A serial journal of cogent reflections and irreverent insights on the social effects of capitalism and the roots of partisan politics. Pairing prose with HDR photography and “flash points” drawn from current and historical perspectives, the author seeks to recover lost wisdom and courageous action beyond the shouting and noise of today's headlines.
Moving from Duality to Wisdom
Part Two: The Triadic Mind of Kabbalah
Time Range: Future Times
I find it to be one of the great paradoxes of creative thought that only by wiping the mind clean of categories and assumptions can we think clearly and in new ways. Yet, it makes perfect sense if it is our habitual thought that keeps us trapped. In the physical brain, there is a very real neurocognitive architecture that keeps us confined to certain ways of thinking. At the collective level, there are social fields that influence individual thought and action. All the categories we have discussed directly or indirectly—privilege, poverty, protest, rebellion, anguish, revenge, reform—all have had thousands of years to imprint themselves on the human collective through repetitive patterns. These patterns have within them predicable associations and moral judgments, good or bad, just or unjust, moral or immoral. The mind seeks to find new solutions but often simply re-creates the old patterns in new ways.
Some today are asking if there is larger purpose behind these patterns or a meaning we should glean. Is it all part of a greater evolutionary destiny moving us toward divinity? Or, are these patterns the breadcrumbs leading to species annihilation? Let us for the moment answer mu.
In the movement away from duality, what the wisdom traditions offer are enhanced cognitive and emotional tools. Provocatively, I believe that wisdom traditions, properly understood, cast grave doubt on the propositions that answers can all be found inside ourselves and, conversely, that solely by altering social institutions can we achieve a more stable society. We must, as Einstein prophetically proposed, find answers from a state of consciousness different from the one in which the problem was created. Let us return to the Kabbalist structure of the triadic mind to see what elements are crucial to continually move from duality to noticing something new.
The first element, Binah, is a hungering for the logic of a given situation. Sometimes compared to the methodical skills of the brain’s left hemisphere, the emphasis with Binah is on analytic understanding. The analytic way of understanding is the home of the scientist but also anyone who uses logic and quantitative analysis to gather, analyze, and build hypotheses based on data and observable information. But the true power of this mode of thinking is its capacity for coherence, the ability to show how facts hang together in regard to the questions that are being asked. This process requires imagination but operates within strict parameters.
The legendary physicist Richard Feynman offers a good description of the quality of this way of thinking. To make his point, he contrasts the analytic form of mental activity with that of fiction writers.
But the scientist’s imagination always is different from a writer’s in that it is checked. A scientist imagines something and then God says “incorrect” or “so far so good.” God is experiment, of course, and God might say, “Oh no, that doesn’t agree.” You say, “I imagine it works this way. And if it does, then you should see this.” Then other guys look and they don’t see it. That’s too bad. You guessed wrong. You don’t have that in writing. (Mlodinow, L, Feynman's Rainbow)
Along with analysis, we need something further to extend beyond duality. The second aspect of mind that Kabbalists describe is Chokhmah, or wisdom. Here we have something closer to the power of intuitive insight, flash understandings, even revelations. It is why the composer Tchaikovsky can say, “The germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready …” Chokhmah is the constant preparation of the soil through study, observation, playfulness, flow—the deepening presence of a mind capable of emergence. Wisdom of this kind is aware of subtle shifts in interior awareness as well as shifts in the external circumstances of a group or larger collective.
Wisdom of this nature has the capacity of transcending conventional categories and the power of linking the world as it is with how the world might be. This is the kind of wisdom that led Mahatma Gandhi to read Henry David Thoreau’s account of personal civil disobedience and see in it a larger collective form of protest tied to universal principles of justice and truth. If Binah seeks the logic of how something is put together, Chokhmah asks to what end? Why should we put effort into something if not to create something that has a larger more universal truth.
So far so good. A mind capable of creating coherence from logic and the agility to leap categories in a single bound is a formidable instrument but still incomplete. In the triadic tradition of mind formulated by Kabbalists, a third thing is necessary to ground and complement both logic and intuition. This third thing is knowledge, or Da'at. This is the willingness to engage in study, to continually gather information, and to adjust one's thinking in alignment with new information. We become less capable of remaining in duality if all three forms of intelligences are activated.
But the Kabbalists took it one step further. They understood the mind as an infinitely elusive channel seeking wonder, awe, and beauty but capable of being caught in its own web of individual mental thought. The triadic mind required something more, a secret sauce, also associated with Da'at. This secret sauce was reflective consciousness, a joining together of multiple layers of awareness equated metaphorically with sexual union.
The great Kabbalist Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi compares this form of reflective intelligence to the brain’s cerebellum, which acts as a switchboard for our attention. What is worthy of our attention? What do we consider important or irrelevant? Do we pay greater attention to threat or opportunity? What about our memory? Do we selectively choose bits and pieces of our past, or do we work at retaining wholeness? What is the nature of our attention? Is it disciplined or jumping from thing to thing? Is our attention primarily self-referential or about others? What ultimately do we pay attention to, and what is the quality of that attention?
To move beyond dualism is to be capable of slipping the chains of having to be aligned with one thing or another. Reflective consciousness simultaneously is a deepening of one’s own presence.
I am reminded of a dialogue I facilitated with Deepak Chopra and three wonderful Japanese thought leaders: a filmmaker, a philosophy professor, and a spiritual leader. The philosophy professor, as best as I could understand through translation, was describing with rigor the question of whether the ego actually exists. I was finding myself exhausted following the subtle points he was making about ego and its illusory nature. Deepak listened with great patience, and after the man finished, he simply said, “There is no greater drama for the ego than to debate its own existence.”
Immediately, I could feel my body relax and the crease in my brow ease. I had been caught in the duality of the question, and my attention had become entirely analytic. Does the ego exist or not? Come on now, follow the argument! But the moment Deepak spoke about the ego’s excitement about debating its own existence, I was brought back to my reflective consciousness. I became aware that my thoughts about ego had taken on separateness. Deepak’s comment brought me back into my body and with that my intuitive intelligence. Suddenly, there appeared a great deal of subtle humor—the ego debating with itself about its existence. This could be theater, an interior version of Waiting for Godot, becoming more and more ludicrous by the minute. Now, everything shifted and I came closer to mu and ayin, the obliteration of dualistic form and the opening to new creative formulations. I could pay attention in a new way.
Next Week: Chapter Fifteen, Part One: Moving from Factions to the Whole
"Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction."
~ James Madison, Federalist No. 10, November 23, 1787