I was always a good student in school, placing a high regard on learning and acquiring knowledge, even at a young age. My mother always wanted me to go into some kind of profession. She recognized that society placed importance on these externals. Having a curiosity about life and all of its workings, I wanted to be a scientist. I played with chemistry sets and microscopes. Instead, I became a teacher, and though life has taken me through a number of diversions, teaching remains a profession I love.
I approached my spiritual seeking through the same academic lens I viewed everything else. In the beginning, I guess like most of us, it was all about learning something. The idea of directly experiencing what I read about never really occurred to me. I felt it was out of my reach. I didn’t have a teacher, a guru, available to dispel the darkness. So I stayed in my ‘learning’ mode for a long time. The more I learned, however, the more restless I became. I began to notice that I was missing something. What was the point of all this knowledge? Nothing was really changing for me and wasn’t that the point of all this searching? I began to ask myself, “Is that all there is?”
Wisdom as Alchemy
“the goal of yoga, union with Spirit, can only be known through experience, not through simply relying on understanding with the mind.” ~ Upanishads
If knowledge is power, then wisdom is alchemy. It’s true that most of us get wiser as we get older, simply because living has transformed or transmuted what we know of life into something more profound. Our experiences change us. How many of you (of a certain age) have said to someone that you are no longer the person you were 10 or 20 years ago? But if you try to describe that ‘new you’ to put words to it, you may find that difficult. You can say you are a ‘freer person” “stronger” “more compassionate” etc. but do those words truly convey the metamorphosis you know you have undergone through your life or do they fall short. Does that explain why when we try to give advice to a young person, he/she doesn’t understand anything we attempt to say, even if “it’s for his/her own good.” Young people respond to the concrete, the immediate. Wisdom is neither – knowledge is.
When I began my ‘active’ spiritual searching more than 20 years ago, I read as much as I could get my hands on. I tried to memorize the spiritual jargon thinking that if I could use those words in a conversation then I would be regarded as being on a spiritual path. If there were people who “knew “ more than I did, I felt that they were further along on the path than I was. I felt inadequate. I thought I had to “know” something. But it wasn’t long before I realized none of the mental gyrations I went through qualified me as a spiritual seeker. Listening to others explaining “this is this …and that is that….” only left me with more of an empty feeling. And words, no matter how many or valid, could not fill that emptiness.
So how powerful exactly is knowledge? Swami Muktananda said, “Knowledge of the external world is the root of all sorrow when it seeps inside and we identify with it.” He goes further when he quotes the Siva Sutra 1.2, jnanam bandhah, “Knowledge is bondage.” If we live steeped in our social agreements, that is to say the labels or false identities we use to define ourselves and our place on this planet, then we are missing the essence of who and what we are. The mind has created and perpetuates the illusion of separation. Only when we free ourselves from the mind, can we begin to understand our true nature. This is when the alchemy – and real transformation – begins. So it is only when knowledge is treated as an end in itself do we get into trouble. We need to get out of our heads and begin experiencing with our hearts. That is where wisdom lives.
Direct Experience vs. Intellect
Most of us do realize this on some level. And when we do, we usually try to augment our intellectual searching through some kind of sadhana or spiritual practice. Meditation is a common way to still the clamoring of the mind so something else (our true selves) can be acknowledged and heard. The four yogas (used to attain union with Spirit), Raja, Jnana, Bhakti and Karma are sometimes treated as separate paths, but that too is an illusion
created by the mind. When studied with the heart, separation dissolves into oneness. The idea of a “path” which has form disappears. From that experience of oneness comes wisdom and the union with spirit we are striving to attain. Direct experience transcends the mind and therefore thought. As soon as we try to put words to describe our experience it seems to diminish it somehow. Something gets lost in the translation.
Something else begins to happen. I’ve noticed that I no longer care about the ‘workings’ of spirituality from a mental level. I don’t particularly care to have anything explained to me. My teacher gave a wonderful example of this. None of us are really concerned with the mechanics of how a TV works we just want to click the remote to get our programs. When you turn on the faucet to get water, do you really care where it comes from or how it gets to you? I don’t know about you, but I don’t. Indeed there was a time when I would’ve wanted to know and understand everything. The need to neatly label and file away information into mental compartments is disappearing. What is happening to me? I seem to be suffering from a shocking lack of curiosity.
I’m not diminishing intellectual curiosity, I’m just warning against giving it too much credit. It is a known fact that the greatest spiritual beings that have walked this planet were not Ph.d.s. Some never had any traditional schooling. The East does not recognize this as an impediment to spiritual growth or the attainment of wisdom. Only here in the West do we still hang on to outward forms. We always need to know a person’s credentials before we will even listen to what they have to say, much less judge it as acceptable. (Part 2 will follow in my next post…)