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:
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.)
But attempting to teach “I can tell for myself” (or self-trust, or whatever you call it) leads to what is nearly a paradox:
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?
Taking my word for it (option 2) is not “I can tell for myself”.
But option 1… your capacity to reject what I’m saying as senseless or misguided or misleading or incomplete is on some level an embodiment of you being able to tell for yourself that it doesn’t fit with everything else you know. You can tell that if you just took my word for it, it would override something that matters to you, and you’re backing your own sense of things instead! You’re refusing to gaslight yourself.
The self-trust was within you all along! You have transcended the teacher!
Well… sort of. I have some caveats in the next section. This is in some very real sense how the process actually works when it works—it’s self-untangling, where the person gets some sense of how to tell for themselves, and the more they learn to tell for themselves, the less they need the instructions because they’re following their own inner compass to tell for themselves how to tell for themselves. The external authority becomes more clearly only an authority on their own experience, not the central source of feedback for someone else’s learning.
My friend & colleague Michael Smith, with whom I developed a lot of these ideas, left this comment on a draft of this post:
When I’ve been teaching direct-knowing through math, I emphasize this point a ton. “I become irrelevant. The knowing is yours.” “Ah, here you’re asking me a question about whether this approach makes sense. I can answer, and I’ll happily do so in a moment. But can you feel how you’re externalizing your sense of knowing? What would it take for you to be able to tell for yourself?”
In several cases the other person stops wanting to ask certain kinds of typical math-student questions even while still very clearly engaged. In one case I witnessed the euphoria of an ”I can tell for myself”-click dawning across him, and he said “Oh wow, that’s an awesome feeling!”, and after that point he could tell that I was less teaching him and more pointing out where he might want to teach himself.
I’ve seen that lovely self-untangling happen sometimes, but at least as often I’ve also seen people get mired in loops, oscillating all over the place in this paradox. And I’ve heard about these frustrations from people in both the one-who’s-remembering role and the one-who’s-reminding role (and experienced them myself in both roles).
One reason for the loops can be if the learning environment doesn’t fully recognize the ways in which the rejection of the teaching is actually a form of honoring oneself.
And one reason for that is that often the rejection is at least partially caused by some other time you took someone’s word for it. As one example that could be happening for some readers as they read this—they might experience my attempt to encourage their self-trust as a move that’s in conflict with some parental or religious or woke or rationalist propaganda they internalized that says that if you allow yourself to know what you know, you’ll commit rudeness or sin or racism or irrationality. That only some forms of thinking are okay. Another comment from Michael, reflecting on this exact issue in relation to my line above about rejection being an embodiment of direct-knowing:
Sometimes people will reject things because their autopilot memetic immune system says to reject it. Like the way people can get so stuck in materialism that anything too “woo” automatically loses value for consideration due to its aesthetic.
This means one role of an effective guru might be to highlight where the person is having a memetic allergic response. And maybe encourage them to see it from the ICTFM quality.
…which opens the doorway for fucked dynamics where rejection of the guru’s claims means you’re “resisting” because you’re having an “egoic response” or whatever.
If you have these kind of autopilot memetic immune responses happen in the context of a face-to-face dialogue in a learning community (vs a blog post you’re reading on your own) it’s possible that those around you could kind of tell that your rejection is tangled up in such an externalized sense of knowing, not a clear grounded sense of “I can tell for myself”… and since they’ve learned to trust their own sense of being able to tell for themselves where it conflicts with received knowing, they treat the distrust as invalid.
But even if the distrust is connected with something someone else told you, it still matters to you. You can still tell for yourself that there’s something you care about that you don’t see being accounted for in what the others are saying. Even if it literally is just “oh well this other person will be mad at me,” that’s still something you need to account for! Even if your superegos are full of conflicting messages. But often it’s more than that. You may not have a clear grounded experiential sense of it, but on some level you can tell that this stuff you heard—that conflicts with what the person-who-is-reminding-you-of-your-own-knowing is saying—holds some kind of wisdom, that others around you don’t understand or that the learning environment you’re in systematically discounts. You know it’s important even if you can’t articulate why. And that knowing, even if some of the details are confused and even if you’re not aware of where it comes from, is still “I can tell for myself”.
My previous paragraph contains the phrase “even if” six times, which seems like me attempting to peel layers of memetic conceptual confusion off of the sense of direct-knowing. To refuse to allow the complexity—as real and relevant as it is—to stop me from seeing that I obviously already know what I obviously already know. To take it to an absurd extreme, maybe the rest of the universe doesn’t exist and my bedroom is just a simulation? Well, even if that’s the case, I still have toes in the boring obvious “they’re right there and I’m wiggling them right now” since, and you can’t tell me otherwise. And even if what I’m seeing out the window isn’t as real as what’s in my room, I’m still know I’m seeing Twin Peaks and not the Eiffel Tower. Even if there’s so much I can’t know, I know something, and I can tell.
The point is: there’s a difference between whether it’s conscious and grounded, vs automatic and externalized… but any kind of distrust necessarily has at its roots your own sense of being able to tell for yourself. Or put another way, if the thing you’re aiming to learn is to listen to your own knowing, then you will find it by turning towards the distrust, not by taking someone else’s word for it that your distrust is missing the point.
Likewise, if you’re aiming to help others develop their capacity to listen to their own knowings—whether as a “teacher” at a “center” or just because they’re your friends and they seem stressed and you think that’d help—then even if you can tell that their distrusts or resistances are totally missing the point of what you’re attempting to convey… those distrusts are intimately connected with the person’s own knowing process, and your sense of what you’re attempting to convey is not. It’s yours.
Learning how to consistently robustly tell for oneself is about learning to listen to and integrate everything you know, including messages that may have come in duct-taped to a strong injunction against listening to yourself, but that you can tell also contain wisdom. As the research on coherence and memory reconsolidation indicates, in order for deep mind-change to happen, we need to see the partial validity of our perspectives, in first person, in order to see an even better perspective. It’s not about choosing the self-trust-based knowing, not the distrustful knowing. It’s about developing your trust in your capacity to hear all of your knowings—even the ones that negate others—and synthesizing them. The distrust is your own trust function at work.
A different generator of oscillations is when there’s a tension between staying in touch with the “I can tell for myself” and maintaining the relationship with the one-who’s-reminding (especially when that person has a bunch of power on social and pragmatic levels). This can happen if the one-who’s-remembering can (or is about to be able to) tell for themselves any things that seem to be:
And this is very disorienting because up until that point, there may have been a sense of increased connection with the one-who’s-reminding to the degree that the one-who’s-remembering is succeeding at developing their self-trust. So what started out being a barometer of success inverts and sows doubt.
And part of this is due to the relative strength of the “I can tell for myself” sense in each person, but it’s also due to how both of them are conceiving of the whole situation. My take is that to the extent that they can recognize what I’ve been pointing at in this post (and the rest of this sequence) I expect much less tension here—my main motivator for writing it!
Suppose that you resonate with what I’m pointing at but you’re in a learning context where, as far as you can tell, those around you (whether nominally teachers or peers) don’t get this. You might not trust that you could own your own sense of things without getting a lot of pushback. And whether or not that’s accurate, all of what I’ve said about trust and distrust applies here too—you want to listen to your own sense of what seems possible, and honor it, and integrate it into whatever you choose to do. It’s not for me (or anyone else) to tell you that something is talkaboutable. Someone can invite you to try, but… it’s gonna feel as workable to you as it does, no more and no less.
And in the next post, in a few days, we’ll investigate this question: 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?
Next post in sequence: The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.