What's Wrong with Knowledge?

Is enlightenment an experience?

Most people would probably say yes. Enlightenment is defined, in most non-dual discussion, as the
experience of non-duality – the experience of myself as the one, non-separate, limitless consciousness. Or something like that. “Experience” is always part of the definition. I guess the thinking goes, what’s the point of enlightenment if it’s not something we get to experience? Right?

In traditional Vedanta, this is not how it goes. In Vedanta, enlightenment is defined in terms of knowledge, not experience.

What? Really? You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound like any fun at all! I think I’ll stick with my experience-based view of enlightenment, thank you very much! “Knowing” is just intellectual; I want to
feel it!

Let’s take those two issues of knowing and feeling separately. First, the notion that we want to “feel” something. We want to feel limitless and eternally free. We don’t just want to know that we are limitless and eternally free, we want to
experience that. It’s understandable, considering that as a body, we think that all our bliss comes from experiences of a feeling/sensing nature. (This is not actually where bliss comes from, and you can read more about this in my essay here.)

So we think we need a permanent experience of non-separateness, and that will be the solution to the separateness problem. The bad news about that is that it’s not possible. Look at it logically. By its very nature, experience is always changing. An experience never stays the same. There is no such thing as a permanent experience of anything.

The good news is that enlightenment is not experience. We don’t “feel” enlightenment.

Now we’ll take up the “knowing” aspect. Let’s look at the assumption, “Knowing is just intellectual.” Correct! It is intellectual! And under what circumstances would it be important to have an intellectual understanding for enlightenment? If
enlightenment is for the intellect, then one would need an intellectual understanding.

Is that true? Is enlightenment for the intellect? Or is it for the experiencer? Who is enlightenment for?

First let’s talk about who enlightenment is
not for. Enlightenment is not for the Self. That eliminates one big possibility right there. The Self is already enlightened. What you already are – self-luminous, self-existing – is not in any need of anything at all. What you already are is full and complete, permanent, finished, in place, eternal, limitless, unmanifest, stainless consciousness. YOU are this, and YOU do not need enlightenment.

But you don’t know this about yourself. You don’t know that this is who you are. You think you are a limited, separate being, living in a body that is going to die and take you with it. And where do you think these thoughts? In your mind – your intellect.

So there is something that is not true about you, but you don’t know it’s not true. Knowledge is the solution to this problem. When you know it’s not true that you are a limited, separate being, and that you are in reality the one Self, you are free. This is
moksha (liberation). This liberation does not happen for the Self, which is already free. It happens for the mind – the intellect. Enlightenment is for the mind.

This is a controversial statement, because it can be argued that there is no mind. There is no real person, no real individual at all. This is true. But as long as you are living under the delusion that there is one – that you are a real person – then there is enlightenment needed for the person. In other words,
enlightenment is for someone who only apparently exists.

What is the permanent solution to the problem of an apparent person, believing itself to be limited and bound? Is the permanent solution going to lie in experience, which is always transitory by nature? Or is the permanent solution going to be the complete destruction of the ignorance of who you really are? I vote for the latter!

While I was a student of neo-Advaita, I found a strong bias against the idea that knowledge brings about enlightenment. I was advised to leave that whole line of thinking alone, and just concentrate my efforts on direct seeing. Now that I think about it, no one ever came up with a very convincing argument for what was wrong with intellectual understanding as a goal. Only now I can look back at my own prejudices that I brought to the table, from the early days of my seeking, when “getting out of one’s head” was considered to be a good thing, for some reason. These prejudices have been alive in our culture for many decades.

It’s not too hard to convince anyone in this hyper-thinky culture that they think too much, feel too little, are not “sensitive” enough, and are “out of balance.” This was a huge idea in the 60s and 70s, and I think we all bought into it. I know I did. I devalued my intellect, especially when it came to the spiritual search. I was under the distinct impression, for many years, that
I couldn’t find what I was looking for with my mind.

It is absolutely true that you can’t find the Self with your mind. The Self is not knowable by the means of knowledge we have at our disposal as humans, because our bodily means of knowledge evolved to perceive objects, and the Self is not an object. It cannot be objectified. So the admonition to “drop your mind” is understandable, if you are trying to see the Self. It can’t be done with the mind.

But as the Self cannot be known with the mind, it also cannot be known with the “heart,” or feelings. Feelings require an object, too, and the Self is not an object. So the Self cannot be known emotionally. The same thing goes for sensory perception. Sensory perception, also, only works on objects.

So can the Self be known experientially? What is experience but a conglomerate of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions? Since the Self can’t be felt, known, or perceived, experience is not a useful tool for knowing the Self.

What about just feeling free? Maybe you know who you are “intellectually,” but you still don’t experience a sense of freedom from limitation. You worry that you don’t feel free; you don’t feel blissful.

To feel bliss, you need a “thing” here to have a blissful feeling in it, like a body, or a mind. Right? But is that body or mind
YOU? If YOU are already the Self whose very nature is bliss, then the body and mind can be whatever they might be, ever-changing as they are, and the bliss of knowing yourself as the Self won’t change a bit.

I get the problem with this argument. It says: “But I feel the miseries of the body, and I don’t feel the bliss of my true nature, the Self.” Sounds kind of like we never really get anywhere with enlightenment, with this knowledge, huh? But it’s all matter of what a “misery” is. Isn’t it just an object, or an arising, in
YOU, awareness? Do YOU become sullied, tainted, by an “arising” passing momentarily across the screen of YOU, awareness? Even when we label this arising “miserable,” that label is simply arising within awareness – YOU – and resolving back into awareness. And YOU remain untouched. Knowing “which one you are,” you are always undisturbed, unagitated, naturally and non-materially blissful.

This is why I prescribe Vedanta. It sorts all this out for you. It shows you where you are in “what already is.” Nothing has to
happen. No merging, transcending, or becoming. No permanent feeling, no blissful experience to gain or acquire. It’s only an understanding that this is already the way it is. You already are the Self, whose nature is non-objective bliss. This bliss has nothing to do with objects, nothing to do with experiences, nothing to do with the world. This is the bliss of Self, and I cannot lose this bliss because it is me. Knowing this to be true is enlightenment. This is not conceptual – it is real.

The Enlightenment Experience

dry leaf
I’ve been saying that enlightenment isn’t about experience. But in a way, you could say enlightenment is all about experience. What do I mean by that? And why am I contradicting myself?

We are always experiencing. Even when we are liberated, we are still experiencing, as a body/mind. So experience is not a problem. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of a problem. Experience is always telling us, “I am the whole; I am the eternal substrate on which all things appear and pass away.” Your experience right now is telling you this. This is not a hidden treasure, something you have to go digging up. It’s yours right now.

But we look at this, the only real experience we are ever having, and we misinterpret it. The experience tells the truth, always. It’s only the interpretation of the experience that is wrong. I’ll explain exactly how it’s wrong in a minute, after I say a few words about the
effect of its being wrong.

It’s only because our interpretation is wrong that we don’t like the experience as it is, and we’re always looking for a better one, or looking to fix the one we’re having. But it’s not actually the experience we don’t like – it’s our interpretation. It’s only the interpretation that needs fixing, not the experience.

The biggest misconception about enlightenment, and the most common obstacle to attaining it, is this false idea that the experience is going to be different after enlightenment. We want something better; that’s the whole point of seeking. And so of course we think it’s the experience that’s going to be better.

And we have had beautiful, life-changing non-dual visions, and have known the feeling during those visions of being absorbed, merged, one with everything that ever appeared in all of eternity. That “merged” feeling is so wonderful that we assume that’s what enlightenment is.

But it isn’t. Enlightenment isn’t a merged feeling. It isn’t a transcendent experience. It’s simply the current, available experience, interpreted correctly.

I mentioned above that I would explain more about the statement, “the interpretation is wrong.” In what way do we misinterpret the experience, and how can we correct that?

What’s wrong with our interpretation is that instead of taking our experience at face value, we superimpose the idea of reality onto all the things appearing, including the fictional individual “person” to whom these things are supposedly “happening.” We make unreal things and events real. We are convinced that the endless parade of appearances matters somehow, as if our thinking things are real makes them real. We believe these apparent objects are actually
experienced, and that they count for something. But are we really experiencing those things? What is our real experience?

When we think about it, it’s surprising but accurate to say that we aren’t really experiencing those things. Those things – thoughts, feelings, memories, opinions, sensations, objects, events – only
appear to be experienced. What is really being experienced?

“Pure” experience is all that is ever really being experienced. This is why we can say that your experience is always telling the truth. Your experience, left alone, is pure. It is a perfect reflection of pure consciousness. But how are you supposed to “access” that pure, unchanging, unassailable reality of yourself?

It comes down to a rather passive non-doing: not watching the things that go by. It’s not a “doing”; it’s not active at all. You don’t have to actively “rest in” awareness, or try to keep your mind on it. It’s here all the time. But when you passively don’t engage with the things that are going by, awareness pops into the foreground under its own power.

Why would you not want to look at the things that go by? Isn’t this where all the juice of life is? No, it’s certainly not. The juice of life is in you, the one Self, consciousness, the pure experience of nothing ever changing, nothing ever being better or worse, the simple bliss of being. It’s a nice, pleasant Sunday drive all the time, no matter what is going on around you, and nothing is needed to make it juicier.

The world can flow by, and it’s all the same. Of course, you have to be okay with saying, “It’s all the same.” As the scripture says, the sage sees no difference between a lump of gold and the excreta of a crow! If that sounds tough for you, you’re probably not ready. According to Vedanta, one of the qualifications of enlightenment is being able to disengage from the lure of your senses. But you don’t have to figure out how to do that – it will happen naturally. At some point you don’t even really notice the sensory objects anymore – you only notice the stillness of the Self.

The beauty of it all being the same is that the background – the pure unchanging light of awareness – is all that remains. You don’t have to go seeking that light. It’s quite present, quite obvious. But your mind is busy interpreting all the action that is appearing to an apparently limited and bound person, and so you are constantly pre-occupied. This is why we say that the interpretation, not the experience, is the problem. When we learn to stop interpreting events and a personal life stream as having any importance, the light of the Self is there shining, as it has been all along.

And this is what can be thought of as a “permanent” experience of enlightenment, since the light of the Self is permanent, and is also experienced. But notice that we never made any experience “better” than it already was. We never went and sought to improve a single thing in this life, in this world, in this experience. Not one single thing. It all has as much meaning as dry leaves blowing around in the wind.

Hopefully it has become clear that I’m not contradicting anything I’ve said before, about enlightenment being knowledge (i.e., what the correct interpretation is), and not an improved experience. Enlightenment is not about trying to make your current experience into a better experience. It’s about identifying the normal, current experience you are having as enlightenment. Enlightenment is your current, available experience, interpreted correctly.

Now, what about the “how” of all this? How do I learn to interpret my experience correctly? Traditional Vedanta is the best means I know of to teach you how to interpret your experience correctly. Please see my
Vedanta page, and “Where Do I Start with Vedanta,” for information on how to put this teaching into practical use for yourself.