Self-knowledge, Difficulties in Knowing Yourself

Illumination and self-realization

by Jayaram V

One cannot describe or give to another the fullness of an experience. Each one must live it for himself. (Jiddu Krishnamurthy - ALPINO, ITALY 1ST PUBLIC TALK 1ST JULY, 1933)

Do you have an experience which is not recognized? Do you understand what it means? Because that is after all God, that is the Truth, that is the Eternal or what you will. The moment you have a measure with which to measure, that is not Truth. Our Gods are measurable; we know them previously. Our scriptures, our friends and our religious teachers have so conditioned us that we know what every thing is. All that we are doing is merely this process of recognition. (Jiddu Krishnamurthy, MADRAS 1ST PUBLIC TALK 5TH JANUARY 1952)

One of the most distinguishing features of Hinduism, which is as ancient as the Vedas, is its emphasis upon the quest for self-knowledge as the means to mental and spiritual liberation. Liberation of the mind from its duality, habitual behavior and mental chains is the means by which one can gain true knowledge, mental clarity, peace, stability, and clear perception. Modern psychology also prescribes a similar approach to free our minds from cognitive distortions and perceptual errors.

The basis of true knowledge

The Upanishadic seers of Vedic India believed that true knowledge of the Self, and for that matter true knowledge of anything could be gained only when the mind was free from the illusions, distractions, and delusions to which it was subject. Any experience, in which the subject remained fully immersed in the object without any duality, produced the transcendental state of direct awareness, complete experience and true understanding. In this regard they came out with some startling revelations which are listed below.

1. Direct experience (pratyaksha) is the basis of true knowledge.

2. True experience means either you enter the essential state of the object or become one with it.

3. The quality of your knowledge depends upon the quality of your experience. If your experience is complete without duality, your knowledge will be complete.

4. To gain complete knowledge of anything, you must embrace the dualities to which it is subject. It means you must overcome your preferences, likes and dislikes, and cultivate sameness towards whole existence. You must be ready to merge with anything, associate with anything and enter anything. It is the perfect state of sanyasa (renunciation).

5. You are limited in your knowledge and awareness to the extent you avoid or attract the dualities of life, propelled by your desires and preferences. For example if you have never visited the house of a poor person because you dislike poor people, you will never directly know what a life of poverty means.

6. In your quest for true knowledge your mind and senses are the major obstacles. When you use them to know the world, you will not have a direct experience of the reality of things, but the reality which they construct for you according to their own nature. It will be almost like formulating opinions about nations and people purely based upon what you see in movies or hear from others.

True experience means to become fully absorbed in the experience

The Vedic seers were clear in their fundamentals. Direct experience (pratyaksha) is the best means to arrive at the truth of anything. To know anything you must either become it, unite with it, enter it, or experience it without any duality. For example, if you want to know true suffering, you must experience it in its totality and become immersed in it. If you avoid it or suppress it you may escape from it, but you will not know what suffering truly means and what role it plays in your life. The same is true for any emotion or reality, including sexual pleasure. You must surrender to the object of knowing, and experientially become one with it. Otherwise, your knowledge will be a mere accumulation of notions and beliefs rather than truths.

When you unconditionally embrace the different experiences and phenomena that life introduces to you, there is the risk of you becoming disturbed and distracted by them. Hence, it is essential to practice austerities and learn to control your mind and body. With your senses and mind firmly under your control, renouncing all likes and dislikes, you must embrace the world unconditionally in its totality to let it teach you the ultimate knowledge hidden in the diversity of creation and show the essence of things.

Throughout the history of Hinduism, such fundamentals to ascertain the ultimate truth and essence of things remained constant. Hindu yogis and spiritual masters are not merely interested in exploring truth as an investigative or experimental process to formulate a mental construct or scratch the surface of things. They experiment with their own minds and bodies and with different emotional states within themselves to experience the phenomena of life and develop immunity from them. They go deeper into the diversity of life to experience their essence, which is Brahman, the Universal Self. Their goal is to embrace life in its totality, without preference or choice and let it show them the truth that is hidden in all manifestation.

Overcoming duality is the key to true knowledge

A major obstacle to know anything is the duality of the knower and the known. Because of that you perceive things as if they are separate and distant from you. The duality arises because your mind stands between you and the field of your observation. Your senses, mind, ego and other limitations create that separation, which interfere with your experience of things. As a result, you develop a distorted and a limited view of the world. For example, to understand a person you must be in harmony with that person. You must empathize with him or her and feel the feelings and emotions. Otherwise, your knowledge of that person remains incomplete, notional, assumptive, and imperfect. The incomplete knowledge that you gain in the process may help you deal with the person, but it does not set you free from ignorance and the delusions of your mind.

The Upanishads clearly recognize the mind as a major obstacle to our knowledge and direct experience. Hence, they show a clear disdain and distrust for any knowledge that purely arises from the activity of the mind and senses and remains confined to the field of memory and the framework of intellect. You may depend upon them to make sense of the world. However, since they are influenced by desires and susceptible to modifications, any experience they create in your mind remains colored by their preferences and perceptions.

In the silence of the mind truths becomes self-evident

Therefore, to know any truth, you must silence your mind and senses and remove the dualities that stand between you and the object of your perception. You must become like a seer who sees truth of things in the total silence of his mind and body. In that complete silence, everything that appears in the field of his vision shines in its own bright light. For an ordinary person, it is a huge challenge because you cannot easily create that silence in you and establish choiceless awareness without undergoing years of transformative effort. Hence, most people remain on the surface of the things they experience and know little about themselves or the world.

At the mental level, every experience is a mental construct. It does not necessarily correlate with the actual event or stimulus that triggers it. When you perceive an object, you construct a replica of it in your mind based upon what you thought happened rather than what happened. The disparity between the two results in many distortions in your thinking and understanding. The Upanishads offer a way out of this predicament. They suggest the imperative to rise above the dualities and mental constructs of the mind to accomplish the almost impossible task of becoming both the object and the subject, the knower and the known, and the seer and the seen. In that experience, you remove the barriers that stand between you and your experience itself. With all the formations of your mind in rest, you become an adept in the effortless seeing of the Seer without the interference of your mind, senses and their modifications. You become absorbed in that seeing, as a passive witness without becoming involved with it.

In conclusion, we may say that for the totality of any experience, you must rise above the dualities, stop of all mental modifications, silence your senses, mind, and ego, and see the truth in front of you, without casting upon it your shadow of thoughts, beliefs and perceptions. You must experience truths and objects without being disturbed by them or attracted to them. Each time you look at yourself or at the diversity of life, you must bring freshness into your perception and emptiness into your mind. Only then, your self-knowledge will be illuminated by its own truth rather than the truth that your mind and perceptual world build for you.

In the history of mankind only a few people achieved such distinction. The most recent example is Jiddu Krishnamurthy. His approach was the closest to what the Upanishads suggest. His teachings affirm the need to break free from the constructs of the mind and the authority of institutions, religions and self-induced beliefs.

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