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.