Most human beings like the feeling of knowing. This liking has many aspects. It can be comforting and reassuring in areas of our psyche and experience that might cause us discomfort or anxiety. “If I know and understand, I can predict, control, avoid, manage the situation or relationship in such a way that I get what I want, avoid what I fear.”
We can profess that we don’t want to know when we are afraid of what the particular knowledge might mean to us, make us feel, require us to do, etc. But this is just another aspect of knowing--”I know how I will respond to that. I won’t like it.”
If we have been working toward something, it can be very satisfying to experience the sense of having reached a solution, figured it out, come to a conclusion.
The feeling of knowing can give us a sense of competence and boost our confidence.
Having the belief that we know something lets us off the hook. We don’t have to consider, explore, examine, question, change. It is a great time saver, allowing us to make decisions without having to engage any other activities, to act without doubt.
If we give up the idea that we know, realize that we don’t know what we thought we did, it demands change at a fundamental level. And since change, certainly in the early stages, leads us into the unknown and unfamiliar, we may resist, feel uncertain or anxious. This is a typical reaction and we may feel tempted to return to the old “knowledge”, the old way of being and believing, simply because it is familiar and thus comfortable. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit we sometimes feel attracted to old ways even when they bring us pain and suffering, simply because we “know” them. (Sometimes it seems that we can’t escape the old way, that there is no other option. This is never true, but that is a subject for another time.)
Knowledge is a very slippery thing to deal with. We base our ideas, expectations and beliefs on what we think we know. Then our perceptions narrow, and we tend to “see” only what conforms to our preconceived beliefs and become blind to what might contradict them. There is ample experimental evidence for this very human phenomenon. And there are numerous examples in the public domain in recent times.
Religious doctrine and spiritual teachings of any variety, sometimes intentionally sometimes not, take advantage of our wish to know, our willingness to believe, and our tendency to feel uncomfortable when we are uncertain. And since the realm of spiritual/religious experience is not subject to the same sort of sensual verification that our experience of the material world rests on, it is fertile ground for a broad range of possible ideas and beliefs, most of which are not verifiable in the usual sense.
This does not, however, stop us from accepting and professing spiritual beliefs as truth, which has the same blinding effect on us as any other belief.
The powerful effects felt in the presence of certain teachers can be very convincing, as can mystical experience of any variety, but we don’t really know much about such effects. We tend not to take into account the fact that the powerful experiences occur to us and must, therefore, indicate something about us, not just about the teacher or any spiritual guide or mystical being we may encounter. In your reading and studies, remember that each book, even those for which a claim of divine inspiration has been made, reflects the perceptions and understandings of human beings. They are typically steeped in the influences of the times and places, cultures and traditions, that gave them birth. Each is a report of one person’s experience and opinion. No book, text, tradition or teacher can rightfully lay claim to an absolute grasp of truth. Rather, the wide range of understanding and expression reflected should remind us of the living and ever-expanding nature of “truth”.
When it comes to the most basic questions--who am I ; how did I come to be; what is the meaning of my existence; what value do I have; what value does the world have; what is fundamentally important---the temptation can be great to follow some already existent framework of ideas and beliefs.
When we have powerful inner experiences of beings and events it can be equally tempting to take them as factual, or true at face value. For example, if we have an inner encounter with the Christ or with Buddha or some other famous being, it is easy to assume that it is an encounter with the actual Christ or Buddha when we don’t really know. Maybe a certain powerful experience is just taking the shape of our beliefs and expectations. It would be most helpful in such circumstances to make note of our own openness and the transformations that tend to follow such experience.
It can be hard to see the true nature of belief itself, when it is our own. I have known atheists who scoff at god-believers , saying there is no way they can know there is a god , without ever recognizing that there is also no way for them to know that there isn’t a god. It is a matter of belief, of conviction or faith, in both cases. Identifying others beliefs can be a simple exercise. Recognizing our own, especially those we take as true, can be immensely challenging.
Many of us are all too prone to construct for ourselves , or more likely accept someone else’s, framework of belief. And on that basis, we stop questioning or examining. But much more dangerous is the tendency to stop looking and seeing. Once the beliefs are accepted, they tend to become our truths, our reality. Now everything is observed and experienced through the filter of that “truth” and we become blind to what is actually occurring, both in us and around us. We become frozen in place, no longer capable of free movement and in all likelihood, unaware that we are so incapable.
I would caution anyone against accepting an established doctrine without profound questioning and experimentation. I would suggest that any established teaching presented for belief by a religion or philosophy is very likely to have distortions, even corruptions. And these can go unrecognized and/or unacknowledged by the adherents of the teachings. Even those that seem to be divinely inspired have passed through
the hearts and minds of people who were subject to their own beliefs and expectations.
I understand that to accept a religion or philosophy (and I include western science as such) with its teachings and practices, can be incredibly comforting in the face of the seeming uncertainties of life. And I find no fault with such a choice as long as we remain aware that there is much we do not know or understand, and as long as we continue to look with a critical eye at our own philosophies. It is helpful to remember that every human culture through history had spiritual philosophies or religions, and those beliefs, cherished by many people, have passed away. Whether those systems were valid or hold any truth for us today goes mostly unexamined.
It is helpful to count the vast variety of religious and philosophical beliefs extant in the world and understand that not all of them can be ultimate truth. It is wiser, I think, to assume that each may have something valuable to offer and each is also incomplete and possibly corrupt in some ways. Then we may stay motivated to continue our own experimenting, to keep looking with an open mind, to not be too attached to the ideas of which we have become most fond.
Besides the spiritual/philosophical realm there is another that I wish to address in this essay. And that is our beliefs about our own personal and collective possibilities and limitations. We humans are capable of so much more than most of us have yet allowed. We are capable of modes of experience and perception and action that most have not even imagined. And when we don’t even entertain the idea of such possibilities there is little chance that we will open to them. Thus we find ourselves at dead ends, frustrated and disillusioned, unable to find our way forward.
In such circumstances, faith can be very comforting, and to have faith can be healthy at every level of our being. This can be true as long as we don’t use it as a crutch, a way of avoiding responsibility for our experience. It can be easy to repeat platitudes in the face of our troubles and confusions in order to avoid looking and seeing--and thus staying open to new and unfamiliar experience.
Systems of thought and idea are necessary and valuable to live our lives in this world. But if we simply trust (believe) that the way is there and that we are perfectly suited to travel it; if we keep a flexible mind and an open heart; if we stay attentive and aware; if we don’t rush to categorize, systematize, and “know”, if we allow for the unexpected and unknown; if we give our loving attention to our own experience at every level and in every form, new understanding will not be capable of resisting us.
Powerful and unfamiliar experience very frequently will directly challenge our idea of reality. This may sound simple and self-evident, but it is worth exploring such experience in great depth. It is a platitude that life isn’t fair. But I will suggest to you that your outer life experience is the ultimate in fairness since it is the reflection of your inner experience, the ideas and beliefs you entertain in your consciousness. In other words, we are the architects of our experience. We are the creators of our realities.
Of course, it is easy to object to such an idea when our outer experience is not to our liking. Why would I choose to create poverty, loneliness, illness, injury, or any of a host of unpleasant situations, we ask. But if we examine our own thoughts/images we will find the very beliefs that lead to our distress. We will find the way we are using our conscious mind to direct our experience.
We think: People don’t understand me; I can never lose weight and keep it off; I never have enough money; I am not smart enough to....; I am too shy to....; I am not psychic...
When we entertain such ideas (and some much more troublesome) they seem to us to be truth, not just an idea we have. So our experience comes to faithfully reflect these “truths”.
The portions of the self that can’t be made manifest in a limited physical environment are, nonetheless, still portions of the self. And these portions, not being hampered by physical limitations and fascinations, are in touch with our deeper wisdoms. We are constantly feeding ourselves understandings that are meant to assist us in creating a fulfilling life, free from limiting beliefs. These understandings are available in our conscious minds. They are not hidden from our awareness in any way. All we have to do is look at what we have rejected because it doesn’t fit our idea of what is real or possible and what we have accepted because we believe it is truth. We don’t even need to know exactly what we are looking for or in what form it will be available. We only have to look.
So here are some suggestions for practice:
First, one of my students recently told me that she has begun the practice of visualizing her face on the face of others that she encounters. She does this when the encounter is difficult in order to remind herself that this experience, no matter how difficult or painful, is a reflection of her own inner life. Perhaps such a practice will change your understanding and responses.
As a variation, you might try visualizing your face on another when you are particularly open and aware, and/or when you are feeling particularly loving and un-self-concerned.
This practice should not require great effort or concentration, but the allowing of a simple fading or blurring that resolves into a vision of your own face.
Second, observe your own stream of consciousness openly. Notice the thoughts, feelings, and images that you want to resist in some way. The resistance may take the form of trying to push them away, ignoring them, justifying them, pretending they are other than they are, feeling guilty, becoming fearful, etc. We are masters of this kind of inner response. Then remind yourself that the resistance occurs because you are making a judgement and the judgement is based on something(s) you believe. Such beliefs probably seem simply true or an aspect of reality. But more likely they are simply what you believe and can be open to serious questioning. If a belief makes you resist your own inner experience it bears close examination.
Here is an example: Many people believe that to have angry or hateful thoughts or imaginings, or certain highly sexual thoughts or imaginings, is bad, morally wrong, destructive and certainly not spiritual. But when we resist such ideas, try to willfully change or repress them, we simply give them further strength. Doing so simply guarantees that they will return with added power. I am not suggesting that you indulge such fantasies if they ultimately make you feel bad about yourself, but that you allow them, make friends with them, see how they are serving you. Be honest with yourself about where you hope such occurrences will lead you, what motivates them, what you hope to gain, and why that is your wish. Pay attention to how they make you feel because our feeling responses are based on our beliefs.
Remember the many times over the years I have repeated that consciousness always comes first and that you can, quite literally, change your world by changing your mind.
There is much to explore here and I hope to continue this conversation with you. Feel free to comment or question.
I hold you in my heart.