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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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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Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

Third in a sequence. Earlier posts:

  1. “I can tell for myself”: how direct knowing is different from knowing because you took someone’s word for it.
  2. How did you forget to tell for yourself?: nobody can take this knowing from you, but they can get you out of touch with it, and here are dozens of examples of ways that happens.

This post continues the “why isn’t everybody already in touch with what they can tell for themselves?” question and highlights how in addition to all of the little moments named in the previous post, many cultures have a more background pressure against knowing what you know.


A lot of contexts require everybody, to greater or lesser degrees, to diminish either our sense of “I can tell for myself” or our honesty—where by honesty I don’t just mean “not lying” but “saying what seems true and most relevant”. In these contexts, if we name what is obvious to us, what happens is some mix of:

  • others ignore or deny it (or its relevance)
  • we get punished (socially or materially)
  • we get removed from the context

Consider the child who highlights hypocrisy in their parents or teachers, or the institutional whistleblower, or the challenge of highlighting the baselessness (let alone falseness) of assertions being made by politicians or religious leaders, or a domineering boss at work (whether the claims are about the work itself or about society). And of course in extremely oppressive regimes, saying the obvious gets people killed. And I don’t want to say these are the same, or equally bad, but they have similarities.

What do we tend to do when we’re in oppressive contexts?

If we can leave to a better alternative, and the stakes are high, we tend to leave. Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps the Score, has said “healing from trauma amounts to learning that it’s okay to know what you know and feel what you feel.” Part of why a lot of trauma occurs in childhood is that we don’t have the option (psychologically or physically) to leave. If we’re in an environment where we aren’t allowed to know what we know, and we have an option to go to one where we can, this tends to be better for us. It can be scary to leave an unhealthy relationship (even if it’s just warring blindspots, not abuse) but once we take the plunge, things do often lighten up. Part of why people stay stuck though is that there may not be a better option, and even if there is it can be hard to imagine.

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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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