Exploring Plato's cave
He's a philosopher, psychologist, social worker and friend. On this occasion, Rudi as mentor posed a question to me. 'What does it mean to a tree to die?' It was summer in South Germany and I was about to go for a walk in the nearby woods. Rudi is a deep thinker, a profoundly spiritual man who poses socratic questions as a way of provoking insight, so I took his question seriously.
As I walked through the trees, I thought about consciousness and meaning. The trees don't possess consciousness, therefore it makes no sense to ask what it means to a tree to live, or die. So I returned and reported back to him. He was gardening and looked up at me, trowel in hand. 'Did you find the answer?' I replied confidently, 'Yes, the answer is nothing.'
I could see by the look on his face, in his eyes, that I was missing something. He responded simply, 'Are you sure?' I returned to the woods a second time and thought further. What was it I was missing? Perhaps he thought I was being too certain, too confident in how I replied. I returned and tried to sound more open minded, more tentative. 'Probably nothing?' He gave me that same look.
Now I felt confused, frustrated. I walked back up the hill into the woodland and this time tried to imagine, see and perceive through fresh eyes. In doing so, I somehow became aware of how limited my awareness, knowledge, thinking and experience is and returned feeling humbled. I spoke more thoughtfully this time. 'I don't know.' Rudi smiled at me. 'Now you have found the beginning of wisdom.'
We make so many assumptions about life, reality, truth, God, ourselves, others etc, arrogant assumptions based on limited perspective, understanding and experience. A tree does't have consciousness in the way we understand it, it doesn't cry out when chopped down, it doesn't act in the same way as we might and so we conclude it doesn't experience living or dying in a way that is meaningful for it.
How can we really know that? How can we really know how a tree experiences 'being in the world'? What if a tree has a form of awareness that is alien and unknown to us? It's not just about trees, it's about holding our presuppositions, ideas and constructs lightly. It's about delving deeply into our not-knowing. It's about rediscovering wonder, curiosity, possibility, imagination.
At this point, Rudi introduced me to Plato's Cave. 'In this story, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.' (Wiki)
This conversation, encounter, experience has always stayed with me. I can still see Rudi kneeling in his garden with trowel in hand, posing his questions patiently and with conviction, provoking insight. He prompted a seeking, a journey akin to the agnostic's quest in Mark Vernon's After Atheism.
It reminded me that things are now always as they seem, that reality and truth can be so much more intriguing, complex, fascinating and bewildering than we tend to assume, that God does reveal and touch us but that we should beware of imposing our human constructs and limitations onto him, that to approach life with open mind and heart can be a truly enriching adventure.
I felt stimulated reading a note from Babelfish today, ‘The Value of Vulnerability’.
In the 1930s, the Nobel prize winner Lord Rutherford introduced a rule in his team that when they met, they could only ever share about what they were ignorant or confused about. They could only share how their projects weren’t going to plan. This prevented them focusing only on positives or feeling pressure to display and prove their knowledge and expertise to one-another.
One of the Rutherford’s team members, Reg Revans, later became the founder of ‘action learning’ – the art of posing and receiving questions that resonates with Socrates: ‘wisdom begins in wonder’, ‘I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance’. In Revan’s view, knowledge and expert skills provide cleverness but it is only through questions and reflection that wisdom emerges.
The thing that appeals to me is the humility and openness it implies. It’s a trait in some leaders to aspire to the hero, the know-all, the better-than-the-other, the expert who needs no help or advice. It leads to blinkered perspectives, defensive posturing, relational isolation, devaluing of others. Against that backdrop, choosing vulnerability feels deeply counterintuitive.
I read another stimulating idea, this time on MindTools, called, ‘Reverse Brainstorming’. It has a similar counterintuitive feel to it. It’s a fun approach that enables movement in thinking and practice using a creative lateral thinking technique. So, for example, instead of asking ‘how do I solve or prevent this problem?’, it proposes asking ‘what could I do to cause the problem?’
Instead of asking, ‘how could I achieve the desired results’, ‘what could I do practically to undermine the results?’ It reminds me of ‘Negative Brainstorming’, an approach to surfacing problems with an idea or proposal (and thereby provide opportunity to address them) by proactively encouraging participants to think of and articulate every reason they can why it won’t work.
The theme is a willingness to share openly and actively encourage questions and critique as a way of being, of leading, of learning, of moving forward. It demands courage to make oneself vulnerable and draws out the best in others by welcoming and valuing even the most critical voices. It requires a deep sense of inner security - and rests more on belief than competence.
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