Friday, May 23, 2008

Confusion and Clarity

Yesterday in my yoga class the teacher was talking about confusion and clarity. I was a little confused by her take on it, but clarity is definitely what I'm interested in.

I should start by saying that my confusion is not necessarily a reflection of her confusion, but rather of my attempt to integrate what she had to say into what I'm interested in.

What follows is my take on what she was saying--very heavily filtered by the fact that the subject of confusion and clarity (clarity especially) is so near to my heart that I could not listen without my internal dialogue running away with things. (This in itself is a lesson, but not my subject for the moment.)

I don't believe in logical certainty, and I say that with a great deal of confidence, though not with certainty. At the boundaries of our knowledge everywhere, and in the spaces beneath--the very foundations by which we understand the world--there are gaps and questions that logic cannot answer. To me then, the struggle of the academic writer is to make valuable knowledge crystallize out of the background of uncertainty. And yet the academic must not push to far towards towards the crystalline clarity of certainty, because the work then becomes fragile--by overstepping we lose credibility.

The writer has another problem related to the interplay between confusion and clarity. We don't usually know what it is we're going to write when we first sit down. We are seeking that understanding. The writing process is a learning process during which we come to understand our subject matter more deeply. As we write, then, we face problems of what our project should look like. And each time we come up with an answer, that answer will raise new questions. In other words, each time we reach clarity on one question, that answer is likely to create new questions.

Within the writing process this cycling from confusion to clarity and back is almost continuous. Sometimes the confusion moves to smaller and smaller scale, while, for example, you move a draft towards completion. But sometimes the confusion moves to a larger scale--as, e.g., when a completed draft receives feedback requesting changes.

I was also thinking about how clarity is often related to a closed mind, while confusion is related to the open mind. To the mind that sees something as clear, it is hard to get that mind to see things differently. The "confused mind" on the other hand, is open to different answers--if only because no answer seems good enough.

I was also thinking how confusion can often be related to the most profound of learning experiences. If we experience a major shift in how we look at the world, there will likely be a period of confusion where we start to see problems with our old way of looking at the world, but are not yet fully convinced of a new way of looking at the world.

Confusion is not always bad. It is part of the process of seeing the world and it is intimately intertwined with our ability to see clarity in the world as well. If we can embrace the confusion, we can try to explore it and see the possibilities it has to offer, which may prove to be a quick way out of the confusion: listing available options always helps in making a choice. What we don't want to do is complain about confusion without looking for what we can learn in the moment of confusion. Epiphanies don't arise when we're already crystal clear; epiphanies arise when we're still seeking understanding--in other words epiphany can only enter the space where there is room for a new way of seeing the world.

Confusion is not a reason to stop working. And it is not something to feared. It is something to engage (ok, well, there may be circumstances in which confusion is to be feared--you don't want to lose your sense of direction walking on the edge of a cliff in heavy fog, for example--but the academic's confusion is usually not life-threatening).

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