Mental Skill

Chapter 14
The Hard Way

"Why do I always have to learn everything the hard way?"

That gets asked a lot. It gets asked after a mistake has caused suffering. It gets asked after a bit of perfidy has caused loss. It gets asked after the absence of course corrections lands people in the ditch. "Why oh why do I have to learn everything the hard way?"

You wonder how sincere the question is. Surely, there must be many exceptions, such as setting a clock, opening a bottle, avoiding a hole in the road.

Perhaps not. Celebrities on television admit they cannot set clocks on electronic equipment. Mothers say they cannot open child-proof bottles as easily as their children. Mechanics profit from drivers who ignore holes in the road. Is there some basic problem that would make everything mean everything?

Well, what does learning things the easy way consist of? You look at the instructions for the VCR, push the buttons they say to push, and set the clock. You read the instructions for opening the child-proof bottle cap, and then study the cap, and wonder what the hell—oh yes, that's where you're supposed to squeeze. You read in a book how driving through potholes throws your wheels out of whack, so you watch to see if that looks possible, and it does, so you avoid holes in the road.

Learning is the process of integrating new information with old knowledge—fitting things in. To learn a procedure, you study instructions in the light of what you already know. Then you do the procedure, and compare the action with the instruction. If they don't match, you keep trying until they do. You match up what you do with what you want to do.

To learn a principle, you study it in the light of all your knowledge. Then you look at the part of reality it applies to, and match up what you see with what you know.

When someone tells you a truth to learn, you listen and compare it with all the truth you already know, questioning it as necessary. Then you look for the evidence of it in reality, and match up what you see with what you were told.

Learning the easy way—by watching, reading or listening—depends on your ability to match up what is in your mind with what you experience. If that ability is missing, then the mental part will be wasted, and only physical trial and error will be left as a learning method.

"I have to learn the hard way," means: I can only live from the neck down. My mind still forms opinions and constructs sentences, but I have no way to match the opinions and sentences to my life. There is no integration of thought and experience.

What you experience is yourself, an integrated whole consisting of innumerable cells doing innumerable things all at once, regulated by a consciousness that can even regulate its own doings. If in the course of your life you discover a wall between the regulator and part of what is being regulated, then that wall had to be constructed by you. You walled off thought from experience. You built a barrier between thinking and doing. You walled off in here from out there.

The wall is built of disappointment. Out there pets die, parents leave, desires go begging. But in here, in my mind, nothing has to change unless I say so.

The wall is built of anger. Out there people betray me, ignore me, talk behind my back—and I can do nothing. But in here, my revenge is swift and certain.

The wall is built of fear. Out there is danger, discord, disarray. In here is the safety of abstract contemplation.

The wall is built of good intentions. Out there my benevolence is thwarted and people refuse me credit for trying. In here I can appreciate my own efforts.

The wall is built of envy. Out there other people end up with what I deserve. In here I can award myself the prize.

"Why do I have to learn everything the hard way?" is said upon discovering that the real award is the booby-prize. Gone is the ability to match up what's in here with what's out there. I now have an "inner life" and an "outer life" instead of a life.

After the wall is built, then the mind-body split is created, and a necessity arises to choose sides. Should the inner life come first, or the outer life? Subjectivists are those who choose the inner life. Anti-intellectuals are those who choose the outer life. Skilled thinkers are those who choose to demolish the wall and live real life.

People pay pop-psychologists for advice on getting rid of the little voice inside that narrates their life to them. They do that because they have caught the little voice telling lies. They want to install doors and windows in the wall. When they have done that, then they resent the discovery that they still have to learn everything the hard way. Skilled thinkers do not wall themselves off from reality and then peer out at it. They live there.

Wonderful things go on behind the wall built for protection from reality. Self-contained, consistent, logical systems of belief are constructed and perfected and put forth for consideration. In Academia, they are criticized, defended, corrected, and given awards. They are not compared to observation. Their relation to fact is not considered, but only their relation to "interpreted data."

Thus "global warming" is called a pressing danger even though measurements by satellite show only a slight change—downward. Crime is called a result of poverty, even though poorer societies have less crime than ours. Equality is called a basic human desire by people who dream of getting rich.

Behind the wall, a "closed, deductive" system like mathematics seems the paragon of mental skill. Logical is the same as true; illogical the same as false. It is thought na´ve and unconvincing to say, "I know it is true because I saw it." You only know you saw it if you can deduce it from a premise provided by an authority. Why do you have to learn everything the hard way? Because there is as yet no Theory of Everything to consult.

No one denies, however, that while you perfect your closed, deductive system, you must get food and shelter from open, inductive reality. You must be able to see the truth, say the truth, and act on the truth. You need the skill of seeing each thing in relation to all things—not all things on one side of the wall, but all things.

Saying that a life of thought is superior to a life of experience is like saying that a life of cooking is superior to a life of eating. Thought and experience are not separate processes; they are parts of the same process. The ivory tower approach gets the essence of life wrong: instead of action, reaction.

Taking ideas seriously is a good step toward integrating thought with the rest of action—tearing down the wall. But if those ideas are based on other ideas instead of on direct observation and sensory evidence, the wall will remain. Learning will still come the hard way. No amount of shuffling around ideas in the mind will ever substitute for experience of what things are, what they do, how they fit together. Thinking your life is not a substitute for living it.


To get rid of the abstract approach to life, practice matching up what you think with the rest of what you do. If you play any sport seriously, you already know how to do that. Simply consider what "playing to win" means.

You are playing hard tennis against an expert opponent, and you really want to win. But that bird sitting in that tree is one you've never seen before, and could that car driving up be one of the new XT's? Why is that plane flying so low, and who is that watching the court, and—game, set, match for your opponent.

The reality behind the metaphor of building mental walls is that you are trying to accomplish the living of a life while scattering your thoughts at random. You are violating the unity of thought.

Mental skill examines each thing in the context of all things. When a particular subject is at the center of attention, everything else is viewed in relation to that subject. When contexts are compared, then the relation is at the center of attention, and everything else is viewed in relation to that. You take account of everything at all times, because your words are defined in a way that does so, and your thinking is integrated. Everything in mind is related to what is at the center of attention.

The mental wall consists of an attempt to have unrelated centers of attention. One center is for living this moment, while another center is occupied with abstractions unrelated to this moment. Your thinking is not unified, but confused. It is not hierarchical, but disorderly. With your thoughts scattered, learning is difficult. You can only do it the hard way.

Suppose you get a little nervous about muggings in the mall. You read an article which aims at teaching you how to avoid attack: keep packages clamped under your arm, be aware of how close others are to you, stay in brightly lit areas, and so on. But why is the world arranged so badly that one needs to study such things? It's not right that malls are dangerous! The owners should be held responsible!

Your mind veered toward abstract contemplation, not considered in relation to personal experience. You read the words passively. They are just words; they do not name things you see yourself doing. You learn nothing from them. Perhaps you will learn something in the mall, at the cost of your wallet.

Mental skill reads the words actively, in the context of putting them to use. How would I keep things clamped under my arm? Let's see, I usually carry things this way; how does that compare with what this says? How sensitive am I to the closeness of others? How brightly lit is my favorite mall? Can I think of dark spots to avoid?

Once you have learned what you want from the book, then your center of attention can widen. "I'm going to take this author's advice and complain to the owner of the mall if there are menacing characters hanging around. Indifference like that makes everything dangerous." You consider the broader issues in relation to your personal experience.

Skilled thinking can widen and narrow at will until it has considered the entire context in the light of everything relevant, while keeping the original purpose firmly in view. It does not crawl around the field of attention like a snail on a leaf; it zooms in and out while keeping the relationships clear. The attention is not scattered and passive, but controlled and active.

The scattered thinker imagines that words on a page will push information into a mind. The focused thinker expects to pull information off the page and fit it in. The passive thinker wants to be told information that will push its way in. The active thinker wants to pull information in so it won't have to be learned the hard way. The unskilled thinker wants the meaning of experience to push through inessential details. The skilled thinker learns how to pull the meaning into the clear by identifying essentials.

Skilled thinkers profit by visualizing what the hard way might be, and taking steps to avoid it. They do not expect to just think about living. They expect to live.

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