Thursday, June 5, 2008
To understand: to touch the unknown
Uniquely, the Gurdjieff work draws a clear-cut division between what is called knowledge and what is called understanding.
Zen Buddhism has a similar approach, but it is not stated in quite the same manner. To penetrate a koan in Zen would be called understanding; everything else is knowledge.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty we face as a species is that we are immersed in knowledge, all the while thinking that we know what understanding is. The construction of knowledge itself generates this word called "understanding," along with the definition of it; so everything that we think we understand about understanding actually comes from knowledge.
In the same way, as you read this, you know what I am saying, and I know what I am saying, but this division is separate from understanding. Understanding includes knowledge; knowledge does not include understanding. What we are looking at here when we speak of knowledge is a subset of real intelligence.
We might describe knowledge as a list of facts; as the tangible, as that which is of material reality, and of the flesh. It is the domain of the scribes and the Pharisees, who Jesus held in such disdain.
Understanding is born, on the other hand, from the web that connects everything together, and that is a living force, not a list of facts. It is a taste, an inner flavor. It is the tactile quality of the organism--not the mind--encountering what is true. Human beings on a spiritual path often spend their lives knowing that something is missing, and they don't know what it is. They constantly have a question about what it all means. One might say they are trying to know what it means, instead of allowing themselves to discover understanding. If they discover understanding even once, it will arouse an inner thirst that can never be quenched. When this happens, a man knows at least one true thing.
That is, in part, what we work for. It's better to understand one true thing than to know everything, but not be sure of what is true. And if the only true thing that we ever understand is how little we understand, and we understand it organically, with all of our parts--not just with our mind--, that is a very big thing.
Another way of putting it is to say that understanding is our reach towards the unknown: the real measure of how much we understand is taken by how much we see that we don't understand. And when we are touched by the unknown -- then, and only then, do we understand.
Lists of facts have great power; in magical systems, knowing something's name gives one power over it. But you may notice it is always a material power, a power of this level, that allows us to manipulate, creates our nifty technologies, and so on. It gives us no power over our psychic lives, as we see repeatedly in the life of man, who destroys everything around him and is almost constantly miserable. In many fairy tales, we see that magic -- knowing names -- gives a man the ability to change adverse outer circumstances, but it usually turns out that this does no good. It's his inner understanding that is mistaken. No matter how much he changes the outer, his efforts backfire. He knows, but he doesn't understand.
It is only when we actually enter a moment of understanding, which is an experience, not an analytical deduction, that we discover the difference between knowledge and understanding. Until then, we think we understand, but we don't. And even after that moment of understanding, the knowing seizes it.
Perhaps this very fact is why so many Zen masters actually refuse to explain things to their students. The explaining creates the false perception that we understand. When understanding strikes, it is a lightning bolt, a revolution, a force that stands outside our knowledge.
Everyone stumbles around thinking they understand everything. My "understanding" gets set up against your "understanding", and we compete. This is very typical of males in particular. Instead of being born with horns like rams, we are born with intellects, and we butt them up against each other like rutting sheep. I watch this a lot in men around me. The male ego loves this kind of activity.
In fact, no one understands anything. We just know lots of stuff.
I am a prodigious knower of a lot of stuff, and am able to measure it against some legitimate understandings. This qualifies me to tell you that knowing stuff, and being clever (which I am) are not worth much more than a rat's ass when it comes to inner work. Now, it's true, every rat needs his ass, but its activities are not glorious. Furthermore, its chief responsibility is to remain completely open to the new, because if it closes and stays closed,
you can just imagine what happens to the rat.
If we are touched by real understanding, the first thing that arises is humility, and that is an organic and emotional experience, not one that anybody can think about. It is in this context that I say understanding, as a three centered activity, is the moment where emotion bridges the gap between the too-powerful intellect and the neglected organic body.
I think the most important thing is to see that without any attention -- with no effort at presence -- even the most remote hope of understanding is lost. Attention actually calls a right emotion to it if it is practiced enough.
We mostly think our "attention" is a quality that has something to do with our intelligence, that is, our intellect. And the fact is that there are moments of exceeding quality that are born out of the intellect when all three parts of it are operational. That is to say, there is a special kind of clarity that arrives from three centered being within the intellectual center, which has three parts.
This "three centered seeing from one center," as I would call it, where all three parts of one center are functioning together in harmony, as they ought to, is frequently mistaken as a whole attention and a whole understanding. In and of itself, it's unusual and quite remarkable. There are masters who complete themselves in one center like this and achieve significant understandings that are nonetheless one-centered. I'm not sure if this would qualify as what Gurdjieff calls "wrong crystallization," but it is certainly an elevated yet partial state.
"Three centered seeing from one center" is not the same as having three centers participate in attention. The latter is characterized by the arrival of a higher emotion.
That emotion conveys a deep and indescribable sorrow, as we see our lack.
To me, that is the beginning of understanding.