The running river

Over the last few years, I’ve absorbed a truth; the peak of perceptive ability is to see reality as it is. 

I’ve come across this idea in many places and many guises. Political activist Saul Alinsky talked about it:

“The basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognise the world as it is. We must work with it on its terms if we are if we are to change it to the kind of world we would like it to be. We must first see the world as it is and not as we would like to be.”

A Jesuit priest hit upon the same insight:

“… the first act of love is to see this person or this object, this reality as it truly is. And this involves the enormous discipline of dropping your desires, your prejudices, your memories, your projections, your selective way of looking…
… The second ingredient is equally important. To see yourself, to ruthlessly flash the light of awareness on your own motives, your emotions, your needs, your dishonesty, your self-seeking, your tendency to control and manipulate. This means calling things by their name, no matter how painful the discovery and the consequences.”

It’s a central theme in Stoicism. That’s the point of the spiritual exercises which involve breaking down an object into it’s constituent parts. In saying that the meat we eat is dead flesh, that we all start off as a blob of semen, and after death, end up as dirt of the earth.

It’s the keystone of the mental models approach to thinking, championed by people like Shane Parrish. The idea is that by employing many imperfect models and seeing through many fuzzy frames, we can eliminate blind spots and get closer to an accurate vision of the world around us.

But over the last few months, I’ve begun to sense another truth; to attain understanding, we need to immerse ourselves in reality. 

If clarity of perception requires zooming out—extracting ourselves from the tangle of bias, influence, distortion and narrative—then understanding requires us to zoom in—to become part of the running river, not stand on its banks.

For example, consider how Roberto Saviano was able to write so powerfully and understand so deeply the nature of organised crime and the cocaine economy:

“And understanding meant being part of it somehow. I had no choice; as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only way to understand things. Neutrality and objective distance are places I’ve never been able to find.”

In The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts mentions the same thing:

“This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.”

You could tag these two, conflicting truths with different labels. Seeing reality as it is is an art concerned mostly with detachment. Understanding something by becoming a part of it is about immersion. But although detachment and immersion conflict and exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, I don’t think we have to choose between them. We don’t have to opt for detachment as our primary mode of thought, or for the superiority of immersion. We can have both, do both. In fact, that’s how I believe we can best come to understand and see anything.

Only by cycling constantly between distance and proximity, between watching from without and acting from within, between detachment and immersion, can we get close to any sort of truth.