Against Conclusions, Spiritual and Otherwise

Experience is a continous whole that functions as a perspective. Experience provides an observer with a lot of phenomena – mental, emotional, physical – to observe. It owns the curious apparent paradox that it consists entirely of change and yet itself never changes.

one of the buddhas I put together on the trail out back

There are ways to experience this change-that-never-changes. You might consider experience as a kind of container: everything that occurs, from the passage of ants in the garden to the ideas in your head to the moon in the sky, are contained by experience.

In this mode, you might give attention to experience: can you find anything that is not contained in it? Doesn’t everything show up in experience?

Upon perceiving this awareness in which and to which all appears – we might begin to explore the container itself. What, if anything, do we find? What does it feel like to find it? Or to not find it? Or are those misguided questions?

I do not disparage those exercises and others like them. It is important to make sustained contact with the subjective nature of experience, and the way it feels so utterly infinitely whole.

I also want to be careful about the conclusions that I draw from that experience.

The experience we have is the experience of a human observer. There is some variety built into this but in a general way it is isomorphic across the species. Importantly, we want to be clear that other observers bring forth different worlds – different cosmos – in their observation. If you and a butterfly look at a flower, you see two different objects. If you and an ant look at the sky, you see two vastly different ceilings. Who is right? And since the obvious answer is that both are right according to the particular observer they are, then can we actually draw objective conclusions about the flower or the sky?

We really are constrained from drawing conclusions, including those that sound like “there is only this” or “I am that.” The very fact of our existence as human observers means that while we can make educated guesses and estimate probabilities and so forth, and can manage varying degrees of confidence in our scholarship, the whole – at least as we have long understood it in spiritual terms – is foreclosed to us.

Seeing this clearly is often experienced as painful, especially if it arrives after we’ve had the shallow enlightenment experience of “there is only this” and “I am it” et cetera. Again, I don’t disparage those experiences or insights. They are part of the overall human experience, and they are helpful in their way. They are even delightful in their way. It is simply that we tend to be confused by them, to objectify and cling to them through the form of adoration, worship and so forth. They can subtly be cherished as accomplishments, evidence of spiritual growth, and so forth.

Really, “this is it” and “I am that” are simply ways of expressing what it feels like sometimes to be a human observer. If those phrases are helpful in terms of making us gentler, kinder, slower to judge, more helpful, less argumentative and so forth, then great. But they aren’t dispositive. They don’t end the inquiry. They are more in the nature of a sign than that which is being pointed at. That is, they’re like the sign that says “river,” rather than the river itself.

containers in which all phenomena appear

If we want the river, then we have to allow for the limitations imposed on us by virtue of being human observers. We get AN experience, not THE experience. It’s not even THE experience relative to other humans. Lots of people are happy, insightful, peaceful, helpful, generous and kind without ever having to resort to nondualism or Christianity or pop psychology.

Right now, this is how it is happening for us – this this – which is okay because it is a way of being human. It is one filter among many, all of which can be misused, confused, abused and so forth. All of which can be helpful and productive, too.

The work really is to go slower in terms of concluding. That is, we want to just let life be what it is without rushing to decide what it is or what it should be. That is a real practice! It takes time, energy, attention, commitment. Becoming the loving being that we naturally are is the work of the one life we are living.

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