Campus News

Using Darkness to Enlighten Scholars

Story posted October 04, 1999

Two weeks in a dark room led Associate Professor of History Kidder Smith to the realization that contemplation could, and should, be used by scholars to invigorate research in the human sciences.

The contemplation Smith was speaking of, however, is not simply thinking about what one has read or observed, but a concentrated opening of consciousness that is more closely associated with meditation.

In fact it was during prolonged meditation, known as a dark retreat, that Smith came to this realization, and he shared his experiences at a recent Faculty Seminar.

Last summer, Smith spent two weeks in a totally dark room participating in a traditional Buddhist meditation retreat. He lived alone in darkness for those two weeks, the delivery of food every two days the only interruption of his solitude.

As he meditated in the darkness, Smith found his consciousness changing. "The constant chatter that we generally experience gradually subsided," he said. His way of perceiving the world around him also changed so that rather than relating to the world as subject to object, he felt "as if consciousness were equally located everywhere and observing itself."

Being a scholar, Smith’s thoughts turned to how this experience could be used in academia, "Can I use this experiment as a way of expanding our rational inquiry into the nature of the world?" he asked.

The question led Smith to an analysis of the way modern society looks at knowledge. Though all knowledge is to some degree subjective, modern scholarship is more often based in what can be learned or measured than what can be discovered through introspection.

He identified four ways of knowing: knowledge that rests in the intellect, largely documented and gained by learning and memory; knowledge that seems to be located in the body rather than in the mind, such as the ability to type, though this too can be learned; innate physical knowledge the body has of itself, known as proprioception; and the knowledge that consciousness has.

The contemplation Smith urges is an extension of this fourth type of knowledge, an expansion of one’s consciousness beyond the usual subject-object ways of knowing.

Practicing this sort of contemplation could be used to enhance research into disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, literature and religion, he said. Within neuroscience it is a new form of consciousness to be investigated. To developmental psychology it offers another stage in the maturation of one's sense of self, where the knowing subject is no longer radically separated from the known object. For religion it is a means to speak from within the experiences one is studying. But it is type of knowledge not stressed in our modern culture, which emphasizes book learning and empiricism.

His dark retreat led him to an appreciation of the role contemplation has played in scholarship. During the early Middle Ages there was a contemplative aspect to any scholarly pursuit, and contemplation itself was seen as an important discipline within the monastic curriculum. But with the rise of universities and book culture, contemplation began to be seen as separate and not as effective as knowledge gained in other ways.

Smith ended with a joke to illustrate his ideas: A policeman observed a drunk man searching on the ground beneath a lamp. When he asked what the man was searching for, the man replied that he had lost his identity card. The policeman joined in, and they looked for a while without finding anything. Then the policeman asked where the man had lost his ID card, and the man pointed to a spot 100 yards up the road. When the policeman asked why the man was not searching there, the man answered, "There’s more light here."

Smith urged those present to look into the darkness to see what’s there, because they might find more than they expected.

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