W o K     :     Ways of Knowing

The WoK Experiment and Practice Intensive

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Editor's Summary

Part I—Overview


The WoK Experiment grew out of a sense which Piet and I share regarding “knowing” and “reality”. It is obvious at this point in history that many things can only be learned through the discipline of science. Science actively uses our ordinary way of knowing, while compensating effectively for the latter’s limitations. But Piet and I feel that some fundamental aspects of reality can be known directly, and that the essence of such a direct appreciation is consistent with basic features of the scientific enterprise (perhaps construed in a novel way). Piet’s views of science go further, suggesting that in a future form, science may move toward or converge on the same “reality” seen by contemplatives. (This and the preceding notions are discussed in WoK’s Dialogues and Interviews sections.)

As we discussed various possibilities for explaining these intuitions, I ended up recommending the last part of my teaching—the way in which some form of radical completeness is radically present. And Piet ended up linking this with something drawn from the methodology of science—the “working hypothesis”, a possibility we both found very attractive. By the Spring of 2006, while working in Princeton, we concentrated on using aspects of the working hypothesis approach to expose a real, radical completeness that is present in some sense of “now” and in a way that is not merely a “potential”, to be developed over time. The motivation here was to replace long years of meditation training and advanced contemplative maturation with an intensely held, vigorously-explored hypothesis—a new kind of mind training that might start at the end of the contemplative road, positing “completeness” and in the same process exploring what this might mean. This use of an hypothesis might rapidly revise both itself and the kind of mind that holds it, until it could be correctly understood and also directly verified.

In the WoK Experiment (September-December 2006), Piet decided to phrase this hypothesis in terms of there being “no limits to knowing”. A very good statement of this can be found in his first contribution to the Experiment. As the Experiment progressed, he also considered other formulations while encouraging the participants to propose their own alternatives. Starting in January of 2007, the WoK Experiment was complemented and extended by the WoK Practice Intensive (January-April 2007). In this Intensive, Piet pressed on to focus more strictly on the original point“completeness”and stressed the methodological issue of considering it in the form of a working hypothesis even more strongly than he had in the Experiment. His statement of the hypothesis, and guidelines for working with it, set the stage for the ensuing three months of exploration with his volunteers. In fact, Piet intended the ground rules page to serve as a guide for anyone in conducting a personal investigation of the sort emphasized in WoK.

Aside from using a different and more strictly-held hypothesis, the Practice Intensive diverges from the earlier Experiment in its format. The Experiment was very free-form and interactive—participants could write as many times as they liked, responding to each other or not, and messages were posted immediately upon my receiving them. This means that the links for Experiment pieces reflect order of occurrence. By contrast, the Intensive was more deliberate, designed to encourage a week’s note-taking and personal reflection before submitting a summary of results, so here posted links appear in a fixed sequence from week to week, reflecting only the alphabetical ordering of the contributors’ names. In their weekly summaries, participants were primarily commenting on their own findings, although they did sometimes append a few responses to each other’s contributions from the previous week.

Reading the Experiment and Intensive

You can click your way sequentially through the individual contributions to the Experiment and the Intensive by just following the “Previous/Next” links contained in each piece. But you may also browse at random, just reading one in a session, perhaps reflecting on your own views and how they match or differ from those expressed by the WoK participants.

Whatever your approach, you will find many short essays here centering on a wide range of linked issues like types of knowledge, methods for accessing non-ordinary ways of knowing, personal factors that arise in such access, openness and playfulness or surrender vs intense focus, ways in which we experience and assume time, subject-object dualism and alternatives, the possibility of a truly “direct” knowing, and types of satisfaction or fulfillment. Since some contributors followed traditional contemplative methods and frameworks for exploring “knowing”, while others relied more on the tradition-neutral suggestions Piet made regarding a working hypothesis, you can also compare ancient and modern approaches to non-ordinary ways of knowing. And since the participants themselves are fairly different in various ways, there’s a good chance you will find approaches that are provocative and others with which you feel a ready sympathy.

Part II—Specifics

The participants

In the WoK Experiment, Piet decided to start with a single volunteer co-experimenter, and then add another each month until he had three partners. These were: Rod, Heloisa and Maria. See Biographical Sketches for their backgrounds and interests. As it happens, all three are familiar with Buddhist and other forms of meditation, and Maria is one of my students in the Bay Area.

In the Practice Intensive, Piet doubled his team, starting with the full complement of six volunteers. The idea here was to assemble all the experimenters at the outset and then concentrate on focused use of the working hypothesis. The volunteers were: Rod and Maria, as before, plus Frank, Miles, Nicole, and Patrick (see the Intensive’s Biographical Sketches). All four of the new volunteers are scientists or extensively science-trained, and also have backgrounds in meditation-oriented traditions.

It was not our intention to restrict the Experiment and Intensive to people interested in meditation, and in fact it can easily be argued that this orientation dilutes or misdirects the Intensive’s original emphasis—relying on the working hypothesis alone. But this was early days and we were still in the stage of gathering impressions. The alternative of working exclusively with people who had no background in seeing what their minds are up to would also have been problematical, and might have derailed the Intensive’s experiment right from the beginning. So we accepted the trade-off. Obviously we are extremely grateful for the participation of all our volunteers. Despite being very busy with their own careers and lives, they put in a significant amount of time and reflection over a period of three months, to help us evaluate the meaning and efficacy of the “working hypothesis” approach. Also, Piet and I both feel that the boundary line between using a “meditation” approach to reflection on the hypothesis, and a more naïve or unbiased reliance on the hypothesis, or perhaps a more strictly and rigorously “intellectual” consideration of it, is not always clear-cut. The word “meditation” itself just means to engage in reflection or to focus one’s thoughts on some theme or issue. Admittedly there are other sides to this issue, and I will consider a couple of them shortly.

What happened

Time and form factors

The Experiment ran for fourteen weeks (Sept-Dec ’06), and in its documented form consists of ninety-three messages, most about 300-500 words in length, plus special summaries of the first month.

The Intensive ran for thirteen weeks, and offers seven messages per week, plus twenty-one monthly summaries and seven quarterly summaries (that’s 119 messages total). The average message length was probably shorter than in the Experiment, something of a surprise given that the ground rules might have suggested more detailed note-taking and reporting. I am guessing that in part this was due to more concentration on their own personal explorations rather than interaction with other participants, but admit this is just a guess. It is even possible that producing something at exactly one-week intervals may reduce volume compared to the case where people can correspond more frequently … more interaction may also make for more volume per message just because people are “in the mode” compared to the more measured, solitary case. A question for psychologists, perhaps?

Another relevant factor was probably the challenge posed by the working hypothesis itself—a challenge both for the participants and for the Intensive’s readers. The working hypothesis asks us to take seriously a view of “completeness” which cannot be defined or illustrated in the way we usually do with new claims. Moreover, it’s not easy to go so far against the grain of our ordinary ways of thinking, seeing and feeling, all of which find completeness in life conspicuous by its absence. The only reason it makes sense to even attempt holding such an odd working hypothesis, is that we do indeed have a capacity for direct appreciation that finds “completeness” … this alternate way of knowing may be brought forward if prompted by the hypothesis. The questions for me and Piet were “how likely and easy is this? How may it be facilitated?”


Many of the Experiment’s and Intensive’s topics are mentioned above (see Reading the Experiment and Intensive). Although there is a lot of overlap in these two WoK Features, the emphasis clearly shifted in the Intensive. While the Experiment centered on knowing, the Intensive centered on the nature and value of what we have and are, immediately. Participants questioned how these latter should be viewed and valued. The working hypothesis—which everyone abbreviated to “wh”, with or without an article—says all that “Is” is complete, and that threw participants back on noting and reconsidering their judgments of ordinary life. Also, what does “Is” mean … or “complete”? Where can “wh” be found to be true, and how? And where does this seem counterintuitive or even plain wrong (or worse than wrong, as in the case of dealing with life’s gross injustices and tragedies)? Is completeness beyond ordinary things, or inclusive of it? What “has” this alleged completeness—tables, chairs and cats, or something more subtle?

These are experiential questions, but they are also somewhat tied to terms and meanings. To my regret, the terminology of my attempted renderings of Buddhism and Taoism has over the years come to include many capitalized English words. It is undoubtedly an annoying style, since capitalizing words pretends to grandness but doesn’t really do much to explain the terms. In defense, I can only say it at least helps to distinguish these words from their ordinary use. I mention this because much in both WoK Features hinged on “Is”, a point related to the traditional Sanskrit term tathata (suchness), which I consider to be beyond definition but nevertheless capable of being evoked or shown. Put simply, it’s a special and important sense of what is present. Some matters in the Experiment and Intensive also hinged occasionally on “Stopping”. This latter is my pet term for an intensification of presence without the run-on blur characteristic of ordinary ways of being. I have found it to be best discovered in a lived sense through either intensive contemplative or specialized yogic practice. It may also emerge in the context of a very strong challenge from another person with whom one is in a trusting relationship, after one has done a lot of formal contemplative sitting practice (the traditional model from the past).

However, the fact that I doubt these paired insights can be thoroughly conveyed via a website, doesn’t mean the overall wh can’t function as presented here. They and wh just need to be considered in a deep, self-refining way. After all, the main point concerns what is present for all of us, always, not what lies at the end of any specialized or traditional process. The interactive, discussion-based nature of the Features and the iterative nature of the wh may themselves enable people to converge on Is. If a participant’s personal reflections and reactions to others’ comments opens up the wh even a little bit, then that may provide some grip on Is, which in turn can help that person start to Stop a little, or vice versa—an accelerating spiral into a different kind of time and the fact of completeness. This does seem to have happened in various ways for the WoK participants.

Core discoveries

For a short path through the WoK Experiment’s 93 essays, I recommend that you browse the periodic overviews and special experiments that provided much of its internal cohesion. The first summary period was Oct. 8-9. Even more important were two stock-taking experiments. The first of these began with basic discussion Oct. 26-28, more formal proposals Oct. 30-31, and the actual explorations (including their swapping exploratory approaches), which ran from Nov. 1-13. The second main experimental period began shortly after the full four-person group was assembled: beginning on Nov. 20 they agreed to try another intense exploration (a one-day experiment of "Let go of the habit of trying ... take a chance ... and see what happens."—see the summaries for Nov. 25-26). This latter period ended up involving a complex combination of concerns, issues and insights from all participants, centered on letting go, trying vs not (“surrender”), habits that go against surrender, and heedlessly-held structures of “self”.

The Experiment’s final days in December saw an emerging consensus regarding the need for a more focused use of a wh, and thus served as a prelude to the Intensive. Also, the issue of causality and causal thinking emerged as a main topic, and figured prominently in some participants’ experiences, as did personal reassessments of their relationships to the precious gift of life (Piet Dec. 10 through Maria Dec. 19). Naturally, many questions remained, and in fact more questions were raised than were ever answered. But more to the point, by the end, such questions were acutely felt rather than merely asked—their relevance to the participants’ lives were noted with real focus and insight.

With the WoK Intensive’s influx of four new people, we see new styles, personal orientations, and types of discovery. And because of the new, even more focused orientation (provided by the wh), we find more discussion of the participants’ ordinary lives and how they can be understood within the context of wh. Much that had been taken for granted, like their own judgments of self, others, common difficulties and aspirations, even just ordinary appearances and activities in general, began to be appreciated or considered in a very different light. On a related point, the basic requirement imposed by Piet was only five minutes a day of “formal” investigation, but it was intended to be based on frequent observation and note-taking too. Participants were also affected by the notion that this slight discipline was being recommended as an entry into a commitment to a life-time practice … a way of saying that life itself was re-valued. I have already summarized the range of basic questions that participants raised regarding wh … for more on their conclusions, it’s probably easiest to browse the final monthly and quarterly summaries appearing the week of April 1-3.

A partial assessment

Since the Wok Experiment and Intensive were experiments, in some respects parts of the same one, Piet and I aren't preoccupied with judging whether they were a “success” or not. The main point was simply to try them, see what happened, learn and refine, and try something else. What’s most at issue here is the possibility of finding a new way of connecting to important aspects of life and reality, some of which are usually associated with traditional spirituality … finding new ways of knowing (“wok’s”). And more specifically, we want to determine whether certain features of scientific methodology, interpreted rather loosely, can play a role in pointing to such wok’s.

Part of the latter question is whether new, more open-ended hypothesis-based methods of investigation can be fruitful. Another part is whether more egalitarian group-driven ways of encouraging or guiding an exploration are effective. Yet a third aspect of this connection with science is an implicit question regarding the nature and status of “spirituality”. This comes up often in our WoK Dialogues, and was mentioned in Piet’s first essay for the WoK Experiment (see his comments about an approach more like that of systematic scientific research). Piet and I are both uncomfortable with the term “spirituality”, not because we are secularists, but because we feel the emphasis should concern reality, not a compartmentalized angle on life or a narrowly-delimited subset of what “is”. But of course this gets us back to the (currently very unscientific) notion that at least some facets of reality can be seen directly. This notion is extremely unfashionable these days, but it’s nevertheless one I think can be defended, with sufficient clarification … a major challenge for future WoK Features.

At any rate, a cursory reading of the Experiment and Intensive will show that traditional contemplative methods and ideas regarding spirituality still loomed large for some of the participants. It seems clear that if we really want to try to find an alternative to such things, we will have to consider more carefully why and in what ways, as well as how. This too will likely be a project for a future WoK Feature. But some of the “why” part clearly involves media and the demands of modern life.

We are concerned with the very important question of whether media like the internet can really replace age-old, face-to-face forms of learning and sharing—a question that is obviously now being implicitly and explicitly addressed by several billion people daily. WoK is just trying to add its own small efforts to this global experiment. I think part of Piet’s vision in general centers on the now-globally appreciated possibilities inherent in the use of new media to enable people to join together, to encourage and direct each other in the exploration of basic issues we are usually too busy and unfocused to investigate on our own. Certainly in this sense, I feel that the two-part WoK experiment, the Experiment and the Intensive, can easily be judged to be quite successful—the participants’ efforts and contributions were of great mutual value. I appreciate them very much, and hope WoK’s reading public will as well.

Steven (WoK Editor)
April 25, 2007

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