The following post, written in 2011, concerns a moment of revelation about the nature of the world I experienced in a Landmark Education course. These courses satisfy me at every level, and I’ve had many such moments. This one is for the Zen philosophy buffs and concerns the relation between Word and World …
There was a thrilling moment in the recent Communication course I did. I was on stage getting some coaching from the course leader about an issue I have with another person whom I’ll call X.
I was complaining about X and in my complaint I used a distinction we learn at Landmark.
What’s a distinction?
A distinction is a common philosophical term that means to bring something from the background to the foreground; it refers to the act of distinguishing something.
“Number” is a distinction. Without the distinction number, we wouldn’t have mathematics, technology and a host of other things. “Balance” is another distinction. Consider a child learning to ride a bike. At one moment, the child doesn’t have the distinction balance; in the next moment, the child does. And once the child has it, the child can never un-have it.
Distinctions are like fields or realms which allow things to show up, to be perceptible.
I’ll call the distinction involved in my complaint Y.
Five amazing words
What I said to the course leader was something like,
X is really hard to deal with because X has Y.
Now you get the picture that Y is not a good thing. When I said this the course leader asked me if X had done a Landmark course and I said no. Then the course leader said this amazing thing:
Then X doesn’t have Y, like dog doesn’t have music stand.
Speaking as a trained philosopher, this is just brilliant. For umpteen reasons. If there are any mathematicians reading, it is the equivalent of the sweetest of mathematical proofs. It has phenomenal compression and elegance, “elegance” in the engineering or mathematical sense of achieving maximum function with minimum moves.
Stay with me, won’t you, while I try to see how it works …
First thing. She made the point with whatever she had to hand, in this case, the music stand.
Anyone who’s done a Landmark Education course knows the course leaders travel lightly. A folder of notes, a collapsible music stand on which to rest it, a director’s chair and a chalkboard is all they have. From these simple pieces of equipment they make skits and jokes and highly sophisticated philosophical investigations.
Without any of the usual paraphenalia of pedagogy, the course leader made her devastating point with simply the first thing on which her eye fell.
Dog’s eye view
Second thing. With five words – “dog doesn’t have music stand” – she completely disappeared my concern. And she did so by addressing not the content of my concern, but the context or meta-point.
A dog doesn’t have “music stand”. Instead, a dog has something like “object to pee on” or “object getting in my way of chasing cat”.
With a dog’s eye view of the world, “music stand” literally does not exist. To return to the definition of a distinction, dog has not “distinguished” music stand, ie, dog has not had cause to bring “music stand” from the background to the foreground as music stand.
You can see straightaway that it’s pointless to try to talk about dog and music stand in the same sentence. It’s nonsensical because music stand does not apply to dog. It’s like a category error.
In the same way, the course leader was saying (though without saying) it was pointless for me to try to talk about X and Y in the same sentence.
My concern evaporated
As soon as she said the words, my concern evaporated because it literally could not be sustained. And here’s where it becomes very beautiful: my concern evaporated not because I no longer had issues with X but because the explanation I’d attached to “having issues with X”, the justification, the reasons, could not be sustained.
The course leader did say other things that went to the content of my concern, but the real work had been done in those five words when she was addressing the context.
Transformational vs Informational Learning
The exchange I had with the course leader was a great example of the kind of coaching you get in Landmark and the kind of learning that’s involved, which is transformational learning as distinct from informational learning.
Transformational learning is not in the realm of explanation, reason and description. It’s not about information. This is one of the reasons why what you hear in the Landmark Forum and other Landmark courses often has a koan-like quality as in my dog example. It’s also one of the reasons why Landmark graduates can be nonplussed when non-graduates ask,
… but what’s the Forum about?
This is a request for explanation and it’s impossible and inimical to convey the experience of transformational learning using explanations.
The world is out there; the truth about the world is not
Third thing. When the course leader said what she said she was demonstrating one of the most basic premises of all Landmark courses: that the world arises in language.
This was the breakthrough intuition of Continental philosophy in the 20th century. At a certain point in that century, philosophy stopped, pivoted on its heel and made what is known as the “linguistic turn”. Suddenly, somehow, it became clear that the world is created in language, and that until that point, philosophy had been paddling in the shallows.
Thousands of years! Paddling in the shallows! All the time, the true source – language – had been just doing its thing. And what was its thing? Nothing less than bringing the world into being.
Some people object to this. They say things like, “That’s rubbish! Things do actually exist.” Or, “What about trees? And animals? And cars? Are you saying they aren’t there?” Essentially,
But what about reality?
The point is not that the world is not out there. The point is that the truth about the world is not out there. The truth about the world is with us, with language. In what we say about the world, about others, about ourselves, either silently or out loud.
Saying the world into being
The world comes into being for us through what we say about it. We say the world into being.
So when the course leader said the words “Then X doesn’t have Y, like dog doesn’t have music stand”, she was proposing that I was attempting the impossible: attributing to X something X didn’t have, in language.
I had it in language, and X didn’t. Literally, therefore, despite my complaint, X did not have Y.
I was routed, and in the most instructive and powerful way.