Is Knowledge Destructive To Discovery?
Fall is in full leaf in northern California. The sun illuminates the yellow leaves of a tree just upstream, but at first I have no eyes for the beauty that surrounds me. It takes 20 minutes of remaining with the turmoil within for one to simply be present with my surroundings.
Despite the difficult start to the meditation, the chattering mind fell silent after passive awareness gathered sufficient non-directed attention to quiet thought. It’s always a surprise when the phenomenon of spontaneous stillness in attentiveness happens.
Then there was complete stillness outwardly and inwardly. The only movement was the gentle current and the swaying of a bush hanging into the stream. When thought yields to passive awareness and attention, there’s a tremendous sensitivity, vulnerability and peace in the stillness of mind and silence of being.
Psychological time has ended, and time by the watch passes quickly. Before I know it it’s late afternoon, and there’s a last burst of brilliant light on the yellow leaves across the creek. Illumination is occurring within as well, since the duality between outer and inner ends with thought.
Suddenly death was there, without fear, the actuality of death, inseparable from life. And with direct awareness of the moment-to-moment actuality of death, there was immanence and benediction.
Epistemology is the study of the nature, origin and scope of knowledge. The word comes from the Greek words, ‘episteme,’ meaning knowledge, and ‘epistanai,’ to understand. Since knowledge and understanding are two different things, the conflation and confusion may have begun there.
In Western philosophy, knowledge and understanding are usually synonymous, which is taken as a given. So epistemology has come to mean “the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.”
To my mind, that philosophical line of inquiry is completely secondary, even irrelevant. Beliefs or opinions don’t matter, and they are distinctions with little or no difference. “Justified belief” is an oxymoron; beliefs are inherently unjustified, unnecessary and destructive.
I’m interested in the difference between knowledge and understanding, and whether knowledge prevents insight and discovery. The question is completely opposite to a core tenet of our conditioning, since we’re taught to assume that knowledge, in one form or another, is primary, but it’s not.
Isn’t knowledge always of the past, however much it may increase? And isn’t insight and understanding always of the present, however many times one may have seen the same thing? Rather than bestow freedom, doesn’t knowledge, when put first, deny freedom?
Of course I’m not arguing against scientific and practical knowledge, which are essential to technology and medicine in the first case, and to functioning in the world in the second.
However in order to end thought and time, knowledge, however accurate or useful, has to be completely set aside. Not just psychological knowledge, as personal and collective experience, but scientific and useful knowledge as well.
Meditation is not a function of knowledge at all. With passive awareness gathering unwilled attention, there is the ending of thought/time. Thought is time, and time is thought. Even the astrophysicist’s “arrow of time” is a construct of thought. The universe and life unfold cyclically, perpetually regenerating from the ground of death. There is no linearity of time.
In making space for contemplation amidst all the busyness and dreck, and allowing attention to grow, thought and time end, however briefly. But what does that have to do with living in this hellish world? Indeed, do awakening states of pure insight make living in the world more difficult?
Clearly awakening insight and understanding isn’t meant to make things easier. But if awakening states of insight makes things harder, who but the most devoted mystic would make doing so the highest priority in their life?
For one thing in a world gone mad with conflict, fragmentation and violence, quieting the frothing mind, roiling atop the polluted sea of human consciousness that we all swim in, has become essential to mental, emotional and spiritual health.
Quieting thought and ending time can’t be made into a goal however, and aren’t rewards of any kind. The silent mind simply allows the brain to come into direct contact with the essence of life, from which the flowering of virtue and right living spring.
So it may not have anything to do with the world, at least this world, but without holding knowledge in abeyance, and observing thought into stillness, life is utterly meaningless.
Man, it has often been said, is the measure of all things. Since measure is the essence of thought, that’s undeniably true.
However there is a wordless quintessence beyond all measure. There is no knowledge without measure, but there is the immeasurable. And it’s the source of insight and understanding.
So playfully but diligently experiment, in the mirror of nature, with attending to the spontaneous reactions of thought (such as associations, remembrances and flights of imagination), without indulging in the secondary reactions of thought (the judgments, interpretations and choices of the observer and self). You’ll discover many things, and open the door to freedom and liberation.