The secret to co-gnosis

Ninth and final (for now) post in “I can tell for myself” sequence.

I know the secret to co-gnosis, aka “we can tell for ourselves”. In a sentence the secret is:

Nobody and everybody knows the secret to co-gnosis.

Nobody knows the secret, in the sense that nobody can simply say “I know how it works and this is it and if you’re not doing it then well idk what to tell you but it isn’t gonna work.” There is no once-and-for-all secret, articulable or ineffable.

Everybody knows the secret, in the sense that everybody is acutely sensitive to what it feels like for their sense of “I can tell for myself” to be respected in a dialogue, and so if you’re in a dialogue with them, then the secret of how to have “we can tell for ourselves” is right there inside the “I can tell for myself” and “you can tell for yourself”. It’s whatever satisfies both.

I’ve been having trouble finishing my “I can tell for myself” / gnosis sequence, and part of why it’s been hard is that my answer to the problem I spend the sequence framing is the same thing I’m already trying to point at in most of my posts. This is the meta-protocol all over again.

And so every time I went to write the conclusion to this sequence, it felt like it was just another post I’d been meaning to write for awhile and which might stand better on its own. Having said that, since we’ve built up some new ways of talking, let’s see if I can give some reflections on the meta-protocol puzzle in terms of “I can tell for myself” and “we can tell for ourself”.

I wrote in the previous post: merely getting everybody in touch with their own knowing isn’t enough. When multiple people are both operating from a grounded sense of what they know, they tend to avoid each other because they see things differently and either don’t know how or don’t want to bother sorting out those differences. It’s HARD. But it’s possible.

Bridging between what I can tell for myself and what you can tell for yourself is an additional skill beyond each of us being in touch with our respective knowings in the first place.

On further thought… it’s a bunch of skills.

Co-gnosis Skills


Before the skill of actually bridging comes a skill of differentiation: the recognition that just because you can tell something for myself, and someone else report that they can tell something that seems like it contradicts what you know, doesn’t mean that they’re crazy, deluded, or lying. The ability to take in that given the experiences they’ve had, things actually seem the way they seem to them. What matters to them really matters to them. What’s salient and relevant is really salient and relevant. What seems possible seems possible. What seems impossible seems impossible. In its more advanced forms, this skill is very rare—most people tend to, at a certain point, round off others’ understandings to a mere subset of their own, which they tag as confused and then reject.

(As always, I’ll give the caveat that if you are actually concerned that the person might be straight-up lying, that’s a different issue and I mostly recommend getting out of the situation quickly and cleanly.)

Differentiation brings a kind of truce, but it doesn’t on its own create a sense of “we can tell for ourself”. It’s more the basic condition from which one could even begin to bridge—to extend the bridge analogy, it is the recognition of the two cliffs and the reality of the chasm between them. Although as my twitter-friend Matthew Pierce likes to say with his Law of Radical Consensus:

Any disagreement can be restated as a form of agreement, by jointly acknowledging THAT the dispute exists

So there can be at least a meta-level sense of “we can tell for ourself that we don’t have a shared sense of what’s going on here”. That’s a real sense! That is legit progress over the kind of state that people often get in.


The next subskill could be called perspective-taking. It’s the skill of really imagining what the world looks like from the other person’s vantage point. Not just allowing that they have a different perspective than you that makes sense to them, but getting a sense of it yourself. Seeing the specific sense that their perspective makes.

One aspect of this skill involves things like active listening, reflecting back to the person what they said. Better make sure to paraphrase though, not just repeat their words, otherwise you have no idea that you really understand the shape of what they’re saying. The deeper the paraphrase, the more potent the contact you can make.

There are other subtle aspects. Often the sense that what they’re saying makes is hidden, not in the words they’re saying but in the assumptions they’re making that are so obvious to them they seem to go without saying, even though they’d be shocking to you. So there’s another aspect of this skill which is listening to the negative space around what the person is saying, following the shape of their attention, and opening yourself up to have surprising insights.

Often the features of what’s going on that are most salient to one person in a connection are precisely those which are being systematically ignored or denied by the other person—and that’s part of why they become so salient. This is part of why my template for talking about blindspots uses such layered language—to try to create a scaffold for noticing that negative space.

Self-listening / taking your own perspective

As you embark on your voyage across the chasm in a boat, to see the other side, you may notice that you keep snapping back to your own perspective. That wherever their perspective seems to highlight something that’s at odds with yours, you become defensive. I might be missing some other case, but so far it seems to me that every time this happens, it’s because you don’t have a clear enough grounding in your own perspective. Your sense of how things are is more fragile than you realize, and you don’t trust that you can keep sight of it while taking a contrary perspective. This is especially likely to happen if the other person’s perspective is judgmental or contemptuous of yours, but the same principle applies: if you’re sufficiently grounded in your own perspective, then as far as I can tell, it will feel okay to orient to taking theirs. It may still be challenging, but it’ll be more like a weird fun challenge.

So: insofar as this model holds, this suggests that the only workable response to defensiveness is to fortify your cliffside so that it’s strong and you no longer feel the need to defend it. One might reasonably think that doing so would increase defensiveness, but… in my experience, it doesn’t! Perhaps because the focus is on what you know, not on any ways in which others are wrong or confused. In any case, you don’t have to take my word for it: try it for yourself.

Try what, exactly? The move here is to listen to yourself thoroughly, and affirm your own perspective. To have the sensation of “YES! That IS how it seems to me! It does indeed seem that way! I might be missing something but I can tell that THIS is happening and it’s having THAT effect.” The sensation you would get if someone else reflected back to you what’s going on so perfectly that you’re like “I couldn’t have said it better myself! You totally get it!” Turns out you can get that “you totally get it” feeling internally to yourself. And in my experience it makes a surprisingly large difference for my ability to listen, when I remember to do it and take the time.

I’ve also found that others are more willing than I first expected to give me space when I say “hang on, I need to affirm my own perspective more to be able to really take yours in, give me a moment.” I guess they can tell that I’m really trying to listen to them and they want to support that. Also sometimes they feel inspired by my pausing to listen to myself—there’s a sense of like “wait, I could do that…?!”

Bridging itself

The bridging might start to happen on its own at this point, but if it somehow doesn’t, then this part is essentially the interpersonal equivalent of the “juxtaposition” step from the emotional coherence framework. You hold your view in one hand, you hold their view in another hand, and you bring you hands closer together to see what emerges when they come in contact. Sometimes I do this (or guide other people to do this) with their actual hands as a way to enact the juxtaposition.

Other times I use the metaphor of the left eye and the right eye forming depth perception, and I’ll assign each viewpoint to an eye. This metaphor is… barely a metaphor, for what’s going on here. There are two perspectives—that are different!—and you’re aiming to find the deeper view of what’s going on that synthesizes the two flat views. This is what’s happening.

My sense is that it actually happens via the same means in which it happens in your visual cortex. Which is to say, it’s not a thing that one does deliberately, so much as an emergent process that happens given the right degree of challenge.

Sharing the bridge

In some cases, the shared sense of things shows up quite dynamically in the conversational space between the two people. It dawns on us, together, how both of our views are of the same whole. In other cases, one person gets a clearer sense of it first, and then there’s something to be done to reflect the view back to the other person.

You’re aiming for the point where it’s now obvious to both of you what’s going on—obvious like how if you were sitting with someone in a room and something made a weird sound in the next room over, and you both immediately turned to each other with surprised & concerned looks on your faces, it would be obvious to both of you that you just heard that sound and that neither of you were expecting it. It’s not that you “agree”, but that there’s a shared sense of the sound. You still have your own sense of the shared sense, but it’s now participating in a larger whole.

It seems to me that unless we get to that sense of shared obviousness, I can’t really be sure that the bridge I think I’ve built is really making contact with what’s going on for them.

However, sometimes I’ve found myself feeling like I have a sense of why someone sees things the way they do, and I can see a rough sense of how that fits with how I see things, but I have some sense that the conversation isn’t one they’re ready to have for some emotional reason or something. I would caution most people from assuming this (and I rarely assume it myself) though because it can function as an excuse. Importantly, in this situation I don’t really feel like I get to say that I know what’s going on for the other person or how it all fits together. All I’ll claim to have is a guess.

One other secret, about co-gnosis

As I gestured at in Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself”, in talking about the paradox of the student trusting themselves by rejecting what the teacher says… every sense everyone has or expresses exists somehow in relation to their “I can tell for myself”. Even if it’s something they took someone’s word for, they still have somewhere an embodied knowing of why they did that, which is driving their inclination to use it. Even if they’re totally overreaching and speaking as though they know things that they obviously can’t know… there’s still something they know that’s underneath that. No matter how someone communicates—and some ways are of course much more workable than others—they are offering you an interface with their sense of things when they do. And, seeing this, your options are:

  • find a way to work with it in the way it presents itself to you
    • (which can involve meeting it where it’s at, then negotiating from there for a different interface)
  • try to do so, and fall short
  • discern that it’s not worth it

I used to think there was an additional option, of dismissing someone else as speaking from a place that wasn’t relevant or didn’t matter or couldn’t be dialogued with. Seeing what I see now, that option shows itself as an illusion. If I were to take it (and probably sometimes I still do when I’m not paying attention) it would be tantamount to blaming the other person for my inability or unwillingness to communicate with them. I’m not blaming myself either—their inability or unwillingness is still theirs—but mine is forever mine, and I will own it.

I name all of this here because one of the traps people fall into, which seems to me to be one of the main obstacles to experiencing the divine ecstasy and pragmatic power of collective consciousness, is assuming that self-trust always has a particular flavour to it, and rejecting anything that doesn’t taste right to them.

Closing remarks

Remember what I said at the top: nobody and everybody knows the secret to co-gnosis.

What I’ve just laid out is my model of how co-gnosis / “we can tell for ourself” works. It seems to generalize pretty well! But it’s just mine. Perhaps there are some twins in Tuvalu who do co-gnosis some completely different way. Perhaps you can tell for yourself that I’m missing something key. If so, welcome to the meta-protocol conversation!

PS: this “I can tell for myself” sequence has a huge shoutout to give to my friend Michael Smith, who helped me see the general structure of this kind of knowing (which he often calls “gnosis”, although he loves my phrasing of it and was part of encouraging me to write up “I can tell for myself” and editing the posts). He’s been prototyping learning containers and coaching practices that help people get in touch with their knowing, while doing his best to avoid the guru traps I described where the person’s feedback loop on whether they’re tapping their own gnosis ends up getting routed through the teacher’s responses, muddling the whole thing. One way he does that is by pointing out gnosis through looking at math. Anyway, I’ve been tackling more of the co-gnosis end of the puzzle and would be happy to talk about that, but if you’re reading this and you’re more curious how to deepen your own “I can tell for myself” sense, I would definitely recommend you check out his coaching or online container, and see if his approach resonates for you.

Releasing myself from a confused self-contradictory commitment

I have a commitment that I made pretty strongly nearly 7 years ago, and then 3.5 years ago I sort of released it for myself, and even though I don’t particularly think anybody is holding me to it, it feels wise to formally release it. I would say I released it for myself in 2020 the moment I had my non-naive trust dance insight, but since it was a social commitment it feels right to withdraw it from the social sphere too. It’s good, in general, to follow through with commitments; it’s bad to keep pretending to be committed if it’s no longer alive. In this case I would say I realized that the commitment was both self-defeating (as in I could serve its purpose better by dropping it than by keeping it) and in some sense impossible as stated.

In 2021, I published “Mindset choice” is a confusion, which is precisely about this. In it, I describe how while committing to a project can make sense, committing to a way of seeing the world (except as a very bounded temporary experiment) has within it some basic confusion or commitment to not looking and not listening to things that might counter that way of seeing the world. It may be a useful stepping stone, but that doesn’t make it not a confusion.

In 2017, I had a taste of a new experience of easeful flow, that I tried somewhat unsuccessfully to point at in Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself. The same day I had that experience, I tried to distill my clarity into something that would help me keep it, and wrote up a commitment that I then performed as a small ritual that evening with my learning community as witnesses (I also ritually repeated it daily for months while donning some rings and a necklace, as an attempt to enact it). I still stand by the spirit of the content of the commitment, but the tone of how I approached committing now strikes me as entirely antithetical to everything that was precious about the experience I tasted and loved so deeply.

This blog post is both a formal renouncement of that commitment, as well as a case study in the whole “Mindset choice” is a confusion insight.

The text of the 2017 commitment read:

I hereby commit (and hereby act on the basis of such commitment)
• to take myself and all others I am in relationship with seriously
as centers of experience, understanding, and agency, and from there
• to take response-ability for generatively re-interpreting
oscillating tensions into creative tensions &
double-binds into opportunities for shared laughter, and thereby
• to be access-able as a resource to collaborators
towards caring for the ongoing survival and thrival of humanity

I hereby uncommit to that, not because it’s not a good way to live, but because it’s the sort of thing that a commitment is not a good way to approach (as far as I can tell). Keep reading for more of my thoughts on this.

Goodself & badself

The context for how I got here today was that I was re-reading The Guru Papers—one of my all-time favorite books, which interestingly I would have first read in late 2016, relatively shortly before the experience of freedom/liberation in 2017 that plugged into this commitment. Specifically, today I was reading the chapter on addiction, which describes the inner struggle for control between some sense-of-self-that-is-good-in-terms-of-social-uprightness/superegos and some sense-of-self-that-seems-selfish-or-self-centered. The “goodself” and “badself”, although these names are tongue-in-cheek and more refer to what they tend to call themselves; in fact, both have both wholesome desires and self-destructive patterns.

And I was reading about their take on Alcoholics Anonymous…

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3 Loops of Expressing Feelings

By request, a published resource elaborating slightly on my response to a question a friend asked in a groupchat:

A lot of advice is some variation on “express your feelings to not be haunted by them forever,” but what do people mean by ‘express’ here? On one end there is being alone in a room and naming the feeling silently in your head, on the other end is telling your married boss you’re crushing on them, in between is stuff like journaling or going into the woods to scream and writhe or talking it out with a friend.

One model is that the key is to “let yourself fully feel the feeling” and the relevant sense of expression is whatever moves you towards that. Another is that feelings are for taking action in the world so apply appropriate thoughtfulness and discernment to avoid being rash and stupid but ultimately figure out what this trying to make you do and do it, and that will be the relevant expression. Does anybody find this advice helpful and wanna try to convey what it actually means for me?

From my perspective, there’s:

  • a loop that just involves yourself
  • a loop that involves a third party
  • and a loop that involves the person who the thing is about (eg the boss you have a crush on)

I’m calling these loops because they all have a kind of feedback loop quality to them, even though the feedback is quite subtle. There’s a sense of something landing.

AI art by me, generated as 3 separate images that I then composed

I mean what I mean

The first loop is about cultivating the sense of “I mean what mean“. Articulating something. Modifying it if it isn’t quite right. Trying again. Saying it out loud and feeling if it resonates. Getting to the point where you’re like “Yeah! THAT!”

Think of a time when you try to explain something to somebody, and they didn’t get it. Whether that was a model or a framework, or some emotional or relational thing or whatever.

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2023: Allowing Diligence

My 2023 was unequivocally awesome.

It’s a testament to the ways in which having a few key things go right makes any other mistakes or problems or challenges feel navigable.

Themes & dual meanings

I started 2023 with a theme in mind, which was Allowing Diligence. Coincidentally, like my friend’s year theme “Play With Responsibility”, this has a dual meaning:

  1. allowing myself to have diligence
  2. having diligence about allowing

One of the things I had in mind when I oriented to allowing myself to have diligence was that I’d get more on top of my email inbox, which for the past few years has been more like a stream I’d dip into every couple of days to glance for possibly-relevant-and-actionable items, and a repository of things I might search for. I’ve had a few alerts for specific kinds of emails, including any replies to messages I’ve sent, but otherwise… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And last year for some reason I felt like it was a good time to get on top of stuff. I intended to be diligent, set up some new systems, have consistent routines or habits…

I failed at this. I’m as on top of my email as I was a year ago. And… I’m okay with that. Maybe at some point I’ll get inspired to rejigger my email system, but it doesn’t feel like something I want to make a point of doing.

Part of why I’m okay with my distant relationship to email was that I had the experience a few times of telling people about it and hearing them get hugely envious. Somehow I’m getting away with not checking my email. I feel it too, when I say it: a bit cheeky. High status, like Christopher Nolan, who famously does not have an email address (obviously somehow he has an assistant or something). Sometimes I drop balls, but on the whole this has been worth it for me in order to not be addicted to inbox zero, which has happened to me many times in the past. It’s compelling, but a to-do list that anybody can put stuff on is a distraction from proactive intentionality. Obviously there could be better solutions, but for now, this is mine. If you want to reach me, DM me on twitter or text.

Part of me is tempted to say that this conclusion was a win by the other meaning of Allowing Diligence: having diligence about allowing. But it’s not really the main point in that direction either! But I did perhaps get better last year at allowing the reality that I can fail at stuff.

I figured it would be appropriate to make this year’s post image using an AI image generator, since those really took off this year. This is an image I generated sometime in December, not for something but just as part of moodboarding & envisioning something about the vibe I want my life to have, and it’s apt for this post. Regarding images, you’ll see various photos below, many of which are contextualized by the adjacent paragraphs but some aren’t. They’re all basically in chrono order though. Think of it as a way I’m saving a few thousand words.

generated by DALL-E with the prompt 'a regal beam of light shining down onto a single eye of awareness, suspended in the air above waters that are tranquil in the middle and stormy further out'

The story of 2023, starting with the end of 2022

In my yearly review last year (2022: Deepening in a Different Direction) I noted how the editorializing process leaves out details for various reasons, and how that had historically included any of my struggles that I hadn’t figured out how to frame (read: rationalize) in a positive optimistic light. And before I can talk about what happened last year in anything resembling chronological order, I need to fill you in on something that happened in 2022 but which I left out of the blog post, that shaped the arc of my entire 2023:

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Merely getting everybody in touch with their own knowing isn’t enough

Part 8 of “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previously: The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.

— Bertrand Russell

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the messes wouldn’t end if we could just somehow get everybody (within some context) to have grounded confidence in their sense of “I can tell for myself” even when others say something that seems to contradict it (or find enough people who already have it and herd them into the same room).

Instead we get new messes!

If I can tell for myself that “X”, and you can tell for yourself that “Y”, and it seems to us that it’s not possible for both X and Y to be true at the same time, then we’re going to be pretty stuck! The resulting communicational impasses can be pretty intense, depending on what’s at stake (and how emotionally resilient participants are, such that physical stakes feel more or less gripping). I described above how it tends to play out when there’s a major power imbalance on some relevant axis. What happens when there’s not?

When the conflict isn’t too central, what happens is: they have relationships that work out. This is pretty good! They have enough overlap in what they each want, and how they each already see the world, that they’re able to found a company together or get married and have kids, or co-run a community or some other kind of project, or just be lifelong friends. There may be other arenas where they don’t see eye-to-eye, and can’t figure out how to bridge, but those arenas are sufficiently inconsequential to the relationship that they can be ignored (or periodically explored in a low-stakes way, as friends sometimes do with philosophical questions).

But when the conflict is at the core of their identity and/or purpose and/or worldview (which is broadly the case when we’re talking about spiritual teachers and/or those who are aiming to discover and embody pragmatically & philosophically workable answers to life’s big questions (I count myself as one of these))… well, I may be missing something, but as far as I can tell what usually happens is, oddly: “nothing”. The really high-self-trust people just don’t interact that much. They keep to their own contexts where nobody is self-trustfully challenging their worldviews that are based on generalizations of their direct-knowings. They run their training center, or monastery, or company, or online community, or whatever, where their wisdom can flow and so can others’… to the extent it doesn’t contradict theirs. These contradictions may not even be on the level of “what’s so”; they can even just be “what’s relevant”.

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The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”

Part 7 of the “I can tell for myself” sequence, picking up where Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself” left off:

To the extent that the person in the more student-like role is able to stay in touch with their own direct-knowing even though it conflicts with what they’re hearing from the teacher-role person… now what?

I’ve studied in depth a handful of cases of this (firsthand and secondhand) which is more than most people but not a lot, so I may be missing something major here. These situations can come from the situation described in the previous post, where the student develops self-trust while already inside a container that they had previously been more naïvely surrendered to… or it can involve someone who already has sufficient self-trust to listen to themselves consciously stepping into a learning environment with someone else who also has a lot of self-trust.

In these contexts, where one person is the official or de facto authority in the space, what I’ve seen has tended to involve what-the-authority-knows being the sort of dominant view, with the other person’s knowings (where they contradict, which won’t be everywhere) getting a lot of questioning and suspicion, or treated as irrelevant. This is functionally a form of “oppressive culture”, even if it’s actively intending to be a welcoming culture.

And it turns out that the main approaches are basically the same: stay & pretend, say the unsayable, or leave. But they look a bit different in learning community than in a kind of default societal context.

  1. Stay & pretend to go along with the authority’s worldview, so that they get to stick around. I said in the “oppressive cultures” section that it’s best to leave, but that was intended to be more referring to a situation where someone doesn’t have enough self-trust to be able to hold their own worldview even in the face of outside pressure. But if someone has that, and has enough time & freedom to journal or talk to people outside the context of this dynamic, then it can make sense to stick around at least for a little while.

    Someone’s reasons for sticking around might include one or more of:
    1. wanting to learn from the person’s wisdom (“yeah he’s belligerently confused but he still knows stuff I don’t, and I trust myself to learn safely in this context”)
    2. wanting to learn from interacting with the person’s confusions (“I’m honestly just trying to understand how someone can be so wise and so foolish at the same time”)
    3. wanting to reconcile the relationship and the viewpoints (“I want to get to the bottom of why that rift years ago originally happened, and have more ease”)
    4. wanting something out of the relationship or context, whether material or social or whatever (“people keep ignoring the obvious, but on the whole this is still a better place to live than any of my other options, for the time being”)
    5. wanting to keep an eye on the person and their context and make sure others are okay (“this former student of mine is getting into risky territory in her container, but if I say everything I’m seeing she’ll just kick me out and then I won’t be able to advise her at all”)
  2. Say the unsayable. Speak to what you can tell for yourself, ideally in ways that also make space for what the blindspots are protecting. This is usually an unstable approach; eventually it converts to pretending or leaving, although with enough trust-dancing/bridging skill I think it can theoretically result in insight and healing.
  3. Leave the context. Sometimes this happens with a lot of anger and resentment, from pressure built up from months or years of pretending not to notice what one notices—particularly if someone had years of being unconsciously in this culture where they repeatedly denied their own knowings—in the name of learning how to trust themselves!

I did a mix of all three of these when I had my own self-trust breakthrough in 2020, as I wrote about somewhat hotly just after I moved out and more spaciously 2 years later. That’s a great example of a context that was attempting to be welcoming everything but in practice didn’t know how to welcome many things. And there were many aspects of me that could tell they were uniquely welcome there, which is part of what made it all so confusing. And when I tried saying the unsayable there, it was difficult of course, but we were able to sincerely approach the challenge together to some degree. There was no “you can’t say this”, just a “you can only say this if it also accounts for this other thing that’s really important” which was around the edge of my ability.

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Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself”

Sixth post in “I can tell for myself” sequence. On the last episode… Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”, which opened up our exploration of interactions between one person who is in touch with their own direct-knowing and another person who is more just taking others’ word for it. With this post we’re finally reaching some of the core ideas that the other posts have been a foundation for.

(I left “guru” in the title of this part, because “guru dynamics” are what I call this phenomenon, but I decided not to use the word “guru” in the body of the text. It’s a loanword that originally means “teacher” but of course in English has the connotations associated both with spiritual teaching in particular and thus also with the dynamics I want to talk about here, some of which are well-documented in The Guru Papers. To be clear, I don’t think guru’ing, as a role, is necessarily bad—it’s just extraordinarily hard to do well. But “guru” as a frame… the roles are probably best not thought of as a student-teacher relationship at all. Instead, perhaps, “one who’s remembering” and “one who’s reminding”: ancient wisdom tradition words for this like “sati”, and “aletheia” mean “remembering” or “unforgetting”. Those are awkward though.)

Things get weird when a person who has consistent access to their sense of “I can tell for myself” across many domains—especially spiritual, interpersonal, esoteric, subtle, ineffable., ones—finds their way into a position where they’re trying to help others develop this capacity for themselves.

This happens remarkably often! There are many factors that contribute to this, of which here are six:

The many reasonable roads into this attractor

  1. Lots of people want to learn how to trust their own experience more, and will gladly sign up for (and in many cases pay quite a lot for) instruction in it. They may even demand it from someone who clearly has some wisdom but was uncertain if they wanted to teach it or would prefer not to be in an authority role for whatever reason, who then reluctantly assents.
  2. Many spiritual knowings are only grokkable via direct-knowing (and taking someone’s word for it is not just irrelevant but a distraction — “the dao that can be named is not the dao”) so reminding people how to tell for themselves emerges as either a precondition or a byproduct of pointing out some other spiritual knowing.
  3. Having fluent access to one’s own knowing is obviously very precious and beautiful, so a kind person would want to share the experience with others!
  4. It seems pretty apparent to many people who are in touch with their own knowing that there are forms of social organization that only work when everybody involved also is, so since there aren’t a lot of such people, it becomes a practical project to train more of them.
  5. It can feel lonely to be the only one in a room (or community) who is experiencing contact with one’s own “I can tell for myself”, so there’s a natural desire to help others develop this same capacity! In addition to being lonely, it can also be risky for one’s own sanity, as the following bullet illustrates:
  6. Getting to be the massive one who gets to exert a lot of pull on the conversation can satisfy many shadowed desires, whether for control or attention or just to have their experience repeatedly validated in regions that they don’t know how to do for themselves. (For most kind people, this is not how they get into the situation in the first place, but it can be something that inadvertently keeps them in it because they’re able to meet certain needs in this social context that they can’t meet outside of it.)

So it’s very common for someone who has developed their sense of self-authored direct-knowing to find themselves surrounded by a bunch of people who also want to develop this capacity. (We’ll explore in a later post why there’s often precisely one teacher per learning context; the previous post also hints at it.)

The paradox of teaching self-trust

But attempting to teach “I can tell for myself” (or self-trust, or whatever you call it) leads to what is nearly a paradox:

  • How do I tell you how to tell for yourself?
  • If I tell you how to not take my word for it, will you take my word for it?
  • Of what relevance is my trust in my own experience to your trust in your own experience?

Suppose that when someone says something you don’t understand or resonate with, your two available moves are either to reject what they’re saying or “take their word for it”—a condition which is tautologically the starting point for someone who has learned to not trust themselves in the face of what someone else is saying, and is wanting to develop that self-trust—then if I’m trying to convey “how to tell for yourself”, you’ll either… reject what I’m saying as senseless, or… take my word for it that this is in fact how to tell for yourself and you just need to do it exactly as I say yessirree!

…which is not “I can tell for myself”. Or is it?

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Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

5th in the “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previous post: The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

This is a short post that introduces the second half of the sequence. The first half focused on what it means to have a sense of being able to tell something for yourself (direct-knowing or “gnosis”) as contrasted with taking someone’s word for it, and how people get out of touch with their own knowing, in many little moments as children and structurally as a society. The remainder of the sequence investigates interactions between people, tensions that arise depending on how well each person is tracking their sense of being able to tell for themselves, and possibilities for collective direct-knowing: “we can tell for ourself”.

So. Sometimes one person can tell for themselves, while another is taking others’ word for it. There are a few ways that can go. Sometimes the asymmetries are simple, functional and productive; well, relatively—there are a few caveats. These simple functional asymmetries are what this post is about—companies being one example.

Lopsided conversations

When there’s a conversation between one person who is consistently checking everything that’s being said with whether it accords with their experience, and another who isn’t, the conversation can easily become lopsided, with the person who is grounded in their own self-trust ending up with a position of authority. That’s not the only place that social authority comes from (institutional power, or pure charisma spouting bullshit, work just fine for that) but I would say that it produces a kind of authority that holds up under quite a bit of inspection, which naturally engenders a kind of sustained trust from others.

When this is the case, the person who is uncompromisingly checking everything with their own experience ends up exerting kind of a large gravitational force on the conversation, and people let them do this in part because they don’t know how to access their own full weight, and in part because the other person does seem to be speaking with a kind of grounded honesty.

Prompt: A dramatic scene depicting two men in a conversation. One man stands on the edge of a rugged cliff, dressed in casual hiking gear. His posture is assertive, and he is making strong gestures with his hands. Facing him is another man standing on a towering pile of speech bubbles, symbolizing an intent verbal exchange. The speech bubble pile is as high as the cliff, putting both men at eye level. The background features a dramatic sky with dark clouds, enhancing the intense atmosphere of the scene. Both men are of average build, one with short hair and the other slightly longer.
AI-generated by ChatGPT+DALL-E with my prompt: a guy standing on a cliff’s edge, arguing eye to eye with a guy standing on a pile of speech bubbles (view image alt for the full prompt used)

And so this authority may override what others say since the others don’t trust their own “I can tell for myself” sense, so they speak in a kind of flimsy floaty way (not to say it might not sound confident, just that its source of confidence is not in the room). Simultaneously, the authority may not be bothered by people attempting to put out ideas, because they’re grounded in what they know rather than subject to some ideology that they need to uphold in order to maintain their legitimacy. And in technical domains where there’s a clearer sense that we can converge on the right answer, there can be lively debate and the authority will recognize “oh wait, you’re right, my bad”. In general, conversations in technical domains tend to have more sense of everybody involved having at least some sense of “I can tell for myself”.

My guess is that a lot of (relatively) healthy companies have a bit of this going on, and it’s not ideal but it’s legit better than a company where everybody is bullshitting, like I described in the oppressive cultures post. And there are definitely attractors, but there’s no clear binary distinction between any of the dynamics I describe anywhere in this sequence. Many situations could be analyzed through the lens of different kinds of dynamics, and multiple elements might be present or relevant at the same time.

The stability & simplicity of asymmetry & hierarchy

It’s been observed by many people over the years that while consensus has various kinds of appeal, it is often much less efficient and effective than having someone who is in charge for some scope of project or whatever, and can decisively choose what’s going to happen. There is a deeper level of complexity possible, of collective consciousness or co-what-now’ing, where everybody is fluidly organizing and integrating and differentiating and so on—the fully meta-rational workplace—but that’s hard and even the forefront of development of our species can only kinda do it sometimes. So it’s often more workable to just have one person call the shots—at least at a given level; maybe someone else calls the shots within their subproject, etc.

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I know what Knowing isn’t

A tangent off the “I can tell for myself” sequence, between post 4 & 5.

There’s a thing it feels like to know 5+5=10.

Wait—that’s exactly the opposite of what I mean. There are many things in feels like—in some sense at least one per person who’s ever known it, in another sense as many as times it’s been known! And while I can know 5+5=10 is so true that I can be certain that if you know what I mean by 5 and + and = and 10, that you’ll agree… my knowing and your knowing are still different.

Concretely, I might be knowing 5+5=10 from a verbal memorized table that never did me wrong, and you might be imagining two nickels and a dime. Or one of us has an experience of beholding 10 fingers, 5 on each hand, the other has a sense of 5 having a halfness to it, in relation to 10, related to thinking in decimals for a lifetime. But those are just four abstract descriptions, under which many yet-unique experiences of knowing 5+5=10 could be binned—and many could not. And either or both of us might go about knowing 4+8=12 very differently than we know 5+5=10.

And those knowings are likely yet different from what it would feel like to know such a thing together

This applies to all knowings: mundane and spiritual, mathematical and episodical. My knowing is not your knowing, and neither one is our knowing. And they aren’t the thing that is known.

Knowing is different from truth

Something can be true without being known: I could write a computer program that would generate a true statement that nobody had ever seen or known (such as 12364871317234+1=12364871317235, but imagine it’s longer and more convoluted) and it would still be true within that formal system, but it wouldn’t be known unless or until someone went and knew it. It could be true that there’s life on a particular exoplanet 51 Pegasi b, but it’s not currently known (as far as I know—if I’m mistaken, pick a different exoplanet). There are philosophical questions about who counts as “someone” and I am mostly going to say “definitely at least humans, in some cases animals or parts-of-humans”.

In the previous paragraph I was talking about things that are true but not known by anyone. There are also true things that are known by someone but not by someone else. You can even know OF a “true fact”, without actually knowing it. Here’s one: I’m typing this paragraph while listening to Tycho’s album Dive. One of my favorite albums. You could memorize this fact and perhaps pass it onto many other people… and maybe you even have good reason to believe me, because I’m a pretty honest guy in general and have no incentive to lie or whatever, but you don’t know it. Not directly. You can’t tell for yourself, but you can take my word for it.

A kid can know that “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” The question of whether Santa is “real” in the same senses in which the kid’s parents are real is not vital to the kid’s knowing—the kid knows that there are presents from Santa, and various other evidences such as cookie crumbs or in the case of very theatrical parents, sooty bootprints or whatever… insofar as the phrase “Santa comes on Christmas eve!” refers to that event, the kid can tell for themself that that happens. Santa sure doesn’t come on a randomly selected Tuesday in late April, for the purpose of leaving broken toasters on the lawn!

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The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

Fourth in a sequence:

  1. “I can tell for myself”
  2. How did you forget how to tell for yourself?
  3. Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

In the first piece, I distinguish between two kinds of knowing, one that I call “I can tell for myself” and the other that I call “taking someone’s word for it”. These are my approach to speaking in plain language about what’s sometimes called gnosis (as contrasted with perhaps “received knowing”).

In the second, I explore the many pressures from childhood, teenagerhood, and spiritual communities, that lead to people taking someone’s word for it even when it contradicts what they can tell for themselves, and how that leads to habitual ignoring of being able to tell for oneself. In the third, I explore the systemic double-binds of culture that shear peoples’ knowing from their honesty.

This post, the primacy of knowing-for-oneself, is more technical: to investigate the relationship between these different kinds of knowing, and make it clear how while words can be used to guide people into being able to tell for themselves, telling for oneself goes back further in evolutionary history, and that without it we wouldn’t even be able to take someone’s word for it.

This section is a response to this comment by a draft reader (who was not my wife when she wrote this comment but is now) on the earlier posts:

My theory: taking other people’s word for it is the default way of knowing things (that we have to rely on when we’re children) and developing the capacity to know for ourselves (and to know when to trust our own knowing) takes more development.

Insofar as it might seem like “taking someone’s word for it” is the default, my guess is that it’s because the phrase “I can tell for myself” is already contrasting itself with something else. And it is the case that we aren’t born knowing how to deal with conflicts between what we can tell for ourselves and what others tell us. That’s something we have to learn, whether by cultivating it the whole time or by having a sudden waking-up experience as an adult where we realize we’ve been ignoring ourselves.

It seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that knowing for ourselves is the functional default way of knowing, and prior to taking others’ word for it in all ways: evolutionarily, developmentally, and experientially/ontologically. (However, in the same way that someone can have an unnatural and unhealthy habit that is nonetheless a default in some sense, people can develop a “default” way of knowing that involves taking others’ words for it).

First, about words. Since this is an essay, everything I’m saying is expressed in words. However, the knowing is not in the words. “I can tell for myself” knowings can be referred to by a proposition (eg “I can ride a bike”, “it is raining outside”, “my mom loves me”) but they are grounded in the other kinds of knowing: procedural, perspectival & participatory, to use Vervaeke’s model. And the ability to be able to tell if a given proposition is true/relevant is part of the sense of “I can tell for myself”, and is not itself made out of propositions, even in domains of logic or mathematics.

Second, about defaults. Consider animals. They can tell for themselves nearly everything they need to know. They periodically do some interpretation, perhaps of a mating call or a warning call, but it seems to me that this is still better understood not as “taking someone’s word for it” but simply “acting on the basis of what is implied by the sound”. They’re not forming generalizations or having “beliefs” about things elsewhere and elsewhen, on the basis of these sounds. But when the animals are direct-knowing, they aren’t thinking “I can tell for myself”, they’re simply knowing. They don’t have a “taking someone’s word for it” to contrast this more basic kind of knowing with.

Baby humans start to discern for themselves that they can move their limbs and see stuff, and that they’re hungry, well before they can understand language and be told anything true or false. They can tell for themselves that faces are important. They can tell for themselves that boobs are great. They can tell for themselves that having a dirty diaper sucks. And they can tell for themselves a lot of subtle stuff about the attention and vibe of the people around them—more than most give them credit for.

Third, about meaning. The only way we can take someone’s word for it is on the basis of what they appear to us to mean, which is a kind of knowing that is much more like the “I can tell for myself”. It’s just that we often take this part for granted. We usually don’t realize the active interpretive role that we are playing in being able to know anything on the basis of someone else making mouth sounds.

Having said all of this, yes, as humans we do need to rely a lot on taking other people’s word for it. Humans live in cultures, and there is no default human behavior absent a culture, nor a default culture for humans to live in. And in particular, our sense of social expectations comes in large part from the words of others, whether that’s an adult enculturating a kid or an employer enculturating a new hire. Sometimes this is benign. What I want to highlight is that every time we take other people’s word for something in a way that (seemingly) contradicts what we can tell for ourselves, we introduce a confusion into not just what we know but into the very means by which we go about knowing things and trusting ourselves.

It seems to me that even though we do need to tell kids a bunch of stuff and have them use those knowings even though they can’t yet tell for themselves, we could also do so in a way that 100% respects their experiential frames—not trying to force an override. We can point things out to people (kids or otherwise) and we can guide them into having experiences that will allow them to tell for themselves, and this is different from trying to force them to see something a particular way. (This is adjacent to how in coercion in terms of scarcity and perceptual control I talk of coercion as trying to force a certain behavior.) We can do this by acknowledging uncertainty, different perspectives, and where we missed things… and by supporting kids to back their own knowings when they differ from ours, even if we say “and right now I have to make the decision as the parent/teacher/etc, and this is the call I’m making”. However, attempting to form such a pocket of sanity in a larger culture that’s oppressive can have additional challenges. Somehow a kid would still need to learn in which contexts they can safely be honest about what they’re seeing.

As I said at the top, insofar as it might seem like “taking someone’s word for it” is the default, my guess is that it’s because the phrase “I can tell for myself” is already contrasting itself with something else. To some extent I chose it for that purpose, because a lot of the adult quest of developing and refining one’s knowing involves rejecting a bunch of stuff someone else told us when we were more impressionable but which we can now tell doesn’t hold up. Because while animals and newborns can tell for themselves, newborns have no idea how to integrate what they can know directly with what others tell them. This must be learned. How do I generalize what I can tell for myself, while acknowledging that it also seems to contradict what you’re telling me?

In any case, our societies currently mostly teach the opposite of that, in the way that they go about teaching us the cultural knowledge we’re supposed to have. And it’s important to convey this knowledge to people—that’s utterly central to what it means to be human. But at this point in history, it’s possible to convey most of the key cultural knowledge while also conveying how to sanely relate it to your own knowing. It’s not about the overt messages but about the relationship we’re trained to adopt between what we’re told and what we can tell for ourselves.

There are some pitfalls, however, when trying to create learning environments for people to develop this new capacity…

Next post in sequence: Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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