The problems of humans are many. Children are dying from hunger, war, poverty, disease, and pollution of the air and water. Humanity is in trouble. Dissolution of the social units that once supported community caring, such as the family, neighborhood, tribe and village, leave nothing but the schools to teach humans how to think, how to act, how to feel. The outcome is crime, loss of hope, vulgar desires for superficial symbols of success, a corrupt political response, more hurt, drugs, unwanted pregnancies yielding unwanted children, and on, and on, and on.
And environmental degradation continues. Billions of living things that are not “us” are victimized each year as we invade the habitats upon which they depend to live. This we know. The protective ozone womb of the mother of us all has been violated by compounds that we create for our own convenience. This we know. Millions of our own species are starving and dying on our televisions, while we watch. This we know too. Thoughtful people know but don’t feel. When we are fully attentive, that is both thoughtful and feeling, the sense of confusion and despair is so great that we stop paying attention. Feeling hurts too much, so we either think without passion or just stop thinking altogether about that which we don’t want to see. We know and don’t feel, or we distract our minds with television shows we don’t really see, food we don’t taste, music we don’t hear, or shopping for things we don’t need. Our minds grow dull and our hearts grow hard from lack of exercise, and spirit wanes.
The human mind, faced with the facts of the human condition digs itself a hole and covers itself with a layer of self-deceit. While some might decry this lack of thoughtfulness, this may be the only rational thing to do with these thoughts. After all, thinking has gotten us where we are today. The act of thinking has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love. Thought has degraded ecosystems, created cycles of poverty, and allowed us to introduce poisons into our bodies that dull the pain. Thinking “alone” cannot solve the problems that thinking has created. To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond thinking, beyond reason, beyond rational thought. Thought is necessary but not enough. Thought only produces knowledge. Today we need both knowledge AND wisdom, where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life. Learning for wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart, yin and yang. Learning for wisdom will require more coherence (literally, a hanging together) than learning for knowledge. Learning for wisdom will require more education and less schooling.
Even the “best” knowledge-focused schooling today only provides learning for the head. Information is handed over to pupils in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for them to judge and reward. The interchange of information between teachers and pupils is little more than a mental handshake in which a thought is passed from an old head to a young one and back again. Like a handshake, the connection between the teacher and student is safe and brief, resulting in the transfer of information without meaning, disconnected from life. We need more than mental handshakes to learn how to solve the problems we have created. We need a connection that is deep and lasting to produce learning for the heart. To understand how more meaningful learning might occur, we should look at the early years of human growth.
The early years of learning are ones in which feeling and thinking are coupled and intelligence grows through intuitive leaps. The child learning to examine and manipulate her fingers at will is an act of raw, unguided learning. This learning experience is full of wonder and awe, a miracle of personal achievement, so different from the teachings offered in school and university. The environment of the early learning experience is one of support, challenge, caring and love. This process is coherent, in that feeling and thinking are fully intertwined. The process of coherent learning that begins with the infant is lost early in life as socialization rewards thinking and discourages feeling. Passions are buried, sometimes to explode in destructive behavior but never to be employed in a coherent learning process in which intelligent feeling is encouraged.
Thinking is necessary but insufficient to coherent learning since it suppresses the role of feeling. To understand the difference between the coherent learning of the infant and the incoherent learning of the adult, imagine an adult who has never seen the sunrise over the eastern ocean. The first time this “uneducated” adult sees the ocean sunrise might be thought of as a moment of wonder and unfiltered learning. This childlike learner might see the ever-changing depth of color in the water, the brilliant reflection of the morning sun as it dances on the crests of distant waves. She might see the majesty of the ocean swells, and hear the roar of those same swells relinquishing their power as they crash one after the other onto the beach. She might feel the spray on her face, leaving a drying crust of salt, which is the same salt of her blood. At that moment, the childlike learner might ask what or who made this monument to the wonder of the earth. At that moment she might believe in God.
Now letýs send this person to the university to study oceanography and learn about the physics, chemistry and biology of ocean systems in a classroom far from shore. When this student visits the ocean over a lifetime of study, the wonder of that first look is lost, as knowledge replaces awe. The first experience of the ocean was one of pure, coherent learning. Later perceptions of the ocean are filtered by memories, thoughts and facts acquired in the classroom. While this knowledge is useful, it is not coherent if it displaces the wonder of the first look. The learning which results from thinking alone yields a human mind capable of creating technologies or practices which pollute the ocean environment. Learning resulting from both thinking and feeling might contribute to a more balanced mind.
Our big brains seem to be particularly well adapted to retain thought (both of thinkings and feelings) through memory. This memory allows the body to repeat certain physical acts as well as to bring forward stored images into the active, living present. These images are both cognitive and emotive, with emotive being the more powerful. For example, memory of previous experiences can bring forward feelings of fear, anxiety, or happiness to affect current experience. Thought (being that which has been experienced in the past, stored in memory, and carried forward into the present) includes previous feelings and thinkings which interpenetrate each other and become hard wired into a common structure within our memories. The process of thinking and feeling not only create thought, but are themselves influenced by thought, since observations of objective reality are received through a filter of previous thinkings and feelings. Thought influences, even controls our current feelings and thinkings. While infants (or our “uneducatedý adult learner with her first look at the ocean) may be more open to new, unfiltered and coherent learning, adults are programmed to think, feel and act by “reflexive thought.”
Thought, which is the result of previous thinking and feeling, influences current thinking and feeling through an instantaneous reflexive act. Of course it is not possible to control the reflexive nature of thought, since the control will also be based on thought. But we have to wonder if it is possible to solve the problems of humanity that were created by thought, using a thinking and feeling process that itself is influenced by thought. Is it possible for “authentic” learning to happen as long as reflexive thought interferes with learning? Is the human species just a snake trying to swallow its own tail?
To break out of the circular pattern of thought controlling thinking and feeling, physicist David Bohm, approached the reflexive nature of thought by trying to understand something he called proprioception (or self-perception). This is the awareness of the internal system which controls routine activities such as eating, brushing teeth and walking. While these activities are usually “automatic”, it is a simple matter of will to shift from reflexive treatment of these acts to a more attentive awareness. If we choose to, and practice, we can become more aware of the act of brushing our teeth. The proprioception or self-awareness of the body is easily developed, if generally underutilized by most adults. Proprioception of thought on the other hand is not well- developed. If however, mind and body are one it should be possible to develop such self- perception or awareness of thought. Trying to control thought is not likely to be possible since the reflexive response is too fast, however it may be possible to suspend and observe reflexive thought (including thinking and feeling) producing what Bohm called insight. Intuitive discovery or insight is a spontaneous coherence at a level not possible through thinking alone.
Bohm proposed that it was more likely to achieve direct insight into the working of thought in group settings of twenty to forty people in a process of inquiry he called dialogue. While it is difficult to imagine a lone individual learning to become aware of their own reflexive thought process, it might be possible in a group. With practice, perhaps a group could develop a more mature and communal version of the unfiltered coherent learning experience of the infant in the dialogue process. If this was possible, we might begin to understand the complex issues of the day in a more coherent way. Then maybe, just maybe, we might be better able to create solutions together from a foundation of wisdom and build a better future.
While education is indeed the path to discovery of solutions for humanity’s problems, the incoherent teachings of the schools and universities divert us from the learning we need. We need an education of rigorous intellectual activity motivated by awe and wonder. This kind of learning should be nurtured by an environment of community caring where thinkings and feelings are both honored, and the values of happiness, health, friendship, love, justice, freedom, responsibility, democracy, and productive work are explicit, desired outcomes of coherent learning. Thought is necessary to this kind of learning, but thought “alone” (either separate from feeling) or “alone” (outside of a community) is simply not enough. Thinking and feeling must be done in the company of other humans, working and learning to heal ourselves, our communities, our planet – together.
John M. Gerber