Insights, Strangeness and Cognitive Shifts

Insights, Strangeness and Cognitive Shifts

February 03, 2019 1 Comment

“A child said 'what is the grass?'

Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? ...I do not know what it is any more than he."

- Walt Whitman

"When you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar"

- Alexandra Horowitz

The facts are all here but we assume they are otherwise. We need to take up the mundane aspects of our reality with a certain curiosity to discover what we've been overlooking. This task, for me, is meditation, an inward exploration fueled by curiosity. And curiosity is no less than the faith that something is stranger than you currently take it to be. Hold something with an eagerness to know more about it, faith that there is more to know about it.

The notion of insight is often ambiguous and left undefined. But we need to be clear about what an indicator of progress is in insight meditation or else we risk wasting our lives appearing spiritual. Yes, progress is the aim here, there should be no taboo about making progress. This starts by being clear on what an insight looks like.

The Buddha described his teaching as 'against the grain' (Patiloma) and there are many valid interpretations of this. But most relevant here is in regard to the insights we can expect to have. They will all be counter-intuitive. What else would one expect from a path of insight other than to be perpetually surprised along the way, continuously discovering that you were wrong. Continuously waking up.

Insight often creates a perception of strangeness. What is meant by this? It's like seeing a snake on the road, and on closer inspection you discover it is a rope. Everything is still there but you were assuming it to be otherwise. We are trying to see the aspects of our being (what we assume to be part of the self/ that which is most personal) in a new light.

As if seeing it for the first time. This cognitive shift, this moment of surprise, these moments of discovery I call insight. Meditative attainments, if anything, are the light bulb moments that never leave.

We have many examples of this strangeness.

Everyone knows that we are mostly made up out of water. But taking the obvious for granted is a condition for lacking insight. The Buddha says that the fact that we are made up out of water is a relevant fact regarding his claim of not-self (anattā). In practice, inwardly acknowledging the elements with curiosity (knowing these facts are relevant to the hypothesis) is how one starts to see clearly and gain insight. Engaging with the facts of reality in order to discover. Insight doesn't fall from the sky.

Evolution is strange, our place on the earth in the universe is strange, language is strange, our free-will being conditioned (and thus, not free) is strange, the brute fact of existence is strange, and the Buddha's claim that nothing is self or what belongs to a self is the strangest of all. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. There are many truths, but only the dharma is this invasive.

If when in a dream we can notice a token of strangeness we can become aware that we are in a dream-state. Conversely, in our waking state if we see deeply with keen interest - as if looking for the first time- and see the strangeness that our assumptions have overlooked we can begin to awaken from the dream of life.

It's strange that we are skeletons, stranger still is that we die and even stranger still is that very few people are baffled by this.

So is spiritual insight an experience? It is an experience, an experience of a paradigm shift (on a large or small scale) that pertains to your existence. This implies a knowledge that changes your experience.

Insight is an experience that has implicit understanding present but this should not be confused as intellectual, it's perceptual, phenomenological...

"We shall not cease from our exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time"

- T. S Eliot

Your insight "experience" should become your experience when you stop meditating. That is because the "experience" was not mystical, it was insightful- accurate, and relevant to the nature of your existence.

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1 Response

Pracheta Roy
Pracheta Roy

February 04, 2019

This was truly insightful. Thank you for reminding g me so eloquently of the value of ‘not-self’. I particularly enjoyed reading the T.S Elliot quote. May you be well.

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