Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Hierarchy of Being

Intellect, mind, self.

How might we understand these three separate, yet interrelated, concepts?

The three are nested Russian dolls that often get confused with one another. To make matters worse, all three terms are used rather loosely in different situations; one may almost substitute for another. This is a habit with all of us; we use terms that are different as though they were the same. Our precision in the use of language is lacking. When we read Gurdjieff's lengthy discourses on word meanings, or Dogen's almost obsessive breakdown of terms into reflexive statements, we begin to see that they had an interest in greater precision, in the more concise
definition of terms.

Simply put, I'd formulate it thus: self contains mind, mind contains intellect.

Intellect engages in the absorbing, storage, and arrangement of perceptions. Mind engages in the interpretation of those facts to create a system of understanding. Self seeks to relate, and expand, this understanding to a greater whole.

In the west, we get this entirely backwards. In our data-compulsive, fact-based, intellect-oriented world constructs, intellect gives birth to mind, which composes self.

There is a very real question here of just which hierarchy one wants to subscribe to, isn't there?

In the science-based, reductionist hierarchy of the west, (exemplified, perhaps, by Steven Pinker- who wrote "How the Mind Works"- which should have been more properly titled "How I think the mind works", for the sake of scientific accuracy) it's all bottom-up mechanics. Intellect creates mind, mind creates self, and self becomes nothing more than an illusory construct arising from an accidental arrangement of electrical impulses.

In the hierarchy of the east- we could call it the spiritual hierarchy if we wish for a simple label- it works the other way around. Self is an all-encompassing property--according to Yogis and Zen masters like Dogen, inherent to all matter--, that gives rise to manifestation of being. Self creates mind, and mind creates intellect.

So in a reductionst hierarchy you have matter creating accidental consciousness. In spiritual hierarchy, you have consciousness creating intentional matter.

Is everything arbitrary and accidental? Viewed from the ground up, it has to be. If a man lives down in a valley his whole life, he may intimately know the paths and creeks that populate his world, but he can never know where they come from and where they go to. It's only if he manages to scale the heights that he can begin to see context- to know that there is more to the world than his valley.

Oddly enough, it's the biologists- the ones who ought to immediately see something bigger is going on--who seem to be the blind men. Physicists are far more active in the sciences in pointing out that things in the universe appear to be arranged with far too much precision to have ended up the way they are as a result of sheer accident. One tiny change to even one universal constant, and nothing at all would exist. At least not as we know it. (For an excellent examination of the awkward (from a reductionist point of view) questions raised by modern physics, read "The constants of nature" by John Barrow.) Or, if you want to view it from the perspective of evolution, you could check out "Life's solution" by Simon Conway Morris. These are some very smart guys who are using their minds a good deal more briskly than the famous know-it-alls Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.

From the point of view of our cells, living organisms with intensely complex lives, it is impossible to conceive of how they fit into the bigger picture of the organism. Our cells will never see the color green. They are unable to extend their awareness to that level. So to a cell, the idea that there is a higher level of consciousness that can conceive of, and see, something called green is not only out of reach, it is irrelevant.

Only when we reach the level of man can we begin to discuss ideas bigger than man. Man is the first level of emergent consciousness able to begin to conceive and perceive from the top down.

The fundamental relationship between intellect, mind, and self changes in man. Real "intelligence" does not emerge at the level of intellect or mind- it only emerges when self appears. The prominent evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould remarked more than once that what we call "intelligence" may not actually be adaptive at all from an evolutionary point of view. There is a distinct chance that our intelligence will eventually lead to our extinction. If it does, it won't have been intelligence.

In other words, it may turn out that what we call "intelligence" was, all along, stupidity.

So, what's missing?

In man, self has the potential to develop a capacity for intention, and thus provide a new kind of direction to mind and intellect.

On the other hand, as Gould inadvertently (and perhaps even unknowingly) recognized, intellect cannot direct mind, and mind cannot direct self. Our effort in the west to live from intellect, create mind, and direct self is an upside-down understanding. There is no wisdom whatsoever in it. Hence the aim of the eastern tradition-and, truth be told, in nearly all religions- to first know the self.

If a man knows the self, mind and intellect can serve it. If intellect and mind try to run the show in the absence of self, they run amok. Look around you; the results are everywhere. Men routinely unlock secrets of the physical world using the intellect and then turn them to nefarious purposes; what we end up with is atom bombs. Most "leaders" in science and in politics never stop to question whether we ought to do this, because there is no self- no actual intelligence- running the show. The machine is running the show, and machines are brainless.

Inevitably, we come to the point Gurdjieff made--that is, that man actually has three minds, all of which need to participate in order for true self to be formed in him. This concept bears an esoteric relationship to the discussion in yesterday's post about flowers budding, opening, and receiving, in order to reproduce.

The self is not a default condition in man. Self needs to be worked for, earned. It has a larger viewpoint than the intelligence and emotional reactions that dominate our ordinary life. It is unfamiliar to us in our ordinary state. Chogyam Trungpa had some valuable things to say about this in his classic "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" (see pages 48-49, at the end of the chapter "The Guru.")

However, for as long as man takes his "self" for granted, he won't do any work to earn this birthright.

And only when we attain the experience of Self can we discover Being.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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