The Quest for Experience

“Experience leaves only memories behind and adds to the burden which is heavy enough. You need no more experiences. The past ones are sufficient. And if you feel you need more, look into the hearts of people around you. You will find a variety of experiences which you would not be able to go through in a thousand years. Learn from the sorrows of others and save yourself your own. It is not experience that you need, but the freedom from all experience. Don’t be greedy for experience; you need none.”

~Sri Nisargadatta

Many spiritual paths emphasize “direct experience” over a mere conceptual understanding of the nature of the universe. However, the possibilities and permutations of experience are endless, though rarely does any experience itself yield a truly transformative consequence. Rather, experiences alone (even sublime ones) invariably serve to merely fatten the file of memories which ego-mind habitually employs to confirm its existence.

Any experience in and of itself, however transcendental or even terrible, is nothing but a transitory modification of consciousness, with no inherent or enduring significance, except for that which the interpretive mind might grant it. As such, experience can never amount to any enduring truth, although if we pay attention, we can all learn from our experiences, particularly in the conventional sphere. However, even realizations resulting from profound awakening experiences, if not consciously embodied in the way we live and relate, inevitably become mere figments of memory.

Real wisdom begins to awaken with the realization that memory itself is ephemeral and even arbitrary, and therefore reliance on any experience or collection of experiences to construct and support an independent identity (even an “enlightened” one) is ultimately an adventure in futility. What becomes obvious is that all the ego-mind is really doing is employing memory and experience to endlessly renovate the same self-concept, as if a different costume might somehow grant the illusion some believable solidity.

With the benefit of True Inquiry, it becomes apparent that attachment to any self-image whatsoever, based as it is on conditioned interpretations of experience, is like settling down in a house of cards, and believing one has arrived home. When all such dreamy constructs crumble (as they must), what is left is not an experience, is not time-durational, and cannot be grasped nor clung to nor fashioned into a more subtle and impervious identity.

Such a realization deeply frightens and offends the sense of independent and enduring self that seeks the secure haven of any identity, even a “divine” one, within the infinite theater of experience. In its ensuing desperation, ego-mind will go to increasingly frantic lengths to assert its cherished existence until the very lynchpin of belief — the assumption of a separate self — is ultimately revealed to be nothing but a fantasy, a child’s sand castle assembled from filtered bits of experience and memory, and propelled by the relentless engines of hope and fear.

Behind that everyday desperation, most of us humans seem to be searching for some sort of experience that we hope would resolve our deepest yearning, whether through material acquisition or the exploitation of relational possibilities. Nevertheless, we will invariably discover (if we persist in the investigation), is that mere experience, regardless of how glorious and profound, will never truly satisfy our longing at the heart.

No matter how seemingly sublime or remarkable, all experiences are still essentially temporary modifications of consciousness, filtered through the conditioned perceiving apparatus of the senses, whereas genuine awakening reveals the emptiness of consciousness itself, as well as of the senses.

As the Buddha noted in the Bahiya Sutta: “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 is how you should train yourself. Since 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.”

In reality, there is nobody there. In reality, nothing happens. However, such a tacit recognition is not satisfying at all to the ego-mind, which wants to be elevated and confirmed by special and unusual experiences. In fact, it is quite a disappointment — a crushing blow to the ambitions of the seeker — which paradoxically attests to its authenticity.

The seeker hopes that there will be some experience that will settle their boredom and doubt, and relieve them of all discomfort. However, persistent and honest investigation will inevitably reveal that there is no experience we can have that will equal truth, since truth is not an experience. It is not something that happens to a character in a dream, though that very same character turns out to be the “me” we take ourselves to be in our amnesia.

Moreover, dreaming does not end with the release of the physical body to the elements, since we are not now nor have we ever been the physical body exclusively, except in a dream state that most call “my life” – an adventure on the material plane for which the body-mind serves as a kind of bio-vehicle. This became vividly apparent in the course of what some call a “near-death experience”: all that seemed to constitute an “I” was revealed to be essentially without substance or reality – or as the illumined Kashmiri poetess Lalla once noted, “only a somewhat something moving dreamlike on a fading road.”

Of course, it might be interesting to hear stories of other people’s anecdotal experiences, but such tales often merely add to the conditioned expectations mind has been long accumulating, which in turn keep the dream-weaver weaving and the sense of a permanently separate “I” alive and thriving.

That sense of separation includes the programmed belief that we are incomplete, and that the full truth of our being can only to be discovered elsewhere, outside of us — perhaps in some experience that is still waiting to materialize, if only we press the right spiritual buttons, pull the right practice levers in the right order, or maybe gain some special favor with the “higher-ups” and so be granted our hoped-for boon.

What we invariably fail to do, however, is to take the time to inquire into the root of experience itself. After all, who or what is having these experiences, regardless of whether they are perceived as good or bad, desirable or not? That’s the one question ego-mind fears the most. And why? Because such an inquiry plunges us into the unknown, and that’s the last place mind wants to venture. It cannot control the unknown. Instead, we dash off pursuing mind’s proliferations and projected manifestations through endless realms of experience, in this world and countless others, exhausting ourselves in the process.

On the other hand, if only we were willing and able to bring that search to a halt one day, long enough at least to take a good look into our own mirror, we might finally realize that we are the one that we have been seeking all along – we’ve been chasing our own tail. As Ramana Maharshi said: “We think that there is something hiding our reality and that it must be destroyed before the reality is gained. It is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now.”

True Inquiry (or Real Meditation) helps to establish an inner availability which in turn becomes the grounds for the subconscious mind to recognize its error and so cease projecting the fantasy narrative of a “me-story”. Subsequently, all experiences are then recognized as holographic figments appearing and disappearing within the space of our unchanging awake awareness, Love’s knowing presence. Moreover, they are spontaneously self-liberated in that recognition. From the very beginning, there was nothing to grasp or hold on to. All efforts to do so merely crimped the flow.

Once this is directly seen, we have the opportunity (especially if we are fortunate enough to have qualified guidance) to cultivate such realization until it becomes fully integrated, transforming our experience from mere self-confirmation to luminous wisdom. In such recognition, life’s experiences need not be employed to construct some new and improved version of “myself”, nor clung to as if they had some enduring significance. Instead, they can be welcomed as the non-binding gifts they truly are, granted to us for the purposes of deepening and broadening our appreciation and awareness.

Even saying “our awareness” is not quite accurate, however, for it is only when we try to claim any of it as “mine” that clinging and attachment are spawned, which in turn create the illusion of a separate “me”. Conversely, the more profoundly we awaken to an authentic compassion beyond the separate self-obsession, the more we are able to serve as transparent prisms for Spirit’s true nature, which is our own true nature – pure and unconditional love – to illumine all experience within the sphere of life and relationships.

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

 ~Meister Eckhart

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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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12 Responses to The Quest for Experience

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    “Where there is the phenomenon of experience, there is duality. Therefore, in the ‘True Existence of Reality,’ there is no place for experience. In the wake of Self-Realization, duality shies away.”

    ~ Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    Experience, however sublime, is not the real thing. By its very nature it comes and goes. Self-realisation is not an acquisition. It is more of the nature of understanding. Once arrived at, it cannot be lost. On the other hand, consciousness is changeful, flowing, undergoing transformation from moment to moment. Do not hold on to consciousness and its contents. Consciousness held, ceases. To try to perpetuate a flash of insight, or a burst of happiness is destructive of what it wants to preserve. What comes must go. The permanent is beyond all comings and goings. Go to the root of all experience, to the sense of being. Beyond being and not-being lies the immensity of the real. Try and try again.

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  3. Bob OHearn says:

    “If there is a certain notion that you have direct ‘Realization,’ it is only the delusion of a confused mind. This confusion is only the enhancement of the Illusion that is already there. It is the spectacle, the festival of Illusion. Every so-called ‘Realization’ is Illusion.”

    ~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “You may have heard this famous statement by the vajra-holders of the Kagyu lineage: ‘Intrinsic mind essence is dharmakaya; intrinsic ex­perience is the radiance of dharmakaya.’ Experiences and thoughts are not dharmakaya itself, the same way that the smoke from the flames is not the flames, but is the expression or manifestation of the flames. Caught up in noticing the smoke, you forget the flames themselves. The principle in the practice here is not to be occupied with the smoke, meaning recognise the essence and don’t be caught up in the expression. Recognise that this expression doesn’t come from any other place than the essence itself.”

    ~Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    Joan Tollifson

    Many people are seeking some awakening experience or some final breakthrough after which all sense of separation and suffering will be gone forever. Quite often on such a search, people will experience moments of freedom where everything opens up and all problems fall away. It seems in such moments as if something new and desirable has been attained, but actually, this sense of spaciousness and freedom is simply the momentary falling away of what usually obscures the natural ground of open, aware presence. As soon as the thought-story of “me” resumes and once again captures the attention, this taste of freedom seems to disappear. It seems as if unbound awareness shrinks back down to the sense of being an encapsulated separate entity—this but not that.

    The unbound vastness has not really been lost, but the focus of attention has gone to the virtual reality, the thought-generated storyline about what I lack and might one day attain—evaluating how well I’m doing, comparing myself to others—the whole drama of psychological desire and fear, seeking and resisting. We want that experience of freedom back, and we end up trying to recapture a past experience that is now a memory—trying to remember what we did to bring it about so that we can repeat it. We’re very sure that what we glimpsed then is gone now, that “this isn’t it,” that something has to change. We’re back on the treadmill of dissatisfaction, chasing the carrot that is forever just out of reach, ignoring what is most intimate and never not here. What to do?

    I would suggest not getting hooked on trying to have any kind of special experience other than the experience that is happening right now. And if that seems like an impossible task, then simply being aware of how we do get hooked from time to time—really noticing how that works, how it happens.

    Trying to have special experiences or get into special states is a great way to suffer. Instead, if it seems as if “this isn’t it,” we might first notice that this is a thought, that the story it tells may not be true, and we might begin to explore how this-here-now actually is if we don’t label or judge or resist whatever is showing up.

    If there is dissatisfaction or efforting or restlessness or unease, can we simply feel the dissatisfaction, the trying, the restlessness, the fear, the longing, whatever it is as pure bodily sensation, without a story? Can we see the thoughts that accompany the sensations and question the veracity of the stories they tell? Can we also hear the traffic sounds, the birds singing, the refrigerator buzzing, the dog barking? Can we feel the breathing, the warm or cool breeze on the skin, the tingling of energy in the body? Can we see the shapes and colors all around us in the same way that we might behold a piece of fascinating abstract art—not trying to make sense of it, but simply enjoying the shapes and colors and the way it moves? Can we be open to this whole happening right now, just as it is?

    All that any emotional state really is, is thoughts and sensations—and when we experience sensations in a purely sensory way, without the story, we notice that sensations are ever-changing movements of energy, whether it is traffic sounds or the colors in the room or the sensations we call fear or anger. These sensations don’t hold still, they’re not solid things, they don’t actually mean anything—they’re not personal (they’re not something “I” am doing that means something about “me”). And in listening openly, being just this moment, allowing it all to be exactly as it is—we are no longer absorbed in the story or mesmerized by the virtual reality created by thought. We are awake as unbound awareness, boundless presence—our true nature, our most intimate reality, the wholeness that includes everything, the emptiness that is empty of self and full of everything else.

    And if that doesn’t seem to be what happens for you, don’t worry. Again, don’t get caught up in trying to have any particular experience other than the one you are actually having. Because as soon as we try to experience wholeness (or thoughtless awareness or fearlessness or bliss), we’re instantly chasing after a memory or an idea or an ideal of some kind, and we’re overlooking the living reality Here / Now. We’re trying to get what is naturally already here, and we’re trying to grasp or possess (as an object) what cannot be grasped or possessed because it is all-inclusive and nondual (it has no opposite and nothing stands apart from it).

    What we are desperately searching for is the awaring presence that we are, the awakeness that shines out of every object and every form. But this aliveness is frequently covered over by the story that “I don’t have it yet.” As soon as a thought like that pops up, it instantly incarnates the imaginary “me” who supposedly doesn’t have the imaginary “it.” The good news is, the “me” and the “it” are both imaginary. It’s like watching a scary movie or a sad movie and getting emotionally swept up in that virtual reality. It’s a form of cosmic entertainment.

    The so-called glimpse is simply a moment when this story isn’t there, when the seeking and resisting drops away, and we’re simply here—not as “me,” but as this whole happening, just as it is.

    But if we try to make that happen, or if we try to hold onto or get back to some experience of spaciousness and freedom that we remember from the past, that’s the trap again—the old habit. As soon as thought turns a glimpse of freedom into the “it” that is imagined to be the object of our search, or as soon as thought personalizes such glimpses (“I’m awake now!”), or tries to hold onto any particular experience, that’s the same old trap again. Part of being free is being willing to experience whatever shows up—not being caught in some desire to be done with anxiety or fear forever. When we stop pushing away what we think is in the way, and when we stop seeking what we imagine we need, then suddenly we are awake to what is. And that’s where the juice is—in the awakeness and the present-ness, not in the particular content that is showing up.

    Eventually we find that we are no longer concerned with the content anymore. That absence of concern doesn’t mean being detached and aloof. It doesn’t mean we no longer have preferences, or that we ignore the content or are no longer aware of it, but rather, we’re no longer giving it meaning, taking it personally, or thinking it needs to be any different from how it is right now. We’re no longer concerned with feeling any particular way “all the time,” or with “never again” being caught up in contraction or resistance. We begin to appreciate that ALL of these different experiences are part of the dance, the undivided wholeness of being.

    Maybe for some of you, thought is popping up right now and saying, “Is this the juice, right here? It doesn’t seem very juicy to me. I must not be getting it. I’m probably a hopeless case who will never get it.” This is an old, conditioned thought-habit, and if it’s not seen for what it is, immediately we’re back in the self-centered dream—once again, it’s all about me and what I lack. So can we begin to catch these habitual, me-centered thoughts as they arise? We don’t need to battle or banish them—just see them. Awareness is the great transformer, the great dissolver.

    But a note of caution: awareness doesn’t transform or dissolve things on our thought-constructed timetable. In one sense, awakening is timeless, always NOW, complete in the moment. But in another sense, it may take time (decades sometimes) for old habits to completely wear out and stop coming back, and some old habits may never disappear permanently. But that only seems to matter from the perspective of “me” and my desire to be perfect according to some ideal. Otherwise, from the perspective of the whole, it’s all simply the activity of life itself, an impersonal happening of the universe, and in truth, we never do step into the same river twice, so that “old habit” is actually fresh and new every time it shows up. And we can only be where we actually are—so if restlessness or seeking or trying or resisting or anger or despair shows up, start right here with that. Don’t go to war with it, but instead, see if it is possible to meet it with curiosity and interest, with awareness—which is another word for unconditional love. We don’t really “do” this as much as we get out of the way and recognize what is naturally already happening.

    We may discover that anger or fear or boredom can be met with the same devotion that we have for our beloved. Truly, everything IS the Beloved in thin disguise. So being awake isn’t ever about dissociating and ignoring the world—in fact, in my experience, we fall more and more in love with the world. In this kind of open wonder, we sense the playfulness in everything—the joy of the dance in its entirety—with all its different movements, shapes and permutations.

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “All experience is born of imagination. There is no such thing as the experience of the real. The real is beyond experience. All experience is in the mind. You know the real by being the real. All experience is illusory, limited and temporal. Expect nothing from experience. Realization by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “All spiritual experiences are to be eventually left behind. One day even your awakening to enlightenment will be seen as a flash of imagination which served only to orient you toward your own disappearance into simplicity and the restoration of cosmic humor.”

    ~ Adyashanti

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “Your five senses are wide open, wide awake and yet thought-free. Remain in that state, utterly open. This openness is like a windowpane of clear glass. It doesn’t obstruct the view of anything from outside; it is totally transparent.”

    ~Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

  9. 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

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