Essays with Allan Ajaya
Opening to the Direct Experience
©2009 Swami Ajaya, Ph.D
We are born into wonder! Arriving in this remarkable world appearance, we begin to take it in. We explore our bodies and the environment in which we find ourselves. Each day we discover something new. Eventually, we become aware of language and we use it to explore further. Our curiosity leads us to incessantly ask "why?", "how come?", "what is this?” We first entertain and then annoy our parents when their answer to each question leads us to ask another. Unsatisfied by the answers that emerge from their trove of information and beliefs, we press on with our questioning. We have come across the power of questioning which is more compelling than the answers we receive.
As a child we sense the incompleteness of the adult’s answers. We are hungry to know what lies beyond their superficial explanations. I still remember a sunny spring day when I was with my four year old daughter in a park. A bird flew by. She asked "Daddy, how can I fly like that bird?" I tried to explain that humans cannot fly. I told her that we are too heavy and that we don't have wings. She would not allow me to explain her questioning away. She asked again "Why don't we have wings?" I said that birds and people are created to do different things. Again, she asked, "Why?" How could my meager explanations satisfy her quest to understand the mysteries of existence?
Later that day we were walking by a neighbor’s yard that was on the edge of a lake. Attracted by the water, she began to run across the neighbor’s property. I stopped her, telling her that she could not go that way. “Why?” she asked. She was not aware of the invisible boundaries that adults recognize, just as we cannot see the buried electric fences that keep dogs confined. How could I explain the conventions of ownership and property rights that we have formed to divide up what for her had no such boundaries?
This innate longing to explore the unknown that is so prevalent in childhood is perhaps our deepest predilection as human beings. Other life forms also have this propensity. Octopi have an amazing ability to alter their shape. An octopus can elongate itself and become so thin that it can pass through an opening the size of a quarter. Scientists created mazes made from transparent tubes to study this phenomenon. They anticipated placing food at the end of the maze to entice the octopi to shift their forms and travel through the narrow, twisting transparent tubes. They were surprised to find that no such rewards were needed. The octopi had a keen interest in exploring new spaces. They immediately began moving through any openings available to them.
Terrance McKenna has asserted that the quest for novelty is our prime motivation. McKenna has traced the way in which this longing has expressed itself throughout history and has also shown how it has been suppressed at various historical periods only to reassert itself again and again. 1 This pursuit of novelty has lead to the emergence of new forms of consciousness in human beings, as they collectively discovered and experienced what had previously been unknown. The fascination with novelty also enables each individual to discover new modes of consciousness.
Gradually we acquire experiences. We meet each moment armed with the expectations, beliefs, and prejudices that result from our own or others previous experiences. We rely on these foregone conclusions instead of remaining open to what is new in each moment.
How much of your life is currently spent in exploration of what is novel? Have you become encrusted and weighted down with the barnacles of what is familiar, and ceased to investigate the unknown? At what points in your life did you stop living in the ongoing wonder and examination of the unknown, instead settling for what you have been told or what you have concluded from a past experience? How often have you been lulled by answers given to you by others, assimilating them as your own beliefs? How much of what you know comes from what you have read, or heard, or previously experienced, rather than what you are discovering in your direct experience here and now?
In order to feel secure, most of us shore ourselves up with what we think we know and what we believe to be true. We take pride in what we know. Knowing is highly valued and not knowing is disdained. As a result, we are reluctant to admit that we do not know what is true. We are embarrassed by not knowing. Who would think that not knowing has value?
What we know has been acquired in the past. It provides a framework for interpreting what is occurring now. If we remain entrenched in what we think we know, we stagnate. We are not free to discover anything new. New discoveries arise out of past knowledge that proves insufficient for the present circumstance. Discoveries come about when we are willing to reexamine what we believed to be true.
In the introduction to a collection of short stories, Sherwood Anderson tells us that there are a multitude of truths that one may come upon in living his life: “the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and…abandon.” 2 According to Anderson, a person usually snatches up one of these truths and makes it his own. He lives by, and champions that truth and disregards other truths, especially the polar opposite of that truth. For example if one believes in strength, he avoids weakness or vulnerability, ridicules it in others, and tries to obliterate it. He becomes one-sided. His truth is lived out in an extreme and distorted manner. Anderson says of those who populate his stories, “The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” 3
When we identify with any truth or belief it restricts us. There is no room for anything that does not fit with what we already know. We intensely defend the barricades created by what we believe is true. Our beliefs close us off from everything that lies outside of them.
Recently my nephew stayed with me in my home for a week. I believed that he was reticent, reluctant to take chances and that I was much more adventurous then he was. I found myself teasing him whenever he was fearful or unwilling to take a risk. Eventually he asked me why I was picking on him so much. I told him that I was goading him to be more adventurous so that he would be more fulfilled in his life.
His question stayed with me. During the next two weeks, I became more aware of feeling afraid. I realized that I was also fearful but had developed a style of bracing myself against feeling scared. I would take risks to prove that I was not afraid. I focused my attention on the outward challenge and ignored my feelings of fright. Unfortunately this approach had its limitations. I was not transcending my fears by acting fearless. They remained with me and were felt as rigidity and a gripping in my body. Sometimes when I felt threatened I would become aggressive rather than allowing myself to feel vulnerable and afraid. I began to realize that my aggressive words were an attempt to cover and hide my scared feelings from myself and others. As I allowed myself to be aware of my fright, and to feel into it rather than resisting it, the tension I had been carrying in resisting it began to lift and my angry outbursts subsided. I began to feel an increasing sense of ease. Over the next weeks I continued to explore the ways that I continued to carry tension in my body to avoid experiencing the scared feelings. As I felt into these tense places they began to soften. I was surprised to discover that my acceptance of frightening feelings in myself actually brought relaxation and a sense of well being in place of the defensive bracing that I had been experiencing.
This discovery of and opening to what had been unrecognized by me, my bracing defensive anger, and underlying fright led me to what was true for me. Until then, I had been ignoring the truth and invested in my own version of the truth in accord with how I wanted it to be. My need to believe that I was fearless and to defend that belief had prevented me from being open to what was actually occurring both in me and in others. Instead, I had been intolerant of and tried to eliminate the fright both inside and outside. As I opened to the unknown, the complement of what I believed myself to be, I began to feel more integrated. There are many polarities in which we identify with one way of being and deny its complement. Each provides an opportunity to release a restriction that we superimpose on ourselves and others.
What we do not know is infinitely greater than what we think we know, yet we are rarely taught the value of freedom from beliefs. Not knowing is the gateway to discovery. Exploring the unknown requires the willingness to surrender our investment in the ideas, beliefs, and “truths” that we bring to each moment. This surrender allows innocent awareness to shine forth.
Freeing ourselves from constraints of what is familiar means turning our world upside down. Instead of relying on what we think we know we can become open to the unknown. We can value not-knowing, and the vulnerability it brings forth. Like the child we can live in questions rather than in what has been known. Through this, we discover a world of unexpected riches through ongoing exploration.
The Interplay between Belief and Revelation
Life is ever revealing. Each experience that we have offers something new and unknown. Each new experience can lead to a reframing of what we already know, a more comprehensive understanding. However, if we do not open to what is new in the experience, we stay put in a contracted state, out of touch with what life is offering us.
The process of innocent exploration is natural to the child. It is usually thrilling for an infant to newly experience what has been unknown, however the child soon finds himself being indoctrinated into the ways of the adults in his life. He is initiated into the cult of customariness, in which strongly held beliefs and pretenses substitute for the ongoing discovery of what is. The questions of the child: "Why? What is this? Where do I come from? Who am I?" are extinguished in all but in the most creative and gifted individuals.
It is from such questions that civilizations have advanced. Philosophy, religion, mathematics, medicine, cosmology, and science, have all evolved out of asking these questions. Such luminaries as Copernicus, Columbus, Einstein and countless others were unwilling to settle for the accepted dogma of their time. They chose to live in wonder, and inevitably, greater truths were revealed to them. When we live in questioning, we continue to be open to ever more profound discoveries; when we keep ourselves filled with answers, there is no room for new possibilities.
In our society there is a great emphasis put on what we know. There is less consideration of how we come to know what we know. Much of our learning in school focuses on the accumulation of information. This involves memorization and leaves children bored and disliking school. From childhood on we are taught to accumulate knowledge. We store up knowledge as squirrels store up nuts. An educational system has been created to assist us in this endeavor. Schools and game shows test us on how many facts we have stored in our memories. We learn about things. We learn how to use and fix things. Rarely are we taught to lay down all that we have learned and open to what does not fit within our frameworks. The questioning spirit is not nurtured in our educational and religious institutions, leading us to ponder, why is this?
In order to foster the spirit of inquiry, one must be willing to question his beliefs. Socrates' way of teaching was to engage in a dialogue with his students. He repeatedly questioned their beliefs and assumptions. This was such a threat to the society in which he lived, that those in authority gave him the choice of giving up teaching in this way or taking his own life. He chose the latter.
Most major breakthroughs in science, art, medicine and religion, radically challenged the beliefs and customs of the time. Their proponents were ridiculed, ostracized, excommunicated from the church, and sometimes even killed. The authorities, academics and professionals vehemently defend the prevailing doctrines and customs, for they are deeply invested in them. Even a relatively minor step in understanding or self-empowerment can cause an intense reaction. Almost everyone prefers the familiar to the uncertainty and instability that novelty brings.
Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning rods could protect homes, barns and other structures from being set afire by lightning. When people began to install lightning rods on these buildings, the clergy insisted that they take them down. They were vehement in preaching that this was interfering with God’s will. Eventually this innovation prevailed. Opposition was overcome and the use of lightning rods became customary.
What begins as something novel is usually intensely opposed. If it has value it eventually leads to a new routine. Dogmatic beliefs that had led to opposition eventually fall away. After some time, the new custom or way of seeing things is taken for granted. Sooner or later another innovation reveals the limitations of what was once ground breaking and is now routine. The old creed or custom is defended and a new conflict ensues. This is an endless cycle. Each new revelation is finally assimilated and becomes customary. At some future time it will in turn give way to a still more comprehensive understanding.
This cycle has existed throughout history. It leads to conflict, because most of us cling to the beliefs that have won us over. Our beliefs provide an island of security in a sea of uncertainty. They lead us to feel that we have mastered some corner of our existence. They were hard won. Each originally came to us as a new discovery, an epiphany, which challenged, defeated, and replaced previous dogma. Consequently, we have considerable emotional investment in it.
Time and again, the challenge to old beliefs comes from a single person to whom a new way is revealed. Before a new dogma, religion or school of thought was established, there was a remarkable individual who ventured forth into the unknown and brought back wisdom of epic proportions. Each innovator emancipated us from the confinement of previously held doctrines and thereby advanced the scope of consciousness, opening to a new way of being. Each breakthrough emerged out of a confining structure, which provided the stepping-stone to a more comprehensive appreciation of our existence. But each breakthrough almost immediately began to form its own limiting structure. It led to a new set of rules that confined our thinking, behavior, and experience. Rather than honoring the process of discovery, we worshipped what was revealed and whorevealed it. We thereby cut ourselves off from experiencing further revelation.
The creative breakthrough becomes the foundation of new doctrines, and the establishment of institutions and authorities to enforce these. Rigidity inevitably follows revelation. The revelationaries are replaced by administrators of the tenets and their adherents. The innovator disrupted the norms of the time. The administrators have always been interested in adherence to what once was revolutionary but is now the currently accepted credo.
This pattern occurs in every aspect of our life. It is prevalent in science, religion, art and psychology. For example Freud, Jung, Reich, and others took the risk of breaking out of the beliefs of the establishment. These days most analysts and psychiatrists are the establishment. Concern with protection from lawsuits trumps the exploration of what is true and the client’s best interests.
Spiritual insight heals us when it frees us from the meanings we have made, but it imprisons us anew when it engenders meanings of its own. As the insights of spiritual awakening have become fossilized and institutionalized, the guardians of the institutions have become invested in their own security and in upholding dogma rather than opening the way to further revelation. Science, art, and most other arenas function in the same way.
This interplay between beliefs and discovery takes place intrapsychically as well as collectively. A person is susceptible to becoming just as bound to his/her own beliefs and need for security as any institution, sacrificing openness to the unknown on the altar of the well-known.
We always have an opportunity to go beyond the security of what is familiar and open to what is being revealed in each moment. But there is a tendency to become bogged down. When a pattern that has been confining dissolves, we experience a breakthrough that releases bound-up energy and is exhilarating. As a result, we become attached to and fixated on the circumstances that surround the freeing experience. The ideas, situations, behavioral patterns, substances, words, attitudes and individuals associated with the epiphany take on a value of their own. Then we pursue and defend the associated circumstances. These become the new patterns to which we are bound in the form of beliefs, superstitions, rituals, relationships and organizations. These make up the fabric of our lives and we wage war with anything that threatens our routines and attachments.
Many of our melodramas individually and collectively arise out of allegiance to these patterns. We are bound to each enactment until we see through it. Our bondage continues as long as we cling to what has been revealed or to the circumstances in which it was revealed, rather than continuing in the process of revelation. Opening to this ongoing process of revelation is the basis of healing and awakening; all else keeps us in bondage.
Without form, nothing would be revealed, and without revelation, all would remain static and confined. There is a dynamic edge where form disintegrates and the inexplicable appears, out of which arises a new form and then a subsequent dissolution. At this edge, consciousness becomes increasingly aware of itself.
The prevailing system tolerates a degree of innovation. If the innovation can be assimilated it leads to new possibilities and eventually to a new dogma. But if the breakthrough is too novel or on too large a scale, there is a reaction and an attempt to re-establish the beliefs of the past. Fanaticism, Fundamentalism, or Fascism may become ascendant.
Knowing Through an Intermediary and Knowing Directly
Religions, governing bodies and teaching academies rarely remain open to recurring revelation. They are more interested in promoting their own continuance and expansion of influence than in being open to the ongoing discovery of what is true. Religious and political leaders and other authorities have maintained power by fostering the belief that they have special knowledge that is not available to those outside of their elite club. We are led to believe that they possess “classified information” from higher up that cannot be made available to the average person. With the proliferation of the Internet and globalization, an ever greater range of information is becoming accessible to more and more people. As information becomes easier to obtain, the power of those in authority is eroding. This threat has led to reactionary attempts to reestablish their power.
The priestly caste, has maintained its role as a necessary intermediary in one’s relation to the transcendent by fostering the belief that it has a special connection with the transcendent ground of being. The priests are considered to be the keepers of the means for others to relate to the divine. The ordinary person must come to these privileged few in order to bridge the gap between themselves and the universal consciousness. These religious leaders have a vested interest in maintaining their privileged position, rather than acknowledging that anyone can have direct access to the ineffable. If they did not maintain that they have special knowledge their entitlement would cease. There have been rare spiritual groups who have thrown off this authoritarian approach to spirituality. For example, the Quakers do not have priests or ministers. Each member of the community is considered to have the same access to the transcendent mystery within. Each is encouraged to share his/her experience at their services.
The sages of ancient India studied the way in which we know what is true and what is not true. The yoga sutras asserted that we can discern through induction, deduction, direct experience, and the testimony of others and. When Buddha lived in India, religious authorities and pandits had become very powerful. Their testimony prevailed. Buddha modified these teachings about how we can distinguish what is true from what is untrue. He wanted to lead others into the direct experience of truth. He excluded testimony as a valid means of knowing. It is ironic that most Buddhist teachings rely heavily on his authority.
Thus far, we have explored the shift from basing what we know on authority to experiencing for ourselves. In this we rely on direct experience through our senses. Seeing for ourselves seems to be more valid the then testimony of someone else. But there is still another shift to be made. What we consider to be a direct experience is not really direct at all. Our ordinary way of knowing also relies on intermediaries. Our conclusions are based on the intermediaries of perceiving through the senses and conceiving through the mental consciousness. There is another way of knowing that is even more direct. This is being awareness which does not rely on the authority of perception or conception. It is knowing directly through becoming one with what is here and now.
- Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp. 109-110.
- Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: The Viking Press, 1958), p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 4.