Experience: Life


ex 7 life composite

“…they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows…”

Experience: Table of Contents

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


Covering Our Tracks
It behooves us at this point to gather our thoughts and review what has been said to this point. The following summarizes the main points intended to be conveyed by the previous parts of this essay:

  1. Words and ideas cannot capture experience but they can (more or less perfectly) reflect experience.
  2. Experience consists of always striving, but never quite getting there.
  3. This always-striving seems to be present in all natural system we can observe.
  4. Since experience consists in always-striving, images in our mind of completeness and fulfillment are just mirages.
  5. Even the deeper layers of consciousness offer no solace. They do not improve the condition of always-striving found on the surface mind but only provide more of the same.   
  6. Always-striving reflects the incomplete nature of potential infinity. Manifest experience teases us with promises of completeness, but never delivers.

In short: we are driven forward by mirages of promises that never deliver, and then… we die.

Seemingly this is not the happiest of pictures. But it is honest. And honesty has its payoffs. For, by being brutally honest about the facts of our experience, we are now positioned to reap the rewards of that honesty, which is truth, real truth, not mirages.

That truth, elaborated below, goes something like this: Experience is but a vacuous mirage. As such it is nothing. However, this condition is like a mirror that shows an image when nothing is there to be reflected, which is impossible. The mirage of relative existence, experience, must be a reflection of something that actually exists, just as the image in the mirror must reflect something outside the mirror.

Other Skylines to Hold You
In this essay I have aped traditional yogic thought by construing A transforming into B as an urge for A not being fulfilled and, in the attempt at fulfillment, transforming into B. We can also construe such a transformation as an unpredictable creativity. The outcome of each process is effectively the same, but the overtones and implications of each view are different.

The first seems sad and pessimistic, the second seems optimistic. The optimistic view – creativity – blinds us from squarely recognizing our ignorance of the entire process. We may think of it as God, or as evolution, or human creativity, but in all cases, when the transformations of experience are seen as creativity, we must insert a nebulous idea of the cause of the creativity. Any such idea may make us feel good. But it bandages over the fact of our fundamental unknowing. As such, it is simply dishonest. As an act of dishonesty, it prevents us from seeing deeper truths, and so I dismiss such approaches here.

To make my point as clear as I can, let me state it in another way. In part 6 we discussed how Hindu and Western views of infinity are opposites:

  1. Western view: Potential infinity is real, absolute infinity unreal (except to Cantor’s dupes).
  2. Hindu view: Potential infinity is the relative and is unreal, absolute infinity is the only reality.

We can make an analogous distinction:

  1. Western view: Even though we are fundamentally ignorant, there is a creativity in experience (God, evolution, Man’s imagination, whatever) that drives things forward.
  2. Hindu view: We are fundamentally ignorant, and it is our ignorance that not only keeps things moving forward, but creates the illusion of forward motion.

When stated thus, the implications of each approach are clearer. In the first case, we forever chase our tail trying to find the source of the creativity. As such, it becomes just another thing chasing its tail.

In the West today, there are two main views of creativity: evolution and God. I hardly wish to get embroiled in such a pedestrian debate where both sides are dominated by the most mediocre of minds. The false core of all such debates goes back to the main point of Chapter 1: these people believe that ideas can take them beyond their own minds. Again putting all compassion aside, these people are one and all fools.

The smartest thing I have yet heard on this front is Stuart Kauffman’s opinion. You can see it here. Here I just paraphrase: because the results of evolution are fundamentally (e.g. in principle) unpredictable, the outcome looks the same as if God did it. So, if it quacks like a duck…

While Kauffman is trying to paper over the differences between secular humanism and religiosity, the real beauty of his ideas are that they get right to the heart of the matter. Kauffman penetrates past all the distracting and divisive issues that people whose religion is evolution very much enjoy fighting over with people whose religion is Christianity or Islam, etc.

The core point is that we simply will never know. We are fundamentally ignorant about the issue. The future is fundamentally unpredictable; the past, at best only partially knowable. And the present is an inscrutable mystery.

So, it is just what I said above: whether you go the God or evolution route, you are just making a “God of the gaps” argument and pretending that you are not. As least the religious people know they are invoking God. Nonetheless, the whole spectacle is absurd.

So, while it seems so optimistic to speak of a “creative universe”, whether God-driven or not, it all just bandages over our basic ignorance. “Creativity” becomes just a synonym for “I don’t know”.   If it quacks like a duck…

The Eastern view actually is the optimistic view insofar as it suggests we may overcome our ignorance.

However, a cynic may turn my argument against me and accuse the Eastern view to be simply another example of chasing tail. It could be the case that the yogic view holds out just another promise, the promise of overcoming our ignorance, and as such is just another promise to chase to no end.

However, we now embark on showing that this is just not the case.

It’s Worse Than We Thought
But before finding the light at the end of the tunnel, we need to go to the heart of the darkness and stare directly into our ignorance. The end of part 1 briefly mentioned this ignorance: avidya. There I stated:

“It is a cosmic ignorance. It is a wrongness of such epic proportions that it creates universes, life and consciousness as we know it.”

We have now covered that ground, however imperfectly. Now we consider the cherry on the top, so to speak, the penultimate aspect of avidya, which, has been stated by many. The way Alan Watts said it in Chapter 2 is as good as any:

“The trouble is that I can’t see the back, much less the inside, of my head. I can’t be honest because I don’t fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which it cannot see—and that is the root of the matter.”

And it really is the root of the matter. We cannot see our own eyes. We cannot jump out of our skin. We cannot think a thought that takes us outside of our mind. We seem to be trapped in a condition of permanent ignorance.

At the beginning, and throughout, we have alluded to the answer to this quandary. In fact, it was already spelled out as clear as it can be in Chapter 1:

“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 not­Self.”

The following ideas are not mine. They are Krishnananda’s interpretation of some of the aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras.   He spends many chapters in The Study and Practice of Yoga explaining the concept and the interested Reader can get a fuller discussion there. Instead of trying to pick choice quotes, I will try my best to explain Krishnananda’s main ideas.

I got at this before by the metaphor of the movie screen and the movie. The movie needs to be projected onto something, the screen. If the screen itself changed, the movie wouldn’t work. The screen needs to be stable, unchanging, for the projection process to work.

This metaphor conveys a simple but accurate understanding of the Hindu and yogic ideas of how experience links to consciousness. Because “consciousness” is a word with many meanings in our culture, it is best to use the Sanskrit word here: drisimatrah.   Drisimatrah is pure self-awareness, pure being, and pure bliss. It is called Sat-Chit-Ananda in Vedanta. Here we are interested in the Sat-Chit aspect: the aspect of being-awareness (this was discussed in Chapter 7 of What is Science?).

Drisimatrah is neither something alien, nor metaphorical, nor intellectual, nor even difficult to understand. This is because we experience drisimatrah all the time. We can know it because sometimes we seem not to experience it.

We alternate between being awake and being asleep. When we sleep we either dream or we don’t. When we have periods of complete unconscious, with no knowledge of anything, not even a dream, then this is the seeming lack of drisimatrah. When we are aware of anything, we experience drisimatrah. It is our consciousness, our self-awareness.

In our relative condition of becoming, drisimatrah waxes and wanes like the Moon. It has metaphorical day and night like the Earth. It is not turned on all the time. Why is it not on all the time? Because in the relative condition everything spins and moves in phases. As elaborated below, drisimatrah reflects its being in the relative condition, and thus appears to wax and wane like relative things do.

When drisimatrah is on, we are aware. Not only are we aware of things, we are aware that we are aware. Drisimatrah is the movie screen on which all of our experience is projected. More precisely, it is the medium in which all of our awareness of specific things, including our “self” occurs. As a medium, it is like a light, the light of our very awareness[1].

That is the first fact to appreciate in Krishnananda’s account: what we call “awareness”, drisimatrah, is the stable, unchanging ground upon which all of our specific perceptions and experience occurs. Most important, we all know drisimatrah. It is the ground of our first-hand experience.

Seeing the Self in the not-Self
The next step in Krishnananda’s logic is this: the drisimatrah gets identified with the specific things occurring within it. Our awareness of our being is drisimatrah. However, as he says in the quote above, drisimatrah projects its being onto the specific patterns that occur within it, that occur within awareness. In yoga, these patterns are called “vrittis” the patterns in the mind. When vrittis are due to input from the senses, the stimulator of the vrittis is called “gunas”.

As we have dwelled in the six previous chapters, the vrittis within awareness, within drisimatrah, and the gunas they reflect do not have being: they are always changing and therefore always becoming.

The drisimatrah which is imparts its “is-ness” to the vrittis. But the vrittis (and corresponding gunas if applicable) only seem to be, but really are not. The vrittis only seem to be because drisimatrah imparts its being to them.

This situation leads to a fundamental mix up of properties. The things that are always changing are given the property of being. The very being itself, drisimatrah, assumes or takes on the form of the becomings, the transient flux of things, and misunderstands its own nature. The permanence of being is projected on to the transient fluxes, and the transient fluxes reflect back into the permanent being. This is the condition at the root of our experience. This condition permeates everything.

This is what Krishnananda means by “the recognition of the Self in the not­Self”. The transient patterns become a mirror, reflecting the being of consciousness, which cannot see itself as it is because it is distracted by all the patterns.

On the one hand, it is good that consciousness reflects its being in the objects of perception because it lets consciousness know it exists. On the other hand, this becomes a problem. It becomes an impossible problem. Let’s consider two levels where it is obviously a problem: (1) on an abstract philosophical level, and (2) on a personal level. We’ll discuss each in turn.

The Fall From Grace
How can something be what it is not? How can something transient be permanent? How can something permanent be transient? Drisimatrah is the only permanent denizen of infinity. More precisely, drisimatrah is infinity. Whether you believe this or not is not the point. Just grant the premise so we may continue with the argument.

On the other hand, all of the patterns, all of the vrittis that occur in the medium of drisimatrah are the Relative. They are transient, partial truths, impermanent and are of the form of potential infinities that, in their becoming, seem to be, but truly are not.

The act of drisimatrah projecting being onto the vrittis is the act of taking something transient as permanent. When the drisimatrah identifies with the vrittis (and the gunas reflected therein), it believes that the permanent is transient.

The very attempt to consider the transient permanent and consider the permanent transient is the essence, the core, of the “chasing tail” process.

It generates everything.

The logic now gets very abstract.   For people familiar with Christianity, this is called the “Fall From Grace” and the process is much more abstract than the simple Bible allegories indicate. The necessity to consider such concepts is well beyond the intellectual capability of modern scientists and secular philosophers so let us just ignore their cat calls and derisive remarks and proceed forward.

Self-aware Being, drisimatrah, is all that exists. In its pure form it is called Brahman, and as such it is actual infinity. The act of projecting itself into what it can never be is called “Maya”. Maya has no reason, no cause, no purpose. It is the causeless cause sought in all philosophy, and more recently by science. About all that can be said about Maya is that, in infinity, anything can happen, even the inscrutable act of the infinite trying to become finite. There is no cause, no beginning to this process. It happens outside of time and is eternal. The surface mind will simply never understand it. Deal with it and get over it.

The act of infinity, Brahman, twisting itself into this impossible posture is self-identical to infinite seeming copies of infinity (I know this is an awkward sentence. It is hard to use language to describe what is eternal). But they are not real copies of actual infinity, they are instead potential infinities. They seem to be copies of the actual infinite, but they are not.

Why can’t these be real infinities? Because absolute infinity is already all-encompassing. There cannot be two absolute infinities, let alone more.

Let us go all the way back to the dawn of the modern age, to 1440, to Nicolas of Cusa, who reflected deeply on this fact and saw the truth that has since been forgotten:

‘Now, I give the name “Maximum” to that than which there cannot be anything greater. But fullness befits what is one. Thus, oneness—which is also being—coincides with Maximality. But if such oneness is altogether free from all relation and contraction, obviously nothing is opposed to it, since it is Absolute Maximality. Thus, the Maximum is the Absolute One which is all things. And all things are in the Maximum (for it is the Maximum); and since nothing is opposed to it, the Minimum likewise coincides with it, and hence the Maximum is also in all things. And because it is absolute, it is, actually, every possible being; it contracts nothing from things, all of which [derive] from it.’

Nicholas saw Brahman through his mind. He called it “Learned Ignorance”. Oh how different things would be if history followed his thoughts. But we shan’t cry over what did not come to pass.

As Nicholas states, the idea of absolute infinity is indistinguishable from the idea of one. That is the key to the whole thing. Thus we come to the main insight of this essay:

To say “reflect the self in the not-self” is to say “infinity tries to copy itself”. It makes no sense. It is logical nonsense as if to say “1 = 2”, or “true = false”, or “I am lying” or any other such logical travesty.

If you are a Clever Inquirer you will counter: it is the infinite; it contains all things, even all contradictions. Why cannot the infinite copy of itself?

And I simply say to you: look thus about you at the result.

The result is seemingly infinite spirals chasing their tails but never catching them: potential infinities that spin and spin, trying to be real infinities; processes that seem to be able to go on forever, but cannot. Said differently, if the myriad potential infinities were really absolute infinities, all would be complete and at peace. There would be no movement.

Addressing the Clever Inquirer
There can only be one absolute infinity. One and absolute infinity are self-identical. Not even equal, because equal implies the equivalence of two different forms. This is not the relationship between one and absolute infinity. There is no relationship between one and absolute infinity because they are the same thing, self-identical.

It is like saying I have a relationship with myself. This makes no sense because “I” and “myself” are the same thing. I can have relationships with my thoughts, my feelings, my body. But I cannot have a relationship to myself. The very concept is nothing more than a tautology between words that mean exactly the same thing, like saying “I am me”.

Thus, the answer to the Clever Inquirer is that Maya, the presence of potential infinities within absolute infinity, it is not a contradiction. Yes, infinity can contain all contradictions. But Maya is not a contradiction.

Consider the issue from another point of view. Take the following two statements:

  1. Absolute infinity is one.
  2. Absolute infinity copies itself to make many absolute infinities.

These are not two contradictory cases. They are different definitions of the term “absolute infinity”. They are mutually exclusive definitions. If you accept definition 1, then definition 2 is ruled out, and vice versa.

Definition 2 is self-contradictory. If you can have two absolute infinities, then neither is absolute. This is the road gone down by Cantor. It is the set of all sets containing itself. It is grounded in the illusory notion that one can manifest absolute infinity in some form. But this is impossible because form implies boundaries. Absolute infinity is unbounded in any possible sense you can imagine.
Thus, Nicholas of Cusa hit the nail on the head at the very beginning of the modern era when he realized that the one sure property we can state about absolute infinity is that there is only one instance of it.

The crux of the argument however does not turn on the logic, but appeals to experience. Look about you at the world. We only observe potential infinities in nature. We only produce potential infinities in our minds. All nature is striving and incomplete. In all our experience as humans, we have not one manifest example of absolute infinity. It is only an ideal. Inductively it is always possible that tomorrow an absolute infinity will manifest and engulf everything. But this line of thought is a joke. Absolute infinity already engulfs everything. Hindus call it Brahman. I would say “absolute infinity is starring us in the face”, but it is because absolute infinity exists that we can stare at anything.

Therefore, let’s summarize the philosophical argument under consideration, which, recall is Krishnananda’s not mine. I am merely the rough-edged messenger. The main point is the following:

His idea that experience derives from the drisimatrah projecting its being into the not-self can be reframed as the absolute trying to express itself as the relative. The act seems successful but really is not. It seems successful insofar as it generates our existence. But our existence is not being, it is becoming, an ever-striving to be whole and complete, which eludes us on every level. Infinity does not copy itself. Maya is thus some bizarre inscrutable process whereby absolute infinity generates potential infinities of which we are instances.

It is the ancient concept of the Many in the One. We come to a view that echoes Leibniz’ idea of monads and God. The monads are little potential infinities, God absolute infinity. Unlike Leibniz, the yogic view does not see a perfect pre-established harmony amongst the monads, only illusion and senseless chaos. Cosmos is a momentary illusion of Maya. Voltaire’s mockery of Leibniz’ “best of all possible worlds” is thus reflected in the yogic view. However, yoga does not mock. It takes the whole matter very seriously and seeks to resolve the issue.

The means by which the Absolute expresses the relative, the One becomes the Many, are beyond our ken. The very inscrutability of Maya, the inability to express it intellectually, to resolve it in any practical way within our experience of becoming, this is the meaning of avidya: An ignorance of such epic cosmic proportions that it creates … well … everything.

Chasing Mirages
The previous section is wholly abstract. To most people it will seem as so much mumbo jumbo. That is okay. It is stated for those who wish to hear it. It is a perspective that may be helpful to some people.

There are more down-to-Earth implications of projecting the being of our self on to the patterns of flux which appear in our minds. This projection process is the essence of desire, of want and longing. We desire a thing because we think it will bring us some type of satisfaction, fulfillment, or completion.

The seemingly simple and obvious fact of life: that we desire, and long for, and wish, and need is the consequence to our immediate existence of this inscrutable process of Maya twisting the drisimatrah into potential infinities.

As Alan Watts quote indicated in Part 2, to understand where our desires and needs come from implies the entire under-surface of the mind:

“…[The] simultaneous presence of all the levels of man’s history, as of all the stages of life before man. Every step in the game becomes as clear as the rings in a severed tree. But this is an ascending hierarchy of maneuvers, of stratagems capping stratagems, all symbolized in the overlays of refinement beneath which the original howl is still sounding.”

In Hindu thought, these echoes of previous experience are called samskaras. Samskaras are memories of all past acts at all levels of manifested existence. The term implies the inter-relatedness of all things, which, as mentioned previously, is the nature of the relative.

Going to this level of depth will get us back to the mumbo jumbo in the previous section. We don’t want to do that. What needs to be pointed out is that yoga shows a direct connection between the abstractions considered in the previous section, and our day-in-day-out desires and needs. Having said this, however, let us confine the discussion to the surface mind.

What is desire? It is the expression of incompleteness. It is the recognition of an emptiness that is then sought to be filled. The emptiness experienced, the hole, is the samskara, the tendency towards a particular something. The act of trying to fill the hole is karma, action.

Why is there a perception of a hole, an emptiness, in our being? Obviously there are as many specific reasons as there are specific desires. But ultimately desire in general exists because we are manifestations of incomplete potential infinities.

Desire is an awareness of discomfort. Discomfort of the body when the body experiences needs like hunger or being tired. Discomfort of the emotions when there is anger, threat, or when love goes unfulfilled. Discomfort of the mind when goals are not accomplished, when perceived needs are present (as in “I need an iPhone”). Why is desire a state of discomfort?

According to Krishnananda, desire creates discomfort because of the contorted posture the drisimatrah takes in pretending the not-self has being. The very act of projecting being on what is not the Self is the source of the discomfort. By projecting its being on something else, the drisimatrah is effectively trying to cut its indivisible unity into pieces. Again, it is an impossible act. The result is a type of tension that produces awareness of discomfort. Ultimately, the discomfort traces back to the tension of innumerable Eenie-Weenies, each trying to fuse into itself, but unable to do so.

The discomfort of desire plays out in innumerable ways. We want something. Whatever it is: good food, status, comfort, safety, love, sex, whatever. We can only achieve these desires by finding something outside of our self, which then becomes the object of our desire. We believe that in grasping the object of our desire that we will find fulfillment.

There are two general cases. We will either be successful or we will not be successful in acquiring the desired object. If unsuccessful, then my point is made: we are left wanting, incomplete.

In the case we are successful and acquire the desired object, the case is more complicated.

We acquire the desired object and there is momentary satisfaction. This is the pleasure spoken of earlier, that taste of honey that cuts your tongue and really doesn’t taste so sweet.

According to Krishnananda, the satisfaction obtained from acquiring an object of desire is really just the momentary release from the tension that generated the desire in the first place. The release from the tension is what we call “pleasure”. But it is really not pleasure, just the momentary release from a discomforting state.

Then another factor comes into play. Since the object of desire is not a part of the self, it will eventually separate from the experience of the self. Then there will be longing and the need to repeat the experience. The longing adds to the existing tension. The desire will again exert its discomfort and the cycle begins anew.

The next time the desired object is acquired there is memory of the pain of having previously lost it. This makes the release of tension less for each additional time the object is acquired. The pleasure is now not even sweet, but bitter-sweet.

Then, the desire repeats over some number of cycles. Eventually we lose interest. The original cause of the desire is exhausted. Then new desires arise to replace the previous ones, and the whole cycle starts again.

So, it is seen that desire in general thing cannot be satisfied by any object fully and completely for all time. Instead, desire is a vicious cycle.

Some concrete examples we all know only too well are the following. Maybe that job you wanted did not bring the status and satisfaction you had hoped for. The man or woman you married was not the “soul mate” you thought. Things change. The job that was exciting starts to become routine, perhaps boring, maybe even depressing: the same with your romantic interests, or your hobbies. You adapt. Maybe you adapt by changing your attitude to the new circumstances. Maybe you discard the old circumstances and seek again to find your fulfillment in a new situation: a new job, a new marriage, a new school, new hobby, whatever it may be.

To summarize: Case 1: we do not get what we want and therefore carry around the constant tension of the unfulfilled desire, which amplifies over time and can turn into a variety of psychic pathologies. Case 2: If we do get what we want, the situation transforms before our very eyes. We started with A, which turned to B, which has led us to a new circumstance, C.

And then, to put the icing on the cake: You die.

Be honest. Did you really get what you wanted?

So what’s the point? What’s the point of all this striving?   This is why people say stupid stuff like “oh do it for the children!”. People seek some excuse, any excuse whatsoever, to justify this absurd and seemingly meaningless merry-go-round that constitutes our lives.  The kids could care less.  They are immune to your consultations and are busy living their own lives.

So, we do not need to understand any of this at fancy intellectual levels. All you need to do is look at your own life, your own experience. Look at how you seek happiness in the things outside of you. See yourself projecting your desires on to objects outside of you. You are seeing the Self in the Not-Self, and thereby making experience.

This is the fundamental mistake that lies at the very core of our experiences in this world of seeming. You grab at the other, trying to make it a part of you, trying to find fulfillment and completion. But it is not part of you. It is its own thing, with its own existence. You were wrong in the first place to chase after what you are not. If you happen to grab it for some amount of time, it will eventually slip away from you, like sand slipping between your fingers.

Then you will die.

So there. Let’s just stare directly into this inscrutable condition of our experience. See that we can never understand it. Know that we will die and not understand it. Stare at it in all honesty and tremble in the face of our terrible condition. Stare at avidya.

[1] Side note: I don’t want to get into a mind-matter debate here. I addressed this in What is Science? and am not going to repeat myself here.


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