There are two kinds of experiencing, but only one way to live.
Everything was wet. The rain had poured all day, not yielding before every fiber on my body was soaking. We had walked in these conditions for three hours now, crossing plains and a massive ridge.
When we finally arrived at our camp, we were completely numb, but we hurried as best we could to pitch our tents.
Hours later, with most of my warmth back, I stepped out of my tent in awe. The clouds, who had kept us company for so long, finally broke away. A blue sky emerged, and the sun hugged my face and warmed what I remained.
It was a beautiful kind of experience. So immediate. Intuitive. Like my thoughts didn’t exist for a moment. I was in it; intertwined with experience itself.
Months later, as I was sitting by my computer, I began to think of this beautiful experience in the wild. It was so different from the one I was having now. Then, I was so close. Now, I was detached. And it made me think: “There are two kinds of experiencing: Intuitive and Rational.”
Where True Philosophy Starts
I’m not the first person to think in such terms. There are many who have come to this conclusion, and one with great knowledge was Albert Schweitzer, a polymath and winner of the Nobel peace prize.
In the preface of his book, Civilization and Ethics, Schweitzer argued that western philosophy had set out to explain the objective world with an expectation of finding humans had a special meaning in it.
But when no such meaning was found, the rational optimism of the enlightenment began to fade. A split occurred, and the world-view known as material knowledge, and the world-view understood as will, drifted apart.
Scientific materialism portrayed an objective world without ethics — without the will-to-live. And Schweitzer didn’t approve of that. He wrote,
“True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: ‘I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.’”
This statement seems to echo what I encountered. It’s the intuitive kind of experiencing. And it’s not just philosophy that starts here. In a sense, we all start here.
Reflection Starts with Disruption
When we’re young, we’re all experts at living intuitively. We don’t think about how or why we’re doing what we’re doing. We just live. We’re in the moment — drifting along with life’s endless current. And though we might have thought, it’s not the reflective, analyzing, questioning kind.
Living this way is beautiful, but sadly, it doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later, something comes along and disrupts our childhood state.
Something happens that we can’t understand, and we’re forced to enter the rational kind of experiencing. Now we’re detached, in need of understanding, questioning life as it unfolds in front of us. Schweitzer commented on this process and said,
“As soon as man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins.”
This is how it is. Once beyond the immediate, intuitive experiencing, you enter another, more rational kind. And the way to get there, in Schweitzer’s opinion at least, is by beholding something that disrupts your daily life — the one you take for granted. Be it something mysterious, confusing, or painful even.
The Exhausting Response
A common response in the face of realizing just how unfathomable life is, is to become overly rational and reflective. I know how it is. At 20 years old, I was living mostly intuitively taking existence for granted.
But when I suffered a heartbreak and depression, it thrust me into the rational kind of experiencing. Suddenly, I couldn’t understand what was going on. And I became super rational as a response — questioning everything in life so I wouldn’t have to experience the same kind of pain again.
Although this seems appropriate — and it is, in the moment — becoming too rational has negative implications in the long run.
While it certainly helps us understand ourselves and the world around us, questioning our every move becomes exhausting. Besides, we can’t just sit around and reflect about life, hoping it will get better. We have to live it as well.
There’s a tendency to stay rational once we’re in it. It’s adulthood, control, and authority. But in staying here, we lose out on another part of life.
We lose our playfulness, spontaneity, and intuition. And though it’s tempting, going back to a full childhood state isn’t a better solution either. Over time, that’s a small way to live. It’s an ignorant, only drifting along, not really getting to know yourself or the world around you kind of living.
How to Live Your Best Life
Another philosopher who thought about the two kinds of experiencing, was Robert M. Pirsig. And in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he draws a conclusion: the two kinds are not separate, but part of one. It’s what Pirsig called Quality.
Although he phrases it a little differently, it eventually boils down to this: When you follow Quality, you’re living life by what the totality of experience values.
It’s an interaction between your organism and the objective world — your intuition and rationality — not as separated things, but as a harmonious one. As Pirsig said:
“[They] are not two separate things. They grow or fall together.”
Then, it seems that what we need, as with most things in life, is a balance. Have your rational experience — analyze your thoughts and behaviors and ask deep philosophical questions that will help you improve your life.
But realize the beauty of intuitive experiencing as well — forget about your worries, the past, the future, and just experience the moment as it is.
If you want a truly good life, you can’t have one without the other. Practice them both, learn how to combine them, and move from one to the other as it suits you.
There are two kinds of experiencing but mastering them as one is how you live your best life.
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