In my previous post, I suggested that Josh Waitzkin’s techniques for optimized mental performance could be unpacked by putting them in light of Lonergan’s philosophy of understanding (and the long tradition of reflection to which he contributed). I want to make good on that suggestion here.

I mentioned previously that for Josh Waitzkin—a chess prodigy, Tai Chi push hands champion, and learning optimization consultant—high-level mental performance is a matter of finding a way into “flow” states, where one attends to and thinks about some unfolding circumstance as it is unfolding, without “stopping to think.”

This means Waitzkin cannot simply give information to his clients. Waitzkin cannot just teach his clients concepts. In the top tiers of their respective fields, Waitzkin’s clients are likely to get themselves into situations where specific concepts just do not apply, and then what would they do? Instead, Waitzkin trains them how to learn for themselves and to do so under pressure in real time. As we saw before, the foundation of his learning technique is attention, and specifically refined somatic—that is, bodily­­—awareness.


What is learning?

This emphasis on attention is at least as old as Aristotle. Aristotle taught that understanding is a matter of finding what one desires to know in (to use his Greek word) phantasm—in images, in what appears. Today, we might follow Lonergan in saying that people have insight into data. And so Waitzkin is updating a very ancient notion for our high-information and high-speed society: if you want to understand what’s going on, you need concrete data. And if you want to understand complex, quickly changing situations, you need the most complete and most up-to-date data. Having the data does not guarantee you’ll understand it correctly, but not having it makes it very probable—almost certain—that you won’t.

Waitzkin also hits on something that Aristotle and later Thomas Aquinas knew: trying to understand understanding—that is, trying to learn what learning is—cannot be basically different from understanding, say, why rocks fall down when you drop them, or what your opponent will likely do next in a game of chess, or what the market is likely to do on Wednesday. That is, if learning what learning is worked completely differently than learning other things, how could you be sure that what you had was real understanding at all?

No, real insight comes from investigating data, and so insight into insight itself can only come after you have gathered data on what learning is.

Now, you are not likely to find very many people who would say they have never understood anything, but surely lots of people would struggle to tell you what “the experience of coming to understand” is like, specifically. They could tell you about where they were, and what they were trying to figure out, what they came up with, but if you pushed them to describe to you the act of understanding itself, they will likely run aground. Just what are they supposed to be describing and how are they supposed to be paying attention to it?


Learning from the data our bodies provide

Waitzkin takes his clients to the gym to counteract this problem. Waitzkin discovered that the data on learning are found in the experience we have—from the inside, so to speak—of being in our bodies. He tells Tim Ferriss:

A huge part of the training is in their physiological introspective sensitivity; that’s their somatic awareness and that’s the foundational training. Why? First of all, we can’t just separate our mind and our body… We intuitively can feel things way before we are ‘consciously’ aware of them… If you are an investor, you can sense danger, you can sense opportunity, but you need to have “stilled your waters” internally to feel the subtle changes inside of you that would be opportunity, or the crystallization of complex ideas, or danger, or the onset of cognitive bias.

In other words, our insights are a species of what the psychologist Eugene Gendlin would call “body-feelings.” They are meanings that we feel. And because we feel them, they are part of the field of data we can investigate. They are given among what Lonergan calls the “data of consciousness.”

Can you remember a time you were telling someone a story and suddenly you couldn’t recall a word or a name? Perhaps your conversation partner tried to be helpful, rattling off possible names or words. If at first those guesses were off the mark, what did you say? Something like “no, that’s not it.” But if you’d really forgotten, how did you know that “parapet” or “calumny” or “Vincent” were wrong? Because they didn’t feel right, did they? The idea of the right thing or notion or person was present to you somehow as a feeling in your body—Gendlin would say, as a “felt meaning”—and the symbol for it had wandered away from you. When you finally did remember the word or name, you probably moved on in relief and so you may not have noticed that you accepted it because it felt right.

The problem comes when we only feel our insights and don’t ask ourselves what they mean, or even pay attention to the fact that we are feeling them. This is why developing “physiological introspective sensitivity” is important to Waitzkin: because if you aren’t accustomed to paying attention to the subtle “body-feelings” in which your insights appear to you, you can overlook them entirely. Or, if you notice something is going on, but you have to stop and do a lot of work to identify and interrogate them, now you’re behind on real-time, real-world circumstances. For high-level performers, that’s a liability that can make the difference winning and losing, between a return on your investment and bankruptcy.

In my next post, we will talk about why having this kind of increased body awareness in one’s learning process is, as I quoted Waitzkin in my first post, “a return to a more natural state” and a matter of “getting out of our own way.”