fluid, “is”-centered rather than self-centered way.

Steven: I see. So the issue is to characterize the more ordinary case from the perspective associated with this more direct kind of awareness.

Piet: Maybe the other way around.

Steven: Well, I don't think the latter is so doable, because, by definition, I don't think the ordinary can grasp the more direct, what I'm calling more fully dimensioned one. I mean, that extra dimensionality, in whatever sense the word applies, gets filtered out by the more ordinary kind of mindset. That's the whole problem; the whole spiritual fall, or lapse, derives from this filtering or trimming … or collapsing—this latter is how I actually feel it, even in a physical sense. But, yes, we should certainly try to characterize that as best we can. I'm not sure how far we can get.

It's interesting … in the traditions, it's certainly considered important to go back and forth, just in the sense that one sees what the issues are for a practitioner, a human being. This is a basic human thing, not a kind of specialized activity. It's part of our humanity to be in a larger context than we appreciate. And so it's part of our human mandate, in a sense, to realize how we collapsed out of that, and how we can open back up to that, and what the issues are that trick us into collapsing again, and what the issues are in returning. It’s about the details, the actual dynamics, and the existential, ethical etc. consequences.

This is definitely something we need to learn about. Certainly it has been much discussed in the traditions, and we can try to see to what extent we can find our own way that, in some sense, is reflective of that body of knowledge that perhaps needs to be updated, or restated.

Piet: it certainly would be nice to restate it, or to put it in some modern terms, since I'm sure there are many traditions from many spiritual approaches which have a lot to say about this problem, maybe starting with Abhidharma or some of those approaches.

Steven: yes, that’s a good example of a detailed traditional account.  It doesn't go the whole way, but it’s an important part of the overall picture.

Piet: it would be important to get out of any particular culture-specific setting, and to make our language more universal, more available for people from other traditions as well.

Steven: Well, I try to use a rather nonsectarian language in my own teaching. In fact, I try to use the simplest language I can that still reflects certain important and fairly subtle features of the traditional teaching. But there are some difficulties here. The kind of project that you're now describing, and the generation of the ways of talking that you're alluding to, could only make sense to somebody who is actually doing the practice. It could not yield a body of descriptions or a set of statements that would make any significant sense to somebody who might be highly educated, or developed just in general, but isn't at least making a sustained attempt to see life more directly and completely.

Piet: But it's the same for mathematics. If you have the language of group theory, for example, in mathematics, you can get a definition of some term, or hear that something commutes or does not commute, but all these words make no sense unless you have actually done some exercises and see in front of you what's happening with mathematical objects. So I don't think there's a very strong difference.

Steven: Yes, I understand your caution. Nevertheless, I think there is still a point here. Science is a rational enterprise, and it's an open enterprise in many respects. It's not using some kind of secret code or something; it should be fairly accessible to any reasonably intelligent person who has done his homework, and that kind of access doesn't require any change in the fundamental type of mind that's involved. It might involve a change of education, and even perspective, because education does change perspective.

But from the point of view of these traditions, and from my own point of view, and that of anyone who's gone through this training a fair amount, it's quite clear that a different kind of mind, a different way of knowing, is involved to get very far into this … I’m not touting some spacey “mysticism” here, but simply a way of knowing that is much more direct, much less encumbered, and also less driven by grasping. It's not the same as simply being educated in the standard scientific sense, and possibly even in the mathematical sense, although I'm less certain about that. A fairly ordinary kind of mind can be retained throughout that standard process of learning more about science. And yet that type of mind would still not work for contemplative insight. So, I don't see these as quite the same thing.

Piet: You have said that before, and I seriously wonder how black-and-white it is. It may be a matter of gradation. In our society people learn to do what people called “math,” arithmetic really, in elementary school, and then in high school they get some real math, and then if they study math they do it for many years in university. And yet in our society there's no standard …

Steven: analogue to contemplative training, yes.

Piet: right. But perhaps you could compare it to the case of somebody spending the same number of hours to study something else. Also, if a significant fraction of the most intelligent people did some training along these lines, if it would be equally popular to train yourself in spiritual matters as in mathematics, maybe it would not seem so unusual as it is now. Or, to put it in a different way—even a better story—imagine that we are in a society, maybe like Tibet was, I don't know, where it is a very honorable thing to do to spend so much time doing spiritual things, but very few people would do mathematical things. Then the very few people who would study not only a little bit of mathematics, but actually get to university level, it would be so weird to see them looking at books with strange scribbles which nobody can make any sense of, and even if they were to try to explain what they were doing they would have an enormously difficult time. People would also conclude that they would be using a very different mind, and it would be a very different type of knowledge.

Steven: yes, there are several issues here. One is how much something departs from the familiar or conventional. Another, which is really what I mean to emphasize, is whether all forms of standard intellectual training, even those involving much time and effort and talent, still share a common logic and character that in “spiritual” terms would be seen as narrow, heavily conditioned, selfish, indirect … as opposed to more intimate, direct, unconditioned. I think the distinction is very important for us to explore. I’m less certain that the way of knowing I’m recommending is entirely or always absent in the higher levels of familiar intellectual work like art or mathematics—that’s not really my main concern. So you’re probably right.

Piet: I’m not certain either, but I think a lot of the difference is training and matter of degree.

Steven: Yes. I agree that part of what’s at issue is just what you say—unfamiliarity, or degree of emphasis, not outright absence, perhaps especially in the best scientific or theoretical or artistic work. It doesn’t matter so much that people would or would not find contemplative insight unfamiliar, but that from within that more direct and insightful way of knowing we can have, a vast range of ordinary cognitive options are then seen as basically the same, and basically deficient—they are the same type of mind in some crucial respect!

Also, just because a truly different type of mind or way of knowing is being held out as important, this doesn’t mean that it is inaccessible to the majority of people in ordinary life … my point is simply that we may not notice and appreciate it as often and as clearly as we should, in its own right. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll come back to this many times.

Piet & Steven, recorded 5/3/05, posted 6/24/06

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