Grok: A Lever Against Robotic Thinking

“Grok” is a great word, that I don’t think gets enough usage. I like it for a great many reasons, not the least of which is that my good friend John Sherman, the man who said the words that ‘clicked’ for me and ended my spiritual search, uses it in his talks.

Grok came to us first from the Robert A. Heinlein novel, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In that book, the term is defined thus: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”

In modern, common use, it has come to mean something like: “We connect in understanding beyond the level of common-sense knowledge and exchange of language signals.” It means to pass understanding in a direct way. Something like the “mind-to-mind transmission of the dharma” in Zen Buddhism. Webster’s dictionary defines the term this way: “to understand profoundly and intuitively”.

I think the word fits for us because we have all had this experience at one time or another. A moment where meaning crystallizes within our being as a sudden grasp of what is now obvious. I had one of these moments when learning how arrays work in the computer programming language Basic. No matter how many times it was explained, how my teachers put it, how many examples of code I perused, I just couldn’t get it. I could make it work, and make my programs utilize this important functionality, but it made no intuitive sense. Then one day, one of my teachers used the metaphor of a dresser with a set of drawers. The whole thing gelled in my mind. I grokked arrays. They made total sense from that day forward, and I have never gotten confused around their basic structure, nor the many types of databases that depend on this concept. This grokked concept has served me quite well in my professional career.

For this type of use alone, I think the word grok is quite handy.

Another useful thing about the word is it reminds us of the limitations of our language. During normal education, it’s easy to become entrenched in the idea that language captures reality. That what can be said is real. It’s easy to loose site of the fact that language is always, and merely, an abstraction. Language only ever represents, it is not the thing spoken. As Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory.” Or, as Alan Watt said more wistfully, “The menu is not the meal.” A lot of work has been done in the quest for a perfect language. Ludwig Wittgenstein showed why this is impossible. In a nutshell, a perfect language would be one where communication was never flawed. There could never be any double-meanings. Every separate thing, including each and every 2007 Ford Taurus SE ever produced would have to have a separate word to designate it so that no two cars could ever be confused. Such a language would be many orders of magnitude more complex than reality itself, and no brain would be able to contain it. Whenever we use language, we must admit to a certain degree of approximation. This is especially so in English, which is, after all, not so much a language as it is an alleyway mugging of four other languages. In English it is possible to spell “fish” as “ghoti”, “gh-” as in “tough”, “o-” as in “women”, and “ti-” as in “nation.” “Ghoti” = fish. Then there are all the words that have more than one meaning, such as “chair”, “stand”, “pen”, etc. In such a language, it is good to keep reminders ready to hand that language is just a rough tool for getting across meaning.

Another great thing about the word “grok” is the type of connection it points to. The term indicates the most successful occasions of an attempt at communication. It points at those moments when two people are in exact mutual understanding, simpatico, and shared viewpoint. As social creatures, we yearn for these moments where we can say we are on the same page. When that happens, we can trust our capacity to work together and to thrive. It’s a beautiful thing.

Lastly, there is a mystery to the word “grok.” It contains a hinted at meaning that is not available in any human language. In this way, it forever holds a space we can go to beyond the limitations of all of our language. It shows us what we can strive for, beyond what we have been to date.

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