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The Importance of Questioning Fixed Assumptions

The Importance of Questioning Fixed Assumptions


Following the release of Paul Howard’s very timely and important documentary, Infinite Potential: The Life and Ideas of David Bohm, David Bohm’s life and work is being brought to the attention of many people who previously may have had little, if any, knowledge about this extraordinary man. This article is an attempt to question the commonly held belief that at one time in his life David Bohm suffered from a deep psychiatric condition. I want to propose that something fundamentally different than a mental imbalance may have been taking place.

I met David Bohm for the last time in his office at Birkbeck College in London just a few weeks before he died. When I arrived, I was struck by how depressed David appeared and our conversation was slow to come alive. At one point, I suggested to David that I felt one of thought’s many capacities was to be able to ‘bluff.’ By this I meant not only that people can get tricked into holding certain rigid beliefs, but also that there is a human tendency to believe the narrative our own thought process is telling us about ourselves. I was looking forward to meeting David a few weeks later at a scheduled dialogue weekend. However, when I returned to Ireland I had a very strong premonition that David was about to die. And just a few days before the dialogue meeting I was told that David had unexpectedly passed away.

There were some very striking events surrounding David’s death. At that dialogue event, Don Factor, one of the people working closely with David on his dialogue proposal, told us about David phoning him the evening before he died. Don shared that David was excited about a breakthrough he was experiencing. David told Don that there was a ‘self.’ Don asked David if this ‘self’ he was referring to was the same as in Buddhism and David had said that it was different. Later, for his book, Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm, David Peat interviewed Don about this conversation he had with David and Don told him that David had said: ‘There was indeed a self, but this self is not an object but an entire mental process, an on-going activity[1].’ Anna Factor, Don’s wife, who was also involved with the exploration of dialogue, had also talked with David on the phone the evening before he died. David told her that he was on the edge of something new and feeling excited about it.  David sounded so alive that Anna felt he was ‘on fire.’ (The following day, within the hour before he died, David phoned his wife Saral. His voice was bubbling with energy and he told her: “You know, it’s tantalising, I feel I am on the edge of something[2].’) The Factors, who were also close friends of David and Saral, had made arrangements for all four of them to travel together to the launch of Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992). When Anna and Don arrived at the launch they told Sogyal that David had died earlier that day and he immediately phoned the Dali Lama to inform him.

During the latter years of his life David had experienced a deep fear of dying. However, the insights and events that occurred in his last days suggest that he crossed the threshold of death unaccompanied by this fear. And in doing so he may have contributed to puncturing a hole in the powerfully unconscious belief in materialism as an absolute, which has such a tight grip on the consciousness of so much of humanity. Perhaps this final breakthrough that occurred in David’s life may not only have been one of his most significant, but everything he encountered in his life, including the experience of depression, may have been fundamentally necessary in order for this final breakthrough to have occurred. And having occurred it may have meant that his life’s purpose had fulfilled itself and he was then fully ready to leave.

I find it interesting that Krishnamurti also referred to this threshold into death. Krishnamurti told Asit Chandmal: ‘When someone dies, there are one or two persons he or she may want to see. They will only come back to a house where there is no violence, where there is love[3].’ It seems that what is operating very actively in our lives is not just our faculty of conscious awareness, but that there is also an awareness taking place in the nonconscious dimension that may be more influential than what is happening consciously. I suggest that one of the important elements that may be operating in this domain is what I like to call ‘unconscious curiosity.’ It may have appeared even to David himself that he was going through some deep psychiatric trauma, without this having been actually the case. Perhaps it was necessary for him to enter those very challenging realms, such as depression, to enable him to address the core of the mental imbalance that pervades so much of society and to allow him to make the discoveries that turned him into the very creative social and cultural therapist that he was.

Even though David was deeply aware of the dangerous level of incoherence and confusion in the world at large, I think it was of crucial importance that he did not fall into the very unhelpful belief that there is something fundamentally wrong in the core essence of what we humans are. He was rather concerned with the danger of tacit and unwarranted conclusions in preventing the operation of a deeper quality of intelligence that is otherwise inherently natural to humanity. This point is illustrated in the following excerpt from an interview David did with Mark Edwards and Alan Hunter, which appeared in The Journal of the Metamorphic Association, in 1986, in an article titled, The Importance of Questioning Fixed Assumptions[4].

Alan Hunter: One problem is that many academics—philosophers or psychologists—would say that there is no reason to believe that such an intelligence exists. It may be an old metaphysical idea. Is there any reason to suppose it actually exists?

David Bohm: Is there any reason to believe that there isn’t such an intelligence? You could say of that approach that it is a self-fulfilling assumption. If we assume there is no such intelligence, that will automatically be fulfilled. That way we could never find it, is that clear?

Alan Hunter: If we deny the possibility of it? 

David Bohm: Yes. That is the danger in a lot of the academic approaches, that they contain tacit assumptions that people are not very aware of which tend to be self–fulfilling. People find their assumptions verified and therefore they say that must be the truth. Now, I think we need an attitude of exploration here, of not having fixed assumptions but being ready to explore. So I think this would be the first requirement in any view of education of the nature which Krishnamurti had in mind. The mind must be free and ready to explore, without fixed conclusions and presuppositions and assumptions, without being blocked by them. Now most of the history of humanity has been to hold fixed assumptions, which are unconscious or blocked, without movement. In fact people generally start from these assumptions without knowing they have got them; therefore they are, as Krishnamurti would say, tethered in some limited area. I think one of the first questions implied by what you say: Is it possible to be free of those fixed assumptions and conclusions? That already would be a transformation of the mind. So part of Krishnamurti’s education is aimed at freeing the mind from these, and in that sense it would parallel what these other people are doing with no authority and creativity and so on. Presumably they have a similar aim. Except that they don’t realise, perhaps, that even they are still bounded by fixed assumptions that they are not aware of. That is, there may be a tacit assumption by modern educators that they’re enlightened and free …

Alan Hunter: … at least compared to everybody else …

David Bohm: Yes, and they may not realise the extremely great power of very subtle fixed assumptions. So a lot of Krishnamurti’s education is a form of questioning, getting people to learn to question, and I think it would be necessary to arouse this spirit of questioning, the ability to be aware of your assumptions and conclusions and prejudices. 

Mark Edwards: That in itself requires a degree of intelligence that people don’t necessarily have.

David Bohm: Well, I think they would have it naturally, but society has grown in such a way as to damp it down. You see, I think every society tries to maintain its form by destroying intelligence, by destroying the responsiveness of the human being to intelligence.

Another reason why it is important that we don’t become immersed within a belief system that we are essentially flawed, is not only because this would imply that we are not responsible, but that we are victims of the events we encounter in life. David’s proposal about the existence of this fundamental intelligence implies our potential for participating in the unfolding universe, whose wholeness is thus intrinsically bound with us. In this regard, I find the following statement he made in an interview with Renée Weber to be particularly striking:

We have at least the potential to participate… Yes, we may participate in the whole and thus help to give it meaning. This is a position more favoured in the West than in the East, which is inclined to make the human being rather a small thing in the cosmos. But we are nevertheless an intrinsic feature of the universe, which would be incomplete without us in somefundamental sense[5].

I think it is interesting that David Bohm’s ‘depression’ was the catalyst that brought him in contact with the psychiatrist Dr Patrick de Maré, who had been pioneering medium and large group dialogues for decades. These two men had many conversations and David acknowledged Patrick’s immense contribution to his understanding of dialogue. I think this is an example of the apparently ironic manner in which new and even transformational understanding can emerge. The meeting between these two men might be indicative of something taking place in somebody’s life other than meets the eye: in this case the surface appearance of a breakdown being the occasion for a breakthrough. So, did what was taking place in David’s life really involve a psychiatric issue, as such issues are commonly understood?

It is important to mention that Patrick de Maré, just like David, did not doubt our human potential for intelligence. However, Patrick asked: Why is it that intelligent people perpetuate cultures that are so self-destructive? ‘We do not have to turn to other cultures for anthropological study; we have only to step outside our own front door[6].’ David Bohm was a scientist of mind as well as a scientist of matter and I think that the complementarity of these two explorations contributed significantly to the clarity that emerged through him. However, I suggest that another very important factor that enabled him to discover and share such important gifts with the world was not just clarity of mind, but also purity of heart.

Since the object of this article is to emphasise the creative aspect of what to all appearances looked like a pathological condition, I think it might be appropriate to end it with the words of the Polish-American scholar Alfred Korzybski that David himself was fond of quoting: ‘Whatever we say a thing is, it isn’t.’

Eddie O’Brien.
August 2020.


[1] Infinite Potential – The Life and Times of David Bohm by F. David Peat, Helix Books, 1997, pg. 318.

[2] Infinite Potential – The Life and Times of David Bohm by F. David Peat, Helix Books, 1997, pg. 319.

[3] The Last Walk, by Asit Chandmal. The City Magazine, Bombay, March 7th, 1986, pg. 38.

[4] Metamorphosis – The Journal of the Metamorphic Association. No. 9, Summer 1986, pg. 6.

[5] ‘The Physicist and the Mystic: Is a Dialogue Between Them Possible?’ A conversation with David Bohm conducted by Renée Weber; edited by Emily Sellon, Revision, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1981, p. 32.

[6] Koinonia – From Hate, Through Dialogue, to Culture in the Large Group. Patrick de Maré, Robin Piper, Sheila Thompson. Karnac Books, 1991, pg. 87.