Direct Experience


“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.”

~Sri Nisargadatta

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.

~Pema Chodron

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About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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8 Responses to Direct Experience

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    The Buddha was approached and asked by a person named Bahiya to reveal the insight necessary to realize enlightenment. The Buddha responded:

    “Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus:

    In the seen, there is only the seen,
    in the heard, there is only the heard,
    in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
    in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
    Thus you should see that
    indeed there is no thing here;
    this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.
    Since, Bahiya, there is for you
    in the seen, only the seen,
    in the heard, only the heard,
    in the sensed, only the sensed,
    in the cognized, only the cognized,
    and you see that there is no thing here,
    you will therefore see that
    indeed there is no thing there.
    As you see that there is no thing there,
    you will see that
    you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
    nor in the world of that,
    nor in any place
    betwixt the two.
    This alone is the end of suffering.” (ud. 1.10)

    “What does it mean to say, “There is no thing there”? It is talking about the realm of the object; it implies that we recognize that “the seen is merely the seen.” That’s it. There are forms, shapes, colors, and so forth, but there is no thing there. There is no real substance, no solidity, and no self-existent reality. All there is, is the quality of experience itself. No more, no less. There is just seeing, hearing, feeling, sensing, cognizing. And the mind naming it all is also just another experience. . . . As this insight matures, not only do we realize that there is no thing “out there,” but we also realize there is no solid thing “in here,” no independent and fixed entity that is the experiencer. This is talking about the realm of the subject. As the Buddha said to Bahiya, “You will not be able to find your self either in the world of this [subject] or in the world of that [object] or anywhere between the two.”
    ~Ajahn Amaro

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    “When you expect that Consciousness should give it an expression, Consciousness itself disappears. There is nothing near ‘That’. Nothing is there, which means that there is nothing near, there is only ‘Wordless Non-Existence,’ stillness. Where there are two, there can be experience. Where there is only one, who can have experience, and of what?”

    ~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  3. Bob OHearn says:

    “The pivotal difference between the path of reasoning and the path of direct perception is whether our attention faces out, away from itself, or whether the mind faces itself, looking into itself. The path of reasoning is always concerned with looking at something ‘out there.’ It examines using the power of reason until we are convinced that what we are looking at is by nature empty, devoid of an independent identity. Whether on a coarse or subtle level, it is definitely empty. However, no matter how long and how thoroughly we convince ourselves that things are by nature empty, every time we stub our toe on something it hurts. We are still obstructed; we cannot move our hands straight through things, even though we understand their emptiness. The path of reasoning alone does not dissolve the mental habitual tendency to experience a solid reality that we have developed over beginningless lifetimes.

    It is not that a particular practice transforms the five aggregates—forms, sensations, perceptions, formations and consciousnesses—into emptiness. Instead it is a matter of acknowledging how all phenomena are empty by nature. This is how the Buddha taught in the sutras. A person presented with such a teaching may often understand the words and trust the teachings, but personally he does not experience that that is how it really is. Nagarjuna kindly devised the Middle Way techniques of intellectual reasoning in order to help us understand and gain conviction. By analyzing the five aggregates one after the other, one eventually is convinced, ‘Oh, it really is true! All phenomena actually are empty by nature!’”

    ~ Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “When you realise that the distinction between inner and outer is in the mind only, you are no longer afraid.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    Question: At what point does one experience reality?

    Nisargdatta Maharaj : Experience is of change, it comes and goes. Reality is not an event, it cannot be experienced. It is not perceivable in the same way as an event is perceivable. If you wait for an event to take place, for the coming of reality, you will wait for ever, for reality neither comes nor goes. It is to be perceived, not expected. It is not to be prepared for and anticipated. But the very longing and search for reality is the movement, operation, action of reality. All you can do is to grasp the central point, that reality is not an event and does not happen and whatever happens, whatever comes and goes, is not reality. See the event as event only, the transient as transient, experience as mere experience and you have done all you can. Then you are vulnerable to reality, no longer armoured against it, as you were when you gave reality to events and experiences. But as soon as there is some like or dislike, you have drawn a screen.

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    People on a spiritual search are often chasing after experiences. It has been said that spiritual seekers are experience junkies. And along the way, many experiences do happen, and for some people, very dramatic ones (kundalini rushing up the spine, visions, shaking of the body, altered states of various kinds). Experiences, especially if they are pleasant or dramatic, can be very seductive. We want more of them, and we think they are significant. We think they mean something. Often, we spend a great deal of time trying to re-experience a past experience, or trying to achieve an experience that we have read about or heard someone else describe. This is always a disappointing quest because experiences by their very nature are impermanent. They come and go.

    Sometimes we imagine that enlightenment (awakening, realization, liberation) would mean the sustained experiencing of a particular experience we’ve had—maybe an experience of spaciousness or openness or calm or high energy or freedom or profound presence or a deep sense of the undivided nature of reality—whatever it was. And we think enlightenment would mean having that experience permanently, “all the time.” That, of course, is folly. No experience is permanent. If it came, it will go. Even our most primary experience of being here now, the experience of presence, comes and goes every night with deep sleep.

    We can’t experience what remains in deep sleep. Some people claim to have experienced deep sleep, but my hunch is that they were experiencing a dream about experiencing deep sleep. By definition, deep sleep is not an experience. We can’t experience what remains when everything perceivable and conceivable is gone. We ARE what remains in deep sleep, but no-thing can step outside of that non-dual unicity (aka totality, pure consciousness or primordial awareness) to experience it in the way we can experience ordinary phenomena. And yet, paradoxically, there is nothing OTHER than unicity, so in another sense, EVERY experience is that. But unicity is never confined to any particular experience—it is not this experience but not some other experience. Non-dual wholeness is not something in particular. It is everything, and even more accurately, it is the no-thing-ness (or emptiness) of everything.

    Experience (perceiving, sensing, thinking, emoting) is by nature always broken out into apparent multiplicity, dualism and polarity. Every experience contains the potentiality of its opposite. We can’t have up without down or light without dark. We can only perceive a chair because it stands out from everything else that is not a chair. But this sort of dualism, which is the very nature of conscious experience, is not inherently problematic. Our suffering comes from thinking that the apparent multiplicity really is a bunch of separate objects and that the opposite sides of a polarity are actually separate, fixed, independent things that can be pulled apart, instead of seeing that the two sides are relative, mutable, and totally interdependent. Because we don’t see that, we imagine that evil can be vanquished once and for all, or that we will get to a place where there is no more delusion, no more darkness, no more ups and downs.

    But no such place exists except as the place-less-ness Here / Now that includes all the ups and all the downs, the totality from which nothing stands apart, the one without a second, the unicity that has no opposite—and that is not an object that we can perceive or experience or take hold of and put on our altar. That is the no-thing-ness (or emptiness) of everything.

    No polarity is fixed or absolute. It only exists in relationship. In other words, there is no such thing as absolute up or absolute down. The ceiling is up relative to the floor, but down relative to the sky. The ceiling is not absolutely any way in particular. It can only be relatively up or relatively down in relation to something else. There is no place that is always up. Likewise, we can never have a one-sided coin, nor can we ever find any exact place on the coin where heads turns into tails, nor do the two sides even exist without the frame or container of the coin. Everything perceivable or conceivable is relative, mutable, impermanent and totally interdependent with everything else. In Buddhist terms, everything is empty—empty of any inherent, persisting, absolute, independent existence—empty of self.

    So if we’re looking for enlightenment in the realm of experiences—if we imagine that it is a particular experience or a particular state of mind that lasts forever—then we’re looking in the wrong place.

    That’s why I put that quote up from Nisargadatta as my last post: “Expect nothing from experience. Realisation by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences. Yet the new experiences, however interesting, are not more real than the old. Definitely realisation is not a new experience. It is the discovery of the timeless factor in every experience.”

    That’s not to say that we should ignore, denigrate or avoid experience, or that experience is somehow bad or unspiritual. And in a conventional way, what we experience is quite real. But when we look more closely, we find that whatever we experience is empty of any fixed or essential nature. Awareness, “the timeless factor in every experience,” is not a separate thing. It is not an object or a particular experience. Awareness is right here now—showing up as a summer rainstorm, the taste of tea, green leaves dancing in the breeze, city traffic, neon lights, the pain of a headache, the dazzling excitement of a first kiss, the final out-breath of a dying parent.

    When we recognize the emptiness and the meaninglessness of experience, life becomes playful and joyous. Everything lightens up. Nothing is fixed or solid. Everything is alive. This is freedom. It is the freedom that no longer needs or expects dramatic experiences or perpetual bliss or anything else other than exactly what is. It is the freedom that sees the Holy Reality everywhere, in everything. This seeing is awareness or unconditional love—not as an experience that the separate self has—but as the emptiness (the fluidity, the openness, the undivided wholeness) that we truly are.

    ~Joan Tollifson

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “You cannot meet the Reality through the process of objective sensory knowledge. Only confusion is created by those who insist on trying to know it by experiencing. Leave this approach. Leave your efforts to bring Reality to the level of experiencing. Leave knowing, and not knowing. Both are just concepts, your attitudes. When both are left off, only “Existence,” which is the pure state of Being, remains.”

    ~ Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    An appearance can only exist if there is a mind that beholds it. The beholding of that appearance is nothing other than experience; that is what actually takes place.

    All the elements are vividly distinguished as long as the mind fixates on them. Yet they are nothing but a mere presence, an appearance.

    When the mind doesn’t apprehend, hold, or fixate on what is experienced, reality loses its solid, obstructing quality.

    ~ Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

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