The process of learning and mystical pursuit

In her essay on faná’ and baqá’1, Alison Marshall wrote:

After coming down from faná’ [the state in which the self is annihilated], a person passes into a state called “baqᔑ, which is ’living in God’ or ‘God living in us’. Izutsu explains that in the state of baqá’, the person is reawakened to the ‘multiplicity’ of the world, after being ‘extinguished’ in the state of faná’. But now the person sees the world with new eyes; whereas before she saw only the many created things, now she can also see the One that is behind everything. It could be said that the person has a permanent vision of unity in diversity…

Compare this experience with what happens when we learn something: Before a person learns a subject, it appears very diverse to them. For example, someone looking at computers is mystified by how it could ever make sense to the programmer.

The programmer, who understands how a computer works, knows that at its heart it functions using incredibly few principles. In fact, there is really only one principle at work in a computer: the distinction between presence and absence. This distinction can be combined, multiplied, directed, converted into magnetic force – in millions and billions of ways. But at its heart the computer is a unity, whose incredible complexity is the revelation of this unified law in all its varied possibilities.

As a person starts learning about computers, they begin to see how many things that looked separate and complex before are actually united and simple. It takes a while to understand how this is so, but the process of learning continually reduces the “many” to the “one”. For example, there are hundreds of computer languages; yet, they all do very nearly the same thing. After a while, it’s possible to learn a new language just by asking how it differs from the old. In fact, most new languages hardly have anything new in them at all; they just recombine the same ideas into a form that is easier to use for a new purpose.

After enough research and delving into the field of computers, perhaps someday one goes far enough to achieve the “Grand Vision”. This is understanding how everything fits together, in every respect. It is not so difficult to achieve as you’d think, and there are signs of it in every single computer program. But seeing how this essential unity underlies the scheme of computers, without studying, is impossible.

In its diversity the computer is the “most manifest of the manifest”, since everything proceeds from that united heart; but in its unity it is the “most hidden of the hidden”, because nowhere is this concept present in its naked form. Everything one learns is an inference, a derived idea, a consequence of an ever-more-profound understanding. Philosophy would say that the details of the computer transcend toward its central motivating idea, but since the idea is never immanent in everyday reality, no one but a student of computers can ever truly comprehend it.

Finally the student reaches down to the bottom of the well, and puts it all together. It’s not so hard, really. It’s just the interaction between presence and absence. One could even say, “Knowledge is a single point, but the ignorant have multiplied it”. Anyway, from the day the programmer achieves this understanding, and every day forward, the computer now looks different to him. When he looks at it he sees the same machine as everyone else, but he now sees each individual aspect of the computer as a manifestation of that essential oneness. It is this oneness that attracts him, that now aids him in understanding each new detail he ever learns about the computer. It redefines his relationship to that entire field of knowledge, and makes it all seem familiar, understood, close at hand.

Thus the state of a consummate programmer is one of constantly beholding unity in diversity, the one in the many. It’s as though all computers (all programs, all operating systems, all architectures) are just variations on a Theme, a theme he finds beautiful beyond description in the elegance of its simplicity. It is, of course, too simple to ever explain, even given hours and days and an eager listener. It can never be shared, never talked about. One can speak volumes about it, but not suffice to capture the mystery of that one Truth about the computer world. There are some who catch a hint of this mystery, and pursue it until they find it; while others don’t have the time and desire it takes to reach that far. For some it takes decades to reach it, for others just months, or maybe they are graced with the capacity to intuit the whole thing in a single statement. One can never say.

But truly, computers are wonderfully simple, and in this respect a programmer will always say it’s really not so hard; that we’re just one step away from the essence of what we seek. This unity is the basis of every action the computer takes, it’s present in every feature. Without it, what it means to compute would fade away into nothingness. For the programmer, this unity is bliss, and the means of greater and more rapid understandings than he could ever achieve from the point of view of diversity. He can now sit behind a foreign computer, a foreign program – never having seen or heard of it before – and in moments start to interact profitably with it, since he has a feeling for what computers do, how they behave, what to expect from them. Everything is familiar territory. In a single menu, he descries the nature and design of the whole; from a single glance, he can judge by his intimate association with the Secret, how it derives its meaning from that Source.