Knowledge vs. Shoulds

“You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. If you would attain to the mountain-top you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Nothing is more revealing than personal experience. One can read hundreds of books on personal development and spirituality, understand them intellectually and still find, despite all the teachings, that the personality is geared towards immature attitudes.

You see, you haven’t been acquainted with yourself. You think yourself to be only that part of you that wills and decides. But if you pay attention, if you learn to look at yourself like an objective thing in the world, you will learn that you actually hold beliefs that go against those that you hold in your mind.

So what is that part that pulls in the opposite direction, seemingly geared towards self-sabotage or towards distrust, fear, anxiety? Why does it seem to have a mind of its own?

The things we don’t know about ourselves are in our unconscious. From there, they manifest as feelings, disturbances, conflicts, fears that seem out of proportion to what we experience or completely out of place. What we usually do when we encounter them is explain them away as caused by an external stimulus. After all, the mind likes to make assumptions about what it sees, that is precisely the way optical illusions work.

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But if you sit with the emotions, if you observe yourself and draw out the underlying belief, you will get in contact with a part of you that has been suppressed for a long time and because of this suppression, it did not get a chance to mature. So in one part of the personality you are an adult, a mature individual, capable of great insight, and in this other part, you are still a child, because you had disowned a part of yourself early on.

Now, as long as you don’t link knowledge with experience, as long as you don’t bring this truth into your emotions, into that immature part of your being, not by force, but by self-observation, truth can become disembodied knowledge. It can become a rule, a should, a rigid demand, disconnected from the being, as though it were an authority figure giving out orders.

I mean, nobody likes preachers, right?

And just like you can shift responsibility on authority figures, so you can shift responsibility onto ideas, instead of following the truth within. And what value does your act have if it doesn’t come from within?

If there’s a part of you that is still inclined to do something despite the knowledge you have, then do you really know? Do you really understand? In that sense, I think there is value in negative experience, in choosing what you want to do. Then you will learn by experience how that knowledge applies, even if it means suffering.

Now, I do not meant to advice doing something despite knowing it to be wrong. If you know it to be wrong, I think all effort should be geared towards understanding why it is wrong and where that inclination originates from within you. But if you are not convinced that something is right or wrong, then I think there is value in that experience for you.

I think that’s why they say “don’t take my word for it, see for yourself”. I always thought that they say that in a way that means… “hey, you can verify it if you like, but I’m telling you, it’s true.” When in fact they mean “you must understand this for yourself, experientially – in your emotions, otherwise it has no value, it just becomes yet another idea onto which you shift responsibility.” That’s why you need to see how it applies to you! You must let your actions stem from within, from your own perspective, not from the perspective of your shoulds, as good as they sound.

If you are unconvinced, experience will reveal it to you. There is a world of difference between finding things in yourself intellectually vs. experientially.

On Trying to Overcome Negative Behaviors

Jiddu Krishnamurti and Alan Watts quite often insisted that fighting against something in order to overcome it does not solve the underlying problem. They said that whatever reaction may arise as a solution, it is still rooted in the level of understanding where the problem resides. Such an attempt would be like trying to build rocket ships and launch them into space without being familiar with the notion of gravity. If you are selfish, then trying not to be selfish is still a selfish impulse. Trying not to be envious is just as pointless. Such tendencies/attitudes/emotions cannot be removed from your experience in the same way that a plant cannot block photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight. It is something that is arising in you as a consequence of a preexisting condition/disposition and an external stimulus. It has good reasons to be there. It is trying to tell you something.

In addition to this, if you try to do something despite yourself, you will feel like the world is taking something away from you while you are censoring yourself to accommodate it, which is a good way to build resentment. It would be a way of denying your experience.  So this is something that cannot last. This is not to say that you should act on your negative impulses, but it might help to observe them impartially, like a scientist overseeing an experiment.

A third aspect for why fighting against a problem does not bring about a solution is well illustrated by Mark Manson in his great book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:

The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.

This is a total mind-fuck. So I’ll give you a minute to unpretzel your brain and maybe read that again: Wanting positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.

It’s like this one time I tripped on acid and it felt like the more I walked toward a house, the farther away the house got from me. And yes, I just used my LSD hallucinations to make a philosophical point about happiness. No fucks given.

As the existential philosopher Albert Camus said (and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t on LSD at the time): “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Or put more simply:

Don’t try.”

In other words, whatever arises as a reaction to a perceived flaw is an affirmation that the flaw exists and has legitimacy. It’s an acknowledgement of the thing that you are trying to flee from. It’s like introducing yourself to people saying “Hi. I’m Tom. I’m definitely not awkward.”, instantly bringing the idea of awkwardness into the interaction. It would be like living in fear that anything at any moment might confirm to you that you are indeed awkward. The problem would be amplified instead of mitigated.

Therefore, it would appear that rushing into finding a solution to our problems ignores one very important step which is to have a true understanding of what the problem is.

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When I was in primary school, I used to do my Math homework with my Dad. He was kind of impatient with me, but he did teach me one very important thing that has always stuck with me. He said that if you want to solve a problem, you have to really understand what the problem is in the first place. A problem fully understood, is a problem half-solved. In Math that made a lot of sense, because you have to analyze what you know, examine how you can approach it and see what conclusions you can draw from the data that you have. But I didn’t realize back then that that piece of wisdom could be applied to real life situations as well.

It’s only through recent experiences that I have come to see the importance of this. There are some things I’ve been struggling with since I can remember myself. Over time I have tried every trick in the book to overcome them. Nothing seemed to work. I said, oh well, and I let life continue its course…Sooner or later something would happen that would confront me with with the same problem in a different package. And every time it would happen it would force me to give it more thought, more attention, more feeling. It would create a space between me and the problem so that I could see its mechanics more clearly. And every time I would acquire more understanding of why I am experiencing it. This came with suffering, of course – though it is not always necessary – because suffering does have a way to get our attention, right? One is sure not going to ignore suffering. So I stopped considering suffering to be a bad thing, it is just life giving you feedback.

Eventually, all of these things start to add up and you gain momentum and you get the courage to launch yourself into the core issue. You realize that you are not looking for a solution, but you just want to understand the problem, how did it come about? Even in Math, you are often given the premise and you are asked to prove the conclusion. So you have the conclusion, and yet it’s still a problem right? We don’t need conclusions, we need to understand why it is a problem. What is it about it that is not known, what about it is not clear? And then you realize that if the problem is truly understood, then the solution arises by itself, you just have to follow the signs as they will lead you to outstanding realizations. And in doing so, you learn that it hasn’t been about the solution all along, it was about an incomplete understanding of what caused the problem in the first place. A misperception, a misinformed opinion, an assumption. And you understand that all your attempts to overcome this challenge have been based on a false interpretation of reality. The puzzle piece that was missing wasn’t the necessity for the right reaction, but a comprehensive understanding of the problem, something that eluded your perception that would completely reframe the challenge and explain everything.

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So this is why at times we get stuck and no solution seems appropriate, you cannot decouple it from the problem. I even read full articles about my problem, but I couldn’t recognize it because I wasn’t ready to see it. I didn’t have the experiences that would open me up to that information. Like cognitive dissonance, having difficulty integrating new information that contradicted my beliefs. So you may adopt certain solutions that seem to work for other people, and perhaps they really are the solutions to your problem, but if it is not based on understanding, it may not have a true grasp on the mind and the original problem may resurface. This understanding may come through a lot of challenges and suffering, but even so, life is our ally, no matter what comes our way. And it sometimes has to use tough love to awaken us to our true selves.

“To understand is to transform what is.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Albert Einstein