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Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

Excerpts about Experience

All Our Various Experiences are Nothing but True Nature Manifesting in One Way or Another

And the way to this simplicity is to recognize the centrality and the significance of true nature. Whether we recognize it as presence or awareness or emptiness, true nature is crucial to the process of awakening, realization, enlightenment, and liberation. It is the source of all spiritual experiences, insights, and transformations. There is no other source. Nothing can happen without it. All our various experiences are nothing but true nature manifesting in one way or another. This is one of the most important wisdoms that arises in the third and fourth turnings of the wheel.

Approaching an Experience with the Attitude of Learning

So our orientation toward experience needs to be one of learning. No matter how painful, pure, or wonderful, all experiences are good when approached with a correct attitude. Approaching an experience with the attitude of learning is an ultimate attunement to reality. Learning this attunement to reality is a challenging process that requires us to approach our difficulties with humility and detachment. The work we do here is not religious in the traditional sense. Although religion recognizes, in some sense, the balanced attitude toward experience, our work is more basic. Ultimately, we work from an understanding that is the source of religions, sciences, and philosophies, that is the ground of objective knowledge. Even the perspective of service is different in this work from religious perspectives of service. Our notion of service has to do more with objective reality, with the laws of how the universe functions. For us, service is more of an attunement to reality, an attunement to the truth, to how things are destined to be, to how they can be in their fullest realization. There’s no idea of serving in order to be a good person or to please God. We serve from a deeper kind of love, from an attunement to our objective function in this world.

Basic Knowledge: the Ground and Basis of all Experience

Experience ordinarily includes various kinds of psychic operations, all simultaneously present and functioning at different levels in experience. There is consciousness, then there is differentiation, then there is discrimination, and then comes labeling. They all go on at the same time but are interrelated in a nearly instantaneous chain of arising. As soon as labeling begins, ordinary knowledge comes into operation. The act of labeling creates the link that associates information from the past—ordinary knowledge—with what is occurring now in your experience, that is, with basic knowledge. When you recognize that your consciousness has inherent in it a discrimination that is inseparable from the capacity to discriminate and is prior to labeling, you are recognizing basic knowledge, which is the ground and the basis of all experience. From basic knowledge arises every kind of knowledge, experience, insight, and action.

Being with Our Experience

We end up being paranoid in some sense and afraid of our own experience. So, if we are scared of our experience and even of the possibilities that might arise in our experience, how are we going to learn to be real, to be ourselves? How are we going to learn to see exactly where we are and be there—abide where we are—when that might include experiencing danger or perhaps a condition that we think will invite danger? “If I let myself be where I am, what will happen to me? I will be jumped on.” That’s why we automatically defend ourselves. You don’t have to be walking around in an unsafe neighborhood to be afraid for your own safety. You could be in your own room and still not feel safe. What I am saying is that you are defending yourself there, too.

Experience is a Kind of Knowledge

If you look at your experience at any moment, you will see that it is a kind of knowledge. Experience is inseparable from knowledge, and is in fact, completely knowledge. Experience is so intertwined with knowledge that you cannot say, for example, “My knee hurts,” without the knowledge that you have a knee, what a knee is, what hurt is, and the various other pieces of information that constitute your experience of the knee hurting. All of this is knowledge.

Experiencing Featureless Consciousness

The experience of featureless reality is quite ordinary; everything is simple. Life goes on as usual, except there is no fixation on or stuckness in one view or another—existence or nonexistence, self or no self, dual or nondual, happening or not happening. We are just not concerned about these kinds of determinations. We live our usual life without the Velcro of attaching or fixating in any ultimate way. The total openness of featurelessness is a kind of pure not knowing. The experience is “I know. I know that I know. But I do not know what I know.” Reality is not ultimately determined by any feature, which allows it the freedom to experience all features. The experience of featureless consciousness is timeless and spaceless in the sense that it is not patterned by concepts of either time/no time or space/no space. We perceive the passage of events without having to identify with the concept of time. We experience dimensions of space without any persisting sense of here and there. Our experience has no sense of size or location, quality or color. Featureless true nature reveals a consciousness that is conscious of itself but devoid of thought, differentiation, conceptualization, and recognition. It is a pure and undefined consciousness that is free of the concept of consciousness. By calling it “consciousness,” I am referring to the fact that there is experience, which is so indefinable that we cannot refer to it as either presence or emptiness. How can there be consciousness of something that has no definable features except for consciousness itself? It is a pure and complete absence of mind. Although featurelessness is friendly to features—which can be and ordinarily are present—they do not pattern the featurelessness. Featurelessness is both beyond mind and can coexist easily with mind, because it does not have any feature that opposes or negates mind.

Experiencing the Nondual Condition

We might think that nondual experience is the real thing because it seems to have no conditions, and is free. We can experience the nondual condition as one field that is manifesting everything, as one field that is being aware of everything, as a pure awareness or presence that experiences everything as its own luminosity and presence. The nondual condition, also called the enlightened condition, is free in terms of being free of suffering, but it is not free, as we have already seen, of certain positions or concepts. In other words, we can experience true nature fully without necessarily being free of all delusion and ignorance. We can experience the nondual condition and, at the same time, ignorance or delusions can persist as concepts we do not recognize that are patterning the experience. And the primary concept that patterns the nondual condition and makes us think that the nondual condition is the true condition of reality is the concept of nonduality itself.

History Colors Experience

In making this kind of connection, we recognize something common to all our experiences—that they are not truly of the moment; they are colored by our past. We can see the veil, the wrapping that our consciousness has put around itself, which has become an interference. We recognize that the dynamism of our Being is not completely free; the total openness that invites experience to arise freshly, just as it is, is missing. We sense that our experience is occurring through old, musty filters that create a dullness and a darkness. We often talk about being here in our ordinary experience. And of course, we are being here in some sense. But what does it mean to be here in the first stage of self-discovery, when there is no direct sense of essential presence? All it means is that I am feeling what I am feeling and I am not overtly trying to change it. But I am not being there yet! How can I be there if it is just an idea of me who is there? All I can do is to be aware of what is happening, to feel it, to recognize it and not fight it.

In the Experience of Ourselves as the Absolute there is no Self-reflection

Because there is no inner content, not even sensation, there is nothing to reflect back on. The moment we reflect on ourselves, and look inward, there is nothing to perceive. Our awareness simply comes back to awareness of “external” phenomena. In other words, in the experience of ourselves as the absolute there is no self-reflection; in fact, the possibility of self-reflection disappears. Reality has a front and a back, phenomena are the front and the absolute is the back. However, since the absolute is actually nonbeing, Reality becomes simply the front. There is no back. There is no back to reflect on, no inside to look into. We are the freedom of the world, the liberation of all manifestation. Alternatively, there is total absence of self-consciousness, on all levels and in all senses of the word. There is no awareness of self, and no knowing of this lack of awareness. This phenomenological absence of self-awareness becomes a psychological or emotional absence of self-consciousness. We cannot be self-conscious, because there is no self to be self-conscious and no self of which to be conscious. And without self-consciousness there are no personal issues or conflicts, no personal suffering. The most interesting part of this lack of self-consciousness is the experience of spontaneity. Without self-consciousness there is no self-watching and no cautiousness about our expressions and actions. There is no premeditation and no rumination about what to do. Hence we are totally spontaneous, like young children.

Interfering with Experience

During the course of engaging the spiritual path, it is difficult to practice without a goal and without motivation. But as the practice becomes subtler and deeper, we realize that intention is not necessary, a goal is not necessary, motive is not necessary. Not only are they not necessary, but if they remain, they will obstruct the arising of reality. Recognizing the ways in which our practice is limited by our aims reveals further subtleties of practice. In this teaching, we come to understand, especially in the nondoing practice, that we don’t want to do anything to our experience. It is not only that we don’t orient toward some goal but also that we don’t act on that orientation. To do something to our experience means that we have some idea or hope or desire for something different to happen. We don’t want to do anything to our experience because our true nature is presence, is Being. Being doesn’t do anything to itself—it simply is. So when we recognize that our nature simply is, that our nature doesn’t divide itself such that something does something to another part of itself, we see that to take the position of doing anything to ourselves in order to get someplace contradicts our true nature. When we recognize that contradiction, we see the folly and the misalignment of our normal sense of doing.

Letting Yourself Be

Of course, when you let yourself be, as you let yourself sink into reality, you might experience unpleasant things; but these are simply the barriers that stop you from being. In time, with Presence, they will dissolve. You might experience discomfort, fear, hurt, various negative feelings. These are the things that you are trying to avoid by not being here. But they are just accumulations of what has been swept under the rug of unconsciousness; they are not you. They are what you confront, on the way to beingness. When we acknowledge and understand these feelings while being present, they dissolve, because the idea of ourselves that they are based on is not real.

Orientation Toward Experience

We need to remember and be aware that it’s not simply the experience that matters, but how we relate to it. If we approach our experience with an attitude of greed, the experience will likely be used to feed an endless emptiness that can never be filled. But if we approach our experience with a balanced attitude, the experience could expose that bottomless chasm without indulging it.
So our orientation toward experience needs to be one of learning. No matter how painful, pure, or wonderful the experience is, all experiences are good when approached with a correct attitude. Approaching an experience with the attitude of learning is an ultimate attunement to reality. Learning this attunement to reality is a difficult process that requires us to approach our difficulties with humility and detachment.

Our Experience of What is Happening is Not of What is Actually Happening

Our experience of what is happening is not of what is actually happening. Actually when you perceive, the impressions, sounds, sights, or sensations are new—they’re one hundred percent new as they happen. But we don’t see them in their newness, we see them through our concepts about the various kinds of impressions. Not only do we see them through those concepts, those concepts automatically evoke emotional associations and feeling tones. So our experience is not a pure perception, but the thoughts, feelings, and memories that our concepts bring in. We have an experience only in the present moment, but that experience is not really an experience of the moment. Your experience is already your own interpretation of the moment. This happens every second. We never, or rarely, allow ourselves simply to perceive. These associations arise simultaneously with the concept, projecting a past situation onto the present and conditioning how we view an experience. We do not necessarily respond to the immediate experience, but to the experience as it is filtered through concepts, memories, images and associations. Seeing a present situation as similar to a past one, we tend to react automatically, decreasing our ability to assess the present situation freshly. Bound to the past in this way, we cannot perceive the vast range of alternatives available in the present and so diminish our options for action.

Primary and Secondary Components of Experience

Let’s take a look at how the nature of the primary and secondary components of our experience differ according to what stage of the journey we are in. In the first stage, the primary component and the secondary component tend to be similar. The primary component might be an emotion, such as fear or terror or happiness, or it could be a sense of deficiency or a particular pattern or self-image. The secondary components might include fear or rejection of the sense of deficiency, judgment or shame about a particular self-image, or commentaries and plans about whatever else might be arising. We learn through the process of inquiry how to discern the two components and distinguish them from one another. First, we need to recognize a reaction as a secondary component and not as the primary event. The recognition of any secondary component makes clear what the primary component is. That’s why we always want to include both in our inquiry. Because if we don’t see our reactions, we’ll never know what the primary component is.

Significance of Any Experience

But the significance of any experience is our mere presence, nothing else. The content of any experience is simply an external manifestation of that central Presence.

We Literally Experience Ourselves through the Totality of Our Personal Pas

Under normal circumstances we experience ourselves only partially. We do not experience ourselves as we are in ourselves, in our authentic reality or essence. Instead, we experience ourselves through thick veils of ideas, ideals, beliefs, images, reactions, memories, desires, hopes, prejudices, attitudes, assumptions, positions, identifications, ego structures, labels and accumulated knowledge—in other words, through the influence of all of our past experiences. We literally experience ourselves through the past, through the totality of our personal past, instead of freshly, in the present moment. Only when we have experienced another way of knowing ourselves is it possible to appreciate the enormous effect all this mental baggage has on our normal experience of ourselves. We see, then, that our awareness of ourselves has become so fragmented, so indirect, so burdened by mental accretions, that even what we take to be authenticity is only a reflection of a reflection of our innate and fundamental authenticity.

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