Bennett, the will, and the power of attention
My original idea for a commentary on Bennett isn’t going to happen, as I suspected all along, but it is not necessary in fact to go through the whole thing. A few key ideas for discussion are enough.
One thing that I had wished to indicate is that the core samkhya language taken up by Bennett allows the possibility of a secular ‘spiritual’ psychology, and in general a reminder of the superficiality of most psychological discourse, including that given by most religions.
This material, please note, is not sufistic, or the intellectual property of Gurdjieff. Note that this ‘sufi’ had to appropriate an Indian system, the sufistic being barren, and in the process graft theism onto it. Gurdjieff hid his source, and like a child playing hide and go seek didn’t conceal anything very well, although his followers have tended not to see his game and are set on the wild goose chase of ‘ancient esotericism’ when the core Gurdjieff idea was a concoction of nothing more remarkable than Indic Samkhya.
Bennett sees the game but does something different, and more honest.
Bennett performed a great experiment, but the result has failed to estabish itself as a useful resource of psychological understanding and enquiry. That’s not too surprising given the complexity of his formulation.
In any case, it might help if more secular thinkers were aware of the vastness of the human so-called spiritual tradition and of the way in which a post-reductionist psychology can simply bypass the science/religion divide for the noise that it is.
Bennett enters into the spirit of Samkhya to the degree that he doesn’t indulge in speculative theism, referring only to the ‘transfinite’, and in fact he quietly redefines ‘god’ as the third reconciling impulse in every triad, an ingenious way to escape from theological disputes.
There is hardly anything more ingenious than Bennett’s grand cascade of the triads of the will and the relationship of this to man’s all too limited capacities for self-understanding.
The question is, can we truly trust the result here at the fringes of the Gurdjieff/sufi world of dangerous authoritarian figures who would/will attempt to take over this kind of system for their own purposes.
In fact, with a little experience you can use Bennett’s system even better as a skeptic who has graduated from belief in his concoctions: the general drift of his meaning and intent stands out.
Furthermore you will discover that virtually all gurus, sufis, and Gurdjieff types are far too unintelligent to understand any of this, having made up more limited ‘systems’ they can handle, and use to deceive others.
Bennett has stumbled on the general case, the system of systems (where not crap) and this is beyond the capacities of almost everyone. So have fun pulling rank on even the Buddhas, for what it is worth. The point is only that this system of Bennett almost made it: it almost free of the Gurdjieff system. The reason is that Bennett was wide ranging in his studies, and appropriated the Samkhya in his own way. The result is an audacious and interesting experiment.
The key to the whole thing is the triad of Beiing, Function, Will, and the introduction of the factor of ‘will’ into psychologies that usually get no further than ‘function’ with occasional notions of being thrown in, and will taken as some kind of functional element.
Bennett’s approach (which resembles that of Schopenhauer, and of course Kant more distantly) grafts the idea of ‘will’ onto the gunas of Samkhya, a brilliant and audacious line of attack.
The result, in volume II, is the magnificent system of cascading triads in the series 1, 3, 6, 12, 24, 48, 96.
We cannot be sure this is ‘the’ right interpretation of the Samkhya set of cosmic laws, but it is certainly a brilliant suggestion, and far better it seems than the decayed thinking about the ‘three gunas’ that we find as the last remains of Samkhya in Indian thought.
There is a lot to consider here, but here is a passage from Volume II on attention as a ‘power of the will’./
The point here is the complexity of man’s spiritual (that dumb word again) psychology, and the way in which this transcends the usual debates between religionists and secularists in the raging conflict of science and religion.
Scientific reductionists need a warning of the vast complexity and subtlety of ancient spiritual thought and a sense of the futility of tilting at windmills called the ‘god debate’ etc….
This section on the attention rings true in our experience of the most ordinary kind, yet reminds us of the depth behind the simplest of our psychological manifestations.
From The Dramatic Universe, Vol II, page 74-77
To find our way through the bewildering maze of theories of the Will, we must turn again to the basic connection between Will and Related¬ness. If Will is the source of all relationships within and beyond Existence, we should be able to discover elements of our experience that have wholly the character of relatedness. Such elements should be neither the terms of a relationship nor the events in which rela¬tionships are manifested; but the very relationship itself. We do not have to seek far, for we find the first such element in the power of attention. It is easy to see that attention is not the doer of our actions. We can act without attention and, when we have the sense of making a voluntary action, we can readily observe that our attention is detached both from the source of the initiative and from the action itself. More¬over, attention is never an action. There is no function of attention. Attention cannot be accounted for in terms of nerve-impulses, although it is undoubtedly a determining factor in deciding how the impulses shall be transmitted. Going further, we can readily establish that attention is not the same as Being. Being cannot fluctuate from moment to moment. It is what it is-the measure of the potentialities latent in a given whole. Even if we ascribe changes in total state to Being and regard their character and range of variation as a test of the quality of Being, we still find that they are not the same as attention. Of all the elements of our experience, attention is pre-eminently that which is evidence in favour of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary
action. Indeed, there are no means of deciding whether a given action is voluntary or involuntary except by observing the attention that precedes and accompanies it. Whatever significance we may attach to the word ‘will’, we can scarcely help associating it with the notion of voluntary as ‘distinct from involuntary actions; and so, here at last, we have found a strong argument for concluding that through the study of attention we coukllearn about the nature of Will.
There arises, however, an obvious question as to the connection between attention and consciousness. We connect consciousness with Being, and we might very well argue that attention is no more than the focussing of consciousness. But focussing a lens is a different act from the passing of light through it. We can, moreover, readily verify from observation that the laws that govern attention are quite different from those that apply to the states of consciousness. For example, attention relates, but consciousness is what it is, in and for itself. Attention can be directed, but consciousness has neither direction nor place. Conscious¬ness is never experienced as voluntary or intentional. Consciousness is a quality of existence. Attention does not exist; it is neither an extensive nor an intensive magnitude. Moreover, it is not rel!lted to sensitivity. In other words, it IS not one of the three states of hyle nor any com¬bination of them.• There is no such thing as ‘energy of attention’. Attention can direct energies, but it is not itself an energy. Conscious¬ness, in all its manifestations, is a form of energy. There are as many levels of consciousness as there are levels of energy. The liberation of energy of a given quality is accompanied by a corresponding state of consciousness, even without the intervention of attention-which often follows rather than precedes the change of consciousness.
Consciousness fluctuates-sometimes under the direction of atten¬tion, sometimes quite independently of it. On the other hand, attention does not necessarily depend upon consciousness. We can readily find examples of unconscious attention-when we perform a series of con¬nected actions that depend upon attention, but where neither the actions themselves nor the attention directing them are in the sphere of our consciousness. – In short, we may say that attention appears to be a power that is neither an activity nor an energy. The word ‘power’ is here to be understood as that which directs energy and activity, but is different (rom either. We have to distinguish between powers that establish relationship-i.e., triads-and forces that pro¬duce action, i.e., dyads. Also a power must be distinguished from a state of being-tetrad-that carries its own form of order and organi-
zation. A power is more abstract than a state of being, but more concrete than a force. These powers are properties of the Will.
The power of choice and the power of decision are. two furt.her properties of the Will that, although closely connected With att~ntlon, are nevertheless distinct from it. These powers are connected with the property we have ~alled ableness-to-be, and we might be tempted to refer all such powers to the hyparchic regulator and, hence, to regard choice as a functional activity. This would strike at the root of any doctrine of Value, for evidently choice and decision would be no more than reflex mechanisms unless they derived from a discrimination of values. We choose that which at the given moment appears to us to be the most ‘worth while’, the most ‘interesting’, the most ‘desirable’; in a word, the most ‘valuable’ course of action. It is precisely because choice and decision are properties of the Will that they can relate us to a system of values. If they were functional only, they could do no more than bind us to facts. This is the argument of Plato’s Gorgias, and it has not been bettered.
Here it is necessary to observe that the powers of attention, choice
and decision are exercised by men far more rarely than might be sup¬posed from the frequency with which they appear i~ discussi?n~ about human behaviour. We do attend, choose and deCide: but It IS very seldom that our choice and our decision are voluntary. On the con¬trary, we have the paradox-contrary to Kant’s supposition-that the Will in man is scarcely ever free, and that the evil state of man results not from choice but from failure to choose. Nearly all that man does is the result of the operation of laws over which he has no control. This is so.mainly because he does not understand them. Only seldom, and then nearly always in trivial situations, do a man’s actions stem from the exercise of his will-power.
The connection between Will as Power and Will as the Principle of Relatedness is not hard to establish. Attention is a relationship, and so are decision and choice. Attention cannot be described as a dyad of ‘observer and observed’, for it is an element that is independent of both and yet relevant to both. The considerations put forwar? in the Introduction regarding the nature of relatedness are exemplIfied in every manifestation of Will.
It remains to consider the connection, traced in Chapter 4, between Will and Understanding. First, we may note that understanding is a relationship, and not an activity nor a state of cons~iousness. Secondly, understanding is effectual only through the exercise of the powers of attention, choice and decision. Unless related by the power of attention, a man’s understanding is useless to him. Unconscious choice is nothing but a change in the direction of functional activity. A decision that is not based upon understanding cannot be ascribed to the Will. These assertions are not self-evident, but they can be verified if we observe that all activity is the operation of laws. It very seldom happens that all the forces at work are contained within a given whole or system. In the case of human activity, a man is acted upon and reacts. Will is then only the operation of laws external to the man’s own conscious¬ness and being. When he understands what is happening in these regions of his being, he acquires the possibility of voluntary action; that is, of bringing the operation of the laws, at least in part, within the sphere of his own will. Thus the powers are present, but the exercise of the powers is possible only if there is understanding. Hence we may conclude-and very naturally-that the subjective aspect of Will con¬sists in the exercise of powers, and that their exercise derives from Understanding.