Toward Understanding: It Isn’t Knowledge

When I first began studying astrology, I experienced a moment that I would call “flooding out”. I would describe the sensation as an unpleasant feeling pressure laced with mental commotion in the form of symbolism. The symbolism moved faster than I could mentally interpret, and I sensed that it was time to set astrology down for several days to allow my consciousness time to catch up to the backlog of data that had rushed into it.

One thing that experience taught me was that when we attempt to learn something, there is more to learning than studying and memorizing. The rush of symbolism that flooded me was not something I had memorized. I doubt I could even have verbalized what I was seeing, but I was well aware of the feeling of comprehension that I was feeling. I needed time to allow what I had understood in a flash to seep in. Instead of exerting more effort to learn what had happened, it was time to exert no effort at all. I needed to be able to understand what I had seen, and that required integration into the rest of me.


This Kind of Data Was Not In My Head

Information changes us. It changes us because it forces us to reconsider our mentally held notions. Most of the time, these are unstated. Einstein, for instance, had the unstated notion that chance was bad and that symmetry was good. His equations, consequently, reflect these assumptions. These assumptions also made him fiercely debate the quantum pioneers, who asserted that the universe did actually operate by chance. If Einstein had not had the notion that the universe did not operate by chance when it came to physics, then it is likely he would not have debated the quantum pioneers as much as he did. His own personality framed the information he could output, which was considerable, but also the sort of information he would allow himself to input.

When it comes to core beliefs, we often operate as though they are true without knowing all the way why we do. They just appear to be so compelling that it becomes hard for us to consider how anyone could believe otherwise. When we take in new information, sometimes that information is inconsistent with those deep-down core beliefs. Those core beliefs must be let-go of, or else modified, and then understanding can take place. It is possible for us to know something without understanding it. Understanding it requires us to integrate the information into us–not just memorize it.

What I experienced when I first started studying astrology is probably a lot like what schizophrenic people experience on a continual basis. More than a few psychologists and mystics have referred to schizophrenia as an unsuccessful attempt at spiritual integration. It does not do to gain all the information at the expense of the individual expression of psyche. One must have both–the ability to traverse the infinite sea of possibility, but also the ability to express what one discovers in that sea as a finite point. If one gains the infinite sea and loses the finite point, one is imbalanced. If one gains the finite point but has no connection to the infinite sea, one is again imbalanced.

Many of these unstated assumptions are force-fed to us by society and those we would regard as teachers. Our colleges, for example, mostly operate by the jam and cram method. Supposedly, colleges help you learn something such that you understand it and can do it in the world–but the truth is the frantic pace of study in fields that have taken man the better part of 2,000 years to formulate does little to help a person integrate what they are taught. Instead, colleges have become gateways where knowledge is crammed down one’s throat, and where questions are discouraged. They are viewed instead more as gateways to a better, more privileged life, as opposed to institutions of learning.

When you study a field like physics, to really understand it, you become physics. The personalities that have shaped the field imprint inside your own psyche as you begin to understand how they went about exploring their world. The same thing is true for any discipline. Even if your mentors are simply in print, they are still mentors. Their writing retains something of their own essence, and as you interact with that essence, you begin to understand the subject as they did. This process cannot be rushed. If you memorize every word Niles Bohr wrote, but you have not taken to the time to integrate it into yourself, then you do not understand Niles Bohr. You only have the knowledge.

The troubling thing is that at this stage, one is often rewarded for having knowledge without understanding. Von Neumann, for example, was a brilliant mathematician. However, when one reads about how he approached life and the world, one finds a person seemingly bereft of morals. It didn’t matter to him whether the math concerned life-saving treatment , or a devastating hydrogen bomb. All that mattered was the math. It is not terribly surprising that many people attribute the birth of the computer in large part to his efforts. The computer, and Von Neumann , share similar traits. Von Neumann, it seems, had knowledge, but not understanding. One must be concerned not only with what knowledge they impart, but also the responsibility that knowledge entails. This requires understanding.

Others who worked on the atomic bomb refused to work on the hydrogen bomb. They had only justified the atomic bomb on the grounds that it would be so terrifying it would have to bring about world peace. Oppenheimer certainly used this justification. He had no illusions about how awful what he was birthing was. Once his work was done on the atomic bomb, he had no need to go about creating even more furious forms of destruction. Oppenheimer had both knowledge and understanding.

It is not enough for us to have knowledge without integrating that knowledge into what it means to be a human being, in all facets. Our world encourages us to be dutiful machines, but we must shake off such fetters in order to give ourselves space to foster understanding. Otherwise, in an important way, we are all schizophrenic.