Creative Discussion using Plain Pair Groups

Creative Discussion – a key to insight and change

William Plain
Emeritus Professor, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies

Plain Pair Group Teaching (Plain PGT)
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Plain Pair Group Discussion (Plain PGD)
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Awareness Training in Learning and Teaching

Chapter 7

From awareness to insight

The inner dimension of wholeness

The greater part of human intellectual endeavour up to the present age has been based on the assumption that man’s experience of himself is the central ‘voie royale’ to an understanding of the way in which he functions, especially on the mental plane. Although it is true that in disciplines such as biochemistry, a study of the physical elements of man has in large part come to be separated from this essential anthropomorphism, all that pertains to consciousness, to knowledge and to learning has nevertheless remained strictly anthropocentric.

A very influential avant-garde movement in modern physics however has come to view the entire structure of the universe, mental or physical, as based on a unitary field whose primary attributes are consciousness and meaning. The physical universe is aware, neither of itself nor of other, because this implies separation, but simply aware7. At this point there is no room left for a strictly anthropocentric consciousness. ‘Our’ consciousness is a derived consciousness. An understanding of awareness as participation in a universal field is not something which is necessarily abstract and unattainable. On the contrary it is of vital practical importance to an understanding of the functioning of awareness and therefore of the means by which it functions in the classroom.

This approach to the field of the ‘anthropos’ has thus created a new culture in which the primary reality to be always taken into consideration is the wholeness of the universal field. To put it in crude layman’s terms, everything is part of everything else, and everything interreacts with each and every other part of that field (of the universe that is – incredible as it may seem to our ego-encapsulated world view).

This concept of awareness as implying an ontological subordination of the ego to a deeper holistic substratum of the self is reflected in the writings of Prof. David Bohm (Emeritus Prof. of Experimental Physics at Bircbeck College) who worked in close liaison with Krishnamurti. His concept of the ‘implicate order’ (Bohm 1980:206) places the origin of all creativity, and ultimately of all reality, in a domain which is independent of space and time, in a noumenal field, from which our ego-centred consciousness, and indeed the totality of our phenomenological reality, is derived. The ‘implicate order’ is opposed to ‘our’ experience of personal thought and apparent separation in time and space. He says that, due to memory, we tend to ‘focus our attention very strongly on what is static and fragmented’ (idem p. 206). This represents the derived ‘explicate order’, and thus we ‘do not generally notice the primacy of the implicate order’, based on continual movement. ‘The more transitory and subtle features of the unbroken flow’ of the implicate order can best be perceived in music and is experienced in early childhood as ‘fundamentally much more immediate and direct’. Here Bohm suggests that theories developed primarily in the field of physics can be applied directly to learning theory, saying that

‘Piaget has made it clear that a consciousness of what to us is the familiar order of space, time, causality, etc. (which is essentially what we have been calling the explicate order) operates only to a small extent in the earliest phase of life of the human individual. .. For the most part infants learn this content.’ (idem p. 206)

  To refer back to the previous discussion on paradigms in awareness training, it could then be said that all experience based on ‘time, space and causality’ represents but a replaceable paradigm of our relationship with the world of experience and knowledge. Ruyer, in his description of the Neo-gnostic movement in science (his bibliography of neo-gnostics and their precursors covers physics, cosmology, biology and psychology – and B.L. Whorf) talks of the ‘right-side’ (l’endroit) of the conscious universe to which our consciousness of the physical ‘wrong-side’ (l’envers) owes its existence (Ruyer 1974:58).

Awareness as it occurs within an individual is by nature a very active, dynamic form of activity, and while the ‘seat’ of awareness is phenomenologically felt to be within the mind of the individual, in many ways it has a ‘tentacular’ quality which means that it is difficult to decide what is ‘inside’ and what is ‘outside’. Awareness is in some respects a form of listening to or receiving from what is felt to be ‘other’. This ‘other’ can be a hidden source of knowledge within one’s psychic depths, and is perhaps best attributed to the holistic field of self of which the conscious ego is the reflection. There is in fact something decidedly trans-personal in the functioning of awareness, such that its presence often depends on the presence of others, either physically or by the medium of what they have said or written, which makes awareness ‘all on one’s little own’ rather difficult to sustain.

While I have attempted to give a brief indication of a few of the central ideas that can perhaps be directly applied to learning theory, a deeper study of this field would take me beyond the scope of a book such as this, and must be left for future epistemological meanderings. The discussion to this point however provides an essential understanding for the development of the following two sections, with which I conclude this book. These sections represent in a way an attempt to ‘break the boundaries of paradigmatic limitation’ produced by the creation of the paradigm called ‘awareness’.



The Subject of awareness

In the case of ‘straight learning’ it could be said that most forms of learning are mental activities which in a sense part from what is normally perceived as the conscious self or the ego, i.e. it is the person who is learning who imparts the primary motion to the learning process, and who maintains this primacy throughout the process. The object of one’s learning is perceived as enjoying a certain autonomy from the learner. It is as though the person acquiring that knowledge has to reach out and take hold of it, bring it into himself, organise it within his mental structure and store it there. He himself is the centre of the learning action.

In awareness the opposite seems to be the case. There has to be an initial movement towards the state of awareness on the part of the person, but this does not appear to be linked to the ‘willful’ element that is involved in learning. Rather it is as if he has simply to open his eyes, to see. Apart however from this sine qua non state of openness to the phenomena concerned, it is as though the object of one’s knowledge (internal or external) becomes in a way a subject, as though it is the object of knowledge itself which takes on the primary active role of furnishing to the conscious mind the structure and organisation of the awareness state. In awareness the person perceives a given state as pre-existing, as something that is there, that he only has to ‘become aware of’. The centre of gravity shifts outside of this perceived centre of self (that part from which normal consciousness appears to emanate – his ego in Jung’s terms).

It can thus be seen that when awareness is conceived as being a form of passive receptivity in relation to an external source of knowledge, this does not need to be distinguished from the personal awareness which has as its subject (point of origin) one’s own inner ontological depths. The only distinction that can be made between an inner ‘subject’ of awareness and an outer one (in ultimate terms) is the artificial dividing line that our present culture imposes on our experience of our inner versus outer world.

The practical importance of this is seen in the insistence of Steven Smith that awareness passes primarily through the interaction of a group of people actively involved in the same awareness raising endeavour.

“Because the dialogue seems to be the action of the community for the community, it’s the action of everybody for everybody, like as if there were a kind of invisible thread passing through. This quality of dialogue, this quality of communion, seems to be that quality which can generate intelligent action, rather than just individualistic action to which our society, perhaps particularly Western society, is very prone, and which in fact seems to be becoming more and more exaggerated. .. Our attempt is in fact to de-emphasise that and to generate something together, which seems to be of prime importance in fact for the future not only of these people here but for the future of the planet.” (Steven Smith)

This was reflected also in Chapter 3 where I claimed that awareness training involves the teacher in an essential manner, and can in no way be seen as a ‘doing’ by the teacher, where the object of his doing is the student in his class. The teacher is as much a part of and involved in the dynamics of coming to awareness as is the student.

It is not just a joint venture but one in which all participants are indissolubly part of a unitary dynamic field. It is that field which is active, its so-called actors are caught up in it, and do nothing other than see, than open their eyes to those elements of the holistic reality which is the real subject of the coming to awareness. Each person is there to discover that which is, to increase his understanding and participation in whatever small part of that whole is permitted him by the limitations inherent in his ego-centred consciousness.

If this can be seen as a breaking of the barriers of ‘psychological space’, it can also provide the basis for an attempt at going beyond ‘psychological time’ and extending this research into a realm which represents a deep sense of freedom. I will attempt to develop this in the next section, where I will base my discussion on the writings of Krishnamurti, who inspired the Brockwood Park School at Bramdean, Hampshire. Steven Smith, one of the interviewees quoted in this book, was for many years the director of studies of Brockwood Park, an international secondary school which gives to the development of an individual and critical awareness a central explicit role in its curriculum. The continuing emphasis of Krishnamurti to think for oneself, to accept nothing on authority, including his own, provides a ‘fulcral’ point for any approach to the study of awareness ‘training’.


Beyond awareness

Time, seen as chronological time, has little relation to the inner processes of human experience. The only time with which we have any direct contact is psychological time; even chronological time is experienced within a psychological dimension. Psychological time is based on the experience of ‘I-ness’ which is slowly developed during childhood through the gradual accumulation of intertwining memories and their gradual condensation into a network which is consistent with the dominant cultural and linguistic concept of self. The ego then is intimately bound up with the experience of time, and this limits us to knowledge and acquisition of knowledge which can be perceived through time. Awareness however leads out of this dimension, and ‘insight’ can be seen as the form of learning which is independent of time, and thus of thought.

‘Insight comes into being when there is no time. Thought – which is based on memory, experience, knowledge – that is the movement of time as becoming. We are talking of psychological and not chronological time. We are saying to be free of time implies insight. Insight, being free of time, has no thought.’ (Krishnamurti & Bohm 1985:74)

Insight is a restructuring of the relationships among concepts and experiences held in the mind. It is immediate and so beyond the restrictions of psychological time and space. It is a vital renewing of thought patterns and even of memory (we see the past in a different way), it has the capacity of modifying our conception of the world and thus produces an automatic change in our relationship to the world. Insight therefore is action. It doesn’t require a further decision stage. As our relationships are altered by insight, so the situation is by that very fact different.

When you have an insight about e.g. language, you don’t have to subsequently go through a process of learning: the insight is in itself an awareness of that grammatical relationship or whatever. The state of awareness that triggers insight is thus a direct way to learning, or rather to acquisition, as there is no effort in the act of insightful acquisition as is implied by the concept of learning.

‘Insight is not the careful deduction of thought, the analytical process of thought or the time-binding nature of memory. It is perception without the perceiver; it is instantaneous. From this insight action takes place. From this insight the explanation of any problem is accurate, final and true. There are no regrets, no reaction. It is absolute. ... Insight is holistic. Holistic implies the whole, the whole of the mind. The mind is all the experience of humanity, the vast accumulated knowledge with its technical skills, with its sorrows, anxiety, pain, grief and loneliness. But insight is beyond all this. ... Insight is not a continuous movement. It cannot be captured by thought. Insight is supreme intelligence and this intelligence employs thought as a tool.’ (Krishnamurti 1981:63-64)

Thought then, the material, sequential, memory-based activity of thought, is the primary obstacle to insight. This does not mean that, when we take away thought, there is nothing left but an imbecilic void. ‘Thought’ is a tool, it is a mental construct, among many other possible ones. It is based on experience, but is, in the final analysis, our interpretation of our psychological experience, and any interpretation, as any model, is but an attempt at explaining something which is beyond our ken. The model then becomes a limitation on our knowledge and future capacity for creative adaptation.

In order to go beyond these limitations, it is necessary to find ways of reaching a form of silent attentiveness such as is present when we are confronted with something which ‘captures’ our attention completely and momentarily ‘turns off’ the ever present circulation in the mind of memories, thoughts and judgements. (Thus my earlier emphasis on the need for considering ‘interest’ and ‘curiosity’ as a fundamental aspect of the learning process – see p. 10).

‘How do we touch the human brain? ... The moment you see the importance of not being occupied – see that as a tremendous truth – you will find ways and methods to help educationally, creatively. To have insight there must be silence.’ (Krishnamurti & Bohm 1985: 201-203)

Each individual must release in himself a wellspring of individual creativity. There can be no set path to follow. ‘No-one can be told, copy and imitate, for then he is lost.’ (idem p. 202) There must be no sense of oppression or stress (see discussion on anxiety pp. 30-33). ‘Silence’ comes rather from freeing the mind of that endemic conditioning produced by continuing reliance on thought and acquisition of knowledge, normally considered as the only viable means towards mental and professional growth. What then are the ways in which such a state can come about? (My words at this stage cannot match those of Krishnamurti, and I will quote at length his approach to ‘insight training’).

‘Watching and listening are a great art – watching and listening without any reaction, without any sense of the listener or the see-er. By watching and listening we learn infinitely more than from any book. Books are necessary, but watching and listening sharpen your senses. .. When there is this simple, clear watching and listening, then there is an awareness. ... It does not mean (we) are to be self-centred in (our) watching, in (our) awareness, but just be aware. ...

‘We like freedom to choose; we think freedom is necessary to choose – or, rather, that choice gives us a sense of freedom – but there is no choice when you see things very, very clearly.

‘And that leads us to an awareness without choice – to be aware without any like or dislike. When there is this really simple honest, choiceless awareness it leads to another factor, which is attention. ... Watching, awareness, attention, are within the area of the brain, and the brain is limited – conditioned by all the ways of past generations, the impressions, the traditions and all the folly and the goodness of man. So all action from this attention is still limited, and that which is limited must inevitably bring disorder.

When one is attentive to all this, choicelessly aware, then out of that comes insight (my emphasis). Insight is not an act of remembrance, the continuation of memory. Insight is like a flash of light. You see with absolute clarity, all the complications, the consequences, the intricacies. Then this very insight is action, complete. In that there are no regrets, no looking back, no sense of being weighed down, no discrimination. This is pure, clear insight – perception without any shadow of doubt. ... Insight is outside the brain, if one can so put it. It is not of time. It is not of remembrance or of knowledge, and so that insight and its action changes the very brain cells. That insight is complete and from that completeness there can be logical, sane, rational action.

‘This whole movement from watching, listening, to the thunder of insight, is one movement, it is not coming to it step by step. It is like a swift arrow. And that insight alone can uncondition the brain, not the effort of thought which is determination, seeing the necessity for something; none of that will bring about total freedom from conditioning. All this is time and the ending of time. Man is time-bound and that bondage to time is the movement of thought. So where there is an ending to thought and to time there is total insight. Only then can there be the flowering of the brain. Only then can you have a complete relationship with the mind.’ (Krishnamurti 1987:72-74)

In order to reach the state where insight can function freely, it is important to recognise the various elements of which it is ‘composed’. As insight is immediate and self-generating, it cannot be said that there are ‘methods’ by which it can be trained for. However there are predisposing elements implicit in the dynamics of insight which can be individuated, such as ‘watching, awareness and attention’. In this sense, awareness can be seen as a predisposing factor for insight. Awareness nevertheless pertains to that part of the mind which is still limited by the sensation of individual psychological space. Awareness may well reach out into non-personal space, but it is ‘insight’ which represents that which is within the realm of total freedom and therefore beyond that time and space which form our thought/memory dominated perception of the world around and within us. Isolating the methods or rather the predisposing factors which can lead an individual, or a class, towards the freedom implicit in the state of insight is beyond the reaches of this book or of my present capacities. It does however represent a possible direction for reflection and personal research which could well produce some very fascinating ... insights.

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