How Do We Know?

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Who are we? How should we live? What is life all about? What is real? Many institutions and individuals supply answers to such fundamental questions, and these may be helpful to us — or not. But in the end we must each find our own way to address the boundless universe within and beyond us.

Our mind may seem the key to knowing, and it can be a valuable tool. But in a very real way the mind itself limits what we can know by imposing its own structure and categories onto the world. We actually spend very little time right here, right now, experiencing what is around us. Instead we go about in the "trance of everyday life," lost in thoughts, projections, reactions, interpretations, and associations. World traditions present a variety of methods for transcending these mental habits and preconceptions. Mystics often emphasize the distracting role of the senses, offering practices that turn awareness inward. Entering the "dark night of the soul" where the mind is cut off from its usual source of stimulation and distraction, our awareness can free itself from outward stimuli and mental chatter. Intense and disciplined contemplation can lead to experience of the ineffable unity that underlies the diversity of the physical world. Once we have been joined consciously and experientially with this primordial Oneness, life is transformed and we see with new eyes and hear with new ears because we now know the fundamental reality behind all.

And yet the opposite approach works equally well: instead of ignoring or blocking out the senses, we can immerse ourselves in the present moment, experiencing what we sense as completely and directly as possible, unmediated by ordinary mentality with its analyses, judgments, and projections into the past and future. As Peter Kingsley explains in relation to the work of the ancient Greek sage Empedocles:

His first instruction to Pausanias is . . . not just to look or touch or hear but to look and touch while fully conscious of looking and touching, to hear with the awareness that he is hearing.
And anyone who starts to do this seriously will begin to become aware that what passes for ordinary human existence is nothing but a dream.

.    .    .

The moment you wander off after some fascinating thought inside your head you will be left with unseeing eyes, staring blankly into space all over again, deaf to the gentle sounds around you. And this is how we pass our lives, . . .

.    .    .

Nothing is to be left out. Not the slightest preference is to be shown to one sense as opposed to any other. And this choiceless, all-embracing awareness can only happen in one particular moment: right now. For if you miss anything now you are missing everything. You are asleep again. — Reality, pp. 510-11

The end of this process of full awareness is that

there is nothing left to learn not because you know everything but, on the contrary, because you can at last afford to relax and know nothing — in the quiet knowledge that whatever needs to be known will make itself known to you at the appropriate moment. There is nothing left to learn, nothing else to go after any more, because the mind goes quite silent and still in the awe of realizing it will never be able to understand even the tiniest fraction of what has just been given. — Ibid., p. 531

Similarly, Buddhism encourages living mindfully with full awareness in the Now. It also holds out the promise that we can become our own spiritual authority, able to perceive matters for ourselves rather than having to accept teachings on faith. This responsibility applies even to those not committed to a particular spiritual path. As Gautama Buddha advised the villagers of Kalama, who were confused by the many conflicting gurus and teachings available to them:

Do not accept something as true because of repeated hearings; nor because it is practiced as tradition; nor because it is spread far and wide; nor because it is in scripture; nor because of logical arguments; nor because of philosophical reasoning; nor because it agrees with a preconceived idea; nor because of a person's seeming ability; nor because it comes from your teacher. — Kalamasutta

Rather, he said, they should accept what they themselves knew to be good, and reject what they themselves knew to be bad. Shortly before his death, the Buddha emphasized to his followers this need to trust and rely on ourselves:

Be lamps unto yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Look not for refuge to any one besides yourselves. . . . Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall . . . rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the very topmost height — but they must be anxious to learn. — Maha Parinibbana Sutta, ch 2, vv. 33, 35.

In China Taoist masters such as Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu challenge us to experience the unity of the Tao or primordial Non-Being which, because it recognizes no boundaries, seems complete chaos to the rational mind. Beyond duality and reason, beyond positive and negative or yin and yang, the Tao cannot be encompassed by thought or language. Concepts such as virtue and morality, while useful in daily life, reflect the duality of our mind which divides the world into good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly. The unity of the ineffable Principle contains no judgments or oppositions and is beyond the control and comprehension of the ego-mind. Fastening on such distinctions as fundamental to reality and human nature is simply to accept the ego as our spiritual guide. By restraining the senses and stilling the mind, we may transcend our ordinary consciousness and experience the Tao directly. Completely identifying with cosmic processes of change or transformation, we pervade and become all, and therefore are in harmony with all.

In a very real sense there are as many ways to know as there are beings. And while we are usually content to take almost everything in our lives on faith, eventually ready-made, one-size-fits-all responses will no longer satisfy us. We will want to see for ourselves, think for ourselves, explore for ourselves, in order to take a more self-aware role in the wondrous and joyful adventure that is life.

Back Issues Menu