Sunday, 10 May 2009

Tea and Understanding

Just like sugar in tea or salt on food, knowledge is an added extra we don't really need.

Yesterday, I did pretty well at a Taiji excercise I hope to be assessed on. In fact, I was able to go beyond the expected standard and proudly felt, "This is great, I'm doing well. Won't they think I'm good. Yay me!" So I carried on longer than I needed just to see if I could do it.

I don't know enough about Taiji and qi (chi, energy) but these excercises certainly energise; and doing more energised more. I felt great! So in the afternoon I did more gardening than usual. Mistake: my habits of thought and movement were still their usual unhelpful selves and more activity just drained me more. (Another lesson in the fact that we are whole persons and that shortcuts are not fixes.)

The problem was not the excess Taiji but my mental commentary. It was extra: not only unnecessary but (like sugar and salt) potentially damaging. And it occurred to me we don't need knowledge to live! In fact, it gets in the way.

Disembodied knowledge

Of course knowledge is essential for the science and technology we mistake for "civilization". We believe we must know things in our heads to understand the world and our ability to function within it. An awareness of how symbols (sometimes words, sometimes wordless images) connect to other concepts and implications is certainly one form of understanding. But there is another way.

Consider "tea with sugar". We may have a mental awareness of what we know as "tea", and how we remember "sugar" affecting it. Alternatively, we can embrace the real world that occasionally includes tea and sugar (or references to it). When we need to understand "tea with sugar" there will be something in the Present Moment bringing that to our awareness (often the tea itself). How can we have a need for something without being aware of needing it? Everything we require is present, literally, and we can be conscious of it if we choose.

Incarnate comprehension

A famous roboticist, Rodney Brooks, made history in the world of AI (Artificial Intelligence) when he demonstrated that the world is its own best model. For us too, the world as it is, is sufficient. Accumulated memories and complex webs of connections are unnecessary baggage, unless we want to live someplace other than the present. Surely imagining we live in an insubstantial flicker sandwiched between a hefty past and a real future is to live in a dream world. It is a kind of madness to evade the obvious — our only be-ing is the eternal Now.

True understanding is an involved corporeal consciousness; an awareness of how things "fit", along with the consequences of that dynamic equilibrium. We may build a model in our heads but that is just a poor copy of the real thing. The important word is involved. On the occasions we visit "reality" it seems too limited for our sophisticated lives. That's partly because we confuse sophistication with living, and partly because we simply visit it.

The third person view required of science can never produce genuine understanding because it stays detatched, never embracing its subject. The world is already embracing us despite our resistance. As we return that embrace our interdependence means we are inseperable; to remove the other is to cut away part of ourselves, and vice versa. Instead, in our poverty, we gather scraps of "understanding" and piece them together as best we can. How misguided to be proud of such "knowledge"!

Alan Watts used to talk of going to a restaurant, seeing all the good things described on the menu, then eating the menu. Understanding only comes as we eat the food. And it departs as easily when something else arises in this wondrous, eternal present we live in. Travel light.


  1. Yeah Chris !

    This is one of the misunderstanding of our generation. Look at swine flu ... The less you know the more you're happy.

    Anyway this is really interesting. This is a bit like optical illusion. Depending on which side you're looking at, you would not see the same thing as you're neighboor will. The only way you can agree is to explain. Knowledge is not important for life if you're alone ... But if you have to deal with people, you should have some. The only important thing is to keep you're different view on figures and then keep spreading which side you're looking at.


  2. Yes, you make a good point. However, I would say the "two sides of the illusion" are not equal (though they are complementary). Perhaps we might call them doing-knowledge and being-knowledge. I was writing about being-knowledge as I wouldn't call doing-knowledge proper knowledge.

    You know your sister well and your eyesight is not perfect. Yet if you see her walking toward you, you can recognise her long before you can make out any detailed features. You recognise her style -- the way she walks.

    An expert in body language might be able to describe her nuances of movement and describe them to someone who had not met her. That second observer might be able to apply this knowledge as they see her walking and even compute a successful match.

    However, I would still not call that recognition. For the second observer is only applying doing-knowledge. As a brother, you recognise her because what may have once been doing-knowledge has become being-knowledge: it is part of who you are.

    [Maybe swimming is a better analogy. While learning we "do swimming", and we may be able to manage a width by doing the strokes. But no-one would say such a person knew how to swim. Once we internalize it, let it sink in, it "clicks" and becomes part of us. We can swim many lengths as the limit is no longer our ability but our stamina. We have being-knowledge, and people say we are a swimmer: a subtle difference from saying we can swim.]

    The sister illustration shows that only doing-knowledge can be communicated person to person. Language is the most common tool, demonstration is often better, and living in the same setting (like a baby at home with mummy) is best of all. Yet none of these are able to give anyone being-knowledge. So I would say that even with other people, the "chatter-in-your-head" knowledge is a fake doing-knowledge, and we don't need it.