Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Presence, Experience and Knowledge

By Salvador Dali

Experiencing as being

I'm very very sure of one thing - something exists. Actually that's all I'm sure of. I have no other knowledge, no other experience of which I’m so sure of. I'm going to define that "something" as Presence. Its merely a term I'm going to use for something that I'm so sure of. The Presence is going through a process, which I'm going to call Experiencing, and an Experience is then defined as an arbitrary slice of Experiencing. I can’t deny that there is Experiencing of Presence, however hard I try, and no one can. Denial or falsification is also an experience, and that makes it absolutely undeniable that there is Experiencing and/or Presence. What can be so convincing, so solid, so self-evident? So we are on a very firm ground here, it’s a good place to start, perhaps it’s the only place to start.

The modulations in Presence give rise to Experiencing. That's all there is, rest is merely details. Don't ask me what this thing called Presence is, and why are there any modulations or changes in it at all, how and why is this happening.... I have no idea. Grab a good book on Metaphysics to know what the great masters think about all this. I can assure you that nobody knows. Its paradoxical that something so evident and intimate is absolutely unknowable ! Well, welcome to the country of mystics, this is not your first surprise....

Anything that we add to the Presence, or any attempts to see it as anything else, will just pollute it. Its so fundamental that language fails to describe it, it has to be experienced as it is. That experience is blissful, to say the least. Presence has the ability to experience itself, and that’s the most wonderful thing that I’ve ever experienced.

It is debatable whether Presence is an absolute or just another experience. Can there be an Experiencing without Presence? Can there be Presence without Experiencing? Well, for now, I'm going to avoid this chicken and egg situation by simply assuming the priority of Presence and assuming that Presence is capable of no-experience states. Although I’ve never experienced a no-experience state, and you must have guessed, its not possible to do so, its absurd to even say so. It’s a place where our ordinary human ability of making sense of anything ends. Ultimately there are no-two, its all one, and that's what makes most sense [1]. So the term Presence should point to the unity of all that is. Dividing it into two (the second being Experiencing), is only for convenience, or just another perspective.

It appears that there is an experiencer that is doing the Experiencing. We have just conjured up one more entity here. Its defined as the Self. This experiencer is what I refer to when I say the word I. Its debatable whether the Self exists. In my experience, the Self is also experienced. And it is possible to have experiences without experiencing the Self (the experience of no-self). So is it the experiencer who is doing all the experiencing? I wouldn't say so, only because I've already defined Experiencing as a process in Presence, so one can roughly say that Presence is doing it and the experiencer (Self) is merely an appearance (content) in the Presence, some product of Experiencing. I hope no one is offended here, because I'm basically saying you don't really exist !

Content is defined as that which is being experienced. Contents appear in experience. They can be perceptions (mostly sense perceptions [2]), thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories and all such entities [3]. Is our experience due to contents? That's a can of worms there. Instead of opening the can, I'll simply say, the contents and the experience of the contents are the one and the same. Variations of contents are just experiences of various kinds.

We are done with the definitions of basics [10]. These are merely definitions (according to my own experience and current understanding) not to be confused with the Truth (which I plan to define and discuss later in some other article). If it is not your experience, then it cannot be judged in terms of true or false. You need to see it yourself if these definitions and concepts bear any resemblance to Truth, using your own experience. If none, then just trash it all and make up your own definitions. We humans do expect that since we are more or less same kind of entities, the various truths will converge ultimately.

Knowledge and its importance
Knowledge can be gained in only one way, the way of experience, there is no other way to know.
    - Swami Vivekananda
Knowledge is an organized structure of experience. This is the definition I'd prefer to adopt for now [4]. To know something is to experience it, to live it. There can be no doubts about this fact. If it is your experience, it is also your knowledge, and once there is knowledge, it is possible to see it in the light of one's previous knowledge, which leads to Understanding. So understanding is the process by which we fit the puzzle pieces of experiences together. Its a great ability (very rare unfortunately).

Understanding leads to correct thought and correct thought leads to correct actions. It is our actions that define our lives, they are solely the cause of our condition - happiness or suffering. Thus, its of immense value to know and understand. Knowledge is the foundation on which one's life is based. A shaky foundation results in a life full of misery. The ability to experience something and to know it is our greatest ability. Its a great gift.

Without knowledge our experiences would look like a jumble of randomness and chaos. We have this gift, the ability to organize our experiences to make some sense out of it. It is also a skill, to turn our experience into useful knowledge and to utilize it. There are some instincts built into us that take care of this activity at an elementary level. Even animals have this ability to some extent. However, it must be learnt mostly. There are many pitfalls here, one must learn to avoid them and use some tools such as logic and reason to organize one's experiences. It never stops, its a lifelong process, for experiences never stop. If you hear someone saying that he knows everything there is to know, assume that he is dead.

Traditionally, things are divided into three kinds - known, unknown and unknowable. Known are those which were in your experience and fall nicely into the structure of it. Unknown are the kind, that are not in your experience yet, but you can ask a question about it and can look for an experience that will make it known. Unknown has a potential to become known. Unknowable is something which is impossible to experience, although we can ask questions about it [5].

We reach now at a place where one can ask what is there to know? Is it even possible to know anything? If it is possible to experience something then it is possible to know it. It is by definition, you see. So lets throw out that question and let philosophers play with it. So what is exactly there to know? I'm not sure. If you can ask a question, and can find an experience that answers it, that is there to know. If you can't ask a question about it, then its not something you can know. The art here is to ask correct questions.

So does that mean, if you can't experience something, you can't know it? I must say, for now, no you can't. Here we enter the messy regions of indirect or inferred "knowledge". You may say, for example, that you know that there is this city called Mumbai somewhere which you've never seen, but you surely know its there because you read about it, saw pictures or videos and have even met people who have been there. Its not a direct experience, but you still know it. You can always google it and find out the truth, right? No... all you ever had were experiences of reading, seeing pictures, talking to people. You know only that, you don't know Mumbai.

I will be adamant here and say that there is no such thing as indirect knowledge. It is by definition, it has to come via the experiencing. What we are talking about is Information. Information always points to knowledge, its not knowledge. Lets take refuge in well established discipline of information theory and define it as an experiential structure which has a lower amount of entropy compared to its surroundings. The structure must point to an experience, which gives it a Meaning.

For example, take a jar full of alphabets (written on something) and shake it well and pour them out. It makes no sense if we try to understand it in light of our previous experiences with alphabets (it provides no other knowledge, except that you know there are some letters scattered around there). Now arrange some letters that spell your dog's name, you have just reduced the entropy there and now it makes sense, you know what it is, it has some information in it, that is pointing towards an experience (dog). Information can be measured (in bits), so we are on a solid ground here, its Science ! It is a useful tool to gather knowledge.

Information needs to be interpreted properly in the light of existing knowledge or prior information, otherwise these experiential constructs are just Data.

A map is not the territory.
 - A popular saying

In my experience, many people confuse information with knowledge. The confusion is deep, even teachers think that they are imparting "knowledge" to their students in schools, when they are merely making them memorize some text, written by someone else, about someone else's experiences. The result is that generations after generations of students come out of the school, knowing very little, with no skills of clear thinking, with heads full of just hot air. The condition is worse in cases where the type of experiences one must have are entirely subjective (such as spiritual disciplines), where the knowing must be direct and first hand. What happens is, the student thinks he knows everything about it simply because he read some great texts and heard it from some great masters.

If a big shot says something, it has to be true, and since its true, I know it now. Moreover, its written exactly so in that great text, which confirms it. Since the text is 5000 years old, it is an evidence that what I know is true. Now I really know it, I'm so smart ! No.... I'm stupid. I fell into a pit here. There is no hope for me. What I've done is, I found some information and erected a house of cards from it, calling it knowledge, using absurd and illogical arguments. I've failed to think correctly, failed to distinguish information from knowledge, and my hubris and desire to appear smart supported me and blinded me. I have no critical thinking skills at all. The result is, I was an ignorant before, and now I'm full of BS. Not a good outcome, is it? [6]

If you are on a path of knowledge [7], it becomes absolutely necessary to learn the skills that bring you useful knowledge. These skills are - introspection, enquiry, contemplation, meditation, clear and peaceful mind, a fit body, critical thinking, agnosticism, healthy skepticism, curiosity, logic, reason, skillful arguing, open mindedness, ability to evaluate the evidence, not taking offense when you are proven wrong and ability to use information to gain knowledge. If one lacks these skills, there is no hope for him. I may write an article in near future, on how to cultivate these, although I have little knowledge myself about this subject, but I've fallen into enough pits to know what not to do. :-D

Knowledge is an impurity

Perhaps it will sound too absurd, but as soon as one knows, the experience is reduced to a knowing, which makes the experience impure. A pure experience has no knowing in it, no attempt is made to organize it, to improvise it or understand it. It remains pure as long as you don’t intend to know it.

You see a tree, it’s a wonderful experience, a very beautiful becoming in the Presence, that’s all it is. As soon as you know it’s a tree, it is reduced to knowledge, it is corrupted. As soon as you name it as a “tree”, an object that is now classified and understood and has gone through the machinery of thought process, its no longer what it was.

The more knowledge we gain, more fake we become. Ultimately, it has to be destroyed, and one arrives at a place where every experience is seen as it is. This is the end of the knowing, beginning of being.

Ignorance as knowledge

That sounds impossible, aren't they opposites? I found that the state of ignorance is not really pure absence of knowledge, but its a corruption that happens when one gains partial knowledge. I have another word for a total lack of knowledge, its Innocence. Little knowledge is a dangerous thing, its worse than innocence. At least when you are innocent, you are blissfully so, like a little baby. Partial knowledge brings suffering.

So let me define Ignorance as a condition characterized by an absence of adequate knowledge or presence of partial knowledge which leads to actions that are less than satisfactory or result in suffering.

To acquire knowledge should not be our first aim, but rather to rid ourselves of ignorance—which is false-knowledge.
- Wei Wu Wei

For example, if a person (X) has no knowledge of the value of gold, the “social status” that it enables, and no idea about the concept of richness, he is blissfully innocent, there are no desires or demands on him to do anything about it, there is no suffering. But as soon as he experiences another person (Y), loaded with gold jewellery and sees how others treat him (probably with more respect, admiration and love than X gets), X sees the gold as a reason for the “happy” condition of Y and lack of gold as the now “miserable” condition of himself. He has gained a partial knowledge that gold brings everything that Y has, and he lacks it. Suffering ensues. He tries to get some gold by hook or crook or very hard work, and that brings even more suffering (also to others). He is no more innocent, having turned into an ignorant.

One day he sees that Y is murdered and his gold was taken away by the murderers. He sees that the friends and family of Y are fighting and drooling over Y’s property or other valuable possessions. The “happy” situation around the gold bearer has somehow disappeared and is now worse than X’s own situation. He gains some more knowledge, and understands completely the dynamics, cause and effects of greed, possessions, fake relations that spring around such people and so on. The knowledge is complete now, X’s irrational behaviour ends, suffering ends, he returns to happiness, although now fully appreciating the pros and cons of having loads of gold. He is not innocent now, but neither is he ignorant…. he is “enlightened” (at least about a tiny aspect of human affairs). This knowledge will become a foundation for his future progress.

We have a sort of defect in our faculty of organizing the experiences. When there is partial knowledge, we tend to become lazy and try to complete it by assumptions of all kinds. We do not have the patience to wait for or pursue the required experiences, perhaps because we are not so interested or capable, or are too busy enjoying other things, or simply because we find security in those assumptions, they become precious, too hard to get rid of, and then they solidify, take the form of "knowledge", while hiding their artificiality. They then act as a shield for further knowledge, they appoint gatekeepers and only allow that which strengthens those assumptions and solidifies them more. The gatekeepers attack any new knowledge that tries to uproot the structures they are guarding. Such is the nature of Beliefs. A belief is an idea, an assumption, that has no basis in direct experience. It’s a structure that tries to mimic knowledge, but is hollow, it lacks the necessary experience or knowledge. A belief corrupts not only one’s knowledge, but also one’s innocence. If one is innocent, there is still some potential to know, but if one believes, the cup is already filled, there is no more room for anything else, including knowledge. [8]

A belief is a cheap substitute for knowledge.
- Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

Note that each and every belief is not necessarily false or dangerous. Someday, what you believe today may turn out to be your experience. But as long as you are taking them as a substitute for knowledge, and not as mere assumptions or hypotheses, they are a hindrance to your progress. A belief is dangerous only if it is causing some harm to the person holding that belief and to the people around him. Its not necessary to get rid of ignorance or beliefs, there are no natural laws that prohibit them, but if you intend to make some progress on your path, it becomes a must that you identify them for what they are. [9]

If your life is full of suffering, misery and pain, it’s a sure sign of presence of ignorance and beliefs. A purely innocent person also suffers, but not as much as an ignorant. Its always good to start from innocence rather than from beliefs, to empty the cup, and to be in a receiving posture. When you say “I don’t know”, you are in a receiving posture and you have opened many-many doors for knowledge and new experiences. So, if you find that at some point on your path, you are in a total mess, its time to return….. return to innocence.


[1] A very well known structure of thoughts - Advaita Vedanta. Non-dualism.

[2] If you are wondering what other perceptions can be there besides the sense kind, I'm merely making a distinction here, between the perceptions that occur in normal waking state (experiencing the physical world) and those that occur in non-waking states, such as dreams, imaginations, vivid memories or other non-physical experiences.

[3] That's a bag-full of entities there, which I'm going to leave undefined for now, but the generally accepted meanings work well here.

[4] There are a lot of definitions of knowledge, most of them I find are circular. If you are interested, start with a good book on Epistemology. In Advaita, people write it with a capital K, but in this blog all mentions of knowledge or Knowledge are identical in meaning.

[5] Things or entities can be classified in many ways. This is just one way based on how they relate to knowing. One can assume that there is a fourth kind about which no questions can be asked, but it will be just a flight of fantasy.

[6] In this example, I'm not generalizing that everything said by masters or written in books in false. It can be surely true, and these people might have had first-hand experiences about it. We are very grateful that they share it with us all. The problem is that it is their experience, and their knowledge, it is not yours. It remains unsubstantiated until you experience it yourself, and only then you can confidently say that it was true.

[7] Jhana Marg or Gyan Marg.

[8] I’m grateful to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev for explaining the ideas about knowledge and beliefs very clearly.

[9] I’m grateful to Thomas Campbell for his teachings about “Belief traps” and how to avoid them.

[10] Not really done, as you can see. I may appear to be a bit obsessive about defining everything so precisely, but I want to make sure that we are on the same page. I’m grateful to various philosophers who taught me the art of defining everything even before I open my mouth to talk about it.

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