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A wisdom beyond knowing

We were spending a few days between Christmas and New Year in a tiny hamlet at the foot of abrupt, rocky mountains in the French pre-Alps. Just three old farm-houses - once abandoned, now partly rebuilt - over a kilometre down a snow-covered track through a forest to the nearest habitation. The whole area is dotted with such isolated hamlets. And there must have been many more. If you pick your way through the abandoned forest along overgrown paths, amongst the giant rocks that have come to rest against bent trees, you'll come across the moss-covered foundations of other even more isolated homesteads. I imagine that exchange and commerce between such hamlets must have been extremely limited a few centuries ago. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Staying in such a place makes you realise how much culture and the development of knowledge as we have come to understand them were dependent on the rise of urban structures characterised by the presence of a large number of people, the intense interaction and commerce between them as well as the physical structure of the towns themselves.

The apparent loss of connectedness

At the same time, in the massive move to towns and cities together with the rise in the use of semi-automated machines and the spread of materialist thinking, our knowledge of nature, not so much in scientific terms, but more in a practical as well as in an all-embracing spiritual sense, was progressively occulted. Was that the price we had to pay for developing our industrial wellbeing, our scientific knowledge and our highly sophisticated culture?

I stand alone in the middle of a forest. The cold wind circles through the branches above my head while the sun pierces palely the conifers casting warmer patches here and there. An enormous silence fills me with peace and quiet, with a sense of belonging that goes unheard in the bustle and noise of the town. Breaking the silence, a bird takes off from a nearby branch and passes low over my head and away out into the valley. Its unexpected movement sends a series of waves rippling through my whole body as if the wings had flapped within me. No need to ask myself anymore where the magic has gone. It is here, in me.

It is intriguing to see how commercial interests have capitalised on underlying, unsatisfied desires for the inexplicable and the magical with a multitude of films, TV series and books. Yet do these products raise our awareness of the transcendent or the inexplicable? Do they increase our understanding? Or do they play on a deep-seated thirst that they would have us believe they quench? How could they satisfy that desire when, in wishing to sell their wares, they set out to create a never-ending fascination?

Is there not a wider "knowing" that does not cut us off from the miraculous and the simply beautiful, one that satisfies our natural desire for the transcendent? According to Systemics - an approach that looks at the processes in and between complex systems - properties emerge at a certain level of complexity that did not exist at lower levels. Applied to the fact of knowing, what would be the emergent properties of our understanding of the world if we were to move to a more all-embracing, interconnected level of knowledge?

The idea here is to try to get a glimpse of how knowing might be if it were to shift to a more embracing level of consciousness. A difficult exercise, you'll have to admit. All the more so in that the way I am approaching the question here may well render that all-embracing knowledge inaccessible. There are however a great number of insights to be gained from personal experience, not to mention the wealth of writings about transcendent experiences, religious practices and spiritual quests. The following are fragments of what must in fact be an undivided whole.

Confused with information

Knowledge in the modern networked society has become confused with information. In so doing, instead of extending our knowledge, we are in fact greatly restricting our ability to know. This may seem absurd. Surely the more information we have the more we know. This is certainly the credo of advocates of the so-called "Information Society". Seen in qualitative terms, however, this is clearly not the case. First of all, knowing in terms of information is already a severe qualitative limitation of our potential ways of knowing which embrace other forms of knowledge that cannot readily be expressed as information. Secondly, knowing in terms of information as expressed online, despite claims to be potentially all-embracing, is not in any way transcendent in the sense that knowing is being talked about here. Finally, the ever-growing mass of information acts as a continual distraction, if not a deafening noise, that blocks out more subtle forms of knowing.

As I make my way along the narrow forest path, a deer jumps out from behind a bush. Startled by the unexpected movement, birds rise noisily into the air only to settle in a neighbouring tree. Calm reigns anew. If you listen carefully to the silence, a whole universe opens its doors. Did not the Bible say "Let those who have ears hear"? Yet it is not in the sounds that the secret lies, but in the silence.


Knowledge is generally equated with certainty. Knowledge is what we know and through the quest for knowledge we seek to reduce uncertainty to a minimum even if that implies ignoring or refusing the unknown or the supposedly unknowable. What would be the impact on our daily lives of a more integrative form of "knowing" that allowed as much room for uncertainty as certainty in our understanding of the world?

The "convenience" of modern life, as far as knowing is concerned, is that much of what we do has been reduced to the predictable. As a result we think less if at all about the "repetitive" things we do and can concentrate on our thoughts. The only problem is that the more we attempt to explain, the more the uncertain and the inexplicable cross our paths. Imagine the immense relief we'd expereince if we were to ease up on our drive to explain.

I stand still in the early mist, my feet firmly planted on the dried up leaves and moss, my eyes closed. Turning my attention inwards to my feet and beyond into the ground below, my roots grow, pushing steadily downwards and out. Above the wind comes to visit, frolicking with the nearby trees as my soul soars to greet it.


How could we possibly decide in a world without certainty? Would we be able to act? There is something in these apparently self-evident questions that calls for further thought. We decide on the basis of what we consider to be relative certainties. At the same time the course of action we chose is based on the calculation, the hope or the belief that the outcomes will be those we expect. But can we be certain? What if there were no such thing as certainty, and all our decisions were based on an illusion?

It might seem a silly question, but why do we need to intervene? Making decisions has to do with the feeling that without our intervention things will not turn out as we'd like. We imagine ourselves as the prime movers amongst living things. Science and technology have played an important role in making us see ourselves and our machines as the keys to change. It is in our decisions that we have confidence - even if there is sufficient proof that what we do rarely leads us where we expect. Opening wide the door to uncertainty would require having much greater confidence that things would sort themselves out on their own; that there is a higher natural order of which we are but a part. It would also need us to overcome our fear of the unknown. Would not that very confidence and the consequent dissolution of our fear of the unknown be part of the emergent characteristics of a more embracing way of knowing?

Wending their way breathlessly up a steep path through the forest, the successive stations of the cross culminate at the foot of the cliffs in a cave overlooked by a carved statue of Jesus on the cross nailed to the rock. A stream flows noisily from the depths of the cave, passed a benevolent wooden Madonna smiling shyly at Jesus, only to bubble out over broken rocks and down into the valley below. I plunge my hands in the snow-cold water, more solid than liquid. Behind its noisy, turbulent surface, a deep-seated calmness fills it with life. Little wonder people say this stream can heal.

Beyond duality

Another facet of extended knowledge is the transcending of duality. As far as knowing is concerned the prime opposition must be between "me" and the rest. Other oppositions include that of good and evil, and body and mind. Opposites mutually maintain each other. Although it may well sound shocking, the fight for good to a certain extent creates evil. One of the emergent characteristics of a more embracing form of knowing would entail the dissolution of such oppositions.

As I stand alone by the stream engrossed in its discrete concert, a cavern opens in my chest to let the water flow through. The stream is in me and I am in the stream. We are one and I am at one with the whole universe. You might think such an experience would be a fearful loss-of-self. Not at all. It is exquisite, the source of all quests. I remain myself, yet I have joined or should I say rejoined the whole universe. .

Alan McCluskey, Le Chable and St-Blaise Share or comment
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Created: March 14th, 1999 - Last up-dated: March 14th, 1999