Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fire and water: two modes of thought

 JK's manner of instruction reminded me of two modes of thinking discussed in Kabbalah: ‘Hafshata’ (divestment) and ‘halbasha’ (investment).  

Hafshata involves stripping away physical and contextual aspects of an idea in order to grasp its abstract core. It's like a fire consuming an object in its flames, whittling it down to its essence. For example, through hafshata the function of a hand may be reduced to ‘a capacity to hold and/or manipulate objects’. 

In contrast, halbasha entails clothing abstract concepts with specific settings and concrete analogies or examples. Halbasha is like flowing water that takes on the shape of the container into which it is poured. Through halbasha one would illustrate the above concept of ‘a capacity to hold and manipulate objects’ with examples such as a human hand, the brain which grasps and manipulates information, or a computer which stores and processes data. In each case the concept is seen to take on the 'shape' of the example provided.

These modes of thinking are complementary. Through hafshata one distills the kernel of an idea or an object; through halbasha one expresses that kernel in many seemingly disparate phenomena [as in the example of the hand, brain, and computer mentioned above] thereby uncovering the unity underpinning existence. Through hafshata alone, one lives in a rarefied abstract and  detached state of mind. A form of genius, perhaps, but one that the masses cannot relate to; one that is impractical in its nature. It's halbasha that perfects hafshata, by clothing naked abstractions with concrete forms and applying them in practice.

In an anecdote allegedly involving Einstein (though I have no reliable source for it) the capacity for halbasha is poignantly illustrated. After one lecture, a young man asked Einstein to explain the theory of Relativity to him. (I guess he expected Einstein to have ample time to answer him, or more likely, had no idea as to the profundity of the theory.) Einstein asked him whether he's familiar with physics or advanced mathematics, to which the young man answered in the negative. Einstein pondered for a while and then casually said, "When one sits with his girlfriend, an hour may seem like a minute; when one burns his hand, a minute may seem like an hour. That, my friend, is relativity!"         

It is hafshata that allows halbasha, and without halbasha, hafshata is deficient.  

It is this complementary relation between fire and water thinking that I observe in JK's unique style of instruction. In his style, these two naturally opposing elements are harmonized and integrated: fire doesn't evaporate water; water doesn't extinguish fire...                   

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