I love learning. And I’m not the only one.
From about the age of 4 or 5, I considered my set of Encyclopaedia Brittanica my best friend. I spent my free time soaking up all the information I possibly could. My mother used to reward my good behaviour with trips to the public library, which I would leave with armfuls of books—mostly non-fiction—to mine the depths of available knowledge on those topics from the Brittanica that I found particularly interesting. I had no idea that much of the world ascribed some kind of functional intention to knowledge. I simply wanted to know things.
Yet in the years I spent with my (proudly unbookish) yoga teacher Alan Finger, I worked deliberately to eschew the cerebral impulses of my youth in favour a more intuitive, energetic approach. And while that time certainly served me, the past couple of years have refreshed my intellectual zest, and I have been working to cultivate a marriage between the spontaneous and the academic aspects of myself. I now have no shame in embracing my place amongst the jnãna-yogis, the (extremely sexy) nerds of the yoga community. Acquiring a new piece of knowledge gives me an ineffable sense of satisfaction. And whether you know it or not, it does the same to you.
In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson reminds us that as animals evolve, natural selection tends to favour individuals that enjoy activities which increase their chances for survival. Dogs love to dig and to chew. Cats love to scratch. And human beings love to learn. (He also argues that we love to run which, for personal reasons, I am less eager to defend...) In exercising our minds, we experience funktionslust, and with very good reason. Historian Yuval Noah Harari points out in his phenomenal and successful book Sapiens that the average ancient hunter-gatherer had a slightly larger brain than our contemporaries tend to have. And yes, this would imply that they were actually smarter, on an individual level, than the average human being today. As Harari submits, the amount of knowledge necessary to survive in pre-agricultural times defies what we can fathom.
Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures…Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these skills required years of apprenticeship and practice.
Hence, for the vast majority of our existence as a species, our very survival hinged upon our ability to learn as much as humanly possible. The uncanny upshot of all this knowledge was that, on average, our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably only “worked” for about three to six hours a day. So they were intelligent not only in terms of how much they knew and the number of skills they acquired—they were also smart enough to know that they could get everything they needed in life by working half the amount of time as those of us who live in affluent societies do now. The original human was a highly-effective polymath; yet as Harari explains, the agricultural revolution turned our species into overworked specialists, our shrinking brains bound to bodies which were bound to the same plots of land, which were in turn beholden to the mercy of the gods.
Fast-forward several thousand years, and we arrive at an age where the amount of information we can potentially learn is genuinely overwhelming. But as our continuation as a species does not depend as much on the individual’s desire to learn, a whopping proportion of us seem to have abandoned our cognitive funktionslust entirely. So many in our species seem not to have much interest in or even respect for facts or reality. In the lead-up Britain’s EU referendum last year, prominent Brexiteer Michael Gove said that the British people had “had enough of experts.” Ironically, and nevertheless rather tellingly, this man served for five years as Secretary of State for Education. America has of course created an even more obvious manifestation of humanity’s confusion about the relevance of reality by choosing for the presidency a reality television star who appears to have a very tenuous relationship with reality. If you have ever wondered why it has turned out this way, let these numbers speak for themselves:
This infographic (which made me cry when I first saw it in December), paints the picture of a human race frustrated in its own neglect of a fundamental instinct. Luckily, it also shows us a way out—and so do the ancient yoga texts. The early Upanishads give knowledge and intelligence pride of place on the path to bliss. The Taittirīya Upanishad, composed around the 6th century BCE, delineates a system known as the koshas: the “sheaths,” or layers, which constitute each of us like a series of Russian nesting dolls. These layers, from outermost to innermost, are as follows:
- Annamaya-kosha—the layer made of food (i.e. The physical body: it is what it eats, and may also get eaten!)
- Prānamaya-kosha—the layer made of life-force (prāna), closely associated with breath
- Manomaya-kosha—the layer made of mind
- Vijnãnamaya-kosha—the layer made of intelligence/knowledge
- Ānandamaya-kosha—the layer made of bliss
When considering the concept of kosha, it behoves us to keep in mind that while the Taittrīya describes each of the layers as “separate,” these aspects of ourselves have somewhat fuzzy borders. Consequently, we can think of each of the successive layers as a bridge that connects the one that precedes it and the one that follows it. I often give my students the standard example of how it is possible to use the breath to establish a sense of connection between the body and mind. As anyone who has taken long, deep breaths in an emotionally charged moment can tell you, slowing down the breath can pacify both the physiological and the mental state in a surprisingly efficient way.
The thing that used to strike me as confusing, and perhaps might have you scratching your head a bit as well, is that layers three (mind) and four (knowledge) have any differentiation at all in this scheme. What is knowledge if not the contents of the mind? In Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Georg Feuerstein elucidates the distinction. The Upanishads use the word manas (which we tend to translate into our English word “mind”) in order to refer “to the mind in its function as a processor of sensory input. Manas is driven by doubt and volition (or desire) and vacillates between externalising our consciousness and withdrawing it into the realm of the imagination.” Feuerstein notes that many texts and commentators refer to manomaya-kosha as the “lower mind.” This stands in contrast with the “higher mind” function of vijnãnamaya-kosha, which Feuerstein describes as “an organ of discernment between what is real and unreal, that is, as the seat of wisdom. Where the lower mind causes doubt and uncertainty, the higher mind…brings certainty and faith.” This explanation may be a helpful tool in terms of refining our contemporary Western view of the mind as a singular structure. If we wish to achieve wisdom, we must employ the higher mind’s intelligence in order to discern the real from the unreal bits of information that our lower mind aggregates from our sense organs. The wise person knows that simply taking things at face value will never do.
However, the distinction between these two layers of our mind raises another question. If the lower mind takes responsibility for drawing our senses inward into the imaginary, and the higher mind is the seat of intelligence, what are we to make of Albert Einstein’s famous pronouncement that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”? In the face of such advice from the greatest genius of the twentieth century, shall we simply stack the ancient yogic folk wisdom into the column of stuff that they’ve got wrong? It certainly holds true that Professor Einstein had an incredibly active and powerful imagination which generated world-changing ideas. In the beautifully paradigm-shifting (and equally beautifully bound) book Reality Is Not What It Seems, Carlo Rovelli explains that Einstein’s main talent was his remarkable inner vision. He recognised the space-time bending effects of gravity in what would become the general theory of relativity by visualising something known as a 3-sphere. But even though Einstein had "mastered differential and integral calculus" before the age of 15, he himself admitted his frustration that his mathematics skills were simply not as outstanding as those of some of his fellow physicists.
That being said, you don’t have to be an Einstein to know that if you want your ideas to have something practical to say about how the universe actually works, you’d better be able to prove it. Albert Einstein was, of course, an Einstein, so he was smart enough to know that even if his maths weren’t up to scratch, he’d better get them there in order to prove that he was not just some affable crazy-haired kook. So while “Imagination is more important than knowledge” certainly makes for a tasty soundbite and a lovely dorm-room poster, it rather too easily glosses over the fact that he worked his ass off in order to accumulate the knowledge and abilities that allowed him to communicate something meaningful with this, what Rovelli calls “the most beautiful of theories”:
Well, meaningful for some anyhow. But life-changing for us all.
Looking again at our yogic matryoshka-layers, another striking insight comes from the positioning of the “intelligence” sheath. It lies between the sense-interpreting manas and the metaphorical core of our being—ānanda, the state of pure bliss itself. I see this as evidence that the ancient sages perceived wisdom as the connecting force between the sensual and the beatific. And our long-neglected mascot provides us with a possible example of this very notion, embodied. In a wonderfully imaginative treatise called Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, philosopher Vilhém Flusser and biologist Louis Bec posit that an exquisite hybrid of sensuality and intellect drives an octopus’ life. Its sensory-cerebral tentacles study, taste, and caress each object simultaneously, providing its every learning and discovering experience with a quality that Flusser and Bec contrast with our own:
Our sexual organs are only indirectly connected to our hands and eyes. First the brain must coordinate the different pieces of information that it receives from these organs. This process can result in contradictions into ‘empirical experiences.’ Our brain doubts, and therefore our world is dubious—for us, to think is to doubt.
This equation between “thinking” and “doubting” loops us directly back to Feuerstein’s description of manas as “driven by doubt.” This happens by necessity, as our sense organs are so comparatively far-removed from both each other our brains. This separation provides time for dubiousness to enter into the equation, the result of which being that our ability to genuinely enjoy sensual pleasures without some form of questioning simultaneously occupying our consciousness: How disappointed am I going to be when this ends? Do I really deserve this? Is somebody else experiencing something better?
For our fortunate eight-footed friends, these kinds of questions (if they are even capable of them) actually have no time to emerge. Flusser and Bec continue:
[Its] sexual organs are partially located on its tentacles and, like its eyes, they are directly connected to its brain. The latter thus receives optic, tactile, and sexual impressions as already coordinated (processed) and unified bits of information. In this there can be no contradictions: All incoming bits of information have, simultaneously, a tentacular, optic, and sexual dimension…Its dialectic (in which it lives as much as we do, both of us being bilateral) has fundamentally sexual overtones. Not only are ‘true/false,’ ‘good/evil,’ and ‘beautiful/ugly’ sexual contradictions, but also ‘positive/negative’ and ‘body/wave’—in short, ‘material/paterial.’ Thus it is incapable of negotiating these contradictions as we do, that is, ’syllogistically’ and by means of cold logic, but only by means of coitus. The resolution of contradictions is its orgasm.
Although we have nowhere near the concentration of neurons in any of our sense organs as a cephalopod has in its tentacles, human orgasms actually occur in the same organ we tend to associate with our intellect. (At the risk of disenchanting those who might like to boast about their genitals having superior smarts, I am in fact talking about the brain.) Anyone who has a regular reading habit will recognise the visceral experience of learning something truly mind-blowing: your heart skips a beat, you get goosebumps on your skin, your brain goes suddenly, mercifully quiet—and if you can express yourself verbally at all, you can do so only in terms approaching the Archimedean. (Ok, I concede that there are probably very few whose love-making vocables regularly include “eureka!”, but I did read a bookgasm-inducing fact yesterday which made me exclaim, aloud, “gee whiz!” Are you blushing?) Research suggests that encountering novel information sets the brain’s reward circuitry abuzz, and improves the neural plasticity in the hippocampus. This has potential benefits for both memory and psychological well-being.
So while our limbs are ostensibly neither as erotic nor as cerebral as are those of the octopus, our minds are undoubtedly the sexiest aspects of our beings. Just as the mere memory or anticipation of an appealing sexual encounter can have obvious physiological effects, so can the direct injection of intellectual stimulation from books provide a similarly satisfying physical experience. Our invisible mental-tentacles (mentacles?!) caress and savour each sentence. Our neurons dance with delight as they transform these squiggles on the page into an exclusive exhibition of imagery inside our own imagination. A private peep-show, for our mind’s eyes only, for which the permission of nobody else is required. Could we possibly find anything more exquisite in all of existence?
This is the path of jnãna-yoga. As the kosha map indicates, the way to reach into our bliss is, in fact, via our brains.
Kill therefore with the sword of jnãna the doubt born of ignorance that lies in thy heart. Be one in self-harmony, in Yoga, and arise, great warrior, arise. -Bhagavad Gītā, 4.42