This one has been kicking around in my mind for a long time: What is experience?


Experience: Table of Contents

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9


Somewhere and somewhen about 1987, I did five hits of acid (yes, I was in college when these things are done, and yes, it is part of studying altered states, so just grow up). The whole trip peaked with me completely focused on the question: “what am I?”

I cannot even begin to express in words the sheer intensity of focus, desire, anxiety, and just sheer raw intensity upon which my mind was focused on this question. My mind raced. It raced and raced, and spun and spun and went round and round, faster and faster, through picture after insight after concept after profound realization of all the definitions and ideas I had learned, and some I realized right then, about what being human means.

My mind spun and spun and spun until it ripped open. Or burst, or exploded; in some literal sense. It’s hard to say exactly what happened, seeing as there is no worthwhile concept or definition in Western thinking of what the mind really is. And I say this being, even at that time, a student of occultism, mysticism, science, philosophy and just plain intellectual stuff.

The intense wonderment and amazement at the very mystery of my own existence culminated in a stark insight that today is one of the floor boards of my mind: it is impossible to know what I am because knowing is something that happens in the mind, and, my mind is only a subset of whatever I am. Whatever I am is greater than what my mind is because my mind is inside of me. That is, any idea I had about what I am was just that: an idea. As such, it was just some thought inside of me. It was just an echo, a reflection. Just an echo. Just an echo of experience, inside my experience.  I didn’t even know what “me” meant anymore, or what “I” means, or “you”. I still don’t either.

All of a sudden, I understood fully why Zen masters just point at stuff and don’t say anything.

In the culmination of all this, I had a really bizarre insight, a vision if you will, of all the philosophers up and down history: Socrates, Plato, Kant, Leibniz (yes, my hero Leibniz), Swedenborg, Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Carl Jung, and so many others whose ideas had influenced me. I saw in a flash what a total bunch of fucking idiots they were for thinking that we could capture in words and ideas what we are. I saw how all their words, their unceasing prattle, were just a bunch of noise and hot air being blown around.

The observant Reader hopefully is catching a very deep irony here.

And so I realized that there is no definition of what we are. Period. None. Thinking that we can capture what we are as words and ideas is like trying to pour the ocean into a cup. Sorry, there is no cup big enough. Same with the mind. It’s just too small, too limited in how it works to somehow encompass our…what is a good word?…our experience.

That is what I realized back then. There is only experience. Inside of our experience, as a part of our experience, one of the things we experience is called mind. It’s not the only thing we experience. I, like everyone else, experience this whole complex, truly undefinable thing we call “our life”. And no words, no ideas, are capable of capturing my very experience. As if somehow I can string together words and ideas and literally re-create my very being and experience. It is an absurdity, like the idea of one hand clapping.

Another way to say this is that ideas are always inside of the mind.  They do not leave the mind. I am sitting here right now looking at my computer monitor, looking out my window at the trees.  Those things exist independent on any idea in my mind.  As such, I have no idea what they really are, only what I think they are. My ideas are not “out there”, outside of my mind; they are not sitting there next to the computer or the trees.

So, when we have some idea about what we are, or what the meaning of life is, or whatever, it is just some picture or set of words that elicit a meaning in the mind.  The mind is always inside of itself. It is like a dictionary where words are defined only in terms of other words. A closed system.  It is like a hamster running on one of those wheels. It goes very fast and it goes nowhere.  That is the nature of thinking in general. That night I saw myself going round and round and round in my mind.  And that was all I was doing.


This is the nature of thinking: we move very fast, round in round in circles, and we go nowhere. Thoughts do not allow one to leave the mind.

This is the nature of thinking: we move very fast, round in round in circles, and we go nowhere. Thoughts do not allow one to leave the mind.


So, from that moment on, experience became the main catch word for me. I didn’t know what it meant (and still don’t). But the word “experience” became like a sign post, a symbol that points to my life itself.

With this grand insight, everything changed in my experience. I saw how, before my explosion, I had the delusion that my ideas were somehow superior to my experience. That the words and ideas I spouted were somehow, in some sense, better, more real, than my actual life. Now I know it doesn’t matter what I think or believe: tomorrow I could die, and I still have to eat, sleep and shit everyday.

The fact that I called this way of thinking a “delusion” clearly indicates the change I underwent. I lost the expectation that everything can be defined, that everything can be understood. In fact, I came to the realization that, really, nothing can be defined. Nothing can truly be understood. I called this “The Realm of No Definitions”, and it is the condition of our being.

I came to see ideas as mere decorations. Not much different from decorations on a Christmas tree, or how one might decorate their house. But it was more than that. Ideas are not just mere decorations. They can have practical utility too. But seeing this practical utility, and how to utilize ideas for practical purposes took on a purely aesthetic quality. It was art, pure and simple. One could surround themselves with beautiful, useful ideas and this is like making a good piece of art. It is the art of living one’s life.  The art of decorating life with beautiful, interesting, helpful, and useful ideas.

Or, as you see in the world around you, most people are unaware completely of this level of thinking and are nothing but slaves of the ideas in their minds. These people are in no position to be artistic with their ideas and their mind. No, they are just a bunch of deluded gumbas, who think the world is this or that, and act in accord to how the ideas drive them, making them just a bunch of automatons.

But they only seem like automatons.  They are not automatons.  They are simply dishonest, or afraid, or ignorant, or some mixture thereof. The ideas are just the surface, and under the surface are strange emotional twists and unfulfilled desires.  And there is stuff below that too.  The hidden aspects of the mind go very deep, once one gets up the courage to peer down there (or is stupid enough to take 5 hits of acid and get violently thrown down there).

The apparent automaton thing is true of people that believe in a specific religion, or people that believe in science, or people that believe in some social cause, or some specific philosophy, or are liberal, or conservative. Whatever.  The list of shit people believe is endless. All compassion aside, one and all they are just a bunch of self-deluded idiots because they don’t see how they are letting ideas run their experience, instead of putting ideas in their rightful place as just another element in their experience; an echo, a reflection, a decoration.

People worry about the clothes they wear, but they don’t worry about the ideas they use to decorate their lives.  Idiots, one and all.

So, given that this is the main way I have looked at the world for the past 30 years, you can imagine my shock, surprise, and chagrin to read this from the great Swami Krishnananda:

 “When the ultimate cause of a particular experience is discovered, it will be found that the cause lies in the recognition of the Self in the not-Self. This was the definition of avidya given by Patanjali”

“Avidya” is the yoga word for “ignorance”.  Not just ignorance that can be erased by learning some information. No, avidya is a type of ignorance for which there is no translation in English. It is a cosmic ignorance. It is a wrongness of such epic proportions that it creates universes, life, and consciousness as we know it.

Avidya creates our experience…

To be continued….

11 thoughts on “Experience

  1. The claims/promises of direct experience are what drew me in to yoga/meditation. Robert Anton Wilson had exploded my mind years before, and his perspective on Belief Systems (a.k.a. “B.S.”) and the concept of Reality Tunnels are so spot on about how we are conditioned to view the world from a skewed perspective.

    I had a small insight last summer, driving down a local road I’d driven down thousands of times before. I realized that the road wasn’t reality. Nor was the town and stores which lined it. We’ve been conditioned to see the “real world” as the constructions of human, with nature playing a decorative role. In truth, it’s the opposite. The road was a slab of asphalt plopped down on a rolling, seamless landscape. A giant footprint.

    My regular walks/hikes in the local park have opened my eyes to how much life in in every square inch of the actual real world. We see it all from this perspective of it being “out there”, separate from our man-made existence. A separate reality, if you will. We don’t see that we’ve created this industrial bubble that we exist within, one whose reach extends into our perspective of “what the world is”. It’s almost a conscious divorce from experiencing the world as it is.

    • Hi George. Thanks for the additional insights. I sometimes forget how true what you say is. What you are saying hit me when I was in 10th grade in biology class and I realized that all the food we eat comes from other living things, plants or animals. Up to that time I just saw food in the grocery store as another manufactured item, like the cans and boxes the food comes in. It blew me away to realize how utterly and completely dependent we are on non-human nature for our very existence. Since then, that initial insight has grown into the recognition of the web of life that we are a part of, which morphed into the realization that all matter and energy in the cosmos is a giant web of interaction. It is in trying to fathom the nature of this web that has allowed me to appreciate Swami Krishnananda’s comment that “everything in the world is a network of unintelligible relations”, because he is talking about not just the physical web, but the mental web, the spiritual web, all of which hooks together in this vast unintelligible network of relations, not the least of which because it always moves and changes. It’s what yoga has to say about the unintelligibility of it all where this multi-part essay on Experience is going.

      Again, George, thanks for popping in and sharing your insights!



      • Indeed. I’ve been following a similar path as of late, eating whole foods only. As a result, I’ve been reading up on how food works. It’s quite mind-blowing that all humans are not deeply aware of this from an early age.

        Michael Pollan’s books opened my eyes to the concept that we are truly eating sunlight when we eat, whether through the plants that accumulate it, or the animals who accumulate the plants. It really makes you realize that by not returning our leftover nutrients to the soil, we are yet again breaking the link that connects is to this world we seem so determined to separate ourselves from.

        I started growing vegetables this year to further learn how this system works, and my place in it. It been an enlightening experience.

        I was listening to a lot of Alan Watts lectures last summer, which really got my mind hooked on this idea of the deeply intrinsic interconnectivity of, well, everything. The idea that front and back, for example, are not two distinct qualities but two interdependent aspects that arise at the same time and define each other. As Watts implies busy this simple example, everything around us is a immensely complex version of this. When you start looking for it in simple situations, you see it everywhere. It’s tough not to follow the idea to the entirety of existence.

        I think we are being removed from reality so it can be packed up and sold back to us.

        I’m trying to experience as much of it directly as I can.

  2. But, but, but…

    I love to think. It’s playful, sport even, but I suspect it’s more than that. I love your discussion here because thinking is so much of what humans do and I accept that with very little resistance.

    Sure, I’ve spent some time in day-long meditations, thought long and hard about the virtues of “not thinking.” I’ve dabbled with LSD, mushrooms and even experienced (without a clue at the time as to what to call it), an extremely physical kundalini energy that I thought was going to kill me.

    So, I think I understand you when you say that the knower can’t be known because its already busy knowing, therefore unable to see itself, and I understand too, the problem of self-reflexive loops. I’m not convinced though that ideas are just stuff rattling around in our head and cannot serve a purpose of more cosmological proportions.

    Ultimately, if there’s no separation between mind and body, there’s way more to us than meets the eye or mind, yes?

    Ideas represent and articulate, even if sometimes falsely (can there be such a thing?), some aspect of the cosmos. But, what is falsely to the cosmos? We look for laws of science, and laws of religion, we want constants and stability and enjoy a lovely pattern, but the cosmos keeps on keeping on. We are an aspect of that cosmos though. Are we merely its excrement? Even if that’s true, even excrement makes for a good fertilizer. How can we, including our thinking, not be an expression of the cosmos?

    To say that reality is only a mental construct and therefore thought doesn’t matter is perhaps, to miss the possibility that thought, by virtue of also being an expression (or fertilizer) of the cosmos, is part of the unfolding of the cosmos. Thought makes us, both physicall and mentally, for better or worse because it’s part of our nature.

    Sure, we take our thoughts and ideas too seriously, even the idea that we take them too seriously, :)! Who was it that said, besides Donovan,

    “First there is a mountain
    then there is no mountain
    then there is.”

    It seems to me that if we go with what seems given, that the cosmos seeks expression and articulation through the variety of colliding energies, forces, and life forms, we, with our thoughts included, are part of its nature, no? Yes, we are subject to interpreting, but false interpretation does not exclude the possibility that ideas are not participants in the ongoing unfolding of the cosmos.

    Our ideas can make us sick or healthy, yes? They are perhaps much more integral to what we think of as physical nature than we perhaps are capable of realizing. One of Jung’s ideas that I love to puzzle over is his idea of the psychoid; a place of convergence between what we call psychological and what we call physical.

    Even decorative things influence the nature of reality. So the beauty of expression does not necessarily nullify the influence of that expression.

    Do we really understand the nature of the cosmos enough to discount the possibility that it is creating itself as it goes? Therefore, thoughts and ideas as expressions of human nature, are also cosmic expressions further articulating reality. Even if we don’t know or feel ourselves to be part of creation, that doesn’t mean we’re not implicated as participants of the play.

    One of the problems with this idea though, is that the teleologist will either run with it, positing an end or result somewhere down the line, or get even more pissed off and further deny any possibility that the cosmological motion expresses anything meaningful at all. We’re just making shit up. The slippery nature of all thinking, its intangible, non-material, supposed subjectivity, may fool us, but no more or less than the seeming solidity of the chair does as understood by the quantum physics. So the limits that one runs into of seeking a teleology, or any static end point, whether moral, apocalyptic or political, eventually gives way to a willing participation in the play, come what may.

    This is freeing for me; to live as a thinking, meaning-making being, in the culture, time and place I find myself in, without an expectation that I can ever possibly fully understand or express the totality of the cosmos. All ideas and words impose false limits and thingyness by defining. As near as I can tell, I am a part of something much bigger than I can ever perceive, but am driven to express and somehow, even if foolishly, I attend to desire, and the beauty of the world as an expression of itself.

    So, I am very inclined to consider the possiblity that the cosmos expresses and articulates, no reason is necessary other than that it is.

    Thanks for what you’re doing here Don! I hope this writing doesn’t sound too terribly argumentative. I find your writing very inspiring, and sense much accord between us, even if I don’t agree here that thought and ideas are only a deceptive inside job.

    Sorry this is so long. I have a feeling that there’s a place where we’ll meet in understanding. But that’s not necessary for me to appreciate your writing here.


    • Hi Debra

      Wow! Wow, wow, wow! What a comment!! It’s more like a post itself! I love it! Thank you so much! You say a lot here, so let me just reply to the main point you seem to be emphasizing. This is, you seem to be missing what I think it means for ideas to only be within themselves. First, it is not a bad thing, by any means. It is just my attempt at expressing what seems to me to be a fact: ideas only exist within themselves. They form a closed system. It is a subtle and weird idea, and not entirely accurate when stated as such, but more accurate than the ways most people think about the nature of ideas.

      Let me say it like this. People think ideas are “open”, meaning, they reflect what is outside of the mind. I see a chair, or my computer screen, and I think that, in some sense, my mind is open to the external world. Somehow, the world puts itself inside of my mind. Generally, people think this happens because my senses get activated by the stimulus (say my computer monitor, in fact the whole scene “I” am “looking at” right now). My eye sends a signal to my brain, and my brain decodes the signal and creates within the brain a “representation” of the world that is outside of my body. Of course, there is a huge gap between electricity in my brain and me being aware of the world, but I write about that elsewhere on the blog and won’t dwell on it here.

      The point is, people think the world inputs into the mind, and that the mind is open to the world in this sense.

      What I am saying is: no, that is not true. Which of course begs the question: how is it I perceive the world?

      Well, what I am implying here is based on JJ van der Leeuw’s book Conquest of Illusion. The idea is that the perception wells up from the very center of consciousness, which is the center of everything.

      The perception does not come from the outside in. There is no outside. The perception wells up from the very center of the inside and projects itself and makes the illusion of their being an outside.

      This is the yogic understanding of how the mind works, of how consciousness works.

      So, that is the first thing: to understand that the mind is a closed system.

      Then, the idea, as you do seem to have gotten mostly, is that we can never escape our mind. It is like slippery and slidey, we spin and spin and spin, but we never leave our mind. We are always inside of our mind.

      No idea, no thought, no perception, no set of ideas or set of thoughts can take us outside of our mind.

      We are trapped.

      That is the point.

      Then, the whole point of the Experience essay is to show that no matter what we do, we are trapped. We cannot escape.

      So, yes, on first hearing, it doesn’t sound nice. You have to read the whole essay to see where I am going with it. But the point of being trapped is very important. Because if we don’t realize we are trapped, then we run around under the delusion we are not trapped. If we do not know we are trapped, we will never try to get free from the trap. So the whole point is to explain the necessity to get free from the trap.

      To wrap this up for the moment, really, the Experience essay is just an exposition of the standard way of thinking in yoga. If you download the book version, I say in the Introduction that the whole point of the book is to try to show how the ideas of yoga are not optional, they are necessary. Truth cannot be found in the mind. One must escape the mind to find truth. The only truth of the mind is, like I said on your blog, is to show that it cannot provide truth. On your blog, I spoke about the occult inner realms, but these are just the inner depths of the mind, so it is really the exact same thing.

      Ok, will close here. I’ll read your comment more and reply to other points in a bit as I am sitting here doing blogging in between my normal work!

      Again, Debra, wow! Thanks for the really great and deep comments! It is very, very stimulating and I appreciate it very much!



      • Don,

        This helps huge bunches!!! I will read on. I should have kept in mind that you have written a series of posts.

        I very much agree here. We do need to understand the nature of thoughts, get over that hurdle so to speak, if we are to make sense of life and live, within the contraints of our predicament, a more meaningful life in which our choices become more loving to ourselves and to others, especially as what ultimately satisfies is an ability to experience peace. But that’s probably jumping ahead…

        Thank you too for making the e-book available at no cost. This is most generous of you. I look forward to reading the series in its entirety.


      • Thanks, Debra! I’ll be very curious of your impressions once you’ve gotten through the whole thing. I think (hope!) you will be pleased with the outcome. I go to the nth degree of extreme, but I think, in essence, it is what you are saying here. Again, thanks, Debra! Best wishes – Don

      • Hey Don!

        I just realized why your name sounds so familiar. I am huge fan of Alex Tsakiris Skeptiko and see that you were his guest back in October.

        The world just got smaller. 🙂

        Thanks so much for visiting my blog. Your writing and your science reseach is very interesting to me. We truly share a lot of common interest.

        After making the connection to Alex’s show, I just had to leave a note.

      • Hi Debra! Oh, that is too funny. You are right…small world! Can you believe I had no idea Alex had such a cool gig going over at his site?? I really appreciate that he invited me on. After listening to Alex’s work, I have to say, he has been quite the inspiration for me.

        My excuse for not even knowing about Alex’s work is that this kind of stuff is growing so much that its impossible to keep up with all the great and amazing stuff going on. Starting my blog this past year has really helped plug me into this activity. Finding such great sites as yours, Peter Jones, George Coghill and so many really incredible people out here sharing such great insights and providing mutual support. I am really humbled to be a part of a community of such great people. It is truly something very creative and very special. So thank you too, Debra!!



    • Hi Debra

      I’m coming back to your mini-dissertation 🙂

      >>> if there’s no separation between mind and body, there’s way more to us than meets the eye or mind, yes?
      Yes, way more. My favorite set of ideas for understanding this come from Kashmiri Shaivism, which is one of the 6 great philosophies of Hinduism. They teach that we are contracted forms of God (to make a long story short). They use the term “anu”, which loosely translates as “atom”. The following is a translation of one of the aphorisms 5 of “The Secret of Self-Realization” by Ksema Raja, circa 900AD, a summary book of Kashmiri Shaivism:

      “God by its own Will purposefully descends from the Divine State, and purposely contracts itself into an infinite number of limited beings, and becomes assimilated into the images that fill the mind of each Being.”

      So yeah, there is way more going on here than we are directly aware!

      >>Our ideas can make us sick or healthy, yes?
      As we get to know each other better, you’ll come to learn that everything is “idea” to me, although I am not a classical Western idealist. I have accepted the yogic teachings. They don’t use the word “idea” but use the word “vritti” to describe this. Vrittis are waves in the mind. So, thoughts are one example of this, but so are emotions, and acts of will, and insight, and also perceptions. As I explained already, the external world is just a perception in the mind…it is a type or level of vritti. So, this means that our bodies are ideas to begin with (or more precisely, are vrittis). And like if you drop a rock in a pond and it makes ripples, then drop a second rock, its ripples will mix with the ripples from the first rock. It is the same with the traditional Western ideas of mind and body. Both are just ripples, vrittis, in consciousness. And certainly, the waves produced by each interact all the time.

      >>Do we really understand the nature of the cosmos enough to discount the possibility that it is creating itself as it goes?

      Haha – you came to the wrong place, Sister, if you think that idea will be discounted here! 🙂 Seriously tho, this is a very subtle issue. It is always being created anew at levels and in ways we can see and experience and in a myriad more levels and ways that never enter our direct awareness. But at the same time, the whole is unmoving and complete in itself. Creation is an aspect of the Relative. It is a term that implies time. Yet change is the very nature of the Absolute. Since it always changes, it never changes. Again, I fall back on My Man, J.J. van der Leeus, who discusses this very issue in his chapter on Creation.

      >> So the limits that one runs into of seeking a teleology
      Yes, I agree with your ambivalence here. Again, I follow van der Leeuw, who would deny an absolute teleology, but grant that there are an infinity of local, transient purposes, where “local” can range from an electron way up past the observable universe, and everything in between. You actually hit on something I hope to write about soon. There is a passage in Krishnanada’s Study and Practice of Yoga (which you will see as you read my stuff, he is one of my favorite authors) where he describes Prakriti. This Hindu word loosely translates to “All of Nature”, but is much grander and vaster of an idea than anything Westerners understand. But in this passage he asks: what can be carved from a block of marble? Then he lists a number of things that could be carved. Then he said, Prakriti is like the block of marble. There is no fixed destiny. It recurs over and over again, forever, each time taking a different form. This ties into my post about Herman Wyle, and science as “the art of the possible”. I mention in the post how our scientific theories are either horns of plenty or total overkill because they describe infinitely many more things than actually occur in Nature. This is very similar to Krishnananda’s idea and also gets to your statements about teleology. The idea being that there is not just one. There are an infinity of them. All Relative, of course, as things are when discussing Nature/Prakriti. But still, it is an interesting, unexplored viewpoint and I have been thinking about it lately.

      >>So, I am very inclined to consider the possiblity that the cosmos expresses and articulates, no reason is necessary other than that it is.

      And I couldn’t agree with you more. Its a perfect beautiful ending to this reply!

      Thank you so much for the very kind, fun, and stimulating conversation, Debra!

      My very best,


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