When is an experience ‘true’? (Q. 309)

Q. Questions are always coming up in mind. Things are confusing. At the moment, for example, I’m trying to understand how one can know whether experience is valid or not e.g. if one saw an apparition of Christ, is one to interpret it as real/unreal, true/untrue etc. and how would you know one way or another….questions about truth and validness are always crossing my mind.

However, earlier today, I remembered how clear things become when you don’t ask people questions, when you don’t talk excessively about life, when you don’t actively seek truth, when you stop asking questions and just let things ‘be’, when you just stay silent, still, focused and almost renounce life. However, it’s hard to maintain that way of being when life seems to force you to ask questions and engage in it  – I can see why some people re-treat to a life in the mountains or a forest.

I was wondering whether, as someone with a knowledge of advaita vedanta, you would comment what I’ve just explained?

Also, while I’m writing, another question has just come to me: one is liberated through grace, is that correct? If you know anything about that, would you elaborate on that too?

A. Experiences are valid within their own terms of reference. Thus, the dream is valid *for the dreamer* (e.g. only dream food will satisfy the dream hunger). Similarly, our waking experience is valid *for the waker*. But, ultimately, neither are ‘real’, in the usually understood sense of the word, since they are dependent upon something else for their existence. So an apparition of Christ would be real for the state in which you were in (dream, hallucination or – much less likely – waking experience) but it wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, be absolutely real. Only brahman, the non-dual reality, is really real.

If you take up meditation, you will find after you have been practicing for some time (maybe years), you find that you are able quickly to reach a state of stillness and clarity, in which everything simply rises and fades away without causing any distraction. But, when you return to your normal waking state, any ignorance about your true nature that you had before will still be there. This is because experience (of any kind) cannot bring about the knowledge that there is only brahman and you are That. The only way to arrive at this understanding is through listening to a qualified teacher explaining the scriptures and subsequently asking questions in order to remove your doubts.

Grace is the word used to rationalize the seemingly random element in all of this. It is through ‘grace’ that we start to think about all of this in the first place, that we find a suitable teacher and that we finally obtain self-knowledge. In reality, according to traditional advaita, what we ‘get’ now is the result of the fructifying karma from actions performed in the past (and not necessarily in this lifetime).