Knowledge and Understanding – Part 2

By Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley was one of England’s leading twentieth-century philosophers and writers. Huxley was closely associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California and was a frequent contributor to Vedanta and the West. Huxley wrote thirty-one books, sixty-five stories and innumerable articles—Vedantic themes appearing in many of them. The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley’s best-known philosophical work, was published in 1944 to critical acclaim and it is still considered a masterpiece. The article reproduced below originally appeared in the May-June, 1956 issue of Vedanta and the West. This is the second part of a three-part series; the first appeared in June.

Read Part 1.

“Wolf children,” adopted by animal mothers and brought up in animal surroundings, have the form of human beings, but are not human. The essence of humanity, it is evident, is not something we are born with; it is something we make or grow into. We learn to speak, we accumulate conceptualized knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, we imitate our elders, we build up fixed patterns of thought and feeling and behavior, and in the process we become human, we turn into persons.

But the things which make us human are precisely the things which interfere with self-realization and prevent understanding. We are humanized by imitating others, by learning their speech, and by acquiring the accumulated knowledge which language makes available. But we understand only when, by liberating ourselves from the tyranny of words, conditioned reflexes, and social conventions, we establish direct, unmediated contact with experience.

The greatest paradox of our existence consists in this: that in order to understand, we must first encumber ourselves with all the intellectual and emotional baggage, which is an impediment to understanding. Except in a dim, preconscious way, animals do not understand a situation, even though, by inherited instinct or by an ad hoc act of intelligence, they may be reacting to it with complete appropriateness, as though they understood it.

Conscious understanding is the privilege of men and women, and it is a privilege which they have earned, strangely enough, by acquiring the useful or delinquent habits, the stereotypes of perception, thought, and feeling, the rituals of behavior, the stock of second-hand knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, whose possession is the greatest obstacle to understanding. “Learning,” says Lao-tzu, “consists in adding to one’s stock day by day. The practice of the Tao consists in subtracting.”

This does not mean, of course, that we can live by subtraction alone. Learning is as necessary as unlearning. Wherever technical proficiency is needed, learning is indispensable. From youth to old age, from generation to generation, we must go on adding to our stock of useful and relevant knowledge. Only in this way can we hope to deal effectively with the physical environment and with the abstract ideas which make it possible for people to find their way through the complexities of civilization and technology.

But this is not the right way to deal with our personal reactions to ourselves or to other human beings. In such situations there must be an unlearning of accumulated concepts; we must respond to each new challenge not with our old conditioning, not in the light of conceptual knowledge based on the memory of past and different events, not by consulting the law of averages, but with a consciousness stripped naked and as though new born.

Once more we are confronted by the great paradox of human life. It is our conditioning which develops our consciousness; but in order to make full use of this developed consciousness, we must start by getting rid of the conditioning which developed it. By adding conceptual knowledge to conceptual knowledge, we make conscious understanding possible; but this potential understanding can be actualized only when we have subtracted all that we have added.

It is because we have memories that we are convinced of our self-identity as persons and as members of a given society.

The child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

What Wordsworth called “natural piety” a teacher of understanding would describe as indulgence in emotionally charged memories, associated with childhood and youth. Factual memory—the memory, for example, of the best way of making sulphuric acid or of casting up accounts—is an unmixed blessing. The psychological memory (to use Krishnamurti’s term), memory carrying an emotional charge, whether positive or negative, is a source at the worst of neurosis and insanity (psychiatry is largely the art of ridding patients of the incubus of their negatively charged memories), at the best of distractions from the task of understanding—distractions which, though socially useful, are none the less obstacles to be climbed over or avoided.

Emotionally charged memories cement the ties of family life (or sometimes make family life impossible!) and serve, when conceptualized and taught as a cultural tradition, to hold communities together. On the level of understanding, on the level of charity, and on the level, to some extent, of artistic expression, individuals have it within their power to transcend their social tradition, to overstep the bounds of the culture in which they have been brought up. On the level of knowledge, manners, and custom, they can never get very far away from the persona created for them by their family and society.

The culture within which they live is a prison—but a prison which makes it possible for any prisoner who so desires to achieve freedom, a prison to which, for this and a host of other reasons, its inmates owe an enormous debt of gratitude and loyalty. But though it is our duty to “honor our father and our mother,” it is also our duty “to hate our father and mother, our brethren and our sisters, yes and our own life”—that socially conditioned life we take for granted. Though it is necessary for us to add to our cultural stock day by day, it is also necessary to subtract and subtract. There is, to quote the title of Simone Weil’s posthumous essay, a great “Need for Roots”; but there is an equally urgent need, on occasion, for total rootlessness.

In our present context this book by Simone Weil and the preface which Mr. T.S. Eliot contributes to the English edition are particularly instructive. Simone Weil was a woman of great ability, heroic virtue, and boundless spiritual aspiration. But unfortunately for herself, as well as for her readers, she was weighed down by a burden of knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, which her own almost maniacal overvaluation of words and notions rendered intolerably heavy.

A clerical friend reports of her that he did not “ever remember Simone Weil, in spite of her virtuous desire for objectivity, give way in the course of a discussion.” She was so deeply rooted in her culture that she came to believe that words were supremely important. Hence her love of argument and the obstinacy with which she clung to her opinions. Hence too her strange inability, on so many occasions, to distinguish the pointing finger from the indicated moon. “But why do you prate of God?” Meister Eckhart asked; and out of the depth of his understanding of given reality, he added, “Whatever you say of Him is untrue.” Necessarily so; for “the saving truth was never preached by the Buddha,” or by anyone else.

Truth can be defined in many ways. But if you define it as understanding (and this is how all the masters of the spiritual life have defined it), then it is clear that “Truth must be lived and there is nothing to argue about in this teaching; any arguing is sure to go against the intent of it.” This was something which Emerson knew and consistently acted upon. To the almost frenzied exasperation of that pugnacious manipulator of religious notions, the elder Henry James, he refused to argue about anything.

And the same was true of William Law. “Away, then, with the fictions and workings of discursive reason, either for or against Christianity! They are only the wanton spirit of the mind, whilst ignorant of God and insensible of its own nature and condition. … For neither God, nor heaven, nor hell, nor the devil, nor the flesh, can be any other way knowable in you or by you, but by their own existence and manifestation in you. And any pretended knowledge of any of those things, beyond and without this self-evident sensibility of their birth within you, is only such knowledge of them as the blind man hath of the light that has never entered into him.”

This does not mean, of course, that discursive reason and argument are without value. Where knowledge is concerned, they are not only valuable; they are indispensable. But knowledge is not the same thing as understanding. If we want to understand, we must uproot ourselves from our culture, bypass language, get rid of emotionally charged memories, hate our fathers and mothers, subtract and subtract from our stock of notions. “Needs must it be a virgin,” writes Meister Eckhart, “by whom Jesus is received. Virgin, in other words, is a person, void of alien images, free as he was when he existed not.”

Simone Weil must have known, theoretically, about this need for cultural virginity, of total rootlessness. But, alas, she was too deeply embedded in her own and other people’s ideas, too superstitious a believer in the magic of the words she handled with so much skill, to be able to act upon this knowledge. “The food,” she wrote, “that a collectivity supplies to those who form part of it has no equivalent in the universe” (Thank God! we may add, after sniffing the spiritual nourishment provided by many of the vanished collectivities of the past.) Furthermore, the food provided by a collectivity is food “not only for the souls of the living, but also for souls yet unborn.”

Finally, “the collectivity constitutes the sole agency for preserving the spiritual treasures accumulated by the dead, the sole transmitting agency by means of which the dead can speak to the living. And the sole earthly reality which is connected with the eternal destiny of man is the irradiating light of those who have managed to become fully conscious of this destiny, transmitted from generation to generation.”

This last sentence could only have been penned by one who systematically mistook knowledge for understanding, home-made concepts for given reality. It is, of course, desirable that there should be knowledge of what people now dead have said about their understanding of reality. But to maintain that a knowledge of other people’s understanding is the same, for us, as understanding, or can even directly lead us to understanding, is a mistake against which all the masters of the spiritual life have always warned us. The letter in St. Paul’s phrase, is full of “oldness.” It has therefore no relevance to the ever novel reality, which can be understood only in the “newness of the spirit.” As for the dead, let them bury their dead. For even the most exalted past seers and avatars “never taught the saving truth.”

We should not, it goes without saying, neglect the records of dead people’s understandings. On the contrary, we ought to know all about them. But we must know all about them without taking them too seriously. We must know all about them, while remaining acutely aware that such knowledge is not the same as understanding and that understanding will come to us only when we have subtracted what we know and made ourselves void and virgin, free as we were when we were not.

Turning from the body of the book to the preface, we find an even more striking example of that literally preposterous over-valuation of words and notions, to which the cultured and the learned are so fatally prone. “I do not know,” Mr. Eliot writes, “whether she [Simone Weil] could read the Upanishads in Sanskrit—or, if so, how great was her mastery of what is not only a highly developed language, but a way of thought, the difficulties of which become more formidable to a European student the more diligently he applies himself to it.”

But like all the other great works of oriental philosophy, the Upanishads are not systems of pure speculation, in which the niceties of language are all important. They were written by Transcendental Pragmatists, as we may call them, whose concern was to teach a doctrine which could be made to “work,” a metaphysical theory which could be operationally tested, not through perception only, but by a direct experience of the whole person on the every level of being.

To understand the meaning of tat tvam asi, “thou art That,” it is not necessary to be a profound Sanskrit scholar. (Similarly, it is not necessary to be a proud Hebrew scholar in order to understand the meaning of “Thou shalt not kill.”) Understanding of the doctrine (as opposed to conceptualized knowledge about the doctrine) will come only to those who choose to perform the operations that permit tat tvam asi to become a given fact of direct, unmediated experience, or in Law’s words “A self-evident sensibility of its birth within them.”

Did Simone Weil know Sanskrit or didn’t she? The question is entirely beside the piont—is just a particularly smelly cultural red herring dragged across the trail that leads from selfhood to more-than-selfhood, from notionally conditioned ego or unconditioned spirit. In relation to the Upanishads or any other work of Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, only one question deserves to be taken with complete seriousness. It is this. How can a form of words, Tat tvam asi, a metaphysical proposition such as Nirvana and samsara are one, be converted into the direct, unmediated experience of a given fact? How can language and the learned foolery of scholars (for, in the vital context, that is all it is) be circumvented, so that the individual soul may finally understand the That which, in spite of all its efforts to deny the primordial fact, is identical with the thou?

Specifically, should we follow the methods inculcated by Patanjali, or those of the Hinayana monks, those of the Tantrics of northern India and Tibet, those of the Far Eastern Taoists or the followers of Zen, those described by St. John of the Cross and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing? If the European Student wishes to remain shut up in the prison of his or her private cravings and the thought patterns inherited from their predecessors, then by all means let them plunge through Sanskit, or Pali, or Chinese, or Tibetan, into the verbal study of “a way of thought, the difficulties of which become more formidable the more diligently they apply themselves to it.”

If, on the other hand, they wish to transcend themselves by actually understanding the primordial fact described or hinted at in the Upanishads and the other scriptures of what, for lack of a better phrase, we will call “spiritual religion,” then they must ignore the problems of language and speculative philosophy, or at least relegate them to a secondary position, and concentrate their attention on the practical means whereby the advance from knowledge to understanding may best be made.

From the positively charged collective memories, which are organized into a cultural or religious tradition, let us now return to the positively charged private memories, which individuals organize into a system of “natural piety.” We have no more right to wallow in natural piety—that is to say, in emotionally charged memories of past happiness and vanished loves—than to bemoan earlier miseries and torment ourselves with remorse for old offenses.

And we have no more right to waste the present instant in relishing future and entirely hypothetical pleasures than to waste it in the apprehension of possible disasters to come. “There is no greater pain,” says Dante, “than, in misery, to remember happy times.” “Then stop remembering happy times and accept the fact of your present misery,” would be the seemingly unsympathetic answer of all those who have had understanding. The emptying of memory is classed by St. John of the Cross as a good second only to the state of union with God, and an indispensable condition of such union.

The word Buddha may be translated as “awakened.” Those who merely know about things, or only think they know, live in a state of self-conditioned and culturally conditional somnambulism. Those who understand given reality as it presents itself, moment by moment, are wide awake. Memory charged with pleasant emotions is a soporific or, more accurately, an inducer of trance.

This was discovered empirically by an American hypnotist, Dr. W.B. Fahnestock, whose book Statuvolism, or Artificial Somnambulism, was published in 1871. “When persons are desirous of entering into this state [of artificial somnambulism], I place them in a chair, where they may be at perfect ease. They are next instructed to throw their minds to some familiar place—it matters not where, so that they have been there before and seem desirous of going there again, even in thought. When they have thrown the mind to the place, or upon the desired object, I endeavor by speaking to them frequently to keep their mind upon it. . . . This must be persisted in for some time.” In the end, “clairvoyancy will be induced.”

Anyone who has experimented with hypnosis, or who has watched an experienced operator inducing trance in a difficult subject, knows how effective Fahnestock’s method can be. Incidentally, the relaxing power of positively charged memory was rediscovered, in another medical context, by an oculist, Dr. W. H. Bates, who used to make his patients cover their eyes and revisit in memory the scenes of their happiest experiences. By this means muscular and mental tensions were reduced and it became possible for the patients to use their eyes and minds in a relaxed and therefore efficient way.

From all this it is clear that, while positively charged memories can and should be used for specific therapeutic purposes, there must be no indiscriminate indulgence in “natural piety”; for such indulgence may result in a condition akin to trance—a condition at the opposite pole from the wakefulness that is understanding. Those who live with unpleasant memories become neurotic and those who live with pleasant ones become somnambulistic. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof—and the good thereof.

The Muses, in Greek mythology, were the daughters of Memory, and every writer is embarked, like Marcel Proust, on a hopeless search for time lost. But a good writer is one who knows how to “donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu.” [To give a purer sense to words of tribulation.] Thanks to this purer sense, his readers will react to his words with a degree of understanding much greater than they would have had, if they had reacted, in their ordinary self-conditioned or culture-conditioned way, to the event to which the words refer.

Great poets must do too much remembering to be more than a sporadic understander; but they know how to express themselves in words which cause other people to understand. Time lost can never be regained; but in their search for it, they may reveal to their readers glimpses of timeless reality.

Unlike the poet, the mystic is “a son of time present.” “Past and present veil God from our sight,” says Jalal-uddin Rumi, who was a Sufi first and only secondarily a great poet. “Burn up both of them with fire. How long will you let yourself be partitioned by these segments like a reed? So long as it remains partitioned, a reed is not privy to secrets, neither is it vocal in response to lips or breathing.” Along with its mirror image in anticipation, emotionally charged memory is a barrier that shuts us out from understanding.

Read Part 3.

Knowledge and Understanding – Part 1
June 1, 2002
Knowledge and Understanding – Part 3
August 1, 2002
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Knowledge and Understanding – Part 2