Note: This discussion follows on from the last question on ‘Finding a Teacher’ (apart from the introductory paragraphs).
Many seekers think that the essence of enlightenment is ‘experience’; that they need to actually experience something for themselves before they can be regarded as enlightened. In line with this, they denigrate the notion that a teacher can convey whatever it is that the seeker needs by simply talking to them, answering questions and so on. Even worse, they feel, is the idea that enlightenment can be gained by reading a book!
Maybe the term ‘Self-inquiry’ is largely to blame for this misconception. Seekers attached to this idea think that subjecting their own experiences (perceptions, ideas, theories etc) to close examination is somehow the key.
Whatever is the case, such seekers are seriously confused and need to distinguish carefully between ‘experience’, ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’. Below I provide a question and answer discussion I had early last year with a reader on this general subject. But first I would like to give an example from my own experience, which (for me) provided a very clear distinction between these three. (And I refer to this example in the question and answer session.)
The experience occurred about 30 years ago. You will have to bear with me as it takes a little while (and two diagrams!) to explain.
I used to attend philosophy lectures at a school called SES, which holds its talks in rented buildings scattered about the country. At this time, they were held in a house on a circular avenue as in the first image above. I always approached along the road at the top, turned left into the avenue and then clockwise to the school. On leaving, I always returned the same way – anti-clockwise, then right and right.
Then, one night, for some reason, I carried on in the same, clockwise direction and then turned left, and then right at the main road as usual. Except that I suddenly hit some traffic lights that had not been there before and I realized that I was somewhere completely different! I soon recognized where I was and took corrective action but I was completely mystified as to how I had got there. This was the ‘experience’ stage. I had the experience but missed the meaning, as T. S. Eliot puts it in ‘The Four Quartets’!
I puzzled over this for some days, wondering if I had had some sort of mental blackout or been so involved in thinking about the lecture that I hadn’t been paying attention and went the wrong way for some reason. But I did not really believe that; I believed that there had to be some simple explanation.
And then, at some point, that explanation came to me and I knew beyond any doubt what must have happened, even though I had not looked at a map or spoken with anyone about it. The actual layout of the avenue had to be as shown in the second diagram. And so it was of course. But the point is that, when the answer came to me, it came as certainty, not as some working hypothesis or plausible explanation.
This is the certainty of knowledge rather than belief. All of the information has to be there in the mind. In this example, the data concerning starting point, end point and location of the school were all there; I just hadn’t seen the connection. The realization comes of itself when your mind is ready. You simply know that there is no other answer, even if you cannot look at a map to check your conclusion. If you have the belief (of the reality of non-duality) already, you have presumably had sufficient shravaNa. You simply need to give yourself more manana and nididhyAsana.
Knowledge, according to Western philosophy, occurs when you believe something and that belief is both justified (by experience and reason) and true. In order to become Self-realized or enlightened, you have to subject the ideas of Advaita to doubt and questioning and repetition and consideration etc until such time as your beliefs become knowledge.
The continuation of Q. 380 – Finding a teacher – now follows:
Q: I have read many books which of course all point in the same direction but describe the process of getting there in many different ways, what to avoid also seems to vary widely. I try to avoid those that frankly bitch about other processes and I still haven’t figured out what Jiddu Krishnamurti expects us to achieve; his process seems equivalent to Arthur Dent learning to fly.
I seem to have an affinity with Hinduism and have started reading the Bhaghavad Gita ‘as it is’ and a book on Advaita Vedanta I downloaded on my kindle.
I have a peculiar ‘accidental’ spiritual background so my development is erratic and I’m worried that I could very easily get in trouble again. Started out atheist then accidentally suffered precognition that terrified me, thought I was going to go insane. Had more precognition, nine years worth, went to spiritualists – no good, went to Protestants next door – no good. Have been looking for 10 years for explanation, haven’t found anything except Aldous Huxley in his Perennial Philosophy stating that these Siddhis are just a distraction. If it wasn’t for those Siddhis I would know a lot less than I do now though.
A: ‘Bhagavad Gita As It Is’ is not Advaita but Dvaita. There are hundreds of translations/commentaries on the Gita and most cannot be recommended for someone beginning to find out about Advaita. What is the kindle Advaita book you are reading?
I think it is mainly the Yoga philosophers who address the question of siddhis but they are also dualistic. As you say, they are an unfortunate distraction for the most part.
Q: The Kindle book is called ‘A Guide to Hindu Spirituality’ by Arvind Sharma. I found it through ‘World Wisdom, The Library of Perennial Philosophy’.
I don’t want a system that uses siddhis. I need someone who acknowledges the reality of them, in order to know how they operate and can deal with them. They hopefully know to differentiate between intentional and accidental psychic phenomena. Protestant Christians don’t seem to differentiate, which is why I’m avoiding them (not that I need much excuse). The intentional aspects are prone to ego and moral problems, therefore are distractions and harmful – I get that. The accidental are very confusing, longer lasting and much more powerful in effect than the intentional, but whether they are distractions or pointers is unclear at present.
I’ve had more experiences than precognition and cumulatively I do feel manipulated or pushed towards something by something. The only thing I can accept (believe?) for certain is that the human subconscious has access to or is part of something that has its own consciousness. Whether this bigger consciousness is behind the manipulation I have no idea. I get the impression that the meaning/purpose of life is to achieve conscious awareness of the subconscious and all that goes with it. Sorry about the Jung type terminology.
A: According to Advaita, there is no ‘this consciousness’ and ‘that conscious’ or ‘larger consciousness’; there is only Consciousness. And you are that. Experiences are irrelevant; only knowledge matters. Advaita recognizes siddhis but has no interest in them at all; just ignore them, as they are experiences. If you are interested in finding out more about Advaita, I suggest reading my ‘Advaita Made Easy’. It is short, simple and cheap and will teach you the absolute basics. If, after that, you have questions or want to ask more, please get back to me.
Q: I bought and read your book today; it was similar in content to the other book I bought on Kindle.
Whatever I write below is only intended as logical intellectual type problems, like marking a philosophy essay. It’s not intended to be a criticism of you, your book or Advaita Vedanta, as it is in India. I do question your inadvertent western mentality that makes the same mistake that you yourself say:
“Modern western teachers are attempting to circumvent the introductory explanations and mental preparation and present the bottom line conclusions of Advaita. This is not possible and only leads to confusion.” (Accuracy is subject to me being able to read my own writing.)
Your book and every book in English (written in English or translated) does this exact same thing as far as I’m concerned. I understand what you have written, intellectually, I have been reading similar things for years, and it never gets any further than an intellectual knowledge. Without real teachers it will probably never get any further either.
I do really have an atheist background, never have been Christian or anything else. I haven’t been to Tibet, India, met the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa etc, have never been to weekly seminars with gurus. I do however “treat the search for the truth (as) being the driving force (of) my life”. My psychic experiences, though worthless to many, have led me to realise that reality isn’t what I believed/assumed it was. As “only knowledge can remove ignorance”, my knowledge from experience, removed my atheist ignorance at least. And logically, my experiences couldn’t have happened if all humans etc weren’t interconnected in some fashion – “you and I are the same”.
“We are never asked to accept anything that is contrary to reason or to our own experience.” If experience is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter does it? For me, reincarnation and karma are contrary to reason and experience, but I’m happy to leave those alone.
I’m not in some big impatient rush to experience enlightenment. I think the slower the better. But if this ‘enlightenment’ isn’t an experience, are you suggesting that something just happens for some unknown reason, sans teacher? So I can continue reading and intellectually understanding and one day, it will sink in of its own accord? I’m differentiating between intellectual knowledge and a sort of instinctive knowledge from experience, like gnosis. I experienced absolute knowledge during my first precognition experience. (I might have the terminology wrong, but I received absolute knowledge that I would see someone, then half an hour later I did, that’s when I got the traumatic shock and feeling that I was about to go insane). I always assumed that enlightenment was some kind of gnosis/absolute knowledge, but without the trauma – hopefully.
Regarding the first paragraph above, there is another aspect of your Western mindset that is causing problems for me in that I still feel frustrated. You have taken on the western prejudice and assumptions regarding psychic phenomena and are grouping it all together, and have never investigated it for yourself, intellectually. I understand the prejudice but it is limiting. There is the feeling that Eastern religions have adapted their teachings to fit the Western mindset, make it acceptable and take out all the ‘superstitious mumbo jumbo’ and any negative aspects, make it intellectually appealing. It has succeeded; for me in particular it’s almost as useless as Christianity in effect, sans teachers of course.
A: Sorry you are feeling frustrated over this. If it is any consolation, traditional Advaita talks about the process taking many lifetimes, not just a few months or even years. (I entirely agree with your statement regarding reincarnation, however, although that is not in any way a condemnation of Advaita.)
Your initial point, actually misses the point, although I accept responsibility for this. My statement about circumvention refers to the Western style satsang and neo-advaita. My own approach is (intended to be) strictly in accord with traditional teaching.
But all that is beside the point, really. Your problem seems to be a belief that ‘enlightenment’ involves some sort of experience – a ‘sudden flash of light’ if you like. This is not the case. But you are right, it is more than what we usually call ‘intellectual understanding’. In fact, I think we often use that term when we DON’T really understand. “I understand intellectually, but…” It is a bit like the difference between belief and knowledge. I used an example from my own experience to illustrate this in answer to a question last year sometime, and I think this might help here.
Regarding psychic phenomena, I don’t think I have made any judgmental statements anywhere. I have just said that Advaita considers that they are irrelevant in a pursuit of Self-knowledge. In fact, it is more than that: they are likely to be a distraction and thus counter-productive.
As far as Eastern teaching adapting to a Western mindset, yes – I am consciously (and I dare say, unconsciously too) trying to do this. ‘Original’ traditional teaching of Advaita is totally scripture-based and heavily laced with Sanskrit. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to glean much from such an Indian teacher without significant Sanskrit background. There is also the cultural background – rituals etc. This is also taken for granted by most Indian teachers and the Western listener will understand very little. If you want the unadulterated version, you will have to go and live with an Indian family for some years first, as well as learning some Sanskrit!
Q: I have to admit that I’m confused, not just by you, I’ve been confused since the mid ’80s.
For most people there seems to be a gap between intellectual understanding and knowing. Do they close the gap by believing in stuff? If they do, could I suggest that the gap is wider when you experience absolute certainty that isn’t related to any prior belief?
This certainty convinced me that belief is bogus, because the certainty came without prior belief, therefore logically, belief is irrelevant as well as annoying.
Do we manufacture belief ourselves and hope we don’t go insane? I’ve come across this idea that belief is some great leap into the unknown, is that true? If it is true, then I’m risking more horrific experiences.
So what’s causing all my confusion and how am I supposed to bridge this gap?
You didn’t show any overt prejudice against psychic stuff, you just ignored it. I don’t mind so much if I can understand why, other than what you’ve said already which doesn’t explain much in particular.
I don’t think about enlightenment much really as it seems impossible, probably because I don’t understand what it is. I assumed it had some certainty/gnosis attached in some way, otherwise how would you know you had achieved it?
If I could understand what happened I would be happier, but that understanding seems to depend on me entirely and I don’t like that, but I’ve got used to being my own authority in a way. If following Advaita Vedanta depends on my own understanding to bridge the gap, I won’t like it much either, but I’ll do it if I have no other choice.
A: My apologies! I seem to have confused the issue by giving my pictorial example. I produced that originally to clarify the difference between belief and knowledge and I was trying to apply it to your problem of the difference between intellectual understanding and knowledge. They are not really the same. You will have encountered the terms shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. The first is what corresponds to intellectual understanding. You follow the arguments and understand what is being said – but you are not entirely convinced. This is where the second stage comes in – subjecting those ideas to doubt and questioning, and not being satisfied until all those doubts have been resolved. Once that occurs, you can call it enlightenment, but far better is simply self-knowledge. The third step is to go over it all again, talk and/or write and/or teach the material until that outlook is intrinsic to your life.
Faith is involved to the extent that you resolve to temporarily take on trust the things that the teacher tells you until such time as manana is finished. It goes without saying that you only give this trust to someone you have reason to believe is trustworthy.
I can understand that your psychic experiences have been a powerful influence in your life but you need to try to drop them. All experiences are irrelevant to Advaita, psychic or otherwise. They are all mithyA.
(My own views on this are also irrelevant but, because you ask, I used to be very interested. I have had a totally inexplicable incidence of precognition. But I have also read such books as ‘The Hundredth Monkey’ and it is difficult to ignore such persuasive argument.)