A different reading difficutlery

Screenshot anime Chihayafuru. Something scary has been seen.

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.

Because it is so different

Two translations from Japanese

A tale of two translations.

If I say that I am trying to learn Japanese because it is so difficult to translate, your first thought will likely be that I am trying to challenge myself, or perhaps to impress others with my linguistic genius. Those who have read some of my recent entries will know that there is no such genius: Despite my decent IQ, I have a super hard time with this language. Nor am I primarily doing bodybuilding for the mind. The real reason is Google Translate.

If I want to read something written in Spanish, there is little additional value for me in learning Spanish. The languages are similar enough, and the overlapping body of literature large enough, that Google Translate can give a decent representation of the text.

For the purpose of illustration, I will now take my first paragraph, let Google translate it into Spanish and then translate it back.

If I say I’m trying to learn Japanese because it is very difficult to translate, your first thought will likely be that I’m trying to challenge myself, or perhaps to impress others with my linguistic genius. Those who have read some of my recent posts will know that there is such a genius: Despite my decent IQ, I have a hard time with this great language. Nor am I doing first bodybuilding to mind. The real reason is Google Translate.

Again, this time translating to Japanese and back:

I say because it is very difficult to translate it, and I have been trying to learn the Japanese language, the first thought you, I might to impress others with the genius of linguistics probably I will have been or are trying to challenge yourself that may. Know that the genius there is no such person who have read some of the recent entries of I: in spite of IQ decent, I struggled more than use this language are. I have been bodybuilding for Lord of the mind. The real reason is using Google Translate.

Invoking the Lord of the mind may indeed be a reasonable impulse in this situation. And yet, the translation into Japanese preserves some of the European way of the thinking – I am not actually thinking in Japanese. Text written by native Japanese is even more alien, because your language influences your thoughts. I know this not just from theory; I have grown to become truly bilingual, to the point of thinking to myself in English without noticing until later. Knowing two languages deeply helps me think better in both of them, but the language still subtly influences what and how I think within each.

In my next example, someone who respects the Japanese medieval monk Nichiren has some choice words about how Happy Science represents his teachings:

Although this is the case It’s a religious organization does “science of clothing – can” to preside over the so-and-so Okawa, the methodology of ass in a lion’s skin as seen in is also a provenance that saying “the spirit of Nichiren” Hayate the pretense of what Nichiren says, as if its real, and Nichiren is the thoughtless words have no Maki flyer also Shoen edge.
  It is a fallacy on parade, alongside the names of delusion and nonsense “Ryoma Sakamoto” “Socrates” “Amaterasu” “Christ” “Kukai” after that.

Google is one of the most resourceful organizations in the world, especially in matters related to computing and the Internet. Yet a meaningful translation of a Japanese text for adults is far beyond them. If I want to read anything written in Japanese, I will have to do so in Japanese. Whether this is worth spending years of my life on, I am not sure. That depends on what I will find there, right? But since I have already many interests related to Japan, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Another thousand words and I should be able to read texts written for first-graders, with some effort.

That some mental heavy lifting may also be good for my brain is welcome, but not sufficient to motivate me. Your motivation may vary.

Study as spiritual practice?

Studying student from anime Ore no Kanojo

Being studious is surely a virtue and an admirable trait. But I may be exaggerating a bit if I compare it to spiritual practice.

I have noticed this repeatedly for a while now. After I took up studying Japanese vocabulary rather intensely, I feel less urge to pray or meditate. To be more exact, it is a feeling as if I already did that. That is surely an exaggeration.

Now, it is not as if I spent a substantial part of my time praying and meditating as it was. But I felt enough need for it that I can clearly notice the difference.

Perhaps it is simply that both study and spiritual practice require concentration and setting aside time that could have been used for fun and entertainment. In that case, I may simply be feeling that I already spent my “serious time”.

But I wonder if there really is a certain sense of “spiritual practice” in studying, either as such or in a certain context. Obviously if one is studying religious Truth, such as by immersing oneself in Holy Scripture, that would be a spiritual practice. And an important one to many religious people. In Judaism it is so prominent that Jesus Christ claimed the scribes of his era expected to have eternal life in the Scriptures. From the introductions to Judaism that I have read, it does not seem the interest in the Scriptures has waned much in the last 2000 years. (Of course, Jesus himself was clearly well versed in the Scriptures, so that is not the problem.)

But what if one studies something secular? I think it may depend somewhat on one’s motivation or purpose. There are surely frivolous reasons for learning a language as well, although I wonder how much effort one would put into it then. Well, I suppose people can get pretty obsessed with their hobbies; for instance an otaku may want to learn Japanese to watch anime or read manga. Although these days there is little need for that, as translations are up either immediately or shortly after the Japanese release, legally or otherwise (or even both).

To be honest, I am not even sure why I am trying to learn Japanese. Part of it is that I want to find out the truth about Ryuho Okawa, the man who has written 900 books. I get the distinct impression that the literature available in English paints a different picture of him than what people back home in Japan has. Still, if I can find out how to write one book each week, it will be time well spent.

Then there is the fact that learning a new language is adding a huge tool box to one’s mind. English is after all my third language, and it opened up my world in a way I could not have imagined. Of course, in the case of English, much of that was because there is a wealth of literature available in English that does not exist at all in my two Norwegian languages. That is only partly true with Japanese. On the other hand, English is almost a Scandinavian language: There is so much of its grammar that is similar to ours, and even parts of the vocabulary. Dabbling in Finnish has shown me that language can be very different from this. But Japanese is even more alien again. (And, with no offense intended to my Finnish readers, I cannot imagine anything I’d want to read or hear or watch in Finnish. Sorry about that.)

Anyway, I wonder if more generally studying is not a spiritual practice of sorts, if it is for the love of knowledge rather than for money or fame or some such. I have read that people who return after a near-death experience tend to bring with them the idea that only a couple things are truly important: Loving and learning, specifically. Despite experiencing a realm where knowledge is everywhere and can be absorbed directly, they return with the idea that learning is a major reason for our stay on Earth. Although I think that pertains more to learning from experience, perhaps?

In one of my novels in progress, working title “Blue Light”, the main character travels in the World of the Mind (in his astral body) and has an encounter with a being of immense luminosity – not the primordial uncreated Light, but a being perhaps comparable to an archangel in religious terms – which instructs him: “Love by understanding.” To quote Ryuho Okawa, to understand someone is almost the same as forgiving them. I agree with that. Forgiveness is great, but I find much less use for it now than I did when I was young. Many things that I would have attributed to malice, I now attribute to ignorance. They know not what they do. (This is in part because I have discovered so very often that I myself know not what I do.)

Studying is a bit different from that again; but understanding the laws of the mind and the laws of the natural world is still important, I think. It allows us to achieve wisdom, to know what the best course of action is in various circumstances.

So I think a student with a pure heart may be able to devote himself to his studies with the same attitude of vocation or calling as a worker, doing it as if serving God rather than an earthly employer, as recommended in both Christianity (by St Paul) and Hindusim (by Krishna).

But I am not sure how well any of the above applies to my Japanese studies. It is entirely possible that I am just lazy. But the way it feels is this, as if I have already spent time in spiritual practice. Perhaps I will get more light on this in the future, if any.