Panic zone. OK, perhaps we should have started with something easier.
I am going to quote something from my fiction in progress. It is about someone reading a supposedly non-fiction book which covers ever more unfamiliar concepts. It is a little autobiographical, but not totally. In real life, it is more common that different books are similar to the different chapters I describe here.
[FICTION]The first three chapters of The Book of Dimensions had been quite readable. The first was almost childish, so easy was it to read, as if written for school kids. The second chapter, on time, was more on my level. The third chapter took some concentration and stretching of the mind to read: It was written with mostly common words, but the meaning of the text was uncommon, so it took some effort to “get it”. It was well worth the effort, though.
The fourth chapter, on the sixth dimension, was quite a bit harder to read. There were some more long and uncommon words, and the sentences seemed to be longer too, and the paragraphs. Not a lot in either case, but it did seem like that to me. The real difference was that it was really hard to get. The words made sense, and the sentences made sense. Some of them were brilliant and memorable. But others were just out of grasp. I felt that I should have understood them, but I did not get it. And the sentences did not get together to form a clear, bright picture this time. It was more like a dark garden with lots and lots of pretty fireflies, but they just danced around and I could not get the whole picture.
Peeking into the next chapter, it was simply unreadable. There were perhaps a few more long and unusual words than in the previous chapter again, and perhaps the sentences were a little longer, or perhaps it was the paragraphs, but that was not the problem. The problem was that even when the words were familiar, the things they said were bordering on gibberish. It was like if I would say to you: “The work of the wind is too heavy for the blue in the kitchen to exonerate.” Even if you happened to know what exonerate means, that would not help. It would still not really make sense. Or at least it would be impossible to believe. [END FICTION]
In the case of our fictional friend here, the solution was to go back the next day and read over again the last chapter he had understood when he stretched his mind. Not the chapter he had just barely failed to understand, but the one before it. Then a week later, to read it again. Only when the knowledge or understanding of that chapter had been absorbed as a part of himself, could he understand the next chapter.
Some reading difficulties are mechanical. You could have dyslexia, or poor eyesight, or you may be unfamiliar with the language or the script. For instance, I have fairly recently learned to read hiragana, the Japanese “letters” that represent syllables in that language. By now I recognize them on sight, but reading a text in hiragana is still painstakingly slow, even if I only had to read it out loud rather than understand it. Even an unfamiliar font (typeface) can make a difference at this level.
Even if you have the reading skill automated, unfamiliar words can still trip up the flow of the text. If you are studying a new skill, users of that skill probably have their own words for things. Or even worse, they may use familiar words in an unfamiliar way, meaning something else than we are familiar with. The concept I call “reading difficutlery” begins at this level and stretches into the next. It is like reading difficulty, only not really.
The next level is where we know what the words mean, and every sentence we read makes sense grammatically. But we still don’t get it. It does not gel, as some say. It does not come together in a meaningful whole. There are a lot of sentences, but they are like “fireflies in the night”: Even if they are bright individually, they stand alone, and don’t get together into a picture.
It could be that the author really does not have a clear picture to convey, or writes badly. But if others get it, then probably not. As I have mentioned before, something like this happens when I read Frithjof Schuon, not to mention Sri Aurobindo. Better men than I insist that these books are awesome and full of insight, but my first meeting with each of them was not unlike running into a gelatin wall: I did not get very far into it.
In the case of the two examples mentioned, I kept reading the writings where I had first seen them recommended, and absorbed some of their thinking indirectly. I also read other books recommended by those who recommended Schuon and Aurobindo in the first place. Slowly, a little each day or at least most days of the week, I have eased into that kind of understanding. But to people who are completely unfamiliar with esoteric teachings, it probably looks like meaningless babble punctuated by the occasional unfamiliar word.
It is a bit strange that I don’t remember a lot of examples of this from my life. C.G. Jung was like that, but that’s pretty much the only case I remember. It seems to me that for most of my life, reading non-fiction was very easy to me. I did not have to read things more than once, and even then I did not stop to think, or take notes, or even underline words. Perhaps I have just forgotten it. Or perhaps I rarely read anything that was above my pay grader (or pray grade, in the case of spiritual literature). It is such a nice feeling, to coast through things, to feel super smart because there are so few new elements, you can pick them up without stopping. Your brain never runs full, it processes the new information faster than your customary reading speed … because there isn’t a lot of new information.
I think this is pretty common, that we stop reading things that challenge us, and stick to the same interests. We can learn a little more and feel smart. But if we go outside our area of expertise, or above our pay grade, that is when we run into difficutleries. I probably shrank back and forgot the whole thing for most of my adult life. It is only recently I have begun to see these difficutleries as a good thing. And that is probably why I am in brainlove with people like Marcus Geduld and Robert Godwin, who don’t stop challenging themselves and exploring the Great Unknown (albeit in very different directions). It requires effort, yes, but that is not what really holds most of us back: It requires giving up the feeling of being smart, a sweet and addictive feeling.
To sum it up: We learn the most when we are outside our comfort zone, but not yet into the panic zone.