I posted on my Facebook page the other day a quotation from the famous Robert Oppenheimer (theoretical physicist and to his everlasting regret, one of the “fathers of the atomic bomb”). This goes to show, I suppose, how unsuited I am to Facebook and such as a medium of communication– when others are posting pictures of their pets, and raving about the coffee they had this morning, I still can’t help but want to talk about something substantial!
Anyhow, in contrasting intellect and intuition Oppenheimer had this to say:
“These two ways of thinking, the way of time and history, and the way of eternity and timelessness, are both part of man’s efforts to comprehend the world in which he lives. Neither is comprehended in the other nor reducible to it………each supplementing the other – neither telling the whole story.”
Ideas and concepts are part of the foundation for our understanding of the world. But of course in the physical sciences and in mathematics which have helped us so greatly understand the material universe we find purely perceptual constructions and ideas, that whilst helpful in aiding our understanding, lie beyond the capacity of our physical senses to understand. Nobody has ever observed curved space or felt quanta, for example. The usefulness of these unsensed phenomena is that they can help us accurately predict relationships in the physical world. The physicist and the mathematician do not hold that these ideas necessarily represent any concrete reality, but see them as tools, like a compass, a ruler or numbers, which enable us to handle and measure that reality.
So physics and mathematics have concrete concepts that are useful, but which we can’t connect to with our senses. Intuition on the other hand is something we can experience viscerally but can’t explain logically. This represents the uncomfortable but necessary dichotomy that Oppenheimer relates above.
The incomparable Alan Watts had this to say:
“Spirit, then, is distinguished from nature as the abstract from the concrete, and the things of the spirit are identified with the things of the mind – with the world of thoughts and thought symbols – which are then seen, not as representing the concrete world, but as underlying it.”
It becomes apparent then that language is severely limited in its ability to explain “spirit” or intuition. And of course language itself is serial and linear which renders itself easily as a tool of the rational intellect but can never do holistic intuition justice. Things are separable in words which are inseparable in nature because again quoting Alan Watts “words are counters and classifiers”.
Direct experience is almost impossible to classify. It always results in obtuse language. In Buddhism the direct experience of the concrete world is called ‘suchness’ (tathata). Such experience can not be conveyed by words, it can only be known by sensory perception.
The Eastern wisdom traditions counsel us to ingest such experience in wordless contemplation (kuan). These traditions teach us that just as we need to be silent in order to hear what others have to say, so thought itself must be silent if it is to think about anything other than itself.
Kuan is no more a mind that is merely blank than li, the pattern of the Tao, is a featureless blank. Indeed, as Alan Watts explained, “kuan is not so much a mind empty of contents as a mind empty of mind.” It is mind or perhaps “experiencing” at work without dualism dividing the world into subject and object. Once a subject is created, ego arises and we can no longer see the world just as it is. Once ego intervenes the observed world is always interpreted in a self-serving, defensive way. Using the “love vs fear”model of the good Dr Phil, fear arises and distorts our view of the world.
Eickhart Tolle in “Stillness Speaks” wrote:
“In you as in each human being, there is a dimension of consciousness far deeper than thought. It is the very essence of who you are. We may call it presence, awareness, the unconditioned consciousness. In the ancient teachings it is the Christ within, or your Buddha nature.”
For the intellectual then, the truth about nature is the verbal explanation or reconstruction of the world. This is a logical, deterministic construct that builds up a piecemeal picture of a physical reality and unconsciously seeks to preserve the ego.
For the esoteric, nature is nothing else but the experience itself that needs no words to embellish it. Such experience is received passively. There is no compulsion to explain it, even if we had the means to do so.
In the words of Lao-Tzu:
“The great Tao flows everywhere,
To the left and to the right.
All things depend upon it to exist,
And it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claims.
It loves and nourishes all things,
But does not lord it over them.”
After I had written this a friend sent me a nice little passage written by Bishop John Shelby Spong wherein he attempted to define his concept of God. “Suppose we think of God, not as a being to whom we have to relate, but as a presence that can be experienced, but not defined, a presence understood as the source of life flowing through the universe, the source of love enhancing life in all its forms and the ground of being discovered when we have the courage to grasp and even to be what we most deeply are.”
I was struck by how closely Spong’s definition match the concept of Tao!
Buddhism teaches us that meditation practice enables us to clear the mind so as to experience the world as it is without encumbrance by the self-talk that ego generates. It also teaches that our well-being is enhanced by detachment, such that we can stand apart from the physical world when necessary. The Sufis, from a different tradition altogether taught, (according to Thomas Needham) that we should “be in this world but not of this world”.
Alfred North Whitehead said this:
“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception (kuan) of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality.”
I am not here to disparage intellect. It has helped us come to an understanding of the physical world, expanded our understanding of science, created technologies that have improved our material quality of life. But we need to look beyond intellect if we are ever to reconcile ourselves with the true nature of the universe!