• The psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning

We all like to think we know a lot about something. Some of us know a lot about aeroplanes, some of us know a lot about football, and some of us know what the strongest beer is to get us drunk. But what’s the point of all this knowledge, and actually while we’re here, what exactly is it? Is it physical, and if so, where does it exist? That’s where I’d like to start this discussion.

We all know we have a brain, encased in a skull. Inside this brain there is some strange looking matter, which, whilst invisible to the naked eye, and having no visible moving parts, is doing some pretty amazing stuff. This amazing stuff also has the ability to store what we perceive, through seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, or smelling. This goes into the mysterious box in your head and is stored somehow (sorry I’m not a scientist!) into short and long term memory available for recall at some future time.

You could say it is physical because it is stored by physically connected cells in the brains; but it doesn’t feel physical like your arm or leg, does it? It feels somewhat ethereal (characterized by lightness and insubstantiality; as impalpable or intangible as air). We know it exists within us, but it is nonetheless hard to try to pin down exactly where it is.

As we begin our investigation together, I would like you to try to put down your preconceptions of knowledge, and attempt to approach this topic with an open mind. Let us begin.

Is my knowledge the sum of me?

I questioned myself about this recently, because I wanted to know the answer. I was concerned that who I was, was only about what I had in my head, and how I communicated what I had in my head to everyone else. On the surface it makes sense, don’t you think? People know me because of how I interact with them. They know me because of what I talk about. They know me because of the job I do. They know me because they have spent a lot of time with me, so know what I have been doing over the years. But do they really know me? I would have to say no.

People sometimes say I’m funny, because I can make people laugh quite easily, but how do I do that? I have frankly no idea; somewhere along the line, I must have learned to use language that triggers laughter. My mother thinks I’m clever because I can always fix her computer, but that is because I learned how to fix a computer. Everything that people praise me for, I have learned. People say I am a good massage therapist, but that is because I was taught by a professional how to massage. People say I am a good cook, but that is because I learned how to do it.

These are all just skills. These are the bolt-ons we talked about in the education topic. These are not the core of me, are they?

Without my knowledge of things would people not like me anymore? Without knowledge, would there be anything to like or dislike? The answer has to be a resounding no. If I had not learned language, or how to interact socially with other human beings, or had read books, or watched films, or travelled; I would just be a bag of bones connected up with tendons, and muscles, covered with a piece of skin, running on nature’s blueprint to stay alive. I would not have the power of perception, reason or enquiry.

You may argue here that these are abilities that humans naturally possess; but these are skills, learnt from parents, teachers and peers. A baby may have the potential to possess reason for example, but cannot actually reason with an adult because he or she does not have the language capabilities to do so.

As the brain develops, so do the skills. Some of us become skilful, whereas others flounder, but all the “knowledge” is an add-on to the core of the human being, not an integral part. So when we say that someone is clever, or intelligent, what we actually mean is that they have put things into their mind which we haven’t, and as we don’t understand it, we are impressed by it.

My mother says “Oh, alan, I wish I was as clever with computers as you, I’d never be able to do what you do;” but that is because she has never ever picked up a book about computers in the ten years since she’s had one, and has never taken a course! So how does she expect to have the knowledge?

It is not willed by god that humans have knowledge; it is a human process of being taught something, remembering it, and then using other skills, like investigation, to modify and improve the information.

I certainly don’t think I’m clever (skilful (or showing skill) in adapting means to ends) in the way my mother thinks. If I hadn’t read about computers, taken courses, made many mistakes, and observed and listened to many others, I would also have the same skill level as her. So what of this idea of natural cleverness? Maybe some people’s brain’s have slightly different wiring that predisposes them to learn quicker, maybe genes has some part to play in it, but the learning you do after you are born is where the real knowledge comes from.
If, for example, all I know about is drinking in the pub, football, and picking up girls in nightclubs, is that all I am? On the surface other humans in society would say yes. They just judge from appearances. They may say: “He is very shallow,” but is that my fault, given that I was conditioned from the moment I was born?

My father worked in a manual job, went to the pub, went to the football, read the tabloid newspapers, and didn’t do anything else. What will he teach me? To appreciate mozart, or to understand the universe as we know it?

Somehow I don’t think so! Only because my father didn’t learn about those things, and didn’t know anyone else who knew about those things. It is not because he was stupid and incapable of acquiring knowledge.

Knowledge can be acquired at any age, although physically the brain may be more receptive when we are younger, and we may learn quicker. But my question to you still is: “Is that all that I am?”

Job: Factory worker
Hobbies: Like football, pub and nightclubs
Reads: Tabloid newspapers and celebrity magazines
Not married: Likes lots of girlfriends

What if I come from a wealthy family where art, science and politics are discussed openly and regularly? As I grow up what will happen to my knowledge? Will I only know about beer and girls, or do you think there is a good chance I might gain some knowledge of the things they talk about; that I may develop skills to competently discuss art or politics?
It is not given, as everyone’s brains work differently, but it is more possible than if my family did not discuss them! I get sent to the best school, and when I grow up get a job in finance in the city, play the piano, and enjoy arts and politics. But is that the sum of me?

Job: City finance
Hobbies: Play classical piano, arts, and politics
Reads: Financial papers and literature
Married: Two children

On the surface these are two very different people, wouldn’t you say? So which one do you prefer? If like me, you come from a family that discusses politics, arts etc. then you will probably prefer number two.

Only because he has more in common with me. I may find him to be a complete bore, but at least I can discuss things I am interested in with him. On the other hand, if you like beer, football, tabloids and girls you would find him very, very boring, and so would gravitate towards number one.

So we have two men, from very different backgrounds, who both like very different things. Number one has not been taught to use his brain creatively – he sticks to very similar patterns that are easy to process; whereas number two has been taught to use his brain more and to develop other skills. They may both be nice family men, who love their parents and children, who have never engaged in violence; but we are impressed by the man who talks politics (but only because we have not learned the skill of it).

With knowledge, comes an unfortunate, often unconscious superiority over others which harks back to the taunting in the playground. “I know more than you, I am better than you, you are stupid…”


So why do we feel inferior when in the presence of someone who has a lot more knowledge than us?

As I have told you before, my father worked in industry, as a managing director, and had many hundreds of employees worldwide. I remember the way he used to talk to me about the important things he knew about. He talked about the stock market and buying and selling companies, and I remember being impressed, but somehow feeling like I was beneath him, because I couldn’t hold a conversation with him about takeovers, and he wasn’t interested in the things I was.

So, in search of superiority, I would take a walk down to the local pub, where I knew that all the people I drank with did manual jobs, and they would be impressed with my knowledge and the fact that I travelled to europe for my job, thereby making me feel superior.

But that’s not what the acquisition of knowledge is for, is it? To make us feel good about ourselves? Is it not to further the understanding of ourselves, and the universe we inhabit? Oh, sorry, my mistake!

As individuals, we swallow up knowledge from the start. We learn about people and places, food and drink, and walking and reading and history and football and cricket and beaches and seas and mountains and fashion and shopping and how to do this job and how to do that job. The list goes on and on.

Some of us keep learning, whilst others are content to only learn so much. All around the world there are billions of bits of information walking around on two legs, on topics as diverse as sport, science, warfare, deception, mass murder, idealism, fanaticism, spaceships, computers, brick laying, floor mopping, salad dressings, pick pocketing, wood carving, stamp collecting, saving money, ironing, car design and rally driving (to name but a few!)

Just stop and think about it for a moment, would you? Look around you when you are in the street, and look at all the people. Not only do they all look different, act different and dress different, they also all have a unique collection of knowledge. No one person’s knowledge is superior or inferior. And they pass you by. So not only do you not know what they’re thinking, you also have no idea what they know – until you speak to them. How strange. All that knowledge wrapped up in bone and tissue. Inaccessible by any machine except conversation with another human!

How often do we hear about someone who has just died, and discover they were knowledgeable about things you wouldn’t dream they would know or be interested in; and they died without sharing that knowledge with anyone else. So much knowledge gained, yet so much taken to the grave without ever having seen the light of day. So what use is all this knowledge then if it is not to be shared?

Apart from learning obvious things to help us find work to get money to pay the bills, are we just learning things to keep ourselves amused, or maybe to stop boredom from setting in? We seem to accumulate knowledge at a rate almost as fast as we accumulate possessions and we store it. We can’t help it. Our eyes take it in and the brain stores it.

So why are we acquiring it?

Perhaps you believe that knowledge is what sets man apart from the animals. The ability to not only learn, but to better ourselves through the acquisition of it, and maybe you might be correct. After all, it is only through the passing of knowledge from one person to another that we have become so inventive. One man invents the wheel, another builds a cart, another domesticates the horse to pull it, another invents an engine to do away with the need for a horse! A perfect example of human discovery, saved as knowledge, and passed down to the next generation as education.

So we have all this knowledge, stored up, ready to be passed down, but hold on a minute, how much human knowledge do we want to pass on to our children, and in any case how much of what’s in our head is just junk?

Imagine for a moment your house. It may be a big house or a small apartment, but just think how much junk (sorry, possessions) you have. How many of them are worth keeping? How many of them would you want to pass on to your children and grandchildren? If you’re like most people, it wouldn’t be many. Maybe something really special perhaps.

It’s the same with knowledge. We obviously want to pass on important stuff to the next generation, but do we want to burden them with our baggage (excuse the pun); do we want them to be discoverers; to have free minds; or do we want them to be conditioned clones of ourselves, because I’m sorry to say, that’s what’s happening. We pass on our prejudices; our likes and dislikes; our culture; our hatred; our religion; and our opinions. I can hear some of you saying “But it’s impossible to not pass it on, it’s part of who I am,” and there is the key.

You believe that this knowledge, in the form of religion, opinions, politics, etc. is part of you, and you cannot separate yourself from it. You may have been indoctrinated and conditioned by your society but that does not mean you are the knowledge. It just means you have to unlearn (discard something previously learnt, like an old habit).

Unlearning – The path to freedom

So here we both are, with our big brains bursting at the seams with this human knowledge. I can’t see your knowledge, and you can’t see mine, but all this knowledge has only lead to fear, hatred and division. We may have planes in the sky and cars on the roads thanks to knowledge, but we have deception, killing, greed, poverty, corruption, and desire – all things that still exist in spite of all this learning.

I am not saying we have to forget how to build a motor car or a jet plane (although it may help the environment somewhat), what we need to unlearn, are the unhelpful things that lead us away from love and compassion. We are caught in the prison of memory, even if the memories are not our own. These memories are dutifully passed down from father to son and son to grandson without them even being consciously aware of it.

In this country some groups of people hate “pakis” (a derogatory word for people from pakistan) because of no other reason than they have learned to hate them. How can we call ourselves the most intelligent species on the planet when we pass knowledge on which furthers division between us?

For centuries, the british ruled ireland, and now even after many years of independence, people still hate the british, even if the actual people that oppressed them are long dead. Everyone hates everyone for some historical reason, but that’s all it is, history. Yes, some people may have been cruel to other humans but that is past. If it is finished with we must let go and move on, otherwise we are carrying the past into the future, which is surely a dangerous thing to do.
History, which is the sum of the past, is full of horrendous stories of slavery and rape and murder, and I know that these acts are still being carried out in some parts of the world, but what we are talking about here is moving towards unconditional love; and love is something that takes place in the present. It can never take place in the past or the future. Our memories or knowledge however pleasant, or important they may seem, are always unwittingly keeping us in the past.

To see clearly you have to forget what you saw

Some of us don’t want to see clearly. We would rather stay locked into what we know – afraid to give it away in case there’s nothing better to replace it, in the same way that we cannot give up our possessions; because who would we be without them? Who would people think we were if we had no possessions? So we jealously guard our knowledge, afraid to ever give it up, always waiting to impress someone somewhere with something we know.

But we have to let go of psychological attachment to the knowledge, because it is only stopping us from seeing who we truly are. We are barricaded behind school certificates, degrees and mba’s; we surround ourselves with news of political affairs, the arts, or religious scriptures; and we hide physically behind our material possessions; Our cars, our jobs, our status, our mobile phones, our range of credit cards.

We are all afraid in life, and that is why we surround ourselves with items to make ourselves happy, ever mindful that if we stop filling our head with knowledge, then one day we may come face to face with our real thoughts. To find freedom from fear, we must face ourselves without external knowledge, it is the only way to understand that you are not just your degree in engineering, your bmw, and a great personality. You are one part of a whole universe. A contributor to universal love and compassion. You are energy and light. You are pure and whole.
Inside each one of us is a core. I cannot explain to you what that core is, but you can see it for yourself.

With no definable structure, you cannot see or draw it, yet, if you look, you will find it. You will sense that connection to the universe, something that lets you know that there is no need to be afraid as you are interconnected with everything else. That thing I do not call god, that is Man’s label, and it is not the same as belief, as there is nothing to believe in, nor is there any need to gain knowledge of it. Just to notice and be aware of it is enough.

Brick by brick, you and I must start to disassemble the protective structure we have built around ourselves. Only then can we transcend fear and human knowledge and embrace our universal wisdom. That wisdom, as I have found out, resides in every one of us. You don’t need to remember it, study it or look it up in an encyclopaedia, but definitely don’t take my word for it. Doubt it, question it, and reject it, but don’t ignore it. The time has come when all of us need to start to look inward.

by alan macmillan orr

“The Natural Mind- waking up”



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