Article from

First published on 30 July 2007

Alternate Ways of Knowing

by John Davis

'Was it a vision or a waking dream?
Fled is that music. Do I wake or sleep?
John Keats

Fifteen years ago in a park in lower Manhattan, I was laying on my stomach in the grass, with my shirt off, reading a book called, Belonging to the Universe. The book discussed the life of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the ecology movement. He was famous for his astonishing ability to communicate with animals, even making friends with a she wolf. Captivated by his story, I had a yearning to be able to communicate with the animals as he had done.

Enjoying the lazy afternoon, hearing the shouts of the children splashing in the pool, observing the play of the light on the leaves of the trees, I asked myself 'what would it be like to be able to talk to the animals?' Lo and behold, as soon as I asked the question, a bird landed a few feet from me. It was a small black bird with gold flecks on its wings, a very common bird, I'd seen many times before but I knew on this occasion I was in the presence of something uncanny. As the bird looked at me I felt a thrill of recognition. The bird seemed as curious about me as I was about him. The bird perched on my butt, then slowly hopped up my bare back. I felt its delicate little claws, touch each vertebra. A wave of energy went up and down my spine. The little fellow perched on my shoulder. I held my breath. He was an inch away from my face. We were eye to eye. Then the most amazing thing happened. He perched on my head and began to sing. He had a glorious, huge sound for such a tiny creature. He was pure ecstasy. Then he pooped on my head and flew away!

Overjoyed, I looked around me to see if there had been any witnesses. No one was near by. I went into a state of profound exaltation until it hit me that I had no idea what this experience was supposed to mean. I felt a great responsibility to resolve the paradox that the experience presented to me. How was I to do this?

The map is a performance by the territory

Searching for an adequate map for alternate ways of knowing has been a life long quest for me. We can, as T. S Eliot said, "Have the experience and miss the meaning." Without the meaning the experience can get lost and has no transformative impact on the individual or the culture. Also, I have found, without a community to share it with such 'anomalies' have little impact on the larger system. I felt at that time, fifteen years ago, that I was alone in my quest. I was afraid to share this experience, and many other episodes of a similar nature, for I had no explanation for them. Having faith in many allies, both visible and invisible, I'd like to point out, in this article, some of the perils and the joys of this map making process.

This is how I viewed the maps that were given to me. Science only trusts 'objective' third person accounts. Alternate ways of knowing such as I described above would be dismissed as too subjective in the rational and post modern world. If it can't be measured or weighed or repeated in a lab it isn't real.

Then there is religion. I had a great mistrust of spiritual gurus who claimed superior knowledge about such subjective experience. The ones I talked to relied heavily on pre ordained doctrines. No help there. Having been exposed to 'shallow' science and 'shallow' religion I felt there was no place to rest my weary head. I would never tell a therapist about these episodes. I feared they would put me on Prozac. Years went by as I took trainings, worked with clients, taught workshops on NLP, Hypnosis, Reiki. I felt I made little progress on the big question. In desperation, deeply shaken after witnessing the collapse of the two Towers, I started a novel, hoping that I could work out these personal experiences in the safety zone of fiction. The novel, however, was getting stuck. I was writing about a character who suffered from the same paradox I had and he was in as big a jam as I was.

Luckily, I saw in the Omega catalogue an invitation to do an intensive workshop on Symbolic Modeling with Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. I was curious. I read their book and something 'clicked'. The following summer I made it to Omega and am I glad I did. I hesitate to fall into hyperbole but I feel Symbolic Modeling saved my sanity.

Symbolic Modeling safe guards the client and the facilitator from getting caught up in the under tow of projections and interpretations. The effort of having to explain oneself in a way that you think the other person can understand is eliminated. This allows the client the leisure to explore her own metaphors without being interrupted by the facilitator's well intentioned interventions. By entering the metaphorical realm I was released from those usual social constraints I took so much for granted. As a result, I found myself in a deeper relationship to my Self and this deepened considerably the rapport I felt with others. It was like lifting off the ground in a lucid dream and starting to fly, surveying the territory from a bird's eye view. The good news is that through Symbolic Modeling, I found a vision I can share. As a facilitator and as client I have experienced some extraordinary transformations. Language, thought, body, culture come together when we enter our own or another's metaphorical landscape. (Kovesces, 2002) In the rest of this article I'd like to briefly outline some of the lessons I've learned through this practice and speculate how we might start to model alternate ways of knowing. Such modeling could be of great help to artists, writers, performers, entrepreneurs and philosophers of mind.

The neurosurgeon's headache

I would like to emphasize how urgent, I believe, our epistemological crisis is by telling another story. Elizabeth Mayer, a psychoanalyst, treated a patient who was a successful brain surgeon. He suffered from severe head aches. There was no physical cause for his head aches. He had a happy marriage and two great children but the headaches were destroying his life. His success rate as a surgeon was 100%! Mayer asked if he ever taught medical students his amazing diagnostic skill. This question upset him. He reported that he gave up teaching even though he loved it because he could never divulge how he really diagnosed patients. He told her he had never told anyone how he achieved that 100% success rate. He said the way he did it was to stand behind his patient's head and wait for a white light to appear. The white light would direct him to do the surgery. If no white light appeared he knew surgery wouldn't work. He was suffering from a painful paradox. As a doctor his amazing ability did not fit the medical model he was supposed to teach. Mayer asked him when the head aches began. They began, he said, when he stopped teaching. (Mayer, 2005)

This is an example of how bad epistemology can turn into a real headache. Dominated by 'shallow' science and' shallow' religion, many of us who have experienced alternate ways of knowing (and you know who you are) are fearful of expressing that knowing in traditional business or academic settings. There is a great fear of 'rocking the boat'. What would I like to have happen? I would like to model the structure of these binds and release the creative energies that are trapped in dualistic thinking.

Modeling the structure, for example, of the doctor's binding pattern would have been a great benefit to him and to his profession. I wonder what would have happened if a skilled modeler had been there? I would love to have asked the doctor about that white light. Does that white light have a size or a shape? What happens right before the white light? And where does that white light come from? And is there a relationship between that white light and the headache? I would go one step further. Is there a relationship between that white light and my experience of being serenaded and pooped on by my fine feathered friend? In these two instances I am treating real life experiences as if they were metaphorical. The white light experience and my bird/man communication are I believe anomalous experiences that reveal a paradigm shift that is happening.

I hope these musings will stir other people to share and investigate their alternate ways of knowing. I believe it is crucial that we bring our private experiences of alternate ways of knowing into the public domain. We can then create communities that will rejuvenate our troubled relationships to each other, to God and to the environment.

Self disclosure can be a big risk, of course. Refusing to disclose your self can also be a big risk. 'We must, 'as Rilke said,' give birth to our images.' I would invite the reader to muse with me on the vast implications of what could happen if we were able to integrate these anomalous experiences. If we don't do it who will? I also offer a program for developing some of the skills necessary for realizing such a possibility.

Radical unknowing

First, we must learn how to tune into the ineffable. This is a state of radical unknowing. Being comfortable with this state is essential to being a good meditator or an effective modeler. Secondly, we need to learn how to listen to language for those embedded metaphors that reveal how the mind works. Penny Tompkins told us in a workshop at Omega that you cannot transform, until you have a form. Symbolic Modeling explores the power of form. Once that form is embodied by developing the qualities and attributes of our metaphors, we can learn how the Self is organized around these images and symbols. Having developed the form, we need to learn to live with out form, as the great mystics and sages have done. Live without form? How do you do that? You already live without form. Where do you go when you go to sleep at night? You dream, morphing into any shape your soul desires. You also enter dreamless sleep which mirrors what occurs in meditation. You disappear even though your body is still functioning, asleep in your bed.

But you might object, how can we 'experience' formlessness in meditation and dreamless sleep? 'Experience' is a loaded term in this context. Language relies on subject/ object. Non dual practices transcend the rational mind, which is embedded in language. Language forces us to pay attention to the subject/object dichotomy. This paradox of how to use language to convey what is beyond language is investigated in non dual traditions, with a wide variety of metaphors. The creative tension between form and formless has been captured by great mystics through out the ages. They must resort to metaphor. How else can they express the ineffable? (Sayles, 2001)

'My eye is a window. The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.' Meister Eckhardt

"Enlightenment is when the salt doll goes to the ocean and disappears." Ramana Maharshi

"I don't want to become sugar. I want to eat sugar!" Ramakrishna

Each of these metaphors point to a trans rational knowing. They invite us to use our imaginations. I have had some clients refer to a relationship to a void. They often are baffled by how to locate themselves in such an experience. They often describe that 'it' is both inside and outside, a bit of a paradox. Self generated metaphors help to express this paradox. For example one client spoke of an open door. On what side of it he had his aspirations and desires. On the other side of the door everything disappeared, even the door vanished. This was his way of giving a form to the paradox. I believe that meditation supplemented with Symbolic Modeling could be an effective program to expand our understanding of mind and nature.

When you get confused about how to integrate alternate ways of knowing with conventional ways I'd invite you to consider that that famous gestalt figure that shifts from being a vase to profiles of two faces depending on how it is viewed. To hold both views simultaneously proves impossible. It is possible, however, to be able to go back and forth, and this fluid figure/ground exploration may help us integrate alternate ways of knowing with conventional ways of knowing. Our different ways of knowing need not collide as they did for the neurosurgeon with the headache. (Mayer, 2007)

I am convinced that community is a necessary condition for this integration to happen. We need to find a new vocabulary that reflects our complex, post modern world. Ken Wilber argues that science, religion and art were fused during the Middle Ages, differentiated in the Modern era and that the great task before us, now, in the post modern era is to integrate these different ways of knowing. Science has been privileged for a number of reasons and this has thrown us seriously off balance. To become 'deep' science, a trialogue with other ways of knowing must occur. This is the heart of the Integral approach. (Wilber, 2001)

This is great news. We have gotten to the point in our evolution that some of us, as conscious beings, can reflect on our own consciousness. Gregory Bateson said, twenty five years ago, that this is where angels fear to tread. What is the role of consciousness in human affairs? I'd like to offer the following illustrations of three models of communication. Maybe we can catch a glimpse of how that formless consciousness might be caught in the act.

Three models of intersubjectivity

Figure 1. The Cartesian model. Separate subjects exchange linguistic tokens or symbols. Speaker A sends to receiver B, who decodes message. Speaker B sends to receiver A, etc.

Figure 2 The Participation Model. Two subjects communicate through their presence. Each subject follows and leads, creating a blended identity. The subjects are 'structurally coupled' with their environment and each other. The subjects are independent but they influence each other.

Figure 3. The Non Dual model. Language, thought, bird, song, co arise. The subjects are interdependent. Everyone and everything emerges out of a relational field. There is no independent subject.

Maybe there is a way of honoring all of these models of communication. A 'deep' Science, instead of censoring anomalous experiences, would study it. Science isn't a subject matter it is a method of inquiry. Deep science, would have to face up to anomalies that are produced by conscious beings. Consciousness can't be ignored. This is already happening as brave souls such as Dr Richard Moss, Dr. Marilyn Schlitz and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz are speaking out for a new rationality. These mystic/scientists acknowledged that consciousness does not emerge from any physical process, nor can consciousness be reduced to the objective brain. We will continue to find correlations between brain and consciousness. We will learn a great deal more about the 'mechanisms of mind', but there is much more going on than that. Recent studies demonstrate how changing thoughts actually change the physical brain. The collision between different epistemologies could be avoided. The good doctor could let go of his headache. (Schwartz, 2005, Siegel, 2007, De Quincey 2005)

For educators and therapists these integrations could be liberating, too. We could balance our ways of knowing with our ways of being. In an uncertain world we could learn how to move towards optimal well being by focusing on our desired outcomes rather than trying to fix our problems. (Lawley and Tompkins, 2000) We could learn how to know and perhaps even how to love our being. Thus, we could engage in an ontological epistemology. (Luvmoor, 2006) When nature and mind are in harmony ever more beautiful displays might emerge out of the vast matrix of our relational field. Symbolic Modeling and other practices can expedite this process.

For those on a spiritual path, this would be a great relief. New methods of inquiry would help us spiritual seekers to avoid much unnecessary suffering. Since most of us these days don't live in monasteries, integrating spiritual dimensions with every day psychological reality has been terribly difficult. With an integral approach I believe many more of us can pass through those 'dark nights' without the prolonged agony that so much spiritual literature seems obsessed with. (Marion, 2004).Telepathy, remote viewing, clairvoyance, lucid dreams, out of body experiences, healing at a distance, might become accepted as ordinary. These experiences are only anomalies when we cling to only one way of viewing reality.

And finally, there is the world of art. The great poets and musicians have always been among us, pointing out the ineffable. I once played Horatio, in an off Broadway production of Hamlet many years ago. Hamlet, at the end of the play, contemplating his own mortality, turns to his best friend, Horatio, and says "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow; If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come-the readiness is all." Every performance I got goose bumps as I lived in that great word- music. Great theatre transforms us. Shakespeare is the ineffable!

These are just hunches that I want to put out there. I look forward to hearing what other folks are discovering as we refine our modeling processes. 'The readiness is all.' Are we ready? How will we ever know if we don't take a chance? I would like to report, in a shameless bit of self promotion, that I have finished my first novel. It is called, Howling in Ecstasy Under the Texas Moon. I hope you will be finding it in your local bookstore in the near future.

© 2007, John Davies


Michael A. Sayles, Mystical Languages of Unknowing, University of Chicago Press, 1994
Zoltan Kovecses, Metaphor, Oxford Press, 2002
Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph.D, Extraordinary Knowing, Bantam Books, 2007
Jeffery Schwartz, M.D., The Mind & The Brain, Regan Books, 2002
Daniel j. Siegel, The Mindful Brain, W.W Norton& Company, 2007
Christian De Quincey, Radical Ways of Knowing, 2005
Ba Luvmour, Optimal Parenting, Sentient Publications, 2006
James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind, 2000
Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything, Shambala, 2000


John DaviesJohn is a Master Practitioner of NLP and Ericksonian Hypnosis. He co directed the New York Theatre Exchange. He led self help support groups at the Gays Men's Health Crisis. He has taught Reiki, NLP, meditation. He coaches actors, writers and entrepreneurs. He is creating a self development workshop, The Stranger Within which will utilize meditation and Symbolic Modeling to explore alternate ways of knowing. He can be contacted at: johndavis54[at]verizon[dot]net  

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