“You already have all the experience you need . . .you need not gather any more, rather you must go beyond experience. Whatever effort you make, whatever method (sadhana) you follow, will merely generate more experience, but will not take you beyond.”
We often hear the familiar dictum from teachers and guides that one must have direct experience of a subject in order for it to amount to “authentic knowledge”, otherwise it just remains on the level of concept and speculation. That is certainly true, at least as far as it goes, and yet there is more to be considered in regard to the matter of direct experience.
Firstly, let’s consider how any experience is processed by the neural net. Every perception must be filtered through a sensory apparatus, then through a conditioned memory-association station, where portions of the experience will be deleted, and perhaps elements that were not even true of the initial experience added, after which a fantasy of interpretation is assembled to provide some sense of provisional meaning, which will be unique to the perceiver having the experience. Based on all the intervening filters, any particular experience will be assigned some level of import, from mundane to life-changing.
Of course, big life-changing insights about the nature of things qualify as direct experience, but forgetting all insight can too. Forgetting is no less direct than acquiring. Furthermore, if one is not having some big insight or revelatory experience at the moment, whatever experience they are having is nevertheless just as direct. They are simply having the direct experience of nothing special, which happens to be, interestingly enough, what truly insightful experiences turn out to be anyway, so we can enjoy ordinary mind without feeling as if we are missing out on something more direct and genuine.
Even “awakening” experiences such as Zen “kensho” are not necessarily going to be truly transformative if they are not subsequently integrated fully into how we live and relate. From what I have observed over the years (both in myself, in fellow practitioners, and even in teachers), the real challenge is not so much the experiencing of so-called spiritual breakthroughs, or attaining glimpses of the Absolute, or having some penetrating insight into emptiness, dependent origination, and anatta (non-self), or having the kundalini energy running up and down one’s spine.
That is not to say that such direct insights and divine gifts are not expedient. Indeed, they can be welcomed, but not any more than the ordinary miracle of just appearing here in the first place. Nevertheless, until we are able to substantially embody such insights and revelations into our life and relations, they end up being mere experiences. That is the real challenge of spiritual life – making it all “real”, in the midst of the “dusts” of this world.
All experiences are essentially transient modifications of consciousness, and are never liberating in and of themselves. Those chasing after such experiences are themselves actually obstructing true liberation by doing so. Most spiritual practitioners are always attempting to alter their current states of mind for a more peaceful state, or a more powerful state, or a more agreeable state. It’s rarely noticed that the one attempting to pacify the mind is itself the mind’s turbulence in action.
Consequently, the old masters recommended vigilant cultivation, in order to align any insight with the way one acts and behaves. This is also why we find the alarming cavalcade of roshis, rinpoches, swamis, and gurus who may have had sublime awakening experiences, and yet often display behaviors that contradict their realizations. It is because they have yet failed to fully embody that which they were shown in moments of revelation.
On the other hand, unless there is an initial clear and direct seeing/recognition of one’s true nature, there is no ground for any substantial transformation from the start. Delusion will merely compound delusion. To insure that such experiences do not just become more of ego-mind’s story, however, they must be fully integrated into one’s life and relations.
A good portion of genuine realization entails the discovery of what we are not – the self-image, and the ensuing fixation of identity that leads us to the mistaken assumption of independent and enduring personhood. How one goes about their life from that sort of insight will require impeccable character and will, not more experience, regardless of how profound or direct it might seem to be, based on our conditioned interpretive filters.
It is not a matter of viewing life through a religious lens or not, or even adherence to any kind of belief. When you see how things really are, you either align with them, or resist and suffer. Religion, belief, and philosophy are for those who are still guessing.
In any case, we can’t step out of direct experience, since wherever one could step would merely constitute another form of direct experience. Likewise, even the most altruistic sense of selfless service is actually rooted in selfishness, otherwise there would be no functioning at all. Without the prior self-sense, where would the motive to act selflessly arise?
Of course, one might note that there’s a big difference between hearing and thinking about water, and actually jumping into water and splashing about in it. Yes, this is so, but to hear and think is to be having the direct experience of hearing and thinking. Jumping into water is having the direct experience of jumping into water. “Water” is just some name we apply to something, but we never really know what it is – what it truly IS. When we are directly experiencing, we don’t have time to know — we are it. We are this functioning, directly experiencing itself as us, right now, in whatever way it may, in whatever way we are, and nothing could be more direct.
Certainly, in a manner of conventional speaking, we can say that Bill went to Japan and had a direct experience of Japanese culture, while Charlie stayed home and watched a Toshiro Mifune/Akira Kurosawa movie on the television. Big difference? Yes and no. Japanese are having the direct experience of being Japanese, but they do not think: “I am having direct experience of Japanese-ness.” They are just what they are, which is a mystery to them, even as they stand in the middle of downtown Tokyo. What is their actual experience? Is it more direct than Charlie’s, sitting at home in front of the tube, chewing on some Safeway sushi while reading sub-titles?
How many different thoughts rise and fall in the time it takes to have a direct experiential perception? Are any of them direct? Does one perception among the countless billion stand up and say, “Hey now, I’m the direct one, and all the others are blurred around the edges?” Mind is funny that way, since even the most direct human experience merely represents a fraction of what the universal totality can reveal beyond our own perceptual limitations. This is not to mention the direct experience of the space between perceptions. What are we going to call that?
Today I have been applying a rich stain to a table that I refinished. In between coats of varnish, I pause to let it dry. When I rub on the stain, I am having the direct stain-rubbing experience, and when I am waiting for it to dry, I am having the direct waiting experience. These two activities appear to be separate, but they are not really, nor is experience really divided up that way, except in the imagination. There is actually only one experience, expressing itself in unqualifiable ways, but when I try and take any ownership of it, things begin to get confused, because by doing so I separate out from the experience – stand apart from it in order to try and grasp it. What a funny mind! How can it hold onto a dream?
Just so, we often hear spiritual authorities recommending that we “go within”, assuring us that the best way to directly locate the Real is by discovering it within ourselves. However, whatever objects, perceptions, experiences, or identities we may find in such a search invariably turn out to be nothing but conditional projections of mind, non-binding and transitory modifications of consciousness.
Moreover, contrary to the consensus presumption and belief, this mind is not within us. If anything, we are appearing within mind, along with the whole cosmos. There is nothing outside of mind. Actually, there is no within/without, inside/outside, no high/low, near/far, no sacred/profane, no wise/foolish, not even any enduring me/you dichotomy. As the great 20th century Chinese Zen Master Hsu Yun poetically stated: “Only the person who gets rid of within and without escapes from birth and death and ascends to eternity.”
Nevertheless, when we conceive of ourselves as independent entities, there does indeed appear to be an inside and an outside, a light and dark, a me and you. However, if we really investigate the situation, we can recognize that we are arising and appearing, thriving and vanishing, along with the whole universe, and there is not an independent molecule in it. It is all dependently originating as thought energy birthing thought energy, ad infinitum.
Yin and Yang, direct and indirect, external and internal, right and wrong, are expedient games we play as humans in duality, but that duality has no enduring reality except what we grant it in our programmed amnesia. This human experience itself is actually more of the nature of a video game — one in which we may get so engrossed that we forget that it is, after all, a virtual reality. Such concepts as “within and without”, or “direct and indirect”, are simply useful mental fabrications we employ to account for and navigate through the unfathomable realm in which we seem to appear. Truly, not knowing is our actual condition. We don’t know where or even what we are, but only that we are.
Keeping the focus of attention on the awareness of being itself (rather than on its modifications on the screen of consciousness), can yield a realization of our essential nature, including the emptiness of both self and phenomena. From that recognition, it is clear that nobody goes anywhere. When “inside” and “outside” are seen to be merely provisional propositions, then the whole dualistic construct collapses. The notion of an independent “I” loses its validity unless there is an “other” or world to stand in opposition to it. Now we can recognize that we are the whole thing — we do not have awareness within us, we are awareness itself, and that’s about as direct as it gets!
You are the sky.
Everything else —
it’s just the weather.“