Warning: once one starts down this path, this “rabbit hole,” once one begins using this “tool,” there is no end to it. Not that it’s easy. In fact it’s damn hard. These days we call this unending, unveiling, demasking process “red pilling” ourselves, “seeing through the matrix,” and apply it to sociological and especially political and geopolitical situations. My own questioning goes further, deeper. And BTW: not just old assumptions fall away, so do old attitudes, emotional habits, and so on. A very perilous journey. And WELL WORTH IT!
QUESTIONING ASSUMPTIONS May Yield A Genuine Common Sense
Shut Down in First Grade
Soon after entering first grade, I was having trouble with arithmetic. It wasn’t that I couldn’t add or subtract or multiply or divide. If I memorized and followed the rules, then I could get correct answers. But what if I forgot the rules? They seemed so arbitrary. The entire subject unnerved me. It felt weird, unreal. Like it was “out there” somewhere, floting in space, and I couldn’t grab hold of it, smell it, taste it, chew it, digest it.
Being only six years old, there was no way I could articulate this feeling, or even consciously know that this was how I felt. But something did make me raise my hand one day, during arithmetic . . .
“But what . . .” I asked, suddenly scared, like I was jumping off a cliff — “But what is . . . a number??”
Sister Bernita turned around from the blackboard, and she looked sort of startled. My question had interrupted the flow of the class. Now she was staring, and the boys and girls ahead of me and on either side of me were turning to stare, too. My ears were burning . . .
Finally, she opened her mouth and said, quietly, mouth puckering: “That is not a question, dear.”
That is not a question, dear. What you asked does not exist.
I made sure I never asked such a question again. And throughout my school years, mathematics remained a floating world, disconnected from reality.
I look back and see what it must have been like for Sister Bernita to have one of her 60 squirming first and second graders ask that question. She had so much material she had to get though in one hour. And so many children to teach it to . . .
My question stuck out from the flow. It was not factual, but philosophical. I wasn’t asking “how?” but “why?” I was wondering about the whole endeavor of mathematics, trying to get a handle on it, rather than just memorize and follow rules. Had Sister Bernita been able to follow me into where I had gone, had she been able to say, “Thanks, Ann, that is a very good question. That is an important question. What is a number? Are numbers real, like sticks and stones, only invisible? Are numbers something else altogether in another kind of ‘reality,’ like our dreams? Are numbers something we make up, out of thin air? Or were they always there, before anyone was born?”
And then, oh! If only she had gone on to say she didn’t know the answer to my question. That she doubted anyone did. That philosophers have been discussing this question for centuries. That it is one of those questions which leads us to new places, that those who ask such questions are explorers, that they make discoveries . . .
But she didn’t say that. And of course, such a response might have shocked me as much as her denial of the question. For of course, at six, I was already socialized to look for an answer, one answer, to this question, just like any other; questions always had answers, didn’t they?
And if Sister Bernita didn’t know the answer, my doctor father probably did. He knew everything. I had never heard of a question that had no answer.
Imagine what it would have been like to have such a discussion in first grade. To have been encouraged to conjecture, dream, imagine, think of various alternative ways to look at numbers and what they might mean, why we work with them in our lives, why and where they are or are not important. Imagine being introduced to Plato’s point of view on numbers, or that of Pythagoras, or Heraclitus.
But that did not happen. Sister Bernita did not follow me. Perhaps she was too busy. Perhaps she didn’t know how to answer me. In fact, during those minutes while she was staring at me, she might have been trying to figure out how one couldanswer such a question. She too, was accustomed to thinking that every question had an answer. She too might have felt like she was falling off a cliff when she tried to imagine the type of space within which numbers exist.
Like most adults when confronted with the extraordinary questions of small children, Sister Bernita found herself dumbfounded, uneasy. She was accustomed to remaining within a universe of discourse as defined by rules of arithmetic. Most likely, it had never occurred to her to ask about the significance of that universe, what its context was, or just what kind of reality it had. Like other adults, she was inside the loop, and like most small children, my natural exploratory mind had not yet shut down, so for me, no question was impossible . . . not until she told me that one wasn’t. Not until I saw how she looked at me. How everyone looked at me . . .
So this question, and her denial that this question existed, was perhaps the most important lesson in socialization I ever received. Certainly the most memorable one. If I thought about my question, and thought also that it didn’t exist, then how could I have asked it? Did that mean I didn’t exist? Rather than come to terms with my question — and her embarrassed response to it, and my classmates’ nervous giggles — I shut down memory That question did not exist. I had not asked it.
As a human being, I wanted to be accepted. To be included in the group. So I put my question away, and diligently memorized and applied the rules of mathematics all the way through high school. Never, during all those years, did it feel comfortable. Did I feel I knew the subject. I knew I didn’t know it. That I was a fake.
Which was worse, to feel like a fake or to be excluded from the group? At that young age, the latter, most decidedly.
My school career was successful. I graduated as co-valedictorian with my best friend Mary. Mary was smart, funny, original. I was a plodder, memorizing for tests, doing exactly what the teacher wanted. My successful career continued in college, at Catholic University, where I became so good at what we called “psyching out” teachers that I would distribute to my friends lists of questions I figured they would ask on tests — and be 90% correct. I ended up Phi Beta Kappa, graduating Magna cum Laude, and hadn’t learned a thing.
What was there to learn? I was simply following the rules. My mind had been socially constructed into the normal grid, that grid functioning, in my case, like a sieve, through which “facts” were poured, and disappeared.
What Is Guilt?
By the time I was 23 years old, I was a graduate student in philosophy at Boston University, married to a narcissistic husband, and chafing under the constant care of two small children. At that time I was confronted with a very disturbing situation: the Catholic doctrine on birth control. The position of the Catholic Church on this matter bothered me so much that it started to undermine what I had been taught to call my “faith,” that unquestioning acceptance of what I did not understand. The rule said one thing, but my very deepest being was demanding the opposite. I knew I wasn’t meant to have more children, that to do so would endanger my mental and emotional health. And yet my church forbade birth control. The contradiction between my gut feeling as to what was good for me and this particular rule was the wedge that began to separate me out from the Catholic Church.
Final severance came as the result of an experiment that I conducted with myself. (Odd that I should have “conducted an experiment” — not exactly good girl behavior.) Here was the experiment: The rules said that I had to go to Mass on Sunday, “under pain of mortal sin.” Throughout my childhood, of course, whenever I “committed a sin,”especially a “mortal sin” (like French kissing my boy friend in high school), I felt terrible afterwards, wracked by guilt. Now I wondered, “What if guilt is merely a conditioned response?” I.e., what if the only reason I feel guilty is because I have been taught to feel guilty? What if guilt is not, after all, the result of original sin, not God’s revenge, an innate response for “sins” committed through our own “free will”? For if guilt is merely a conditioned response, I reasoned, then if I don’t’ go to church for several Sundays in a row, the feeling of guilt should lessen, as I gradually “re-condition” myself to new behavior. I decided to test my theory.
Well, lo and behold, after the very first Sunday without Mass I didn’t feel guilty, not at all! This floored me. I was dumbfounded to think that I had been following all these rules, thinking that God had made them, with guilt to remind us when we were going astray, when in fact, if my feelings were any indication, I had been wasting my Sunday mornings! I felt both exhilarated — to discover this — and disgusted — to think I’d been fooling myself all my life!
Given the amazing and compelling result of this first small experiment, I instantly generalized, began to wonder, What if I made my entire life an experiment?
Not going to Sunday Mass was the first time since first grade that I had dared to question an assumption which had been handed down to me by others. In first grade, my question did not feel like a dare, but this one did. I knew full well the consequences of “disobeying the rules” of Catholicism: the price was ostracism from my own family.
Something in me had shifted. No longer could I look at “rules” — or my “roles” in life — in the same old way.
From then on, the enculturation process, which had shaped me, little by little, began to unravel. I had got hold of a thread, and like Ariadne, just started to pull. The result, from then on, was a process of — at first, imperceptible, but continuous (what we now call) “transformation.”
I was wondering theoretically what it would be like to conduct my entire life as an experiment, and yet I had little idea what that would entail in practice, and had I been aware of the gathering momentum of such a project — not to mention the price I would pay — I would have been too terrified to begin.
At first, I experimented with my personality, trying out different masks, to see how they fit. This was the ‘60s, remember, so in these experiments I was aided by marijuana, a drug which I had first tried out at parties, but which I much preferred to smoke alone or with one other. I wasn’t smoking for entertainment; I wanted to change myself, to let go of my shy, nervous, uptight “self” and when I smoked, I was able to relax into the present moment and respond spontaneously. I remember saying to a friend that my goal was to have my stoned personality become so comfortable and automatic that it would continue even when I wasn’t stoned — a goal which I achieved within a few years. Eventually, my socially constructed personality disintegrated, to reveal what I can only call mystery, magic, miracle. For if personality can become a problem to be solved, then what personality conceals is a shining presence.
For me, an even more fascinating property of marijuana was that it made me more aware of my thinking process, and helped me penetrate more deeply into whatever I chose to focus on.
However, though I now began to consciously question my assumptions, I was not prepared to take on all of them at once. Assumptions are not like dominos, ready to be tipped over, one by one. Assumptions are more like the air we breathe, invisible, but necessary — not for life itself, but for interpretations, positions within life, attitudes. And when they change, the process is not so much logical as bio-logical. Once the beginning is made, after a certain point, at least for me, there was no stopping it.
Yet, as anyone who has ever conducted this same experiment knows, the weight of family, cultural and religious tradition is so heavy, so thick, so congealed, that pushing in the wedge to free oneself can only be accomplished gradually, millimeter by millimeter, by marshaling enormous focus, determination and endurance. There is no end to it. The process of freeing oneself up from unnoticed prejudice is endless.
Mercury turns Retrograde
Within a year or so of that first experiment, I began to notice a peculiar thing: my mind, which had been focused on the outside world, was turning around, looking within (see also Chapter 4, pp.___). As a graduate student in philosophy, I had been interested in “metaphysics,” ultimate questions of Being, a subject that, I had been taught, was located outside me. Now I was interested in the workings of my own mind, wondering whether I could know anything, and if so, how would I know that I knew? How could I be certain, how could I justify or prove it? Philosophers call this subject “epistemology.”
I can remember being puzzled by this 180° shift in the orientation of my mind; I wondered what it meant, how it could have taken place. Again, the change was not logical, but biological, a part of the natural unfolding of my own nature. (This shift had taken place prior to marijuana; so marijuana was not the “cause.”)
Later, when I began to study astrology in 1974, I discovered an uncanny planetary correlation to that mysterious inward turning in 1969: 1969 was the year when my “progressed Mercury” (symbolizing the thinking process, the conscious mind) turned to go “retrograde,” i.e., to travel backwards. Progressed Mercury’s retrograde motion continued for 21 years, turning to go “direct” again in 1993. So I had a good long time to explore the workings of my own psyche.
Back then, as Mercury turned to go retrograde, my mind turned, to focus back on itself. I became bored with “pure philosophy,” and gravitated towards psychology and sociology. I was interested in the evolution of consciousness, both in the species and in the individual. Jean Piaget, and his developmental study of the evolution of the child’s framework for comprehending the world, drew me like a magnet. (We now call this framework a “paradigm,” and glibly toss the word about it, as if to move from one paradigm to another is like changing towns, or jobs, or tossing a coin.) And I began to read the radical British psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, and sense his meaning, the feeling behind his words.
But it was not until my second summer in the commune at the Hotel Idlewild, in 1970, that I was initiated, like so many of my peers, into the holy of holies, the ordinary natural world as experienced under the influence of LSD. This was nine months after my near-death experience in the hospital, two months after I separated from my husband. The ghostly figure I had presented the summer before had evaporated. I was new, raw, and ravenous — for experience of any kind.
That first LSD journey, as we all say, “blew my mind” wide open. Whereas the Sunday Mass experiment had taught me that guilt is a conditioned response, and that just because I felt “guilty” for something did not necessarily mean it was inherently “bad” or “wrong;” and though my mind had now turned, to be more fascinated with the inner than the outer world, LSD opened me to the inner/outer world as one, a continuum, to the endless richness of creation, to worlds within worlds, exploding into light, to my own body dissolving into rivers of color.
Post-LSD, no longer did the world consist of objects in space; rather, it was obvious that the world is composed of continuous, multidimensional transformations of energy. It took only one LSD trip to shift me from Newton to Einstein, from the 17thcentury to the 20th.
The Catholic Church had taught me that there was One True Church, and One True Way to look at the world. That assumption had been exposed as fiction, but I was not prepared for the sheer glory, the endless wordless splendor of the natural world as experienced under LSD. Now not only was the old world deposed, the new world was so much larger, so much more mysterious.
I, like millions of my peers, was inducted into the mysteries of the universe through this and other organic substances, long sacred to primitive cultures, and so long hidden from ours. From now on, my enculturated fundamentalism would be continuously challenged, and transformed, into an endlessly creative relativism. For how could one hold any one position, and be certain, have proof that it was the “right” one? There is no right and wrong, there is only this endless proliferation of wonder within wonder upon wonder . . .
So did LSD dissolve the boundaries of left-brained consciousness into the spectacular ongoing symphony of music and images and symbols of the right brain.
A note of caution here: relativism signifies an open mind, not necessarily an open heart. Relativism is amoral; it did not teach me how to be a human being. In order to act ethically in a world of other people, I had to undergo another initiation, this one long, demanding, and ongoing; it involves learning from my daily interactions with others, how to respond with love. Relativism, not compassion, is gained through “tripping.”
My Encounter with Wittgenstein
Later that summer I took my second (and final) LSD trip, with Tracy, my new boyfriend, a young philosophy professor who was as interested as I in the philosophical implications of hallucinogenic drugs.
During this experience Tracy became frightened at the vastness of things (we were tripping on the beach, during a spectacularly starry night), and lay down on his stomach with his head in the sand. Once in a while he would raise his head, try to turn on his back, and look up. Instantly, he would become dizzy, then nauseous, and have to turn over again. I, on the other hand, lay beside him on my back with eyes open. And, like those childhood years when I had slept out in the backyard in my sleeping bag all summer long, I surrendered to the universe, streaking out to the stars and beyond.
The next morning I picked up a book by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20thcentury German philosopher. The book had been sitting on Tracy’s desk, and now I told him I wanted to read it.
This surprised him. It surprised me, too. Tracy had made numerous attempts to get me to read this book, saying that Wittgenstein was interesting, even fascinating, that I would probably like him. But I had resisted, since my mentor Agassi had told me never to read Wittgenstein, that “he was confused, and” (whispering) “a subclinical schizophrenic.” Though I was now in that summer when I had told the chairman of the department that I couldn’t accept the dissertation fellowship, because I had to learn to think with my guts rather than my head, I was still the “good (enough) uptight graduate student” to believe what my favorite teacher had told me about Wittgenstein. And now here I was, wanting to read this particular philosopher, the morning after my second LSD trip. Why?
I sat there all day at my desk, reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. This was unusual; I have always had a hard time concentrating on difficult intellectual matter for a sustained period. But this was different. I was rooted to the spot, mesmerized, slowly absorbing, page by page.
Just as I finished the book, Tracy popped his head in, and asked, “How did it go?” The look on my face must have held him, because he walked in slowly, and formally, deliberately, sat down on the bed opposite my desk chair. Only then did he look at me. “Well?”
It was as if I was under a spell, and Tracy’s demeanor both recognized and honored it. Then, suddenly, out of my mouth, without knowing what would come, these words: “This book is true. But I don’t know what it means.”
Shock followed, then terror. “Oh my God, what did I just say? What I just said is impossible, can’t be said.” For how could I know that this book was true, unless I knew what it meant? In the canons of western philosophical inquiry, one must know what something means before deciding whether it is true or false.
This rule was obvious. This rule was one of the methodological assumptions not only of both scientific and philosophical inquiry, but of ordinary common-sense! And I, in my thoughtless and impulsive way, had just reversed it. I had claimed the truth of something before I knew what it meant. How as this possible?
I date my decision to devote myself to investigating my assumptions to that moment when I said something which I didn’t understand but which I knew, in my heart, to be true. I knew that the particular type of “meaning” in Wittgenstein was true in the sense that it held great value, even though it seemed impossible to understand in any kind of rational way.
I had suddenly shot down beneath my common-sense, beneath even my scientific and philosophical assumptions, to encounter my own intuition, and though I couldn’t epistemologically “justify” or prove what I had said about Wittghenstein, it no longer mattered. From that point on, I no longer looked for certainty, or proof. LSD had taught me that there is no ground to stand upon; that all is energy ceaselessly combining and recombining, and the very next day, reading Wittgenstein, I was now applying this new way of thinking to my own philosophical tradition.
Within a few days I went to see Agassi, telling him that I had read Wittgenstein. “Oh?” he looked up from his desk, curious, expectant. “Yes. And you’re right. He is confused. But his confusion is important.” He cocked his head, raised his eyebrow, and responded, “You may read Wittgenstein.”
I had shifted from thinking with my head to thinking with my gut, and could now accept the fellowship. Returning to graduate school that September, I enrolled my younger son in a morning nursery school, and hired one of his teachers to baby-sit him in the afternoons. Then I bought an electric typewriter, and every morning sat down to “work,” until the children returned home mid-afternoon. Every day, for six hours, investigating my assumptions.
The procedure I followed was to first, smoke a few puffs of marijuana, then open up the Philosophical Investigationsor another of Wittgenstein’s later works, and read through a paragraph or two. I was not so much interested in what he actually said, as in the feelings, which would come up in me when I read him. Wittgenstein was my foil; I used the peculiar intellectual and emotional torment I felt in him to access my own. I recognized this man’s words, despite his attempt to keep himself on a philosophical level, as coded messages, symptoms of acute loneliness, depression, confusion, pain. His confusion was important because I sensed that Wittgenstein, unlike any other philosopher I had ever read (the closest to him might be Nietzsche) was experiencing emotionally the contradictions of the world-view of western culture. His analogy of “the philosopher caught in the fly bottle, who only needs to turn around to see his way out,” was for him, real. He was caught, suffocating, slammed against the inside of the bubble of scientific “rationality,” and desperate to escape.
In my first few years as a graduate student, I had attended the Boston University Colloquia in the Philosophy of Science, composed of students and professors from all Boston area universities. Like other shy, aspiring graduate students, I would diligently take notes on the lecture given and the arguments afterwards, seeking to understand what they were saying in their own terms. Wanting to be able to argue myself, one way or another, but feeling too shy and ignorant to either hold a position or defend it.
In those years, I had arrived with my hair in a neat bun; now my hair was flying loose. I was still attending the colloquia, but my purpose had changed. I was looking upon these events from an anthropological/sociological point of view. What were these professors’ arguments revealing about them? Now, rather than trying to understand and either mentally defend or critique the points they were making at the tops of the logical chains they were presenting, I was following those chains back, way back, to attempt to see the assumptions behind them. I wanted to notice what they took for granted, what was obvious, what they agreed upon with a casual shrug of the shoulders, or nod of the head, an “of course!” For I knew that the points I took for granted were the ones I did not question. That these assumptions of mine, and of theirs — for I knew we were all the same, had all been raised to breathe the same intellectual air — were precisely the problem.
My purpose was to understand the common-sense of philosophy, by investigating my own and others’ philosophical assumtpions. I saw that common-sense as a net that had been thrown over us all, preventing us from seeing beyond. We were all caught in the fly bottle, and there didn’t seem to be any opening.
My gut was guiding me to pinpoint certain crucial nodes of what we take to be common-sense in philosophy in order to begin to gain a pserspective of that common-sense as a whole, as a sort of map. The map itself, I was beginning to sense, was itself the abstract version of ordinary common-sense, and had no referent in actual reality. Ours was a common-sense where we had no senses in common! Not only did this so-called “common-sense” keep each of us in a certain place or space, it was decidedly pathological: witness the lonely torment of Wittgenstein, witness my own.
For years, I had felt that my mind was stagnant, that it was like a grid, into which facts were stuffed, or through which they passed into oblivion. “But what is learning, reallearning?” I would cry, mostly to myself, but once in a while to some teacher or other. They would look at me mystified. (The woman is hysterical. What is her problem?) Though I didn’t fully realize it then, Nietzsche’s strange dictum, “to learn is to change,” was becoming my own.
Wittgenstein talked endlessly about solipsism, the “problem of other minds,” about whether or not we could know that other minds exist. Whereas this problem was one that had been earnestly studied for centuries as a part of epistemology (it is still there in course curricula of university philosophy departments, titled something like “The Problem of Other Minds”), it was clear to me that for Wittgenstein, this problem was real. That he felt alone and isolated, trapped inside his brain. That he could not get out.
The famous philosophical maxim of Rene Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” had by this time, in the late 20thcentury, become a psychiatric symptom: I think, therefor I am, therefore only my thinking is me.
I was seeing how philosophical ideas gradually embedded themselves within society to finally precipitate out in daily life as “common sense.” The Cartesian mind/body split, theoretical in his time, was now real. And Laing’s book, The Divided Self, showing the meaningfulness of the so-called nonsensical remarks of schizophrenics, was the end result of our much-vaunted “scientific” world-view.
By the time that year was over, I had so thoroughly dissolved the structure of my own thinking process, that I had no “hold” on socially constructed “reality.” If I had to endure Sister Bernita’s and my classmates’ stares back in first grade, imagine how others were viewing me now. Imagine my loneliness. I had diagnosed solipsism as the logical/biological result of the scientific world-view, and I knew that I too, was trapped within it.
But the converse held true as well. I saw everyone but me as trapped within his or her own solipsistic stance. I saw them, their personalities, their egos, as defenses against a reality, which they had not yet encountered. That shining presence, what I was communing with, in secret. And knowing, intuitively, that it was ours. That our common-sense could be a sensing in common. That if I could transform, then so could the entire world. We are one. One plus one is one. That’s the kind of mathematics I could recognize.