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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Know That You Are Using Your Words

A while ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson pissed me off. Let me first say that I have immense respect for Neil. I consider myself a fanboy of his. However, no one is perfect. Not even the Tyson.

People who follow Mr. Tyson will know that he has no love of philosophy and philosophers. I think he would echo the words of Steve Martin in saying, “That shit can really fuck you up.” (In fact, I think Neil paraphrased that very bit in one of his interviews.) He often goes on about how studying philosophy is a waste of time when you could be studying science. On the day he pissed me off whoever, the example he used wasn’t even philosophy. He used the example of the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That doesn’t come from philosophy, strictly speaking. It comes from Buddhism in general and Zen in specific. It is not a question to be answered. It’s a statement meant to stop the student’s mind for a moment. In other words, it’s not philosophy, it’s more like psychology. This stuck in my craw, but I didn’t quite realize why until today.

You see, I am veteran of many conversations where people claim that Buddhism is a religion, and then I (which is typical of most Buddhists, from what I’ve seen) answer something like, “Well, sort of, but not really. It’s more of a philosophy.” But on the other hand, I have also had many conversations where people make the claim that Buddhism is a philosophical system, and the context of the conversation made me say, “Well, sort of, but it’s a bit more like a system of psychology.” In these different conversations, I was correct(ish) for as far as those conversations went. But, this begs the question: What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Yes, in a way. Is it a philosophy? Yes, in a way. Is it a system of psychology? Yes, in a way. Sort of. Kinda.

The trouble here is not with Buddhism being schizophrenic. The problem is not with Buddhism being very varied depending on the cultural context it lands in. (Though that is part of it.) The real culprit is me. I forgot I was using English. Buddhism predates English. By a lot. It started out mostly in the Pali language, then migrated to where Chinese was more popular, did a foray into Tibetan, then got some Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese in there long before it got any English. What I am saying is that the difficulty is not that Buddhism is hard to identify. The issue is that English does a poor job of identifying Buddhism.

I am not going to suggest a better way to refer to Buddhism and Buddhist practices and techniques in English. Frankly, I don’t have one. My point is that our language can very easily prejudice us against concepts and distinctions from cultures in another language group. Terence McKenna used to say that language is thought, and your thought can’t evolve faster than your language does. Language is what you have to think with. It’s best to not let that become a limitation on your exposure to the wider world of ideas floating in the human space.

So, it would appear that Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes me think deeply, even when he pisses me off.

Being mindful of your words can help you to stop the little buggers from biting off more than they can chew.

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To Dream To Be Human


One of the things that happens when you spend a lot of time observing your own process is you get sensitive to those times when you make a big turn on your own path.

These often come along with some external event which opens our paradigm to a new possibility. Or, they come as an insight, or epiphany, that does the same thing.

I’ve recently had one of those insights. Not surprisingly it came to me during meditation. It has to do with the realms of consciousness we all have access to.

I’ve written about these before, but in a nutshell: According to lots of long term traditions that humans who look into such things, we have access to certain, distinct, realms of consciousness.

First is the Gross realm of physical things. Rocks, bodies, tennis shoes, and so on. It’s also called the Waking state since it’s the state we encounter when we are awake and walking about.

Next is the Subtle realms of ideas, images, impressions. It’s also called the Dreaming state, the one we go to nightly when we go to sleep. We also step into this realm when we day dream or contemplate while awake.

Then comes the Causal state. This is the blank space of potential. That which everything that could be stands upon. It’s also called the Deep Sleep state. This is where we go in our sleep cycles after we have dropped through dreaming. Everything at that point is “gone”. The only thing that is encountered is nothing.

Some of the traditions push these states further in accord with the findings of deeply dedicated explorers of these realms. The lineage of meditators who sit in caves for years on end and accumulate five, ten, or even twenty thousand hours of time on the cushion.

These “hard core” types have discovered, and mapped out, two further realms of consciousness.

The “fourth” realm is referred to in Hindu thought as exactly that, “turiya”, a word that means fourth state. This is the “pure consciousness” which observes, or witnesses the arising of the other three. This state can be confirmed by both non-meditators and advanced meditators. For non-meditators this can be confirmed by being awoken during deep sleep. Perhaps a sudden sound in the environment, or your room mate coming home late, or a fire alarm going off. If there was absolutely no consciousness present in you when you are in the causal state of deep sleep, then you would not note the experience that woke you. Advanced meditators often get to the point in their practice where their conscious awareness continues through all three states above. Meaning they are aware that they are aware even in deep sleep, despite nothing happening to notice.

The fifth state is referred to as turiya-tita, “beyond the fourth.” This state subsumes all four other states. Words fall short here, so we’ll just move along.

Since these states are so often described in an order of some sort, it’s easy to become locked into thinking that order is concrete. Ken Wilber, in his work with the Integral Model points out part of this stuck tendency. Many of the ancient traditions hold hard to the scheme that you get the gross realm before the subtle, then the causal, and so on. Some refer to an inversion of this order as the original creation myth; meaning that “God” sifts down into causal existence, which then sifts down into subtle existence, and finally shows up in gross existence as rocks, plants, and so on.

The issue is that the gross state is there as a framework throughout all the other states, as we humans experience them. Your body does not go away when you drop into deep sleep, for example. We also day dream while wide awake, just before we stub our toe on a gross plane coffee table. So these realms of existence then do not stack on top of each other, but rather they inter-penetrate each other.

So, back to my insight. I had been locked into relating to these realms in a stacked way that had the point of my human experience be at either end. I think that is missing the mark, because what we humans do that is radically unique to us has to do with what we do with our dreams.

Alfred Korzybski, father of General Semantic, suggested that one of the key things that makes humans unique among the species we know is what he called “time-binding.” We pass our knowledge, our culture, our technology, our dreams, from one generation to the next. We do this with language, story, and information storage techniques such as the printed word. This enables us to advance in ways that other species simply cannot. Animals do pass on acquired skills through the generations, but with no where near our speed and integrity.

Another unique thing about being human is that we are the “tool using ape.” We are not alone in that in the species that we share this planet with, but because of our capacity to time-bind we are orders of magnitude beyond what other species can muster.

We craft tools with which to craft our environment, our world. We build things conceived in our dreams.

In short: We humans bring the possibilities existing in the subtle realm into the gross realm.

We are world crafters who use the raw stuff of the dream space as templates for altering the worlds we choose to live in. There is an old saying that, “Life imitates art”, and I think that is precisely true. Life, the life we humans make for ourselves, comes from the dreams we have, the things we imagine. When a piece of art, a story, or a entertainment captures our hearts we find a way to make it real.

What are cell phones if not Star Trek communicators? What are smart phones, if not tricorders? The works in fiction pre-sage our works in science and invention because they come from the same source. The subtle realm of dreams, images, and ideas.

I think this is what we humans do most and best. We are explorers, first and foremost, of our dreams. I have a strong allergy to what I call the “human-o-centric” view, the philosophical position of putting humans as central to the reason for reality being the way it is. So, that gets me to wonder about portions of our perceived reality that seem to only be there because we can perceive them. With regards to the subtle realm, it does not seem like such a realm had any impact on reality here before some form of life came along that could access it. Meaning life with a brain capable imagining, and dreaming. Before there were creatures that could dream, the subtle realm seems meaningless. It’s really a chicken and egg issue, of course, but it makes me wonder.

Is the subtle realm some sort of “intrusion” onto our reality by another order of reality? Is it the case that the subtle realm represents a different dimension slowly coming into contact with ours? It makes me consider Terence McKenna’s idea of the “transcendental hyper-space object at the end of time.” The idea is that evolution, and the accumulation of novelty within our reality, is not a matter of pushing from the past, but rather being pulled from the future. In other words, we are under the influence of an attractor which is pulling us toward it, slowly transforming us as it does so. The fall, like one caused by the gravity of a massive object, is accelerating. Evolution is accelerating.

So, perhaps what is happening is that we are falling, ever more deeply, into the subtle realm. As we do so, this gross realm is being converted to comply with the dream. We re-shape the world in our own image.

Perhaps this is the “alien invasion” so often conjured up in science fiction and the hopes and prayers of UFO enthusiasts. Not the arrival of a new species, but rather the arrival of a new dimension of possibility.

The reverse is possible, of course. It may not be a case of the subtle realm descending on us. It may be a case of us elevating into it. From a relativity perspective this is the same thing. From a functional standpoint though, the difference is interesting and brings up different questions.

It’s those kind of questions that I have been pondering since my view on the realms of consciousness got shaken up. I find the image of the human as an explorer of the depths of the dream space, shaping the reality we live in to match up with what we find very compelling.

What do you think?