Jan 20, 2018
This last September, I experienced enlightenment.
I mean to share this as a simple fact to set context. I don’t claim I am enlightened, as though I have some amazing property that makes me better than people who don’t have it. I mean simply that there’s something vaguely like a state that our culture calls “enlightenment” that I’ve been in and have returned to a few times over the last four months. In Rinzai Zen one would say that I had a kenshō: a moment of understanding that makes the path clear but is not yet full attainment.
Over the last several months I’ve tried to share what I now see so clearly. And this has mostly just failed. People who’ve had a kenshō follow what I’m saying just fine, but most people just get really confused. It feels a bit like being one of the only people around who understand scientific thinking: most people can see that the behavior of a gyroscope is weird when you show them, but most can’t really see its behavior through the lens of scientific epistemology. They just keep translating what you’re saying into e.g. isolated facts.
This is particularly vexing in the case of kenshō because enlightenment isn’t an insight. I claim it’s not a matter of inferential distance. It’s more like bothering to notice what you already know. When the moment of seeing struck me, I fell over laughing and basically didn’t stop laughing for two days, because it was so incredibly stunningly obvious. There isn’t something to learn: it’s already always here.
And what is “it”, you might ask? Well, I would honestly love to be able to tell you. But apparently my saying it doesn’t convey it hardly at all, unless you’ve already seen it for yourself.
(And yes, there’s most definitely an “it”. This isn’t just brains getting flooded with feeling-of-profundity without an object. And it totally makes sense that some people think that. Just… from this vantage point, those objections come across a bit like people arguing that science is just another religion. Or more to the point, it’s like trying to convince me that I have no subjective experience: no matter how cunning and logical and well-researched the argument, I’m still here listening to you.)
With all that said, I think I can share something one meta-level up. I think the reason it’s hard to convey enlightenment in words can itself be conveyed with words. And I think doing so illustrates something important about epistemology. And with some luck, this might give me a way of pointing at what enlightenment is, in a way that can land.
So, that’s what I’ll aim to do here.
First, a parable.
Imagine you’re in a world where people have literally forgotten how to look up from their cell phones. They use maps and camera functions to navigate, and they use chat programs to communicate with one another. They’re so focused on their phones that they don’t notice most stimuli coming in by other means.
Somehow, by a miracle we’ll just inject mysteriously into this thought experiment, you look up, and suddenly you remember that you can actually just see the world directly. You realize you had forgotten you were holding a cell phone.
In your excitement, you try texting your friend Alex:
YOU: Hey! Look up!
ALEX: Hi! Look up what?
YOU: No, I mean, you’re holding a cell phone. Look up from it!
ALEX: Yeah, I know I have a cell phone.
ALEX: If I look up from my phone, I just see our conversation.
YOU: No, that’s a picture of your cell phone. You’re still looking at the phone.
YOU: Seriously, try looking up!
ALEX: *looks up*
YOU: No, you just typed the characters “*looks up*”. Use your eyes!
ALEX: Um… I AM using my eyes. How else could I read this?
YOU: Exactly! Look above the text!
ALEX: Above the text is just the menu for the chat program.
YOU: Look above that!
ALEX: There isn’t anything above that. That’s the top.
ALEX: Are you okay?
You now realize you have a perplexing challenge made of two apparent facts.
First, Alex doesn’t have a place in their mind where the idea of “look up” can land in the way you intend. They are going to keep misunderstanding you.
Second, your only familiar way of interacting with Alex is through text, which seems to require somehow explaining what you mean.
But it’s so obvious! How can it be this hard to convey? And clearly some part of Alex already knows it and they just forgot like you had; otherwise they wouldn’t be able to walk around and use their phone. Maybe you can find some way of describing it to Alex that will help them notice that they already know…?
Or… maybe if you rendezvous with them, you can somehow figure out how to reach forward and just pull their head up? But you’re not sure you can do that; you’ve never used your hands that way before. And you might hurt them. And it seems kind of violating to try.
So, now what?
Here’s one way I used to try to convey part of the “it” from my kenshō:
“I’m okay. You’re okay. Everything is fundamentally okay. Whatever happens, it will be fine and good. Even our worry and pain is okay. There is something deeply sad about someone dying… and their death is okay. Obliteration of humanity would be tragic, but the universe will go on, and it’s okay.”
After several attempts at this, I gathered that many (but not all) folk were translating what I was saying into one of two categories:
And… nope. Not even close.
But it makes sense that so many people had those interpretations. I mean, what else are they going to think when I say “it’s okay”?
The thing is, I don’t mean “it’s okay” as something to think. I mean it more like an instruction, like “look up” in the cell phone parable. Trying to understand the meaning is analogous to Alex posting a photo of their phone and then scrolling above it in the text chat.
Another way I could try to say the “it’s okay” thing is something like, “The world is real in your immediate experience before you think about it. Set aside your interpretations and just look.” The trouble is, most people’s thinking system can grab statements like this and try to interpret them: if you think something like “Oh, that’s the map/territory distinction”, then all I can say is you are still looking at your phone.
It seems that most people do not have the type of conceptual Gears needed to intellectually understand what enlightenment is about. But instead of hitting a “this falls outside the current system” alarm, their minds grab the most fitting conceptual bucket they have to what they heard and plop it in there. This creates an impression of understanding that actually blocks the ability to understand.
This is why zen sometimes uses koans. A koan is meant to give the student’s mind something to chew on that it cannot understand intellectually. The hope is that at some point the conceiving mind will jam, the student will see “it”, and then they’ll have the raw data they need for their mind to start building the new type of Gear. That’s kenshō.
…which makes it kind of frustrating when rationalists are so pleased with themselves for dissolving koans. Yes, very good, you figured out how to download a few apps that prevent me or others from easily sending you messages that jam your cell phone. And that’s good and worthwhile. But you are still looking at your phone. And now you’ve removed one way you can be directly shown this fact.
At this point I’ll try to say the meta-level thing plainly:
There is a skill, analogous to “looking up”, which one will almost certainly misunderstand if we use normal words or concepts for it. I need a handle for it, though, so I’m going to call it “Looking” with a capital “L”.
(And yes, it’s conceptually related to Seeing With Fresh Eyes. But if you think it is Seeing With Fresh Eyes, you will miss the point, because you’ll be attaching what I’m saying to ideas you’re familiar with instead of Looking. And if you object based on the claim that that’s what Seeing With Fresh Eyes is about… then please reread the previous sentence.)
As far as I can tell, you need this skill in order to bypass a particular kind of epistemic trap, where your methods of gathering information preclude the ability to get an entire dimension of data type. It’s an ontological version of confirmation bias.
Once you have any meaningful grasp of how to Look, you can use it to see things that prompt novel Gears in your understanding of the world. A lot of things that previously sounded kind of mystical or incoherent will suddenly change meaning and be made of obviousness to you. And some of them really, really, really, really matter.
Seeing these things will probably transform you, although it usually seems to feel more like realizing who you have always been and what has always mattered most to you. Your reflective priorities rearrange, you start caring in a different and deeper way, and most of the things you had previously been so stressed or concerned about stop mattering. You actually start to get what’s at stake and what’s worth doing.
And then you, too, can experience the hilarious frustration of trying to get others to Look.
So, how does one learn how to Look?
Well, that’s a damn good question. And people with varying degrees of enlightenment have been trying to answer it for literally thousands of years.
So, rather than pretending I have some great novel algorithm for this, I’ll add three notes that I hope will be helpful here.
First, for rationalists in particular, I think skill with switching freely between frameworks is really useful. That is not at all the same thing as Looking, but it sort of stretches a thing I usually find is rigid in rationalists in a way that blocks their ability to Look. If you’re always interpreting everything through Bayesian updating or decision theory or epistemic hygiene or whatever, you’re always interpreting, regardless of the validity of which tools you’re using. I claim that being able to put those tools down for a second is actually really helpful — and, I claim, it can help contextualize where those tools are actually useful.
Second, one clear thing I noticed when I first intentionally Looked is that everyone has bodhicitta. There’s an important way in which everyone is already enlightened, and “enlightenment” is simply a moment of someone remembering this fact about themselves. This is why people know to build beautiful monuments to honor lost loved ones, and to be respectful while in them, across vast cultural and religious belief differences. We already know. This is the “already know” of that small quiet part of us that nudges us to notice that we’re wrong while in a fight with a loved one. The skill of Looking is closely related to the skill of pausing our usual habit patterns and actually paying attention to our quiet, clear sense of knowing.
Third, my kenshō was deliberately induced. I think I understand the mechanisms behind how, and I believe I can convey them in a usable way. I plan to do so in an upcoming post.