Knowledge and Understanding – Part 3

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. Parts one and two of this reading appeared in June and July.

Read Part 2.

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.

Natural piety can very easily be transformed into artificial piety; for some emotionally charged memories are common to all the members of a given society and lend themselves to being organized into religious, political, or cultural traditions. These traditions are systematically drummed into the young of each successive generation and play an important part in the long drama of their conditioning for citizenship.

Since the memories common to one group are different from the memories shared by other groups, the social solidarity created by tradition is always partial and exclusive. There is natural and artificial piety in relation to everything belonging to us, coupled with suspicion, dislike, and contempt in relation to everything belonging to them.

Artificial piety may be fabricated, organized, and fostered in two ways—by the repetition of verbal formulas of belief and worship, and by the performance of symbolic acts and rituals. As might be expected, the second is the more effective method.

What is the easiest way for a skeptic to achieve faith? The question was answered three hundred years ago by Pascal. The unbeliever must act “as though he believed, take holy water, have masses said, etc. This will naturally cause you to believe and will besot you.” (Cela vous abetira—literally, will make you stupid.) We have to be made stupid, insists Professor Jacques Chevalier, defending his hero against the critics who have been shocked by Pascal’s blunt language; we have to stultify our intelligence, because “intellectual pride deprives us of God and debases us to the level of animals.” Which is, of course, perfectly true. But it does not follow from this truth that we ought to besot ourselves in the manner prescribed by Pascal and all the propagandists of all the religions.

Intellectual pride can be cured only by devaluating pretentious words, only by getting rid of conceptualized pseudo-knowledge and opening ourselves to reality. Artificial piety based on conditioned reflexes merely transfers intellectual pride from the bumptious individual to his even more bumptious church. At one remove, the pride remains intact. For the convinced believer, understanding or direct contact with reality is exceedingly difficult. Moreover the mere fact of having a strong reverential feeling about some hallowed thing, person, or proposition is no guarantee of the existence of the thing, the infallibility of the person, or the truth of the proposition.

In this context, how instructive is the account of an experiment undertaken by that most imaginative and versatile of the eminent Victorians, Sir Francis Galton! The aim of the experiment, he writes in his autobiography, was to “gain an insight into the abject feelings of barbarians and others concerning the power of images which they know to be of human handiwork. I wanted if possible to enter into these feelings. . . .

“It was difficult to find a suitable object for trial, because it ought to be in itself quite unfitted to arouse devout feelings. I fixed on a comic picture, it was that of Punch, and made believe in its possession of divine attributes. I addressed it with much quasi-reverence as possessing a mighty power to reward or punish the behavior of men towards it, and found little difficulty in ignoring the impossibilities of what I professed. The experiment succeeded. I began to feel and long retained for the picture a large share of the feelings that a barbarian entertains towards his idols, and learned to appreciate the enormous potency they might have over him.”

The nature of a conditioned reflex is such that, when the bell rings, the dog salivates, when the much worshipped image is seen, or the much repeated credo, litany, or mantram is pronounced, the heart of the believer is filled with reverence and his mind with faith. And this happens, regardless of the content of the phrase repeated, the nature of the image to which obeisance has been made. The person is not responding spontaneously to given reality; he or she is responding to some thing, or word, or gesture, which automatically brings into play a previously installed post-hypnotic suggestion.

Meister Eckhart, that acutest of religious psychologists, clearly recognized this fact. “He who fondly imagines to get more of God in thoughts, prayers, pious offices and so forth than by the fireside or in the stall, in sooth he does but take God, as it were, and swaddle His head in a cloak and hide Him under the table. For he who seeks God in settled forms lays hold of the form, while missing the God concealed in it. But he who seeks God in no special guise lays hold of Him as He is in Himself, and such an one lives with the Son and is the life itself.”

“If you look for the Buddha, you will not see the Buddha.” “If you deliberately try to become a Buddha, your Buddha is samsara.” “If a person seeks the Tao, that person loses the Tao.” “By intending to bring yourself into accord with Suchness, you instantly deviate.” “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it.”

There is a Law of Reversed Effort. The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of simultaneously doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold.

We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind in which understanding may come to us. What is this state? Clearly it is not any state of limited consciousness. Reality as it is given moment by moment cannot be understood by a mind acting in obedience to post hypnotic suggestion, or so deconditioned by its emotionally charged memories that it responds to the living now as though it were the dead then. Nor is the mind that has been trained in concentration any better equipped to understand reality. For concentration is merely systematic exclusion, the shutting away from consciousness of all but one thought, one ideal, one image, or one negation of all thoughts, ideals, and images.

But however true, however lofty, however holy, no thought or ideal or image can contain reality or lead to the understanding of reality. Nor can the negation of awareness result in that completer awareness necessary to understanding. At the best these things can lead only to a state of ecstatic dissociation in which one particular aspect of reality, the so-called “spiritual” aspect, may be apprehended. If reality is to be understood in its fullness, as it is given moment by moment, there must be an awareness which is not limited, either deliberately by piety or concentration, or involuntarily by mere thoughtlessness and the force of habit.

Understanding comes when we are totally aware—aware to the limits of our mental and physical potentialities. This, of course, is a very ancient doctrine. “Know thyself” is a piece of advice which is as old as civilization, and probably a great deal older. To follow that advice a person must do more than indulge in introspection.

If I would know myself, I must know my environment; for as a body, I am part of the environment, a natural object among other natural objects; and, as a mind, I consist to a great extent of my immediate reactions to the environment and of my secondary reactions to those primary reactions. In practice “know thyself” is a call to total awareness. To those who practice it, what does total awareness reveal? It reveals, first of all, the limitations of the thing which each of us calls “I,” and the enormity, the utter absurdity of its pretensions.

“I am the master of my fate,” poor Henley wrote at the end of a celebrated morsel of rhetoric, “I am the captain of my soul.” Nothing could be further from the truth. My fate cannot be mastered; it can only be collaborated with and thereby, to some extent, direct. Nor am I the captain of my soul; I am only its noisiest passenger—a passenger who is not sufficiently important to sit at the captain’s table and does not know, even by report, what the soul-ship looks like, how it works, or where it is going.

Total awareness starts, in a word, with the realization of my ignorance and my impotence. How do electrochemical events in my brain turn into the perception of a quartet by Haydn or a thought, let us say, of Joan of Arc? I haven’t the faintest idea—nor has anyone else. Or consider a seemingly much simpler problem. Can I lift my right hand? The answer is, No, I can’t. I can only give the order; the actual lifting is done by somebody else. Who? I don’t know. Why? I don’t know. And when I have eaten, who digests the bread and cheese? When I have cut myself, who heals the wound? While I am sleeping, who restores the tired body to strength, the neurotic mind to sanity?

All I can say is that “I” cannot do any of these things. The catalog of what I do not know and am incapable of achieving could be lengthened almost indefinitely. Even my claim to think is only partially justified by the observable facts. Descartes’ primal certainty, “I think, therefore I am,” turns out, on closer examination, to be most dubious proposition. In actual fact, is it I who does the thinking? Would it not be truer to say, “Thoughts come into existence, and sometimes I am aware of them”? Language, that treasure house of fossil observations and latent philosophy, suggests that this is in fact what happens.

Whenever I find myself thinking more than ordinarily well, I am apt to say, “An idea has occurred to me,” or “It came into my head,” or, “I see it clearly.” In each case the phrase implies that thoughts have their origin “out there,” in something analogous, on the mental level, to the external world. Total awareness confirms the hints of idiomatic speech. In relation to the subjective “I,” most of the mind is out there. My thoughts are a set of mental, but still external facts. I do not invent my best thoughts; I find them.

Total awareness, then, reveals the following facts; that I am profoundly ignorant, that I am impotent to the point of helplessness, and that the most valuable elements in my personality are unknown quantities existing “out there,” as mental objects more or less completely independent of my control. This discovery may seem at first rather humiliating and even depressing. But if I whole-heartedly accept them, the facts become a source of peace, a reason for serenity and cheerfulness.

I am ignorant and impotent and yet, somehow or other, here I am unhappy, no doubt, profoundly dissatisfied, but alive and kicking. In spite of everything, I survive, I get by, sometime I even get on. From these two sets of facts—my survival on the one hand and my ignorance and impotence on the other—I can only infer that the not-I, which looks after my body and gives me my best ideas, must be amazingly intelligent, knowledgeable, and strong.

As a self-centered ego, I do my best to interfere with the beneficent workings of this not-I. But in spite of my likes and dislikes, in spite of my malice, my infatuations, my gnawing anxieties, in spite of all my overvaluation of words, in spite of my self-stultifying insistence on living, not in present reality, but in memory and anticipation, this not-I, with whom I am associated, sustains me, preserves me, gives me a long succession of second chances.

We know very little and can achieve very little; but we are at liberty, if we so choose, to co-operate with a greater power and a completer knowledge, an unknown quantity at once immanent and transcendent, at once physical and mental, at once subjective and objective. If we co-operate, we shall be all right, even if the worst should happen. If we refuse to co-operate, we shall be all wrong, even in the most propitious of circumstances.

These conclusions are only the first fruits of total awareness. Yet richer harvests are to follow. In my ignorance I am sure that I am eternally I. This conviction is rooted in emotionally charged memory. Only when, in the words of St. John of the Cross, the memory has been emptied, can I escape from the sense of my watertight separateness and so prepare myself for the understanding, moment by moment, of reality on all its levels. But the memory cannot be emptied by an act of will, or by systematic discipline or by concentration—even by concentration on the idea of emptiness. It can be emptied only total awareness.

Thus, if I am aware of my distractions—which are mostly emotionally charged memories or fantasies based upon such memories—the mental whirligig will automatically come to a stop and the memory will be emptied, at least for a moment or two. Again, if I become totally aware of my envy, my resentment, my uncharitableness, these feelings will be replaced, during the time of my awareness, by a more realistic reaction to the events taking place around me. My awareness, of course, must be uncontaminated by approval or condemnation.

Value judgments are conditioned, verbalized reactions to primary reactions. Total awareness is a primary, choiceless, impartial response to the present situation as a whole. There are in it no limiting conditioned reactions to the primary reaction, to the pure cognitive apprehension of the situation. If memories of verbal formulas of praise or blame should make their appearance in consciousness, they are to be examined impartially as any other datum is examined.

Professional moralists have confidence in the surface will, believe in punishments and rewards, and are adrenaline addicts who like nothing better than a good orgy of righteous indignation. The masters of the spiritual life have little faith in the surface will or the utility, for their particular purposes, of rewards or punishments, and do not indulge in righteous indignation. Experience has taught them that the highest good can never, in the very nature of things, be achieved by moralizing. ““Judge not that ye be not judged” is their watchword and total awareness is their method.

Two or three thousand years behind the times, a few psychiatrists have now discovered this method. “Socrates,” writes Professor Carl Rogers, “developed novel ideas, which have proven to be socially constructive.”

Why? Because he was “notably non-defensive and open to experience. The reasoning behind this is based primarily upon the discovery in psychotherapy that if we can add to the sensory and visceral experiencing, characteristic of the whole animal kingdom, the gist of a free undistorted awareness, of which only the human animal seems fully capable, we have an organism which is as aware of the demands of the culture as it is of its own physiological demands for food and sex, which is just as aware of its desire for friendly relationships as it is aware of its desire to aggrandize itself; which is just as aware of its delicate and sensitive tenderness toward others as it is of its hostilities toward others. When man is less than fully man, when he denies to awareness various aspects of his experience, then indeed we have all too often reason to fear him and his behavior, as the present world situation testifies. But when he is most fully man, when he is his complete organism, when awareness of experience, that peculiarly human attribute, is fully operating, then his behavior is to be trusted.”

Better late than never! It is comforting to find the immemorial commonplaces of mystical wisdom turning up as a brand new discovery in psychotherapy. Gnosce teipsum—know yourself. Know yourself in relation to your overt intentions and your hidden motives, in relation to your thinking, your physical functioning, and to those greater notselves, who see to it that, despite all the ego’s attempts at sabotage, the thinking shall be tolerably relevant and the functioning not too abnormal.

Be totally aware of what you do and think and of person, which whom you are in relationship, the events which prompt you at every moment of your existence. Be aware impartially, realistically, without judging, without reacting in terms of remembered words to your present cognitive reactions.

If you do this, the memory will be emptied, knowledge and pseudo-knowledge will be relegated to their proper place, and you will have understanding—in other words, you will be in direct contact with reality at every instance. Better still, you will discover what Carl Rogers calls your “delicate and sensitive tenderness towards others.” And not only your tenderness, the cosmic tenderness, the fundamental all-rightness of the universe—in spite of death, in spite of suffering.

“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” [Job13.15] This is the utterance of someone who is totally aware. And another such utterance is “God of love.” From the standpoint of common sense, the first is the raving of a lunatic, the second flies in the face of all experience and is obviously untrue. But common sense is not based on total awareness; it is a product of convention, or organized memories of other people’s words, of personal experiences limited by passion and value judgments, of hallowed notions and naked self-interest.

Total awareness opens the way to understanding, and when any given situation is understood, the nature of all reality is made manifest and the nonsensical utterances of the mystics are seen to be true, or at least as nearly true as it is possible for a verbal expression of the ineffable to be. One in all and all in One; samsara and nirvana are the same; multiplicity is unity, and unity is not so much one as not-two; all things are void, and yet all things are the Dharma-Body of the Buddha—and so on. So far as conceptual knowledge is concerned, such phrases are completely meaningless. It is only when there is understanding that they make sense.

For when there is understanding, there is an experienced fusion of the End with the Means, of the Wisdom, which is the timeless realization of suchness, with the Compassion which is Wisdom in action. Of all the worn, smudged, dog-eared words in our vocabulary, “love” is surely the grubbiest, smelliest, slimiest. Bawled from a million pulpits, lasciviously crooned through hundreds of millions of loudspeakers, it has become an outrage to good taste and decent feeling, an obscenity which one hesitates to pronounce. And yet it has to be pronounced; for, after all Love is the last word.

Knowledge and Understanding – Part 2
July 1, 2002
Yoga—True and False
September 1, 2002
Show all

Knowledge and Understanding – Part 3