For most advaitins, traditional as well as Western, the term ‘experience’ seems to be a red rag. I would like to open our minds to a more comprehensive understanding of the word.
What exactly is an experience? It is a mind phenomenon, possibly following a sense perception or an action. Tasting food is a sense perception. But to evaluate it as enjoyable or as disgusting makes for a pleasant or unpleasant experience. Similar with activities: just to be active – walking, talking, gesticulating etc. – is not an experience yet. Experiencing comes about when the mind gets involved, usually with an evaluation of the activity. An experience can also come about without a sense perception or activity: understanding a joke or having a nightmare can make for purely mental experiences, the first usually pleasant the latter unpleasant.
The whole world of non-advaita is ruled by the hunt for experiences of various kinds. This is no surprise if we look at people who do not have any spiritual inclination. What else to do in this world if spirituality is missing? Experience! Max out experiences – after all life is short and soon you die …
But even if we have a look at all those who are engaged in (traditional or modern) religious/spiritual/esoteric ways (but not advaitins), we notice that they, too, are constantly on the lookout for experiences – the difference being that those experiences should not be mundane. Instead they should be extraordinary and confirm the respective world-view of the experiencer, pointing to something religious/spiritual/esoteric.
From the perspective of advaita there is no difference between the two groups as far as experience-hunting is concerned. Any experience is an object to the experiencer. Experiencing in this sense divides the world into two and therefore is a dvaita-phenomenon. Experiences are many, all of them have different flavours; they come and they go and they depend on someone’s mind experiencing them (otherwise where is the experience?).
Knowledge and Experience – different and coextensive
In Advaita Vedanta we usually distinguish between knowledge and experience to point out the need to go beyond these kinds of experiences. Advaita Vedanta is about the understanding that beyond all experiences there is one attributeless, permanent, changeless, independent and all-pervasive principle that needs to be recognized as Self. Advaita Vedanta is about this knowledge alone.
So far, so true. But grammatically, knowledge and experience make for the same difficulty. Both to know and to experience are transitive verbs, i.e. they require one or more objects. Logically there is no reason why we need to appreciate one term more than the other. As words, both can indicate dvaita. And both can be stripped of their customary use and be defined in an advaitic sense.
There is an advaita teaching based on Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta as interpreted by Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon, called Direct Path, that frequently uses the term ‘experience’ in the way the term ‘knowledge’ is used in other Advaita teachings. This can lead to misunderstandings. It can make traditional advaita vedanta and Western satsang students dismiss even those parts of Direct Path teaching that accord with their own view.
Indeed the following quotation from Swami Dayananda clearly points to ‘experience’ as a neutral term: that it can be equally considered a term for an object as a term for the very subject itself. Atman is already experienced all the time, in fact there is no way not to experience the atman. Yet the atman cannot be experienced as an object because it is me, the Self.
And as Atman is Brahman, no experience in this sense can ever be an object because no experience is ever outside Brahman.
Consciousness is the self-revealing experience. If at all there is experience, that alone is the experience. Every other experience is strung in that experience. When it is repeatedly emphasised that atman is not a matter of experience, that statement has to be understood properly. It means atman is already experienced all the time. It does not mean it is outside experience, it is the very content of every experience. It does not need to be experienced because it is atma-svarupa – it is experience itself.
(Swami Dayananda in his commentary on mantra 3.2.6 of Mundaka Up.)
Comparing this to the statements of Rupert Spira, a Western advaita teacher with the background of Direct Path, we cannot but notice how both teachers, in their own styles, point to the same advaitic Truth:
Experience is ever changing in name and form, never changing in essence.
From the point of view of a finite self, experience consists of a multiplicity and diversity of finite objects and selves, some of which are conceived as ‘me’, others ‘not me’. From the point of view of experience itself, there is just the seamless intimacy of itself, one indivisible, un-nameable whole, always changing in name and form but never changing.
(Rupert Spira, quotations from his website: http://non-duality.rupertspira.com/home )
Coming back to the second paragraph of this blog we have to acknowledge that all of those phenomena can happen to a j~nAnI too. He/she, too, will have sense perceptions, will walk and talk, will understand a joke and even bad dreams may occur in his mind. What is the difference between the ordinary mortal and the j~nAnI? While the former’s mind usually will automatically become involved with the phenomena described above, the latter’s mind will not. This involvement is called identification, attributing a sense of “me-ness” to the originally pure and neutral phenomenon – thereby turning it into an experience that is one of many various, impermanent, ever changing objects of perception (i.e. dependent on the perceiver-subject).
Why will the j~nAnI’s mind not identify with sense perceptions, actions, thoughts or feelings and thereby not experience the world in the same way as others? Because the j~nAnI could state:
All that is known is the knowing of experience and I, Awareness, am that knowing.
(with the words of Rupert Spira)
(The Self) is the very content of every experience. It does not need to be experienced because it is Atma-svarUpa – it is experience itself.
(with the words of Swami Dayananda)
photo credits: Dieter-Wendelken@pixelio.de