Think Different Part II: On the Nature of Intelligence


Can We Become Smarter?

(Based on Samach-Vav ,Part 23 )

There are twelve days to go in our 49-day journey between Passover and Shavuot, when we recreate the journey of the Jewish people 3319 year ago, as they left Egypt on their way to Sinai. At Sinai we were empowered with the ability to expand our limited channels of human consciousness and access higher states of consciousness, reaching into the collective unconscious and into the Divine Source of all reality.

As we get closer to recreating the Sinai experience during the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, we will now explore, in this second of a two-part article, the two ways that allow us to enter into the collective unconsciousness, as discussed in Samach-Vav. Click here for part I.

Last week we discussed the nature of human intellect: Like water dripping from a faucet, the unconscious mind releases, drop by drop, ideas into the conscious mind.

The question is whether we are simply passive recipients of the output of the dripping valve of insight? Can we facilitate the inspirational process? Can we expand the channels and open the valve wider to access more of the collective unconscious?

Based on the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers, “turn it and turn it for everything is in it,” Samach-Vav explains that there are two primary ways to twist and extract deeper levels of the unconscious and expand the channels of consciousness: The first “turn it” is through exertion. The second and even deeper “turn it” is through humility.

Let us now explore these two methods.

Every mind has a certain defined capacity to understand ideas, comprehend concepts and to process and assimilate information. Each mind has its own unique “personality” – shaped by many factors, including genes, education, social and cultural influences.

In psycho-spiritual terms: Every individual mind receives its own particular flow (unique both in quantity and quality) from the “source of wisdom,” the collective unconscious. For some, ideas flow easily; others are not innovators, but excel at developing pre-existing ideas. Some minds are analytical, others instinctive, some have quick minds, others may be slower but more thorough. We have minds that are, deep, broad, creative, visionary, abstract, theoretical and practical. The list goes on.

But all these distinctions are based on the mind’s natural (and nurtured) capacity. Animals, for instance, don’t have the ability to go beyond their natural, inherent instincts. How about humans?

We have the power to transcend our natural boundaries; to stretch our minds and intellectual horizons, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. We do so through two ways.

The first is exertion. Exertion is the difficult process of straining and pushing the mind beyond its natural limits. As Edison said:

“Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

By exercising your muscles you not only loosen them up, you develop and expand their possibilities. The same with exercising the mind: Through deep concentration and mental strain, you force open and widen the channels that allow more of the unconscious to flow into your consciousness.

Think of the unconscious as a state of being encased inside an impenetrable, rock-like container. The only way in is to apply strong pressure, to break open the “box” and access what is within. Like pressing an olive or a grape, exertion is necessary to force out the juices locked within.

A good mind, with its own natural ability and no extra effort, can only access the stream of knowledge and inspiration which naturally flows from the unconscious source of wisdom, moderated by the “valve” that controls the flow. The best mind will not reach its ultimate potential without exertion. By pushing your mind, in the vigorous effort of struggling with a concept beyond you, studying it from different angles, challenging the idea with questions and counter questions, weighing all the arguments and counter-arguments – by experiencing the deep frustration and chaos in the process of researching a complex problem – all this hard effort stretches the boundaries and expands the channels, opening the valve wider to access the unconscious source of wisdom, allowing in new depths of understanding into your consciousness. The crystallization of a concept is in direct proportion to the amount of exertion applied to comprehend the thought.

We thus have two forms of comprehension: Wisdom that comes naturally without exertion, and wisdom that comes through exertion. Even though both types of understanding are rooted in the unconscious mind, nevertheless they express two different dimensions of the concealed unconscious. An example of the two is the difference between a white-hot coal and a flint stone. The fire in the coal is hidden, but it exists in the coal. All you need to do is fan the coal and the flame will emerge. In a flint stone no physical fire exists. However by striking it with force, you can release its spark. Because the fire in the coal has substance, it also is limited and finite: At some point the coal will burn out. By contrast the flint stone, not having a flame of substance, can be struck again and again and continuously release sparks.

The way to tap the unlimited reservoirs of intellectual energy within the “undefined unconscious” is through pressure and force (as one strikes the flint stone) – the intellectual exertion applied to comprehend the ideas. The deeper the questions and contradictions, all the more refined and clearer is the resulting comprehension. The more intense the challenge and force applied, the more profound are the ideas that come flowing out of the “hidden essence” (“helem ha’atzmi”).

However, as deep as mental exertion may reach, it ultimately has its limits.

A second, more powerful, method to enter into the unconscious and beyond is called humility.

Humility is the process of getting your ego-consciousness out of the way, thus allowing in the higher state of unconsciousness and reaching the ultimate truth.

A fascinating Talmud captures the power of humility in the intellectual pursuit: Three years the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel disputed… Finally a heavenly voice was heard to the effect that both schools expressed the words of the living G-d, but Halacha (the final ruling) prevails according to the school of Hillel. Now if it be true that both schools expressed the words of the living G-d, why should the school of Hillel be thus favored? Because the members of the school of Hillel were modest and patient, and would always repeat the words of the school of Shammai. Moreover, they also always gave the school of Shammai precedence when citing their teachings… From this we learn, that everyone who makes himself humble is raised up by G-d, and one who is arrogant is humbled by G-d. He who pursues greatness, the greatness eludes him, and he who avoids greatness is sought by greatness (Eruvin 13b).

Modesty is a very powerful virtue. But why is it the factor that determines the law? It would seem that the final ruling should follow the scholar with the better arguments and sharper mind, not necessarily the humbler one?

To answer this important question, we must return to the definition of wisdom. What is ultimate wisdom? If true wisdom is only mind based – defined by knowledge and understanding, then of course we would follow the conclusions of the person with the greatest brain power. The true definition of wisdom, however, is something far greater than the mind alone; it is the search for truth. And in the search for truth we need more than a good brain.

How does one find truth? Truth can only be found through objectivity. The greatest mind, biased and subjective, will not find truth.

“Bias blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the tongue of the righteous.”

On the contrary: the better the mind, the more biased it can become, and the better it hides its tracks, creatively finding every argument to justify its biased position.

Humility is the key ingredient to reach an objective result. The school of Shammai may have been brighter, sharper, presenting better arguments. But the school of Hillel was humbler, “modest and patient,” and therefore could be trusted more to arrive at an objective conclusion.

Both schools taught the “words of the living G-d,” as in the name Elokim, both expressed Divine truths and revelations. But only the humbler one was able to reach the Divine Essence.

But didn’t the school of Shammai also exert themselves in their academic pursuits, thus reaching beyond their natural intellectual abilities? Indeed they did. However, exertion produced by human effort, driven by the pleasure of the intellectual pursuit for clarity, will only go as far as the pleasure desires, not more. The revealed wisdom will be in direct proportion to the exertion applied. As a product, after all, of human effort, the exertion can only be a strong as the person himself.

But when the exertion is driven by humility – the profound awe of the Divine that motivates the student to discover the ultimate truth – it is not limited by human effort alone; it actually transforms the student into a channel for a higher wisdom, allowing him to become an extension of higher truth, drawing down entire new dimensions of creativity and wisdom.

Mental exertion alone expands the horizons of wisdom, but it still remains an extension of human effort: It is you, the person, who understands a truth outside of yourself. Exertion out of humility essentially sublimates the student into nothing more than a channel for higher wisdom.

In other words, exertion alone expands our channels of consciousness, and allows us to reach into the unconscious mind – the essential source of wisdom (the hidden “ayin” of chochma). It only has the power to actualize the potential hidden unconscious wisdom, but it cannot create new creative paradigms of revelation. Exertion out of humility reaches into the unconscious essence itself (the essential “ayin” of keter), beyond the “reservoir” of the unconscious mind, allowing you to generate entirely new paradigms of thought.

Humility, and the sensitivity it brings, gets your ego-consciousness out of the way, and allows you to access the most profound truths. It allows you to recognize that

Wisdom is not about you; it’s about the idea. It’s not your truth, but global truth.

True wisdom – the pursuit of truth – is also universal. If it’s true only under certain conditions and not others, then it is not true at all. Wisdom alone, without humility, can be compartmentalized, and thus limiting its ultimate truth. When you get out of the way and access truth, that truth will permeate you entire being – it will not just be preached but also practiced.

When asked how he, as a professor of ethics, could behave unethically, Bertrand Russell once said, “I am also a teacher of mathematics and I am not a triangle.” Academics often take pride in their detachment: “I can be completely knowledgeable of a given topic and it does not affect my behavior.” Contrast this attitude with Maimonides’ words, that a true scholar is recognized in his actions: how he talks, walks, sleeps and does business. A seamless flow between knowledge and behavior.

To have knowledge affect you this way requires bittul – total immersion in the pure waters of knowledge. True knowledge is not about you, it’s not about being smart, it’s about the Divine truth of the knowledge and your humble recognition that you are a transparent channel for this knowledge.

Without humility this level of wisdom – channeling a seamless truth – is impossible to reach. Because the mind, the best mind, is still only a mind, which does not encompass all of existence. Every entity can never free itself from its own boundaries, as Einstein said:

“You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

However, through exertion (pushing yourself beyond your conventional boundaries), and even more so through humility, you step outside of yourself, your mind, your ego, your whole being – and once we step out of the problem we can solve it. Or better put, once we get our own egos out of the way through humility, the higher truth will emerge through our beings.

As we prepare to recreate Sinai during the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, we are struck by the fact that their preparation to receive the Torah was not through diligent study. It was through personal refinement.

Why would personal behavior be the ultimate way to prepare to receive the wisdom of Torah? Because ultimate wisdom is about discovering – and experiencing – ultimate truth, and ultimate truth is not about being smart; it’s about being refined – about a truth that encompasses your entire being and transforms your entire person.

Compartmentalized truth can hardly be called truth. Truth in the mind is not a complete truth. Truth is a full experience.

By humbly refining yourself you become a container that can experience Sinai. Indeed, the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai – the lowest of all the surrounding mountains – to teach us that humility is the key to wisdom.

These two elements – exertion and humility – are also hinted to in this week’s Torah portion, always read right before Shavuot:

“If you follow [walk in] My statutes and observe My commandments, and do them, I will provide you with rain at the right time, so that the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit.”

Rashi explains that “follow My statutes” means to toil in the study of Torah, to exert yourself and vigorously “walk” into the inner recesses of wisdom.

“Observe My commandments” refers to the humility in study which brings one to apply the teachings in action, “and do them.”

As we approach Sinai we learn the secret of intelligence from Sinai (“Moses received the Torah from Sinai”): “Turn it and turn it” we are told. We must always “comb” wisdom, never suffice with our natural faculties, but always go beyond ourselves.

The key to intelligence is: “Turn it” – through mental exertion, and “turn it” again through humility.

* * *

Question of the Week: Why do you think many intelligent people don’t correlate their pursuit of wisdom and truth to their own personal behavior?


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7 years ago

I have read this 5 times so far. This is not because I can’t understand it, but because I want to internalize and practice it. I am so happy to have this. Thank you.

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