How We Know What We Know 

Contemplative Psychology understands cognition as a state or experience of knowing. Cognition includes all conscious and unconscious processes by which knowledge is acquired, such as sensing, feeling, perceiving, recognizing, conceptualizing, and logical reasoning. How we know what we know is highly nuanced and a topic of inquiry in Karuna Training. 

Knowing is something to question and examine, especially in an era of false truths, fake news, information overload, and rampant conspiracy theories. However, truth is not something I wish to take on in this newsletter, but we are concerned with the pathways we develop in which we come to sense, feel, discern, belief, and act from such knowledge. 

Understanding what we know takes present-moment investigation; in Karuna Training, that translates into sitting silently in meditation. Learning to look and feel inward, psychically, and not believing everything we think is a practice of becoming familiar with our mind and its inhabitants: sensations, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and concepts.

Possessing knowledge is often misinterpreted as having ‘expertise’ in a specific topic, earning a degree, or being trained in a particular field like medicine. However, that kind of knowing is a limited way of defining knowledge and is somewhat parochial.  Possessing expertise can be acquired and performed but doesn’t consistently incorporate one’s perceptive intuitive heart experience. 

In Contemplative Psychology, we embrace knowledge as a marriage of intuition and intellect, a kind of melding the heart and mind together, applied to present moment circumstances. For example, suppose someone is knowledgeable about Canadian Geese and knows their seasonal migration patterns and breeding habits. In that case, that person is then asked to explain the recent change in migration patterns due to climate change. To honestly know and understand Canadian geese, the expert must practice not-knowing, an open-minded inquiry into finding out the multiple factors that contribute to the migration patterns of Canada Geese. Actual knowledge requires the space of not knowing to get at a legitimate answer. 

In Karuna Training, we investigate our minds through five ways of knowing, or five different capacities of mind, an extrapolation of the Five Buddha Family Wisdom Mandala. The Buddha Family Mandala offers an ancient understanding of mental capacities that contribute to our conditioned mental habits, which is always at play when examining how we know what we know. 

In other words, we can become familiar with the habituated mental capacities we use to know what we know. 

It's not the same for everyone how we come to know something. We are all conditioned by our cultural, familial, and lived environments. In addition, we are highly influenced by those we surround ourselves with, not to mention lifetimes of conditioned consciousness.

The five ways of knowing include; embodiment (sense knowing), emotional (felt knowing), cognitive (discernment knowing), qualitative (contextual knowing), and active     (knowing what to do).  I will address these five ways of knowing briefly here, but in Karuna Training, we’re dedicated to familiarizing ourselves with all-knowing styles. 

Embodiment or sense knowing stimulates our awareness of our physical body’s sensations. We can train in becoming more sensitized to our mind’s sensing habits and conditioning. For example, when we pet our dog, we know our animal through unconscious sensations. Embodied knowing invites us into our non-dual natures with the world and is something we train intensely in Karuna to awaken what is often a much-ignored way of accessing our truths. 

Emotional knowledge,e requires us to meet emotional energy as it first arises in the body instead of figuring out what the emotion is and why we are feeling it. We access emotional knowing through feeling. Navigating difficult emotions takes intensity capacity to tolerate emotions we would rather suppress. Feelings like anger, jealousy, or pride are often repressed and managed internally. Another habitual approach would be to act out certain emotions, so everyone knows how we feel by our emotive demeanor. From the perspective of Contemplative Psychology, when we act out emotions, we add fuel to the fire. 

Wisdom and knowledge are different things. Emotional knowing arises by feeling our feelings directly in our bodies in the present moment as they are occurring.  For example, I sense when I am upset about something long before naming an emotion in my body. I often notice a tickling in the back of my neck and head; what feels like I’m growing horns, and when I sense that sensation, I know anger, irritation, and or discontent is brewing within, long before I can cognize any emotion. Emotions are dynamic by nature; they become wisdom when we learn to meet them directly. The topic of wisdom is for another newsletter, but in Contemplative Psychology, wisdom doesn’t belong to us and can be accessed through selflessness. 

Discernment knowing is more conscious and uses our sense perceptions to either accept, reject or ignore our experience in the present moment. We habituate what we like and dislike through discernment. For instance, I don’t like radishes, and I do like strawberries through my taste experience. I like rock and roll and dislike live musicals through experience, but when we habituate this type of knowledge, we might be cutting off experience because we’ve made a decision. We apply our discernment knowing layered over embodiment and emotional knowing. We have all the pathways of accumulating knowledge within us, and it can seem arbitrary to separate them. Still, they are different functions of the mind, with which we can become familiar through meditation and contemplative study. 

Qualitative knowledge has to do with the value and worthiness we place on the world. As humans, we naturally compare ourselves to the greater whole of our family, society, and culture.  Qualitative knowing brings conditioned biases toward ideas of status and worth applied to ourselves and others. This qualitative knowing is often not conscious but a set of incorporated notions that produce patterns for how we hold ourselves in comparison to others and, eventually, how we treat others. For example, being courteous to others rises from qualitative knowledge. 

We are social animals and learn qualitative knowledge through interactions and relationships with others. For example, we know our place in a company’s hierarchical structure on the first day of work without anyone explaining the hierarchy to us. We know our status or worth in the greater whole through sensations, feelings, discernment, and our qualitative conditioning. Cultural biases condition this qualitative knowledge. We learn to know our place in society by emphasizing quality and value in various circumstances. As a result, we tend to carry our qualitative knowledge into all situations in life, whether applicable or not. 

Finally, active knowing, or knowing what to do, is arrived at or not based on how the other four ways of knowing have conditioned us.  Knowing what to do is not easy and is often discovered through trial and error. We do and will make mistakes when it comes to active knowing. Far too often, we do not allow for making mistakes along the way and get caught in auxiliary habits of self-blame, shame, and guilt because we have some idea we should know better.  Knowing what to do is culturally and societally conditioned and is often a source of feeling driven or lost; we often feel incompetent when we don’t know what to do.  

Of course, these five aspects of knowing all work together. Karuna Training explores how conditioned mind modalities dominate our cognitive style. When we sit in meditation, we’re attuning to the present moment fresh, and there we can unravel mental conditioning and tune in to what we know at this moment alone. At this moment, I sense a restlessness in my body. At this moment, I feel gloomy or cheerful. At this moment, I open to my sense perceptions, discernment, and cognitions and find worthiness in simplicity. At this moment, I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing. When we learn to rest in the freshness of the present moment, again and again, we are liberating our mental conditioning of how we know what we know. 

Karuna is dedicated to becoming familiar with our mind’s habits through meditation. We practice inquiry with our own and others’ styles through community and interactions with others. Ultimately we learn to take refuge in not knowing, a state of mind which is open and aware that our conditioned ways of knowing cloud what we know. 

We welcome you to our next cohort beginning in May 20022 to start a journey of embodied contemplative inquiry; Spots are limited... Won’t you join us in not knowing?

Article written by Melissa Moore

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