Kenshō

Fol­low-up to: Gears in Un­der­stand­ing, Fake Frameworks

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: <alex_cell_phone.jpg>
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: Okay…
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:

  • Some thought I was say­ing that noth­ing mat­ters and that all out­comes are equally good.

  • Some thought I was claiming that you’ll feel good no mat­ter what if you’re en­light­ened.

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.