“Extraordinary Knowings” by Mark W. Harris – February 24, 2008

“Extraordinary Knowings” Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – February 24, 2008

Call to Worship – from Rumi

In generosity and helping others be like a river
In compassion and grace be like the sun
In concealing other’s faults be like a night
In anger and fury be like the dead
In modesty and humility be like the earth
In tolerance be like a sea
Either exist as you are or be as you look

Reading – “The Fruits of Victory” A Zen Buddhist Story
(as retold in Bill Houff’s Infinity In Your Hand)

In some Zen Buddhist orders, it is part of the discipline to engage in aggressive and often loud arguments about the finer points of practice. Usually the admission of wandering monks to a temple depends upon the stranger’s winning such a dispute.
Two brother monks dwelt together in a temple in Northern Japan. The elder brother was learned, but the younger one was dull and had but one eye. One day a wandering monk came to the door and asked for lodging. Being tired the elder brother sent the other to meet the visitor and engage him in argument. Knowing that his brother was not quick with words, the elder directed; “Request the dialogue in silence.”
The young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and began their silent disputation. But it was not long before the stranger rushed up to the elder brother and exclaimed: “Your younger brother has defeated me utterly. I shall go.”
The elder monk was astonished: “Tell me the dialogue.”
“Well,” explained the visitor, “first I held up one finger, representing the Buddha. So he held up two fingers signifying the Buddha and his teaching. I replied with three fingers, representing the Buddha, his teaching, and his disciples living the harmonious life. Then he shook his fist in my face, signifying that all three come from a single revelation. Thus, he won, and I must go.” And he walked out the door.
Suddenly the younger monk ran up. “Where is that fellow?”
“He said you won the dialogue and left.”
“Won nothing! He insulted me, and I’m going to beat him up.”
“Please tell me the subject of the dialogue,” asked the elder monk.
“Well, the very minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me for having one eye. Since he was a visitor, I tried to be polite and held up two fingers, congratulating him for having two eyes. But then he held up three fingers, indicating that between us we have only three eyes. So I got mad and challenged him to a fist fight. That’s when he ran out.”


Last Sunday afternoon my family went to Newton North High School to see an illusionist. During the show she called a stranger forth from the audience, and said she had had a vision about meeting him. They both swore they had never met before this day, and he was chosen by the random means of being a person who happened to catch a ball that was being batted around a room of hundreds of people. She then asked the man named Mo to come on stage and replicate her vision of where they had met, and she did this by asking him a few simple questions. In the meantime her assistants had placed a blackboard on the stage with a sliding curtain covering some writing underneath. She proceeded to ask, In what city would we meet? What would you be wearing? What kind of vehicle would you pick me up in? Where would we go? He then made up a story of how they had met in Jerusalem; he was wearing jeans; she picked him up in a yellow cab, and finally, they went to a museum. In a few moments the curtains were pulled back on the blackboard, revealing all of his answers previously scribbled in chalk on the apparently undisturbed board. Did her assistants sneak in a substitute board after hearing the man’s answers? Or did she accurately have a vision of the man she would meet, predicting how he would answer these questions? Magic, miracle or merely illusion?

Naturally we all clapped, and the illusionist moved on to the next trick. We assume they are tricks because mostly we believe that our minds are not capable of reading others minds. We do not have visions of who we will meet in the future. Nor can we predict what they will say. Or do we? I can tell you quite honestly that I expect my wife Andrea to read my mind all the time. I feel as though I do not have to express my wishes, because she will know what I am planning in my mind for the day, when I expect to go out, and what I would like to eat for dinner. There is no need , I believe to communicate these to her, because she has these incredible capabilities of mind. Unfortunately, it might be somewhat more productive for our relationship if I did a better job of actually voicing my plans, my feelings and my wishes, but I, like many others in this very room, expect my spouse to read my mind and know what I am thinking or feeling without even having to ask.

While I am joking about my own failings as a non-communicative male, it is true that we often come to expect that those who are close to us will be able to read our minds. We sometimes witness that those couples who have been together for a long time are able to finish each other’s sentences and know exactly what the other wants, not because they are reading their minds, but because they have so much knowledge of each other, and realize what they are likely to want in a given situation or what they are likely to say, and can with a great degree of accuracy, predict what that is. Perhaps couples become bored with each other because they become more and more predictable to the other. Malcolm Gladwell in his best selling book Blink, reminds us how crucial it is to have knowledge of the other, or of the situation in order to make a split second decision or read another’s mind. He says those who do the best at reading minds are those who have practiced including stroke victims who have had to read the information they see on another’s face because they cannot speak, or those who have grown up having to read what kind of behavior they can expect of their parents. A child of an alcoholic parent, for instance often has his/her antennae out to detect whether there will be some kind of violent outburst or otherwise erratic behavior, and is ever ready to protect themselves and ensure their own well being. We come to know what that parent is likely to do or say. We can read their mind.

Reading minds or making quick judgments about things, as Gladwell points out, goes against the grain of what we are taught in life. Parents tell us to think things through and get all the information we can, and ask ourselves over and over, do we really want that item? What will be the consequences of what you are doing? So mostly we practice never leaping before we look. We look and look some more. If we are feeling ill we often get test after test, and then ask for second or third opinions to confirm a diagnosis. But these may lead to confusion if the diagnoses conflict. Information alone is not enough. In fact, sometimes we may have too much information and it only confuses us. The internet can be dangerous to us in this way, as everybody has their own opinion and experience, and we can end up feeling more lost than found. Gladwell tells the story of what appeared to be an ancient statue that was tested and presumed not to be a forgery because the data seemed so accurate, but ultimately turned out to be a fake. Tests alone were not sufficient, and then some experts with intimate knowledge of these statues made accurate snap judgments about authenticity just by looking. They could simply feel that it was right by seeing it. Sometimes we need to trust our intuition and other times not. But when?

I know I used to get frustrated with myself in school when I took multiple choice history tests. The frustration emanated from trying to think the answer through too much. Knowing me as you do you probably realize that I was pretty familiar with the subject matter for most history tests. The Civil War especially was a subject where I probably knew more than the teacher, but the problem was that I knew too much. Let’s say there was a question on why the North was able to win the war. I saw there was an obvious answer, such as superior fire power, letter C. And I often had a quick response, and would even pencil that in. I should have moved on to the next question, but invariably I would start thinking about the other optional answers. Oh, B talks about Lincoln’s reelection, and D mentions the ascendancy of Grant as a superior general. I’ll bet this is a trick question. And so, I would erase my quick response which was based on tremendous knowledge and hours of reading, and really outthink myself and ultimately choose the wrong answer.

Gladwell’s says we often we fail to read the signs and make the correct judgments. He talks about how we often make unconscious decisions based on what we see, while ignoring other senses or even the knowledge that would give us the more fair or correct response. He mentions how musicians are now often chosen for orchestras by playing behind a screen, and then the choice can be made purely based on what the conductor hears, rather than on prejudices perceived or otherwise, such as only men can play the trombone. How many of these truths do each one of us carry around? The conductors were listening with their eyes when they should have been listening with their ears, as that was the sense that was trained, and the one therefore, that would help them make the best choice. They could judge the female trombone player for what she truly was. She was the talent they wanted, and they could make a judgment in a blink because they had removed their prejudices, and had used their trained listening knowledge to respond.

So if I used my trained Civil War knowledge, and trusted myself I could have responded to the multiple choice tests more accurately. I had too much knowledge, and didn’t trust my quick response. I should have gone with my gut. Often today that is the tide we all swim against. Gladwell says we confuse our knowledge with understanding, and it is really understanding that we need to cultivate. He especially recommends this use of intuition for all the big decisions of our lives. We can pile up all the information we want on a prospective spouse who is our perfect online dating match for values and desires, but there needs to be some deeper inner need that feels fed in order for us to say, this is the right person for me. So, too, I don’t think many of us rationally choose our professions, and this is especially so for ministry. We may rationally say who wants to be at everyone’s beck and call and judgment 24/7 ?, but when we feel a call to serve a people or a community there is no feeling that is more right. We simply say, this is where I belong. I have never regretted this decision. Ministry then is how I believe I will discover the deepest truths about my life, and myself.

“This feels right” is perhaps what we say about our partner, our profession, or our choice of house to purchase. The implication in all of these decisions is that we come to know ourselves and our desires in a deeper way than simply what works best, or has the best resale value, or will bring me the highest income. Underlying this juxtaposition between knowledge and intuition is the understanding that there are different ways of seeing the world. Most of us grew up with a standard world map that is more European and North American centered. If you were like me then you probably presumed that this was the correct size of the continents; it mirrored reality. Only as an adult did I learn that Africa is much larger physically than it appears on the old standard maps. Our Zen story on the “Fruits of Victory” shows how easily we can misunderstand ways of communication. The visitor to their monastery comes to believe that he has lost a very intense debate about the meaning of life, while the young monk feels he has been insulted repeatedly because he only has one eye. He was unable to read the deeper intuitive meaning of this confrontation. Andrea often says that it is easy to read my mind, as all my feelings are readily apparent. Yet this is true for all of us. Our faces and our bodies are a reflection of what our feelings are, and what we are truly communicating when we pay attention to each other.

Deeper, intuitive ways of knowing things can be scary. I think I told this congregation my story of reading a mind, but I will reiterate it today. One Sunday morning when I was the student minister in Oakland, I conducted the liturgy portion of the service, much like Mark does here. At the end of the service I went to the rear of the sanctuary to shake hands with all those who attended church that day, much as you are now accustomed to going to the door and shaking my hand, right? During this process a small, older woman came up to me, and as she was about to shake my hand I said, Good morning, Mrs. Dietrich. She immediately said, How did you know my name? And I said, “I don’t know.” To this day, I don’t know how I knew. I do know that her deceased husband was one of the leading proponents of humanism in the early 20th century, and that I had chosen one of his prayers to read that very day. So I was on the Dietrich wavelength so to speak, but no one told me she lived in Berkeley, or that she was going to be in church that day. Somewhere out of the universe I plucked this knowledge. It was one of those odd ways of knowing something that we sometimes are afraid of sharing with others for fear of being called crazy. That I might have directly had some kind of spiritual or personal connection to her is not the usual way we liberals understand religious knowledge, and yet this extraordinary way of knowing had dropped on me out of the sky.

Marcel Proust once wrote, “Come now! . . . Were everything clear, all would seem to you vain. Your boredom would populate a shadowless universe with an impassive life made up of unleavened souls. But a measure of disquiet is a divine gift. The hope which, in your eyes, shines on a dark threshold does not have its basis in an overly certain world.” We have feelings that we can know seemingly irrational truths intuitively. We take a hunch that this seems right. We have a good feeling about something. We have learned that experience helps with this kind of knowledge. This was true for me when I recorded dreams. I have always found that dreams are a way for us to read the unconscious mind. They meant more to me when I was keeping a journal and evaluating them. The more I paid attention, the more I was in touch with my deepest feelings about myself and the world.

A few months back First Parish member Jeanne Cleary shared with me a book called Extraordinary Knowing by Elizabeth Mayer. Mayer talks about non rational ways of knowing things, but in a way that is respectful of science and its quest for truth. It reminded me of our 19th century Universalist ancestors who tried to use such events as seances to prove that there was life after death. Mayer cited examples of people who were familiar with the paranormal, or ESP, or thought transfers. I was struck by the example of one woman who was in a seminar where the professor gave out a very complicated problem. She wrote down the problem, and then just blurted out the answer. She was correct, but it seemed so incongruous that the professor accused her of stealing the answer from his notes. It was a crazy idea that she had cheated, but it seemed just as crazy that she had come up with the answer. How do we know things like this? Perhaps this is some of what Malcolm Gladwell was talking about. We come to know something so well, and see all the factors contributing to it, we can simply surmise the answer. Perhaps our brains see when we do not or senses alert us when we cannot rationally know the answer, like firefighters knowing there is a fire behind a wall when there is no apparent evidence. They know the signals. But sometimes the knowledge is more than that. We may feel like freaks if we can come up with people’s names or answers out of thin air.

One thing we need to know is that we are not insane for believing in intuitive ways of communicating or knowing the answers to things. Mayer says letting this kind of event be plausible admits two kinds of fear. There is not only the possibility that we may be crazy, but even more scary, that the world may not be stable. All that we have counted on for space and time and knowing seem, to have permeable boundaries that we once thought were sacrosanct. I remember speaking to a colleague to Berkeley some years ago, and having her tell me that she went to visit her ill father in Colorado, not by flying or driving there, but by astral body projection. She had actually gone there. What are we to think? This kind of projection certainly puts us outside of our heads. and perhaps with these ways of knowing the world we must get beyond more than our doubts. Doubts are second nature for Unitarian Universalists. We doubt most kinds of religious statements about God and resurrections and miracles, but other ways of knowing the world ask us to move beyond the beliefs we hold, a much more difficult task than doubts. Look at the evidence beyond your world view. Part of this is believing that other ways of knowing are possible, and not ruling them out as sheer nonsense. We dream of what’s possible. What that does is begin to break us from old habits of thinking, but it also asks us to begin to think of how deeply we may want to communicate with others. We will explore something more completely, we pay more attention, and finally achieve a greater intimacy as a result.

On Wednesday, Levi and I went down to New London, Connecticut to the Allyn Museum to see the landscape paintings of Christopher Cranch, the only Transcendentalist to depict his beliefs in artistic renditions. Cranch trained for the Unitarian ministry, but found he could not stay with the pulpit profession. He complained of limitations, which were that he “could not forget himself. I am not free enough.” Like his mentor Emerson, Cranch believed that deeper religious truths could be known directly by intuition, and not simply through the usual rational means of the senses. We can come to know God through the heart of nature, and that there are incessant revelations of God , and each of us are receivers of this knowledge through the immensity of the cosmos. There is something both terrifying and intriguing about knowledge that goes beyond the usual ways we perceive truth. Often we resist these ways of knowing because they are terrifying. I resist the idea that mind can control matter because then we begin to accept that I can control the illnesses that befall me, and if I thought right I could cure myself. I am no Christian Scientist. Yet I want my faith to be open to other ways of knowing things, and that we often know truth through intuition and feeling, as well as through data and information.

I think it is useful for us to share some of these experiences with each other. That way we do not feel alone or insane, but we also acknowledge that in faith there must be a myriad number of ways to perceive truth. We often hear about mothers of babies being more alert to their breathing and behavior at night, but this is true of fathers as well. In a way this is a kind of remote perception, and we begin to see that we may know what another sees or feels at even greater distances. We may know when our child is in pain. There is little in our faith history about admitting such non rational moments because it seems out of bounds or bizarre, and this is a boundary that our faith erects. Perhaps we need to be more open to making our boundaries more flexible, more open, at least to talk about them, and give them some credence. Years ago people used to talk about peak experiences. Often these kinds of religious experiences were related to sexual experiences, that is feelings of ecstasy or becoming one with another. Many young people when I came of age talked about drug experiences as ways to facilitate alternative experiences of knowing.

One of my colleagues spoke of his LSD trip as the greatest religious experience of his life. I took LSD on more than one occasion, and while it was not Lucy in the Sky with diamonds, there were swirling clouds in the shape of apes as I contemplated evolutionary consciousness. Perhaps of greater significance were the amazing colors and merging patterns that heightened awareness. I became one with my surroundings. It is sometimes said that these deepest religious experiences are ways of feeling a merging with the universe. Last year was the 800th anniversary of the birth of Rumi, the Sufi poet. Rumi would say turn more to your hearts, to your feelings so that we might have an expanded means of knowing. What this means is that the deepest truths we know in life are related to love. Data and knowledge alone are not enough, and are most useful when we feel a passion for them, such as in history or music. The intimacy of truly knowing has to do with love – that is why we can read a mind, or know if a statue is real, or visit a dying parent who is far away. Our religious ancestors realized that we perceive these great truths in loving those things, or those people that are all part of the physical universe. In that love you become more than you, in that love you merge with the universal love. That is the most extraordinary knowing of all. Your love becomes part of the greater love. And when you feel that love, you open yourself up to other ways of knowing. We let in truth in its many guises, and we can echo Rumi that we can cross the dividing lines to how or what we may know, to new ways of exploring, and the world of the possible opens up.
“Come!.. Whatever you may be, come no matter what…
Whether you are an infidel, a fire worshipper or an idolater…
Whether you have foresworn a hundred times,
Whether a hundred times you have broken your oath…
This door here is no door for despair;
Come as you are !”
Come and know love.

Closing words – from Carl Sandburg – The People, Yes

Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man (and woman) for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prisms of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.