“If you merely read this book you will not reach the Way of strategy. Absorb the things written in this book. Do not just read, memorize or imitate, but so that you realize the principle from within your own heart, study hard to absorb these things into your body.”
- Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
Let’s talk about skill.
On piercing experiential visions
In Paintballing Towards Mastery I argued that skill development involves discovering and fleshing out intricate ‘hidden objects’, representing ideal skills as they’re practiced by ideal practitioners.
Though these objects probably don’t exist in any material sense (sorry Max Tegmark), I’ve still found the intent to encounter and describe them practically helpful when it comes to developing skills like writing.
In today’s post I’ll describe another approach to learning: something you might call ‘experiential receptivity’. While I won’t provide explicit techniques for increasing one’s receptivity to knowledge, I will talk through examples and ideas in the space. These examples might serve as useful objects of contemplation.
1. Deep vs shallow understanding
Let’s pretend that the mind has two compartments: surface understanding and deep understanding.
In the default case, when we first ‘receive’ an idea, we move it from ‘outside the mind’ to ‘inside the mind’, but don’t immediately gain a deep understanding. At this surface level, we may be able to discuss an idea, describe it, or correctly answer multiple choice questions about it.
But deeper knowledge may be less verbal and more relevant to action. It shapes our intuitions. We start seeing it in the world around us, and we start expecting it on an emotional level. We begin to depend on it, and use it to parse through the complexity of life.
Consider the example of opportunity cost. A lot of people learned about opportunity cost in high school Econ, and most of them forgot about it three months later. On the other hand, a subset continued applying the idea through their 20s and 30s and beyond - applying it to careers, leisure time, relationships, etc. For some, it’s a quirky fact; for others, it’s a load-bearing part of a well-planned life.
I’m reminded of Terence Tao’s description of the three stages of mastering math: first math is learned loosely/non-rigorously, then with technical rigor, and ultimately by synthesizing technical rigor and intuition. For our purposes, we might simply note that this progression involves mathematical ideas getting ‘deeper and deeper’ into the mind.
Let’s take two of the above ideas as our starting point:
1A. That there is such a thing as deep vs shallow understanding.
it can be fruitful to deepen one’s understanding of important concepts.
I’ll develop on these for the remainder of the piece, and talk through a few examples in order to suggest:
2. That there are special methods for understanding things more deeply.
3. That it's easier to understand when looking from your own perspective.
4. That ‘your own perspective’ might be found by looking at the reactions of the body.
5. That you can follow this rabbit hole to a shocking depth and extent.
Let’s jump into it.
2. Special ways of looking
Maybe we should be talking about weird old art.
You know - really old, weird shit. The kind that most people find completely boring, but which an obscure category of artists and intellectuals (and wheedling copycats) find entrancing:
The honest neophyte, encountering Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel (1460-1470), might quite reasonably respond: “What the actual fuck is going on here? Why are there people on a wheel? And why are they so tiny?”
Or for a slightly less kooky example, consider this carving on Moissac Abbey in France:
For years I’d see something like this, and think, “Okay, it’s sort of cool. But what’s there to say about it? It’s a stone carving. I like some of the guys on it. The patterns are interesitng. I guess you could say it’s… religious.” And that would be that.
But later on I was introduced to a TV show which radically shifted my attitude about such things. It became one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction: the one-season Civilisation, by Kenneth Clark (1969). In it, the British art historian narrates a ’personal view’ of history, guiding the viewer through artistic movements from the Dark Ages to the modern era.
So what does Mr. Clark have to say about this dusty stonecarved scene?
As with the similar outburst of the Baroque, one can think of ingenious interpretations of the subjects, but the motive force behind them was simply irrepressible, irresponsible energy. The Romanesque carvers were like a school of dolphins. […] The carvings have much that is typical of the Cluniac style: the same sharp cutting, the same swirling drapery, the same twisting line, as if the restless impulses of the wandering craftsmen, the goldsmiths of the Viking conquerors, still had to be expressed in stone. Moissac is a peculiar case, because the chief sculptor who worked on the portal door seems to have been an eccentric of the first order, a sort of Romanesque El Greco. What could be stranger than his crazy-looking old men with their twisted limbs and fabulous mustachios?
Something could, and that is the central mullion of the door with its fabulous beasts. When one considers that they were once brightly colored - Cluniac ornament seems to have been painted, as manuscripts show up, in bright primary colours - one realises that they must have looked even more fiercely Tibetan than they do today; and I can’t imagine that even the medieval mind, which was adept at interpreting everything symbolically, could have found in them much religious meaning.
Clark offers a path forward. While we might initially be looking for a direct, 1-1 decoding of its symbolism (i.e. ‘What does the dog mean?’ ‘The dog symbolizes loyalty!’), Clark proposes that instead of pinning a label to each part of the image, we look instead at the piece’s bursting energy. The carvings immediately become easier to understand, and the idea of 1-1 symbolic interpretation starts to feel clumsy and grade-schoolish in comparison.
By following a special method, one can learn to ‘read between the lines’ of mere appearances. Many things take on a more fascinating light if you look - not ‘harder’, but in the right way.
On the topic of learning deeply, you might call this a proof of possibility.
3. Seeing for yourself
I’m sometimes annoyed at the idea that you should always ‘look at what a painting means to you’, and that any interpretation, no matter how bizarre, is somehow ‘valid’ as a result. I’m not enough of a subjectivist to tolerate it!
Still, I understand why it is said, because many of us have the bad habit of letting other people’s opinions replace our own. Having just listened to Clark, for example, we might be tempted to look at the next piece of art in the ‘Clarkian lens’. It’s certainly possible to do this in a natural and precise way, but if we don’t yet know how to do that, we might instead attempt a degenerate, imitative version: instead of figuring out what we think about a given piece of art, simply “say what Clark might have said”!
This isn’t a crime; there are many ways to learn. But I’m betting that if you want to produce insight like Clark’s, you don’t get there by imitating Clark’s specific views, but rather by learning to look in the careful, sensitive, and wise way that he does. You have a better shot at working towards Clark-level achievement by cultivating your own reactions to an art piece, and only later considering what others might see.
The advice to ‘see what it means to you’ is less derpy and more understandable in this light: a defense against cluttering your perceptions by always looking through other people’s eyes.
So let’s try it.
4. Seeing with the body
Behold the Sacred Heart!
This stained glass window is in a cathedral in Missouri, but you’ve probably seen the Heart on tattoos as well:
What do you feel, when you consider the image? I’ll let you take a second, before providing my own view.
Feel free to take your time.
In my own case, when I stand back, I get something like this:
[physical] pain, suffering, heat, agony, hope, love, transcendence, radiance, holiness, purity
It reminds me specifically of Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before his betrayal. In overwhelming anguish, he reaches out to God. Luke 22:44:
And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.
I don’t know how correct my interpretation is. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Christian art about a Christian symbol brought a rather Christian combination of feelings to mind.
Or perhaps you could say: it wouldn’t be surprising if it brought those feelings ‘to body’. You can almost feel it in your heart, if you try: the biting wreath of thorns, the roiling flame, the inner crucifix, the radiant light.
The feeling is of that phantom sort, wherein we experience emotions ‘physically’ despite the absence of an imminent physical cause. If you get bad news, your heart might sink; or there’s a pit in your stomach, or you’re blinded by anger, or a message from a loved one fills you with warmth and affection.
If I were sitting in church, I think that stained glass window might help me understand a pastor’s sermon on Christ’s struggle and pain. You could say that religious art provides a type of phenomenological instruction. That is to say, an experiential guide to the reproduction of religious feelings, ideas and visions, within the mind of the recipient, that the recipient might understand the religion more closely.
Whatever effort is exerted by the artist, the task of learning still relies heavily on the audience, who is depended on to receive, interpret, and feel into the idea that’s being offered.
5. Experiential visions in overdrive
All of that said, visual art doesn’t move everyone’s soul. So what happens if you push this process to the extreme? If you use cutting-edge techniques to process this more organic version into a high octane, synthetic substitute?
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, invented a wild array of explicit spiritual practices which attempted to do just this.
I won’t be able to do Ignatius’ exploits justice by describing them here. I’ll just note that his origin story involves him getting injured by cannon fire, dreaming of saints while in recovery, becoming dangerously obsessed with confession, and having a sequence of ecstatic religious experiences before setting out on a barefoot pilgrimage from Spain to Jerusalem.
At one point on his journey, Ignatius spent about 11 months praying a cave, wherein he developed one of the craziest pieces of mental technology I’ve ever seen.
This artifact is called The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It’s available online in its entirety, and is legible enough to be practiced by anyone who feels like it.
That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Perhaps I can give a sense of why by simply saying this: the Spiritual Exercises clarify that in the process of self-flagellation you should not penetrate to the bone.
I will say that again.
In the process of self-flagellation, you should not penetrate to the bone.
The mere fact that Ignatius makes this clarification says something INSANE about the mindset with which his practice was conducted!
The exercises also suggest:
Most of the day spent in prayer
Fasting, abstention from some sleep & water
Light deprivation except as needed for food or prayer
Doing this for weeks
I actually tried a more chill version of the Exercises about a year and a half ago. I only did the prayer part, and I did it for about 60-90 minutes each morning, and only kept it going for around three weeks. I’m also not the most typical user, since I went into it with a lot of experience at meditation.
Nevertheless, it was wild. Because, you see, Ignatius understood some things about phenomenological instruction. For example, he explains that when he says ‘contemplate X’ he wants you to summon the image of a physical place.
Here it is to be noted that, in a visible contemplation or meditation -- as, for instance, when one contemplates Christ our Lord, Who is visible -- the composition will be to see with the sight of the imagination the corporeal place where the thing is found which I want to contemplate. I say the corporeal place, as for instance, a Temple or Mountain where Jesus Christ or Our Lady is found, according to what I want to contemplate. In an invisible contemplation or meditation -- as here on the Sins -- the composition will be to see with the sight of the imagination and consider that my soul is imprisoned in this corruptible body, and all the compound in this valley, as exiled among brute beasts: I say all the compound of soul and body.
This might sound cool but tame, until you consider that one such Meditation involves extended attention to the length, breath, smell, sounds, screams, and feeling of Hell:
First Point. The first Point will be to see with the sight of the imagination the great fires, and the souls as in bodies of fire.
Second Point. The second, to hear with the ears wailings, howlings, cries, blasphemies against Christ our Lord and against all His Saints.
Third Point. The third, to smell with the smell smoke, sulphur, dregs and putrid things.
Fourth Point. The fourth, to taste with the taste bitter things, like tears, sadness and the worm of conscience.
Fifth Point. The fifth, to touch with the touch; that is to say, how the fires touch and burn the souls.
The whole thing quite intense, ideologically loaded, and certainly not for everyone. I’d even argue it poses a real danger to some aspirants, especially if they’re attempting the practices unguided.
But you get the sense that in the eyes of its saintly psychonautical inventor, it might be intended to be a little dangerous. It’s a psychedelic on-ramp to all-consuming religious faith. While it requires no substances besides a book and time to pray, it intends to reproduce life-changing spiritual experiences, of the ecstatic sort that Ignatius himself encountered on his path to founding the Jesuit order.
Ignatius wanted to explore and understand Christian ideas related to God, sin, repentance, etcetera. Towards this end he developed a unique mental practice for encountering and exploring these ideas.
But such a practice could be aimed at learning anything. One might simply contemplate B, instead of A.
Ignatius’ example may seem very different from Kenneth Clark’s, but we can still note a commonality: the deliberate application of the mind to a physical or conceptual object, to glean more from it than might otherwise be gleaned.
My own approach to this involves looking at the signals of embodied experience, as in the example of the Sacred Heart. But a wide variety of approaches and techniques might be helpful for achieving similar ends.
I consider these examples worth contemplating, for one who wants to learn to see the world more deeply.