22 Aug

A language skill model of “spiritual development”

Warning: this could end up being a bit preachy. I am trying really hard to stay away from the soapbox, but I am not 100% sure I managed.

For some reasons I won’t get into, in my world (more in the online version than the other one), every now and then there is a discussion on enlightenment (awakening, liberation, etc…).

For some, maybe most people, that believe that something like that means anything at all, there is the idea that it constitutes some sort of end goal. In many spiritual traditions it is also sold as that: you get there (whatever there is), and then it’s done.

End of suffering. Perfect knowledge. Unending bliss.

I personally don’t think it can work like that, if there is something in this idea of awakening.

Of course, this could just mean I am not enlightened. And I would agree, I don’t claim anything. But the models of… I will mostly use the expression spiritual development, because I need an expression, a signpost. I have problems with spiritual too, but I need to start from somewhere.

First of all, there are several models, maps of what we are talking. Daniel Ingram presents many in a book I really like, apart from the just-so-slightly bombastic name: Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. The book is available for free, and the models can be directly sampled here. (Of course, the link to the page on “Models of the Stages of Enlightenment” is broken: I guess it is the law of dukkha, suffering).

I love Ingram’s analysis of the possibilities of enlightenment. I stand by lots of his maps. What I think I disagree on is the idea that there is a final end-goal, final enlightenment.

(Mind you, the book is from 2008: from what I understand of his writings and interviews, his modern view is much more nuanced)

I guess that my stance is that, as long as we are alive, there is nothing final. Everything changes and all that. I mean: liberation, according to Ingram, is realizing at a perceptual, deeply understood level that everything changes, and there are no core unchanging things in our experience, us included (and, the way I see it, wanting things not to change, and considering them absolutes, is the source of dukkha, suffering. But don’t take my word on it)

Given this recurring conversations, I want to try to express what is my actual position, in positives, not in negatives. As much as that’s possible.

Here are my assumptions:

  • there is something that the concept of “enlightenment“, “grace”, “liberation”, “awakening”, “satori”, “kenshō”, “seeing the true nature”, “bodhi”. (I will pass on “nirvana” unless we mean experiencing the above)
  • I am talking from a perspective of practices inspired/related to Buddhism, so I am talking about that sort of development. Some days I think all traditions point to the same, some days I think there are different flavors
  • if there is something, and that something is humanly attainable, not a magical super power of mythical creatures, then I expect it to behave like other human experiences and skills. I don’t expect anything can make a human transcend “human nature”, whatever that human nature is.

Call them bias.

So, let’s see:

As said, I struggle with the idea of an “end goal” that is definite and definitive. The way I see it, the only cases of definitive “end goals” are:

  • externally given labels: “I have a degree”, “I am married”, etc. Their meaning come from a convention, there is nothing that technically changes IN the system. EG: “I turned 18 and I didn’t feel any different”
  • catastrophic changes: “death”, “a broken car”, “losing a limb”. They usually seem to deal with loss and destruction, so I would expect that’s not what we want. (Mind you, awakening is often described as giving up what was never yours, accepting that nothing will stay and that, technically, it is already gone in the future. So maybe it is a catastrophic change, but let’s not go there this time)
  • of course, there is probably something I am not thinking about.

The way I see it, while a being is alive, it will struggle. We will not “eat and be sated forever”: we will be hungry again. It’s great to enter a sauna when we are cold, it’s not so great after a while there. This is my position: if something deals with a living creature, above all with a human, change is constant. As G.Bateson pointed out, “There are no monotone “values” in biology” (I am quoting from memory). I don’t believe hunger, pain, disease, heartbreak, misunderstandings (etc) can disappear as long as we are alive.

I suspend judgment after death: my basic assumption is that what I consider “I” will be no more, but I won’t go and test it until I have to.

If this is true (and it is a big if), any liberation must happen within those constraints of being a living creature.

Given this, I see spiritual practice as a skill. It is something we practice, develop, learn, use. This way, “being awakened” should point to something in the same way “being able to drive a car” point to something. It means I can reliably do some basic, specific things.

Let’s think about driving, since most people have some experience with it, and with learning it:

  • there are situations where I would (will?) lose control. There are things I cannot do.
  • of all the people who can drive, there will be some worse than me, some better than me, in different things, depending on training, experience, interest, talent, whatever. Think bell curve (I am not saying it is a Gaussian distribution. I have no idea)
  • there is no there is nothing left to learn, I am done with driving. If there was, I guess car racing would make no sense. (Substitute with swimming/running/chess/anything that we can compete on here)
  • on the other hand, there is something like I now know enough, for now, for what I need. Doing other things becomes a better use of my time. I will still keep on driving, and probably learn something/forget something in time.

Enough with driving: I live in Berlin, I go around by bike or public transportation, I don’t like driving, and I am not very good at it.

A skill I generally use to map my ideas of spiritual development is learning (and using) a foreign language. This will of course come as a surprise to exactly no one, since it is in the title up there.

Somehow, I think it actually is a way we interact with reality/life/experience.

I’ll make my points as… points. I know it’s not the style that flows the best, but I am still trying to map my position. There are probably repetitions when I am trying to explore something from different points of view.

  • as said, we interact with reality. We both receive from it (call it perception) and act on it: in a way, we communicate with it
  • there is a big, qualitative difference between not understanding/speaking a language at all, and grasping its basics:
    reading signs, asking where the toilet is (and understanding the answer), having a basic conversation (that’s not scripted) is qualitatively different from not being able to.
  • I think everyone that tried to learn a language they needed to use (ie: not as a compulsory subject in school) knows there is something like an aha moment.
    You need a critical mass of knowledge to get there, then, with (apparently?) no more external input, no more words learned, somehow it makes sense.
    (I am referring to adult learning here. I suspect it is the same for children, but I cannot say it for sure, nor prove it)
    After that, something is different.
    It goes from being a collection of semi-understood bits to a coherent whole, where we can somehow understand how the bits are connected, and grasp meaning even with big holes in real knowledge.
    And then…
  • there is no end to knowing a language. Do you know English better than Shakespeare? What does that even mean? Was Shakespeare any good at explaining someone how to contribute to Wikipedia? What would it mean to be done learning a language?
  • in general, language is a mean to an end, that can also be a toy/an end in itself
  • there are several levels of language competence that we try to evaluate and recognize. See the European levels, from A1 to C2. In a language, I can be proficient without any certification, and it is possible that someone can somehow have a certification while not being proficient
  • sometime we want to work on the language, because we realize we need to develop something, for fun, or for some other reason. Most of the time, we just use it. When was it last time you studied the grammar of your own language?
  • it cannot really be unlearned (save for traumatic events, let’s not go there), but it can be lost if not used. It comes back pretty fast, though. Much, much faster than the time it took to acquire it
  • being skilled in a language is composed of several intervened facets: grammar, syntax, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, etc…
    I can be better at one than the other. I need a basic level in most of them to achieve proficiency, though. Some things come better, or are more interesting, to some, than to others (I love learning words and idiomatic expressions, grammar is something I try to avoid at all costs. Me tend speak like Tarzan with fancy words in most languages)
  • understanding and using are different, but connected
  • you can know a language perfectly without understanding its structure/theory
  • and, on the other hand, you can know everything about its structure/theory/origin, and not be able to have a conversation
  • knowing a language and being able to teach it are not the same thing: ask anyone that tried to teach their mother language without having studied how to do it
    (but being around people speaking/using it fluently either makes you learn, or helps learning. Just not in a structured way)
  • it is possible to learn almost passively, by exposure, playing, and using it
  • I suspect a level of obsession/deep exposure (full immersion?) is needed to get to the aha moment, to become proficient enough. At least, that has always been the case with me
  • strict rules are a big deal while learning.
    They are no big deal when proficient: creative rule breaking is part of what artistic/interesting use of language is all about.
  • learning has dips and moments when things, everything, gets worse.
    And everything related gets worse. In my case, close to the aha moment, the language I don’t master at all becomes so all-encompassing, that I become worse in all my other languages. Among the rest, it happened to me when learning new massage styles, very different programming languages, different dance techniques…
    I suspect this is what in some pragmatic meditation circles is called the “dark night” (or dukkha ñanas, if you want to impress people with esoteric knowledge): a period when everything feels terrible, very akin to a depression.
    If meditating/practicing is learning a different way of talking with reality, the moment we need to click in our new understanding is when the old ways don’t work, and everything is wrong.
    As with languages: it is a sign of progress, and of being close to something.
    I think. I trust. It is very possibly just my own narrative
  • learning a new language is a big deal in the beginning. Once you master it (see above), it’s no big deal.
  • it doesn’t take that long, if you speak a language, to understand if someone else is proficient, or just repeating things from a phrasebook. Having an official label of “mastering the language” are no substitution for probing. If you speak the language, we can speak it together. If you want me to respect you because you achieved C2, it won’t work
  • different people use the same language differently, and are interested in different things (but you need a level of shared basics if you want to communicate)
  • knowing a language can be an identity for some, just a tool/something they do/can do for others. I suspect it becomes less of a big deal as time goes by, and the more we use it and becomes normal, but I could be just projecting
  • languages evolve, both the way a person uses them, and in general. If they don’t change, they are dead.

The way I see it, all of these points apply to spiritual development as well.

Am I missing something?

Some possible pointers/questions:

  • are there several different spiritual languages? Are they dialects? Do they share a common core?
  • are there several languages to talk with reality? Are they all equivalent, do some of them work better in some situations (as is the case with programming languages)? I tend not to believe that one is always better, because everybody would be using it if they could.
  • can proficiency be evaluated? And… proficiency in what?