In a previous post, I explored how learning optimization consultant Josh Waitzkin trains his clients to increase their bodily awareness as a way to increase their mental performance. I followed that up with a post about how the effectiveness of Waitzkin’s practice can be explained by Aristotle and Lonergan’s theories of understanding. In this post, I want to underline something I was only able to mention briefly before.


Overcoming mental blocks and barriers

There is a tendency to think of great minds as somehow superhuman. Science fiction authors have great fun playing with this tendency, in the form of cyborgs, androids, and artificial intelligence. (In fact, there are some good reasons to think about our highest mental potential as more than merely human in a certain respect—Aristotle did—but that’s a post for another day.)

The problem is that thinking of great intellectuals as superhuman can lead us away from realizing our own intellectual possibilities. Discussing the somatic sensitivity he works to cultivate in clients, Waitzkin says,

When we’re thinking about cultivating [this] awareness, I think a lot of this relates to a return to a more natural state—this isn’t so much about learning as un-learning; getting out of our own way; releasing obstructions. I think about the training process as unobstructed self-expression… It is most foundational to develop a mindfulness practice, to cultivate the ability to sense the [subtlest] ripples of human experience.

Surely the intellectual “flow” Waitzkin finds playing, for example, 40 games of chess at once seems decidedly unnatural. But Waitzkin seems to think that this is him being the most himself possible. It is, as he says, “unobstructed self-expression.”

There’s a paradox here: when Waitzkin or any of us can’t manage to find that flow state in which we do the deep work of thinking, he says that the obstruction in need of removing is ourselves—we need to “get out of our own way.” But how can it be that the thing in the way of my unobstructed self-expression is the self to be expressed? Isn’t that a contradiction? For this, we need some distinctions and, as Robert Sokolowski says, philosophy is in large part the art of making distinctions.


Getting out of your own way

When we learn, we change. In a way, our whole world changes.

Lonergan scholar Robert Doran told me once that while he and Lonergan were watching a baseball game, Lonergan turned and asked him if he’d ever thought about the physics of a throw from third base to first. Doran had to admit he had not. But as those who have read the early chapters of Lonergan’s Insight can attest, Lonergan knew something about modern physics, and so he could appreciate a double play both for how it changed the dynamics of the game and for the dynamics of acceleration.

Does this mean I’m a new person every time I learn something new? Is this self the self being expressed? And if so, what about the self that supposedly needs to get out of the way?

Here’s our distinction: when I learn, I go beyond the person I was before, but I am still the one going beyond. Or, as Lonergan says, I am transcending myself.

Learning, in other words, is self-transcendence. So Lonergan distinguishes between the “self transcended” (that is, the self I was before I learned this or that) and the “self transcending” (the self that passes from a world, for example, not enriched by a knowledge of physics into a new world that is).

Philosophical questions of identity are complicated, but Lonergan thinks that our desire to learn is one of the core things staying the same as we learn and grow and develop. It is that desire we meet in the insistent (but also disorganized) questions of children. It is that desire we feel as a tension in our bodies when we have a question but we’re not sure yet what to ask. It is that desire that nudges us to push for the truth and not just a plausible tale.

This desire is both what persists as my world is transformed by what I learn and the thing that drives the learning, that pushes the self transcended to become the self transcending. We can ignore it, stifle it, or neglect it, but it will always be there waiting for us if we get out of its way.


What, though, does it mean to say that the desire to know, this thing driving us to “go beyond” ourselves, can be obstructed? And how does a more subtle sense of our embodied mind help us remove those obstructions? That will be the topic of my next post.