I went to Reading University to study physics when I was 19 (in 1964). At university I did the minimum academic work possible, since a degree did not interest me. I only wanted one in order to satisfy the expectations of my parents. Within a few weeks of my final exams for a degree, I had to face up to a major intellectual problem. In the pure mathematics section I was unable to understand the subject of complex analysis, even after years of trying. If I still had not mastered it by the time of the exams, that would be sufficient to fail them.|
So with about six weeks to go, I began almost to live in the university library. I was there when it opened in the morning and left when it closed at night ; ten hours a day, six and a half days a week, for three weeks, having a break only for meals. All this time was given to studying complex analysis. With hindsight I can see that I unconsciously began to follow the traditional pattern of solving a Zen Buddhist koan. As the deadline approached I focused more and more mental energy on the problem, while gradually reducing the extent of the coverage of the mathematics that I was studying. As I increased the mental energy, the area of mathematics that I focused on shrank smaller and smaller ; but still no understanding developed.
After about three weeks, symbolically I was focusing a mountain of energy on a pin-size problem. Finally I intuitively made the mental shift that this method of contemplation requires. And then the doors of perception opened.
In the blink of an eye, a problem that I found totally incomprehensible suddenly became perfectly clear, amazing in its wonderful simplicity, and so obvious as a way of structuring this field of mathematics that I was baffled as to why I had never been able previously to understand it. I could look at a mathematical proof and know within seconds that it was correct, without having to labour through complex calculations. I had accessed the feeling of truth.
Even more amazingly, my head was filled with a vision of mathematics that persisted as long as I wanted it. However, my understanding extended only to complex analysis ; all the rest of my vision that was beyond this field was totally incomprehensible to me.
The feeling of truth is an incomparable wonder, and underlies all high-level spiritual experience. But it has limitations. The feeling of truth means that I could tell whether a mathematical proof was true or false, just by looking at it. But the feeling of truth cannot by itself tell me why the proof is true or why it is false. To be able to do that requires mathematical ability. The feeling of truth is independent of subject matter – it is just high-level intuition that can be applied to whatever problem is the focus of study by the thinker. However, intuition is no replacement for technical ability.
This was my intellectual illumination, at the age of 22, which I subsequently labelled ‘satori’ on analogy with Zen illumination, since the method of attaining it was similar. In Zen, a koan is a stratagem used to dis-engage the intellect by giving a person a problem to solve that appears to be incapable of intellectual solution (for example, what is the sound of one hand clapping? ). The Zen approach focuses on feeling what the problem is ; the successful practitioner attains to spiritual feelings, even to spiritual illumination. I focused on intellectual understanding, so I achieved intellectual knowledge. The possibility of a purely intellectual illumination is one that I have never come across in all my subsequent reading and study. Perhaps the reason is that brilliant intellectuals do not have the conceptual framework in which to place such experiences.
When years later I came to develop my phenomenology of consciousness I was able to understand some of the limitations of spiritual visions because of the special character of mathematics. The problem of spiritual visions is that they are not quantifiable. This means that the practitioner is unable to estimate with any reliability how much his intelligence and wisdom has increased. So the vision is usually described as being ineffable, and intellect is descried as being of little value to the attainment of such visions. Whereas, mathematics is quantifiable, because the practitioner can reliably estimate the degree of attainment achieved.
In my case, the vast range of my vision remained incomprehensible ; lucidity was achieved in only a tiny part of it. The vision illustrated the vast potential available to consciousness, but does not of itself develop that consciousness to any great degree. Precisely because it was a vision of mathematics, and mathematics can be understood, it illustrated that what was incomprehensible to me was, nevertheless, under different circumstances capable of being understood. Because some mystics find their visions to be ineffable, this is only a reflection on those practitioners, and not on the visions. Although these visions are not always understandable to modern consciousness, nevertheless, as mankind evolves the intellect they will increasingly be capable of cognitive explanation.
What is important to understand about illumination is that the practitioner"s wisdom increases only in the area of his study.
He does not achieve wisdom in domains of ideas that did not previously interest him. Enlightenment is not a cure-all for every problem under the sun.
Another psychological insight that I derived from contemplating my satori was that science in general does not produce understanding of life. My vision simultaneously posed the problem of meaning : there was none in it. My vision, which can be construed as the quintessence of the scientific mentality (mathematics has the dominant role in science), had no meaning in it, no purpose in it. Within a few weeks I had come to the conclusion that science offered no explanation of life ; it offered only a mechanistic explanation of how life operated, but not of life itself. So, without regret, I rejected the primacy of science and began to seek for another philosophy or another way of life that might offer meaning.
I retain my fascination with science and mathematics, but they are not the centre of my universe.
I have little sense of aesthetic appreciation ; that part of my vision that was outside my comprehension could only be considered as an aesthetic experience. Within about three weeks from its birth, I was mentally exhausted from my intense intellectual labours ; I became bored with my internal film show. As boredom came, the vision went !
My satori did not extend to physics. When I left Reading in 1967 I left with the lowest grade of a degree, a pass.
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Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath, owner of a map of psychological spirituality suitable for modern times.
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