“Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
Some commentary speaks more loudly to me than others. This one shouts.
Recently, I wrote this: “But that was all yesterday. Maybe tomorrow I will write about today: dogs and gestures; words and their capacities; Bateson and logical type; demand and capacity; and the all too finite carrying capacity of words bounded by hidden production frontiers.” Many of my original thoughts are now lost. At the time, they seemed immortal, or at least they seemed to be ideas that would be easily recalled. All I know now is that I can piece together some of it, maybe. What follows is my best effort.
The remainder of the reading tells us that the boundary between the sacred and the profane blurs, and vanishes, in the sunlight of awareness. We are not really certain what that means.
What is “the sunlight of awareness”?
If we had it, would we need to ask the question?
Is “the sunlight of awareness” homogeneous, a monolithic all powerful omniscience that leaves no question unanswered? Do we suddenly become God, with a capital “G”?
Or is it layered, with increasing levels as one moves up a scale, like notes on a piano keyboard? Or is it like some modern models of intelligence, with clusters of abilities that are separate, maybe totally separate, from other layers of abilities?
Is the “sunlight of awareness” like “g”?
First of all, for some readers, we need to clarify what “g” is.
It is not “god,” with a lowercase “g.”
Charles Spearman, in 1904, offered the idea that something called “g” exists. “g” was Spearman’s shorthand for the concept of “general intelligence,” similar to an all encompassing “sunlight of awareness” that can answer any question. g, however, is scalar. For any given person, at any given point in their life, a certain value of g exists, or so Spearman thought. g could be measured.
Alfred Binet developed a measure, or test, for school children called the Binet-Simon. Once imported to the United States from France, the test was renamed the “Stanford-Binet” and was modified. Among other modifications, a concept called the “IQ” or “intelligence quotient” was developed.
In this newer model, the “mental age” estimated by the test was divided by the chronological age of the child. A ten year old child who was measured to perform as well as the average twelve year old had an IQ of 120, or twelve divided by ten and multiplied by one hundred.
IQ was thought to become fixed at age sixteen, and in that case a statistical model was used. Eventually, all “IQ” tests used the statistical approach. Even though a “quotient” was no longer calculated, the name “IQ” stuck and is still with us.
The modern version of IQ is an attempt to estimate g.
On the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, the “average” level of performance for an individual was equal to a score of one hundred. Those whose raw score of correct answers was a standard deviation above the general population were at 115, and those a standard deviation below were at 85.
The intelligence tests were an “operationalization” of intelligence, an “operational definition.” And the “Full Scale IQ” was, and is, an estimate of g.
Not all tests of intelligence use precisely this same approach. The Stanford-Binet, for example, set a standard deviation equal to sixteen points on the scale. Using the Stanford-Binet to estimate intelligence, those whose raw score is a standard deviation above the average have a scaled score of 116, and those a standard deviation below are at 84. But the general principle remains the same.
Researchers discovered, by the 1990’s or slightly earlier, that IQ is not fixed at sixteen years of age. IQ can vary significantly with age, although IQ relative to cohort members varies little over lifespan. The Aberdeen study, conducted in 1997 nearly a century after the first IQ test was developed, taught us that.
We found that “fluid intelligence,” or the ability to solve “novel problems” that had not been seen by the test subject before, peaked about age thirty. Crystallized intelligence, such as the ability to identify a musical group associated with “John, Paul, Ringo, and George,” peaks much later, maybe as late as age seventy or beyond.
Furthermore, crystallized intelligence is tied, at least to some degree, to cohort groups who have had many of the same life experiences and may be culturally biased as well. In theory, fluid intelligence is not influenced by culture or cohort group.
Other discoveries, such as different strengths in different verbal skills as well as non-verbal skills such as visual-spatial manipulation, have led researchers to conclude, increasingly, that the contribution of g is smaller than originally thought. Many argue that g does not exist at all; “intelligence” is a cluster of skills and abilities for these researchers. For example, Howard Gardner argues for eight major categories of intelligence, possibly more.
Which brings us back to my original thoughts about the “sacred and the profane” and the “sunlight of awareness.” Do we have a universal “sunlight of awareness” that can answer ANY question, just as the original concept of g could? Or is the “sunlight of awareness” something that breaks into pieces, just as actual sunlight produces a spectrum when refracted through a prism?
Is the “sunlight of awareness” like Gardner’s model of eight abilities? Or is the “sunlight of awareness” like Spearman’s g?
When I first heard of this quote of Hanh, I immediately envisioned two people speaking Chinese. One of them was shouting profanities at me. The other was offering blessings in a particularly emphatic way. Both were shouting at me, with the same mannerisms and maybe a mix of nuances that I could not possibly understand. Since I do not speak Chinese, I lack the requisite “sunlight of awareness” to understand what they would be saying.
But give me a Rosetta stone. Filter them through a video with subtitles in English performed by a great translator, one speaker with subtitles on one half of the screen and the other speaker with subtitles on the other half of the screen, and suddenly my “sunlight of awareness” increases.
Suddenly I know who is saying what. I can decrypt the messages.
That might not be the end of the story. If my “sunlight of awareness” is even higher, I might understand the context and the motives of each speaker. I decrypt unspoken nuances. Maybe in their own way and for their own reasons, each can merge. Maybe each is telling me a different version of the same underlying story. Maybe my understanding of them can become unified, monolithic.
Maybe my understanding can become singular, like g.
But absent this superior, and maybe supreme, higher order awareness, at each lower level I am constrained by my own personal capacities.
My dogs are excellent communicators. They do not speak either Chinese or English, yet I typically understand them. We are quite close, and most of the time we communicate well with each other despite the absence of spoken words. Even so, our capacity for communication is constrained. Telling them a bedtime story exceeds their capacity for understanding. And when they are hurting, in pain, they cannot tell me where it hurts or why.
They need words, or something like words, to tell me more.
Human words, whether in Chinese or English or some other language, are also constrained. A “carrying capacity” of words exists for the ideas they encrypt within any given context. Ideas exist the beyond words, and some are important but lost due to the finite capacity of words and sentences and paragraphs. Gestures help, but they are also finite.
In the end, any given speaker has a limit on the capacity to express ideas in words, a medium or channel of communication has its own limitations, and a listener has still yet a third set of constraints. Only when the message is within the three sets of constraints can it pass unimpeded.
These constraints are similar to what some economists and business analysts call “production frontiers.” Except instead of discussing factories and the items that pop off the end of an assembly line, we are applying the same concepts to the words we choose in our communications.
Others have explored these topics in other ways. For example, Gregory Bateson offered the idea of multiple levels of learning, similar to our speakers and the “Rosetta Stone” of text on the screen. The first level of learning, as I understand it, was rote learning. A higher order of learning looked at “why” the rote learning might be, or might not be, useful. Still higher levels of learning were more abstract.
Another approach, similar to Bateson’s, is “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” We are strictly addressing the “cognitive” domain of Bloom though the ideas might apply to the “affective” and “psychomotor.” Bateson’s and Bloom’s approach differ.
Bloom’s taxonomy peaks with the three top layers of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These are useful and practical. But the more abstract aspects of Bateson’s model do not appear to fit unless they are crammed into “evaluation.” From a different vantage point, Bloom’s Taxonomy is insufficient, metaphorically it “runs out of gas,” when encountering the more abstract issues that Bateson’s model offers as important.
We question whether Bloom’s model fits with the “sunlight of awareness” that is capable of erasing the difference between “the sacred and the profane.” But Bateson specifically addressed those kinds of questions regarding the most elevated levels of his model. More specifically, what appeared to be a “paradox,” or “double bind,” at lower levels had the potential to become elevated to the sacred at higher levels.
Bateson’s approach is recursive, with each higher order level being evaluative of the lower levels. To be certain, people can, and do, argue about what Bateson meant.
Keeping the idea that people argue about Bateson in mind, we offer this possibly flawed example. Level 0 of Bateson’s approach might be something like a book that contains specific and invariant methods of how to do something. We can even ask “why do it that way” knowing that the answer is “because the book says so.”
We all have encountered variants of this. The standard police officer answer of “just doing my job,” or “because the book says so” or any other remotely similar line, leaves the rest of us nauseous after someone is shot to death in his own home, like 72 year old Jerry Waller or Botham Jean. Yet this “because the book says so” type of answer persists in even the most bizarre and disturbing of circumstances.
How ridiculous can this get? How about retired police captain Curtis Reeves who shot to death a citizen in a theater claiming that he “feared for his life” when the theater goer Chad Oulson threw popcorn at Reeves as a response to being told, by Reeves the shooter, to stop texting. If you believe people should receive the death sentence for texting in a movie, this is a guy you want around to “just do [his] job.”
By the way, he has been “out on bond” during all but six months of the four years that the case has been pending. Would that be true for any of the rest of us accused of murder? What do you think? But that is not our main point. Our main point is Level 0 learning is useful for mindless repetitive tasks such as learning exercise routines or dog training but worse than useless for even slightly abstract thought.
Given the amazing results that have been produced by training based on the works of Pavlov and Skinner, Level 0 learning can be quite powerful and useful. But when it “breaks,” it often breaks badly.
If the book “says so,” then who are we to question the invariant truth spewed forth from a printing press. After all, if it comes out of a printing press, then it must be a message from God and never be questioned. (“Big G”)
For anything remotely close to higher order thought, “just doing my job” or “because the book says so” is the mantra of idiots.
The next level up, in our example, is a collection of similar books. This might be a particular portion referenced by an indexing system such as the “Dewey Decimal System.” Bateson points out that a “collection of books” is not, itself, a book but a “class.” Interestingly, the pieces of the Dewey Decimal system are called “classes.” The collection is of different “logical type” from the books contained within it. An instance is of different logical type from the class that contains it.
In the case of our collection of books, older books might offer one approach while newer books different ones. Which one is right? Is the old way better or the new way? Debates could ensue, and they most likely would. One thing is certain: at least some of us will question the book. “If the book ‘says so'” is not adequate at this level of understanding.
No doubt some of the Bateson-Nazis will riot upon reading this interpretation. What could their argument possibly be? I suspect some will cite the book, effectively saying “because the book ‘says so.'”
A higher order and more abstract way to understand these books and the methods they contain could exist, critiques with maps and diagrams and visualizations. In the case of the Dewey Decimal system, the system itself is not the same as the classes contained within it. These higher order approaches are not the same as the books nor are they the same as the methods that the individual books contain. And, an even higher order set of critiques and methods could exist, and these, too, would differ from the critiques and methods of analysis of the books of a specific topic.
More specifically, consider a particular book of ways to change the oil in internal combustion motor vehicle engines. Mastering those techniques is like the first level of learning. Each method in the book is an instance within the larger class of methods contained in the book. The next higher order level of learning involves mastering a series of techniques for changing the oil, including a deep understanding of techniques that are contradictory, arguably even paradoxical. In this case, the particular book is no longer a class but an instance within a larger class of books.
The next level of understanding does not include oil changes at all, but, instead, is about how to organize books on topics of motor vehicle maintenance and other topics, such as bicycle maintenance. The next level up does not discuss vehicles of any kind but, instead, discusses systems of organizing books in general. Another level up does not mention books specifically but includes media such as books, magazines, videos, and so forth. At each change in “logical type,” a major shift occurs.
If you stick with Bateson, the examples we have discussed so far involve his first and second levels of learning despite the fact that, once we reached the second level of learning, we encountered a number of classes (class within Dewey Decimal, Dewey Decimal itself, organizing systems similar to Dewey Decimal and including Dewey Decimal).
But, for Bateson, the third level of learning is radically different and not necessarily desirable. For Bateson, this higher order learning is either similar to, or the same as, a religious conversion experience. Rather than being desirable for the individual, such a transcendant experience can be catastrophic, as Joan of Arc and other martyrs illustrate.
Could a yet higher level exist? Bateson argues that it must, but nobody knows what it is! More specifically, he says it “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.” I find that statement enigmatic and charming. Is he hinting that he believed in UFO’s? Since he died in 1980, and digging him up to ask him is likely to bear little if any fruit, we can only speculate.
As I speculate on the words and thoughts of Hanh, Bloom, and Bateson, I find myself having more questions than answers. Maybe Bateson’s idea applies to Hanh’s “sunlight of awareness,” namely that it may “not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.”
Like any other trek seeking a Holy Grail, the truth might be that “the Journey is the Reward.”