Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Knowledge and Experience

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(Edited from a discussion on the Alan Watts Mailing List Aug. 1998.)

There is only one Absolute. True spiritual experiences, whether from meditation or other sources, do not give rise to emotional reactions or thoughts (though the subsequent memory of them may) - they cut through all of that and leave one totally silent inside.

If these statements are true, then it is possible that the experience is common to all. Silence is silence; absence of emotion and thoughts is the same absence for everyone. If there is unity, and one can experience that unity, there can only be one unity and the experience of it must be the same - it is the Self experiencing the Self in 'all' cases.

Experiences are incommunicable. We cannot verbally describe a piece of music (we may write down the notes but this is not the same as the experience of hearing a symphony); we may describe a painting (we can scan it into a computer and describe each pixel in hex but this is hardly the same as the experience of seeing a Van Gogh). How much more impossible (?!) must it be to describe the infinite?

Perhaps what I am trying to say would be clearer if we talked about 'knowledge' rather than 'experience'. Experience is not itself of any value; it is not the memory of that experience or the thoughts about it which are of value but the knowledge which has been distilled from it. I suggested that it is possible to have a direct experience OF the absolute. It is possible then to know that there is unity. It is intrinsically impossible to communicate this experience to 'someone else' subsequently so that they may also know this to be so.

It might be better to use an analogy. In the middle ages (? - my history is not too good!) practically everyone believed that the earth was flat. In fact, I think Watts uses this example somewhere. He says "they knew the earth was flat" but this is a misuse of the word in the context in which I wish to use it, since they had not had any experience from which to derive their so-called knowledge - it was based on superstition/optical illusion only. At some point, a few people did actually sail around the world and experienced for themselves the reality of non-flatness, dispelling for themselves the illusion that the earth was flat. But, I am sure, when they came to speak to people about their experience, many would have refuted it; claiming that these travellers had been dreaming etc. because it would overthrow fundamental and cherished beliefs of their own. They would probably much rather believe the sailors had been captured by Sirens and given magic potions to instil false memories.

All this is normal and understandable. Where an experience does not fit in with the existing belief system of the hearer, that hearer will usually reject the claims and look for explanations which do not cause conflict. But none of this changes the truth. The sailor knows what has happened. He has the knowledge gained from the experience and the memory of the experience itself.

IF there is genuinely unity and IF one can experience such unity through meditation, THEN the experience through one practice must be the same as that through any other. Of course, one can indulge in meditation for a lifetime and have an infinite variety of experiences, none of which have anything to do with unity. But that does not falsify my assertion.

The Absolute by definition must 'have no characteristics' i.e. be without name or form (otherwise it would be limited and therefore not absolute). Any experience of this must be incommunicable via a very seriously limited language.

It is not the experience itself that matters. Once gone, it is gone and, indeed, we should not try to hold onto it - that would be more self-deception. It must be possible to gain insight (become Self-realised if you like) through practically any experience. The knowledge derived from experience is another matter - that can be a pointer to truth after the experience itself has long gone. In that sense, one can could label a particular experience as having been 'more meaningful', 'valid' or whatever.

People who use the word 'God' (or similar words) in their description are simply using the words which, for themselves, come closest to describing the indescribable. Words of whatever nature only succeed in communicating when there is an agreed, well-defined vocabulary between the parties involved. Clearly if one use the word 'God' to an atheist he is not going to transmit much useful information! But that doesn't make the nature of that person's experience invalid. After all, one presumes that a dumb person who is also unable to write nevertheless still has experiences. By definition, one who experiences the Absolute, transcends the I-Other duality and knows in that moment that there is only One. All you can say, not having had this experience, is that you do not believe it.

The experience of unity occurs only when all discoloured, distorting lenses and rose-coloured spectacles have been thrown away and perception occurs without any internal commentary by the mind whatsoever. Hence the need for silence. Hence the value of meditation.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012